My Lord: Megara
Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Background: This is a Conqueror story. It follows the events of My Lord, My Lord: Solstice and My Lord: By the Fates.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her edits and comments.
Comments: Comments always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
The Conqueror's Family (ML)
Cyrene: Mother of Xena
Lyceus: Deceased brother of Xena
Toris: Disgraced brother
Gabrielle's Family (ML)
The Conqueror's Household (ML)
Dalius: The Healer
Lacia: Twelve-year old slave (Solstice)
Landis: Male servant
Leah: Slave / Gabrielle's roommate
Mansel: Male servant
Pathas: Male servant
Stephanie: Middle aged cook
Targon: The Administrator
Perdicas: Gabrielle's betrothed (BTF)
The Generals & Their Armies
|First Army||Corinth||Xena, the Conqueror|
|Royal Guard||Corinth and selected assignments||Jared|
|2nd Army||Northern Garrison||Dymas|
|3rd Army||Eastern Garrison||Kasen|
|4th Army||Southern Garrison||Paulos|
|5th Army||Western Port Cities||Regan|
Anton: Senior Guard took Gabrielle to kitchen after Xena killed Gaugan (ML)
Brogan: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric. Reward was new saddle. (ML)
Cantus: Gabrielle mentioned that she stitched a wound (ML)
Endres: Gabrielle stitched a cut (ML)
Geldpac: Seasoned warrior (ML)
Hamish: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric. Reward leave to see girl. (ML)
Samuel: A Queen's Guardsman (Solstice)
Sentas (Lieut): Brash seasoned officer (ML)
Stephen: Royal Guardsman (ML)
Talas: Traitor, killed by Xena (ML)
Tavis (Lieut): Seasoned officer (ML)
Trevor: Royal Guardsman assigned Gabrielle's security. (ML)
Xanthus: Guard palace gates (ML)
Curan: Tried to rape Gabrielle. She killed him. (ML)
Giles: Insults the Conqueror (BTF)
Hiero: Witness to Giles actions (BTF)
Inis: Gabrielle's lover during Gabrielle's estrangement from Xena (ML)
Lieut. Osric: Took Gabrielle into custody for killing a soldier. Later killed. Killer assumed to be Inis. (ML)
Persi: Repair the Conqueror's armor. (ML)
Thad: Witness to Giles actions (BTF)
Leaders of Other Nations & their Ambassadors
Bevan: Xena conqueror him to win Corinth & Greece (ML)
Caesar - Rome (ML)
Lao Ma - Chin (ML)
Okal - Persia (ML)
Callisto: Cirra (BTF)
Draco: Warlord - took Gabrielle into slavery (ML)
Halan: Leader of Eastern raiders (ML)
Leyan: Corrupt leader of the Persian Army (ML)
Montavous: Greek accomplice of Halan (ML)
Jabari: Ethiopian messenger (BTF)
Lords & Their Families
Ayssel: Eastern Lands (BTF)
Castan: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Haldis: Challenges Gabrielle (BTF)
Stasis: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Thanos: Confronts Gabrielle after Xena is presumed killed - backs off (BTF)
Vacaou: Sent assassins to kill Xena after she defeated Caesar. Xena killed him to reclaim her throne. (ML)
House of Gaugan (My Lord)
Ridel: Gaugan's son
House of Judais (By the Fates)
Judais: Northern Lands
Stavros: Cousin of Judais
Tassos: Brother of Judais
Tracate: Cousin of Judais
House of Thanos
Thanos (By the Fates)
Broan: Story requestor (Solstice)
Calph: Peacemaker at inn (Solstice)
Damian: Negative villager (BTF)
Kiral: Referred to by Damian - slave connections
Sastro: Wood carver (Solstice)
Tertius: Villager positive toward Conqueror (BTF)
Zeki: Merchant loyal to Gabrielle (BTF)
Clotho (maiden): spun wool when person born
Lachesis (mature women - mother): Measure out the length of their lives on a string
Atropos (crone): Cut the string, determining when their lives end.
Megara: Xena & Gabrielle’s retreat (BTF)
Scupi: Where Xena retired to (BTF)
Having the evening before traveled together to Megara, the Queen woke in the arms of her Lord, the Sovereign of Greece. The morning sun cast a gentle light across their bed. Gabrielle enjoyed the rare opportunity of watching Xena in repose. Four moons had passed since Xena returned to Corinth to once again share the throne. To the people of Greece, as mysterious her departure, equally mysterious was her return. The mark of Aphrodite’s wound was unknown to all except the two who suffered as subjects in a wager between the Goddess of Love and her brother Ares, the God of War. Even the Guardsmen who observed the near lethal wound accepted the Queen’s explanation that their Sovereign had suffered the injury during battle against Caesar.
Aphrodite’s wound remained in the forefront of Gabrielle’s mind. Though physically there was no lingering effect, Xena had been changed by events the wound triggered. Xena never spoke of Scupi. Gabrielle suspected that Xena missed her life away from Corinth. Only once did Gabrielle broach the subject. Xena set aside Gabrielle’s concern. As if to make a categorical statement regarding her commitment to the realm, Xena immediately took up the task of overseeing Court proceedings, releasing Gabrielle to pursue interests more closely aligned to her less political priorities.
Xena’s return to Corinth required a brief journey to Scupi to retrieve her belongings. Those belonging included her horses and her maps. She continued to train the horses and she hung the maps in the Royal sparring chamber, an ever-present reminder of the largeness of the world and the brief period of time that she escaped its political challenges.
Gabrielle noted that the warrior continued to experience nightmares. To Gabrielle’s disappointment the revelations that followed Aphrodite’s wound did not ease the frequency and violence of Xena’s darkest dreams.
Gabrielle surveyed their new bedroom. A small wing had been added to the beach house, within it their bedroom and bath. The former, with whitewashed walls, had a large window and an entrance facing the sea. The effect was one of largeness and openness. The bedroom was not as secure as their former second floor accommodations. It was, however, far more romantic. The night would pull them outside, standing upon the porch, looking up to the heavens, deciphering patterns in the stars as the sea breeze wafted through their light sleep shifts. They would drift out to the beach and walk hand in hand, the sounds of the surf keeping them company. It was such easy, simple pleasures that Gabrielle valued most. They stripped away the layers of responsibility, the assumptions that came with their roles as Sovereign and Queen, and became two women, companions, friends, lovers pausing and living life within the elusive peace of the moment.
Gabrielle kissed the space between her partner’s breasts. She continued her kisses upward toward Xena’s neck, shifting left, following the warrior’s collarbone.
Xena moaned Gabrielle’s name.
"Yes, My Lord." Gabrielle whispered. She enticed her lover by alternating minor, awakening bites with soothing, gentle kisses.
"Am I awake or am I dreaming?"
"I have found that our waking moments have the power to surpass my dreams." Gabrielle claimed Xena’s lips with her own. Their kiss was a deep, passionate exploration.
"Oh, My Lady." Xena sighed, near complete wakefulness.
Aphrodite’s wound had caused a far more personal change. While still in Megara, after the wound healed, Gabrielle had initiated their lovemaking. She did so as she had done in Scupi and later on the road back to Corinth from Greece’s most recent battle with Rome. Prior to these times Gabrielle had not been one to commonly seduce her partner, making her seductions all the more effective. With time, just as Xena had once longed for Gabrielle to assert herself in their bed, Gabrielle now longed for Xena to do the same. She missed Xena’s claim on her. There was excitement and security in Xena’s power.
Gabrielle voiced her own heightened desire. "Xena, be with me."
Xena did not hesitate. She rolled her body, taking Gabrielle with her.
"You are mine?" Though Xena used the phrase long a part of their lovemaking, her tone was the antithesis of what it once had been. No longer did Xena claim Gabrielle; her words were not an unequivocal statement of possession. Having lost so much, she now posed a question that acknowledged the fragility of their life together.
"Yes love, I am yours." Gabrielle raised her hand and placed it over Xena’s neck, gently pulling the warrior to her.
The warmth in Xena’s azure eyes cooled to icy orbs. Xena’s hand traveled the length of Gabrielle’s arm until it reached and clasped the smaller woman’s hand. Gabrielle held to Xena’s gaze, keeping the inner smile she felt from sight. Xena slowly leaned down taking Gabrielle’s lips in delicate kisses, teasing the younger woman, leaving her wanting more. Gabrielle tried to raise herself to follow Xena’s retreat. Overpowered, she failed in her quest. Xena saw Gabrielle’s want. She felt her lover’s desire and she relished her ability to elicit that desire. It had been a long time since she felt so sure. Gabrielle was hers and she would have her, dictating the pace and intensity. Xena would satisfy Gabrielle while maintaining a sense of control. The act of making love to Gabrielle made Xena feel alive in a way no other act equaled.
The double doors leading to the exterior of the Royal bedroom burst open. Gabrielle, dressed in her sleep shift ran out as if chased by a swarm of bees. She was half-laughing, half-crying in her effort to free herself from the clutches of her victim. Having achieved some distance she stopped and turned.
"Come on Xena, where is your sense of humor? It was just a little honey!"
Xena, also dressed in her sleep shift, appeared at the threshold, wiping her hands and face on a towel, which she unceremoniously flung to the side. She stepped forward, her bold gait causing a resounding impact upon the wood of the beach house porch and the boardwalk.
"Xena…" Gabrielle backed away. "Oh, oh…" Gabrielle ran past Samuel onto the sand.
Xena continued forward. "Good morning, Sam."
"Good morning, My Liege. The Queen is in bright spirits."
"At my expense, Sam."
"She knows no happiness without you, My Liege."
Xena smiled. Gabrielle was happy. "Thank you, Sam." Xena winked. "Let’s see how fast our Queen can run." She bolted toward her target.
Gabrielle squealed and ran down the shoreline.
Hearing Gabrielle’s cry, Trevor and Stephen raced from the central courtyard to the beach house pausing at the sight of Samuel’s casual figure. Their gaze followed his to the Royals.
Trevor observed, "Gabrielle is in trouble."
Stephen enjoyed the Royal hijinks. "I’d say."
Trevor laughed. "Ha! She made the Conqueror miss her.
"The Conqueror is a playful cat. When she’s ready she’ll have Gabrielle."
Xena dove toward her quarry grasping Gabrielle around the waist. "Gotch ya!" She lifted Gabrielle in her arms and began walking into the water, stopping when it reached her knees.
"Xena!" Gabrielle did not need an oracle to see what the next heartbeat promised.
"You haven’t had your morning bath, My Queen." Xena tossed Gabrielle forward.
Gabrielle splashed into the water, tasting the salt upon her tongue. She awkwardly found her footing in the seabed.
"It’s only a little water," Xena echoed Gabrielle’s previous defense.
"Not funny." Gabrielle would have stomped her foot had it not been immersed.
Xena looked back toward the beach house. "I think Sam would disagree."
Gabrielle gazed over to her personal guard’s chuckling form.
Satisfied with her retribution, Xena announced, "I’m going to finish my breakfast." She warned the Guardsman as she walked pass. "Watch out for the wrath of your Queen, Sam."
Gabrielle hauled herself to shore. There had been a change in their relationship. The seriousness that had weighed heavily upon both of them had been discarded. Gabrielle took thoughtful effort in finding lighthearted diversions. She knew that Xena was more receptive when their exchanges remained private or in the sight of the trusted Queen’s Guard. Her strategy was simple. She attempted to infuse joy, in addition to peace, during their time in Megara and then to take the spirit of Megara back with them to Corinth. She also made an effort to steal Xena away for private respites whenever an opportunity arose.
Whether it was a dabble of honey to be lapped off Xena’s sensuous body or a romp in an open field, Gabrielle delighted in breaching Xena’s controlled personality, coaxing out a playfulness too long buried by the pressures of winning and keeping Greece.
At first Xena resisted. Little by little a gleam entered her eye and Gabrielle knew she was in danger of being the recipient of the warrior’s joke. To be thrown into the sea was a small price to pay for the sound of Xena’s rich deep laughter or the sight of Xena returning to their beach house with a light step.
They had become far easier with one another. If there was a time that they needed to be careful, that time had passed. Their relationship, now equal, allowed for banter and physical teasing that was once too frightening because of the potential for misunderstanding.
Early in their acquaintance Gabrielle’s love for Xena had defined the younger woman’s world. She served Xena as her slave and then her servant. She did so addressing her own need to give the Conqueror of Greece moments of simple pleasures. Time had deepened her love to an unassailable commitment. She continued to give to Xena. She did so freely.
In the quiet of the night when she lay with Xena in their bed, safe from the harshness of life, Gabrielle would occasionally return to a piece of knowledge that Aphrodite had given her. On this day, she had dwelled on that knowledge as the sun rose above the horizon. Aphrodite told Gabrielle that she would have witnessed Xena crucified in a Roman prison on Mount Amaro had Xena chosen a different destiny. Gabrielle knew nothing more. The knowledge was enough to give each breath of life meaning. It was testament that their lives were inexplicably linked. She believed that in the other lifeline she would have also loved Xena. That their intangible connection would have revealed itself then as it had done so now in their present destinies. Gabrielle wondered what she would have felt, what she would had done in response to Xena’s death in that other life. She knew what it was to lose Xena and to survive. She knew she would reject her current life if presented a second time with a future bereft of her Lord.
Gabrielle shook herself from the thought. She reminded herself of where she was. This was Megara. She was alive and happy in spite of being soaked from head to toe. The woman she loved was only a short distance away. She mindfully renewed her claim upon Xena. Xena was her destiny. The Fates be damned.
Gabrielle followed Xena’s footsteps. She accused Samuel as she neared. "You’re no brother of mine."
Samuel felt confident enough in their friendship to gamble. "Was the honey sweet, little sis?"
Gabrielle stopped cold and turned to him, a mischievous smile crossed her face. "Very sweet, Sam."
"I’ve forgotten how fine it is to hear the Conqueror’s laugh."
"It is the magic of Megara," Gabrielle concurred.
Samuel considered the woman who had entered the beach house. "I don’t think it’s Megara she’s waiting for."
"You think she’s waiting for me?" Gabrielle beamed.
"If I have my way we will have a long breakfast."
The Guardsman quipped, "I have no doubt that you will have your way with our Sovereign."
Gabrielle blushed. "Sam, I don’t care if Zeus himself comes to our door, we are not to be disturbed."
Samuel chuckled, "By your command, Your Majesty."
From a distance Stephen wondered aloud. "What do you think Sam said to Gabrielle?"
Trevor was in no better position to hear. "Don’t know, but I wager he’s having fun with her."
"How can you tell?"
"He gets this big brother look about him. I’ve never seen him so easy as when he is with her."
Stephen long admired Samuel’s commitment to their young Queen. "A gentle bear."
In their sparring Trevor had learned the danger of Samuel’s sword. "A protective one when it comes to Gabrielle."
Gabrielle entered through the doorway. Her scream was followed by hearty laughter.
Stephen quipped, "Good for us all that the most dangerous person in Greece is also Gabrielle’s champion."
Three moons later…
The Royals returned to Corinth from the troubled southern coast of Greece with the Queen’s Guard and a First Army Company as escort. It had been a difficult trip requiring both the Conqueror’s and the Queen’s greatest political patience. Lord Thanos and a number of neighboring nobles expressed their displeasure with the realm’s continuing campaign to eliminate slavery and to ensure equitable land holdings. The wealthiest feared for their estates. Assurances were insufficient to placate the growing suspicions of a handful of men and women. This, even though none could reference one instance when, under royal policy, rights had been infringed.
The Royals had broken away from their contingent for a private respite. A practice they indulged contrary to the wishes of those sworn to protect them. For three days they had traveled their chosen route, one that took them across a mountain pass far too narrow for the marching soldiers to travel easily. The Royals expected their route to converge with that of their soldiers in two days time.
Xena directed. "This way."
Gabrielle held Spirit in place, her interest caught in the opposite direction. "Xena, do you know what's over the hill?"
"Is it pretty?"
Xena pressed her memories down. "Yes."
"I'd like to see." Gabrielle signaled Spirit to take her preferred course.
"Gabrielle…" Xena called out an objection.
"This won't take long."
Xena watched with a growing dread, which quickly turned to anger. She refused to follow. Her eyes were keen upon her companion. When Gabrielle disappeared over the hill, Xena's concern warred with her resolve not to set sight upon the landscape that was once the village of Cirra. She closed her eyes and concentrated. She felt warmth and beauty clearly not of her own experience, marking Gabrielle’s reception of the valley. Still, Xena was not satisfied. She hoped to be spared the climb. She shouted, "Come on, Gabrielle. Get back here!"
There was no reason to leave her station. All Xena’s senses affirmed there was no danger. Her sense of evil originated from within her own conscious, from the evil of her past, the destruction of the lives of women, men and children unable to escape her army. The memory of Cirra burst through to the present, sounds and images raged before her. It no longer mattered whether she stayed or joined Gabrielle. The nightmare displaced all light, regulating Xena to the darkness of her history.
Gabrielle scanned the valley. At a far point she saw what she believed were remnants of what could have been a cluster of buildings forming a hamlet. Tranquil, its soil rich, she wondered why those who once had settled the area had abandoned their homes. Had her life been different Gabrielle would have chosen to live in a place much like the valley. The breeze was gentle, refreshing. She relished rising from the shadow of the forest to see Greece at its breathtaking expansiveness. She heard Xena approach and was made happy by the prospect that they could share this place together.
"I can't imagine the Elysian Fields being more beautiful." Gabrielle turned to her partner. Her joy was arrested by Xena's cold, distant look.
Xena spoke sharply, "Are you done here?"
Gabrielle remained silent for a moment, confused by Xena's obvious upset. "Xena, what's wrong?"
Xena pressed, "Are you ready to move on?"
Gabrielle thought best not to pursue her question with the unreceptive warrior. "Yes."
With Cirra firmly etched upon her soul, Xena rode down the hill taking up the path where they left it.
Gabrielle followed wordlessly. At a loss, she hoped Xena's mood would settle sufficiently enough to allow a renewed query.
They traveled in silence until the sun descended toward the horizon. Gabrielle could not help feel that Xena was trying to delay the moment they would establish their camp and have to face one another.
Xena chose a secluded area near a river, well populated with fish, a few destined to lose their lives to satisfy the travelers' appetites. Xena dismounted and began to remove Argo’s tack. She said as little as possible before proceeding to the river to catch their dinner. Gabrielle maintained her distance, completing her own chores including cooking two trout over the fire. Xena took a familiar refuge, rigorously grooming the horses. With their meal ready to serve Gabrielle approached her partner.
"Xena, dinner is ready."
Xena maintained her rhythmic strokes over Spirit’s body. "I’ll eat when I’m done here."
"Xena…" A gentle plea escaped Gabrielle. Her quaking voice belied her composed appearance.
Looking over her shoulder, the warrior renewed her gruff assurance. "Gabrielle, I have work to do." She returned to her task.
"Can I give you a hand?"
Xena kept her eyes forward. "No."
Disheartened, Gabrielle returned to the fire.
Xena situated herself on a log, dully eating, barely tasting her meal. Gabrielle waited. Unable to sweep aside the feeling that were she not present, it would be to Xena's relief. She shivered, a physical acknowledgement that she was in the company of the Conqueror.
It was the Conqueror who stood up and announced she would go elsewhere to do her drills. Gabrielle continued a silent watch. She chose not to disregard the bleak articulation of Xena’s nature. She sensed Xena’s darkness; it was similar yet harsher than the desolate horror the warrior carried with her on the battlefield. The intensity of Xena’s darkness gave Gabrielle reason to pause. She feared the Gods. She specifically feared that Ares had once again reached out for his Chosen.
Xena followed her routine, emptying herself of thought, regulating her memories to a secure corner in her mind. She found relief in the physicality of her drills. She thrust forward. She unexpectedly flashed back in time. Her body froze as her blade cut through Calisto. She saw anew how the young ruthless warrior dropped her own sword with a look of shock, bewildered by her mortal wound, so sure had she been that her vengeance would be satisfied, that justice would be served when she killed the Conqueror. Behind Calisto Cirra burned, the event that made Calisto, her parents and sister having died in the flames. Xena dropped her sword in terror and stepped back until her body made contact with an oak tree. She slid down as she shuddered, unable to blink away the vivid images. She felt a cold chill invade her muscle and bone. She was paralyzed to do anything to counter the impact.
Periodically Gabrielle glanced in the direction where Xena had entered the forest brush. She estimated that at least two candlemarks had passed in waiting. It was not like Xena to tarry. Her dark mood did not account for her absence. Gabrielle’s intangible sense of Xena was not reassuring. She continued to feel Xena’s darkness. The sensation had grown more troubling with her wait. Chilling jolts of dread disturbed her further. Gabrielle reached for her staff. Upon second thought her hand shifted to the scabbard that held her short sword. Xena's lesson to always be prepared echoed in her inner ear. She prayed she would have no reason to unsheathe the blade, its utility far better than her staff in the closeness of the forest undergrowth. Gabrielle returned to the fire. She formed a torch, lit it and began her search.
Gabrielle reached a small clearing ideal for drilling. She scanned the space seeing nothing of her partner though she sensed Xena was near. She walked the perimeter, searching, the torch illuminating half the space, leaving the balance in darkness. Gabrielle spied a figure low against a tree. She was shocked to see Xena in a vulnerable, wounded posture. The warrior looked small to her.
Gabrielle stepped over Xena's bloodless sword, knelt on one knee and reached out to her partner as she whispered Xena’s name.
Xena’s menacing command caused Gabrielle to still; her hand remained extended. Gabrielle quickly searched to her left and right for some sign of a disturbance. Everything was as it should be. She suspected that Xena was experiencing a continuation of her previous upset. Gabrielle repeated her query. "Xena, what's wrong?"
"Leave me." The warrior’s voice broke.
Gabrielle could see partner’s hands shake. "You're trembling."
Xena looked down. Her hands were foreign to her. She returned her gaze to her young Queen. "I didn't call for you." She closed her hands making two fists, willing a physical control that was beyond her.
Gabrielle refused to abdicate her responsibility to her partner. "I was worried when you didn't come back."
"Did you ever think I might want to be alone?" Xena's retort dripped with pain driven sarcasm.
"I didn't know."
"Now you do."
Gabrielle was steadfast. "Xena, this isn't like you."
"You're wrong, Gabrielle. This is me. There are times like right now that I can't pretend to be…" She swallowed the word 'good'.
Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's knee. The warrior's reaction was lightening quick. Her body shifted up, her arm rose, her hand was poised to strike Gabrielle.
Gabrielle followed the movement, alarmed but not deterred. Her slave owners had beaten her for her defiance. Gabrielle's resolve was strong enough to arrest her body's instinctive reaction to cower and protect itself from a forthcoming blow.
Xena caught herself, the stillness of Gabrielle's countenance held her stroke at its apex. The shame of her threatened violence compounded her suffering. She was so terribly close to harming the younger woman. Her hand opened flat then dropped to her slide. She spoke in an exact clip. "Go away."
Gabrielle felt the severance of their bond. The loss staggered her. She dropped her gaze to her lap. Forces she did not anticipate and was unable to identify had assaulted the most intimate connection she shared with Xena. This was not the first time and she rued it would not be the last. There was a cruel truth; it was not for her alone to maintain their bond. Were it, she would have greater confidence in her ability to protect both of them from a world that could be indifferent, if not hostile, to love. Their bond was contingent upon Xena. They both needed to embrace the connection that opened the soul of one to the other.
By her Lord's mercy and charity, as Queen she was equal to the Conqueror. The throne was now as much hers as Xena's. That truth was inconsequential in light of this other truth. Her equality in their relationship did not assure their bond. Her hold upon Xena was Xena's to consent to or reject. Gabrielle was being banished and she was ignorant of the reason why.
Gabrielle closed her eyes to stay the tears. She would not cry. She had learned long before to shut her heart to the world, to pity those who relied on promises that veiled callous intentions without keeping a reserve for disappointment. She was being sent away and it did not matter whether she was slave, freewoman or Queen. The final outcome was the same. She was being separated from her love by her lover. She took her scabbard in hand, stood up and walked back to camp. In the past, all sense of belonging, of having a place and reason in life would have been stripped away from her. Experience taught her differently. Though she felt she had no choice but to respect Xena’s request, that request did not command an eternal banishment. Xena needed time and distance. Gabrielle learned to grant both after reasonable argument.
Xena sat back against the oak. She looked away into the darkness. She struggled to harness her taunting demons. She closed her eyes, remembering the simple bliss of the recent days spent with Gabrielle. Here was the price exacted. The mocking truth that innocence lost can never be recaptured. She had tried. She had given Greece her life asking little for herself as she secured peace, crushing coveters of the throne who would choose to introduce an impoverished landscape to the realm.
Though she had yet to feel worthy of Gabrielle, Xena accepted that the Fates had Gabrielle within their vision on the day Xena chose her destiny. Xena calmed. She focused inward, as she reached out with her senses seeking the reassuring, longed for subject. The streaming life force that she had come to identify with Gabrielle was weak, only a hint of Gabrielle’s light touched her. Xena spoke Gabrielle's name. Her fear rose and with it she raised herself off the ground and ran back to their camp. Breaking through the brush she saw the low embers in the fire ring, Gabrielle's torch resting across it. She counted only her bedroll. Gabrielle's scroll case, all her belongings were gone. Argo stood alone.
Xena surveyed the camp a second time, more careful in her observations as she tried to decipher Gabrielle’s movements. On the bedroll, only partially visible, was a piece of parchment held in place underneath a saddlebag. Xena seized it, her fear tempered by the fact that Gabrielle left word for her.
I am joining our escort.
I will wait for you.
Xena traced the text with her fingertips, a feather-light touch equal to her gentlest caress. Harm had been done, but she was sure that it was not irreparable. With only a few words Gabrielle had reaffirmed her love and her vow.
Not bothering with a saddle, Xena mounted Argo. She knew Gabrielle could not have gone far. Xena steadied her quickening heart and concentrated. Her ability to locate displacement was exceptional. A direction determined, she rode by the light of the waxing moon. Within a half-candlemark she heard the reassuring sounds of a horse’s hooves. She quickened Argo's pace. Having entered a glade, she made her way toward Spirit's shadowed form.
Upon hearing Argo's approach Gabrielle reined Spirit to a halt. She turned in her saddle confirming Xena's chase. She waited.
Xena guided Argo past Gabrielle, turning the mare to stand at opposite direction of Spirit. Xena now faced her young Queen. Gabrielle kept her eyes level, so different from the slave’s demur that marked their first interactions.
Xena spoke softly. "Why leave?"
Gabrielle was equally gentle. "You told me to."
"Not camp. Just…" Xena faltered in explaining herself.
"Did you find my note?"
"Then you know I am all right."
"Are you?" Xena knew Gabrielle’s tender soul. Though her beloved had the strength and courage to stand against the gales of life, her best shields could not deflect all the pain that came with the effort. Xena also knew that she, above all others, had the power to breach the shields and hurt Gabrielle.
"I haven’t forgotten Aphrodite’s wound or the lessons I learned when we were in Megara." By evoking Megara Gabrielle offered her strongest assurance that all would be well between them. The events at Megara had taken them closer, toward a mutual reconciliation of their shared destinies.
Contrary to Gabrielle’s warranty, Xena knew that the younger woman’s fear of rejection, though it had been regulated to the undercurrent of her psyche, remained a force to be reckoned with. It was that fear that Xena held responsible for the elusiveness of their intangible connection. Xena dismounted. She reached up to Gabrielle. "Come."
Gabrielle had withdrawn to the niche in her mind that had been her primary residence during her years in slavery. The eviction of warmth, of security, assailed her confidence. For a woman who knew love as a lifeline, the threat of the loss of her deepest love was intolerable. She lifted her leg over Spirit’s neck and slipped into Xena's hands.
Xena held Gabrielle at arm’s length. Gabrielle met her partner’s gaze, searching for further invitation into Xena’s haunted world.
Xena knew what she needed to do to begin to mend the tear she had created. "Gabrielle, today… the valley you wanted to see, the one I didn't want to… that valley was where the village of Cirra stood."
Xena's confession answered all of Gabrielle’s questions. Xena's worst nightmares were located in Cirra. Gabrielle found it hard to imagine such devastation in a place she found a haven of life undisturbed.
"I had no idea. I knew Cirra was close by, but I …
Xena continued. "I'm sorry. I should have told you. I just didn't want to face the memories."
Gabrielle spoke knowingly. "They came anyway, didn't they?"
Gabrielle stepped into Xena’s embrace, fiercely holding the warrior. Xena closed her eyes, succored by the sensation of their bond knitting itself anew.
Gabrielle whispered, "Do you feel that?"
"Yes." Xena sighed.
"Did you feel it go away?"
Xena closed her eyes reliving the painful moment of awareness. "I reached out for you after you left. I knew then."
Gabrielle admitted, "I don’t know if I can live without this feeling now that I know what it is to have it."
Xena understood. "I’m sorry."
As their bond strengthened and imbued Gabrielle with wonder, she questioned whether her feelings were unique or shared. "Xena, have you felt this way with anyone else?"
The gradual unfolding of the bond that allowed Xena to feel Gabrielle’s strongest emotions marked what they shared as a compelling love beyond the warrior’s previous experience. Xena had no reference for what was happening to her, to both of them. Neither the philosophers nor the bards spoke of such a mystery. None until Gabrielle, as a bard shared a philosopher’s brief story about splintered beings searching for their other halves, their soulmates. Only then did Xena have a name for the unique nature of their connection. "No… Gabrielle, I’m still learning what our bond means to me…" She amended, "To both of us."
Gabrielle felt the lingering troubling verberations of Xena’s distress. "It can be so strong sometimes."
Xena carefully released Gabrielle. "Do you really want this with me? Is it fair to you?"
The bard held Xena’s arms firmly. "You make it sound as if you’re the only one with difficult memories."
Xena stepped away. "I have more than my share."
Gabrielle moved forward until she once again stood before her partner. "Xena, I can handle your darkness as along as I have an idea of what causes it." She paused, facing their past, the times when she was responsible for triggering Xena’s regression to her harsher self. Gabrielle was keenly aware that it was by Xena’s conscious choice, by her will, that she bared her vulnerabilities. Xena had opened herself; during their closest moments Xena lay emotionally naked and subject to Gabrielle’s ability to unerringly cut her. "I need to know I haven’t hurt you and if I have, I need to know what I’ve done and what I must to do to make things right between us."
The warrior wanted Gabrielle to have the best life had to offer. She knew her presence often countered that goal. "Gabrielle, no one deserves to live with my nightmares except me."
If Xena was not as intimately aware of Gabrielle’s darkness as Gabrielle was of hers, it was because Gabrielle held her most harrowing memories secure in an interior vault far from Xena’s vision. Gabrielle revealed herself reluctantly, unwilling to lay open her past; she spoke sparingly of herself. Knowing that her slavery was a consequence of Xena’s choice of destinies made Gabrielle’s reticence essential. For Gabrielle, limiting Xena’s regret was an imperative.
The trying nature of the moment evoked in Gabrielle the need to draw closer. "Xena, what about the good? What about this? I don’t know if what we share is special or if all lovers know how this feels…"
Xena affirmed with a precise diction. "What we have… is… special."
The truth of Xena’s assertion coursed through their connection. Gabrielle solicited, "Promise me, you’ll try not to shut me out."
Standing under the vision of the indiscriminate Gods, Xena refused to make the promise.
Understanding Xena’s hesitancy, Gabrielle restated her request, emphasizing the last word. "I only ask that you try."
Xena resolved, "I promise, if you give me the same promise."
Gabrielle leaned up and kissed her partner.
Xena responded tenderly, "Let’s get back to camp."
Gabrielle smiled. "It is a cool night. I shall welcome your warmth."
Xena returned Gabrielle’s smile. "Is that what I am good for?"
Xena chuckled, the tension she felt greatly eased.
Gabrielle slapped her lover playfully. "I have plans for you, warrior."
Xena’s tone lowered seductively, "You will know me tonight?"
Gabrielle turned away and remounted Spirit. Situated in her saddle, she captured Xena’s gaze and spoke confidently, "With your permission, My Lord, I will know you well."
Effortlessly, Xena vaulted onto Argo. "Lead on, My Queen."
Gabrielle sat by the fireplace listening to Xena and Jared discussed a list of candidates for officer positions within the various armies.
Jared continued. "For Major in the Fifth Army Regan suggested Blacos and Sonas, and I added Frome."
"I like Frome…" Xena leaned forward resting her elbows on the desk and clasping her hands together. "Regan doesn’t know him. Send Frome down to Regan on temporary duty. The General can decide among the three after he gives them all an equal chance to prove themselves."
Gabrielle stood up. "Jared, may I ask a question?"
Jared turned to her invitingly. "Of course."
It was not like Gabrielle to interfere but she was truly perplexed by what she believed was an ongoing inequity. "Why isn’t Stephen’s name on the list? I believe he has proven himself worthy of a promotion."
The General rolled the scroll he held. "I agree, lass. He has refused the last three promotions I have offered him."
"Has he?" Relieved that her judgment did not differ from Xena’s and Jared’s, Gabrielle was left with a new question. "Did he say why?"
"They would take him from Corinth. He does not wish to leave the city." Jared answered, keeping an unaffected tone. In his mind Stephen’s motivation had the potential of threatening his wards’ confidence in Xena’s fidelity.
Gabrielle observed the strain in Jared’s carefully held posture. She heard both Jared’s words and surmised the unspoken meaning behind them. "I believe I understand."
In spite of Xena’s notorious past, Gabrielle had never shown jealously within their relationship. Both Gabrielle and Xena were aware that Stephen’s devotion to Xena was rooted in a great love. It was a fact they never discussed. Gabrielle relied on Xena’s code in reaching the correct conclusion that her partner had never bedded the Guardsman, a crucial fact that contributed to Gabrielle’s ability to embrace Stephen as a brother.
Gabrielle turned to Xena. Her green eyes carried an undercurrent of emotion difficult to decipher. "My Lord…"
Xena cursed the day. If Gabrielle objected, Xena felt she had no adequate reason for keeping Stephen close. She gave Gabrielle her attention and waited.
Gabrielle stated evenly, "The First Army is under your command, is it not?"
Xena confirmed the obvious. "It is."
Gabrielle continued reasonably, "When Major Bergus was injured you charged Stephen to lead the army in your absence."
Xena, trying to puzzle out Gabrielle’s building argument, allowed a few heartbeats to pass before answering. "I did."
"You did this though Stephen is a Royal Guardsman, not a member of the First Army."
Xena leaned back in her chair. "Where are you leading me, My Queen?"
Gabrielle saw in Xena’s demeanor a struggle rooted in divided loyalties. "Given that both the Royal Guard and the First Army are stationed in Corinth, there would be value in having an officer as liaison between the two, an officer that has earned the confidence of both the General of the Royal Guard," Gabrielle glanced toward Jared before returning her gentled gaze to Xena, "and the leader of the First Army – yourself."
Xena was humbled and grateful for Gabrielle’s generosity. She offered Stephen what in consideration for Gabrielle, Xena never felt comfortable formally granting the Guardsman. The plan was a fine administrative, as well as military, arrangement. She allowed a minor smile. "A Major?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I believe that would be the appropriate rank, yes."
"And you recommend Stephen?"
In the moment Xena could not imagine loving Gabrielle more. She turned to Jared, putting a strong face over a shaken composure. "General, what say you?"
Jared had no qualms. Stephen had long been Xena’s military assistant, second only to him. What Gabrielle suggested was in keeping with the order of the Guard. He set his one term. "Stephen officially remains with the Royal Guard?"
"Yes." Xena affirmed.
The General was pleased. "Agreed."
Xena looked to Gabrielle. "Do you have any more recommendations?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Not at the present moment."
Xena left the bathing room dressed in her finer clothes. The blouse she wore was Gabrielle’s favorite. The cream fabric offered a stunning contrast to her tanned skin. Xena was not as enthusiastic with the garment. The cuff ties were awkward. Inevitably Xena would call upon Gabrielle. The warrior suspected that Gabrielle enjoyed the routine of assisting her to dress. Receiving Gabrielle’s attention, however brief, before being sent off alone to host the evening’s State dinner was Xena’s one consolation. She reconciled herself to Gabrielle’s refusal to suffer the tedium of conversing with the nobles and their wives. Contrary to expectation, an improved Court membership did little to improve Gabrielle’s tolerance of Court-related social functions.
Had Xena the political option, she too would have chosen a quiet evening in their suite. How she envied her partner. She shouted, "Gabrielle, these cuffs refuse to tie."
Makia entered from the bedroom. "Good evening, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror paused in her effort. "Makia, what brings you here?"
"I came by Queen Gabrielle’s request." The cook offered, "May I help you?"
Xena looked down disgusted with her unruly cuff. "No need. Is everything in order for the banquet?"
Makia’s amused smile remained undetected. "Yes, Your Majesty."
Distracted, Xena’s gaze traveled up and beyond Makia’s shoulder. She responded absently, "Good."
Makia had reason to leave her Sovereign alone with the Queen. "If you would excuse me, I should get back to the kitchens."
"Of course." Xena redirected herself to the confounding cuffs. "Damn it!" She sat down on the edge of her chair; sure the evening would bring her no pleasure. She would wait for Gabrielle and the few moments of calm her partner’s presence promised.
"My Lord, allow me to help you."
Gabrielle’s pacific voice pulled Xena away from her frustration. She looked up. What she saw left her speechless. Gabrielle was wearing a new dress, the color of pale peach it complemented her features beautifully. Gabrielle slipped her hand under Xena’s arm, raising it to a level that would allow her to tie the cuff. Having completed the left cuff, she proceeded to repeat the task with the right. She performed the familiar task with a peaceful disposition.
Enchanted, Xena remarked. "A new dress?"
Releasing Xena’s arm, Gabrielle raised her eyes. "Do you like it?"
"I do." Xena lowered her arm. "It seems quite fancy for our suite."
Gabrielle smiled, "I hoped you would escort me to the banquet."
Pleased, Xena pursed an explanation; "I thought you found State banquets unpleasant?"
"There shall be music. With your consent, I will dance in your arms."
Gabrielle’s simple words referenced a request harking back to her first Solstice as Queen. Xena had shared her expectation that they would open the Solstice banquet with a Royal dance. Self-conscious, Gabrielle refused. Late Solstice night, having recently survived a grave illness, Gabrielle went to a near empty banquet hall and presented herself to Xena while, by her request, the musicians played. To have Gabrielle before her, in good health, was the finest Solstice gift Xena had ever been given.
"Gabrielle…" Overwhelmed, Xena leaned back in her chair.
Gabrielle waited, giving per partner time to compose herself.
Xena confessed. "I do not know what to say."
Gabrielle knelt before her, taking Xena’s hands in her own. She felt equally limited. "Nor do I."
Xena wondered aloud. "How can it be that as completely as I love you, my love for you deepens each and every day that you grace my life?"
Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s hands reassuringly. "I have stopped asking the question and accepted that in you, such love is mine."
Xena stood up, leading Gabrielle to her feet as she did. She leaned gently forward and kissed her. Gabrielle accepted the kiss, content in her knowledge that in Xena’s silence dwelled her Lord’s most powerful emotions.
The banquet meal had not yet been served. The Royals mingled individually among their guests. Gabrielle gravitated toward those few nobles with whom she had established a congenial relationship. She was speaking to Lord Judais when she caught sight of Stephen walking toward her. She returned his smile and excused herself from Judais’ company.
The newly commissioned Major greeted Gabrielle warmly. "Your Majesty."
"Good evening, Stephen." Gabrielle reached up and touched the Major’s insignia sewed to his uniform. "Congratulations."
Stephen spoke graciously, "I have been told that you were instrumental in my promotion. Thank you."
"Don’t thank me." Gabrielle shifted her hand to his arm. "Your promotion has been long deserved."
The Major vowed, "I intend never to give you reason to doubt your confidence in me."
Gabrielle grew serious. "By accepting your post you have taken the obligation of keeping our Sovereign safe."
Stephen affirmed his charge. "That has never been a question."
Gabrielle’s gaze held the Guardsman’s. "I realize you would give up your life freely. Your obligation to me goes further. I value my Lord more than my own life. If ever the choice must be made, you will place our Sovereign’s life above mine."
Stephen was taken aback. "Your Majesty…"
The Queen was ardent. "No arguments, Stephen."
The Guardsman countered, "I know the Conqueror would choose otherwise."
"Yes, she would," Gabrielle responded softly. "That is why I need you to be by her side."
"I must protest…"
Gabrielle used her trump – the truth. "Stephen, I know your heart. You will vouchsafe Xena as Trevor has been charged by Xena to vouchsafe me. There is no question of your loyalty conflicting with your heart."
Stephen clenched his jaw. The one person he rued hurting by his love for Xena had exposed him.
Gabrielle reassured, "It’s all right. Our love for Xena binds us together."
"Your Majesty, I have never…"
Gabrielle interrupted, having no need to hear Stephen’s assurances of fidelity. What she sought was far more important. "Promise me her life above all others."
Distressed, Stephen longed for relief that no reinforcement from his brethren could give him. The intimate confrontation was beyond his experience. "How can you ask me to choose?"
"I don’t." Gabrielle was touched by the man’s disquietude. "I have chosen for you."
Stephen countered, "So has the Conqueror chosen for me, and her choice is not the same as yours."
Gabrielle rebutted, "I believe she has chosen for Trevor, not for you."
"She has never specifically spoken to me," the Guardsman confessed. He pressed a final appeal, "But I know her heart."
Gabrielle set aside his argument. "Then there are no conflicting orders, only your speculation. Am I correct Major?"
Stephen relented. "Yes, Your Majesty."
Though Gabrielle pitied him, she would not set her goal aside. "I want your promise."
Stephen squared his shoulders. "I give it until countered by our Sovereign."
Gabrielle knew how sly her brothers could be. "You won’t solicit a contrary command?"
"No." His intention exposed, Stephen did not hide his sullen mood.
Gabrielle had not expected the course of the conversation. Though difficult she was glad to have the task done. She offered her brother a sister’s consolation. She kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you."
Xena watched the exchange from across the room. She was intrigued by the apparent shifts in expression. Whatever had crossed between Gabrielle and Stephen seemed to have concluded well.
Lord Thanos interrupted her thoughts. "Your Majesty."
"Lord Thanos." Xena turned reluctantly to the noble.
"I believe I speak for my fellow landowners when I ask…"
"Speak for yourself," Lord Aysel interjected.
Thanos bristled at the remark. "What I want to know is when will the people of Greece be relieved of our tax burden. We are being bled dry by the demands of the realm."
Xena was weary of Thanos’ complaints. "I don’t consider taxes equal to twenty percent of production or harvest oppressive. If anyone has a right to complain it would be the small land owner, not those whose pockets are heavy with gold."
Thanos renewed a familiar argument. "It is by my employment that peasants find a means to feed and clothe themselves."
Xena’s distaste for the man carried in her voice. "True, the craftsmen and artisans benefit from your insatiable appetite for furnishings and jewelry."
Insulted, Thanos gave a sharp retort. "I will not apologize for living a good life."
Xena smiled, satisfied. "By your own words the realm has not infringed on the quality of your living."
Caught, Thanos was petulant. "It could be better."
Noticing that a number of nobles had joined them, Xena maintained a civil address. "I guarantee it would be worse if Greece allowed its enemies to trespass on our soil. The taxes fund the armies that safeguard our lands, as well as efforts to improve roads and develop trade; the realm serves a rich man well."
Gabrielle approached, having taken interest in the nobles congregating around Xena.
Thanos noted the Queen’s arrival. He spoke with disdain, "Lucky for you women of Greece are graced with finery."
Xena snapped angrily, "Speak straight with me Thanos. I haven’t patience for innuendo."
"How rich is the Conqueror of Greece?" he asked bluntly.
Xena was dismissive, "You might be surprised."
"I don’t doubt it." Thanos turned to Gabrielle. "How rich is the Queen of Greece?"
The question surprised the just arrived Queen. In material terms, Gabrielle did not know the answer. She measured her wealth far differently, by the presence of Xena in her life. Gabrielle maintained her composure. "Lord Thanos, tell me, how have either I or my Lord led you to believe that we lead extravagant lives? On the contrary, our day to day expenses beyond the concerns of the realm are minor."
Thanos spoke with a sweep of his hand, "Such as this banquet?"
"A State dinner where you and your peers take full advantage of the food and drink served." Gabrielle measured Thanos from head to toe. "I am confident that if we compare wardrobes, yours would be the finer."
"This palace is far from being a sod house," he observed critically.
"Managed with less servants than your estate," Lord Ayers interjected. "Thanos, your accusations are misguided."
Thanos judged Ayers no ally. "Speaks a man who is favored by the throne."
Ayers grew impatient. "Free your slaves and you will receive the same consideration."
"The palace vaults may house no slaves but tell me, how crowded with coins and jewels are they?"
The Captain of the sentries announced the meal. Silence fell throughout the room. Protocol caused all to wait for the Royals. As much as Xena would have liked to backhand Thanos, instead she stepped beside Gabrielle. The Queen took her Lord’s arm and allowed her to be escorted to the main table. Pensive, the exchange had transported Gabrielle to the not too distant past, to a troubling time when she purposely distanced herself from her inheritance.
Xena walked down the empty palace corridor, her footsteps echoing against the stone walls. She learned Gabrielle’s location during Trevor’s mid-day briefing. Given Lord Thanos’ challenge the night before, Xena knew Gabrielle’s decision to visit the treasury was no coincidence. She wondered how much Gabrielle knew, what she learned during her time as sole ruler of Greece. She wondered what further knowledge Gabrielle sought. Passing multiple guard posts, Xena reached the lowest level of the palace and the fortified treasury. Samuel stood in the company of two fellow Guardsmen. She greeted the Guardsmen. They, in turn, responded respectfully.
Xena studied the door. "Sam, how long have you been here?"
The Guardsman was puzzled by the Sovereign’s delay in entering. "A candlemark, My Liege."
"Is the Queen alone?"
"Targon is with her."
"Thank you, Sam." Xena entered, closing the door behind her. Gabrielle sat on top of a chest, a large inventory codex rested on her lap. Targon stood behind her looking over her shoulder.
Xena knew the codex well. Targon made regular entries of inventory additions and subtractions. On occasion so did she.
Gabrielle looked up. Targon also gave the Sovereign his attention.
Xena leaned on a table across from Gabrielle. "Targon, I wish a private word with our Queen."
"Of course, Your Majesty." The administrator exited, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible in the process.
Gabrielle waited until Targon closed the door. She did not wait for Xena’s question. "When I believed you died, I left the management of the treasury accounts to Targon. I didn’t want anything to do with your wealth… I didn’t want to profit from your death. Later, when you left for Scupi I had no choice. I had to pay attention to the tax revenues, but only to the point that Targon assured me that he was in keeping with your instructions. I never asked him to explain your contingency plan. I never came down here to see for myself." She smoothed the parchment page. "Every dinar, every gold coin, every jewel, every tribute you’ve received. It’s all accounted for, isn’t it?"
"You have the power to be the richest woman in the world. You choose not to be."
Xena was relieved that Gabrielle correctly interpreted the documentation. "I didn’t take Greece for the money. The treasury does not belong to any one person. It belongs to Greece."
Though Targon had assured her, Gabrielle sought confirmation from the realm’s financial architect, "Has the treasury enough to sustain Greece?"
"The brown bound codex," Xena pointed to a shelf of similar volumes, "has a list, from drought to plague to war, that Targon and I speculated could harm Greece. We also calculated what we would need to recover and how much it would cost. We have enough gold to address a number of emergencies and still fund the palace administration and armies for two years."
Gabrielle shared what she learned in her review of the documents. "The wars have been expensive."
"Soldiers, weapons, horses, food… it’s a long list and nothing comes without a price."
The waste of lives was compounded by the waste in resources, resources that could have been redirected to help the less fortunate people of Greece. Gabrielle was outraged. "Next time Caesar crosses our borders and we defeat him – which we will – Greece will demand tribute to halt our retaliation."
Xena approved, "By the Queen’s command."
By her inspection of the treasury Gabrielle learned much of what she wanted to learn. What the inventory codex told her that her eyes did not was the extent of landholdings owned by the Royals. The value of their combined holdings, both in the treasury and scattered throughout Greece, was difficult to comprehend. "Xena, it’s hard to accept that these treasures are here."
Xena correctly interpreted the statement to be far more personal. "When we joined I gave you an equal share of all my possessions. They are yours as much as mine."
"I know… We never really talked about it." Gabrielle glanced down to the codex. "I found the entry you made before you left for Scupi."
For a moment Xena was overtaken by the painful memory of her brief visit to the vault. "Targon is meticulous. I didn’t want anyone accused of theft."
Gabrielle felt a rising sorrow within her. She had no reason to feel so. Xena could hide her upset externally, but not stay the effect through their connection. Gabrielle debated whether to continue their conversation. There was more to be said and she preferred to be done with the subject, not having to revisit it again in the future. "Two small bags of gold coins… so little compared to what you could have taken."
Xena shrugged, "It was more than enough."
"Thanos has no idea."
Xena was growing to hate the man. "He doesn’t care about the truth. He wants to disrupt the throne. He’ll keep trying until he finds something to turn the nobles and the people against me."
"And me," Gabrielle added.
"Not you," Xena disagreed. "He wouldn’t dare. You are too greatly loved and too honorable to have your character sullied."
"Xena, anyone who stands against you stands against me." Gabrielle scanned the riches one more time. She got to her feet, ready to leave. "It’s better that the treasury of Greece stay out of sight and mind."
Xena woke gently. The morning sunlight failed to coax her out of bed. The sweet sensation of having Gabrielle beside her was far too intoxicating for her will. Like an infusion, it warmed and calmed her. She felt a slight increase in Gabrielle’s hold of her. She waited to see if her partner would wake or drift back to sleep. Gabrielle showed no further sign of wakefulness.
Xena’s thoughts shifted to the prior day. After their discussion in the treasury, they had walked out hand-in-hand. Xena knew the day was another milestone in their relationship. There had always been sensitive issues between them, issues rarely broached. They lived their lives neither ignoring nor inviting the most difficult discussions. Those moments of naked honesty come unexpectedly, triggered by events independent of their respective wills. At such times, by an unspoken accord, Xena and Gabrielle accepted the challenge and broke their silence.
Xena’s wealth was a factor that marked the difference between her position as Sovereign and Gabrielle’s as slave and later servant to the realm. Xena’s ownership of Gabrielle had a lingering effect. Though they had addressed the political issue of slavery, the underlying personal concerns of wealth remained. When they joined, Gabrielle had been given all rights to Xena’s wealth. It was a right Gabrielle had not pursued, and accepted reluctantly. Xena’s gaze traveled to a wooden box that rested upon the fireplace mantle. She recalled the day she carried the box into the suite…
Xena spied Gabrielle sitting on the floor by the fireplace. The bard was intent on her writing. The Sovereign approached and sat beside her betrothed.
"How is the story?"
"Good." Gabrielle noted the box, two hands long and one hand wide, securely tucked underneath Xena’s arm. "What have you there?"
Xena placed the box between them. "We need to talk."
Gabrielle grew serious. "Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing’s wrong." Xena reached out and reassuringly placed her hand over the bard’s knee. "In three days our lives will be forever changed."
Gabrielle set her scroll and quill aside. In three days they would complete a formal joining ceremony in the presence of a select group of distinguished guests and friends. Afterwards a proclamation would announce Gabrielle Queen of Greece. Gabrielle placed her hand on the box. "Is this for our joining?"
"No, it’s for afterwards. Gabrielle, you will no longer receive a servant’s wage."
Gabrielle had not thought much of her income. She asked innocently, "Will I have an allowance?"
"No." Xena was patient. "You will be Queen. The Queen of Greece does not live on an allowance."
"Xena, I don’t need much."
"Gabrielle, what has been mine alone will be yours as well."
The bard gathered her hands in front of her. She was visibly uneasy. "I don’t want people to say that I am with you because of your money."
Xena wished she could spare Gabrielle the venom of those that were jealous of her. "There are men and women who want to hurt Greece and will say anything to divide us. You knew that before you consented to be with me."
"I know…" Gabrielle had yet to make peace with Court intrigues.
As much as it pained her, Xena presented Gabrielle a choice that had been decided, but which she once again felt needed to be addressed. "Have you second thoughts? Gabrielle, if you do not wish to be formally joined, I will understand. Nothing will change my feelings for you. My commitment to you is not tied to a legal document."
They had struggled long and hard to reach the place where they shared their lives publicly. It had always been Gabrielle’s choice. Gabrielle knew how much her past refusals had hurt Xena. She was determined to never again withhold her oath from Xena. "The box. You haven’t told me what it’s for."
Relieved, Xena continued to explain, "I thought, for now, that you would be more comfortable if I stored a few bags of coin in it. I will check it regularly and replenish it as needed. You may spend as much or as little as you desire. How you spend the coin is for you to decide."
Gabrielle considered the arrangement. There were no expectations placed upon her. "All right."
Xena chose her words carefully. "When you are ready we can discuss the finances of the realm. Between Targon and I, we will give you the lessons you need to rule."
Gabrielle voiced a faint protest. "Xena, I am a bard and a healer."
The Sovereign knew she needed to guide Gabrielle to the diadem. "You will be Queen. There are many lessons you must learn. Given time, you will learn them all."
"Must I? I trust you."
Once again Xena had proof of how different they were. She had hungered for power and sought out all the knowledge she could that would make her a better and stronger leader. She had not always been prudent in her effort. Gabrielle approached the throne, not as a prize, but as an unavoidable consequence of their relationship. "Gabrielle, you have never been shy of learning or of offering your opinion. Why do you hesitate?"
Gabrielle felt an internal tearing she could not easily explain. "This… being here with you feels right and good. I don’t doubt you or my place beside you." Her gaze traveled over to the door. "Out there in the world… it is so much more…" She captured Xena’s eyes and held them, a quiet plea for understanding crossed to her Lord. "I am only a peasant girl from Poteidaia."
Xena offered a soft smile. "And I am an innkeeper’s daughter from Amphipolis. As I have said before, we are not so unlike."
"But you won Greece. You earned the right to rule."
"By my sword. And by your heart you have won the right to rule. I think your way is the nobler of the two."
Gabrielle was cognizant that Xena did not speak only of their love. Gabrielle had won the loyalty of the Guardsmen and the household. They did not comprise the whole of the realm. However, they were crucial to establishing a base of authority. Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own. "Thank you for thinking of the box."
"Then you approve?" Xena’s good humor was evident.
"Yes, but on one condition."
Xena anticipated an easy request. "I’ll hear it."
Gabrielle was absolute in her terms. "You must always be here to fill it."
Xena smiled broadly, "I love you."
Gabrielle’s reason for accepting the throne was to assure that she would always be present to hear Xena’s profession of love. On this day she received her reward.
Gabrielle stirred, bringing Xena back to the present. The warrior waited as Gabrielle was slowly released from Morpheus’ hold.
The young woman slid her hand inside Xena’s shirt, seeking the sensation of Xena’s warm skin upon her fingertips. "Good morning."
"It is that," Xena agreed.
Gabrielle raised herself up. "You’re in good spirits."
"I must have been infected by a sprite."
Gabrielle echoed Xena’s lightheartedness. "Do you think?"
Xena placed her hand under Gabrielle’s chin. "Oh, I know for certain. She’s a pretty thing with golden hair cropped like so." Xena shifted her hand to the lower ends of Gabrielle’s hair. "And, with brilliant eyes of the color of the finest emeralds." She traced Gabrielle’s brow. "And a smile that leaves me longing for a kiss." Xena gently placed then removed two fingertips upon Gabrielle’s lips.
"Will a kiss from me do?"
Xena took hold of Gabrielle by the waist and turned both their bodies over until she lay gently at Gabrielle’s side. "I…" Xena caught the glimmer in Gabrielle’s eyes. Her playful thoughts were hushed.
Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena’s cheek. "Yes, love?"
Xena leaned forward and pressed her lips against Gabrielle’s cheek. She closed her eyes and willed complete awareness of their bond, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle’s essence course through her. She whispered, "It is not enough to say I love you."
Gabrielle felt the kiss and the strength of Xena’s embrace. She felt their bond intensify. She too closed her eyes and concentrated on the sensation, setting all her other senses aside. Her being began and ended in the one lone intangible faculty they shared. The power of their bond broke a part of her soul free to travel from her and merge with Xena. The fusion of their essence formed a pure element. They were not two become one with their unique identities undisturbed. They were one; they could not separate without destroying the other, without compromising the merit of their existence. The overwhelming moment drew Gabrielle close to the edge of pain.
Xena was not sure how long she held Gabrielle. She had willingly allowed herself to drown in the familiar, though never so commanding force made possible by their union, reluctant to voluntarily release her from the intoxication that swept away all restraints, tumbled all barricades to her soul. She felt Gabrielle’s tears upon her shoulder. She knew viscerally that no harm had come to her lover. Still, she feared Gabrielle’s capacity to withstand such a consuming force to be less than her own. Xena took conscious rein of her essence and brought it back to her core, leaving enough to reassure both of them that there was no severing of what they shared.
Gabrielle had no words for what she felt. Her tears were a necessary release. She felt Xena loosen her physical hold as the intensity of the moment ebbed. She pleaded in a quiet voice, "Please, don’t let go."
"I’m here," Xena whispered, barely breaching the silence.
"I’ve never felt…" Gabrielle’s voice drifted to a quiet hollow as she conceded to the dominion of the inexpressible.
"Gabrielle…" Xena pulled gently back.
Gabrielle studied Xena’s face. "Xena, did you?" By Xena’s gentle regard Gabrielle knew without further explanation that what she felt, what they shared, originated in Xena’s will and was consummated by her receptivity to that will. She surrendered as Xena sundered the internal fortress built during years of betrayal and savage warring. For a moment the wonder of Xena’s soul was Gabrielle’s to know. More stunning was the fact that the naked bearing of Xena’s soul was somehow partitioned from the warrior’s darkness. The most impressive possibility, if true, was that in the moment Xena existed free from the darkness that branded her. "You did…"
"I did nothing." Xena would not take credit for what was beyond her understanding. She was not confident she could repeat the giving.
Gabrielle was deaf to Xena’s denial. "Thank you."
Xena shifted completely to her side. She felt a residual effect that left her uncertain and in need of time alone to think. She directed Gabrielle’s attention away from her. Xena’s gaze traveled to the balcony. "It looks like we will have a good day."
Gabrielle refused to turn her gaze to the rising sun. Her eyes held to Xena’s gentle profile. "I cannot imagine a finer beginning."
Her composure more appearance than fact, Xena gave Gabrielle her regard. "What have you planned?"
Gabrielle accepted the change in subject. "Dalius and I are meeting to discuss the city hospice and then I plan to spend some time with Makia."
The warrior’s humor found footing. "What plot are you two cooking?"
Gabrielle bantered easily, "My Lord, I am not a woman of intrigue."
"No, just simple straightforward schemes to corrupt me."
With a touch to Xena’s shirt Gabrielle set aside her conspiracy. "Well, since you have unearthed my plans, have you any special dinner requests?"
"Spiced lamb." Xena was wary.
The young Queen had a good recipe. "So it shall be."
"Gabrielle, that was far too easy." Xena tugged on a lock of her lover’s hair. "Be warned. I shall keep my wits about me."
"Tis good." Gabrielle smiled wickedly, "I like the challenge."
Gabrielle sat across from Makia in the main kitchen. They had claimed a smaller worktable set to one side to complete their task of preparing peapods for the evening meal. The two women efficiently chose the vegetables soaking in a water-filled bowl, broke them and placed them in a second bowl. The work was an easy occupation while they shared companionable conversation.
"Major Stephen was looking quite handsome at the banquet," the elder cook observed with a subversive glimmer in her eye. "All pressed and polished. There be a few nobles’ daughters that would welcome his attention."
Gabrielle took a handful of peas. "I keep hoping he finds someone. I do think he deserves better than most of the women in Court."
"I heard he earned a kiss from the Queen."
The young Queen paused her work disbelieving the scrutiny, "No?"
"Aye, yes." Makia noted Gabrielle’s blush.
"On the cheek," Gabrielle protested any insinuation of impropriety. "I don’t believe it. I really do hate Court. They have nothing better to do than gossip."
Makia chuckled, "Only the more snobbish ladies." The cook grew serious. "The Conqueror was not jealous?"
"Of Stephen?" Gabrielle did not like the question. "Makia, you know better than that."
"She knows you are loved. It cannot be easy for her."
"And I know Xena is loved."
"It is not the same." Makia insisted.
Gabrielle stopped her work. She leaned back in her chair. "Do you think so little of her and those of us whose hearts she’s won?"
Makia saw the hurt in the younger woman’s eyes. She regretted her words. "No child, I didn’t mean… I’m sorry. I am old enough to know better than to pick up on idlers’ gossip."
Gabrielle accepted the apology with a smile. "But Makia, palace gossiping with you is half the fun of coming to the kitchens."
The cooked laughed. "I’d say that and the other half be sampling my food."
A woman’s voice called out, "Terrel, watch-out."
Makia’s eyes grew wide as she stood up. "Man! Be careful!"
Gabrielle turned to her right. Stephanie, a middle-aged cook’s assistance, stepped back fearfully. At her feet a puddle of cooking oil, nearby the toppled barrel that housed it. Gabrielle continued to rotate her body taking in the scene. Terrel, an elderly servant carrying a compliment of straw past the open hearth, bent down to address the spill. The lower portions of the straw crossed over into the fire and began to burn. Recognition of the flames caused him to thrust the straw away from his body. The straw fell into the pool of oil. The oil ignited in a flash of combustion. The old man cried out as he flung himself away from the flames.
Gabrielle ducked her head, protecting her face with her arms from the burst of fire. She heard a cacophony of voices and sounds as she tipped her body off the workbench onto the floor. She rolled under the table to its other side placing as much distance as she could between her and the scorching heat. She felt a body and took it for Makia. "Are you hurt?"
The shaken cook called out in the din of confusion. "I’m all right. The Gods have mercy on us."
"Let me help you stand."
Together they stood. Before them was a wall of fire, behind them little space and no means to exit. Gabrielle scanned the kitchen. Bedlam ruled on the other side of the flames. A cloud of smoke hovered over them.
"Get low. The breathing will be easier."
Makia did as she was told.
Gabrielle continued to scan the space searching for an outlet. She wiped her tearing eyes. She found it difficult to see and breathe. She lay down. Water from the spilled bowl pooled beside her. She took her boot dagger in hand and turned to Makia. "Hold still. I’m going to cut rags from your skirt. We’ll get them wet and put them over our mouths."
Makia reached out to her friend. "Child, we don’t have a chance."
Gabrielle fiercely countered any thought of capitulating to death. "I won’t give up!"
The cook would not deny her young Queen’s hold to life. "Do it then."
Gabrielle quickly cut the strips of cloth, soaked them in the water and handed one cloth to Makia while placing the other over her mouth. A small mouse scurried across her arm. "Damn it!" She hated rodents. As clean as the palace was maintained, mice and rats still kept house within their walls. Gabrielle followed the mouse’s path to a large air vent. It disappeared through the grate.
"Makia, the air vent … there." She pointed. "Do you know where it goes?"
The cook thought. "A level up."
"We can fit."
Makia only wished that were true. "It‘s bolted closed."
"Come on." Gabrielle crawled to the grate. She used her dagger against a corner bolt. To her relief the mortar loosened. She went to the second then shifted to the other side and worked the third and finally the last. "Take hold."
Makia wrapped her hands on the grate. Gabrielle did the same leveraging her weight by placing one foot against wall. "Now pull!" Gabrielle felt the grate give. "Again! Pull!" The bolts inched out. "Again!" The bolts gave, releasing the grate.
Gabrielle flung the grate aside and looked inside. The air vent had two branches. One straight up would be impossible to climb without foot and hand holds. The second was level. They had no choice but to take it. She turned to Makia, "You go first. Stay level. Keep calling for help. If someone hears us they can come for us from the other side."
The elder protested, "You go first."
"I’ll be right behind you." Gabrielle knew she had a better chance of surviving the suffocating smoke. "Makia, we don’t have time to argue."
"I love you, child."
Gabrielle could not help but smile. "I love you, too. Please hurry."
Makia entered the vent.
Gabrielle stood up. The fire had intensified, engulfing the kitchen’s primary chamber. She closed her eyes for a moment and reached out to Xena. She struggled to supplant her fear with a calming balm of love. She was met with a stunningly violent rage she could not bridge. A shelving unit collapsed. The sound of it pulled the disorientated woman from her trance. Back in the present, every nerve in Gabrielle’s body demanded flight. Gabrielle prayed Xena would forgive her for not trying a second time to connect with their bond.
Xena felt a jolt of fear. She clenched the arms of her throne, keeping in place. The voice of the local merchant requesting an increase in trade route security receded to the background. The fear subsided replaced by a pulsating anxiety. She turned her gaze toward the servant’s entrance. She felt drawn to it. Unable to ignore the intangible call, she stood, taking hold of her sword and chakram, placing the latter on her belt.
Stephen noticed the change and waited for the Conqueror to act. He followed discreetly, keeping a handful of paces behind her.
Samuel charged through the servant’s door. He was relieved to see the Conqueror approach. "There’s a fire in the main kitchen. The Queen…"
Samuel did not have time to finish his report. Xena ran past him followed by Stephen. Xena bounded down the steps, taking them in twos and threes until she reached the lower palace floor. Reaching a primary landing, a chain of men obstructed Xena’s path. They formed a bucket brigade, dousing flames that carried from the kitchen to a narrow entrance staircase. Their effort showed little effect.
Xena shouted, "The other entrance!"
Danis, a lower level servant responded. "Worse there than here. We are trying both ways but there is only so much space."
Xena took command. "How many people are trapped?"
"The Queen and Makia were on the other side of the burning oil."
Danis spoke in short bursts. "Cooking oil. A barrel spilled on the floor. Some straw burned by the fire. Bad luck."
To Xena it was not bad luck. It was carelessness. She did not have the time to vent her anger. "How many injured?"
"Three badly burned. They’ve been taken to the infirmary."
Xena watched in silence as the men worked frantically. She weighed her options.
Danis spoke again. "Your Majesty, the air is keeping the flames burning. If we seal the doors and vents the fire will burn itself out."
In less than a heartbeat Xena took him by the throat. "And the Queen will suffocate."
Stephen moved quickly to Xena’s side and placed his hand over her extended arm, gently pressing down, hoping to coax her to release the hapless servant. "He thinks the Queen dead. He meant her no further harm. Only to save the palace."
"The palace be damned." Xena released Danis. He crumbled to the floor. Xena turned to Stephen. "He’s wrong. Gabrielle is alive." Without turning her eyes from Stephen Xena ordered, "Sam, go to the other entrance. See if it’s as bad as this fool said."
The Guardsman did as he was told.
Stephen observed the near breaking point tension in Xena. He stood with her, waiting, knowing that his purpose was to support her in whatever way he could. Xena turned her head toward the fire-engulfed passageway. She made her decision. She pushed her way through the line. "Get out of the way!"
Samuel ran down a corridor having to take a jagged route to the second entrance directly across from where he left the Conqueror.
"Sam!" Jared called out. Trevor and two other Guardsmen were with the General. "What in Hades’ name is happening?"
Samuel quickly briefed the men.
"Let’s go then." Jared led the way to Samuel’s original destination.
"Stop!" Samuel hailed. "Do you hear that?" He heard a woman’s voice. Knowing that it was not Gabrielle’s broke his heart.
The men stood still, concentrating. Trevor moved toward a side corridor. "This way."
"Go! Go!" Jared directed impatiently.
Trevor led with soft steps, tracing the voice. The voice strengthened than weakened. He stopped, turned, scanned the walls and saw the grate-covered opening, a small stream of smoke escaping from it. "Here!" Trevor fell to his knees. "Hello there! Are you in the vent?"
Makia thanked the Gods upon hearing the Guardsman’s voice. "Yes! Yes!"
Jared knelt on one knee beside Trevor. "Makia, is that you?"
"Yes, please help us."
Jared replied, "Is Gabrielle with you?"
"She’s behind me. Please hurry."
Jared looked to his men. "Your blades, lads. Go at these bolts." He turned back to the grate and shouted, "Makia, keep moving. Come on you old cook. Make haste."
As each of the Guardsmen attacked a bolt, Jared went down the corridor to where there were hanging curtains. He pulled the cords with a violent stroke. With his dagger he cut the cords and tied them to make a sturdy rope. He repeated the effort with a second curtain. He returned to the vent just as Trevor and Samuel were struggling to pull the grate loose.
Jared tied one rope to each ankle and secured a kerchief over his nose and mouth. The moment the vent was freed he dove through and crawled toward Makia. Without instruction, Trevor and Samuel each took responsibility for a rope guiding them into the vent ensuring they would not get tangled.
Jared could not see. Breathing was difficult. He continued a steady pace using his elbows and legs to keep moving forward. He felt flesh and grabbed hold of the cook’s wrist. "Makia, you with me?"
"Yes, General." The cook responded weakly.
"Take hold of my arms."
Jared called back as he signaled by jerking his legs in a uniformed motion. "Pull men! Pull!"
Trevor and Samuel used every ounce of strength they possessed to draw Jared and Makia out of the vent. They assumed the General and cook would forgive the rough handling in exchange for a lungful of fresh air.
Jared’s legs came through. The two other Guardsmen took hold of the General and raised him out. Samuel and Trevor released the ropes and assisted Makia, moving her to the side to rest against a wall.
Gabrielle crawled through the vent. She could hear but not see Makia. The smoke grew thick. She coughed as the fire’s soot entered her lungs. She felt weak, her limbs growing heavy. She also found it difficult to focus her mind. She had grown to believe that her death would come at the behest of an enemy of the state. As she closed her eyes she thought the death she faced odd.
Jared took a few deep breaths then lunged desperately back into the vent. He cried out, "Lass, stay with me!" He crawled quickly, driven by the urgency Gabrielle’s silence evoked. The further he went the harder it was for him to breathe. Heat radiated from the stone. He knew he was getting closer to the kitchen and he prayed closer to his goal.
His hand brushed against Gabrielle’s head. He reached out in the dark, feeling her wisps of hair. "Oh lass, please…" He placed his hands under her, guiding her arms forward. Taking a tight grip, he raised his legs twice jerking the rope. He felt the cords tighten. He braced himself as he and Gabrielle were pulled out.
Samuel and Trevor guided the rope a second time. The Guardsmen remained quiet, listening for the General’s command. The wait weighed heavy on each of them. Losing Gabrielle was inconceivable.
Makia coughed, clearing her lungs. She felt lost in her helplessness. "I told her to go first. She wouldn’t do it."
No one answered her. Not to be distracted from their wait for a sign. The rope jerked.
Trevor exclaimed, "He’s got her."
The men pulled the ropes, again sacrificing care for expediency. Jared’s legs appeared. Samuel took him by the belt and set him completely free from the vent in one driven stroke. Jared kept hold of Gabrielle until Trevor had her in his arms.
The General turned his body upright. "Give her to me."
Trevor had never held Gabrielle so close. The intimacy of having her rest against him was overwhelming. It pained him to release her. He moved his gaze from her quiet face to Jared. He opened his arms.
Jared took Gabrielle, cradling her. "Come on, lass." He could see that she was still breathing. "Please lass, we’re waiting for you."
Gabrielle coughed as fresh air displaced the poisonous gases that were taking her away from life.
"That’s my girl." Jared looked over to Samuel. "Tell the Conqueror we’ve got her. Go, before she loses her mind!"
Jared rocked Gabrielle gently. He whispered to her as shameless tears fell down his face. "You’re going to be good as new. Yes you are."
Xena took the buckets of water in a fury of motion, splattering the fire. She was consumed with nothing less than vengeance toward the fire’s destructive force. Sufficient progress got her to the kitchen door. She saw only flames. There was no corner untouched by the fire. She did not care. Gabrielle was inside and Xena felt Gabrielle was still alive. She lifted the next bucket Stephen handed her, raised it over her head and doused her body.
Stephen watched, ascertaining Xena’s plan. "You can’t go in there."
"Just watch me."
Stephen jumped in front of Xena, placing his body between her and the door. He felt the flames lick his back. "It’s suicide."
Xena was fierce in her determination. "Stephen, get out of my way."
The Major heard Gabrielle’s voice in his mind. ‘Xena’s life at all costs.’ He was equally determined. "I won’t let you do it."
Xena placed her hand on her dagger’s sheath. "Step aside or must I kill you?"
Stephen did not deceive himself. He was a good match for Xena, but never in their sparring did he gain the upper hand against her. He chose to forfeit his life in order to keep his promise. Without his honor he was nothing. "Yes, you must kill me."
Xena did not think of who stood before her, that Stephen was dear to her. The only thought in her mind was that Stephen meant to keep her from Gabrielle. Alive or dead she would be with her Queen. Standing eye to eye with Stephen, she pulled out her dagger.
Samuel called out. "My Liege, the Queen is safe!" Only after did Samuel take in the intense scene.
Xena turned to Gabrielle’s personal guard. "Where is she?"
Confused, it took a moment for Samuel to respond. "She and Makia escaped through the air shaft. They are with General Jared."
Xena turned her gaze back to Stephen. "Get out of my sight."
Xena arrived at Gabrielle’s location. She paused, assessing the scene. Gabrielle lay in Jared’s arms. Makia sat beside them holding the Queen’s hand. Trevor and the other two Guardsmen stood protectively in a circle. The grate was set aside of the vent entrance. Smoke continued to escape from it. The thought of Gabrielle trapped within the vent made Xena shudder.
Gabrielle looked up. Her eyes were glazed as she struggled to grasp complete consciousness. "Xena…"
Xena went to Gabrielle and pulled the younger woman into her arms. The physical connection caused Gabrielle to remember Xena’s rage. She sensed it still. She whispered, "Don’t be angry."
The Sovereign tightened her hold with one arm as she placed her other arm under Gabrielle’s legs. She lifted Gabrielle up. For a heartbeat her gaze met Makia’s. The Sovereign’s was an unforgiving look. She shifted her eyes to Trevor and gave her orders to the Captain, "Tell Targon I want to know what happened and why. I also want a full damage report." Finally, she turned to Jared. "Thank you, old man."
Jared had gotten to his feet. He stepped forward placing his hand over Gabrielle’s. "I’ll come by later."
Xena nodded. "Please do."
The Sovereign turned, carrying Gabrielle back to their suite. It did not go unnoticed that Xena had no words of concern for the cook.
Gabrielle could not help but remark, "Xena, you’re all wet."
Xena glanced down. "I got in front an errant bucket of water."
"You didn’t duck?"
"I had my mind on other things."
Satisfied with Xena’s explanation, Gabrielle closed her eyes, finding peace in her partner’s comforting, though sodden embrace.
Reaching their suite Xena walked directly to their bedroom. She laid Gabrielle on their bed. The young Queen opened her eyes.
Xena examined Gabrielle. She saw no apparent injuries. "Gabrielle, are you hurt?"
The younger woman coughed as her lungs continued to clear themselves from the smoke’s poison. "Just tired."
Xena offered a gentle smile. "You have a new story to tell, my bard."
"Later," the warrior interrupted. "Rest now."
Gabrielle would not be silenced. "Stay with me."
Xena felt a need to keep hold of Gabrielle. She was grateful for her partner’s invitation. "Let me get out of these wet clothes. I’ll be right back."
Xena went to the bath, stripped, toweled dry and returned to their bedroom. She dressed in a sleep shift and took her place beside Gabrielle. Gabrielle, half asleep settled against Xena’s shoulder, anchoring herself with a firm grasp of Xena’s shift.
The events had happened too quickly for Xena to think, only react. Now in the privacy and quiet of their suite, she was able to retrace her steps and consider those who had trespassed against her. There were three known to be badly hurt. She would learn their names when Targon presented his report. Danis could be dead were it not for Stephen. And Stephen would certainly be dead were it not for Samuel. Jared and the Guardsmen had saved Gabrielle and Makia. If all lived, this event still claimed causalities.
Three candlemarks passed before Gabrielle stirred. Xena watched her, allowing Gabrielle the gentlest journey back to a wakeful state.
Gabrielle tightened her hold upon the warrior. "Hi."
"Hey." Xena responded, searching out Gabrielle’s eyes, finding in them a familiar, healthy brightness.
"How are you feeling?"
"Me?" Xena set aside Gabrielle’s concern. "I’m not the one who was close to needing a coin for Charon’s boat."
Gabrielle rose until she rested against her elbow. "I felt what you were feeling."
‘Here,’ Xena thought, ‘was the price of their connection.’ She lied, "I’m fine."
Gabrielle was not convinced. "Why were you so angry?"
"You were trapped in a fire. How was I supposed to feel?"
"It’s not your fault." Xena shifted their conversation to the factual. "I was told a barrel of cooking oil ignited."
Gabrielle recounted, "Terrel was carrying some straw. He got too close to the barrel and then to the hearth. Do you know if he’s all right?"
"I was told three were badly burned. He was probably one of the three."
"I think you’re right. Poor man."
"The oil barrel should never have been left by the hearth," Xena concluded matter-of-factly.
Gabrielle feared, "You don’t blame Makia, do you?" Her question was met with silence. She continued, "I was there. It was an accident."
Xena ignored Gabrielle’s last statement. "It’s her kitchen to manage. Yes, I hold her responsible. She was careless…"
Gabrielle interrupted, "I disagree."
Xena was in no mood to argue. "Gabrielle, Makia will be held accountable for three lives hurt, if not lost, the near death of the Queen, and the damages to the palace."
Gabrielle was vehement. "Of the two of us I’m the one who was in the kitchen when the fire started. I’m the one who was in danger. Shouldn’t I decide whether it was an accident or carelessness?"
Xena was sharp in her retort, "You’re wrong. Of the two of us you were not the only one in danger. It’s no longer your life alone. Too much has happened between us. I am nothing without you."
"I understand." Gabrielle calmed. "Xena, don’t judge Makia too harshly. She is devoted to you. People she cares for have been hurt. She offered her life to save mine. Don’t you think she suffers enough? Must you add to her pain?"
Xena weighed her options. She never raised her hand to Makia. The affection Gabrielle felt for the cook prohibited discharging her. "Very well. The judgment is yours to make. I shall say nothing more on the subject."
Gabrielle was hoping of a greater grace. "Will you exonerate her?"
Xena was firm. "I shall say nothing more on the subject."
Continued - Part 2 of 5
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