Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her extensive edits and comments. Also, a great thanks to Tana for her insightful discussion of the Conqueror genre, in addition to her faithful encouragement.
Comments: Comments always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
The banquet hall was filled with members of the Court. An abundant harvest brought them together to celebrate. Food and drink were served generously as the evening progressed. This was a night free of politics although political intrigue always ran in the Court's undercurrent of human thought and emotion. All took place under the watchful eye of the Conqueror, Xena of Amphilpolis. The Conqueror sat centered at the head table dressed in a white embroidered shirt and black leather pants. She was a tall beauty with long black hair; intense blue eyes and a brilliant smile that had the power to both charm and disarm. To her right sat Jared, her trusted General of the Royal Guards. He was a handsome man, near a generation older than the Conqueror. A few fingers taller than the Conqueror, he wore his hair short. Trails of gray around his temples and interspersed in his well-trimmed beard gave him a distinguished appearance. His eyes were a deep brown. They promised more warmth than one might expect for a seasoned warrior. To the Conqueror's left sat Paulos, General of her Fourth Army, a somewhat less trusted but equally capable military mind. Paulos was a scruffy man with a laugh that tended to be too loud. He reminded the Conqueror of the Norse warriors she had met when traveling the far north
Paulos tapped his wine cup absentmindedly. "Your Majesty, I see you have graced the palace with new beauty."
The Conqueror turned to her general and then followed his eyes until they fell upon the subject referenced. Indeed, the new slave had a gentle beauty. The Conqueror estimated the girl to be just shy of sixteen hands tall from head to toe, and nineteen or twenty summers old. The Conqueror smiled to herself for the equestrian measure, testament that she felt more comfortable with her horses than people. Returning her thoughts to the slave, she admired the girls long, blond hair, which draped down her soft, lightly tanned complexion. The slave carried the posture of someone new to the palace. Her movement was clumsy, indecisive. She was learning how to serve. That was obvious. The slave's posture was one of an arrested, if not defeated, spirit. Her hands shook as she poured the wine. The Conqueror strove for a healthy level of fear. It was necessary to control the realm. She was, however, disturbed by the overall impression made by this slave. She made a mental note to discuss her observation with Targon, her administrator.
She gave her general an easy response. "I'm glad you appreciate the aesthetics of the palace."
Paulos laughed. "I confess I take little notice of the work of your artisans. My appreciation is limited to the flesh and blood in the palace. A girl like her could provide a man comfort during a cold night like tonight promises to be."
"I will provide you with all the blankets you desire, General. As for my slaves, my rules have not changed."
"I visit you always with the hope that one day you will make an exception."
"The exception may provide you pleasure but I cannot say the same for the slave you choose. You are a handsome rogue. I would think you could easily seduce a wench. And if not, there is always coin in your pouch to pay a fair price for services."
"But who wants a wench when he can have a jewel?"
"The jewels become wenches or worse if I lift my protection. It will not be done."
"And so I return to the south disappointed once again."
"The justice of the realm is greater than any one man."
"True, Your Majesty. But it is not greater than one specific woman."
"Because it is my justice to exercise until someone takes the right from me."
"I humbly bow to you. You have brought peace and prosperity to Greece. I fought beside you and have never been disappointed."
"Take care, Paulos. Flattery disgusts me."
"That is why I only speak the truth."
The Conqueror smiled. "Fine man. Now tell me more about the state of the southern provinces."
The Conqueror had excused herself from the banquet early. Though the gathering was a far more pleasant affair than the majority of her state events, her desire for a different, more productive diversion took her elsewhere. Seeking free movement, she changed into a less formal shirt and pantaloons. With sword in hand Xena spent two candlemarks completing a series of drills designed to sharpen her focus and maintain her dexterity. It was her sword and her strategic mind that had earned her the realm. Keeping the realm required that neither be compromised.
Xena wiped her face and neck of perspiration. She felt better for the exercise. She had eaten little at the banquet and now found herself to be hungry. Taking a concealed corridor from her bedchamber to a stairwell, she made her way to the kitchens. There she spied the same slave that had garnered her attention at the banquet -- hard at work scrubbing the floor.
The slave held the floor brush with both her hands, moving it back and forth. Her stroke forward stopped at the sight of two black-booted feet in front of her. She looked up to see the Conqueror. Visibly shaken, the slave rose to her feet.
She kept her eyes low. "My Lord, how may I serve you?"
Xena observed the girl. "I came down for something to eat. Cheese and bread will do."
"Yes, My Lord." The girl nodded. Her attempt to take a step caused her to become dizzy. She raised her hand to her head.
Xena watched her. Unbeknownst to the slave, Xena extended her hand, offering support. "Hey."
The girl fell toward Xena. Xena stepped up and caught the girl in her arms, setting her gently on the floor. She was surprised by how light the slave felt. Laying on her back the slave took Xena by the hand. Her gaze caught and held that of the Conqueror's. "I'm sorry."
Xena examined the girl's body. Unsatisfied, she pulled the girl's shirt out of her skirt. Xena ran her hand on the cool skin, feeling bone and muscle. Reaching over to a water bucket, the Conqueror threw it against a wall. It shattered into pieces, the sound melding with the Conqueror's call to her chief cook.
The flustered cook arrived, soon followed by two Royal Guardsmen.
"Makia! When did the realm start starving its slaves?"
The cook wrung her hands in fear. "Your Majesty, the girl is new to us. She came as she is."
"And you chose to remedy the matter by having her scrubbing floors in the middle of the night?"
"Punishment for serving Your Majesty poorly."
"I heard your comment that her hands shook as she served."
"If I want my slaves punished I will say so. Where does she sleep?"
"In the commons with the others, Your Majesty."
Xena redirected her attention to the girl. She picked the girl up, cradling her. Making a decision, she carried her out of the kitchen to the infirmary. "Follow me!"
Makia stepped behind trying not to think of the price that would be exacted from her to compensate for the Conqueror's anger.
Reaching the infirmary the Conqueror kicked the door open. "Dalius! Get in here, now!" She placed the girl gently on a cot.
The elder healer struggled to clear his mind from sleep's hold as he entered. His attending assistant withdrew to a corner of the room seeking what was nothing more than a precarious sense of safety.
The Conqueror ordered. "See to her!" She then turned to Makia, her anger unabated. "Did you think working her to death would please me?"
"No, Your Majesty. That was not my intention."
"Makia, I know you. You didn't do this because of what I said. What were you thinking?"
"She's a trouble maker. She was telling stories, distracting the other slaves."
The Conqueror looked at the innocent in disbelief. "Stories of dissension?"
Makia did not want the girl killed so she told the truth. "No, Your Majesty. Simple stories of adventure."
"She must be good to draw the staff from their work."
"You misunderstand, Your Majesty. The girl worked as she told the stories, as did those who listened."
"Why then the punishment?"
"She did not ask permission."
The Conqueror paused in thought. "I see. Should I treat you as you have treated her?"
"I doubt the girl realize she needed to ask permission. You punished without mercy. "
Makia fell to her knees. "Forgive me, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror assessed the cook. She was not accustomed to having Makia on her knees before her. The image made her uncomfortable. The cook had long been a favorite, an early benefactor of the Conqueror's shield. Makia's good fortune was due in part to her resemblance in age and body to the Conqueror's mother.
The Conqueror bent down to Makia and spoke in a soft voice. "The girl does not strike me as someone who intentionally undermined your authority. I wish I could say the same thing about you. You have served me well for many years. This is the first time you have disappointed me. Make sure it is the last or I will."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you."
The Conqueror stood up. She spoke to the healer. "I want a daily report." She returned her attention to Makia and offered the aging woman a hand to rise. "What is the girl's name?"
Relieved to receive the Conqueror's courtesy, Makia stood. "Gabrielle, Your Majesty."
Targon was a man of moderate height and sandy brown hair. His skin reluctantly hung from his bones as if in defiance to its fate of having been bound to a frail body. Targon had a keen organizational mind and a minor cowardly streak that made him an ideal candidate to manage the government's more tedious affairs. Xena considered him a capable administrator of the palace. Where others took their role as a means of securing additional funds through favoritism, he quickly came to understand that a big purse did him little good in Tartarus, where the Conqueror had sent previous administrators who had not taken her prohibition of corruption to heart.
" and I want a full report on this new slave. Where did she come from? What are her skills? The usual."
"Gabrielle, Your Majesty."
"Anything else, Your Majesty?"
"No . Yes. Targon. I want a review of how the slaves are orientated to the law of the realm. Make sure they know what they have to gain as well as what they have to lose."
"It will be done. With your permission "
The Conqueror dismissed Targon with a wave of her hand. She stood and walked to the balcony seeking the cool breeze upon her skin. The air was easier to breathe outside of the palace than within its walls. Her realm included the lands as far as the eye could see and beyond. Though sovereign she recognized four constituents. The first and most important was her army, led by the elite Royal Guard. The second, which few guessed, was her servants and slaves. She needed their loyalty. They often learned of dissension before her spies did. Their desire for good treatment and stability was key to her household strategy. The third constituency was the members of her Court. She reconciled herself to the fact that her Court was the greatest internal threat to the realm. She considered their close proximity problematic, yet it was a problem she could only manage, not resolve. And finally, there were the people of the land: the farmers, craft workers, artisans, merchants, and to her disdain, the priests and priestesses. To some extent all feared her. She could only hope that the day would come when that the fear crossed the realm's borders to Rome and Persia. Only then would she know peace. Until that day she could not rest.
Jared entered. "My Liege."
Xena kept her back to the General. "What news?"
"Caesar marches toward the northern borders."
The Conqueror turned slowly. "Does he? Jared, what do you make of it?"
"Intimidation. He would be a fool to challenge with winter only a moon away."
"You would think. Caesar is not a fool, but he is arrogant. I want the Fifth Army mobilized to guard the western port cities. Caesar might take to the sea instead of the foothills counting that Greece will be too slow to keep up with his ships."
"He does not know Greece."
"You're right, Jared. He only thinks he knows Greece."
"My Liege, may I speak freely?"
"Take care, Jared. I haven't killed anyone in days. I may make sport of you."
"You own my life. I have nothing left to lose."
"What is it, General?"
"Lord Castan has been meeting privately with Lord Gaugan, Stasis and Vacaou. They take note that you have not been as fierce in Court as you once have been. They see the change as a sign of weakness."
"I've killed men who spoke such speculation."
"Yes, My Liege."
"No more, Jared." Xena stepped behind her desk. "Damn to Tartarus! It was easier when we fought Cortese and the other pitiful warlords roaming the countryside. They were crude and honest in their deceit. They didn't try to hide the fact that I couldn't trust them. Now I deal with issues of diplomacy and backroom intrigues and I can barely keep down my breakfast because they disgust me so." She sat down and raised a leg against her desk. "Castan is taking the lead. I'm surprised it's not Vacaou."
"Maybe it is."
"A low profile is not a bad thing, especially if you are testing the strength of your position. Let them think they are skilled in treachery. Let them be the cause of their own downfall."
"It shouldn't take long."
"It depends on Caesar. The good Nobles will wait for Greece to be distracted."
"Could they be with Rome?"
"I doubt it. They hate the Latins almost as much as I do. We will stand back and see how greedy they become." Xena dropped her leg and leaned forward at her desk. "Jared. I think it may be necessary for Greece to conscript twenty percent of each Lord's militia to safeguard the realm from this new Roman aggression."
"Aye. I would agree."
"Choose the men yourself - loyal, brave, skilled -- in that order. We can teach those who haven't learned to be a soldier to Greece. Have the orders scribed by tomorrow morning."
"As you command. Anything else, My Liege?"
"No. I'll see you this evening."
The General made his way to the door. Xena called out his name. He turned to her.
"Thank you, My Liege."
The sun that warmed her face disappeared. She opened her eyes to the Conqueror.
"How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle sat up. She spoke quietly. "Better, My Lord."
"Dalius tells me all you needed was food and rest."
"For my body, yes My Lord."
Xena caught the qualification. "What more do you need?"
Gabrielle's courage faltered. She looked down.
"You won't look at me. Should I consider your behavior a sign of disrespect, fear or something else?"
Gabrielle steadied her self-doubt, returning her gaze to the monarch. "Freedom, My Lord. I need my freedom."
"Has Targon spoken to you?"
"And you understand that freedom is yours to earn?"
"I only ask that you repay your debt."
"If you had outlawed slavery I would never have been taken."
"How long have you been a slave?"
"I've owned Greece for three years. I will take responsibility for what I've done and I will know Tartarus for it, but I will not be held accountable for what those before me did to you or to anyone else."
"You can stop it."
"Unless it is prodded by the sword, change comes slowly. If I free all the slaves in Greece, the Nobles will rebel. Greece will not fall to its enemies. It will collapse within itself. I will not allow either to happen."
"Then don't allow any new slaves."
"Citizens of the realm cannot be enslaved."
"And affect trade? Become a safe haven for all foreign born. Greece's allies would not approve."
Gabrielle remained silent.
"There are reasons. There always are. What you must learn is not only what those reasons are but also what stands behind them. It is easy to say free the slaves. It is not as easy to do." Xena wanted to give the girl a modicum of hope. "In three years, if you serve me well, you will have your freedom. In those three years you will be well fed, clothed and housed. At the end of your labors you will receive a sum of coin to begin a life away from the realm, if you so choose."
"Why wouldn't I leave?"
"Ask Targon, Makia and all those who have been with me for more than their indenture. I cannot speak for them."
"Why are you telling me this?"
Xena was thoughtful. "I speak to every new slave serving my household. You have a choice to make. Contrary to what others believe, the quality of your life here will be more a function of who you are than who I am."
"So, I shouldn't fear you?"
"Only if you wrong me. If you do you will have every reason to fear me. But then it will be too late because you will be dead. Have I made myself clear?"
The Conqueror intensified her gaze upon the slave.
Gabrielle felt a rising unease; her fragile courage escaped her. "My Lord."
The Conqueror responded to the knock at her door. "Enter."
Gabrielle waited until the guard opened the door for her. She carried the breakfast tray to the table. Makia had given her detailed instructions on how to set the plates. She removed the bread, cheese, fruit and tea while the Conqueror continued working at her desk.
The Conqueror gave the girl her complete attention. "Yes?"
"Buying me as your slave."
The Conqueror leaned back. "I didn't choose you. Targon handles the household administration. Anyway, 'thank you' is the last thing I expected you to say to me."
"The other slaves and the servants speak well of you. They tell me I should be grateful that you are an honorable mistress."
The Conqueror got to her feet. "Don't let other's think for you. You must rely on your own judgment."
"I have, My Lord."
"Are you sure you know enough to judge me?"
Gabrielle hesitated at the notion. "It is not that I judge you."
"Of course you meant to judge me. Otherwise, you wouldn't have thought to speak to the household staff."
"I meant no offense."
"I am not offended. Only an idiot would go about life not judging their place in it and you don't strike me as an idiot."
Gabrielle's pride would not allow her to respond to the backhanded complement.
The Conqueror reflected upon her judgment of the slave. Gabrielle was indeed no idiot. The Conqueror suspected that within the shell of the girl lay an intelligent mind. If she was the gifted storyteller Makia described her to be, Gabrielle was capable of using words. To be able to use words was to be able to consciously weave thoughts, observations and feelings into a coherent whole. Where the Conqueror used words to lead, to negotiate, and to manipulate, a storyteller uses words to create a fiction that becomes as real to the listener as the air they breathed, equally unseen, yet vital.
"Don't judge too quickly. I live in many worlds." The Conqueror swept the room with her hand. "Outside of this haven you would see a different side of me."
Gabrielle looked down.
Xena indulged her curiosity. "Tell me what you are thinking."
Gabrielle raised her gaze. Xena could not decipher what lay behind the girl's gentle green eyes.
"Why are you determined to deny your kindness?"
"We live in dangerous times. The horror of the world may soon knock on my door again. You must be prepared when that happens or the very sight of what will come will crush you. If that happens you will be no good to yourself and you will certainly be no good to me."
"Are your enemies so terrible?"
"Yes. And I am more terrible than all of them combined." Xena hated the turn of the conversation. "Do you have anything else you wish to say to me?"
"No, My Lord."
"Then be on your way."
"Yes, My Lord." Gabrielle bowed and made her way to the door. Reaching it, she looked back. The Conqueror had returned to her desk. Gabrielle felt saddened. Unexpectedly, her sorrow was more for the Conqueror than for herself.
"Lyceus!" Xena awoke from the nightmare completely soaked in perspiration. She combed her hair with her hands as she left her bed and removed her sleeping shift. She donned a black robe and took the hidden corridor at the back of her bedchamber to a narrow stairwell that led to a turret. She found herself not to be alone. Gabrielle stood leaning against the stone ledge looking up at the sky.
"It's a beautiful night."
Frightened by the unexpected interruption, Gabrielle turned abruptly. Upon recognizing the Conqueror, her fear was tempered. "I'm sorry. I'll go."
Xena extended her hand. "You haven't been dismissed."
Gabrielle arrested her motion and tried to do the same with her beating heart. She lowered her eyes.
"Were you doing something wrong? I pride myself in knowing the laws of Greece and I don't recall forbidding stargazing."
"No, My Lord."
"Relax girl." Xena cocked her head to the side, offering a small smile. "Now, what brings you up here?"
Gabrielle caught Xena's smile and released an easy sigh. She moved back toward the ledge looking out into the night. "It's beautiful the sky and it's fresh. Downstairs it can get stuffy .and it's quiet here. I can think."
"And what do you think about?"
"My life my stories."
"Makia mentioned you were a storyteller. Maybe one day you will tell me a story."
"If it is your bidding, My Lord."
"Is that why you tell stories, because you are told to?"
"No, My Lord. They come to me. They are a part of me. There must be a reason for them."
"What reason do you think that would be?"
"Stories can teach and entertain . even when they are sad."
"That is true. I'm more interested in how telling stories makes you feel?"
"Feel, My Lord?"
"You do feel, don't you?"
"Sometimes I try not to."
"Like right now?"
"No, My Lord."
The girl turned away. The part of Xena that was the Conqueror chose not to take the act as an affront. She walked to Gabrielle's side intent on the girl's expression, visible by the light of the half moon.
"A slave loses all rights, even her right to her body."
The Conqueror's anger surged though her voice remained steady. "Has anyone touched you since you arrived?"
The girl shook her head.
"As long as you are here you won't be used against your will in such a way. The punishment for violating my staff is death."
The girl did not hide her surprise. "You don't "
"Rape?" Xena knew how others corrupted her reputation. "No girl, I don't. I don't have to. There are plenty of men and women who would willingly enter my bed. It's true what they say. Power is an aphrodisiac." Xena gentled her voice. "Someday, if you haven't already, you will know a tender hand and the feelings will be far different."
"Who would have me?"
"You might be surprised."
Gabrielle found nothing but sincerity in the Conqueror's countenance. "Thank you, My Lord."
"What have I done now?"
"It's what you haven't done."
Xena was saddened by the remark. To be complimented for not being a rapist was befitting an animal. She knew she had only herself to blame. "I'll leave you to your quiet night."
"Sleep well, My Lord."
"You too, girl."
Gabrielle was called to Makia's quarters. Somewhat unnerved, Gabrielle reminded herself that Makia's severity had eased during the fortnight of her residence.
"Well, it's about time you make an appearance."
"I was helping "
"I know what you were doing. Here. This is for you." Makia offered Gabrielle a dress. Gabrielle remained where she stood. "Come on. Take it. You'll need it tonight."
"Yes." Makia exaggerated her exasperation with humorous effect causing Gabrielle to smile. "You will be serving at the banquet."
Gabrielle took the dress and raised it up by the shoulders. "It's beautiful."
"It is nice, isn't it?" With false gruffness, Makia confessed. "I chose it for you, so I am not in the mind to listen to any complaints."
"Go try it on. If it needs alterations I'll have the seamstress complete them. Can't have you looking out of sorts in front of the Conqueror."
Gabrielle began to take her leave, pausing at the threshold. "Makia. The dress is lovely."
Makia watched as the girl left her room. The Conqueror was right. Gabrielle never intended to challenge the cook's authority. It was difficult for the old woman to find a way to make amends. She hoped that this small gesture would right her previous wrong.
Gabrielle moved from table to table, serving wine. The clamor for more drink was constant and somewhat disorientating. Her greatest ordeal was serving the tables of men, void of wives or betrothed. The Conqueror's rules were clear. The servers were not to be touched, but in a room as great as the banquet hall, and with a number of cups of wine drunk, the men's confidence grew and they took liberties, some calculated, others careless. As a result, hands slipped up her backside and upon her breast as she poured the wine. She ignored the violation, focusing on her task. She knew not a drop was to be spilled no matter how abused she might be.
Though an empty serving jar meant a trip back to the wine reserves, Gabrielle took comfort in the momentary break away from the revelry. A commanding voice stopped her from descending the cellar steps.
"Girl! Give me wine."
Gabrielle turned to a handsome young man, tall with well-trimmed red hair. He wore an earring in his right ear, a tan loose fit shirt with a crest embroidered at the heart, brown pantaloon and tall brown boots. She judged him a member of a noble house.
Gabrielle replied respectfully. "Sir, I am out of wine, but will soon return.
Gabrielle stood uncertain.
The man took a step forward. "Put down that jar and come here, I say!"
"Do you know who I am?"
"No Sir, I do not."
The man leaned down. His breath was bitter with wine. "I will tell you. I am Ridel, heir of Lord Gaugan. Do you know who Lord Gaugan is?"
"I have heard his name spoken of, Sir."
"My father is Lord of the southern provinces. We are a rich and noble family. We take what we want, when we want, Conqueror or no Conqueror. I want you and I want you now."
Gabrielle stepped back. Ridel grabbed her arm.
"Oh no, girl. You are coming with me."
"No Sir, please don't."
"Please? You have manners for a slut. Let's see what else you know."
Gabrielle struggled, but Ridel was strong -- too strong for her to break free.
"Pretty wench." He grabbed her dress at the neck and ripped down, exposing Gabrielle's wrapped breast.
"Damn, why do women wear so many clothes?" He laughed. "Oh well, makes the taking all the more a challenge. I like challenges. Hey, girl. Are you going to be a challenge?" With that said he spun her away from the open hallway to stand partially hidden behind an archway. He forced her against the wall, taking her mouth with his lips in a brutal kiss.
Gabrielle tried to push him off. She gasped. Her heart raced. Her hands curled into fists as her desperation mounted. She had not known this level of violence since entering the Conqueror's household. She had hoped that the Conqueror's rules would protect her. She now knew she was wrong to do so.
"Ugh!" Ridel stopped his assault. He leaned back. Gabrielle could see that his eyes had glazed. Confused, she ceased her resistance. He fell to his knees. Only then did Gabrielle see the knife in his back, positioned in the heart. She looked forward. The Conqueror stood twenty paces away. By her side stood Jared and two Royal Guardsmen.
The Conqueror stepped forward. Stopping in front of Ridel's lifeless body she kicked him to the floor. She shouted back to Jared. "Tell Gaugan I've killed his bastard son!"
She looked to the girl who stood exposed, all modesty stolen from her; her face tearstained, her eyes still reflecting shock. The Conqueror turned and walked away.
She painfully whispered as she brushed pass Jared. "Cover her up."
Jared removed his cape and wrapped it around Gabrielle. He directed Leah, a servant girl standing nearby, to take Gabrielle to Makia. He then ordered the two guards to pick up Ridel's body and to follow him. The son of Gaugan was carried into the center of the banquet hall and laid before all the guests. Jared announced an early conclusion to the banquet and counseled the devastated Lord to take his son home.
Makia noted the eerie silence and lack of movement from the upper floor. Something had happened. Her instincts told her that whatever it was had happened quickly and that it was not good. She waited for the next servant to return. She never waited long for news.
Gabrielle entered with Leah by her side. Makia recognized General Jared's cape. Gabrielle would not have had it if she were in the wrong. She could see that the girl trembled in spite of the warmth of the room.
Makia directed, "Leah, get back to work."
Leah gave Gabrielle a protective look before returning up the stairs to the banquet hall.
The cook went to Gabrielle. The girl averted her eyes. The cook raised her hand slowly placing her fingertips on Gabrielle's chin, guiding Gabrielle to face her. She spoke tenderly. "Who did this to you?"
"Ridel, Lord Gaugan's son."
"Is he dead?"
Makia assumed Gabrielle's protector. "General Jared?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Yes." Gabrielle whispered.
"There is nothing for you to fear. You have done nothing wrong."
"What if she thinks differently?"
"Believe me when I tell you she doesn't."
Gabrielle surrendered to the stress and crunched her body small like an infant. Makia took the girl into her arms. "There now." She allowed Gabrielle to cry for a few moments before gently pulling back. "Go lie down. I'll have General Jared's cape returned to him in the morning. You will serve the Conqueror breakfast as always."
"But " Gabrielle began to plea.
Makia interrupted with an uncompromising sternness. "No, girl. There is no hiding from her. You will face the Conqueror and then move on with the new day."
According to her usual schedule, Gabrielle entered the kitchen. She held the General's cape over her arm.
The older woman had been waiting for her. "Fold the cape and place it on the table and then bring me a tray."
Makia studied the girl closely as she set the Conqueror's meal. "Did you sleep?"
"Be brave, girl. In this one thing I know the Conqueror will not let you down. Now, go on with you."
Gabrielle left the kitchen. She made a brief detour on her way to the Conqueror's suite.
Gabrielle found the Conqueror sitting at her desk. General Jared and Stephen, a Captain of the Royal Guard stood before her. The General turned and offered Gabrielle a smile.
The Conqueror kept her eyes focused on Stephen. She had chosen this occasion to give Stephen added responsibilities. He had distinguished himself in the field alongside her and Jared during the campaign to win Greece. The Conqueror valued his strategic mind and patient disposition. For that reason she kept Stephen, with his chiseled body, gray eyes and shoulder length blond hair out of her bed. To bed him would eliminate his chances for a future commission to higher rank. None of her most trusted officers ever knew the Conqueror's bed.
"Rebellions have happened for lesser reasons. I'd rather this one happen sooner than later. Jared, we will have to decide on succession. The southern provinces are rich. This is a good opportunity to break the holdings into smaller pieces. Have Paulos draw up his recommendations. Add your own to the list."
"Or, you could keep the spoils," Jared offered.
"I didn't kill Ridel for profit. You, on the other hand, are free to make a claim."
"I have all I need."
The Conqueror teased. "You peasant."
"Coming from you, My Liege, I will consider recognition of my peasantry a compliment."
Xena laughed lightly. "Stephen, your general is a shrewd man with words. I recommend you listen to him closely and learn."
Stephen smiled. "I have noted his wit, My Liege."
"It isn't enough to be witty. You have to be smart, right Jared?"
"My Lord." Gabrielle's voice was a delicate interruption.
Xena had no choice but to acknowledge the girl. "Yes."
"Is there anything else you need this morning?"
Xena could not name the expression upon Gabrielle's face. There was a hint of pain, as well as longing. She wished she could offer Gabrielle a balm and she might have tried had Jared and Stephen not been present. "Not today."
Gabrielle bowed and exited the room.
The Conqueror directed her question to Jared. "How was she after I left?"
"Shaken. She feared you might think she did something wrong."
"Being desired is not a crime."
Having dismissed Jared and Stephen, Xena went to the table to breakfast. She found a flower upon her plate. She picked up the flower and breathed in the sweet scent. With a smile she spoke her thought aloud. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, you are bold, as well as beautiful."
Longing for solitude, Gabrielle walked up the stairs to the turret. She crossed the threshold unaware that she was in the company of another.
"Another night of stargazing?"
Startled, Gabrielle whirled around to face the source of the question. The Conqueror stood easily before her.
Xena looked up to the sky. She spoke gently. "Some people think the stars are diamonds placed in the sky by the Gods and that like a slow turning top their positions change with the seasons. What do you think?"
Taken outside her immediate concern, Gabrielle thought about the question for a moment. "Maybe we are the ones moving and the stars remain still."
"One theory is as good as the other."
"There is so much about the world I do not understand."
"I don't know if we are meant to have the answers to our questions. I think the best we can do is observe and learn the patterns and what's behind the patterns."
Gabrielle was intrigued by the philosophy. She spoke, forgetting it was the Conqueror who entertained her. "What do you mean?"
"When we plant, fish, or hunt, what we do and how we do it aren't necessarily because we know the reason the world is as it is. We don't know why when we water a plant, it grows or why when we lay a particular kind of hook a trout is apt to bite or why when we follow a track and lay a trap we're likely to capture a rabbit. And yet, if we try enough, through trial and error we come to know that doing what we do will give us the results we desire."
"It's the same with people. They have certain motivations. Why? I don't know and I really don't care. Knowing their patterns is enough to get me what I want."
Gabrielle was uncomfortable with the Conqueror's conclusion.
"I don't think we are meant to be so cold."
"I don't mean to discount the possibility of the unexpected. That is what makes life a challenge."
"Is it a sport to you?"
"No girl, it's not a sport. A sport has set rules. There are no rules in life that cannot be broken."
"But there are."
"There are laws of nature, but other than that, the laws created by humanity give a false sense of security. For example, there is a law in Greece that the Conqueror's household will be respected. And yet, at a banquet hosted by me no less, a man chose to break the law, under the false assumption that there would be no consequences."
"My Lord, are you angry with me?"
"You? Why would I be angry with you? It is you who provided a surprise and made my day interesting."
"How, My Lord?"
"Why, I asked myself, would my slave give me a flower?"
"I meant no disrespect."
"I know that girl. Tell me now, what did you mean by it?"
"It was the only way I could think of thanking you without overstepping my bounds."
"What bounds are those?"
"The rules I have been taught in how to properly serve you."
"Rules that cannot be broken?"
"I do not wish to experience the consequences of taking a liberty, My Lord."
"Can you imagine a reason important enough to risk the consequence?"
"There may someday be a reason. Right now, I cannot think of one."
They both fell silent. Xena looked out into the night, leaning against the ledge.
Gabrielle was uncertain of what was expected of her. "My Lord, would you prefer to be alone?"
"I am always alone, girl. It doesn't matter whether I am in the company of others or not."
Gabrielle could only wonder what manner of woman lived underneath the façade of the Conqueror. She looked out in the same direction as the Conqueror, curious as to what the other woman found of interest. There was only the darkness, interrupted by lights emanating from the houses and buildings that composed the city. As time passed, Gabrielle relaxed and redirected her gaze as her interest dictated. Soon her mind quieted and she felt at peace.
Xena had lost track of time. She could not say how long she and the girl had shared the turret in silence. She regretted that there were scrolls resting on her desk in need of her attention.
She spoke gently so not to upset Gabrielle. "Girl."
"Yes, My Lord."
Still leaning against the ledge, Xena turned to her slave. "When we are alone you may approach me with your questions or requests. As long as you speak truthfully, the only consequence will be that you will hear an equally truthful answer."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Xena straightened up, her stature once again reflecting the aura of the Conqueror. "Thank you, girl, for sharing a bit of the evening with me."
Gabrielle watched as the Conqueror left her. Again, she wondered. What manner of a woman was her mistress?
Gabrielle stepped to the front of the Conqueror's desk after setting breakfast. She had debated for days whether to approach her mistress. She decided the risk was worth taking if only to gauge the sincerity of the Conqueror's previous words to her.
The Conqueror did not look up from the scroll she was reading. "Yes."
"I have a request."
"And what request is that?"
"I wish to learn to defend myself."
Xena set the scroll aside as she raised her eyes and studied the girl. "The palace of the Conqueror is not necessarily a safe place to be, is it?"
Gabrielle did not respond. She feared that whether she agreed or disagreed, she risked offending her mistress.
"What do you wish to learn?"
"I was hoping you would have a suggestion."
Xena assessed the girl. "I would start you with the staff."
"Not a sword?"
"You need to build your upper body strength and dexterity. The staff will do that. Later, you might be strong enough to handle a sword." Xena's questioning eyes pierced the girl. "But, do you want to draw blood, girl?"
"I do not want to ever be taken against my will again."
"And you are willing to kill to prevent that?"
"Yes, My Lord."
"I will ask Jared to assign you a tutor. You will learn a skill I had not imagined for you. Unfortunately, I agree, it is one you should have."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Jared aired his frustrations. "We are at a standstill. Except for a few scouting excursions, Caesar's troops remain on their side of the borders."
Xena understood what her general was feeling. She was not, however, willing to act solely to release the pent up energy that had contaminated the reasoning of her men.
"We will hold our positions. Let Dymas know that if I learn that even one of his soldiers calls out a bloody curse to a Roman across the border, I will have both the soldier and him drawn and quartered. The Romans will not taunt Greece to play children's games of dare. It is not time for war."
"Yes, My Liege."
"Like it our not Ares will soon have the pleasure of walking across a bloody battlefield. For now, I want an updated inventory of our weapons as well as an accounting of the staffing of our support services. And lets give the men a diversion that will begin to warm their blood for combat. Draw up three war game scenarios for the infantry and cavalry, and schedule a contest of skills for our archers and crossbow men and any other sport that might amuse them that does not required their swords to be unsheathed. They tend to get overzealous and right now what is more important to me is an army with all its limbs in tact."
"Will you judge the contests?"
"As always, I will observe with interest."
"Maybe the Conqueror will compete alongside her men?"
"Jared, they should be given a reasonable chance to claim a prize. What fun is it when there is no hope of winning?"
"There is no greater incentive than to try and best one's leader."
Xena smiled in appreciation to what she knew was the truth. "Archery and staff, then."
Jared was pleased. "I look forward to the lessons you will teach."
A related thought came to Xena. "Jared, how are Gabrielle's weapon lessons coming along?"
"Very well. She is a determined lass. She gets stronger by the day. Her instincts are good and she understands strategy once taught."
"Any problem finding someone to teach her?"
"I have plenty of volunteers. The list keeps growing."
Xena laughed. "The men do not seem to be in want of motivation."
"They truly like her, My Liege. Instead of using feminine wiles, she shows sincere gratitude, and rewards the men with her stories."
"Then she is a good storyteller?"
"I find myself well entertained when I take the time to listen. I recommend Gabrielle without reservation."
"I will keep that in mind."
Targon entered the Conqueror's rooms carrying a scroll. The warmth emanating from the fireplace was insufficient to ease the chill in his soul.
"Your Majesty, I have received a report regarding the fate of the peasants of Poteidaia."
The Conqueror noted Targon's sullen humor. She spoke without betraying her rising apprehension.
"It is believed that she was among a particular group of women taken by Draco. I have a complete accounting." He offered the scroll to the Conqueror in order to preclude further questions.
Xena understood the rare gesture. "That will be all."
Targon was grateful that the Conqueror had chosen to take pity upon him. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
Xena waited until her administrator closed the door behind him. She stared at the scroll wondering what nightmare was going to be revealed to her. Draco was a butcher and she rested easily with the memory of ending his life with her sword. She released the tie that held the scroll and unrolled the parchment. Black ink letters conveyed an objective description of how Draco offered all but a few of the women of Poteidaia to his men as a reward for their latest conquest, bolstering their loyalty by foregoing the sum of money he could have gotten for the women by selling them to slavers. The men each had their turn in raping the women and after their turns were taken, they went back for more. They went back again and again, until the bodies lay lifeless. There was no burial pyre. They were left exposed upon the ground. Their flesh was grossly ripped to pieces by scavengers, until there was nothing left to be claimed. The scroll listed all the women believed to have been taken. Xena's hands trembled as a lone tear fell upon the parchment, blurring the third name - Lila, daughter of Herodotus and Hecuba. Unable to contain her rage she stood up and with the cry of a wounded wolf she threw the scroll into the fire.
It was late in the evening when Gabrielle walked down the palace hall leading to the Conqueror's private suite. No reason was given for her summons. To her knowledge she had not done anything that might have displeased her mistress. Still, she could not free herself from her fear, a fear not easily justified given the Conqueror's constant measured treatment of her. Gabrielle sighed as she turned the corner, recognizing the young guard who stood outside the Conqueror's door.
Trevor was the Conqueror's personal guard. Twenty-five summers old, clean-shaven, he wore his light red hair cut to his ears. He had joined the Conqueror early during the siege of Corinth. The Conqueror had measured him as strong of heart and sincere in his desire to see a better Greece. She personally trained him in weaponry. During the passing years his lanky body filled out, the added strength making him a more than able fighter.
"I was told the Conqueror wanted to see me."
"She's expecting you. Go right in." Trevor reached out and opened the door for her.
Gabrielle took what comfort she could from Trevor's easy disposition. She entered and scanned the room. The Conqueror sat near the fireplace in one of two tall back chairs. Gabrielle approached slowly, hoping to be acknowledged. Finding herself no more than two paces from her mistress she stopped and waited. The Conqueror remained a still and silent figure to the slave.
As she had been trained, Gabrielle announced herself. "My Lord."
Xena stared at the fire. To Xena fire exemplified life. Flames rose and fell. In spite of her musings to Gabrielle to the contrary, ultimately there was nothing certain; all was but one variation or another of the nature of fire. It danced, it smothered, it warmed and it burned. There was both beauty and terror in its colors. It could be fed or starved but never annihilated. The potential for renewal by unintentional spark of metal against stone or by Zeus' fickle aim of a thunderbolt remained. And when humanity walked through an inferno, the fire did not care whether souls were foul or pure. Fire unmercifully consumed its victims without discrimination.
Xena had sworn Targon to secrecy. Young Gabrielle would feel an injury, but it would be an injury less cruel than the complete truth.
Xena stood up and offered the girl a mask devoid of emotion "Your village was raided by Draco."
The statement surprised Gabrielle. She affirmed it. "Yes, My Lord."
"You and a small group of women were separated from the others."
"That is when you last saw you sister."
Gabrielle felt a rising dread. She spoke in a fearful whisper. "Yes."
Xena stepped forward, standing directly opposite the girl. "I have learned that Lila of Poteidaia died of a fever soon after she was taken captive."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No She can't be gone. She's the only family I've "
Xena gently placed her hands on Gabrielle's arms. "Your sister knows peace."
Gabrielle's pain surged. She twisted her body back and forth freeing herself from Xena's touch. "No!"
Xena despised the feeling of helplessness that overtook her. "I'm sorry."
"No you're not! You're just like the rest of those murderers!" Gabrielle swung her fist against Xena's chest once and then again. The Conqueror did not defend herself against the assault.
Having heard a disturbance, Trevor opened the door to the Conqueror's rooms and peered in. He saw Gabrielle collapsed onto the floor beside the Conqueror's feet. The Conqueror heard the intrusion and looked over to the guard. With a slight movement of her head she signaled for him to leave. Troubled by the scene, he hesitated. The Conqueror held her position. Unable to find reason or courage to interfere, he stepped back into the hall and closed the door.
Gabrielle's sorrow carried her to a void, empty and dark. She hugged herself and rocked back and forth as she cried freely.
Xena looked down at the girl. She could not blame Gabrielle for the violence of her words or her fist. She knew how it felt to lose a beloved sibling. Xena knelt and wordlessly took the girl into her arms. Gabrielle did not fight her.
With time, Gabrielle's tears subsided and she drifted into a fitful sleep. Xena could not remember the last time she had held another as she now held the girl. Though her heart broke for Gabrielle, their closeness brought a remarkable calm. She shifted her body seeking leverage and lifted Gabrielle up. The girl now cradled in her arms seemed terribly fragile. Xena walked to the door and knocked a foot against it. Trevor opened the door, surprised for the second time that night with what he saw.
Xena whispered. "Come with me."
The guard accompanied the Conqueror to Gabrielle's quarters. Understanding his task without being asked, he opened the door and stepped aside, watching as the Conqueror gently place Gabrielle onto the bed, covering her with two heavy blankets. The Conqueror stood beside the bed. She was reluctant to leave. After a few moments she turned and exited the room. Trevor followed, closing the door.
Xena's voice remained muted. "Have Makia see to Gabrielle. Tell her that Gabrielle should be allowed to rest." Xena's gaze went to the closed door. "Today I learned that Gabrielle's sister was dead."
Trevor's eyes traveled from the Conqueror, to the door and back to the Conqueror. He now understood what had transpired between the two women. Contrary to his fear, Gabrielle had not been abused. He felt a rising admiration for the Conqueror. He would share what he witnessed with the rest of the Royal Guard.
"I am sorry to hear of Gabrielle's loss, My Liege."
Xena felt the sincerity behind the young guard's words. She nodded and walked back to her rooms, feeling her own inconsolable sadness as she did.
Jared entered the Conqueror's suite without being announced. Xena stood on the balcony. The General went to her.
Xena had been observing the heightened activity. She looked over her shoulder. "What news?"
"Gaugan moves against Greece."
Xena turned to Jared. "Who rides with him?"
Xena walked over to her desk. She had already laid a map of southern Greece upon it. "Damage report."
Jared followed to the desk. "He has taken the port of Pílos and three nearby villages."
"What has Paulos done about it?"
"He marches from Sparta."
"Any signs of a sea invasion?"
"No. We have no reason to believe he is collaborating with Rome."
"Then what is Gaugan thinking?"
"He isn't. He is an angry man."
"Angry? And because he is angry he is going to sacrifice the lives of his remaining family and his militia? If Gaugan survives, he will be grieving for eternity." Xena sat down. "These are bitter days, Jared."
"Are you thinking of the lass?"
Xena cocked her head. Jared presumed more than even she was willing to admit to herself. "The girl lost a sister to fever. That does not compare with what we will face in the next fortnight. Prepare to march south. I am in the mood for a fight."
The following day, with the break of dawn over the horizon, the Conqueror led the Royal Guard out of the gates of Corinth toward Tripolis. From the window of her room Gabrielle watched the procession. She had not seen the Conqueror since learning of her sister's death. Makia informed her that she was to be given time to mourn. Gabrielle wished she could have spoken to the Conqueror before her departure although she was uncertain of what she would have said to her mistress.
The servants and slaves of the palace did their best to keep to their routines although the tasks specific to the Conqueror were suspended. Makia allowed those under her charge additional time for leisure. She assured all that when the Conqueror returned victorious they would be hard pressed to provide the service demanded by the inevitable surge of Court activity.
Gabrielle's talent as a storyteller was in greater demand both by her peers and the First Army soldiers who remained stationed in the city. Her tone changed as she weaved tales of war. She knew many of the men of the Royal Guard and longed to see their safe return. The triumphs felt less glorious and the defeats more horrific. When she described a hero, the thought of the Conqueror hovered in her mind.
It had been more than a moon when the palace received word that the Conqueror was marching back to Corinth. The battle against Gaugan was swift and decisive. Geldpac, a seasoned member of the Royal Guard, sent to Corinth in advance of the Conqueror's forces, sat on top of one of the larger tables in the palace kitchen. Men and women of the household anxious to hear what had happened in the south surrounded him. He did not relish the telling. The Conqueror's actions epitomized the worst brutality he had ever witnessed. No mercy was shown. Gaugan had eluded her, but not the members of his family. All adult males were crucified. The women and children accustomed to luxury were left destitute. It was rumored that she bedded a number of the collaborators of either sex who were hopeful that if they pleasured the Conqueror, the Conqueror would be dissuaded from sentencing them to death. It did not matter. In the morning their heads, along with those of all the other collaborators captured the previous day, were severed and placed on stakes.
Gabrielle sat silently beside Makia. She noted how Makia shook her head in despair.
"What is it?"
"The Conqueror is lost once again."
"What do you mean?"
"You don't know, Gabrielle, how she can be. You haven't seen how her heart becomes black with hatred."
"I saw her kill Gaugan's son."
"That was nothing but child's play. Geldpac is describing a bane that we have not seen for some time, but always knew could return without warning. The only blessing I see here is that we have been warned. When the Conqueror returns, take care how you present yourself to her. She will be different, and if you make a mistake no one will be able to help you."
"Can she be so terrible?"
"Trust me, she can."
For the fortnight since her return, the Conqueror kept to herself when not in Court. Each day Gabrielle served the Conqueror's breakfast tray. Whether the Conqueror was working at her desk or standing at the balcony looking out to the awaking city, not a word was spoken.
On this day Gabrielle noted that a dagger rested on the Conqueror's desk. As the Conqueror sat reading she stroked the black carved handle of the dagger with her left thumb. Gabrielle was given the impression that the Conqueror was waiting to have reason to use it.
"My Lord?" Gabrielle wagered her life that the dagger was not meant for her.
Xena looked up from her desk.
"Are you all right, My Lord?"
"Why do you ask?"
Gabrielle hesitated. She had difficulty finding the words that would convey her concerns and justify the interruption. "You seem changed."
A part of Xena wanted to lash out at the girl. Seeing the girl's genuine concern caused her to turn her violent emotion inward to be harnessed by her formidable will. It was not the Conqueror's voice that betrayed her inner struggle. It was her words. "War is hard on the soul."
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
Xena responded softly. "Go on now with your tasks."
"Yes, My Lord."
Xena reflected that the girl had been the only one to ask. Not even Jared or Targon would dare broach the subject of her smothering rage.
Gabrielle had meant to leave. She had intended to wait for a time when the Conqueror was more accessible. She realized that there was no knowing whether such a time would ever come. "My Lord."
Xena gave the girl her regard and waited.
"I owe you an apology."
"For what?" Xena was puzzled by the girl's regret.
"I was wrong to say what I said to you when you told me of my sister's death."
That evening seemed a lifetime ago to Xena. "No harm done."
"I am truly sorry."
"I believe you."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Gabrielle's departure left Xena alone in the suite. At each of two corners of the room before her, Xena saw a visage of herself, one the woman who she had become as she left Corinth, the Conqueror, the darkness of a warrior consumed by bloodlust, who walked a line near madness, less human, more an animal that could never be sated in its desire to not only lead but dominate the pack. At the other corner, Xena of Amphilpolis, the naïve idealist who cherished her brother Lyceus, loved her mother and tolerated her weaker, older sibling, Toris. In truth, she was neither. That begged the question, 'who was she?' She could not answer the question with any certainty. More importantly she debated a second question, 'who did she want to be?' An answer did come to her but she judged it improbable and could not entertain it for more than a moment.
Targon remained standing before the Conqueror's desk. He had seven scrolls precariously balanced in his arms.
The Conqueror was impatient to be rid of him and all the administrative concerns he brought her. "Is there anything else in those scrolls of yours in need of my attention?"
"Your Majesty, has General Jared spoken to you about Gabrielle?"
Xena's interest had been stirred "What about Gabrielle?"
"When not performing her household duties, she has been spending much of her time at the infirmary telling stories to the wounded men. They look forward to her visits. Dalius has commented that she has improved morale."
Targon's nervousness did not go unnoticed. Xena listened carefully, anticipating her administrator's question.
He continued. "General Jared suggested that Gabrielle's household duties be lessened by a few candlemarks each day to allow her to spend more time with the wounded men."
"Targon, you manage my household for me. That is why you are in my service. Why come to me with this?"
"We?" The Conqueror knit her brow.
"I, Dalius and General Jared wanted to make sure that you would agree to having Gabrielle's time spent storytelling."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"We thought you might expect a member of your household to be more practically occupied."
"I consider my men's morale worthy of my resources. It seems we are in agreement."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Has anyone spoken to Gabrielle about this grand scheme the three of you have dreamed up?"
"No, Your Majesty. Given the possibility that you would want her work to remain unchanged, we did not wish to raise her expectations only to later disappoint her."
"That was quite sensitive of you." Xena was enjoying herself. Suspecting that the girl might insist on continuing both her old and new duties, Xena chose to ensure that the slave's assignments did not mount. "I expect that you will acquire another slave to complete Gabrielle's former duties."
"Immediately, Your Majesty."
"And Targon, I would have no objection if you ask Gabrielle which of her current duties she would prefer to keep."
"It will be done."
"Very well. I will see you after mid-day meal."
Targon bowed and left the room.
Xena wondered who would bring her breakfast the next morning. Would Gabrielle choose to continue her daily task of serving the Conqueror breakfast?
Xena stood outside her balcony watching the sun break over the horizon. As happened every day at this time, she heard the door to her suite open.
"Good morning, My Lord."
Xena smiled. She had the answer to her question. Gabrielle chose to continue to serve her. The knowledge gave Xena pleasure. She could hear in the tone of the girl's voice a new lightness. Wanting to confirm her observation she censored her expression and turned to the slave. Gabrielle wore an open smile as she held the breakfast tray.
"Good morning to you, girl."
Though the Conqueror's countenance remained stoic, Gabrielle could see the return of a glimmer in her mistress' haunting blue eyes that had been absent since her return to Corinth.
"My Lord, I want to thank you for letting me tell my stories."
Xena stepped over to the girl and took the tray out of her hands. "It was General Jared's idea. Thank him."
Gabrielle, shaken by the Conqueror's unsolicited assistance, recovered her wits. "I have, My Lord."
Xena placed the tray on the table, taking the mug of tea it held in hand before stepping sufficiently aside to give Gabrielle space to finish the task of setting breakfast. Gabrielle approached and quietly set the breakfast plates and decanter.
Xena enjoyed having the girl near her. She had come to think of Gabrielle as part of her daily life. The girl brought calm to the room. Xena felt soothed in the presence of someone without fear or pretense towards her.
Done with her task, Gabrielle offered, "Is there anything else you need, My Lord?"
Xena felt a tug to the girl. The tender feelings had been long dormant. The Conqueror in her knew that if she acted upon her feelings she would lose the very thing she had grown to value. She wanted to give something in return to the girl but found it difficult to do so without compromising her position as Gabrielle's mistress.
"How many dresses do you have, girl?"
"Two, My Lord." Not wanting to misrepresent her wardrobe, Gabrielle added, "And a skirt and two blouses I wear for my harder work."
"It would do the men good if you presented yourself attractively."
Gabrielle was stricken by the Conqueror's observation. "My Lord, I beg your pardon if my appearance displeases you."
Xena witnessed the change in Gabrielle for what it was and regretted having thoughtlessly stripped the girl of her dignity.
"You misunderstand me. You are naturally beautiful and it is the clothes the realm has provided that do a disservice to you. If you have no objection, I will direct Makia to have you fitted with a few new dresses suitable for a storyteller of the realm."
Gabrielle brightened. "That is very generous of you, My Lord."
The Conqueror heard the laughter while standing in the middle of the courtyard with Jared. She turned her attention to its source, the infirmary.
"It sounds as if more than the ill and injured are with our storyteller."
"The Guardsmen have taken to visiting their brothers with more regularity. Their midday meal is a good time to visit without compromising their duties."
Xena began to walk towards the building. Jared walked beside her.
"So, morale is good."
"Gabrielle seems happier."
"I would wager she is."
"I hold you equally responsible with Targon and Dalius for her well-being. If you have any suspicion that she is being worn down again by her duties I expect you to remedy the problem. And, for the sake of morale, the remedy will not be the withdrawal of her storytelling."
Jared smiled. "Understood, My Liege."
"Take that smile off your face Jared, or risk that the Conqueror may get careless next time we spar."
Jared's smile only broadened. "I would not want that to happen, My Liege."
Xena slapped her general playfully in the gut.
"I have learned that if I stand by the hitching post I can hear Gabrielle's voice well enough to enjoy her stories. She cannot see me, so I don't have to worry that she'll be intimidated by my presence."
"Jared, you can't intimidate a puppy."
"But you can, My Liege."
They stopped by the hitching post. The Conqueror scanned the courtyard with a grim look. She leaned against the hitching post keeping her sights toward the activity before her. Her ear was trained upon Gabrielle's beguiling voice behind her. It would not be the last time the Conqueror chose to meet with the General during midday meal, nor was it the last time their meeting took them to the hitching post.
Gabrielle stood in front of her wardrobe taking measure of each of her five dresses. The latest additions were tailored with precision to her form. She had been given an opportunity to choose the fabric and to comment on the patterns. Never had she owned clothes as fine.
She reflected upon the time that had passed since being purchased for the Conqueror's household. Her life had gradually changed for the better. Three moons had passed since she and Leah had been moved to a shared room. She had been relieved to be spared the far less private commons.
Leah was a fair roommate. A couple summers older than Gabrielle, Leah had developed a cynical perspective on life. Gabrielle could not blame her. And yet, Gabrielle grew tired of Leah's complaints of life in the palace. Equal in height to Gabrielle with brown hair, almond eyes, a small upturned nose and sharply defined checks, Leah used her beauty to seduce the male servants and slaves, always seeking a favor in return. By unspoken agreement, Leah kept her escapades outside of their room.
Gabrielle had regained her strength. The Conqueror had been truthful. In the Conqueror's household she was well fed, clothed and housed. Though she worked from morning to night, her duties varied in difficulty. This was true for all the slaves. No one slave was overworked to the expense of another. The household was equitably managed with little distinction between slaves. Servants enjoyed greater benefits. They worked less hours, were given more generous allowances, more comfortable sleeping quarters and were free to roam without first reporting their destinations and expected time of return to an overseer.
Gabrielle noted that Makia was a relentless taskmaster to all new additions to the household, slave and servant alike. She also noted that once the new members of the household proved their worth, Makia allowed far more latitude.
During the past moon Gabrielle enjoyed the added pleasure of being a companion to the wounded men. In addition to her storytelling, she had performed minor nursing duties. Dalius encourage her desire to give comfort. The men's gratitude was unbounded. She had earned the admiration of the Royal Guard and in spite of her on-going weapons training they were constant in providing her an escort whenever she went to market or wished to explore the city. Gabrielle felt it ironic that she felt safest among the most lethal fighting force in Greece, if not the known world.
"What dress will you wear?" Leah entered their room.
"I never thought I would ever have the problem of having to decide among so many dresses."
"We are lucky to have the Conqueror's favor."
"Is that what we have?"
"I would say so. We are pretty and she likes pretty." Leah curtsied flirtatiously.
"Has she ever touched you?"
"No." Leah laughed at the preposterous thought.
"You don't seem worried."
"Why should I? The Conqueror doesn't take slaves to her bed. If only she did I might find myself completely free of the work I do. But, I don't complain. All I have to do is serve the hateful murderer her evening wine with a smile. That is a small price to pay for the comfort it brings me."
"Does she ever talk to you?"
"Talk? I've never heard her do anything but give orders. She doesn't know how to talk like a real person."
Gabrielle returned her attention to her dresses.
"I would wear the green. It goes well with your eyes." Leah suggested.
"Do you think?"
Leah laughed. "Don't you realize half the men in the Guard are in love with you?"
"They are not," Gabrielle sincerely protested.
"Yes they are! Gabrielle, you have something they want. It is about time you learn that you can use your beauty to your advantage."
"I don't want to be that way."
"Don't be a fool. Or is it that you think yourself too good?"
"Leah, I want love."
"Gabrielle, we are slaves. Slaves! How can you even imagine that we are meant for love?"
"We won't be slaves forever. You only have a year before you are freed."
"And you have more than two years before the Conqueror will let you go. You can't count on the future. Anything can happen. Look at what Lord Gaugan did. One of these days someone is going to kill the Conqueror and it won't matter what her house rules are. We will be slaves until the day we die."
"I believe in I believe the Conqueror won't be easily killed."
"I hope you're right."
Gabrielle did not want to continue the conversation. "Tonight should be a good night."
"This is the Conqueror's favorite banquet of the year, just her and the Royal Guard. Watch out when they start challenging each other to one contest or another. They are no better than a bunch of drunken children."
The banquet was well underway when a soldier from the First Army bid permission to enter. A message was given to Jared who relayed it privately to Xena. The Conqueror waved the soldier in. He turned and summoned two guards standing out of sight. They dragged Gaugan into the center of room.
The Conqueror stood up from her chair and walked around the long head table. With each step she took her countenance became more menacing. The room quickly quieted. The two soldiers held their prisoner in a standing position, securing Gaugan's arms behind his back.
The Conqueror stood in front of the rebel. "You cost Greece the lives of many young men."
Gaugan decried. "You killed my son!"
The Conqueror was unmoved. "Only because you failed to teach him to respect the realm. Every life has a value. He thought himself above others."
"You dare to say this to me? You who crucify and lay heads on spikes?"
"You knew the consequences of opposing me. Their blood is on your hands, not mine."
"You'll burn in Tartarus."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I pray to the Gods you'll have a slow and painful death."
"Lead the way, Gaugan." The Conqueror stepped forward and plunged a dagger into his stomach and then cut up slowly, inch-by-inch, as the soldiers held him in place. The Conqueror moved the dagger back down then shifted the blade to the left cutting the flesh further. She twisted the dagger in a half-circle then cut to the right. Gaugan screamed in agony. The Conqueror pulled the dagger out.
"Where else should I cut you Gaugan? If I cut out your tongue will you scream more or less?"
The horror of the scene left the slave stunned. A broken decanter of wine, released unconsciously from her hands, was scattered at Gabrielle's feet.
The room had fallen into a palpable silence. The crash of the decanter echoed against the walls and into the Conqueror's ear. The Conqueror searched the room until she found the source of the disturbance. The girl was standing to the side, half hidden by a pillar. Xena walked over to Gabrielle, the bloodied dagger firmly in her hand. At arm's length Gabrielle stepped back in fear. A soldier stood up behind her and placed his hand on her shoulder, whether to stay her or to comfort her, she did not know which.
Xena's gaze pierced the girl. Xena saw Gabrielle's fear and disgust. The girl had now received her first true glimpse of the Conqueror. She obviously did not like what she saw. Xena was surprised to find she had no words for the girl. There was nothing to say. At times like these, actions counted more than words. She turned back to Gaugan. With a nod of her head the two soldiers stood him as upright as possible. With one quick flick of her wrist the dagger pierced Gaugan's heart. He slumped dead. His death was not as slow as the Conqueror originally intended. Without looking back to Gabrielle, Xena called out to the young soldier.
"Anton, take the girl out of here."
Though the senior guard remained unseen by the Conqueror, Anton bowed. "Yes, My Liege." He squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder gently, and then guided her back to the kitchen.
Anton and Gabrielle entered the kitchen. Makia's saw the ashen girl. "What happened?"
Gabrielle's tears fell freely. The nausea she felt triggered a wrench. She moved quickly to a corner where an empty wash bucket lay and vomited. She continued to heave dryly after the contents of her stomach had been emptied.
Anton discretely reported the banquet events to Makia while the chief cook continued to orchestrate the food preparation and service. The older woman wanted to console the younger, but could not afford the time. She took a wet cloth and leaned down to Gabrielle, handing it to her. "Take care of yourself and we'll talk later."
Gabrielle gratefully took the cloth and wiped her face. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I would worry about you if watching a man butchered didn't make you sick."
Gabrielle shifted her body so she lay against the wall. "Why did she do it?"
"She had no choice." Anton stepped up. "Gaugan was responsible for the death of twenty-two Guardsmen, men we considered our brothers. What the Conqueror did to Gaugan was only what he would have done to her."
"It doesn't make it right."
"It is right. What it isn't is easy to watch."
Gabrielle stood up, continuing to use the wall for support. "Are you all like her?"
"If you mean the Guardsmen, I would say no. But we do aspire to be worthy of the Conqueror's regard."
"I don't understand you."
"And I hope the day never comes that you do, because to understand us you must see what we have seen and I don't wish that on anyone."
"Why don't you walk away?"
"Because we have memories. We can't forget, and the truth is we don't want to. As long as the Conqueror rules, warlords no longer hold our villages hostage, people of Greece are no longer added to the slave rolls, and there is plenty enough to eat. Gaugan would have destroyed the realm."
Gabrielle turned away and walked to her room. Exhausted, she lay in her bed, falling asleep in her clothes. Her thought of the Conqueror's butchery was countered by her assessment of the life the Conqueror had given her. There was no reconciling the two.
For three consecutive days Gabrielle served the Conqueror's breakfast in an empty room. Though tempted, Gabrielle hadn't the courage to seek the Conqueror out by trespassing into her bedchamber. Other servants had caught glimpses of their mistress. Throughout the palace an air of caution dominated.
Gabrielle sought out the Conqueror. She walked up the palace stairs onto the turret. The Conqueror stood alone, leaning against the ledge, as was her habit. Uncertain whether Gabrielle sought solitude or her company, Xena decided to give the girl an opportunity to leave unacknowledged. She could hear Gabrielles steady breathing. The girl had stayed.
Xena raised her gaze from the horizon to the sky. "The clouds claim the sky. You can only see a few stars tonight."
"My Lord, may I speak freely?"
"You may." Xena did not alter her stance.
"I have a request. I have spoken to Dalius. With your permission I would like to apprentice with him."
Xena could not help but wonder if Gabrielle's request was motivated in part by a desire not to directly serve her anymore. Xena would have little reason to see the girl at the infirmary. She closed her eyes and recalled all that she knew and observed in Gabrielle. She took full measure of the girl and found little to fault. The request, though unexpected, was reasonable.
"A healer. It will be a good skill for you to have when you leave my service, better than washing floors and serving breakfast trays, although you could always be a bard You have my permission. I will tell Targon."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Gabrielle waited for the Conqueror to either continue the conversation or dismiss her. There was only silence between them. Gabrielle turned to leave.
A thought came to her. "My Lord."
Xena turned and found the girl with her eyes.
"I will continue to serve your breakfast before beginning my day at the infirmary."
Gabrielle saw a hint of a smile pass across the Conqueror's countenance.
"Then I will see you tomorrow."
"Yes, My Lord." With that said, Gabrielle left the turret.
Targon entered the infirmary. Gabrielle stitched a Royal Guardsman's wounded cheek as Trevor stood watching.
Gabrielle humored the Guardsman. "Endres, you'll have a brilliant scar to impress the women with."
Trevor added, "And if you bribe your brothers of the Guard well enough we won't tell them how you tripped over your own feet when the Conqueror swung her sword at you."
Gabrielle stilled. "The Conqueror did this?"
"Endres can thank the Gods he was sparring with the Conqueror and not one of us less skilled. She pulled her stroke to avoid taking off his head."
Gabrielle cut the thread.
Endres turned to Gabrielle and smiled. "For once Miss, Trevor isn't lying. I was doubly lucky that the Conqueror was in a good mood. She said nothing 'bout my clumsiness and actually offered her hand to help me up."
Gabrielle placed a bandage over Endres' wound. "Maybe she thought the cut was enough to teach you a lesson."
"Hasn't stopped her in the past from booting one of us from here to the stables. Wouldn't you say, Trevor?"
"I would," Trevor replied.
"If you are done with this guard, Miss, I would like to see you." Targon's voice interrupted the exchange.
Endres and Trevor sobered
"I will be right with you, Sir." Gabrielle finished with the bandage. "Now keep the wound clean. I don't want to see it infected."
"Yes Miss, and thank you."
Gabrielle offered the Guardsman a gentle smile. "You're welcome."
She approached Targon. "How may I help you, Sir?"
"Come with me." He spoke briskly.
Targon turned and began to walk to the palace. Gabrielle accompanied him in silence. Gabrielle noted that they were making their way toward the Conqueror's suite. She readied herself for an interview with her mistress. When summoned, she had yet to find the confidence to face the Conqueror free of the notion that she would be disciplined, though for what grievance she never knew.
To Gabrielle's surprise, Targon turned down a side corridor. He stopped in front of a door and removed a key from his pocket. He spoke as he opened the door.
"You are now a Healer's Apprentice and as such you must be available to serve at any time of day or night. This means that you may need to rest when others are working. For this reason you have been given a private room."
Targon stepped back to allow Gabrielle to enter and inspect her new quarters. The room was larger than the one she shared with Leah. It had a window that opened to the main courtyard, a view she was familiar with because of the Conqueror's habit of watching the sunrise from her suite. There was a large bed against the west wall and a desk against the south wall. There was a chair at the desk and a larger sitting chair to one side. A small table held a pitcher and washbasin. Finally, there was a large wardrobe standing against the north wall.
"Miss Gabrielle, is the room to your satisfaction?"
Having scanned the space, Gabrielle turned to him. "Yes, Sir. It is wonderful."
"Here is the key."
Gabrielle reached out and took it in hand.
"I recommend that for your own safety that you lock the door at night."
"You may move your things when time allows."
"Thank you, Sir."
Three of the male servants sat comfortably at a far kitchen table. It was mid-afternoon and they were enjoying their free time between meal services. The kitchen was a haven for the servants. Makia tolerated their boisterous speech. It was often, in such moments of ease, that information was thoughtlessly revealed.
"I wager a dinar."
"You don't have a dinar!" Mansel countered.
"Leave it be, Pathas. There is no winning here." Landis tried to mediate.
Pathas insisted. "She will make her choice by the full moon."
Landis laughed. "You count on lunar madness."
Mansel offered his assessment. "She is spent. I say a fortnight after."
Gabrielle had entered the kitchen and silently observed the exchange between the servers sitting at one of the larger tables. She went to Leah who was cutting vegetables. "What are they wagering on?"
"The Conqueror's next bedmate."
Mansel called out. "Gabrielle! You see the Conqueror every morning. Has she asked for two portions, yet?"
Gabrielle responded with irritation. "I wouldn't tell you even if she had."
Mansel goaded. "Don't say you are trying to protect her reputation. You are too late for that!" All the men laughed.
Pathas was like a dog with a bone. "I tell you Lord Boyet comes from the northern provinces. He has a handsome son. I say it will be him."
Landis disagreed. "You are wrong. She has had him and she never goes back to the same stock."
Gabrielle walked over to Makia who worked over a kettle.
"Here girl, take a taste and tell me what you think." Makia offered her a spoonful of stew.
Gabrielle blew on it to cool before taking a bit of meat and vegetables into her mouth. "It's good. I like the spicing you've used."
Pathas voice carried. "Who would dare deny her?"
Mandis countered. "Who would want to?"
The laughter continued.
"Makia, why talk about who the Conqueror takes to her bed?"
"Because if she is not killing, she is bedding."
"That was not true when I first came here."
"It was a rare quiet time for her. Remember Gabrielle, the southern fighting brought out the wolf in her. It does not go back to sleep easily."
"Why do you call her a wolf?"
"Because she is not just a hunter. She is a predator. She is smart in her tracking and merciless in the attack. When she is sated she moves on, never looking back."
"But wolves mate for life, don't they?" Gabrielle replied.
The Conqueror's empty room disappointed Gabrielle. Leah had, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, complained being roused from sleep to serve the Conqueror's evening wine the night before. The Conqueror had returned to Corinth after traveling to the west. Given the order to serve the Conqueror's breakfast at mid-morning, Gabrielle had anticipated seeing her mistress. Having set the table, she had no choice but to leave and return to her duties at the infirmary. As she reached the door she heard the Conqueror's greeting.
"There you are. Good morning, girl."
Gabrielle turned back. "Good morning, My Lord."
The Conqueror was dressed in a simple, white robe. Her tan skin had deepened to a rich bronze. Her hair fell easily down her shoulders with a hint of wildness. She moved casually toward the table that held her breakfast. The impression was new to Gabrielle. If she had not known better, she would have said the Conqueror was happy.
"How have you been this fortnight?"
"Well, and you, My Lord?"
"It was good to leave Corinth and get out to the open land." Xena picked up a slice of sweet bread. "I must admit I did miss Makia's cooking."
Gabrielle found the Conqueror's easy banter engaging.
The Conqueror continued. "How are your studies?"
"I have a great deal to learn."
"Yes, you do. Are you pleased with your choice?"
"Very much, My Lord."
"It helps the men forget the pain."
The Conqueror raised the mug of tea to her lips and took a slip. "To be able to forget ones pain, if only for a moment, is a great gift. The realm is lucky to have you."
Gabrielle blushed. "Thank you, My Lord."
Xena smiled. She was in a remarkably good mood and she knew seeing the girl again was one reason why.
"Is there anything else, My Lord?"
Xena gave the girl her complete regard. "One night while I was away I stood alone and I looked up and saw a shooting star race across the night sky. I thought of you. I wanted you to see what I had seen."
Gabrielle lost all inhibition. She spoke enthusiastically. "I did, My Lord. It happened," Gabrielle paused for a moment to recollect. "It happened the fourth night after you left. I was up at the turret."
Xena thought back to the night. "It was the fourth night." Her voice shifted to concern. "What brought you to the turret? Isn't your room quiet enough?"
"I was feeling I feel less alone when I'm there."
"It is something we have in common." Xena took another sip of her tea. "You better go before Dalius starts looking for you."
"Yes, My Lord." Gabrielle gave her mistress a minor bow.
Gabrielle was struck by how Xena kept her eyes gently upon her. "My Lord, it is good to have you back."
Xena's smile broadened. "It's good to see you, too."
Gabrielle was completely infected with the Conqueror's good humor. She left the room with a light step.
Gabrielle woke with difficulty. She was feeling weak and somewhat feverish. A breathing sickness had struck a number of the Guardsmen and she suspected she might have been infected. She debated whether to tell Dalius of her illness. She rationalized that she was not very ill and that the men she cared for needed her more than she needed to remain in bed.
Gabrielle dressed. She began her day as she had come to begin every day of her life. She walked to the kitchens to collect the Conqueror's breakfast. As she did, Gabrielle wondered how she would find the Conqueror. She had observed that the Conqueror had grown sullen in the passing days. To her disappointment, their brief conversations fell victim to her mistress ill humor.
Entering the Conqueror's suite, Gabrielle was surprised to find her mistress sitting near the fire. "Good morning, My Lord."
Xena broke herself free from a stupor. "Is it?" She looked over to Gabrielle and then to the balcony. Getting up to her feet she cursed with little passion. "Damn it to Tartarus."
Gabrielle's concern overruled her better judgment. "You did not sleep?"
"No, I did not sleep!" Xena directed her irritation toward the slave.
Gabrielle felt her transgression. "I beg your pardon, My Lord."
Xena checked her agitation. "No girl, it's all right."
Xena approached the girl. Gabrielle exercised all her self-control to hold the breakfast tray steady as Xena reached out and lifted a mug of tea from the tray. Relieved that no punishment was forthcoming, Gabrielle went to the dining table and set the breakfast plates.
Xena sipped her tea as she watched the girl complete her task. Gabrielle returned her attention to her mistress. For a moment the two women stood silent. Gabrielle's expression engaged Xena. She marveled at the girl's openness. No one looked at her the way the girl did.
"What are you thinking?" Xena's voice was easy.
Gabrielle blushed. "Nothing, My Lord."
Xena chastised. "Girl, there is only to be truth between us. You have the right to keep your thoughts to yourself. If you do not wish to share them, say so. Id rather hear you say that to me than to lie."
Gabrielle did not want to disappoint her mistress with another evasion or a denial. She chose the truth. "I believed you were happy when you returned from your recent trip to the west. It seems that happiness has left you. My Lord, what makes you happy?"
Xena was dumbfounded by the question. She considered the girl with genuine awe. "You would be surprised."
"I might understand."
"Can't you have them here in Corinth?"
"It's harder here."
"What is, My Lord?"
"Well, for one, I can't hunt a stag on the city streets."
"But, isn't your nearby land rich with deer?"
"Then what prevents you from enjoying what you have?"
The answer to Gabrielle's question was too painful to dwell upon. Xena chose humor and quipped. "So you say I should indulge myself and go hunting?"
"If it gives you pleasure."
Xena studied the girl. She hated the fact that there was a part of her that suspected Gabrielle's motives. "I have a realm to rule. There is little time for leisure."
"Dalius and Makia grants us time for ourselves."
"You compare me to my slaves?"
Uncomfortable, Gabrielle looked down.
Xena was curious. "What gives you pleasure?"
"Like you, simple things, My Lord."
Xena smiled. "Such as "
Gabrielle looked up and held the Conqueror's gaze. "Much of what you've given me. I spend time with people who are kind and good. I have my stories. I am learning new things and what I learn is useful to others. When I wish to be alone, I can be. I even have a place to go to at night to see the stars."
"There must be more."
Gabrielle knew she could not confess the pleasure it gave her to serve her mistress. There was no explaining that being recognized by the Conqueror made her feel uniquely present in the world and not just one of an indiscriminate mass of humanity.
Gabrielle's shyness renewed. "My family was poor. My sister and I entertained each other. I enjoyed walking the countryside, exploring new places. Sometimes my father would take us to a nearby village. I enjoyed the travel. The sense of freedom it gave me."
"So, you did not feel free even at home?"
"I was my father's daughter and did as he bid. I have never been free to do my own bidding."
"The day will come."
"I will be grateful when it does, My Lord."
Gabrielle had taken Xena to a life long left in her past. It was in some ways a life similar to the girl's.
"When I was growing up I spent time with my younger brother, Lyceus. I remember how it felt for us to go exploring together. When we were older, we went hunting and fishing, bringing back our catch to my mother who prepared it for the guests in her inn. You are right. It is a special kind of freedom that is not easy to come by."
"My Lord, with all due respect, if I had the power to give myself that freedom, even if only for a few candlemarks, nothing would stop me from taking it."
Xena walked to the balcony. There was only one way for her to quell her doubt. "I think it is a good day to go hunting."
Jared had been surprised by Xena's invitation. They hunted together when traveling in the field. To do so while in Corinth was rare. It had been a successful day. Two does lost their lives to their arrows.
The sun was nearing the horizon. Xena reined Argo to a halt. She leaned forward against her saddle horn and looked toward the city. A young slave dominated her thoughts. Jared had noted Xena's contemplative mood. He rode his stallion to her side.
"What is it, My Liege?"
Xena kept her eyes forward. "Jared, if from the time we leave here to the time we reach the city we are not ambushed, I will learn something I did not know before this day began."
Jared was confused. It had been a peaceful day. Not once had he felt a threat. "I don't understand."
"I didn't want to tell you. I was afraid I would ruin this respite for you, as well as for me, but the idea to go hunting was not mine and I wasn't sure if I was being set up for a trap."
"Why then did we go without backup?"
"Because learning the truth was more important to me than either my life, or I'm sorry to say, yours."
Jared could not fault Xena. He understood how hard it was for her to allow anyone into her life. "You now have someone else you can trust."
"It seems so." She turned to Jared. "There are so few of you."
Dalius observed Gabrielle's pallor and lack of focus. Concerned and unconvinced by her argument otherwise, he pronounced her ill and sent her to her room to rest. Gabrielle had slept a few candlemarks when she was awakened by a knock on her door. Trevor relayed a message that she was to report to the Conqueror in a candlemark. After thanking the Guardsman, Gabrielle lay back in bed. Grateful that she felt somewhat renewed, she still hoped that whatever the Conqueror asked of her would require a short interview.
Trevor opened the Conqueror's suite door allowing Gabrielle to enter. The Conqueror sat at her desk reading. She looked up, pleased to see the girl.
Gabrielle approached. "Good evening, My Lord."
"How may I help you?"
Xena stood up and walked round her desk making her way toward the dining table. "I wanted to thank you. It was a good day for a hunt. Makia has cooked venison steaks from the game I brought back."
Only then did Gabrielle note that the table was laid out with two place settings and a fine meal.
Xena leaned against her dining chair. "I hope you're hungry."
The meaning behind Xena's words escaped Gabrielle. "Not very, My Lord. There will be more for the others tonight."
Xena stood in charmed disbelief. She would have laughed at the girl if Gabrielle had not worn such a serious expression upon her face.
Xena chose a direct invitation. "Will you dine with me?"
"My Lord?" Gabrielle stood confused.
"The hunt was your doing." Xena swept her hand across the table. "You can't expect me to eat this feast all by myself."
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena's hand.
"Yes, My Lord. Thank you."
"Good." Xena pulled the chair beside her own for the girl.
Gabrielle approached, still bewildered by the Conqueror's gesture. She looked up to her mistress relishing her courtesy. She sat down and waited for the Conqueror to seat herself.
Xena could see that the girl was at a loss. Slaves were given no protocol for eating with their ruler. She reached for a plate.
"Let me serve you."
"Have you a preference? Meat, vegetables, yams, bread?"
Xena laughed. "How hungry did you say you were?"
Gabrielle smiled for the first time in the evening. "Small portions, My Lord."
"Small portions, then." Xena confirmed.
Xena served Gabrielle modestly and then served herself a generous plate.
They ate quietly. Xena knew that if there were to be a conversation, it would be for her to lead it.
"You've told me a little about your life in Poteidaia. There must be more to tell about you and your family."
Gabrielle replied softly. "They are all gone."
Xena empathized. "It isn't easy to speak of those you've lost. I'm not one to talk about my family, either." She placed a bit of meat in her mouth. She offered Gabrielle a gentle smile. "Would you be my bard tonight and tell me a story?"
Gabrielle brightened. "Yes, My Lord. What kind of story would you like to hear?"
"What are my choices?"
"Heroic tales, a romance, something funny "
"Funny. This is not a night for serious thinking. I want to laugh."
Gabrielle entertained the Conqueror for the next two candlemarks. Xena allowed herself to journey along with the characters Gabrielle painted with her well-chosen words. She enjoyed watching Gabrielle as much as she enjoyed the tales told. Gabrielle relaxed before her eyes, losing her reserve, transformed from the Conqueror's slave to a free-spirited bard.
Gabrielle completed her third tale of the evening, a romantic comedy of mistaken identity. It was both sweet and funny.
Xena sat comfortably in her chair. "Well done."
Gabrielle had never felt more flattered. "Thank you." She leaned back in her chair with a sigh.
Xena shifted forward. "You look tired."
Gabrielle confessed. "I am, a little."
"We cannot have that." Xena stood up signaling an end to the evening. "For the next two mornings you will be able to get some extra sleep. I will not need you to serve my breakfast. I am drilling my Guardsmen in the field." Xena laughed gently. "What gives me pleasure make them weary."
Gabrielle followed the Conqueror to the door wondering if she owed the Guardsmen an apology for encouraging their mistress to seek her happiness.
Xena opened the door for the girl. "Good night."
"Thank you for the evening, My Lord."
"It is I who thank you. Sleep well." Xena offered the girl a minor bow.
"I will, My Lord."
Gabrielle stepped out. She turned round watching the door close.
"I hope you had a pleasant evening, Miss." Trevor offered.
"It was. Tomorrow I may ask you whether it was real or just a dream."
"I will assure you it was not a dream."
Gabrielle smiled. "Good night, Trevor."
"Good night, Miss." Trevor watched as Gabrielle walked slowly to her room. He could not recall in the years he had served the Conqueror, an evening such as this where the guest did not leave with a haphazard appearance, evidence that the encounter with the Conqueror had not been limited solely to conversation. For the girl's sake, he was happy to see that she had been the exception.
Xena returned from the field at sunset. She was pleased with the Guardsmens performance during the two days of drills. She also felt better for being free of her government's administration. Riding back to Corinth, she made a resolution to leave the confines of the palace walls more often.
Coming from her bath, Xena noted that her breakfast had been placed on the dining table. The setting was different than what she was accustomed to seeing and the timing was indeed earlier than usual.
The guard stepped in. "Yes, My Liege."
"Who brought my breakfast?"
"Leah, My Liege."
The guard stepped out. Xena continued to ready for the day. She did not touch her food. Targon knocked.
"Your Majesty, has Leah done something to displease you?"
"Why didn't Gabrielle serve me this morning?"
"What's wrong with her?"
"Dalius said she has a high fever and her lungs are heavy making it difficult for her to breathe."
"Is she in her room?"
"No, Your Majesty. She is in the infirmary."
Xena found that a screen had been placed between Gabrielle and the infirmed soldiers, granting her privacy. The girl was pale, wet in her own perspiration. Xena touched Gabrielle's forehead and found it dangerously hot. "Dalius! What have you done for her?"
"Herbs for the fever, but as you can see they have had little effect."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. She was not as surprised as she thought she should be to see the Conqueror at her side. The Conqueror's presence both comforted and frightened her. She reached out her hand. The Conqueror took it. Gabrielle's parched throat made it difficult to speak. She was certain the Conqueror would be truthful where Dalius was evasive. "Am I going to die?"
"You're very sick."
Gabrielle nodded. Having learned of a number of deaths in the passing days from her same illness, she interpreted the Conqueror's words as a death sentence. She held the Conqueror in her vision until the pull of sleep closed her eyes.
Xena held to their mesmerizing link. The girl was not the only one who needed to keep their connection. Xena took to her feet as Gabrielle drifted to sleep. "Dalius, let me see your medicines."
"I gave her these, Your Majesty."
Xena could find no fault with what the healer prescribed. She knew other combinations. She took three different jars in hand and handed them to Dalius. "Take these."
Dalius held the jars and waited further instruction. Xena went back to Gabrielle wrapping a blanket carefully around her body and then lifted her up into her arms. "Follow me."
Xena carried Gabrielle to her suite. "Prepare a cold bath." The healer did so as Xena laid Gabrielle on her bed. She stripped the girl of her clothes.
Gabrielle awoke confused. "What are you doing?" she challenged weakly.
Xena stopped and leaned over the slave. She spoke softly. "Trust me."
Gabrielle assessed the Conqueror in a way she never had done before. "I do."
"Good." Xena wrapped Gabrielle in the blanket and carried her to the bath chamber. The large tub was three-quarters full. "Dalius, take the blanket." He did so. Xena lowered Gabrielle into the water. The shock caused Gabrielle to seize, requiring Xena to forcibly hold the girl down.
Gabrielle pleaded. "No! Let me out. It's cold. Please!"
Xena reached out and in a quick motion pinched two nerve points on the girls neck causing Gabrielle to lose consciousness. The healer watched in silence, impressed that the Conqueror had not hurt the slave. After a half candlemark, Xena lifted Gabrielle from the bath, carefully drying her before carrying her back to the bed. Xena covered Gabrielle with two heavy wool blankets.
In the bedchamber Dalius was brewing tea according to the Conqueror's instructions. Before calling for the tea, Xena struck the girl's nerve points. Gabrielle slowly regained consciousness.
Xena placed her palm over Gabrielle's brow. "Better."
"Your Majesty." Dalius handed a mug of tea to the Conqueror.
She placed her arm behind Gabrielle's shoulder to raise the girl up. "Drink this."
Gabrielle looked from the mug to the Conqueror then back to the mug. She lowered her mouth to the rim and drank what she could.
"Good girl." Xena encouraged. With the tea consumed, Xena laid Gabrielle back down. "Sleep now." It was the gentlest command Gabrielle had received from the Conqueror and she easily complied.
Two days passed. During that time, the Conqueror slept on a couch within her suite. She arranged for Dalius to visit Gabrielle regularly and ensured that all of Gabrielle's needs were taken care of. It was evening and the Conqueror sat at Gabrielle's bedside.
"Please, My Lord, I'm much better. I'm a burden to you."
"When we are alone you may call me Xena."
"There must be something I can do."
"Remember that people die from your illness. Id rather Hades not claim you, yet."
"I'll have Dalius bring medical scrolls for you to study. And if you wish, I will arrange for a quill, ink and a few blank scrolls so you can write your stories."
"Write my stories?"
"I know you can read and write."
"Yes, My Lord. I never thought of writing my stories."
"Well, now you that you have thought about it, what say you?"
"I would like that. Thank you. It is very kind of you."
Xena went to a chair beside the fireplace. Gabrielle soon learned that the Conqueror spent most of her nights in that chair either reading or watching the fire. Though she wondered why the Conqueror had not arranged for her to be moved to her own room, she did not voice the thought. Her placement in the Conqueror's suite had afforded her an opportunity to watch the intimate life of the ruler of Greece. What was most remarkable to Gabrielle was how ordinary the Conqueror's days seemed to her. Mornings were spent on government business. Midday, the Conqueror worked with the Royal Guard. Late afternoons were devoted to Court. The Conqueror entertained, but took little pleasure in society. Her preference for quiet evenings was apparent.
The following evening Xena sat on the bear rug that lay in front of the fireplace. Gabrielle, wrapped in a white robe, approached.
Xena questioned the girl with a tinge of sternness. "What do you think you are doing?"
"It's warmer here. Unless youd rather be alone."
"Do you need a blanket?"
Gabrielle sat on a chair across from Xena. "I'm fine, really."
Xena teased. "You have definitely regained your appetite."
"May I ask you a question?"
"Why have you been so good to me?"
"I hurt those who try to hurt me and I help those who are loyal to me. There are few who are truly loyal."
"But what have I ever done to earn your favor?"
"I've come to know the person that you are. I've had plenty of opportunities to watch you give freely of yourself. You see goodness in people. You give others reason to smile and hope when there is little reason to do so. And, you do all this without challenging the realm."
"But " Gabrielle hesitated.
Gabrielle looked down.
Xena promised. "Speak the truth. No harm will come to you."
"I don't agree with the violence. I don't agree with the laws that restrict free speech and assembly. I wish you would show more mercy."
"I know. Still you don't treat me like an animal and I'm grateful for that."
"How can you be so . cold?"
"It is a necessity if I am to survive."
"What kind of life can you have when you have to always protect yourself from your enemies when you don't allow yourself to have friends."
"As I said, my goal is to survive. I have resigned myself to the fact that I deserve nothing more."
"But even your slaves have more."
"If my slaves have more than I do then I am a better mistress than I am given credit for."
"It isn't right."
"You seek justice. We have no inherent right to justice. The Gods are far too fickle to grant humanity that gift."
"You have the power to create a just Greece."
"Everyone has their own definition of justice. You have yours. I have mine. I am Greece so my justice prevails."
"For how long?"
"Until I am defeated by someone who is stronger or smarter than I am."
"I can't imagine who that would be."
Xena's smile was genuine. "Thank you."
"Xena, without compassion there is no wisdom."
Xena heard her name spoken from the girl's lips for the first time. The intimacy of it was stunning. It felt right to her. She wanted to hear Gabrielle speak her name again.
Gabrielle visibly shivered. Xena reached for a blanket lying on the couch behind her.
"Here." She went up to a knee and wrapped the blanket around Gabrielle's shoulders. "You would teach me about wisdom?"
"If I could." Gabrielle considered the Conqueror's gesture in step with the small comforts she had offered her throughout her convalescence.
Xena stayed near Gabrielle, wanting the feel of being close to the woman. "Some few rare souls teach solely by example."
"I don't know about that, but I do know that you can have friendship love."
Xena reached out gently caressing Gabrielle's cheek with her hand. "Can I, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was taken unawares by the tenderness in Xena's countenance. She had never heard Xena call her by name. There was no demand in her words. It was a sincere solicitation and yet, Gabrielle was fearful. Gabrielle leaned back breaking the tactile connection.
Xena could not only see but she could feel Gabrielle's fear. She felt a profound loss. For a moment she had allowed her hope to surface. She had harbored the hope of a different reaction from the girl. She became painfully aware that she could not draw the girl to her without command or force. As she returned to her original position on the floor, Xena's hand fell to her side where it could do no further harm.
Gabrielle was unable to meet the Conqueror's gaze. "My Lord, may I be excused? I wish to return to my room tonight."
Gabrielle's renewed use of Xena's title resounded as a curse to Xena's ear. The Conqueror showed no emotion. "Of course."
"Thank you, My Lord." Gabrielle stood.
Xena redirected her gaze to the fire. She listened to every sound marking Gabrielle's progress as she dressed and then exited the suite.
It was mid-morning when Targon knocked on Gabrielle's door and announced himself, requesting permission to enter. Gabrielle called out from her bed for him to proceed.
"Good morning, Miss. I hope I haven't disturbed you."
"I was awake, Sir."
"The Conqueror informed me that it might be a few more days before you are strong enough to return to light duty."
Gabrielle nodded. Gabrielle had one of her questions answered. She was certain that whatever brought Targon to her was a result of the Conqueror's bidding.
"Dalius will continue to care for you until you are better."
"May I sit down?"
Targon placed Gabrielle's desk chair by her bed and then sat down. He retrieved a scroll from a satchel that hung over his shoulder. He handed the scroll to Gabrielle. "This is for you, Miss."
Gabrielle took the scroll and held it in her hand fearfully speculating what it meant to her.
"Please read it, Miss." Targon encourage gently.
Gabrielle opened the scroll and proceeded to read the order. At the bottom it held the Conqueror's signature and seal.
She looked up to Targon. "I don't understand."
"You will serve the Conqueror for only one more year."
"The Conqueror's order is clear. You are near your first anniversary of service to the realm. She has reclassified you from slave to indentured servant and commuted your length of service from three years to two in recognition of your more valuable skills as a healer's assistant to the Royal Guard."
"But it's because of her that I'm learning the healing arts."
"Gabrielle," Targon purposely used the girl's name for emphasis, "I have known the Conqueror for many years. She does not give easily. When she does she is sincere. Accept the gift. That is all she asks of you."
"But last night, I . I didn't expect this from her."
"She can surprise. The Conqueror is not the predictable woman some people believe her to be."
"When did she decide?"
"I learned of her decision this morning."
Gabrielle glided her fingertips upon the parchment. "I will be free in one year." Gabrielle spoke to herself more than to the administrator.
"Yes, Miss. The Conqueror has also changed your duties."
Gabrielle's fear took hold. "How?"
"You shall no longer need to serve the Conqueror breakfast. You may report directly to Dalius every morning. This will allow you to rest more. No one wishes to see you fall ill again."
"This was her idea, too, wasn't it?"
"I believe so."
Gabrielle leaned her head back against her bed's headboard and closed her eyes. She tried to rein in her emotions.
Targon witnessed the fall of a tear. "Is something wrong?"
Gabrielle shook her head gently. "I'm just tired."
The administrator placed a comforting hand on the girl's arm. "Rest."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at the man. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Miss."
Targon left Gabrielle to her thoughts. Gabrielle held the scroll close to her. It was the one thing she could do to feel the presence of the Conqueror. She felt that no matter what the Conqueror's intentions, her exile from the Conqueror's mornings was a greater punishment than she could bear.
A fortnight passed in which Gabrielle did not have cause to speak to Xena. She recovered completely from her illness and returned to her duties in the infirmary. To her knowledge, all who had learned of the Conqueror's actions toward her concluded that she had indeed earned the Conqueror's favor. With little coaxing, Gabrielle convinced Leah to allow her to deliver the Conqueror's evening wine.
Trevor announced. "Your evening wine, My Liege."
Xena sat in a tall back chair facing the fire. "Fine."
Trevor quietly directed Gabrielle. "Leave it on the table where the Conqueror is sitting." He closed the door.
Gabrielle did as instructed keeping herself a pace behind her mistress. "Xena."
Xena closed her eyes upon hearing the girl's voice. "Yes, Gabrielle."
"Thank you. I can not tell you what my freedom means to me."
"I've given you nothing. You have and will continue to earn it."
"May I approach?"
"I think it would be better if you stay where you are."
"I didn't expect you to touch me."
"It was an unfortunate presumption on my part. I am sorry for it." Xena's hands closed around the chair arms.
Xena stood up and turned to the young woman. "Do you know what you are saying to me?"
"If you will have me, I willingly give myself to you."
Gabrielle remained silent.
"Gabrielle, you owe me nothing. Tell me the truth. Why are you doing this?"
"Because I love you."
Xena voiced her doubts. "You love the Conqueror?"
"I love Xena of Amphipolis."
"You cannot have one without the other."
"I accept that."
"You will be seen as my whore." Xena would not allow Gabrielle to make her decision naively.
Gabrielle dropped her head.
"But you won't be. Not to me, if that makes a difference."
Gabrielle raised her eyes. "It does."
Xena approached the girl. Lifting Gabrielle's chin with her finger. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, don't let it be said that I didn't try to warn you. The day will come when you will regret this decision."
Gabrielle stepped forward closing the space between them. Xena had her answer. She leaned forward and gently kissed Gabrielle. Gabrielle, in turn, opened herself to Xena, her hands carefully embracing the woman who would be her lover.
END OF PART ONE
Continued - Part 2 of 3
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