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.
Xena exercised her greatest patience. Taking Gabrielle to her bed with a fluid exchange of kisses and caresses as she stripped Gabrielle of her garments. She encouraged Gabrielle to undress her, placing the young woman's hands on the buttons and ties of her own clothes.
She laid over Gabrielle exploring the soft, yet surprisingly strong body. When she began to stroke Gabrielle intimately, the young woman's breath caught. Remembering Gabrielle's past, Xena kept a steady, reassuring gaze upon her. "It's all right."
Gabrielle reached up and cupped Xena's cheek with her hand. The warrior smiled. "That's right."
Another stroke and Gabrielle arched her back, closing her eyes at the sensation; a painful pleasure overwhelmed her senses. Gabrielle kept her hand upon Xena's cheek needing to maintain the connection. Xena turned her head to place a kiss upon Gabrielle's open palm. Gabrielle felt the tension within her near a breaking point. She opened her eyes and held Xena's unceasing regard. Xena was an anchor to what was safe and good. Gabrielle whispered Xena's name hoarsely, and then she cried out. An orgasm coursed through her body. Xena continued her tender strokes until Gabrielle raised her upper body taking the Conqueror into an embrace. Gabrielle's body continued to shudder. Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle supporting her.
The young woman's trust had been complete and Xena knew it was only because of that trust that she had been able to take Gabrielle to climax. Gabrielle held to her, trembling. Xena recognized the moisture she felt upon her skin to be Gabrielle's tears. Left wanting for words, Xena lowered Gabrielle down, guiding the young woman to rest upon her shoulder. It was there that Gabrielle fell asleep and, in time, it was there that Xena slept.
Xena awoke to an empty bed. In quick reflex she sat up and scanned the room. She saw Gabrielle dressing nearby.
"Where are you going?"
Gabrielle continued to dress, shyly turning her back to her mistress. "Dalius is expecting me."
Xena settled herself in the bed. "You want nothing of your daily work to change?"
"With your permission."
"You don't want anyone to know that you have been with me?" Asking the question hurt Xena more than she imagined possible.
"People already know that I didn't return to the kitchen last night."
"But you don't want me to recognize you in any formal way?"
"You can summon me whenever you need me."
Xena was confused. "Did I hurt you last night?"
Xena tensed as her pride sought succor. "Did I disappoint you in any way?"
Gabrielle approached. "No…No… You were wonderful to me."
"I don't understand you." Xena voiced her uncensored thought.
"I thought it would be less complicated for you if the Court continued to think of me as one of your many servants."
"You know you are more than a servant to me, don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
"We need to talk more about this."
"As you wish."
"Gabrielle." Xena got out of bed. Conceding to Gabrielle's modesty, she wrapped a robe around herself. Xena walked to the hidden corridor and opened the entrance. "Take this corridor to the back stairs. At the first landing turn right. The corridor will lead to what appears to be a dead end. Pull the metal ring on the wall. A passage to your room will open. Once in your room pull the sister ring on the wall and the passage will close. My guards change at midnight. Even if Trevor informed his relief of your presence my Guardsmen will be discrete. No one will know that you were with me last night. And in the future, you can use this passage and avoid roaming eyes. I believe that is how you prefer our arrangement."
"Yes, thank you."
"Come to me tonight, a candlemark after dinner is served."
Xena watched as Gabrielle disappeared from her suite. She thought she should be pleased by Gabrielle's request for discretion. Instead, she was left to wonder if Gabrielle was ashamed of herself or of the Conqueror.
Gabrielle announced her presence with a light knock. Xena opened the entrance. "Come in."
A quick study of Gabrielle bared the young woman's uncertainty. Xena attempted to ease the tension.
"We'll sit by the fire."
Gabrielle waited for Xena to lead. Xena offered Gabrielle her hand. Gabrielle shyly took it and allowed herself to be guided. A short table held an assortment of fruit and two cups filled with wine. Xena sat down on the rug. "Please join me."
Gabrielle sat opposite the Conqueror. She recognized the thoughtfulness of the setting. If Xena was actively seducing her, the effort was appreciated.
"How was your day?"
Gabrielle was surprised by the ordinariness of the question. "Good. Only one new injury. Cantus. He got a cut in this thigh while drilling. I told him a story while I stitched the wound. It went well."
"You are going to be an accomplished healer, as well as bard."
"How was your day?"
"Caesar has been victorious in Gaul. He may soon be turning his sight back to Greece."
"How long before he comes?"
"I'm not sure. Depends on the number of casualties he suffered and how long it will take to replenish his army. I have spies hunting for information."
"It's inevitable." Xena took a cup of wine and offered it to Gabrielle. "Try it. It's a very good vintage."
Gabrielle took the cup. "You don't have to do this."
"Is that how…" Xena stood up. Her agitation radiated from her body. "Damn it to Tartarus." She stepped away, pausing in the middle space between the fireplace and her bed. She struggled to order her thoughts.
"Gabrielle, we are in my private rooms. No one knows you are with me. Not because I command it but because you requested it. I do not hide what you are to me." Xena turned and faced Gabrielle squarely. "I will not lie to you. I have wanted you for some time. You have moved me in a way no one ever has. No matter my desire I will have you only with your consent, without subterfuge. I give you leave to come to me or not. Last night…last night was very sweet for me and I welcome more nights like it. I have tried to respect you and be tender to you. You say you want nothing from me, but it is obvious that if all I offer you is the woman that I am it is not enough. Tell me where I have failed and I will do what I can to remedy it."
Gabrielle placed her wine cup on the table and stood up. Xena's declaration humbled her. "You haven't failed me. You have been generous beyond my imagination."
"Then what is it that keeps you away?"
"Do you care for me, even a little?"
"Could you tell me? Just sometimes…so I don't feel so alone."
"You want the words? I've given you my body. I've given you…" Xena stopped herself from completing the sentiment.
Gabrielle understood she had made a grave mistake in questioning Xena's intentions. "I should go."
Trembling in her rage, Xena extended her arm, pointing to Gabrielle. "No! Don't you leave me!"
Gabrielle stilled as she watched the Conqueror rein in her emotion. The Conqueror calmed her rapid breathing. She dropped her arm, defeated. "Do what you must. You are my servant, but I never have and never will own you."
Gabrielle took a step forward. "I'm sorry. I don't know how free I am allowed to be with you. I don't know what it means to share your bed or how I'm supposed to behave. I don't know what you expect from me. I do want to please you."
Xena spoke with sincerity. "I want to be able to trust you. I want you to trust me. I want to believe that I will never knowingly hurt you. I want to share quiet, private time with you. I want to believe that you welcome my touch. And, I want the opportunity to earn your regard. That is what would please me."
"Thank you for the words."
Xena turned away. She was spent. "Gabrielle, I'm tired. Another night then?"
"May I sleep beside you?"
Xena scrutinized the young woman seeking a hint of artifice. Satisfied none was present, she went to a clothes chest and removed two simple, white sleep shirts. She offered Gabrielle one of them. "You can sleep in this."
Xena entered the bath to change, allowing Gabrielle her privacy. When she returned to the room Gabrielle stood near the fire, her clothes carefully folded on the couch beside her. Xena walked directly to her bed and slipped underneath the covers, lying on her side, her back to Gabrielle. It was only then that Gabrielle walked to the other side of the bed. She hoped for an invitation. None was forthcoming. It was hard to believe that only a day had passed since their first gentle intimacy. With renewed conviction, Gabrielle raised the bedcover and moved toward the Conqueror until she was sitting beside her. Gabrielle placed her hand on the Conqueror's shoulder. She was careful in choosing how she addressed the woman.
"Last night you promised to teach me all that I need to know to be with you."
"Tell me now. How does a servant seduce her mistress?"
Xena lay on her back to better see her bed partner. "Why would a servant want to seduce her mistress?"
"Because the mistress had just the previous night given the servant a sweet night of pleasure. The mistress had been respectful to the servant, treating her as an equal. At no time had the mistress been less than gentle and the servant could see what great effort the mistress took to be so…. I welcome more nights with you, but before I can have even one more I must have your consent."
"You can play at seduction, Gabrielle, but know that it is not needed. You must only speak an honest word and I will give you what you desire."
Gabrielle believed Xena. She also believed that what Xena promised might very well go beyond receipt of physical pleasures. It was a stunning revelation. Not one she would pursue in the moment, but one she would consider later, in solitude. Gabrielle decided that a kiss was better than words. Her kiss was well received.
As much as Xena cherished being with Gabrielle, their time together remained limited to occasional evenings. Xena did her best to visit the infirmary. It was during those visits that she and Gabrielle agreed to meet. Together they spent quiet candlemarks in front of the fireplace and in bed. In their bed, Gabrielle not only ignited the Conqueror's passion but also inspired Xena's tenderness. It was in their bed that Xena felt herself meld into a whole being, free of the fragmentation that often cast a shadow over her soul.
Gabrielle grew more comfortable with her. The young woman was still a mystery to Xena. Xena did not doubt that Gabrielle wanted to be with her and yet there remained a distance between them that she did not know how to transcend. She knew the responsibility for the distance lay equally in each of their hands.
Xena held a wine jar. "More?"
"No, thank you."
Xena set the jar aside and propped herself against the couch. Gabrielle, in turn, rested against Xena's chest as they lay in front of the fireplace. The bearskin on the floor insulated them from the cool stone. Gabrielle shifted so to rest her ear upon Xena's heart. She was comforted by the strong beat.
They would be separated while Xena traveled south to inspect the provinces formerly under Lord Gaugan. With Gaugan's death, Xena learned that he was not as reasonable in his treatment of the peasantry as she would have wanted. She was intent on ensuring that those granted holdings either met or exceeded her standard.
"I will miss you," Gabrielle confessed.
Xena gently guided Gabrielle's chin upward, giving her a tender kiss.
"Are you sure you don't need a healer during the trip?"
Xena smiled. "I thought you didn't want to bring attention to our arrangement. It will only take one word from you to have you join me."
"No, you're right. I'll spend my time studying the new scrolls Dalius gave me. The realm has an excellent medical library." Gabrielle did not hide her smile. "Dalius tells me it grows by the day. Seems the Conqueror's interest in medicine has been aroused."
"I have always been interested in healing. And, I demand the best care for the people of Greece. Do you fault me?"
"Not at all." Gabrielle kissed Xena lightly and then reset herself. "I'm glad Greece is quiet. You should try to enjoy yourself while you’re gone."
"Things are not always as they seem."
"Is there a problem?"
"There are always problems. The only thing that changes is their visibility and intensity."
"Should I worry?"
"About me? No. Greece is doing well. That usually means fewer people want to kill me."
Gabrielle remained silent. Xena looked down and studied the still figure.
"You didn't find any humor in what I said, did you?"
"No, I didn't."
"I'm used to laughing at death. It's part of being a warrior."
"Warriors do have their own code."
"It's true we have a code we live by. Unfortunately, not all warriors live by the same code."
"Does that code include who you kill and who you let live?"
Xena was taken aback by the question. It was the Conqueror who answered. "Yes, it does."
"What was your code when you conquered Greece?"
"I went after the warlords first. I focused on the most brutal."
"Yes. I killed him myself."
Xena waited for Gabrielle to consider her role in avenging Lila's death.
"After the warlords what did you do?"
"By then I had a formidable army. Many of the warlords had agreed to join me."
"Did you make an offer to Draco?"
"Yes, I did."
"You would have accepted him in your army?"
"Part of the warrior code is to allow those you seek to conquer an opportunity to surrender. I could have exiled Draco, but he would have been more dangerous to me if I had. It's smarter to have your enemies close to you where you can keep an eye on them. At the end, it didn't matter. He refused."
Gabrielle continued to lie against Xena. Satisfied that the younger woman had no immediate question, Xena continued her explanation.
"I then had two major challenges. One was to take Corinth. The other was Rome."
"Why not Persia?"
"They were too busy fighting among themselves to be a threat. Like me, King Okal had yet to solidify his rule."
"Which was more important to you, Corinth or Rome?"
"Corinth. I wasn't going to repeat my mistake with Rome and I needed Corinth to establish the whole of Greece as my realm."
"Caesar betrayed you." Gabrielle remembered the stories told of Xena and Caesar's brief alliance.
"Yes. I was young and naïve. I believed he loved me. My reward was the cross and two broken legs. It took a long time for me to heal. I had to start over. I will never let anyone that close to me again."
Gabrielle felt a press in her heart. She focused on Xena's story. "You won Corinth."
"Yes. It was a terrible siege. I closed all routes to the city and waited Bevan out. The bastard was willing to see all his people die of starvation and disease instead of surrendering. I smuggled a few men and women who were loyal to me into the city and had them spread the word that the citizenry would be given safe passage if they left voluntarily. All it took was bribing a few guards every night. Night by night a train of people left the city. In the beginning I accepted only women and children, then the older, sick and injured men. Finally, I granted safe passage to all able-bodied men."
"You held their wives and children hostage?"
"Not at all. My code doesn't allow harming the innocent. They are always first to safety. It strikes me that in some ways they were the bravest. They came to me like sheep going to slaughter. They held to a glimmer of hope that I would be true to my word. Their gamble was well rewarded."
"The men were the last for another reason. The women and children were less visible to Bevan. I could empty Corinth without him being the wiser."
"He didn't figure it out?"
"He did and went into a rage. He started murdering his own people. He left me no choice but to attack. I had the advantage that many of the remaining men in Corinth were willing to fight with me. They knew they were fighting not only for themselves, but for their families."
"Was General Jared with you?"
"From the day Cortese attacked my village…"
"Yes. Jared was with me from Amphipolis to the first days of my alliance with Caesar. He was against anything to do with Rome. We went our separate ways on good terms. After Caesar's betrayal I traveled east. When I returned to Greece, he found me. We've been together ever since."
"I've never heard a bard tell your story."
"Because it isn't meant to be told."
Gabrielle raised herself up. "Why not? Wouldn't it help people understand you and appreciate what you've accomplished?"
"The people of Greece shouldn't dwell on history. They should care about their lives today and whether they have hope for a decent life in the future for themselves and their children."
"You are a hero."
Xena was adamant. "No, Gabrielle. I'm not. I've done things I am not proud of. Things I will never be able to atone for. I don't want any child to look up to me as a hero. I’d rather they think me a butcher. It's closer to the truth."
Xena knew the day would come for her to share her history with Gabrielle. Not all the stories were told. Xena would never share with Gabrielle all the atrocities by her hand. This first telling was necessary to undermine any romantic notions the young woman might have of her.
Gabrielle returned to her place against Xena. Gabrielle's silence was enlightening. Xena was relieved she would be leaving in the morning. It would give the young woman time to consider what she learned and to decide whether she still wanted to take the lonely walk down the back corridor between their rooms. They sat quietly for a half candlemark before Gabrielle stirred.
"I'd like to get some fresh air."
"Do you want company?"
"Do you mind if I say no?"
"I will always accept the truth from you. Go on."
Gabrielle sat up and met Xena's eyes. "Thank you."
She stood and went to the hidden corridor. Xena knew Gabrielle would go up to the turret. What she did not know was whether Gabrielle would want to come back to her. She called out Gabrielle's name. Gabrielle turned to her.
"Remember, you owe me nothing. If you prefer your own bed tonight, I will understand."
"Yes, My …" Gabrielle stopped herself.
Xena felt a cold hand crush her heart. She turned back to the fire retreating from what she judged to be a much-deserved rejection.
Gabrielle understood what she had inadvertently done. She could not recall her words. They came to her from the deepest recesses of her soul. Though the impact was unintentional, the words were true and truth was the only demand Xena made upon her.
Gabrielle climbed the stairs to the turret. She stood looking out to the city trying to imagine the siege. There was no stilling her thoughts. She heard Xena's voice recounting the story over and over again. She was left to wonder if the woman she loved existed or was merely a fabrication created by her selective recognition of Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece.
Given Xena's comportment as she had left the suite, Gabrielle doubted she would be welcomed back. For this night, she chose not to impose any further upon Xena's hospitality.
Two candlemarks passed before Xena retired to her bed. She fought every desire to seek Gabrielle out. She had made the young woman a promise to give her the choice of if and when to come to her. On this night, Xena needed Gabrielle beside her. On this night, Xena fell to sleep in the painful void left by Gabrielle's absence.
Stephen waited for the Conqueror and Jared to reach the center of the courtyard. Gabrielle had stepped out of the infirmary as a congregation of men and women greeted the Conqueror's return.
"Welcome back, Your Majesty." Stephen recognized Jared. "General."
Xena and Jared dismounted.
"Thank you, Captain. I read your last report with interest."
"You were right in your suspicion."
"Let’s not prolong this affair. Bring out the prisoners."
Stephen raised his hand signally the awaiting Guardsmen. They dragged four men out from the dungeon and stood them in line before the Conqueror.
Three of the men were strangers to Gabrielle. She was shocked to see that the fourth was Talas, a young Guardsman, no more than a boy. She moved forward to see and hear better.
The Conqueror stepped to each prisoner taking in his demeanor. There was not one who didn't radiate fear. She spoke first to the three men from outside the realm.
"Spies of Caesar, what have you to say in your defense?" She waited. "Nothing? The penalty for crimes against the realm is crucifixion. Take them away."
The Guardsmen removed the Roman spies as they whimpered and cried for mercy. She then turned her attention to Talas. The courtyard had filled with Guardsmen. The Conqueror projected her voice so all would hear her.
"Talas, you betrayed Greece and your brothers. What price purchased your loyalty?"
Talas had no defense. He fell to his knees. "Have mercy, My Liege."
"What mercy does a traitor deserve?"
"I made a mistake, My Liege. Please, I will do whatever you demand to earn your trust again."
"You cannot earn my trust. It is given only once. It is never given a second time."
"Let me go to Caesar with false information. I can be of use to you."
Gabrielle had a kernel of hope that Xena might spare the foolish young man. She took a step closer.
Xena's eye caught movement behind Talas. She looked over to see who disturbed what was otherwise a uniform stand of attention. Gabrielle caught her eye and shook her head, a sign begging Xena to not take Talas' life. The Conqueror scanned the courtyard studying the faces of her Guardsmen. They expected Talas to receive a torturous death befitting a traitor. That she would kill Talas was never in question. How Talas would die was decided in the moment.
Xena went down to one knee in front of the prisoner. She whispered in his ear. "Talas, I hate you for leaving me no choice but to kill you. However, I will grant you one mercy and that is that you will feel no pain. Give Hades my regards."
In one uninterrupted motion, with her left hand Xena pinched a nerve in Talas' neck numbing his body while with her right hand she stabbed him in the heart. The Guardsman slumped forward leaning against Xena as death claimed his soul. She pitied him and took him by the shoulders, laying him down. When Xena looked up she saw the faces of her Royal Guard. She was uncertain whether their disdain was for Talas or given her merciful execution of the traitor, for her. Standing, she spied Gabrielle walking toward the infirmary.
"Jared, take care of this."
"Yes, My Liege."
Xena followed Gabrielle. Only a few paces from the young woman, Xena called out her name. Gabrielle stopped, keeping her back to the Conqueror. Xena came about the woman, facing her. "I'm sorry you saw that."
"But you're not sorry you did it."
"I did what had to be done." Xena placed a comforting hand on Gabrielle's arm.
Gabrielle recoiled. "Please, don't."
Xena retracted her hand as if it were the hot iron Gabrielle seemed to experience it to be. Xena stood silent. Gabrielle caught the effect of her action as well as her words.
"May I return to the men I still can help?"
Xena nodded and stepped aside. Gabrielle walked past her, keeping her eyes forward.
Xena and Jared stood at the Conqueror's desk, studying a map Greece and its border countries.
Jared looked across the desk to Xena. "Caesar is not waiting for the spring thaw."
Xena analyzed her troop placements. "He is an arrogant son of a Bacchae."
"Do you want to call the Fifth Army?"
"No. Caesar is counting that my pride will overrule my better judgment. He is going for bragging rights. I'm sure he already has a scroll written to the Senate boasting that he marches in Greece. Let him march."
"I want Dymas to make a respectable showing in the north. He'll position the Second Army coming from a western route. Caesar will expect Regan to march the Fifth Army from the Ionian coast, inland to fortify our western front. Regan will march, leaving a small contingent. That will give Caesar's spies something to talk about. Of the marching troops, I want all but one company to bivouac no more than two days travel from their original positions down the coast, here, here and here." Xena pointed to the position as she spoke. "Caesar will commit to the sea, and when he does, Regan's men will fire our catapults until the Roman fleet is settled at the bottom of the sea. The remaining company will march to create a western front against Caesar. They will have to be the best the Fifth Army has to offer."
"I want Kasen to position two companies on each side of this range to create an eastern front. We will march the Royal Guard and one company of the First Army northeast holding the southern front while Dymas circles his men ‘round, blocking Caesar's retreat."
"Paulos will cool his heels in the south. The Fourth Army has to be prepared to reinforce either the Ionian coast or Corinth. What say you, Jared?"
"It will be a good fight."
"Now you have a decision to make. Either march with me or rule Greece in my absence."
"I march with you, My Liege."
"Good. Name your most trusted officer from the Royal Guard to stay here in charge of the remainder of the First Army. The government of Greece marches with me. We leave in three days."
Dalius had received his orders. He directed his assistants to a variety of tasks without explanation. He noted Gabriele's sober mood, a mood he had expected would have been lightened with the Conqueror's return, but instead had grown ever more grave.
He went to her with the pretense of securing a jar of herbs. "You've been quiet. Is something wrong?"
"No. I'm a little tired."
"It's not like the Conqueror not to visit. How long has it been…a fortnight since her return?
Given the subject, Gabrielle welcomed the opportunity to break her silence. "Have you seen her at all?"
"Yes. I gave her a report two days ago. She was more herself than ever."
"What do you mean?"
"She's hard. It was impossible to know what she was thinking, but thinking she was. I'm sure Caesar has her concerned. She is leading the Royal Guards and the First Army north. I don't look forward to returning to the battlefield."
"What will we need to get ready?"
"We? Gabrielle, you're not coming with us."
"By the Conqueror's orders. I thought you knew."
"No, I didn't know. Doesn't she think I'm good enough?"
"She knows you are skilled. By her request, my reports always include a specific accounting of your progress. She is a skilled healer in her own right. I have modified your apprenticeship following her guidance."
Gabrielle was silent.
"Gabrielle, you can ask Targon if he believes differently, but I would wager that he would agree with me when I say that the Conqueror has…affection for you. I don't believe she wants you to see the brutality men inflict upon men in war. More so, I believe the Conqueror wishes to keep you from harm's way."
"Dalius, will you speak to her? Tell her I want to go with you."
"I will not. The Conqueror has made her feelings clear. I will not challenge her. Gabrielle, don't be angry but I must confess that I agree with her. The battlefield will give you nightmares."
Xena heard the soft knock at the hidden corridor. She did not trust her senses and waited. Again, she heard it. This time she embraced the possibility of what the sound promised. She looked through a watch hole before opening the door. Her expectations heartened at the sight of Gabrielle.
"I hope I didn't disturb you."
Gabrielle entered, remaining an arm's length from Xena. "I have a request."
"What is it, Gabrielle?"
"I want to be a healer to the army when it leaves for the north."
Xena turned away and walked to the balcony.
Gabrielle followed. "I know all the arguments for staying. I know I will see terrible things and I know I may be hurt or killed. The men in the Royal Guard are my friends. I want to help them. I want to help Greece."
Xena was thoughtful. "I will tell Dalius to include you in his plans."
Gabrielle was uncertain how to address Xena. She could not assume any allowable intimacy. "No, My Lord."
Xena turned around angry. "I granted your request. Why do you insist on being so distant?"
Xena's anger did not repel Gabrielle. Understanding that its source was their estrangement; Xena's emotion drew Gabrielle to her. Gabrielle ran to Xena, embracing her. The shock of Gabrielle's body forced Xena to step back. She held to Gabrielle as if her life depended on the young woman.
"Do you come back to me freely?"
Gabrielle remained buried in Xena's embrace. "Yes." She left unspoken the words 'My Lord.'
Jared and Targon stood at the Conqueror's desk. They observed the Conqueror, each seeking a clue to her reception of the unorthodox petition she held in her hand. Xena rolled the scroll closed. "Jared. Is this your doing?"
"No, My Liege. I only agreed to present the petition to you."
"So many marks. I didn't realize half my Royal Guard is still illiterate."
"Their hearts are true."
Xena unrolled the scroll and signed it with a flourish. She closed it again and handed it to her administrator. "Targon, place this petition in the royal archives."
Targon took the petition. "With pleasure, Your Majesty."
Jared was not finished with his task. "My Liege, the men request that you impart the honor."
"You are the General of the Royal Guard."
"And you are their Sovereign."
"I assume they will want to be present."
"It will be good for their morale."
"Morale? Have my Royal Guard become a bunch of puppies? I think before our march against Caesar a Royal inspection is in order. Round the men up, now."
Jared was pleased. "Yes, My Liege."
Flustered, Dalius entered the infirmary. "May the Gods have mercy on all of us."
Gabrielle stopped rolling bandages. "What's wrong?"
"The Conqueror is inspecting the Royal Guard."
"Is that bad?"
"We won't have an empty cot by the time she's through with them."
They both turned to the sound of an approaching contingent. The Conqueror entered the infirmary. She stepped in followed by Jared. Her escort remained outside. To Dalius' credit the infirmary was immaculate. She spied a bucket near Gabrielle with blood-soaked bandages. Xena walked to it and kicked it with her toe.
"Dalius, are you looking to create an epidemic with these soiled bandages?"
"Gabrielle just changed the soldier's dressing, Your Majesty."
"Is that true?"
Gabrielle bowed. "Yes, My Lord."
The Conqueror gave Gabrielle a private wink before she commanded. "Step outside." She glared at Dalius. "You too, I want you as a witness."
Dalius attempted to impede what he believed would be an injustice. "Your Majesty. Please. Gabrielle has done nothing wrong."
"Your protest only reaffirms what must be done." The Conqueror spoke in her most menacing voice. "Now… step outside."
The Royal Guard waited in formation.
"Follow me, girl. Dalius, you stay where you are."
Xena called to Jared. "General!"
Jared handed Xena a small wooden box.
Xena's eyes scanned the Royal Guard. "Let it be known that what I am about to do is in response to a petition marked," the Conqueror could not help but allow a tinge of sarcasm with the last word, "by every member of the Royal Guard and certified by General Jared." The Conqueror directed her attention solely upon Gabrielle. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, in recognition of your services both as a healer and a storyteller to the men of this garrison, and with your consent, you will be hereby inducted into the Royal Guard. The brotherhood…" The Conqueror spoke under her breath, "With more than one uncle, right Jared?" She returned to her full voice, "The brotherhood swears to honor and protect you as one of their own. Do you accept this honor?"
Gabrielle scanned the men seeing familiar faces, many grinning -- an act that would normally not be tolerated by the Conqueror.
She smiled, "I do, My Lord."
The Conqueror opened the box and removed a chain and small gold and silver medallion. Impressed upon the medallion was the Conqueror's seal consisting of a sword and chakram with the letter 'X' cutting across them. The Conqueror handed the empty box to Jared and then placed the chain around Gabrielle's neck.
"On this day, Gabrielle of Poteidaia has become a member of the Royal Guard and as such is under my personal protection. Men. You have a new sister. What say you?"
The men raised their swords and cheered.
Xena leaned down and whispered in her lover's ear. "Well done, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle responded softly. "Thank you, My Lord."
The order to halt went down the line of soldiers to the healer's wagon. Dalius pulled the reins arresting the horses' steady progress.
He sighed. "Good. I could use a break."
"I know how to lead a wagon," Gabrielle offered.
"Then you will have the reins after we eat."
Gabrielle smiled, happy to be of use.
The Conqueror rode beside the wagon. "Dalius, unless she has pressing duties, I wish to borrow your assistant."
"Gabrielle has no duties that cannot wait, Your Majesty."
"My Lord." Gabrielle sought the Conqueror's regard.
"I promised to tell the men a story over our midday meal."
"I think they'll bear the loss well if you give them two stories tonight. I leave the decision up to you."
"May I ask what plans you have for me?"
"You must trust me that I have your best interest in mind."
Gabrielle turned to her mentor. "Dalius, will you tell the men the stories will need to wait until this evening?"
"Of course." It was Dalius' incorrect understanding that Gabrielle had no true choice.
The Conqueror reached out to Gabrielle. "Give me your arm."
"I'm riding with you?"
"You can hold on to me. I rarely fall off."
Gabrielle stood up and reached out, extending her leg as she did. The motion was easier than she anticipated. Gabrielle settled behind the Conqueror.
"You all right back there?"
"I think so."
"Good girl." Xena covered Gabrielle's hands with one of her own. With a press of her knees she signaled Argo forward.
They rode to a small lake. Xena dismounted then reached up to Gabrielle. "Come on."
Gabrielle slipped into Xena's awaiting arms.
"Take a look around."
Gabrielle walked to the lakeshore. Xena retrieved a saddlebag, a wineskin and a blanket. Gabrielle turned to her mistress as Xena laid the blanket on the ground and began to remove an assortment of foods from the saddlebag.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Gabrielle kneeled beside Xena. "I don't know what to say."
"You can tell Dalius we went searching for herbs. There's actually a rich patch not too far from here. We'll stop on our way and bring proof."
"Gabrielle, I want nothing from you but the pleasure of your company."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. "May I choose the pleasure my company gives you?" She leaned forward and gave Xena a gentle kiss.
Xena allowed Gabrielle to claim her. Breaking the kiss, Xena leaned back on her heels. She was pleased with Gabrielle's growing confidence. "You may choose, but I set one term. You must never forget that giving me intimate pleasure is always a choice and never an obligation."
"You have made that perfectly clear to me."
"Then I trust that on this day whatever you choose for me is in my best interest."
"On this day, My Lord, what I have chosen for you is equally in my best interest."
Two candlemarks later Gabrielle took a position of rest, laying her back against a tree. Xena came to her.
"Here." Gabrielle offered her mistress her lap as a pillow.
Xena accepted the invitation, stretching her body on the soft grass.
"When do we need to get back?"
Xena closed her eyes. "Jared has his orders. We'll meet him later."
Gabrielle placed her arm over Xena. "I've missed you."
"You've seen me every day since we left Corinth."
"It's not the same." Gabrielle spoke shyly, not wanting to reveal her rising loneliness. "There is always someone with you."
"If I invite you into my tent it will take only a candlemark for all of Greece to know that you give me more than a healer's care."
"And what will Greece say when it learns you took me away from the march for a handful of candlemarks?"
Xena sat up abruptly and turned to the girl. "Let's go."
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's arm. "No!"
"What did you say to me?" The Conqueror snapped.
Gabrielle spoke in a softer tone. "No, My Lord." She removed her hand from her mistress. "Your men will believe we increased our store of medicinal herbs and that I served your meal. They will believe it because I will tell them so and because both facts are true."
Xena countered in a moderated voice. "They will speculate about the truth left unspoken."
"Not if I comb my hair and straighten my clothes."
Gabrielle's whimsy caught Xena by surprise. She laughed wholeheartedly.
Gabrielle coaxed with a smile. "Please, lie down."
Xena complied. "There won't be many more opportunities for us to get away. The closer we are to Caesar's army the closer we need to keep ranks."
Xena closed her eyes anew. She chastised herself for her sharp tone in addition to her error in judgment. Gabrielle was right to believe that their arrangement might have been compromised. Xena recognized the selfishness of continuing to seek the young woman out and accepting her favor. She had bedmates for a variety of reasons. There were those who she enjoyed seducing merely as a conquest, those to whom a liaison was politically expedient, those who made no secret that they wanted to taste her notorious passions and she felt obliged to allow them to do so. There were those who sought out a favor, be it a position of power or a gift from the treasury and, not to be forgotten, there were the pitiful prisoners, the traitors seeking a means to avoid execution. It was the latter, those who offered themselves to her for no other reason than to live, those who degraded themselves at her feet as a means to appease, to somehow mitigate their vulnerability, that in turn, infected her, leaving Xena with a residue of humiliation upon her skin.
Never had she had a bedmate such as Gabrielle. The young woman had made only two requests of her that might have value, small as it was, to another -- to learn to defend herself and to apprentice as a healer. What Xena had given Gabrielle by her own initiative was equally inconsequential -- a room of her own and a forgiven year of servitude.
Gabrielle was still in her household, still subject to the Conqueror's rule. There was no forgetting that she was Gabrielle's lord and mistress. There was no denying that as much as Xena assured Gabrielle that she had rights in their arrangements, specifically the right to consent, Xena continued to withhold the one thing Gabrielle had unequivocally stated she needed -- her freedom. Xena deliberately refused to relinquish her right to be Gabrielle's Sovereign.
Xena rarely allowed herself to think of Gabrielle in such terms. She had broken her own rule of never being with a slave or servant, a rule set to prevent all the questions, all the accusations that now crossed her mind. Being with Gabrielle was one more act that condemned her to Tartarus. Lyceus, were he alive, would be the first to testify against her. Were she to meet her brother on the other side, Xena would not be able to look him in the eye. She had become like their worst enemies. She bought and sold the precious freedom of another human being.
Gabrielle noted a change in Xena's countenance. She stroked Xena's brow. "What's wrong?"
"If it helps you can talk to me. I may not understand your battle strategies, but I can try."
"I don't want to teach you the art of war."
"We both know I'm not an innocent."
Xena spoke sadly, "No you’re not. Why should I add to the crime?"
"You're not. Knowledge is a weapon that can be used in self-defense. It doesn't always have to be used to conquer."
"Still trying to teach wisdom to the Conqueror?"
"Don't be. I can't argue with the truth. I only wish I had known more when I was younger."
"Would it have changed things?"
"Before the battle with Cortese, my brother Lyceus and I went for a walk. We didn't say much of anything to each other. We didn't have to. I was ready to lose my life. What I wasn't ready for was to lose him. He was beautiful. He had curly blond hair and a smile that made you smile in return in spite of your worst moods. He had a good soul. Sometimes, you remind me of him. I would trade everything I have, the power, the wealth, to have him back."
"Even your freedom?"
"Not then. That's where Lyceus and I were the same. His freedom had no price, including his own life. Given a second chance he would have changed nothing. He had nothing to be ashamed of."
"Given a second chance what would you change?"
"There are no second chances. The past is in the past. All I can hope to do is to never repeat my mistakes."
"How do you stop… how do you stop yourself from repeating your mistakes?"
"I never let myself forget the people I've hurt."
"But then the past is not in the past. It's always with you."
"Some people live in the past and can never move on. If it was a painful past, they wallow in the hurt. If it was idyllic, no matter how brief, they escape into their dreams. Either way they never allow for the newness of life to touch them. Others take the past forward with them, and if the Fates are kind to them, they learn from experience and do better in their life. I try to be the second type of person, although I admit my success in being so is limited."
"Dreams can make the intolerable, tolerable."
"For a time, yes." Xena opened her eyes and looked up to Gabrielle. "I would expect you to say so. You are a storyteller. You take others with you to places they have never been to and introduce them to people they have never met. Most of the time neither the places nor the people ever existed, but it doesn't matter. Those who listen to your stories want the escape. I won't argue that it is good for all of us to indulge in an escape from time to time. That doesn't change the fact that we should never try to deny the present. We must always come back to the truth."
"The truth is often painful."
"In the end, denying the truth is even more painful."
Gabrielle had chosen to take a break from the jostling of the healer's wagon and walk. General Jared rode beside her. He had come to consider the girl his ward.
"Good day, lass."
"Good morning, General."
He dismounted. Taking up his stallion's reins, he walked beside Gabrielle. "I know the Conqueror is high on protocol, but between you and me, I would prefer it if you called me by my given name."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, Jared."
He grinned broadly. "Finally! A bard speaks my name."
"I'm sure there are stories of your life worth telling."
"Don't know about that, lass. All that I have done is second to the Conqueror."
"You've known the Conqueror for a long time."
"Yes, I have."
"Amphipolis, her village, is near here, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is."
"I know she had a brother, Lyceus."
"He was the younger. The Conqueror has an older brother, Toris."
"Where is he?"
"Britannia. Toris wasn't an honorable man. He used the fact that he was brother to the Conqueror to extort protection money. Even Cyrene found it hard to object when the Conqueror suggested he find a home away from Greece."
"The Conqueror's mother."
"What kind of woman was she?"
"Is. Cyrene still runs the inn in Amphipolis. She's a good woman. She was hard on the Conqueror. Disowned her when Lyceus was killed."
"Was she right to?"
"I say no. The Conqueror was young. Younger than you by five or six winters. She needed a guiding hand and Cyrene was the only one she trusted."
"She didn't trust you?"
"What could I say to her to ease her pain? I advised her on military strategy. Soon, I had nothing to teach her and she had much to teach me. She is brilliant, Gabrielle. Few give her credit for her mind. They only see her sword."
"I still don't understand how she could have done the things she's done… the things she continues to do."
"Gabrielle, has she punished anyone unfairly? Ask yourself, given her position and the trials she faces, what other choice does she have?"
"She believes she can't be seen as weak. I disagree with what she calls weakness."
"In a better world, a world without the Gaugans and Caesars, you would be right. But that is not the world she rules in."
"So she goes down to their level."
"No, she doesn't. Greece has prospered. The taxes are higher than either you or she may want, but only because we need soldiers to keep Greece from the Romans and Persians. She demands tribute from the vassal nations, but only enough to keep their leashes short. When one part of Greece struggles, the treasury is opened to take care of the people in need."
"Yes, that she does. You've been training in staff and short sword. Are you any different?"
"I asked to be trained to protect myself."
"The Conqueror protects Greece."
"Why do you say Greece? We both know that when we say Greece we mean the Conqueror."
"Because Greece is nothing without the Conqueror?"
"What is the Conqueror without Greece?"
"I think she would be a freewoman."
Gabrielle paused, reflecting on her own previous observation that in some ways Xena had less than the slaves that served her.
"Why… why doesn't she take her riches and leave? Why doesn't she claim her freedom?"
"Because the Conqueror is an honorable woman. The day came when her destiny and Greece's became one and the same. She won't abandon Greece to warlords or foreign nations."
"Until the day she dies…"
"I don't think she expects to live very long. I have a good fifteen winters over her. Have you noticed that the snow has left its color on my hair?"
"I try to remind her that a longer life can be had, but then she and I both know that I've lived as long as I have because she's stepped up and saved my sorry life more times than I can count. Who will step up and save her life?"
"If Ares wills it. But I can't be by her side all the time. Those who hate her most are those that disagree with her policies… policies that have brought a better life to Greece."
"They are imperfect policies."
"She has ruled Greece for four winters. Creating a better Greece takes time."
"She said that."
Gabrielle noted a gradual change in the Conqueror. It was difficult for her to gauge the cause. She had never been with the Conqueror during war. She could only rely on the stories she heard from others. She did not discount Makia's warning that their mistress would change, always changed, in the face of battle. Gabrielle knew by what she heard the wounded soldiers tell that Greece had never been more threatened.
The infirmary was camped a safe distance from the battlefront. Two of Dalius's assistants triaged the wounded near the battle. Dalius, Gabrielle, and two other assistants provided care in the infirmary.
The Conqueror and her generals remained in the field day and night. The news from the front -- at first troublesome -- improved with the passing days. Casualties lessened as the Conqueror's strategy fell into place. Caesar found himself surrounded without hope of a second front. Greece had effectively prevented the Roman fleet from landing. The few ships that survived the onslaught of Grecian catapults turned their sails back to Rome.
But the news from Corinth was sobering. The Court was restless. The Conqueror was right to be concerned that her rule would face an internal challenge while she was focused on Rome. She had to balance the need to be patient in her play of Caesar with an equal need to end the conflict and reassert her rule over the realm.
Gabrielle's previous experience did not prepare her for the carnage that passed before her eyes - severed limbs and wounds that cut deep and exposed organ, muscle and bone. She worked with Dalius, learning more with each victim of war, doing the best that she could to save lives and, when nothing could be done, to ease pain and keep a dying soldier company while he crossed to the other side.
Caesar had begun a retreat, focusing his forces to create a wedge to break through Greece's Second Army's line. The Conqueror had a choice. She could fortify the front and continue the bloodshed or she could offer Caesar safe passage for a reasonable tribute. The wealth was incidental. More important, the compact would guarantee that no more sons of Greece would die. And, as proposed, the compact would demoralize the surviving soldiers of Rome, instilling an infection of spirit that the Conqueror judged a greater threat to Caesar than the loss of more men.
Mounted, the Conqueror and Jared surveyed the battlefield. All was quiet. At center of their vision Stephen and an escort met with representatives of Rome. Stephen turned his mare and galloped back to the Conqueror's position.
Stephen saluted. "My Liege."
"What says Rome?"
"Rome accepts the terms set by Greece for safe passage, with one exception. Rome will relinquish its weapons, but not its armor."
"Stephen, inform Rome that Greece accepts the terms of disengagement." The Conqueror turned to her general. "Jared, get word to Dymas that Caesar will break his word to Greece and that he better be damned well ready for a battle."
"What do you suspect?"
"Caesar must have a cache of weapons on the retreat route. Rome is too weak to break Greece, but not so weak that it can't take down the Second Army. If Rome succeeds, our victory will be hollow. The last battle of a war is often the one that stays in memory and is recounted."
Dymas had his men positioned on each side of the retreat route. His scouts had failed to find the suspected cache of Roman weapons. He trusted the Conqueror's instincts. She knew Caesar better than anyone alive. If she said Rome was intent on triggering a slaughter, he was ready to oblige.
Grecian forces shadowed Caesar's retreat. The Conqueror, Royal Guards and First Army marched north preventing a direct attack. Kasen led the Third Army maintaining the eastern front while Regan maintained the western.
Any military leader facing the forces of Greece would have to be either suicidal or delusional in his arrogance to break the compact. The Conqueror was certain that it was for that very reason Caesar would act. He once again counted on the Conqueror's pride, believing that she would claim victory early --before all the fighting was done.
The Roman troops were a half-day march from the border. Caesar ordered a synchronized attack against Dymas' forces that earned both the Conqueror's admiration and wrath. Caesar had a company of soldiers waiting in the hills on each side of the retreat route. Fragmented in size, they had eluded detection from Greece's advance scouts. Each Roman carried his own weapon, as well as weapons to arm two more men. Dymas, whose greatest concern was an attack from across the northern border, found his men trapped.
Greece responded swiftly. Regan and Kasen's forces charged their respective battle lines. The Conqueror tasted the bile of her hatred for Caesar. She wished she had been wrong, yet nothing was more predictable that Caesar's pride.
Greece fought passionately for its sons. Unable to deny the collapse of his triple front, Caesar called a legitimate retreat. All men of Rome fled to the border. The Generals pulled back their forces, allowing Rome to cross the border unimpeded. They concurred with the Conqueror. There had been more than enough death to keep Charon's boat full for days.
Jared led the Royal Guard and First Army south to the base camp. By the Conqueror's orders they would rest for a handful of days before returning to Corinth. Her generals were directed to set camp at strategically determined locations and then to report to her quarters for a full review.
The Conqueror remained on the battlefield with a small burial detail. She dismounted, walking the bloodstained valley. She could taste the metallic tang of blood upon her tongue. The air carried the stench of burning flesh. By her order, all Roman corpses were burned in a lone pyre. To have them left to scavengers was to risk disease. The men of Greece were placed on individual pyres. They died with honor and deserved to be freed to the other side in honor, not in an anonymous mass of flesh. Their names were recorded to ensure families were notified and given a proper stipend.
Xena walked the field, allowing the images of death and destruction to sear themselves into her soul. She could not escape the nightmare of war. It had scarred her during the battle against Cortese. Nothing could heal the wound. Time only added to the injury. She took no consolation from the fact that the death count could have been worse. She led a near flawless campaign. Greece did not fall to Rome. Greece remained free by the sword and the strategy of Ares' Chosen.
Once again she had abandoned the most human part of her, the best of her, allowing the animal inside her to wreak death against anyone who came near her sword. She tempted fate as she walked in the open land. An assassin's arrow could easily take her life if she chose not to catch it. It would not be a completely unwelcome fate -- to never again be a part of war, to never again take a life, to never again feel her inconsolable grief.
Advance word had reached camp. Greece triumphed. Gabrielle sighed in relief. Waiting for the Conqueror's return would now be easier.
She stepped out from the infirmary as the troops, led by Jared, returned. Her fear renewed when she did not see the Conqueror. She sought out the General.
"Was the Conqueror hurt?"
"No, lass. Not more than a few cuts."
"Then where is she?"
"On the battlefield, lass. She is the first on and the last off."
"But it's over."
"For now. Gabrielle, it was worse than Tartarus out there. War makes a man…it makes a man do inhuman things. No one feels it more than Ares’ Chosen. She needs time to come back to the world she shares with you."
"I don't know what you mean."
"About what war does to a person, or that those closest to our Sovereign know that she holds you in special regard?"
Gabrielle looked down.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of. You have been good for her."
"I'm not ashamed."
"Someday she'll come around and invite you into her rooms by the front entrance instead of the back steps."
Gabrielle looked up. She steeled. "That was my decision."
"Was it now?"
"I thought it would be easier for her."
For the first time in their acquaintance Jared showed anger toward the girl. "Lass, she is our Sovereign. She is Greece. What does it mean when a servant chooses not to be seen with her? You have brought her down in a way no one else has been able to. You've made her less than you."
Gabrielle was dismayed by Jared's accusation. "No… Xena would never…"
"Think about it. Think hard, Gabrielle."
"Jared, I don't know."
The General took a calming breath. "It may be for the better."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because when she comes back I know you will not like what you will see."
Xena rode into camp. Dismounting, she handed Argo's reins to an awaiting groom. She walked across the camp's center yard. Sensing that she was being observed she paused, scanning her surroundings. She stilled at the sight of Gabrielle standing outside of the infirmary tent. It had been over a fortnight since they had seen each other. Xena knew the sight she presented. She was all dirt, blood and scatterings of flesh and bone. She broke free from Gabrielle's searching stare and continued to her tent.
Gabrielle watched as Xena disappeared behind the canvas. Xena had warned her that she was a different woman in war. Touched by Xena's haunted gaze, Gabrielle was not sure that was true.
Xena leaned against her map table. She surrendered to her fatigue. She wanted to wash, to clean away the film of death on her body before taking to her bed. Her precious solitude was interrupted by a call.
Trevor entered. "My Liege, will you see Gabrielle?"
The guard stepped aside. Gabrielle entered with a pitcher of water and a basin. Over her shoulder hung a satchel; within it, her healing supplies. She set the satchel on a nearby bench and approached silently. She placed the basin beside Xena and poured the water into it. She removed a cut of cloth from the satchel and soaked it in the basin.
The young healer raised her eyes to Xena who had been intently watching her. She placed her hand on Xena's arm and began to wash, slowly revealing the tanned skin beneath the dark cakes of dirt and blood. Gabrielle washed Xena's arms and hands then went down to one knee and cleaned Xena's legs. Gabrielle returned to her feet and stood before Xena. She carefully reached up and wiped Xena's forehead, gently cleaning downward until the warrior's face and neck were freed from the remnants of the battle.
"If you undress, I'll clean your leathers and armor."
Xena reached up and undid a catch in her armor. Gabrielle assisted in removing Xena's greaves and gauntlets. Her armor off, Xena stepped aside to where her spare clothes lay. She exchanged her leathers for a clean shift. Holding the leathers in hand she extended them to her caretaker.
"Gabrielle, give Persi my things. He will see that they are taken care of. They need to be repaired as well as cleaned."
"May I come to you later, after you've rested?"
"That is not a good idea."
Gabrielle was adamant. "You may not need me, but I need…I need you. By the Gods, don't set me aside now."
"I didn't want you to come."
"But I did. I'm here. I'm yours."
"Are you? Are you mine?"
"Yes, by my honor. No more back doors. Xena, I don't care about the risk. I want to stand beside you. It would make me proud."
"I will be the death of you."
"Let the Fates decide."
Gabrielle returned to her duties while Xena rested. It was late in the evening when Dalius excused her. She returned to the Conqueror's tent. Seeing Trevor standing guard put her at ease.
"Good evening, Trevor."
"Good evening, Miss."
"Would you ask the Conqueror if she will see me?"
"The Conqueror gave the order after you left this afternoon that you no longer have to be announced. You may enter and leave her quarters freely."
Gabrielle understood that the change was her own doing.
"Do you know if she is still resting?"
"I'm not sure, Miss. She had food brought in about two candlemarks ago. No one has come to her since that time."
"Thank you, Trevor."
"You're welcome, Miss."
Gabrielle entered. An oil lamp shone cast a muted light about the tent. Xena slept in her bed. Gabrielle noted from the food remnants on a table that Xena had eaten. She stripped all but her underclothes and slipped into Xena's bed. Xena lay on her side, her back to Gabrielle. Gabrielle gently molded her body to Xena's, seeking out the simple comfort of being near her mistress. It was not long before she drifted to sleep.
Gabrielle responded to the kiss upon her lips. The kiss deepened, stirring her awake. The kiss left her. She felt a bite upon her neck. It provoked a moan from the back of her throat. She felt the weight of another's body over her. She felt a press against her groin. The kiss returned, opening her mouth, a tongue exploring within.
The Conqueror released the kiss and pushed herself up, holding Gabrielle in her vision. Gabrielle opened her eyes, seeing the untamed expression of the Conqueror. She was familiar with the notorious stories of the Conqueror's insatiable lust after a battle. Gabrielle now had reason to fear who the Conqueror became when intoxicated by her battle lust. She had reason to fear what the Conqueror would demand from her bedmate.
Gabrielle had gone into the Conqueror's bed naively. She was now faced with a decision. She could withhold consent. If she did, she risked that the Conqueror would find a willing substitute. Or, she could face this truth of the woman she loved and pray to the Gods that she could endure what the Conqueror chose to do with her.
Until this moment, Gabrielle never feared that her lover would be other than gentle in their bed. Gabrielle knew she had erred in believing she shared the bed with Xena and thus what took place between them reflected a melding of their individual sensibilities. She was in the Conqueror's bed where all that mattered was the Conqueror’s insatiable physical hunger.
The Conqueror paused, giving the young woman a moment for understanding. "Are you mine?"
Gabrielle's eyes darted back and forth; her mind struggled to be equal to the moment. As much as she feared the Conqueror's rejection, Gabrielle was unwilling to sacrifice her dignity.
She spoke breathlessly. "No violence in our bed. Promise me."
The Conqueror heard the term of engagement. She had never before accepted restriction in her bed. She wanted Gabrielle and understood that to have her a line could not be crossed. The Conqueror spoke in a cool voice. "What you experience as violence, I may not. I won't take you unwillingly. Say no to me and I will stop. You have my word."
Gabrielle was determined to accept the consequences of her choice. "Then yes, I am yours."
The Conqueror did not hesitate to claim Gabrielle. Her pleasure was in the taking. She showed no gentleness. She teased, she captured, she roughly coaxed. She brought the younger woman to climax again and again. The Conqueror took Gabrielle beyond thought.
Gabrielle was in the dominion of the instinctual. Her body responded to pure sensation. She was utterly without control. As the night progressed, her body transcended physical exhaustion, as it had never done before.
The Conqueror would not allow Gabrielle to reciprocate. The night proceeded without a word. There was no recognition that it was Gabrielle who was with her. Gabrielle felt she could have been anyone. She felt a profound emptiness because of that truth.
Replete, the Conqueror shifted to sleep on her side. Spent, physically unhurt, emotionally in tatters, Gabrielle could not accept the sight of the Conqueror's turned back. Gabrielle lay on her side facing the opposite direction. Silent tears fell down her face until she yielded to the pull of Morpheus.
Xena awoke as she lay on her back. She felt better. The edge that threatened to cut and bleed anyone who came near her had been dulled without violence. She turned to look over to Gabrielle. The younger woman slept in an isolated space on the bed; her body crouched inward like a wounded child. Xena's awareness of what they had shared brought an uncommon sympathy. Contemplating Gabrielle's unusual placement, Xena wondered if it was by choice. Or, had Gabrielle felt exiled? She was accustomed to waking to Gabrielle sleeping in her arms with easy abandon. It was in their bed that Xena first came to understand and to fulfill Gabrielle's need to be held. With time, the affection Xena showed Gabrielle passed beyond their bed to other shared moments.
Xena needed to bridge the space and feel Gabrielle's body close to her. The span of hands that separated them could have easily been a day's journey. Xena turned to her side and moved her body to form a protective shell over Gabrielle. Feeling Xena's touch, Gabrielle jerked.
Xena gently placed her hand over Gabrielle's and whispered. "Rest now."
Gabrielle gathered her thoughts. She relented to her chosen fate and spoke softly. "Do you want me?"
Xena heard the words that offered to give again. She also heard the voice of surrender and not desire. She pulled Gabrielle close to her. "I want to sleep with you in my arms."
Gabrielle's sorrow drove her words. "I don't know if I can ever give myself again to you like I did last night."
Xena stilled at the admission. "Did I hurt you?"
Gabrielle kept her place. Comforted by Xena's touch, she mined her courage and spoke honestly. "I can't bear the loneliness."
"What do you mean?"
"You weren't with me. I could have been anyone."
"You're wrong. There wasn't a moment that passed between us that I didn't know it was you who was with me."
"You said nothing to me."
"I've rarely spoken when I've been with you. Words get in the way."
"In the past, your words have showed me the way. I felt lost."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"There is so much I don't understand. You have more experience than I do. I try to learn, but some things are harder for me than others."
Confused, Xena sought to defend herself from her own self-indictment. "You gave me your consent."
Gabrielle turned to her lover. "Xena, you did nothing wrong. I didn't really know what I was consenting to."
"You could have stopped me with a word."
"Part of me didn't want to stop you."
"But part of you did."
"I can find my release with someone else."
Gabrielle remained silent.
Xena regretted her offer. "Have you nothing to say?"
"I have no right to ask for your fidelity."
"Gabrielle." Xena raised Gabrielle's hand in her own. "I will make you a promise. There will be no one else in my bed as long as you and I keep our arrangement."
"Will you expect more nights like last night from me?"
Xena would not pretend otherwise. "There will be times like last night that I will want you unceasingly. You have the right to consent or not. If you consent, I further promise there will never be violence, I will cease at your request, and I will speak your name to reassure you that I am with you and no one else."
"What if I don't consent?"
"I will find a way to cope without bedding someone else."
"What if you need the violence?"
"I won't." Fearing rejection, Xena waited for a response.
"Hold me," Gabrielle begged.
Xena enveloped Gabrielle in her arms. "I've got you."
At the Conqueror's tent, Jared was informed that the Conqueror was not alone. He, in turn, went to Dalius and told him not to expect Gabrielle until later in the day. He spent the morning managing camp operations, taking it upon himself to host the arriving generals.
The Generals sat together in the mess tent for mid-day meal. Kasen was Jared's contemporary. Though larger in size, in all other appearance he could have been taken to be Jared's brother. A strong man who had grown out of the need to prove himself, Kasen valued his position and worked hard to legitimately keep what he gained. Dymas was the Conqueror's age. A man who preferred a battle-axe over a sword, he lusted for a good battle. At time impudent, only the Conqueror had the strength of character to rein in his less commendable behaviors. Regan was equal in experience to Dymas but far exceeded his comrade in maturity. A man who began his career as a sailor, he was grateful for a garrison adjacent to the sea.
The Conqueror entered. "Generals!"
The men stood. Xena called for a mug of tea and sat down. The Generals returned to their seats. Xena asked for reports. Each leader recounted the battle from their point of view, the losses experienced, the losses inflicted, the expected and the unexpected.
Xena measured each man. "You and your soldiers have reason to be proud. You all honored Greece and I thank you for it."
There was a visible relaxation around the table.
"Dymas. Kasen. I want to double our usual troop deployment on the borders. With that exception Greece will return its armies to its garrisons.
Regan spoke. "My Liege, before we return to the west, my men would welcome a Royal inspection."
Kasen added. "I would request the same honor, My Liege."
The balance of the Generals echoed their colleagues.
Xena leaned her chair back on its two back legs. "Jared will set the inspection schedule. I will also visit your infirmaries to speak to the wounded." Returning her chair back to its four legs she asked with a broad smile. "Now, what say you to toasting our victory?"
"It's never too early in the day for a toast, My Liege." Kasen answered for all.
"Good! Then a toast we will have." Xena called for drinks, happy to celebrate with men of valor.
It was late in the evening when Xena entered her camp's infirmary.
Dalius greeted her. "Good evening, Your Majesty."
"Dalius, how goes it?"
"Well, Your Majesty."
"I expect we will stay here for a few extra days. How is our store of medicines?"
"Sufficient to take the men back to Corinth with a fortnight to spare."
"Good." Xena scanned the room. "I don't see Gabrielle."
"I sent her to the back to rest."
"Thank you, Dalius." Xena walked to where a screen isolated three cots for Dalius and his assistants. Gabrielle slept on one. The other two lay empty.
Xena kneeled beside her lover. Her heart ached for the young woman. Having taken so much from her the previous night and made aware of the consequences this morning, she felt a need to offer Gabrielle the tenderness the younger woman yearned for. Xena gently called Gabrielle's name, coaxing her from sleep. Gabrielle opened her eyes to Xena.
Gabrielle's fatigue resounded in her simple response. "Hi."
"Would you prefer to sleep here or with me?"
Xena took Gabrielle in her arms and lifted her up.
Gabrielle protested halfheartedly. "I can walk."
Xena kissed her on the forehead. "Go back to sleep."
Cradled in Xena's arms, Gabrielle ceased all thought of resisting.
Xena carried Gabrielle through the infirmary, across the camp courtyard to her tent. Standing guard, Trevor observed the Conqueror approach. He was no longer surprised to see the Conqueror's open demonstrations of care for the young healer. He held the tent canvas aside.
Xena slipped inside. "Thank you, Trevor."
"You're welcome, My Liege." The guard closed the canvas, pleased by the continuing evidence that the Royal Guard's adopted sister had captured the Conqueror's heart.
For the next three days Xena traveled to her armies' camps, completing a thorough inspection of each. She overlooked minor grievances, focusing on praising the soldiers' skill and courage. She returned late in the evening to her tent. Gabrielle sat up in their bed.
"It's been a good day."
"All is well?"
"All is very well." Xena was dressed in black leather pants and a gambeson. She released the waist belt of her baldric, removing it and her scabbard and sword. "How are you?"
Xena threw herself enthusiastically beside Gabrielle. "Don't worry, I'll change into my shift in a little while." She looked down to her clothes. "Can't imagine these studs would be comfortable against your skin."
Gabrielle went to her knees beside Xena. Her serious countenance did not escape her lover.
"Is something wrong?"
"Are you angry with me?"
Xena went up on one elbow. "What on earth for?"
"Because of what I said to you the morning after the war was won."
Xena paused in thought, seeking the specific reference. "No, Gabrielle. I'm not angry. You had every right to tell me how you felt. I'm grateful you did."
"You haven't touched me since."
"I've held you every night. Isn't that what you want, to be more than my bedmate?"
Gabrielle remained silent. She cast her eyes down.
Xena sat up and took Gabrielle's hand. "Tell me. What do you want from me?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Must I beg you?"
The thought of Xena begging was incomprehensible to Gabrielle. She raised her gaze to Xena. "I want you to be with me the way you were the first time we were together."
Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her hand. "Being gentle with you gives me great pleasure."
Xena leaned forward and offered Gabrielle the gentlest kiss she was capable of. Gabrielle responded shyly. Xena offered a second kiss. Again, she was received shyly. Their evening continued with gentle physical intimacies, accompanied by Xena's spoken words naming Gabrielle, seeking permission, offering assurance, guiding Gabrielle to her.
Xena and Jared made their way to where Stephen and a small hunting party prepared to leave camp.
Xena tried one final time to convince her general. "You sure you don't want to join us?"
"Next time, My Liege. I prefer a day of rest."
Xena teased. "Jared, what is becoming of you?"
"It is your doing for keeping me alive long enough to feel the ache in my joints."
"We have a fine young healer who can recommend a liniment for such things. I can attest that it brings relief."
Jared laughed. "I doubt I will warrant the same care she gives you."
Xena stopped cold.
Jared was a good step ahead before he realized he walked alone. He turned to Xena, catching the impenetrable mask that fell across her face. He was struck with how Xena had taken his careless words. He did not hesitate. He stepped directly in front of her.
Jared spoke quietly. "Xena, hear me. I meant no offense to the lass. I spoke freely because there is no question of her virtue. I am at one with all the men of your Guard. We have only respect for Gabrielle. She is good and honorable and deserves nothing less than the best life has to offer."
"If ever a man speaks ill of Gabrielle…"
"There will be nothing for you to do because any man who hurts the lass by word or hand will die by the brotherhood's sword."
"Jared, the war took its toll on her. Her heart is tender and bruises easily."
"When she has to be. I want her to be free of worry…if only for a little while."
"Go and have your hunt. Gabrielle is in safe hands."
"Thank you, my friend."
Jared placed his hand on Xena's shoulder, a rare gesture that only he had earned the right to do. He motioned with his chin. "I believe the lass wishes to speak to you."
Xena followed his gaze. Gabrielle stood outside the infirmary.
Xena went to her with a quick step. "Healer."
Xena spoke so only Gabrielle could hear her. "I should be back by nightfall."
Gabrielle reflected the intimate tone. "Be safe."
Xena smiled. "I might come back with a scratch just so you will care for it."
"I promise you care whether you return with or without injury."
"Will you do me a favor?"
"Jared is complaining of aches and pains. Have fun with him and call him an old man."
Gabrielle smiled. "Isn't that mean, My Lord?"
"Isn't it the truth, healer?"
"You are showing an incorrigible side of yourself."
"I think it's about time."
Xena was pleased. It seemed a long time had passed since she saw Gabrielle so animated.
"I have a second favor."
"I don't know, My Lord. I am becoming wary of you in your present mood."
"I know it is selfish of me, but will you be my bard tonight?"
Gabrielle stilled. She felt a wall that stood between them collapse. Her answer was heartfelt. "Yes, Xena. I will."
"Good. Until tonight then." Xena took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it gently refraining from publicly stealing the kiss she longed to give.
Gabrielle kept an observant eye upon her lover. Xena had the respect of her armies. Gabrielle had heard the reasons why many times. Only now did she understand. A leader had to be wise, strong of spirit, decisive and never ask more from others than she was willing to give. Because of her superior mind and skills, Xena gave more than anyone under her command. As Anton had explained, all in the Royal Guard aspired to be worthy of her leadership.
Gabrielle had seen glimpses of the toll ruling Greece had upon Xena. What rewards Xena received were few. Today Xena was happy. The Conqueror had been set aside. Gabrielle wished she could freeze this moment when the refrain of human history paused. There was no war to fight, Xena's armies stood proud, Greece prospered and her government was secure. It was only with these fragile achievements in place that Xena could grant herself a hunt in good company and an evening of storytelling.
Xena told Gabrielle that her happiness came though simple pleasures. Watching Xena ride off with a wave and stunning smile, Gabrielle knew that it was true. It seemed so easy and yet, for Xena so terribly difficult to have. Looking forward to the evening, Gabrielle prayed that the Gods would bestow upon Xena the grace of peace.
It was dusk and the hunting party had begun their return to camp through an area of dense forest. Xena raised her hand. Stephen and the other five Guardsmen reined in their horses. Danger was imminent. Xena could feel a ribbon of men forming around them. She made a fist and held it steady. The Guardsmen readied. Scanning the area there was only one clear escape route. She had no doubt that a heavier contingent of raiders lay on the path. She opened her fist and dropped her palm down making a quarter motion to the right.
An arrow cut across the expanse aimed directly at her heart. She could chose death and allow the arrow to hit its target or choose life and catch it. It was not a good day to die. She had Gabrielle waiting for her and Xena was determined not to disappoint her lover. Xena cried out as she caught the arrow. The hunting party rode left. Whatever line of resistance waited for them they would challenge it as one force. If they were to survive the ambush, it was because they did not question but obeyed.
Xena led, riding low, making herself a lesser target. They were outnumbered. Xena's advantage was that she and her men had mounts and the raiders before her did not. She heard a man cry out. Looking back she saw that Stephen had taken an arrow in the shoulder. She turned Argo shouting orders for the men to ride on. She unsheathed her sword and steadied for the fight.
She was engaged by four foot soldiers as three men on horseback attacked unexpectedly from the left flank. The thick ground cover made it difficult to maneuver Argo. The foot soldiers retreated out of the horsemen's path. Xena stood up in her stirrups. She swung her sword with a crisp motion cutting the throat of one rider and severing the arm of a second below the elbow.
A foot soldier moved forward. He thrust a short sword up from his position into Xena's side. The wound was deep and painful. Aware that she was in trouble, Xena removed a dagger from her belt and flung it into the foot soldier's throat. She parried the remaining horseman's sword, twisting it out of his hands. Xena plunged her sword into the man's chest. He fell backwards as she cleared her sword from his flesh.
Compelled by Xena's command, Argo raced away. Xena felt blood seeping from her wound. She reined Argo toward a path at right angle to where she believed her men had escaped. She would split the threatening forces. Though doing so might not make a difference whether she lived or died, it might help her men survive.
Luck was with Xena. Behind her she heard the sounds of chaos. There were no calls for pursuit. Argo carried her mistress at a steady pace. Xena drifted in and out of consciousness, clinging to the saddle horn for support. Ahead, Xena spied two large boulders rising to Argo's height. Side-by-side they created a niche of moderate shelter.
Xena whispered to the mare. "Argo, stop."
Argo held her position.
Argo went down to her front knees.
"Good girl." Xena threw a blanket, one of her saddlebags and a water skin down to the ground. She then slipped her body off the steed and crawled into the niche.
Argo came to Xena nuzzling her.
Xena spoke wistfully. "Hey, girl. Not how I planned to end the day."
Xena opened her saddlebag and removed a cloth. She placed it against her wound and pressed down, trying to stop the flow of blood. Her joke to Gabrielle was no longer funny. This was a high price to pay to receive the younger woman's care. Following the sunset, the forest quickly disappeared into the black of night. Xena closed her eyes. She knew that unless she was found soon she would bleed to death. She also knew by her keen ear that there was no one near, either friend or foe.
Her hand rested on her saddlebag, taking comfort from the feel of soft leather against her fingertips. Her gaze found and held to her second saddlebag, still hanging on Argo's saddle. Within it was her most priceless bequest - Gabrielle's freedom. She had written, signed and sealed the order of freedom before leaving Corinth. She carried the scroll with her throughout the campaign against Caesar. Whatever the consequences of her death might be, it would not include Gabrielle being forced back into the hands of a slaver.
Xena felt a rising shame. She knew that she was the one who did a disservice to Gabrielle. Gabrielle remained her indentured servant because Xena feared that, if free, Gabrielle would choose to leave Corinth. Xena heard Jared's assessment of Gabrielle anew. 'She is good and honorable and deserves nothing less than the best life has to offer.'
Having woken that morning with Gabrielle in her arms Xena had felt worthy of the honor of being the self-appointed guardian of Gabrielle's vulnerable spirit. After their tender night of pleasure, Xena was both humbled and heartened. She admired the courage of the younger woman who trembled in her arms -- courage she measured greater than her own.
Xena retraced the events that brought them to the previous night. She had been impressed by Gabrielle's brave heart during their first intimacy. Their first time, she strove to ease Gabrielle's memory of abuse in the hands of others. Gabrielle had trusted Xena not to do her harm and opened herself freely to Xena's touch. Xena judged what they had shared the previous night went beyond that initial trust. Gabrielle had opened herself up a second time to Xena, someone who had caused her injury. Xena had to ease the pain of what Gabrielle experienced as her indifference, and near betrayal of trust. Xena was grateful for the invitation to return to Gabrielle, an invitation that she could have never given another woman or man because she never gave second chances, never risked a second harm.
It was a battle and not an accident that delayed the Conqueror. Jared felt the truth in his bones. He organized two search parties and relayed word to the other generals to hold their positions. Having sent for Gabrielle, he wondered who's will, hers or his, would prevail.
Gabrielle entered Jared's tent unannounced. "Take me with you."
Jared put down the map he was studying. "No."
"Someone may be hurt. You'll need a healer."
"You forget the Conqueror is a capable healer."
Gabrielle stepped up. "What if she's hurt and can't take care of herself?"
Jared relented, but only to a point. "I'll take Dalius."
"I can protect myself. I've been taught by the best."
"The Conqueror is the best."
"Well, I'm not worried about having to go up against her."
"I promised her that no harm would come to you."
Gabrielle would not be denied. "Then keep me by your side."
Jared took Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Listen to me, lass. Listen good! In battle obedience is absolute. If I take you with me, you must trust me and do as I say. No hesitation, just follow orders. Give me your word."
"Then get yourself a mount."
Jared watched as the young woman disappeared behind the tent canvas. He found reason to smile. No debate with the determined bard could be considered a fair contest. He would grant Gabrielle any request that did not infringe upon his oath to the Conqueror.
The search party had been traveling for three candlemarks when Stephen and the five Guardsmen of the hunting party came into their view. Gabrielle followed Jared, as he rode forward to meet them.
Not seeing the Conqueror, the General was impatient. "Captain. Report."
Stephen gave Jared a complete account of the attack.
"How's your wound?"
"Not too bad."
"Gabrielle will stitch you up. We'll set camp here for the night."
Jared rode back to the main contingent to direct operations.
Gabrielle received a message to report to Jared after she finished caring for the wounded. She approached the General who was meeting with three of his men. Gabrielle waited for Jared to recognize her presence.
The General placed his hand on her back and led her away. "This way."
"You wanted to see me?"
"How is Stephen?"
"Good. His armor slowed down the arrow. It didn't go very deep."
"Lass, the Conqueror is injured. I would say she's hurt bad."
Gabrielle stopped. "Stephen didn't say…"
"He didn't have to. The Conqueror would have doubled back and found her men. If she didn't it's because she couldn't. Be ready for the worst."
"What are you going to do?"
"At dawn we are going to split up into three groups. It will be dangerous. Our smaller numbers will make us vulnerable."
"Would the Conqueror do this?"
"If it was me out there," Jared looked out into the distance, "she would use her blasted sixth sense and walk right up to me. None of us are the Conqueror so we'll do it the hard way."
Longing for privacy, Gabrielle placed her bedroll at the edge of the circle of men. She fell into a fitful sleep. At dawn Jared kneeled beside Gabrielle and gently woke her.
"It's time, lass."
"Are you all right?"
"I miss her."
"I know. She's a rough diamond, isn't she?"
"What will this do to her?"
"What do you mean?"
"When she fought Gaugan she came back to Corinth…different. What will getting hurt do to her?"
"I don't know how she'll be, lass. I never do."
"But you seem to understand her better than most."
"Maybe I do. There is good reason for it. Remember, I knew Xena when she was but a girl living in Amphipolis."
"I wish I had known her then."
"You do know that part of her. It's the part of her that is easy with the world, that laughs and cries."
"I've never seen Xena cry."
"It's been a long time…when she found Lyceus dead in the battlefield she cried her heart out." Jared patted Gabrielle's hand. "It's easier for her to laugh and she has a good laugh, doesn't she?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, she does."
Jared looked up to the sky taking measure of the day. "Let's go find her."
The search party traveled silently.
Gabrielle spoke softly. "Jared, if we don't call out for her, how will she know it's us and not the raiders?"
"She'll know. We have to listen for her signal."
"What signal is that?"
"A hawk's call."
Tree branches rustled around them.
"Damn to Tartarus!" Jared cursed as a man fell onto him from a tree overhang. A swift elbow to his assailant's head knocked the man to the ground.
Men seemed to rain from the sky. Gabrielle released her staff from its saddle binding. She countered an on-coming raider's sword. The impact shook her in the saddle.
Jared rode beside Gabrielle's horse and slapped it in the rump. "Get out of here!" he ordered.
The mare bolted. A short-swordsman swung his blade across the mare's body cutting its chest from side to side. The horse reared in shock, fell back to all fours and galloped out of the chaos.
Gabrielle held on to the saddle. Her horsemanship was insufficient to regain control. She crouched low avoiding tree branches that would dismount her. It was a half-candlemark before the mare slowed on her own. Gabrielle's nerves steadied. She reined the mare to a complete stop and dismounted. She sighed as she felt the ground underneath her feet. With staff in hand she walked to the front of the mare.
"By the Gods," she breathed out as her gaze moved from the bloody wound to the mare's glazed eyes. Gabrielle knew she could do nothing to save the animal's life. She went to its side and unstrapped the saddle, removing the burden from the mare's back. She then removed its bridle.
"I'm sorry, girl." Gabrielle stroked the mare's forehead in sympathy.
Gabrielle looked about. She had no idea where she was. She bent down to one knee and retrieved her saddlebag, water skin, healer's supplies and bedroll. She estimated she had a candlemark of light before darkness would force her to set up camp. She began her hike back to where she hoped to find Jared.
Gabrielle saw a patch of pale yellow to her right. She swallowed and held still, attentive to every sound and sight. The patch moved. Gabrielle walked toward it. With each step her hopes rose. She smiled at the familiar sight of Argo. She looked about -- counting that Xena would be nearby. Spying the boulders she approached. She was ten paces away when she recognized Xena's form on the ground. Gabrielle ran to her, dropping to her knees. "Xena."
Xena released her ready sword from her hand. She spoke with a hoarse voice. "Gabrielle. Where's Jared?"
"We were searching for you when we were attacked. I got separated from the others. They can't be too far away." Gabrielle scanned Xena's body. "Where are you hurt?"
Xena's strength had completely escaped her. "Doesn't matter. You can't help me."
"Let me try."
"The bleeding stopped." Xena offered a wry smile. "I don't think I have any blood left to bleed."
"Here. Drink some water."
Xena opened her mouth. Though her thirst was unquenchable, nausea prevented her from taking more than a few sips.
"Thank you. You should go."
"I won't leave you."
"The forest is filled with raiders. Get out. If they catch you, you won't want to be alive after they're done with you."
"It won't be the first time."
Xena's anger flared. "Not because of me. Never because of me."
"Nothing is going to happen to me." Gabrielle tried to placate.
"Gabrielle, in Argo's saddlebag there's a scroll. It grants you your freedom. I should have given it to you before this."
"It wouldn't have made a difference."
"I don't want you hurt. Take my coin. Start living."
"What do you think I've been doing? You've given me my life back."
"No, Gabrielle. That's where you're wrong. I've only taken from you. I can't give you what you want from me."
"You're wrong. I have everything I have ever wanted."
"I can't love you the way you deserve to be loved."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. "Are you telling me you don't…"
"Please, there is nothing more you can do for me. Leave me the blanket and water skin. Take Argo. Go."
Gabrielle pause in their argument. Xena watched the subdued young woman closely.
"I know you never said the words. I wanted to believe…"
"I'm sorry." Xena's tone conveyed a desired end to their conversation.
Gabrielle desperately countered. "I never asked for your love."
"Good." Xena was resolute. "Because you will never have it."
Gabrielle held Xena's gaze. She challenged Xena to betray the truth. Gabrielle waited. Xena did not flinch. The Conqueror tried to stare Gabrielle down to nothing.
Gabrielle stood up and walked to Argo. She tied her things to the saddle. She took up the mare's reins and placed her foot in a stirrup. In one uninterrupted motion she mounted. Gabrielle turned back to take a final look at the Conqueror. There was much still to be said between them. It would wait.
"I'll bring Jared to you."
Xena's gaze followed Gabrielle as she rode away. Xena felt both proud and frustrated by Gabrielle's defiance. The many candlemarks that had passed in waiting gave Xena an opportunity to take account of her life. Gabrielle did not belong in it. Xena lived by a code driven by the truth. In the lonely hours of the night she resigned herself to the fact that she had turned her back on a ruling truth. No one was safe beside her. No one she loved ever survived unless she kept them at a distance. The only exception was Jared, and he was one of the most capable warriors she had ever known. Gabrielle was no Jared. To continue to pursue Gabrielle, to welcome her love, was to condemn her to death or a fate worse than death. Xena would suffer in Tartarus for eternity. Gabrielle would not be the reason why. No more innocents would die because of her.
Gabrielle rode. The terrain was unfamiliar. She realized she was not on the same path that brought her from the ambush to Xena. Her doubt of finding Jared or the other Royal Guardsmen was great. Looking to her far left it seemed as if the trees cleared. She turned Argo toward the perceived clearing hoping that leaving the forest would give her a better sense of her location. Riding out as the sun cut below the horizon she saw a village. It was new to her.
The village was of moderate size. Its buildings were well kept. Men and women walked about easily. A few children played. Gabrielle called out to a young man leaving the smithy.
"Excuse me. What village is this?"
Finding Gabrielle attractive, the young man smiled. "Amphipolis, Miss."
"Do you know the innkeeper?"
"Cyrene? Yes, I do. Why do you ask?"
"Could you tell me where' I could find the inn?"
"Just down that road. Can't miss it."
Gabrielle entered the inn. It was bustling with the evening meal service. She went to a serving girl. "Please. I need to speak to the innkeeper?"
The girl pointed. "She's there, going into the kitchen."
Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the older woman. Of considerably less stature than her daughter, she did share Xena's dark flowing hair. Gabrielle entered the kitchen.
The innkeeper called out to her from the fireplace. "Are you lost?"
Gabrielle drew near. "My name is Gabrielle. I need to talk to you privately. It's important."
The innkeeper scrutinized the young woman. "Over here."
The two walked outside.
"Now what have you to say to me?"
"Xena is hurt. She needs a healer. I'm afraid she's dying."
The innkeeper steeled. "Why tell me this?"
Gabrielle noted the resemblance in manner between mother and daughter. "Because you're her mother. Will you lose another child to death?"
"What do you know of what I've lost?"
"I know Xena still grieves Lyceus. I can't imagine how much more his death hurt you."
"Why isn't her army helping her?"
"She went hunting with a small group of her men and they were attacked by raiders. She held the raiders back while her men escaped. The Royal Guard went searching for her. I went with them because I'm a healer's apprentice. Raiders attacked us and I got separated. I found her hurt and went looking for help. I made the mistake of leading her horse in the wrong direction. I would have taken her with me but she hasn't the strength to ride. Please, if she dies it will be my fault."
"And who are you to her?"
"Xena has no friends."
"You're wrong. There are men and women who would die for her. I'm one of them…. If you won't help me, then tell me where I can find a healer. I also need to get a message to her army."
The innkeeper said nothing.
"Fine. I'll do what I need to do without your help."
"You're wasting your time. No one in Amphipolis will help the Conqueror."
"Then I'll go back to her. I don't want her to die alone. She doesn't deserve that."
Cyrene's curiosity sought satisfaction. "Did she lead the fight against Caesar?"
Gabrielle was hopeful that she would not be turned away. "Yes."
Cyrene looked away to the horizon and spoke her quiet thought. "She is still leading young men to their deaths."
Gabrielle was angered by what she heard as a common and unjust accusation. "She is fighting for the good of Greece!"
Gabrielle's forceful defense caused Cyrene to refocused upon the young healer. "Was General Jared with her?"
"Gabrielle, wait. We will need to bring Xena here without anyone knowing. There are plenty of men and women who would be tempted to take a knife to her if they knew she was injured. And, for the same reason, you cannot trust anyone here to take a message to her army. If Jared is the same man I used to know he will not stop until he finds her. We need to wait until the village sleeps. I have a wagon we can use to bring her back to the inn."
"How long do you want to wait?"
"Two candlemarks. In the meantime you can help prepare a room for her and get some food for yourself. It promises to be a long night and you will need your strength."
Though she preferred not to wait, Gabrielle was grateful for the promised assistance. "Thank you."
They traveled by moonlight until they reached the forest. The dense canopy caused Gabrielle to light a torch. She led, riding upon Argo. Cyrene drove a wagon behind her. Gabrielle caught sight of the two large boulders.
She felt a rising sense of urgency. She dismounted. She paused upon seeing Xena's still body.
"Xena…" Gabrielle placed her hand to Xena's neck seeking a pulse. She placed her ear to Xena's heart.
Cyrene approached with dread. "Is she?"
Cyrene went to her knees. She studied her child. "Daughter, what has come of you?"
Gabrielle warned. "We need to hurry."
Xena was ensconced in a moderately sized room at the far end of the inn's second floor. There was access to it through the back steps allowing both Gabrielle and Cyrene to move up and down unobserved. Two days had passed. Xena remained unconscious. Gabrielle had stripped Xena of her armor and leathers and washed her body. The intimate act moved Gabrielle to tears as she noted new cuts and bruises beside old battle scars. Gabrielle cleaned the deepest wounds carefully before stitching them closed. Gabrielle and Cyrene said little to each other.
Gabrielle smiled. "Hey."
Xena blinked. She looked around trying to make sense of where she was.
Xena made a motion to move. Gabrielle held her shoulders down.
"Don’t try to move."
"You came back." Xena spoke with difficulty.
"I said I would."
Xena heard movement. Someone had risen from a chair. Gabrielle retreated, allowing the other person access. Cyrene came into Xena's focus.
Xena’s heart staggered. "Mother."
Cyrene took Xena's hand. "Yes, daughter. You gave us quite a scare. You've been asleep for over two days."
"I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
"Be still. You must get well. We will talk later."
Xena held her mother's gaze. It had been too long since she felt her mother's compassion. She wished she did not have to consider the practical.
"Who knows I'm here?"
"Just Gabrielle and I. Amphipolis has little affection for the Conqueror. We didn't want to take any unnecessary risks."
"I need to go. I'll only cause you trouble."
"This is my inn and you are my child. Don't worry. Just rest and let your young healer friend take care of you." Cyrene patted Xena's hand. "She's done quite a good job of it. I think you would be impressed."
"I don't doubt it."
"Close your eyes. We'll be here when you wake up."
"I'm here, Xena."
"I broke my code. I'm sorry." Xena's eyes closed as she fell back asleep, her fatigue claiming her.
Cyrene looked back and forth between the two women. "What did she mean?"
Perplexed, Gabrielle confessed, "I'm not sure."
A contingent of the Royal Guard led by Jared rode into Amphipolis. "Check the stables."
Jared dismounted and walked toward the inn. Cyrene stepped outside to meet him. Jared paused taking in the handsome woman. He gave her a half-bow. "Cyrene, I hope you are well."
"Jared. It's not like you to come here."
"I have my reasons."
"Have you seen Xena?"
Cyrene looked over to the stables. "Her horse is well and with time so will she."
"Where is she?"
"In good hands."
"I want to see her."
"She was bloodied from head to toe. She had a large blade wound in her side. She lost so much blood she lost consciousness and would not have wakened if Zeus himself struck his lighting bolts at her feet. Where were you when this was done to her?"
"Following her orders."
"You are still loyal to her in spite of everything."
"Xena has reasons for the choices she's made. I don't always agree with her, but she has never done anything so grievous to make me renounce my allegiance to her."
Cyrene remained unmoved.
Jared knew the woman well. He knew she needed assurance, not so much because she doubted him, but because she feared she would err a second time during a crucial crossroad in her daughter's life. "Cyrene, Xena has saved my life countless times. Not once have I returned the favor though I wish I could prove myself to her by doing so."
"She is inside. The young healer Gabrielle has been taking care of her."
"Will you lead the way?"
"Until this moment no one else in Amphipolis knew she was here. Pay your debt to her and keep her safe."
"Upon my honor, Cyrene."
"Upon your life, Jared. You will have to face me if you have spoken anything less than the truth."
Cyrene led Jared into Xena's room. Gabrielle sat by her bedside. She smiled upon seeing the General.
"Why am I not surprised to see you here?" He placed his hand affectionately upon Gabrielle's shoulder. "How is she?"
"She needs Dalius."
"I'll see to it. How are you?"
"She will get better?" Gabrielle sought corroboration from the man who knew Xena best.
Jared leaned over and studied Xena's pallor before turning back to Gabrielle. He chose not to share his concerns. "Yes, lass, she will. We’ll talk later. Let me see to Dalius and setting up security."
Gabrielle was pulled from her sleep by a familiar voice. She opened her eyes to the light of one lone candle and the moonlight shining through the window. Xena was agitated in her sleep. She repeated the word "No." as she turned her head from side to side.
Gabrielle got out of bed. She went to a nearby basin and wet a cloth.
"No!" Xena bolted to an upright position. Gabrielle dropped the cloth and placed her hands on Xena's shoulders to steady her.
"Xena. It's all right. You're having a bad dream."
Xena focused on Gabrielle's calming voice. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm here. Please, lie down. You'll tear your stitches."
"Too much death…too much."
Gabrielle reached for the dropped cloth. Taking it in hand, she wiped Xena's face.
"Xena, remember the lake you took me to? Remember how the sun shined on our faces and how the wind blew gently through your hair? And how quiet it was? How peaceful? Hold to that feeling. Rest there. In peace." Gabrielle stroked Xena's brow. "Rest."
"How is she?"
Gabrielle turned her gaze to the door. Cyrene stood at the threshold. Gabrielle wondered how long she had been there. "She had a nightmare. It usually only takes her a little while to calm afterwards."
"She's had them before?"
"Yes, often enough."
"She told you this?"
"No…when I'm with her… She doesn't remember or if she does she never said anything to me."
"When you are with her? In her bed?"
"Gabrielle. Who are you to her?"
"I don't know. Not really."
"Who is she to you?"
"I love her."
Cyrene sat down on the edge of Gabrielle's bed. "How does a healer come to be in the Conqueror's bed?"
"I was brought to Corinth as a slave. Targon, her administrator, purchased me to serve the Conqueror's household. I was nearly starved and had been abused by the slavers. Xena saw me in service and ordered that I be cared for. She kept me safe. I'm a bit of a storyteller. The staff enjoyed them enough that Jared asked me to entertain the wounded soldiers after Gaugan's revolt. Because I wanted to do more for the men than tell stories, I asked Xena permission to apprentice with Dalius. She agreed. While working in the infirmary there was a sickness and I was not immune to it. When Xena learned that I had fallen ill she took me into her rooms and cared for me. It was then that I learned that she held me in her regard."
"She took you to her bed."
"No. I pulled away from her. She had been very gentle, but because of what had been done to me before Corinth, the thought of being with anyone frightened me. With time I realized that I did want to be with her and that I trusted her to not hurt me."
"How long have you been with her?"
"I entered the Conqueror's household a year and a half ago. We have known each other intimately for a number of moons."
"So, she has been good to you."
"Yes. I wish I understood her better." Gabrielle looked down at the sleeping form.
Cyrene contemplated the woman who lay on the bed. "As a child, Xena had a mind of her own. She could outdo the boys, including her older brother Toris, and she had little interest in being with the girls. She never felt she belonged. Her one constant playmate was Lyceus. He worshipped her. Nothing Xena did was wrong. And Xena protected him." Cyrene did not hide the pride in her voice. "The Gods help anyone who tried to hurt Lyceus."
"When he died?"
"I blamed her." Cyrene sobered. "All the people of Amphipolis who lost sons, brothers and husbands did. She was left alone to deal with the pain. Instead of compassion, she learned distrust and hatred. The people of Amphipolis… I must take responsibility for creating the Conqueror."
"I don't believe she blames you."
"It would have been better if she had turned her pain and anger against me than against the world."
Cyrene got up. "She seems to be resting well. You should try to get some sleep, too."
Xena awoke to Dalius' touch upon her brow. She looked about. "Where's Gabrielle?"
"With your mother getting something to eat."
"Waiting for your orders, Your Majesty."
"Get Jared… Dalius, I only want to see him. No one else including you."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Dalius found Jared, Cyrene and Gabrielle at a table in the center of the inn. Gabrielle stood up upon seeing him. Dalius raised his hand to stay her and the General, who too had gone to his feet.
"The Conqueror has awakened. General, she's asked to see you."
Jared moved forward, followed by Gabrielle. Dalius calls out Gabrielle's name. "The Conqueror will see only the General."
Jared looked back to the stricken healer. He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Always business first with her. It won't be long."
Dalius was not so confident.
Xena took inventory of her body. Her hand glided down her side. She swept away her blanket and looked at the bandages. She moved her body to the left, feeling the tightness of her stitches. She leaned back and stretched her legs. Her muscles welcomed the exercise. She was lucky that she had only one near mortal wound. Whoever led the raiders would regret the arrogance of his men. If they had kept their focus she would now be in Tartarus.
Jared entered Xena's room. He felt a great relief in seeing her awake.
"It's unfair Xena. Cyrene is blaming me for your latest scratch."
"Mother always liked you, Jared. Get used to it."
"It's good to see you."
"Same here. What do we know?"
"We got our hands on one of the raiding parties. It was all planned. Take you out here in the field while Vacaou moves his force toward Corinth."
"Jared, help me up."
"I will not let that coward claim my throne."
"I'm sure I know what Dalius said. By the time we reach Corinth, I'll be as good as new."
"Will you challenge Vacaou?"
"If it saves more bloodshed, yes. Do you doubt that I can cut the bastard down?"
"I will never doubt you."
"You're a good man. Now, my friend, help me up." Xena extended her arm.
Jared held Xena standing with an arm around her waist.
"There is one more thing. I've granted Gabrielle her freedom. Give her a double stipend, a horse, and tell her she is free to take whatever supplies she needs in addition to her personal belongings."
"She is leaving?"
"She is no longer a member of my household."
Jared waited until he was alone with Gabrielle and Cyrene in the inn dining room. He handed Gabrielle a pouch filled with coin.
"This is for you. By order of the Conqueror you are to also have a horse, your belongings and whatever other supplies you need to begin a new life as a freewoman."
Dismayed, Gabrielle looked down at the heavy weight in her hands. "Xena wants me to leave? What have I done wrong?"
Feeling helpless, seeking support, Jared glimpsed over Gabrielle's shoulder to where Cyrene stood. Cyrene's gaze was far from encouraging.
He answered Gabrielle as best as he could. "You've done nothing wrong. The Conqueror has kept her word and granted you your freedom."
"Did she say she wanted me to stay?"
"What if I don't want my freedom?"
Jared took Gabrielle by her shoulders. "You are free, Gabrielle."
"Others have stayed and served her. Why can't I?"
"She said you are no longer a member of her household."
"There must be a place for me somewhere…" Gabrielle pleaded.
Cyrene stepped up. "Gabrielle told me she is a member of the Royal Guard. Jared, as general you must have some authority or are you just a lap dog?"
Jared stiffened at Cyrene's characterization. "Lass, you are still a member of my command. I can arrange an escort to the eastern provinces where General Kasen leads the Third Army. His garrison can always use a healer. And you won't be totally among strangers. You know a number of men in the company of the Royal Guard jointly stationed there."
"Jared, why is she doing this? I don't understand."
"Neither do I. This is not like the Conqueror I know."
Gabrielle turned to Cyrene. Cyrene offered. "Maybe it's because with you she's not the Conqueror."
Xena sat is a chair in her room. She looked out into the clear night keeping company with the stars.
She responded to a knock on the door. "Come."
Cyrene entered. "Daughter, may I come in?"
"Jared tells me that you are determined to leave tomorrow."
"I have an assassin to deal with."
"Mother, I'm sorry. I didn't want you to see me like this."
"It wasn't your choice, was it? To think my daughter had to be near death for her to be brought to me." Cyrene paused to calm her emotions. "I sent you away. Our separation is my doing."
"I don't blame you for Lyceus' death. Not anymore. I'm sorry I didn't try to help you grieve him. I denied you and for that I'll never forgive myself."
"You loved him."
"And I love you."
Xena felt a press in her heart.
"Will you come back to Amphipolis for a visit?"
"If I'm welcomed."
Xena offered her mother a slight smile. "I'll be back."
Cyrene sat beside Xena. "Daughter, there is something else, someone else I want to talk to you about."
"You have every reason in the world not to trust others. But, I believe you are wrong to deny her."
"What has she said to you?"
"It's not what she said. I've watched her care for you. She fought to save your life. Xena, she loves you."
"I know she does."
"The only thing that will make her happy is to be with you. Don't send her away."
"Gabrielle and I are very different."
"Yes, in some ways you are. That might be why you should have her in your life."
"She's a freewoman."
"Not free enough to ride to Corinth with you."
"Court would not be kind to her."
"Don't underestimate her. She's won over your Royal Guard."
"Because she is one with them. They come from the same peasant stock."
"Yes, like me. But that isn't Court. The Nobles will see me in Tartarus. They have little or no honor. Greed is their mother's milk. They will target Gabrielle in order to get to me. It's not the first time that's happen."
"You are the Conqueror. Make that reputation count for something."
"Well deserved, I'm told."
"My reputation didn't stop Caesar or Vacaou from challenging Greece. It doesn't stop attempts upon my life and if she stands with me, it won't stop Gabrielle from meeting Hades before she turns another summer."
"You deserve to be loved. Lyceus was right to stand by you. So is Gabrielle."
"I won't change my mind."
"Don't think, Xena. You can always find reasons to walk away. Let yourself feel."
"I do feel, Mother. Believe me. If I had no heart I wouldn't think twice about Gabrielle. Leaving her has not been an easy decision."
"You do love her then?"
"I have never spoken those words to her."
"Your silence doesn't change the truth."
"The truth? The truth is that for a brief moment in time the Fates allowed me to believe that I could turn my back on the bitterness of life and know bliss. A traitorous Lord and the cold blade of his henchman proved me wrong. The truth is that I've hurt Gabrielle and I will regret the harm I've done her until the day I die."
Cyrene stood up and leaned over to her daughter. She kissed Xena on the cheek. "You are too noble for your own good."
"I love you, Mother."
"Stay another day. Greece will wait."
"Gabrielle leaves in the morning. You will not see her, and you and I can visit."
"All right. One day."
"Thank you. Now get some sleep." Cyrene looked out the window. "The stars will still be in the sky tomorrow."
Xena did not give voice to her thought. 'But will I be alive to see them?'
A fortnight had passed since the Conqueror returned to Corinth and taken Vacaou down in a fight of honor. Retaking her throne had been a remarkably simple affair. The Conqueror could have marched all her forces to Corinth and made it an easy slaughter, but she refused to place Greece in a vulnerable position to foreign invasion. With the Conqueror's Royal Guard and First Army standing behind her as witness, Vacaou met her in the battlefield. His militia stood arrogantly with him, imagining they would soon take the highly coveted position of the Guardsmen. The terms of engagement were simple - winner takes all. The loser lost her or his life, and forfeited the lives of their immediate family. The Conqueror's victory was assured by the terms. No harm would come to Cyrene.
Vacaou, an excellent fighter in his own right, misjudged the Conqueror's ability to heal. She was not in the mood for game playing and Vacaou died within ten strikes of their blades. The Conqueror took him to his knees and removed his head. Afterwards, she turned her back on Vacaou's militia and walked over to where Jared waited. Her order was simple. "Disarm and exile." Jared knew that Vacaou's men were alive only because Xena had her fill of death that day.
Corinth was at peace, though it was an unnerving peace. The people at the upper echelons feared the Conqueror's wrath. Many had done little or nothing to protest Vacaou's attempt to overthrow the government. The Nobles experienced the Conqueror's disdain by her disregard of Court. She spent much of her time in her private suite recovering from both the physical and emotional toll of Caesar and Vacaou.
Jared entered the Conqueror's meeting chamber. Xena stood at the balcony looking out into the night. He was struck by the lonely image.
"Yes, my friend."
"I can find her, bring her back to you."
"For how long? Caesar will rebuild his army and then he will come again. And, if not Caesar there will be someone else."
"She's not afraid."
"She should be."
"The lass loves you."
"Gabrielle will love again."
"But will you?"
Xena turned to Jared. "One of us has to make the hard decisions."
Jared noted that Xena did not argue with his statement. "I've been with you from the beginning. It's time you forgive yourself."
"No more innocents will die because of me."
"It's a dangerous world. Did you ever think she may be safer with you than without you?"
"No, Jared. No one is safe with me."
"I argue differently."
Xena smiled. "Thank you…. But, no." Xena went to her desk and poured two small cups of port. She handed one cup to Jared and kept the second for herself. "I do ask one thing, although I don't think it's necessary."
"What is that?"
"Keep her safe."
"I have done my best."
"I can't ask anything more of you."
"If you change your mind…."
Xena drank the port in one quick swallow. "I won't."
END of PART TWO
Continued - Part 3
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