by C Paradee
Standard: Xena and Gabrielle and a few other characters were loosely created from those belonging to Universal/Renaissance and whoever else has an interest in Xena:Warrior Princess. No copywrite infringement is intended. The others I created and are copywrited to me.
Violence Warning: This story depicts the usual amount of violence associated with Xena:Warrior Princess.
Subtext: This is a story about two women who are in love. Although it is not graphic, subtext is maintext. If that offends you there are plenty of other stories you might want to read. If you are under 18 or it is illegal where you live, please stop and read no further.
Thanks: I would like to thank Lunacy for beta reading and providing feedback and Felidae for helping with the title even though she hadn't seen the story ;-)
Comments: Questions and comments are welcome.
© February 20, 1999
Yehor shrugged his shoulders attempting to resettle his armor more comfortably and began pacing back and forth. He had spent the time before his shift at the local inn drinking with his friend Aegis. Forgetting the time, he was almost late for duty. Cursing his stupidity for bypassing sleep, he continued to walk back and forth until attaining a semblance of wakefulness.
The guard was well aware of the penalty for falling asleep on duty. The Conqueror was known to sneak up on unsuspecting sentries in the middle of the night. Many of his comrades had fallen victim to her punishment for sleeping while on duty - death.
Over time, a system had been developed. Acheron was stationed nightly outside her sleeping chamber. If she decided to go prowling, he would light a candle that was visible from outside through the window and Eustis, the Captain of the Guard would alert the sentries.
Yehor jerked awake partially stunned as his head hit the pillar he was leaning against. "What... " he mumbled before understanding dawned on him. He found himself facing a very angry Eustis.
"Are you crazy? Don't you value your life?" Eustis asked.
Momentarily at a loss for words, Yehor struggled to clear the fogginess from his brain. "Yes. But you know she hasn't made rounds in a couple of moons."
"Are you willing to stake your life on the fact that she won't? Since when has she ever been predictable? You are restricted to your quarters for a week. Let this be a warning to you."
"What! You're supposed to let us know if she is about. That is unreasonable . . . "
"You fool! I warn you because I can't afford to lose any more guards. If I catch you sleeping on duty again, I'll turn you over to the Conqueror myself!"
Yehor chose to remain silent. The gutless bastard. He dares to threaten me with the Conqueror. He is afraid to challenge me one on one.
When Eustis left Yehor resumed his comfortable position. He had no intentions of staying in his quarters for a week. But he'd worry about that later. Right now, he was just too tired to think about it.
Eustis continued his rounds checking the guards at the other posts. He knew it would be his head if the Conqueror ever caught any of them asleep. Yehor had been nothing but a problem. It was getting harder and harder to find good warriors to guard the Conqueror. Her brutal reputation was largely the reason for that.
Walking along, Eustis allowed himself to entertain a dream of his. Maybe one day he would be part of the Royal Guard. The money happened to be better and they commanded respect. The pittance he was paid now was barely enough to survive on. Eustis began walking along the farthest edges of the courtyard. It was so dark that if he had not known the location of each of the guards he would never have found them.
Eustis was responsible for the security of the large courtyard that circled the Conqueror's palace. A three-foot stone hedge encased the entire area. The purpose of the stone hedge was not for protection, but rather to further delineate the palace and it's occupants from the peasants. The courtyard was beautiful. It was a grassy area featuring many trees and wild flowers. The landscape was broken only by walkways from the palace to the stables and barracks.
Eustis finished checking the perimeter and the other sentries. All the other warriors had been fully alert and were doing their jobs. I hope that fool Yehor stays awake. I better go check on him again.
Xena stretched, working the kinks out of her muscles after a short nap. The blackness outside was complete. This was just the opportunity she had been waiting for. It was time for a little surprise visit.
A smirk worked its way across Xena's face. It greatly amused her that Acheron and the guards thought they had a fool proof plan to prevent her from making rounds unannounced. She had gone along with the ruse because it served her purposes at the time. The number of guards had decreased dramatically and she would have been a fool to continue killing them at the cost of her own protection.
Now, however, the forces had been built back up. Looking at the high window in her chambers, her grin turned feral. None of the guard force would expect the Conqueror to depart through a window. It was time to have some fun.
Picking up the leather shift that she all too infrequently got to wear anymore, Xena pulled it down over her body. She loved the feel and smell of the leather. It reminded her of the exciting Warlord days. The battle lust and thrill of victory. Always living on the edge . . . the real life.
Xena hated her boring mundane existence now. Sure, she had conquered all of Greece, but at what price? So she could render judgement on the citizens for their boring little crimes. The only prisoners that interested her were the ones who tried to incite the people against her regime. Those she had no patience for and punishment was swift and merciless. But there had not been any traitors to punish for moons. The people were just a bunch of sheep with no backbone. Her spies kept reporting no threat from the populace.
Xena sighed. There was no challenge in her life anymore. So tonight, she would go hunting. If no one would report any violations to her, she would go find them herself.
Picking up her armor, she tied it together. She pulled on soft leather boots, and completed her ensemble with leg armor and arm bracers. Picking up the armor and tying a long piece of hemp to the bundle, she made her way to the window easily dodging fixtures invisible in the total darkness.
Quietly opening the window, Xena grabbed the ledge and pulled herself up. She lowered the armor to the ground. It was a tight fit for her broad shoulders, but by twisting and turning she was able to squeeze through the small opening. Letting go of the edge she dropped to the grass. Untying the armor, she put it on buckling the straps and jumping lightly on the balls of her feet to settle it.
Xena had not allowed herself to become soft. She honed her skills on a daily basis. Everything from sword drills and chakram throws to silence and stealth were diligently practiced. Using those skills, she disappeared into the darkness.
Eustis began walking toward Yehor's guard post. When he arrived, Yehor was asleep against the arch. Eustis quickly covered the distance to the wayward guard. Backhanding him hard against the face, he said, "You fool! How many times do you have to be warned?"
Yehor's eyes popped open. Still somewhat under the effects of the ale he had consumed, he shook his head and challenged Eustis, "You Bastard. You won't get away with that. Only a coward attacks a man while he sleeps." Drawing his sword, he taunted Eustis. "Come on. You're so tough. Fight me like a man. Or maybe you're going to threaten to report me to the Conqueror again."
"Oh I don't think he'll need to," an eerie voice floated out of the darkness.
Eustis whirled around oblivious to the sword held by Yehor. He watched the Conqueror literally materialize in front of him. She moves in the darkness like a ghost. I never heard a sound. How long has she been there? Where is the Royal Guard? She always makes rounds with them. The random thoughts running through his mind, he struggled for his voice and said, "Conqueror," bowing his head in acknowledgment of her position. "I was just making rounds. Once I take care of this miscreant may I escort you?"
Yehor knew he was a dead man. Neither Xena nor Eustis was paying any attention to him. With nothing to lose, he pulled his sword back to drive it into the Captain of the Guard.
The only warning Eustis had before Xena roughly shoved him aside, was the slight narrowing of her eyes. Drawing her sword in one smooth motion, she met Yehor's sword with her own. The loud clanging of metal striking metal filled the courtyard. The sound of haunting laughter echoing between the clash of the swords sent shivers of fear through all that heard it.
Xena toyed with Yehor letting him think he was actually holding his own. She tired of the exchange very quickly. Yehor was no challenge for her far superior skills. Knocking the sword from his hand, she walked toward him, a mocking smile on her face.
Placing the tip of her sword under his chin forcing it up, she asked in a deadly, quiet voice, "What do you have to say for yourself? No warrior would stab his superior in the back. What justification do you offer?"
A small trickle of blood began seeping down Yehor's neck. Trembling, he thought of all the excuses he might use but discarded each. "He was going to kill me as I slept. I sought only to protect myself."
Xena was surprised at the obvious lie. Yehor was obviously a coward. Smelling the ale on his breath, she said, "You attempted to stab a superior in the back. No warrior would do that. You will not be afforded a warrior's death. You will die like the traitor you are."
Members of the Royal Guard had arrived during the exchange drawn by the sound of clashing swords. Xena sheathed her sword and said, "Put him in the dungeon. Punishment will be passed tomorrow."
Turning abruptly, she walked away from the guards and disappeared into the night. Several members of the guard force attempted to follow her, but were soon discouraged by the inky blackness.
Cadmon, Captain of the Royal Guard gathered up his frustrated guards halting the search. "She can disappear in daylight. We will never find her in the dark unless she chooses to be found. Apparently she does not."
Xena smiled when she heard Cadmon address the members of the Royal Guard. That was why he was Captain. He knew his limitations. When they moved away, Xena descended further into the darkness.
Trumpets heralded the arrival of the Conqueror. Surrounded by the Royal Guard, Xena walked the familiar path to her public throne her robe trailing the ground behind her. It was from this chair that she tried and sentenced all those who broke the laws she had set down.
Gracefully lowering her tall body into the throne, Xena arranged the bright silk robe around her long legs. The robe was her favorite colors red accented with gold trim. A golden crown adorned her head. Xena's personal aide, Phineas, stood at her side.
The Conqueror's beauty was statuesque. Long raven colored hair highlighted a golden complexion. Her face featured high cheekbones, a full sensuous mouth and eyes the color of sapphires. Even if she were not the feared leader of all of Greece, heads would have turned in her direction when she passed.
Xena's voice rang out loud and clear, "You are gathered here today to witness the trial and sentencing of those who would break the laws set forth for the greater good of all of Greece."
The crowd was quiet wondering what poor victims the Conqueror would send to their death today. Almost to a person, they attended these public trials because absence from a royal summons was considered disrespect. Disrespect to the Conqueror resulted in death.
In the early days of the Conqueror's reign, many people had tried to stand up against her tyranny and cruelty. They were all dead. With the passing of time, fewer and fewer stood against her. For several moons now, her spies living among the citizens could find no one who would oppose her. No one knew who the spies were. It was not safe to trust anyone. So the people chose to live rather than be killed for their efforts.
"Bring forth the first prisoner," Xena commanded.
Two of the Royal Guard came forward, a prisoner with bound arms between them. He was thrust roughly into the cleared area in front of Xena's throne. Stumbling, he stood trembling in fear, unable to meet the Conqueror's eyes.
"What is his crime?"
Phineas read loudly from the scroll he was holding, "He was caught stealing herbs from the apothecary, Conqueror."
Xena narrowed her eyes and leaned forward in the throne. This was a very serious crime. "Is this true? What do you have to say for yourself?"
The prisoner looked at the ground and began to haltingly speak. "Conqueror, my wife is sick. I took her to the healer. He said he did not have the herbs needed to cure her. I only sought to save her life. I ask that you spare my life so that I may tend her. Surely she is dying now."
Xena thought quickly. She had not become Conqueror because of bad decisions. She knew she was despised by the citizens, and didn't care. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to spare this man's life. It would confuse the populace and they were easier to control when they didn't know what to expect.
"You have broken one of the most sacred laws. The medicinal herbs are in short supply in this city. You chose to take matters into your own hands. Under guard, you may stay with your wife until she either begins healing or dies. You will go to the prison farming province and be personally responsible for sowing and harvesting herbs. If your wife survives, she will help you."
The prisoner dropped to his knees, tears falling from his eyes, "Conqueror, thank you. Thank you for your mercy."
Xena responded, "Get that blubbering fool out of here."
Disgusted, she said, "Bring forth the next prisoner."
Three more prisoners were brought before Xena. Phineas read the crimes of each and Xena decreed the sentence was death.
The last prisoner was Yehor. The Royal Guard shoved him to his knees in front of Xena and moved to the side. Xena stood, walking down the steps in front of her throne the silk robe billowing around her legs. Standing in front of Yehor, she said, "On your feet." Yehor struggled to his feet glaring at the Conqueror.
Xena voice rang out, "This prisoner is a traitor to the realm. He was a trusted guard, yet he attempted to kill his superior when caught sleeping."
Xena paused, wanting the full impact of her words to reach the masses. "This man then sought to engage me with his sword." Xena smiled to herself when she heard the gasps of the crowd. Changing the focus of her attention from the crowd to Yehor, she asked him, "You have heard the crimes you are charged with. What do you have to say in your defense?"
Yehor knew his sentence had been predetermined by his actions the night before. Seeking to get revenge against the cruel ruler in any way he could, he said, "You are a pitiful leader despised by all of Greece. As I stand here, there are those who are planning your demise. You may kill me, but I'll have the satisfaction of knowing your death will soon follow mine." Concluding Yehor spit in Xena's face.
Yehor knew of no plans against the Conqueror, but he had heard she tended to be paranoid and sought to get her to spare his life for knowledge of a fabricated rebellion.
Xena narrowed her eyes, and wiped the spittle from her face. She was concerned about Yehor's revelation, but she would check the truth of that later. Showing no mercy, she said, "You are sentenced to death by crucifixion. You will not be granted the kindness of having your legs broken."
Looking at the Royal Guard, she commanded, "Take him away." Returning to her throne, she sat and began to speak. "From this day forth there will be a curfew of sunset." If there was any truth to the Yehor's allegations this should put a damper on them.
At the sound of unhappy rumblings from the crowd, Xena fixed them with a cold piercing look. Quiet immediately ensued. Xena stood to depart. She was surrounded by the Royal Guard and made her way back to the palace.
Entering the large chamber where she conducted her daily operations Xena picked up a piece of parchment and quill. Writing briefly, she handed the note to Phineas. "Give this to Darphus."
Phineas hurried from the room to find Xena's second in command. Once he knew he was out of sight of any of the Royal Guard he opening the note and read, "Gather up the spies. I want them here by sunset." Phineas silently cursed the last prisoner. Many innocents died when Xena chose to become paranoid. He was quite sure there was no plot against her. However, he knew he could not voice his opinion unless it was asked for. It was probably just as well. If he was wrong, he would be joining the guard on a cross.
Phineas found Darphus and delivered the note. He did not like Darphus. Phineas had witnessed first hand some of the heinous crimes the fiendish warrior had committed. He did not understand why Xena kept him around. The warrior was much more of a threat to the Conqueror than the citizens.
Darphus read the note and smiled cruelly. The Conqueror was worried. Good. That meant action for the army. It had been a long time since they had been able to practice their craft. No matter that it was against civilians. Darphus called his subordinate leaders together and sent them off to find the spies.
In appearance Darphus had changed little since he first joined Xena when she was a warlord. He stood slightly taller than Xena. He allowed only stubble on his face instead of a full beard. This emphasized the battle scars on his face. A stud adorned his right ear and a good luck stone dangled from his left. Most warriors were superstitious and Darphus was no exception. The people of Greece would have been surprised to know that the cruelty inflicted by Darphus far surpassed any of the atrocities Xena committed.
Phineas returned from his errand. Entering the chamber he said, "Your message has been delivered, Conqueror."
Xena raised her eyes to meet those of her aide. "What do you think Phineas? Do you think the people plan a rebellion?"
Phineas took a deep breath, and plunged ahead, knowing he must answer with absolute honesty. The warrior princess had an uncanny ability to see through lies. "No Conqueror. I have heard nothing. My parents live in the city. If they had heard of a planned insurrection, I would've been notified. They are always concerned for my safety. I think Yehor was trying to trick you into saving his unworthy life. If he could convince you of a planned attack, you might spare him to find out the details."
Xena listened to her trusted aide. He was small and slight, undesirable traits for a warrior. But he had a quick mind and was honest. Phineas had never lied to her during the years he'd served her. What he said made sense. But it never hurt to be careful. Perhaps she just wanted it to be true. The boring tasks of ruling were no challenge. The paperwork and duties were endless. Trade agreements, proclamations, new laws, entertaining dignitaries from other lands, it was an unending list. There was no thrill, no joy, just the passing of days and months. She'd gotten her wish. She was now the feared Conqueror. People wouldn't even look at her for fear of losing their life. Even the traitors shook when they stood before her for judgement. None had any fire or spark. Once confronted with their crimes, they did nothing but grovel and beg for mercy.
Xena handed Phineas the scroll with the new curfew law she had signed. "File this in the law library after you have made copies for posting in the city." Phineas left to do as bidden. It would take many candle marks with quill in hand to make the copies. He looked forward to the distribution though. Phineas rarely got to see his friends. The Conqueror required him to be on call at all times. The warrior princess had always treated him fairly. He could ask for no more than that.
Just before sundown, a knock sounded at the door, and Darphus entered. He had long ago dispensed with the formality of waiting for Xena to answer. He had been with her since she was nothing but another warlord. In his mind he didn't owe the Conqueror the same subservience others did.
"Xena . . . "
"Must you always come barging in here? You might try showing a little respect." Xena growled, glaring at her second in command.
Darphus waved a hand and said, "What the matter Xena . . . worried?" He smiled at her his two gold teeth showing prominently.
"No. But it doesn't hurt to check out all threats against the realm. To do otherwise would be gross neglect. Are the spies here?" Xena didn't particularly like Darphus. She kept him around only because the fear he evoked was second only to her own. She might have to reconsider her decision. He was taking more and more liberties lately. She was the Conqueror, yet he showed no respect. Xena decided to make a decision soon. Darphus were just getting too tiresome.
"Yes. Want me to send them in?" Darphus remained smiling. He loved to taunt Xena. She needed him. She was getting soft.
"Yes. One at a time." Xena looked at Darphus and then added, "Oh, and Darphus . . . "
"I want to interview them alone." Xena smiled inwardly when she saw the Darphus try to hide his anger at being left out of the interrogation process.
Xena finished questioning all the spies. There had been no surprises. All of them, to a person, had denied knowledge of any planned rebellion. Xena believed them. They didn't appear to be hiding anything. She sent them back out with a warning to keep their ears open. If they were wrong and a plot was unearthed, they would be the first to die.
Xena mulled around an idea she had been entertaining since the night before. Maybe it was time she did some spying of her own. There didn't appear to be any threat in the city, but what about all the provinces. The one sure way to know all was well was to check on it yourself. Besides, it would be good to sleep under the stars again and practice her skills against real targets. She would only take six of her most trusted Royal Guard and Phineas of course. They would travel incognito. She would personally ascertain the feelings of the people within her kingdom.
Darphus entered. "Well? Is there any danger to the realm?"
Xena returned from her musing and looked at her second in command. Smiling she said, "No Darphus. Everything is well within the kingdom. I am going to visit some of the outlying provinces. I haven't checked on Amphipolis lately. I want to check the status of the crops in the farming provinces. I will leave at first light and be gone about a week. You will be in charge."
She had no intention of telling Darphus the real reasons for the impromptu trip. He would not question it. Darphus loved the power of ruling the realm in her absence.
Darphus smiled back and her and answered, "As you wish," before departing.
Xena entered her sleeping chamber. Walking over to the bed she sat down. Looking around the room she wondered why she didn't get the thrill from the splendor anymore. The room was brightly decorated in red and gold. Black was used sparingly to contrast the colors. The bedcovers were made out of the finest materials in the known world. Gold trim adorned the edges. The furniture was all hand carved and designed to fit her form perfectly. There was even a modern water chamber. She had everything she'd ever wanted. Xena sighed. So what's missing? Xena was startled with the realization that she was lonely. Shaking off the thought, she mused, a ruler could have no friends. Those who had pretended to be had only wanted something. Why am I thinking about this now? I must be getting soft.
The Conqueror sat in the colorful coach in regal splendor. The coach was small; designed only to hold the ruler comfortably along with anything she chose to take with her on trips to visit leaders of other lands. It had been designed with maneuverability through rough terrain in mind. The procession departed the city, the Royal Guard surrounding the Conqueror. Phineas brought up the rear leading Xena's personal mount, Argo, a gorgeous palomino horse. They traveled until darkness descended, many candle marks from the city. Xena called a halt. "Unload the coach and change into the other armor."
The Royal Guard did her bidding and once finished, the warrior princess instructed them, "Take the coach half a candle mark down the road. You will see a wide path to the left. Follow it until you come to a large boulder. If you go to the rear of the boulder there is a hidden path. Continue following it until you come to a tree scared by lightening. Go to the right. There is a large cave just beyond the trees. The opening is not visible until you are upon it. Put the coach in there and ensure the opening is blocked to prevent accidental discovery."
Phineas set up camp during the absence of the Royal Guard. The only food eaten tonight would be trail rations. Building up the campfire, he glanced over at Xena and was surprised to see a look of peace on her face. He quickly glanced away feeling like he had somehow intruded on a private moment.
Laying on the bedroll, Xena looked up at the stars. Contentment washed over her. It was good to be away from the responsibilities of her position. Xena wryly acknowledge to herself, even though she tried to deny it, the palpable feelings of hate directed at her from the citizens did take a toll. The next morning she would travel as the warrior princess. From a distance, no once would know her identity.
The bright sunlight filtering through the window did not permeate the shadows near the bed in the Healer's dwelling. Hecuba sat on one side of the dying man, Gabrielle on the other. With his last breaths the herder was struggling to finish telling a story as if the revealing of it would somehow cleanse his soul.
Gabrielle's attention was riveted on the story. She held one of the man's hands between her own. The story was intense, about heroism and tragedy. This was one tale she would carry with her always and repeat for the many nameless travelers who stopped in the local inn.
Finishing, the herder lay gasping. Gabrielle placed her hand on his forehead. "Just take it easy and rest now."
The man looked up at her, his eyes clear at the moment before his death. "It was..." pausing and gathering his breath one last time, "Xena." His voice was no more than a whisper and with that declaration he died.
Gabrielle lifted her head up stunned. "How can that be?" She looked at her mother for confirmation that she had heard correctly. "She is a cruel greedy woman who cares nothing about anyone but herself. How could anyone change that much?"
"Don't you go believing that story. He was delirious. He didn't know what he was talking about. There is no truth to it," an equally stunned, but more worldly, Hecuba answered.
"But mother, no man would tell such a story on his deathbed if it were not true. He had no fever. He was the most clear headed he has been since he arrived . . . "
"Gabrielle! Stop and listen to me. That was just the rambling of an old man. You always want to find some good in everyone. But in the Conqueror there is no good. When is the last time we've had enough food? Our fields are fertile, but do we reap the benefits of our labors? No. We pay high taxes and what isn't taxed her henchman helps himself to. Have you totally lost your senses? You know this."
Hecuba paused and softened her voice, "Perhaps the story is true. But it is not about Xena. It's about some other poor soul. Remember when you used to tell your stories just for others' to enjoy? Now you must tell them for us to survive. Don't try to immortalize her. She has done nothing to contribute to our welfare. Everyone has suffered since she took power."
What her mother said was true. Telling her stories had never been a chore. She loved to entertain the locals with them. But now, they prayed for the road weary travelers who might drop a dinar in her hand. It was a matter of survival. Before the Conqueror's reign everything had been so much simpler. They had to deal with the warlords, but you could usually offer them something of value to get them to leave you alone. Not so with the Conqueror. She had stopped at nothing until all of Greece belonged to her.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe it wasn't about Xena," Gabrielle acknowledged. The old herder's death was a direct result of the high taxes imposed by Xena. He had shown up in their village three days before starving and sick. His body had no reserves left to fight off the illness.
"There is no doubt in my mind child." Her mother stood, indicating the conversation was over. "Go get Keleos. He built the funeral pyre this morning."
Gabrielle tended the herbs in the small plot of land, hidden in the forest near Poteidaia. It was important Xena's soldiers did not find the herbs. She and her mother were the only healers for three days travel in any direction. With no herbs, there could be no healing. The Conqueror had issued a special proclamation six moons ago. Due to a grave shortage of herbs within the cities, all herbs produced must be surrendered to the army for redistribution. Before the new law was passed, the tax had been half of all that was produced. Gabrielle sighed. She knew the penalty for disobeying a special law was death. She'd just have to take that chance since it was apparent Poteidaia was not included in the redistribution. She and her mother were the only ones who knew about the hidden herb garden. It was just too dangerous for anyone else to know.
Gabrielle's thoughts again turned to the story the dying herder had told. In the days since his death, it had refused to leave her mind. She'd already prepared her presentation of the story for the next group of travelers that stopped in the village. She just wouldn't mention that one of the heroes was supposed to be Xena. Could it have been Xena? If so, what had made her turn into such a cruel, heartless ruler? It was this imponderable thought that refused to be banished from the young woman's mind.
Standing, Gabrielle brushed her hands together knocking the loose dirt from them. It was time to go help her father with the crops. Leaving the forest and walking toward the plot of land they tended, she wondered how long the people could go on under such tyranny before throwing caution to the wind and rebelling. Old people were dying of malnutrition. They could no longer tend the fields and no one had any extra food to give them. Since the Conqueror had taken over it was survival of the fittest in the small villages. Gabrielle sighed wishing there were something she could do to help the old people. She already gave up a portion of her rations to the infirm. If she gave up any more, she would be unable to tend the fields and heal the sick. Shaking her head, she knew it was pointless to dwell on the harshness of their life. I wonder if the Conqueror knows she is starving the people. Maybe I should request an audience. Smiling grimly, Gabrielle thought, yeah right. Like she'd listen to a peasant from a small village. I'd just be killed for my efforts.
Arriving at the field, Gabrielle approached her father, "Hi. Mother has made some soup. Let me take over here."
Herodotus looked at his lean daughter. "Did you eat?"
"No Father. I'm not hungry. I'll eat later."
"Gabrielle, you must eat more. You give away half your rations now. What will happen if you become sick?"
"I'm fine, really," Gabrielle smiled at her worried father. "I'll eat later."
Taking the planting tool from her father, she began to prepare the land for the late harvest. Little was left of the recent harvest after the taxes had been paid. Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at her father. "I'll eat when you return."
Herodotus turned toward the village and sighed. Walking up the dusty road, he began thinking about his two daughters and how different they were. The joining ceremony for his youngest daughter, Lila, had taken place four seasons ago. Lila and her husband had their own plot of land to farm. Lineus had taken on all the heavy work the last few moons because Lila was with child.
His oldest daughter was different. She had been betrothed to Perdicus before he was killed in a raid by marauders in the last days before Xena took power. Herodotus shook his head. He knew he should be looking for a husband for Gabrielle. But he needed her help with the large plot of land he farmed. Shaking his head, disgusted with himself for being so selfish, he decided to talk to Hecuba and see if Keleos might be a good choice.
Herodotus sat down at the table with Hecuba. "It is time to find someone for Gabrielle. What do you think of Keleos?"
Hecuba looked up surprised. This was a topic her husband had avoided for the last many seasons. "I don't think Gabrielle is interested in him in that way. They are friends, nothing more. Perhaps you should let Gabrielle make her own decisions in this matter. I think she would resent any arrangement. When she meets someone she is interested in, I think we'll know."
"She is not getting any younger. If Gabrielle waits too long, she may never find a suitable husband. She needs to find a kind man. She is so naive sometimes. I have never seen anyone with the ability to see good in even the vilest of people."
Hecuba smiled at Herodotus. "I really don't think we have to worry about that. Do not confuse Gabrielle's goodness with weakness. She is stronger than most in this village. Her ability to see the good in people isn't a bad thing. Would you rather she lost the spark that guides her? Besides, Gabrielle is in great demand every time there are festivities. She is respected and well liked. I think we should just leave her be."
As an afterthought, Hecuba added, "Besides, Apollo smiles on her. He will look out for her welfare."
"Don't start that again. The gods ignore us. Just because her healing powers have surpassed your own doesn't mean that Apollo or even Asklepios favors her. No god would let their chosen live like this."
Hecuba disagreed, but chose to let the subject close. "At the festival honoring Demeter tomorrow watch your oldest daughter. I think you will find your fears unfounded."
The villagers embarked on their tasks with a sense of enjoyment. Today there would be no working in the fields. Nuts and wild berries were gathered. The welcome sound of children laughing drifted through the air. Mothers smiled at the sweet yet unfamiliar sound. Even the children toiled in the fields on most days.
Lila checked on the mead. Gabrielle and Keleos had ventured into the forest a few weeks previously and bought back a large cache of honey. Lila had prepared it for mead. Tasting it, she decided it was perfect. Just the right amount of fermenting. She was looking forward to the festival. It would be a good opportunity to spend some time with her sister. All Gabrielle did was work and then go to the inn and tell her stories. Lila didn't understand how Gabrielle could remain so optimistic. Lila's thoughts turned to her unborn child. Would she be able to provide for it? Everything was in such short supply. Lila sighed and left her thoughts behind. Today was a rare day of celebration and she was not going to ruin it with depressing thoughts.
Keleos and his companions returned to the village after checking the snares. The gods had smiled upon them. Traps that were often found empty had yielded enough rabbit and quail for all the villagers.
After foraging in the meadows and forest since first light, Gabrielle and some of the other women had finally found enough wild vegetables to make a hearty soup. Arriving back in the village they cleaned and prepared the wild cabbage, carrots, onions and celery.
Gabrielle left the group to check and see how the nut bread her mother was preparing was coming. Her mouth watered when she opened the door and the odor of nut bread filled the air around her. "Smells really good." Hecuba cut a slice from the one loaf that was done and handed it to her daughter. "Here. Make sure it tastes ok." Gabrielle grinned at her, "Thanks."
Large pots of water were placed over low fires. The game was prepared for cooking and added to the water. In a few hours the festival would begin. It was quite apparent to the villagers that Demeter had blessed them. Today the food would be plentiful.
The melodious sounds of the home made lyres and lutes filled the air interspersed with the unique tones of various sized pan flutes. The sleepy children sat in a circle around Gabrielle. Finishing the story, she told them, "That's the last one. It's late now."
"Just one more..." the children began chanting. Gabrielle smiled at them. "That won't work again. I've already told you three more. We have to save some for tomorrow."
Leaving the children with their mothers, Gabrielle walked over to join Keleos. "Having fun?" she asked him.
"Yep." Keleos looked at his friend. "How do you come up with all the different stories? You always seem to have a new one. Where do you get them?"
"I never really thought about it." Gabrielle smiled at Keleos. "Some I hear from our patients and others from the occasional trader that stops. Sometimes visitors at the inn have interesting stories to tell. I guess I just get them from where ever I can."
Tarone walked up to Gabrielle. "Would you like to dance?" Gabrielle accepted and the couple joined the others already dancing.
Keleos smiled at the couple and walked over to Sofia. He planned to ask her to share his life tonight. Gabrielle had already given him her blessing. She was his best friend and her approval meant a lot to him.
Herodotus and Hecuba watched their oldest daughter while debating the attributes of each of the young men she danced with. Of all of the potential suitors, they liked Tarone the best. He was the oldest of the three sons of Etor. He was already a good farmer. He would be a good provider for Gabrielle. Hecuba decided to broach the subject of joining with her daughter in the near future. Gabrielle's happiness was very important to her and she had served their needs for too long now.
Late that night the last of the weary but happy villagers left the site of the festival and returned to their homes. For all of them the harsh realities of their daily life would return much too soon.
The sowing of the seeds was hard work but relatively mindless allowing Gabrielle's thoughts to turn to the conversation she'd had with Lila the day before. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, she wished she could do something to ease her sister's concerns about the welfare of the baby. Gabrielle had pointed out to Lila that the children were doing just fine. All the villagers contributed to their welfare. Extra plots of land had been sown with seed to help allay the shortage of food. Everyone would have to work harder but the benefits would be well worth it. She had finally got Lila to laugh and enjoy the festival. But secretly, Gabrielle was worried. There were not enough people to tend all the fields. Would the crops survive if the soil were not worked enough? Sighing, Gabrielle felt the weight of the world settle on her shoulders. She just didn't have any answers.
Deciding to stop at one more village before returning to the city, the Conqueror and her entourage stopped a candlemark outside of Poteidaia. Xena had been disguising herself and venturing in to the villages at night. She would mingle with the peasants, usually in the local tavern, and listen for any traitorous talk. So far there had been none.
The cool night made it easier for Xena to enter the village unobtrusively. She donned a wool cloak and chose a head covering to wear. Swinging herself up onto Argo, she turned the horse in the direction of Poteidaia. She knew it was a small farming community and didn't expect to encounter any rebellious talk. Urging the horse into a gallop, she rode away with instructions for the others to wait at the camp for her return.
Nearing the village, Xena dismounted and led Argo through the nearby forest. Securing the horse, she made her way on foot into town. It would only cause suspicion if she rode in, especially on a horse like Argo.
A group of travelers were making their way toward the local tavern. Xena joined the group. Once inside she secured a seat in the rear of the inn.
Gabrielle finished the children's story and looked at the crowd. The reluctant children were gathered up by their respective mothers and ushered out of the inn. Gabrielle smiled at her good fortune. A group of nine travelers had arrived in the village at sundown. Many of them were planning on staying in the tavern and had listened to the tale she told the children. Perhaps it was time to try her new story out.
Xena sat in the back of the tavern amidst the shadows, her back resting against the wall and her long legs crossed at the ankles under the table. Her cloak was still in place and a cup of ale sat on the table in front of her. Xena's hair was braided and hidden under a linen head covering. Drinking ale and relaxing while listening to the young bard tell the children stories, Xena surprised herself by trying to guess how each story ended. The last story had been quite entertaining.
The young woman was very talented. The lilting tone of her voice when she spoke and the animated movement of her hands made each story take on a life of it's own. Smiling to herself, Xena acknowledged the bard was also very attractive. She had blonde hair and sparkling green eyes. When she smiled her whole face lit up. Xena looked at her clothes with disdain. Those could certainly be improved on. A sudden realization washed over Xena. It didn't matter what she was wearing. Even peasant clothes couldn't distract from the bard's looks. Shaking her head, Xena was amused at the idea that she found a mere peasant so beguiling. Maybe she had been without a companion for a little too long.
Clearing her throat, Gabrielle began, "I sing of song of two heroes. They were just simple villagers like us. They have no identity, but could have been any one of you here. This is a story of the bravery of the common people when faced with overwhelming odds.
Xena narrowed her eyes. Somehow she didn't think this was a story that would be favorable to her regime. Picking up her ale and taking a sip, she focused her errant thoughts on the story.
Gabrielle's words painted a picture for all those who chose to listen. She told a tale of a young man with hair the color of helios and a smile on his face every day. His constant companion was a young woman who was as dark as he was fair. Not only were they siblings, but also the best of friends. Gabrielle continued to weave the story of two children who dreamed of becoming warriors, wanting only to be able to protect their village against warlords. She told of how they became more skilled than any of the other villagers in the use of weapons so focused were they on their duty.
Pausing, her throat dry, she took a sip of water. Even though Gabrielle couldn't see the patrons in the shadows, she knew the story was a success because of the silence while they waited for her to continue.
Xena shifted on the bench. Shaking off the uneasiness caused by the tale the Bard was relating she took a large swallow of ale. It's impossible. It can't be. I'm imagining things. I've just had too much to drink.
The Bard continued the story by relaying an attack on the village by Cortese. She told of the death of the young man and conveyed the heart wrenching anguish of the young woman. She finished the story by telling of the young woman's capture by Cortese because of her refusal to leave her dead brother's side. Pausing for impact before concluding, she finished, "This tale is not just about these two young people. It is about all the unsung heroes whose stories will never be told. It speaks of the bravery in each and every one of us."
The tension radiating off the tall woman in the back of the tavern was palpable had anyone been close enough to notice. A rush of air escaped her mouth and Xena realized she'd been holding her breath. One word was running rampant through her mind Lyceus. She hadn't thought about Lyceus for years. He had been carefully buried deep in her mind in the place where love and happiness, sorrow and regret existed. She didn't even honor his death each year like she used to. Shaking her head, trying to repress the emerging memories, her only thought was escape. She didn't want to think about Lyceus. Rising, a fleeting expression of pain crossing her face, Xena quickly made her way to the door and exited into the darkness. Standing in the shadows, she watched the bard enter a dwelling across from the inn.
After spending a restless night, Xena was up before first light. Speaking quietly to the guard on duty, she mounted Argo and rode toward the forest near Poteidaia. Riding Argo, her thoughts alternated between Lyceus and the bard she had heard was called Gabrielle. Walking the mare through the forest, she came across a small stream and dismounted. Sitting on the bank of the stream, she idly picked up a strand of grass rolling it between her thumb and finger and thought about the story the bard had told the night before. Xena wondered once again where the young woman had heard it. The story had been uncannily accurate. Only someone who had been a part of her life at that time could have known the story. Yet, here in a small farming community, a young woman whom had to be ten seasons younger than she had related the story as if she had been there.
Xena sighed. She didn't allowed thoughts of Lyceus because they hurt. On that fateful day, she felt she had made the right decision to stand against Cortese. Lyceus had agreed with her, but then he always did. But her decision had cost her brother his life. She could have convinced him to head for the hills along with Toris and some of the other villagers. Maybe it was time to pay Lyceus a visit. Snorting softly, she thought, sure...my mother can't stand the sight of me. She avoids me anytime I venture near Amphipolis. The last time Xena had been to Amphipolis her mother had told her she was no better than the Warlord Cortese had been. But the most hurtful thing she had said was, 'Lyceus would never believe what you've become.' That was three years ago and Xena had not been back since.
Xena jerked her head up surprised. The sound of laughter in the forest? Curious, she silently began moving toward the sound.
Gabrielle entered the forest at the far end of the village. Smiling, she listened to the birds chirping and the rustling of the leaves as the unseen forest creatures moved out of her way. Quietly laughing at the antics of two squirrels, Gabrielle continued on her way.
Her thoughts turned to the night before. The new story had been very well received. The five dinars were the most she had been offered in moons. Usually she was lucky to get one dinar. Two dinars were cause for celebration. But five dinars...well that was almost unheard of.
Gabrielle had struggled for days to find a common link between the story and the Conqueror. But the story bore no resemblance to the ruler. What could have happened to change an innocent young woman into a murdering cruel leader? Gabrielle had finally reconciled in her mind that the hero couldn't have been Xena. She knew the old man had told the story the way that he remembered it. But he was old and his memory may not have been perfect.
Entering the grove of trees, Gabrielle walked over and knelt down next to the small herb garden. Good, the raspberry and echinacea were ready for harvest. Carefully, she broke off the tops of herbs placing them in the pouch she carried with her. Working carefully, she planted more of the seeds she had saved from previous harvests into the newly vacant spaces.
A shadow covered the sun. Puzzled, Gabrielle looked up. There had been no clouds in the sky. Her eyes were met by a pair of cold blue ones. Gabrielle raised a hand to her mouth and gasped she was so startled. She quickly regained her composure and felt fear race through her. It was the Conqueror.
"Well what do we have here?" Xena asked coldly. "I hope you have a good excuse for hiding valuable herbs. Obviously you don't care enough about your fellow citizens to turn them in so that all may benefit from their healing powers."
Gabrielle's eyes began flashing and she forgot her fear at the insinuation she was hurting others. "That is not true Conqueror. We have turned in the last two harvests and each time waited patiently for our portion to be given back to us. It never was. We must have herbs to heal the sick."
"What are you talking about? Every village got a share of all the herbs collected." Xena quickly retorted, looking at the lean slip of a woman who dared stand up to her.
"No Conqueror. You are misinformed. We have received nothing."
Xena watched the bard closely. The fear she had shown at first was gone. "You make serious accusations. Perhaps you are only trying to save your own life."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. She doesn't believe me. Trying to put a rein on her temper and failing, she spoke the thoughts running through her mind, "You have no idea what goes on in the villages. Why should it concern you? You are not starving."
Surprised by the ferocity of the young woman's words, Xena's eyes widened. "You are taxed the same as the rest of Greece."
"Then why do your soldiers take half of all our harvest? Your last proclamation said one third of all harvested foods would be the taxed."
Xena looked at the woman standing in front of her. She had to give her credit. This one certainly had backbone and courage. What she said was interesting. It would not surprise her if her soldiers were commandeering some of the harvest for themselves. Warriors did tend to be greedy. And this little nothing farm town...yeah, it would be easy to leave it off any distribution list.
"Why didn't you register a complaint to the leader the last time the harvest was collected?" Xena parleyed. She was starting to enjoy the exchange even though it was obvious the woman must have a death wish.
"I would have most likely been killed for my trouble. It is impossible for me to know who would report our complaint and who would ignore them. I would rather continue helping people than be killed for suggesting someone in your army is not honest."
"What makes you think I won't kill you for what you've just suggested? Lets see...I take a short cut through the forest. I find someone hiding important medicinal herbs from the general populace. Why shouldn't you be sentence to die? Do you think you should be allowed to take matters into your own hands and defy the proclamation I have set forth?"
Gabrielle plunged on, knowing she would probably be killed for her efforts. It was too late to worry about that now. "I only do what I have to do. I must have herbs to cure sickness. My mother and I are the only healers for three days ride in any direction." Thinking back on the many lives she and her mother had saved, she continued, "I do not regret hiding the herbs from your men. At least I will die knowing I saved many lives." Gabrielle lowered her voice until it was almost inaudible and added, "not taken them like you."
Xena face became an expressionless mask. Her keen ears had picked up the whispered comment. But the thought of killing this woman right now bothered her. Besides, she still hadn't found out what she wanted to know. Pretending she hadn't heard the last remark, Xena waved her hand around the grove and said, "What do you think I should do about this?"
"Why do you have to do anything. Can't you just leave us alone? We have done nothing to you. We plant and harvest and still we starve. Do you get pleasure out of people starving to death..."
"Enough," Xena growled. "I will check on your accusations. If I find you are exaggerating to save yourself, you will suffer a very painful death."
Xena turned and abruptly departed. Within seconds there was no sign she had ever been in the grove. Gabrielle shuddered. What had possessed her to speak like that to the Conqueror? I have just signed my own death warrant. She will never allow me to live after the way I talked to her. Maybe she should leave. No it wouldn't do any good. She had heard stories of what the soldiers did to fugitives and their families. Deep in thought, Gabrielle picked up her herb pouch and slowly walked back to the village.
Xena arrived back in the clearing she had left Argo. Untying the mare, she began talking to the one friend she had always been able to count on. Petting the horse's nose, she said, "We've got some work to do. One of my lieutenants has been accused of stealing." Swinging herself up on to Argo, she began thinking about the exchange with the healer.
The thought popped into Xena mind, I hope she's telling the truth. Shaking her head, to clear the thought, Xena realized she didn't want to hurt the young woman. She was puzzled at her reaction to the bard. Anyone else would have been dead for their total lack of respect. She was the Conqueror. Everyone knew the penalty for disrespect. She acknowledged that she liked the feistiness and guts displayed by the attractive young woman. It had been a long time since anyone had dared to stand up to her. But it was more than that. She was interesting...
Reluctantly turning her thoughts from the healer, Xena began focusing on the task ahead. It was time to pay Niklaus a visit. Arriving back at the camp, she instructed two of the Royal Guard and Phineas to accompany her to the Lieutenant's living quarters. She figured it would take them almost a candlemark to get there.
Why had she been so confrontational? The Conqueror was infamous for her temper. Gabrielle was still amazed that she was alive. She had been granted her wish to talk to the Conqueror. But at what cost? I did what I had to do. If it takes giving my life to make things better for the people of Poteidaia, then it would be worth it.
Gabrielle mused, she is not what I expected. She was a very beautiful woman. I wonder what she'd look like if she smiled. A mirthless laugh escaped her. Here I am, most likely enjoying the last candlemarks of my life, and I am wondering what the Conqueror would look like if she smiled. The thought that refused to leave Gabrielle's mind returned, Why didn't she kill me immediately? A slight ray of hope flared in her mind. If the story about the two heroes were true, maybe she had a chance. But first she had to live long enough to find out.
Gabrielle arrived back in town and walked toward her home. She needed to prepare her parents. It was only a matter of time before Xena returned and Gabrielle held little hope that her word would be taken over that of one of the Conqueror's trusted henchmen.
"I'm in here," her mother answered.
Gabrielle walked to the entrance of her parent's sleeping room. One of the villager children had taken ill and her mother was treating the child. Hecuba got up, saying, "He's sleeping now."
"How are the herbs doing..." Hecuba stopped talking when she saw the serious look on Gabrielle's face. "What's wrong?"
"I just talked to the Conqueror." Gabrielle watched her mother's expression change from concern to one of shock. "I was tending the herbs and all of a sudden there she was. I never even heard her approach."
"Gods," was the only word that escaped Hecuba's mouth.
"She accused me of holding out on the other citizen's of Greece." Gabrielle finished relating the exchange to her mother.
Hecuba hugged her daughter saying, "Oh Gabrielle. Why did you stand up to her? You must leave immediately." Releasing her, Hecuba hurried into Gabrielle's room and began packing her only change of clothes in to a leather bag. She picked up Gabrielle's herb pouch and packed it along with the clothes.
Gabrielle followed her mother and said, "Mother, no. I'm not leaving."
"You must. Not only did she see the herb garden but you also challenged her. Xena is not known to show mercy." Shoving the bag at her daughter, and grabbing her arm, she pulled her toward the door. "Come on. You must leave now. You can say good bye to your father on the way out of town. I'll tell Lila what happened."
Gabrielle pulled her arm out of her mother's hold and said, "I'm not leaving."
Seeing the determined look on her daughter's face, Hecuba sighed. She knew her only hope was to appeal to her daughter's nature. "Listen to me Gabrielle. You can do no one any good if you are dead. You are a wonderful healer. You have saved many lives. Think of the people who need you if you won't think of yourself."
Gabrielle smiled wanly at her mother. "I am. If I am not here when Xena returns there is no telling what she may do. I can't take the chance that my leaving could cause harm to the ones I love. My life is not worth any more than anyone in this town." With a bravado she didn't feel, Gabrielle continued, "She could have killed me already and chose not to. It'll be ok, you'll see."
Hecuba knew this was one argument she would not win. Perhaps Herodotus could help. "Walk with me while I fetch your father. He needs to be told what happened."
Etor was helping Herodotus move a large rock from his plot of land when the two women arrived. Hecuba briefly related the early morning events. Herodotus thanked Etor and left his work to return home with his wife and daughter. The day passed slowly with Gabrielle attempting to comfort her parents while they alternately pleaded and demanded that she leave.
Gabrielle hated to see the pain in her parents' faces but there was nothing she could do to alleviate it. Standing, knowing her sister would support her decision, she said, "I am going to talk to Lila."
Lila listened to the story her sister related silently. Sadly, she looked at Gabrielle when she finished. "If you're lucky maybe you'll just go to one of the prison farms for a while. I think it's hopeful that she hasn't come back yet. The light of the day is almost gone. Maybe she decided our little town isn't worth her concern."
Gabrielle smiled at Lila. "She'll be back. But don't worry. Things will work out. But what I really need for you to do is come with me and help convince mother and father that I must stay."
"I agree with you. If you leave, our lives are in peril. I wish I could do something to help."
"You can. If I am forced to leave, be there for our parents. That would make me feel a lot better."
Lila walked over and hugged Gabrielle. Together they walked back to their parents' home.
It was fully dark when the thundering sound of hooves pounding on the dry dirt road could be heard throughout the village. Word of Gabrielle's predicament had spread quickly throughout the day and the villagers stayed in their houses watching through windows and doors that were slightly open.
Upon hearing the horses, Herodotus went and stood outside with his arms crossed over his chest. The two members of the Royal Guard pulled their horses to a halt in front of him. Dismounting, one the guards told Herodotus, "The Conqueror has sent us for the bard called Gabrielle. Please stand aside."
Inside, Gabrielle was trying to comfort her mother. "Please don't cry. It's better this way. You'll all be safe now." Pulling out of her mother's embrace, she turned to Lila. Leading her across the room, she quietly said, "Lila, if I don't make it back, take care of them." Another thought occurred to her and placing her hand lightly on Lila's swollen belly, she added, "Maybe when the child is old enough you might mention me?"
Gabrielle quickly turned away, her resolve to be strong weakening. Feeling her eyes fill with tears she moved quickly to the door. Her mother pressed the leather bag into her arms. Gabrielle managed a wan smile.
Walking outside, she said, "Stop. Don't hurt him. Here I am."
Herodotus had been blocking the door and the guards were about to physically remove him. One of the warriors looked at Gabrielle and said, "The Conqueror wishes to see you. Now."
"Ok. I am ready." Gabrielle turned to look at her family for what might be the last time, and then walked toward the guard.
"What's that?" The guard asked pointing to the leather bag.
Gabrielle never had a chance to answer. Her mother had come outside and pleaded, "Please let her take it. It's all she has."
The two guards looked at each other. The leader shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ok. We must hurry. You will ride behind me," he instructed Gabrielle.
"Um...I've never ridden a horse before."
Helping her onto the horse, the guard said, "Just hold on." He then mounted in front of her. The two guards urged their horses into a canter and Gabrielle found herself holding on for dear life.
Darphus smiled smugly. Things were going very well indeed. Settling himself comfortably in Xena's throne, he began passing judgement on all the citizens who had disobeyed the laws of the realm. He had sent part of the army in to the city with instructions to arrest anyone who even looked like they might be traitorous.
Darphus addressed the gathered crowd, "The Conqueror wants you know she is sorry she can't be present today. She advised me to send the army in to the city to arrest all those who might be traitors. You will have no trial. Her instructions are that each of you should be flogged and then hanged from a cross until death."
The crowd collectively gasped at the cruelty of the sentence.
Now that he had their full attention, Darphus continued, "I can only follow the orders the Conqueror lays down. I am only the second in command. If I were your leader, I would give all a fair trial."
When the punishment was inflicted, the screams of the sentenced rang hauntingly through the air. There were angry murmurs from the usually silent crowd. When the people dispersed sometime later their mood was dark.
Back in the palace, Darphus was enjoying a full feast. The crowd had played right into his hands. Stupid peasants. Looking at his three trusted lieutenants, he said, "How are the collections going?"
"Excellent. We now have enough weapons to proceed..."
Interrupting, Darphus said, "I am the one who decides when we have enough weapons and when the plan will be set in motion. Do you understand?"
Bowing his head in deference, the lieutenant said, "I'm sorry. I only meant to inform you how well everything was progressing."
"Just keep in mind that I am in charge here. The people will fall into line. They already hate Xena. The little display today was only to remind them of that."
"What are you going to do if Xena finds out?"
"How is she going to find out? All the lieutenants still loyal to her were on a mission today. Surely you are not stupid enough to think the citizens are going to tell her. There is nothing to worry about."
Darphus looked around the room. "Are there any more comments? Cadmon is due back with his group in about a candlemark. Remember to do nothing to call attention to yourselves. It could jeopardize our plans. It will all be over soon anyway. Return to your duty areas."
Darphus smiled in anticipation. Soon it would be payback time.
Niklaus watched the riders draw near. One of his guards had informed him of the approaching travelers. Curious, he stood waiting to see who might be paying him a visit. Unannounced visitors were rare.
Recognizing the Conqueror, his whole demeanor changed from lazy insolence to a proper subservient attitude. "Conqueror," he said when Xena dismounted. "It is good to see you. I am very pleased to be honored by your presence."
"I wanted to thank you personally for all your hard work and dedication." Xena said and thought, and to find out if you are stealing from the realm.
Niklaus, Xena, and Alexi walked toward the dwelling. Entering, Xena looked around. The quarters were filled with lavish furnishings and expensive decor. There was definitely something that was not right here. No lieutenant should be this well off. Her expression inscrutable, she said, "You seem to be living very well."
"Yes Conqueror. The wealth of the land abounds since you have taken over."
"Really..." Xena drawled with a raised eyebrow.
Trying to divert her attention, he continued, "I would consider it a great honor if you would stay and dine with me. My cook is a very good one."
Xena had no desire to eat with Niklaus, but it would give Oresto and Phineas time to look around and talk with the servants. Prior to their arrival Xena had already instructed her aide and the guard to search the compound. Alexi would remain with her. "Fine. We have business to discuss."
Niklaus hid his concern by smiling and bowing his head deferentially. "As you wish, Conqueror. Would you like some wine? I have a very good vintage from a trader just back from Rome."
Now that was interesting. A trader from Rome. Why would Nicklaus have dealings with anyone from Rome? "It seems a little out of the way here for a trader from Rome."
Niklaus thought quickly, "He has family in the area. He usually stops when he visits them."
Xena sipped the wine Niklaus gave her. Savoring the slightly sweet taste of the red wine, she said, "This is excellent wine. It must have been very expensive."
"The trader pays homage to you by providing a servant of the realm with a token of his appreciation."
Barely able to keep from rolling her eyes, Xena said, "From the looks of your quarters, it would seem that many pay homage to me through you."
Xena interrupted and said, "How about telling me how you really acquired all these expensive things."
Niklaus adopted his best wounded look. "It is as you say. You are held in high esteem. The traders that come through seek your favor."
Xena looked at Niklaus trying to decide what would be more fun. Running her sword through him or cutting the head off the man who thought she was foolish enough to believe such dribble. This idiot would be replaced whether she found evidence of skimming or not. Deciding to change the subject until Phineas reported back she said, "How has the tax collecting been coming?"
"Very well, Conqueror," Nicklaus said, relieved at the new subject. "Just a few days ago we turned in the harvest to the collection point. The crops are more plentiful than ever before."
"And the herbs?" Xena prodded.
"All the herbs were collected and then half of all collected was redistributed back to each of the villages in this province."
"I'd like to see the distribution list." It was apparent that Niklaus certainly knew the law. Xena doubted the distribution list would shed any light on her query. Paperwork could be altered to reflect anything you wanted it to.
Niklaus departed and returned a short time later with the document. Xena took it and quickly read it. The bookkeeping had been quite thorough. It listed each village, the amount of crops and herbs collected and the amount of herbs returned.
Xena thoughts turned to the Bard from Poteidaia. Could she have been lying? Finding herself unwilling to entertain that possibility, Xena said, "It appears you have done a very good job Niklaus."
Relieved, Niklaus said, "Thank you, Conqueror. I wish only to serve you well."
Niklaus was disgusted with himself. He was a competent warrior, yet he was required to snivel in the presence of the Conqueror. Right now he wasn't sure who he hated more. Xena, or Darphus for not warning him the Conqueror was in the area. At least he would have been prepared and the obvious signs of wealth could have been removed.
Phineas reported back to Xena shortly before the meal was to be served. Xena accompanied him outside. "There is a storage area beneath the stables. One of the servants was most accommodating. Niklaus killed her husband for pilfering food for their child. The storage area is full of a recent harvest. Off to one side there is a large cache of herbs that have been spread out to dry."
Xena felt some of the tension drain out of her body. She had to stop the smile that threatened to overtake her face. The Bard had spoken the truth. Not understanding why the young woman's life was so important to her, she refocused on the matter at hand.
"See the cook for your meal." Returning inside, she joined Niklaus as the feast was served. At an unspoken command, Alexi waited for her to be seated and then tasted each of the entrees.
"Conqueror! Surely you do not think your trusted lieutenant would poison you." Niklaus said, highly insulted by the guard's actions.
Xena looked pointedly at Niklaus. "I haven't lived this long by taking chances."
Once Xena ascertained that the food was safe to eat, she told Alexi to join the others in the servant's quarters. Xena thoroughly enjoyed the feast. After traveling for a week, and cooking over a campfire, it was a welcome change.
Finishing, she stood and said, "I'd like a tour of the compound."
Niklaus rose with her and said, "Of course." When they walked outside, the two Royal Guards and Phineas joined them. Niklaus sought to pass the stables with a cursory, "That is just the stables. It would be of no interest to you."
"I decide what is of interest and what isn't," Xena replied and walked into the stables. Phineas walked over to the door hidden beneath the straw of the stable. Xena watched Niklaus closely. He was trying hard to maintain a nonchalant attitude, but his eyes were darting in every direction but the direction of the hidden door.
Xena walked over and moved the straw, uncovering the door. "What's this Niklaus?" she asked, her voice deadly.
Deciding his only chance lay in escape, Niklaus turned to bolt. His departure was abruptly halted by the two royal guards. His shoulders sank in defeat. He had gambled and he had lost. Mentally cursing Darphus he turned back to face the Conqueror.
The look on her face chilled his soul and he pleaded for a deal. "Spare me and I will tell you everything I know."
"You'll tell me everything you know anyway Niklaus," Xena countered. Ignoring the lieutenant, Xena checked out the hidden room. Returning to the stable, she asked, "Where did all these crops come from? Have you been holding out on the realm?"
"No. The required amount of crops has been turned in. This is just a little extra contribution from the villages. They had plenty."
"What are you going to do with the *extra* crops?"
Niklaus began sweating. Bargaining for his life, he said, "If you spare me, I will reveal those who are disloyal to you."
Unsheathing her sword, Xena approached Niklaus. "I don't make bargains."
Niklaus hated Xena and there was no way he was going to tell her anything if she was going to kill him anyway. "Then I will tell you nothing..."
Xena narrowed her eyes, and growled, "Yes you will."
Turning abruptly, she ordered the guards to bring him outside. There has been a post in the compound, probably used for exactly what she had in mind right now. Phineas followed her out.
Hearing a commotion, Xena ran back to the stable door. Niklaus was on the floor with a gaping wound in his chest pumping his life blood on to the ground.
Furious, Xena asked, "What happened?"
Oresto looked at the ground. "I am sorry Conqueror. My sword was unsheathed so that he would not try to run away again. He impaled himself on it."
Xena looked at Alexi. "It is as he says Conqueror."
There was nothing further she could do here with Niklaus dead. Making a quick decision, she said, "Alexi, you are in charge here. Gather up the guards and have equal amounts of the harvest delivered back to each of the villages on the distribution list. Do the same with the herbs. If any of the guards are disloyal, kill them."
On the ride back to their camp, Xena's thoughts were on Niklaus' words. Apparently there were problems within the realm. But it was not with the citizens. It went much higher than that. She would return to the city at first light.
One of the guards who had remained behind hurried to greet Xena. "Conqueror, come quickly. Deon is dying."
Xena hurried over to the prone warrior. "What happened?"
"He was hunting and stepped on a hive hidden in the ground."
Xena's experience in healing was mostly limited to battlefield injuries. She began issuing orders. "Mix a mud poultice and bring it here. You two go into town and get the bard called Gabrielle. She lives across from the inn."
Working quickly she removed the warrior's armor and began applying mud to the multiple stings the angry hornets had inflicted. Xena missed the questioning look of the two Royal Guard members. They had no idea why she wanted a bard. Not wanting to be recipients of the Conqueror's wrath, they left to do as bidden.
Xena looked up when she heard the pounding of hooves. She had done all she could for the guard. Perhaps the young woman could help. Xena hurried over to the arriving guards. She waited for Esteron to help Gabrielle off the horse and then said, "Come quickly."
Gabrielle was just thankful to feel the ground under her feet again. Her introduction to riding had not been the most pleasant experience. Toting her leather bag, and following the taller woman, she looked around the camp. There were eight bedrolls strewn around a campfire. On one of them lay a man who was almost covered in mud.
Xena stopped next to the man and said, "He was attacked by wasps. There is too much poison in his system. I've removed the stingers but he has not improved. Can you help him?"
Gabrielle bent down next to the warrior. Checking his pulse, she noted it was fast and irregular. Opening the leather bag and pulling out herbs, she forgot who she was addressing and said, "I need hot water. Hurry, there's not much time."
Momentarily shocked at being ordered around like a common servant, Xena chose to ignore the slight. She would address the issue of respect later. Gabrielle mixed an elixir using foxglove to steady the beating of his heart. Holding the warrior's head up she began dribbling the mixture down his throat.
Finishing, she asked, "How long has the mud poultice been on?"
"Over a candlemark."
Mixing some herbs together, she added some of the water Xena had given her into a bowl and made a thick poultice. "The mud has done all the good it is going to. Help me wash it off. The poultice I mixed should draw more of the poison out of his body."
Xena ordered Phineas and the guards to bring more water and side by side, she and Gabrielle cleaned the sites of the stings and applied the new poultice. Working for over a candlemark, they finished.
Xena had unobtrusively watched the healer while she worked. It was apparent Gabrielle knew what she was doing. Xena also acknowledged that while the healer worked quickly and efficiently, she did so with an amazing tenderness. Xena was not willing to admit that she had enjoyed the nearness of the young woman.
Gabrielle checked the man's heart rate and was pleased to find it had settled into a more normal beat. His color had improved and he seemed to be nearing consciousness. Standing, she looked at Xena. "He should be ok but this poultice will need to be applied twice a day for the next few days."
"Where did you learn the art of healing?" Xena asked, curious about the young healer.
"My mother is an accomplished healer. I learned healing from her." Gabrielle watched the Conqueror carefully. Now that the emergency was over, she finally realized that she had not been summoned to her execution. At least not yet.
Sensing no animosity, Gabrielle said, "I have done all that I can. May I return home?"
Xena had not decided what to do about Gabrielle yet. "You don't like my company?"" Xena answered smirking. Her demeanor hid it well, but she was actually very intrigued with the Poteidaian. Her query was only meant to keep the bard off balance until she made a decision.
Gabrielle swallowed hard realizing she may had made a costly mistake. "Yes Conqueror. Of course I am honored to be in your presence. I thought you might be glad to be rid of a poor peasant."
"I am the one who decides when I am tired of company. Have you forgotten that you have broken the laws of Greece?"
Gabrielle looked at the tall woman. She had to try to reach her. "I only sought to help the people. I spoke only the truth. I too work for the good of the realm, only in a different way. If the people can't farm, there will be no crops. When people are starving and dying of illness, the crop production is less and everyone suffers."
Xena looked at the beautiful young woman. The campfire gave her hair the appearance of woven gold and her sparkling green eyes had a life of their own, emphasized by the flickering fire. Xena was impressed with Gabrielle. She also wryly acknowledged that she was more than a little attracted to her.
Mulling over an answer to the intelligent argument, she watched Gabrielle's expression change from one of hope to resignation. Yet as the silence lengthened, there was still no fear. Xena had no way of knowing that Gabrielle had spent the day preparing for the worst and fear just didn't enter into it anymore.
Xena said, "You make a good argument. I'll advise you of my decision about your future at first light."
Somewhat reluctantly, she turned her attention from Gabrielle and addressed the guards. "Make a litter for Deon. We will depart tomorrow."
Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xena's forearm. "No. He can not travel yet. His body has had a terrible shock. You must wait for at least one more day."
Phineas held his breath. He kind of liked the young healer and knew that she had gone too far. Mentally he begged Xena not to harm her.
Xena tensed and only with great effort stopped the sarcastic comment that flew to her mouth. Concern and kindness were emanating from the young woman. Somehow she knew no disrespect was intended. Xena found her attention focusing on the warmth of the hand on her arm and was startled at the emotions it evoked. She tried to ignore her reaction, but made no move to end the contact. Looking into Gabrielle's eyes, her senses were assaulted by the attractive healer.
Seconds later, in control once again, she said, "Fine. You can stay here and when he's ready to travel you will accompany him to the city."
Xena was secretly pleased with her decision. She felt more alive than she had in longer than she cared to remember. And the reason was the small woman standing in front of her. Not only was she attractive, but she was intelligent too. Xena did not want to lose contact with her.
Gabrielle knew she made a mistake when she felt the tall woman tense at her touch. For the few seconds their eyes met, Gabrielle saw, however briefly, the flickering emotion that lay within the deep blue eyes before Xena's demeanor changed back into Conqueror mode. Not wanting to press her luck, she removed her hand and said, "Thank you."
The exchange surprised and intrigued Gabrielle. She actually felt drawn to the warrior. For some reason, it was more important than ever that she reach the woman buried underneath the hard exterior.
Gabrielle checked on the afflicted warrior. He was conscious and showed marked improvement. After feeding him some broth, she looked around the camp. The Royal Guard members and Phineas sat around the campfire, quietly talking. She wondered where she should sleep. Looking across the fire she watched Xena sharpening her sword.
Xena sat off by herself, the sound of metal rubbing against stone filling the air. Xena knew she should be thinking about the threat to her realm. Instead she found herself watching Gabrielle tend Deon. Looking up, she met the bard's eyes.
Gabrielle quickly looked elsewhere. She did not want to anger Xena.
"Gabrielle..." Xena liked the sound of the young woman's name rolling off her tongue.
"Yes, Conqueror," answered Gabrielle with some trepidation. Gods, why was I staring at her.
"Come over here," Xena ordered.
Gabrielle rose and walked over to where the warrior was seated. Xena patted the ground next to her and said, "Sit down."
Gabrielle sat down, curiosity overcoming her uneasiness. Watching her closely, Xena said, "Tell me the story of the two heroes you told in the tavern last night."
Shock covered the young bard's face. Completely blind-sided by the question, Gabrielle was momentarily speechless. She finally said, "You...you....heard that?"
"Yes. I was in the tavern. You are a very talented story teller."
Gabrielle was too stunned at the revelation that she had told that particular story in the presence of the Conqueror for the compliment to register.
The comment was not wasted on Phineas or the Royal Guard members though. They had become silent when Xena had summoned Gabrielle wondering what the Conqueror had in mind. Curious they remained silent waiting for the bard to begin the story.
Xena watched the myriad of expressions pass over Gabrielle's face. The reaction to the simple request was interesting. It almost seemed like she knew the story was about her. Was that possible?
"Where did you hear the story?"
Gabrielle, glad for the brief reprieve, told Xena of the old herder who had wandered into their village. Finishing, she said, "I just related the story he told me." She did not add that he had also told her the story was about Xena.
Xena had no idea who the old herder might have been. It could have been almost any of the herders from Amphipolis. Turning her attention back to Gabrielle, she arched an eyebrow.
Gabrielle understood the request and began the story nervously. Her natural story telling ability asserted itself and she finished the story to a captive audience.
Phineas was shocked at the accuracy of the story. He had been there on that fateful day and the horror of it was forever burned into his mind. Once he knew what the story was about, he began watching Xena. By the expressions on her face, she seemed to live the day again through the bard's words. But by the end of the story, there was a calm acceptance on her face.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Do you know who the story is about?"
Oh gods. Why does she want to know that? Meeting Xena's eyes, she said, "The old herder said it was about you and your brother." Gabrielle's curiosity overcame her good sense and she asked, "Is it?"
Phineas fought to hold back a gasp at the audacity of the bard. What was wrong with her? Didn't she know how volatile the Conqueror was? The woman was going to be lucky to see the light of day. Phineas was even more astounded to hear Xena's reply, "Yes."
Standing abruptly Xena pointed to her bedroll and told Gabrielle, "You will sleep here." Walking over to her saddlebags, she removed another blanket and lay it down on the ground. Sitting on it, she looked at Gabrielle who had not moved from her seat on the ground. "I would advise you to get some rest," she said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Gabrielle hastily moved to the indicated bedroll. Laying down and pulling the blanket over her, she closed her eyes and wondered what was in store for her. The bedroll emitted a faint odor of leather that was strange to Gabrielle, yet also comforting. She soon fell into an exhausted sleep.
Xena took first watch trying to make some sense of her reeling emotions. She felt rather protective of the young healer and was confused by this idea. In the short time since she had first seen Gabrielle in the tavern, the woman had broken almost every law written and unwritten she came into contact with. Yet instead of killing her, I want to protect her. It just doesn't make any sense. I really am getting soft.
Oresto was glad he only had a quarter candlemark of guard duty left. He was tired and looking forward to returning to the city. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a twig breaking off to his left. Moving silently, he circled around toward the noise, coming up behind a dark figure who was staring intently at the camp. Once he was close enough, he grabbed the man around the neck with one arm while bending his other arm up behind his back, rendering him immobile.
"Let go of me. I can't breath," the intruder gasped.
"I don't think you need to worry about breathing once the Conqueror finds out you were sneaking up on her camp," Oresto retorted.
Xena heard voices and was instantly awake. Rising, she picked up her sword and turned toward the sound of rustling leaves. An instant later Oresto appeared with a man firmly held in his grasp.
"It appears we have a visitor Conqueror."
"Let me go! I have done nothing."
The commotion quickly woke everyone in the camp. Gabrielle sat up, rubbing her eyes, wondering what the ruckus was about.
Xena approached the intruder with her sword drawn. She had every intention of driving her sword through this warrior wannabe who was foolish enough to approach her camp. "You better have a good reason for sneaking up on my camp. Otherwise you are a dead man," Xena growled.
Gabrielle had fully awakened and her mind registered the scene in horror. Rising quickly, she closed the distance to Xena and grabbed her sword arm, saying, "No. Don't kill him."
Xena shoved the bard away from her and turning cold angry eyes on her said, "Do you want to die in his place?"
If Gabrielle had any doubt in her mind about the ruthlessness of the Conqueror, it was gone now. Looking at the angry warrior, she felt fear race through her. She knew she had gone too far this time. "I'm sorry Conqueror. But he is my friend."
The fear on Gabrielle's face stopped Xena in her tracks. She was very angry with the bard for challenging her in front of her men. But she didn't want her to be afraid of her either. The young woman had shown no fear until now. It distressed her deeply that she was the cause of it now. The tension draining out of her body, she said, "I'll deal with you later."
Turning back to the intruder, whom the guards had been watching, Xena said, "Why are you here?"
Keleos replied, "Gabrielle is my friend. I did not intend to enter your camp. I only wanted to know if she was all right."
"You will address me as Conqueror." Xena said harshly.
"Yes, Conqueror." Keleos was very frightened. It had never occurred to him that he might be caught. He had waited until the moon was high in the sky before starting his journey. Following the hoof marks, Keleos had expected everyone to be asleep when he arrived. Perhaps Tarone had been right after all. He had refused to accompany him. Tarone had told him it was bad enough the Conqueror had one of their own, he didn't want to add to the toll. Keleos called him a coward and had embarked on his journey alone. He wondered what Sofia would think. He hadn't told her what he was planning on doing.
Xena looked at the young man. It was obvious he was telling the truth. He didn't even have a weapon. What was she going to do with him? Glancing over at Gabrielle, she saw a silent entreaty written across her face. Gods...everything was so simple before I stopped in the little farming village. Thinking quickly, she came up with a solution that would allow her to keep face, and at the same time would keep Gabrielle from hating her. Xena was angry with herself for what she perceived as a weakness toward the bard.
"I am going to spare your life so that you may deliver a message to the other villagers. If anyone comes near my camp again, they will be killed immediately. Now go, before I change my mind."
"Conqueror?" The soft voice of Gabrielle floated out over the camp.
"Yes..." Xena turned toward Gabrielle.
"May I give him a message for my parents and sister before he leaves?"
Exasperated, Xena said, "Make it fast," before turning and leaving the camp. She needed some time to herself.
Gabrielle walked over to Keleos. "Gods, Keleos. You shouldn't have come. You almost got killed."
"I just had to know if you were all right. I was so worried when the guards took you. You are my best friend. I had to come."
"You are a good friend. But your death would have weighed heavily on me. Please don't ever do anything so foolish again."
"What is going to happen to you?"
"I don't know. I am to accompany a sick warrior to the city when he can travel. Then...I just don't know. But please tell my parents and Lila that I am ok and not to worry."
"They will worry anyway..."
"I know. But it will help if they know I am ok." Gabrielle quickly hugged Keleos. "Go now, while you still can."
Oresto accompanied Keleos until he was far away from the camp.
Gabrielle returned to Xena's bedroll and sat down. Phineas came over and squatted in front of the bard. "Gabrielle, you are a good person. But you have provoked the Conqueror more than anyone has ever done that still lives. Do you know how close you just came to losing your life?"
"I didn't mean to make her angry. But Keleos is my friend. I couldn't stand by and watch her kill him." Gabrielle paused, then continued, "I would do it again if I had to."
Phineas looked at the young woman. He was very puzzled by Xena's reaction to her. The Conqueror had killed people just because she didn't like the way they looked at her. Yet here was someone who seemed oblivious to the danger she was in and even more confusing was the fact that Xena let her live. She seemed to be able to reach the Conqueror like no one else ever had
"Just think before you act, ok?"
Gabrielle smiled at the concerned man. "I'll do my best," she assured him.
The trip back had been uneventful. The last stop was to pick up the carriage and change back into their identifying attire. Xena looked around at the familiar scene as they made their way up the street to the Palace. The last few days her thoughts had alternated between the mysterious happenings within the realm and the young woman from Poteidaia.
Riding through the city, the hostility of the citizens seemed even more intense than she remembered. Sighing, Xena decided the time spent away had just dulled her perceptions. It was impacting more on her today because she had spent a week without the hatred directed toward her. Well, who cared what the citizens thought anyway. Her laws were in their best interests even if they didn't realize it.
Shaking off the hostile feelings, Xena turned her attention to the most pressing problem. She began systematically listing each lieutenant in her army and what benefit they might glean by selling the crops. It was obvious that this was being done to generate funds. But what was being done with the proceeds of the extra harvest and who were the crops being sold to? What about the herbs? They were a valuable commodity. Were they going to the wealthy of Greece or being exported? Xena was determined to find out the answers to these questions.
Xena quickly walked through the palace to her personal chamber. The most pressing thing right now was a bath. Phineas trailed behind, taking note of the rapid-fire orders she issued. "Send in Cilla to prepare my bath. Tell Darphus I want to see him in a candlemark. I want to see Cadmon after him. Get cleaned up and then report back. I want you present during these meetings."
"Yes Conqueror." Hurrying to find Cilla, Phineas realized Xena was back in full Conqueror mode.
Xena lowered herself into the bath, the soothing water moving in gentle waves against her tired body. Soaking in the comforting warmth, she relaxed and was suddenly confronted with the image of a beautiful blond haired woman with sparkling greens eyes. An unbidden smile appeared on Xena's face. Gabrielle...she was a ray of light in an otherwise dim world. Someone who did not preach rebellion, but rather had the nerve to appeal directly to her with well thought out arguments and courage that bordered on foolish. What was so special about her? Why was she able to get through the myriad of defense so carefully erected over the years? Thinking about the short time she had known the healer, Xena admitted to herself she could hardly wait for the healer to arrive...but then what?
The cooling water pulled Xena from her thoughts. Finishing, she donned a long silk robe of multiple blue shades offset with gold stitching and a gold belt. She had specifically chosen this robe because the colors intensified her deep blue eyes. It was very hard for anyone to look away from her eyes when she wore it. And tonight, she had to carefully gauge any potential opposition and it was the eyes that would give the guilty party away.
Darphus knocked and walked into the Xena's meeting chamber in his usual rude manner. Xena decided to ignore his impertinence. She had more important things to address.
"How did things go while I was gone?"
"We were very busy. The army found out there were rebellious factions within the city. We gathered them up and executed them," Darphus said watching Xena closely. He'd decided to mention that there were executions just in case Xena found out.
"Who gave you the authority to execute anyone," Xena growled. "I decide who is a threat and who isn't. I am the only one who orders executions. You had better have a good reason...."
"Oh relax all ready," Darphus interrupted. "You left me in charge. I acted on your laws. I have done nothing wrong. As a matter of fact, I have eliminated a threat to the realm. I should think you would be thanking me."
Xena was furious. Darphus knew he had overstepped his authority, but chose to do it anyway and then was going to stand there and tell her she should thank him. Xena made a decision. Darphus was out, but not until she found out more about the real threat to the realm.
"Darphus, let me reiterate something for you. When you are in charge your authority only extends to protect Greece from an immediate threat. Do you understand that."
"Of course. That is what I did. I protected us from what could have become a major rebellion of the citizens."
"How many executions did you order?"
"About 50," Darphus smirked at the irate woman.
Xena almost lost it. The power hungry bastard. No wonder the venomous looks surreptitiously directed toward her when she had arrived in the city had been so intense. "How could there have been 50 traitors when just last week our spies told us there were none?"
"Guess they were wrong," Darphus said shrugging his shoulders.
Xena had to forcibly turn her thoughts from entertaining ways to kill her second in command. "Anything else I should know about?"
"Nope. It's now quiet. The people have been put back in their place."
Abruptly changing the subject, Xena asked, "How did the last collections go."
Darphus narrowed his eyes. He did not like this line of questioning. Xena never inquired about the collections. They were his responsibility. "Good. The farms are producing well. The food is plentiful in all the provinces. We are beginning to build up a small reserve of herbs. Why do you ask?"
"Perhaps you've forgotten that I am in charge," Xena snapped. "I want to see the books." She had not missed Darphus' subtle reaction to her questions.
"Fine. I'm sure you'll find them in order." Darphus wasn't worried about the "official" books. He had another set that actually defined the extent of his operation. That set of books was not on the palace grounds.
"You're dismissed." Xena said summarily.
Darphus left, his thoughts on the plan. He was not ready to implement it yet. Not enough of the army had been turned. He had expected to make his move in a moon. Now he was going to have to step up the timetable. The bitch was suspicious about something. What had she found out on her trip? Before he could proceed much further, Cadmon was going to have to have an accident. There were just too many warriors who were loyal to him, and subsequently to Xena. No problem...accidents could be arranged. Darphus decided he also needed to rile the citizens a little more. When the power play began, it would help to have the citizens on his side. He just had to figure out a way to do it.
Phineas had sat quietly in the rear of the chamber. He was more suspicious than ever that Darphus was up to something. There was no doubt in his mind he was behind the "extra" collections. But how could it be proved?
Xena's meetings with Cadmon and some of her other lieutenants proved fruitless. She was infuriated that he had been sent out on a mission for three of the days that she was gone. With no information forthcoming, Xena asked Phineas to use his methods to find out anything he could.
Gabrielle rubbed a hand across her face. The trip to the city had been slow and dusty. The first two days she had walked along side of the liter talking to Deon. After that Deon had insisted that he could ride. Gabrielle had ridden behind Medus. Fortunately, the pace was slow because Deon was still weak and they stopped frequently. It had been five days since they had begun their journey. Gabrielle ruefully acknowledged that riding a horse was not something she wished to do again. She was sore and only wanted to get off the horse and take a bath.
Medus had told Gabrielle they would arrive in the city at midday. As the sun rose higher in the sky, she began noticing more and more people. The people seemed friendly, often smiling at the travelers. Turning down a wide road, Gabrielle saw a palace in the distance. Knowing it must be Xena's headquarters, she began paying more attention to her surroundings. There were fewer people on this street and they all moved very quickly. The smiles and waves disappeared and now the looks directed at them were suspicious and unfriendly. One pedestrian glared at them with such malevolence that Gabrielle actually shuddered at the intensity of it.
Medus said, "It's ok. They will not harm you."
"Why do they look at us with such loathing?" Gabrielle asked, still upset to be the object of such hate.
"This is the Conqueror's road. Even though Deon and I are not wearing our royal armor, it is obvious that we are guards. Since you are traveling with us and not a prisoner, they probably think you are a spy. The people you see coming up the road have probably gone to visit loved ones in the dungeon. The Conqueror allows visiting for one hour a day."
Gabrielle had many more questions, but the guards stopped at the gate to the compound and the conversation was over. Once they were cleared to enter, they proceeded into the yard. Medus led them to the infirmary where he and Deon dismounted. Helping Gabrielle down, he said, "Wait here. The healers will want to check over Deon."
Word spread quickly through the compound of the arrival of a golden haired woman with the two royal guards who had not returned with the Conqueror. Gabrielle noticed the looks cast her way by the warriors. Feeling uncomfortable, she ignored them and looked at the palace.
Phineas appeared and made his way toward her. "Hi. How was your trip?"
"Ok, but I don't want to ride a horse anytime soon."
Phineas smiled at Gabrielle. "The Conqueror wants to see you now. Just follow me."
Gabrielle was suddenly filled with trepidation. What would happen to her now? Would Xena let her return to Poteidaia? But, as had happened on the long days of travel, these thoughts were diminished by the desire to just see Xena again. Gabrielle pondered the contrasting thoughts. This woman held her fate in her hands, yet she looked forward to seeing her.
Gabrielle followed Phineas into the palace. He walked quickly and she was unable to study her surroundings. They walked down a hall and stopped outside a thick door. Knocking, Phineas waited for an answer. Hearing the Conqueror call out, "Enter." He opened the door and beckoned for Gabrielle to enter. Closing the door behind her, he remained in the hall.
Gabrielle had expected the Conqueror to have the palace lavishly decorated, but she had never pictured the richness displayed in this chamber. There were large woven floor coverings with colorful intricate hand made designs against a black background. The wooden chairs had hand carved designs on the backrests and their seats were covered with thick black pads of the finest cloth. There were paintings hanging on each of the walls. One in particular stood out. It was a picture of the conqueror, her dark hair caught by the wind and flowing back away from her face. She sat on her golden horse, holding up her sword in victory. Gabrielle was captivated by the painting. Looking at it you expected the Conqueror to come alive and ride into the room. The picture truly caught the essence of the warrior.
"Uh..mm..." Xena cleared her throat.
At the sound, Gabrielle's felt her face flush and quickly turned her eyes away from the picture meeting the deep blues ones looking at her.
"You find the picture more interesting than I am?" Xena asked, coolly. Her face was expressionless, but she was very interested in the young woman's answer. The bard tended to speak her thoughts. And she wryly acknowledged she was kind of disappointed the young woman didn't seem more interested in her than a picture on the wall. Actually she was very disappointed.
"No. It is only a picture," Gabrielle said, and then continued, "But it is a very good likeness."
"I'm glad you approve of it."
Gabrielle was once again embarrassed. "I'm sorry..."
Xena waved her hand dismissing the apology. "Until further notice you will instruct the army healers in your methods." Watching Gabrielle closely, Xena continued, "You will have full access to all the common areas of the palace and yards. You are not to leave the compound. If you need anything see Phineas. He will show you to your quarters. You are to start tomorrow."
Xena continued, "Do you have any questions?"
"You may go now," Xena said ending the meeting.
Xena had spent countless hours wondering what to do with Gabrielle. She had acknowledged to herself that she was physically attracted to the beautiful young woman. But it was more than that. It was the first time in years that she wanted to get to know the whole person instead of just satisfying her body's physical demands. This woman was special. She was intelligent, brave, and very wise for her age. I feel alive when I'm around her. At the same time Xena was leery of these thoughts.
Yeah, right. When did you ever care about any of the peasants before? Xena banished thoughts like these the second they entered her mind. Now, finally, here she was and Xena didn't know what to say to her. So, she fell back into the Conqueror role and dismissed her.
Xena paced around the room her heart still thudding nervously from the encounter. What did you expect? You brought her here against her will. Did you expect her to thank you? What have you done for her? Everything she told you was the truth, yet instead of telling her and letting her go home, you put her to work here. Oh yeah...she has plenty to thank you for. Xena put a stop to the sarcastic thoughts her mind was supplying and a short time later went to perform her daily fitness routine.
Gabrielle left the chamber and felt a vague sense of hurt. Voicing her thoughts aloud, she said to Phineas, "She really doesn't like me much."
Phineas looked at Gabrielle surprised. He had not been in the room, but he had certainly witnessed the many times in the past two days Xena would gaze out the window, her attention directed toward the entrance road to the compound. She had casually mentioned on several occasions that the guards were taking a long time to arrive.
The significance of her off handed comments had not escaped Phineas. Xena was very interested in Gabrielle. Why she chose to dismiss her so quickly, after awaiting her arrival so anxiously, he didn't know. But there was more going on here than met the eye. The idea that Xena didn't like her really seemed to bother the young woman.
"Why do you think she doesn't like you?" Phineas asked.
"She just gave me job teaching the army healers and told me to have you show me my room. She never even asked how Deon was. It seemed like she couldn't wait for me to leave."
"That doesn't mean anything. Her healers will inform her of Deon's condition. She probably just figured you were tired from traveling and would want to go to your quarters and bathe," Phineas ad-libbed.
Leading Gabrielle through the palace, he turned down a short hall. Pointing to a door, he said, "Iris' room is there. She is the chief cook. You will be in the room right next to hers." My room is across the hall."
"Where do the other servants stay?" Gabrielle asked.
"Their quarters are outside of the palace, near the warrior's quarters. Xena reserves these room for the "higher" servants."
Gabrielle pondered that thought for a while. The higher servants? That was interesting. I wonder how I came to be considered a higher servant.
Seeing the surprised look on her face, Phineas added, "It would seem you rate pretty well with her Gabrielle."
Phineas pointed out another door that was an enclosed bathing area. He showed her where to get the water and linen and then left her at the door to her room. "We eat at sunset in the kitchen. I'll come and get you and show you where it is."
"Thanks," Gabrielle smiled at Phineas. "You've been very kind."
"No problem," he replied, turning to go finish his duties. He had already decided it might be a good idea to avoid the Conqueror unless she called for him.
Opening the door to the room, Gabrielle looked around. The room was quite nice. There was a sleeping pallet with a thick soft pad on it. A sitting chair was on one side of the room, and a small table sat in another corner. There was a picture of the Conqueror on one of the walls. Gabrielle chuckled to herself. She didn't need any help in remembering what the beautiful woman looked like.
Xena had been like a caged animal all week. Phineas had been unable to find out any information about who was behind the harvest scheme. Her suspicion was Darphus, but she had absolutely no proof.
The lack of available information only made her more tense and edgy. She had already caught up all the paperwork that had awaited her upon her return. Xena had instructed Phineas to plan a dinner party for the Greek elite. Perhaps some information would be forthcoming from them. They were usually in the know about the goings on in the realm.
Xena was constantly having to wrest her attention from Gabrielle. As it was, Xena often found herself looking out the windows trying to catch a glimpse of her. She had even attended some of her healing classes until the young woman would see her. Then she would just leave like she wasn't interested.
Frustration wouldn't even come close to describing her feelings. Xena wanted to talk with the bard. She wanted to invite her to eat with her. She wanted to hear her voice her opinions. Oh, what was the use? It was hopeless. Xena just didn't know how to approach her. Somehow ordering her to talk with her or eat with her didn't sit right with her. So, she chose to do nothing.
Gabrielle sighed. She had been in the city for almost a week now. After her initial meeting with Xena, there had been no other contact. Oh she was around. Gabrielle would catch a glimpse of her in the window when she was outside in the courtyard. Or she'd look up from showing the army healers some new mixture of herbs and there she was. Tall, dark and beautiful, standing in the background watching. When Gabrielle would notice her, she would meet her eyes and then leave.
It was time to take the initiative. How could she hope to reach her if Xena avoided any direct contact? Gabrielle had spent hours talking to the servants. The topic of her questions was always Xena. She really liked Iris, the Chief Cook, and they had quickly become friends. But Iris and the others all told the same story. The woman was unreachable. Gabrielle didn't believe that. Not only was she basing her believe on the story of the old herder, but also on the brief interaction they'd shared the day she first laid eyes on the Conqueror. She had literally challenged Xena and still lived. If the older woman was truly beyond reach, Gabrielle knew she would be dead.
Making up her mind, Gabrielle decided to ask to see Xena. The only excuse she could come up with was telling her that she wished to accompany Iris to the market. Another thought nudged its way into Gabrielle's mind startling her. I like her. I want to see her and talk to her. Reflecting further, she admitted to herself there was something about the warrior that needed further exploring. Not ready to pursue this line of thought, Gabrielle went to look for Phineas.
Finding him a short time later in the law library, she asked to see Xena. Phineas looked at Gabrielle wondering what she could possibly want to see the Conqueror about. "She'll ask why." Becoming concerned, he asked, "Is everything ok? No one is bothering you are they?"
Gabrielle smiled at the kind man. "No. Everything is fine." Pausing, she added, "Just tell her it is about going to the market."
"Gabrielle...do you think that is a good idea?" Phineas was really worried now. If Xena chose to see the young woman, there was no telling what she might say. "Her orders were for you to stay in the compound."
"I know. That's why I have to see her." Gabrielle smiled at the worried man.
Phineas knew he had no choice. Xena decided who she wanted to see and who she didn't want to see. Reluctantly, he said, "Ok. I'll let you know her decision."
"Thanks Phineas. I'll be in the infirmary."
A short time later Gabrielle found herself once again outside the large door to Xena's meeting chamber. This time she was determined to make an effort to engage the Conqueror in conversation.
Following the directive to enter, Gabrielle opened the door and walked in to the office. Looking at Xena she smiled and said, "Hi."
Privately, Xena had been pleased that Gabrielle wanted to see her. Now, standing in front of her, with a dazzling smile on her face, and her green eyes sparkling, Xena felt her defenses begin to slip away. Unable to resist, she smiled back at the young healer.
There was a timeless moment when neither woman spoke. Xena gain some semblance of control over her emotions and said, "You wanted to see me about something."
Gabrielle cleared her throat, still captivated by the dark woman she was facing. She'd finally gotten to see her smile. A real, honest to goodness smile. Not the smile that didn't touch her eyes. Not the smirk or sneer she had seen Xena exhibit when she first met her. And she was right. It was like looking at an entirely different person.
Oops. She'd done it again. "Sorry. I..um..just wanted to know if I could start going with Iris to the market."
"Why would you want to go to the market?" Xena asked, truly puzzled. There was nothing but a bunch of peasants at the market.
"I've never been beyond a few villages around Poteidaia. I would like to see the people and the market here in a big city." Gabrielle then added silently, and I am beginning to feel like a prisoner and want to know if I am or not.
Xena looked at the bard. The request was so simple, yet so complicated. What if she didn't come back? Does she hate it here enough to run off? Does she hate me? It wasn't that Xena had any doubt she'd be able to find her if she did chose to run, but Xena wanted her to want to stay. Seeing the silent entreaty in Gabrielle's eyes, she knew there was only one answer she could give.
"Ok. Make sure you stay with Iris at all times. She knows the city and I wouldn't want you to get lost."
Gabrielle's face broke into a big smile, "Thank you."
Once again, responding to the woman standing there, Xena smiled back and said, "No problem."
Gabrielle looked around at the market. There were so many people. Their clothes were much more colorful than what she was used to. In Poteidaia most of their clothes were the colors of their origin. Here the women wore bright colors, reds, yellows, and pretty shades of blue. It was obvious these people were not starving like the outlying villages. But for all the bright clothes and teeming crowds, a pall seem to hang over the air. Gabrielle had always been very sensitive to the atmosphere of places she visited, although she ruefully acknowledged, that was limited to only a couple of the surrounding villages when the trade merchants came through. She would go with her father to offer what little they had in trade for things they needed, or to buy what she could with the dinars provided by the travelers for her stories.
"There seems to be no shortage of food here," Gabrielle said to Iris. "In Poteidaia we never had enough."
Iris looked at Gabrielle. "The Conqueror has always made sure enough food was brought into the city to feed the citizens. She does provide the necessities. Everyone has a job. The wealthy have an even greater selection of goods provided by the vendors that visit their dwellings personally."
"Then why do the people seemed subdued. They don't seem happy. If they have a job and enough food, why is there so much tension in the air."
"The Conqueror recently issued a proclamation setting down a curfew of sunset. Since everyone works the daylight hours, they can no longer visit with their neighbors and friends or their grown children. Of all the laws laid down, this one is the most unpopular." Iris knew Gabrielle seemed partial to the Conqueror and not wanting to hurt her did not add that Darphus had told them all that Xena was no longer giving trials. Suspected traitors and criminals would just be put to death and allowed no defense.
"Why would she do that?" Gabrielle was really puzzled. What was the point of the curfew? These were just regular citizens. Surely there was no threat from them. Gabrielle knew that oppressed people were much more cause for concern than content ones.
"At the last trial she presided over, one of the prisoners made mention of a threat against her realm. I think she issued the proclamation because of what he said."
Gabrielle mulled this over. Walking with Iris, she noticed the cook seemed very familiar with all the vendors and stopped to talk with each while making her purchases. Gabrielle watched some of the other buyers with interest.
Helping Iris carry their purchases, they began walking back toward the palace.
"Help. Someone please help."
Gabrielle stopped abruptly looking for the source of the plea. Seeing a boy, who couldn't be more than 10 summers old, she turned and began making her way toward him. Iris quickly caught up with her and said, "What are you doing? We must get back. The Conqueror does not tolerate late meals."
"You go on ahead then. I am going to see what's wrong."
Iris quickly made a decision. She was not going back to the castle without Gabrielle. Phineas had told her in no uncertain terms that the Conqueror held this young woman in high esteem and if anything happened to her, she would be held responsible. Sighing, she followed Gabrielle.
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked bending down so that she was level with the boy.
"It's my mother. She is sick in bed and no one will help her."
"Take me to her." Gabrielle had learned long ago never to go anywhere without her herbs. She kept them in a pouch fastened around her waist.
"Gabrielle, stop. This is not your affair. The Conqueror will be angry if she hears of this." Iris pleaded with the healer.
Looking at Iris, Gabrielle answered, "Well the Conqueror will just have to be mad then because I am a healer and I am going to see if I can help this boy's mother." The look of determination on Gabrielle's face was enough to convince Iris that arguing was useless.
Arriving at the home of the sick woman, Gabrielle and Iris followed the boy in. Making her way to the pallet the woman was lying on, Gabrielle knelt down next to her and began to assess her new patient.
The woman was feverish but coherent. Speaking haltingly, she asked Gabrielle, "Can you help me?"
"I'm going to try." Gabrielle sent the boy for water and quickly mixed some herbs that would lower her fever. The woman was very ill but did not seem in danger of dying if the fever could be kept down and she was given plenty of fluids. Gabrielle spent the next quarter candlemark, feeding the woman the herbs and some tea.
Looking at the boy, she asked, "Where is your father?"
"He is at work in the mines and will not return for three days."
Gabrielle, with Iris' help made up a new batch of soup and placed it on the fire to cook. "Let it cook for two candlemarks. Feed it to your mother a little at a time. It is very important that she get enough fluids. Be sure and give her tea and water too."
"I will try to check back on her tomorrow. But I think she's going to be fine," Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at the boy.
Iris and Gabrielle made their way back to the palace. Gabrielle was helping Iris carry their purchases back. They had bought only the very best of the vegetables and fruit. Strolling along, Gabrielle asked Iris how long she had worked for the Conqueror. Iris said she had been selected as the Chief Cook because Xena had attended a party at one of the wealthy Greek citizen's houses. She had prepared the meal. Xena had then approached her the next day offering her the job of Chief Cook at the palace. The salary was more than she received for catering the various wealthy citizens so she accepted. Besides she didn't really know if refusing was a viable option anyway.
"Gabrielle, how is it that you come to be here. You are so different from all the others who work for the Conqueror."
Gabrielle briefly explained her meeting with Xena leaving out the parts that she thought would show Xena had allowed her to live for things others had died for. "Iris, I think Xena could be a good ruler. She just needs for someone to let her know that tyranny is wrong."
Iris laughed. Finally gaining control, she turned a mirth filled face toward Gabrielle and said, "And who do you supposed is going to tell her that her way is wrong? No one has that much of a death wish. You are so idealistic. Believe me, she will not change."
"I don't agree with you Iris. I think she is reachable. I am going to try."
"You will probably lose your life in the process. She has no temper for discussion, especially from those whom she considers of less status than she. And, I have to tell you, that includes everyone."
Xena paced restlessly back and forth in the large chamber. She had been unable to refuse Gabrielle's request to go with Iris to the market. But had she made a mistake? They still had not returned.
She walked down to the large cooking chamber using the excuse she wanted a snack. The cooks working in the area looked up surprised. It was unusual for the Conqueror to put in an appearance.
"Is Iris back?" asked Xena feigning nonchalance.
"No Conqueror. She has not returned," one of the cooks' replied.
"When she returns, tell her I want to see her." Xena began stalking the halls of the palace finally coming to a stop outside the law library. Knowing Phineas was likely working in there, she entered.
Phineas looked up, "Conqueror," he said in greeting.
Xena ignored the greeting and said, "Iris and Gabrielle have not returned from the market. Go find them."
Phineas looked at the tall woman. He had noticed, ever since Gabrielle had arrived at the palace, that Xena always seemed to know her whereabouts. He had not missed the unexpected visits the Conqueror made to the classes Gabrielle held for the healers. The surreptitious looks out the window when Gabrielle was in the compound. To him it was obvious Xena was quite taken with the young woman. He had given Iris strict instructions not to let Gabrielle out of her sight.
"I am sure they are ok. Iris is a trusted servant," Phineas said reassuringly. He knew it would be very difficult in the busy market to find the two women. "It may take a little while for me to find them."
"Just go find them," Xena ordered and abruptly departed.
Phineas quickly made his way up the road leading to the market. What was Iris thinking? They had talked about the Conqueror's interest in Gabrielle. He had served Xena too long not to notice the attraction she held for the young woman. What was so different this time was that she had not acted on it. His thoughts turned to Gabrielle. He had heard the many stories told by the servants about how the bard insisted Xena was a good person who just needed to be shown the right path. Maybe she was right. Phineas had no illusions about just how deadly the Conqueror could be, but she had always treated him fairly. Those that invoked her wrath were those who had shirked their duties in some way.
Sighing with relief, Phineas saw the two women turn onto the road leading to the compound. Walking quickly toward them, he asked Iris, "Where have you been? The Conqueror is very angry."
Iris looked at Gabrielle before answering. Phineas was her friend. She could not lie to him. But she didn't want her new friend to get in trouble with Xena either. Before she could answer, Gabrielle said, "It was my fault. A young boy needed help with his sick mother."
Phineas looked at Gabrielle. "She is very angry. She wants to see you both when you return. We must hurry."
"Why is she angry? We were only delayed a candlemark." Gabrielle asked.
"Gabrielle..." Iris said exasperated. "She is the Conqueror..."
Phineas thought about the young woman's question. He interrupted Iris' answer and said, "Why don't you ask her?"
Iris turned a shocked face toward Phineas. "Are you crazy? Why are you telling her to do that?"
Gabrielle said, "It's ok Iris. I think it's a good idea."
Phineas looked at Iris, the warning in his eyes clear. Leave it alone. I know what I'm doing. Iris clamped her mouth shut, but glared at Phineas. Xena had always treated her well. But she knew her place and it was very obvious to her that Gabrielle didn't.
Xena sat in her chamber impatiently. Forcing herself to calm down, she knew she was over reacting. They were only a candlemark late. Since when had Gabrielle become so important to her? Smiling wryly, she acknowledged probably from the first time she had seen her. But this was getting ridiculous. She had more important things to think about. There was a threat against the realm, perpetuated by someone under her command, and she still had no proof. But her mind refused to focus on that problem, returning instead to the golden haired woman.
A sharp knock on the door drew Xena from her musings, and she called out curtly, "Enter."
Iris, Phineas and Gabrielle entered the chamber. Standing and walking around in front of her desk, she said, "Well...I'm glad to see you could make it back. Why are you late Iris."
Iris looked at the Conqueror and bowed her head. She had never incurred her wrath before and the woman looking at her exuded danger. "I'm sorry Conqueror. I did not mean to return late. It was busy and..." Iris' thoughts of protecting Gabrielle were suddenly dashed.
"It was my fault." Gabrielle interrupted.
Xena looked at the young woman. Why was she not surprised? Looking at Phineas and Iris, she said, "You are dismissed." Turning her attention back to the bard, she said, "You will stay."
After the others left, Xena asked Gabrielle, "Would you care to explain." The comment was harsh, the worry she had felt earlier turning to anger both at herself for not having more control over her emotions regarding this young woman and at Gabrielle for evoking such depth of feelings within her.
Gabrielle met the flashing blue eyes of the Conqueror and began speaking, "There was a young boy," Gabrielle related the events of the afternoon. Finishing she said, "So you see, it wasn't Iris' fault. I am a healer. I could not turn away from someone who needed my skills."
Xena listened quietly. Her anger had dissipated like it always did when the bard was near. She realized that Gabrielle would never have turned away from someone who needed help. In the short time she had known her, the one thing she had learned was that Gabrielle always acted in the best interests of others, regardless of the consequences to herself. And even though that kind of selflessness was alien to Xena, she knew it was one of the things that attracted her to the young woman.
"The people have their own healers. One of them would have stepped forward if you hadn't. You can not single handedly cure every sick person in the realm." Xena argued half-heartedly.
"Xena..." the word slipped out of Gabrielle's mouth before she could stop it. Privately, she had quit thinking of the older woman as the Conqueror. In her thoughts she had become Xena. But thoughts were one thing and reality was another.
Gabrielle's blunder rendered her momentarily speechless. Finding her voice, she managed to say, "I'm sorry." She didn't offer any excuse for her lapse of proper etiquette. She couldn't think of any Xena might understand.
Xena was surprised at the slip. Yet, any anger she might have felt was surpassed by the way the bard said her name. Her name sounded so right coming from Gabrielle's mouth. Maybe it would be ok to forgo the formality of a title if it were only the two of them.
Surprising herself with her leniency she said, "It's ok. Just make sure you don't make the mistake in public."
Gabrielle thought about that answer. Did that mean it was ok to call her Xena when it was only the two of them? Her thoughts muddled, she asked the question that had been bothering her all afternoon.
"Why is there a curfew of sundown?"
Xena was taken aback. Where'd that come from? We were talking about healing. "It is for the good of the realm. It dissuades rebellion."
"The people are more likely to rebel if they are governed with tyranny. People need to be allowed to socialize outside of work. The law keeps them from seeing many of their loved ones. It is a very unpopular law Xena. The people resent it."
Xena's face showed a myriad of emotions running the gamut from anger to surprise to disbelief. "What do you know? I am only doing what is best for the people."
"That law is not a good law," Gabrielle persisted. She knew she was pushing Xena, but someone had to make her think about the citizens.
"Enough," Xena said, effectively ending the discussion. Changing the subject, she said, "I am hosting a dinner party for the wealthy in two days. I would like for you to tell a few of your stories," pausing Xena looked pointedly at Gabrielle and continued, "but not the one about me."
Gabrielle couldn't believe her luck. She would actually get to spend a whole evening with the older woman. It would have surprised her to know that her thoughts were mirrored by Xena's.
"It would be an honor," she said, smiling at the warrior. Xena returned the smile and said, "Thank you."
"I promised the boy I would check on his mother again tomorrow."
The sarcastic comment died on her lips, and she said, "I wouldn't want you to break your word. But Gabrielle, remember your duty is here. I'll have Phineas accompany you." Looking at the healer, she continued, "Is there anything else I should know about?"
Gabrielle smiled and said, "No."
"Good. You may go now."
The rest of the day passed slowly with both women looking forward to the dinner party. Xena hoped for a break in her quest to find out who was skimming the profits of the realm, but mostly she looked forward to spending an evening with Gabrielle near. It was apparent that Gabrielle seemed to have only two changes of clothes. That would have to change. Calling on some of her servants, she ordered them to provide a new wardrobe for the bard.
Gabrielle was surprised to find herself the object of so much attention. The seamstresses measured and made clothes fit for royalty. Of the new tunics, her favorite was one that was a soft shade of green. Gabrielle decided that was the one she would wear to the party.
The next day, Gabrielle finished her class and began gathering up the herbs and putting them back in their proper place in the small room in the rear of the infirmary. Standing on her toes, she put the last herb away on the high shelf.
Smiling, she thought about Xena's visit to her class. When she caught her eye, Gabrielle had smiled at her. To her surprise, the Conqueror had actually flashed a quick smile in return before departing.
Gabrielle sensed a presence behind her a moment before she heard a voice, startling her with it's nearness.
"Hi there little lady. I've been watching you. How about letting me show you a good time?"
Gabrielle turned to face the speaker. This was nothing new. Ever since she had arrived various warriors had approached her. Preparing to give her standard answer, she had to stop a shudder from shaking her body when she faced the hard cold eyes, and sneering face of the warrior looking at her and standing way too close.
Gabrielle knew who this was. He literally made her skin crawl. All the other warriors were afraid of him. He was Xena's second in command, Darphus. Forcing a smile onto her face, she said, "No thank you. I'm really not interested."
When Darphus remained where he was blocking her way, Gabrielle began to get very worried. His reputation spoke for itself. Trying to keep her fear hidden, she said, "Please let me pass."
Darphus was angry. No one refused his attentions. He was also well aware of Xena's law against taking unwilling partners. But that wouldn't matter for long. Once he was in charge he could do as he pleased.
Hoping to intimidate the beautiful young woman he said, "What's the matter? I'm not good enough for you?"
"How very astute of you Darphus," Xena growled from the doorway of the small room. She had watched her lieutenant wait until all the healers had left for the mid-day meal and then walk into the infirmary. She knew there were no patients and that Gabrielle was the only one left in the dwelling.
Gabrielle almost sighed with relief. She quickly moved around Darphus while his attention was diverted and left the dwelling.
"Xena, how nice to see you," Darphus sneered. "What's the matter? Afraid she might be interested in me instead of you?"
In a movement so fast Darphus didn't have time to respond, the sword was unsheathed and the point pressed against his neck. "It is against the law to force your attentions on anyone or have you forgotten," Xena growled.
For the first time in seasons, Darphus feared for his life. He was facing the Conqueror. This was not the woman who had become soft over the last many moons. Perhaps he had underestimated her. "I meant no harm. I was just inquiring why she did not find me appealing. Surely there was no harm in the question."
"She told you she wasn't interested. Take my advice...stay away from her. If I see you anywhere near her again you are a dead man."
Darphus looked at Xena and knew she meant exactly what she said. Knowing she had the advantage now, he said, "As you wish."
Xena removed her sword from Darphus' throat and said, "I will oversee the infirmary. It is now off limits to you."
Darphus was unable to stop the anger from overtaking his face. But Xena preempted any argument by saying, "Do you have a problem with that?"
"No," Darphus spat out.
Xena turned and walked away, all her senses still focused on the warrior behind her. She would not put it past him to attack her from behind. It was time to meet with Cadmon. She needed a new second in command. Her thoughts turned briefly to Darphus' words. She wished Gabrielle were interested in her in the way he suggested. But that was just wishful thinking. Hers was obviously a one sided attraction. Oh the bard seemed to like her. But that was a far cry from what she felt toward the young woman. Sighing, Xena walked into the palace.
Darphus stalked out of the infirmary. The bitch would pay, and she would pay dearly. The time was drawing near. He would send Cadmon out on another training mission and then arrange an accident. No one would be the wiser. Then he would mount an attack. It would be easy. What defense would there be with Cadmon and his contingent gone? Smiling cruelly, Darphus began planning the accident.
Gabrielle and Phineas left to go visit the boy's sick mother. Never one to be silent for long, she asked, "How long have you known the Conqueror?"
"Since I was a small boy. I grew up in Amphipolis. Xena was the envy of all the boys. She was easily the most skilled in all the weapons. Sometimes her and Lyceus let me tag along with them. It was a hard life, but we were happy."
"What changed her?"
Gabrielle looked at Phineas. "Betrayal? Who betrayed her?"
"Everyone she ever trusted or loved." Phineas answered. "Xena was young and inexperienced when she left Amphipolis. She was thrust into a brutal world that made no allowances for error or misjudgment. With each betrayal she became more and more aloof until she became the way she is today."
"That's really sad. No wonder she seems so harsh at times. I think she is still reachable."
Phineas smiled at the young woman, "I know you do Gabrielle. You've told all of us that countless times already. I really hope you're right. It would be nice to see her happy again."
It was obvious to Gabrielle that Phineas was fond of the Conqueror in his own way. "She's really a beautiful woman. She must have many who seek her attention."
"Yes, that's true. Xena doesn't lack for potential suitors. But it has been a long time since she has bothered to grant any an audience."
Gabrielle wasn't sure why, but she was glad Xena didn't have anyone in her life right now. She thought about her high cheekbones and vivid blue eyes. The dark hair that flowed loosely around the dark woman's back and shoulders. The full sensuous lips that softened her face, especially when she smiled. The dreamy look on Gabrielle's face was replaced with surprise and she almost stopped walking. What am I thinking? I must be crazy.
Phineas looked at Gabrielle and asked, "You ok?"
"Yeah. I was just thinking." She was quiet for the remainder of the journey her thoughts demanding her full attention.
Iris bustled around the cooking gallery making sure each dish was perfect before allowing it to be served. The preparations had gone well. She was sure the Conqueror would be pleased with the feast.
"Hi," Gabrielle smiled at Iris.
Gabrielle made frequent forays into the cooking area and her arrival was not unusual. Iris turned to look at her friend and her mouth dropped open in surprise. "You look very nice," she said.
"Thanks. This one is my favorite. Does it look ok?" Gabrielle was nervous about the dinner party. Phineas and Iris had told her it was a party for the wealthy, elite citizens of the city. What if she did something wrong? What if they didn't like her stories? Would she fit in?
"Relax. You look great. They're just regular people with too much money for their own good," Iris smiled at the young woman. "They'll love your stories." Iris made it a point never to miss the stories Gabrielle told the servant's children. She enjoyed them just as much as the children did.
"Don't forget, I want all the details tomorrow," Iris added. The cook was a pivotal point for gossip at the palace and she wanted some good juicy bits to pass on to her rather large following.
Gabrielle smiled at her friend. "Ok, but I don't see what is interesting about a dinner party," she teased.
"You're kidding, right?" Iris asked incredulously.
Gabrielle started laughing at the expression on the cook's face. Realizing her friend was teasing, Iris said, "Go on now. You don't want to be late and miss anything."
Xena greeted each of her visitors when they arrived. Wine was served and she moved from guest to guest using her charm and charisma, making sure that each felt welcome. The conversation was centered around what these citizens considered most important, wealth.
Gabrielle went to the door the chamber the party was being held in. Feeling very uncomfortable, she entered hoping she would not be noticed. She walked toward the side of the room, looking for a place to sit away from where the guests were gathered in groups talking. Her hope of an unobtrusive entrance was quickly ruined.
Xena had been watching for Gabrielle and saw her enter. She looked absolutely stunning. The soft green tunic accented the gentle curves of her body. The scones holding the flickering candles highlighted her golden blonde hair. She was unable to tear her eyes from the beautiful young woman, and the guests she had been talking with turned to see what she was looking at. One of them asked, "Who is she Xena? She's very beautiful." Finally, taking a breath, Xena answered, "Yes she is," and walked toward the new arrival
Gabrielle did not see Xena approaching she was so intent on staying in the background. While walking around the room, she noticed the people were dressed in tunics made of silks and other fine fabrics. Jewels adorned their necks and ears, many almost gaudy in size. Some of the guests wore simple but elegant tunics, while others wore the long robes similar to that which Xena usually wore. Every color imaginable assaulted her eyes. Gabrielle quickly realized these were not people she would enjoy being with. The entire atmosphere seemed false.
She felt a hand on her upper arm and before she could turn to see who it was, she heard a low throaty voice, "I'm glad you're here."
Gabrielle shivered and felt her knees weaken when Xena addressed her. Gods the woman had such a sexy voice. Fighting the urge to just lean back and use the tall woman for support, Gabrielle reluctantly turned around knowing the movement would cause Xena to remove her hand.
Deep blue eyes met sparkling green ones. Neither woman spoke. Each was trying to control their thoughts and emotions. The tension between them was almost palpable.
Xena was having trouble controlling the increasing attraction she felt for the bard. Something about Gabrielle evoked every protective instinct in her...and she wryly acknowledged every other feeling she had too. She struggled to gain control of the sensations pulsing through her from just placing her hand on Gabrielle's arm. Consciously forcing herself to refrain from just wrapping her arms around the young woman and holding her close, she said, "I'll show you around."
Gabrielle had looked deeply into the blue orbs of the woman facing her. She read the conflicting emotions that matched her own. These were not the eyes of a cold heartless killer. There was warmth and kindness and something more
Smiling at Xena, Gabrielle said, "Thanks."
If either woman had looked around they would have noticed some of the knowing glances passed between the guests. The Conqueror's reputation was well known among these citizens.
Gabrielle felt like the guest of honor. Xena not only introduced her to all the guests as, 'Gabrielle, the Bard from Potedaia, but she insisted the young woman stay at her side.
Sitting down to the feast Iris had prepared, Xena indicated that Gabrielle should sit in the chair next to her. The guests were relaxed, having imbibed a goodly amount of wine, and the conversation turned to the realm.
"So, Conqueror, how long are you going to keep the curfew imposed? It's quite tiresome to not be allowed to see your own grown children. I have heard of no threat from the people," one of the guests asked.
Xena looked at Gabrielle briefly before answering. "It has already been called to my attention that the law is very unpopular with the people. Tomorrow the curfew will be lifted."
Gabrielle looked at the older woman surprised. Xena flashed her a half smile before turning her attention back to the other guests. She really hadn't thought the warrior had paid any attention to her complaint about the law. She'd been right all along. Someone just had to show Xena the way.
When dessert was served, one of the guests, who had consumed a large portion of wine, asked the Conqueror when the next mass execution was to take place.
Xena saw the questioning look on Gabrielle's face and glared at the impertinent guest. "I have presided over no mass execution."
Had the wealthy man been of his right mind, he would have taken the warning and offered up an apology. But his good sense had been left behind and he persisted, "No, you haven't. But what is the difference whether you are present or not when you order your Lieutenant to give no trials and put to death all those who are suspected of traitorous activity?"
Gabrielle gasped and looked at the woman sitting next to her. Perhaps she had been wrong after all but almost before that thought could take root, she saw the quick look of surprise cross the face of the Conqueror before it was quickly masked.
"There will be no more executions within this realm without a trial." She could not add that this was the first she'd heard of this. To do so would be to lose face. The Conqueror should know everything that happened within Greece.
Xena heard the bard gasp and silently cursed Darphus. Why did this atrocity have to come up when she actually thought the young woman might have some feelings for her? That's what she got for allowing her emotions free reign. Gabrielle would never believe she had nothing to do with that. How could she ever convince her otherwise? It was with a heavy heart that Xena turned her attention back to her guests.
Gabrielle had gotten over the initial shock of the brutality mentioned by the guest. She questioned her feelings for Xena. It was ridiculous to pretend that her interest in the older woman was strictly to show her the error of her ways. But this was really hard to take. No trial why Xena?
Gabrielle told two stories that evening. The guests were mesmerized by the talented bard and thanked Xena for providing the wonderful entertainment. It had been a long evening and Xena bade her guests' farewell. She alone, having heard Gabrielle tell stories before, knew that the young woman's heart wasn't in her stories.
Gabrielle made her way to the door and was stopped by Xena. "Don't leave yet. I want to talk to you."
Xena motioned for Gabrielle to take a seat. Ever since the revelation and the look of disbelief she had seen on the young woman's face Xena had fought an inner battle on how to handle this. She had come to the conclusion that she could no longer continue on the way she had.
Keeping her face expressionless, she said, "You are free to go back to Potedaia. You made allegations against my Lieutenant and you were correct. The surplus that was collected has been given back to the villages. I'll have one of the guards escort you back to your home."
Xena turned away for a moment, her emotions threatening to betray her. In control once again, she said, "Thank you for teaching your skills to my healers. Goodbye Gabrielle." Xena turned away from the young woman.
Gabrielle was surprised at the admission from the older woman. She had actually checked out what she had told her. If she was fair enough to do that, how could she be so unfair to the citizens here in the city? "Why Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "How could you do that? Everyone deserves a trial. You know that don't you?"
Gabrielle still couldn't believe Xena had ordered the deaths of so many without a trial. If only she would tell her something, anything. She couldn't leave without knowing why.
Xena remained facing away from Gabrielle. What was the use? Gabrielle was a very intelligent woman. She would never believe that this was the first she had heard of this. Yeah, she knew about the executions - but Darphus had neglected to mention that they were executed without a trial in her name. I'm going to kill the bastard. But she was unable to muster up the familiar rage. Her thoughts instead focused on how much Gabrielle would hate her now. She had actually hoped no, don't go there.
Gabrielle walked over to Xena and said, "Can't you at least look at me and tell me why? Is that asking so much?" She knew she was pushing her luck, but frankly, she just didn't care. Even the thought of seeing her family could not ease her anguish. Tonight for the first time, she was sure Xena felt something for her and now this Frustrated she grabbed Xena's arm and raised her voice, "Say something!"
Xena whirled around. "What do you want me to say? That I didn't know anything about it? Would you believe me?"
Gabrielle looked into the pain filled eyes. "Yes
yes I would. Is that true?"
Xena looked into the green eyes of the smaller woman standing in front of her and saw warmth and hope reflected back. Suddenly she knew she had a chance. "When I returned to the city, Darphus told me he had ordered the executions of 50 people. He did not have the authority to do that and I made the decision at that time to replace him. I never knew they were not tried."
Closing the distance between them, Gabrielle wrapper her arms around the tall woman and hugged her quickly and then released her. "I just knew you wouldn't do that."
Xena was so surprised at the hug; she just stood there, her arms at her sides. Too quickly the contact ended. It had felt so right, so good. Oh gods, I'm really losing it. Gaining control of her errant thoughts which were filling her mind with images she just didn't need to entertain right now, Xena said, "What time do you want to leave tomorrow?"
Every nerve ending in Gabrielle's body was complaining about the loss of contact. Trying to deal with all the new sensations, it took a moment for the question to register. Leave? Oh no not now. Hadn't Xena felt anything? Why did she want her to leave? "Do you want me to leave?"
The question was simple but the meaning complex. Xena thought, No Gabrielle. I don't want you to leave. But I can't tell you that - even though I want to. You have become so important to me. I need you. I love your fresh optimistic outlook. You have given meaning to my life. I am never bored when you are near. Unable to say these things, Xena's shoulders slumped and she said instead, "It would probably be best. If you knew some of the things I have done you would not question leaving. You would just go. I'm not who you want me to be."
Gabrielle watched the quick flicker of emotions cross the older woman's face. Her words said one thing, but her body language said another. But how could she stay if Xena didn't want her to. This conversation was about way more than whether she wanted to stay or not.
Gabrielle had no illusions about Xena's past. Tales of her brutality during the conquering years had spread through out Greece. But the one thing she remembered from all the stories was that Xena, although ruthless, had always given the villages and cities a chance to surrender. She had never harmed the unarmed. She had never attacked women or children. Even more importantly, Xena had been unaware of the villagers being starved.
"How do you know what I want? Have you ever asked me?" Gabrielle forced her voice to remain harsh. She had to get through to Xena. "Darphus is undermining you. It seems to me you need all the friends you can get. But instead you choose to send me away when I could help you." Gabrielle held her breath. She knew she was really pushing her luck. But even if it took Xena getting mad at her to get through to her, it would be worth it.
Why was she making this so hard? I told her she was free to go. What more could she want? "And just what do you think you could do? I have used all my resources and no one has been able to provide any information on what Darphus is planning."
Gabrielle met the older woman's eyes and said, "Trust me Xena. Let me try please."
That simple plea found it's way past the crumbling barriers in the warrior's mind. She didn't think Gabrielle would find out anything, but what was the harm in letting her try. "Ok." Xena said, and then added, "just be careful.
Phineas entered Xena's chamber. He had been summoned by the Conqueror and told to bring the law scrolls. He wondered what new law she was going to pass now. He had observed an overall softening of her attitude toward the people of the city since Gabrielle had arrived. The young woman was a very good influence on the leader. While Phineas didn't approve of all of the Conqueror's decisions, he had always liked and respected her.
"Good morning, Conqueror."
Xena responded in kind and then said, "I want the curfew law revoked immediately. I also want you to copy a new law down. Any citizen of Greece who is accused of a crime will be offered a fair trial before sentencing is commenced."
Seeing the surprised expression on Phineas' face, Xena added, "While we were in the outlying provinces, Darphus not only took it upon himself to execute 50 citizens, but he did so without a trial and was kind enough to attribute it to me."
"The Bastard," slipped out before Phineas could stop the words.
"That he is," agreed Xena. "Keep your eyes and ears open. I know he is planning something and we must be on guard at all times."
"Why not just execute him?" Phineas asked the obvious question.
"Because I don't know how many are loyal to him. Darphus is not stupid. He must have a strong following to do something so blatant. He must have known I'd eventually find out about it."
"He is very vain Conqueror. Perhaps he intended to make his move before that happened."
"Perhaps. But I don't intend to sit around and wait for it to happen either. Use as many of the house servants you need to get the news laws posted. I want it done today."
"It will be done," Phineas assured the leader.
Gabrielle was up early the next morning. She had spent an uneasy night. She had asked for Xena's trust. Now she had to show the older woman that the trust was warranted. Gabrielle knew if there was one person who might know what was going on it was Iris. But would she talk, even to her.
"Hi," Gabrielle greeted Iris.
"Hi yourself. Well, what good gossip to you have for me? Who was there? What were they wearing? Did any of them make fools of themselves? Were they their usual stuffy selves?"
Gabrielle started laughing. "Give me a chance. One thing at a time, ok?"
Iris questioned Gabrielle for the next candle mark about every aspect of the party she could think of.
"Was that silly woman who wears her hair on top of her head secured with that ridiculously large jewel there?"
"Oh, you mean Lasthena. She does look a little unusual."
"Humph a little unusual? That's an understatement if I ever heard one."
"Just because someone is different, doesn't mean we should make fun of them."
"Oh, I meant no harm. It's just that they look down upon us and treat us like we have no feelings."
"Xena doesn't." Gabrielle realized her mistake the second the words left her mouth. Gods, how could she have been so stupid?
Iris jumped right on the mistake, "Xena? Do you know what she'd do if she heard you call her that?"
Yeah, I do. But I can't tell you that. Changing the subject Gabrielle asked, "Iris, I need you to help me with something."
"Of course. Anything, you know that," the cook smiled at her friend.
"Has there been any talk of a rebellion by anyone here in the compound?"
Iris looked away. Why did she have to ask that? There were some things that it was better to pretend you had never heard.
"Some things should not be discussed. Why do you want to know?"
"I want to help Xena."
"Why? What difference does it make if she is the leader or someone else is? They are all the same. They don't care about the common people."
"Has Xena ever treated you unfairly?"
"Do you think Darphus would be a fair leader?"
Iris looked at Gabrielle. How much did she really know? It was obvious that she knew Darphus led the opposing force.
Sighing, knowing that her life would be forfeit if Darphus was successful, Iris began relating to Gabrielle what she had overhead the past many months.
When she finished, Gabrielle said, "You must come with me to see Xena. She needs to know everything you have just told me."
"No. You tell her."
"Please Iris. Come with me."
"If Darphus wins, do you know what he'll do to us?"
Gabrielle shuddered at the images the words evoked. "Yes I do. So we must do everything we can to make sure he doesn't."
Iris acquiesced and the two women made their way to the Conqueror's chamber. Iris related everything she had heard to the Conqueror. "The last thing I heard is that Darphus is going to arrange an accident for Cadmon on the training mission tomorrow."
"Thank you Iris. You may leave now." Turning her attention to Gabrielle, she said, "Please stay."
Once Iris left, Xena said, "You're really amazing. You have found out more in a few candle marks than I was able to uncover in days. You may have singlehandedly saved the realm." Placing her hand on Gabrielle's upper arm, she said, "Thank you."
"You're welcome. It was easy really. You just have to know who to talk to." Pressing her advantage, and smiling to take the bite out of her words, Gabrielle added, "The servants are people too."
Xena smiled wryly. "You've proved your point today. If my leadership survives this threat, I am going to make some changes to make life easier for all the citizens."
Her mind racing ahead, planning a defense against the expected attack, Xena continued, "It's not safe for you to stay here. It's too dangerous. I'll have you escorted home."
"No? Gabrielle you must. If I am not successful..."
Gabrielle closed the distance between them. Looking up at Xena, she said, "I'm not leaving you." Fearing rejection but unwilling to hold back any longer, she placed both her arms around the tall woman and hugged her. She felt the tightening of the warrior's body against hers. But instead of letting go, she laid her head against Xena's chest. She felt Xena relax and place her arms around her, resting her chin on her head.
Xena was surprised by the action. She had acknowledged her feelings for the young woman but had never expected it to be reciprocated and she never would have acted on those feelings. This felt so right.
The women stood there silently, each enjoying the contact, and neither willing to make a move to end it. Not wanting to end the moment, but knowing she had to, Xena pulled back from the embrace. Looking at Gabrielle, her face reflecting a tenderness many would have said she was incapable of, Xena said, "You're are so special." Placing her hand against the bard's face, she continued, "I must make preparations. I have to warn Cadmon and I have to find a safe place for you."
Trying to allay Xena's worry, Gabrielle said, "I'll stay with the servants. Darphus doesn't care about them."
Unable to come up with a better idea, Xena agreed and walked with Gabrielle down to the kitchen. Looking at Iris, Xena said, "You and Gabrielle are probably the most at risk when the attack begins. Both of you stay together and out of sight once the attack commences. I expect it to take place within two days."
Xena had sent Darphus to an outlying village so that Cadmon would be free to meet with his warriors secretly. Only those that Cadmon was absolutely sure were loyal had been invited.
Cadmon thought about the meeting he had just had with Xena. He was not surprised that Darphus had tried to set up Xena with the citizens of the city. If he were planning a coup he would want the people on his side too.
"The Conqueror believes that Darphus may be planning a rebellion. Based on the evidence, I agree with her. Tomorrow we are scheduled for a training mission. It is likely that Darphus may make a move against us then. I want you to be very vigilant. No matter what happens out there, you make sure you get back to protect the palace. To accomplish this, if you must pledge allegiance to Darphus, do it. You will have your chance once the attack begins. The main thing is to stay alive until the battle so that we may be strong enough to drive back his forces."
Darphus took advantage of the mission Xena sent him on to meet with the warriors loyal to him. Gathering his top officers, he began briefing them.
"Tomorrow, we go on a training mission." Looking at his most trusted aide, he continued, "Korax, you will see that Cadmon does not come back. Make sure his death appears to be an accident. I'll leave the details up to you."
Korax smiled, "It'll be a pleasure. I hate that sanctimonious bastard."
"The rest of you keep the other warriors busy so Korax has time to accomplish his mission. I will remain at the compound to divert suspicion away from me."
Darphus unrolled the plans for the takeover of the palace and compounds. Step by step he went over the plans with his officers. Finishing, he said, "We will attack in two days time."
The dull thud of hooves hitting the ground in the predawn darkness echoed throughout the compound. Xena stood at the open window watching the warriors depart. Running a hand through her hair disheveled by the cool breeze, she saw Darphus entering his quarters. So he had decided not to go. Smart move on his part if his plan failed. Too bad it wouldn't do him any good.
Xena opened the chamber door. Seeing Archeron, she said, "Tell Phineas I want to see him in a candlemark. Closing the door, Xena walked over to a chest. The lid was ornately decorated with a hand carved wooden chakrum. Pressing the right side of the chakrum, she waited for the lid to slowly open. Pulling out several scrolls, Xena began studying the layout of the palace. It was time to prepare against the expected attack. Xena mentally checked off the locations that would provide the best defense and annotated each with an X. From a strategic standpoint, any attacker would have to overcome the guards of at least one of these locations before gaining entrance.
When Phineas arrived, Xena gave him a copy of the defense plan she had drawn up. "The large X indicates likely entry sites and the small X shows secondary sites. The Royal Guard will be the first line of defense. I want you to gather all the servants who have had any training in weapons. If you have any doubt about their loyalty, do not include them. The servants will be used only if the guards are overcome. Station them accordingly."
The Conqueror was worried. Even though she had warned Cadmon that an attempt would be made on his life, Darphus was very clever. It would be impossible for him to foresee every possible scenario. If Cadmon did not return, would the loyal warriors be able to rally effectively without his leadership. Sure, she would be there. But she would be forced to deal with Darphus before she could effectively lead them, and she was sure he would have a backup plan.
Her thoughts then turned to Gabrielle. Several times she walked toward the kitchen to insist the bard leave the compound. Each time she stopped short and knew the young woman would resent being sent away. What if something happened to her? She'd never forgive herself. Xena began mulling around other ideas to protect the person who had become more important to her than anything else, including the realm.
Gabrielle wandered around the cooking area. She was concerned about the upcoming attack. What if something happened to Xena? She had been waiting all her life for the 'right' someone. Her father had arranged her betrothal to Perdicus, and she had never felt about him like she did Xena.
Allowing her thoughts to turn to the night before, she remembered the way her body had felt pressed up against the older woman. The softness of the breasts she had laid her head against. The strength of Xena's arms that were so gently wrapped around her. The feeling of being safe and protected.
Looking at Iris questioningly, Gabrielle wondered why she was yelling. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong with me. But this is the third time I've had to call your name to get your attention. What are you thinking about?"
Gabrielle felt her cheeks redden. "Um nothing."
"Seems like it was a mighty interesting nothing," Iris retorted.
Gabrielle was saved from further questioning when Phineas walked in. After greeting the two women, Phineas walked over and lifted up the lid on one of the large pots. "What are you making?" he asked Iris.
"You'll never change. We may all be dead tomorrow and all you're worried about is what's for the noon meal," Iris chided.
"Well there's no reason to die hungry," Phineas teased.
Gabrielle looked from one to the other. They always bantered back and forth like this and seemed quite fond of each other. Feeling there was more to their friendship than what met the eye; she excused herself, to give them some privacy.
She began walking through the long corridors to her room. Halfway there, she changed direction and turned toward Xena's chamber. Walking along, deep in thought, she was startled when she turned the corner and walked right into someone. Embarrassed, she said, "Sorry," while lifting her head to see whom she had bumped into.
Xena stifled a curse, when she saw Gabrielle. She had been on her way to the kitchen after spending a restless morning in her chamber. There was nothing else she could do in the way of preparations and her thoughts had turned to the young woman.
Smiling, Xena said, "Guess I should watch where I'm going."
"No. It was my fault " Gabrielle quickly replied and then smiled when she saw the teasing expression on the older woman's face. "I was just coming to see you."
"It seems we both had the same idea then. Come on; let's go back to my chamber. We can talk there."
Xena suggested they sit on the padded bench. Gabrielle sat down on one end and Xena sat on the opposite side. Gabrielle broke the uneasy silence. "I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help. You know, with getting ready " she trailed off.
"Everything that can be done is being attended to. I really wish you would leave the compound until this is over." Turning sideways, facing Gabrielle directly, Xena continued, "I don't want anything to happen to you. It's not safe here."
"Are you leaving?"
"Of course not. I can't leave. What's that got to do with anything?"
"I'd rather take my chances here with you, than leave and not know if I would ever see you again. At least here, I can help."
Xena opened her mouth to voice a rebuttal and then shut it again. The doubts that her mind had tormented her with about Gabrielle's feelings began slipping away. She really does cares what happens to me. The thought rolled around in her mind in wonderment.
"You really want to stay here with me?"
Gabrielle reached over and put her hand on Xena's knee. Looking at the tall woman, her eyes conveying the depth of her emotions, she simply said, "Yes, I do."
The frank admission rendered Xena speechless. Even after the night before, her mind had continued to assault her with doubts. She placed her hand on top of Gabrielle's and squeezed it lightly. Words just weren't needed. Gabrielle understood the unspoken message.
The two women spent the rest of the afternoon companionably. They talked about anything and everything, each greedy in the quest for more knowledge about the other.
Darphus met with Archeron who was pivotal to his backup plan. Archeron had been spying for him for the last two seasons, ever since Darphus had caught him sleeping on duty outside of Xena's chamber. In exchange for his life, he reported to Darphus everything he overhead in the palace.
"Do you have any questions at all?" Darphus asked the house guard.
Archeron looked at the warrior he feared and hated. "No. It shouldn't be a problem," he said nervously.
"It had better not be or you're a dead man. Do you understand?" Darphus growled at the frightened man.
Darphus turned away disgustedly and went in search of his other spy, one of the house servants. Locating him, he said, "Did you find it?"
"Yes. It was where you said it would be. I am sure no one else knows about it."
"That's the whole point," Darphus said sarcastically. "Have you shown it to Archeron?"
"What are you waiting for? Show it to him now." Stupid moron. No wonder he was a servant. He didn't have enough sense to be anything else.
Darphus watched the servant hurry off to find Archeron, and then walked back to his quarters. The weapons he had cached away from the palace would be moved into the compound that night. With Cadmon out of the way, it would be an easy task. He didn't anticipate needing them, but just in case the citizens wanted to join in he was going to be prepared.
Darphus knew the element of surprise was paramount to his success. He had to catch Xena unawares. In her warlord days, he had watched her overcome what should have been insurmountable odds and still come out virtually unscathed. But she had lost her edge. She had become soft in the seasons since she had conquered Greece. Victory was only a day away.
Lying down on his pallet, Darphus' thoughts turned to the last time he had challenged Xena. Even though it had happened many seasons before, he relived it daily.
He had built a small army and was feared throughout the province. Darphus had established a brutal reputation, killing all who stood in his way. It was time to expand his territory. Darphus knew a woman warlord called Xena controlled the province to the west. He found it humorous that no one had been able to defeat her yet. Sorry excuses for warlords if you asked him. He'd put them all to shame and double his army when he defeated her.
It was a hot dusty day. Darphus took a long pull from his water flask. His spies had reported Xena's army was camped on the other side of the foothills about a candlemark from him. Rallying his army, they began approaching the opposing force.
Cresting the last hill, he raised his sword into the air, the unspoken command to charge. His horse broke into a canter after being brutally kicked in the sides. Rushing the campsite, he pulled up on the horse. It was empty. There was no one there.
Too late, he ordered his army to retreat. Before they could execute the command, Xena's army had completely surrounded his. Fierce fighting broke out. Darphus in a desperate attempt to save his army organized a hasty retreat.
That night, he devised the perfect solution. He would challenge her to a dual. The winner would assume leadership of both armies. He sent a messenger to deliver the challenge. She had accepted. The dual would take place at dawn the following morning. Smiling, Darphus slept well that night. He was an expert in wielding a sword.
The warriors gathered around the two combatants. He had seen smirks on the faces of the warriors in Xena's army, but the significance of that never registered in his overconfident mind.
He had seriously underestimated her. Within seconds, she disarmed him, marked his face and spared him only when he begged for mercy in front of all the watching warriors.
He silently swore vengeance that day. Darphus spent years regaining her trust and proving himself the best warrior in her command. Even though he taunted her every chance he got, he had shown her only the utmost loyalty. Lately, he had been almost unable to keep up the façade. But soon it wouldn't matter. She would suffer before she died. He would ridicule her in the eyes of her army like she had done to him. Darphus thought about the different ways he could torture Xena and fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Dust swirled through the air, so thick it was impossible to penetrate. The warriors had trained hard and the mock battle was finally over. Cadmon looked around. Without being obvious, he had stayed clear of the officers he suspected were loyal to Darphus throughout the exercise.
Cadmon gave the signal to reform and the army headed back to the compound. The mountainous terrain often required the warriors to ride singlefile. One of the warriors rode to the rear of the army and called over to Cadmon, "You better come and take a look at this."
"What is it?"
"Some peasants have been killed. A clumsy attempt was made to hide their bodies."
Cadmon sighed. This was something he really didn't need right now. Best to take care of it now so he could get back to the compound. "Show me."
The warrior led Cadmon to a small path off the road they were traveling on. Dismounting, he walked over to some scrub motioning Cadmon to follow him. Five paces further were the bodies of three peasants. Cadmon examined the bodies. The evidence pointed toward executions. There was a minimum of blood. Each had been stabbed in the back, the dagger probably piercing the heart and killing them instantly. There was nothing to indicate why they might have been killed.
Turning to the warrior, Cadmon said, "Catch up with the army and Tell Eustis to send me a burial detail of 10 men. I'm going to look around here a little more."
After the warrior rode off, Cadmon began searching the area looking for anything that would give him a clue about why the peasants had been killed or possibly who had done it. Bending down, and looking at what appeared to be drag marks in the dirt, Cadmon was startled when he heard movement behind him.
Turning as he stood, he saw Korax. Angry he said, "You know better than approaching without any warning. Did you bring the burial detail with you?"
"No. There's not going to be a burial detail."
"What are you saying? I sent word back with one of the warriors. I am in charge today, Korax, whether you like it or not. So you can just get right back on your horse and go fetch the burial detail since you seem to have interfered with my message."
"No Cadmon," Korax said, pulling his sword and moving toward the shocked Lieutenant.
Cadmon quickly started backing up and unsheathing his sword. Before the sword was clear Korax struck a blow to his arm. Ignoring the pain, Cadmon retained his hold on the hilt and met the next thrust with his sword.
Korax smiled. There was no need to hurry. At the rate Cadmon's arm was bleeding, the fight would soon be over.
Darphus and Xena watched the army enter the compound from their respective positions. Xena summoned Phineas and told him to find out if Cadmon had returned.
Darphus walked among the warriors looking for Cadmon or Korax. Seeing neither, he smiled inwardly and asked one of the lieutenants where the senior man was.
"He stayed to investigate the deaths of some peasants about a candlemark from here," the lieutenant replied.
Darphus mused, now that was original. Korax had outdone himself again. He would have to reward him well. Good, everything would proceed on schedule. The five warriors that would assist him with the cached arms had already been notified. They would leave once the moon was high in the sky and the compound guards were least alert.
"He did not return, Conqueror. Eustis said he was investigating the deaths of some peasants that one of the warriors had found. He expressed confidence that Cadmon would be along shortly."
"Yeah. I'll bet," Xena mused aloud. There was really nothing she could do except wait. Xena paced back and forth in the chamber. She would wait until dawn. If Cadmon didn't return, she would assume the worse and place Eustis in charge. He had shown great initiative in his current position as Captain of the Guard and was loyal.
Looking at Phineas, she said, "Go get some rest. Tomorrow will be a very long day."
Phineas looked at the worried woman. Wanting to ease her mind, he said, "I don't think he has enough support to succeed."
"I hope you're right."
Gabrielle sat on the pallet in her room. Not wanting to be in the way she had left Xena's chamber when the army returned. She thought about the quiet afternoon that they had spent just talking to each other. She had felt so comfortable. They had shared many stories of their childhood and in some ways it almost seemed that they were becoming reacquainted after a long absence. That was an interesting thought. They had never met before that fateful day in the herb garden. Yet, something about the tall woman called to her touching the very depths of her soul. Gabrielle suddenly realized that the thought of life without Xena was unthinkable. She lay down and fell into a restless sleep. Her dreams tormented her with thoughts of Xena being injured or killed in the upcoming battle.
The warrior crouched outside the stone hedge waiting for a cloud to cover the moon before attempting to enter the compound. He knew where every guard was stationed and it was important that he not be detected.
Slowly, taking care to ensure his armor did not scrape the hard stone surface, he eased his body over the wall. Once both feet were back on the ground, he crouched and looked for the deepest shadows to hide him in his approach of the palace.
Xena restlessly walked the long corridors. The familiar blood lust coursed through her veins at the thought of Darphus' pending betrayal. She would not sleep until after the expected attack
Hearing a slight noise near one of the windows, she jumped into the air twisting her body away from the window landing lightly on her feet to the side of the window and out of sight of anyone looking in. Pressing her body tightly against the wall, Xena pulled out a hidden dagger she preferred for close work.
Reflexes honed to hairpin quickness allowed the woman warrior to grab the shoulders of the intruder when they appeared in the window and pull him inside before he uttered a sound. Grabbing his hair and pulling his head back to expose his throat, Xena pressed the dagger to his neck.
"Conqueror, wait "
Two things registered with Xena simultaneously. She recognized the voice and the smell of blood. "Cadmon?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, but I did not want Darphus to know I still lived."
Xena removed the dagger. "You have been injured," she stated.
Cadmon gritted his teeth against the pain of his arm wound. There would be time to take care of it later. Right now he had to tell Xena what he had learned from Korax.
"It is nothing."
Standing, she helped him to his feet. Feeling him sway, she quickly grabbed him saying, "Put your arm around my neck. We can talk in my chamber." She needed to check on his wound. The smell of blood was too strong for it to be minor.
Passing one of the roving guards, she told him, "Have one of the servants get some linen from the bathing area and bring it to me." She did not want to take a chance on making Darphus suspicious by getting supplies from the infirmary.
Entering her chamber, she helped Cadmon to a bench. After lighting several candles, she walked over and looked at him. His face was pale and his right arm was wrapped in multi-colored linen made more colorful by the dark red blood that had seeped through it. Looking at the linen, she looked at Cadmon, raising an eyebrow in question.
Managing a wan smile, he said, "It is a dead peasants shirt. He no longer had any use for it."
"Tell me what happened."
Xena unwrapped the linen covering Cadmon's arm while listening to him relate his story.
"Korax killed some peasants to lure me away from the army. The only reason I was injured is because he caught me unawares. He was so confident of winning he told me the plans. Darphus is going to attack tomorrow, during the mid-day meal. Those loyal to him will simply enter the dining area fully armed after all the other warriors have obtained their rations. It would be over before it even started." Cadmon paused trying to make the room stop spinning.
Xena said, "Take it easy. You've lost a lot of blood."
"Darphus plans to kill you first " Cadmon added before passing out.
The house servant arrived with the linen and Xena sent him to get Gabrielle and Phineas. She applied pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding that had started again.
When Gabrielle arrived and saw the unconscious warrior, she needed no instructions. She opened her herb pouch and pulled out the supplies needed to stitch the wound close. The house servant was sent to bring water.
Looking at Xena, she said, "This is a bad wound. It's going to take a lot of stitches. I hope he hasn't lost too much blood."
"So do I," Xena paused, and then added, "Do what you can for him. Then I want you to go get Iris and both of you get out of sight. She will know where to hide."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to go pay Darphus a visit. It's long overdue."
Phineas had been checking on the house guards and arrived in time to hear Xena's words. Seeing his questioning look, Xena said, "I have decided to take the offensive. Wake Eustis and tell him to have the warriors prepare for battle. They will wait for my signal to attack."
Neither noticed that the house servant listening outside the door.
After Phineas left, Xena looked at Gabrielle and asked, "How much longer?"
"About half a candlemark."
"Then I will wait until then." Xena knew the best way to keep Gabrielle safe was to kill Darphus. That would take the fight out of those loyal to him. "Make sure you stay out of sight."
"Be careful, ok?"
Xena walked over to Gabrielle. Kneeling down next to her, she watched her work on Cadmon's wound. This woman had made so much difference in her life in the short time since she had met her. What if something unforeseen happened? What if this was the last time they saw one another? Somehow she had to let Gabrielle know how important she was. Smiling inwardly, she acknowledged that her mind had finally quit protesting. It must have known the fight with her heart would be futile.
Placing her hand on Gabrielle's thigh and taking comfort in the contact, she said, "I'll be careful Gabrielle. To do less would put you at risk and I will not do that."
Gabrielle looked away from her task and met the deep blue eyes watching her. Smiling, her mind whirling with the implications of that statement, all she said was, "Thank you," before turning back to her work. But the depth of emotion conveyed with those simple words was not lost on Xena.
Standing up she said, "I have to go now," adding, "I'll see you when it's over." Xena wasn't sure if she was attempting to reassure Gabrielle or herself. But she planned on keeping her word.
Gabrielle looked up and said, "Count on it."
Phineas relayed Xena's instructions to Eustis and stayed until the warriors started readying for battle before returning to the palace. He quickly made his way to Iris' room. Knocking softly, he waited for her to answer. When Iris opened the door, he walked inside closing the door behind him.
"Xena is going to attack Darphus within the candlemark. Cadmon was wounded today and Gabrielle is tending to him in Xena's chamber. Go there and when she is finished find a safe place to wait until the battle is over. I have to go now."
Iris placed her arms around Phineas hugging him. She quickly drew his head down for a quick kiss. "Be careful."
"I will. You be careful too," Phineas said before departing.
Xena slipped out of the window of her sleeping chamber landing softly on the ground. Staying in the pooled shadows of the compound she silently moved toward Darphus' quarters. Rounding the corner of the dwelling, Xena paused, her acute hearing attempting to discern any sound coming from inside. Hearing nothing, she remained in place for a little longer. It was too quiet. Even if Darphus was sleeping, the sounds of snoring should have penetrated the thin door.
Staying to the side, Xena pushed open the door and waited. Sensing the dwelling was empty, but still wary, Xena slowly entered. Once inside her sharp senses verified the suspicion that Darphus was not there. She would have to find him quickly. Perhaps he had changed his plans and was now rallying the warriors loyal to him.
Before Xena had time to decide on a course of action, she heard the sound of boots striking dirt. Looking outside the door, she saw the warriors from the barracks on the westside of the compound, Darphus' men, running toward the eastside of the compound. Instinct took over and Xena let loose with her battle cry, ayiayiayiayi, signaling the loyal warriors led by Eustis to attack.
Jumping into the foray, Xena began slicing her way through the traitors, making her way east. The sound of swords rang out across the compound. One of Darphus' lieutenants attempted to take Xena from the rear. Sensing his presence, she swung the sword over her back engaging him while simultaneously viciously kicking and disabling a warrior in front of her whom sought to take advantage of the situation. Whirling around, she met the next thrust of his sword with her own before disarming him and running him through with her sword.
Leaving a path of human destruction in her wake, Xena continued to fight off the traitorous warriors her eyes constantly searching for Darphus.
Alerted by Xena's battle cry, Archeron jumped up from his seat outside of her sleeping chamber and ran to the window. What in Hades had happened? The attack wasn't supposed to take place until mid-day. Cursing Darphus for not advising him of the change in plans, he left in search of his quarry.
Gabrielle and Iris had left Cadmon sleeping on the bench and were making their way to the kitchen. There were many storage areas off the cooking area and Iris suggested they wait in one of the empty ones. Few people knew the whereabouts of the one she chose.
Walking past a window, Gabrielle jumped at the loud piercing cry that echoed throughout the compound.
Before looking at Iris for confirmation, she somehow knew that it had originated with Xena.
Iris said, "It's begun. We must hurry."
Breaking into a trot, they hurried down the last hallway. Entering the kitchen they found Archeron standing there.
"Thank the gods," the worried guard said. "The Conqueror wants me to take you to a hiding place where you'll be safe."
Gabrielle looked at Archeron. "I just talked with her less than a candlemark ago. She never mentioned this. When did you talk to her?"
"I saw her outside right before the battle began. She insisted I take you both to safety. Please hurry," Archeron answered.
Gabrielle looked at Iris, who just shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't sure if she should be angry that Xena felt it necessary to send Archeron to take them to safety or pleased that she cared enough to take the extra precaution. Oh well, if it'll make her feel better, what's the harm?
"Where are we going?" Iris asked.
"Just follow me. There are some hidden passageways beneath the palace that no one knows about. The Conqueror said to take you there."
Archeron led the two women down one of the corridors off the palace entranceway. Hearing the sounds of battle once again, Gabrielle asked the gods to protect Xena. Entering a room, Archeron walked over to one of the walls and moved a painting to one side. He pushed against a bar that the picture had covered and the sound of shifting stone could be heard. Straightening the picture, he moved the floor covering to reveal a set of steps. Lighting a candle, he starting down the steps, motioning for Gabrielle and Iris to follow him.
The air was damp and cold. Gabrielle looked around, her view limited to the light cast by the flickering candle Archeron carried. Mold adorned the walls, which were otherwise damp and slimy. There were strange scurrying sounds and Gabrielle did not even want to think about what it might be. Looking at Iris, she tried to gauge her reaction to this horrid place.
Although Iris was close to the Conqueror in age, she had been a servant too long to question what she was told to do. But this was over the top even for her. It was obvious the Conqueror looked out for Gabrielle. Why would she ever have Archeron bring them to a place like this?
Just when Gabrielle made the decision to stop and not go any further, Archeron came to a door and said, "Come on in here."
Poking her head inside the door, Gabrielle saw that the room was actually furnished. There was a sleeping pallet on one side, a padded bench and a shelf with a candle. Archeron walked over and lit the candle from the wick of the one he was carrying.
Smiling at the two women, he said, "It'll only be for a short time. The Conqueror just wants to make sure you're safe." Departing, he made his way back to the entranceway, breaking into a run once he was far enough away not to be heard.
Gabrielle looked at Iris. "I don't like this place. I can't believe Xena would want us to wait here. I know those were rats I heard."
"I think it's strange too. I saw Phineas right before the battle began and he said I was to meet you in the meeting chamber and when you were finished treating Cadmon, we were to hide."
"I'm not staying here," Gabrielle said. "Come on. Let's go."
"The Conqueror wouldn't like it if we disobeyed her orders. We better stay here."
Gabrielle looked at Iris. "I have a bad feeling about this Iris. If Xena gets mad, I'll take responsibility."
Iris didn't need much convincing. She didn't like this place any better than Gabrielle did. "Ok. But I hope we're not making a mistake."
Gabrielle just smiled and walked with her friend back out into the corridor holding the candle Archeron had left behind. Retracing their footsteps they climbed up the stairs. Gabrielle stood on the first step and pushed on the stone door. Nothing happened. Iris moved up next to Gabrielle to lend her strength to the bard's. Both pushed upward. The door would not move.
"We're locked in. He could have just put the floor covering back in place. Why did he lock it?" Gabrielle voiced her thoughts aloud.
"I have no idea. But we need to figure a way to get out of here."
Nodding her head in agreement, Gabrielle turned to follow Iris back down the steps.
Darphus raised a hand signaling the warriors to stop. The sound of swords clashing reached his ears. A cold rage overcame him. Someone had blown the plan. If Xena lived he was a dead man. Thinking over his options, Darphus finally settled on the only one that gave him an advantage.
He would sneak in and kill the bitch. Victory would be his. Smiling, he told the warriors to stay and guard the weapons. He would return for them later. Knowing the fighting would mask the sounds of his horse, he rode close to the compound before dismounting and continuing on foot. Reaching the wall, he looked over it to check the status of the fighting.
The battle raged throughout the compound. Knowing he didn't have to worry about being seen, he leaped over the wall and stealthily made his way around the perimeter. Darphus did not want to join the fighting. His whole focus was on finding Xena. Finally spotting her, he silently moved closer.
Xena was surrounded again. Fighting fiercely, she began to tire. It seemed like every warrior loyal to Darphus wanted to be the one to kill her. Well, she didn't plan on letting that happened. She had made a promise and intended to keep it. The thought of Gabrielle caused a rush of adrenaline to surge through her and more warriors began falling under her sword to the sound of her laughter echoing across the battlefield.
Darphus steadily moved closer, pushing and shoving fighting warriors out of his way. He was almost within reach of Xena's back now. His hand tightened on the hilt of the dagger and he lunged forward.
Gabrielle helped Iris up. She had slipped on the damp floor. "This is ridiculous. We could walk these corridors forever and never find the way out. There has to be another way."
"Well if you have a better idea
Something was bothering Gabrielle. Since this was a hidden area of the palace there did have to be another way out. But it would be hidden just like where they entered. They entered through a room. Would the exit be through a room as well?
"Let's go back to the room Iris. I have an idea."
"Would you mind sharing it," Iris asked. She was wet, uncomfortable and angry that Archeron had outsmarted her.
"I think we should check that room for ways out. Just think, if an enemy found their way into the corridor, you would need to be able to escape some other way."
"It wouldn't hurt to check. But I don't think we'd be that lucky. Anyway, what good would finding an exit be if it were blocked like the other one."
Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at her friend. "We'll never know if we don't try."
"Yeah, you're right. Let's go."
The two women entered the room and began looking around. What would be a likely place to hide an exit? They looked under the pallet, moved the bench and looked behind the shelf. Finding nothing, they began carefully looking at the walls, searching for any abnormality that might lead to an exit.
Frustrated Gabrielle sat down on the pallet. Iris soon joined her. "Now what?"
"I don't know. It's got to be in here. It's the only thing that makes sense."
Gabrielle lay back on the pallet looking at the ceiling aimlessly wondering how they were going to get out of this. Suddenly she jerked her head back to the ceiling. There in a corner was a slight difference in the color of the stone.
Jumping up, she said, "Come on Iris. Help me move the bench over there," pointing to the corner of the room. I think I've found it."
Iris didn't need a second invitation. Hurrying to help Gabrielle they shoved the heavy bench to the corner and climbed up on it. Pushing against the stone, it began to slide to the side.
Gabrielle and Iris exited the palace through a rear entrance. The Royal Guard had long since left their posts to join the battle. The sounds of the swords clashing, men screaming, and the strong odor of blood assaulted Gabrielle's senses filling her with fear. Where was Xena? This was madness. What was wrong with these people? These warriors had fought side by side yet now they were attacking each other.
Gabrielle began to move toward the battle. She had to know if Xena was all right. Iris grabbed her arm and said, "Stay here. You'll only be in the way."
Gabrielle turned to face Iris and said, "You can do what you want. But I am going to find Xena and help her." Looking for a weapon Gabrielle found a walking stick lying in the flowerbed. Picking it up, she began searching for Xena.
Iris had done all she could to keep Gabrielle away from the battle. She had to be crazy to walk onto the battlefield. Silently wishing the young woman well, she walked back into the palace to wait hoping that Phineas would return safely.
Xena thrust her sword into the warrior in front of her and at the same time felt a piercing pain in her back. Stumbling for a second, she turned to face her assailant. Burying the pain in the deep dark recesses of her mind when she saw Darphus, she smiled. "Glad you could make it," she said her sword raised defensively in front of her.
Darphus knew he had wounded Xena, but didn't know how seriously. She had moved forward when he struck. Smiling, he answered, "Wouldn't miss it for anything Xena. How's your back?" He quickly struck at her with his sword. She easily deflected it and the dual began in earnest.
Gabrielle saw Darphus attack Xena from the rear and began running toward the older woman. What a coward. How could anyone fight so unfairly? Fighting warriors impeded her way. She quickly found out that the walking stick was useful in clearing the way and began to wield it freely. She just had to get to Xena. She was hurt.
Arriving at the site of the dual, her heart hammering painfully, Gabrielle saw Darphus bring down the sword hard against Xena's using his superior weight to his advantage. Knowing she had to do something, she swung the stick and hit Darphus across the back.
Darphus caught sight of the bard in his peripheral vision and cursed. Meddlesome bitch. Did she really think she would get away with that? With his free hand he grabbed her weapon pulling it brutally from her hands.
After pulling the staff from Gabrielle's hands, Darphus tightened his grip on it and using the arm holding it began swinging to back toward the bard.
When Xena saw Gabrielle, her heart almost stopped beating. Why was she out here? Gods please don't let anything happen to her. Using all her remaining strength Xena leaped into the air somersaulting to the other side of Darphus landing between him and Gabrielle meeting the staff with her sword deflecting it away from the young woman.
Pushing Gabrielle back, Xena renewed her attack. Furious at Darphus for attacking the bard, she was relentless in her pursuit. Seeing an opening, Xena struck quickly, rendering Darphus' sword arm useless before running him through with her sword. Darphus' last thought before he died was I underestimated her again.
Word of the dual spread quickly through the compound and most of the warriors quit fighting to watch it. Every one of them knew the outcome would determine their future. When Darphus died, the traitors were surrounded by Xena's army, and they began laying down their weapons rather than die.
Relief flooding through her, Gabrielle was at Xena's side in an instant. "Gods, I was so worried. You're hurt. I saw him stab you and " taking a breath trying to slow her racing heart, "if anything happened to you "
Xena looked into the soft green eyes and saw the love reflected back at her. Oblivious to the activity around them she gently pulled Gabrielle into her arms, holding her close.
Her mind fought with so many conflicting emotions she was unable to speak. A part of her was angry with Gabrielle for not staying hidden but at the same time she was deeply moved by the bravery of the young woman who without thinking of her own safety had jumped into the fight to help. Her mind relived the moment of heart rending fear she had felt when she saw Darphus brutally swing the staff toward Gabrielle.
Hugging Gabrielle closer to her, she felt the tension drain from her body and she began to relax against the comforting softness of the young woman. Right now knowing the bard was safe, right here in her arms, was the only thing that mattered.
"You're bleeding." Gabrielle said holding her hand against the seeping wound in Xena's back.
"It's just a flesh wound," Xena said reluctantly letting go of the woman who had come to mean so much to her.
Gabrielle looked up at the dark woman. "Let me take care of it anyway, ok? It'll make me feel better."
Smiling at the healer, the Conqueror said, "Let me finish here first and then you can take care of it."
Xena walked over to Phineas. The traitors were standing in lines of ten, three ranks deep. Many more lay among the dead and wounded in the courtyard.
"Phineas, get a squad together and stop those fools that are still fighting."
Turning to face the mutinous warriors, Xena said, "You have all made a grave mistake today. You chose to follow a traitor. The one thing I value most in a warrior is loyalty." Quickly glancing over at Gabrielle, she continued, "Each of you will have a fair trial. Until then you will be confined to the barracks under armed guard. I would strongly recommend that you cause my guards no problems."
Gabrielle stood to the side watching Xena speak to the rebels. Her face was still flushed from the exertion of the battle. Standing there, tall and proud, it was obvious she was a natural leader. Gabrielle was glad the aura of danger exuding from the Conqueror was not directed at her. Xena's gaze had cowed even the most rebellious warriors standing in front of her. You would never know she was wounded. She shows no weakness.
The army began bringing in the stragglers and walking wounded to join the ranks of traitors. Xena noted there were just under fifty. I was very lucky to find out in time to act. If it hadn't been for Gabrielle and then Cadmon, things might have turned out very differently.
Xena watched Phineas walk up. "All the traitors have been rounded up, Conqueror."
"Good. Lock them up in the barracks under armed guard. Where's Eustis?"
"Here, Conqueror," said Eustis stepping forward.
"Effective immediately you are promoted to second in command under Cadmon. While Cadmon is healing, you are in charge."
His eyes lighting up with enthusiasm and pride, Eustis said, "You can count on me, Conqueror."
"I hope so," Xena said, knowing instantly she had made a wise choice. "See that the dead are buried and the wounded attended to."
Xena walked over to Gabrielle and stood next to her watching the army move the traitors to the barracks.
"Do you think I could take care of your wound now?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at the tall woman.
Exhaustion began to overtake Xena. The constant tension of wondering what Darphus was up to, and then waiting for him to make a move had taken it's toll. Added to that were the emotionally draining battles her heart had fought with her mind over her feelings for Gabrielle. The physically exhausting fighting and the fear Gabrielle would be harmed all piled up to further weigh down the tired warrior.
Deciding it would be kind of nice to let someone else take over for a change, Xena said, "Ok." Quirking a half smile, she added, "whatever you want," fully extending her trust to Gabrielle and forging an unbreakable bond.
Gabrielle's heart melted at the words. Seeing a flicker of pain cross Xena's face, she said, "Lean on me." The tall woman gratefully accepted and they made their way to the palace entrance.
Xena lay on the bed while Gabrielle cleaned and stitched the wound. When she was finished the warrior sat up.
Gabrielle said, "You should lay down for a while. The wound is not too bad but you need to rest."
"Ok, but would you to do something for me?" the warrior asked tentatively, gazing into the soft green eyes.
Smiling at Xena, Gabrielle said, "Sure. What?"
"Lay down with me."
Gabrielle bent down and lightly kissed the dark woman on the forehead. Tired, the words escaped her mouth before her mind had time to process them. "I thought you'd never ask."
Feeling the red creep up her cheeks to her ears, she looked away until she felt her hand encased by a larger one. "Um I didn't mean for that to come out quite that way."
Xena smiled, "I thought it came out just fine." Raising a hand to the bard's pink face, she continued, "You're really cute when you blush." Lying back on the bed, Xena looked at Gabrielle and raised her eyebrow questioningly.
Gabrielle lay down on the bed, suddenly unsure of herself. She had no doubt about her feelings for Xena, it was just, well, she'd never shared a bed with anyone before.
Sensing her uneasiness, Xena rolled onto her side and gently pulled the bard toward her until her back was tucked snugly against her. Feeling Gabrielle relax against her, she thought, Gods, this feels so right. Knowing her life could never again be complete without Gabrielle, she fell asleep with a smile on her face, and the thought in her mind, I love her.
Gabrielle's uneasiness faded when she felt Xena pull her close and she relaxed against the comforting softness of the body pressed against hers. Putting her arm over the one encircling her waist she felt complete. She had finally found what had been missing in her life. It was such a simple little word, but it included so much and it had no real meaning until you experienced it. She succumbed to sleep not only loving, but feeling very loved.
Anxiously waiting for Phineas, Iris saw Gabrielle and Xena enter the palace. Smiling, she thought, looks like Phineas was right. I should've guessed. But who would have thought the Conqueror would ever care about a peasant. Shaking her head, her thoughts returned to Phineas. Her good sense overcome by worry, she walked out of the palace to find him.
Phineas saw the Conqueror depart with Gabrielle and left instructions with Eustis and the Lieutenants that the Conqueror was not to be disturbed unless it was an emergency.
Making his way to the palace, he saw Iris walking toward him. Covering the distance quickly, he hugged the cook. Iris told Phineas about Archeron's actions. It didn't make sense to either one of them. If the Conqueror had ordered Archeron to hide them, why hadn't she told him? And why had he locked them in without letting them know?
Phineas arranged for the healers to move Cadmon to the infirmary and then went in search of Archeron. He found him sitting outside the Conqueror's sleeping chamber. "Iris tells me the Conqueror ordered you to hide her and Gabrielle. When did she order this? I was not informed."
Archeron looked at the ground. He knew when the Conqueror woke that he would be imprisoned and tried for treason. He had hoped to appeal to her for mercy. Maybe if she understood he had only acted under duress and done nothing to harm anyone. He had even fought on the Conqueror's side during the battle. He had intended to let Gabrielle and Iris out. But when he saw Gabrielle join the foray, he knew it was too late.
Phineas asked, "Well?"
Once Phineas heard the story, he put Archeron under guard, but kept him separate from the warriors who had fought against the realm. He liked Archeron and hoped the Conqueror would be merciful.
Gabrielle awoke enveloped in a sense of well being. Hearing the soft regular breathing of the older woman, Gabrielle very carefully extricated herself from Xena's arms not wanting to wake her. Standing up, she looked at the sleeping warrior.
She was so beautiful. Her dark hair highlighted her golden complexion. The sharp planes of her face softened by the full sensuous lips turned upward into a small smile. The worry and tension Gabrielle had seen so often reflected on her face were gone and she seemed at peace. Gabrielle leaned over, lightly kissing Xena on the forehead, and whispering, "I'll be back."
Gabrielle went down to the kitchen. Seeing Iris, she asked, "Is Phineas ok?"
Iris smiled at her friend, "He's fine. How is the Conqueror?"
A smile covered Gabrielle's face, and she answered, "She'll be fine. She was wounded, but it's nothing serious."
"You really care about her, don't you?"
Gabrielle's face turned serious. Looking at her friend, she said, "More than I ever thought it was possible to care for someone."
Iris responded, "I know just how you feel."
Xena awoke feeling completely refreshed. Suddenly she realized Gabrielle was gone. Fighting down the feeling of panic, she quickly got up. Where was she? Had she done something wrong? Did she change her mind and decide not to stay. Oh gods, please let everything be ok. I need her so much. Unwilling to face her thoughts, Xena quickly made her way to the door. Opening it she collided with Gabrielle.
Wrapping her arms around the smaller woman, Xena said, "Thank the gods...you're still here " she trailed off unable to voice her fears.
It took Gabrielle only an instant to realize that Xena thought she had left her. Gently pushing Xena back into the room, she led her over to the bed and sat down next to her. Holding Xena's hand between her own, she said, "All my life I've looked for that special someone. The person who was going to make my life complete and show me the meaning of love. I finally found her." Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena's cheek and gently caressed it. "I won't leave you. I love you."
Xena felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The panic subsided and she was flooded with a sense of relief and happiness. Hugging the bard close to her, she said, "I love you so much." Gabrielle looked up and met the deep blue eyes gazing at her. Placing her hands on the back of the warrior's neck she gently pulled down, until her lips met those of the older woman.
It was just a fleeting kiss, but Gabrielle felt every sensation in slow motion. Her lips were so soft and the kiss so gentle. She looked up into blue eyes darkened by passion. "Kiss me again, Xena."
The kiss had awakened feelings long dormant and Xena fought the sense of urgency. She did not want to rush the young woman. She wanted their first experience to be slow and memorable. Xena lowered her mouth to meet the soft sweet lips rising toward hers. The kiss soon deepened and the world beyond ceased to exist.
The next few weeks passed quickly. Cadmon's wound was healing well and he had assumed Darphus' duties as the Conqueror's second in command. One of the traitors requested an audience with Xena, telling her of Darphus' arms cache hoping for mercy at his sentencing. Xena sent her army out and the five traitors were apprehended along with the weapons. All the mutinous warriors were tried, sentenced to prison camps and their leaders were executed.
Gabrielle convinced Xena to spare Archeron's life due to the extenuating circumstances of his betrayal. Xena found it hard to refuse any of Gabrielle's requests and reduced him in rank to a roving guard.
Xena's arm was loosely draped around the fair haired woman snuggled contentedly against her. The fireplace cast shifting shadows spilling across the two women sitting in front of it.
Gabrielle marveled at how much her life had changed in such a short time. She had never figured out why Xena had chose to let her live. They'd talked about it, and Xena had just said that something about her had struck a deep chord within her from the time she first saw her. Gabrielle knew just exactly what she was talking about. She had felt it also. The young woman thought about the trust Xena had extended to her. She was always willing to listen to her opinion now. She didn't always agree and Gabrielle didn't expect her to. But she was changing. Most of the changes were subtle. Xena had ruled ruthlessly for too long to change overnight. Thinking about all they had been through in the last moon, Gabrielle knew one thing for certain. I love her and I know she loves me. There will be some tough times, but our love will keep us together. Happy with that thought, her mind turned to the upcoming visit to Poteidaia.
"It's going to be fun seeing my family. I can hardly wait to see the baby. I never thought Lila would name her after me. I can't believe I'm an aunt."
Gabrielle talked all evening about her family. They planned to visit Poteidaia in a moon and she wanted to make sure Xena knew all about them so she wouldn't feel uncomfortable when they got there.
Xena asked a few questions, but mostly just listened. She loved to hear the bard talk. Her descriptions were so detailed Xena felt like she knew Gabrielle's parents and sister, and some of the other villagers as well.
"Just don't be disappointed if your family doesn't like me. My reputation is not the best in your village."
"Well then we'll have to change that, won't we?" Looking up at Xena, Gabrielle continued, "Besides how could they not like you when they see how happy you've made me?"
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle hugging her. Words weren't necessary. This woman had made such a difference in her life. Her thoughts quickly turned to the events of the past few weeks. Some of the decisions she'd made still amazed her. Sparing Archeron's life for example. In the past he would have been executed without a second thought. But now it seemed she thought about her decisions before making them. Gabrielle was the reason for that. But what was really strange was that it made her feel good. Not just because of Gabrielle's approval, although that was very important. But deep down, she actually felt like she was now doing the right thing. She was actually beginning to think of herself as a fair and just leader. All because of the beautiful young woman nestled in her arms.
"What are you thinking about?" Gabrielle asked looking up at the dark woman.
"I was just thinking about how many things have changed since I met you," Xena said.
"In a good way I hope," Gabrielle said her attention fully focused on Xena.
Xena smiled down at the woman she loved. "It could only be good with you in my life."
Gabrielle turned to face Xena and lifted her hand and gently stroked her face. "You're pretty special yourself."
Xena lowered her mouth and met Gabrielle lips with a gentle kiss. "As long as you think so."
"I think so," Gabrielle answered before once again meeting Xena's lips with her own.
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