The Conqueror's Harvest

part 2

by ArdentTly

Please see part one for all disclaimers.

Chapter Twelve

Quiet moments to be found within
Cruel flames
Are fanned by denial and doubt.
Clarity is found within the bond
Of trust as restraint turns to embrace,
And aggression shifts to acceptance,
The balance of life found
Within the sweetest tear of pain.

The Conqueror moaned softly as a questing tongue tentatively pushed past her lips. Both eyebrows rose as the bard's small hand caressed her lower back. It was an effort, but the warrior managed to
compartmentalize the slowly receding pain in her body to the point where it was barely noticeable. Except when she took a breath. Which, if the blonde had anything to say on the subject, wasn't going to be too often.

"Let's make this look good," she crooned softly into the blonde's ear and then bent down for another passionate kiss.

Gabrielle felt as if the room had shifted. The Conqueror was talking to her not at her. They were now both co-conspirators in this ruse to keep the truth from the Conqueror's castle guards. And there was passion; she could feel it. Xena wanted to make love to her, not to dominate and
control her. She moaned as the warrior slipped her tongue past eager lips.

Both women were barely conscious of the urgent hesitance of the visitors who were caught between the ire they knew would arise should they interrupt, and the obvious worry they had in response to the servant's frantic and somewhat garbled information.

Finally Andros could stand it no longer. He cleared his throat once, fidgeted and then repeated the action in an effort to gain some sort of response.


Xena was about to reply when her lower lip was seized between a set of very sharp teeth. Her forehead scrunched as the pain caught hold of her breath. She moved both hands over to cup Gabrielle's breasts, and silently cursed as the fingers of her left hand spasmed as she tried to rein them in.

Feelings of frustration increased as she heard her first Lieutenant and the other guards mewling in the background.

Although the action of kissing the bard had been one born of devious need, it was rapidly becoming one of pure necessity...on both their parts. Xena could feel the heat against her lower belly, and
Gabrielle's undoubtedly unconscious hip movement as she tilted her pelvis against the woman. She felt alive, as if this was the very thing glaringly absent from her life.

Slowly extracting her lip from between insistent teeth, Xena employed her own on the tender flesh of the bard's earlobe. She growled low in the back of her throat and then whispered seductively to her.

"Give yourself to me, Gabrielle. Give me what you want."

Gabrielle's breath caught as she tilted her head back, feeling more than her skin pierced, but that of every wall she had erected against this woman.

Andros found himself looking anywhere but at the bed. He cleared his throat a few times more and winced as the lord gazed balefully in his direction. The guards immediately ceased their fidgeting and stood to attention. A droplet of sweat trickled down from the temple of one of the men as he tried unsuccessfully to obliterate the image of the two women fornicating before his very eyes. Maltor had begun working as a guard in the palace just days previously, having been sent with orders to report on the comings and goings of the Conqueror to his superior. Although Dagnine hadn't seen fit to make him privy to the reason, the young guard new a chance for advancement when he saw it.

Maltor's lower belly ignited as more of the Conqueror's golden flesh was exposed. He'd heard she was a beauty, but nothing could have prepared him for the goddess before him.

"I'm busy."

Ubris knelt carefully by the bed and blinked slowly as she, too, found something more interesting to look at.

"Lord, I summoned the guard, as you wished."

Xena swiveled her gaze on the young servant, the steel in her eyes softening.

"You acted in haste, Ubris. There was no need to summon my Lieutenant for something as inconsequential as a few loose stitches." With tremendous effort, the Conqueror placed all of her weight on her incapacitated arm, and opened the rest of her gown. Gabrielle quickly buried her face in the woman's bosom and then surreptitiously grabbed hold of Xena's elbow. The Conqueror felt the brace and relaxed her shoulders minutely. The bard was pleased she had stopped the vibration
in the warrior's arm but began blushing furiously as she looked up into the woman's smirking face.

"Oh, please continue...slave. Don't let them interrupt you."

The warmth of the look bestowed upon her disguised the brutality of the label Gabrielle had thought herself beyond. The bond that had begun in the dark with death staring both of them coldly in the eye had moved them into an area whereby the bard was something more than a slave, and yet something far less than a peer. But it was something tangible for the young woman from Poteideia to hold onto.

It was a struggle, but Andros managed to keep his tongue behind clenched teeth as the lord's ample breasts were exposed. Each nipple was hard and ripe for the succulent mouth of the young bard who attempted to capture each morsel before the Conqueror pushed herself out of reach.

Gabrielle moaned as the warrior caressed her face. Xena's eyes were dark with passion as she slipped her thumb into the young woman's mouth. She felt her breasts tightening as Gabrielle began to suck on it. With an effort, she drew her eyes away from the delicious sight and contemplated the Lieutenant once more.

"My servant was rash in her attempts to bring help. I believe I'm quite capable of staunching the flow of blood. A little pressure applied here..." She pressed her bosom against the blonde's eager mouth, "and another firm bit applied there," Xena eased her torso down against the now writhing bard, "and I believe we'll have things well in hand."

Andros swallowed with a snick as the blonde moved her legs fartherapart.

Xena began to wonder just how much was play acting and what went beyond those boundaries as the blonde moaned deeply against her ear. And then Gabrielle's breath caught and her body stiffened as more pressure was applied to her inner thighs and kneecaps.

A twitch appeared at the corner of the warrior's right eye as she realized it was pain and not ardor that had elicited such a deeply felt moan. For the Conqueror, a show of force was only employed as a means to an end. Whether it was to incite fear or to exact retribution, it was never used carelessly on someone as innocent of guile as was the blonde beneath her. In her worry that she might be seen in a weakened condition, Xena had completely forgotten about the injury sustained by the bard. And she had been the cause of it.

A look of remorse filled the Conqueror's sapphire eyes and Gabrielle clutched her closer.

"It's all right. Just give me a moment."

The blonde's face contorted again as Xena all but raised herself off the bed. The Conqueror's throat constricted as doubt of her initial judgement filled her mind. 'How could someone as pure as this bard be guilty of anything?'

"Milord, I must confess I was worried when your servant girl came to fetch the guards. Your safety is paramount."

"I'm fine, I tell you." The tone in the Conqueror's voice startled him. It was further evidence that things with the woman weren't all they might seem. He cleared his throat.

"Yes, Conqueror...I can see that. But I..."

"Leave us."

"But sire, I've just been given news that two emissaries from Rome will be arriving. They are expected to reach the castle by nightfall."

"Get out!"

The two guards began to tremble as the Conqueror leapt off the woman pinned to the bed and stalked towards them.

"Get out of my chambers now. I will speak to you later, Andros. Now leave."

The men saluted smartly and then turned on their heels. They waited hesitantly at the door as the Lieutenant tried to plead his case.

"But milord...we must make ready. This isn't the scheduled meeting we were told about. Caesar..."

Xena grabbed her left arm and dragged it behind her. She stood perfectly still as she tried to keep her emotions in check. It would do no good to let the men see her flailing about like some incapacitated lunatic. It was hard, but she had to admit to herself that she was afraid. What if the total use of her arm never returned?

"A pox on Caesar, and another pox on his damned emissaries." She walked slowly over to her Lieutenant and then stood before him, capturing him totally with her dangerous glare.

"You will make ready, Andros. To be sure. There will not be any further...scenes like the one earlier tonight. Caesar hopes to catch us with our pants down, and asses bare to the breeze." She strode over to the two men quivering by the door and just looked them up and down.

"I don't recognize this one, and the other looks to be far too young for his position." She released the death hold she had on her other arm and then poked Maltor in the solar plexus.

"Why do you tremble, boy? Have you never seen a half naked woman before?" It pained her that the robe she wore was left open for these two puppies to gawk at, but since she was hardly in a position to keep it closed, she'd try and use it to her advantage.

"When did you begin your service in the castle?"

Maltor gulped noisily and then squeaked out his response.

"I...I began two days ago, milord, though I've been in your employ for nearly a full year. Sir. Ma'am."

Xena snorted. "You must be all of sixteen. What unit have you been training in?"

One dark brow shot up as Dagnine's name was mumbled.

"Ah yes, my other trusted Lieutenant. And just what is he up to these days...?"

"M...Maltor, milady."

Xena took hold of the young man's chin and held it tightly. "You'd do well to remember my station, boy. I am 'milord', 'sire', or 'Conqueror'. I am no 'lady', is that clear?"

It took all the man's will not to release his bladder in his efforts to keep his eyes from roaming. He focused harder and then felt his heart being squeezed as the bluest eyes he'd ever seen were brought closer to his own.

"I won't eat you up, boy. I see your response to my state of undress. That's understandable. However, you will not gaze openly at me at any time, clear? I am a woman, that is also clear, but I am also the meanest bastard you'll ever meet. You do not want my undivided attention, understand? Do your job and you may live to be promoted. One day in the distant future."

She turned to face Andros once more. "I am not pleased with the selection for my guard. Either find more seasoned soldiers or hire babysitters for the ones we have. Either way, I'll not have them breaking their teeth in at my expense."

Andros nodded quickly, and then put a hand on the Conqueror's right wrist.

"Men, you are dismissed." He waited until the door closed behind them and then released the breath he'd been holding.

"Sire, I can see that you are unwell. Has something happened this evening? I couldn't understand much of what Ubris was saying, other than you were hurt. Is this true?"

Xena shook the man's hand off. "I'm fine. It's Gabrielle that needs a heeler right now. Ubris, go fetch Daedalis. He can tend to the bard's legs."

"And your wound, sire."

Xena ignored the Lieutenant and moved over to the window.

"See to the girl. I told you, I'm fine."

"But sire...she's but a slave. Or is she more than that? Having a nice bit waiting in your bed is all well and good, but you've a duty to the realm. You must be at your best when the em..."

"Silence! Do not provoke me, Andros. I know my duty. Do you?" Xena glared at her second in command. The tick reappeared in the corner of her eye, and she struggled to control it.

"I know that you've been spending far too much time with this girl. I know that the men are beginning to get restless. I also know that you aren't acting yourself and that if you aren't very careful, you'll not
only have Caesar down on your neck but your own soldiers, too!"

Xena's hand swept up quickly and Andros' head snapped painfully to the side.

"Just fetch that damned healer. If you and Christo can't handle a few seditious busy bodies, then perhaps you shouldn't be in a position of authority. Perhaps you should go and sweep stables for me, Andros. You're good for little else."

The Conqueror glanced back out at the morning sky, biting the inside of her cheek in an effort to control her anger.

"Godsbedamn you! Fetch that windbag Mikos. It'll be his head if preparations aren't in order. Can you manage all that, or should I write it down for you?"

Xena's head was pounding in her efforts to regain control over her emotions. Why was she snapping this man's head off? Why did everyone around her seem to suffer in one way or another? She railed against her loss of control, knowing that self-flagellation was the only thing keeping her sane. 'If I centered more on the battle warring inside my head, then perhaps I'll have less time to mete it out to those around me.'

Gabrielle stood wobbly-kneed beside the servant, her mouth agape at the exchange between the two combatants. For that was exactly how they appeared to her at that moment. No longer was there an air of camaraderie between them. Now the Conqueror was sarcastic and rude and the Lieutenant petulant and demanding.

"Lord Xena, please. I am only a slave and can be tended to by your servant girl."

Xena gripped the bricks tightly with one hand and forced herself to respond with indifference. No one could know just how important the little bard was becoming. It was bad enough that Andros had an inkling. Would he have bandied it about in the barracks? She'd have his guts...No. He was loyal, he was her...'Well,' Xena thought carefully, 'he's been with me since the beginning. Why does he stay if there is nothing but the promise of an early death? He's more than an ally.'
Without realizing it, she'd been spending more time in his company and giving the man more trust as the years went by. Their easy, albeit somewhat fiery, relationship must be built on something more than just duty.

Xena dragged her limp hand carefully over her belly, and closed her robe against the chill morning air. Sighing deeply, she turned to face her Lieutenant.

"Andros, you're right. I have been spending far too much time with this...slave. My duties have been suffering for it, along with my own personal health. I'll see the healer forthwith." She turned and gazed stonily at the small woman who was slipping past every defence she had.

"I want Gabrielle to be taken care of. She needs to be in the best condition she can be for the ordeal ahead." Neither woman spoke, their shared look of understanding never broken.

"In fact, you are going to stay with her awhile tonight. Make her last hours as my slave memorable, won't you?"

The Lieutenant frowned. "But milord...?"

"Take her away, Andros. Just do it," she said wearily.

Her next words made his blood run cold.

"And have Daedalis break her legs."

"But Lord Xena! Is she being punished? What could she have possibly..."

"Silence! Do you dare question me?"

"No, lord...please!" Ubris threw herself at the Conqueror's feet and began pleading in her own language, begging for the safety and well being of the young slave. Xena knelt carefully and spoke quietly to the Egyptian, and then after a short nod of understanding, she quickly rose to her feet and left the room. Each bow as she exited made the Conqueror wince. That the servant would actually think she'd order the girl dragged back to the dungeon was like a slap across her face.

Andros looked from the frail looking blonde standing by the bed and then back at the Conqueror. He could see the torment written on both their faces. The word 'preparation' had been whispered, leaving him to wonder just what was in store for the young bard. And then a look of understanding washed over him. For the first time, he took a close look at the young slave. Both legs were misshapen from just below the knee to the woman's ankle as if they had been...

He closed his eyes tightly. When news of a young slave being held in the prison had reached his ears, he had thought it was merely a case of theft, or perhaps adultery. Now, with proof that the slave had suffered a fate dealt to those on the cross, Andros began to wonder just what the bond was between the two. Why would the lord have had her crucified and then reclaimed? While he had entertained thoughts of a romantic sort blossoming up between master and slave, it was one of brief infatuation. She was merely a slave, after all. In the many years he'd known the irascible warrior, not once had either man or woman spent more than a fortnight in the Conqueror's company. Many had left with both mental and physical scars, their time with the dark lord brief but forever remembered.

A shudder ran through the man as he contemplated the ramifications of the slave's preparations. He only hoped Daedalis would use as much powder as it took to alleviate all of the pain she'd have to endure. She was much too young to be suffering this fate twice. Whatever plans the Conqueror held for this girl, he wished they were swift and merciful.

"No, sire. It shall be done." Andros sighed deeply and then moved carefully over to where Gabrielle was standing. The girl wrung her hands piteously, and it broke his heart to watch.

The bard locked her eyes on those of blue, and could see an ocean of pain. It was like a physical blow to her. Oh, how she wanted to embrace the warrior, Lieutenant be damned! She didn't want to leave, not now, not when things were going so well.

When they had been lying there tightly in each other's embrace all the pain and sorrow of the world seemed so very far away. Every kiss they had shared seemed to strengthen the bond between them. She had felt so shattered when a look of pity had crossed the lord's face. It had been so hard to hold back the mounting pain as Xena had eased herself down upon her. Things had been quite easily ignored at first, the flames of desire hot enough to sear any thoughts of discomfort from her mind. But the arrival of the Lieutenant and his men seemed to provoke the Conqueror from her show of tenderness. The increasing force brought to bear upon her body had turned red flame into white-hot pain, terrible in its all-encompassing form, and impossible to deny.

Watching the lord's response to her crippling pain had been brutal. Gabrielle had wanted to run away and hide because of her terrible weakness. How could someone as strong and virile be attracted to someone so obviously deformed? And then the truth eased past the barricades and the bard had realized that it was not pity but the initial stirrings of tender concern and...?

Gabrielle started as she felt the man's hand on her elbow. "Wha?"

"You must come with me, girl. It's for the best."

"Yes, for the best." Taking hold of the man tightly, Gabrielle began her walk past the silent form of the Conqueror. She wanted to speak with Xena once before leaving, to at least settle the torment she saw on the woman's face. How would she repair the damage done by the assassin? Who would she trust to help her?

Xena forced herself to look away as the two exited her chambers. The stillness of her rooms descended upon her like a deathly pall.

Chapter Thirteen

The candles sizzled as each one was snuffed out with the moist end of the Conqueror's fingers. She sighed deeply as her hearing caught the random movements of the new guards just beyond the large oak doors of her chamber.

As the flames were extinguished, the lord went through the incidents of the past few days. Her fingers played over the loosened strands of the catgut at her side and she took some comfort in the pain it elicited. If nothing else, it meant she was capable of feeling something other than the cold isolation that seemed to hold her tight.

Walking carefully over to the sideboard, the Conqueror poured herself another drink and then sat by the bed waiting for the healer. She winced as her fingers absently probed the damaged flesh. What had she been thinking? It was just pure foolhardiness to ignore a wound, and in her position such oversight could have meant her life.

"That damned assassin. Who sent him and just what were those inscrutable words he'd spoken?" Any thoughts of Dagnine being the man's employer flew out the window as soon as he'd spoken a word. "Was that low or high Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese? And the man's voice itself...what of that?" It had been somewhat raspy and yet Xena could tell the man was young. She groaned as she inspected her bruised ribs.

"And very strong. Not to mention knowledgeable. Where the fuck did he learn that pinch?" She grimaced as she swallowed a rather large quantity of port.

Xena went over the many lessons Lao Ma had given her years before. Flexing her fingers again, she noticed that a little more feeling was returning to the left side of her upper body. Whoever the man was, it was certain he was of the same caliber as Lao Ma, perhaps even her superior in his grasp of the martial arts. Was that possible? While she'd been very impressed with the array of combative skills the lovely concubine had displayed, there had been nothing that equaled the strength and debilitating force of this recent attack. She tried to remember exactly what the assassin had done. Had he struck her there, where the bruise was, or higher? Had the bruise been the result of the
blocked blood flow from a nerve pinched farther up?

Xena ground her teeth in frustration. She needed to see that man again, learn what he knew, and then...Well, no man was indispensable.

Tipping her goblet again, Xena was surprised to find it empty. Grumbling all the way, she went for more libations. The front of her gown fell open, and she stumbled on one corner. Hitting the floor with a resounding crash, the Conqueror rolled over onto her back clutching her side painfully.

The door creaked open quickly and a young guard stuck his head inside.


Xena pounded her right hand painfully against her left arm and shoulder in frustration and accented her answer with an empty goblet. The man ducked quickly as it hit the wall by his head.

"Get out!"

Not wishing to provoke further anger, the guard made a pinched face and then slammed the door behind him.

"Conqueror's in a fine mood t'night, idn't she? D'ya fink she misses that bit of fluff what went out of 'ere earlier? I say she's goin' soft, I do. An' bloody daft as well." He brought his face close to Maltor's and then whispered conspiratorially. "I don't fink I'd follow her into battle. Why, she'd raver spend the day in bed, she would. We ain't had a good battle fer months. How's a bloke s'pose to make a decent livin' wiffout da spoils of war, I ask ya? And I could do wiff a bit o'the slap 'n tickle, s'truth."

Maltor nodded absently, and jingled the few coins he'd earned before his last watch. Yes, his time with Dagnine was proving to be profitable. He decided to make another visit to the man before his second watch later that night. Seeing the Conqueror in such a state might be worth something. He narrowed his eyes as the lord's words came back to him. 'Well,' he thought petulantly, 'perhaps I won't have to worry none about a promotion in your army...especially if you don't have one for long.' He spent the next part of his shift wondering just what type of position he could curry with the Lieutenant. A man of his obvious skills was sure to be worth something. He began to hum tunelessly.

Xena dragged herself back up and into her bed just as the healer entered the room.

"Milord..." He stopped in his tracks as he noticed the Conqueror's condition.

He opened his mouth to rebuke the woman but was silenced with one raised eyebrow.

"Don't even go there, Daedalis, not if you value your life. me back up, and be quick about it."

The healer bowed with a flourish, and then set out the contents of his bag on the side board.

"Do you wish a herbal mixture for the...? No, I can see you are well past worrying about the pain. In your present mood, I doubt they would take effect in time to do any good." He removed his spectacles from his pocket in preparation for looking over the wound.

"Lord Xena, if I may?" She nodded but said nothing as she slowly opened her robe.

Encouraged by the woman's silence, he decided to continue with his reprimand.

"I did try to tell you..." His next words were squeezed off as the warrior reached across and grabbed him by the throat.

"Has your advanced age addled your brain, healer, or have you just lost all will to live?"

Daedalis squeaked a small reply and then waited patiently for the Conqueror's grip to loosen. He rubbed the red flesh of his neck and then attempted to clear his throat. His efforts were dismal. Taking a small flask from his bag, he uncorked the contents and then brought the bottle to his lips.

"Eeek," he sputtered as the flask was taken just inches from his mouth.

"I'll just take that." Daedalis pursed his lips as the warrior drank down his private stock of Ouzo. Knowing better than to push his luck further, he watched in silence and then caught the empty flask as she tossed it back to him.

"Perfect. How thoughtful of you to think of me, Daedalis."

Rubbing his throat carefully, he grimaced once and then replaced it with a weak smile. "But of course, Lord Xena. I your service."

"Whatever. Proceed with your...procedure."

Within the hour, the healer had patched the wound and had cautioned his patient against entertaining anything more strenuous than climbing into bed for the rest of the day.

"I'm not a child, Daedalis."

He grunted as he made his way to the door.

"Then don't act like one, milord."

Xena growled half-heartedly, and waited until the man had gone, then walked unsteadily to the bathroom. Splashing some cold water on her face, she readied herself for the ordeal she must perform.

Xena glanced closely at her reflection, picked out a spot on her neck, nodded once and then jabbed two fingers into it.

She gasped as the air slowly seeped from between her lips. Holding her right hand before her, she watched as the tremors increased. She was unaware of the blood snaking its way down to her chin. Only when she'd fallen to her knees and her eyes had begun to roll back into her skull did she bring her hand back up to her neck.

The mere act of doing so had her sweating profusely, and she squeezed her eyes tightly against the growing darkness.

'It has to just has to.' She thought as she summoned the last bit of her strength and jabbed her fingers back into the soft flesh of her neck. Falling forward into a heap, Xena lay trembling as she fought to bring her breathing back under control. She resettled her shoulders and then moved her left hand. It was as if small sharp teeth were gnawing at the flesh there, and she cried out in relief.

"A good sign..."

Flexing her fingers into a fist slowly, Xena's confidence began to build. It had been quite a few hours since she'd been able to even perform such a simple act. If she continued to improve...

The Conqueror hadn't really taken the time to examine what her life would have been reduced to if she'd completely lost the use of her arm. Quite frankly, it was a topic she had been avoiding it all day. Watching the young bard being helped out of her chambers had made her realize the type of existence the woman endured...every single day. 'I'm the cause of that. My blind quest for justice at any cost reduced another human being's life to one of pain and humiliation. That isn't justice, it was a thoughtless deed rendered by an uncaring ruler. How many other judgements have I meted out without discerning exactly what the ramifications would be?'

"Bah! It must be that liquor Daedalis gave me. Man's trying to poison me, I know it." She shook her head hard trying to dislodge the growing feeling of guilt sitting in the pit of her belly like some sharp rock.

"It's my duty as ruler of Corinth to dispense justice in any way I see fit. Haven't the peasants more food than they ever had? Isn't there a smaller death count from the old and the very young? There are no more petty squabbles between warring factions in the area. Only Caesar..."

Xena grabbed a damp cloth and pressed it to her forehead. All this talk of politics and justice was beginning to give her a headache. She was doing her best, and that was enough. Who could expect anything more from her?

But was she?

She sat at the edge of her bed and sighed deeply. She'd always considered herself to be a competent ruler, one that was both fair and thorough in her quest for the truth. Now she wasn't so sure. The years of having her Lord Chancellor handle the judicial matters were long ago. When had she begun to take more pleasure in the judgement of men than the quest for their guilt or innocence?

"What's happening to me? I know my path, I know my duty. Enough of this foolish thought." She glanced up quickly as her servant girl entered the rooms and began setting out trays of food.

Xena's belly growled its approval as the scent of food wafted over to her.

"Ah, Ubris. Just what the healer ordered." Rubbing her left hand and arm, she walked to the table and began to eat.

"Wine, Ubris."

The Conqueror pushed a few of the bottles off the table and grunted as one broke. "This place is a mess. See to it. I believe I'll go out for a ride. It's time I was seen back in the company of my men. I've lain a bed far too long."

Ubris narrowed her eyes as the lord began to stuff food into her face.

"There are rumours to quell, fights to be fought, and a certain silence to be found on the practice field."

Ubris wanted to reach out as the woman began to disrobe. Helping the Conqueror with her personal attire was always one of her favorite duties. Her lips flattened into a cruel line as she thought of the young woman a few doors down. Gabrielle had been given a bath in preparation for the healer's arrival. He would administer a sedative and then...

"You are going out, master?"

Xena's head popped up at the use of the word 'master'.

"Yes, I have no time to play 'slave girl' with you, Ubris. My duties have been sadly lacking of late. I mean to remedy that right here, and right now."

The Egyptian held her tongue as the Conqueror dropped her robe and walked leisurely over to her bed, dauntless in her self-confidence. Ubris wondered why the Conqueror saw all of life as a game. Was Lord Xena the board itself or merely all of the pieces?

The woman's broad back and shoulders seemed to gleam in the morning sunshine, giving the servant the impression that this perfect specimen of female pulchritude was indeed a goddess. There was no doubt in her mind that Lord Xena truly believed that she had everything needed in life. Ubris felt a tightening in her chest as she thought of just what the Conqueror didn't have, and might never have. The bond with her soulmate had been so strong that death could not sever it. Could Lord Xena be smart enough to recognize the opportunity afforded her and seize it? It seemed the lord was oblivious to the truth offered by the petite blonde. 'So much to give,' she thought sadly as the warrior began settling the leathers over her muscular frame.

She smiled as the Conqueror muttered as she went about her chore. She had always taken pride in the knowledge that Lord Xena felt comfortable enough to let down some of her barriers and speak from her heart. She had learned much about the woman in just this way. Who had heard the tears she cried deep in the night when her family turned their back? Who had held the inebriated woman after her bouts of depression when it seemed all those around her had betrayed her in one way or another? And who was it that had been privy to the lord's darkest secrets, and darker needs? Yes, Ubris was indeed one of the privileged few. But was it enough to just sit back and watch life frittered between the Conqueror's fingers? Was 'duty' all there was?

"Damned buckles. Fix this one at the back."

Blue eyes caught brown as the servant stood her ground.

"I said..."

"You wish me to tend to you, master? You cannot do this alone, no?"

Xena scratched her chin and tried the buckle again.

"Why should I bother when you are there to do it for me? It's your duty to attend me, Ubris. What has come over you, girl?"

"If it was not my duty, do you think I would still perform this function, lord?"

Xena grabbed her bracers and then stood before her armoire. 'Perhaps I should forgo the battle dress, and just wear my jerkin and pants?' She threw the servant a look of distaste.

"You're being very troublesome, Ubris. You've always told me how much you enjoy aiding me while I don my armour."

The Egyptian nodded. "Yes, sire. It is a time well spend, when our bond is rich in both closeness and harmony."

"Then do as you are asked. It's not even mid autumn and the cool air is already making me regret my choice in clothing."

The servant sighed deeply. 'Even though I am expected to read your mind and be satisfied with the silence. You can say so much with one look, yes, but sometimes a woman needs more than that...sometimes she needs words.'

"Come along and be quick about it. I've spent far too much time in my chambers, as it is, molly coddling that slave. Things have to change, Ubris."

'But they already have, Lord Xena. You have but to accept them.'

The servant had just opened her mouth to reply when she found herself pushed to her knees.

"Your hesitation displeases me, Ubris. Don't think that because the slave's insolence goes unpunished in your presence, that you can be openly defiant without consequence." She tangled her fingers in the
young woman's dark tresses.

"I've not applied the flogger to you yet, don't make me change that."

The smell of alcohol drifted over the servant's face as the Conqueror locked eyes with her. Ubris released a slow measured breath, sat back on her heels, and just looked up at the Conqueror.

"No, lord. I do not believe you are a very nice person, master, but you would not beat me."

Xena jerked her head back in surprise.


"You think of yourself as a very cruel woman, but I do not think you have a heart of stone, my Lord Xena, despite the part you play."

Xena snorted and swaggered over to the table. Grabbing a few morsels of meat, she ate hungrily, and then burped before responding. "Bah, why should your thinking be different than the others, Ubris. Everyone believes exactly what I wish them to. Never give the people the truth; they wouldn't know what to do with it."

Ubris placed a hand on the pacing warrior's leg, entreating her to stop.

"You really wish to go out riding when Gabrielle lies alone, waiting for the pain to begin?"

Xena flinched. "I have a duty, that is my truth."

"The 'truth' you have given the people is that you have become the very person you wish them to believe you are."

"This is all because of that bard, isn't it? Has she been twisting your mind, perverting your allegiance to me?" 'Damn that woman...she's making us both weak...undermining my authority...making me think too hard...unwanted emotions welling up inside me...' Xena blinked fiercely and tried not to
think of the procedure in store for the frail bard. 'She'll do better by herself, without worrying about appearing so weak. But she is weak you fool. She's been in pain for days...most of which you caused! The least you could do is stay with her, let her know...' Xena cocked her head. 'Let her know what? That I care, and that it would break my heart to see her in pain? Or that she makes me as weak as a child when she turns those sorrowful eyes in my direction?'

Ubris watched as the Conqueror's shoulders slumped, and then she slowly got to her feet.

"Sire, am I merely a servant to you?"

Xena ignored the woman and began removing her unbuckled armour. 'I need to get out of here. It'll be the pants today after all.' "Can't you just stop...talking?"

"I wish to serve you, master, because it gives me great pleasure. I do not do so because it is my duty as your servant, or because you force me. Your violent ways could never bind me to you. Just as your attempts at breaking the will of Gabrielle will not earn her love or respect."

The warrior had had enough. Why were women so consumed with the idea of 'love'? She whirled on the servant, her index finger held out before her as a weapon.

"And what makes you think I want either, from you or from her? Fear and intimidation gets me everything I want or will ever need, Ubris."

The servant swallowed hard. Now was the time for truths, even truths the Conqueror wished to avoid. Would her rage be total and all encompassing? Ubris sighed resignedly. Still weakened by her ordeal at the warrior's hands, she had little to lose. Lord Xena usually vented her displeasure with any of her servants by way of long bursts of vile temper. It usually resulted in broken furniture and unkind words spoken in haste. Despite her blustery threats to the contrary, Ubris knew no woman had ever been subjected to anything she hadn't willingly consented to. She wondered just how the rest of the realm would react to this particular truth.

"We could not love you so if you had a heart made of stone. We love you in spite of yourself."

Xena's eyebrows knit as the woman's words slapped at her. She pushed Ubris away from her and stared into her eyes.

"What gibberish are you going on about now?" Looking decidedly uncomfortable, Xena began to remove her battle dress.

"Why does everything have to be about 'love'," she grumbled. "Ever since that woman entered my life, things have just not been the same. And I won't have it! Why do things have to be so godsbedamned complicated!"

Ubris began to unlace the back of Xena's leathers.

"But lord, she has brought you much joy. She has brought you peaceful slumber and the first stirrings of love."

"Love. What's this talk of love? It's an emotion best suited for the weak of body and mind. It does no man any good to lose his heart and therefore his reason and very soul." The Conqueror began to pace again. 'Offer any of my men love or power, and they will gladly choose the latter. I don't require my people to love me, just to obey me. In all things.'

Such thoughts brought her back to the subject of Andros, and exactly why he and some of the other men remained loyal to her. Surely it wasn't just the money?

"No, milord. I mean, yes milord." Ubris bowed deeply as the woman's leathers fell to the floor in a heap. She picked through the articles in the drawer, and then held up a pair of light leather pants. Ubris smiled expectantly.

"These would do nicely, yes lord?"

Xena rubbed her jaw, completely lost in thought as she prowled her chambers. 'If I'm not in control of my faculties, then it follows that I must be in love? What foolishness.' She grumbled the last word under her breath and then focused her eyes on the woman before her.

"What are you doing? I need my robe, not a pair of pants. I have no idea where your mind has gone, Ubris. Are you still weak and losing blood?" Placing a hand on the servant's face, she tipped the woman's chin up carefully. The bruises were beginning to fade.

"I never meant to be so...Never."

"It was not me you wished to punish, sire." She cleared her throat. "You will not be riding this morning, then lord?"

Xena grunted. 'Why would I punish her, she did nothing wrong. And the slave was in the other room...although terribly insolent, stubborn, willful...'

"How could you think I'd make the slave suffer...?" An image of the broken body of a woman floated up before her. At first it wore Gabrielle's face and then it was Ubris lying in blood, as the truth of the suffering she had caused her servant hit her again. She had meant to hurt Gabrielle. Would she?

"I never meant to hurt you, Ubris. Things got carried away...I lost control."

"Yes, lord. Sometimes you are at your very best when you are not in total control, when your true self is unleashed, my liege. I have seen it with Ankara...and now with Gabrielle. In the first instance, you let the tiger own you. But with the seem to relish the passion, lord, and not the conquest."

Xena's lips twitched as she remembered the heat that ran through her body as Gabrielle had openly admired her body. How long had she lain there pretending to sleep, just watching the blonde as she in turn watched her? She could see the passion in the woman, but the little bard was so determined to hold onto something that she wished to give away freely. She fingered her nipple ring. The little bard produced such feelings of passion, desire, anger and confusion. It was all very perplexing to Xena, who decided not to think about it anymore.

"My robe, Ubris. What have you done with it? And run a bath for me. I'll have something more to eat and then a long relaxing soak, I think. That should take my mind off things. I have a full schedule of things this afternoon. I'll be far too busy to sit around here for long. But first a bath; a little rest and relaxation, and I should be fit as a fiddle to go roust a few lay abouts in the morning."

Grabbing her robe off the end of her bed, exactly where she'd left it, Xena glanced quickly at the small grin that was painted on the servant's lips.

"What do you find so amusing, and where did you say the slave was? Just for my information, of course."

"Gabrielle is but a few doors down, milord. I smile to see you happy, sire. Should I tell her that you will be coming forthwith?"

"No! No that will be fine, Ubris, I'll be too busy, really." Xena walked back over to the table, flexing her left hand, pleased with the returning circulation, and began to eat.

"And I'm not happy, I'm hungry. I'm never happy...unless you want to round up some of my guards now so that I may pummel them after breakfast."

"But lord, Daedalis said..."

"Yes, yes, I know. Besides, it would give the men an unfair advantage: it wouldn't do them any good to see only half the squadron disabled by one slightly incapacitated warrior. Bad for moral." She chuckled to herself.

She held up an empty bottle. "And more wine, if you please. In case you haven't noticed, that young woman lives up to the title 'bard' quite admirably. My throat shall be parched if it is not nicely lubricated well before hand." She stroked her throat. "Perhaps you can fetch me some honey, too. An ounce of prevention, after all."

She cleared her throat. "I suppose I'll have to see her sometime today."

Ubris hid her smirk with a tiny hand. She, too, had noticed the young woman's verbosity. While the Conqueror saw it as a shortcoming, she herself thought of it as being exactly what the healer had ordered. She pursed her lips. It would do no good to have the healer wandering in and break the mood. She shuddered. Her choice of words was...unsettling. The whole idea of re-breaking the young woman's legs was very unsettling. Ubris bit her lip pensively. A quick visit with the young woman now, after she ran the lord's bath, would be perfect timing. Perhaps there was work for her in the other end of the castle, away from the screaming?

part 3

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