The Conqueror's Harvest

Chapter 14

by ArdentTly

Xena reclined in the heated water with a towel around the back of her neck and each arm lying on the tiles framing the large sunken bathtub. Mist swirled slowly and heavily as she thought about the assassin. He was taking up quite a bit of her thinking lately. He could have killed them both easily and efficiently, but hadn't. Had the previous attack been merely a ruse? And what of the slave? She was just so…unmanageable. The duty to train such a person would have fallen to Ankara.

The Conqueror tilted her head back and sighed, trying to let the hot water do its work and relax her.

Xena closed her eyes and thought about the Egyptian and how much she really missed the woman. While Ubris had been habitually quiet and far too serious, Ankara had been the feisty one who always found the humour and goodness in things. Xena hadn't realized just how carefree her soul had felt with that in her life until it was too late. It seemed that Gabrielle shared this quality. With a quick shake of her head Xena tossed the image of the small bard out of her mind. A slow breath hissed its release as the warrior tried to center herself again. But no matter how hard she tried, the truth of the woman's heroism kept creeping back in. Why had she gone to such lengths to save her? It couldn't have anything to do with her future: as far as the bard was concerned, her days of freedom were over. Xena rubbed her thumb roughly over the point of her chin. Well, if that wasn't the inspiration for her selfless act, what was? The word 'love' buzzed about, but was splashed harmlessly away.

Xena took a deep breath and then steepled her fingertips. Yes, Gabrielle's days as a prisoner were over. It had to be that way. If she wasn't guilty of sedition, then her confinement was unlawful. For the first time, Xena wondered just where the erroneous information had come from. 'Well, no harm done.' She'd get Andros to see to things in the morning.

She sighed deeply. And what would the slave do once released? Not 'slave' - Gabrielle. She'd have to remember that. The woman's aversion to being referred to that hadn't gone unnoticed. A shadow moved across her face, erasing a look of concentration, and replacing it with one of petulance. 'It doesn't matter what she wants; it's what I need. And I need her here, if not as a slave, then as a servant. My will be done.'

Strange awkward feelings began niggling in her belly once more, and the warrior began to absently chew on one knuckle. 'What if she doesn't want to stay? Of course, she'll have to after the surgery, that's a given. But once she's up and around, why there's nothing to keep her here. I suppose I could keep her confined to her quarters when she's not attending me.'

Xena massaged the soap over her left bicep, totally lost in thought as she paced from one end of the bath to the other. It was certain the bard enjoyed writing. Xena tried to remember exactly what type of scrolls had been confiscated in the raid. Had there been some poetry? Blowing her damp bangs away from her eyes, the Conqueror decided it might be prudent to have a Royal Scribe. Someone with a gift for words…Well, that certainly described the chatterbox off playing patient to Andros' nursemaid. 'He'd better not even think of touching her. No, he'd turned down Ubris, so there was no reason to think he'd want this one either. Huh. I'd best have a talk with the man.'

Her belly tightened as she heard a slight rustling against the door to her bathing chamber. Running her thumb along the blade that lay just at her fingertips, Xena forced herself to relax. Here she'd decided not to let herself be caught unawares, and someone had gotten as close to her inner chamber door without her even knowing it!

Cursing under her breath, she dipped her head below the surface of the bath, and exhaled slowly. Only when her lungs were completely devoid of air did she come back up. Moving slowly over to the far wall of the bath, Xena crossed her arms and settled her chin against them. The rather ferret-like scratching could only be from one man, her Lord Chamberlain; a man who was a legend in his own little mind. Rolling her eyes once, the Conqueror set her jaw and prepared for the ordeal at hand.

"Come in, Mica."

A rather toad-like man waddled into the room, all but wringing his hands in fear. Oh, how he detested visiting the Lord when she was bathing! Where was one to look, and what to say so as not to provoke a rant? One never knew with the Conqueror.

"Milord Xena, Conqueror of Nations, Destroyer of Chaos, Master of the Realm...

Xena sneered and splashed a small bit of water in the man's direction.

"Enough, man. I have another appointment, so come to the point and then leave."

The Lord Chamberlain swallowed with a click. How could he possibly get all the information he needed to convey if the Conqueror was already putting time limits on his presence?

"But my liege...

Xena moved back against the far wall and fixed him with a stony glare. "Now."

Mica was a rather foolish little man who had a penchant for inane chattering. Being in the presence of such power and perfection was really very awkward for him. Hiding behind florid speech and a bombastic attitude had kept those around him from seeing the shallow frightened man he truly was. It irked him fiercely that Lord Xena could see through his carefully manufactured façade with such ease.

He smiled crookedly, biting his inner cheek in the process, and slid his hand inside his sleeve. Taking hold of a few long hairs, Mica pulled delicately until he could focus solely on his inner voice. 'No babbling.'

"Well your majesty, as you know there was notification that two emissaries from Rome will be attending your court in the next day or so. Although far too early to be thinking of renegotiating our treaty with Rome, I can't think of another reason for this impromptu meeting."

One eyebrow rose slowly as a low growl filled the air.

"Heh, your majesty please, there is much to do before they arrive. We must think of ways to placate them while we…um …you discern exactly what it is they want. What if they're here to plunder, milord? What if they sense a weakness…your absence during the latest campaign…?"

Mica squeezed his own neck in an effort to swallow down the rising urge to babble.

"And they are expecting to see you fit and battle ready, my most esteemed liege. You must be seen as a force to be reckoned with, milord, something to which they've become accustomed. It is the nature of things, my dear Conqueror, for those less fortunate than ourselves to be put in their place whenever necessary. This pack of jackals must be sent grinning on their merry way. To do other is to invite dissention."

Xena slowly rose from the water, her upper body totally visible to the quivering man before her. She narrowed her eyes as Mica whined pitifully.

"And…and…it's been rumored that…well, you were wounded…and we have to make sure, your highness, that the image we produce for the em…em...

Placing one rather large but well-formed foot on the top step of the bath, the Conqueror moved with ease and a predatory gait until she had cornered the cowering Lord Chamberlain. As she stood a good two heads taller than Mica, and always demanded total concentration from those she addressed, Xena grabbed the man by the upper arms and slowly lifted him up against the wall. With all of her formidable concentration, the warrior willed the tremors that had begun in her left arm to still and exhaled an even breath as her body responded.

Mica felt his bowels begin to quake, and although he knew without a doubt that his feet were a good 8 inches from the floor, tried nevertheless to regain purchase of it.

"Stop squirming, little man. I detest your obsequious behavior. Lap dogs are a dinar a dozen, Mica, show some rigidity in that gelatinous spine of yours." Xena watched as the man's mouth opened and closed, and then let go of his shoulders. Mica's knees buckled as soon as he was safely back on the ground, his further descent halted as the Conqueror grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.

"Do I look weak to you, Mica?" She looked down and poked her bruised flesh. It seeped a small amount of blood that quickly dissipated as it joined the rivulets of water dripping down her body. Her eyes became hooded as he shook his foolish head vehemently.

"This minor wound is of no consequence and you would do well to remember that appearances can indeed be deceiving."

She stepped back and did a slow pirouette, placing both hands behind her back, slumping her shoulders and studiously gazed at the floor.

"Am I not a mere woman? Regardless of my height and musculature, what threat could an unarmed naked woman ever pose?" The Lord Chamberlain blinked slowly as the Conqueror transformed herself into a very innocent and demure peasant girl. But before he could blink again, the warrior emerged, wild eyed and teeth bared.

He screamed shrilly as the knife thunked loudly into the wood inches away from his throat. And then he swallowed spasmodically as he felt his manhood held tightly within the Lord's fist.

Xena smirked as the man all but passed out in front of her. Foolish men, they only saw what they wanted, even when faced with someone in full armour and armed to the teeth; all they saw was a woman, something to be either dismissed or ravaged.

"I will be whatever I want them to see, Mica." She squeezed once and then dismissed the trembling man.

"Ya…ya…yes milord."

Xena removed the knife, stepped carefully back into the bath, and then watched the man all but genuflect before her. She briefly wondered whether it was abject terror or whether she'd squeezed too hard. No matter, the results were what counted.

"I have other things to attend to. It shall be your task to entertain these men when they arrive. I'm certain your legendary gift of verbosity will keep them enchanted for hours. Don't let my faith in you be unfounded, Mica."

He nodded quickly, all but blubbering as he backed away to the door. Her cold brittle smile had all but turned his blood to ice.

Xena snorted derisively as he stumbled out the door. Placing the knife back along the lip of the bath, the warrior carefully held her arm out and watched as the trembling increased. It had taken a good deal of concentration to perform for the bureaucrat. She blinked deeply as she attempted a deeper breath.

"This will never do. They'll be on me like the pair of pursuit dogs they are." Xena wondered which men Caesar would send. If he had decided not to even grace them with his presence, then it was truly a hunting party that comes to court. She wondered just what the 'great man' had up his sleeve. What ever it was, it was certain to take place within the next twenty-four hours.

'Godsbedamn you, Caesar.'

Although finding him terribly alluring in a dangerously compelling way, it was the man's ego that just couldn't be gotten around. No matter how she tried, Xena knew without a doubt that there would be three in the bed, not two, and she played second fiddle to no one.

She switched the blade to her left hand and began a slow maneuvering of the knife, playing the handle in hesitant, but deft hands. Wincing, she reached under the water for the second time and then sighed in annoyance. The Conqueror wasn't terribly upset with her slow but steady improvement, but knew she'd have to be in the best condition possible when Caesar's toadies came to call.

Xena cocked her head and then rose from her bath. "Ah, Ubris; I see you've brought another bottle." Wringing the excess moisture from her long tangled hair, she moved across to the small balcony and stood looking over the lake. A small ripple played across the surface of the water and the Conqueror sighed in contentment as Ubris began the task of drying her hair and body.

The Conqueror waggled her goblet and then sighed in satisfaction as it was filled, and then the cold red wine hit her pallet. Her belly growled ominously, making the servant smirk. She'd put out the Lord's usual fare of fruit, meat and breads, but could see that they remained untouched. The mere thought of eating had her belly rolling and her insides tightened as she thought of the young bard's preparations.

Ubris draped a silken bathrobe over her Lord's impressive shoulders and began a hasty retreat.

"And where are you off to in such a hurry?"

The Egyptian looked furtively towards the main chamber, her eyes surrounded by lines of worry.

"The healer, sire...

Ubris paused as the warrior flinched. Why couldn't she just admit that the young woman was important to her? Why couldn't the Lord just accept the love offered? The servant sighed. Everything must be difficult first; Lord Xena only seemed happy when faced with adversity. When it was overcome, and only then, would she pick through and find some lesson to be learned. The Conqueror was painstakingly thorough, and stubborn.

Xena said nothing but sighed deeply and moved into the main chambers. 'She's just a common girl, nothing more. She means nothing to me. And yet…why was I willing to throw my own life away to the assassin in order to spare hers? The woman confessed she doesn't know why she was drawn to me. She undoubtedly wants something from me, that's a given.' Thoughts of conspiracy rose like wraiths. 'Perhaps she's insinuated herself into my household in hopes that I shall fall for her comely face and equally pleasing form?' She felt hands applying soft lotion to her legs and thighs and sighed as memories of the young bard moving beneath her crept into her mind. Setting her empty glass aside, she pondered things further. 'But how would she know that I'd have her picked up and crucified? How would she know that I'd have her taken down and imprisoned afterwards? She wouldn't, she couldn't possibly know that. Why, I didn't even know that I was going to do it until the deed was done. Why did I do it? What ever possessed me to have two of my soldiers go through the fields, picking through the newly crucified and those being taken down to be burned, searching just for an unknown bard?'

A night filled with dark worries and piercing nightmares swam before her eyes, and the Conqueror shivered as she remembered how upsetting it was to be prodded awake by her two servants, their worried voices confusing her until she had gotten a firmer grip on her surroundings. Xena could almost feel the warmth of the two bodies now as they stroked and soothed her back into a state of calm. It had been a very long time before sleep had found her, and even the rather aggressive coupling she'd enjoyed until dawn's first light could not dispel her feelings of foreboding. Each bit of flesh conquered; each moan and sigh torn from the two women had been more an act of cold manipulation than any act of sexual gratification.

The Conqueror looked down at her white knuckled hands and forced herself to relax, focusing on anything but that horrible sense of destiny that seemed to hang over her that night. She blinked once, as the Egyptian seemed to flutter about her duties like some butterfly, but Xena could make no sense of what the woman was saying. Try as she might, Xena found it impossible to let the memories go, and found herself caught in its grasp again.

It had been only a few hours after finally succumbing to fatigue that the warrior had sent the soldiers off in search of the bard. She had looked down upon the exhausted two women; both covered in sweat and tangled in each other's arms, and had felt only terrible loneliness. While they slept, she drank until finally being coerced to return to bed. When she had awakened, everything was changed. Xena didn't know why or how, but it had.

'Was it then that things had begun to go wrong?' She remembered how the next night had almost mirrored the first. A good night's sleep hadn't occurred until the bard had been safely tucked below floors, chained and caged with the other dissenters. Although she had fooled herself into thinking the bard's case had been randomly chosen as the next incident to be dealt with on the day's roster, Xena could finally see that it was not happenstance at all, but a serendipity of the gods, but which god? Ares had been absent for more than a season, having been sated at the last battle that had ended with a pair of warlords impaled at the end of her pike, their heads adorning his temple as tribute.

"Ubris, more wine." The Egyptian opened her mouth to protest as the goblet was emptied again but fell silent as the Lord's somber mood fell upon her as well.

Xena scowled as she thought of Ares and his manipulative ways. Mind you, she knew how to work that to her own advantage as well. She had no use for the family of Zeus, both hands having been filled with the persistent ardor of one son and the undying love of another. What would the God of War make of the pending visitation from Caesar's court? Although not a frequent visitor to her castle, it had been a long time since the god had graced her with his counsel. Taking a deep breath, Xena pushed out her senses but felt neither the rush nor the eerie premonition of the god's dark presence.

Deep in thought she absently waved the servant's fussing hands away and then finished smoothing in the rich oil over each of her breasts, belly, and then finally her shoulders and neck. Each stroke seemed to pull her back into the enjoyable feeling of having the bard in her arms. Yawning deeply, she blinked away the cloying cobwebs and tried to concentrate on her surroundings.

Ubris cocked her head in puzzlement as yet another question went unanswered. Was the Conqueror still feeling the effects of her attack, or was it concern for the young bard? 'Poor Gabrielle.' Gathering the discarded towels, she bowed deeply and then left.

Darting a quick look down the hall, the Egyptian shivered slightly and then decided she'd delay in preparing the Lord's evening meal. There was laundry to be done, after all, and even though it was farther to go, distance was a good thing this day.

The Conqueror stood in front of her armoire, and gazed at her reflection critically.

"I'm getting fat, there's just no two ways about it. Ubris, do you think my inactivity has grown me a paunch? Perhaps I should go out for a ride this morning. Ubris?"

She turned and grabbed the brush by her stand.

"Damn that girl, where has she gotten to now?" Xena strode over to the bathing chamber, almost evoking the other Egyptian's name. But Ankara was gone. It had been only two days and yet it seemed a lifetime since she'd seen that impish smile that could break through even her darkest of moods.

Standing back in front of the mirror, Xena slowly began brushing her long dark brown hair. The Conqueror's even strokes coupled with the affects of the wine seemed to act as a balm, and soon her ill temper was waxing and waning, making her feel quite mellow.

"I need a good massage and this damned arm…Where is that servant?" Grabbing her pants and jerkin, the warrior stumbled over to the front doors, cursing as a foot became tangled.

"Ubris!" She growled in frustration as she flung open the great doors to her chamber. Two guards stood stiffly to attention, their eyes averted as the Conqueror finished buttoning up the front of her shirt. Xena narrowed her eyes at each man, daring them to say a word and then stomped down the hallway in search of her servant.

"Blasted wench." Biting back a yawn, she stumbled down the hallway muttering expletives as she went. The two guards blinked slowly and then turned to one another. One shrugged and the other smirked. 'Ah, to have a bit of wine whenever you wanted, that's the life.'

Gabrielle started as a shadow loomed across the doorway, and then resettled her blankets as the form became Lord Xena.


Xena's head snapped up, and for one clear moment the bard could see the young girl the Conqueror had once been. Gone were the guarded looks, and the harsh set to her full lips, leaving a rather startled and innocent looking woman.

"I…I'm looking for Ubris. I need a... Xena bit off the rest of the sentence, silently damning herself for feeling so awkward.

Gabrielle slowly propped herself up on her elbows, and then smiled.

"Will you…sit with me? I mean do you have time to just be with me for a moment or two? Andros stayed for a little while, but said he had his morning duties to perform. The healer…he said he would be right back. And then he'd... Her emotions rose and fell as waves of fear, threatening to overflow at a moment's notice.

Xena frowned as the young woman's voice caught.

"It's for the best, Gabrielle. You can't continue to tend me in your current state. How am I to concentrate when I know you're in pain? While a certain tone of moaning can indeed be rather rousing, whether it be from some idiot who's become an enemy of the realm, or by someone requiring my more personal attention, most of your bleating is quite distracting."

Gabrielle's smile faltered and then slipped from her tight lips as the warrior walked briskly about her rooms.

"I'm sorry, Lord." While her spirits had soared at the mere sight of the warrior, they were now dashed against the rocks of disappointment. Gabrielle bit her lip in an effort to quell the tears. Why was this woman so unpredictable? The closer they were to reaching some level of ease with each other, the farther it seemed they were thrown.

Xena took a quick sidelong glance and then just as quickly looked away. Here she'd seen compound fractures of men's leg bones, ruined hips tied together with wood and rope. What was it about seeing this bard all but tied to the bed, her legs encased in wooden splints that made her want to flee? Seldom was the night that passed when her dreams weren't filled with the echoes of men's screams as they were either tortured or dying in battle. Why should the mere thought of this young woman's agonizing cry have her longing to kiss all the pain away?

'What in Hades am I saying? Kiss the girl, indeed. Slaves are to tend, not be tended to.' But she looked so frail! 'She's of good peasant stock, and she'll be fine.' Xena turned and found Gabrielle covering her face with both hands, and her heart reeled at the blow.

"It won't hurt much. I've seen many soldiers in similar states, and they know well enough how to hold their tongues. Can't be seen to be weak, can't give the enemy an upper hand. Have to be strong and silent, Gabrielle. Always. Why, I've broken many a bone myself. There's really nothing to it. You just have to…keep your mind off things. A bard like you, I'll wager you could just close your eyes and dream yourself away."

Gabrielle pulled her hands away, revealing a very red and tear-stained face.

"But I'm frightened, Xena."

Grabbing a cloth by the basin, the Lord drenched it in the cool water and then wrung it out slowly. Wasn't there another way? Couldn't she just…what? Couldn't she just let the poor woman continue living the life of a cripple, totally useless to herself and those around her? What sort of servant could she be? Why, she'd be the laughing stock of the court.

A wave of guilt rushed at her, swamping her, as she thought of the bard's life…reduced to nothing but a court jester, laughed at and ridiculed at every turn. She'd kill anyone who did that. If it took a hundred tongues ripped out to cease their numbing chatter, so be it! No, it had to be this way.

"Have you slept?"

Gabrielle felt her reply dry on her lips as she heard a rustling in the hallway.

Xena's hand went quickly to her dagger as the healer breezed into the room.

"Ah, Lord Xena. Come to pay the young slave a visit, have we? How nice, and very unexpected, I might add. Why, I can't remember the last time…well, actually I do remember the last time. How is your servant, milord?"

Xena found her teeth on edge as another wave of guilt niggled its way past her defences.

"Fine," she said and smiled tightly. "I was looking for her when I came across the bard here."

Gabrielle sank a little deeper into her bed. She had thought the Lord had come to pay a visit. But why would she? She was nothing but a common slave, and on borrowed time as it was.

"You don't need to stay, Conqueror. I'm sure you have more pressing duties elsewhere."

Xena pursed her lips and then grinned coldly at the healer.

"Why, I wouldn't miss this for the world. Actually, I need a distraction today; I was going out for a ride, but I think this will do nicely. I'm quite interested in your procedure, Daedalis. Carry on."

Daedalis covered his mouth quickly as the urge to sneer overcame him. The woman was colder than Celeste's left tit! Didn't she have any compassion? He hadn't known what to expect when seeing the woman here…but some uneasiness was surely a more appropriate response from any female. Ah, but the Conqueror was anything but 'any female.'

Handing the young woman the herbal mixture, he watched as she made a face and then emptied the glass.

"Bleck. That was horrible."

Daedalis smiled blankly, totally ignoring the slave's comment. He inspected his bag again, and then began to set out his tools.

A quick exhale of breath whooshed out of Gabrielle as the man emptied his bag. She swallowed deeply as a wooden mallet came into view.

"The Lord is quite right, actually. About it not being too terribly horrible, I mean. Shouldn't take but a moment, either. Now, that herb will be a little bit longer before taking effect, so you might as well just relax." Holding up a piece of slightly chewed wood, he glanced pointedly at the blonde and then waggled it in her direction.

"Now, do you suppose you can be good enough not to use this bit or do you think you might flail about and scream? In either case it's best to remember not to hinder my surgery in any way. Why, you might end up quite a bit worse off than you are right now." He smiled his most condescending smile. "And then where would we be, eh?" The Conqueror narrowed her eyes as the man chuckled, completely oblivious to his patient's rising panic.

Squeezing the cloth out again, Xena turned and came back to the bed.

"Here. Place this on your face, Gabrielle." Although totally inadequate in the ways of sensitivity, there was no doubt she could at least better this man's dismal efforts.

"Daedalis, if I may have a word with you." She nodded towards the door, reining in her growing anger as the man huffed in annoyance.

"My Lord…the sooner we get on with this, the faster I can go to my supper. Why, I've been tending those damned new recruits all morning, and haven't had a chance to sit down to a single meal. Now, if you please...

Xena's upper lip curled as she watched a tremble run through the bard. The blonde seemed to shrink further into the down mattress and lay with her face hiding under both hands and dripping cloth.

Taking the man roughly by the elbow, Xena pulled him out into the hall.

"Listen you: I don't need an attitude today. What I do need is someone in possession of a bedside manner…something you seem woefully out of touch with. What's the matter with you, fool? Of course, she's going to scream. When I handed her that cloth, I could see that her pupils hadn't even begun to dilate. What was that potion you gave her? What's the duration of the effect? Did you take into account the girl's weight, her fatigue...

Daedalis rolled his eyes in exasperation. "If you please…I'll have you know I've tended to soldiers and the like for more than twenty years. I think I know how to do my job."

Fixing him with a piercing glare, Xena poked her finger stiffly into the middle-aged man's chest.

"And when do you think you'll know for sure, Daedalis? Because I warn you, if that girl suffers any more than she should, you'll answer to me. Do you understand?"

The healer pursed his lips, and thought about the recent rumours that had been making the rounds. It was said that the Conqueror was going soft, that she'd fallen under the spell of some slave. He frowned thinking about just how magical this young blonde slave must be to thaw the cold heart of such an irascible regent. Images of the young woman tied to the bed popped into his head and he wondered if perhaps the Lord wasn't aware of the woman's spell binding abilities? And just how would such a person cast spells and such without her familiars? To his recollection, he'd only ever seen the woman with the clothes on her back…or more pointedly, off her back. He blushed as he thought of exactly how such a woman would seduce a person, cold hearted or not, into changing her normally rigid routine, and her very manner.

He searched the Lord's face quickly. She looked the same, no tell tale signs of bewitching, but she did seem different.

"Why should you care so much for a common slave, milord?"

Xena narrowed her eyes at the man's tone. Just what was he insinuating?

"She's nothing to me, healer. But I do have plans for her. If nothing else, she can become my new scribe. Mind you, I am in need of new food tasters, am I not?" A feral grin transformed her thoughtful gaze to that of a hungry predator. "Or she could remain as my sex slave, Daedalis, but whatever my reasons, keeping her alive is in your best interest."

Xena laughed wickedly as the man's face turned a deeper crimson.

"Now get in there and make sure that damned potion is working before you go brandishing any more hammers."

Daedalis stood as tall as he could, squared his shoulders, and then marched back into the room. Xena could see by the set of the man's jaw that she'd ruffled his feathers. Sighing dramatically, she pondered on the fact that there had been a time when he wouldn't have dared question her orders, not blatantly, of course. And his surly tone of voice was in definite need of adjustment. She mentally tacked the incident onto the list of things that would have to change and then stood at the end of the bed.

"Now, if there are no further interruptions... Daedalis studiously ignored the burning he felt all but piercing the back of his skull and went about making sure the restraints were in order.

Tilting the woman's chin up and removing the cloth quickly, he nodded and then hefted the two mallets at his disposal. Narrowing his eyes a bit, the healer finally decided on the lighter of the two and then rolled up his sleeves.

"Now then...

Gabrielle had no time to replace the cloth over her face. She leaned forward to plead her case with the Conqueror and then, eyes wide with shock, held onto the leather straps as she watched the hammer descend.

It all seemed to proceed in slow motion. Daedalis grimaced as he watched the young woman's leg twitch a little off center. It was far too late to alter his stroke and he silently cursed the day the slave had ever entered the castle. He felt nothing but anger towards the stupid slave, knowing that Lord Xena was sure to see it all as his fault.

Xena had just been about to point out that the leg should have been bandaged to prevent tissue damage when the healer bent to his ill-timed task. Didn't the man realize that this wasn't something you just did impetuously? Reaching out half-heartedly, the warrior cursed loudly, knowing there was no way to stop the power of that full swing.

"Oh gods!"

Gabrielle's mouth stretched wide as her lungs filled with a high pitched squeak and then the pain roared like a blacksmith's hearth, completely engulfing her left leg. Her arms began to shake violently as the flames proceeded like some carnivorous beast up to her hip and beyond. She briefly wondered if a person's heart could burst and prayed that it was possible, anything, just so it would all stop.

Xena could tell by the heart-stopping intake of breath that the bard hadn't been medicated enough; she could feel the agony drilling through Gabrielle's green eyes into her very soul. It would have been horrible enough for the young woman to observe the break even heavily medicated, but to endure it while even a little coherent was unthinkable. This wasn't to be an act of torture, it was supposed to be beneficial to the woman. Oh gods, why hadn't she just thrown the stupid man out and done the deed herself?

"Now, now…don't go on, girl. It's not as bad as all that. If you'll just wait a moment...

And then Gabrielle screamed.

It was a long howl that seemed to freeze the very blood in the healer's veins, and he faltered in his bravado. Pressing his hands roughly over his patient's torn flesh, he sought to hide his bungling. 'Perhaps it wasn't as horrible as it first seemed? If only the stupid wench hadn't moved, hadn't screamed, hadn't lived…!'

"You stupid girl! Stop it this instant!" And still the bard screamed. He watched as all the tendons stood out in the woman's neck and in that moment contemplated exactly what it would feel like to just squeeze such a neck and pinch the horrible noise off…forever. The room seemed so much brighter to him in that second and he reached forward, hands curled into claws as the unbearable noise filled his mind.

'Make it stop, make it stop, make her stop!' Suddenly, it all made sense. She was an evil influence on the Lord, and he could see that only his intervention would save the Conqueror from total ruination. Hadn't he heard all the rumours, weren't the Lord's actions contrary to everything he knew about the woman, and hadn't there already been a terrible loss of life since the evil bitch had come to court? No, only he had the knowledge, and only he could be Xena's savior.

Xena stood there, mouth agape, as the bard's face went from pasty white to claret red in the blink of what seemed to be a lifetime. And then her daze was broken as she watched the healer's hands close about the bard's neck.

Gabrielle's eyes were slowly rolling up into her head from the searing pain when the scream that had her in its grip was suddenly cut off.

"What are you doing?" Grabbing the man by the back of his collar, Xena pulled him up and away from the bard.

Daedalis roared his displeasure, swinging out wildly at who ever it was that dared put their hands on him. He swung around and faced…Lord Xena.

"Lord…can't you see? She's a demon of some sort, she must be stopped, and only I can... The flow of words was squeezed off to a pitiful rasp as the Conqueror shoved the man hard up against the wall, her hand tight around his throat.

"You're demented, old man. She's but a wisp of a girl, and nothing more. It's you who are dangerous, not Gabrielle!" She shook the man and began venting her spleen on his skills as a healer.

"You were supposed to wrap her legs first, you imbecile! You were incompetent in your handling of the potion. I warned you. How could you be such a fool?" With a final growl she hurled the man to the floor and hurried back to the bed.

"Gabrielle?" The bard lay gasping, her eyes wide with fright and her mouth etched with pain's furrows. Biting her lip, the warrior inspected the damage and sighed in relief. Pinning the recovering healer with a glare, she all but spat in his direction.

"You're lucky, little man. Although it isn't the strike I would have made, and the result far from the perfect break I was hoping, it should heal in time." Shaking her head in disgust, she gazed back at the bard, her heart tearing as the woman's moans filled the air.

Glancing quickly at the side of Gabrielle's neck, Xena carefully immobilized the nerves running down from hip to ankle and sighed in relief as her stiffened body began to sag back into the bed.

"The pain is gone, Gabrielle." Scanning the bed and floor around it for the rag, she dashed over to the sideboard, completely ignoring the dazed man as he pulled himself into the corner, and then re-applied the cold cloth to the bard's face. "There. Now if you just lie quietly...

Gabrielle blinked slowly a few times, and then nodded. Peeking down at her ruined flesh was enough to start her belly rolling. Taking a few very deep cleansing breaths, the bard placed very shaky hands over her face and tried not to relive the past five minutes of her life. Could it only have been that long?

Dismissing the rapid footsteps coming down the hall, Xena began straightening out the bard's leg. The girl was going to need stitches, but first there was a leg to set. Rolling her sleeves up tightly, she spoke to the Lieutenant who had just reached the door.

"Andros, take the healer away. There's been an unfortunate…accident…and he needs to be confined to his quarters. See to it that he doesn't talk to anyone, won't you?"

Andros nodded as he took in the contents of the room. There was blood on the bed, the slave was covered in sweat and by the looks of things, in a good deal of pain, and there in the corner curled up in a ball was the healer. He frowned as he watched Daedalis rocking back and forth, a scowl etched deeply on his face.

The scene of the descending hammer played over and over again and yet Gabrielle found herself unable to do more than croak. She could still feel the tight grasp of the man's hands on her windpipe. Swallowing with a click, she dragged in another set of deep breaths in an effort to calm the rising tide of panic.

"What has happened, milord? Is there something I should know…?"

Xena cursed as the bard emptied her stomach onto the shift she wore. "Daedalis erred in judgment, Lieutenant. I believe he's had a fit of some sort. I'm not sure when he'll recover but I think it's best we confine him. Oh, and make sure he's not in possession of anything sharp; he might try to injure himself." Xena grabbed the nearby pitcher and filled the basin with fresh water, then began slowly cleaning the bard's face and neck. Two angry welts matching the healer's hands were clearly outlined on the bard's alabaster skin. Seething with mounting rage, Xena steeled herself from completely losing control. It would be all too easy to just wring the man's neck and be done with it.

The Lieutenant inched slowly over towards the healer, hands out in supplication. "It's just me, Daedalis. Why don't you come with me and we'll get a nice cup of…?"

He jumped back in surprise as the healer got hurriedly to his feet.

Fixing the Conqueror with an imperious look, the healer dusted his clothing off and then addressed them both in a very scratchy voice.

"I'll have you know there is nothing wrong with my faculties. It's to your great shame that you cannot see this woman for what she truly is. She's twisted you, Lord Xena, and perverted you in some way. Each of us seems to be coming under her influence daily. Am I the only one to see it?"

Andros shot the Conqueror a look and she raised one eyebrow slowly.

Glancing back and forth between the two, Daedalis raised both hands in disgust and began walking towards the bed.

Her eyes still locked on those of the bard, Xena lifted her arm quickly and struck the man full force, causing him to drop like a sack of potatoes, breaking his nose in the process.

"Get him out of here, now!" Andros lifted the man under the arms and then dragged him out of the room. Xena kicked the door closed and walked over to the basin.

"Xena?" the bard said in a tiny voice.

Pouring more water into the basin, Xena leaned down and splashed some water into her face. Gabrielle noted the hunch of the woman's shoulders and lay looking up at the ceiling. After all that talk about keeping her mouth shut, about just bearing the pain like a good soldier, she'd fallen apart after the first stroke. Oh, but she'd tried! Unsure of what was going to happen, Gabrielle had been totally unprepared. 'Although,' she thought with a shiver, 'there really was no way to be prepared for something like this.'

Her hand pressed against the bridge of her nose as the image of the hammer striking her leg filled her mind.

"Oh gods...

Xena spun around quickly and walked tentatively towards the bed. She felt unsure as to how the bard would react to her presence. After all, hadn't she ordered the woman's legs to be broken? And then hadn't she just stood by…? Gods, why hadn't she noticed the damned bandages earlier? Although she wasn't even expecting the damned healer to go straight ahead and lay mallet to bone without first examining the patient to see if the potion was acting, she truly wondered why she hadn't been able to step in before the hammer was in full swing.

Lack of sleep aside, she should have been able to prevent this whole scene from happening.

Rubbing a hand over her face, Xena just stood there watching the woman. 'She can't even look at me. She thinks I'm to blame. Godsdamn that stupid man!' Eyeing the mallet distastefully, the warrior decided that Ubris would be the best person to have tending the girl. Perhaps she and Andros…knowing she was woefully inept at dealing with emotions, hers or someone else's, the idea of leaving the bard in someone else's capable hands was most appealing.

"Gabrielle? I'm going to go fetch Ubris. I'm sure she could...

A stricken look suffused the bard's pale complexion immediately, causing Xena to move closer to the side of the bed. Gingerly, she took the young woman's hand.

"I... She stopped to clear her throat.

"He'll be executed in the morning. His bumbling could have cost you more than just the use of your legs, Gabrielle. He's an incompetent idiot, and certainly not someone I want working on my men."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No, you can't do that, Xena. He's not…not responsible…out of his head."

"Insanity is not a defence, only a weak excuse. His open defiance cannot go unpunished."

Taking in the woman's somewhat dull expression, Xena sighed and then shook her head slowly. "I suppose it's better late than never, Gabrielle; the potion is finally working. I'm sure the effects will be more pronounced due to the shock your body is experiencing."

"But what about my other leg?"

Xena gave the woman a reassuring smile. "Not to worry; you won't feel a thing, I promise you."

The bard nodded slowly and Xena watched as each blink got deeper and then the woman fell into a deep sleep.

"Thank the gods." Acting quickly, she moved to the end of the bed, took hold of the bard's leg, and then pulled and twisted until she heard the bones grind and then slip back into place. Nodding with satisfaction, she moved with efficiency, cleaning and binding the leg so that it was totally immobilized.

Wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm, Xena removed the wooden braces and then wrapped Gabrielle's right leg securely. Replacing the framing back around the leg, she sighed and then picked up the small mallet.

"I should have done this deed, Gabrielle. It was by my authority that your sentence was carried out, and so it should be my responsibility to correct it." Pinching the bridge of her nose, Xena moved up to check on the bard's condition. Noting the bard's eyes were well dilated, and her pulse deep and regular, the warrior moved to the opposite side and pinched off the nerves running down the leg. She had no intention of having a repeat performance.

"I don't know why I left it up to Daedalis in the first place."

But Xena knew only too well. The past few days with Gabrielle had shown the warrior exactly who and what the bard was. Upon reflection, she'd felt more than a small amount of shame on how the girl had been chained and whipped only a few days earlier. Adding to that violence by actually striking the blow herself was something she wanted to avoid…at all costs.

Other than the girl's pale complexion, Xena could almost believe the bard was just sleeping.

Ubris stood at the door, her face all but hidden by her fingers. She wiped the blood away from her lip as the hammer descended. Squeezing her eyes tightly, Ubris felt heart-sore for the Conqueror. There could be no doubt as to the pain the Lord was enduring having to inflict this upon someone who was becoming an important person in her life.

She had been totally flummoxed, as she'd watched Andros drag the unconscious healer down into one of the holding cells. Upon tentative questioning, the man had told her Daedalis had suffered a fit of some sort.

The Egyptian pursed her lips. His bruised face and broken nose told a different story. Now, seeing the Conqueror tending to the young bard herself, Ubris felt the first real twinges of hope. If only the Lord would continue on this path towards her destiny. For that is exactly how the servant thought of it; there could be no doubt now that the Lord was becoming less of the image she sought to employ and more of the person she had every right to be.

part 4

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