The Conqueror's Harvest

Part 7

by ArdentTly

Chapter Eighteen

Christo stood up in his stirrups, a white flag held aloft for all to see. He narrowed his eyes as he took in the enemy's forces. Just counting the torches had the number at between 50 and 75 men. Although they were about an hour's good ride away from the castle, he did briefly consider sending a rider out to fetch reinforcements. He supposed it would be just as nice to watch his friend's face as he entered the courtyard with the treasonous Lieutenant Dagnine in chains. There had been some hesitation in Andros' voice when he'd turned down the offer of sending a full company. After all, reasoned the stocky Briton, a troop was really all he required to get the likes of Dagnine.

His men were seasoned soldiers, men that had gone through his rigorous training with and without horses. It mattered not that he was outnumbered by a score of men. 'That bloody lot looks like they've missed a meal or two. Nothing tips the scales more than a fistful of blackguards with their belly buttons all but scratching their backbones.' He motioned to the man beside him.

"Whatcha think? How many swords or other weapons you see?"

The man rubbed his smooth chin. "It is hard to tell when they are so close to the trees, Lieutenant. I'd wager there be about 60 or 70 men, most with a staff or dirk of some sort each. I don't see too many swords, though. Say, Lieutenant, this is a larger group than we were expecting to be with Dagnine. Perhaps…"

"Right. You lot," He pointed at the front row of men to his left and right. "Let's back up a tad and make 'em come to us. We've shown 'em ours, now it's time for them to return the favour. Let's make certain just who the fuck we're dealing with."

The horses and men seemed to move in perfect unison, a fact that had Christo almost puffing up with pride. He'd show these mongrels a thing or two this night.

He narrowed his eyes again, as a few more men seemed to ooze out of the darkness. He squinted, as he looked the rabble over. No, he didn't recognize a one of them.

"Well then. Let's palaver shall we, and find out what's goin' on 'ere?"

He scanned the faces of the men as they began coming towards them. Standing his ground, he motioned to both men flanking him, "Spread out a little, blokes, and let's have a little room to maneuver."

A sharp laugh seemed to echo from behind him, and as Christo wheeled his horse around he rued the moment he hadn't sent a rider off to the castle.

There was a full troop of Roman soldiers slowly making their way towards them. They'd been so quiet that neither he nor his men had even an inkling they were there. Cursing beneath his breath, he shouted quickly. "Men, form up and present arms! Bowmen! Not a shot fired, hear? We're still under a flag of truce. P'raps they're the Roman emissaries Lieutenant Andros was going on about."

"There will be no peace this night!" cried a heavily accented voice from the darkness.

"Who are ya and what's yer business then? D'you not know yer on the Conqueror's land? It's common courtesy to come a knockin' with flowers not sabers."

A chuckle ran through his ranks, and Christo waved the flag of peace.

"Send out yer leader so we can talk business, right?"

The Lieutenant felt a ruffling of his hair as an arrow all but took the cloth from the pole.

"Oye! Right, men at the ready!"

Christo had just unsheathed his own sword, having thrown what was left of the flag into the mud, when a flash of metal drew his attention. A rather average man stepped through an area made vacant by a line of very efficient looking soldiers. The Lieutenant's eyebrow shot up as he noted the red cape ruffling in the slight wind as the stranger walked a further ten paces and then stopped.

'Must be some top mucky-muck directly from Caesar. Godsbedamnit, I've gotta get word to Lord Xena!' He caught the eye of the man beside him and just jerked his thumb up and out. Frowning slightly, the man gritted his teeth and then nodded. Another man eased his horse up to take his place and Christo smiled and held his reins as his mount resettled her position.

The new man gulped loudly as more of the Romans came into the flickering firelight. The Briton patted his shoulder.

"Steady on, mate. We'll hear what they've gotta say before we grab our skirts and turn tail, right?"

The young man squared his shoulders at the slight. If it was a fight these men wanted, then they'd come to the right place. Christo winked with pride, having taken most of his best men with him on what was looking to be a suicide mission. Go on a hunt looking for a popinjay and end up facing a hawk. 'Just my bloomin' luck.'

Tribune Cassius pursed his lips as the apparent leader of the opposing forces fixed him with all but a death-dealing gaze. He could feel his blood boiling up and the urge to just give the signal and have them all hacked to pieces was very strong. He needed to bring Caesar a high body count, thus ingratiating himself further into the fool's good favour. It wouldn't be long now before Marcus Brutus and his men were in position and Caesar's reign would end soon enough. Until then…

"You will surrender immediately. Those of you who comply with this order will be allowed to live. Those who survive questioning will be given a warrior's death. This I promise."

Christo snorted. 'Like that, is it? Well, I'll just have to delay things a bit then… '

"Are we to be treated like common ruffians or are you gentleman enough to recognize good breedin' when you see it?" Silence greeted his slap at the way he and his men were being treated. "I would have expected more from the nobility of Rome."

Cassius' full lips twisted as he recognized the throwing of the gauntlet. Not only was his good name besmirched but that of Rome as well. A molten burble of hatred seethed within the man, all but overcoming the tenuous hold he was already imposing on the battle lust he was feeling. Oh, to watch this pompous little man who was nothing more than a common barbarian have his limbs tethered to four strong horses! Images of the limbs being torn from the man's torso flooded his mind, acting almost as a fine liqueur, at once calming him and yet fueling his need for cruel domination. As much as he longed to obey his base instincts, the snide remarks did remind him that live prisoners were more useful to Caesar than dead ones. And by the look and carriage, the man in question was probably one of Lord Xena's trusted Lieutenants.

His lips curled again as he thought of the true reason behind this little jaunt in the woods. They were to secure information regarding the amount of resistance they would encounter, and the most expedient way into the castle. And then…why, then they'd breach the very chambers of the 'Empress of Corinth, and Lord Conqueror, Guardian of Greece', and she would be reduced to the mewling, helpless woman he knew she must be. Why, if only half the things he'd heard were true, there was no man who could best her! And that was pure rubbish, for he knew in his heart that she could never hope to be his equal - in anything. She was a mere figment of someone's fertile imagination, probably her own. So, if keeping this stupid little fool alive would guaranty an immediate 'audience' with the so-called Destroyer of Nations, with or without her consent, then so be it.

Christo fought to keep the horror from his face as he watched an almost maniacal look come over the Roman officer's face. This was a man who had gone down the road to madness and had surely lost his way. His knuckles turned a whitish hue as he gripped his saddle horn.

"Might I have the honour of knowing your good name, sire?" The Lieutenant's tongue darted out to swipe at his suddenly dry lips. Thanking Andros silently, he stood straighter in his saddle and prayed that the soap he'd used the day before was still working. His nostrils twitched as the aroma of some exotic herb hit him. Ignoring the sudden urge to sneeze, Christo smiled slowly and nodded his head in deference.

Cassius pursed his lips and frowned. Although the man was suitably washed and his uniform in good repair the coarseness of his tongue identified his station immediately. His eyes gazed slowly over at the men flanking the foreign officer. Their lineage was apparent as well; coarsely featured, and although eager to excel at their tasks, were dull witted all the same.

Locking his eyes back on the Lieutenant, he smiled coldly. "I am Caius Cassius Longinus, Tribune of Caesar, nobleman of Rome and conqueror of…what is your name?"

The Lieutenant gritted his teeth but still managed to maintain a weak smile.

"Well met, sire. I am Christo of the county of Barnabus, in the great land of Britannia, Lieutenant second class to the great Lord Xena, Conqueror of Corinth, Guardian of…"

He frowned as the man dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

"Yes, yes…don't go on."

Swallowing his anger, Christo went blindly on, knowing the delay was the only thing keeping them all alive.

"But sire, might I ask the reason for your…visit? If given ample opportunity, why we be right smart about doing things up right like. A little pomp here, and a bit of circumstance there…" He winked conspiratorially at the Roman dignitary. "Why, we've got maidens here that would melt the armour right off ya with just a wee kiss." He signaled to a handful of men nearby. "You lot, make way for these fine gentlemen and we'll show them the glories of our fine town…"

Cassius fixed his second in command with a baleful look. It was going to be a long night. When the Briton began moving back the way they'd obviously come, Cassius knew he'd reached the end of his patience. Good graces or not, he'd be wiping the gore from his armour this night! A little foreign blood was good for the rust if nothing else.

"You," He pointed at the line of archers behind him and they moved into position. "Start with the buffoon from the 'great land of Britannia'. Aim low and work your way upward."

Gabrielle winced as she was jostled. Surely it wasn't time to get up yet? Besides, she was feeling so very good right now and didn't want to be interrupted. Whoever it was would just have to wait. Her fingers left flames in their wake, the intensity somewhat lessened by the intrusion. The grumbling complaint remained unspoken as soft skin moved deliciously against her.

"Oh, Xena," slipped between her petulant lips and it was all the Conqueror could do not to taste the wealth they offered. Biting her lip, Xena contemplated her next move. If she simply moved closer and stole a kiss or three, it might awaken the blonde who might be decidedly vexed at the action. On the other hand, if she were to simply move into a better position, perhaps the woman would continue…

Deciding the latter was preferable to her current condition of having one leg mere inches off the floor while the rest of her was nicely nestled against the firm yet oh so soft skin of the bard, Xena winced as she settled herself closer, and then pulled the sheets up higher.

Releasing the breath she held, the warrior quietly propped her self up on one elbow and gazed down as the bard began making a humming noise. Xena quirked an eyebrow up as the thin shoulders moved seductively against her and then the hands went back to their teasing dance across pebbling flesh.

Although enjoying the scene utterly, Xena began to feel a slight pain in her chest. 'Must have run up that staircase a bit too fast,' she thought. After taking a deep but almost inaudible breath, the Conqueror refocused her gaze on the young woman nestled beside her.

Her nostrils quivered as the woman's breath became somewhat laboured, her hands moving slowly over the pink flesh Xena wanted to devour. But the more she looked, the worse the pain in her chest became. Emotions ran amok through the warrior as she fought with the memories of soft lips against her own and the look of trust and love the woman gave her; one had rarely anything to do with the other in the warrior's past. Swallowing deeply, Xena gingerly pulled the covers back from her body and placed her foot on the cold granite floor. Closing her eyes in sorrow as the realities of who she was and what the young bard thought she was seemed to travel up from the granite, making her shiver.

"Xena…gods, but I love you."

The words twisted in the Conqueror's gut as shame infused her. The time for breaking such a woman was past, now all she wanted to do was hold her and protect her, like the priceless treasure she was. Once again the warrior gritted her teeth as questions of why such a thing of beauty could be attracted to her, a thing composed of dark desires and violent danger.

"Be with me, my Xena…" Words meant to lap as sweet water against willing flesh caused nothing but pain to the woman hearing them. Although she'd been more than pleased to have the bard asleep, now she prayed for her return to consciousness.

"I can't be your Xena, Gabrielle. Ever." Squeezing her eyes tightly, the Conqueror was oblivious to the green eyes that observed the tear that slowly made its way down the sharp lines of the warrior's face.

Gabrielle's heart felt like breaking as she watched the fight this very formidable woman was having with her conscience. Used to just taking what she wanted, it amazed her that not only had the Conqueror not taken her as she lay locked in passion's dreamland, but had looked at her with such love and yes, even devotion. Waking up in such a fashion had caused the young woman more than a little discomfort but it had all been forgotten as she watched surreptitiously from sleep-sown eyes. As much as the warrior would want to deny it, the truth had been visible; a tangible thing drawing them together like the great branches of a tree reaching for the sun.

'Oh, to be as grounded and strong as that great tree!' thought the bard as she slowly captured the tear on the tip of her finger.

Xena's hands relaxed, releasing their hold on satin sheets as she opened her eyes. Her lower lip trembled as the truth of the love offered lay like a promise given only to her. She tilted her head back, madly trying to find something, anything, to focus on in her efforts to will the treasonous tears away.

Taking one large hand in her own, Gabrielle brought it to her lips. She locked eyes on the woman as the hand was all but snatched back from her loving attention.

"Your Xena doesn't exist…not here."

Grasping the warrior's hand tightly in both of hers, Gabrielle smiled bravely.

"She's so real in my dreams, Xe…Lord Xena. But I know she is not you. I…"

Xena cleared her throat but it did nothing to disguise the tremor in her voice.

"Have you had these dreams long?"

"I think it was that first day when you had me sent up from the dungeon. That night, I believe."

Xena frowned. "And you had never experienced these dreams before our initial meeting?" Bees began buzzing in the warrior's subconscious, stinging her with bits of memory. When had her dreams of the bard begun? Well before the girl was placed in the… The very thought of Gabrielle languishing in chains, her legs twisting as they healed improperly made her want to hide her face in shame. Every muscle in her body tensed, defying her need to atone for past transgressions. How could she even look the woman in the eye?

"Continue." She said through gritted teeth.

The bard flinched as she noted the business-like tone to the Conqueror's voice. "No. Of course, I'd heard many things about you by word of mouth. You have been the ruler of Corinth for ten years and your legend is widely known, my Lord Xena."

The bard's answering tone made the warrior's belly clench tightly. "What ever. Please don't feel you have to throw platitudes my way. If I wanted a sycophant, I would simply summon the Lord Chancellor and be done with it."

"No milord, I mean yes, milord."

Xena stood and looked down at the young woman who began to pull the sheets up to cover her breasts. 'Why am I going on with this? Why not just drop things and slip back into bed, immersing myself in the purity of the love she offers?

Setting her jaw, the warrior turned her back on the bard and stepped away from the bed. She had to know exactly what it was this woman wanted of her. She had to know the face of her competition, even if it was her own. The prospect of this had her heart thudding painfully against her rib cage. How could she ever compete against someone of such heroic proportions? A burst of jealousy bubbled up as the image of this perfect warrior, this fantasy woman the bard held near and dear, swam up before her.

"So, you began having these dreams after we'd met. And this Xena you speak of resembles me in every way?"

The warrior's broad shoulders seemed to bunch and although the bard knew this was neither the time nor the place to approach the Conqueror, her fingers twitched with longing. Cursing her crippled state once more, she lay back angrily against the pillows. She wasn't sure just what had transpired between the loving gaze she'd awakened to and…

Suddenly, it became very clear to Gabrielle. The woman was once more in the clutches of denial. Denial of her feelings for the bard, her subsequent lack of control, and the fear that she can never measure up to some phantom that kept creeping into her would-be lover's dreams.

'Damn me for a fool! Oh, Xena…it's you I love, not some will-o'-the-wisp brought forth by some tortured hope that I could distance myself from who you were, you are…' Shaking her head with frustration, the bard brought both hands up to cover her face. Had she conjured her version of Xena as some sort of defence mechanism? Was she foolishly and hopelessly in love with some made-up image? Could it be true?

'No!' her mind screamed.

"Yes, Conqueror. She is you. The only difference that I can see is…"

"Yes? Spit it out, woman."

"I don't wish to be imprudent, Xe..." Gabrielle paused and swallowed back the tears. "Lord Xena…"

Xena's hand strayed to her jaw and the urge to place the meaty part of her hand within was great. Although it had begun as a few innocent questions, things now rapidly resembled some sort of inquisition. "Call me what you wish, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle hesitated. Xena turned quickly and winced as the hurt on the woman's face slapped at her. 'Don't hate me.' The truth was painted in various depths of pain on the Conqueror's face, present ever so briefly, but Gabrielle saw it for what it was.

"I could never…not ever."

The warrior nodded with a weak smile. "Go on."

"Well, it's how you see things around you. My Xena is very alert and her skills in weaponry are unparalleled. But she doesn't use them, for the most part, unless she is defending herself or protecting those around her."

Xena nodded. 'All right, it sounds like a favourable comparison so far.' "Go on."

"My Xena isn't cruel, her only thought of how to exact revenge for some slight, real or imagined. My Xena sees life in different shades of grey. You see things in black and white, cause and effect. 'You are guilty, here's you punishment, next.'"

"But Gabrielle, what do you expect me to do? If they are guilty, then they must be punished. What would the realm be if I didn't mete out justice? Why there would be full-scale sedition and anarchy. What would the people do if I weren't here to tell them what to think?"

Raising her hands towards the woman, Gabrielle urged her to return to the bed. "But Xena, don't you think they deserve the chance to discover that for themselves?"

The look that came over the Conqueror's face made the bard wince with her thoughtlessness. Hadn't she just told the woman that her brand of leadership was neither required nor desired?

"Xena…I, I didn't mean it the way…"

Xena sat down heavily on the end of the bed. "Yes you did."

Gabrielle stifled a groan as she resettled herself. Her hands fidgeted in her lap as she thought of something to say. Why were things going so terribly wrong? All she wanted to do is love this woman, taking her into her arms and never letting her go. Her chest tightened as she realized that she might actually be alone in that need. After all, hadn't the woman existed perfectly well before she came along?

Xena cleared her throat, snapping the bard out of her moment of self-pity and chastisement. Darting her eyes up once or twice, Gabrielle finally expelled the breath she'd been holding ever since their conversation had gone off track. Had it been only hours and not days since she'd felt emboldened to press her lips against those of this larger-than-life, enigmatic woman before her?

"I," The warrior began, and it seemed to tear at the bard as she watched the woman struggling. Stilling her hands as they mindlessly began pulling at the satin, Gabrielle tamped down her need to comfort, somehow knowing this might be the only chance for the Conqueror to reveal that which she kept so private.

"Ahem! I am no good at this sort of thing." Xena tried again, darting her eyes briefly over the young woman. 'Well, there was nothing for it; I might as well beard the beast.' She sighed heavily. How fateful to be an invincible warrior brought down by the candid words spoken from the lips of one such as she? With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Gabrielle had done what no battle, warlord, or assassin had been able to do: leave her totally defenseless and at the mercy of something she couldn't deny - the truth. She snorted, remembering the story she'd heard of a monarch who had been fooled into believing he wore the finest clothes ever created when in truth he wore nothing at all.

How many times had she sloughed off another report of riots in the streets? How many times was she going to be able to just dismiss yet another 'mistake' when it came to a prisoner who had been found innocent after his punishment had been carried out? Had her need for total control blinded her to the fact that although a master at the game, she'd not seen that she had either the wrong pieces or was on the wrong game board completely?

"I've always taken what I wanted in this life. That's the way it's always been, you either take or you are taken. After Cortese…" She snorted again. Fingering her jaw thoughtfully, the woman hunched over until her elbows hit the top of her thighs. There she remained, head in hand, staring off into space.

Despite the pain that was beginning to niggle through the potion she could still taste on her tongue, Gabrielle carefully made her way down to where the warrior sat, looking dejected in her own world of past torment.

Oblivious to the young woman's perilous journey, the Conqueror ran one large hand over her face and then continued.

"One does what one has to in the quest for domination. At first it was simply power and greed that propelled me. My lust for…everything…brought me into contact with men with like minds. They lacked the foresight and…cruelty…that seemed to run through my veins. Aided along the way by…some unforeseen force…I slowly began using such men as stepping stones until…"

She remembered all the naïve men who had selflessly taken her under their wing, only to find a viper coiled there. Closing her eyes tightly, she had to admit there were far less of them than those who used her for their own selfish needs.

Her lip curled as her mind was filled with images of debasement and wanton cruelty, enough to make even the most sexually perverse cringe in horror. The reality of exactly what she'd sacrificed on the road that finally led her to domination over most of Greece made her quake with the intensity of it. She'd bartered her soul so quickly, and so cheaply, and where had it gotten her? Xena looked down at hands that had been bathed in blood and then slowly turned to face the woman who had allowed her to see the truth.

"Gods, this is so hard." She opened her eyes as the bard squeezed her leg. "I've never loved anyone, Gabrielle. I've taken what fancied me at the time, reveling in the debasement of others, and bartering away what little self-control I thought I ever had. I'm not a nice person, Gabrielle, and certainly not one deserving of love."

Gabrielle resisted the urge to pull her hand away as she laid it on the bunched muscles of the warrior's thigh. She could feel the woman's need for flight but battled on.

"You are the strongest, most capable woman I've ever met, Xena. You took a land torn apart by endless civil war, poverty and strife, and fashioned it into one that has given us the only peace many of us have known in our lifetime."

The bard went on about how many successes there were during her reign but all Xena heard was the unabashed love woven into each word. How could she ever be worthy?

"…matter how you got to where you are now, Xena. It only matters who you've become." She paused. "Xena?"

A tick began at the corner of the Conqueror right eye. 'Who I've become. Ah, and therein lies the rub,' she thought morosely. 'I'm a murdering, bloodthirsty, sexual predator with a penchant for destroying everything I touch.'

"I'm a soulless bitch who will only destroy you if you give me the chance."

Gabrielle's head snapped back as if she'd just spotted a venomous snake sprouting 'round the Conqueror's neck. Gone was the soft, carefree look the warrior had worn a scant few hours previous when they'd joked like young lovers. In its place was the sneering Lord Xena, a woman she was well acquainted with, and one she viewed with more than a little fear. The dichotomy of the woman never failed to leave her in total awe. But it was because of this dualism, this unpredictability presented on two levels, that Gabrielle was left feeling all but overwhelmed. How was she to deal with someone when you just never knew exactly where you stood?

"You haven't even heard a thing I've said, have you?" She said in a small but steady voice.

Xena reached out a shaking hand and covered the smaller one within her own. "So soft, so loving…" The small smile slipped from the bard's mouth as the pressure was increased around her hand, leaving her wincing with pain. Biting the inside of her lip, the bard forced the smile back onto her face.

"…So easy to destroy, Gabrielle. Have you ever thought of it? I have more love for you than I ever thought I possessed, but will it be enough? In the darkness of the night when the fever is on me, will you be able to take what I might mindlessly force upon you?"

Cold fingers were pressed over the bard's lips as the Conqueror went on. "And when you're in my realm of pain and fury will you still speak my name with love?"

Xena's eyes widened as she felt her fingers kissed. "When you tell me you love me, showing me with evidence of trust and honour, intensity and care, how could I not?"
The Conqueror drew in a slow, deep breath and then cupped the woman's dainty chin. Shaking her head slowly, Xena found that she couldn't see anything but truth in the well of green fire she gazed into.

Running her hand slowly down the woman's arm, Gabrielle smiled. "I am for you."

"As much as you say you love me, you will always love her more."

"I know so many things about you, Xena. I'm still here, still holding my heart out for you to take."

"I can't be this woman you moon over, Gabrielle."

Pulling the woman's face down to a mere inches away the bard whispered, "You already are."

Xena's eyes closed briefly as she felt a softness flutter against her lips. Taking the bard by the shoulders, she slowly eased the woman back onto the bed. Feeling almost dizzy, the warrior was still conscious of the bard's heady scent, arousing her to a point of almost frenzy.

Gabrielle's head swam as she felt her mouth probed and all but devoured. Just when she thought her very hair might catch fire, the kiss deepened once again, and she found her hands moving over the taut flesh of her lover. A deep growl seemed to fill her head and the bard slowly opened her eyes. She looked into the hooded eyes of the Conqueror and frowned, then her own eyes were filled with wonder as she realized her treasonous hands were pinching and needing two rock-hard breasts into unbelievably hard points.

"Oh gods," she croaked out as the memory of such treasure played upon the valley of her tongue, urging her in their re-acquaintance. Taking in one rosy nipple and then the other, she reveled in the warrior's reactions.

Candles flickered as the air was filled with passion. The skin on the nape of the warrior's neck began to twitch and then both eyes were wide open and alert.

Gabrielle noted the change but continued with her assault. "Stay with me, Xena…it's only Ubris…or Andros…I don't care who it is."

The muscles between the Conqueror shoulders twitched once and then the feeling was gone, leaving Xena somewhat puzzled and yet pleased with its absence nonetheless. But her attention wavered as her roaming fingers came upon the harsh evidence of her past cruelty.

"Gabrielle…you must be in pain. Let me…" Her lips were seized again and her mind went blank momentarily as she felt her mouth investigated.

"Let you what? Possess me completely? I give you that gladly." Gabrielle gasped between nibbles.

Xena pulled back from the bard, her lips somewhat bruised. She smirked as the small fingers scratched against her scalp, urging her back into place.

"Isn't that what you've always wanted, Xena?" Adopting a somewhat puerile yet seductive pose and running her hands slowly up and down her torso, the bard did indeed present everything Lord Xena had wanted from the woman…initially. Now she could see just how much was really being offered. How could she have been so blind for so long?

"We have the whole night, Gabrielle, but first you need a bath." She chuckled as a defiant bard gazed back at her. "You misunderstand me, I love the way you smell, Gabrielle. I always have. No, this is a special bath, filled with special healing herbs. That potion I gave you will be wearing off soon enough. If we wish to enjoy the fruits of their medicinal properties we'd best do it while your pain is at a low ebb."

"But I want you now, Xena…I don't want a bath. Besides, I remember a very insistent Lord Xena pointing out the fact that I smelled like some prison rat."

She groaned as the warrior all but took her breath away with another deep kiss.

"I never said 'prison rat'. And I've always wanted you, bard."

Gabrielle smiled seductively. "Well, milord…now you have me. Continue."

The warrior laughed and then kissed the woman's pert nose. "Oh, I will continue, Gabrielle. But after the bath." She eased off the bed and then a look of concern twisted her features as the blonde slowly moved into a semi-reclining position. Gabrielle's face contorted with pain briefly and then both women released a sigh.

"Come along quickly." The bard's eyes narrowed but she nodded in defeat, already beginning to feel hot phantom fingers playing along each leg bone.

Peeling the sheet from the woman's lower extremities, Xena bent down and eased the woman gently into her arms. She was rewarded with a very deep kiss, one that raised the temperature between them alarmingly.
"You really can be quite brazen."

Gabrielle smiled winningly. "Oh, just wait…" Her words dried up quickly as the warrior stopped mid-stride.

Xena gazed around her chambers, a slight frown on her face. Standing stock still, she tilted her head and then expelled a small breath.

"I'm afraid our time together will have to be postponed, Gabrielle."

"But…" The bard twisted to look over the woman's shoulder. "What is it? Another assassin?"

Carrying the smaller woman back to the bed, she drew up the sheets and then quickly donned her discarding clothing.

Gabrielle sat stunned as a now clothed warrior yanked open the door.

Two men stood in the shadows and although Gabrielle tried hard, craning her neck in such a fashion as to defy gravity, she couldn't recognize either one.

An emergency of some kind had occurred if the Conqueror's reaction was any indication.

The room felt suddenly very cold and empty as the great wooden doors closed behind the warrior. The feeling persisted even as the Egyptian came into the room from another entrance.

"I will prepare you for the bath, milady." Gabrielle sat quietly as Ubris' words fluttered over her ears.

"Have I been so cumbersome a patient that you won't meet my eyes, Ubris?" Then a strange look came over her. "Why do you address me in this manner?"

The servant smiled and then bowed respectfully. "I have just been given word, milady, that you are to be a free woman. Lord Xena has so decreed it. You are to be afforded all the respect a lady of noble birth would be due from this day forward."

Gabrielle blinked slowly. 'Free? I'm a free woman?' Why, it had taken almost 6 full months to get used to having lost her freedom, and put away any thoughts of ever reaching an age whereby she might be considered old and wise.

Tears welled up as she faced a larger truth. It wasn't the freedom that she'd had to face losing, but rather a life that she knew was forfeit, simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had even chuckled long and hard deep into the night as she lay shackled in the prison thinking that her miserable and uneventful life would at least have the footnote of 'dissident' attached to it. Although she was certain it wouldn't make either of her parents happy, it did in some way please her that she should be thought of as something more important than a young girl who told stories to others as a way of entertaining her self and others. The label, 'enemy of the realm' had made her heart beat faster, even though she knew that she was anything but brave. She could no more be a resistance fighter against a tyrannical monarch than she could resist torture, survive rape, and even deny the somewhat sadistic passions of a woman both intensely alluring and the embodiment of pure danger.

But she had nevertheless. A sharp puff of air was expelled as she realized the woman she had been was no more. She was no more the child her parents had envisioned her to be, and certainly not the one she thought she would become.

Ubris had begun to think the young bard was far too overcome with the news that she quickly sat close to her in the event the woman fainted.

"Come now, Gabrielle…milady. I will aid you in your bath so that you may be well rested for the Lord when she returns."

Gabrielle's eyes cleared and she turned to the Egyptian.

"Where has Xena gone, Ubris? What has happened, tell me?"

Ubris pursed her lips together and weighed the consequences of telling the young woman the truth. Knowing she would be badgered shamelessly if she did not give the bard something, Ubris shrugged her shoulders slightly and then took Gabrielle's hands in her own.

"The Lord has left on a matter of grave importance, milady. She goes to meet with the Roman emissaries…"

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and squeezed the woman's hand sharply. "Oh, please Ubris. If you continue addressing me in that fashion, well I'll…"

"Yes, milady." Ubris grinned.

Rolling her eyes, the bard gave the woman a slight push. "And I don't want to hear any nonsense about meeting Roman emissaries. After all, is it common practice for a woman of Lord Xena's stature and importance to simply dress hurriedly and race out the door without her entourage? And besides, although I couldn't hear or see much, it seemed one of the men in the hallway was injured."

She arched an eyebrow and waited. "I have endless patience, Ubris, and you know I'll winnow it out of you sooner or later so you might as well tell me." Pinching the air with two fingers, the bard went on. "I have ways, my dear friend. Shall it be pinching or tickling first?"

Ubris covered her mouth quickly in an attempt to stem the flow of Egyptian curses. The attempt was a failure and Gabrielle found herself laughing along with the woman even though she couldn't understand a word.

After wiping the tears from both cheeks, the women hugged each other. "First we must get you into the bath, Gabrielle. My tender skin will be forfeit should the Lord return and find you out of sorts or delirious from yet another potion."

The bard nodded quickly, eager to get to the truth of Xena's whereabouts. She wasn't sure why, but she had a terrible sense of foreboding which ate at her like some rotted tooth which needed pulling.

Gabrielle had braced herself for the pain she expected to follow the removal of her splints but she needn't have worried: the servant was more than capable of carrying her charge safely and painlessly into the bath. As they both soaked in the healing waters, Ubris explained what she'd heard and what the current rumours were.

The candles had burned down quite low by the time the story was told, and neither woman even registered the cold temperatures of the water surrounding them. And although it was not her place, Ubris acquiesced to her friend's request to stay with her until Lord Xena had returned.

"Oh gods," was the only words the bard uttered as thoughts of exactly what Xena was going to have to face along with the added worry of the prospect of her not returning at all.

part 8

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