by C Paradee
Standard: Xena and Gabrielle were loosely created from those belonging to Universal/Renaissance and whoever else has an interest in Xena:Warrior Princess. No copyright infringement is intended. The others I created and are copyrighted to me.
Violence Warning: This story depicts the usual amount of violence associated with Xena:Warrior Princess.
Subtext: This is a story about two women who are in love. Although it is not graphic, subtext is maintext. If that offends you there are plenty of other stories you might want to read. If you are under 18 or it is illegal where you live, please stop and read no further.
Thanks: Special thanks to Day, Lois and Lunacy for their excellent feedback. Thanks also to experts DW and Vrondi for their help.
Note to Readers: This story is complete. I am planning to do a three story arc.
Comments: Questions and comments are welcome.
© October 04, 2000
Sharp intakes of breath were the only other sound heard as the headless body fell to the floor. Xena walked over to one of the two remaining prisoners standing in front of her, and callously wiped the blood from her sword across his woolen tunic. She forced the man's chin up with the tip of the blade. "You want to join him?"
All the blood drained from the prisoner's face. His guts were tied in knots, and it took all the control he had left to keep the churning contents in his stomach from rising. "Naaa…No."
Xena slowly pushed the tip of the sword upward until a thin trickle of red began to run down the man's neck. "Perhaps you've forgotten the question?" She increased the pressure against his neck until the blood ran freely.
Jesop knew he was a dead man. The last tendrils of courage rose from the depths of his soul. "I will tell you nothing."
The Conqueror drew the sword back with lightning speed and delivered a decapitating blow to his neck. She watched dispassionately as his head careened through the air, landing with the sickening sound of a ripe melon smashing against the ground. His body wavered for a minute, and then fell--arms and legs askew--to the floor.
The remaining prisoner dropped to his knees in the growing pool of crimson, sobbing. "Conqueror, spare me. I will tell you what you want to know." Xena turned cold blue eyes on the sniveling form at her feet. "Stand up."
Iphis scrambled to his feet and looked at the ground. Xena brought the sword back swiftly, hair trigger reflexes halting the steel before it penetrated the soft skin of the neck it contacted. The young man was reduced to a trembling mass, and fresh urine stained the front of his pants. The tall dark woman eyed him in disgust, and spat out, "I am waiting."
"Gabrielle," he sputtered. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "Do you take me for a fool?" She pushed the sword against his neck roughly, slicing into tender flesh.
Sobbing uncontrollably, Iphis was reduced to begging. "Please, Conqueror. I speak the truth."
Xena's ice blue eyes drilled into the doomed prisoner. He seemed incapable of lying, but years of experience had taught her that loyalty was unpredictable. This was the first one that had broken in two long years of searching. She calculatedly stayed her hand and prolonged his life. "If you are lying, you will beg for the quick death of your friends."
Foolishly, a small glimmer of hope rose in the young man. "I tell you the truth. I beg of you, spare my life."
The Conqueror ignored him, and looked at her local commander, General Kratos. "Put him in the dungeon, then meet me in my chambers." Xena stalked from the coliseum grounds, her long black robe rustling lightly against her long legs.
She entered her dressing quarters and removed the bloody robe. Pity it was ruined by traitor's blood. She normally left the dirty work to her subordinates these days, but their efforts had proved fruitless in the quest to find the ringleader of the so-called freedom fighters. She snorted derisively. The masses were already free. All they had to do was obey the laws she laid down. The subversive element was undermining her rule, creating unrest. No matter. If the prisoner had been speaking the truth, their resistence would end soon.
Kratos knocked on the door, and entered when commanded to do so. "Yes, Conqueror?"Xena looked at the tall, muscular man standing in front of her. He was a seasoned warrior, and had been with her for many years. She had promoted him to general because of his strength and ruthlessness. "Find Gabrielle of Poteidaia, and bring her to me."
Kratos bowed his shaggy head. "It will be done."
Xena turned shrewd eyes on her subordinate. "Oh, and Kratos, I want her alive."
"I will do your bidding, Conqueror."
"You are dismissed."
The Conqueror watched the burly man depart. She had little interest in the routine affairs planned for the day, and felt the thrill of anticipation. A woman, huh? This could be very interesting.
Gabrielle returned from the market with her meager purchases in hand. She turned down the short street where she lived and found both sides lined with soldiers. Her stomach tightened nervously. Doing her best to feign nonchalance, she walked past them and stopped in front of her door.
A cold masculine voice filled her ears. "Are you Gabrielle of Poteidaia?" A fleeting impulse to lie passed through her mind. She discarded the notion, and turned around. She met the eyes of the tall general standing in front of her, and spoke clearly and firmly. "Yes. I am Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Kratos eyed the small woman and snorted derisively. Surely the prisoner had lied. He would enjoy watching Xena torture the sorry excuse for a man. He left his thoughts behind and returned his focus to Gabrielle. "The Conqueror has sent for you." He grabbed her arm roughly, and jerked her forward, almost pulling her from her feet. "You will accompany me to her quarters."
Gabrielle quelled the urge to pull her arm from this beastly man, even as panic gripped her. Her mind was numb, but she knew resistance was useless. She had known this day would come and had mentally prepared, but it did nothing to allay the stark fear that coursed through her body.
The journey was made in silence. She was roughly pulled along at the side of the tall man as he strode rapidly through the city streets. When Gabrielle stumbled, Kratos tightened his hold on her arm with bruising force and pulled, taking delight in the little gasp of pain she emitted.
When they entered the Conqueror's palace, Gabrielle was hit with a fleeting impression of richness, but her mind refused to process anything further, focusing instead on the cold fear that gripped her.
Her captor stopped at a large wooden door, and raised a gold knocker, slamming it down twice.
The unmistakable low tenor of the Conqueror rang out. "Come in."
Gabrielle was roughly led to a large chamber and viciously shoved to the floor. Kratos bowed his head in deference, then looked at Xena. "This is Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
The Conqueror rose from her chair and watched the small blonde woman rise to her feet. "Leave us now."
When her general closed the heavy door, Xena began walking slowly around her prisoner. The woman was short in stature, and lean, but well endowed. Beautiful golden hair flowed over her shoulders. She had eyes the color of the brightest emeralds, but Xena noted with satisfaction that they were dimmed by fear.
She finished her inspection, and although Xena felt the prisoner had lied, she decided to make sure. "It has been reported that you lead the freedom fighters. Is this true?"
Gabrielle had accepted her fate--she would be condemned to die this day. Squaring her shoulders, she looked into the Conqueror's ice-cold eyes and searched their depths for a soul.
Xena met the sparkling green eyes for an interminable moment, before she broke contact. The orbs should have reflected fear or at least hate, but they didn't. The fear had vanished to be replaced by curiosity as she felt them probe her depths. Angry, she grabbed the insurgent's face. No one dared showed such disrespect. "You will bow your head when I address you. Now answer me!"
Gabrielle lowered her head. For just an instant, she had seen a glimpse of something, perhaps uncertainty, beneath the icy exterior of the blue orbs. It gave her hope, and with it came a massive dose of courage. "Some say that is true."
"What's that supposed to mean? Either you are, or you aren't. Word games will only anger me." Xena squeezed hard on Gabrielle's cheeks to drive home her point.
Gabrielle's eyes watered from the pain. "The movement is not dependent upon one person. But then, that's an alien concept to you, isn't it?"
The young woman's head snapped to the side, the sharp sound of flesh meeting flesh ringing through the air. Gabrielle was unable to stop tears of pain, but they rolled silently down her face, as she raised a hand to her angry red cheek. Her eyes sought out the Conqueror's, and held them.
Xena again looked away from the accusing eyes of her prisoner. This woman had to be crazy to challenge her. The Conqueror narrowed her eyes and growled, "Answer my question."
"In the most narrow definition of the word, yes, I am the leader." Gabrielle refused to look down. This despot should have to look at those she so wantonly sentenced to death, and the young woman held no illusions about her fate.
"Your days are over, freedom fighter. Even if you were not the leader, you would die for your insubordination." Xena spoke with conviction, but the joy she'd expected to feel after her two-year search was missing.
"You can't kill everyone who disagrees with your laws. There will be others to take my place until you hear the voice of the people."
"Your rhetoric does not interest me. The masses don't know what is good for them. I have seen to all their necessities, and still there are those of your ilk that incite the people to want more."
Gabrielle became angry. Sentenced to die, she let her words flow. "You are wrong. Many people live in squalor, with no healers. Only the rich have benefited from your laws."
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm and pulled her close, until their faces were but an inch apart. "Who are you to challenge me?"
The young woman sucked in a breath, refusing to cry out in pain though her arm felt like it was encased in an iron band. She almost buckled at the fury in Xena's eyes. "I speak the truth." Gabrielle stumbled when the tall woman released her and shoved her away.
A sardonic laugh filled the chamber. "You should be begging for your life. Instead you challenge my word. You have spirit, freedom fighter. I give you that. But I refuse to be drawn into your game."
Gabrielle knew it was a miracle she was still alive. Why that was so, she didn't know, but the Conqueror seemed to find her amusing. That in itself angered her, but a little caution might be warranted. "It is not a game, Conqueror. You feel the people should be content under your laws. If that were true, there would be no freedom movement. Harmony would reign."
"Harmony will reign, once your kind are eradicated." Xena smirked at her prisoner.
"My spirit will never die. It will live on in others who are forced to live under your tyrannical rule. Your ruthlessness stays the actions of some of the citizens, but the spirit of the people can not be quelled."
"You are deluding only yourself." The Conqueror studied her prisoner intently. "You will die tomorrow at sunrise. I think your death will put quite a damper on your precious movement."
Gabrielle met the pale blue eyes regarding her curiously. "It will lend fuel to the movement, for you make me a martyr."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "GUARDS!"
Two soldiers immediately entered her chambers. "Take the prisoner to the dungeon. Put her with the coward who betrayed her."
The Conqueror's eyes flashed as she waited for the trio to depart and close the door behind them. She paced restlessly around the chamber before finally settling into the chair behind her desk. Xena looked at the various parchments awaiting signature on her desk with little interest. She angrily shoved the chair back and began pacing again.
For two long years, she'd felt the exhilaration of the hunt as she moved ever closer to uncovering the leader of the underground movement. With all the resources at her disposal, she'd known it was only a matter of time. The Conqueror was rarely taken unawares, but she'd never expected it to end this way.
In a moment of honest self examination, Xena acknowledged that her quest to find the movement's leader had given meaning to her otherwise boring existence of meeting with dignitaries, managing her kingdom, and signing treaties. But the expected thrill of victory was missing. With that realization, Xena felt the familiar emptiness she'd kept at bay descend upon her like a black cloud. With it came the bone-weary loneliness that was part of her everyday life.
Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle and her conflicting emotions warred with anger at the young woman's insubordination and an emotion that was strange to her--respect. Xena had expected the woman to beg for her life when she'd sentenced her to die, but Gabrielle hadn't. Instead, she'd stood there proudly espousing her beliefs and refusing to be cowed. Xena found herself intrigued by the quiet courage of the young woman who looked death in the eye without blinking.
The Conqueror puzzled over how this small slip of a woman could inspire such loyalty that she had effectively led the movement against her and remained undetected for two years. Xena decided it had to be due to her gift with words and the passion with which she spoke them. She grudgingly acknowledged that Gabrielle of Poteidaia had been a worthy opponent. In a way, it was too bad she had to die.
Xena quickly dismissed that thought as one of a weak mind. All the citizens knew the penalty for treason, and there would be no exception this time, especially given the status of her prisoner. But that thought brought her no satisfaction.
In a black mood, and unable to stand the confines of her chamber, Xena looked towards the door and raised her voice. "Daemon!"
The door immediately opened, and a tall, lean man entered. His mane of chestnut brown hair was matched by the thick growth on his face. Daemon bowed his head slightly, before meeting the Conqueror's eyes. "Yes, Conqueror."
"I want to go to the practice field. Ensure it is set up."
"As you wish." Daemon inclined his head again, and departed. He had expected the Conqueror to call for a party celebrating the capture of the freedom fighter's leader, but instead she looked angry. He felt a pang of sympathy for whomever she chose to target on the practice field.
Gabrielle had been flanked between two of Xena's palace guards as each took one of her arms and half dragged, half carried her to a cell in the dungeon, apparently unwilling to afford her the dignity of walking on her own. She was shoved into the small, dim room and turned to watch the door clang closed, the sound echoing through the stone corridors.
Iphis felt his stomach drop at the sight of Gabrielle as guilt wracked him. Even though he'd betrayed her, he'd prayed that she would escape capture. He had failed the whole movement, but most of all, the woman looking at the door, who had shown him nothing but kindness and spoken of a better life. Iphis hid his head against his arm, unwilling to meet Gabrielle's eyes.
Turning her attention from the door, Gabrielle looked around, her eyes landing on Iphis. She'd heard the Conqueror's parting words, but held no ill will towards the young man. She knew he had only confessed her identity in order to save his own life, and was aware of how powerful a motivator that was. "Iphis."
"I'm sorry. I never meant to. I was so scared. She killed Jesop and Dekel like animals. There was blood everywhere." Iphis spoke haltingly, with his face buried in the sleeve of his tunic. "Oh gods, I'm so sorry." He started when he felt a small hand on his arm.
Gabrielle was distressed by the news of her friends' deaths. She knew they'd given their lives to protect her own, and that thought brought her only sadness, for she would have willingly died in their place.
The flickering light cast by candles in the corridor allowed Gabrielle to discern a dark color on Iphis' tunic, and her eyes quickly found a congealed wound on his neck. "You're hurt." She began tearing a strip of fabric from her skirt.
"It's okay. It's stopped bleeding." Iphis wished he could just disappear. He had betrayed her, yet still she tended him.
The wound dressed, Gabrielle softly called, "Iphis." When he didn't look up, she shook his arm, waiting until he met her eyes. "It's okay. Maybe this is for the best. Once the Conqueror learns that my death will not stop us, she'll have to listen, for new people join us daily."
She heard her words as though spoken by another. In reality, Gabrielle was very scared. She'd heard the screams for mercy from prisoners sentenced to the slow, cruel death of crucifixion. The only consolation she had was the hope that her death might make the Conqueror hear the words of her comrades.
The young woman continued to comfort Iphis until he fell into an exhausted sleep, only then turning her thoughts to the events that day. She'd noticed more of the palace as she was led to the dungeon, and hadn't been surprised at the riches within it. Xena's chamber had been beautifully decorated with floor coverings of the finest dyed wools, intricately designed with battle scenes woven into the center. Her desk had been built from the finest trees in the forest, and two ornate statues of a warrior on horseback flanked either side of her doorway.
Gabrielle had always been curious, and her thoughts allowed her a temporary escape from the fate that awaited her the next morning as they focused on Xena.
She'd known the Conqueror was attractive, but nothing had prepared her for the beauty of the woman close up. Gabrielle had only seen the Conqueror in public, and her hair was always pinned to her head beneath a golden crown; but today, long black hair had flowed loosely over Xena's shoulders and back. Bangs covered her forehead emphasizing a golden complexion, and high cheekbones gave her face a sculpted appearance. Her blue orbs had seemed to change color with her mood; when she'd first met Xena's eyes, they were the deepest blue of the brightest sapphires, but when she'd become angry, they'd paled until they resembled the frost on a cold morning.
Gabrielle wondered, as she had many times before, how the Conqueror's heart could have become so cold and unfeeling. She clearly remembered the fleeting moment when Xena had dropped her guard, and she'd seen a flicker of some emotion mirrored in her eyes before it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
She'd not been fooled by Xena's sudden anger, and her gut instincts told her there was more to the ruthless woman than met the eye. Gabrielle knew her words had had some effect on the tyrannical ruler because of the brief display of anger. She could only hope that one of her comrades would have better luck getting through to her.
There were no windows to mark the passage of time, and Gabrielle fell into a troubled sleep, leaning against Iphis for warmth.
Kratos watched the Conqueror approach the training ground dressed in her armor. He'd been surprised by Daemon's message, because she'd already spent time honing her skills that day. He knew her second visit was not to exchange pleasantries, and wondered what she had in mind. He had expected her to be gloating over the capture of the freedom fighter's leader, but she'd always been unpredictable. That ass-kissing Daemon had given no explanation, even though Kratos was sure he'd known more than he'd related.
Watching her closely, trying to gauge her mood, he nodded. "Conqueror. What brings you out here again today."
"Where are the Royal Guard applicants?"
Kratos narrowed his eyes. "The ones that have passed the preliminary skills tests are in the barracks. I will be testing their sword ability this afternoon."
Xena smiled dangerously and drew her sword, appearing to admire the blade. "There's been a change in plans." She ran a finger lightly down the edge of her sword. "I will test them."
"Please reconsider your decision. We are already short ten guards." Kratos hated groveling, but none of them would pass her test.
"Then I would suggest you find suitable candidates." Xena spoke softly, but there was no mistaking the menace behind her words. "Bring on the first warrior."
Kratos turned to his second in command, Cenon. "Get them." He turned back to Xena. "My men performed well today."
Xena looked at Kratos, her face expressionless. He was a good general, but too ambitious. She didn't trust him, but then she didn't trust anyone. Her position didn't allow it. At the first sign of weakness, there were many among her own army who would rise to challenge her. She also knew the value of rewarding good performance. "You and your captains are invited to a celebration dinner this evening."
Once the warriors had been gathered, Xena moved into the sparring square with feline grace. She looked at the soldiers, and a chilling grin covered her face. "Who's first?"
Xena toyed with her first opponent, giving him opportunities to parry her thrusts. Tiring of his lack of skill, she knocked the sword out of his hand and rested her own against his chest. Her eyes cold and angry because it had been so easy, she growled, "You wasted my time. Is there any reason I shouldn't kill you now?"
"I've served in your army loyally for five summers." Rasmus knew he was at Xena's mercy and only hoped if she killed him, it would be quick.
The Conqueror had her own thoughts about that. More likely he served in her army for five years because it was the only one around. "Then return to it, while you still can."
Amazed that he'd been spared, Rasmus fled from the sparring ring and ran to the barracks to collect his belongings. He had lost all desire to serve with the army's elite.
Another warrior found himself shoved into the stone lined square. He knew he had no chance against her, so appealed to her ego. "Conqueror, you are far more skilled than I."
"Are you afraid to die?" Xena had no intentions of having cowards among her Palace Guard.
"Then draw your sword and show me your skill."
Xena again played a cat and mouse game with the warrior. This man was much more skilled than the previous one had been, but he was still no match for her. Just as she was about to deliver a killing blow, she pulled up. Pinning the warrior with her eyes, she called over to Kratos. "This one passed. Finish testing the others."
She turned and gracefully moved from the exercise area to the palace grounds, bored. Xena abruptly turned towards the stable deciding to check on Argo's status. The mare had thrown a shoe the last time she was out visiting her regional commanders and become lame before Xena could find a blacksmith.
Xena smiled as Argo approached the fence to greet her. "Hey, girl, how you doing?" She placed her hand on top of the fence and effortlessly vaulted over it. "Let me see that hoof." After closely examining her mare's foot, she set it down, satisfied. "Another week and we're out of here for a while. You'll like that, won't you?" Xena patted the horse on the neck, and made her way back to the palace.
Petros glanced up as Gergor walked in the door. "What'd you find out?"
"The Conqueror invited Kratos and his minions to dinner. Leta said it's planned for dusk." Gergor glowered and added bitterly, "To gloat over Gabrielle's capture, most likely."
"Yes, but that works to our advantage. Andros said they're short of guards, and only two will be on duty in the dungeon tonight." Petros stood up and paced around the small room. "Their celebration cinches it. We go tonight."
"Endre will want to know."
"No. I think the less people who know the better. I don't want anything to happen to our people working in the palace, especially Helena. If it wasn't for her, we'd never have gotten those discarded royal guard uniforms."
Gergor grinned for the first time since arriving. "Gods knows they've been useful on a few occasions." He walked over and sat on a bench. "You know, Endre considers himself second only to Gabrielle."
Petros smiled wryly. "I know, but Gabrielle doesn't really consider herself in charge, so she's never acknowledged Endre's claim. She's always told us that the future of the movement rests with each of us, and no one is more important than any other. We look to her for leadership, but I don't think she knows just how important her presence is."
"You're right. He'll just have to get over it. Besides, Gabrielle will back us up. And if we're not successful in our rescue attempt, we won't have to worry about it anyway."
Petros stopped in front of a small window and looked out. His mind was going over their plan, looking for any obvious weaknesses. The dinner had been a stroke of luck and increased their chances for success. Satisfied, he turned back to Gergor. "Meet me back here at sunset." He watched his friend nod and walk out the door, closing it softly behind him.
Kratos involuntarily held his breath when the Conqueror walked through the door. She was stunning as she seemed to glide across the room, her legs invisible beneath a bright red robe with gold designs over the long flowing skirt. A top trimmed in matching gold was cut just low enough to hint at the full breasts beneath it.
Never taking his eyes from Xena, Kratos quickly stood and absently noted that Daemon and his own subordinates followed suit. He cursed his body for reacting so instinctually to the dangerous, sexual aura that surrounded the Conqueror like a cloak.
Xena smiled, well aware of the effect she was having on her guests. There had been a time when she bedded her generals, but she'd left that practice behind several years before, choosing instead to satisfy her needs from among the many men and women who eagerly volunteered to grace her bed. Eventually, she grew bored with the unsatisfying, gratuitous sex, and it had been moons since anyone had shared her bed.
"Conqueror." Kratos bowed his head before looking up and meeting Xena's eyes. He was unnerved by the intensity of her gaze, momentarily convinced that she could sense his ambitions.
"Kratos." Xena gazed briefly at each warrior seated around the large oak dining table before lowering herself gracefully into a chair at the head of the table.
The men had just regained their seats when a server filled their cups with a fine red wine produced from the vineyard on the palace grounds.
Daemon studied Kratos unobtrusively. He was well aware that the general hated him, jealous of his close relationship with Xena. The aide owed the Conqueror his life, and had pledged his loyalty until death. He knew Kratos was loyal to no one, and so he watched.
The Conqueror held up her goblet and intoned, "To Greece." She listened as the others echoed her words, amused at the nervousness of the six captains. "Kratos tells me you performed admirably. The feast my cooks have prepared is a token of my appreciation. Enjoy."
"Thank you, Conqueror," was repeated several times around the table, with the notable exception of Kratos, who felt that he should have been singled out for honor separately from the others. The ruler of Greece did not miss the omission even as she chose to ignore it--for the time being.
"So Kratos, how many palace guards have been added?"
The general's eyes hardened. He should've known she'd ask that question. "Nine."
"How many tried out?" Xena's voice was a seductive purr covering the anger she felt. He'd passed every single applicant from the time she'd left.
Kratos had to consciously stop himself from spitting out the answer, knowing that such blatant disrespect would be hazardous to his health. "Ten, Conqueror. They are all good swordsmen and will help shore up the palace defenses."
Xena lowered her voice for Kratos' ears only. "I hope, for your sake, that is true." Smiling, she employed her charisma to draw the other warriors into comfortable conversation about their capture of the rebel leader.
Actually, everything about this dinner bored Xena. She didn't feel like celebrating and felt even less like sharing time with her subordinates who expected to be rewarded for doing their jobs. Daemon had found out where Gabrielle of Poteidaia lived by querying her spies. All Kratos had done was lead a good sized contingent of the palace guard to the address and wait for the leader to return home. She had to stop herself from snorting as Gabrielle's image appeared in her mind, and she sarcastically thought, Very dangerous work.
She kept half an ear on the conversation, commenting occasionally while her mind drifted to planning a trip that would allow her freedom from the palace grounds and the constant scrutiny inherent in her position.
Petros finished donning the purloined royal guard uniform over his clothes and crouched down in the tall grass behind the rear palace wall within touching distance of Gergor, waiting for his friend to finish dressing. He thanked the gods that clouds hid the lights of the night sky, as he once again ran their planned escape route through his mind. If all went according to plan, they could end up with a lead of several candlemarks, but even half a candlemark would give them a significant advantage.
Gergor whispered, "Ready?"
The two men made their way to the stone wall and pressed up against it. They had chosen this area specifically because of its proximity to the dungeon entrance. Hearing nothing, Petros peered over the barrier, looking for the roving guard. Several minutes passed in complete silence, until the unmistakable sound of footsteps could be heard as the guard approached.
Petros tightened his hold on the heavy, smooth stone he had wrapped in an oversized piece of linen. He waited until the guard passed their location and could no longer be heard before levering himself up onto the wall. Keeping his body low, he swung his feet over and dropped quietly to the ground inside the compound to await the soldier's return.
Aleko strolled along the beaten path of his route thinking about his girlfriend. He wanted to wed her, but she was reluctant to marry a soldier, and this frustrated the young man. He was unskilled except in the ways of a warrior, but was paid handsomely compared to his civilian counterparts. His thoughts disrupted by a sudden noise, Aleko whirled around, trying to locate its source.
Moving quickly, Petros forcefully swung the rock-laden linen against the back of the sentry's head and watched him drop soundlessly to the ground. He felt the shift in air as Gergor moved next to him, and together they hefted the guard onto the larger man's back.
Petros took the lead as they moved quickly to the stark dungeon entrance located in the rear of the palace. It was a door well known to him from frequent visits to prisoners the Conqueror had locked up over the years. He knew it was unlikely that many were housed within its walls tonight, because the previous year she had built a separate compound in the western province to house the prisoners she chose not to kill.
He waited while Gergor deposited his burden behind some bushes, then joined him at the door. As they had decided, the big man stayed off to the side, out of sight. Petros turned the handle, opened the door and noisily walked down the steps towards the guards' station, stopping when two men appeared with swords drawn. The intruder was relieved when they noticeably relaxed at the sight of his uniform.
"Why are you here?" one soldier asked puzzled at the appearance of the new guard. "Sandor said we'd not be relieved tonight."
"Musta changed his mind." Petros shrugged. "Go, stay, do whatever you want. My orders are to stay here for a quarter candlemark." He hoped his apparent nonchalance would have the desired effect.
The first guard smiled at his partner and shrugged. Never one to miss an opportunity to pass his work on to others, he decided to take advantage of the unexpected break. "Let's go." The two turned to beat a hasty retreat.
"Wait. Not so fast." Petros held out his hand. "How about the keys?" He felt his muscles tense as the guard carrying the keys cast suspicious eyes upon him. Knowing he'd made a mistake by asking, Petros began gauging the likelihood of taking both men before an alarm could be raised when the keyholder dropped his scrutiny.
"Oh yeah." The short guard lifted the ring from his belt. "Here." Snickering, he added, "Don't lose them, new boy."
Petros glowered, which caused them to laugh harder as they turned to make their way up the steps. Silently, he moved after them, allowing two steps between them. As they first reached the door and walked outside into Gergor's waiting ambush, Petros closed the distance between him and the second guard and walloped him on the head with his stone weapon, stepping out of the way as the unconscious man tumbled down the steps. Petros spared the guard a pitying thought knowing that although he had not delivered a killing blow, the man had little chance of survival once the Conqueror found out her prized prisoner had disappeared on his watch.
He climbed the remaining few steps to assist Gergor, dragging the other guard back down the stairs, while his friend gathered up the sentry he'd subdued at the wall. Unlocking the heavy door to the corridor that housed the cells, they quickly moved all three guards into an empty cubicle. After tying them up, Petros gagged each with cloth he'd brought along, locked the door, and went in search of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle had awakened from a fitful sleep sometime before, and while she remained close to Iphis for warmth, her thoughts drifted to her dreams of a better life for the people of Greece. She tried not to think about what the morning would bring, but that was impossible, so she tried to prepare herself for her fate by carrying on an internal conversation with her mother. I'll be seeing you soon, mom. I've really missed you. I know you wanted me to marry and raise a family. You could've never imagined that when you taught me to respect the rights and feelings of everyone and how important every living thing was that I'd end up in a dungeon waiting to be executed. You'd be proud of me though, I think. I tried to make a difference here, and I think I did, a little. I wanted to do more, but there wasn't time…
Hearing noise and footsteps in the corridor, Gabrielle steeled herself for the arrival of the execution team.
Shocked at the familiar voice, Gabrielle jumped to her feet, ran to the door and looked out the tiny barred opening. "Petros! I'm in here."
Seconds later, the lock cylinder turned and the door was thrown open, clanking against the stone walls. "Thank the gods, you're all right. Come quickly. We've got to hurry."
Gabrielle had never been so relieved in her life. Questions began flowing from her mouth. "How did you get in here? Where are the guards?" She turned and called out urgently, "Iphis! Come on." Directing her attention back to Petros and Gergor, she added rhetorically, "You two could've been killed," as she fleetingly wondered why they were grinning.
The broken man looked up and shook his head. "No. Go without me." Iphis knew he'd lost his honor, and it would be better to die at the hand of the ruthless Conqueror than to be shunned and killed by his own friends.
Walking over to Iphis, Gabrielle reached down and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Iphis come with us. You'll only die here."
"I deserve to die for what I did. I betrayed you. I can make it up to you if I stay here. She believed me once, maybe she will again."
"No Iphis. She's too smart. She would be suspicious if you were left behind alive. You can do more good by coming with us."
"Leave him, Gabrielle. We've got to hurry. You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him anyway."
Gabrielle ignored Gergor's words. "Please, Iphis."
Unable to ignore the persuasive tone of her voice, Iphis rose to his feet and followed the others.
Petros relocked the corridor door. It would give them a little more time while the guards were looked for elsewhere. He pocketed the key, and signaled for Gabrielle to walk in front of him, but behind Gergor. He didn't bother checking on Iphis. Petros was sure the coward would be right behind them.
Gabrielle looked dubiously at the wall surrounding the palace grounds, but gamely approached it with her friends. She watched Gergor easily scale the five foot barrier, and smiled appreciatively when Petros interlaced his hands to give her a boost to the top. Once she pulled herself onto the top of the stone fixture, Gergor quickly lifted her down.
Both men rapidly removed their uniforms and rolled them into small bundles, stuffing them inside their shirts. The four melted into the darkness within minutes, en route to a safe location within the city.
Sandor stood up from his comfortable seat in the guard shack and stretched. It was getting late, and his superiors would make an appearance soon. He didn't want to be caught shirking his duties.
He checked on each of the guard posts and noted that one of the roving guards was missing. That didn't concern him unduly because he could be relieving himself, so he continued on his leisurely circuit making a mental note to check back later. Sandor's last stop was the dungeon, and as he walked down the steps, he was surprised, and a little concerned, that he wasn't challenged.
The shift leader narrowed his eyes at the empty room, and a sense of foreboding overcame him. Suddenly alarmed, he walked over to the door leading to the cells and turned the handle. Sighing audibly with relief when he found it locked, the sergeant departed to locate his wayward guards.
Half a candlemark later, Sandor was cursing the missing guards with every epithet in his extensive vocabulary. He entered the dungeon again and unlocked the door the prisoners were housed behind. Since he was going to have to report guards missing, he knew he'd better know the status of the prisoners.
Seconds later, he was running back up the corridor leaving behind three woozy guards. He sprinted over to the large oval gong and sounded an alarm before rushing to the main palace entrance.
Xena was on her feet before the gong stopped resonating through the compound. She grabbed her sword from its sheath near her chair, and was out of the room before the others even regained their feet.
The alarm had never been sounded within the palace grounds before, and she had no doubt that the fact she was hearing it for the first time now was because of her new prisoner. She felt rage boil within her at the audacity of the intruders who dared to invade her private space.
Sandor never had time to open the door before it was thrown outward, almost bowling him over. He stood frozen as the opening framed the Conqueror--standing there in regal splendor with a sword in her hand and death in her eyes. His eyes riveted on the tall woman, he never noticed his superiors gather around her.
"Where are they?" The grounds were quiet, and Xena's acute hearing picked up no disturbances.
"Who?" Sandor was terrified, and his mind couldn't process the meaning of her question.
Xena's steely voice growled out her next words. "Who sounded the alarm?"
"I did, Conqueror." Sandor trembled as he stuttered out his next words. "The prisoners have escaped."
"Kratos, get every soldier out of the barracks and search the grounds. They couldn't have gotten far…"
Irritated at the interruption, she turned her attention back to the guard, and snapped, "What!"
"They escaped over a candlemark ago. I just found the guards secured in the dungeon." Sandor knew it was more like two candlemarks earlier, but hoped to salvage himself by telling a portion of the truth, for the guards he'd freed would surely tell their story.
Her mood black, Xena purred, "And you just found out?"
"I was looking for them. I thought…" The remainder of his words were drowned in the blood that suddenly filled his mouth.
Xena removed her sword from his chest and turned to Kratos, rapidly firing off orders. "Search the grounds. Seal off the main entrances to the city. Dispatch the army to cover the entire area surrounding Corinth. I want a door to door search conducted within the city." She turned to Daemon. "Get my spies in here." As an afterthought, she added, "Oh, and you can lock those guards back up in the cell they were found in."
Xena stalked back into the castle and returned to the grounds a short time later, attired in her leather and armor. Deciding to deal with Kratos later for his ill-advised decision to leave only two guards on her prisoner, she disappeared into the darkness.
Gabrielle was tired. She'd been moving constantly over the past two days, never staying in one location longer than a few candlemarks. At first, she'd stayed with people sympathetic to the freedom movement's efforts, but she'd refused to put them at risk after Xena issued a decree stating that anyone suspected of aiding her would immediately be put to death.
She understood that no place in or out of the city was safe, and Gabrielle decided to use the regime's own failings against it by moving into the streets with the homeless. She knew that, to many, the homeless were invisible. It was her best chance until the army finished its sweep of the city.
Petros had refused to leave her alone, and she was nestled between him and a building in the dark alley. Her thoughts turned to the Conqueror. She'd never seen such a show of force from the tyrannical woman, and it was obvious to her that Xena had taken her escape very personally.
She pondered the slight reaction she'd glimpsed the day of her sentencing. What really lay beneath those changeable blue eyes? How deep was her heart buried? Gabrielle knew she'd been given a second chance to try and make a difference. Could she make it count?
The young woman firmly believed that no one was purely evil, or all bad. She got a sense that Xena did everything for a reason. The problem was, either she had bad advisors, or something had caused her reasoning to become very flawed, thus blinding her to the plight of the poverty stricken lower class. Her last thought before nodding off was that if she were ever going to find out, she'd have to get out of this predicament first.
"Gabrielle, wake up! Soldiers are coming this way." Petros was frantic. This area had already been searched. Had they been betrayed again? Gergor had delivered a clipped message and quickly moved on.
Gabrielle climbed wearily to her feet in the early morning light. She shambled along with Petros, hoping their ragged appearance would deter the soldiers from stopping them. "You should go. If they stop us, you will die too, and your son needs a father."
"No. It's not safe for you to be on the streets alone." Petros knew the risk he took, but he was not going to desert the woman whose passionate speeches had organized the multiple small groups of dissenters into one fluid, organized movement that attracted new followers daily. He knew the time would come when they were strong enough to lead an organized rebellion, and Gabrielle's words had united them in that effort.
"You two, stop!"
Gabrielle froze in her tracks at the command, and her stomach tightened nervously. She had taken extra care with her disguise by smearing dirt on her arms and face, and her hair was dirty and unkempt. Her clothes were filthy and ragged, and she not bathed since her escape.
She turned and approached the two soldiers standing in the alley. "Do you have food? Please, I am starving." Gabrielle purposely crowded them, reaching for one of the warriors. "I'm so hungry, please."
The palace guards began backing away from the dirty woman, not wanting the wench to touch them. She looked crazed and desperate, and some of their friends had actually been attacked by the filth that lived in the streets.
"Celina, come on. The soldiers don't have any food." Petros looked at the two men and added, "She doesn't mean any harm."
"You'd better keep her under control." The disgusted soldier turned with his companion and walked away.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. That had been close. "Let's go before they decide to come back."
"Did you see the look on their faces. I think they were afraid you were going give them some disease or something." He grinned, and added, "Didn't know you were such a good actress."
Gabrielle smiled for the first time that day. "You didn't do too badly yourself."
The two continued to wander through the slums, waiting for information from their friends.
Xena sat at the table, outwardly calm and attentive, she became increasingly impatient with the matters of state she had to attend to. An unexpected trade delegation had arrived from Chin three days previously, and any hope she'd had of joining her army to look for Gabrielle had been dashed. Chin had vital resources that Greece needed, and the opening of trade between the two countries had to take priority.
Daemon sensed Xena's unrest and wondered how much longer she would continue to entertain Chin's demands before halting the negotiations. The delegates were offering less than was fair, and the aide knew Xena would never agree to their terms. He smiled as he acknowledged that it wasn't the first time the beautiful woman had been underestimated.
The Conqueror suddenly stood up. "Enough." Her voice was low and steely. "Do you take me for a fool?" She began walking around the table. "First, you show up here unexpectedly. Instead of turning you away, I agree to see you, and still you offer a treaty that would benefit Chin but cheat Greece?"
She walked over to the table and picked up a piece of parchment she'd brought with her to the meeting. "This is my offer. If it is not acceptable to you, these negotiations are over."
Xena looked at Daemon. "I'll be in my chambers." She moved effortlessly from the room, leaving behind six very stunned Chin delegates.
Daemon had to suppress a smile. He'd learned long ago that a very sharp mind lurked behind that beautiful exterior, and had the utmost respect for her. He knew she'd gained power through force and ruthlessness, but she maintained it with intelligence.
A short time later, the Chin delegation agreed to Xena's terms, and after signing the treaty, departed for home. Daemon knocked on the door to her private chamber.
Daemon walked in to find Xena garbed in her leathers. He handed her the signed trade treaty. "Baruch has returned."
Xena felt a rush of anticipation. It had been four long days of waiting for word of Gabrielle's recapture. "I want to see him now." She watched as Daemon departed and waited a quarter candlemark before departing for her meeting chamber to give her second in command time to report.
Baruch stood up as Xena entered the room. "Conqueror."
"You have returned with the prisoner," Xena stated rather than asked. Her generals knew she did not tolerate failure.
"Conqueror, she has disappeared. I've brought the army back in. She must be within the city. We've searched the entire area surrounding Corinth. No stone was left unturned."
Xena bit off the retort that would have questioned his leadership abilities. He'd served well, although she knew he hungered for more power. An idea began to form, and with it came the welcome feeling of anticipation. It would allow her to not only escape the palace for a few days, but also to check the accuracy of Baruch's blatant claim of having left no stone unturned.
"Tomorrow morning I want the entire army in the city searching." Xena turned cold eyes on her subordinate. "I hope, for your sake, that you find her."
Baruch nodded his head and departed the room, keeping his anger under control. He was certain the escaped prisoner was in Corinth. It would give him great pleasure to prove that to the Conqueror.
Xena was almost glad Gabrielle hadn't been found yet. It would give her the satisfaction of locating the insurgent herself. She smiled, looking forward to the morning. She was a much better tracker than any of her subordinates and had no doubt she would be successful.
"Daemon, I will be leaving at first light. Tell Aegis I'll be taking the black stallion." At his questioning look, she added, "Argo seems to be fine, but I want to give her another week to fully recover."
"I'll notify the royal guard." Daemon almost sighed with relief when she didn't object. He'd been afraid she was incensed enough at her generals that she would take off alone to find the missing prisoner.
Xena had six personal royal guards that were dispatched with her every time she left the palace grounds. Daemon and ten additional palace guards accompanied her when she left Greece's borders for visits and treaty negotiations with other countries.
Later that day, she was informed by one of her spies that the insurgents she sought had taken to the nearby mountains. A genuine smile spread over her face at the news. Unbeknownst to everyone except Daemon and her personal royal guard, that mountain range had become a refuge of sorts for her, and there was little of it that she hadn't traversed at one time or another. She retired early, looking forward to the next day.
Gergor sighed with relief when he found Petros and Gabrielle. "You must hurry and get out of the city. The army has returned."
Gabrielle hadn't wanted to leave the city, but knew it was the safest thing to do for at least a moon until the Conqueror called a halt to the intense searching. With the army in garrison, all they'd have to do was slip past the soldiers guarding the main roads.
"We'll leave at sunset." Gabrielle would have preferred to leave under the cover of darkness, but Xena had imposed a curfew of dusk.
"Have the rumors been spread?"
Gergor nodded. "Yes."
Gabrielle and Petros slipped out of the city, staying well off the main thoroughfares. They spent the night traveling to the forested valley that bordered the mountain range before stopping and setting up a cold camp hidden beneath the dense foliage.
"Do you think she'll believe her spies?" Petros asked between bites of jerky.
"I think so. That's how she found Jesop, Dekel, and Iphis." Gabrielle turned her head at a noise made louder by the sudden silence of the forest.
Petros pulled a knife from his boot and almost threw at a figure that appeared out of the bushes. Glowering at the arrival, his voice conveyed his anger. "You idiot! I could've killed you."
Gabrielle's racing heart began to slow, even as her irritation grew. "Endre, why are you here? You were supposed to return to Corinth after you laid the false trail. What if someone saw you heading this way?"
"I was careful not to leave tracks." Endre was insulted that Gabrielle thought he would jeopardize her safety. "I just wanted to be certain that you were all right."
Gabrielle was angry. A lot of people had risked their lives to ensure her safety, and Endre had compromised their efforts for no good reason. Flashing green eyes pinned him, searching for the truth. "What's the real reason you're here, Endre?"
Looking down at the ground, Endre shifted uneasily. He hadn't expected Gabrielle to see through his ruse so readily. "It's going to be a while before you can return to Corinth." He reached inside his tunic and tugged out a folded piece of parchment. "I thought it would be better if my appointment as second in command were validated by your signature."
Gabrielle sighed at the resurrection of what she considered a dead issue. They had discussed this so many times before. "You are not second in command. We operate by majority consensus, not dictatorship. I only give voice to the people. Would we be any better than the Conqueror if one person decided what was best for everyone?"
"We still need leaders. With you gone for a while, someone must step in."
Frustrated at Endre's persistence, Gabrielle's tone was short and clipped. "Didn't you hear anything I said? The team leaders make any decisions that are needed based on input from our people. I do not make them alone."
Gabrielle softened her voice. "Do you know that you have compromised our position by coming here, and now we must move on?"
Endre didn't bother to answer, but turned and slipped away into the woods. There was no doubt in his mind that Gabrielle was making a mistake by not officially appointing him to fill in for her. He just didn't understand why she couldn't see that. A thought suddenly occurred to him. Most of their followers couldn't read. Smiling, he carefully covered signs of his passage as he left the valley.
Gabrielle wearily sank down to the ground and began packing up her sleeping gear. "We can cut over to the river and travel in the water to hide our tracks."
"I should've thrown my knife."
"Petros! He meant no harm."
"I think you're wrong, Gabrielle. There was no reason for him to trail us in here. How do we know he won't give our location away?"
"Endre is loyal. He would never do that."
Petros pursed his lips but remained silent. He agreed the arrogant fool probably wouldn't do it maliciously, but he wasn't at all certain that the man wasn't a danger because of his thirst for power. Gabrielle always saw the good in people, sometimes to her own misfortune.
Xena was following a trail she'd picked up shortly after reaching the mountain range. She was just biding her time. Her sharp eyes were the only ones that had noticed a broken twig on a bush on the side of the trail just past the foothills, and she wanted to explore that find alone. The tall, dark woman knew the trail they were following was too obvious for any but the most inexperienced of fugitives. The other was much more likely to lead her to the missing prisoners.
If it was a trail left by Gabrielle, she wanted to find her without her palace guard in tow, so she would have to get rid of her escort first. She refused to admit, even to herself, that once she'd gotten past her anger, her conversation with the young woman had been the most stimulating she'd had in moons. No one dared stand up to her as the young woman had. Darkly amused, Xena wondered what Gabrielle's reaction would be when she appeared. Once she got past her initial surprise, would she challenge her again, or just acknowledge defeat? It would be interesting to find out.
Her musings were interrupted when her mount shied sharply and she turned her full attention to keeping him under control. She assessed the signs of the imminent storm. The change in air was making her horse skittish, and a loud crack of lightning, followed by thunder rolling across the sky spurred her to action. This was a perfect opportunity to part company with her entourage. She turned around and faced the six men following her. "Go on back to the palace. I'll follow you in. There's no point in staying up here. The rain will wash any trail away."
"Conqueror, please let two of us remain behind you so we can cover your back."
Xena glared at the senior officer. "I said I would follow you in. And just in case you might 'happen' to get lost along the way, you do know it will be hard to see in the storm." She paused to drive her point home. "I wouldn't want to mistake any of you for an assassin."
The men were seasoned warriors and, not being fools, knew they had no choice but to obey Xena. There was no doubt in any of their minds that she would make good on her implied threat. With the storm looming, their mounts were also spooking, and they were not anxious to spend any more time than necessary in the company of a rain-drenched Conqueror when she was in one of these moods. Turning their horses towards the palace, they moved down the trail in a single file.
Xena walked her horse slowly, increasing the distance between her and the palace guards until they were out of sight. Rain was pelting down, and with her horse increasingly nervous, she decided to make for a cave she knew of a little further up the mountain to wait out the storm. She would head back down to the trail that led into the valley once it passed.
The storm increased in intensity as she progressed higher up the trail, and Xena was soon soaked to the skin despite the protection of a cloak she donned. Her horse had slipped twice in the rivulets of mud running across the trail, the ground unable to absorb the onslaught of water quickly enough to prevent the treacherous footing.
The driving rain was blinding Xena as she searched for the cave, carefully guiding her mount along the ever-narrowing path. She was relieved when she recognized an odd colored boulder and knew that the shelter she sought was just around the next bend.
Suddenly, a large bolt of lightning struck the ground near her, and the air filled with the smell of ozone as deafening thunder crashed down. The stallion reared, his nostrils flaring wildly, before throwing his head down and raising his back legs high into the air.
Xena was an expert rider, but when her steed began bucking, she found herself sliding down his neck, still astride the saddle. She tried to roll with the fall, only partially succeeding before she hit the ground with the saddle landing on top of her. She looked up and saw sharp, shod hooves coming straight towards her. Xena's quick reflexes were all that kept her from being killed by the deadly hooves as she threw the saddle off her and rolled to the side.
She breathed a sigh of relief when the horse moved across the trail to the shelter of the overhanging boulder. How ironic it would've been, if after evading assassins and other attempts on my life for years, I were to be killed by a frightened stallion.
Leaving the thought behind, Xena got to her feet unsteadily, the driving rain still partially blinding her. She saw her saddle balanced precariously on the edge of the path and decided to move it to safety, intending to check it out at first light to find out just why it had broken loose from the stallion. Xena took a step towards it and, just as she grabbed it, the over-saturated ground suddenly gave way beneath her foot, and she found herself falling down the steep rocks as the saddle was wrenched from her grasp. Desperately looking for something to stop her downward progress, Xena was able to latch onto a small bush growing out of the rugged canyon wall.
The sudden stop jarred her, and before she was able to find a foothold to help balance her body, the shrub broke and she continued falling, her descent broken only by the occasional outgrowth along the walls of the mountain.
Gabrielle woke as the sun was just beginning to rise in the sky and quietly gathered up her muddy clothes to wash in the river. They'd stayed in the water until the moon was high in the sky and a violent thunderstorm had driven them to seek shelter. The day promised to be warm, and perhaps the laundered clothes would dry by the time they moved on.
She walked through the forest following the sound of the running river. Once she had a clear view, she looked up at the mountains. The early morning sun cast its rays upon large boulders, bathing them in pink radiance. Her eyes turned upward to enjoy the beautiful sight, she stumbled, nearly falling over a large brown saddle.
Gabrielle frowned. She bent down, laid her clothes on the ground and ran a hand across the dirty surface. It was obviously well cared for, because the leather was supple yet soft. Noticing the girth strap was broken, she picked up both ends and studied them. Her forehead creased when she realized that it had been cut most of the way through, a small jagged tear indicating where the weakened leather had finally snapped.
Straightening, she slowly scanned the area looking for horse or rider. That saddle belonged to someone, and its owner might still be in the area. They were going to have to move on much sooner than she'd planned.
Gabrielle suddenly spotted something dark that looked out of place near the canyon wall. She squinted her eyes trying to focus in on it, but was unable to ascertain any details. Hesitating momentarily, curiosity took over; so throwing caution to the wind; she slowly approached the large boulders. Moments later, Gabrielle broke into a sprint when she was able to make out legs protruding from beneath a black cape.
She quickly knelt down next to the body, her eyes registering dark brown warrior garb partially visible beneath the cape, as her mind simultaneously processed--female. Something seemed vaguely familiar about the woman, but she was lying on her stomach; the portion of her face that might have been visible was hidden beneath long black hair. By all outward appearances, she was dead, and the fugitive's heart constricted at a life so prematurely ended.
Although she figured it was a waste of time, Gabrielle reached under the dark locks and carefully rested two fingers against the woman's neck, feeling for a heartbeat. An interminable time later, she felt a faint thready pulse. Relief flooded her when she realized that this was no corpse, and Gabrielle gently began removing the long hair from the woman's face, where it was secured in places by congealed blood. A moment later, she gasped, "By the gods," and rocked back on her heels. No wonder the woman had seemed familiar. It was the Conqueror!
Her emotions ran wild, and Gabrielle knew it made sense to walk away, but that thought was so alien to her very being that she was distressed that it had even ventured through her mind. No, she would not leave this woman to her fate regardless of the danger to herself.
Questions crowded her mind as she leaned forward again, looking at the jagged wound on Xena's head near the hairline. Even though her body was covered extensively with cuts and bruises, this seemed to be her most life-threatening injury. The Conqueror's golden complexion had faded to a sickly white, and Gabrielle knew Xena had lost a lot of blood-by both by her pallor and the unnatural coolness of her skin.
Gabrielle knew she had to get Petros to help her get Xena back to their camp. She couldn't move her alone and, left unattended, she would surely die, although the dissident wasn't in the least certain Xena wouldn't die anyway, but it wouldn't be for lack of effort on her part.
She rushed back to the campsite, knowing any delay could cost the Conqueror her life. Gabrielle broke into the clearing, panting and out of breath. Sliding to her knees next to Petros, she urgently shook him. "Wake up!" Before he had time to react, she was violently shaking him again. "Petros! Get up!"
Petros sat up, looking around wildly as he stumbled to his feet groggily. He couldn't see anything out of place, but Gabrielle was frantic. "What's wrong?"
"The Conqueror's been hurt. I need you to help me bring her back to camp." She grabbed her two blankets, rapidly rolling them into a manageable bundle.
Petros looked at his friend in disbelief, convinced he was trapped in a nightmare. "What are you talking about?" He shook his head trying to clear the last remnants of sleep from his mind.
"Someone tried to kill the Conqueror. The girth on her saddle has been cut, and she's got a terrible head wound." Gabrielle had the blankets in her arms and looked at Petros impatiently. "Come on. We've gotta hurry. If we don't, she'll die."
"Gabrielle?" Petros voice conveyed his confusion. "Let her die. She sentenced you to death and would do it again. I am not going to help you save her. She doesn't deserve to live."
Gabrielle was getting frantic. She'd already been gone too long, and searched for a way to explain her feelings. "If you found a stranger that was hurt, would you help them?"
"Because it was someone who needed help, right?" Gabrielle asked the leading question, knowing Petros could only give one answer.
"Yes," Petros pleaded for Gabrielle to understand, "but this is different."
Gabrielle answered succinctly. "No, it's not. She needs help. We can help her." Meeting Petros' eyes, she added, "I won't leave her to die."
"Her army will find her. They can take care of her." Petros knew he was fighting a losing battle. It was against her very nature to abandon someone in need. He silently cursed the gods for this wretched occurrence.
"It could've been someone in her army who tried to kill her." Even though their conversation had lasted only minutes, Gabrielle felt she had already delayed too long. "Are you going to help me?"
Petros' shoulders slumped in defeat as he trudged after the quickly departing young woman.
Summoned by one of the house servants, Daemon quickly strode to Xena's meeting chamber. The senior officer of the royal guard, Gaelan, had insisted on seeing him immediately which worried him, because he'd not expected Xena back for a couple of days.
He entered the room, his trepidation instantly escalating at the sight of a very agitated Gaelan pacing back and forth. Daemon directed his eyes to the warrior, waiting for him to speak, positive that he wasn't going to like what he heard.
"The Conqueror is missing."
Daemon tensed, then forced himself to relax. Xena had divested herself of the royal guard on more than one occasion. "What happened?"
"The Conqueror ordered us to return to the palace, so against our wishes, we did. We arrived back here late last night in the midst of that storm. She still hasn't returned."
Daemon knew that the news could not have been much worse, and had far-reaching repercussions if she wasn't located quickly. He attempted to find solace by offering feasible alternatives, his mind refusing to acknowledge that Gaelan was not one to panic easily.
"It's possible she just wanted some time alone." Daemon looked pointedly at Gaelan. "This wouldn't be the first time she's separated from you."
"That's true, but she always returns within a few candlemarks. The storm was much worse in the mountains than here."
Daemon knew Xena was quite capable of taking care of herself and had seen her overcome impossible odds and live, but she usually told him when she was planning a little side excursion. The aide was undecided on what measures to take. If Xena had merely holed up for the night, it would be just like her to take her time returning. He knew how restless she'd been lately. "If she doesn't return by midday, I'll notify Baruch. You are going to look for her?"
"I've already assembled the royal guard. We are ready to depart."
"Good. Keep me informed." Daemon waited until Gaelan departed, before the impassive mask melted from his face. Gaelan was right. This was extreme even for the unpredictable ruler. If she didn't show up, Baruch was going to be difficult to locate. Xena's second in command had been angered by the Conqueror's threat the previous day and was determined to prove her wrong. Daemon knew he was probably supervising his soldiers from somewhere within the city instead of his command post.
Kratos was also combing the city for the rebel leader, but Daemon had no intentions of notifying him. He was going to have to find Baruch himself. It wouldn't do for word to get out that the Conqueror was missing.
Gabrielle spread out both blankets, one on top of the other. Then she pulled out the long sword that was protruding from its sheath on Xena's back wondering incongruously how it had stayed in place. Petros helped her carefully roll Xena onto the makeshift litter.
She wished for a better way to move the Conqueror not wanting to injure her further, but with her options limited, Gabrielle knew it was more important to get Xena out of the elements and to the relative shelter of their camp.
It took them over half a candlemark to travel the short distance, and Petros sank down to the soft mossy ground exhausted from the strenuous work. Gabrielle ignored her own complaining body and spread their remaining blankets over Xena. She dug through her satchel, searching for the pieces of linen she'd brought along for bathing.
Liberally dousing a piece of cloth with water from her drinking container, Gabrielle began to gently wash the crusty, dried blood from the wound on Xena's head. Soon running out of water, she picked up a cooking pot and glanced at Petros. "Would you please get me some more water?"
Petros reached for the pot, smiling ruefully. "Of course." He had no idea what Gabrielle intended to do with the Conqueror once she'd treated her wounds, but he was going to have to convince her to leave or to let him return the leader to her palace. It was only a matter of time before the entire countryside would be rife with soldiers from the Conqueror's army.
When Petros returned, Gabrielle met his eyes. "We need to get the saddle."
"What are we going to do with a saddle? We barely got the Conqueror back here."
"Someone tried to kill her." Gabrielle's face reflected her concern. "They might try again."
"So? Think about all our friends that have died at her hand. We would be better off if she died."
"You don't know that! Do you think her generals would make better rulers?" She hadn't expected her friend to be supportive of her efforts to save the Conqueror, but she was surprised at his vehemence.
"Couldn't be much worse," Petros commented quietly.
Gabrielle gazed at Petros, her voice low and faraway. "You weren't arrested and literally dragged through the streets by one of her generals. He was a mean, beastly man." Leaving those memories behind, she added, "The Conqueror is harsh, but not unnecessarily cruel. I think she can be reached. He never could be."
Petros stood up, knowing he would do as Gabrielle asked. "We've been trying to reach her for years. She doesn't hear us. I don't know why you think she ever will."
"Trust me on this. I talked to her." Gabrielle thought about the brief look inside the Conqueror that she'd been unable to forget. Her voice full of passionate conviction, she added, "I know she can be reached." Gabrielle didn't know why she knew that, but she had always trusted her instincts about people, and they had seldom failed her.
Knowing there was no changing her mind once it was made up, Petros silently departed to retrieve the saddle and the clothes that Gabrielle told him she had left on the ground.
Gabrielle spoke softly as she continued to wash the mud from Xena's wounds. "He doesn't understand. You gave me hope that day even as you sentenced me to death. I've got a second chance to reach you now. But you've got to work with me a little here, so don't you dare die."
Petros returned to the clearing and shrugged the saddle from his shoulders, finding his friend looking off into the distance. "How is she?"
"Not good. We've got to find shelter." Gabrielle knew they couldn't go to Thatos as they had planned. The town was small, and they would be unable to conceal the injured woman for any length of time.
"You've done all you can. We don't have any way to move her. We've got to leave before her army arrives."
Gabrielle knew Petros was only thinking of her welfare, but every fiber of her being rebelled at leaving the tall woman to her fate. "We can go to Crateon."
"That city is nothing but ruins." Petros objected, looking at Gabrielle incredulously. "You know that."
"That's why it will be safe. No one will look for us there."
Petros paced around the campsite. Gabrielle had escaped the Conqueror only to be captured by her again. "It's ten miles away."
"I know. I thought you could get Gergor to bring his father's vegetable wagon."
"Oh no. I am not leaving you out here by yourself. Forget it, Gabrielle. That's completely out of the question. Besides it would take me a day to get back to Corinth. By that time, Xena's army will have found you."
"Then we stay here." Gabrielle stood up. "I'm going to find some aloe. Her wounds need to be treated."
Petros looked at Gabrielle in exasperation. He'd never met such a stubborn woman. "All right. I'll go." If he hurried, he might be back by late that night. "Please promise me you'll hide if the soldiers come."
"I promise." She walked over and hugged Petros. "You are a good friend. Thank you."
Petros departed, breaking into a ground-eating trot once he'd cleared their campsite. He had no idea how he was ever going to make Gergor understand; and with each stride he prayed to the gods that Xena would die, and that Gabrielle would remain safe until his return.
Daemon was frustrated. When Xena had not returned by midday, he'd gone to find Baruch, and had been unable to locate him until evening. Baruch had advised him he would not depart until morning because it would be impossible to conduct a thorough search in the mountains with darkness approaching.
His hands tied, Daemon paced around the palace compound anxiously waiting for Gaelan to return. The royal guard officer knew the location of most of Xena's hideouts on the small mountain, but daylight was fading and still they hadn't returned. Daemon was filled with a sense of foreboding, instinctively knowing Xena was in danger.
The next few days sped by as Gabrielle, aided by Petros and Gergor, moved the Conqueror to the ruins of Crateon. It had been a slow, arduous journey that Gabrielle spent on the floor of the wagon, Xena's head cradled in her lap as she tried to prevent further injury to the direly wounded woman as they traversed the rocky, hilly terrain.
The three found an underground room that was mostly intact beneath what had been a temple in the small city. Working feverishly, they moved broken slabs of stone to fill in the destroyed walls, and then disguised their work by rearranging other slabs in front of the structure, leaving only a small opening to serve as an entrance.
Petros and Gergor moved Xena into the shelter under the close supervision of Gabrielle. She was grateful that Petros had taken the time to bring her fresh clothes and supplies, donated by their followers, when he'd returned. Her friend had even provided a large supply of clean linen and some large tunics that would loosely fit the Conqueror. She'd removed her armor back in the forest, but had had nothing with her that would fit the tall ruler.
Clean clothing in hand, Gabrielle wasted no time in removing Xena's dirty garb, struggling with her task. Xena was dead weight. When she finally got her undergarment off, she sucked in a breath at the angry purple and green bruises that covered her body. She knew it likely that her ribs had been broken and thanked the gods that none had punctured her lungs.
Gabrielle chose a long piece of linen and folded it in half lengthwise. She then rolled Xena enough so that she could slide the cloth underneath her and proceeded to wrap it tightly around her injured body. Wearily, she sat back and studied her handiwork. Satisfied that she had done her best with the materials available, she dressed Xena in one of the large tunics Petros had brought back and then tucked the blanket securely around her charge.
Xena showed no signs of regaining consciousness, and Gabrielle was worried. She knew the longer the tall woman remained in a coma, the less likely her chances of survival. She'd done everything she could; now all she could do was wait. She picked up a large cool hand, warming it between her own.
"Come on Xena. You gotta wake up." Gabrielle gazed at the beautiful still face. "Want to hear a story my mother told me?" Not expecting an answer, she softly spoke, her lilting voice wafting musically through the air as she continued to talk to Xena hoping her voice would guide her out of the darkness.
Petros was torn between loyalty to his friend and fear that her actions would divide the movement if they became known. All he could do was try to prevent anyone from finding out. Gergor had pledged his silence, although the man clearly thought Gabrielle had lost her mind.
Once Gergor departed, Petros spent most of his time outside the small shelter, not willing to watch Gabrielle tenderly caring for the ruthless despot, or to listen to her carry on one-sided conversations with Xena as she encouraged her to wake up.
Five days had passed since Baruch had taken the army out to search for the Conqueror. News had spread throughout the city, and speculation concerning her demise was running rampant.
Daemon had had a heated exchange with Kratos once the general had heard the rumors. The aide thought about Kratos' parting words. "You'd better hope the Conqueror returns, because if she doesn't, your days are numbered."
He knew Kratos could not make good on this threat without Baruch's support, but he didn't trust the power hungry officer and intended to watch his back. He wished for Gaelan or Baruch to return with good news, but with each passing day it became less and less likely.
Petros had departed for Corinth earlier to replenish their supplies, and Gabrielle had already bathed Xena, cleansed her wounds, and changed her bedding. She lifted Xena's head onto a makeshift pillow and dribbled water down her throat, watching as her patient reflexively swallowed.
Gabrielle knew Petros was impatient, but she'd assured him Xena was improving. Her color had improved, and her wounds were healing well. There had been times when Gabrielle woke up and thought her patient was in a slightly different position, but passed it off as wishful thinking as Xena continued to sleep.
She sat down on the floor next to the Conqueror's pallet and reached for a piece of parchment. Gabrielle had helped pass time by chronicling the events since her capture. Each day, she spoke the words aloud for her patient's benefit, even as her quill formed them on the parchment.
There was no way of knowing whether Xena could hear her, but to end her dialogue with the tall, dark woman was to admit she had lost hope, and Gabrielle refused to let that thought gain a foothold in her mind. She leaned over, reaching for the quill that was still lying on the floor. Gabrielle had no sooner returned to her sitting position and put quill to parchment, than an icy cold hand clutched at her arm. Panicked, she wrenched free, a scream dying in her throat.
Gabrielle whirled around, her heart thundering wildly and was shocked anew by the intensity of the blue orbs gazing at her. The silence was so profound, it was deafening, until Xena's raspy voice hissed out one word. "You."
She hadn't expected Xena to be particularly friendly, but Gabrielle was taken aback by the vehemence of the single word she had spoken. It wasn't exactly the greeting she would have liked, but it was a start. She nodded and smiled tentatively at her patient. "I'm glad you're back with us."
Xena's mind was foggy, and she struggled to remember how she had come to be in the hands of the very woman she'd been hunting. The Fates were surely having fun at her expense. Not intending to be held prisoner by a fugitive, she sat up. Her body reacted violently, and agonizing pain wracked her as every breath became torture. Scant seconds later, the room spinning wildly, Xena fell back to the pallet and reentered the darkness from which she'd so briefly emerged.
Momentarily frozen by Xena's unexpected movement, Gabrielle's heart cried out at the pain reflected on the tall woman's countenance. She quickly dampened a piece of linen and wiped away the sheen of sweat that had appeared on her patient's face. Leaning over, she lifted Xena's tunic to check the bandage covering her ribs. It was still in place, but Gabrielle decided it might be a good idea to reinforce it.
She retrieved another piece of linen and struggled to slide it under Xena, hoping she wouldn't wake. Tying it securely, Gabrielle lowered the Conqueror's shirt.
Once she was satisfied there was nothing else she could do to make Xena more comfortable, Gabrielle glanced around the primitive room, her eyes lingering on Xena's weapons. She had no illusions about how dangerous the tall dark woman was, and decided it would be much safer with the weapons out of sight. Gabrielle retrieved the sword and round thing, hiding them behind the double wall she and her friends had constructed.
Weapons safely secured out of immediate reach, Gabrielle gazed at the dark-haired woman lying on the pallet. She knew Xena needed nourishment, and soup would be gentle on her system. But Petros had reported that soldiers were ranging as far east as Thatos, and they had both agreed -- at least until the search was called off -- that a fire was out of the question. She and Petros had been surviving on jerky, fruit and vegetables, but it had been close to a week since the Conqueror had eaten solid food, and she doubted that similar fare would sit well on that empty stomach.
Torn, Gabrielle sighed and glanced up at the daylight sky. She knew a large fire was out of the question, but if she burned only the driest of twigs, the smoke should not be visible beyond the limits of the ruins. The rebel leader pondered her choices only momentarily before making the only decision she was comfortable with, then went to work.
A short time later, heated by a small fire, vegetables were simmering in a pot of water with a twig of jerky to add a little flavor and salt to the otherwise bland mixture. She'd checked on Xena a couple of times, but the older woman had not reawakened.
Gabrielle stood looking down at Xena. She knew the Conqueror had to have an exceptionally strong constitution, not only to survive, but for the healing to progress so rapidly. She had never seen anyone so gravely injured improve so quickly. It had barely been a week, and bruises that covered large parts of her body were well on their way to healing as evidenced by faded green and yellow replacing the angry purple blotches. Multiple scrapes and cuts on her arms and legs were also healing rapidly, and the unhealthy pallor had faded. Her head wound stood out starkly against her smooth complexion, but the swelling was almost gone.
Her practical assessment turned more personal as she gazed at the tall woman appreciatively. She had been so busy trying to keep her patient alive that the last thing on her mind was how attractive Xena was. Her high cheekbones and full lips gave her face an almost exotic appearance, but it was her eyes that were most striking. Shaking her head, amused at herself, Gabrielle knew that there were few people who were immune to the Conqueror's natural beauty, and obviously she wasn't one of them.
Xena slowly rose toward consciousness haunted by a pair of emerald green eyes. Her head still ached, although some of the fuzziness had faded, and she slowly shifted her head to view her surroundings. It was a plain room that looked like it might have been grand at one time, but the broken pieces of stone lining two of the walls told a story of destruction. She didn't see any guards, but they could be outside the entrance. Xena knew the pallet next to her belonged to Gabrielle, and was not surprised to see another close by. She hadn't expected the rebel to be alone. Her eyes raked the room slowly looking for her weapons, but they were nowhere in sight.
She remembered falling down the cliff, but nothing after that. Given her body's response to her previous effort to just sit up, it was clear to Xena that she'd have to regain her strength before she could free herself from this ludicrous situation.
Deciding to assess the full extent of her injuries, the Conqueror slowly extended one arm and then the other. Satisfied when the movement didn't cause undue pain, she cautiously bent each leg. They were stiff and sore, but the mind numbing pain she'd experienced earlier was absent.
The Conqueror pushed down the blanket and gazed at the tunic she was wearing. She disdainfully noted it was peasant garb, but at least it appeared to be clean. Further examination revealed the thick sheath of linen tightly wrapped around her ribs, and suddenly the cause of her earlier pain became apparent to her. It certainly wasn't the first time she had broken some ribs. She grimaced, knowing that every time she moved the ends of the bones would rub against each other until they finally knit.
Pursing her lips, she irritably pondered her situation; any quick movement would not only rekindle the pain, but would slow the healing process. Xena was forced to acknowledge that, for the time being, she was at the mercy of her captor. It was obvious she'd been well cared for, which didn't make any sense to her; and she mulled over the possible reasons why a woman she had sentenced to death would go to all this trouble.
Gabrielle walked into the shelter and was pleased to see that the Conqueror had regained consciousness. "Good. You're awake. I'm making some soup. It should be done soon."
"How much?" Xena had finally figured out Gabrielle's motivation.
Puzzled by the question, Gabrielle met the suspicious eyes staring at her. "What are you talking about? How much, 'what'?"
"Money." Xena's voice was cold and hard. "What do you take me for, a fool? What other possible reason could you have for kidnapping me?"
Gabrielle flinched visibly at the harsh words, and slowly shook her head. "You've got it all wrong."
"I don't think so. What a clever way to support your precious followers." Xena laughed hollowly at the irony. "Ransom money from the very realm you seek to undermine."
Gabrielle sighed and sank down to the floor. She wasn't really surprised Xena was so suspicious, given that someone had tried to kill her. Under the circumstances, she didn't even totally understand her own strong motivation to not only care for the Conqueror, but to protect her while she was vulnerable.
"I was in Satheta valley hiding from your soldiers when I stumbled across a saddle. I started looking around for the owner. Then I saw you lying unconscious at the base of one of the cliffs." Gabrielle pinned Xena with her eyes. "You would've died if I'd left you there."
"And you decided to save me out of the goodness of your heart, even though I had sentenced you to death?" Xena narrowed her eyes in disbelief. "Want to try again?"
"I wouldn't have left anyone to die." Gabrielle spoke the words quietly, but firmly. "Not even my worst enemy," she added pointedly.
Xena closed her eyes briefly before reopening them. She was tiring, and none of this made any sense to her. During her years as a warlord it had been survival of the fittest, and she ruled the same way. In her world, no one would save a person who sought to kill them unless they had an ulterior motive; yet the rebel leader was telling her that she had done just that. There simply had to be some other explanation for the care she was receiving, and Xena was determined to find out what it was. "Why didn't you just return me to the palace?"
Gabrielle was unable to stop a chuckle of disbelief. "Why? So my sentence could be carried out? Besides, I wouldn't have known who to entrust your care to. Someone tried to kill you. The girth on your saddle was cut."
The response from her patient was immediate and explosive. "You're lying!"
Knowing Xena would never believe her without proof, Gabrielle rose to her feet and walked to a corner of the room. She awkwardly hefted the large saddle in her arms and returned to Xena's side, dropping it on the floor next to the tall woman's pallet.
The Conqueror recoiled when the saddle hit the floor so unexpectedly. It was obvious that she had offended her captor, but Xena didn't particularly care, for she was certain that the dissident was not telling her the truth.
She stood back, her eyes flashing angrily. "I don't lie. Look at the girth strap."
Gingerly reaching for the girth, Xena pulled the long strap towards her. She stared at the leather for an interminable time as her mind replayed the events of that stormy night. The Conqueror now clearly remembered the saddle sliding forward down the stallion's neck, and how close she had come to death under his hooves.
She dropped the girth and closed her eyes, exhausted from the short intense conversation. It just didn't make sense, and she needed some time away from the friendly, yet wary eyes that seemed to see into her very soul. Xena willingly began the descent into Morpheus' realm and was strangely comforted by the words that followed her.
"Don't worry. You're safe here."
Gabrielle didn't know if the Conqueror had heard her, but she meant what she said. Her anger had disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared, and she recognized that her interest in Xena went beyond caring for her injuries. She wondered what had caused the tall woman to construct the cool exterior shield she wore, and what it would take to penetrate it -- or if she even could.
When the soup was done, Gabrielle doused the fire and carried the pot into the room, setting it near the doorway to cool. She returned the heavy saddle back to the corner of the room. If Xena didn't wake soon, she was going to have to rouse her. Sleeping was the body's way of healing itself, but she needed nourishment, too. With that thought in mind, a half candlemark later, she walked over to Xena's pallet and knelt down.
Gabrielle gazed down at the peaceful face and suddenly realized she didn't know what to call her. Conqueror wasn't really a name, so Gabrielle decided on Xena and tentatively shook her patient's shoulder. "Xe…"
She never had a chance to finish the word before her wrist was trapped by a wild-eyed Conqueror. "You're hurting me. Let go!"
Xena grimaced and released her hold. The sudden movement had not been made without a price, and to cover her pain, she growled, "That's a good way to get killed."
Gabrielle's heart rate had returned to normal, and she shook her head, sighing audibly.
"Do you like living like that?" Gabrielle could only imagine what it must to be like to be so distrustful, and her tone was a mixture of curiosity and sympathy.
Xena didn't appreciate the sentiment, and snapped, "Just because I wake up if someone sneaks up on me…"
"You call that waking up? If you had your sword, I'd probably be dead."
Xena knew there wasn't any point in arguing that point because what Gabrielle had said was true, still, for some unfathomable reason, she wanted the dissident to understand. "It has saved my life on more than one occasion."
Gabrielle didn't doubt that and nodded thoughtfully. She walked over to her own straw pallet and began rolling it up. "The soup's ready. I'll slide this behind you so it'll be easier for you to sit up."
The Conqueror bit off a sharp retort. She'd intended to insist she could sit just fine on her own, but clearly remembered her earlier attempt and satisfied herself with the knowledge that she was unusually quick to heal. Slowly gathering her strength, Xena carefully began to sit up, the effort hidden behind a mask of stoicism.
Gabrielle was at her side instantly, sliding the straw roll between the Conqueror and the stone pillar her bed was butted up against. When Xena eased back against it, she looked on satisfied that it was high enough to support the tall woman. She had never seen such force of will, but even though the Conqueror's features had remained expressionless, Gabrielle had again glimpsed a flickering of emotions in those deep blue eyes. She also knew that she would have missed it, had she not been watching for something. Smiling ruefully to herself, she became even more determined to reach the ruler.
Xena slowly ate the soup Gabrielle had given her as she studied the young woman sitting near her on the floor. She needed information before she could fully ascertain her situation.
"Where are we, and how long have we been here?"
Gabrielle glanced up from her soup and chose to ignore the demanding tone, wondering what Xena's reaction to their location would be, or if there would even be any. "We've been in Crateon for almost six days now."
The Conqueror almost lost the spoonful of soup she had just placed in her mouth. Crateon was her only failure as the leader of Greece. On returning from a trip to the outlying regions, she discovered that a warlord Darphus claimed to have destroyed some moons previously, was attacking the small city.
By the time she arrived with her army, the invaders were firmly ensconced within its walls, terrorizing and brutalizing the citizens. Her only option to retake the city quickly was to use catapults and Greek fire. The ensuing battle, while successful in eliminating the marauders, killed many of Crateon's citizens, as well. She had personally executed Darphus for his lies, but that hadn't assuaged her sense of failure. As she stalked the streets of the dying city, she savagely reminded herself never to take her subordinates' reports at face value without independent corroboration. Even now, long after Crateon lay in ruins, its citizens scattered, Xena couldn't ignore the fact that many of the homeless in Corinth were refugees from that battle.
Gabrielle watched the brief play of emotions cross the beautiful sculpted features before they were quickly hidden behind an impassive mask. She knew then that her instincts had been right. The Conqueror did have a heart. It was just hidden deeply beneath her public countenance.
Almost flinching under the steely hard voice, Gabrielle met the blue eyes glaring at her. "It was the safest place to bring you. Whoever is trying to kill you would not be likely to look in the ruins of a city. Besides, a lot of people think it's haunted."
Looking away, Xena mulled the answer over and sighed to herself at the truth of the words. She ate the broth silently, surprised that the simple soup actually tasted very good. Now that her shock at being in the company of the dissident had abated, she felt her interest in the rebel leader rekindle--justified in her mind by the need to know her enemies in order to defeat them.
"Where are you from?"
"I was born in Poteidaia. I moved to Corinth three years ago."
Xena was surprised at the short answer. "Did your family come with you?"
Shaking her head sadly, Gabrielle remembered that trip all too well. Every minute detail was burned into her mind. "My father was killed fighting outlaws that attacked Poteidaia, so my mother, sister and I decided to travel to Corinth to find work. We knew it was dangerous to travel alone, so we stayed off the main road. Four soldiers from your army accosted us not far from the city. One of the soldiers began to force himself on my sister and when my mother tried to help her, she was brutally murdered."
The images flew through Gabrielle's mind. The sound of crushed bone, blood and gray matter flying through the air splattering all of them, a scream dying in her mother's throat. Her own desperate fight with two soldiers as she tried to reach her mother's side. Her eyes focused on that distant horror, she took a deep breath not wanting to lose her composure in front of the Conqueror.
"Her scream was heard by some local villagers who came to our aid. Once the soldiers saw they were outnumbered, they fled." Gabrielle's eyes were misty as she remembered holding her mother in her arms looking into her unseeing eyes and watching the lifeblood drain from her body. She looked at the bowl of soup in her hands, no longer hungry. "Some of the people who helped us escorted us to the outskirts of Corinth. My sister decided to return to their village with them."
"I'm sorry about your mother." Xena clamped her mouth shut. She had been so caught up in the haunting pain in Gabrielle's voice and on her face, that she had dropped her guard.
Gabrielle looked up stunned.
"Did you happen to hear any of the soldiers' names?" Xena knew that was unlikely, but the penalty for the rape or killing of women or children was death. Gabrielle's pain had gotten to her, and that was not something she was accustomed to. Gods knew she had done her own share of inflicting death and brutality, but it had all been done to accomplish her goal of conquering Greece.
Gabrielle nodded, still taken aback by the Conqueror's response. "Only one. The leader. The other soldiers called him Kratos." She held little hope that justice would ever be done, or that the tall leader would even know of this soldier. Her army numbered in the thousands.
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Do you remember what he looked like?"
"I was trying to protect myself from two soldiers and never got a good look at his face. He is about as tall as you and very muscular. He had dark brown shoulder length hair and a scar on his right arm showing above his bracer." Gabrielle absently stirred her soup and shuddered. "He beat my mother to death with a mace and laughed as he did it."
Xena felt sick to her stomach. She now understood the full horror of what Gabrielle had witnessed. Kratos now wore the uniform of the palace guard, but Xena knew he had a long, jagged scar on his right forearm. It would give her great pleasure to deal with him when she returned to the palace. He was one thorn in her side that would soon be rotting in the ground.
"I will see that justice is done. The man responsible for your mother's death will not go unpunished."
Gabrielle found herself at a total loss of words. The woman was an enigma. "Thank you."
Xena was uncomfortable by the appreciation glowing from the sparkling emerald eyes gazing at her. No one had looked at her like that since…since Lyceus. She shook off the memory of her brother, curt words spilling from her mouth in defense.
"So revenge is your motivation. That's why you hate me."
"I don't hate you."
"You lead the rebels," Xena remarked casually.
"It's not you. It's your unfair laws and taxes and the unnecessary brutality of your army." When Xena started to interrupt, Gabrielle ignored her. "When I arrived in Corinth, I didn't know anyone and joined the homeless in the streets. I saw starving people beaten for taking a scrap of food from the garbage. I watched some of my new friends grow sick and die because there were no herbs to treat them. I looked for work for weeks before I was hired at a tavern to tell stories."
Xena was drawn to Gabrielle's voice as she listened, and waited for her to continue when she paused.
"One day a well dressed man came into the tavern. He listened to my story and hired me to entertain at a party. That was when I found out how the rich lived. They threw away uneaten food that would have fed the homeless and jobless for days. After that I was hired regularly by the rich, and it was always the same wasteful squandering of food and supplies that could have saved lives."
Gabrielle's eyes started flashing. "THAT was when I learned firsthand how unfair your laws are."
"My laws are not unfair! They protect contributing citizens of the realm. The homeless do nothing for the betterment of Greece, yet you would have me give them food?"
"Until they find work, yes. Sick, starving people cannot work." She softened her voice. "All they need is a chance."
Xena was exhausted. How could she expect the rebel to understand the enormous expenses of maintaining the realm? She would discuss this later, when she was more alert. The Conqueror was almost amused that she felt the need to defend her laws to a mere peasant. She had more urgent things to attend to now, like answering nature's call.
She slowly leaned forward, shifting her body around as she moved first one leg, then the other, off the pallet and onto the floor. With steely resolve, Xena began to stand, so focused on ignoring the pain, that she was unprepared for the wobbliness of her weakened body as she swayed.
Gabrielle had moved closer to Xena, but resisted the urge to help her stand, knowing her aid would be unwelcome. Her resolve slipped away at Xena's unsteadiness, and she put an arm around the Conqueror's waist. "Where are you going?"
Xena was irritated that her body was not obeying her commands, and smirked to hide the pain as she unconsciously leaned against the smaller woman. She was determined to hide her discomfort from the dissident. "You said I wasn't a prisoner, so I'm free to leave. Where are my weapons?"
Gabrielle audibly sighed and chose to ignore the last question. "I don't think you'll get very far--between your injuries and those out to kill you."
"Let her go. She's been a burden to us for too long."
Startled at Petros voice, Gabrielle glanced up at the Conqueror and saw her glaring at her friend.
"I think I'll stay for a while," Xena purred.
Gabrielle could feel the dangerous aura emanating from the wounded warrior, and quickly interceded. "Petros, could you give us a minute?" "I'll be outside."
"Since you've decided to stay, how about lying back down?"Actually, there was nothing Xena would have liked better, but it would have to wait. "I have to go outside."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena to find the smirk firmly back in place and mirth shining from her eyes. She had to smile at herself for actually worrying that the Conqueror would try to leave in her condition. "This building had an indoor bath facility. We've repaired it. It's in the next room."
Xena shifted her weight off of Gabrielle and took a step. She was relieved when the younger woman remained at her side, but after a few short steps, she stopped.
"Lean on me," Gabrielle urged.
The Conqueror stood unmoving. At this rate, she'd never make it in time.
Gabrielle sensed Xena's reluctance to show any weakness or vulnerability. "No one will see you."
Xena stifled her answer, hearing it only in her mind. You will. Swallowing her pride, she leaned against the smaller woman, surprised at the apparent ease with which Gabrielle supported her weight.
A short time later, once the Conqueror was safely back in her bed and asleep, Gabrielle went out to find Petros.
Gabrielle looked around the ruins in the fading daylight and saw Petros sitting on the steps in front of a nearby building. She approached him smiling and handed him a bowl of soup. "Hi."
Disarmed by her smile, Petros smiled in return as he gratefully accepted the soup, but his face was troubled. "When did she wake up?"
"Earlier this afternoon for a little while and again about a candlemark before you got back."
Eating quickly, Petros set the bowl next to him on the step. "That was good, but I thought we agreed it would be safer not to start a fire."
"We did. That was before Xena woke up. She wouldn't have been able to handle solid food yet, and she needs to eat."
"Weren't you worried about someone seeing the smoke from the fire?" Petros' voice was gentle, for he knew Gabrielle would always follow her heart, regardless of any consequences to herself.
"No. It was clear and there was very little breeze. I made sure to use only dry kindling."
Reassured a bit, he nodded before imparting his news. "The army has called off the search."
"I've been expecting that." Gabrielle had mixed feelings about the news. While there was less danger of their hiding place being found by the army now, she was concerned about what damage the army would do in Corinth until Xena could return. Petros' next words echoed her thoughts.
"Everyone's worried about what's going to happen now. It's really tense in the city. No one has stepped forward and publicly assumed power. Probably because they're afraid of what she would do to them if she does return. I think there could be an internal power struggle going on, and that does not bode well for the people. It's time for us to leave her and get you to safety."
"Wait, Gabrielle. Listen to me. You've done everything you can, including saving her life. That's more than any of us would have done. I can have Gergor get word to one her of spies, and she'll be rescued. It's too dangerous for us to stay here any longer."
Petros had mixed feelings about helping Xena, but he knew if he didn't arrange to have the Conqueror found, his friend would never agree to leave her.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Have you forgotten that someone tried to kill her? We don't know who to trust. She can't protect herself right now. Besides, I truly think I can get through to her. I had an interesting conversation with her today. At least she's willing to listen to what I'm saying." Gabrielle added silently, Even if she doesn't agree with me.
"That's because she has no choice right now. What's she going to do? Get up and walk away?"
"Petros! I want to at least try. I don't think anyone has ever suggested an alternative way to do things. That's what I'm going to try and do."
"That's because they knew they'd die for their efforts."
"She's not all bad. I don't think she condones the unnecessary brutality by her army."
"Have you forgotten about your mother?" Petros asked incredulously.
Gabrielle looked off into the growing darkness. "She said she would bring the soldier that killed my mother to justice."
He looked up startled. "She said that?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, and I believe her."
Petros didn't know what to think. He fully trusted Gabrielle's ability to read people, and she seemed to be convinced that the Conqueror could be reasonable. No one in the movement had ever requested an audience with her because it was well known that she had no tolerance for those that disputed her laws, instead considering them traitors. Could Gabrielle make a difference? She certainly had a gift with words, but he had been totally shaken by the look the injured woman had given him. If looks could kill, he knew he would be dead.
Watching her friend, Gabrielle hoped he would continue to support her efforts. She would understand if he didn't, but she had no intentions of leaving Xena or revealing her whereabouts to anyone until the Conqueror had healed enough to protect herself. Gabrielle knew she had a perfect opportunity to plead the case of the people, and she intended to make the most of it -with or without Petros.
Petros considered his options. He was a freedom fighter and opposed the tyrannical laws that Xena had instituted. She was the enemy and responsible for many of his friends' deaths, and many more would likely die if Gabrielle were not successful-including Gabrielle. If he helped his friend, he was also helping the Conqueror, and this is what bothered him the most. He knew he could just walk away and Gabrielle would not hold it against him, but that idea was not very palatable to him. First and foremost, Gabrielle was his friend, and he had learned to trust her instincts. The possibility of her success would be worth the personal risk to himself.
His decision made, Petros turned to face the movement's leader. "I'll help you. I trust your judgment, but I'm worried that she will take you captive once she is well enough to travel."
"She could, but I don't think she will."
Petros absorbed the utter conviction on Gabrielle's face. "I hope you're right."
"So do I. Thanks for trusting me on this. Your support means a lot to me and I really appreciate it. I know it's not exactly the course of action you would like to follow," she added with a teasing smile. "I think you need to stop worrying about me and take some time for Petros. Tomorrow, why don't you go back to the city and spend a few days with your son."
"I don't know. If anyone happens to come here…"
"You staying here day in and day out isn't going to change that. It's a chance we have to take. Xena seems to be healing very quickly, but even so, I think it'll be a couple of weeks before she is well enough to defend herself. You have a life in the city. If you remain gone, you'll be missed."
Petros had been taking in all that Gabrielle said, but his mind couldn't get past one thing. "You keep calling her Xena."
Gabrielle grinned. "Well, that is her name."
"She lets you call her that?" Petros was very surprised, well aware that the Conqueror insisted on being addressed as such.
"I only used it once when waking her, and I'm not sure she heard me." Gabrielle remembered that incident very well. "Don't go near her even when she's asleep, Petros. It's not safe."
"Yet, you want me to leave you alone with her? That doesn't make sense."
"You worry too much. I'll be fine. Besides it's a risk I'm willing to take."
"I'm not sure it is a risk you should take."
Gabrielle smiled fondly at her friend. "I appreciate your concern, but that is not your decision to make. I have to do what I think is right, just like you do."
Petros nodded. He had no intentions of leaving Gabrielle alone with the deadly woman once Xena could move around better. The Conqueror was a lethal threat when healthy, but an injured animal was often even more dangerous.
"Besides, I need you to keep a close eye on things in Corinth. There's no telling what her army will do now."
What Gabrielle said did make sense, and Petros was near capitulation. "I'm worried, too. It's way too quiet. At least we knew what to expect with her."
"My point exactly. Things are bad, but they could be worse. She has always enforced the laws consistently. My goal is to get her to understand why those laws are unfair."
Petros nodded. Right now, Xena was of little threat to Gabrielle. He would leave for a few days and see how much she had improved when he returned. He had no intentions of leaving Gabrielle alone once Xena began to get around well. Her deadliness was well known and, injured, she just might be an even bigger threat.
"Okay. I'll leave at first light and return in five days with more supplies. Promise me you'll be careful."
Gabrielle smiled. "Of course I will. Don't worry."
A short time later, they retired to their temporary quarters and prepared for sleep. Petros was snoring by the time Gabrielle checked on Xena. She gently pulled the fur up to Xena's neck, fighting off a strong impulse to brush the errant strands of hair from the sleeping woman's face. She didn't want a repeat performance of the events earlier that day. Settling onto her pallet, she soon followed her companions into Morpheus' realm.
Xena woke up and lay quietly, waiting for her eyes to focus in the darkness. Her keen hearing picked up the regular breathing of someone sleeping nearby and low snoring coming from across the room. She noted that her pain had receded to a dull ache, and decided to untie the bandage around her ribs to determine how many of them she had managed to break, and if they were realigned properly.
Her thoughts turned to the young woman sleeping near her. It was obvious to Xena that she wasn't under guard, and she had seen nothing to indicate that the rebel was lying to her or that her motives were anything other than what she had stated. She just couldn't understand the logic of saving an enemy's life. She snorted to herself. Even most of her own subordinates wouldn't have bothered, with the exception of Daemon--who was the closest person she had to a friend.
She was jerked from her thoughts as a bolt of pain rocked her. Sharply sucking in a breath and silently cursing, Xena lay still until it ebbed. She'd been so focused on her thoughts, she'd grown careless and moved too quickly.
This was going to be more difficult than she had thought. The bandage was wrapped around her body several times, and the only way she was going to be able to remove it was to sit up. Xena ground her teeth as she slowly sat up, every breath sending new waves of agony through her body. By the time she was upright, Xena was taking deep shallow breaths, fighting down nausea.
Gabrielle had always slept soundly, but during the week she had cared for the wounded Conqueror she had subconsciously instructed her body to hear the slightest sound made by the tall leader in case she needed her help during the night. Suddenly waking, Gabrielle could hear Xena's rapid breathing. Throwing her cover back, she could see the tall woman doubled over, panting. She quickly got up and went to the Conqueror's side. Kneeling next to her, she whispered, "What's wrong? Why are you sitting up?"
The force of Xena's will turned toward controlling the pain, but each breath seem to jar her damaged ribs. She remained silent, worried that her voice might reflect weakness.
Despite the lack of response, Gabrielle could see her patient was in agony. "I'll be right back. I've got some ground poppy. It'll help you with the pain."
Xena forced out, "No," between clenched teeth. She had no intentions of being drugged.
"Just a little. There's no need for you to suffer like this. Please let me help you."
The soft cajoling plea worked its way past Xena's weakened defenses. She knew that if the rebel intended to harm her, she had already had ample opportunity to do so. She acquiesced grudgingly.
"Only a pinch."
Gabrielle nodded and quickly got up to retrieve the poppy before Xena changed her mind. She would have liked to give Xena enough of the mixture to enable her to escape her pain through sleep, but it was important that she gain the tall woman's trust, and so she mixed the powder as the Conqueror had requested.
Kneeling down next to Xena, she handed her the cup, then set it on the floor once she had finished draining it. "Let me help you to the bath."
Xena did need to relieve herself and chose to let Gabrielle believe that was why she had been sitting up. She watched Gabrielle shift from her knees to a squatting position at her side.
"Just put your arm around my shoulders. Then we can stand together."
It was impossible to see the rebel clearly, but her voice reflected only warmth and concern. Xena could still hear the other rebel softly snoring, so swallowing her pride once again, she accepted Gabrielle's offer.
As they walked toward the adjoining chamber, Xena was grateful for the smaller woman's help. She was also surprised to find that she really didn't mind leaning against her and accepting her aid. And the gentle, but steadying support around her waist was strangely comforting.
The Conqueror pondered these foreign thoughts and acknowledged what her subconscious had been telling her all along. Even in her weakened condition, Gabrielle was not a threat to her. Xena had to stifle a snort of amusement. Rather, she's not a threat to me physically. She is very definitely a threat to the realm. She just may be the most powerful foe I have ever faced.
Xena was unable to keep the outer bandage she had untied from falling free when she relieved herself, and returned to Gabrielle's side carrying it. "This fell off."
Her raised eyebrows went unseen in the dim light, but the dubious tone in her voice was clear. "Uh huh." Gabrielle had no idea why the Conqueror had loosened the bandage, and decided not to ask.
After helping Xena to lie down, Gabrielle retrieved a candle. She wanted to replace the bandage, and needed to be able to see what she was doing.
A soft glow soon lit the area. She knelt next to Xena with the linen. "I need to put this back on."
Xena hissed, "No!"
Gabrielle jerked her head toward Xena, surprised at the vehemently negative response. "It'll help keep your ribs in place so they will be evenly aligned and heal properly." She could feel the sudden tenseness radiating from the Conqueror and sat back on her heels.
Xena looked at the puzzled face of the rebel and felt a pang of regret at her sharpness. What was wrong was that the snoring across the room had ceased. She was nude beneath the tunic, and while she was not in the least bit shy and had flaunted her body on more than one occasion, she had no intentions of appearing weak to the other rebel. To lie naked on a bed under the care of a stranger, no matter how well meaning, while physically incapacitated was not a position she was willing to put herself in. Clearly, the young woman's companion didn't like her any more than she liked him.
She reined in her temper and said reasonably, "You can replace them in the morning."
Gabrielle didn't have time to respond before Petros' voice drifted quietly through the room.
"Gabrielle? Is everything all right? Why is a candle lit?" "Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."
She waited until his regular breathing became soft snores and looked at Xena. "All right. Good night."
Xena met the knowing emerald eyes gazing at her and turned away. It was clear to her that Gabrielle knew exactly why she wanted to wait until morning, and it made her uncomfortable that she had been read so easily. She turned away and closed her eyes. "'Night."
Gabrielle was surprised she had even gotten a response and smiled. Deep down, you're not as tough as you think. She blew out the candle and returned to her pallet, falling asleep quickly, unaware of the dark blue eyes gazing at her thoughtfully.
The next morning, after seeing Petros off, Gabrielle decided to try and find some fresh berries for their morning meal. She had an ample supply of grains and fresh vegetables, but she thought Xena might like something a little sweeter. Since the tall woman hadn't awakened yet, it would be a good time to go.
Xena opened her eyes once Petros and Gabrielle had left the room. She didn't want to be bothered with another exchange with the disrespectful peasant and would take care of him soon enough.
Her thoughts turned to the night before. It pained her to admit it, but she was quite impressed with the young rebel leader. Xena clearly remembered her first meeting with Gabrielle and the courage with which the dissident had stood up to her. The grudging respect she had felt for her then was rapidly growing.
Xena also remembered how disappointed she had been that the hunt for such a worthy opponent had come to an end, and the thrill when it began anew with her captive's escape. Her personal code of honor dictated that she pardon Gabrielle for saving her life. Yet, she had no doubt whatsoever that the rebel leader would continue to speak against her regime. Then what? Well, she would worry about that later.
Her priority right now was for her body to heal itself so that she could return to the palace and overall she was pleased with her progress. The gash on her head was healing well, although the swelling beneath it had not totally diminished, but she knew that would take time. Some of her less serious cuts and abrasions were beginning to disappear, and there was no sign of infection in the deeper ones. Her ribs were the biggest problem and she could better assess their status once the second bandage was removed.
Her thoughts turning dark, the Conqueror also planned on finding out who had cut the girth on her saddle. Their life was forfeit. She was also very much looking forward to dealing with Kratos. Gabrielle's story had affected her more than she cared to admit. She figured it would be at least a week, at most two, before her ribs would allow her enough freedom of movement to travel and defend herself if she had to. She could be patient until then.
In the meantime she would have to find other ways to entertain herself - like looking at Gabrielle. Grinning, she knew that even in her debilitated condition, she found the woman very attractive, not that she intended to ever act on it. But she could have some interesting debates with her, and Gabrielle had mentioned being a storyteller. The next couple of weeks just might prove to be interesting.
Gabrielle had found some red berries and was looking for a willow tree. It would help relieve Xena's pain, but wouldn't induce sleep. She finally found one and pulled off some of the loose bark. Satisfied, she made her way back to the ruins.
As she walked into the room, she met blue eyes gazing at her and smiled. "Hi. How are you feeling?"
"Fine." Actually that wasn't a lie. She did feel better than she had. Xena knew that would change very quickly once she taxed her body.
"I found some berries." Gabrielle smiled. "I thought you might like something more tasty than bland soup."
Xena raised an eyebrow as she looked at the small, wild, red berries. They couldn't hold a candle to the ones she was accustomed to from her own private supply on the palace grounds. Yet the rebel was smiling at her as if her offering was a royal treat.
As the silence lengthened, the smile began to fade from Gabrielle's face and suddenly words that Xena hadn't uttered in years spilled unbidden from her mouth. "Thank you."
It warmed her insides to see the smile return to the rebel leader's face, and caught off guard by her own reaction, she countered with harshness. "Bring the saddle over here."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and folded her arms across her chest. She couldn't believe the gall of this woman. She had no intentions of being ordered around like one of Xena's servants. "What did you say?"
"I said to bring the saddle…" Xena trailed off. The rebel's body language was speaking volumes, so she changed tactics. "I'd like to use the saddle to lean against. Would you get it for me?"
Nodding, Gabrielle retrieved the saddle. Once Xena sat up, she slid the saddle behind her back. She watched Xena lay back against it, before quipping, "You're welcome."
Xena narrowed her eyes, but bit off a sharp retort. She needed Gabrielle's help, and it was obvious that the rebel did not take kindly to be ordered around-even by her. She would play along, for now.
Gabrielle divided the berries into two bowls and handed one to Xena. "They're really good." She had already sampled one on the way back to the ruins.
Settling onto her pallet, she hungrily began eating the fruit enjoying the sweet taste. "Do you like them?"
Xena had popped one into her mouth and was surprised to find that the berries were even tastier than her palace crop. She nodded.
"Where is…?" Xena finished her question by nodding in the general direction of Petros' bed.
"He's gone back to the city. He has a young son to take care of and needs to go to his job."
"You're not his wife," Xena stated rather than asking.
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Gods no. Petros and I are just good friends."
Xena was curious. "Where is your husband?"
"I don't have one." Gabrielle offered no further explanation. Prior to his death, her father had arranged her betrothal to Perdicus, but she had never loved the farmer and had dissolved the agreement with him when she left Poteidaia. Since her arrival in Corinth, she had simply not met anyone she wished to share her life with.
When they had finished eating, Gabrielle took Xena's dish. "I need to rewrap your ribs."
Xena nodded. "Fine, if you take off the other bandage first. I want to see the damage."
Gabrielle was tempted to tell Xena exactly what the damage was, but stopped short, deciding that the tall woman would still insist on checking for herself. "All right."
She lifted Xena's tunic and began untying the remaining piece of linen, aware of Xena's close scrutiny. Since the Conqueror was leaning against the saddle, it was easy to unwrap the bandage without causing her pain. "Let me know when you're finished." She walked over and sat down on her pallet and picked up her scroll, wanting to give her patient some privacy, but also to be near in case she needed anything.
Xena glanced down at her body, unsurprised at the multiple bruises. She gently probed her ribs and was pleased that they were properly aligned. Her examination revealed that only three were broken, but the solid mass of bruises covering her rib cage was probably an indicator that she had bruised the bone of some of the others.
Now she understood why the pain was so severe. Bone bruises were painful, but fortunately, they healed more quickly than broken bones, so the pain should start diminishing within the next few days. Xena also acknowledged that from the looks of her body, she was lucky to be alive. And she knew that was due, in large part, to the woman sitting across from her. She would have to find some way to repay her.
Shocked to hear her given name, she ceased writing and looked up. "Yes."
"Would you replace my bandages now?"
Gabrielle was having trouble hiding her surprise. Xena had actually asked instead of ordered. Smiling warmly, she said, "Sure."
She gently replaced the linen, taking her time so that she wouldn't hurt Xena unnecessarily. She felt the compelling eyes on her and wondered what the tall woman was thinking about. "There. That should hold."
She pulled down her patient's tunic and met the blue orbs with her own. They still reflected wariness, but the unfriendliness was gone. Gabrielle also noticed that Xena's face was drawn and dark circles had appeared under her eyes. "You should rest. It's okay. I'll be right here."
Xena was exhausted and closed her eyes. She could feel herself inexorably being drawn closer to Gabrielle, and that was something she couldn't afford to do. The Conqueror decided she was just overtired and drifted into a restful sleep, comforted by the beautiful emerald eyes watching over her.
Gabrielle never moved until Xena's breathing became deep and regular. She gently brushed a strand of hair away from the sleeping woman's eyes and picked up her scroll, content to remain at Xena's side. She was behind in her writing and began scribing a chronological entry of the events of the past few days, but her thoughts drifted.
She was beginning to care a lot more for the Conqueror than a patient - caretaker role called for. She had already acknowledged a physical attraction, but this was different. It went much deeper. Gabrielle also knew there was little she could do about it, for they were as different as night and day.
As the days passed, Gabrielle felt their connection growing. Xena was more willing to talk and seemed genuinely interested in her opinion. They still seldom agreed, but she could sense that the lawmaker was considering her suggestions. She loved to tell the tall woman stories and had been delightfully surprised the first time Xena had laughed aloud at one of her more humorous tales. She was almost sorry that it was time for Petros to return, and hoped that his appearance wouldn't cause a setback to the progress she had made with the Conqueror.
As the week drew to a close, Xena continued to steadily improve under Gabrielle's care. She was continually impressed with Gabrielle's sharp mind and began to look forward to their debates about her laws. It seemed that for every argument she had to support a law, the rebel leader had a counterargument for its repeal.
Her thoughts turned to their last conversation about her tax law.
"My laws are fair. All the citizens are taxed equally. Each family pays thirty percent. What is so unfair about that?"
"If I make ten dinars a week, I have only seven dinars to pay my landlord, buy my food, linen or anything else I need to survive. To live in my house I pay four dinars. That leaves me only three dinars for anything else - healing herbs, linen for clothes, and food. The market prices are high because the farmers must turn over thirty percent of their crops so those three dinars could make the difference between surviving and starving."
"To maintain the realm, there has to be taxes. The poor pay less because they make less. But everyone must contribute or the realm will not survive."
Gabrielle had just nodded and smiled. "If I make one hundred dinars a week, I still have seventy dinars left after the tax. With that I can buy the best food, pay for a healer, buy the best linens for clothes and still I have money left."
"Your point is?"
"It would be much fairer to tax the people different amounts depending on how much they make."
Xena tried to interrupt, but Gabrielle went on, "Wait, let me finish."
"You could have a tax scale based upon on a citizen's income. For instance someone who made only ten dinars a week could pay five percent. Someone who made one hundred dinars could pay thirty percent. For the very rich, you could set the tax at fifty percent. They wouldn't even miss it, yet the quality of life for the poor would improve greatly." Gabrielle had grinned and winked. "Besides happy people work harder and don't give speeches against the realm."
She had argued against Gabrielle's suggestion, but privately felt it had merit and was giving it serious consideration. She was quickly learning that Gabrielle didn't oppose the realm, but rather opposed laws that she considered unfair. Xena found it impressive that for every law Gabrielle spoke against, she offered a possible alternative.
The Conqueror also felt that Gabrielle's barding ability was second to none, and she would listen enthralled to each oration, privately taken with the soft, lilting sound of the young woman's voice.
Baruch quickly strode through the palace. He had made Xena's meeting chamber his temporary headquarters. Kratos had asked to see him, saying it was urgent. He knew the Conqueror had not been found, so he couldn't imagine what could be so important.
The general was convinced Xena was dead. Gaelan had found her horse on one of the mountain passes, saddleless. After nearly a week of looking for her, he had finally called off the search. Caution, and a healthy respect for the Conqueror, dictated that he wait another week before officially taking over. Baruch grinned as he thought about the power inherent in the position. He had served Xena well but was looking forward to being the most powerful man in Greece.
Baruch walked into the chamber to find Kratos sitting behind Xena's desk. He narrowed his eyes. "Like that seat, do you?"
Kratos grinned. "Not any more than you do."
"What's so urgent?"
"My spies have reported pockets of unrest in the city. The dissidents are encouraging the citizens to rebel since Xena is missing." Actually, the rebels had been unusually quiet, but Kratos knew that they were a sore spot with Baruch after he had failed to find their escaped leader. "You should officially take over before they mount a successful revolt."
"I will decide when I will take over. It is still possible that she might be alive. I do not intend to face her wrath if she were to return and find out I have usurped her power."
"You worry needlessly. Xena is dead! We have searched for over a week and found no sign of her."
"Right. No body, either. I'm going to wait for another week. If she still hasn't been found, then I'll make an announcement declaring her dead and assume her position."
Kratos decided to try another tactic. "You should at least publicly try Gaelan and his subordinates for malfeasance. The people need to see that someone is running the realm."
"Gaelan is a good soldier. He should not be punished for following orders."
"Someone must take the blame for Xena's disappearance. He was the last one to see her." Kratos raised his voice to emphasize his next point. "If you do not punish anyone, you will appear weak."
Daemon was listening to their conversation from an adjoining room. A couple of years before, Xena had created a listening hole hidden behind a large painting to allow her aide to attend meetings when his physical presence was not necessary, but she felt his input would be useful. She could open it or close it as she saw fit. Since her disappearance, he had removed the plug from behind the picture.
He was not surprised that Kratos wanted to sacrifice Gaelan. The palace general hated Xena's personal guards because she had hand picked them for their loyalty. Daemon knew he was also at risk and did not intend to be caught unawares.
"I am not going to execute a soldier for following orders. What kind of message would that send to the army?"
"That you are in charge!"
"I will be soon enough."
"He is loyal only to Xena."
"Gaelan will follow my orders." Baruch decided to try and defuse his peer's anger. "I will need someone to take charge of the army. I'd like you to do it."
Kratos had trouble maintaining a neutral face. He knew that Baruch was just trying to pacify him. He had no intentions of leaving the comfort of the palace to live the hard life of a soldier. The Conqueror should have made him second in command, not this ignorant man. "Then I will be your second in command?"
Baruch nodded. He had decided to make the offer to Kratos a few days earlier. He knew there was a risk putting the man in charge of the army, but had decided it was a necessary gamble while he consolidated his own power in the palace. He trusted that he had the allegiance of enough key military leaders to counter any plots that Kratos might hatch but resolved to alert his loyalists to keep an eye on the ambitious general.
Kratos smiled. This actually worked to his benefit. "When will you make the announcement?"
"The soldiers will be informed tomorrow. I will state that it is a temporary appointment so that I can attend to matters of the state in the Conqueror's absence. Then, next week after I assume power, I will make the position permanent."
"You will not be sorry." Kratos stood up, and approached Baruch.
Baruch nodded. "I know." He sealed his words with a warrior's handshake.
Daemon hoped that Baruch had better sense than to ever turn his back on Kratos. He knew the power hungry general would never be happy as second in command. Baruch had already informed him he would remain in place as his aide. Daemon also knew that once the general learned the inner workings of the realm, it was likely that he would be replaced. His own loyalty to Xena was no secret.
Kratos was pleased with the turn of events. After Baruch officially named him second in command, the new leader would mysteriously die. The foolish man was too ignorant to rule Greece. He didn't even know who his enemies were.
He chuckled silently as he left the palace. Soon, this would all be his. Right now he had more immediate matters to attend to. When Baruch had called off the search, he had sent out small patrols of palace guard members who were loyal to him to continue the search. Their orders, if they found Xena alive, were to kill her.
Xena's mood steadily deteriorated as they waited for Petros' arrival. "Where are my weapons?"
"They are in a safe place." Gabrielle had wondered how long it would be before the Conqueror broached this subject again. She also knew it was likely that the reason she had was because of Petros' imminent arrival.
"Would you get them for me?"
Sighing, Gabrielle said, "Why do you want them? Petros is not a threat to you. He is my friend."
"He may be your friend, but he is not mine. I will not harm him unless he threatens me. Now will you give me my weapons?"
Gabrielle studied the tall woman facing her. She believed Xena, but wondered if the instinct to trust her was skewed by her own complicated feelings for the Conqueror. She was falling in love with the woman she'd found behind the public persona. To love was to trust. "All right."
Xena was surprised that Gabrielle had capitulated so quickly and was amused when she saw how close her weapons had been all the time. "Thank you."
A bright smile covered Gabrielle's face. "You're welcome." Silently she added, Please let my trust be well founded.
The Conqueror took note of the concerned eyes that contrasted sharply with the smile on Gabrielle's face. She wanted to say something to reassure the rebel leader, but the right words were not forthcoming, so she turned her attention to her weapons. Xena tested their feel to determine what adjustments she would need to make if it became necessary to use them while she was recuperating.
Gabrielle watched Xena briefly and quickly understood from the care with which the Conqueror handled her weapons, that they were as much a part of her attire as the clothes that she wore. A short time later, she walked outside to wait for Petros.
Xena laid her weapons down beside her on the pallet. Frequently, she had awakened to find Gabrielle writing on her parchment. She had often wondered if the rebel leader was writing speeches against the realm, or penning a new story. When she had asked, Gabrielle had merely smiled and said it was just a journal.
She heard Gabrielle greet Petros and decided that it was likely the young woman would remain outside with her rebel friend for a while. She leaned over and plucked the parchment from its resting place next to Gabrielle's bed. Xena decided to remain sitting while she read the parchment so she could return it quickly if need be.
Petros put his hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and stood back eyeing her closely. "It's good to see you."
Laughing, Gabrielle clearly read the message behind his words, and responded, "See - I'm all in one piece."
His friend looked well rested and was in high spirits. Apparently, his concerns had been unfounded, thus far. "How is she doing?"
"Good. Her bruises are fading and with each passing day she needs less help to get around. You remember that really bad scrape on her leg? It's almost gone, too and the big welt on her head just feels like a little ridge now. It's amazing really."
Actually, Gabrielle knew that Xena didn't need her help to walk any longer, having awakened two nights before to see the tall woman returning from the bath. Even though she was happy for Xena because that meant her pain was lessening, she had been intensely disappointed, too. Her days with Xena were quickly dwindling in number and she had come to enjoy the feel of the Conqueror's body against her own and knew she would miss it. She had worried needlessly, though, for Xena hadn't known she had been seen, and had continued to accept her help during the day.
Petros expression turned serious. "There is to be a public proclamation in two days. The army has posted signs everywhere, and attendance is mandatory. I think we are about to find out who will take over now that Xena is believed dead."
"I'm surprised they've waited this long. It has to be one of her generals."
"Maybe, but our spies haven't been able to find out which one. When she has traveled in the past, her aide has taken care of routine matters. Maybe it will be him."
"I doubt it. I don't think the army would follow him without a mandate from the Conqueror. Maybe we should just ask Xena. I'm sure she would know."
Petros laughed hollowly. "That's true. And I'm sure it will be the most ruthless, brutal general in the realm."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I think she would have chosen her most capable general."
"You are always so optimistic. I guess we'll find out soon enough."
"I'll go ask her."
Petros watched Gabrielle walk off, confused. She seemed to think that she could ask the Conqueror what ever she pleased. Had her instincts been correct all along?
Xena was so engrossed in the words on the parchment, she almost didn't hear Gabrielle's footsteps, and had to quickly toss the scroll toward the rebel leader's pallet.
"A new ruler is to be announced in two days. Who would that be?"
Narrowing her eyes, Xena growled, "They certainly aren't wasting any time."
"It has been almost two weeks." Gabrielle softened her voice. "Everyone thinks you are dead. It's safer for you this way."
The Conqueror knew Gabrielle was right, but it still irked her that she had been given up on so easily. She would deal with that little matter when she returned. "My second in command is Baruch, general of the army."
"Thanks." Gabrielle turned to leave, but was halted by Xena's voice.
"I need to get a message to my aide." Xena smirked, "I assume you have spies in my palace?"
Gabrielle silently chuckled. Oh no, Xena. That I cannot tell you. "We could get word to one of your spies masquerading as a freedom fighter."
Rich full laughter erupted from the tall woman. I have indeed met my match here. It's time to up the ante. Were the words she had read true? Did Gabrielle really care about her? "I am not sure they can be trusted."
The rebel leader nodded thoughtfully. "Petros will get the message to your aide."
Xena knew Gabrielle fully trusted Petros, even if she did not. "If he fails, we will be at risk."
Gabrielle spoke with quiet certainty. "If it is possible to get a message to your aide, Petros will see that it is delivered." She walked over and picked up a piece of parchment. "You can write the message here." She then lit a candle from the oil lamp. "The wax will seal it."
Totally shocked, the Conqueror's eyes tracked Gabrielle through the door. Any doubts she had were now answered. The rebel leader had just shown her trust, and Xena had no intentions of betraying it.
Petros departed several hours later with both Xena's written message and instructions for its delivery. She had also warned him to destroy the parchment if he were accosted before turning it over to Daemon. Petros had looked at the parchment dubiously, but had promised to deliver it.
He did not promise not to read it. In the safety of his own home, he carefully scraped off the wax, opened the message and read it. It was only a personal note to her aide. There was absolutely nothing in the message that would hurt their movement or give away their leader's location. Surprised, he carefully resealed the parchment. He would pass it to their most trusted spy in the palace, Helena.
Gabrielle was unpacking the sack of food he had brought with him as Xena watched. She put the vegetables near the outside wall. Since the nights were getting colder, they wouldn't spoil as quickly. The bread and jerky were stored on a bench not far from her pallet.
"Is this what you always eat?" Xena was tired of the boring diet and longed for the rich taste of rabbit stew, or wild boar.
"Most of the time. Once in a while some of us get our dinars together and buy fresh meat, but not very often. It's too expensive."
"Do you like rabbit stew?"
"Let's go hunting." Xena was excited at the prospect of leaving the room behind for a while.
"Yeah, right. You're not well enough, and I don't know a thing about hunting."
"I'll show you how to build a snare. All I'll have to do is walk." Xena raised an eyebrow and said pointedly. "I think I can handle that."
"Are you sure? The forest is on the far side of the meadow…"
"If I need help, you will be there."
Gabrielle warmed to the idea. "All right. What do we need?"
"Just some hemp. The forest will supply the rest."
The walk was slow and enjoyable for both women. Gabrielle kept her arm firmly around Xena's waist, and the tall woman rested her arm loosely across the rebel's shoulders, both privately knowing the contact was no longer necessary, but neither wanting to relinquish it.
Xena instructed Gabrielle in how to pick the correct sized young sapling, tie it down, and set the snare. After arming three traps, they sat down to allow Xena to rest before returning to the ruins.
"There's a small stream not far from here if you want to take a bath. I found it when I was looking for willow bark for you. I've been there twice now. It's really cold, though."
The Conqueror's senses had been fully extended from the time they had left their living quarters, and she knew they were alone. The cool water would feel good against her healing body. "Are you going to take one, too?"
"Um, well, no." Gabrielle was flustered. "I was going to keep watch."
"It would be safer for you to be in the water with me in case of danger. I'll secure my weapons near the stream."
Gabrielle had always been modest and was self conscious about bathing with the beautiful woman. She looked up when Xena softly spoke.
"I don't bite."
"I know, I just…all right." She helped Xena to her feet and led her to the stream.
Xena shed her clothes and walked into the water, keeping her back to Gabrielle. The young woman was obviously shy, and first and foremost, Xena wanted her to relax. Asking Gabrielle to join her had been a spur of the moment thing and was probably not one of her wiser decisions since she already found the young woman extremely attractive and could do nothing about it, even if she was physically able.
Gabrielle shed her clothes quickly and walked into the stream, ducking down until only her neck and shoulders were visible above the water line. The water was cold and she shivered. She turned to look for the Conqueror only to find her standing behind her. Startled, she blurted, "How did you get there so quietly?"
Xena grinned. "I have many skills."
"I'll just bet you do. And I don't think I want to know what they are."
"Good, because I wasn't going to tell you."
"Why not?" Gabrielle laughed as she realized Xena had been purposely baiting her. "Fine." She splashed the taller woman and waded away, only to find she had traversed only two steps before a cold wave of water drenched her hair. Whirling around, she warned, "You do that again, and injured or not, you'll pay."
Xena just laughed and waited until Gabrielle turned to walk away again before skimming her hand across the water, sending a large wave in the smaller woman's direction.
They engaged in a water fight until Gabrielle decided Xena would never quit and could see some strain beginning to show on her face. "You win!"
The Conqueror was tired. She had pushed her body to its current limits, but couldn't remember the last time she'd had so much fun. "I think it was more like a tie." She began walking towards the shore and turned around when she cleared the water to gaze at Gabrielle appreciatively as she emerged.
Gabrielle's cheeks turned bright red as the Conqueror's eyes traveled down her body.
When Gabrielle blushed, Xena said softly. "You are a beautiful woman." Then she turned and walked away.
Gabrielle's emotions were whirling. Xena's look and her words had warmed more than just her cheeks and, embarrassed by her body's reaction to a simple compliment, she quickly donned her clothes before approaching Xena who was sunning herself on a nearby rock.
She handed Xena her tunic. "We should go so you can get some rest."
"And so you can change into dry clothes," Xena commented wryly. The warm sun had already dried her own body enough so that she could don her clothes comfortably.
Later that evening, Gabrielle sat on the steps outside the building, her thoughts far away. Her simple life had become very complicated. She had fallen in love with her avowed enemy. How it had happened, she wasn't sure. The fact was, it had. It was a secret she could share with no one, and Gabrielle dreaded the day they would go their separate ways.
Xena spent hours trying to decide how to convince the young woman to willingly accompany her as a guest to her palace. She was amenable to listening to the rebel leader's ideas, and had even considered changing the tax structure. She wondered if Gabrielle would accept a job as advisor. She knew she would not embrace all of the young woman's suggestions, but she could at least promise to consider her ideas. The idea of leaving Gabrielle behind to return to her lonely existence was unpalatable. However, fearing her offer would be rejected she remained silent.
Petros went to the market the next morning and was pleased to see that Gergor was tending his father's booth. "Hi. I've got to get a message into the castle. Has Helena been by yet?"
"No. It will be at least another candlemark before she stops. Since the Conqueror has been gone, the daily schedule of the palace has been disrupted. So far, no one has questioned her daily visits for the cook. That could change, though."
"I hope not." Petros pulled a hollow, dried gourd from a sack he was carrying and set it on the stand. It contained the message from Xena. He stood next to Gergor and waited for Helena to arrive. "I have to deliver this one to her personally."
"Anything I need to know about?" Gergor was surprised Petros hadn't left the gourd with him.
Petros shook his head. "Just a message from the Conqueror."
Gergor snorted. "You're right. I don't want to know about it."
Helena appeared within half a candlemark and Petros placed the gourd in her basket. He quietly repeated the message Xena had told him to pass on.
She nodded her head and disappeared back into the crowded market. Petros waited for another candlemark before leaving the vegetable booth. He had done his part. Now it was up to Helena to do hers.
Daemon paced around his quarters restlessly. Baruch had forbidden him to attend to his normal duties of maintaining the realm's books and handling routine matters until he assumed command.
He swung open the door at the sound of a timid knock. "Yes."
One of the house servants bowed. "I brought you the vegetable you requested."
Daemon looked at the proffered gourd with distaste. "There must be some mistake. I did not request this."
The servant raised her eyes to his. "You must have forgotten. I have it on the highest authority."
His eyes widened. Xena had to be alive. The last part of the servant's message was a secret code he and Xena had shared over the years. "Yes, I did forget. Thank you."
Helena bowed her head again and quickly made her way down the hall.
Daemon examined the gourd and quickly removed the thin coat of wax that held the split gourd together. He picked up the piece of parchment that fluttered to the floor and read.
Daemon sank down onto his padded bench, sighing with relief. His grim future had suddenly brightened. Xena had always taken care of those who were loyal and he would not fail her now.
His thoughts turned to the servant who had delivered the message. How did Xena get a message in here without knowing who her enemies were? For now, he would have to wait for the answer. He stood up and walked over to the oil lamp. He turned up the flame and burned the message.
The following day, Baruch declared Xena dead and announced his assumption of power. He declared himself Lord Baruch and in the privacy of his new quarters, he signed into law Kratos' appointment as general of the army and his second in command. He then sent for Kratos.
"Here are your appointment orders. They are well deserved."
Kratos played along and smiled. "Thank you, Lord."
"I want you to take a regiment of soldiers and visit the regional commanders. I want a full report on the status of each region, along with their reserves. Leave in three days' time."
"As you wish." Inwardly, Kratos was fuming. This bastard was sending him off on a wild goose chase. He smiled grimly. Baruch had just ensured his own death much sooner than had been planned.
***Utterly content to spend her time with the woman she found increasingly fascinating, the days sped by for Gabrielle. She watched Xena perform elementary exercises as her body continued to heal.
Gabrielle checked the snares the day after they had set them and found a dead rabbit in one. The young woman was glad that Xena had ensured its death was quick and painless, but she had no intention of cleaning it.
She walked into the room and dropped the dead rabbit in Xena's lap. "I cook them, you can clean them."
The incredulous look on Xena's face was firmly entrenched in her memory. "What? You think you should just be waited on here, too? I don't think so."
Xena's mouth finally closed and she picked up the rabbit nonchalantly. "Nothing hard about cleaning a rabbit."
"Good. Now that that's settled, I'll start the stew."
After that, Xena accompanied her each day to check the snares and cleaned the rabbit in the forest, leaving the remains for other predators. They also began bathing in the stream daily. Some of Gabrielle's self consciousness was fading and in her mind, the vulnerable feeling was well worth the luxury of watching the tall woman and secretly admiring her body.
Xena was pushing her body to prepare it for the battle she might face upon her return. The pain was still significant on occasion, but it was now manageable. She practiced throwing her chakram daily and performing simple sword exercises.
"I thought Petros was due back today."
"He is. Maybe he just got a late start." Gabrielle didn't believe that herself, but didn't want to alarm Xena. She knew something was very wrong, and hoped that Petros was safe.
The Conqueror could read the worry in the rebel leader's eyes. It had been almost three weeks since her accident, and five days since Petros had left to deliver her message. She hoped he had been successful, for Daemon's sake.
"If he does not return by the full moon, I will return to Corinth."
Gabrielle nodded. The look on Xena's face did not invite an argument, and the leader was giving him ample time to reappear. "I will go with you."
"It could be very dangerous. You would be safer here."
A mirthless laugh escaped Gabrielle. "It couldn't be much more dangerous than avoiding your soldiers has been for the last three years." There was no way she was letting Xena go alone even if she had to follow at a discreet distance behind her.
Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "I don't want anything to happen to you."
Gabrielle was rendered speechless. Her own feelings notwithstanding, she just hadn't expected to hear this from the most feared woman in all of Greece.
"Come and sit next to me." Xena smiled to cover her discomfort. When Gabrielle joined her, she took a deep breath and plunged into a conversation she hadn't had time to prepare for.
"I read your journal." When Gabrielle's eyes began flashing, she quickly added, "Please, wait. Let me explain." Xena looked at her hands.
"I thought you might be writing speeches against the realm or, perhaps, another story. You have a way with words, and I wanted to be better able to make you understand why some of the laws you don't support are necessary. I thought if I could get a clearer idea of what you objected to, I could better argue my case. I never expected to read what I did and I'm sorry for that."
Gabrielle's cheeks were burning. "Regardless of what you read, I will still oppose your laws that are unfair."
"I know that. And I would be disappointed if you did not, for to do otherwise would be to desert your convictions. But I must do what I think is right, too. I care about you, Gabrielle. I care what happens to you. I don't have a journal for you to read, but you have touched me in a very special way. I would like for you to come and stay at the palace as an advisor once I regain control. Would you be willing to consider that?" Xena waited nervously for Gabrielle's answer.
Gabrielle didn't know if she should laugh for joy or be mad at Xena. She was angry that her privacy had been invaded; yet it had opened the door for this conversation. Xena had offered her an alternative that would keep her near the tall woman, and it was apparent that that was something they both wanted.
"Would you genuinely consider my opinions, or are you just trying to get me to stop giving my speeches by giving me this job?"
"I promise to listen to what you say and consider it. But I can't promise how often I'll agree."
This was more than Gabrielle had ever hoped to accomplish, and she readily accepted. "All right. I'll take the job."
"Good. So if Petros does not return, you will wait here until I send for you?"
Gabrielle slowly shook her head and cross her arms. "No, I won't. If you leave, I'm coming, too. You are not fully healed and will need help."
The Conqueror was elated that her offer had been accepted and decided to concede this argument. It was true, she was not in peak physical condition, but she was improving daily. "Fine."
Pleased with her victory, Gabrielle asked, "Ready to go check the snares?"
Xena nodded, and they left the ruins shortly thereafter. Both were tired when they returned, having indulged in a lengthy water fight, and after eating, they retired early.
A scream died in Gabrielle's throat as she felt herself dragged from her bed and pulled across the floor with a hand clamped tightly over her mouth. She fought ferociously until Xena's barely audible voice penetrated her panic. "Ssh. There's someone outside."
Sword in hand, Xena moved in front of Gabrielle and slowly crept toward the door. Her mind instinctively processed an odd shuffling sound that might indicate the intruder was dragging something. She was also aware that the rebel leader was right behind her and knew she would need to address that later.
She moved swiftly to one side of the entrance and pressed her back against the wall while simultaneously grabbing Gabrielle's arm and pulling her tight against her unexposed left side.
The Conqueror's sword landed against the intruder's neck the moment it was backlit by the moon in the doorway. "Looking for someone?"
Despite the pressure of the blade against his skin, he choked and managed to cough out, "Gabrielle…"
"Iphis?" Gabrielle glanced at Xena. "Don't hurt him. He's a friend." She quickly moved around the tall woman and stood in front the rebel. "What are you doing here?"
Xena stepped back, but kept her sword poised inches from the man's neck. She watched the exchange with interest.
Iphis coughed again and clutched his stomach. "Endre sent me."
Gabrielle's stomach tightened as she processed two things: Iphis was hurt, and their location had been compromised. She urged Iphis down onto the floor and suddenly realized her hand was covered with blood. "Gods, what happened to you?" She grabbed a piece of linen and smiled a thanks to Xena for lighting the oil lamp.
"Soldiers." Iphis struggled to breathe. "Left me for dead." His eyes widened as the flame on the oil lamp flickered to life. "Looking for her!"
Xena pursed her lips. So the search hadn't been called off. "Why did they attack you?"
"I overhead them talking."
Iphis weakly smiled. "They're gonna kill you."
Gabrielle held her breath as she glanced up at Xena, only to recoil sharply. Danger permeated the air as the Conqueror stood over them twirling her sword casually, her face hard and cruel.
Disdainfully, she purred. "You find that amusing? No matter. You will die long before I do."
Gabrielle remained silent. She had seen Iphis smile when he delivered the news and understood that the Conqueror was responding to his disrespect. She silently thanked the gods that Xena hadn't just lopped his head off.
Able to see that Iphis was bleeding profusely from the stomach and knowing that he would not survive much longer, Gabrielle pressed linen against the wound to try and stop the bleeding.
Iphis looked up at Gabrielle. "Endre said…it's not safe. Stay away."
"Ssh. It's okay. Don't try to talk."
Xena was not about to let this rude peasant off so easily. She recognized him now. He was the sniveling coward who had betrayed Gabrielle. The Conqueror didn't understand why the rebel leader still considered him a friend, but they needed information and she was going to make damn sure he furnished it. "How did Endre know where Gabrielle was?"
Gabrielle looked up, irritated at the harsh demanding tone, and was startled anew by the cold expression on the Conqueror's face.
Iphis turned away from the glaring eyes, still shocked at finding the Conqueror with Gabrielle. He had totally enjoyed delivering his message, though. "He ordered Gergor to tell him."
"Ordered? He has no authority..."
Iphis looked confused. "But he's in charge."
"What do you mean, he's in charge?" Gabrielle asked, stunned at the revelation.
"He had papers…you signed."
Gabrielle's eyes began flashing. She couldn't believe Endre had had the temerity to forge her signature.
Xena raised an eyebrow and commented cryptically, "Seems like we both have problems to deal with."
When the comment earned her a glare, Xena returned her attention to the wounded man. "Who has assumed power in Corinth?"
This was the last name Xena had wanted to hear, and she never saw the shocked look on Gabrielle's face. "Are you sure it is not General Baruch?"
"He's…" Iphis was struggling to breathe.
Gabrielle swallowed her questions and looked up. "He can't tell us any more. He's dying."
Xena wanted her suspicions confirmed and barked out sharply, "He's WHAT!"
With his last breath, Iphis gurgled out, "Dead."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. "Did you have to be so mean? He came to warn me."
"By putting you in danger? You can be sure he left a trail of blood right to the portal. He has only betrayed you again."
"Not by choice! He was trying to make up for turning me in to you. He ended up losing his life just because he wanted to warn me not to return."
Xena had her own thoughts about that, specifically, that any betrayal was one too many, but decided, uncharacteristically, to remain silent when she saw the sadness on the young woman's face.
"I don't know how much time we have. Get your fur and let's go."
She quickly changed into the leathers that she had painstakingly cleaned and repaired, followed by her armor. Walking over to her own pallet, she rolled up her fur and grabbed their dwindling supply of jerky from a nearby bench. Xena waited impatiently for Gabrielle to finish packing, but never said a word when the rebel leader took the time to pack her parchment and ink.
Gabrielle looked down at Iphis. "We should bury him."
"There's no time. We don't know how close the soldiers are or how many others know where we are."
Nodding, Gabrielle silently bid her friend farewell, picked up her bedroll and followed Xena out the door.
Falling into step with the tall woman, Gabrielle asked, "We are going -- where?"
"Back to the city."
"I kinda figured that. I meant where are we going now."
Xena teased, "For a long walk."
Gabrielle stopped and her eyes started flashing, worry for her patient overriding all other considerations. "You are not healed enough to walk all the way back to the city now."
"I don't intend to. We're going to ride to the city. First, we're going soldier hunting."
"Have you forgotten about your ribs? I know you have a lot less pain, but…"
Xena could hear the concern in Gabrielle's voice, and decided to quit teasing her. "I'm going to sneak up on their camp and take two horses. Don't worry. They'll never even hear me. But first, we have to find them."
Gabrielle was relieved that Xena seemed to be taking her body's limitations into consideration, although she was not thrilled with the plan. If any soldier was awake to sound an alarm, Xena could be killed. That thought really scared her, and the rebel leader vowed to do whatever she could to make sure that didn't happen.
The Conqueror silently cursed her body for being weak as she was forced to rest. She'd wanted to find the soldiers' camp before daybreak, but apparently that would not be possible. The ridge they were on afforded them a good view of the surrounding area, and they could pitch a cold camp for a few hours.
"We can get a little sleep here."
Gabrielle was relieved that Xena had finally decided to stop. She could tell by her movements that her ribs were causing her pain. After spreading out her bedroll near Xena's, she sat down and looked up at the stars. Something was really bothering her, and she had to know the answer.
"Is General Kratos the man who killed my mother?"
Xena glanced in the direction of the voice. Only an outline of Gabrielle was visible in the night light. She hadn't wanted the rebel to know that he was one of her generals. It spoke poorly of her choice.
When Xena remained silent, Gabrielle said, "So you knew who it was all along."
"You will charge one of your highest general's?"
"Yes. No one is above my laws. He committed a heinous crime, and he will be tried and sentenced, provided he lives long enough."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't trust Kratos; that's why I named Baruch my second in command. Now Baruch is dead. If Kratos is responsible, he will oppose my return."
"Do you think he cut the girth on your saddle?"
Xena shrugged. "I doubt it. He would have had a subordinate do it."
"So you think he sent the soldiers to kill you?"
"I'd say that's a good possibility." Xena finished removing her armor and lay down. "Why don't you get some sleep, now?"
"I will." Gabrielle sat on her fur. She was overtired, cold, and worried. She wondered if Xena was up to the trying days that lay ahead, and what the future held-for both of them.
Xena watched Gabrielle, waiting for her to lie down. When she remained sitting, with her arms wrapped around her legs for warmth, Xena couldn't stand it any longer.
"What? Are you all right? I thought you were already sleeping."
"No. It's cold tonight. If we both slept on my fur, we could use yours to cover with.
Concerned, Gabrielle looked over at Xena. She must have pushed herself too hard to be aware of the cold before now, considering her ability to virtually ignore all but the very worst pain. She stood and picked up her fur, carrying it the short distance to the Conqueror.
Xena stood up and spread out her fur. She lay down on the far side and waited while Gabrielle covered her and then crawled beneath the blanket. Speaking softly, she said, "It would be warmer if we slept closer."
"Um..yeah." A moment later Gabrielle found herself securely tucked against Xena's warm body. Her awkwardness soon passed and she drifted toward sleep, surprised that Xena didn't feel cold at all.
The Conqueror followed Gabrielle to the land of dreams, a contented smile on her face.
Daemon sat propped against the cold wall near the entrance to the cave. Gaelan and the rest of Xena's personal guard littered the floor of the large chamber in varying stages of rest. He listened to the quiet movement of their horses as they grazed near the cave entrance, his ears alert for any change in the night sounds.
He would have preferred to remain in the palace to assist Xena on her return, but Kratos had neatly circumvented his wishes by poisoning Baruch three days earlier. Daemon knew it was a stroke of luck that he had decided to pay Baruch a visit, only to find the fresh smell of the poison on his lips. Another candlemark and the odor would have faded, and his death would have been a mystery.
With the death of Baruch, the position of Xena's supporters in the palace became untenable. The aide quickly located Gaelan and told him of Xena's orders that they retreat to safety. The captain had wanted to hunt Kratos down and kill him, but the general was absent and Daemon was able to convince him that they had no way of knowing how much support Kratos had.
Daemon sighed and hoped they heard from the Conqueror soon.
Gabrielle reluctantly left her warm bed when Xena woke her a few hours later. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt so totally protected and slept so well.
Xena carefully scanned the countryside from her vantage point on the high ridge. Her vigilance paid off a short time later when she spotted a thin tendril of smoke in the early morning light.
She turned to Gabrielle. "There's a campfire over there. I'm going to go check it out. Wait here."
"No. I'm going with you."
"If those are the soldiers we're looking for they'll be heavily armed. It'll be safer for you to stay here."
"You expect me to stay here while you put yourself in danger? Where I can't help you if something happens? When you are still healing from injuries? I don't think so."
Xena had never met such a stubborn woman. It was obvious Gabrielle was not going to change her mind, so she did something she rarely did-she capitulated. "Then stay close behind me."
A candlemark later, they were concealed in the tree line not far from the camp. Five soldiers were sitting around a campfire eating and talking.
"She's got to be dead anyway. Easy money, if you ask me."
"If it's so easy, how come no one's found her yet?"
"They just haven't looked in the right place." The soldier laughed heartily at his own joke.
Xena looked over to where they had secured the horses. They didn't have much time before these worthless buffoons finished eating. She signaled for Gabrielle to follow her and crept closer to the hobbled horses. She began softly crooning to the animals as she cut the hemp holding them.
Looking at Gabrielle, she said, "You take the black one. I'll follow you as soon as I chase the rest of the horses away."
"Xena? I don't know how to ride a horse."
A brief flare of anger died when she saw how distraught Gabrielle was. "You can ride with me." She finished untying the horses and helped Gabrielle onto the back of a large sorrel gelding, joining her moments later.
Whooping and hollering she drove the other horses away, only briefly hearing the shouting of the angry men before they were out of hearing range. Unsure in her current state if she could eliminate all the soldiers before any of them escaped and carried word of her survival to enemy ears, she reluctantly chose not to engage them and thus let all of them live. She smiled grimly. It would be a short reprieve.
Gabrielle hung on to the horse's mane for dear life as Xena urged the horse into a ground-eating canter. The bouncing of her body against the horse hurt, and she didn't understand how Xena could ride with her ribs still healing.
Xena saw Gabrielle's plight and wrapped an arm securely around her. "Lean back against me, and follow the movement of my body. You have to move with the horse."
It took a little while for Gabrielle to get the hang of it, but once she did, she sighed with relief and was able to fully enjoy her living backrest. She was unaware that her saddlemate was enjoying the contact just as much.
Once the soldiers were far behind, Xena slowed the horse to a walk. She didn't want to reach Corinth before nightfall, so there was no hurry.
"How are we going to get into Corinth and the palace without being seen?" Gabrielle knew there was no dissuading Xena from her mission, and though the Conqueror's deadly reputation was known throughout the land, she was worried about her.
"We stay off the main roads and go in by foot. I'll know better once we get there."
The day's activities had taken their toll, and Xena knew that fighting her way into the castle was out of the question. She would have to use the element of surprise to offset her own physical handicap, and it could become very dangerous if Kratos had beefed up the palace guard. Her biggest concern was how to protect Gabrielle.
Kratos called out, "Enter," when he heard the hard rap on his door.
His second in command walked in and bowed his head. "General."
"Have all the suspected rebels been rounded up?"
"Yes, General. The dungeon is full, and we have captured their leader."
Kratos grinned lewdly. "The young woman?" He had special plans for her. He could already envision the terror in her eyes when he took her by force until she begged for mercy.
"No. A man known as Endre. He had papers in his tunic signed by the woman. It would seem that she does not intend to return any time soon."
"I want her found!"
"Yes, General. I will send the army out tomorrow."
"Send some patrols out, but you will remain here. Tomorrow, this Endre will be sentenced and publicly executed. I want you there."
"As you wish."
Kratos watched Cenon leave the room. His subordinate had spoken against rounding up suspected rebels, insisting that only known troublemakers should be arrested. No one spoke against his decisions, privately or publicly. There would be a double execution the next day.
Once the young woman was found, he would turn his attention to Daemon. That gutless bastard had disappeared. It would give him great pleasure to slowly torture the man to death.
Xena and Gabrielle were hidden in the tall grass well outside the palace walls. Xena reached out and placed her palm on Gabrielle's cheek. "I want you to promise me something."
"I'm not staying behind."
Knowing the whims of the Fates were uncertain, Xena spoke from her heart. "Gabrielle, your scrolls told me that you have feelings for me. I need you to know that I love you, too. I don't want anything to happen to you. If you are with me, my focus will be on protecting you. I have a better chance if I know you are safe."
A tear rolled down Gabrielle's face. Xena had just declared her love for her, but if she did as the Conqueror requested, she might never see her alive again. Yet she didn't want to distract Xena either. In her condition, she needed her whole focus to be on her enemies. "I love you, Xena. I'll stay behind on one condition. You have to promise me that you will come back for me."
Xena leaned forward and brushed her lips across Gabrielle's mouth. Wrapping her in a tight hug, she said, "I promise." She then released Gabrielle and disappeared into the darkness.
The Conqueror stealthily moved toward the palace wall timing the passage of the roving guard. She scaled the fence, staying clear of the light from the palace. Her senses were fully extended and when she determined there were no guards in the immediate vicinity, she ran to the rear palace wall and jumped up, grabbing a ledge beneath an open window.
She was barely able to suppress a gasp of pain as the pressure against her healing ribs threatened to overcome her. Gabrielle's words echoed in her mind, and with a focus that was legendary, she forced her body to obey her commands and pulled herself through the window.
Xena fell softly to the floor, her breathing harsh and rapid as she wrapped her arms around her body trying to control the agonizing pain. She knew it was likely she had reinjured her ribs when her body had hit the wall beneath the ledge. A quarter candlemark passed before she could summon the strength to continue.
As the time crawled by, Gabrielle questioned her decision to remain behind. She knew what Xena had said made sense, but that didn't make the waiting any easier, and it had been over half a candlemark since she disappeared into the darkness. Her heart growing heavier with each passing moment, Gabrielle had to acknowledge that, no matter how strong her resolve was, Xena might not be able to keep her promise.
Cenon closed the door as he departed Kratos' quarters. The general seemed to get great pleasure out of exercising his power over his subordinates, and had ordered Cenon to join him for the evening meal. The reason why became clear when Kratos required him to taste all of the food first. Cenon wished the gods would strike the bastard dead. He was so focused on his thoughts, he never heard the door softly open and close behind him.
Xena had been in the adjoining room and smiled at her good fortune when Cenon left. She waited until he was far enough away; it was unlikely he would hear her entry. What she hadn't counted on was Kratos' reaction when he saw her. She had expected to have the advantage of surprise, but she hadn't thought he'd be so startled that he would knock over his own chair.
"Surprised to see me?" Xena purred with a smirk on her face. "What happened to Baruch?"
Kratos inched backward toward his sword. "His heart stopped beating while he slept."
Xena voice turned hard. "Not without some help from you."
"That is not true!" Kratos was trying to keep her talking until he could reach his weapon.
The Conqueror was well aware of Kratos movement toward his weapon and decided to hurry him by suddenly drawing her sword. She didn't know how long her body would hold out, and she had made a promise she fully intended to keep.
Halfway down the hall, Cenon heard a thud and whirled around, drawing his sword. There were muffled voices coming from Kratos' chamber, and the distinct sound of clanking metal. He hesitated, undecided on whether to assist the new leader or not. It would be in everyone's best interests if Kratos died, but he was very skilled with a sword and if he lived, Cenon knew his own life would be forfeit for not going to his aid. Slowly, he retraced his footsteps down the hall.
Kratos grabbed his sword and struck out, meeting the edge of the oncoming blade. They battled furiously, neither having gained an advantage when the door banged open.
Kratos saw his second in command and implored him, "Cenon, kill her."
Xena's laugh wafted through the air. "If you value your life, you will leave us."
Cenon grinned and closed the door. Thank the gods! The Conqueror had returned. He would await further instructions outside the door, for he had no doubt Kratos would soon be a dead man.
Xena was tiring quickly. Kratos seemed to sense her weakness, and it took every bit of strength she had to parry his blows. Her arms were so heavy she could barely lift them, and her face was white with pain.
Suddenly an image of Gabrielle floated into her mind, and she looked deeply into the trusting emerald eyes that seemed to see into her very soul. Xena found a reservoir of strength she didn't know she possessed, as she fought to keep her promise.
Kratos was momentarily puzzled when he heard the Conqueror whisper, "I promise," before she renewed her attack with superhuman strength, and when he felt her sword enter his chest, he wondered if she had been toying with him all along. As she watched him die, Xena knew that she had kept two promises to Gabrielle.
Xena's force of will was the only thing that kept her upright as she opened the door and barked, "Take the army and arrest the traitors that support Kratos."
"Yes, Conqueror, but they are few," Cenon assured her as he bowed his head then left to carry out her order.
She limped out of the castle and down the stone steps, unable to keep the pain from her damaged ribs at bay, but determined to keep her word to the woman she loved with all her heart. Her advance came to a halt when Gabrielle came running out of the darkness and wrapped her arms around her. Xena leaned heavily against her, smiled and spoke, "I kept my promise."
Her eyes anxiously searching the lithe body for any new wounds, Gabrielle acknowledged the simple truth of the statement. "Yes, you did." Tears of happiness fell freely from her eyes as she placed an arm securely around Xena's waist and helped her back into the palace.
Gabrielle continued to support Xena as she followed her directions to the sleeping chamber. Her attention was so focused on the tall woman, she barely noticed the austere elegance of the room they entered. After helping the Conqueror take off her armor and leathers, she pulled back the bedcover and waited for Xena to lie down.
"How about letting me take a look at your ribs?"
"If you want to. But they're just a little sore."
Gabrielle had her own thoughts about that and she unfastened Xena's undergarment, wincing at the wide array of angry purple bruises beneath Xena's breasts. "Oohh, Xena."
Xena managed a smile for the younger woman's benefit. "It's not that bad."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle murmured, but could see the truth in the pale drawn face. She gently examined the Conqueror's ribs, hoping they had survived intact, but was distressed to find the tell-tale bony ridge of a bone misaligned. She loosely pulled Xena's clothes together to protect her from getting a chill.
"One of your ribs is broken again. Where's the palace physician?"
Xena closed her eyes. She had suspected as much. "He has a room by the healing chamber. I will see him tomorrow."
"No. This bone needs to be set now. Besides, he can give you something for the pain. I'm going to get him." Gabrielle had no idea where the healing chamber was, but figured she would find one of the servants and ask.
Xena reached for Gabrielle's hand. "Don't go. Send one of the servants. There should be one posted right outside the door."
Smiling at the trust in Xena's eyes, Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "All right." She walked over to the door and opened it, surprised to find three servants waiting outside. "Would one of you please get the physician?" A tall, thin servant inclined his head and hurried away.
Glaukos moved rapidly down the long corridor. It had been many seasons since the Conqueror had requested his services and just before he had been summoned, one of his friends had told him she was back. He knocked on the door and entered when commanded to do so.
He walked over to the bed, wondering who the attractive young woman was. Glaukos bowed his head briefly. "Conqueror, how may I assist you?" He noticed immediately that her arms and legs showed signs of recently healed injuries and his warm gray eyes met the ruler's. "What happened to you?"
Xena raised an eyebrow at his impertinence, but decided to answer. "I fell down a mountain."
Glaukos barely stifled a snort. Serves me right for asking. "You summoned me?"
Gabrielle watched the interaction between the healer and Xena. It was obvious to her they had known each other a long time. Since it was clear Xena wasn't going to be cooperative, Gabrielle spoke up. "One of her ribs is broken."
The healer smiled at the young woman. He was curious about her. She didn't act like a servant. He would just have to be patient. The palace grapevine was a good one and he would find out soon enough.
After preparing a mixture of herbs, he returned to Xena's bedside. Meeting the wary eyes watching him, he said, "I have to properly align the bone. This will help with the pain."
Xena looked at the liquid suspiciously. "What's in it?"
"A strong blend of chamomile flowers."
The Conqueror nodded. It was a good choice. It would relax her to allow the bone to be easily set, but it would not put her into a drug induced sleep. She picked up the tea and drank it down.
Glaukos waited until he could see the medicine taking effect and deftly maneuvered the two ends of the bone back into place, then wrapped the injury tightly with linen.
"I'll come back tomorrow. You need to stay in bed to keep your ribs immobilized so they can heal properly."
After he left, Gabrielle stayed in the chair at Xena's side until she fell asleep. She didn't want to leave in case Xena needed her, and decided the bench in the corner would make a good bed. She pulled it across the room until it was right next to the Conqueror's bed, then laid down, thankful it was covered with a soft cushion.
The next few days were busy for the two women. Xena had little opportunity to escape the confines of her bed with Gabrielle in constant attendance, so she became quite proficient at running the realm from her sleeping chamber.
The Conqueror told Cenon where to find Daemon and Gaelan, and requested that he personally lead the troops that would escort them back to the palace. She also ordered the release of all of the suspected rebels who had been arrested, with the notable exception of Endre. The dungeons now housed thirty-eight traitors, the majority of them arrested while still on their mission to kill Xena for the fifty gold pieces Kratos had offered.
When Gabrielle asked why Endre had not been released, Xena's eyes narrowed in anger as she explained. "He put your life in jeopardy to further his own lust for power. He should be punished."
"He had no way of knowing Iphis would be injured. He was just warning me not to return."
"Yes, so that he could usurp your position as leader of the rebels."
Xena grinned. "All right, freedom fighters. He didn't care about you or what was good for your people. All he cared about was the power inherent in the position. Well, with power comes accountability."
"What are you going to do to him?"
"I thought you should devise the punishment."
Gabrielle looked away. It was true she would never trust Endre again, but she didn't feel he deserved to stay in prison or die for his actions. "How about banishing him from the city? That should keep him out of trouble."
The Conqueror would rather have had him executed, but deferred to Gabrielle's wishes. "I'll write the order today."
Gabrielle wondered if Petros had been among those arrested and if that was why he had not returned to the ruins when scheduled. She glanced at Xena. "I need to find out if Petros is all right."
"I'll have Daemon send someone for him."
"No, I think it would be better if I went to his house. I don't want to compromise his standing with the movement."
"What about your own?"
"I'll be fine. No one knows I'm here yet."
"I'd like you to take one of the house servants with you."
Gabrielle readily agreed. It would be a perfect opportunity for her to visit with her friend, Helena.
After a short walk through the city, the two women arrived at Petros' home. The rebel leader knocked on the door.
When the door opened and Petros saw the two women, his happiness was palpable. "Come in." He hugged each of them, then turned to Gabrielle. "I was so worried about you. I'm glad you're all right."
Gabrielle smiled. "I was worried about you, too. What happened?"
Petros' face turned dark. "You were right. There are worse rulers than the Conqueror. Her general had the army arbitrarily arresting anyone suspected of being a freedom fighter. I was arrested on the first day. Gergor was going to meet you in my place, but he was arrested later that night."
"Oh, Petros, I'm sorry you had to go through that."
He chuckled ruefully. "Gods I still can't believe the Conqueror released all of us yesterday. You should hear some of the others talking about it. It just doesn't make sense. Not that I'm complaining."
"What Kratos did wasn't fair. She knew that. That's why she released everyone. There was no evidence to support the arrests."
Petros looked at his friend quizzically. "How do you know? Maybe she was just happy to be back on her throne. Or maybe she was repaying you for saving her life."
"No. She corrected a wrong her general did. It had nothing to do with me."
"Maybe," Petros said doubtfully.
"Really," she responded, smiling.
Gabrielle wondered how her next bit of news would be received. "The Conqueror has hired me as an advisor. I'll be staying at the palace."
Petros' brow furrowed. "An advisor? She's going to listen to you?"
"She promised to consider my suggestions. I know she won't agree with all of them, she said as much, but I think it's a huge step towards making some positive changes."
"Why are you going to stay at the palace?"
Gabrielle hedged on little on the answer. She would tell Petros about her feelings for the Conqueror, but now was not the time. "As an advisor I will be required to attend some of her meetings so it's better if I stay there. Besides, it will give me a chance to discuss some of the unfair laws with her."
Petros was uneasy about this new development. What if the Conqueror suddenly changed her mind and put Gabrielle back in prison. "I'm worried about your safety. The Conqueror's temper is not to be taken lightly."
"I'll be fine. Trust me on this, all right?"
Petros slowly nodded. He knew he really had no choice in the matter. Gabrielle had obviously made up her mind that this was what she wanted to do.
"Thanks. I appreciate your support. Would you let the section leaders know that I'll be meeting with them soon? I would like to wait for Xena to heal first. I'm hoping by then that some of the laws may be amended."
"There will be those that oppose you if you stay at the palace."
"At first, maybe. But if I am able to persuade the Conqueror to make some changes that will improve the quality of life of the poor, it wouldn't be a problem because they will understand that I'm still supporting them."
Petros nodded thoughtfully. "I hope you're successful. There's a lot a stake."
Gabrielle smiled warmly. "I know. I'm going to do my best."
The next few weeks passed quickly as the Conqueror reestablished her rule. Daemon, Cenon, and Gaelan were decorated as heroes of the realm for their loyalty. She promoted Gaelan to fill Kratos old position of General of the Palace Guard and ordered him to find suitable candidates to replace the traitorous soldiers loyal to Kratos.
Cenon was promoted to General of the Army, and she had him rigorously comb the ranks of soldiers and officers to ferret out those that were not loyal. Xena named Daemon her second in command, and signed Gabrielle's appointment as advisor into law.
Upon his return to the palace, Daemon had tried to remain aloof from Gabrielle, fearing she was only trying to undermine the Conqueror, but soon realized his worries were unfounded. It was obvious to anyone who watched the two of them together that they cared very deeply for one another.
Daemon chuckled to himself at the change in the Conqueror when she was with Gabrielle. For the first time since he had known her, she was truly happy. He also knew the laws were a constant topic of debate between the two of them. It would be interesting to see which ones were rewritten; he had no doubt that at least some of them would be. He had already learned that Gabrielle was very persuasive.
Gabrielle continued to care for Xena, insisting that she let her ribs heal properly, and had required some visitors to return later if the Conqueror was sleeping.
One morning Xena overheard Gabrielle talking to someone in her outer chamber. "Gabrielle?"
Her new advisor greeted her with a warm smile. "Did you sleep well?"
Xena returned the smile. "Yes I did. Who were you talking to?"
Xena murmured a curse. "I forgot I had a meeting with him today. Would you let him know I'll be a little delayed?"
"I told him you were resting and he would have to come back later."
The Conqueror wasn't sure she had heard correctly. "You told him to come back later?"
Gabrielle nodded. "He's going to come back at midday."
Xena sat up and motioned for Gabrielle to sit next to her. "I appreciate that you are trying to allow me time to heal, but I have certain obligations as the ruler of Greece. Gabrielle, you can't send visitors away. I have to take care of business."
The young woman sighed. "All right. I won't send anyone else away."
A few days later, Xena was meeting with a contingent of traders petitioning to sell their wares in Greece. The Conqueror had been negotiating with them for almost a candlemark when Gabrielle noticed that she was no longer focused, and her face had imperceptibly paled. She stood up, left the room, and returned scant moments later. "Conqueror, the delegation from Egypt has arrived." She grinned as the traders very quickly agreed to Xena's offer and departed.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "A delegation from Egypt, huh?"
Gabrielle winked. "Worked, didn't it. I had to do something. They were never going to leave. I could tell you were hurting."
Xena met Gabrielle's eyes. "I love you."
"I love you, too." She took Xena's hand. "Let me help you back to bed."
Once the tall woman was lying down, Gabrielle got up to leave.
When Gabrielle turned around, Xena continued, "Why don't you move your things out of the guest room and in here with mine?"
"Oh, I don't know if that's a good idea." Actually, there was nothing Gabrielle would have liked more, but she had other concerns.
"Well, what will the servants think?"
The Conqueror stifled the urge to laugh, and commented, "They'll just think I ordered you to move in."
Laughing, she said, "Well they would."
Gabrielle smiled. "All right. I'll go get my things."
Xena returned the smile. Now all she had to do was convince her to quit sleeping on that bench.
Using the full power of her charismatic personality, Xena finally convinced Gabrielle that their sleeping in the same bed would not impede her healing, and she looked forward to the comfort of the young woman's body against her own each night. But most of all, she savored the taste of Gabrielle's soft lips when they met her own as they shared a good night kiss. Xena continued to exercise restraint, but her body longed for a physical release with the woman she loved.
Gabrielle's own needs were no less demanding, but she was determined to do nothing that would cause Xena any pain, and that meant limiting their cuddling to sharing only a kiss before sleep. She had noticed that they had both been prolonging the kiss lately, and sleep had been much harder to attain because every nerve ending in her body came alive at the slightest touch of Xena's soft skin against her own.
One night after a prolonged kiss, Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "I want to make love to you." She leaned over, met the younger woman's mouth with her own, and kissed her deeply. Xena could feel Gabrielle's heart rate increase as her body responded to the sensuous onslaught.
When the kiss ended, every nerve ending in Gabrielle's body was screaming for Xena to continue, but she hesitated, "I don't want you to hurt yourself. We can wait."
Xena kissed Gabrielle deeply again and slid her hands under her sleeping tunic gently caressing her breasts. As Gabrielle's body responded to her touch, her voice became ragged as her arousal escalated. "I have it on the highest authority, if we wait any longer, it's definitely going to interfere with my progress."
Gabrielle's heart started racing again when she heard the desire in Xena's voice, and she gazed deeply into the deep blue orbs, awash in the love shining out at her. "I wouldn't want to do that."
Xena smiled and murmured, "I'm glad." And she proceeded to show Gabrielle just how much physical progress she had made.
Coming Soon - The Challenge
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