Ascension, part 2 --- by Penumbra
Please see part 1 for disclaimers and copyright notices. Comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Conqueror's hands paused over the piece of wood she was carving, only to resume a moment later. There was a curious smile on her dark red lips, its quality fluid in the nervous light of the fire.
"There is no-one on the council to take my place," she replied, not looking up. Across the fire, Gabrielle shifted in her seat and wrapped the dark fur around herself more tightly.
"How so?" the bard persisted.
"Hm. Good question," Xena replied and finally paused in her self-imposed task, shoving the dagger back into her boot. "I believe it is a combination of equal talent and equal ambitions."
"Ah. Too many people, too few thrones?"
"Exactly," Xena said and smiled -- a real, genuine smile that lit up even her eyes.
"Are they not afraid of you?" Gabrielle asked, fascinated by this rare insight into the ruthless world of absolutism, and the myriad intrigues and dangers of a despot's life.
"That is of no consequence," the Conqueror replied, turning her carving in her hands. "Even an idle rumour of my death is enough to start the play for power. And I nearly did die, on that field in Macedonia." She fell silent after that, drawing out the dagger again and continuing with her carving.
That is as much as I want to know of it, Gabrielle thought and felt a small shiver go through her. Scooting closer to the fire, she extended her arms towards the crackling flames, feeling the warmth permeate her numb fingers.
They had stopped at nightfall, when Pyrgomache's breathing had been a constant wheeze and Gabrielle felt that she would slide off the saddle from sheer exhaustion. The mare had been treated with a thorough brushing, and upon seeing the blueish tinge of Gabrielle's lips and hands, Xena had built a small fire -- a calculated risk, though they were too far into the woods for the flames to be visible from afar.
It was a moment of almost bizarre mundanity amidst a life of the most unusual circumstances. Gabrielle found it comforting, to know that she could enjoy such a moment of silence, simply staring into the fire, with her love on the other side of the flames, and be content. What was even more amazing to her was that Xena, the Conqueror, was sitting with her quietly, not going anywhere. It was a precious moment of quiet companionship after so much pain and loneliness.
"What are you carving?"
Xena looked up, a hint of the previous smile still on her lips. "Come and see."
With a quiet sigh, Gabrielle rose and paced stiffly around the fire to sit next to Xena, peering intently at the hand hiding the piece of wood.
"What is it?"
Without a word, the Conqueror took hold of Gabrielle's hand and turned it palm up. Upon her open palm she placed her carving. It was a small, fluid shape in the image of a panther frozen in a ferocious leap, its tiny jaws open in a silent roar.
"It's beautiful," Gabrielle breathed, turning the miniature animal in her hand. It reminded her of something... "Where is Androdameios?"
"He died in Macedonia," Xena stated simply, turning her gaze back to the fire, redness rimming her hard eyes. The jittering, shifting light threw sharp shadows on her face. "That's him you're wearing now."
Gabrielle felt sick -- not because she was wearing Androdameios' fur but because she knew how much he had meant to Xena. The panther had been the embodiment of all that was primal in the Conqueror, and woman and animal had connected in a way Gabrielle could not understand but had felt strongly.
"I'm so sorry."
Xena shrugged. "War gives and takes away in equal measure."
The bard brushed her hand over the coarse fur, remembering how lustrous it had been on the panther, and how little of the inner, primal power of the animal it had concealed. And now...she shivered.
"Are you cold?"
"A bit," Gabrielle replied, quite untruthfully.
"Come here then," Xena murmured and pulled her close, under her own cloak. Hesitantly, the bard laid her head on Xena's shoulder, but when the taller woman did nothing to dissuade her closeness, she relaxed into the embrace, feeling the last of the coldness in her heart thaw.
"Better?" Xena asked, resting her cheek on the golden tresses.
"Much better," Gabrielle said and lifted her head, bringing her lips dangerously close to Xena's.
It was the natural course of events for Xena to lower her head so that their lips met, lightly at first. A quicksilver feeling of effervescence travelled through Gabrielle and she shivered again, for reasons quite different, as the contact intensified. The bard's senses were filled with the feeling and the divine scent of her love, and the softness of her lips. Xena's hands entangled in her hair and brought her even closer, deeper into the kiss that made her toes curl, and a sweet ache in her was fanned into life. When they finally parted, Gabrielle felt breathless and altogether too hot.
"That was...quite as I remembered," she said, inhaling unsteadily, and rested her forehead on Xena's jaw.
"I don't want to push you into anything," her lover replied quietly.
The words made Gabrielle lift her head, a smile in her eyes. "I know," she said and kissed an angular cheekbone, the skin ethereally smooth under her touch. Laying her hands gently on Xena's shoulders, she pushed the dark woman onto the ground.
For a moment, she just sat there, looking down at the woman she loved -- had not stopped loving -- despite all that she had done and what had been done unto her. There was something greater than mere affection that bound them together -- be it fate or whatever one chose to call it.
Xena's hands were folded on her stomach and Gabrielle set hers over them. So small and pale in comparison were they, light alabaster on gold. Looking up from their linked hands, past the softly gleaming breastplate and the folds of Xena's dark cape, she found the familiar eyes fastened on her, their blue gone dark indigo in the warm light of the fire.
"Gods...what did I do to deserve such beauty in my presence?" the bard whispered, brushing Xena's cheek with her knuckles. All the words she had been missing came to life in her mind, the beauty of poetry that she had not had cause to exercise during her long months of solitude.
The Conqueror lifted a wry eyebrow at the sudden extolment, for she didn't much care for her looks save for the advantage in intimidation they gave her over others of lesser stature. "Silly," she admonished quietly and took hold of the bard's wandering hand, pressing the knuckles lightly to her lips.
"Will you sleep with me tonight?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena exhaled, closing her eyes briefly before opening them again with a new gleam.
In the palace, regardless of the ruler's actual or imagined status, life went on. The courtiers whispered and giggled in the corners with the captains of the guard, handsome as the men of war were, while the officials of the court kept the status quo of life with feasts, great fancy dress balls with plentiful drink, and as always their deadly schemes -- for while a well-disposed man was usually clever enough not to lose his life on the battlefields, he was in greater danger of doing so in the royal court.
In the main passageway, just outside the great festival hall from which sounds of drunken singing and ribald laughter emanated, Saba stood in the shadows, swirling around the last of her wine in a goblet. The purple liquid spun wildly in the vessel and her eyes were trained on the dark vortex, though they did not see it; she was so deep in thought.
She would never have accepted this, the First thought, her nose wrinkling in disgust as a very intoxicated soldier passed her with a woman under each arm. He staggered around the corner with much giggling from his companions, leaving behind a strong smell of cheap wine and torch smoke. Never. The Conqueror's court had been a sombre affair, moreso after the disappearance of the bard. It was a place dedicated to ruling the land and waging successful wars, not for indulging in the excesses of life.
The uncertainty of it all bothered her. If the Conqueror truly was dead, Saba knew she was on the right path -- in an alliance with the most hot-headed of her competitors in the game of ascension, for it was the best place for her to keep an eye on him -- but if Xena was still alive...she shuddered at the thought of the consequences, for they were clear: she would die, and not swiftly. It would probably still be better than the alternative, she added gloomily and drained the last of her wine. The Conqueror was a legend, her name whispered with trepidation in all the kingdoms of the world, while she, Saba, as a ruler would forever be in the shadow of the Destroyer of Nations. If there is a fate worse than death, it is obscurity, she thought humourlessly.
The door to the great hall creaked open and through the narrow crack came Etor. With barely-hidden contempt, Saba nodded to the man.
"'Tis done, then?" she asked.
"It is done -- she ate the lamb two candlemarks ago, and a moment ago she retired, citing bad digestion," he replied, smiling widely and looking utterly pleased with himself.
"Good?!" he asked and from the tone, it was clear he had enjoyed some of the sweet wine himself. "It is most excellent! With Tyra gone, all we will have to deal with is Erasmus and a few of the other weaklings."
"Lower your voice, fool," Saba hissed. "The walls have more ears than I dare to imagine."
"And what can the walls or their ears do, hmmm, my dear Saba?" he asked, his smile not wavering an inch. "Whisper to the dead perhaps?"
"Do not exalt in your victories, Etor, until the throne is secured."
"Why not?" he roared, gesturing wildly with his goblet. "That wicked bacchae is dead!"
For a moment, the First looked almost wistful, older than her thirty winters.
"For your sake, Etor, I hope so."
It was, she decided, the most wonderful of feelings, waking up to the song of birds. The air was crisp and clear from the cold night -- a night whose chilly touch she had not felt. Opening her eyes, Gabrielle was greeted with the sight of the heavens, pale blue amidst the greenness of the trees.
"Wonderful," she said to herself and wrapped the furs around herself more tightly. They were imbued with Xena's scent and she breathed it in deeply. Sitting up, she looked around, twisting to see the small creek that flowed past their campsite.
There was Xena, rising from the clear, cold water of the creek, in all her naked glory. The water sheeted off her long frame, leaving behind glistening skin over long, muscled limbs. The dark woman paced closer, her gait the quiet, efficient stride of a predator, and Gabrielle fell in love all over again.
"Oh dear," she mumbled, eyes transfixed on Xena.
"Oh, nothing," Gabrielle replied and lowered herself to the ground again, trying very hard not to smile. The night, just sleeping in Xena's arms, with the steady slow heartbeat beneath her ear, had been simply exquisite. The feeling of peace inside her was palpable.
"How is your wound?"
Curious. I didn't even remember it, Gabrielle thought and carefully flexed her shoulders. "A bit better. Sore, but not hurting," she said and turned onto her stomach.
"It's healing nicely," was Xena's judgement as she re-dressed the wound.
As the nimble hands worked the herbal paste into the wound, Gabrielle folded her arms in front of her and rested her chin on them. "Wouldn't this be a life worth living?"
"Hmm?" came the one-syllable query.
"Living on the road...nothing to worry about except the next meal..."
"Worth living, yes," Xena replied quietly, "but not possible."
Who was it that described power as, alternatively, a strong arm and a personal prison? Gabrielle wondered and closed her eyes. There were things in life one could not achieve, even when one prayed hard enough to awaken the dead.
As they rode that day, the hard road echoing loudly under Pyrgomache's hooves, the copse of trees that shadowed their trail thinned progressively. What had been a cloudless sky upon the break of morning was now covered with a thick shroud of clouds, and as they emerged from between the last trees of the forest, the first heavy drops of rain sounded with dull pings against the Conqueror's armour.
The healing wound in her back let its existence be known with every jolt of the ride, but Gabrielle didn't complain. She was getting used to pain as her constant companion, having lived with it for many moons. It helped if one didn't think of it, didn't dwell on the neverending white-hot throbbing.
Gabrielle adjusted her grip on Xena's shoulder guard, feeling the chafing of the Conqueror's newest scar with her hand. The wound on her arm had been deep and the remains of stitch marks were still visible. How does she deal with it? Gabrielle thought, feeling the contrast between cold, wet armour and warm flesh. All the pain. She remembered the multitude of scars that decorated the Conqueror's skin, a complicated roadmap of her life carved in her very flesh.
"I ignore it."
Gabrielle's deep thoughts dispersed at the low words and she looked up at the Conqueror, an eyebrow lifted in query.
"The pain," Xena clarified and shifted her gaze momentarily to Gabrielle's hand upon her arm. "That's what you were thinking of, right?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle replied and smiled in wonder. "You do know me well."
Xena smiled and cocked her head. "Your actions speak very clearly of your thoughts."
Gabrielle let go of her arm and shifted her grip to Xena's hips, grasping the thick leather strips of her battle skirt for support as they rode down a hill and took a sharp bend in the road. "Ignore it?" she asked.
"Yes. There is no other way."
Humming in agreement, Gabrielle rested her cheek against Xena's chest and blinked a few raindrops off her lashes. Only then did she focus on the world outside the warm protective cocoon of Xena's cloak.
"Xena...what is this valley called?"
"F·rsalokŪn," the Conqueror replied as she pulled on the reins, slowing Pyrgomache to a languid canter.
They were passing through a valley of the dead. As far the low valley stretched, to a thicket of trees in the east and a steep ridge of hills in the west, the ground was littered with corpses in various stages of decomposition. Spears stuck out from bared ribcages in a haphazard forest that spanned the lowlands, and the gusty wind caught tattered remains of standards and legion flags that stood sentinel next to their once-proud carriers.
They came to a halt in the middle of the valley, where a pile of bodies blocked the path. With trembling legs, Gabrielle slid down from the horse and walked a few faltering steps, while Xena remained in the saddle, quietly watching the bard.
Turning around and taking in the view of past carnage, Gabrielle let out a small sound of desperation and confusion. "What has happened here?" she asked, gesturing towards the nearest body. It was a man, clad in the light tunic and chest armour of a hoplite. His hands, now but a collection of yellowed bones, were still clutched around an arrow that penetrated his midsection.
"The battle of F·rsalokŪn was at Winter Solstice," Xena said, her voice completely devoid of tone as she dismounted. Wrapping the cloak tightly around her, she stared into the distance, her eyes narrowing as she remembered. "Dissidents from the north."
"Dissidents?" Gabrielle asked as she knelt on the muddy ground next to the hoplite's body.
"My own people, Gabrielle," the Conqueror said, her eyes still on the horizon. "Pushed from their homesteads by barbarians from north and, gone insane from hunger and fear, driven here...where I met them."
In the strengthening rain, the shapes in the ground grew misty and unclear. The pitter-patter of rain on whatever bits of armour still covering the corpses that the nearby villagers hadn't deemed worth scavenging grew louder. Quietly, her knees in the mud, Gabrielle watched the tattered feathers of the arrow that had sealed the hoplite's fate grow wet and limp, and sadness enveloped her heart. The field reeked of more than rotting flesh and the excrement of scavengers; it held a tangible air of hopelessness.
"I rode them to the ground in two candlemarks," the Conqueror said, turning towards the wind. The gusts of air flared her wet hair into a mane of heavy, inky black behind her.
Xena's startling honesty -- the coldness of her words -- spoke volumes to Gabrielle. This had been the reality of Xena's life for so long that she didn't even remember what it was like to fear. Xena couldn't feel or understand the despair that had driven the northern people to such extremes -- she had seen the people merely as a threat to the peace of her nation, nothing else, and so her sword had felt no mercy. Among the dead, they outnumbered Xena's once well-armed and trained soldiers ten to one, doomed to nonexistence by a superior force.
"Does this never end?" Gabrielle asked quietly of the hoplite, but it was the Conqueror that replied.
"As long as there is life in me, Gabrielle, so long will the darkness call me."
Gabrielle pressed her forehead to Xena's chest. The skin was clammy with perspiration.
"Oh...gods, Gabrielle," Xena groaned, her voice a low thrum. Her fingers entwined in the bard's hair as she squeezed her head closer, resting her cheek on the fair hair.
Gabrielle could feel the bunching of Xena's hard abdominal muscles under her palm, even through the thick leather, while her other hand was clenched deep within her.
It had begun innocently enough. She still rode in front of Xena and had tried to get a better hold. She had wormed closer, deeper inside the cloak that shielded them both from the chilly weather. The dark leather of Xena's outfit had felt so nice and smooth, warmed by the woman inside, and its scent both feral and comforting...death and desire. And so the temptation to taste the sweet skin so near her mouth, to feel its tautness over a collarbone, had become unbearable.
Her senses had remembered every tendon, the graceful curve of Xena's neck, how the pulse point under her jawbone fluttered as her heart rate picked up. Her hands had found their way under the battle skirt quickly, lingering but a moment on the smooth skin on Xena's thighs before finding the source of all that heat.
Xena's voice was a deep growl, coming so near her ear that Gabrielle could feel the fleeting touch of hot breath on her cheek, before the whipping wind took it away. She pushed harder inside Xena, placing her thumb on her clit. She was rewarded with another long, delighted growl that was drowned in the deafening thunder of hooves against hard ground.
Daring a quick look to her side, Gabrielle regretted it immediately. They were riding on the edge of a steep ridge, the path no more than three spans wide. Suddenly, letting out a wild yell, Xena yanked at the reins with her free hand and Pyrgomache took a turn left, down another path that led down the ridge and towards the shore. Gabrielle held on for dear life, stubbornly refusing to remove her hand from within Xena.
The water was cold as it splashed on her bare legs and Gabrielle curled her toes as a shiver passed through her. Xena was riding the mare through the shallow shore waters, her hooves striking alternately wet sand and the grey waters of the Ionian Sea. Grabbing a firm hold on the intricate grooves of Xena's back plate, Gabrielle bit down on Xena's throat and thrust her hand deeper, so hard her bicep trembled with the strain. The Conqueror moaned, her hand closing almost painfully tight on Gabrielle's hair.
"Darling," Xena whispered, her voice thick. "Harder."
Gabrielle let go of Xena's neck and laid her cheek on the cool edge of her breastplate, her breath coming in short gasps. She could hear blood pound in her ears, as the hand in her hair let go and landed on the small of her back. The palm was large and warm even through her thick tunic and it grabbed her flesh tightly. Gabrielle did as was told; she pushed harder, bending her fingers inside the slick, muscled tunnel. Xena murmured something quite unintelligible and jerked in the saddle. She was getting close.
"Harder," she hissed again to Gabrielle.
Pressing the heel of her palm against the hard nub she felt between Xena's folds, Gabrielle gritted her teeth and wriggled even closer. Her arm was at an awkward angle and Xena moved restlessly around the wildly lurching saddle, so as to control one variable she slid her other hand down and under Xena's skirt, grabbing one muscular cheek. The bones of her hand were nearly crushed when Xena suddenly sat down and leaned back, the wind grabbing her cloak and wild mane of hair as she threw back her head.
"Oh yesss..." she groaned and leaned even further back, small flecks of ocean foam scattering over her heated skin. Gabrielle could see the trembling of Xena's muscles as her hand controlled the reins, the leather thong in the vice-like grip of her hand.
"My love," Gabrielle whispered and bent to lick a bulging vein on Xena's bicep. She traced the defined ridge to the bend circling arm and paused there to suck on the pulse point, all the while her hand worked, rubbing hard against Xena's clit. The Conqueror's moan turned into a ragged scream as she came, her hips lifting off the saddle. Gabrielle's hand was drenched with come and she felt the hot stickiness flow between her fingers and into her cupped palm.
Slowly, Xena returned from her moment of bliss, a lazy, sexy smile on her face as she settled back onto the saddle.
The kiss on Gabrielle's cheek was brief but it left behind a streak of fire. Withdrawing her hand, the bard settled back into the loose embrace, feeling Xena's heart pound.
"You are so beautiful when you come," Gabrielle said quietly, more to herself than to anyone else, but the Conqueror's keen ears caught the words anyway. Xena smiled and kissed the fair head against her chest, still feeling the last warm embers of the passion glow inside her. Shifting her grip on the reins, the Conqueror guided Pyrgomache off the seashore and to the soft sand of the beach. Great clumps of the white sand lifted up with each beat of her hooves.
The beach stretched along the languid curve of the coastline, towards the rocky hills in the horizon. The craggy, jagged gatherings of stone were dark and brooding in the gloom of the day, barely visible through the thin rain that had fallen from the sky all day long.
It was the seventh day of their long journey from Potedaia to the Isthmus of KŪrinthos. They had avoided the main roads, travelling through narrow paths through vast forests and staying close to the shoreline. And now, behind the hills, lay KŪrinthos.
As she felt Gabrielle nuzzle her skin, the Conqueror smiled. KŪrinthos had been the closest thing to a home she'd had in a dozen winters, but without her beloved the place had felt dead. And now she was returning home once again, with Gabrielle by her side.
She squinted towards the horizon. And as for those cowardly bastards that used to be my council...their time has come.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle, wake up."
A green eye opened. "Hmmmm...?"
"We're close," Xena said and only then did Gabrielle notice that they had stopped, at the foot of the hills where they met the beach. "A candlemark and the cover of the night will be upon us."
Nudging Pyrgomache to a slow canter, the Conqueror guided her towards a massive boulder so smooth it could have been a black pearl from Gaia's necklace. When they came around the boulder, a slight depression in the rock wall was revealed.
"Best I could find."
Gabrielle tilted her head up and offered a small smile, trying to cover the trepidation she felt.
After dismounting and seeing that Pyrgomache got fed, they settled into the small alcove, Xena leaning against the rock wall with Gabrielle sitting between her legs. Setting up a fire was simply out of the question for the smoke would be visible to the city even in the dimming twilight, so Gabrielle burrowed deep into the embrace to keep warm despite the chilling rain and cool wind that blew from the sea. The air smelled of sea plants and salt, moist and heavy.
Though Xena sat quietly enough behind her, her breathing languid and warm as it brushed Gabrielle's neck, the bard could tell that she was dying to get going. The Conqueror's fingers were twitching over their resting place on Gabrielle's stomach...and there was tension in the air. Like an approaching thunderstorm, the bard could smell the coming destruction, feel the energy that was palpable enough to make the small hairs on her arms rise.
"Not long now."
Gabrielle turned slightly, choosing not to look up but settling her gaze on Xena's chakram instead. Tracing the intricate pattern on the shining circle, careful of the razor-sharp edge, she cleared her throat. "You're thinking of going alone, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm going alone. Gabrielle --" the Conqueror began, but was silenced by a slender finger on her lips.
"Shhh. I'm going with you."
"Gabrielle, it's dangerous...and this is my fight, not yours," Xena replied and turned the bard's head fully up, meeting the darkened eyes with her own. Their blue was almost grey now, mute and soulless.
Gabrielle smiled a smile that held not a hint of humour. "So soon you forget?"
"Forget what?" Xena replied, her brows drawing together.
"Your promise," the bard replied simply. "Xena, I want to be part of your life."
"But you are."
"No," Gabrielle said and shook her head, her unseeing eyes settling on the distant horizon. "I want to take part -- not as a spectator, but as an active participant. Be there for you, as you have been for me. I'm not a child anymore, Xena," she continued, smiling sadly to the Conqueror. "Ceased to be one long ago. I want to take responsibility for my own life."
"These people are deadly vipers...dangerous to the extreme."
"War gives and takes away in equal measure," Gabrielle replied and took Xena's hand into hers. "I'd rather die for you than live second-guessing my decision to stay behind, should you get killed," she said and squeezed Xena's hand, feeling the coldness of the long fingers on her palm.
"Hmm," the Conqueror grunted and rose abruptly, stepping over a startled Gabrielle. With wary eyes, the bard followed her lover as she dug out a brush from her saddlebag and applied it to Pyrgomache's inky black coat. The mare must have sensed her mistress' distress because she kept nudging Xena with her muzzle, gently, until she got the Conqueror's attention. Gabrielle couldn't hear what Xena spoke to her horse for the words were low, whispered into one twitching ear.
The last light of the day dimmed slowly, with Gabrielle sitting quietly in the shelter of the boulder, and the Conqueror brushing her battlehorse with long, brisk strokes, until the raven coat all but gleamed. Her moves were paced with an internal rhythm, her gait rolling as she paced around, tying pieces of linen around Pyrgomache's hooves. Walking around the mare one last time, brushing along the muscled flanks with her hand, Xena came to a halt a few yards from the mare. With one fluid move, she pulled out both her swords, the sudden move startling the bard.
The blades caught the last rays of Helios, reflecting the light feebly as they flew through the air, guided by the Conqueror's sure hands. The movement became so rapid that the lines of the swords blurred, until the blades no longer were separate entities; instead, they had become an extension of the Conqueror, part of her body and her soul. The wind keened as the swords sliced through it, the sound ragged and high as if the air itself were in pain.
The exercise, more a warm-up than anything else, was brief and soon the swords disappeared back into their sheaths. The Conqueror herself had become nothing but a dark silhouette to the bard, a striking figure against the pale glow of the sand. After a moment of quiet she dug into her saddlebag and came up with a bundle of cloth. Even in the darkness, as she flared it to its full length, Gabrielle could see its colour: dark, deep crimson.
Xena turned and came closer, extending a hand to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's heart lurched in her chest. "You're taking me with you?"
"Yes. The Fates had a reason for bringing us back together," Xena replied, the white row of her teeth visible even in the low light. "Maybe this is it."
The bard took the offered hand and she was pulled up into a fierce embrace, Xena's lips landing on hers in a searing kiss.
The ride to the outskirts of the city took them but a quarter of a candlemark and by then the pale sickle of the moon had risen in the cloudy sky, visible only momentarily through the rain. Before the final bend in the road that would bring them to the first settlements outside the city walls, Xena reined Pyrgomache in and unsheathed one sword.
"Hold on tight," she told Gabrielle who was riding behind her.
"We merit a welcoming committee?"
"Most probably," Xena replied. "If we find guards, none of them can be allowed to alert the council."
True to Xena's premonition, when they rode the last distance and the walls of KŪrinthos came into view, there was a squad of troops stationed just outside the outermost sphere of dwellings. Lighted with guttering torches, the men were huddled together, trying to keep warm in the clammy, rainy weather and pass time with games of dice.
Looping the reins even tighter around her hand, the Conqueror gave the sword one lazy twirl before digging her heels into Pyrgomache's flanks. The mare neighed and shot forward at a full gallop, her hooves making little noise with their muffling encasings.
The guards never knew what hit them. Suddenly, out of the darkness emerged a wraith of death clad in a shroud of blood, plowing through them with nary a shred of resistance. That night Xena's sword tasted first blood from a stocky, bearded man who fell with a scream cut short, the front of his leather armour drenched in his blood. Another guard was rendered unconscious with a vicious kick, his head snapping back with sickening speed, while the third caught the hilt of Xena's sword squarely in his face. The rest fell equally quickly, scattered haphazardly and in curious poses on the ground.
After flicking excess blood off her sword and re-sheathing it, Xena loosened her grip on the reins, letting Pyrgomache find her speed as they navigated the narrow, meandering streets between the houses. KŪrinthos had grown quickly since Xena had assumed the throne, the relative safety and prosperity of the city luring both merchants to settle in, and craftmen to donate their talents to the city. The old city walls had grown too confining and consequently, the metropolis had expanded into the surrounding fields, usually without any pre-planning or order, resulting in narrow alleys that were an unnavigable maze for those who did not know them.
"You're not going to try through the main gates, are you?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena turned her head, just enough for the bard to be able to see the lopsided, cruel smile playing on her lips. "I may be many things but suicidal is not one of them," she replied.
The lane they were riding down terminated abruptly at the city wall and Xena pulled Pyrgomache to a stop right next to it before dismounting. Gabrielle stayed in the saddle, lifting her head up, up, higher still, following the slick stone wall all the way to its top edge, the embattled parapet only dimly visible in the rain, seemingly a thousand feet above her. Mother of Zeus...what did I just get myself into?
Had the night been windless and the guards flies on the outer walls of the city, they would have heard a string of quiet curses elaborate and colourful enough to make a sailor blush. As it was, only the few centipedes skittering across the clammy, moss-covered masonry heard the Conqueror as she clung to the wall.
"...and one more," Xena grunted around the dagger in her mouth, reaching up to grab another one of the slick stones. Her fingers hurt as she grasped for a better hold before pulling herself higher. How ridiculous is this, sneaking into my own city, she reflected wryly as she paused to catch her breath. The next handhold was already the embrasure of the battlement, but just as she was pushing herself up to its level, a scrape of boot against stone made her pause.
Gamw'to! she cursed, freezing into her awkward position. They have added guards to the watch. Another scraping noise, and the wind turned so that the words of a quiet conversation drifted to the Conqueror. The voices were approaching.
"...damn Uranus for siccing this miserable weather on us," one grumbled, and another replied with a grunt, just as the voices passed the Conqueror's position.
One, two, three, the Conqueror counted and pulled herself up, only to land in a crouch on the embrasure and launch into a quick flip. She hit the rampart right behind the two men. ...apples from a tree.
The question was aborted by Xena's blade as it sliced through the guard's throat. As he went down, clawing futilely at his bleeding neck, the other guard was silenced with a quick stab through the thin bone of his left temple. The scuffle took but the blink of an eye and soon the embrasure was deathly quiet, the guards' blood diluted to pale red pools by the falling rain.
After wiping the dagger and placing it between her teeth again, Xena parted her cloak and unwrapped the long rope coiled around her waist. With the help of the rope, it took only a fraction of a candlemark for Gabrielle to join her. As the bard freed herself from the coil, she darted a quick look around, pausing at the sight of the two dead guards.
"Xena...those are your men."
The Conqueror paused and looked up. Even in the dimness of the night, Gabrielle could see the hard look in her eyes.
"Were. They were my men," Xena said and threw the rope back over the wall. "They ceased to be my men when they chose not to wear my sigil," she added, gesturing towards the bodies. True enough, neither the helmets nor the collars of the men bore any signet of allegiance.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but Xena had already turned away and was heading towards the nearest ladder in a brisk jog. Shaking her head, the bard followed, her heart pounding for many reasons. It wasn't that she feared this risky operation; Xena's presence was enough to make such fears dissipate. No, she was afraid of what would become of Xena's fragile equilibrium once they reached the castle and she confronted those that had betrayed her so. Oh Athena, please watch over her, Gabrielle prayed quickly before rushing to follow her.
The streets were deserted, not another person in sight as they jogged through the city. Xena's route took them from one shadow to another, their path clinging close to houses and taking them through the narrowest of alleys. Inside a quarter of a candlemark, their quiet journey led them to the castle wall.
"This silence is eerie," Gabrielle whispered to Xena, keeping as close to her as possible. Laying a gentle hand on her back, she felt the muscles there flinch. "Sorry," she said and pulled her palm away. In the darkness, she was almost sure Xena's silhouette had smiled.
"They've placed a curfew. We have another half a candlemark before the guards change and the intrusion is detected," the Conqueror murmured, brushing her hand along the rugged stone wall of the castle as she paced along it. Her sensitive fingers glided over the dark, rain-slick stones, feeling with a knowing touch.
"Are you looking for something?"
"Yes..." Xena hummed, pausing in her stride to smooth her palms over one square stone, only to continue her slow walk a moment later.
Instead of a verbal answer, Xena let out a small, satisfied grunt and crouched down next to a largish stone seemingly set tightly in the wall. However, when she scraped some of the mortar away, removed two of the stones surrounding it and gave the bulky, roughly spherical shape a push, it rolled away from the wall, revealing the dark mouth of a narrow tunnel.
"What is this?" Gabrielle asked, bending over to peek into the cramped confines. The tunnel reeked of wet soil, undercut by the faint odour of rotting flesh -- a combination that made her skin crawl.
Pushing her dagger into her boot, Xena reached into the tunnel, deep into the darkness and pulled at something. What emerged was the hand of a skeleton, the small bones of the hands detaching from one another and scattering to the ground. Adjusting her grip on the bony wrist, the Conqueror pulled out the rest of the almost skeletonised body, still wrapped in small slivers of flesh and the tattered remnants of a prisoner's clothing.
"Once, soon after I came here, there was a thief of great talent captured," Xena said as she cast the body aside. "Facing a lifetime in the dungeon, left to rot away slowly, he was desperation itself. He decided to escape."
"That's...him?" Gabrielle whispered, gesturing towards the pile of bones, the grinning skull on top of the heap.
"Yes," Xena said and dusted off her hands, smiling. "I found out about his plan," she continued, indicating the passageway, "when he was about half-way through. I let him dig the rest of it before releasing my hunting dogs into the tunnel."
True to her words, as the clouds momentarily parted to let down Phoebe's light Gabrielle could see teeth marks on the yellowing bones, where the fleshy part of him had been chewed off. She reached out instinctively but caught herself before her hand touched the remains. The skull with its few remaining tufts of hair and empty sockets seemed to be laughing at her from beyond.
"How...efficient," Gabrielle managed and drew away from the skull.
"Indeed," Xena said, wrapping her cloak around herself to keep it out of the way. "I go first, you stay close behind."
Gabrielle nodded silently, her eyes darting between the bony remains of the thief and the tunnel's mouth.
Xena's brows drew together. "Gabrielle. Are you sure you're up for this?"
Blinking, the bard turned her head towards Xena, offering a small smile. I did insist, didn't I? "Yes, of course," she said out loud and clasped her hands together to hide their trembling.
Xena's tall form disappeared into the tunnel with nary a sound and, after a deep breath, Gabrielle followed.
In the tunnel it was darker than midnight at the new moon. Gabrielle found it a very disconcerting feeling, not being able to see even her hand held up to her face. Momentarily, as she followed the quiet shuffling of Xena before her and what little her sense of touch was telling her of their path, she experienced a brief wave of nausea in her gut. Her sense of time and place was going haywire and she felt that she was, alternately, falling down and flying towards the heavens.
The earth was damp and soft under her palms as she crawled on all fours, keeping her head low to avoid touching the equally moist ceiling. The thick, dank air stuck to the back of her throat, the thin film tasting of woodsmoke and putrefying flesh. While her hands did occasionally meet something small and furry that shot away with a sound of indignant snickering, she prayed that her touch would not find any more dead men.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was muffled. The bard cleared her throat, vainly trying to rid herself of the acrid taste in her mouth.
"A few more feet and we'll take a break."
Thank Gaia, Gabrielle thought. Reaching out, she could feel the tunnel widen and she followed the left-hand wall, feeling it curve sharply. Suddenly, something grabbed her hand and it took all her willpower not to scream out loud. She did, however, let out a small yelp that was most efficiently muffled by Xena's hand as she was drawn into an embrace.
"Sorry," Gabrielle whispered and wrapped her arms around Xena's solid frame, breathing in the comforting scent of her lover. Not dead flesh but instead, the quickness of her blood.
"C'mon. Sit down here."
In the darkness, Gabrielle approximated 'here' as best as she could and found herself sitting in Xena's lap. The light, elusive touch of the Conqueror's cloak surrounded her and she grabbed its edge, fingering the luxurious fabric as she prepared a question.
Though she was sure Xena couldn't see her smile in the darkness, she smiled anyway, leaning against Xena's breastplate. "Thank you."
"Hmmm," the Conqueror murmured. The voice was low and throaty, pondering, and Gabrielle felt its dark timbre reverberate deep inside her.
It was amazing, she mused, how keen the other senses became when one was useless. In the distance, she could hear the low murmur of flowing water, and over that voice the small sounds of whatever cave-dwellers inhabited this darkness. The small claws of rats rattling over stone, and their squeaks and chirrups.
"This is the old dungeon entrance, no longer in use and thus drained years ago," Xena said. "Prisoners were brought through a gate near the harbour and into this tunnel. The thief's tunnel intersected this passage, and he found the one spot where the water had worn the castle's stone foundation away."
"Where we came through?"
"Yes," Xena replied and wrapped her arms tighter around Gabrielle, who laid her head on Xena's shoulder.
It was a welcome moment of peace for Gabrielle, whose health was still not fully restored. Feeling around with her other hand, she curved her fingers around the top edge of Xena's breastplate, feeling the smoothness of the warmed metal under her palm. The Conqueror's heartbeat was slow and steady, her breath warm on Gabrielle's cheek.
As she adjusted her legs, Gabrielle's foot met something that gave a muted, hollow sound. Reaching out, she found a round shape that was smooth under her fingers, with faint seams running through the surface. Yanking her hand away, she uttered a small sound of surprise.
"Xena! There's another skull here."
"Yes. That must be the guard," Xena murmured.
"The one that discovered the prisoner's plans. When I released the dogs, I sealed him in here as well."
The cool, detached tone that Xena spoke with made Gabrielle's blood grow cold. "Why?" she asked quietly, not entirely sure she wanted an answer. But as always, Xena was ruthlessly honest.
"To keep the secret only to myself."
For a moment, Gabrielle struggled with her words. "That wasn't...fair," she finally managed, being as unabrasive as possible.
The Conqueror's laughter was hollow. "No. Only sensible."
And that's what it all comes down to, doesn't it? Gabrielle thought. Doing what is most logical, despite the...collateral damage. She had come to understand that Xena was not ruthless out of sheer evil; no, the Conqueror's ruthlessness was born of necessity. Palace politics was not something she enjoyed -- she loathed dangers one could not vanquish with a blade -- but she survived by doing whatever was most efficient and necessary, however cruel a solution that might be.
In effect, there must be two Xenas, Gabrielle mused, resting her head on Xena's shoulder. There was the one who cherished battle, and then the other who did whatever was necessary so she could go on doing what she so loved -- waging war. She shook her head, closing her eyes.
"Xena, why do you do it?"
The Conqueror rested her cheek against the cool tresses of Gabrielle's hair and shrugged. "There is no one else to do it."
And that's the crux, isn't it? Gabrielle sighed. While Xena was as ruthlessly effective in her dealings as the ruler of a nation as she was on a battlefield, in the palace one could rule with fear only for so long. Daggers were sharper here, and tongues held venom bitter enough to make even the mightiest of rulers fall. In all of the hundreds of solar cycles of KŪrinthos' written history, only two rulers had died of natural causes -- a legacy that spoke clearly of the violent nature of ascension: it was never a question of if, but one of when.
"C'mon. Let's go on," Xena said and nudged Gabrielle off of her. As the darkness swallowed her warmth again, Gabrielle shivered momentarily before she followed.
"The guard station is just beyond that corner," Xena whispered, gesturing down the dimly lit hallway. "Usually two guards. I'll go and --"
"Shhh," Gabrielle hissed suddenly, pressing her fingers to Xena's mouth. "Listen."
The darkness had heightened her senses, but the tunnel had ended long ago, and the dungeons were always lit. Gabrielle could still hear the small scavengers skitter around, the sound of their scurrying almost drowned by that of the guttering torches lining the walls and the faint moaning of prisoners, their misery evident in their voices raised in cries of pain, and in the scent of fresh blood that clung to the air. But above all that noise, she could hear...singing.
Xena had cocked her head and was listening, her head turning as she tried to locate the sound. "It's a children's song."
"Yes, but it's being sung in Egyptian," Gabrielle whispered back.
Understanding flashed in Xena's eyes and she went to the cell that was the source of the tune. A quick peek inside and she turned back, nodding to Gabrielle. After signaling for her to wait, Xena ran down the corridor and around the corner. Gabrielle covered her ears to the sounds of flesh parting from bone, the muffled screams of the guards abrupt and desperate. In a moment, Xena came back, holding a blood-soaked dagger in one hand, a set of keys in the other.
"You're bleeding," Gabrielle noticed as Xena turned towards the cell door. The Conqueror glanced at the deep gash in her shoulder and frowned.
"How stupid of me. One of the guards must've gotten lucky," she said, shrugging. "No matter."
There was a small hatch embedded in the door. Xena slid the panel aside, revealing a small stone chamber, lit by a lone torch guttering on the far wall that illuminated a tattered figure slumped to the floor.
"Mentuhetep," Xena said quietly, her voice warm and unobtrusive. Inside the cell, the figure paused in its quiet song and straightened, a question in his eyes.
"Yes indeed, my friend," Xena said and smiled. Mentuhetep -- her trusted advisor, strategist, friend and mother hen, all in this one slight body -- stood up and tried to approach the door. His attempt was halted abruptly as the chains pinioning him to the wall reached their limit. He stumbled but stood up again, his dark eyes glittering in the dim light.
"I cannot tell you how good it is to see you again. The shadow of Nephthys is powerful down here, as are rumours," Mentuhetep said, pausing momentarily. "The latter had you dead."
"And how many times have I been pronounced dead in the past, Mentu?" the Conqueror said, struggling momentarily with the rusted lock before she got the door open.
"More times than I have fingers to count," Mentuhetep smiled, his teeth a white flash against his dark skin as he accepted the Conqueror's careful hug. Xena lifted him into the air, a small chuckle escaping her lips. When he was finally set to the ground, Mentu's eyes found Gabrielle. "Mistress Gabrielle."
Smiling, Gabrielle stepped forward, taking his hand and squeezing it. "I'm glad to see you alive, Mentuhetep."
"Yes, well, I think they were just trying to decide upon the most painful means of death for me," he replied with a hollow grimace. He retrieved the keys to his shackles from the Conqueror. "The last time I heard, they had narrowed it down to flaying me alive or evisceration." As he bent down to unlock the chains, his back and its collection of whip marks came into the light, framed by his shirt, torn and stiffened by all the blood it had absorbed.
"I'm so...sorry, my friend," the Conqueror murmured, her eyes flashing at the sight of the bloody stripes on his back. He paused in his task and looked up, offering Xena a small smile.
"You have saved me from so many deaths already. This is nothing."
The shackles fell to the floor, and soon the cell was again occupied by only memories of pain and death.
"She's coming, Etor. I can feel it in the very marrow of my bones."
Saba paused, lifting a waiting eyebrow to her companion who remained silent, his eyes glazed and red-rimmed.
"I don't know when, but I can almost smell her," Saba continued and sipped from her goblet, setting the intricately etched vessel on the armrest of the throne. Brushing her hand over her forearm, she smiled. "The hairs on my arms are lifting. There's something in the air, Etor..."
Resting her head against the throne's high back, she let her gaze travel around the cavernous throne room, currently empty except for her and her companion. Her eyes finally settled on Etor, meeting his glassy gaze.
"No comments, my good man? You're usually so talkative," Saba murmured, smiling. "Perhaps this is hindering your speech," she continued and leaned forward, curling her fingers around the dagger's hilt and yanking it out of Etor's chest. A low, hissing sound came from the wound, along with a healthy gush of fresh blood. Etor slumped forward, almost sliding off the chair.
Twirling the blood-coated dagger in her free hand, Saba lifted a weary eyebrow towards the silent corpse. "Guess that wasn't it, either."
A sudden loud commotion drew her attention away from her dark musings, and she sat up just in time to see the main doors to the throne room burst open. Through the opening streamed in what seemed to be half of the honour guard, led by her lieutenant.
"Basilio! Why are you in such a hurry that you don't have time to knock?" Saba asked of the man, the pronounced pallor of his face striking worry in her chest.
"My lord," Basilio said and bowed hastily. His eyes, round and wide as gladiator shields, darted around the room. "We have found two guards dead."
"On the southern rampart of the city walls," he replied, fingering the hilt of his sword nervously. "They were both killed before they even managed to get their weapons out."
"Southern rampart, you say?" Saba murmured, lifting her eyes to the long lengths of bunting that decorated the ceiling of the vast hall. They were still in the Conqueror's colours, for there had not been time to take them down. And now...there never will be, Saba though bitterly.
"Yes, my lord. I do not understand how someone could have surprised them."
In response, Saba hummed in agreement, lifting the goblet to her lips. From the brightly-coloured cloths her gaze shifted to her lieutenant. A good man he is, Basilio...good man. Not too bright, though, she added, correct in her judgement. And so she was the only one who did not jump out of her skin when a low, powerful voice rose from behind the row of pillars circling the room.
A quiet hush travelled through the troops scattered haphazardly over the central atrium, and all heads turned towards the source of the new voice.
The Conqueror stepped around the pillar and into the light, the silence in the cavernous room almost deafening. The dagger was hidden in her boot again so she strode through the troops empty-handed, her gait smooth and efficient, paying no attention to the swords drawn in her wake.
"I climbed the wall," she repeated, smiling, and lifted a hand to show her bloodied fingers. The rest of her was covered in a thin film of wet earth, small scrapes dotting the dark sheen with their crimson. The wound on her shoulder was seeping quietly, rivulets of blood running down to her fingertips and from there, to the floor. The only spot of colour on her otherwise dark countenance were her eyes -- two bright pinpoints of cool blue, their presence hypnotising.
The gaggle of troops parted before her, all eyes cast to the floor except those belonging to Saba and her lieutenant. The scrape of steel against leather was obscenely loud in the quiet hall as Xena unsheathed one of her swords, giving it a lazy twirl before resting it against her shoulder.
"So he was wrong after all," Saba said, her voice trembling slightly as she gestured towards Etor. All colour had drained from her face.
Xena glanced at the sad, slumped form in the chair and flashed a bright smile, the very tips of her prominent canines resting on her lower lip. "Close, but not quite," she said, her voice a throaty purr.
At the words Gabrielle, still behind the pillar, closed her eyes briefly. It was again the darkness speaking, the velvet voice of death incarnate. The tang of blood was already in the air.
The woman shrugged and rose gingerly, as if she were unsure whether her legs would work or not. Descending the few steps that led down from the throne, she replied: "I really didn't have a choice, now did I? It was kill or be killed."
"How very true," the Conqueror smiled and swept her sword through the air in a languid arc. At the apex of the move, she shifted her grip and abruptly shoved the blade behind her. It caught Basilio square on his abdomen and he jerked in surprise, but the Conqueror held on to the grip, pressing it against her pelvis for better support. Basilio let out a moist, coughing scream.
"A vipers' pit, this is," Saba said and made a sweeping gesture with the goblet, seemingly unmoved by the impending death of her lieutenant.
"But you managed to survive."
Xena yanked her sword out of the dying man, sending a delicate spray of blood flying. It fell upon the stone floor gently, like the first drops of spring's first rainstorm, quietly. Basilio crumpled to the ground less gracefully, letting out one last wheezing breath before his body stilled.
"Where are the others?"
"I am," Saba murmured, tilting her head with a sad smile, "the last one left."
"Congratulations," the Conqueror hissed, rage flashing in her eyes.
All that Saba had time for was to lift her goblet in a salute, before Xena suddenly stepped forward, her sword pulled back. The blade made a high-pitched whine as it sliced through the air, not diverting from its path nor slowing down as it cleanly severed Saba's head from her shoulders.
The sound the head made as it dropped to the floor was most curious -- like an over-ripe melon, soft and muted, just loud enough to make everyone in the room cringe. Saba's slender body followed the head, suddenly limp limbs folding together. The goblet she had been holding was let loose from lax fingers and it met the stone floor with a hollow, metallic clang, spilling its contents. An ever-widening pool of blood was forming around Saba's shoulders, her blood mixing with the rich wine to create one lake of crimson, thick and warm.
"Idiot," Xena murmured disgustedly and shook her head, grabbing the edge of the nearest guard's cloak. After cleaning her sword with the garment as the man looked on, terrified, she stepped into the puddle, grabbing Saba's head by its long mane of dark hair. With her garish prize, she turned towards the ethereally silent onlookers. "Here is your brave ruler now," she said in a clear voice and threw the head towards the thickest clique of troops. The men scrambled away from the bloody head as if touching it had meant similar fate, and so it rolled across the floor undisturbed.
"Are the rules of ascension clear?!"
Her question never received a verbal answer. The soldiers simply dropped their weapons and retreated, their eyes cast anywhere but at the ired Conqueror, hoping to avoid her wrath. She let them go in peace, watching as the last of them vanished through the main doors. Again, quiet settled into the throne room.
"Cowards," Xena muttered, resting the tip of her sword against the floor and leaning on it, her posture suddenly weary.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said quietly, coming to stand by her side. He hand hovered briefly over Xena's blood-covered arm, finally settling on her bicep and around the wide band of leather there, the bronze decorations cool against her palm. "Xena."
"I'm all right, Gabrielle," the Conqueror replied, closing her eyes at the falsity of her words. Taking a deep breath, she let the surface tension drain away. "They're all gone. I killed the last one of them," she muttered, shaking her head.
"Yes," Xena replied, gripping the sword with two hands and turning her eyes towards Gabrielle. The bard was startled to see how dull their usually-radiant blue was, and how deep the mud-encrusted lines around them were. Casting her eyes down, the Conqueror stepped away from Gabrielle's warm touch, her sword swinging loosely in her hand. With a few casual steps, she was standing next to Saba's head, staring into the glazed eyes, wide and dark in their look of utter surprise.
Instinctively, Gabrielle flinched as Xena kicked the head, sending it rolling towards the far end of the room. It was halted by a pillar and stopped there, rocking quietly at the root of the thick stone column. The Conqueror turned around, her eyes trained towards the unseen sky, blinking.
"I'm just so tired," she murmured.
"Pardon?" Gabrielle said, stepping closer. Her hand was extended towards Xena but she thought better of it as she saw the simmering wrath in Xena's eyes that suddenly turned towards her, slicing through her very soul with frightening ease. So instead she just entwined her hands in front of her, meeting Xena's gaze with worry in her heart.
"I said," the Conqueror hissed, "that I am tired!" Her last word was almost shouted, her powerful voice echoing in the empty hall. Suddenly, she let out a wild yell, the hunting cry of a predator, and turned around, her sword cleaving the air around her.
"Tired of this back-stabbing nest of vultures!"
At the words, she pulled her sword back and threw it with all her might. The twirling blade caught the light of the dozens of candles illuminating the room, casting nervous, fleeting reflections of flames on the far walls. It cut cleanly through a candelabrum, scattering the candles all over the stone floor, before colliding with a pilaster. The sound was a deafening clang, its power freezing time in the throne room.
"So tired," the Conqueror said again, her voice suddenly weary and subdued. Covering her face with her bloodied hands, she collapsed on her knees. "Dear Athena...help me."
A warm hand landed on her shoulder, staying there momentarily before it came around to her wrist and gently pried her hands away.
"Xena..." Gabrielle whispered, crouching down to her level. She could feel Xena's rapid pulse at the wrist she was holding, through the thick tendons and the layer of grime and gore. "Look at me. Please."
Quickly, the blue eyes flicked to her, their movements feverish. They were dry and burning, rage smouldering in the background. It was as close to tears as Gabrielle had ever seen her.
"I'm weary of fighting a constant war on two fronts, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, every word pronounced with great care. "Most of my life I have spent at court," she continued, gesturing at the throne, "wary of the next dagger or the next fool who would try to poison me.
"I am a soldier, Gabrielle. I live on the battlefield, and there is where I want to die as well -- not from some lowly assassin's knife in my bed, but on my own two feet, my sword in my hand, wet with the blood of my enemy."
Gabrielle let go of her wrist and brushed Xena's cheek with the back of her hand, mute in wonder at Xena's piercing honesty. She was pulled into a fevered embrace, the Conqueror's long arms wrapping around her, and she felt herself melt at the intensity of the contact, and at the weight of Xena's words.
Both heads turned towards the quiet voice, finding Mentuhetep sitting on the steps leading up to the throne, a thoughtful look on his narrow features.
"Yes, Mentu?" Xena replied quietly, tilting her head expectantly. The man's eyes fairly twinkled with excitement.
"There might be a solution, mistress."
"Well, my good man," the Conqueror said, dredging up a smile despite
her ennui. "I am, as they say, all ears."
Part 3 -(End)
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