XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
"ALL BUT THE HEART, A CONQUEROR TALE"
Copyright Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Varia, Meleager and Argo are the sole property of MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures and Studios USA. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters and the story are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way.
Violence Warning/Disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of graphic violence. Can't really be a Conqueror story without graphic violence but if that kind of thing bothers you then you may want to read something else.
Love/Sex Warning/Disclaimer: Oh yeah now we're getting down to it. YES this story depicts a sexual relationship between two women. Is it graphic? Well, maybe kinda in a tasteful sort of way that is to say yeah okay it's graphic but hey let your hair down a little. Give yourself a little thrill. As is indicative of a Conqueror story there is some nonconsensual sex, one scene of the disturbing kind and the other more of the "she's forcing herself on me and I just hate myself for loving it" kind. If you are under the age of 18 or live in a state or country where this kind of story is illegal or this kind of thing disturbs you then read no further. Oh yeah that love thing. Lots of love in this story, love between two women, love between a woman and a man and they all love me! Me, me, me! Hey it's my story and I can write it anyway I want. You want love too? Oh all right, they love you tooJ Happy now?
Feedback: What did ya think? firstname.lastname@example.org
Part One: Influence of Innocence
A large golden mare strode casually through the wooded landscape. Its dark haired rider sat silently astride her, deep in thought. The Conqueror of the known world was feeling frustrated. Her life had become boring, mundane even. She had everything; she ruled over everything, she owned everything. There didn't seem to be any challenges left to her.
A week prior she had left Athens riding alone out of her massive palace for an undetermined amount of time. She didn't seem to be able to think in the ornate palace lately. She needed to get out where she could be alone undisturbed by the intricacies of ruling a world.
She had left her closest adviser in charge in her absence. Meleager was a good man and loyal to her to a fault. Although he was a little on the gentler side when it came to his style of command, he was fair and just. He was a good balance to her more aggressive tendencies and harsh way of ruling. She was known as being ruthless not without merit. But that was the way it had to be. That was the way she had conquered the known world and it was a harsh world that required a ruler with and even harsher hand, and she was more than up to the job.
But now there was something missing from her life. That spark that had driven her to take city after city, then country after country was gone. She had to get it back. She needed a new challenge, but what?
She sighed feeling the late summer sun on her tanned face. She reined Argo to a halt and gazed up at the azure sky with its few wispy white clouds. It was another gorgeous day, with only a slight refreshing breeze that barely rustled the leaves of the trees in the forest surrounding her.
Xena lifted her hand to her eyes and checked the position of the sun. It was well past midday. She would need to camp soon as there weren't any villages close by, just a few rural farms.
Xena suddenly regretted not bringing any slaves with her. She was getting tired of setting up her own campsites and tending to all the chores that came along with it. She had been living in the palace for five years and it was beginning to spoil her.
Oh well, she thought. I'll just have to improvise and take a slave at my next opportunity. With that she nudged Argo's sides and set the mare off again at a trot.
An hour later the sun was hanging well off towards the west. In another hour it would be dusk. The forest split into a large meadow in the distance and Xena could see a small farm at the far end of it.
As she approached the farm she saw a single male figure working in the field. She rode to him. When she came to within fifty feet of him the figure looked up from cutting the tall grass with a scythe and stared at her as she trotted Argo up to him.
He was a young man, Xena guessed around seventeen or eighteen summers. Tall, although not as tall as her, she guessed him to be about six foot and one hundred and seventy-five pounds. She had developed a skill at judging the physical build of potential slaves. It had come in handy in her warlord days and even now was still a useful skill.
He was a handsome boy, but definitely still a boy. His hairless face betrayed his farm boy innocence. He had bright blue eyes and short brown hair.
She rode to within ten feet of him and dismounted casually. As she closed the distance between them the boy smiled at her, dropping his scythe in the grass and giving her a short, shy wave of greeting.
"Hi, my name's Seth." He said staring curiously at her.
Xena said nothing just walked straight to him, looking him up and down. Then she was right in front of him. She looked him in the eyes and the boy shyly looked away. Not quiet sure how to deal with her aggressive body language.
Xena smiled to herself, this was going to be too easy, just like everything else it seemed. She thrust out her right hand and grasped the boy's lower jaw.
"Say ah." She commanded the confused boy.
Shocked at this stranger touching him but used to a lifetime of doing what his elders told him the boy complied.
Straight white teeth, that was good, and . Xena tilted her head toward the boy's mouth and sniffed, mint?
She looked curiously at the boy. "Mint?" She asked, letting go of his jaw so the boy could speak.
He stared at her still dumbfounded, not quiet sure of what was going on. "I like to chew on mint leaves. They make my breath feel funny, cool like I guess."
Xena smiled, she liked that. A slave with good teeth and nice breath that was definitely a plus.
The boy caught Xena's smile and started to relax a little, but it didn't last as Xena continued her examination of him. She pulled up his faded brown shirt to expose his chest and abdomen.
"Hey! What are you doing?" Seth protested but did nothing.
"Shhh." Xena just made a shushing sound and that seemed to calm the boy as she proceeded with her exam.
His torso was hairless like his face but well developed from countless hours of labor no doubt. She turned him to his side so she could see his back. No scars. A good thing, he hadn't been a slave before, he was fresh. No one had whipped him. She turned him back to her then pulled back the waistband of the boy's trousers.
This turned out to be more than the boy would abide and he quickly pulled away but not before Xena had a chance to see that everything was in tact down there and looked to be in order.
"Hey! What are you doing? What do you want with me?" Seth asked backing away from Xena, starting to feel uneasy.
"Do you know who I am boy?" Xena asked casually keeping in step with him as he slowly retreated from her.
"No, and my name's not boy. Its Seth like I said earlier." He said trying to show some amount of courage that he didn't feel in the presence of this tall leather clad warrior woman.
She was tall, a couple of inches taller than him he reasoned and well built. Not only in the sense that she had impressive curves but also that she had impressive muscle tone that was clearly exposed by her short leather battle dress and armor.
Xena scowled at his insolent tone and Seth felt a chill go through his body.
"You should boy!" Xena emphasized the word as she spoke it. "My face is on all your money." She said as Seth continued to back away from her.
"I don't have any money." Seth said nearly in a panic now.
"Stop backing away from me boy." Xena commanded in a low tone.
Seth didn't know what exactly was happening but he felt it a good time to run. Mistake.
He had made about five feet when Xena's whip caught his ankle and he felt her tug his feet out from under him with surprisingly little effort. Xena dropped to her knees above him, pinning his arms with her powerful legs. A look of sheer terror came over Seth's face as he struggled to no avail and realized he was helpless.
"Let me go! Please let me go!" He cried.
Xena's ice blue eyes leveled on him and she slapped him viciously across the face leaving a deep red mark on his check. "Shut up and listen to me boy!"
Seth stopped struggling and stared fixatedly at her.
"That's better. I am Xena the Conqueror. Do you know me now?" She asked in a calm tone of voice that seemed to sooth the trembling farm boy a little.
Seth nodded his head.
"Good. Now I know that you're not completely ignorant. Like I said, I'm Xena your ruler and I find myself in need of a slave and I think you'll do nicely."
"But I don't want to be a slave." Seth protested. "I don't know how to be a slave."
A ghost of a smile crossed Xena's lips at the naive comment. "Well you don't have a choice and as for how to be a slave, you obey me, got that?"
Seth looked away from her not wanting to answer. Xena roughly grabbed his hair and twisted his head back to face her.
"There are two ways we can do this boy. The first way is very painful. That's the way where I show you who's in charge here with a severe beating and then you still have to come with me. The second way I simply let you up and you being a smart boy obey me and accept your new fate, knowing that there's nothing you can do about it. And you still have to come with me. What's it going to be? Decide quickly or I'll decide for you." Xena said in a remarkably complacent tone that seemed completely out of place to Seth in his high stress state of mind.
He decided very quickly that he didn't want Xena to hit him anymore but all he could seem to do was nod.
"Nodding yes the first way or yes the second way?" Xena asked knowing very well what he meant but toying with him anyway.
"Y yes the first way." The boy stammered out.
"Hmm, do I need to tie you to my horse boy? Or can you be trusted to walk without me tying you?" Xena questioned him.
Seth quickly processed this new information. He knew exactly what she was getting at. Either he walked beside her horse or he was going to be drug behind it.
"I'll walk." He said in a nervous voice.
"Good, that's a smart boy. Lets get going then." Xena said raising herself off of him and mounting her horse.
Seth just lie there like a bushel of the tall grass he was cutting just minutes ago. He stared at the sky shocked. All he had ever known was his uncle's farm and now he was being taken away from that. He wasn't sure what to do, he couldn't think at all. Then suddenly Xena was staring down at him from what seemed to him a very great distance from atop of her horse.
"I said lets get going boy! Maybe I need to show you the first way after all." Xena said uncoiling her whip from her side.
That got his attention; Seth was quickly on his feet.
Xena replaced her whip eyeing him coolly. "When I give you a command boy you would do well to do it quickly. Do I make myself clear?"
"Good, come on then." Xena said turning her horse back to the north and starting the mare off at a slow walk.
"Xena?" Seth asked from her side.
"I need to get my things and I should tell my uncle that I'm going."
"Everything you need is on your back and your uncle will figure out you're gone soon enough."
A look of great concern suddenly crossed Seth's face and he froze in his tracks and thrust his hand in his pocket.
Xena had caught the look and the boy searching for something in his trousers. "What is it boy? What are you looking for? Are you hiding a knife in your pocket?"
Seth's face took on a calm as his hand closed on something that Xena couldn't make out. He looked up at Xena who had positioned Argo very close to him just in time to see her backhand strike him hard across the face. The blow jarred him back to the present leaving another red imprint on his face.
"I require an answer boy!" Xena said lifting her hand for another blow, a bit frustrated that neither of her hits had drawn blood on the boy's face. Damn farm boy resilience.
"No, no, its just my special rock!" Seth said quickly trying to get the words out before Xena struck him again and at the same time producing the rock and lifting it to Xena.
Xena took the rock from the boy's hand and studied it. It was a common piece of quartz that had been polished to a high shine. "And what is so special about this rock boy?"
"My mother gave it to me. On my birthday when I was small." Seth answered with a look of concern growing on his face as Xena continued to hold onto his special rock.
"And where is your mother now?" The Conqueror questioned.
"She died when I was little." The concern grew into trepidation.
"And your Father."
"He died too. That's why I live here with my uncle. Can I have my special rock back please?" Seth asked pleading.
Xena considered the request for a moment. A habit formed from years of manipulation. The worthless rock was obviously of great value to the boy. If she let him keep it then she would be able to use it as leverage against him later if he decided to miss-behalf. It would be an alternative to a beating for punishment for him. One that might have even greater effectiveness in disciplining him. Just then the Conqueror smiled to herself suppressing a laugh. This wasn't a nation she was dealing with; it was a simple slave and didn't really require such intricate thought. Nonetheless though
"You may keep it." She said handing the rock back to the boy.
"Thank you Xena." The boy said with great relief.
Xena said nothing just nudged Argo's sides and headed her back off to the north. After a few more minutes of travel the boy spoke up again.
"How long do I have to be a slave?" Seth asked seriously.
This seemed to amuse the ruler of the known world. She turned her head and looked down at him to see the serious look on his face, farm boys she mused.
"Until you get killed or just die."
Seth's serious look turned thoughtful. "That's a very long time I think."
"It could be." Xena said still slightly amused with this new slave of hers.
"Xena?" Seth asked again.
Xena normally didn't allow slaves to speak to her unless spoken to first or even to call her by her name. Usually she was addressed only as Conqueror or Mistress but in her current frame of mind she welcomed the distraction and the farm boy's naïve questions were amusing her, so
"Where are we going?"
"North." The dark haired woman replied simply.
"Oh." Was all Seth said to the simple answer, it seemed to have satisfied him.
Xena thought about it for a moment. She really didn't have a destination in mind. She had just been heading north for no particular reason, yet she felt drawn in that direction.
She rode on with the boy keeping pace at her side. They had fallen into a silence and Xena looked knowingly at Seth. She knew exactly what he was thinking. Making plans for escape. He would wait until night when he thought she was asleep then make a run for it. It was always that way with new slaves. You had to break something inside them before they would stay without being chained and they always tried to escape on the first night. When their spirits and strength were still in tack.
No matter. She would let him go and then catch him in the woods. Then she would break that thing inside that gave slaves the courage to run. She actually found herself looking forward to it. It had been awhile since she personally had been the one to break in a new slave and the thought gave her a wicked sense of pleasure.
Seth was indeed deep in thought.
Until I get killed or just die. The words keep repeating in his mind. That was to be a very, very long time he thought. Too long, he couldn't wait that long he mused. Besides his birthday was in a few days and his uncle always took him into town on his birthday. He got to eat a big meal at the inn and got to have pie for desert. It was the only time all year that he got to eat so well and he couldn't just miss it. No he would wait until the warrior woman fell asleep, then he would sneak away.
Just then he looked up at her to see her looking at him with a bit of a smile on her face. This only served to confuse him more. Why was she smiling at me? Maybe she likes me? She did give me my special rock back. Or maybe she's going to eat me and that's why she's smiling. Looking forward to a good meal. He had heard stories told by the bards in town of all the horrible things she had done while she was still conquering the world. Although he never heard of her eating anyone the thought didn't comfort him. Yes he would have to run away tonight.
They continued on for another hour in relative silence until they came upon a spot that Xena decided would due for a campsite. The sun was hanging low in the sky to the west now and dusk was upon them. Xena set about unloading her gear and setting up camp while she sent Seth out to gather firewood. She knew he was afraid of some impending doom or punishment from his silence in the last hour. He definitely wouldn't try to escape until he was sure she was asleep and he would have more of a chance at getting away. So she wasn't worried in the slightest about sending him into the forest to gather wood.
The ability to judge what people would do and how they would react in a given situation was one of her most valuable skills she thought. Probably it was that even more than her unparallel skill as a warrior that was most responsible for her success in battle.
Xena's mind again was drawn to why she out in the middle of the Grecian forest. She had to find that something that was missing in her life. The last five years since her conquest of the last of the known world had been, to her anyway, dull. She had been so focused, so driven to her goals and now that she had achieved them there was this giant void in her life that nothing seemed to be able to fill. She had spent the last five years ruling over an empire but that was a much less fulfilling thing than conquering one. She had indulged herself in every kind of comfort and pleasure and while she had enjoyed herself still there was that void.
It was funny she thought, now that she was the ruler of the known world she was having more fun capturing and breaking in one new slave than she had, had in the past several months of running an empire.
She quickly had camp set and Argo unsaddled and tethered to a nearby tree. She had laid out her bedroll across from a fallen log and built a fire pit in the center of a ring of small stones she had gathered.
Seth returned with his arms laden with dry wood. She instructed him to place the wood in pile near the pit and then tossed him a brush and sent him off to rub down Argo while she set about building a fire. In a few minutes she had a nice little blaze burning in the pit. She withdrew a long dagger from one of her boots and placed the blade in the fire.
Thirty minutes later it was dark and Xena was sitting on the fallen log by the fire sharpening her sword when Seth returned to her from tending to Argo.
"I'm all done with your horse." He said extending the brush to Xena.
"Argo." Xena said without looking up.
"Huh?" The boy said confused.
"Argo is my horse's name. Put the brush back in my saddlebags boy." Xena said with a tilt of her head towards her nearby bags.
Seth replaced the brush then plopped down on the forest floor across the fire from Xena. He sat cross-legged and stared pensively at her.
Xena replaced her sword in her back scabbard.
"Come here boy." She ordered.
Seth got up and worriedly moved next to Xena who was still sitting on the fallen log.
"Kneel down here in front of me and turn your right shoulder to me."
Seth did so awkwardly, the fear he felt starting to paralyze his mind. This was it he thought, dinnertime and he was the main course.
Xena pulled the boy's shirt off over his head and withdrew her dagger from the fire. The tip of the blade now glowed red-hot. Seth began to sob when he saw the knife.
"What are you crying about already? I haven't even touched you." Xena questioned annoyed.
"Y your gonna eat me!" Seth stammered out.
Xena stared at him for a moment in dumbfounded silence then she threw her head back and laughed. It was a few minutes before she was able to control her laughter enough to speak.
"Why would you think I was going to eat you boy?" Xena asked with an uncontrollable grin.
Seth dried his eyes with the back of his hand then answered. "Because of the way you looked at me and were smiling earlier. I thought you were deciding that I would make a good meal then when you took off my shirt and took the dagger from the fire I thought "
Xena started laughing again cutting the boy off. When she finally regained her composure she grasped the boy's right arm with her free hand then brought the glowing tip of the dagger to his shoulder with the other.
"This is why I took your shirt off boy." She said as she burned an X in his shoulder with the red-hot knife. The boy screamed and tried to pull away but Xena's grip was unrelenting until finally she was done. She let him go and Seth fell to the ground at her feet grasping his right arm just below the burn.
He stared at her shocked and panting.
"It will only hurt for a day or so boy." Xena said nonchalantly placing the dagger's glowing tip in the dirt to cool.
"W what is it?" Seth asked and noticed he seemed to be developing a bit of a stutter.
"It's my mark. You should be proud, now if you should get lost or separated from me somehow whoever finds you will know you belong to me and return you." She said it so seriously that it seemed to make sense to Seth.
Seth just looked from his arm then back to Xena with an, I can't believe you just did that' look on his face.
"Here." Xena said tossing Seth's shirt at him. "Leave it off tonight so it doesn't irritate the burn."
Seth simply nodded then stared at the ground still grasping his shoulder in pain. Looking pathetic. Well at least she didn't eat me, he thought.
Xena felt something very strange staring down at the farm boy huddled on the ground holding his arm. She felt sorry for him. Why was that, she thought? I usually get off on this stuff and seeing a slave in pain normally would have made it even better. Maybe its the absence of hatred in his eyes or maybe its because he's so naive. Yes that must be it. It made him seem a bit child-like and she never took children as slaves. Even she had her limits. She would take slaves only when they reach their middle teens or grew to full physical maturity. At any rate she was feeling strangely uncomfortable staring at him sitting there in pain.
"Oh Gods! Get my saddlebags and come here boy!" Xena commanded suddenly in a harsh tone that startled Seth.
He quickly did as she instructed, her tone of voice commanding immediacy. He placed the bags at her feet then knelt down between her legs again and stared up at her waiting.
Xena, extremely annoyed took up the bags and withdrew a long strip of cloth and a small tin of salve. Her movements were the hurried one's of someone that was angry with something and this was not lost on Seth who sat very still and quiet so as not to anger her anymore. He wondered what it was that had set her off? Maybe she was mad that I didn't scream more or pass out from the pain and now she was going to put some kind of pain enhancement cream on my arm so she could watch me cry out in pain.
Xena took a deep breath and talked in low disgusted tones as she applied the burn salve to the boy's arm and then gently wrapped the wound with a clean strip of cloth. She was a skilled healer among other things.
"Damn little farm boy! Just going to sit there and look up at me all pathetic!"
Seth sensed that Xena was speaking more to herself then to him and he remained quiet. Surprisingly the salve felt good and it soothed the pain considerably.
Xena quickly finished then replaced the tin in her saddlebags and handed them to Seth.
"Go put these back boy and you can put your shirt on now." She said looking very hard at him.
Seth smiled at her in gratitude. "Thank you Xena."
Xena suddenly grabbed the boy by the shoulders and shook him.
"Do not look at me that way boy!" She yelled at him.
Seth was stunned into silence and looked away turning his eyes to the ground.
"That's better." Xena said releasing him. "Go on and do as I said now."
Seth did as he was told and Xena stared after him wondering why in Tartarus he was getting to her. It really did annoy her though to have him look at her with such gratitude. Or maybe it didn't annoy her at all and that's what set her off. I've just got a lot on my mind she thought. That's all. She dismissed the feeling. Then she started to feel hungry and went to her supplies and got out some bread and cheese for her and Seth.
"Here." Xena said as she handed Seth the food. "Can't have my slaves getting scrawny."
Seth took the food and returned to his seat on the ground across from her still confused by her. She was mean and kind then mean again, strange. Oh well he thought and quickly got over it. A gift of his youth and simple nature, nothing really bothered him for very long.
This seemed to please Xena that he returned to a passive state and they ate in silence. When they were through Xena ordered him to go to bed.
Seth got up to do as she had instructed then stopped. "Where do I sleep Xena?"
She looked at him as if she were deciding that just then.
"You'll sleep on the bedroll with me boy. That way if I feel like raping you in the middle of the night I won't have to go far." Xena added the last part just to make the statement sound meaner. In reality she was letting him sleep with her so it would be easier to tell when he tried to escape. Although she knew she would wake at his slightest movement even if he were across the camp from her, this made it more convenient. Then suddenly an inspiration hit her.
"Wait a moment boy. Give me that rock of yours." Xena stated firmly.
Seth looked gravely at her. "How come?" He asked, not moving.
Xena's features grew hard. "Boy you better get over here in a hurry and give me that damn rock if you know what's good for you!"
Seth sighed went to her and reluctantly handed her his special rock. When he did Xena jerked him hard to the ground in front of where she sat and backhanded him viciously across the face.
Damn farm boy resilience she thought at not having drawn blood again with the blow. She jerked back his head by his hair and spoke in a low dangerous voice. "Don't ever question me again boy!"
She reached back with her other hand and started striking him across the face with each word. "You just do as your told got that?"
A small trickle of blood ran from the corner of the boy's mouth. Finally Xena thought.
"Y yes." Seth stuttered out.
Xena kept him in her grasp for a moment longer and held his vivid blue eyes locked in the ice of her stare. Seth looked away and his chest heaved a few times. He looked as is he was about to cry.
Oh Gods not that again! Xena thought. She released him and he fell backwards to the ground where he remained motionless looking pensively up at her.
Again Xena felt strangely sorry for the boy. What in Tartarus is the matter with me today? She thought. It must be this one's naïve boyishness that is bothering me. That has to be it.
"Come here boy." Xena commanded.
Seth picked himself up off the ground and moved back to Xena kneeling on the ground between her feet.
Xena lifted the boy's chin with one hand then she licked the thumb of her other hand and wiped away the blood at the corner of the boy's mouth.
"You're going to learn how to behalf one way or another boy. I'll give you this rock back in the morning if you're good." Xena said planting the seed of her manipulation in the boy's mind. Now she would see how much this special rock really meant to the boy. Was it worth his freedom to him?
"My my mother gave it to me." Seth repeated in a shaky voice.
Xena took on a contemplative look. "Well for all intents and purposes I'm your mother now."
This seemed to confuse the boy. Seth looked off to the side and took on a very seriously contemplative look. This again seemed to amuse the Conqueror not only the comical look of intense thought but also how quickly she could sidetrack the boy from his previous woes. She liked that he wasn't particularly sensitive. He bounced back quickly. That farm boy resilience she mused.
"Go lie down on my bedroll and go to sleep boy." Xena instructed, the hint of a smile still lingering on her face.
Seth did as he was told and found a comfortable spot on the Conqueror's bedroll. He lay there looking up at the stars in the clear, late summer sky and thought about what the powerful warrior woman had said and done. He wondered what had set her off earlier when he had thanked her. Maybe she thought I really didn't mean it and that made her mad. Yes that's probably it. But I did mean it. Hmm, and why did she take my special rock? And what did she mean by she's my mother now? Seth thought very hard about it but he just couldn't see how Xena could be his mother now.
Then inspiration hit and the boy was sure he knew the answer to both of his questions. It must be that if you take someone's special rock that makes you that person's mother. That's why she wanted my special rock. But why does she want to be my mother? And what about tomorrow when she gives me back my special rock, does that mean she will no longer be my mother then or
"Shut your eyes and go to sleep boy." Xena commanded from her seat on the fallen log.
Seth's startled at the low voice having been so completely lost in thought. He quickly did as Xena ordered and although he tired he just couldn't seem to think with his eyes closed and was quickly asleep.
Xena stared after him smiling. Well if nothing else this new slave was entertaining she mused. His serious consideration of the simplest things she said amused her. She found herself liking him and enjoying the process of molding his behavior. She was fascinated by how important the simple rock in her hand was to him. Tonight would tell the tale of its true worth to the boy. With that thought she looked over at the boy who had fallen into a deep sleep, his breathing low and heavy.
Again Xena smiled to herself. It had only been moments since she had made him close his eyes and go to sleep. The innocent sleep well she thought then suddenly her mood turned foul. She thought of the day so long ago when her innocence was lost. The day her village was attacked, the day the Conqueror of the known world was born.
She looked again at the sleeping boy and felt her foul mood start to subside. She watched his slow peaceful breathing for a while and she felt better.
Xena rose off the fallen log and went to her saddlebags placing Seth's special rock inside then she crossed to where the boy lay fast asleep and stared down at him.
She thought of the puzzled look on his face when she had told him she was his mother now and smiled. The boy took everything she said so literally; it never even occurred to him that she might be speaking hypothetically.
Xena removed her armor and weapons, placing them in a pile by the bedroll then laid down on her back. She turned her head to watch the boy's peaceful breathing again and felt herself begin to relax. She smiled inwardly then. The boy was proving himself to be valuable to her, even if he didn't realize it. Anything that could help her relax was indeed very valuable to the Conqueror. She might even make him one of her personal slaves when they eventually returned to the palace. Although at present all her personal slaves were female handmaidens, this one boy might make and interesting distraction from the norm for her.
Just then Seth's breathing increased and he started to shiver and jerk in his sleep. He was having a nightmare the Conqueror observed, probably about her.
Seth unconsciously sensing her presence rolled on his side next to her and pillowed his head on her breast then draped one arm across her abdomen and clung to her.
Xena stared at the boy for a moment considering what to do. She thought of beating him for touching her without her permission, even if he did do it in his sleep but
She hesitated. She found that the boy clinging to her wasn't completely uncomfortable. It might even be relaxing in a strange and unfamiliar kind of way.
She observed that the boy had calmed and was again sleeping peacefully. She smiled ironically. He has a nightmare about me then clinging to me in his sleep is what brings him comfort. Farm boys she mused.
The Conqueror lie under the forest canopy looking up at the stars. The sound of her new slave's peaceful breathing and the crackling of the fire had a nice soothing effect on her and soon she too was asleep. As asleep as she ever was, her subconscious still keenly alert to any danger but still sleeping more peacefully than she had in a very long time.
The late summer morning came chilly and slightly damp. The fire had burned down to smoldering embers that glowed red in the low light of the dawn.
Xena woke and instantly she was fully awake. She didn't know if that was a curse or a gift but it had always been that way for her. She looked at the sky and frowned. She hadn't sleep past the dawn in literally years. Even in her plush palace she always awoke before first light. Strange, she wondered why she had let herself sleep so long. Although she noted that she slept better and felt more rested than she had in a very long time.
I must have just needed the extra sleep. The turmoil in my mind catching up with my body, Xena thought.
She looked to her left and noticed that Seth hadn't moved at all during the night. He was still snuggled up next to her with a warm, peaceful look on his young face, the slightest of slumbering smiles still lingering on his lips.
Xena frowned as she caught herself smiling at the boy. "By the Gods Xena what is the matter with you?"
Then instantly she was mad at herself for being mad at herself for smiling. Why should there be anything the matter with me? I am the Conqueror and I can smile if I want to smile and I can sleep late if I want to. I do whatever I want and that's that, she thought. Although her face did not return to it's previous smiling state but shifted into a neutral expression.
Xena sighed deeply then her train of thought returned to why she was wandering the woods; the farm boy snuggled contentedly against her side. All the same thoughts that she had been wrestling with for the past week ran through her mind. None of which had yet to be answered, except that she felt that she was getting closer to an answer.
That was a new feeling. What had changed in the last day to make her feel this? She looked instinctively to the slave that was currently keeping her side nicely warmed. What difference could one slave make, especially one that was just a simple farm boy?
Xena was puzzling it over in her mind when she felt Seth stir. She turned her head to watch him as the boy slowly woke with a yawn.
Seth felt warm and safe. His head was lying on something very soft that slowly rose and fell in a peaceful rhythm. He felt completely rested like when his uncle would get really drunk and let them sleep in until late in the morning, except this felt different somehow. Safer, like nothing could hurt him, then he remembered his nightmare and the thought broke him out of his subconscious musing.
His eyes fluttered then opened to see the source of his nightmare staring at him from what was he observed very close. Then with a gasp he realized that he was lying against the Conqueror, clinging to her even! He rolled away startled then got to his hands and knees and started to form a stuttering apology his mind not fully working yet.
"I I um " Quick, please don't beat the Tartarus out of me breathing. "I I'm sorry, I didn't "
Xena cut him off, annoyed. "Get back over here boy. We're not done sleeping yet."
Seth blinked at her then did as he was told completely confused but knowing it was best to do what the Conqueror told him to do quickly.
He moved back to the bedroll and lie down on his side about a foot from the Conqueror facing her.
This seemed to further annoy Xena. She rolled on her side facing him then reached over with her right hand grasping the front of the boy's shirt and drug him to her. She took a moment and positioned the boy exactly as he was, taking his arm and placing it across her abdomen then pushing his head back down on her breast. This done she sighed contentedly.
Seth was totally confused now. He had no idea what was happening. He had fully expected a through beating. What does this mean? Nothing, he could think of nothing. Then he remembered his special rock and what Xena had said the night before. It must be that if you take someone's special rock that makes you that person's mother while you have the rock and that's why Xena is being nice to me.
Xena was staring at the boy who was obviously deep in thought. She watched the puzzled look on his face as it rose and fell on her breast and smiled again. He was definitely turning out to be good at relaxing her.
"Tell me about your nightmare boy." Xena stated in an even tone.
Seth looked stunned and just stared at her for a moment before responding. "My nightmare?"
"That's right boy, I know what you're doing even when you're sleeping. Now tell me what you're nightmare was about?" The Conqueror commanded.
Seth took a deep breath and sniffled a little before starting.
"Y you were hurting me." He said fear resonating in his voice.
Xena's look remained neutral.
"I was huh, why was I doing that?" She asked knowing full well the answer.
Seth hesitated for the briefest of moments than went on. "I I tired to run away and you caught me in the forest."
"I see. Well it's a good thing that you really didn't try something so foolish and since you were good and didn't you may have your rock back." Xena made the statement in an insinuative tone that Seth didn't seem to catch which made her roll her eyes.
Xena had her left arm draped over Seth's shoulder resting on his side. She took her right arm and reached over beside the bedroll and fished in her saddlebags for Seth's rock. Retrieving it she handed the rock back to the boy who took it gratefully.
"Thank you Xena." He said forgetting the anger that his gratitude had evoked in the powerful warrior woman the night before. He looked at the rock and smiled before putting it away in his pocket.
Seth's look of affectionate gratitude didn't bother Xena this morning because she had already made her point the night before. Don't mistake kindness, how ever so slight for weakness. Xena relaxed, deciding they would lie there for a bit longer.
Seth went quiet again, lost in thought as he lie comfortably against the Conqueror's side. He wondered why the Conqueror was still being nice to him now that he had his special rock back and she was no longer obligated to be his mother. He couldn't think of an answer and his puzzled mind turned to his nightmare. How did she know? Again he could think of no answer and it troubled him. He questioned whether he should try running tonight or not. He did have his special rock back but the dream worried him. He thought again of his birthday and eating at the inn in town and of the pie and he knew he had to try.
Seth's contemplation wasn't lost on Xena neither was the subject. She knew he was frightened by his nightmare and was now reconsidering whether or not it was a good idea to run. He would, she knew in the end decide to try to get away. They always did at least once. No matter, she would catch him and then he would never try again. That was the way of it.
They lie there for a bit longer, Xena enjoying the rarity of feeling relaxed and content. After a few more minutes though she decided that it was time that they got up and ordered Seth to go out and gather more wood while she made tea. Soon Seth returned with the small amount of dry wood they would need for the morning fire. Xena quickly had the fire going again with her tea warming on a rock next to the flames. She had Seth break camp and pack Argo while she waited for the tea. In thirty minutes they had drank the tea and eaten a light breakfast before heading back out on the road to the north.
It was a quiet day of traveling. They met no other travelers on the road that day and came upon no villages.
As they plodded along to the north Seth kept a silent pace at Argo's side. The curious questions of the day before had ceased, replaced by the silent fear of what he was planning for after nightfall. And then the night fell and soon after that they were camped. He took care of Argo, then they had eaten and soon the Conqueror would order him to go to bed, he knew with a sense of dread. He was nervous and his hands were sweating as he sat on the ground across the small fire from the Conqueror.
Xena managed to find another fallen log to use as a seat and was staring into the flames of the fire. She knew Seth was scared of what he was going to attempt. He had been silent most of the day, very often stumbling as he walked, so lost in his worries that he tripped on his own feet.
Soon she thought as she watched him fidget through the fire. Then a sly smile spread on her lips as she felt a surge of anticipation for the hunt and inevitable capture of the fleeing slave. She felt that wicked sense of pleasure she got from nearing conquest. Even if it was something as simple as recapturing a runaway slave. Was this the thing that she was missing in her life now that she had conquered all that could be? No, she thought, that's not it. It wasn't as simple as that unfortunately.
"Go to bed boy." Xena ordered and watched Seth trudge off to the bedroll almost reluctantly.
Moments later Xena striped off her armor and weapons laying them in a neat pile by the bedroll and laid down pulling Seth to her side again. She could feel the tension in his body. Soon she thought again. Soon she would never have to concern herself again with him trying to escape her. The thrill of the boy's impending punishment washed over her and her wicked grin curved into a humorless smile.
An hour past then two then she felt the boy move ever so slightly.
Seth waited what seemed to him like at least twice the length of his lifetime for the Conqueror to fall asleep. Then he waited some more to be sure. Now or never he thought and slowly slid from the warrior woman's side and sat up. He waited a moment breathlessly; sweat beginning to run down his face. The Conqueror didn't stir. He stood up and crept out of camp carefully placing his feet. He moved away from where Argo was tethered not wanting to start the horse then he was in the forest.
He made a few hundred paces before he allowed himself to start running. Wanting to wait until he was out of earshot before making all but the slightest amount of noise. Now he was running though, and all out run through the dark forest. A few minutes later he stopped running to catch his breath and figure out which way he was heading. He looked around him but all he could see was the dense forest, no sign of the road anywhere. Then he noticed a small clearing breaking in the woods before him. As he entered it he looked back to see if Xena was following him. Nothing, he was free.
He turned back around and ran directly into the Conqueror's breastplate. He was knocked backwards onto his back on the forest floor. He stared up at her in shock. She was wearing all of her armor and weapons and wasn't even breathing hard. She stared down at him ominously.
"And where do you think your going?" The Conqueror questioned in a low menacing tone.
Seth's mind raced for some sort of satisfactory answer but all he could do was stutter lamely. "I I "
"Were disobeying me and trying to runaway." Xena finished for him.
Seth lowered his eyes.
Xena felt that ruthless animal side of her take over. "It seems that I'm going to have to show you that first way after all."
Xena thought for a moment about how to punish the boy. Her hand went to her whip but then she changed her mind. He didn't have any scars on him now and she liked that. She looked about the clearing then spotted exactly what she needed.
She knelt down and bound the trembling boy's wrists with her whip then pulled him bodily up and shoved him hard over a fallen tree at one end of the small clearing.
"W what are you going to do?" Seth exclaimed in a panic.
"Shut up boy!" Xena demanded as she broke a long slender limb from a nearby tree.
It wasn't as good as bamboo but it would do, Xena thought as she striped leaves from the thin, flexible branch.
With the branch prepared she moved to Seth and pulled down his trousers.
Ah oh, Seth thought then his pulse began to race and his breath caught.
The boy cried out in pain as the first strike landed leaving a red welt across his rear. Xena was pleased with the instrument. It was ridged enough to inflict a decent amount of pain yet pliable enough not to break with each of her blows. She struck the boy again and again and she felt that animalistic lust like pleasure of conquest.
Soon the boy no longer screamed, to exhausted by his efforts to fight the pain.
The boy no longer jolted with each blow. Xena stopped her administrations and tossed the limb to the ground.
"Have I made myself clear to you boy?" Xena questioned in an even tone that served to further unsettle the boy.
Seth nodded his head as he lie over the fallen tree, completely wasted. Crying softly.
The Conqueror moved to the boy's front and grasped a hand full of his hair lifting his head to look into his eyes. It was done. That spark that gave slaves the courage to run was gone. Replaced by a cold obsidian fear. Then something strange happened, as she looked deep into the boy's glassy eyes. She felt remorse.
She wondered if she had destroyed the boy's wonder along with his will to escape. The thought filled her with sadness. She lowered the boy's head and other thought's raced through her mind. Will he still look at me with that sense of awe? As if I were the creator of the universe and the source of all that is known. No, he would not she knew. That was gone now too. Now there would be only fear. The fear would envelope the rest. Gone too would be his ability to entertain her with his naïve questions and his way of relaxing her with his peaceful sleep.
Xena untied the boy's hands then pulled his trousers back up over his painfully swollen backside. She was sad that she had extinguished the boy's light and she wondered why she never noticed that before when she broke in a new slave. Probably because she never cared she mused. Why do I care now?
She wasn't sure but she knew this had to be done. She couldn't allow a slave to disobey her and you had to break a slave to keep them from running. That was just the way it was.
Xena sighed and hefted the boy to her shoulder with surprisingly little effort then headed off back towards their camp.
A few minutes later she laid Seth on his stomach on the bedroll and for the second time that night striped off her armor and weapons, laying them beside the bedroll. She stared down at Seth's tear stained face and suddenly she felt yet another new sensation, shame. Shame at the pleasure she had derived from his pain.
Xena quickly dismissed the feeling, angry with herself for having felt it at all. She went to her saddlebags and removed a tin of salve, some strips of clean cloth and some herbs. She mixed the herbs in a small cup with some water and brought it to Seth's lips.
"Drink this." Is all she said as she tilted the cup for the boy to drink, Seth drank the mixture wordlessly.
The Conqueror then took her tin of salve to the boy's rear and pulled down his trousers. She applied the cooling salve to the many large red welts and a few cuts then applied clean strips of cloth over them. She told herself that she needed the boy in good condition to be useful to her but somewhere in the back of her mind she knew better. She felt a strange sort of maternal instinct for the boy that she would never admit to.
Xena pulled the boy's trousers and underwear carefully back up over his swollen rear then replaced her herbs and the tin of salve in her saddlebags before lying down on her back on the bedroll.
She lie there staring up at the stars through the forest canopy for a long while. Soon she heard Seth's breathing deepen and she looked over to see him fast asleep. Moments later she heard Seth stir and watched as he rolled onto his side next to her pillowing his head on her breast and clinging to her waist with his left arm. Xena smiled ironically. Still the boy's instincts won't be denied, the subconscious mind seeking comfort, if even from the source of its torment.
Xena lie there staring at the stars for a while longer, wondering how severely she had damaged the boy's psyche. Then she sighed at her musing and wondered where in the world her strange concern for this boy was coming from. Finding no answers she let herself drift into sleep.
Xena woke before the dawn, the fire still smoldering. This was more like it she thought. She knew the day before had been a fluke. She looked to her side and noticed that Seth hadn't moved at all during the night. As she watched him in the low light of the dying fire his eyes fluttered open. The boy stifled a yawn then looked up at her and smiled.
The Conqueror was momentarily taken aback. This was the last thing she was expecting, although she immediately felt a sense of relief wash over her. Maybe I haven't totally extinguished his light after all, she thought. Although she knew she wouldn't have to worry about any further disobedience, that was a given, but maybe there's still a chance that he can still entertain me with his shy, naïve, childlike wonder. The look of awe was back. She liked that look.
"What on earth are you smiling about boy?" Xena questioned him.
The boy blinked at her then burrowed his head into her breast a little more before responding. "I'm just so glad not to have to worry about what I was going to do, I mean what I did, anymore. That's all I could think about yesterday. I couldn't even think about dinner or anything. I think yesterday was the worst day of my whole life."
Xena snorted at that then looked away from Seth for a moment biting off a smile. Farm boys she mused.
"Xena." Seth said.
"Thank you for taking care of me last night. I don't even really hurt that bad now." Seth stated shyly.
The Conqueror stared off into the early morning sky, the first rays of the dawn starting to break around them. "You're of no use to me if you can't work."
Seth said nothing but he continued to beam at the Conqueror.
Xena looked at him sternly. "And just what are you thinking little boy? That I treated you last night because I like you or something foolish like that."
Seth made no reply just lowered his eyes and clung to her more tightly.
The Conqueror watched him, staring at the top of his lowered head.
"Quit smiling boy." She commanded.
Seth giggled, how did she know I was still smiling he wondered. He felt elated today with the burden of his attempted escape gone.
"You better knock that off if you know what's good for you boy!" Xena ordered in a stern voice, although her own lips had curled into a faint smile.
"Yes Xena." Seth said doing his best to conceal his joy.
"That's better." The Conqueror replied. She was feeling that same relaxed contented sensation that she had experienced the day before and suddenly she didn't feel like getting up anymore.
"Go back to sleep boy." The warrior ordered.
Seth said nothing just closed his eyes and sighed contentedly, he had forgotten all of his concerns, his birthday, his uncle's farm, everything seemed trivial compared to his fears of the day before. He was asleep in moments.
Xena felt the boy's body relax against her and heard his breathing deepen mere moments after she had told him to go back to sleep. Her smile widened and her own relaxation deepened. She felt a profound sense of joy. She hadn't ruined him. She still couldn't figure out exactly why this made her so happy but it did and that was enough for now.
She let herself fall back into a blissful sleep. She woke again an hour later feeling completely refreshed. She had slept the same deep peaceful sleep of the day before. She didn't know why she was sleeping so well but she knew it had something to do with her new slave and his still in tact innocence. Well don't know how long that's going to last traveling with me but I'm going to enjoy it while it does, the tall warrior thought.
Xena raised her arms above her head, stretched and yawned then shook Seth awake. The boy did the same then looked at her with a sleepy smile that turned out to be infectious, spreading to the Conqueror's lips. It was funny she thought, his punishment of the night before seemed to have connected them, like it was just something that was out of the way and now they could move on.
"Go gather some wood boy." Xena instructed.
Seth wandered off into the woods in search of wood while Xena set about their breakfast. Minutes later Seth returned and they had the fire going enough for tea. They drank tea and eat a breakfast of dried fruits and bread. When they had finished they made quick work of packing Argo and were back on the road to the north.
"Xena." Seth said from Xena's side as she rode along on Argo.
"Do you like being in charge of everything?"
Xena thought about that for a moment, "It's my fate. You can't run from your fate boy, you have to embrace it."
Seth thought about that for a while then spoke up again. "Xena."
The Conqueror sighed. "Yes."
"What do you think my fate is?" He asked seriously.
Xena looked down at him and smiled. "Your fate is to please me or perish boy."
"Oh." Seth said wondering why the Conqueror found that so amusing. He wondered exactly what that meant to please the Conqueror. He decided he better ask, not wanting to risk perishing.
"What is it now boy?" The Conqueror asked with mild irritation in her voice.
"How do I please you?"
Xena looked again at the boy who had the most serious of expressions on his concerned face. She found herself smiling at him again amused.
"Be a good boy and mind me." She said her tone light.
"I can do that." Seth said confidently. Reassured that he was serving his fate well.
They kept on and the morning stretched into noon. It was another glorious late summer day, the sun shining in the blue sky with only the slightest of breezes.
As she rode Xena noticed a small lake off in the distance through the woods to the northwest. She rode toward it, thinking that they should bath and a nice refreshing swim sounded good.
The Conqueror swung down from Argo as they reached the lake's edge. It was nearly a perfect circle surrounded by lush green forest on all sides. On the side they were standing on a ledge of large rocks protruded from the forest into the lake. They were smooth and flat and nearly level with the water, tilting only slightly towards the surface of the lake.
She tethered Argo to a nearby tree and retrieved a bar of soap wrapped in an oilskin cloth from her saddlebags then began to strip off her armor and weapons.
"Strip boy, we're taking a bath then going for a swim." Xena instructed while removing her boots.
Seth looked uneasy. "Xena I I don't know how to swim."
The Conqueror gave him an exasperated look. "I'm not going to let you drown boy. You'll just have to stay in the shallows."
Seth still had a worried expression on his face but he took his shirt and boots off anyway then hesitated at his pants and looked at Xena who was just about to take off her battle dress.
"What is it now boy?" She asked with slight annoyance.
"I um, well you know, I'll be naked." He said shyly.
Xena finished taking off her battle dress and tossed it in the pile with her armor. "Well boy so I am and you are going to bath, that is not an option so hurry up."
Seth stared openly at her nude form, mildly shocked.
The Conqueror gathered his stare with relative patience. "Never seen a naked woman before boy?"
Seth shook his head.
"Well get used to it. This won't be the last time you see me naked. Now come on lets go." Xena said looking at him in a manner that implied, you do or I'll do it for you.
Seth got the point and shyly removed his pants and underwear. Xena crossed to him anyway and removed the bandages from his backside, inspecting her handy work. His wounds were healing nicely and amazingly fast she thought. That farm boy resilience.
She took one of Seth's hands that were covering his groin and pulled him with her towards the large flat rocks that were sloping into the water.
She pulled the boy into a run when they reached the edge of the rock and ran the last ten feet to the water's edge, plunging straight into the water with a large splash.
Luckily for Seth it was shallow and he stood quickly and with great relief to find that his head and shoulders were above the water. He looked around for the Conqueror who hadn't surfaced yet. A few brief moments passed and he started to get concerned when his feet were tugged out from under him.
A few moments of panicked thrashing about later he surfaced to a laughing Conqueror. Anger and fear quickly faded as he was caught in her laughter and found himself smiling and laughing along with her. Briefly he wondered how it was that this the most beautiful woman he had ever seen could be so cruel one moment then playful and joyous the next. His thoughts were shattered by a large dose of water hitting him in the face. He blinked and found the Conqueror splashing him again.
Seth immediately ducked his head then returned the splash liberally soaking his new mistress with water.
Xena's face took on an incredulous look and she swam towards the boy.
"Feeling playful huh? You've had it now." Xena said her eyes betraying her mirth she quickly closed the gap between them.
Seth's eyes grew suddenly wide as the Conqueror hurried toward him. He turned and lunged through the water giggling but not being able to swim he was terribly slow and the Conqueror quickly had him.
Xena grabbed Seth from behind throwing one long arm around the boy's shoulder and neck crossing over his chest. She easily overpowered him and began dunking his head in and out of the cool, clear water.
Seth couldn't seem to stop laughing as he splashed the water trying in vain to get some kind of grip on it to pull himself free of the strong grasp of the warrior woman.
"I don't think so kid, you're not going anywhere." Xena stated teasingly continuing to dunk the boy and soon laughing along with him.
She felt light and free inside. The boy's laughter was like the notes of a sirens song freeing her long imprisoned heart, allowing it to feel joy again, not just pleasure but happiness. Being the Conqueror of the known world you didn't get many chances to be playful and she was taking full advantage of this one.
A few more moments of playful torment later the Conqueror released the boy after one final dunk of his head.
"I think you've had enough, time to get clean." Xena said taking the bar of soap she had managed to hold onto during her water torturing of her new slave. She began lathering her skin liberally with it.
Seth's head popped up from the water with him still laughing, his eyes searching for the Conqueror. He turned and found her rinsing soap from her body. He wiped the water from his face and watched as she washed her long black hair with the soap then tilted her head backwards into the water rinsing it.
Xena finished rinsing her hair and noticed Seth watching her. She felt another smile spread on her lips and then she found herself swimming towards the boy.
Seth watched as the Conqueror swam towards him. A moment later she was beside him her bar of soap in hand.
"Come here boy." Xena instructed pulling Seth into a little shallower water.
She stopped when they were standing with their waists above water then she turned Seth to face her and starting washing the boy. Generously scrubbing his skin with the soap. Seth elicited a small yelp and jumped when she reached his nether regions.
Xena smirked then turned the boy so she could get his back.
"Rinse boy." Xena instructed.
Seth dunked himself unceremoniously shaking in the water to remove the soap. He stood up facing the Conqueror grinning at her, but she didn't seem to notice.
Xena began washing the boy's hair when she suddenly realized what she was doing.
I, the Conqueror of the known world am bathing a common slave; she thought incredulously, shocked at herself. She immediately began to rationalize the action. The Gods only know what kind of hygiene habits this farm boy has; this is simply for means of instruction so he'll know what I expect of him.
Xena cleared her throat then spoke. "This is just so you know what I expect of you in the future boy."
Seth looked confused. "Huh?"
"So you know to bath thoroughly. I'm not going to have a slave of mine being sloppy." Xena said it and realized how lame it sounded but Seth seemed to buy it, nodding his lathered head vigorously at her.
Xena sighed and rolled her eyes. "Rinse boy."
She wondered then why she had washed the boy and not had him wash her, which is the norm at the palace. Xena could barely remember the last time she had bathed herself. Even stranger was the fact that she had enjoyed bathing the boy. For some unfathomable reason she found herself wanting to take care of him.
"Gods Xena get a grip. You must be going through some kind of maternal phase." The Conqueror said under her breath.
Seth's soap-less head re-emerged from the clear water and he stood facing her. Xena handed the boy her bar of soap and instructed him to wrap it in the oilskin and put it back in her saddlebags. When Seth trudged off through the water to do as he was told Xena swam into deeper water.
She gracefully breast stroked through the cool water enjoying the feeling of it gliding over her skin. When she had swam about a hundred feet from shore she turned and found Seth staring at her from shore, his hands now covering himself again. She could see that he was afraid to get back into the water without her being nearby. An inspiration hit her and she swam swiftly back to shore.
As Xena reached the shallows again she called for the boy to rejoin her in the water. Seth kept his hands covering his private parts until they reached the water. He waded out to where the Conqueror was standing in chest deep water.
"You're going to learn how to swim boy." Xena stated her eyes fixed on Seth's.
Seth looked down at the water then back at her. He looked scared.
"You'll be alright boy, I'm not going to let you drown after I went to all the trouble of breaking you in." Xena said seriously although her eyes lightened. Strangely enough this logic seemed to comfort the boy a little, farm boys she mused.
Xena raised her arms out of the water and held them out straight in front of her. "Alright boy, pay attention. All you have to do is kick your legs like so "
The Conqueror alternately moved her arms up and down in a kicking motion.
"While you pull your arms through the water like this." Xena lowered her head and chest into the water and started imitating a swimmer's strokes. "Got that?"
Seth had been silently watching her trying his best to memorize each word and movement. He went over this new information in his mind for a moment, and then satisfied that he got it he nodded his head.
"Let's give it a try then." Xena stated wading through the water away from Seth. She stopped when she was about fifteen feet away from the boy and faced him.
"Okay give it a shot boy. Swim to me." The Conqueror ordered, motioning him to her with her arms.
Seth looked nervously at the water's surface then took a deep breath and launched himself toward the Conqueror. He kicked and stroked at the water furiously and awkwardly made his way to his mistress.
Xena watched with exasperation as the boy franticly splashed towards her. He was so grossly absorbed in his plight to stay above the surface that he nearly rammed her. Xena stuck her hand out and arrested the boy's forward moment by grabbing hold of his head.
At the Conqueror's touch Seth stopped his efforts and immediately sunk beneath the water.
Xena, her hand still clutching the boy's head pulled him back to the surface where he regained his wits and stood gasping.
"Okay you need to calm that down boy, watch where you're going and stand up when you get there before you sink." Xena said watching the boy's face. He looked unsure of himself.
"Here watch me." Xena stated easing into the water and gracefully swimming a few paces from her pupil. "You see, nice and easy. You don't have to beat the water boy."
Seth nodded again, looking uncertain but determined.
Xena came to a stop and stood facing Seth again.
"Okay lets try that again boy. Swim to me." The Conqueror said holding her arms out to her new slave.
Seth launched into the water again but this time he forced himself to slow his kicks and thrusting arms. To his great relief after a few feet he found that he was moving through the water with much greater efficiency than before. He grinned broadly as he made his way toward the Conqueror.
Xena watched as Seth awkwardly made his way to her. He was far from graceful but he was swimming. She held her out stretched hands to him and swept him up in her arms once he was within her grasp. She smiled at him with a sense of pride.
"Much better boy." The Conqueror said holding her slave to her and hugging him like a small child who just learned to walk.
Xena quickly realized what she was doing and released the boy feeling awkward. What in Tartarus is going on with me? She chastised herself then she was mad at herself for being mad at herself again. Enough of this, I can do whatever I want and if I want to hug a slave then I will damn well do it! She decided stubbornly then gathered Seth back up in her arms and hugged him tightly.
Seth stared wide eyed at her confused for a moment then returned her hug and laid his head on her shoulder. He had no idea what had come over his mistress but whatever it was it was better than the beatings he had received in the last two days.
"I did it!" He exclaimed happily.
Xena released him again and smiled.
"We're not done yet boy. You still have to learn how to tread water."
"Tread water?" Seth asked.
"Treading water is what you do to stay above the water when you're not swimming. It's like swimming in place. All you do is bring your arms in and back out like this "
Xena moved her arms from side to side demonstrating.
"And kick straight down with your legs just like when you're swimming except straight down." Xena stated watching the boy's face to make sure he was absorbing the instructions.
Seth was wearing his most serious expression as he watched and listened to the Conqueror intently.
"Got it boy?" Xena asked.
Seth merely nodded his head not wanting to break his extreme concentration.
"Okay let's give it a try then." Xena said grabbing one of Seth's arms and leading him into deeper water.
When they got to where the water was at Seth's neck he stopped and looked at the Conqueror, afraid. Xena absorbed the boy's frightened expression and tried to comfort him a little.
"You're going to have to go into water that's over your head to try this boy. Here I'll swim out a few feet and then you can swim to me but when you reach me you're going to have to start treading water as soon as you stop swimming. I'll be right there though in case you get into trouble." Xena turned then and swam out about ten feet and turned back to face her slave. The water was a good six feet below the bottom of her feet now.
Seth took a few deep breaths summoning up his courage then threw himself into a gangly swim. When he reached his mistress he stopped, bobbed for a moment then began to tread water with all his might. With ragged breath and great effort he managed to hold himself well above the surface lifting his upper chest and shoulders out of the water.
"That's good boy, now calm down." Xena ordered in a reassuring voice. "You don't have to lift your whole chest out of the water, just your head, now relax it a bit."
Seth cautiously did as he was told and was genuinely surprised when it worked. He was treading water with much less effort than before with just his head and neck above the water line now.
"It works!" He exclaimed joyously.
The Conqueror looked at him with a wide smile. "Of course it works. Come on now and follow me."
Xena slowly swam paralleling the shore with Seth following in her graceful wake. She made large oblong circles until she heard the boy's breathing become labored then headed towards the large rock they had entered the water from. She splashed the clear water onto the rock to cool it's heated surface then lifted herself out of the lake, sat on the rock and watched Seth work his way towards her.
She smiled and clapped as Seth finally reached her breathing hard.
"Good job." The Conqueror said with a sense of maternal pride in her pupil.
Seth leaned against the rock and smiled broadly at her, his chest still heaving.
"Thank thank you for for teaching me." The boy said in between gasps.
"I can't have my property drowning now can I? That would be an extreme inconvenience to me, especially now after having broke you in." Xena said not willing to admit to the boy how much she enjoyed teaching him.
Seth continued to smile at her while he caught his breath.
Xena laid back on the warm smooth surface of the rock and closed her eyes, letting the warm rays of the sun caress her body.
Seth having finally gotten his breathing back to normal hopped up on the rock beside his mistress; then laid down imitating the Conqueror's actions. After a moment he propped himself up on his elbows and stared out at the water, wondering when he might get the chance to swim again.
"You'll get to swim again boy, just not today." The Conqueror stated her eyes still closed.
Seth stared at her dumbfounded. How does she always know just what I'm doing and even thinking?
A smile spread on Xena's lips. "Yes I know everything boy, don't concern yourself with how. Lie down; we're going to relax here for a while.
Seth's amazement deepened, he was completely mystified by the Conqueror now. He laid down on his back next to her and sighed, taking her instructions to heart he stopped trying to figure out how she knew everything, the subject he decided was far too complex for him to ever understand. He closed his eyes feeling the warm sun dry his cool skin. His mind turned to his having learned how to swim and he smiled proudly. The warm sun and his previous exertion were taking their toll on him and just before he slipped into dreams he was thinking that his new life as the Conqueror slave might not be so bad after all.
As Xena laid comfortably sprawled on the rock she thought about the strange feelings she had been having toward this new slave of hers. She liked him and that was unusual for her. She had slaves that she preferred more than others but that was all based on their beauty or skills this was something different. She liked Seth for who he is, his shyness and childlike wonder. He has this amazing ability to relax her with his simple and innocent ways. Well no matter what it was that was going on with her she could see no harm in it. If she was enjoying taking care of her new slave then so be it, he was after all her slave and as such subject to whatever her whims were, whether they were cruel or kind. She listened to the boy's rhythmic breathing and let herself fall into slumber.
Xena woke a short time later, her skin completely dry. She reached over and shook the boy awake.
Seth's eyes slid open and he smiled up at her.
"Time to get going again boy. Lets get dressed." Xena said standing up and moving to her clothes.
She dressed and replaced her armor and weapons then went to retrieve Argo who was tethered to a nearby tree. When she returned Seth was dressed and waiting.
"Are you hungry Xena?" Seth asked trying not to be too obvious.
Xena grinned at him. "Hungry huh boy?"
"Well you're going to have to wait. We'll eat when we make camp for the night in a few hours."
Seth nodded again, looking disappointed. Farm boys always thinking with their stomachs Xena mused.
She nudged Argo's sides and they headed back out towards the north again. Xena found herself thinking of the missing element in her life again and wondering if she would find it in the north.
They traveled for three more hours, Seth asking the occasional question with long periods of contemplative silence in between. Finally they reached a suitable spot in the woods not far from a stream to camp.
Xena swung down from Argo then tethered the mare to a tree.
"Okay boy you know what to do, gather the firewood then you can rub down Argo. Those will be your chores every night, got it?" The Conqueror asked.
Seth nodded his understanding then went off to gather the wood.
Xena found some rocks and made a small fire pit then unsaddled Argo and removed her saddlebags. She rounded up a fallen log to place near the fire for a seat then went about laying out the bedroll for later.
Seth returned with the wood and then went silently to Argo after retrieving her brush from the Conqueror's bags.
Xena made a fire then went about making their dinner while Seth rubbed down Argo. She could hear the boy talking softly to the horse as he worked. She smiled at the way he talked to the mare as if she could say something back to him.
Soon Seth was finished with his chores and he sat on the ground across the fire from Xena. Night had fallen and the air was cool and fresh.
Xena was seated on the log placing slabs of dried beef she had heated over the fire on two wooden plates. She put a slice of thick bread on each then handed one to Seth. The boy thanked her then devoured his food, the long day of travel and the swimming having built his appetite. When they had finished Xena gave the plates to Seth to wash in the stream.
The boy dutifully did as he was told then returned to his spot on the ground across the fire from his mistress. He sat watching the flames drift toward the starlit sky.
"Come on its time for bed." Xena said reaching a hand down to her slave.
Seth took the hand and Xena pulled him to his feet with surprising force making him have to balance himself once he was on his feet. The Conqueror moved to the bedroll and lie down on her back. Seth took his place beside her, resting his head on her shoulder and the top of her breast while he clung to her waist with his left arm. He smiled contently at her.
"Xena." The boy said quietly.
"Thank you for teaching me to swim."
The Conqueror smiled as she felt the warmth in the boy's voice. "Go to sleep boy." She replied simply.
Seth nuzzled her and sighed then fell into a deep sleep almost instantly.
Xena looked affectionately at him then kissed the top of his head. She listened to his peaceful breathing for awhile then let sleep take her as well.
A few hours later Seth began to mumble in his sleep waking the Conqueror. He started to twitch and he broke into a cold sweat as his incoherent mumblings increased.
Xena idly wondered about the boy's nightmare. Probably about me again, she thought then sadness struck her. She had been enjoying the boy's loving adoration of her the previous day and was sure this new reminder of who she really was would shatter that again.
Seth woke with a start then immediately looked up into the ice blue eyes of the Conqueror.
Here comes the fear, now he'll realize that he's clinging to the source of his torment and roll away, Xena mused regretfully. To her great surprise though the boy looked to her with fear but not for her, he looked into her eyes now for reassurance and he clung to her tightly.
Xena's eyes softened with this realization. "What is it boy?"
Seth burrowed his head into her breast and took a deep breath before responding.
"I dreamt that I got stolen, and the men who stole me were mean and ugly and took turns beating me." He said tears welling in his eyes as he relived the nightmare.
The Conqueror placed her left hand on the back of the boy's head and gently stroked his hair as he began to cry softly. She smiled then, she didn't know if the boy was crying because he thought she was the lesser of two evils or if he really did want to be with her now but either way it made her feel good that she wasn't the source of the boy's nightmare but rather his savior.
The Conqueror continued to stroke the boy's hair and made soft shushing noises until his crying subsided.
"You're my property now boy. Not much chance of anyone stealing from me. Not if they value their lives so you can go back to sleep now." Xena stated reassuringly.
Seth nodded into her breast then took a few more shaky breaths before he fell back into slumber.
Xena continued stroking the boy's hair long after he had fallen back asleep. It seemed to relax her as well as her new slave. After a long while of just lying there and listening to the boy's low even breathing the Conqueror finally let herself fall back into a contented sleep.
Seth woke to the low light of the dawn, the Conqueror awake and stroking his short hair. He peered up at her and smiled. She look relaxed, more so then when she first took him just three day's ago. She smiled back at him.
"Feeling better?" Xena asked.
"You woke last night from a bad dream, remember?" Xena queried incredulously.
"Oh yeah that. Yeah lot's better thanks." Seth stated positively the dream of the night before returning to him. Though this morning it didn't matter to him, this morning was special.
"Mm hmm." Xena said shaking her head at the boy's range of emotions.
"Today is my birthday." Seth said with a hint of excitement.
"It is huh. Let me guess you're eighteen summers today." Xena stated smoothly.
Seth stared up at her in happy amazement. "How did you know that?"
The Conqueror decided not to tell him that it was a skill acquired from years of taking and selling slaves.
"I know everything remember boy?" She said simply.
Seth was encouraged; this was going better than he had thought so far. No harsh retorts yet. He plunged onward.
"Um yes." The Conqueror mocked him playfully.
"Today is my birthday." Seth said again summoning his courage.
"Yeah so." The Conqueror was getting annoyed at her slave's indirectness. "Spit it out boy."
Some of Seth's courage abandoned him at the irritation in his mistress's voice but he stammered on. " W well Xena when someone has a birthday you're suppose to have a special meal at an inn where the birthday person gets to eat all he wants and then gets to have pie for desert. I thought maybe if we were going by a village today that maybe we could you know since today is um "
Seth saw the steely expression on the Conqueror's face and lost all hope. He lowered his eyes and his voice began to abandon him as well as his courage.
"U um never mind." Seth said in barely a whisper as he buried his head once again in her chest.
Xena felt her heart melt at the expression of despair and the low sad voice of her new slave. She rolled her eyes and blew out a long sigh; irritated at herself again for actually considering the boy's meek request then something occurred to her.
"Is this why you tried to run away boy?" Xena asked perceptively.
Seth nodded his head not raising his eyes to hers.
Farm boys, Xena thought, always thinking with their stomachs. It had been important enough to the boy to risk her wrath that second night, she considered that for a moment.
"We'll see boy." She finally said.
Seth looked back up at her, his eyes shinning with the bright light of hope, his lips turned up in a smile.
It made the Conqueror feel something light deep within her that she hadn't felt in a long time. She had, had the same feeling the day before playing in the lake with the boy and it
was all she could do to restrain herself from smiling back at the boy now.
"Knock that off boy!" Xena ordered with forced sternness.
Seth lowered his head again and chuckled with the effort to conceal his happiness.
"Boy!" Xena's voice got a little harder.
"Yes Xena." The boy capitulated managing to stifle another giggle but he couldn't help hugging her tightly.
Xena smiled, it was nice to be appreciated instead of just feared for a change, she thought. She considered their route. They would, she mused be going by a village around midday and they did need some supplies.
The Conqueror sighed contentedly. She let them lie there for awhile longer, Seth dozing in and out of consciousness now that all his simple worries had been addresses. His head raising and falling in tune with her breathing, if only her concerns were so simple she mused then amazed again at the relaxing affect the boy had on her. Happiness came so easily for him and she found it to be infectious.
Xena gently shook the boy awake. "Come on sleepy, time to get going."
Seth went about his morning chores of saddling and packing Argo while Xena made a simple breakfast and tea. In thirty minutes they were on the road to the north again and by midday they came into the large village of Callonus.
The Conqueror looked down from astride Argo to Seth who was near bursting with excitement, yet staying very close to her and Argo, holding onto her boot at the horse's side. She grinned; it was the largest village the boy had ever been in she was sure and although exciting it intimidated him too. The streets were crowded and the markets busy.
Seth looked constantly about him, his eyes never failing to see something of interest. It was thrilling to see so many people in one place but a little scary too. He was reassured though by the booted leg he held onto. As he looked about him to all the different venders he noticed that whenever Xena looked at them, they all lowered their heads and eyes to the ground and it was only then that the magnitude of who he was with hit him.
Well, he mused she may be tough but she can be pretty nice too. He looked up at her then with bright eyes and she smiled down at him then reached down and ruffled his hair with her hand.
Yeah, pretty nice too.
Xena rode Argo to a livery stable and swung down handing the reins to a nervous looking man.
"Take good care of her." Xena stated coolly.
The man bowed his head. "Yes Conqueror."
Xena turned to Seth who was close at hand but had turned back towards the street watching in awe.
The Conqueror nonchalantly tapped the boy on the shoulder. Seth turned quickly to meet her waiting stare.
"I'm hungry boy, lets get something to eat. That is if you're hungry, if not then I'm sure I can wait until later and make us something over the campfire." Xena teased.
Seth's features tensed in alarm. "No, no, no if you're hungry then we should eat something here. I mean I wouldn't want you going hungry."
"Well if that's what you think we should do?" Xena teased a little further, she couldn't seem to help herself.
Seth nodded enthusiastically.
Xena smiled at him. "Okay then lets go find an inn."
They turned from the livery and made their way through the busy market. The throng of people before them spread out to either side as the Conqueror made her way through. Finally they came to a large inn. They mounted the rough-hewn steps and went inside. The room was large with plank tables and chairs positioned about it and a long bar running the length of the back wall. It was about half full and the patrons stopped and stared as the Conqueror entered with her slave in tow. The room grew suddenly quiet.
"Mind your business." The Conqueror stated in a firm no-nonsense voice.
Everyone in the room quickly turned back to their meals and drinks, a few left dinars on their tables and quietly slunk out. Xena smirked, and then spotted a table near the front window against a corner. She strode to it and sat with her back against the wall. Seth took a seat on a bench across from her.
Seth first smelled then spotted two large pie's cooling on a self behind the bar. He smiled enthusiastically at Xena.
A grin automatically appeared on the Conqueror's lips. It seemed to be happening to her a lot lately. A pretty young barmaid strode to their table. She looked to be about twenty with long brown hair pulled back into a tail and tied with a ribbon. She seemed oblivious to who the Conqueror was and she smiled engagingly at them.
"Welcome, what may I bring you?" She asked cheerfully.
"What do you have for lunch?" Xena asked, thinking it was kind of nice not to be recognized.
The barmaid's features lit up as she went into an explanation of the day's meal. "Oh you're in luck. Today we have a pot roast served with garlic-mashed potatoes and topped with our special peppercorn house gravy. Fresh string beans and a slice of sourdough bread are also included."
Xena looked over at Seth who was practically drooling. She chuckled.
"Sounds good, we'll have it." Xena said as the barmaid scribbled on a small piece of paper.
"Would you like to try one of our ale's ma'am? They're very good." The barmaid asked with seemingly boundless energy.
"And for your son?" The barmaid asked.
Xena's face went blank then her features hardened. Seth smiled at her amused by the barmaid's mistake.
"This is not my son! This is my slave!" The Conqueror stated indignantly. By the God's I'm only thirty-three summers old, she thought then realized that would make her technically old enough but still!
Her harsh tone didn't seem to phase the barmaid's enthusiasm.
"I beg your pardon ma'am. It's just that you both have the same beautiful blue eyes and people generally don't dine with their slaves."
Xena seemed to notice for the first time that Seth's eyes were strikingly similar to her own. Her anger abated then as Seth continued to smile at her.
"Something to drink for your slave ma'am?" The barmaid continued.
"Ale?" Seth asked Xena tentatively.
Xena's features grew stern. "No! You're silly enough without adding ale." She turned back to the barmaid. "The boy will have milk."
The barmaid smiled not missing a beat. "I'll have you're drinks right out then your meals shortly after that."
"Nice try." Xena said to Seth as the barmaid bounded off for their drinks.
Seth looked disappointed. "I've never had an ale Xena." He protested.
"You can have a sip of mine." Xena replied. She just loved teasing the boy. Although this last statement didn't quail the boy at all, to the contrary he perked up.
The barmaid returned with their drinks and Seth looked regretfully at his milk. He looked over to Xena who was taking a long drink of her ale. She set the mug down with a satisfied exhalation then her eyes met Seth's pleading one's. She slid the mug over to him.
Seth's face lit up as he took the mug of the fragrant liquid.
"A small drink." Xena cautioned him.
Seth nodded then took a drink of Xena's ale and hiccupped. Xena laughed as Seth handed her the mug.
"I like it." Seth stated.
"Drink your milk boy." Xena said still chuckling.
The barmaid soon returned with their meals and another ale for Xena. Seth was completely lost in bliss. He ate seemingly not to notice the Conqueror's amusement with his reverence for his meal.
They soon were finished with the amazingly good meal and the barmaid returned for their plates.
"Can I get you anything else? Another ale ma'am?" The barmaid asked gathering up their empty plates.
Xena stared at Seth. "I don't know. Perhaps we should be going. I can't think of anything else hmm wait yes I can."
Seth had been listening intently, looking from Xena to the pies cooling on the shelf above the bar. He had looked to Xena with alarm when she mentioned going before he had his birthday pie and now his face showed relief as Xena seemingly remembered that a person has to have pie with their birthday meal, those were the rules.
Xena's face broke into a large grin; by the Gods this was good fun. "I'll have another ale and another milk for the boy."
Seth's jaw dropped and he stared with open anxiety at her.
Xena burst out laughing. She was starting to think that teasing her new slave was one of the most fun things to do in the entire universe. She regained her composure as the barmaid returned with their drinks. Seth looked confused by her mirth and Xena waved him off.
"I think you better bring the boy a slice of pie too. I don't want him getting scrawny on me." Xena stated with mock seriousness to the barmaid.
Seth's face lit up again and he beamed at Xena.
The barmaid's face seemed to light up too. "Are you sure you wouldn't like a slice of pie too ma'am? They just made them this morning, fresh apple cinnamon."
"Just the ale. You better bring the boy a big piece though. It will probably be another year before he gets another." Xena said continuing to tease her slave.
The jibe was lost on Seth and he looked to Xena with relief and gratitude. The barmaid returned with the pie and drinks and Seth ate in reverent silence.
Xena finished her ale then gave the barmaid a few dinars's as she returned for the last of their mugs and Seth's empty pie plate.
Seth looked at Xena across the table and smiled with his appreciation.
"Thank you Xena. This is the best birthday I've ever had."
The Conqueror returned the smile but she wasn't about to admit to treating him for his birthday. "I was hungry boy that's all."
Seth's face grew serious and he looked down into his lap for a moment then he reached into his pocket and withdrew his closed hand. He pushed his hand across the table to Xena and opened it, placing his special rock on the rough wooden surface.
"I I hope you like this Xena. My mother said it would bring me good luck."
Xena stared at the rock in stunned silence. She couldn't believe the boy was giving it to her. Or that he would give her anything let alone his special rock that his dead mother gave him. She knew what it meant to the boy. It meant more to him than his freedom, he had taken a beating for it when he was reluctant to give it over to her that first night and now he was giving it to her.
The Conqueror felt warmth spread through her at the unexpected gift. The worthless rock meant more to the boy than its equal in diamonds. It contained in it all of the boy's love for his long dead mother and he was giving it to her. Gods it was nice to have someone actually appreciate her rather than just fear her, she thought then suddenly felt sad. Sad that a lousy three-dinar meal in a tavern constituted the best birthday that this boy who overflowed with love for everything had ever had.
"You don't have to do that Seth." Xena said quietly.
It was the first time she had ever used his name.
"But it's all I have Xena." The boy protested. "I want you to have it. You've been nicer to me than anybody ever since my mother died."
Xena stared at him. She had beat him repeatedly, caned him, stolen him from his home and the simple meal seemed to have washed all that away for the boy. Xena fought back the emotion welling inside of her. She wanted to sweep the boy up in her arms and hug him but she couldn't, not the way she was feeling right now. It would mean too much and she just wasn't ready to admit that to herself. Seth looked down at the table before he continued.
"I I can't even remember what she looks like anymore." He said still staring at the table's surface then tears started rolling down his face.
The Conqueror's heart pained for the boy. She reached across the table and gently lifted his chin.
"It's okay don't cry." Xena said in a soft, comforting voice as she wiped away his tears.
She reached into a small pouch and held a dinar out to Seth. "Here take this, that way you'll always be able to remember what I look like."
Seth turned the coin over and stared at the likeness of the Conqueror minted into its surface. He looked up and smiled at her, adoration shone in his eyes.
Xena smiled back and took the rock from the table's surface and placed it in her coin pouch. "Come on boy we've got things to buy."
They walked out into the crowded market and Xena held out a small pouch of dinars to Seth. "Here take these boy. I'm going to get Argo and pick up a few things I want you to buy some provisions; dried meat, cheese, bread, tea Got it?"
Seth nodded. "Uh huh."
"Good. Well meet back here in front of the inn in 20 minutes." Xena said. "Stay out of trouble and don't be late."
The conqueror turned and went off in the direction of the livery stable. Seth watched her go until she was lost in the mass of people. He was a little nervous to be in such a big village all by himself suddenly. He looked around at the busy market and took a deep reassuring breath.
"Better get going so I'm not late." He muttered to himself.
He turned and strode down the street toward where the food vendors were. He passed by merchants selling everything he could possibly image and more. Clothes and weapons, clay vessels and cooking utensils, brightly colored fabrics and beaded jewelry.
He was walking through the crowd when someone reached out and grabbed hold of his shoulder. He turned to face whoever it was and found an older man with a gray beard and dirty white turban standing in front of a closed tent.
The man smiled at him and held out open hands in a gesture of friendship. "My friend you look like a man in search of something. My name is Muhammad. Tell what it is you seek and perhaps I can be of some assistance. This is a very busy market and it can sometimes be very difficult to find what you seek."
Seth returned the friendly man's smile. "I'm looking for food stuffs. Dried meats and the sorts."
The man's eyes glinted and he gave Seth another toothy smile. "Ah, you are in luck then my friend. I supply the Royal Grecian Army troops. It is my specialty."
What luck, Seth thought, the Conqueror would be pleased that I got supplies from the same place that her troops get them.
"Great, where are they?" Seth asked with enthusiasm.
"Just inside my tent my friend, come." The man said holding the tent flap open for Seth to pass through ahead of him.
Seth entered the large tent to find it mostly empty except for a few chairs and some trunks and a small table at one end. He frowned confused.
"Where are the supplies?" Seth asked the turban-clad man.
Muhammad crossed to the rear of the tent and stood by another flap.
"Just through here my friend. The food is laden in my wagon. It makes it easier for me to supply the troops wherever they may be in the area." The old man said twisting the end of his beard with his dirty hands.
Seth nodded and took a step towards the rear tent flap when something struck him a wicked blow to the back of his head. He went down to his knees hard and groggily shook his head, his vision blurring. He heard someone grunt with dissatisfaction and then darkness exploded behind his eyes as he was struck on the head again, except harder. He fell unconscious to the dirt floor of the tent.
Xena cursed as she looked down the crowded street for her new slave. Seth was twenty minutes late. She knew now that something had happened to the boy. She knew that he wouldn't have run away. She had taken care of that, no slave she ever owned ever tried more than once to escape, more than the memory of the pain of disobedience though the boy had come to like her in the last two days. No he didn't run, he either got hopelessly lost or some local thugs hit him over the head, took his money and left him unconscious in an alley somewhere. Since the market was little more than a hard stone's throw away from the inn she suspected the latter.
The Conqueror found herself feeling anxious and worried. She frowned; this was a new emotion for her. Or at least she hadn't felt it in quite a long time.
"If anything has happened to that boy I'll kill whoever did it." Xena stated in a low voice to herself.
She turned towards the farmers selling carts full of produce and fresh meats in the open square at the end of the street. She passed by a tent with closed flaps and nothing displayed in front. It struck her as odd. Every other merchant on the street had his space crammed with open carts and racks full of the various items they had for sale with the flaps to their tents tied back to offer a better view of the merchandise inside yet this one's front was bare and flaps of his tent closed.
The dark haired warrior decided to take a closer look. She threw back the tent flap and passed through. Inside the dirty tent she found a man with his back to her counting money on a small table. He turned when he heard her enter and he gasped at the sight of the Conqueror of the known world in his tent.
Xena's eyes narrow and her face grew dark as she saw her mark on the small leather money pouch the bearded man held in one hand.
Muhammad dropped to his hands and knees prostrating himself before her. "My Queen what is it that this humble merchant can do for you?"
The Conqueror crossed to the man and pulled him to his knees by his shirt and shook him roughly. "Where is the boy you stole my money pouch from?"
"Please my Queen I stole nothing!" Muhammad pleaded with her.
"I have no patience for your lies!" The Conqueror released the mans collar and then made two strikes in rapid succession to the man's neck with the middle and forefinger's of her hands.
Muhammad stiffened painfully and he labored for each breath. A small trickle of blood started from his nose.
The Conqueror stepped back from him and stared icily into his eyes. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you'll be dead in thirty seconds if I don't release you so you better answer my questions and answer them quickly if you value your life! Now where is the boy?"
Muhammad struggled to answer her. "S salvers ha have him."
"Where?" Xena asked in eerily calm voice.
The man croaked and gasped before he answered her weakly. "O on t the road to the east. To wards, towards the seaport."
The conqueror turned to go.
"W wait, I did as as you asked!" Muhammad begged.
Xena stared at him, death in her vivid blue eyes. "And now you get to die that is your reward. I don't have time for anything else. Consider yourself lucky."
The Conqueror turned then and left the dank tent. Muhammad's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over onto his back dead.
Seth woke to an ugly man with a scared face kicking him and screaming obscenities at him. He was lying in a clearing in the forest next to a wagon with a cage built onto it. He groggily looked up into the desperate eyes of six young women with bruised faces staring at him from the cage on the wagon. He got another kick to his side then.
"Get up you lazy piece of farm trash! There is no way in Tartarus that I'm going to heft you up into that wagon! Get up damn you!" Scar face yelled at him.
Seth got unsteadily to his feet. "W what do you want with me? Where am I?"
Scar face laughed then and Seth saw that he wasn't alone. Two men at the head of the wagon laughed too and then so did two other's who rode towards him on mean looking black horses. They were all big and ugly like scar face with greasy hair and stained teeth.
"We want you to get in the wagon boy! You're a slave now and we're going to sell you." Scar face said when he finished laughing.
One of the men on the mean black horses spoke up then. "That's right boy were going to see a pirate named Haggar. Haggar the nasty to be precise, he likes smooth faced young boys like you."
They all started laughing again at that then one of the men on the wagon jumped down and got behind him.
"Pretty boy like you should fetch two or three hundred dinars from Haggar so get in the wagon." The man with the crooked, broken nose that jumped down from the wagon said.
One of the men on the horses got down then too and they all stood in a triangle around him.
Seth stuttered lamely. "I I can't, I'm already a slave! X Xena will be angry that I'm late!"
The brutish men all froze at the mention of the Conqueror's name, then scar face grabbed him roughly and tore his shirt at his right shoulder to reveal the Conqueror's mark.
Scar face's eyes went wide with shock. "He's telling the truth! She'll kill us all for stealing from her!"
Seth continued. "I was suppose to meet here back at the inn with some supplies!"
The man from the horse looked thoughtful then. "Calm down Grattus, what would the Conqueror be doing this far from Athens and traveling with only one slave? More like this boy escaped from her palace and was trying to get as far away from there as he could."
Grattus shook Seth by his shoulders then. "Is that right boy? Or are you telling us that you really are traveling alone with the Conqueror. No royal guard, no other slaves, just you."
"That's right! It's just me and her!" Seth exclaimed nervously.
The man from the horse spoke again. "He's just trying to save his skin. No matter he's ours now. You should feel lucky boy. The Conqueror doesn't treat runaway slaves kindly. Now get in the wagon!" The man ordered.
Seth struggled and broke free of Grattus's grasp then and ran. He only made about ten paces past the triangle of men when the other horsemen knocked him down with the flank of his mean black horse.
Seth got quickly to his feet but the others were on him. Grattus hit first a stunning blow to his jaw. He staggered then the other two were on him. They half beat him half drug him toward the cage on the wagon. He was strong though and he held out. He fell to his knees then after a crippling blow to his stomach; he bent over and gasped for air.
Grattus grabbed a nearby tree branch from the forest floor. "By the Gods I'll teach you to run from us boy!"
Ugly scar faced Grattus hit him then with the think, dead wood. First on his back, then his shoulders and then when he was lying face down in the dirt he struck him on the head. Seth bruised and bleeding was out cold. The three men threw his limp body in the cage on the wagon with the other slaves then locked the gate.
One of girls in the wagon cradled Seth's head in her lap while the other's dabbed at the blood that trickled from his swollen lips and nose; using strips of cloth torn from their skirts.
The wagon began to move then with Grattus walking along the side and one horsemen front and rear. The man with the broken nose had returned to his seat at the front of the wagon with the burly driver.
They traveled for about an hour when they came to a bend in the road. As the wagon came around it Grattus watched the slaves in the cage. They were all still fusing over that pretty farm boy! Bah! The little harlots, he would show them a thing or two when they camped for the night, he thought with satisfaction. He would drag one or more out of the cage and have his way with them then he would
Grattus's perverted fantasy was interrupted suddenly by a high-pitched sound followed by a thud. He looked curiously about then turned to the rear when he heard the horse trotting up.
He stared for one uncomprehending moment at the rider-less horse when it dawned on him what had happened. He turned to shout a warning to the front rider but before his voice could bellow out over his lips he heard the high-pitched sound again and he watched with horror as his comrades head was cut cleanly off at the neck. Sightless eyes stared at him as the head tumbled backwards and gore spurted from the body still clutching the reins of the mean black stallion.
Crooked nose on the wagon drew up his crossbow while Grattus and the wagon driver both drew swords. They all watched in shock as the Conqueror rode into them from the front.
Crooked nose quickly shot a bolt off at her. The bolt flew true but just before it struck the Conqueror snatched it from the air then she was riding hard for him, her sword drawn.
The burly driver panicked, dropped from the wagon and ran.
Xena was on crooked nose as he was in the act of cocking his bow; her razor sharp sword took him at the base of the throat and cut through in one smooth motion. Even as crooked nose's head was tumbling over her blade she had drawn her chakram in her left hand and flung it toward the running driver.
The left handed throw took the man too high and the chakram sliced the man's head open like a ripe melon just below his eyes. Xena caught the bloody instrument seconds later. She gracefully threw one leg over Argo's neck and slid from the horse with both bloody weapons still in hand. She wiped them both on the fallen body of crooked nose then hung her chakram on her side seemingly ignoring Grattus.
Grattus watched the Conqueror in shocked disbelief. His mind could barely comprehend that in a mere few minutes she had killed his four friends. His wits came back to him then as he saw her turn towards the cage on the wagon. Then he watched her face cloud in anger the likes of which he had never seen as she saw her battered slave still cradled in the lap of one of the weeping, terrified slave girls. She turned to him then, cold furry burning in her eyes.
Grattus threw his sword to the side then and dropped to his hands and knees blubbering. "Mercy, Conqueror, mercy!"
Xena walked slowly to him dragging the tip of her sword across the ground. The sword made an eerie scraping sound on the hard packed dirt of the well-traveled road. She stopped when she stood directly in front of the downcast man prostrating himself at her feet. She drew up the tip of her sword then and plunged it back down hard through one of the man's outstretched hands!
Grattus howled with pain as blood gushed around the sword.
Xena twisted the blade viciously in the wound. "Just like the mercy you showed my slave!"
She had felt all manors of battle lust before but this was a totally new sensation. One that surpassed all others she had ever felt in intensity although she couldn't think about it now, she was just acutely aware of how powerful it was.
Xena pulled her sword from Grattus's hand and circled around him. The man was a pathetic bully. When the odds weren't overwhelmingly in his favor his true cowardice shone like a new dinar. Suddenly she felt like just killing the man but no, he needed to suffer more, he didn't deserve a quick death.
She was at his rear now and kicked the man hard in his groin sending him face down in the dirt.
Grattus screamed then lie clutching himself in the road.
The Conqueror looked again at Seth's limp form in the wagon and she could no longer restrain herself, she plunged her sword into the man's heart and left it there while she stared into his dying eyes.
"Here's your mercy scum!" Xena pulled her sword from Grattus's dead body and wiped the blood on his shirt before replacing it in the scabbard.
She knelt down and removed a heavy iron key ring from the dead man's belt then crossed to the wagon and unlocked the gate at the rear then swung it open.
The slave girls were all huddled around Seth sitting on their knees with head and eyes lowered submissively to the Conqueror. They all trembled with fear, their faces pale white in shock after witnessing the ghastly scene.
"Bring him out here and lay him on the ground carefully." The Conqueror commanded in a low tone.
The girls obeyed. Three of them climbing down while the other three in the wagon handed Seth out to them. They laid him gently on the ground face up then immediately withdrew a face paces. The others climbed down from the wagon and they all prostrated themselves on the ground before the Conqueror.
Xena knelt beside Seth. She explored his head first with her skillful fingers. She found several bumps but none that were overly large and no fracture. She pealed his eyelids back one at a time and watched as his pupils dilated in the sunlight.
So far so good she thought strangely nervous. She had examined hundreds of her soldiers after a battle and she had never felt like this. She was worried she suddenly realized, no terrified that some serious injury might have been inflicted upon her slave. She tired to shake the feeling off. It was just good business sense that's all. She didn't want her property damaged, right?
Xena continued her examination. She ran her hands down his neck then collarbone, shoulders, arms and hands. She paused over his torso and noted the many contusions on his sides and back but no broken ribs that farm boy resilience she mused and continued down his legs.
Satisfied that he hadn't received any serious injuries she rose and crossed to Argo then mounted. The boy had a concussion and would be very sore for the next week but he would make a full recovery shortly she was sure.
She rode Argo over to him then turned to the young slave girls still huddled together on their hands and knees.
"Hand him up to me." Xena instructed then removed her brass breastplate and stowed it in her saddlebags while the girls carefully hefted Seth to her outstretched hands. Xena swung one of Seth's legs over Argo's back then positioned the unconscious boy facing her. She laid his head on her shoulder then draped his legs over hers. She felt his body collapse against hers then she wrapped her arms around him and placed her hands on the saddle horn and loosely took hold of the reins.
She liked this position. She could feel Seth's heart beat against hers and his warm breath on her shoulder reassuring her of his stable condition. She turned and faced the slave girls who had resumed their positions on their hands and knees before her.
"This is your lucky day. You're all free now; because you were kind to my slave I've decided not to take possession of you. You may take whatever money you find on this scum and return to wherever they stole you from."
One of the bolder girls raised her head and spoke meekly for the group. "Thank you Mistress. W will he be okay? They beat him pretty badly."
The Conqueror was touched at the concern for the boy. It seemed all that he encountered liked him. All that weren't thieving scum that is. "He'll be fine."
The girls watched as the Conqueror turned then and rode away with her slave. They stared at each other for few moments in disbelief. They all knew the stories of what a monster she was and how cruelly she treated her slaves and they were shocked to witness the kindness and concern she had for the boy. As they watched her go they all felt a new sense of pride and a loyalty for their ruler.
Xena moved Argo along at a slow trot back towards Callonus. Her fierce battle rage having fully subsided now, the boy's calming affect on her again. That was why she had been so enraged by them stealing him, she told herself and she really tired to believe it.
Seth's eyes strained open to mere slits and he briefly glanced a strange canted world from an elevated height that the he didn't understand. His eyelids felt heavily burdened and he was only able to hold them open for a moment before they fell shut again. Dimly aware he felt strangely safe and warm in a familiar way. After a time he tried again to open his eyes, this time with great effort he was able to hold them open for a little while longer. The scene before him rose and fell and he noticed a bushy yellow tail below him then his eyelids succumbed to their burden again. Slightly more aware now he tired to think, why is that tail familiar to me? Then he realized that it was Argo's tail or a tail like Argo's, he couldn't be sure. Then suddenly he was afraid that it might not be Argo's, he might already be sold to the pirate that he had been cruelly teased about. Once more he opened his eyes and this time he was able to keep them open. He looked again at the tail of the beast he was riding then his nostrils caught the familiar sent of the Conqueror's hair and he noticed that his head was resting on her shoulder, her obsidian locks cascading down her back. Still he was afraid that it might not really be her, he tried to find his voice.
"X Xena?" He asked in a low voice without moving.
The Conqueror smiled then and reined Argo to a halt. She took hold of the boy by the shoulders and pulled him slightly away from her so she could see his face.
"And who else would I be?" Xena asked with a grin.
She saw relief wash over Seth's face and it made her feel warm all over. Someone was actually glad to see her, the boy needed her and the need made her feel like something more than she was. She wasn't sure what this feeling was but it was enormous she knew and it filled her with happiness.
Seth let out a deep sigh of relief that it truly was his mistress and not the pirate.
"I thought you might be a pirate called Haggar the nasty who likes smooth faced young boys like me." Seth related to her in a most serious tone.
A short burst of laughter erupted from the Conqueror's lips. She shook her head and continued to grin at the boy. "How do you feel?"
"My head hurts." Seth said swaying in her grip still too weak to support himself.
Xena leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "Better?"
Seth smiled warmly and nodded then his eyes slid shut then fluttered open again.
The Conqueror grasped the back of the boy's head and guided it back down on her shoulder. "It's okay, go back to sleep boy, your safe now."
Seth kissed her exposed shoulder then with a contented sigh he closed his heavily lidded eyes and was almost instantly asleep.
Xena felt the light kiss and smiled, she rubbed the boy's back with one hand and felt him collapse against her again. In mere moments the boy's breathing was slow and steady again and he was fast asleep.
The conqueror nudged Argo back into a slow walk and she found herself wishing that the village were further away.
When Seth woke again it was dark and he found that he was lying in a soft bed his head familiarly pillowed against the Conqueror's warm flesh. He noticed then that they were both nude and that he had been bathed. He still felt groggy but he was terribly thirsty.
"Go back to sleep boy." The low tone thick with sleep commanded.
"X Xena I'm thirsty." Seth rasped.
Xena sighed heavily then disentangled herself from the boy and crossed to a table at the other end of the room. She poured cool water from a jug into a cup for the boy then crossed to the bedside and handed it to him.
Seth sat up and drank greedily. When he was finished he handed the empty cup back to Xena who was still standing over him.
"Thank you Xena." Seth said warmly.
The Conqueror grunted at him then set the cup back on the table and returned to bed. She wordlessly pulled the boy back against her. Her intention clear, don't even think about getting up now.
Seth wasn't very tired anymore, his head started to clear and he had a million questions but he knew better than to get up. The Conqueror wouldn't have it and if he tired she just might have him. He tired to go back to sleep, his head rising and falling rhythmically with the Conqueror's breathing.
"Sleep boy." Xena's order had a sharp edge to it.
Seth shut his eyes and sighed heavily. How did she know I wasn't asleep? His mistress continued to mystify him. With his eyes shut he couldn't hold onto his thoughts, though he tired they evaded him and soon he was asleep again.
The sun was shinning through an open window when Seth woke again. He sat up in bed and looked sleepily about the room. Xena was seated at the table by the window writing something on a scroll. He yawned and stretched then fixed his attention on his mistress.
Xena looked up from her scroll then crossed to the bed and sat on the edge. "And you weren't sleepy last night." Xena said with a slight nod of her head towards the bright morning shinning through the window.
Seth smiled shyly at her and shrugged.
"How do you feel this morning?" Xena asked inspecting the lumps on his head that had shrunk during the night.
"Pretty sore, got a little bit of a head ache but not too bad."
Just then there was a knock at the door.
"Yes." The Conqueror intoned.
"It's Kara ma'am, I have your breakfast." The cheerful barmaid exclaimed at the door.
"Come on in."
The door swung open and Seth noticed the energetic girl that had served them lunch yesterday. She crossed to the table and placed a tray full of food down on it."
"I have scrambled eggs and bacon with wheat toast for you and some freshly squeezed orange juice along with two cups of tea." Kara said with a wide smile and gesticulating hands, her energy seemingly boundless.
Seth suddenly noticed that he was still nude although the blanket was still covering his private areas he felt awkward and shyly looked down at the mattress his face flushing deep red.
Xena watched him blush and grinned at him.
"Is there anything else I can get you?" Kara asked.
"No, this will be fine." Xena answered in her usual gruff manor.
"Okay, well I'll come back in a little while for your dishes then." Kara smiled and bound off out their door, shutting it gently behind her.
Xena shook her head at the barmaid. "Come on boy let's eat."
Seth looked around for his clothes and found them on the floor next to the bed. He put them on then joined Xena at the table. He munched happily at his breakfast.
Xena finished writing her scroll then dripped wax from a candle onto it and pressed a small circular crest into the hot liquid. She blew softly on the wax then placed the scroll in a wooden cylinder and set it aside to eat her breakfast.
"How did you find me yesterday Xena?" Seth asked between bits of eggs.
Xena took a sip of her tea before answering the boy. "I asked the old merchant in the dirty tent."
Seth thought about that. "How did you know to ask him?"
"I know everything boy remember?" Xena said after swallowing a bite of bacon.
Seth nodded his head that he did remember that, he took a drink of orange juice then went on with his questions. "What happened when you found me and what happened to the others?"
"I killed the slavers and set the slave girls free." The Conqueror stated nonchalantly then finished the last of her tea. Seeing that Seth wasn't drinking his she took the steaming brew.
Seth had stopped eating and was staring at her. Shock evident on his face. "You killed them all?"
Xena nodded with a mouth full of scrambled eggs.
Seth looked thoughtful for a few moments. Then he felt compelled to speak. "They deserved it! They were all bad guys." He said with conviction.
Xena stared at him for a moment, his simple but true assessment of the slavers taking her aback. She sensed Seth waiting for a confirmation of his assertions. The boy needs to know that I killed them with just cause, she mused. Well they surely did deserve it. Like Seth said they were all bad guys. The Conqueror caught herself using the phrase and smiled as she repeated it in her mind, bad guys'.
"They certainly did." Xena said reassuringly.
Seth finished the last of his breakfast then waited for his mistress to finish hers before he started at her with more questions.
"How long are we going to be here Xena?"
Xena looked at him thoughtfully. "Stand up and come here boy." She said sliding her chair out from the table so Seth could stand in front of her.
Seth did as she instructed him; he had no idea what she was going to do but he felt a bond to her since she had rescued him. It was something that had been growing since that day she taught him how to swim and now it had blossomed into a trust.
Seth moved in front her and Xena lifted his shirt to examine the contusions. His sides and back were covered with large dark purple bruises. She ran her fingers gently over them and the boy winced. Xena lowered his shirt.
Seth knelt between the Conqueror's legs and she felt the bumps on his head again. When she was satisfied she looked thoughtfully at him.
"Get back in bed boy." Xena ordered.
Seth looked sheepishly at her then slunk off to the bed. He didn't want to go to bed! He wasn't tired at all anymore. He stared at her from across the room sitting up in the bed and he could contain his protests no longer. He was about to speak when Xena cut him off.
"You're going to stay in bed until your better and I don't want to hear that you feel fine. I'll let you know when you're better." Xena said from her chair then took another sip of tea.
Seth looked as if she had just beaten him. He sulked then stared away from her defiantly. Then he sighed and looked back.
"What am I going to do all day Xena?" Seth asked exasperated.
"Sleep, lie there restfully, eat way too much food I'm sure." Xena said with a smile.
Seth smiled then too. "I can't seem to help it here Xena. The food is really good."
Xena nodded sipping her tea; the food was indeed very good at the inn. Then she had another thought as she placed her cup on the table.
"I'll get you some scrolls to read boy."
Seth's face went blank and he stared down at the covers. "Um, thanks Xena." He said meekly.
Xena cursed under her breath, she should have known the farm boy couldn't read. Most people in the rural areas couldn't. She felt bad for embarrassing him. She'd fix it. She smiled then; it was always easy to make it better with her slave.
"It's okay boy, I'll read them to you. Then we'll work on teaching you how to read."
Seth looked up at her in amazement. She really did know everything. He smiled broadly then.
Xena stood and took up the wooden cylinder then crossed to the bedside.
"I've got to go and send this dispatch to the Palace in Athens. I'll be gone for a little while but you are not to get out of bed unless you have to use the latrine." Xena stated firmly.
Seth smiled up at her mischievously. The moment the door closed he was going to start bouncing on the bed then he would jump off of it and see how far he could get then he would .
"Don't even think about it boy! I know everything remember?" The Conqueror's voice was firm.
Seth's smile vanished and he nodded thoughtfully. That's right she did know everything, he had forgotten that for a moment. He turned sullen again.
Xena smiled and was just able to restrain a laugh. She touched the side of the boy's face with her open hand and his smile return. The slave closed his eyes and sighed contentedly then he kissed the inside of her wrist lightly.
He was way too easy Xena thought. "Back in awhile, be good."
The Conqueror left then and Seth looked about the empty room, which suddenly was a whole lot emptier with his mistress gone. He lie back in the bed and stared up at the ceiling. He began to think about all the changes that had happened in his life this past week. He didn't mind so much being the Conqueror's slave anymore. In fact when he thought about it he never had it so good. He realized then that he had always been a slave. He had worked much harder for his uncle and he hadn't treated him nearly as well as the Conqueror was treating him now. He wondered then why she was treating him so nicely now. She had been increasingly nice to him ever since that night he had tried to run away and she had done what she did to him. He thought about it for a little while longer then decided that it must be that he was just growing on her.
Seth continued to stare at the ceiling for awhile but he could think of nothing else to think about and soon he fell asleep again.
When the Conqueror returned awhile later she found Seth fast asleep. The breakfast dishes were gone and a fresh pitcher of water and clean cups were on the table.
After Xena had scared the Tartarus out of the captain of the village detachment of royal soldiers, giving him the dispatch to send to the palace, she went to the market and bought some new clothes for her slave. Time to replace his tattered farm rags she thought. She was surprised at how much fun it had been to buy the clothes for the boy and she had ended up buying him three new sets and a new pair of boots. She had also picked up a few scrolls with various stories of Gods, monsters and hero's that she was sure the boy would like.
She placed her things on the table and crossed to the bed. Seth was sleeping soundly, his injuries had taken more out of the boy then he realized. Xena wanted to make sure he was fit before they moved on. She sat on the bed next to him and Seth rolled and placed his head in her lap. She smiled at him warmly and began to stroke her strong fingers through the boy's thick hair.
They remained like that until Kara knocked softly on the door with lunch. The barmaid was uncharacteristically quiet. She had found Seth sleeping earlier when she came to remove the breakfast dishes and didn't want to wake him now.
She entered the room and Xena looked up at her and motioned with her head to place her tray on the table.
Kara stood rooted just inside the doorway for a moment and stared at them. She tilted her head to one side and smiled warmly at them and a low "Oh how sweet." Escaped from her lips.
The Conqueror frowned and glared at her. Anyone else and this look would have been enough to have them shaking in terror but the gleeful barmaid seemed not to take notice of it and set the tray on the table and quietly left.
Xena roused Seth and they ate another satisfying meal. She made him try on the clothes and model them for her and she took great delight in the boy's discomfort in having to do so. Afterwards she read him one of the scrolls and then started to teach the boy the alphabet.
Soon a week had passed in that same manor, with the conqueror reading stories to her slave and teaching him to read. Finally she felt he was well enough to travel. His bruises had mostly faded away and the lumps on his head where completely gone.
The Conqueror paid their bill at the inn and gave Kara and extra amount for having given them such good service.
The energetic barmaid squealed and thanked Xena then hugged Seth making the boy blush.
They were back on the road to the north heading deeper into the mountains and the thicker forest with Xena riding Argo and Seth keeping stride at her side.
Part Two: The Amazon Queen
It was a little bit cooler out as they went higher into the mountains. The late summer was turning into fall, the colors changing and the mornings cold and brisk. They traveled for a week without seeing another soul. They had fallen into a comfortable routine with Xena riding along on Argo with Seth at her side. Xena would hunt during the day and she had Seth scrape the hides for winter clothing and blankets. At night she would read stories from the scrolls she had gotten in Callonus then continue teaching Seth how to read and write. On the seventh day after leaving the inn they came upon a hot spring in the forest as the sun was setting and decided to camp.
Xena tethered Argo to a tree and Seth went about his chores of gathering wood and rubbing down the mare. Soon he was finished and went to Xena by the fire. She was sitting on a rock removing her armor.
"Are we going to eat dinner now Xena?" Seth asked.
"No, we're going to bath first. We haven't had a bath in a week, dinner can wait." Farm boys, always thinking with their stomachs Xena mused with a grin.
They had camped next to the spring and the light of their campfire danced on the tall rocks surrounding the far side of the spring, illuminating it as darkness fell in the forest.
Xena finished taking off her clothes and eased into the water with her bar of soap. She settled against the smooth rock in the heated water and sighed.
Seth finished getting undressed and went to follow his mistress into the water. He placed one foot in the steaming spring and pulled it back with a gasp.
"What?" Xena asked giving him an annoyed look.
"It's too hot Xena!" Seth exclaimed.
Xena just gave him an exasperated look then realized that the boy had probably never had a hot bath in his life. Besides the one she gave him at the inn but then he had been unconscious. Never having had a hot bath that he could remember anyway, it would take some getting used to she reasoned.
"Just get in slowly boy. One step at a time, you'll get used to it." Xena said then stood in the waist deep water and began to wash her body thoroughly with the soap.
Seth eased his foot back in and grimaced, then eased the other one in and slipped and fell face first into the water.
Xena who hadn't been paying attention to the boy for a moment turned surprised by the splash and watched as Seth's head poked up from the shallow spring.
"I see you've gotten used to the water." The Conqueror said smiling at the boy.
"Kind of." Seth said lifting himself waist high out of the water then easing back in slowly.
Xena finished washing and eased herself into the water to rinse. When she was finished she turned her attention back to Seth. "Come wash my back boy."
Seth tripped again and once again dunked himself.
When his head re-emerged the Conqueror was chuckling and she rolled her eyes at him then handed the boy the soap and turned her back to him.
Seth took the soap and then began to wash his mistress's back.
Xena felt the slow circles the boy made with the soap and smiled. He was so shy and his hands were so gentle.
Seth finished washing then cupped water in his hands and rinsed the Conqueror's back with it.
"All done Xena." Seth stated at another job well done.
The Conqueror turned to face him and she saw that look she loved so much. The awed look, the you're the center of my universe' look and more. Just then she thought of the boy's special rock that he had given her and all that it meant to him. This time she couldn't restrain herself and she drew the boy into her arms and hugged him.
"Thank you." She whispered in his ear.
Seth basked in her words. He kissed her shoulder and sighed as he returned her hug.
"I love you Xena." The words fell from his lips without the slightest thought. The boy was incapable of lying and to not say the words would be to deny the truth which in Seth's simple way of thinking was the same, although no such thought's occurred to him now. Now there was only emotion.
The Conqueror pressed the boy to her and felt the innocent butterfly kiss on her shoulder and her heart smiled. She felt that familiar lightness the boy made her feel then she heard the words and she stiffened. Her mind registered them but she rejected it, it couldn't be, could it?
She held the boy at arms length and stared at him. "What did you say?"
The Conqueror's discomfort was lost on Seth. He could feel nothing but an overwhelming feeling of love.
"I love you Xena." Seth repeated smiling warmly at her.
The Conqueror returned the smile and pulled her slave back into the hug. She silently kissed the side of his head then began to rub small circles on his back. She just held him to her for awhile feeling his heart beat against hers. She could hardly believe that someone could love her. LOVE not fear but love. When she had looked into the boy's eyes though she had known it was the truth and more than that she could feel it and it felt good. Better in fact than anything she had felt in a very, very long time. She wondered then if she could ever return that love. Her heart had turned to ice so many years ago she didn't know if anything could ever melt it. She knew that she felt very strongly for the boy but she wasn't ready to call that feeling love, but she would gladly accept the boy's adoration.
She released him again and looked into his eyes. They were so bright and pure, the same vivid blue of her eyes.
She guided the boy into the center of the spring and retrieved her soap from the ledge of the pool where Seth had placed it.
"I think we better get you clean." Xena said then began to wash the boy.
"Okay." Seth said smiling at her.
Seth went silent and stared at the campfire. Xena's hands and the soap felt good. He felt like he was in a dream one that he hoped he never woke up from. He didn't know how or when his relationship with his owner had changed, he just knew that it had. He loved her more than he ever loved anyone or anything before in his life, even his mother, which was such a far off and hazy memory that he really couldn't compare it with how he felt now.
Xena moved from the boy's body to his hair. Seth's head gently rocked in her hands as she lathered his hair. She felt relaxed and contented. Her mind turned to her journey's purpose. Whatever it was that was missing from her life she felt that she was on the right track. Part of it she realized she had found already in Seth but there was more she knew. Whether that was her ability to give love in return or something else she wasn't sure.
"Rinse boy." Xena commanded.
Seth dunked himself and shook under the water like a dog trying to dry himself. His head re-emerged from the pool clean and fresh smelling.
The Conqueror smiled at him. "Come on let's get dried off and have something to eat."
The mention of eating got Seth's attention. They exited the spring and dried themselves with rough towels then draped them over a tree branch to dry. They dressed and Xena prepared a simple meal for them. After dinner Seth washed their plates then sat next to Xena by the fire and stared memorized into the flames. He swayed sleepily and blinked his eyes.
Xena watched him half sleeping next to her. Usually she had him work on a scroll writing out the alphabet and sounding out each letter but tonight she took pity on the exhausted slave.
"Go to bed boy." Xena instructed.
Seth jerked himself awake at her words then turned to look at her. "Huh?"
"Go to bed." Xena repeated.
"You don't want me to work on the scroll tonight Xena?" Seth asked then yawned.
"I don't think it would do much good tonight, now go to bed. I'll join you after a bit."
Seth yawned again then stood and stretched. "Okay Xena."
Xena watched as the boy made his way to the bedroll and fur blankets they had made for the impending cold weather. He slipped his boots off then crawled into the blankets and lie on his side facing her and the fire. He smiled at her then closed his eyes and was asleep in moments.
The Conqueror watched his slow breathing and felt it's peaceful affect on her. No matter how many times she saw it, it always amazed her how easily the boy fell asleep. She thought of the boy's proclamation of his love for her then and she felt the lightness return to her body.
Xena stared into the flames of the fire then and sat just enjoying her relaxed state and lightened heart. The wind picked up just then and rustled the leaves of the trees and stirred the fire and Xena had a sudden intuitive feeling of change. She couldn't put her finger on it but she knew that another change was on the way. She glanced over to Seth who was still sleeping peacefully and suddenly she was concerned. She went to him then and took her boots off then crawled into the blankets next to him. Xena lie on her back then rolled Seth to her side and pulled the sleeping boy tightly against her.
Seth sighed and burrowed his head into her breast and shoulder then went quiet again, a slumbering smile turning up the corners of his mouth.
The wind died back down and the Conqueror held her slave tightly. She pondered on the premonition then decided to pay it no heed. She made her own destiny, the fates be damned and she wasn't going to allow change to happen that she didn't approve of.
She listened to the boy's slow even breathing for awhile and she felt better. She relaxed her hold on him then kissed the top of his head. Sometime later she allowed sleep to take her feeling reassured that whatever was coming she was more than capable of handling it.
The morning came crisp and damp. Xena allowed them to sleep past dawn, something she had come to enjoy in the past few weeks. When they woke they ate a light breakfast then broke camp and headed deeper into the forest. Around mid-day Xena spotted the tracks of a large stag and decided that they would make a camp so she could go out and hunt. They still needed more hides for blankets and winter tarps. When they had the small camp set up Xena was ready to take Argo and track the animal, leaving Seth in camp to work on the scroll that he had missed the night before.
"Xena are you sure you don't want me to come and help you?" Seth pleaded; already he was developing the aversion to study that was characteristic of the young.
The Conqueror looked scornfully at him. "No, you need to study. I want to see your work when I get back. Don't think you're going to sit around here and throw stones and sword fight trees with sticks while I'm gone."
Seth frowned. "I wasn't going to throw any stones." He said indignantly.
With a mighty effort Xena managed to subdue a laugh and maintain her stern look. "Boy!"
"I'll work on my scroll Xena." Seth said staring at the ground.
A small smile ever so slightly tugged at the corners of the Conqueror's mouth and her eyes gleamed with her delight in teasing the boy. "Good, I won't be gone more than two hours."
Xena turned Argo and headed out into the forest while Seth dug his scroll and quill out of the Conqueror's saddlebags.
He had been working for about a half hour when he heard someone clear her throat. He looked up expecting to see his mistress when he saw that he was surrounded by women dressed in brief skirts and halter-tops. They were all armed and looked mean. The one standing directly in front of him looked down at him scowling with cruel eyes.
She had thick shoulder length black hair and an athletic build. She had a sword on her back but she carried a staff in her hands and she jabbed it at Seth, poking him in the chest with it.
Seth dropped his scroll and quill and upset a small bottle of ink he had also retrieved from the Conqueror's saddlebags, spilling it on the ground.
"What do you want?" Seth asked franticly wishing that Xena would hurry back.
The one with the cruel eyes spoke. "I'll ask the questions. Who are you and what are you doing here? This is Amazon territory and your trespassing!"
Seth looked around him and saw that the five others had formed a circle around him. Fear was starting to take hold of him and he stared desperately into the forest for Xena then cruel eyes jabbed him with her staff again only harder this time.
"You better answer my questions boy! The penalty for trespassing is harsh." The leader had glint of sadistic pleasure in her eyes as she threatened him.
"M my name's Seth. W we're heading north." Seth stammered out obviously frightened.
Seth's fear pleased the cruel eyed leader. She squatted down on her knees and looked into Seth eyes as she spoke, laying her staff across her thighs, seeing that she didn't need it with him. "Who's we?"
Seth scooted back along the ground away from her when he backed into one of the others who had maneuvered themselves to block him from retreating from their leader. He looked up at her. She had shoulder length brown hair and although she wore the same stern expression as her leader her soft brown eyes were kind.
A strong hand grasped Seth's jaw and guided his head and eyes back to the front.
"Who's we?" Cruel eyes asked again exaggerating the words then releasing the boy's jaw.
"X Xena and me." Seth managed.
At the mention of the name the five other Amazons surrounding him gasped and took an involuntary step backwards. Their leader eyed them coldly and they reluctantly resumed their positions.
"And just what would the Conqueror be doing out here with one little boy?" Cruel eyes questioned mocking Seth's youth.
Seth tired to gather himself and took a deep breath before responding managing to further aggravate the leader. "I I told you, w we're heading north."
"And why are you heading north?" Cruel eyes flared.
Seth looked away confused. He didn't know, he never really thought about it before. The Conqueror had just told him that's what they were doing and they did it. He had just assumed that she had her reasons, she was after all the Conqueror of the known world and her motivations were, he had surmised beyond him.
The cruel eyed leader took in Seth's confused expression and his silence and assumed he had no answer because he was lying. Her features clouded with anger and she grabbed the front of Seth's shirt and jerked him forward viciously.
"You're lying little boy! You better tell me who you're with and what your doing here or I'm going to hurt you, a lot!"
Seth tried to draw back from her again but she pulled him back to her and snarled at him.
"L let me go! I I told you the truth, let me go!" Seth exclaimed in near panic.
"Take it easy Varia. We'll take him to Queen Gabrielle and she can decide what to do with him." The one with the kind brown eyes standing behind him said.
Varia looked hard at her for a moment then nodded her head in acquiesces.
Seth looked alarmed. "No, no, no. I can't leave here, Xena will be angry if I'm not here when she gets back!"
Varia took a strip of cloth from a small bag at her side and quickly thrust it between Seth's lips then bound it behind his head gagging him.
"Enough with your lies!" She barked then with the others holding him down she quickly bound Seth's hands and feet.
They slid a staff between his arms and legs then two of them hefted him away like a beast they had just slain. Varia was the last one to leave the small camp and she brushed their tracks away with a tree branch as she left walking backwards back the way they came. She gave the camp a contemptuous look then turned and headed off at a jog to catch the others.
Xena walked into camp leading Argo who was laden with a large stag. It had been an hour and a half since she left and at a glance she could see that something was wrong. Seth was gone and she knew that the boy would not disobey her and wonder off to play in the woods.
Her trained eyes immediately saw the scroll and quill strewn about the ground and the upset inkbottle. She crossed to them and knelt down to investigate the surrounding ground. It had been brushed with a tree branch to try and hide several tracks. The Conqueror was not fooled.
"Amazons." She said under her breath after further investigation of the ground.
The Conqueror cursed viciously as a dark rage welled within her and she realized that her premonition of the night before had come to pass. She leapt up in the air and kicked a small tree the size of a large man's thigh to her right and snapped it in half!
"I kill them all if they've so much as bruised him! Then I'll kill all three of the fates for their treachery!" Xena yelled out at the forest.
She crossed quickly to Argo and flung the heavy stag that lie across the saddle into the surrounding forest as easily as if it were a small rabbit. She mounted and set out on the trail of the Amazons.
After what seemed to him an eternity swinging on the staff they finally came into the Amazons small village tucked inside the thick brush of the deep forest. More like a gathering of oilskin huts than a village really. The patrol stopped in front of one hut that was larger than the rest in the center of the village. They set Seth down and untied him although they kept him surrounded to detour him from trying to make a break for it.
Seth sat on the ground rubbing his sore wrists and looking nervously about him. It struck him odd that there were only women in the village although that was by no means the pervading thought on his mind. His gaze kept returning to Varia who was looking down at him with those cruel eyes. She scared him, she wasn't as scary as his mistress when she was angry but she was scary.
"Get up!" Varia commanded in a harsh voice.
Seth stood wordlessly and looked around him again. He bit his lower lip nervously and stared out into the forest hoping to see a glimpse of Xena.
"Nobody is coming for you boy, not here anyway. Only Amazons can find this place." Varia tormented Seth.
Seth stared at her in despair to Varia's delight. Her cruel eyes glinted and her lips were curled into a humorless grin.
One of the others held open the oilskin flap to the hut and Varia pushed him inside.
The interior of the hut was spacious and warm with a small fire burning in the center and venting through a hole in the hut's roof. Thick blankets of fur were laid about the fire and a rough-hewn table set against one wall was laden with pitchers of water and cider and an assortment of very fragrant food. The spices wafted up from the warm breads and spiced game and Seth suddenly remembered he was hungry.
Varia and the one with kind brown eyes entered with Seth. Varia kicked the back of his legs out and pushed down hard on his shoulder forcing him to his knees.
Seth grunted as he hit his knees and stared at the two other women in the hut that rose from the blankets around the fire and approached them. The taller one had short brown hair and large, soft brown eyes. She was athletic like all of them and wore the same brief amount of clothing as the others. The other one in the tent was in charge, Seth surmised by the way the taller one waited for her to step in front of her and by the way the others looked at her with reverence. She was also the most beautiful Seth decided. Not that his thoughts had turned to a sexual nature, far from it, he was still afraid of what they were going to do with him. It was just a fact, like whether it was day or night outside, something that is indisputable. She wasn't very tall, she was about a head smaller than most of them in fact. She had short blonde hair and piercing green eyes, her body was athletic and strong looking like the others but it was different too. She looked softer and her curves seemed more pronounced. She wore a brief green skirt and halter and around her neck she wore an ornate necklace. Her knee high boots had the handles of strange looking weapons sticking out of the tops of them.
The two women walked wordlessly to them and the beautiful one in charge stopped directly in front of Seth and looked down into his eyes. She could see that the boy was terrified and he look up at her pleadingly. She gave Seth a brief, reassuring smile before turning her attention to Varia. The smile belayed Seth's fears and he could tell that she wouldn't let cruel eyes hurt him in that brief gesture and suddenly he felt indebted to her.
Varia's attention was on Seth and she angrily raised her hand to hit him for his impudence at looking the queen in the eyes.
"Bow your head before the Queen boy!" Varia barked and swung the back of her hand towards Seth's face.
Seth flinched and ducked his head but before the hit could land the queen caught Varia's blow and held the warrior's forearm tightly in her grasp with surprising strength.
Varia looked up startled and stared at the queen.
"No." Gabrielle said simply staring back at Varia until the warrior lowered her eyes in obeisance.
Gabrielle released Varia's arm and Seth looked back at her and smiled, he knew it, she saved him.
"What do we have here?" Gabrielle asked Varia gesturing to Seth.
"We found him on the boundary of our territory. He says he's with the Conqueror and that they're heading north but he's lying. What would the Conqueror be doing way out here with this boy! Let me have him for ten minutes and he'll tell us whatever we want to know." Varia said glaring at Seth, her annoyance with him further enraged by the queen protecting him.
Seth's head shot up in alarm at Varia's words and he looked again to the queen for reprieve.
"Calm down Varia." Gabrielle stated in an even tone, she smiled again at Seth who was pleading with her with his eyes. Varia was her best warrior and her warrior chief but she was a bit over zealous at times and had a cruel resentful streak that the blonde was trying to abate in her.
Gabrielle turned to Seth and smiled at him again. "What's your name?"
"S Seth." The boy stuttered out still a bit cowed by Varia, he looked from the queen then nervously to her warrior chief.
Varia smiled at Seth's discomfort, she could taste his fear and she liked it. It fueled her warrior instincts for brutality.
This was not lost on the queen. Gabrielle drew Seth up by his arm and took him further into the tent a few paces away from Varia. When the warrior chief tried to follow a hard stare from her queen rooted her in place but she was not beyond verbal protest.
"My Queen I must protest! This is a prisoner and he must be kept under guard while in your presence, we cannot risk your safety." Varia stated continuing to glare at Seth.
"First I decide who is a prisoner, and secondly we're not going far, you'll only be a few feet away besides he doesn't look like much trouble." Gabrielle turned away from Varia and back to Seth. "Are you?"
Seth shook his head. "N no."
Varia continued to glare but said nothing more staying in the entryway of the hut with her kinder companion.
Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at Seth. "It's okay, we're not going to hurt you. I just need to know what you were doing this far into the forest okay?"
The queen's voice was clam and soothing and it had the desired affect on Seth, he visibly relaxed a little and when he spoke again he didn't stutter.
"Okay." Seth said looking into the queen's deep green eyes, he felt their calming affect on him and he unconsciously slowed his breathing back down to a normal rate.
One of the many qualities that made Gabrielle such an excellent queen was her skill with people. She was a natural communicator, being able to be firm yet kind and fair at the same time. She employed her skills now with Seth and he was no less susceptible to them than anyone else she had ever encountered.
Gabrielle led Seth to a fur rug near the fire and guided him down to a sitting position then she leaned back against a writing table against the hut's wall across from him, giving the boy a little breathing space but also keeping herself in an authoritative position in front of him.
The queen's regent watched admiringly from the entryway with the two warriors. Ephiny had always enjoyed watching Gabrielle with people, she hoped to one day be as much a leader only for her she knew, she would have to work hard at it. The queen on the other hand was a natural.
Gabrielle smiled again at Seth. "Okay Seth what were you doing so far into the forest?"
"I was working on my scroll when um " Seth glanced at cruel eyes trying to remember what the queen had called her.
"Varia." The queen supplied.
"Yes, thanks, Varia and the others took me." Seth said then stared at Gabrielle waiting for her to ask another question.
Gabrielle smiled a little at Seth's simple answer then tried again. "Okay, you were working on your scroll that's good but what was the reason for you being so far into the forest in the first place?"
Seth cocked his head to the side and thought about it for a moment before answering. "Well we're heading north."
"Okay who is we and why are you heading north?" The queen asked continuing to smile at Seth who was very easy to smile at with his shy, good-natured manor.
"Xena and me is we and we're heading north because that's what she wants to do." Seth stated simply.
Gabrielle digested this new information for a moment then went on. "Okay why are you traveling with the Conqueror?"
"I'm her slave. She took me from my uncle's farm a few weeks ago."
Varia could restrain herself no longer. "He's lying! No way the Conqueror is traveling alone with one slave!"
"Enough Varia!" Gabrielle said in hard voice. "One more outburst and you can wait outside."
Varia lowered her head and eyes in a submissive gesture, effectively cowed by the queen.
"This is easy enough to verify." Gabrielle turned her attention back to Seth who had been watching the queen berating her warrior chief in awe. "May I see your right shoulder Seth?"
"Sure." Seth said easing the collar of his shirt down over his shoulder and noticing for the first time that his new shirt was ripped a little at the neckline where Varia had grabbed him. He sighed, my brand new shirt, Xena is going to be mad, he thought.
Gabrielle squatted down next to Seth and examined the mark on his shoulder. She closed her eyes and sighed heavily then stood slowly and looked grimly down at Seth.
Seth's face showed sudden concern over the queen's somber new mood and he stared up at her pensively, wondering if he did something wrong.
Gabrielle caught the concerned look and forced a smile to calm the boy. After all, she thought, it's not this kid's fault.
"It's okay Seth, you're not in trouble. Are you hungry?" Gabrielle asked her voice still even and reassuring.
Seth nodded his head and eyed the table full of wonderful smelling Amazon dishes.
"Help yourself." The queen said gesturing to the table laden with food and drink then she turned to her regent and the warriors in the entryway.
Varia had been watching closely with the others and she noted the look of concern that crossed the queen's face when she had seen the Conqueror's mark on the boy's shoulder.
"He's probably a runaway slave, that mark just means that he was a slave of the Conqueror's." Varia ventured albeit more meekly than previously.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Runaway slaves never make it out of Athens, then the Conqueror has them crucified and their bodies hung outside her palace walls as an example to any others that would dare to defy her. No, he's telling the truth."
The regent had been silently listening and observing, her large brown eyes speculative.
"How can we be sure he's telling the truth, I just can't see what the Conqueror would be doing out here alone with only one slave."
Gabrielle eyed her friend and smiled. "I don't know but you know I can tell when someone is lying, he's not."
"Even if he's not lying, only Amazons can find this village." Varia stated starting to regain some of her boldness.
Gabrielle just gave her an exasperated look. "Don't count on it. This is no ordinary woman. No, you have to take him back but not all the way to her camp though just in case she's back and waiting for you."
Seth was listing to the Amazon's conversation while he munched on a piece of warm spiced apple bread and finished off a mug of funny tasting apple juice. He set the empty mug down on the table and refilled it from a pitcher.
The queen turned to her regent. "Ephiny I need you to get everyone ready to abandon the village, tell them to pack light we're going to have to move fast."
Ephiny, Varia and even the other Amazon guard just stared at their queen in shock for a moment, stunned by her proclamation to leave their home.
Varia was the first one to snap out of their collective trance and question the queen. "Queen Gabrielle we can't just leave everything and run over the word of one boy!"
Ephiny looked sheepishly to her queen. "I have to agree with Varia my Queen. I think we need more to go on before we do something so drastic."
Gabrielle's features grew stern and she took on an authoritative posture glaring at them. "We aren't leaving on the word of one boy, we're leaving on my command! I am the Queen and you will obey me, this is not a discussion! The Conqueror is probably already on her way here and if she gets here before we have a chance to "
"S She's right. X Xena is probably already on her way. Funny thing, this same thing happened to me a couple weeks ago, hey your apple juice tastes kinda funny." Seth said cutting off the queen and setting his second empty mug full of the stuff down on the table.
They had all been so engrossed that they almost forgot Seth was standing there. The four women looked at him for a moment in silence then they looked at each other and mouthed the words "apple juice?"
Then it donned on them all at the same time and the queen cursed softly under her breath. Great, now we have to take him back half drunk to her, that's sure to make things worse, Gabrielle thought.
"Seth, honey that's not apple juice, it's hard apple cider. How much have you had?" Gabrielle asked in a soft voice.
"Oh, um one no two mugs. W what's the difference?" Seth asked about to refill his mug when the queen quickly crossed over to him and placed a hand on the pitcher.
"Woe, how about some water okay. Cider has alcohol in it honey, that's why it tastes funny to you. Here." Gabrielle filled Seth a mug full of water and handed it to him.
Seth took the mug of water then leaned back against the table before taking a drink. "My my head feels fuzzy." He took a deep breath then sipped the water trying to clear his head and the cool water seemed to help a little.
Gabrielle patted Seth's shoulder and smiled at him again. "Seth, I need you to concentrate okay? What happened to you a couple weeks ago?"
Seth smiled back at her. "Huh, oh yeah. Xena sent me to buy some supplies while we were in Callonus and some guys hit me over the head and stole me. They were gonna sell me to some pirate named Haggar the nasty who likes smooth faced young boys like me. This bread is really good." Seth said taking another bite of the bread.
The queen looked at the others and they looked back at her and shrugged, any other time and that comment would have been funny.
Seth finished chewing and took another drink of the cool water. Gabrielle gave him an expectant look and he continued.
"Oh, I I don't know exactly what happened after that because they hit me over the head again and knocked me out but when I woke up again Xena was taking me back to the village. She said she killed them all." Seth stated simply.
The queen looked somberly at the others. "That's it, we've got to move fast! Varia take Seth back, Ephiny this is what we're going to "
"You in the tent, get out here, now!" The Conqueror's voice boomed from outside the hut cutting off the queen.
Seth's eyes lit up as he heard his mistress's voice. "Xena!" He exclaimed happily.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and lowered her head. She exhaled long and slow, the sudden gravity of their situation settling on her shoulders. The others looked to her for guidance, shocked that the Conqueror could have found them so quickly.
Even in his slightly inebriated state Seth could sense the dread in the hut. He crossed to the queen just a little unsteadily and gently touched her arm.
"Excuse me Queen Gabrielle but it's best if you don't keep Xena waiting, believe me, I know." Seth said shyly.
Gabrielle nodded then moved through the entry flap and the others followed with Seth in the rear.
The Conqueror sat impatiently on Argo in front of the queen's large hut. She had easily rounded up the small village of about thirty Amazons and they were all prostrating themselves on the ground next to the queen's tent before her. They had known better than to resist her, the look of sheer rage on her face was discouragement enough but they all knew what happened to villages that resisted the Conqueror, she made you wish you were dead then hours later you got your wish. They huddled together now on their hands and knees before her. Their heads and eyes cast down.
Xena was just about to call out to the tent again when the flap opened and an exceptionally beautiful woman exited followed by three others then Seth.
As Gabrielle exited the tent she saw her entire village prostrated on the ground before the Conqueror. Her once proud Amazons now huddled together close to one another on the ground before the dark warrior woman, many of them weeping softy. It stung more than anything she had ever known. She was their queen and they were her responsibility and now they were in the hands of the Conqueror and had the Gods only know what horrors in store for them. She would not let them down; even now she would continue to do what she could to protect them.
Gabrielle was surprised at how beautiful the Conqueror was. She had always heard that she was so but never having seen her in person it took her by surprise. Although her beauty could in no way hide the deadly rage that clouded the warrior's face. The Conqueror surprised her again though as Seth exited the tent behind them and her face immediately changed. Her hard features soften and she looked genuinely relieved to see the boy. Gabrielle went down to her knees and motioned for the other to follow suite.
When Xena saw Seth she threw one leg over Argo's neck and slid gracefully to the ground.
"Come here boy." Xena ordered with a sigh of relief seeing that the boy was unharmed.
Seth walked a little unsteadily to her.
Xena placed her hands on the sides of Seth's face and gave him a concerned, maternal look. "Did they hurt you? Are you okay?" She asked, as she looked him over.
"I I'm okay Xena." Seth said smiling at her.
Xena's gaze stopped at Seth's ripped shirt and her eyes grew angry. "They ripped your new shirt!"
The Conqueror turned her head from Seth for a moment and glared at the group of Amazons prostrated before her, then she felt Seth sway slightly in her grasp and her attention was immediately drawn back to him.
"What's the matter boy?" Xena asked then noticed his eyes were slightly glassy and she tilted her head towards Seth's mouth and sniffed, alcohol.
The Conqueror turned back to the Amazons, livid. "You gave him alcohol!"
Gabrielle raised her head and spoke quietly. "He was hungry Mistress, we offered him something to eat and he mistook hard apple cider for apple juice."
"Who are you?" Xena flared.
"I'm Queen Gabrielle." Gabrielle immediately realized her mistake and cursed herself. It was just habit to refer to herself as the queen.
The Conqueror's eyes narrowed and she let her hands slide from Seth's face as she crossed to the blonde.
Gabrielle was on her knees with her head and eyes lowered, her hands placed loosely in her lap. The Conqueror moved in front of her and backhanded her viciously across the face. The Amazon's head snapped back and a small trickle of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth.
Varia lunged at the Conqueror when she struck her queen! It was pure reflex; she came out of her crouching position on the queen's side with a small dagger drawn from the top of her boot. She was swinging the small blade in a deadly arc even before she had made it to her feet.
The Conqueror turned smoothly to the new threat. Quick hands made two strikes in rapid succession to the Amazon's neck and Varia fell back on her knees the dagger slipping from her grip. The warrior chief was paralyzed, starring up at the Conqueror in shock a small trickle of blood starting from her nose.
Xena turned calmly back to Gabrielle. "Who are you?" She asked again in a low even voice.
Gabrielle's eyes were fixed on the agonized eyes of her warrior chief and her mind raced trying to figure out a way to save her. Her voice cracked slightly as she addressed the Conqueror's question.
"I I'm Gabrielle! Please, please you don't have to do this! We'll do whatever you ask; no one else will try to resist you! Please release her Mistress!" The queen begged.
The Conqueror let the Amazon grovel for a moment before she turned back to Varia and released her. She turned back to the queen and grabbed a fist full of blonde hair and twisted it pulling the girl's head to her waist.
Gabrielle pulled off balance fell against the Conqueror's legs her face held against the skirt of the woman's battle dress.
"You'll do whatever I ask anyway, but I'm not going to kill your little friend. I'm not in that good of a mood." Xena tormented her.
"X Xena." Seth said in a shaky voice tugging on the Conqueror's skirt.
The Conqueror turned her head to the trembling voice and looked into Seth's terrified face. No, no, no, damn! She thought. She had forgotten he was standing there and now he was looking at her with that old fear in his eyes. No she had come to far with him, his adoration had come to mean too much to her, she wouldn't let it slip away now, but the boy wouldn't be able to understand this. She would fix it.
"X Xena, please d don't hurt them! They they didn't mean to rip my new shirt! I'm sorry I drank their al alcohol, I I didn't mean to! Please they'll be good!" Seth was rambling in a state of panic trying to think through his fogged mind.
The Conqueror released Gabrielle and the Amazon slipped gratefully to the ground at her feet.
The queen watched as the Conqueror turned to Seth and placed her hands gently on the sides of the boy's face and spoke softy to him.
"Shhh, it's okay Seth. Shhh, hush now." Xena said in a calming voice to her slave and it had the desired affect.
Seth stopped his ramblings and took a few shaky breaths then his eyes met the Conqueror's and she fixed him with a penetrating gaze and smiled at him. Seth felt his body relax and his breathing slow back down to normal.
"That's a good boy. It's going to be okay." Xena said then turned her head and spoke over her shoulder to the Amazons. "I need one of you who helped to take my property."
The Amazon with kind brown eyes rose meekly to her knees and spoke. "Mistress."
Xena eyed the woman coolly. "Take him back to my camp then come right back."
Xena turned back to Seth. "I want you to go with her and I'll be along in a little while." Xena said in another soothing voice.
"Good boy." Xena let her hands fall from Seth's face and motioned for the Amazon to take him.
Kind eyes took Seth's hand and they walked out of the village together.
Xena watched them go and smiled at her slave. He was afraid for the Amazons. Even after they had captured him and stole him away he still didn't have it in him to be vengeful. Well she didn't have that problem; she turned back to the group prostrated before her.
Gabrielle watched as the Conqueror soothed her slave, and then had him guided back to their camp. She didn't want the boy to see what she was going to do. That was something to remember, then she watched as the Conqueror turned back to them, her face cold and angry again.
The Conqueror stared at them for a moment then made up her mind exactly what she was going to do.
"Two of you take the feisty one and tie her between those two trees." The Conqueror ordered indicating Varia and two trees spaced about six feet apart bordering the village.
Two of the Amazon warriors got to their feet and picked Varia up off the ground where she was still recovering from the Conqueror's pinch. They drug her sorrowfully to the trees and bound her there standing between them with her back to the Conqueror. Then they retreated back to the group and resumed their positions on the ground before the Conqueror.
Xena ignored Varia for a moment and continued to stare at the Amazons before her.
"First you steal my slave, then this one dares to attack me." Xena said coolly and uncoiled her whip, letting its length fall to the ground. She walked slowly to Varia and continued addressing the village.
"And I would venture to say that this village is a little behind on its taxes."
Xena reached Varia and tore her brief top from her body, completely exposing her back and letting her breasts fall free.
"So I'm going to take possession of all of you as payment for back taxes."
The Conqueror grasped a hand full of Varia's thick black hair and yanked her head back viciously. She leaned close to the Amazon's ear and spoke quietly to her.
"You're going to get a lesson in obedience. When you beg me to stop, I might. It will all depend on how convincing you are."
Tears streaked from Varia's eyes from the strain the Conqueror was putting on her hair but she glared back at her definitely.
"Never!" The warrior chief barked out at the Conqueror.
Xena smiled wickedly and leaned even closer to the Amazon's ear until her lips were touching her captives flushed lobe.
"We'll see." The Conqueror said in barely a whisper then took Varia's ear lobe in her teeth and bit it painfully, drawing a small amount of blood.
Varia groaned slightly, not wanting to give the Conqueror the satisfaction.
Xena released the ear then kissed it sensuously and licked away the small trickle of blood.
Despite herself Varia moaned. The Conqueror smiled at her and Varia glared back even harder. Xena released her hair then strode back from her about ten feet then turned to face her captive.
The Conqueror raised her arm and lashed the whip forward. It sliced through the air then with a wicked crack it bit into Varia's back leaving a large red stain of blood in a vertical slash in the center of the Amazon's back.
Varia screamed and jerked violently on the ropes that bound her.
"I'll be taking the little blonde with me as my new handmaiden." Xena stated coolly not bothering to face the Amazons at her feet as she spoke or to stop whipping Varia.
The Conqueror's whip bit into Varia's flesh again leaving another cruel cut across her back. Again Varia cried out in pain and surged against her bonds.
"The rest of you are to go to Athens and report to the slave master at my palace."
Again and again the whip bit into Varia's back leaving overlapping cuts in the Amazons flesh.
Gabrielle watch with horror as her warrior chief screamed and twisted in her restraints. The queen reached up and pulled the ornate necklace from her neck and slid it across the ground to her regent at her side.
Ephiny stared at the symbol of leadership for a moment and then her brown eyes met piercing green ones and she shook her head no.
Gabrielle continued to stare at her, not being able to risk speech and gaining the Conqueror's attention. After a moment Ephiny could resist her gaze no longer and she accepted her queen's will and took the right of cast reluctantly becoming the new queen.
Gabrielle glanced up at the Conqueror. The tall warrior had her attention focused on her task, poor Varia's screams were starting to abate and warrior chief no longer thrashed against her bonds only jerked as the whip cut into her.
The former queen wrote a simple message in the dirt for her regent then quietly brushed it away after Ephiny had read it.
LEAVE ME, SAVE THEM
The four words hurt to read but the logic was evident. It would be pointless to attempt a rescue once the Conqueror had left with her new prize. She had to do all she could to save the rest of the village from a life of slavery at the Conqueror's palace. Amazons didn't do well as slaves. They usually didn't survive for more than a year, the Conqueror knew this and that was why she had condemned them to slavery instead of killing them. She knew it was a far worse fate for an Amazon to be a slave.
Varia no longer screamed only cried softly, sagging against the ropes that bound her. The Conqueror coiled her whip and strode to the bloody Amazon. She rounded her and stood in front of the once proud warrior. Varia's head hung, her face stained with tears that ran from red-rimmed eyes. The Conqueror reached down and grasped a handful of Varia's hair and lifted the girl's head. She fixed her icy blue eyes on her and stared wordlessly, it was done.
Varia's lips quivered and fresh tears spilled from her eyes as she spoke softy. "Please stop Mistress."
"Louder." Xena's voice was incredibly cold.
"Please don't whip me anymore Mistress." Varia said in louder voice through her sobs.
The Conqueror said nothing just released the girl's head and let her dangle against the ropes supporting her.
Varia, almost incoherent with pain continued to beg the Conqueror through a torrent of sobs. "Please please, no more Mis Mistress."
The village listened to Varia beg and what was left of their hope was shattered. Varia had been the best and strongest warrior among them. She was proud and fiercely independent and she had been broken humiliatingly for them all to witness. They felt her shame and many of them wept with her, they all felt her fear.
The Conqueror moved to address them. "Cut her down." She ordered to no one in particular.
The two warriors that had tied her went to their leader and cut her free, gently lowering her to the ground. Varia sobbed uncontrollably, the Conqueror had done her the most damage she possibly could. She took her pride and her dignity, it was more than the warrior chief could bare and she cried unable to resist her tears. The two warriors held her and gently stroked her hair tying to console her; their hearts ached at the sight of their broken leader.
"If you don't show up at the palace than I'll send a thousand men to come and get you. Then you will wish you would have gone on your own accord." Xena said with a cruel smirk.
They all knew what she meant. If the soldiers came to get them they would be raped for weeks while they made the journey to Athens. If they went to the palace of their own accord there was a chance that at least some of them could avoid that torment.
Xena went to Argo and took a length of rope from her saddlebags then crossed to the blonde Amazon and jerked her to her feet. She quickly tied Gabrielle hands then pulled the weapons from her boots and tossed them aside.
The Conqueror mounted her horse and rode out of the village without another word or a backward glance. She tugged Gabrielle along a few feet behind Argo.
Gabrielle took one last look back at her home and former life. The regent had gotten to her knees and was staring after her, a lost brokenhearted look on her face.
Gabrielle gave her a brief smile in an attempt to console her friend but the regent could no longer resist her emotions and tears began to stream down her face. Gabrielle turned away and took a deep breath and fought back her own tears. She stared at the Conqueror's back and her anger welled within her. As they moved through the woods towards the Conqueror's camp Gabrielle's rage continued to mount, it grew with every step and then finally as the Conqueror pulled on her tied hands hurrying her along it burst.
"You know you don't have to do that! If you would just untie me I could walk easier and I wouldn't fall behind. And you didn't have to whip Varia!" Gabrielle knew she should shut her mouth but once she started she couldn't stop. "Why couldn't you just leave us alone? We didn't hurt your slave! Gods it's not like you need the taxes! I mean why couldn't you just "
The Conqueror reined Argo to a halt and dismounted; Gabrielle immediately regretted her words as the Conqueror turned to face her.
Xena took the rope that bound Gabrielle's wrists and threw the end over a nearby tree branch. She backed the blonde against the tree and pulled on the end of the rope hoisting Gabrielle's hands above her head. The Conqueror held the rope in one hand then leaned in close to Gabrielle and pressed her body firmly against the smaller woman's. With her free hand the Conqueror reached up and took one of the blonde's breasts and began to fondle her through her clothing.
Gabrielle gasped in shock as the Conqueror forced her body down against her; the tall warrior's thigh came up between her legs and pushed up against her center.
The Conqueror leaned close and kissed Gabrielle on the lips her tongue forcing entry into the Amazon's mouth. As she kissed the former queen she began to grind her thigh into the smaller woman's sex all the while still groping her breasts.
Gabrielle struggled out of pure reflex, shocked at what was happening to her. She stared wide eyed at the Conqueror and tired in vain to protest through the kiss.
Gabrielle's resistance fueled the Conqueror's lust for conquest and she increased her grinding motion against the blonde then slipped her hand beneath the smaller woman's halter top and grasped the woman's naked breast.
Xena withdrew her mouth from Gabrielle's breaking the kiss and took her new handmaidens breast in her mouth, tugging lightly on the nipple with her teeth.
Gabrielle gasped again then began to pant. She tried to speak but couldn't seem to find her voice; despite herself she began to moan at the Conqueror's attentions. Her mind was on overload, she couldn't think straight and now to her shame she found herself getting lost in her own arousal.
The Conqueror continued to suck on Gabrielle's breast, her hand sliding down the girl's body and slipping beneath the blonde's skirt and underwear and coming to rest on the curve of her backside. She pulled the smaller woman to her and increased the rhythm with her thigh and felt the girl begin to shutter. She felt her own release building as she ground herself onto the blonde's leg while she continued to work her thigh against the smaller woman. She released the Amazon's breast and brought her mouth back to the former queen's, kissing her deeply as they climaxed together.
The Conqueror continued to kiss her for a few moments afterwards then slowly she rose off of her and took a step back, letting the rope holding the blonde's hands above her head slip from her grasp allowing the Amazon's arms to come down.
Gabrielle stared at the Conqueror for a moment catching her breath. She couldn't believe what just happened, more over she couldn't believe she had reacted the way she did. She was at a complete loss, she thought she hated this woman yet she found it hard to believe her body could react the way it did to her touch if she truly hated her. She let her hands down in front of her and stared confused at the Conqueror, her clothes still in disarray, her breasts hanging loosely beneath her top, her skirt bunched up around her hips.
The two continued to stare at each other for a few moments both it would seem at a loss for words. The Conqueror hadn't planed on taking the girl just then she was just going to make a point about who was in charge but she found herself in the grip of a sudden fierce desire that's she couldn't resist. Now that she hadn't resisted it she felt strangely guilty. It wasn't the first time she had forced herself on someone but this time was different. There was something about this woman that unnerved her. She looked into the blondes deep green eyes and felt a strange familiar sensation. She reached forward and almost shyly straightened the woman clothing the untied her hands.
Gabrielle continued to stare at her still at a loss, her emotions in complete turmoil.
"Thank you." The Amazon said quietly lowering her eyes.
Xena just stared at her, still a little off balance from the intensity of what they had just shared.
"Stay close." She finally managed then mounted Argo and started them back towards the camp.
Ephiny watched from her knees until Gabrielle and the Conqueror had disappeared into the forest. When they were gone from her sight she finally stole herself for what she had to do. She took a deep breath and wiped away her tears then tied the ornate necklace the queen had given her around her neck. She stood and faced the others who were still on their hands and knees in a state of complete shock. In those few moments their whole lives had been forever changed.
Their happy little village was gone, no more was that feeling of safety and comfort from being tucked away deep in the forest, no more full moon festivals were they had all shared food and drink, danced and laughed, no more were the tournaments where their best warriors would compete for the queen's honor and most devastatingly no more Queen Gabrielle. They had all loved her. Loved her for her beauty and for her kind generous nature and for her inspired leadership. She was strict when she needed to be but she was always fair. They all wept for her now, hauled off by that monster and they all cried for their champion as well.
Poor Varia was arrogant and tough but everyone respected her. She was fiercely loyal and dedicated to the village's safety. No one was surprised when Varia had attacked the Conqueror, she was fearless, they were surprised however at how easily the Conqueror had defeated her. The Conqueror had taken their champion down with barely an effort. They knew then that this woman was not human and that there was nothing any of them could do to stop her.
Ephiny cleared her throat and spoke. "Get up." She ordered simply.
The Amazons slowly got to their feet and stared dazed at her. This, Ephiny knew was a time for strong leadership and she tried to think of what Gabrielle would do when she made her next command.
"Tessa, you and Nadia take Varia into the queen's council hut and make her comfortable. Sarah get your healers kit and see to her. I want everyone else in the hut as well." Ephiny stated in a clear even voice that sounded a lot more confidant than she felt.
They all went about their instructions. Tessa and Nadia laid Varia gently on her stomach on a thick fur rug by the fire then Sarah was cleaning and dressing her wounds. Varia had managed to quit sobbing and she lie on a rug staring blankly into the fire, a lost distant look on her face.
The others were all inside when Ephiny entered. The council hut was large enough for all thirty of them. Next to the dinning hut it was the largest in the small village. They all sat in a horseshoe around the large fire in the center of the hut. Ephiny went to the open end of the gathering and poised herself to speak. All eyes were on her now.
"Before she was taken by the Conqueror, Queen Gabrielle passed on the right of cast to me and gave one final instruction." Ephiny made the statement and the hut was deafly silent, all of them were desperate for direction from their beloved former queen.
"She wanted us to leave her to her new fate and to save ourselves." Ephiny managed to make the statement without being overwhelmed by emotion.
The hut was silent. Everyone lamented over the lose of their queen but they all understood the logic in her last instructions. If they tried to rescue her with their small numbers the Conqueror would more than likely slaughter them and even if they did by some miracle manage to save her their was no way they could hope to kill the Conqueror. Then she would send her troops to hunt down and kill every last Amazon in Greece. No, Gabrielle was wise enough to understand this and her first thoughts were as always for her little village.
After giving everyone a moment to absorb the gravity of her statement Ephiny continued. "We're going to go join the northern Amazons in the far northeast. They're so far from anyone we should be safe with them."
A red haired Amazon of medium build stood then. "What about what the Conqueror said? If we don't go to Athens then she'll send her soldiers to hunt us down."
Ephiny had been expecting this; she took a deep breath and answered the question. "We are not going to become the Conqueror's slaves. We'll be so far and so well hidden with the northern Amazons that the Conqueror's troops won't be able to find us."
The red headed Amazon wasn't satisfied. "The Conqueror's soldiers won't dare go back empty handed and if they do she'll just send more to find us, more than anyone could resist. Then when they find us they'll rape and torture us for months while they take us back to Athens!"
Ephiny didn't like this, Lara was getting the others more upset and worked up than they already were. She had to defuse the situation fast before the fiery redhead completely demoralized them all. "If we go to Athens the same thing will happen there. At least if we go north we have a chance and a good one."
"No, our only chance is to go to Athens like the Conqueror ordered! At least then she won't have us crucified for defying her when we get there." Lara shot back.
Ephiny took a more authoritative stance. "No one is becoming a slave or getting killed! We're Amazons, we're good at not being found when we don't want to be!"
The hut was silent again; even Lara was quiet then after a few moments she spoke softly.
"Better to be a live slave than a dead Amazon."
With that Lara moved to leave the tent and over half of them followed her.
Ephiny lowered her head and fought back her tears. She wished Gabrielle were here, she would have known just what to say and no one would have left.
As Lara was about to exit the hut with more than half of the small village Varia's weak voice halted them.
"Wait." The warrior chief said in just over a whisper but the unmistakable voice froze everyone in place.
Varia's wounds had been cleaned and dressed and the healer had put her in a large, very soft nightshirt. The tortured warrior rose unsteadily to her knees.
"Take me with you." Varia's plea was barely audible but it seemed to boom in the still hut.
Everyone stared shocked at her. Varia was the most courageous among them and if anyone would be willing to risk defying the Conqueror they thought surely the warrior chief would be among them.
After a moment of deafening silence Lara nodded for two of the women with her to help Varia. As they helped her from the tent fresh tears spilled down Varia's checks. She had been broken, completely by the Conqueror's humiliating torture. She no longer had it in her to defy the ruler of the known world.
A few more left when they saw the former warrior chief leave and now only ten of them remained. Ephiny stared at the small group that was left in the large tent and tried to muster an encouraging smile but she couldn't. Her failure to keep them together overwhelmed her and she lost it. She sank to her knees, tears and sobs erupting from her. The new queen placed her hands over her face and bowed her head in shame as a torrent of emotion flowed out of her.
The others in the tent quickly surrounded her offering her comfort.
Sarah took the new queen in her arms and rubbed her back gently. "Shhh, it's okay Ephiny. There's nothing anyone could have said to make them stay. It's not your fault, if it weren't for you we would all be heading to Athens right now."
Tessa and Nadia had also stayed along with the healer and they both offered the new queen comfort.
"That's right, we love you Ephiny and we need you." Tessa reassured her.
"We'll be okay just like you said. Everything will work out and then maybe Gabrielle can convince the Conqueror to let the others go." Nadia added.
Ephiny stopped cried and wiped her tears away. She hadn't thought of that. If anyone could convince the Conqueror of anything it would be Gabrielle. She felt a new ray of hope and the tiny spark was enough to sustain her. The new queen gave the small group before her a weak smile.
"Thanks. Nadia's right, maybe Gabrielle can save the others. We better start packing though, we should leave as soon as possible." Ephiny said trying to regain her composure.
The others nodded at her and helped their new queen to her feet.
Ephiny reassured them all that she would be okay and remained in the hut as they went off to pack what they would need for the long journey. When they had all gone and she was alone in the large empty hut the former regent took one last look around the large council hut and fought back the tears that threatened to spill out again. She had spent many a happy hour in this place with her former queen. Being here with Gabrielle always made even the most mundane issues something to look forward to.
"We all love you Gabrielle and we'll never forget you." Ephiny said aloud to the empty tent then turned and left before she was overcome by her emotions again.
"Stop crying!" Xena shouted at Seth.
The Conqueror was seated on a log before the campfire with Gabrielle on her knees before her, the blonde's right arm in the warrior's tight grasp in her other hand she held her dagger with the tip of its red hot blade poised to burn her mark into the Amazon's shoulder.
The Conqueror had returned with her new acquisition to find Seth fast asleep on their bedroll and fur blankets. She glared again at Gabrielle for allowing the boy to consume alcohol, mistake or not.
The remainder of their trip back to camp had been an awkward silent one. Both women pondering the strong emotions that the other triggered in them and wondering what it meant.
Xena decided to let Seth sleep off his first encounter with too much drink and she put Gabrielle to work preparing food for their dinner. A few hours later the enticing smell of dinner cooking woke Seth.
The boy was surprised to see Gabrielle but quickly decided that it was a good idea for her to be with them after tasting the dinner she had prepared.
Xena gave him a hard look when the boy complimented the Amazon on the meal and Seth thought she must still be angry about the alcohol. She had also insisted that he sit right next to her during dinner, something that she generally didn't do.
The Conqueror felt the sting of jealousy when the boy complimented the little blonde on her cooking. He never compliments my cooking; she brooded, then made the boy sit next to her and glared over at Gabrielle.
After dinner the Conqueror took her dagger which she had placed into the fire earlier and called Gabrielle to her. It was then that it donned on Seth why his mistress had placed the blade in the flames and he panicked.
"Stop crying!" The Conqueror repeated.
Seth tried unsuccessfully to stifle his tears. He was on his knees at his mistress's side tugging on the skirt of her leather battle dress and trying to come up with a coherent statement.
"This isn't for you! What in Tartarus are you crying about?" Xena barked exasperated.
Seth gathered himself enough to speak. "It it hurts Xena, please don't hurt Gabrielle!"
The Conqueror's jealousy got the better of her and her eyes blazed. "Oh I see this is your new little friend is that it?"
"She she wouldn't let the mean one hurt me Xena, please don't hurt her." Seth pleaded wiping at his tears with the back of his hand.
Xena's jealousy waned a bit as it donned on her that the boy felt obligated to try and return the favor that the Amazon had done for him. Her expression grew less harsh as she considered what to do for a moment.
"W what if she promises not to run away?" Seth asked hopefully.
Interesting, Xena thought then looked at Gabrielle with one eyebrow raised in question.
Gabrielle had been watching the exchange between the Conqueror and Seth rapped. She was shocked by the boy's defense of her and even more shocked to see the Conqueror considering Seth's request. She had resigned herself to her slave status for the time being, deciding that she would wait and allow her Amazons enough time to get far away before she tried to escape and brought the Conqueror's army down on them. Now she was on the spot, she never broke a promise and she didn't want to promise now but poor Seth was so upset and .
The Conqueror shook her cutting off her thoughts.
"Well girl?" Xena questioned.
Gabrielle looked away from her into the fire her face somber.
"That's what I thought." Xena said and raised her blade back to the girl's shoulder.
Seth started crying again and buried his face on the Conqueror's thigh.
"Alright, I promise!" Gabrielle blurted out. She couldn't stand the sight of Seth so tormented any longer.
Xena looked at her surprised and lowered her dagger then let the girl go. Seth's head came up off the Conqueror's thigh and his eyes were bright with relief.
"The first time you try to run this mark will be the least of your punishment." The Conqueror stated in a serious tone then stuck the dagger in the ground to cool.
Seth hugged his mistress tightly and kissed her check. "Thank you Xena!"
The Conqueror grunted at him but she couldn't help but to smile as the boy lavished her with his love and adoration hugging her fiercely between innocent kisses.
Gabrielle watched stunned from across the fire as the Conqueror's face changed and she actually smiled. She could hardly believe that this was the same destroyer of nations that had whipped one of her friends half to death and crushed her village earlier in the day.
Seth clung happily to his mistress for awhile longer with Xena rubbing gentle circles on his back.
"Time for bed boy." Xena said running her fingers through the boy's thick hair.
Seth released his hold on the Conqueror and kissed her on the check again.
"Okay Xena." Seth said then went to the blankets and crawled under them after taking off his boots.
"Good night Gabrielle." Seth said before closing his eyes.
"Good night Seth." Gabrielle said awkwardly, this was hardly what she had expected and she was off balance.
Xena watched as Seth closed his eyes and in moments was fast asleep. She smiled at him then turned to see Gabrielle staring at her from across the fire and her expression grew stern again.
"He really loves you." Gabrielle said flatly.
The unexpected words caught her off guard and Xena smiled unconsciously giving the sleeping boy a side ways glance before looking back at Gabrielle.
"He's a good boy." The Conqueror said simply, although her face betrayed the depth of emotion she held for the boy.
In that moment Gabrielle realized just how lucky she and her entire village was to be alive. She could see the depth of emotion that the Conqueror felt for the boy. She had no idea how their strange relationship had come about but she could tell that the boy had changed something in the ruthless ruler of the known world. She continued to stare at the Conqueror in rapped fascination. She couldn't help it, the tall warrior had a powerful presence that drew you to her and Gabrielle found that she was in no way immune to this force.
The Conqueror stared back at Gabrielle for awhile still pondering what had passed between them earlier in the day. There was something about this woman that lit something within her. She had taken her mainly to demoralize the other Amazons but now that she had her the girl was having an effect on her. The Conqueror thought again of her reasons for venturing out of her palace and she felt like she was getting closer than ever to the answers she was seeking.
Xena drew her attention back to the Amazon sitting across the fire from her. "Time for you to go to bed too."
Gabrielle lowered her eyes submissively as her slave status and the reality of her situation washed over her. "Yes Mistress."
Gabrielle started to move then froze and looked awkwardly about. "Um where do I sleep Mistress?"
Xena was silent for a moment caught off guard again. It was too cold this far into the mountains to just sleep on the ground next to the fire and they didn't have any extra blankets. Finally Xena nodded her head towards Seth the bedroll and the thick fur blankets, which were easily large enough for the three of them.
"Get into the blankets next to Seth." The Conqueror said with slight apprehension.
Gabrielle picked up on the Conqueror's uneasiness and her sharp jealousy over the boy and she slipped under the blankets keeping a fair amount of covers between herself and the sleeping boy.
The former queen closed her eyes and her thoughts bombarded her mind. She wondered how her Amazons were fairing and how far they had gotten? Then her mind turned to the afternoon with the Conqueror, their time in the woods when she was sure that her mouthing off to the warrior was about to earn her a severe beating but had turned into an intense sexual encounter. It had never been like that with anyone before. It must have been the build up of strong emotions and the body's way of releasing the tension, Gabrielle thought although she wasn't buying it. The Conqueror was a beautiful woman that was for sure. It was only a natural reaction to her touch, right? Her thought's shifted again and she wondered about the Conqueror and Seth? What had happened there? Whatever it was she could tell that it had changed the Conqueror. This wasn't the same woman who had ruthlessly destroyed nations to become the ruler of the known world. Not that she was soft, by no means was she anyone trifle with. In fact she's probably even more deadly now with the boy to protect. It was just that this Conqueror was fairer than the one of legends, the destroyer.
The evening hadn't turned out anything like she thought it would. She was sure that she would have had multiple beatings by now and found herself bound and sleeping with the Conqueror's horse. She was shocked that the only thing she had to do was cook dinner; she didn't even have to clean up. Seth did it, it must be one of his regular chores she thought. And now she was sleeping untied in the Conqueror's blankets. Although she did narrowly escape being branded. She was still awed that Seth could have persuaded his mistress at all. She thought of the cost, she would never break a promise. Not even to the Conqueror. Well at least it wasn't as bad as she thought it would be, so far anyway. With that the stress of the day took her and blonde fell into a deep sleep.
The Conqueror watched the blonde fall asleep next to Seth and she marveled at how right it seemed. As she watched the two sleeping she knew that they were the key to what she had ventured out into the wilderness to find.
Seth she had figured out. His innocence had changed her. Made her care for something more than just her own gains. She realized then just how important he was to her. He was everything that she cared about now.
The Amazon on the other hand was a different story. She had no idea yet how the little blonde fit into the puzzle, she just knew that she did. She could tell that the former queen wouldn't break her promise. Knew that she wouldn't have to put her through what she had done to Seth.
The thought of how she had caned Seth brought an instant pang of regret and shame, doing the same thing now seemed inconceivable to her. She stared at the boy smiling in his sleep and remembered how relieved he was the next morning to have it over with and how he smiled at her then. Such trust, the boy never even considered that the caning could be just the start. He just looked at her with those big blue eyes and gave her that look of awe that she had become so addicted to, and then he smiled.
Xena felt the emotion welling inside her and decided that she couldn't sit on the log for another second. She needed to hold the boy and feel his calming affect on her.
The Conqueror crossed to her slumbering slaves and dropped her weapons and armor in the customary pile next to the blankets then slipped underneath next to the boy and pulled him to her. Seth unconsciously molded himself to her side and sighed contentedly in his sleep. Xena kissed the top of his head then glanced over at Gabrielle who was sleeping surprisingly well for it being her first night as a slave. She stared at the blonde's full lips and soft, pale skin and felt something stir within her that was completely different from what she felt for Seth.
Seth she knew deep in her heart she loved more than anyone she ever loved in her life. It would be awhile before she could admit it to anyone, especially the boy but she knew herself well enough to recognize the truth and fooling herself was not something she did well. It was a maternal kind of love though and what Gabrielle stirred in her came from someplace else.
Xena stared off into the clear night sky, lit with a million tiny points of light and sighed contentedly. The mountain air was crisp and fragrant and it felt good as she inhaled. It was growing colder and the first snow wasn't far off at this altitude.
The Conqueror kissed the sleeping boy's head again then closed her eyes and let sleep take her not long after.
Xena was the first to wake just before sunrise. The morning air was cool and damp. Seth was far from waking still lost in dreams, his breathing low and even. As the Conqueror looked at her, Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open and for a moment they stared into each other's eyes. Something seemed to pass between them, a knowing. For the briefest of moments they were equals, best friends and lovers, then it was gone like the pedals of a rose floating on a swift stream.
Gabrielle changed her focus to Seth and smiled at how contented the boy looked. Xena caught the look and a smile curled onto her lips. The two women smiled at each other and Gabrielle felt strangely contented. Maybe it was the relief of not being mistreated or maybe it was the sight of Seth's peaceful sleep or maybe it was just a strange feeling that she was in the right place at the right time. She wasn't sure but she had learned to trust her intuition and decided to go with it now and see what new opportunities lie ahead for her.
Xena gently slipped Seth's head from her shoulder and laid it on the soft fur blankets then she slid from beneath the covers. Gabrielle followed suite and stood waiting for the tall warrior to finish putting on her armor and weapons.
The Conqueror finished replacing her weapons and armor then looked to Gabrielle and placed her forefinger to her lips in a gesture of silence then crossed to the Amazon and led her out of camp.
"I'm going to the stream to catch breakfast. Get a fire going and put on some tea. We'll let Seth sleep for a little while longer." Xena said with a grin.
"Okay." Gabrielle replied simply then her mistress turned and headed off for the stream. The Conqueror's obvious good mood surprised her again. Although it did make her feel at ease she was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the moment the Conqueror would turn cruel. She wondered then what the tall warrior had meant by we'll let him sleep some more'. We? Strange she thought then went about building a fire and making tea.
Seth woke to the smell of fresh fish cooking on the nearby fire. He lifted his head from the warm blankets and looked towards the fire. Xena and Gabrielle were sitting by the fire drinking tea and waiting silently for the fish to finish cooking. Xena was the first to notice him.
"Morning sleepy. See what happens when you drink." Xena said with a smile teasingly.
Gabrielle smiled at the comment and Seth got wearily to his feet, put on his boots and crossed to Xena who was sitting on the fallen log. He sat on the ground at her feet then rested his head on her thigh and yawned.
Gabrielle had managed to find another short log and placed it off of Xena's forming an L shape. She sat on the log and stared at Seth while Xena ran her fingers through his hair.
Seth got the distinct impression that they had both been waiting for him to get up. He smiled as Xena's strong fingers raked through his hair.
"What's the matter sleepy head? Does your head hurt this morning?" Xena asked the silent boy.
"No, just sleepy." Seth said then yawned again.
"Alcohol will do that to you. See why you're not aloud to have it? And you had a nap yesterday too." Xena continued to tease Seth.
Seth frowned. "I'm not that sleepy." He said and bit off another yawn.
Xena laughed and so did Gabrielle, the collective mood this morning far less tense than the night before.
"Smells good." Seth commented sniffing the air.
"Thanks." Gabrielle said turning the fish. "Xena caught them."
Seth looked up at his mistress with the look' and smiled.
Xena smiled back and shook her head slightly at the boy's intense pride in her.
Seth turned his head back to the fire and rubbed his hands together and extended them to the flames.
"It's getting cold." He said to no one in particular.
"It's going to get colder where we're going. I'll kill some more game and Gabrielle you can make winter furs for everyone." Xena said looking to the Amazon who was removing the fish from the fire and placing large pieces on three thin wooden plates.
"I can do that." The Amazon said handing out the plates.
They all three ate in silence and Gabrielle thought of how strange her situation was. She was a slave that was for sure. She couldn't come and go as she please or even decide when she went to bed. That was rather humiliating she mused but the Conqueror wasn't treating her cruelly, not yet anyway. She talked to her as if she were with them out of choice rather than a slave she had abducted. That made things easier and harder, easier to live up to her promise but harder to deal with not being with her Amazons. She almost felt guilty for not having been beaten yet, as if it were her duty to suffer if she weren't with them.
Gabrielle sighed and hoped that her friends were okay then finished her fish.
A little while later the three of them were on the trail heading further north into the forest and higher into the mountains. The day passed uneventfully with Gabrielle and Seth following Xena who was guiding Argo on a meandering trail through the woods.
Gabrielle wondered for the first time since she had questioned Seth in her hut where they were going and why the Conqueror was out here in the first place. She had been so preoccupied with worrying over her small tribe that she hadn't really thought about what in Tartarus they were doing anyway. Her curiosity got the better of her and after awhile she decided to risk asking the Conqueror. She was in a good mood today and hopefully the question wouldn't spark her anger.
"Mistress?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.
Gabrielle had been extremely quiet all day and Xena was mildly surprised when the blonde addressed her. She reined Argo to a halt and she and Seth both turned to look at the Amazon who was bringing up the rear.
"Yes." Xena answered.
Gabrielle was a little uneasy now suddenly having become the center of attention.
"Where are we going Mistress?" She asked in calculated shyness.
Xena was quiet for a moment considering what to tell her newest slave when Seth spoke up for her.
"We're going north." The boy said seriously.
Xena smiled at him then affirmed the boy's proclamation.
"That's right, we're going north." The Conqueror said with a bemused expression.
Gabrielle decided to try another approach. "Why are we heading north Mistress?"
This time Seth too turned to look at Xena.
Xena suddenly looked annoyed, she didn't feel like explaining what she had been feeling in the last few months before she left the palace and what she was looking for in the forest or what she had already found. She thought for a moment, she didn't want Seth bothering her with a million questions either, which she new the boy would do if she didn't satisfy his curiosity.
"Because I like the snow." Xena said with a smirk, lowering her eyes dangerously at Gabrielle.
The Amazon got the point. The Conqueror didn't feel like elaborating and if she new what was good for her she had better not push it.
Seth on the other hand was delighted by Xena's answer.
"I've never seen snow before!" He said wide-eyed and excited.
Xena smiled at him silently and nudged Argo back into motion.
A few miles later it was starting to get dark and they made camp not far from the same icy mountain stream they were camped near the day before.
Xena unloaded Argo while Seth gathered wood and Gabrielle built a fire.
The Amazon found a couple deadfalls and placed them one on either side of the fire then made dinner for the three of them at her mistress's instruction.
The three ate then Xena read Seth a scroll by the light of the fire while Gabrielle watched drinking tea.
Gabrielle was amazed at how animated and playful the Conqueror was. As the tall warrior read she would pitch and lower her voice in the appropriate spots in the story, her face vivid with expression.
Seth sat at Xena's feet completely riveted by her. The boy's face would go from elation to panic in harmony with the Conqueror's vivid descriptions as she let the story unfold.
Gabrielle couldn't help but to get caught up in the joy that the two shared in the stories. Xena she could tell loved to tell them to the boy and watch how excited he got from the telling and Seth she could tell just loved anything that the Conqueror did. Especially anything that involved him.
When she was finished with the story and after she gave Seth a firm no to rereading it, she had Seth read aloud. The boy read for awhile and Xena helped him with the words he stumbled on. When she was satisfied with his progress for the night the Conqueror sent Seth to bed.
Gabrielle watched as Seth kissed the Conqueror on the cheek then trudged off to bed. The two women sat watching the boy for a few moments until he was fast asleep.
An awkward silence fell over them with Seth asleep. Gabrielle was the first to pierce the quiet.
"Would you like some tea Mistress?"
"That would be nice." Xena said with a warm smile.
Gabrielle poured another cup of tea and handed it to the Conqueror. Another silence ensued as they drank their tea and regarded one another.
"You know you can call me Xena while it's just the three of us." The Conqueror said not looking away from the fire.
Gabrielle's face took on a surprised look but she quickly recovered. "Thank you Mis Xena."
Wow, Gabrielle thought, she wasn't expecting that but then the Conqueror always seemed to do the unexpected. Nothing that had happened so far was what she thought it would be. She found herself actually enjoying being with Xena and Seth. It felt very family like and the warmth with which the two interacted was contagious. Many times during the past two days she found herself caught up in their laughter and despite herself she also felt her body longing for the Conqueror's touch.
She was ashamed that she was feeling so drawn to the woman who had destroyed her village but she couldn't seem to help it. Deep down she always knew that there was a risk that one day their small village would be found. They were technically outlaws, living by their own rules and not paying taxes into the royal coffers. She just never dreamt that it would be the Conqueror herself that found them.
A new thought occurred to Gabrielle. What if it were her destiny to change things by influencing the Conqueror. The idea seemed utterly fanciful but somehow just felt right. She thought about it some more and decided that it was definitely an interesting possibility.
The Conqueror continued to stare into the fire not wanting to look at the fair skin and soft features of the beautiful Amazon sitting across from her. She had thought about just taking the girl as soon as Seth had fallen asleep. Dragging her out into the woods and having her way with her but decided against it. For some inexplicable reason she found herself wanting to be nice to Gabrielle. She wanted the smaller woman to feel comfortable around her and she knew that if she forced herself on her that wouldn't happen.
Xena sighed, why do I even care? She was the ruler of the known world if she wanted something she took it. So why in Tartarus am I just sitting her instead of taking this slave behind some trees and Xena sighed again. Maybe it's just that I want Seth to feel comfortable with her being with us and if Gabrielle is scared all the time that will upset the boy, Xena mused. Yeah that's it.
The dark haired woman looked across the fire into sharp sea green eyes and a face with full red lips that smiled back at her own unconscious smile.
I'm screwed, Xena thought, tomorrow the day after at the max.
"Ready for bed?" The Conqueror asked.
Gabrielle looked away shyly for a moment. "If it's okay, I'd like to stay up for awhile?"
The Conqueror thought about it for a brief moment regarding the girl. "It's okay. I make Seth go to bed early because if I don't he walks into trees the next day."
They both laughed and shared an intimate moment then Xena got up and went to the blankets and the sleeping boy. She removed her armor and boots then slid under the thick furs next to Seth and pulled the boy to her. With Seth settled nicely against her she closed her eyes and began to relax.
Gabrielle stared at her mistress as she lay in the blankets with Seth. She wasn't sure how her asking the Conqueror if she could stay up was going to go over. She was relieved when the larger woman had allowed her and made light of sending Seth to bed early. She smiled again remembering. She liked the sound of the Conqueror's laugh she decided while she studied the woman's face. Her long black tresses framed an angular, bronzed face. The soft flowing lines of her neck sweeping down to the swell of her breasts and better stop right their Gabrielle, the Amazon chastised herself feeling her desires stir. Gods what is wrong with me? I'm like a love sick little girl with her first crush.
Gabrielle sighed and drank the rest of her tea then rose and crossed to the bedroll. She took off her boots and slipped underneath the thick blankets. She lay on her side watching Xena and Seth sleeping together, the boy's head nestled on the Conqueror chest and shoulder, her arm wrapped around him. She stared at them and found herself wishing she could scoot over next to them, share their warmth and feel the Conqueror's close presence.
It must be nice to sleep with someone you love, Gabrielle thought watching the two. She had never taken a partner in the Amazon village. It seemed to make things easier as the queen not to have such attachments. Not that she didn't get offers, she was considered quite the prize among them and many had made advances towards her, especially her warrior chief. Varia had just wanted the sex though and the conquest of having taken the queen to her bed. She never accepted, if she had been with anyone it would have been Ephiny. Her regent too had made her intentions clear but she unlike Varia was in love with her queen. Gabrielle liked Ephiny a lot, she was her closet friend but she didn't love her, not like that anyway and had gently turned the woman down.
What's happening to you Gabrielle? The former queen asked herself then sighed and closed her eyes. Before she fell asleep she was thinking that it smelled like snow.
Xena, Gabrielle and even Seth woke in the early morning light to falling snow. A thin blanket of pristine white covered the forest including their blankets. The small fire valiantly continued to smolder but it was losing its fight with the snow.
Xena rose up on her elbows and looked over at Gabrielle who did the same. They shared a knowing glance while Seth scrambled to get out from under the covers. To the boy snow was a new adventure; to Xena and Gabrielle it meant new challenges.
The two women smiled at each other as Seth walked bare foot into the snow and scooped up a handful and tentatively smelled then tasted it with the tip of his tongue. He was shaping the fluffy white stuff into a ball when Xena's voice called out.
"Seth put your boots on before you do anything else." Xena said sitting up along with Gabrielle.
Seth had turned to them with a mischievous look. He knew he should obey Xena and put his boots on first but the temptation overwhelmed him and he tossed the snowball at his mistress.
The Conqueror's warrior reflexes reacted instantaneously and she caught the ball in her hand and it disintegrated in a shower of snow. Xena looked at Gabrielle and a sly smile spread on her lips.
"I think war has just been declared." She purred then lunged to her feet and was off after Seth in an instant.
Seth laughed then turned and ran scooping up snow as he went, tossing it aimlessly over his shoulder not chancing a look back. The Conqueror rounded in front of the boy and headed him back towards Gabrielle. Seth ducked behind a tree next to their bedroll then hesitantly stuck his head out to see and it was immediately met by a snowball.
Gabrielle laughed as the ball splattered across the boy's face then a snowball hit her right in her cleavage and she drew a sharp breath and leapt to her feet brushing franticly at the cold powder in her halter.
Xena thought she would die laughing as she watched the spectacle.
Seth having recovered threw another snowball while Xena was distracted and the ball hit her shoulder.
Seth let out a cry of triumph and ducked back behind the tree as the Conqueror honed in on him.
Xena circled silently behind the tree where Seth was just sticking his head back out with another snowball at the ready. He frowned when he didn't she his mistress then turned back around and gasped! She was face to face with him.
The shocked look on the boy's face started the Conqueror laughing again as she stuck snow down the front of Seth's shirt.
Seth laughed uncontrollably and shook the snow out of his shirt.
The Conqueror's laughter was silenced by a large snowball landing precisely in the center of her breasts and sliding down between them.
It was Gabrielle's turn to laugh as Xena brushed the snow from her cleavage.
For the next half hour the three scrambled around the little camp tossing snowballs at each other, their laughter echoing through the forest. Finally Xena said it was time to stop before the boy got sick with no boots on.
They ate a breakfast of bread and dried fruits, Xena and Gabrielle drinking tea then they quickly broke camp and were back on their way north. Around midday they came to a small mountain lake and they made a hasty camp under the lee of a small stone cliff where the snow had yet to drift. The Conqueror built a fire and her two slaves huddled around it for warmth. They hadn't made any winter clothes yet and the two were tiring quickly from the cold.
Xena striped one of the heavy wool blankets from Argo and tossed it around their shoulders. Seth and Gabrielle both looked up and smiled as one and thanked her.
"Gabrielle and I are going to hunt this afternoon." Xena said to Seth although it was the first time that Gabrielle had heard it either. "We need more fur's to make you two some winter clothing."
Seth touched Xena's arm as she squatted next to them by the fire.
"Don't you get cold Xena?" The boy asked with concern.
The Conqueror smiled warmly at him. "I'm warm blooded, don't worry about me boy." She said reassuringly.
Xena rose and grabbed another blanket from the now heavily laden Argo and handed it to Gabrielle who slipped from beneath the blanket with Seth and took it. The blonde wrapped herself in the wool cover then crossed to Xena.
"We won't be more than an hour boy." Xena said then turned and walked from camp with Gabrielle in tow.
Seth watched them leave and he couldn't believe his luck. Xena hadn't said anything about him having to work on his scrolls or gather wood or anything. He could do whatever he wanted. The boy thought about it for a long while trying to come up with something good to do. He looked around the little camp mischievously and his eyes stopped on the lake. He had only gotten to swim the one time since Xena had taught him and he had been dying to do it again.
Seth rose and let the blanket fall to the rock ground he was sitting on. He crossed from the fire to the edge of the little lake. He knelt down and peered into the calm surface, it was crystal clear. He placed a tentative hand into the water and the cold stung his fingers but after awhile it went away. He surmised if he swam around a lot he could keep warm and it would only take him a few minutes to get used to it.
The boy stripped off his clothes and laid them in a pile in the snow next to his boots. Stark naked he placed one foot in the icy water, then another. He moved slowly letting his body get used to the freezing cold of the water and finally the stinging subsided and he lunged straight in kicking and stroking the water furiously. To his delight the boy found himself swimming again and he swam paralleling the shore not having the courage to venture into deeper water without his mistress there. He smiled broadly as he swam, immensely proud that he had retained the knowledge of how to swim.
Gabrielle followed Xena out of the little camp and she felt her breath begin to quicken. It was the first time she had been alone with the Conqueror since the day she had taken possession of her and now the memory of their encounter in the woods rushed to her senses. As she watched the tall warrior's back and her determined stride she found herself fantasizing about her mistress taking her again and suddenly she began to feel very warm.
Xena strode through the forest not really paying any attention to tracking any game. She had other quarry on her mind. The little blonde Amazon following her was more temptation than she could resist. She hoped that the younger woman wouldn't be to distressed over it. She was after all an Amazon and another woman's passion wouldn't be a new concept to her. There was something about this woman that the Conqueror couldn't put her finger on but whatever it was it compelled her to the former queen. She caught herself thinking about her often and she enjoyed the brief time they would spend together after she sent Seth to bed. Even though they had said little to each other in those times she still felt a strong connection to the smaller woman.
A few minutes later Xena saw what she was looking for, a thick circle of trees that had managed to keep the forest floor beneath them clear of snow. The Conqueror walked under a low-slung branch and into the center of the small ring of trees, their thick branches shading the area beneath.
Xena turned as Gabrielle entered the ring of trees behind her. The tall warrior reached out and took the blanket from the Amazon's shoulders and laid it on the ground between them.
Gabrielle stood and silently watched as the Conqueror removed her armor and weapons, tossing them in a pile beside the blanket then her breath caught as her owner slipped the straps from her battle dress and slid the leather garment from her body.
Xena sat and removed her boots then lie back on her elbows and beckoned the blonde to her with a wave of her fingers.
Gabrielle swallowed then took a shaky breath, the Conqueror lay before her wearing nothing but a pair of black leather underwear. The warrior motioned for her and Gabrielle got to her knees before the larger woman.
Xena said nothing; she just raised her hips off of the blanket locking her blue eyes with green. Gabrielle understood, reached forward and hooked her fingers under the Conqueror's underwear and slid them from her hips and down the warrior's toned thighs. Xena lowered herself back down on the blanket and raised her feet. Gabrielle slipped her mistress's undergarment from her legs and laid them with the warrior's battledress then she sat back on her heels and nervously rubbed her hands on her knees.
The air was crisp and a slight breeze fluttered through the trees and over the Conqueror's heated skin. She lay back on her arms and let her anticipation build as she watched her new slave fidget nervously.
Gabrielle tired to look away but her eyes kept finding their way back to the Conqueror's body. They roamed from the nape of her neck down to the swell of the larger woman's breasts then lower past the warrior's flat stomach to the patch of dark curls at the apex of her thighs. Gabrielle couldn't seem to keep herself from staring at her mistress's sex and she bit her lower lip self consciously as heat flushed her tingling skin.
Xena smiled at Gabrielle's reaction to her naked body. She reached up and wordlessly took the blonde by the back of her neck and guided her down between her legs.
Gabrielle felt a rush of relief as the Conqueror drew her down to her. The anticipation was becoming unbearable and she gratefully knelt down between the warrior's smooth thighs. The musky sent of the Conqueror's sex further inflamed her desire and she greedily pleasured her mistress.
Xena moaned and arched her back, clenching and unclenching the blanket in her hands. She rocked her hips forward into the Amazon's mouth as her passion's intensity grew until finally she slipped over the edge. She lie there panting as Gabrielle gently kissed her inner thighs and heated center.
When she had regained her breath the Conqueror drew Gabrielle up into her arms, draping the Amazon over the top of her naked body. Gabrielle's breath was still ragged and her eyes blazed with desire.
Xena let her hands roam over the blonde's body, slipping them under the smaller woman's skirt and pulling it up around her waist then moving upward to the Amazon's halter and pulling it off over her head, tossing it aside.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and sighed deep in her throat as her naked breasts met the Conqueror's. When she opened her eyes again Xena was drawing her into a kiss. The kiss was deep and long then suddenly the Conqueror rolled her over onto her back, pressing the full length of her toned body down against her.
Xena smiled at the look of anticipation on Gabrielle's face. The warrior propped herself up on one arm then took her index finger and ran it lightly over the Amazon's cheek.
Gabrielle sighed and arched her back, rocking her hips involuntarily into her mistress's.
Xena smiled again then ran her finger over the blonde's lips. Gabrielle caught the Conqueror's finger in her mouth and sucked on its length completely losing herself in her own desire.
After a moment Xena removed her now wet finger and ran it down the smaller woman's chin and neck to her breasts where she circled each nipple before taking them one then the other into her mouth. Xena sucked on one of the blonde's nipples while her hand traced its way down the former queen's smooth stomach then underneath her underwear.
Gabrielle gasped as her mistress's hand explored her, manipulating her sex with surprising gentleness. She ground her hips into the hand with increasing need until finally she reached her limit. She cried out the Conqueror's name as she lost herself in ecstasy. Then the warrior was there beside her drawing her into strong arms. Gabrielle laid her head on the Conqueror shoulder and curled her body against the taller woman and she felt something she had never felt before. She couldn't explain the feeling or even what it was really she just knew that it felt right.
Xena felt the Amazon relax against her and she marveled at how natural it felt to hold the woman. She didn't have the calming affect that Seth had on her, it was a different feeling entirely. Not that it was better or worse just different. The Conqueror had the sudden realization that this is what it must feel like to have a family, something she hadn't had in very long time and never had of her own.
"What's happening between us Xena?" Gabrielle asked shyly from her side.
Xena thought about it for a moment. "I'm not sure." She said finally. "But whatever it is I'm not complaining."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "Me either."
The Conqueror returned the smile.
"Come on we better get going, if I leave Seth by himself for too long no telling what mischief he'll get into." Xena said with a wry grin.
Gabrielle laughed. "Not much trouble for him to get into way out here."
Xena gave her an exasperated expression as she tugged on her battle dress. "You'd be surprised."
Seth's head felt fuzzy. He had been swimming for about forty-five minutes in the near frozen lake. He kept thinking that maybe he should get out and go dry off next to the fire but he didn't feel that cold really anymore and he just didn't want to waste this opportunity. No telling when Xena would leave him alone again with no set of instructions he would have to obey. He was starting to feel strangely sluggish though, his body seemed awkward to him for some reason. Oh well, he thought, just a little more swimming.
Xena stood at the edge of camp for a moment too shocked for words. Gabrielle stood rooted in place behind her equally stunned. The boy was swimming! Snow was lightly falling and piling up all around the freezing lake and the boy was swimming! Her mind rejected it but there he was.
Xena scrambled to the water's edge suddenly scared, a heart wrenching fear, and then the anger kicked in as it always did to guard her from the fear.
"Seth!" The Conqueror yelled at the boy.
Seth stopped swimming, stood in the shallow water and faced his mistress. He had been so engrossed in swimming that he didn't hear Xena and Gabrielle come running up to the water. He took one look at Xena and knew he was in trouble; she was angry, real angry. He forced a weak smile.
Xena gasped at the boy's blue body as he stood in the waist deep water.
"What in Tartarus do you think your doing?" Xena barked at him.
Seth stammered trying to think of a response but his cold dulled mind was slow to react. "I I "
Xena cut him off. "Get out of the water now!" She turned to Gabrielle. "Give me your blanket and go build that fire up!"
The Amazon did as Xena asked handing her the blanket from her shoulders then scurried off to the fire. Xena turned back to Seth as he walked unsteadily from the water his coordination impaired. She wrapped the boy in the blanket when he reached the shore then scooped him up in her arms and ran up the bank to the fire Gabrielle was just starting to feed.
Seth tried to think but for some reason couldn't. He stared dully at Xena as she hauled him up to the fire. She set him on the thick fur blanket next to the fire and began rubbing him furiously with the blanket.
"I leave you alone for one hour! Just one hour and you can't stay out of trouble! What were you thinking swimming in that freezing lake? I have a mind to give you the whipping of your life for doing something so foolish and scaring me half to death! By the Gods boy you're freezing!" Xena realized suddenly that she was rambling and stopped abruptly and stared at the boy while she continued to rub him down with the blanket.
Seth just gave her an apologetic look then he broke and started crying, her disappointment more then he could bear.
"I I'm s sorry Xena." Was all the boy could manage between sobs.
The Conqueror's heart fell at the sight of the tears and she sighed heavily. It seemed impossible for her to stay mad at the boy and as the anger faded the fear returned.
"That's enough, shhh, that's enough." Xena said wrapping the boy in a fresh blanket and holding him to her. "It'll be okay, you just scared me. I don't want you getting sick." She kissed the top of Seth's head and the boy stifled his sobs.
Gabrielle finished feeding the fire and looked on concerned. Her eyes met Xena's and it pained her to see the warrior so upset. "What can I do?"
"Brew some tea. We need to get his core temperature up."
Seth's body began to sting all over as the numbness slowly began to wear off from the heat of the fire and Xena's body heat as she held him wrapped in a thick wool blanket to her side.
"It it hurts Xena." Seth said looking up into vivid blue eyes pleadingly.
The boy's pain hurt Xena more than any physical pain she had ever endured. She smiled reassuringly at him. "It won't last long. Just until your body warms up."
"Here." Gabrielle said handing Xena a steaming cup of tea for Seth."
Xena held the tea to the boy's lips. "Drink this, it will help warm you."
Seth did as she asked and sipped the steaming brew shivering now.
Xena handed the cup to Gabrielle. "Here, help him with this while I mix some herbs for him."
Gabrielle took the cup and scooted next to Seth, pressing her body next to the boy in the same manor as Xena did to help keep him warm.
Seth gratefully sipped the tea and thanked the Amazon with a scared look on his face. He hadn't realized how cold he was until they started warming him back up.
Gabrielle smiled at him. "It'll be okay. Don't worry." She said rubbing the boy's knee then giving him another sip of the tea.
Xena dug through her saddlebags and retrieved her healers bag then mixed a cup full of herbs to help keep the fever down and numb some of the pain. She sat on Seth's free side sandwiching him between herself and Gabrielle.
"Here, drink this." The Conqueror instructed.
Seth took the cup and drank, wrinkling his nose at the taste then handed the cup back to Xena.
A few hours of bundling by the fire squeezed between Xena and Gabrielle and about a gallon of tea later the boy's body was warm again. His skin was no longer blue now but still a little pale.
Xena felt the boy's forehead with the back of her hand and her fears were confirmed. The boy was warm all right, too warm, he had gained a fever. She mixed him another dose of the herbs this time adding a powerful sleeping agent. She wanted him to rest so his body could use all of its energy to fight the fever. Seth drank the mixture then laid his head in Xena's lap and quickly fell asleep.
It was dark now and thankfully the snow had stopped falling. Gabrielle had gathered enough fuel to keep the fire burning strong throughout the night and the lee of the small cliff they made their little camp in still kept the snow from drifting around them.
Xena shifted the boy's head into Gabrielle's lap, then spread the blankets out between the fire and the cliff wall to reflect the heat back on them. She placed Seth in the middle of the furs and thick wool blankets then dug out the boy's spare clothes, knowing that he would sweat throughout the night as the fever broke, and would need to stay dry. When she had finished laying everything that she would need out by the blankets near the sleeping boy, she finally took a moment and sat by the fire next to Gabrielle.
The Amazon was sitting drinking tea regarding the flames when the Conqueror sat beside her.
"Would you like some?" Gabrielle asked proffering a cup of tea to her mistress.
"Thanks." Xena said simply taking the cup.
Gabrielle studied the worried expression on the Conqueror's face and before she knew what she was doing she reached out and cupped the warrior's check with her open hand.
"He'll be okay. He's strong and young, very young." The blonde said with a smile.
Xena was mildly shocked at the affectionate touch but her body welcomed it and she tilted her head into the hand and allowed herself a moment's indulgence before responding.
Gabrielle slowly removed her hand suddenly realizing what she was doing but pleased that the touch hadn't been unwelcome. She made a mental note of it regarding the Conqueror now.
"That he is." Xena said finally responding to the Amazon's comment.
"Why was he swimming do you think?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
Xena sighed stealing a glance back at the boy before answering. "Because I just taught him how a few weeks ago and I'm sure he was excited to try it again." She replied gloomily.
Gabrielle picked up on the shift in the Conqueror's mood again. "Hey, this isn't your fault."
Xena stared blankly into the fire. "Yes it is. I should have known he would try something like this. He'd never been anywhere but his uncle's farm before I got him. He just doesn't know any better. I should have told him to stay out of the lake before we left then he would be okay. He would never disobey me."
Xena's voice broke a little at the last part of her statement and Gabrielle could see the immense hurt in the woman's face. In that moment she saw something that touched her heart. She saw that the Conqueror, this ruthless destroyer of nations cared for someone else more than anything else. She saw a woman that had this enormous love trapped inside her fighting to get out and that had found a foothold in this boy. She scooted next to the warrior and placed her arm around the woman's shoulders.
"He's going to be okay, you'll see." Gabrielle said reassuringly.
Xena again was surprised at the affectionate touch but glad for it. She leaned into the Amazon a little.
"Thanks, I don't know what I would do without him anymore. Come on you need to sleep and I want be near Seth so I can keep track of his fever." Xena said setting her cup down and standing.
Gabrielle followed suite and they both got into the blankets on either side of the boy. When they were settled in Gabrielle reached for a small cloth and a bowl of cold water the Conqueror had set on the ground near Seth's head.
"What are you doing?" Xena asked while checking the boy's temperature with the back of her hand again.
Gabrielle answered while she wet the cloth in the cold water and wrung it out. "I'm helping you take care of Seth. No way I can sleep either while he's sick. He's kind of grown on me too and besides there is no way I'm going to let you do this alone."
Xena just stared at the blonde woman for a moment at a total loss. "Thanks." She finally said regaining her composure.
The Amazon just gave her a warm smile in return and placed the cool cloth on Seth's forehead.
As the night drew on Seth began to mumble incoherently as the fever reached its peak. The two women took turns keeping the cloth on the sleeping boy's forehead damp and cool, his fever drying it out about every twenty minutes. Then when the moon was well past its zenith his fever finally broke.
The boy's clothes were soaked with sweat. Xena, ever vigilant stripped them off of him and Gabrielle helped her dry and re-clothe the still fast asleep Seth.
An hour or so before sunrise Seth was sleeping comfortably his body temperature and skin tone back to normal, the danger had past.
Gabrielle lay on her side with her head propped on one elbow. She watched as Xena gently stroked the boy's hair, a peaceful serene look on her face. The Conqueror was lying similarly to her with her head propped on one elbow facing her with Seth sleeping between them. The warrior bent over the boy and kissed him on the forehead. The corners of her lips turned up as a smile spread across Seth's sleeping face from the kiss.
Just then the Conqueror looked from the boy to Gabrielle and the Amazon felt herself melting into those deep blue eyes.
"Thank you." Xena said simply.
Gabrielle felt the warmth of her words wash over her and she smiled reflexively. "You're welcome."
The Amazon could tell that the warrior's gratitude was for more than just helping with Seth. It had been a rough night for the Conqueror. Seeing the boy so ill had taken a toll on her. Although she was a gifted healer the Conqueror still wasn't able to relax until after the boy's fever had broke. Before that she had been an emotional wreck. Worry was a new sensation for the ruler of the known world. Gabrielle's casual touches and calm reassurances had made things a whole lot easier.
The two women just basked in the intimate moment for awhile then Xena impulsively leaned over Seth and drew Gabrielle into a deep kiss.
Gabrielle was surprised by the unexpected kiss but quickly got over it as her lips lingered on the Conqueror's. She was falling in love with this woman she knew. Strange as it was if there had been any doubt before it faded away in the shared passion of their kiss and in the way the warrior had taken care of the sick boy. She was so powerful yet so gentle and loving when it came to Seth.
Xena finally broke the kiss and just stared into Gabrielle eyes for a few moments.
"We should try and get a little sleep before he wakes up hungry." Xena said with a smile.
Gabrielle returned the smile. "That's true he didn't eat any dinner last night so I'm sure he'll be ready to eat a big breakfast. The plate included."
The two women laughed then settled back into the thick fur blankets to try and get some sleep.
Gabrielle lie there thinking about Xena and wondering if the warrior was having the same feelings that she was. She thought so but she couldn't be sure. She had never been in love before so she was in new territory. People had always told her that you just know it when you are in love and she was finding that to be true. She found herself yearning for the Conqueror's touch and wanting to be near her, to hear the sound of her voice and to do little things like sharing a cup of tea with her in the evenings. Xena seemed to want these things too and her heart told her that the larger woman felt the same way for her but she just couldn't be sure. She was after all the Conqueror. She could have anyone she wanted, but you couldn't force someone to love you. It just didn't work that way. Did the Conqueror even need love? She sure needed it from the boy and his love sure has changed her. But does she need my love? Gabrielle thought about it for awhile but couldn't seem to come up with a definite answer, just a wish. She closed her eyes and let sleep take her still wishing.
Xena lie similarly thinking with the boy snuggled against her side. He just kind of found his way to her anymore once she laid down. Xena smiled at that. Funny she never would have expected that to happen, not in a thousand years but it did and she was glad. She found that she had become needy for the boy's love. She wasn't sure exactly when it had happened she just knew that it did. She also knew something similar was happening between her and Gabrielle. She just enjoyed being with the blonde woman. She felt comfortable with her and relaxed. Not to mention the way she felt when they made love.
Xena looked down at Seth contentedly snuggled on her breast and then over at Gabrielle sleeping soundly and she wondered if it really were possible for her to have a family. She never really thought about it before but now that it was within her grasp it was what she thought about most. The boy she knew would go wherever she went without question, not just because he was her slave and didn't have a choice but because he loved her. It still felt strange to have someone actually love her like that, so completely and innocently. Gabrielle on the other hand she wasn't sure of. Sure she would have to follow her too but would she want to? Could she love me? Xena thought about it but wasn't sure, couldn't be sure until she took the plunge and asked her but that would take courage. More courage than it took to win a battle with her sword. With Seth it was easy, the boy had just taken to her and his love was unconditional. He loved her whether or not she loved him back. The boy couldn't help it but Gabrielle wasn't going to be that easy. She would have to reach out for the Amazon. As she closed her eyes and fell asleep the Conqueror was hoping that she had that kind of strength.
Seth stirred slowly awake and was surprised to find that he was the first one up. He never got up before Xena and he looked at her puzzled for a moment then lifted his head from her shoulder and sat up. The sun was shinning as he looked around their little camp. He looked over and noticed that Gabrielle was still sleeping too, hmm funny he thought.
Well I'll just get up and make a snowman until they wake up, Seth mused with a grin. He eased his way out of the covers and had crawled to the bottom of the bedroll when Xena's low voice stopped him.
"And where do you think you're going?"
Seth recognized the low, intense tone to be the behave or else' one.
"I was just going to get up and ah " Seth realized that make a snowman was not a good answer after being sick and tried desperately to come up with another but he was just no good at lying.
Xena, her eyes still closed answered for him. "Make a snowman."
How did she always do that? Seth thought busted.
"Well, yeah." The boy said weakly.
"You've got five seconds to get back under these covers." Xena said then started counting her eyes still closed.
Seth started then scrambled to get under the thick furs. He made it by three. He wasn't sure what would have happened if he didn't but he was sure that he didn't want to find out. He lie there in between Xena and Gabrielle and just stared at his mistress. She hadn't moved and her eyes were still closed.
Xena reached over and grabbed the boy rolling him onto his side against her. Seth settled in a little stiffly.
"We're sleeping in." Xena said her voice still low.
Seth thought about a protest for a moment then thought better of it. Best not to push it when Xena took this tone with him.
"Yes Xena." Seth said then stared dejectedly off, his only means of protest.
"Close your eyes and go to sleep boy." Xena ordered eyes still closed.
How does she do that? Seth wondered again in disbelief. She really did know everything. He closed his eyes and with them closed couldn't fight off sleep for very long.
Xena allowed herself a satisfied grin as she felt the boy drift off into sleep, his breathing low and even.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and peaked at Seth sleeping curled up against Xena's side and a small giggle erupted from her.
Xena opened her eyes and smiled at her then lifted one finger to her lips in gesture of silence.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes Xena." She teased mockingly.
Xena's smile grew wider and she barely contained a laugh as the two closed their eyes and went back to sleep.
When Seth woke again he could smell fresh fish cooking on the fire. Xena and Gabrielle were both up sitting on the blankets in front of him drinking tea and watching their breakfasts cooking on the fire. Seth stared at their backs for a moment blinking the drossiness away.
"How do you feel?" Xena asked without turning around.
Gabrielle turned to look at him, an amused look on her face. Curious as to how the Conqueror always knew what the boy was doing.
Seth sat up and crawled in between Xena and Gabrielle then he let his head plop down into Xena's lap before responding.
"Okay." The boy said then yawned.
Xena looked down into her lap and smiled at him then placed her hand on his forehead. Satisfied that his fever had gone she combed his short hair back with her fingers.
Seth closed his eyes and smiled at the contact.
Gabrielle turned the fish cooking on a spit. "Breakfast is almost ready."
"I'm not hungry." Seth said not lifting his head from Xena's lap.
Xena and Gabrielle stared at each other for a moment then in unison they both looked back to Seth.
"You're not hungry?" Xena asked exaggerating the words as she spoke them.
Seth shook his head then closed his eyes rubbing his face on the Conqueror's thigh still drowsy from sleeping for so long.
Xena lifted the boy off her lap concerned. She took hold of his head and examined him, feeling his forehead again then checking his eyes, mouth and then lifting his shirt and checking the color of his skin.
"You said you felt okay. Since when are you not hungry? You haven't eaten since lunch yesterday." Xena said after finishing her exam of the boy, a worried edged to her voice.
Seth looked confused for a moment then just shrugged. "I don't know Xena. I feel okay just not hungry and kinda sleepy now."
Xena scowled, she didn't like that one bit.
"You have to eat something. It's been too long since your last meal and you need your strength to get better." The Conqueror stated firmly.
Seth frowned. "But I'm not hungry, I don't want to eat!" He protested.
Xena's eyes narrowed and she glared at the boy. Seth got the point and lowered his eyes then meekly returned to his position laying his head on her lap.
"You're going to eat and you're staying in bed all day." Xena said firmly then began to unconsciously rake her fingers through the boy's hair again.
Seth didn't say anything he just stared gloomily into the fire.
Gabrielle leaned over then and rubbed Seth back smiling at Xena.
The hard worried look on Xena's face vanished when she caught Gabrielle's smile and the gloomy expression was replaced by a smile of her own.
"It won't be that bad. I read you a scroll." Gabrielle said rubbing small circles on the boy's back.
Seth smiled. "Thanks Gabrielle."
"Sorry you two but I read the last story a few days ago." Xena said.
"That's okay, I think I can come up with something." Gabrielle said then took the fish from the spit and placed equal portions on three plates.
Seth sat up and Gabrielle handed out the plates of fish with some wild rice that she had cooked in a small pot on a rock.
"You're a bard?" Xena asked then took a bite of the dish then smiled. Gabrielle was an excellent cook and the Conqueror enjoyed her meals immensely.
"On occasion." The blonde replied modestly then started eating her breakfast.
Xena smiled to herself having the feeling that the Amazon was probably an exceptional bard. The blonde woman was good at everything she did and the Conqueror was sure that story telling was no exception.
Xena took a sip of her tea then noticed that the boy had yet to take a bit of his breakfast. It unnerved her to see him without his appetite, the boy was usually the first one done and looking for seconds. He was looking down at his plate without interest today though and he looked a little sleepy still.
The Conqueror nudged the boy with her elbow and glared at him. Seth got the point and took a small bite of fish and chewed it slowly.
When Xena and Gabrielle had finished the boy looked over at the Conqueror and gave her a weak, pleading smile. He had eaten half of his fish and a little rice and he hoped that would be enough to satisfy his mistress. The little that he had eaten had taken a great amount of will to get down his protesting body.
Xena looked from the plate to the boy and his puppy eyes then sighed and took his plate from him and handed it to Gabrielle.
Seth lowered himself back into Xena's lap and gratefully kissed her thigh then closed his eyes still smiling.
"Hey you're going to offend the chef if you keep eating like this." Gabrielle teased rising to take the plates to the lake to wash.
Seth opened his eyes and looked at her about to say something then he noticed what she was doing and started getting up.
"Wait let me do that Gabrielle. I'm sorry I almost forgot." Seth said halfway up.
Xena's strong hand on his shoulder stopped him and forced him back down into her lap.
"I've got it, don't worry." Gabrielle said then trudged off through the snow to the lake.
"You're just going to take it easy for the next couple days." Xena stated running her fingers through the boy's hair again. "Gabrielle can make you some soup for lunch. That will be easier for you to digest."
Seth nodded then his eyes started to flutter closed and he began to fall asleep on Xena's leg.
The Conqueror watched as the boy struggled to stay awake. "It's okay, you can fall asleep."
Seth smiled his thanks and kissed her thigh again then closed his eyes and was asleep in minutes.
Xena continued to gently stroke the boy's hair while he slept. She didn't like the boy being sick but she did find herself enjoying mothering him. It was a quality that she never realized that she had but had just come naturally with Seth. She watched his slow even breathing and felt contented. She felt confident that the boy was out of danger. He would just have to ride the rest of the sickness out. She wondered then if this is how the boy's mother had been with him when he was little and had gotten sick. Then she wondered what he did later on after she died, wonder who took care of him when he was sick, no one probably. She thought about the boy shivering with a fever and his uncle probably beating him for being sick. The thought made her sad and she swore to herself then that she would always take care of him.
Gabrielle returned with clean plates. She stuffed them into Xena's saddlebags then plopped down beside the warrior.
"Out again huh?" The Amazon commented eyeing the sleeping boy.
"Yeah, I'm glad, he needs it."
The Conqueror turned to Gabrielle who was sitting on the opposite side of her that Seth was. Their eyes met and held for a moment then they both leaned into one another for a long, slow kiss. It was so natural that neither one of them had thought about it, their bodies just reacted to a need. Their lips lingered then finally separated.
Gabrielle tried to slow her pounding heart. Xena smiled at her and she blushed shyly for the way she was feeling. She realized then how much she had come to need the Conqueror's touch. She burned for it.
"I'm going to go find a good spot for us to spend the winter. I'll probably be gone for most of the day. Make sure Seth stay's in bed and eats some soup for lunch, oh and make sure he drinks a lot of water and give him another dose of the herbs, oh and "
Gabrielle's lips pressed against the Conqueror's cutting her off. Xena's eyes rose in surprise then relaxed as she settled into another passionate kiss. Their lips slid apart slowly.
"I'll take good care of him, don't worry." Gabrielle said smiling at Xena's motherly concern.
Xena returned the smile then she lowered her eyes to the boy sleeping in her lap. "I'm just not used to leaving him with anyone."
Gabrielle realized then what a huge measure of trust Xena was giving her. Seth was the most important thing in the warrior's life and she was entrusting him to her, if even for just a few hours.
"I promise I'll take care of him. Thank you Xena." The bard said seriously.
Xena looked puzzled. "For what?"
Gabrielle stared into deep blue eyes. "For trusting me with him."
Xena just smiled at the smaller woman. She knew that Gabrielle would die before she let anything happen to Seth even before she made her promise. That was just the way the Amazon was. She had this personal code, an integrity that you could sense in her presence.
Xena reached behind her and threw the blankets back then she leaned over and scooped Seth up in her arms and stood. She lowered the sleeping boy into their furs and tugged the blankets back over him then kissed him on the forehead eliciting an unconscious smile from him.
Gabrielle was amazed at the Conqueror's strength. She was a good two inches taller then the boy and lifted him easily, even for a woman of her size.
Gabrielle rose to her feet and stood in front of the Conqueror and looked up at her.
"I'll see you later tonight." Xena said smiling down at the Amazon.
Gabrielle nodded feeling a sudden lump in her throat. She'd only been with the Conqueror for a few days but now the thought of her leaving for even the day made her feel strangely sad and lonely. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed the larger woman goodbye.
"Be careful." Gabrielle said then lowered her eyes feeling silly for being so emotional.
Xena smiled at her then drew the blonde into a hug. "Thank you."
This time Gabrielle looked at her puzzled. "For what?"
With that Xena crossed to Argo and quickly saddled her then rode out of camp with Gabrielle staring after her.
Seth woke to the smell of vegetable soup cooking on the fire. He glanced around the camp and saw Gabrielle sitting on a log near the fire stirring her soup but Xena wasn't anywhere in sight. He sat up groggily and yawned.
Gabrielle looked at him and smiled. "Hey how do you feel, hungry?"
Seth smiled back and shook his head. "Not really, where's Xena?"
"She went to find a good place for us to spend the winter. Said she'd be back later tonight." Gabrielle said dropping her spoon to the side of the pot she was stirring then crossing to the boy and placing her hand on his forehead.
"You're not warm. Still feel a little cruddy though huh?" The Amazon asked.
"Yeah, don't know why I'm so sleepy." Seth said then yawned again.
"Your body wants to sleep so it can concentrate all your energy on getting better. I know you're not hungry sweetie but you have to eat something okay." Gabrielle said in a gentle tone.
"Okay." Seth said sensing that Gabrielle was left in charge of him and that he should obey her the same as Xena.
Gabrielle didn't have to say anything, she didn't have to invoke Xena's name to get Seth to obey her. She had a presence, not unlike Xena's presence although a much gentler one and not as powerful as the Conqueror's but a presence nonetheless, one that commanded your respect.
The Amazon went to her pot and poured some of the fragrant soup into a bowl and handed it to Seth with a piece of bread.
"Thanks." Seth said taking the food and smelling it. "It smells really good."
"I hope you like it." Gabrielle said mixing another dose of medicinal herbs in a mug of water for Seth to drink.
Seth forced himself to eat the soup and bread. After a long while he was finished and started to rise to go clean his bowl when Gabrielle held a hand out to him for the empty container.
"Here I'll take care of that and you drink this." Gabrielle instructed taking the bowl and handing the cup of herbs to the boy.
"You sure? I can do it, it's no big deal really." Seth asked taking the cup.
"Thanks but I've got it. Your not leaving those furs today got it." Gabrielle said locking her green eyes with his blue.
Seth felt slightly uncomfortable and he wanted to look away from her so he nodded his understanding and stared at his lap. Gabrielle was letting him know that she wasn't going to be a push over since Xena was gone. Seth sighed heavily disappointed. He had hoped that Gabrielle wouldn't be that interested in what he did so he wouldn't be stuck in bed all day but no such luck.
Gabrielle smiled at him, easing up slightly now that she had made the point that she was in charge. "Don't look so glum. When I finish with this I'll tell you a story okay?"
"Okay." Seth said cheering up.
Gabrielle soon returned with the clean dishes. She sat on the log facing Seth and began her story. "This is the story of a farm boy named Seth who saved his village from the wrath of the God of War Ares."
Seth immediately perked up hearing his name in the story. He sat up in the blankets and listened intently to the Amazon.
Gabrielle smiled at Seth reaction then continued. She told a story of how Ares had come to Seth's village one day and demanded that one of the villagers go on a quest to slay a great lion-headed beast that was terrorizing his temple in the nearby forest. He said that if one of them were brave enough to complete the task then he would keep the village safe from warlords for all time. Seth heroically volunteered, she had said, and then went on to describe in graphic detail how Seth overcame the wicked beast and became the hero of his village.
Seth sat riveted while Gabrielle told the story. Then he begged her to tell it again when she finished. After her second recital of the tale he stared off dreamily into the forest for a few minutes day dreaming then snapped himself back to the present and thanked Gabrielle repeatedly for telling him the story.
"You're welcome." Gabrielle said grinning broadly at Seth's delight.
"I think that's my new favorite story." Seth replied positively. "It used to be the story of Hercules and the Hydra but now Seth and the Lion-headed monster is definitely my favorite."
Gabrielle chuckled and stared at Seth amused.
After a moment Seth looked at her seriously. "Gabrielle do you miss your village?"
Gabrielle was silent for a moment her features turning suddenly serious. "Yes I do but I think that I'm where I can do the most good right now. I think it's my fate to be with Xena."
Seth cocked his head to the side for a moment in deep thought. "It's my fate to please Xena or perish. Xena told me. I think I'm doing pretty good with it so far since I haven't perished yet, although yesterday I came close making Xena so mad."
Gabrielle laughed at that.
"You just scared her is all. I don't think you have to worry about perishing. Xena loves you very much." Gabrielle said her mood turning suddenly somber. She lowered her eyes then and stared at the ground lost in thought.
"She loves you too." He said after a moment watching the Amazon.
Gabrielle's head came up and she smiled at the boy. "She does huh?"
Seth nodded his head seriously. "Oh yeah. Xena looks at you a certain way when she really likes you. I've seen her give you that look a few times."
Gabrielle practically glowed as she absorbed the boy's words.
"Thanks Seth." She said beaming at him.
Seth looked confused for a moment wondering what Gabrielle was thanking him for then he faked understanding and smiled back at her.
"Tell me that story again and we'll call it even." Seth said with a hopeful expression.
Gabrielle laughed seeing through the boy's obvious ruse then smiled gathering herself. "Okay just one more time though."
Seth grinned his triumph then listened intently to the story for the third time.
Xena rode silently north heading further into the mountain. She felt strange riding alone in the silence. She was so accustomed to Seth's boundless energy and his constant questions that their absence made her feel incredibly empty inside. She didn't like leaving him when he was sick but she knew that she had to find proper shelter for them to spend the winter and a storm was brewing. She could feel it. It was in the stillness that lie like a blanket over the forest. She could smell the impending snow flurries in the air and she knew that it was going to be a big storm, at the moment though the air was cold and still with no snow falling from the clear sky as she rode up the gentle slope of the mountain.
Gabrielle came to mind then as she did so often lately. A smile spread on her lips as she thought of the little blonde. Something was happening between them she knew, something powerful.
The Conqueror had only been riding for a couple hours and already she missed the Amazon. She missed her intelligent conversation, her quick wit and her engaging smile. She missed the quirky way that blondes nose crinkled up when she laughed and the way her skin flushed when she touched it.
Family. Was that what she was missing right now? Her family, the thought made her smile broaden. She never thought it was possible for her to have people in her life that she truly cared for. She had always thought that they made you weak but now she realized that they made you fierce. When you have people that you love more than your own life then you become a demon when someone threatens that. They give you purpose, exactly what she was missing these last few months in Athens.
Xena reined Argo to a halt struck by her sudden realization. After a moment of thought she nudged the mare on.
Seth she knew now was a gift from the Gods. There was no other explanation for the boy. She had stolen him from his home, enslaved him, beaten him, branded him and still the boy loved her unconditionally without her having made the slightest effort on her part. He was special too. She had soldiers in her army his age but unlike them for Seth childhood had come and stayed. For whatever reason the boy never lost his childlike wonder. Maybe it was due to his parents dying while he was so young and his isolation on his uncle's farm. Xena didn't know and she really didn't care, she only cared that he was hers now. Her family.
She wondered then if Gabrielle felt this way for her? What would the Amazon think of being part of her new family? Would she laugh at that? Xena's heart suddenly sank and she realized that if she ever wanted to know the truth about how Gabrielle felt about her she would have to set the blonde free.
Xena shook off the thought not wanting to think about that right now and concentrated on finding shelter for them.
She found a stream and followed it for a few minutes. The forest before her leveled out as the stream threaded it's way through the snow-clad trees. Then she saw the cave. It was in the side of a ten-foot bank of rock in the lee of the mountain slope.
Xena rode Argo to the cave entrance and dismounted. She peered inside the six-foot opening and noticed light inside the cave. As she ducked her head slightly and entered she saw that the cave widened on the inside and its ceiling rose to slightly over seven feet. The light she saw was coming from a foot wide crack in the rock ceiling. She noticed a small pile of snow underneath the opening as surveyed the rest of the cave. It was about twenty feet deep and half that wide, cluttered with various forest debris. It was perfect she thought. The crack in the ceiling would allow the smoke from a fire to escape and it was easily large enough for the three of them although she would have to construct a shelter for Argo.
The Conqueror went back outside into the forest and broke a fluffy branch off a nearby tree then went back inside the cave and used the branch to sweep it out. With that done she placed a ring of rocks under the crack in the ceiling for a fire pit then went out into the forest and gathered an arm full of wood. In minutes she had a good-sized blaze going in her fire pit. She went back out and gathered enough wood for a few days and stacked it neatly inside the cave then built a crude door for the entrance by lashing thick branches together with strips of leather she cut from a hide.
Xena allowed herself a satisfied grin. "Now for Argo." She said to herself and after another hour had built a large a-frame shelter for Argo in the cover of the nearby trees. It was big enough for the animal and her to stand in together comfortably and long enough too so that Argo could settle back inside and keep out of the snow that would drift in from the entrance.
Xena stared at the sky when she was finished then mounted. Just enough time to ride back and bring Seth and Gabrielle to their new home before dark, she thought.
The Conqueror nudged Argo's sides and started the big mare back towards the little camp by the lake and her family.
"My family." Xena said aloud to Argo and smiled. "Who would have ever thought, huh girl?"
Gabrielle sat on the thick furs with Seth's head pillowed in her lap. She had unconsciously taken up Xena's habit of running her fingers through the boy's short brown hair, which was amazingly soft. Seth had fallen asleep again, his body still recovering from his fever of the night before.
It was late afternoon and Gabrielle longed for the Conqueror to return. A storm was brewing; a big one by the look of it and the Amazon was worried about the warrior.
Gabrielle laughed at herself. "Get a grip Gabrielle. She's the ruler of the known world, I'm sure she can handle a snow storm." She said to herself.
Still a few moments later the blondes face was drawn and she was worried again. She couldn't help it. She stared down into her lap and watched Seth sleep while she idly raked her fingers though his thick hair.
"Calming isn't it?" The Conqueror's voice sounded from the edge of their camp.
Gabrielle's head shot up and a bright smile spread across her face upon seeing Xena standing next to Argo at the edge of their little camp. For a moment she was too stunned by the Conqueror's sudden appearance to say anything then she finally got out a response.
"Yes it is. I missed you and I was starting to get worried." Gabrielle said genuinely.
Gods it was nice to be missed and worried about. This was a new sensation for the Conqueror and she was enjoying every moment of it. With Seth she did most of the missing and worrying.
Xena walked over to the bedroll and knelt down beside Gabrielle and took her chin in her hand then gently tilted it up and kissed her tenderly.
"I missed you too. And thanks for being worried but you didn't have to." Xena said after breaking their kiss.
"Yes I did." Gabrielle replied her sea green eyes locked on Xena's.
Xena just smiled in response.
"Come on we need to get packed up and going. It's a couple hours to our new home and we need to hurry to make it before dark." Xena said rising to her full height.
"No argument here there's a storm coming, a big one." Gabrielle said laying Seth's head gently on the blankets.
Xena smiled at her approvingly.
Gabrielle caught the look.
"What? Didn't think I'd know that? I am an Amazon you know." Gabrielle teased.
"I know." Xena responded wryly.
Gabrielle hurriedly packed their supplies in two large canvas bags and slung them over Argo along with the mare's saddlebags.
Xena knelt down beside Seth and gently shook him awake. The boy's eyes fluttered open and his face broke into a broad smile when he saw Xena kneeling above him.
"Hi." Seth said sleepily. "I missed you today."
Yeah it was really nice to be missed.
"You did huh? Did you behave yourself for Gabrielle?" Xena asked as Seth sat up and hugged her.
"Uh huh." Seth said into Xena's chest.
"Was that a yes?" Xena queried smiling.
Gabrielle answered for him. "He was on his best behavior. I even got him to eat some soup and a slice of bread. Although it cost me three stories, the same one three times."
Xena laughed. "Well at least you got something in return for yours." Then she turned to Seth who had released her from his hug. "Get your boots on, we've got to get going."
Seth stretched then pulled his boots on and helped Xena throw their bedding over Argo. Xena took one of the thick wool blankets and draped it over the boy's shoulders.
"How come I have to wear this? Neither one of you two are wearing a blanket." Seth protested.
"Because I say you have to and because we haven't been sick, now up on Argo." Xena ordered maneuvering the boy to Argo's flank.
Seth caught the tone in Xena's voice and knew she wasn't in the mood for arguments.
"By myself?" Seth asked with a worried expression, he wasn't very good with horses other than brushing and feeding them.
Xena smiled at the concerned look. "You'll be fine, Argo likes you, and she'll take it nice and easy."
With that Xena steadied the boy as he mounted Argo and held the saddle horn tightly. Xena took Argo's reins to lead her then turned to Gabrielle.
"Ready?" The Conqueror asked.
"Absolutely." Gabrielle said cheerfully.
"Are you warm enough?" Xena asked noting Gabrielle's brief clothing. "Do you want a blanket?"
"No thanks, I'll be fine once we get moving." The blonde replied rubbing her hands together.
Xena nodded then turned back to the forest and led them out onto the trail towards the cave. A light snow started to fall and Xena was thinking that the first order of business once they got settled in the cave would be to kill some more game so Gabrielle could make winter clothing out of the hides.
By the time they reached the cave the snow was falling heavily and the last of the light was fading from the winter sky. A dim glow could be seen escaping the cave through the cracks in the crude door as they approached. The three quickly unloaded Argo then Gabrielle and Seth went about feeding the dying fire and setting up camp while Xena took Argo to the large A-frame.
Moments later Xena slugged her way through the now knee deep snow to the cave. The fire was going strong again and its heat felt good on her chilled skin. Gabrielle had soup heating in a pot over the fire while Seth sat next to her with his head dipping forward and jerking back up as he fought to stay awake.
Xena crossed to the boy and place her hand on his forehead, he wasn't warm but she could tell that the boy was still fighting being sick and the trip had taken a lot of his strength.
Seth smiled at her and blinked heavily lidded eyes as Xena sat next to him on a thick fur laid on the cave floor.
"I know you're sleepy honey but you have to eat something then you can go to bed okay." Xena said wrapping an arm around the boy's shoulders.
"Okay." Seth said leaning against her and dropping his head to her shoulder. Try as he may to stay awake in a few moments he was fast asleep.
Xena grinned at him and decided to let him sleep like that until dinner was ready then she caught Gabrielle staring at her.
"That's one lucky kid." Gabrielle said smiling at the Conqueror.
It's me who's lucky, Xena thought but she only smiled in answer to Gabrielle comment.
Soon the soup was ready and Xena was nudging Seth awake. They all ate then Xena mixed another cup of herbs for Seth before sending the grateful boy to bed. Seth was asleep before Xena's lips left his forehead. The Conqueror sat back against the sloping cave wall drinking tea with Gabrielle and watching the fire as the storm began to rage outside.
"It's really coming down out there." Gabrielle said from Xena's side.
There was a silence and Gabrielle turned to stare at Xena who seemed not to have heard her.
Xena caught the Amazon staring at her and broke from her trance. "I'm sorry what did you say?"
"I just said that it's really starting to come down out there." Gabrielle repeated.
"Yeah it is." Xena said with a faraway look on her face.
"What were you thinking about just now Xena?" Gabrielle asked feeling the intensity of the Conqueror's thoughts.
Xena took a deep breath and summoned up all her courage. "I'm freeing you Gabrielle, you're no longer my slave."
Gabrielle stared at her shocked. Only when she noticed that she was spilling her tea did she regain her composure.
"My tribe?" The blonde asked in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.
If I truly want to know then I have to free them too, Xena thought after hearing the smaller woman's request.
"Them too." Xena said with a pained look in her eyes.
Gabrielle could hardly believe her ears. She was free again and so were her Amazons. Everything could be like it was again. She could round them all up and they could make a new village deeper into the forest that was even more secluded and then what? She looked at Seth sleeping with the faintest hint of a smile lingering on his lips then to Xena's tortured blue eyes. This was her family now and the thought of leaving them broke her heart all over again. She buried her head in her hands and began to cry.
Xena stared at the crying Amazon at a loss. This was the last response she had suspected. She leaned forward and rubbed the blondes back and tried to comfort her.
"Shhh, don't cry. What's wrong, I thought you'd be happy?" Xena asked softly.
Gabrielle shook her head and after a moment lifted her tear streaked face and stared into Xena's soft blue eyes.
"So did I but I don't want to leave, you and Seth are my family now. I love you Xena and I thought " Gabrielle trailed off into tears again.
Xena pulled the smaller woman into a hug and kissed the top of her head. Then after letting her cry for a few moments more she gently questioned her. "Thought what sweetheart?"
"I I thought that it was my fate to be with you. That maybe I could influence you to make things better for people, to help them. Pretty silly huh?" Gabrielle said clinging to Xena's side with her head on the warrior's chest not having the courage to look the taller woman in the eyes.
Xena smiled and the vise that had been squeezing her heart released its hold. Relief flooded through her and she squeezed Gabrielle kissing the top of her head again.
"No, its not. I'll tell you something silly. I left my palace in Athens because I thought I lost something. I had conquered the world and with that done my life didn't have any meaning anymore. The spark that had driven me for so many years was gone and I set out to get it back. Then I found Seth and you and you two became my family, my new reason for being. The spark I was looking for turned out to be a blazing bon fire."
Gabrielle lifted her head from Xena's chest and stared into her eyes. "That's beautiful Xena, it's not silly. I love you."
Xena smiled in return and felt the tears in her own eyes finally fall, something she hadn't allowed herself to do in a very, very long time.
"I I love you too Gabrielle." Xena said, the words catching in her throat.
They sat huddled in each others arms for a long while after that just listening to the sound of the storm outside and enjoying the closeness they felt.
"What now?" Gabrielle asked finally breaking the silence.
Xena thought about it for a moment. "Well first thing is to get Seth better. Then we'll head for home."
"You're my home Xena." Gabrielle said luxuriating in the warrior's warm embrace.
Xena smiled. "I felt more at home here in the forest with you and Seth then I ever did in my palace but I have a feeling that will change once you two are there with me in Athens."
A huge smile crossed Gabrielle's lips. "Can you image what Seth's going to do once you tell him were going to the palace in Athens? He's going to be bouncing off the trees with excitement."
The two laughed and looked automatically at the sleeping boy. They both felt the heavy weight of uncertainty lifted from them and it gave them renewed energy.
Gabrielle turned in Xena's arms and the two stared into each other's eyes, not as slave and master anymore but as equals. It was exciting new territory for them both.
Xena drew the blonde into a deep, lingering kiss and rolled her onto her back down on the thick fur they had been sitting on. The two made love by the fire and it felt as if they had never touched before.
Some time later the two women lay naked in each other's arms by the fire. Holding one another they lie silently listening to the sounds of the storm outside while their hands continued to roam each other's bodies with soft, gentle caresses.
Gabrielle felt the slightest tension in her lover and tilted her head up to examine the warrior's face, which displayed a sad expression.
"What is it?" The Amazon asked, concern evident in her voice. The smaller woman was still feeling quiet vulnerable in their new love.
Xena gazed into her lover's face and gave her a reassuring smile. "I was just thinking that I've been happier with you and Seth than I've ever been in my entire life."
Gabrielle smiled at her then looked confused. "Me too, so why the sad face?"
Xena's face looked slightly distant again.
"Because it's going to be gone so fast. Seth is already eighteen summers old. It won't be long before he grows up, as hard as that is to imagine now." Xena said and a smile crossed her lips thinking of the playful boy.
Gabrielle scooted up and kissed her taller lover. "We just have to enjoy the time we have as a family."
Xena smiled at her. "You're right I know. Come on we better get in the bedroll before he wakes up and wonders where we are."
The two women slipped back into their clothes then settled into the blankets on either side of Seth. The boy sensing Xena's presence curled up on her side and sighed contentedly in his sleep.
In moments Gabrielle was asleep, lost in blissful dreams now that all her worries had been vanquished.
Xena smiled at the serene look on her lover's face then stole a glance at Seth and wondered again how long she would have her new family. She knew that Seth had to be a gift from the Gods. He had changed everything for her, taught her how to love again, he was the reason she had Gabrielle in her life now. It was too much to just be chance.
"Whoever's listening, thank you. Thank you so much for this gift of love. I know that I don't have any right but now I must ask one more gift of you. Please allow me to keep this family. I'm afraid that now that I have this great gift that it will be taken away, that Seth will grow up and I'm just not ready for that yet. So please, please let me keep him just a little while longer." Xena made the prayer in barely a whisper and although she didn't put much faith in the Gods it made her feel better. She listened to the storm rage for a little while longer then let sleep take her.
Part Three: Redemption
One hour past midnight when the storm was howling outside the cave Seth awoke suddenly from a dead sleep and sat up abruptly in the furs. He glanced to his right and left and noted that Xena and Gabrielle were still sleeping sounding, even serenely.
The fire was low and cast eerie shadows on the cave wall. Seth felt something, not exactly fear but something. It was that strange feeling of knowing that he got sometimes, knowing that something was about to happen. Then all of a sudden the not knowing what it was made him scared. He was just about to wake Xena and wondering why she wasn't already awake, which she usually was whenever she felt him get up when suddenly there was a brilliant flash of white light inside the cave! The light burst out just across from their blankets, an explosion of sharp light!
Then in an instant it was gone and in its place was a nude man. He was long and muscular with deeply tanned skin and thick, unruly hair. His sliver blue eyes twinkled and he flashed a mischievous smile with dazzling white teeth.
Strangely Seth was not afraid of him, he could sense that the man would do them no harm and he found himself smiling back at the wildly grinning stranger.
The man crossed to their bedroll and knelt down at the foot of their furs then he lifted his right hand to his lips and blew into his fist and a parchment that wasn't there an instant ago appeared in his hand.
Seth's blue eyes widened and he grinned with delight at the magic causing the strange man to laugh and his laughter was like beautiful music. Seth looked to Xena then wondering why she was still asleep.
"She sleeps this night Seth. Her and Gabrielle too, for this night is not for them but for you, for you are for them and them for you." The stranger said in his melodious voice.
A look of confusion crossed Seth's face and the man smiled and laughed his wonderful laugh again. Then he handed Seth the parchment.
"For Xena." He said then waved his hand from Seth's head to his feet and when he did so the boy began to glow in the dazzling white light then with another wave of the man's hand the light vanished.
Seth looked at him puzzled again but the man only smiled and rose to his feet in a smooth athletic motion and took one step back.
The man smiled and winked a silver blue eye at the boy then in another brilliant flash of light he was gone and Seth was back tucked under the furs curled against Xena's side once again in a deep sleep.
Xena woke slowly in the dawn with the feeling that something was out of place. She opened her eyes and stared at the light filtering in from cave door and decided it must be the absence of noise that felt different. The storm that had raged most of the night was over and in its place was a peaceful calm.
Xena closed her eyes again and decided to let them all sleep in this morning. She ran her fingers over the arm that clung to her waist then let her hand rest on the small hand clinging to her side.
An instant later Xena's eyes shot open the hand was too small! The warrior threw back the furs and stared at the small hand of a child! She sat up slipping the sleeping boy's head from her breast and stared down at him still sleeping. He was still Seth only about half the size he was when she had sent him to bed the night before. She was still staring wide eyed in shock when Gabrielle came awake from the cold air on her exposed body now that Xena had thrown back the covers.
The Amazon sleepily sat up on her elbows and stared at her lover sitting up in the blankets.
"What is it? What's the oh my Gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed when her eyes followed Xena's to Seth. The blonde bolted up and stared at the boy.
"Seth?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.
Xena merely nodded her head still too stunned for words. The two women stared at each other then at the sleeping child until finally Xena had regained herself enough to speak. She leaned down and gently shook the boy awake.
Seth's eyes fluttered opened and he shivered from the cold with no blankets covering him, then his eyes caught Xena's and he smiled at her.
Xena smiled back, yeah definitely still Seth. He was giving her the look.
Seth sat up, his clothes hanging loosely about his body, far too big for him now. He leaned against Xena and rested his head against her breasts, as this was as far as his head would reach now. He yawned then started to fall asleep again.
Xena gently took the boy by the shoulders and held him away from her body so she could look into his face. "Seth honey, what happened to you?" She asked in a soft tone.
Seth looked at her puzzled. "What do you mean Xena?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle who shrugged then back to Seth. "Well honey you're a little younger than you were when you went to sleep. In fact you're a whole lot younger."
"Oh that." Seth said nonchalantly, then reached in his pocket and retrieved a rolled piece of parchment and handed it to Xena and resumed his spot against her warm body.
Xena took the parchment from the boy, unrolled it and read.
Your wish is granted. Here is your boy the same as before, just a little newer.
Enjoy: Apollo/ God of light, HEALING, music, poetry, and prophecy.
Xena stared at the note still in shock after rereading it three times.
"What does it say?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena handed the note to Gabrielle and the smaller woman read it then stared numbly back at Xena then the note was gone. It vanished in her hands.
The two women watched it dissolve into thin air and sat speechless until Gabrielle finally broke the silence.
"What did you wish for?" She asked quietly, trying to absorb everything that had happened.
"I wished that I could keep Seth for a while longer, that he wouldn't grow up so soon." Xena said reverently. Then she looked down at Seth who was almost asleep again. "Seth honey, do you know how old you are?"
Seth leaned back and looked at her as if it were the silliest question in the world. "Uh huh, don't you remember when we had my special birthday meal at the inn Xena? I'm just turned six."
Seth looked at her bemused then he resumed his spot against her side again.
Xena stared at him for a moment then at Gabrielle who shrugged and smiled at her. Her eyes welled with tears and she drew the boy back from her body and kissed him on the forehead then she enveloped the boy in tight hug as the tears spilled onto her checks.
Seth's world went dark and he couldn't breath as his face was buried in Xena's cleavage by the sudden hug. He pushed on her franticly and made muffled noises for a moment until the warrior realized what she was doing and released him.
She smiled at him with her tear-streaked face. "Sorry."
"That's okay." Seth said good-naturedly.
Xena lifted him slightly, bringing his head to her shoulder and hugged him again then reaching out with one hand she drew Gabrielle into the hug as well. The blonde woman had tears in her eyes as well watching her lover's reaction to her wish being granted.
When the tearful embrace was finally over Gabrielle tugged at the boy's clothing, which were hanging loosely about him.
"Better give me these and I'll see what I can do to make them fit again." The Amazon smiled at the boy wiping away her tears with the back of her hand. "You'll be easier to feed now anyway." She teased poking the boy in the ribs eliciting a giggle from him.
"I'm starving." Seth said with enthusiasm.
Xena laughed. "Still my boy." She said smiling and hugging him again, careful not to drown the boy in her breasts.
Xena finally released the boy then seated herself by the fire and sat Seth in her lap where he conveniently fit now. The boy leaned against her and dosed while Gabrielle made breakfast.
The Conqueror sat quietly nuzzling the boy with a serene, contented look on her face while Gabrielle heated oatmeal in a pot over the fire.
The Amazon stared at her lover, smiled and chuckled to herself while she cooked. Xena caught the look and the light laugh.
"What?" The warrior asked self-consciously.
Gabrielle smiled at her again. "Nothing, it's just nice to see you this happy."
Xena's look grew more intense. "I'm a woman in love who just had her last unanswered wish granted."
Gabrielle blushed and moved beside the taller woman. "And what were the other wishes?"
Xena turned her head to the Amazon and leaned close to her until their lips were almost touching. "There was only one and you granted it last night."
Gabrielle smiled shyly and her blush deepened.
Xena's own smile widened then she teased the blonde's lips with her tongue before drawing her into a passionate kiss.
The sound of Gabrielle's pot bubbling drew them apart. Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned her forehead on the larger woman's for a moment regaining her composure.
"I better take care of that." The Amazon said in a husky voice then moved to the fire and took the oatmeal off the flames. She added maple and nutmeg to it then scooped out the fragrant meal into three bowls.
Xena woke Seth and the three ate in a very happy silence. After breakfast was done and the dishes cleaned and stowed away Xena had Seth stand in front of her.
"Reach boy." She instructed.
Seth lifted his hands over his head his long sleeves flopping. Xena reached down and pulled the boy's way too big shirt off. She tossed the shirt to Gabrielle and smiled at the boy. His head was level with her stomach now she observed then she noticed his shoulder and she knelt down at his side and took the boy's right arm in her hand.
"What is it Xena?" Seth asked curiously.
Xena didn't answer for a moment. She was gazing at the smooth skin of the boy shoulder. Her mark was gone. She sighed a happy sigh then caught the boy's concerned look and smiled reassuringly at him.
"Nothing, it's okay. In fact it's better than okay. It's great." The Conqueror looked over at Gabrielle who had been watching and saw the smooth unmarked skin on the boy's shoulder. The Amazon smiled and gave her lover a knowing look. Then she broke the momentary silence, which had ensued.
"Pants too and your boots."
Seth sat down on the furs and Xena pulled his pants off. She tossed them to Gabrielle along with the boy's boots that were laid by the foot of the blankets.
Seth scrambled under the furs, cold now that he was mostly naked. Then Gabrielle shot him a look.
"Going to need the underwear too." The blonde said firmly.
Seth gave her a pained look then slid his underwear off and tossed them to her. Xena had looked on amused. She was glad to see that the boy obeyed Gabrielle without looking to her to intervene. She sat there and just stared at the boy for awhile, amazed by his transformation. Then after a few moments she rose to her feet, crossed to her armor and weapons and put them on.
"I'm going hunting, we're going to need more hides for winter clothes." Xena looked at Gabrielle and winked. "Especially if we're going to be traveling to Athens in this weather."
Seth's head shot up and he stared wide-eyed at Xena. "We're going to Athens?" The boy questioned excitedly.
Xena gave him a sly grin. "Didn't I mention that?"
Seth wrapped the blanket around his small body and stood at Xena's feet. He looked up at her and smiled broadly.
"No you didn't mention that Xena." Seth said exasperatedly.
Xena continued to tease him. "Oh, could have sworn I did."
She stared down at him then. The boy was tugging franticly on the skirts of her battle dress for her to continue an impatient look on his face. Xena burst out laughing then and knelt down beside the boy absorbing him in another large hug.
Seth wasn't sure why she was laughing or hugging him again but he'd take all the hugs she was giving. He smiled at her again as she broke the embrace and kissed him on the cheek.
"We're going home to my palace in Athens." Xena said seriously still kneeling and looking at the boy from his height.
Seth's face lit up again. "Really, do you think they have caramel apples in Athens?"
Xena rolled her eyes then she and Gabrielle both started laughing again. When they had regained their composure Xena answered the boy. "Yes as a matter of fact they do have caramel apples in Athens."
"Do you think we could get one?" Seth asked hopefully.
Xena rose to her full height and gave him a mock serious look. "I guess if you're a good boy."
Seth beamed up at her. "I'll be good." He said hopefully.
Xena ruffled his hair with one hand smiling at him. "Okay, if you're good then. I'll be back in a little while."
Gabrielle looked up from what she was doing with the boy's clothes. She had dug a needle and thread out of Xena's saddlebags along with a pair of scissors and was in the process of sizing down the boy's clothes.
"Be careful." The Amazon said her green eyes locking on blue.
"I will." Xena said looking back at the blonde then down at Seth then turning she left the cave.
Gabrielle resumed her task.
Seth just stood in the entrance to the cave wrapped in his blanket. After the makeshift door to the cave had shut he stood for a long while and stared after Xena. For him the sun rose and set at Xena's will, the wind blew on her breath, the moon and the stars shone in her eyes and all of the Gods were at her beck and call. He was sure of it; sure that she commanded all of the heavens and earth. The strange man with the shinning eyes had changed him at Xena's wish he was certain.
He didn't mind his new body, it just felt right to him. No longer was he a boy trapped in a man's body. Now he was all boy again.
He stared after Xena reverently. She had become more to him now then he knew how to explain, she was the center of his universe.
Gabrielle's voice broke him from his trace. The boy turned and faced her.
"She'll be back soon, don't worry." Gabrielle said grinning at the boy's devotion. "Come on over here, you can help me."
Seth trudged over to her with his blanket dragging on the cave floor. He sat down at the Amazon's side then looked up at her and smiled mischievously.
"What?" Gabrielle asked in a strained tone.
Seth lowered his eyes then looked back up at her hopefully. "Do you think that maybe you could tell the story while we work?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes then smiled. "I guess."
Gabrielle held Seth's shirt to him for sizing then had the boy hold the garment while she began cutting it with the scissors and at the same time reciting the tale.
Xena returned at mid-day to find Gabrielle and Seth building a snowman in front of the cave. Seth was wearing his clothes that fit him once again. They just finished pushing sticks into the snowman's sides for arms when Xena rode up dragging two large stags.
"Nice snowman." Xena's voice called out to the two getting their attention.
They turned sharply and wide grins broke out on both their faces when they saw the warrior. Gods it was nice to be missed, Xena thought swinging down from Argo and walking to her family.
"Xena!" Seth called her name and ran to her absorbing her legs in a hug as if he hadn't seen her in a month.
"Hey." The Conqueror said casually although she was grinning from ear to ear. She bent over and picked the boy up then strode to their snowman.
"In town long soldier?" Gabrielle teased in a husky voice.
Xena laughed then drew the blonde into a group hug, holding Seth easily on her left hip and encircling Gabrielle with her right arm.
"Maybe, if I can find the right company." Xena teased back looking seductively at the woman in her arms.
"Really, what were you looking for?" Gabrielle asked, smiling knowingly.
Xena took on a thoughtful expression. "Oh I don't know, blonde, about five four, nice "
Gabrielle placed a hand over her lover's mouth cutting her off.
"Okay, okay I get it." The Amazon said laughing through a smile and nodding her head toward Seth.
Xena's face blanched and she bit her lower lip. "Oh yeah, sorry honey." Xena said to Seth then kissed him on the cheek.
Seth seemed utterly unconcerned and squirmed to be put down so he could give his snowman a face. Xena obligingly placed the boy down and he scurried off to find stones for snowman eyes. When he was out of earshot Xena took Gabrielle in her arms and smiled down at the smaller woman.
"Thanks, I'll have to remember that he's only six now."
"Anytime." Gabrielle said looking lovingly into the warrior's eyes. Being in love was a new sensation for her and she was enjoying every little nuance.
The two women kissed gently, a kiss that was both passionate and intimately loving. After a moment's silent embrace Xena spoke.
"Come on, you can help me with these." The warrior said nodding her head in the direction of the two stags.
They quickly dressed the two deer. Their hides removed and thick steaks cut for lunch. The rest of the meat they packed in large banks of snow.
Seth had completed his snowman and was tossing snowballs at the inert figure when Xena called him in for lunch. Gabrielle had decided to make a stew out of the venison and their few remaining vegetables and potatoes. She handed out bowls of the hearty dish and was rewarded with enthusiastic grunts as the two devoured the meal.
Afterwards Seth climbed into Xena's lap and promptly fell asleep. Xena frowned and placed a concerned hand on the boy's forehead. Not detecting a fever she removed her hand and gave Gabrielle a worried look.
"He's asleep again." The warrior said stating the obvious with some trepidation.
Gabrielle let out a short laugh and smiled at her lover. "Yeah little ones will do that."
"But he's not sick anymore." Xena argued.
Gabrielle laughed again. "Haven't you ever been around children Xena?"
The Conqueror shook her head wrapping her arms a little tighter around Seth's small body.
Gabrielle's face took on a comforting look. "Well don't worry they just need a nap around midday."
"Everyday?" Xena asked surprised.
Gabrielle laughed again. "Yes everyday. Growing up takes a lot of energy."
"Oh." Xena said contemplatively then gave her lover a sensuous look. "That might be very convenient."
The Amazon felt her insides stir at the look the Conqueror was giving her. She let her eyes fall into Xena's then said. "Yes it could be."
Seth stirred in Xena's lap, snuggling his head into her chest and sighing contentedly affectively breaking the mood temporarily. The two women laughed lightheartedly at their overactive libidos then Xena stood and placed Seth in their bedroll, draping the thick furs over the boy's shoulders.
Standing then the warrior crossed to the fire where Gabrielle was sitting on a fur. She knelt down beside the smaller woman then guided her down onto her back. Straddling her for a moment she sat up on her thighs and removed her armor and weapons, tossing them in a pile. The larger woman stole a quick glance at Seth then. Satisfied that the boy was still sound asleep she lowered herself onto the blonde. Gabrielle moaned softly into Xena neck and the dark tresses of her hair as the Conqueror quietly made love to her.
The following week passed quickly. Xena and Seth played constantly while Gabrielle was busy making them all winter clothing for the trip back to Athens. During the day Xena would chase Seth through the snow and into the forest where the two would play hide and seek or have snowball fights. At night after the boy was fast asleep the tall warrior would play with Gabrielle by the fire. The weather had been fair all week without so much as another inch of snow falling. Just an occasional flurry to mar otherwise perfectly blue skies. Finally a week later the day came when they were ready to start their journey home. Gabrielle had made a thick black fur cloak for Xena out of one of their fur blankets and a long coat for herself of brown suede. For Seth she made a pair of suede pants to wear over his wool pair and a thick suede jacket to wear over his shirt.
Xena was seated on Argo with Seth nestled against her with her cloak draped over them both. Gabrielle, refusing Xena's offer to ride Argo with Seth was at their side. Xena stared regretfully at the little cave for a long moment. She was sorry to be leaving it. The past week had been the best of her life. They had been a family here. Here they were the only people in the entire world and that was enough.
Xena sighed and Gabrielle placed a hand on her thigh.
"Hey, you okay?" The blonde asked looking up at her concerned.
Xena looked down at her pensively. "Yeah, I just hate to leave this place. We were so happy here."
"It's not the place Xena, it's the company."
Xena's face changed as she experienced a satori triggered by the Amazon's words and suddenly she knew that they would be just as happy in Athens or anywhere else they went, just as long as they were together as a family. The little cave would always have a special place in her heart but it was okay to leave now.
The Conqueror smiled at her lover then. "Thanks."
Gabrielle beamed at her. "Anytime."
Xena turned Argo then with one hand holding the reins and the other wrapped around the sleeping boy snuggled against her chest. With Gabrielle at their side Xena guided Argo down the gentle slope of the mountain towards home. Just over a month later the three of them rode into Athens and three caramel apples after that they rode up to the palace.
Seth was walking beside Gabrielle having taken to the ground with her in order to eat his caramel apple. With those finished the two walked silently behind the Conqueror riding Argo up to the palace gates.
As she approached the four guards stationed at the entrance bowed their heads and crossed their right arms and fists over their chests in salute then they hurriedly opened the huge wooden gates to the palace courtyard.
As they walked through the open gates under a massive stone archway Seth reached up with his small hand and clasped Gabrielle's. Fear had swelled in him viewing the enormous structure with its looming gray walls and bleak architecture.
Gabrielle looked down into scared blue eyes and smiled at him reassuringly. Although admittedly she was feeling a bit intimidated herself she showed no sign of it now as she squeezed the boy's hand comfortingly.
"It's okay honey, don't be scared." The blonde whispered to the boy whom she had come to think of as her own in the short time they had been together.
In the middle of the courtyard Xena dismounted and handed Argo over to a stablemen who had rushed out to take the mare from her.
As the stablemen lead Argo away Xena strode confidently to the palace doors. She walked up the large marble steps and through another archway into the palace, keenly aware of the Amazon and the boy trailing behind her.
Gabrielle and Seth marveled as the foyer opened into a huge chamber. The room was big enough, Seth thought, to put at least four barns front to back without any of their roofs touching the high ceiling. At the far end of the room was a set of white marble stairs with a large marble thrown sitting atop of them. The immense walls were covered with huge tapestries depicting brutal battle scenes with the Conqueror and her army in every one.
At the foot of the marble stairs to the Conqueror's throne was a group of about a dozen people standing in a semi-circle. As the Conqueror approached them the man in the center of the group dropped to one knee and bowed his head while the rest of the group all went down on there hands and knees placing their heads near the floor with their eyes cast down as they made their obeisance.
The Conqueror stopped in front of the kneeling man in the center of the group.
"Welcome home Conqueror." The man said without lifting his head.
"Rise." Xena said simply and the man did so while the rest of the group remained prostrated on the floor.
"All is well Conqueror. I am ready to brief you on matters of state at your convince Mistress."
"Later." Xena said then looked behind her for Gabrielle and Seth and found them both kneeling on the floor mimicking the posture of the others.
"Get up you two." Xena said as a small chuckle escaped her lips. She motioned them forward one on each side of her then wrapped her arms around them. "This is Gabrielle former Queen of the Amazons and my consort. She is to be given the same respect that I am. I want you to let everyone know Meleager."
Meleager's jawed dropped and he stared blankly at the small blonde at the Conqueror's side for a moment before comprehension washed over him and he numbly regained his senses. "Yes Mistress."
Xena seemed to be enjoying the man's shock, a devious grin playing across her lips.
"And this is my son Seth." Xena said squeezing the boy to her side.
Again Meleager stared numbly and this time all he could do was mutter lamely.
"Ah, hi." He said staring down at the boy, noting the same brilliant blue eyes as the Conqueror.
"Hi." Seth said shyly to the kind looking older man.
The Conqueror couldn't restrain a laugh before she addressed the older man again. "I'll see you in a couple of hours. Right now we need a bath and a hot meal. Inform the kitchen that the three of us will want to eat in one hour and have it sent to my chambers."
"Yes Mistress." Meleager said awkwardly, still shocked that the Conqueror would take a consort or have a son. One thing was sure, you could never predict what the Conqueror would do, Meleager thought as she strode away with her consort in one hand and the boy in the other.
Xena led them through a series of arched hallways and up a fight of stairs before they reached a set of ornately carved oak doors. Xena pushed the doors open and ushered Gabrielle and Seth inside.
The room was large with a high ceiling and a polished white marble floor that was covered in oriental rugs. Directly across from the doorway was another set of double doors that opened on an expansive balcony that over looked the courtyard and the city beyond. To the left side of the room was an immense canopy bed draped with silk sheets and dragon embossed blankets while on the opposite side of the room from that was a large fireplace. Adjacent from there was a mahogany writing desk and chairs that sat catty corner to a small dining table. Throughout the room there were magnificent Grecian marble statues of beautiful women interspaced with oriental art. The chamber was an eclectic mix of Grecian and oriental art and furniture that flowed seamlessly together.
Seth and Gabrielle stared fixatedly at the lavishly decorated room. They were still staring taking everything in when three women entered through the large open archway that lead to the Conqueror's private bathing chamber.
The three women, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead were all very beautiful and provocatively dressed in low cut, white Grecian dresses.
Gabrielle glared at them as they prostrated themselves seductively before the Conqueror.
"Your bath is ready Mistress." The redhead said her lips very near Xena's booted feet.
The Amazon reached down and picked up Seth propping him on her hip then shot Xena a deadly look. "Do Seth and I need to find other accommodations? I'm sure we can find a nice inn."
The warrior blushed and seemed genuinely embarrassed by the women. "No, no, sorry I ah " It was the first time Xena could remember ever being at a loss for words and she sighed frustrated then turned to her handmaidens. "Leave us."
The three women hurriedly left the room confused. They'd never seen the Conqueror cowed by anyone let alone heard her say she was sorry.
As the door closed behind the handmaidens Xena crossed the room to Gabrielle. She bent down and gave her a tentative kiss on the cheek since the blonde wouldn't look at her.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I can't change the way I was before I fell in love with you, all I can do is change what I do now and now the only woman I want to be with is you."
Gabrielle's cold front began to melt at Xena's words and she finally turned her head back to the taller woman. "I better be."
Xena smiled at her temper and dropped to her knees before the Amazon. "Please forgive me my queen." Xena teased clutching Gabrielle's side in mock desperation.
Seth giggled in Gabrielle's arms and the smaller woman finally smiled and burst out laughing no longer able to sustain her anger.
The Amazon reached out and took Xena's cheek in one hand, the warrior leaning into the touch. "You're lucky I love you, you know that?"
Xena kissed the inside of the blonde's wrist. "Believe me I know that." She said seriously. "Come on, let's take a bath."
Xena rose then took Seth from Gabrielle's arms and hoisted him high in the air while she walked into the bathing chamber the boy bursting with laughter.
The three stripped off their clothes, tossing them in a basket for her handmaidens to have cleaned then eased into a steaming tub. The deep rectangular tub was set in the marble floor and easily big enough for a half a dozen people.
Seth sat on Xena's lap unable to sit on the sunken bench without his head being underwater. Gabrielle closed her eyes and lie back against the smooth marble surface, enjoying the heated water on her road weary body.
"I think I could get way too used to this." Gabrielle said her eyes closed while she luxuriated in the scented water.
"I'm glad because you're stuck with it." Xena said standing the boy up in her lap and washing his small body with a bar of richly scented soap.
Gabrielle opened her eyes as the taller woman was rising soap from Seth and reseating the boy in her lap so she could wash his hair. It always amazed her how gentle and loving she was with the boy and how much she genuinely enjoyed taking care of him. Or it used to amaze her anyway, before she got to know who Xena really was. Now it just warmed her heart and deepened the love she felt for her partner.
Xena rinsed Seth's hair and stood him on the bench while she began to wash herself before she noticed Gabrielle staring at her. "What?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Nothing, just smiling at the woman I love. That okay?"
The Conqueror crossed to the blonde and kissed her tenderly. "That's very okay."
Gabrielle blushed then her eyes went to Seth who was contemplating swimming to the other end of the tub. Xena saw the glance and whispered in the bard's ear. "Bedtime." Then the warrior eased back to the center of the tub and resumed washing herself while Gabrielle watched with a seductive smile playing on her lips.
They both turned at the sound of the splash as Seth sunk under the water then reemerged a few feet later and swam the short distance the other end of the huge tub. When he got there he grabbed the edge and turned around surprised to see Gabrielle right behind him.
"What? You didn't think I was going to let my only child drown did you?" Gabrielle teased the boy.
Seth smiled broadly and proclaimed. "Xena taught me how to swim."
Xena smiled at him then suddenly became serious. "You're not allowed to swim unless either Gabrielle or myself are with you, got it?"
Seth nodded at her. "I got it."
"Good." Xena said then smiled at him again and went to the opposite end of the tub and held out her arms to the boy. "Come on swim to me."
Seth's smile widened as he launched himself towards Xena's outstretched arms swimming the length of the tub into a huge hug from the warrior. Xena kissed his cheek then finally let him go to swim back to Gabrielle who couldn't resist hugging him either.
Finally a half an hour later the three emerged from the tub. Xena donned a pair of black leather pants and a white cotton long sleeve shirt. The soft garment unbuttoned a few inched down from the neck and hung comfortably on the Conqueror's body. Not having a chance to have her seamstress make any children's clothing for Seth yet, Xena just took another of her many cotton shirts, the twin to the one she was wearing and draped it over the boy.
The tails of the large shirt nearly drug the ground and Seth had to push the sleeves far up on his arms to get to his hands but he didn't seem to mind, the comfort of the shirt far out weighing any inconvenience.
Gabrielle chose to wear her Amazon clothing having made herself a few spare sets during their winter journey. She looked seriously at Xena who was fusing over the boy's hair with a comb.
The warrior caught the look. "What is it?"
"There's something I have to do." The Amazon stated simply.
Xena saw the look of resolve in her partner's face and knew immediately what the former queen meant. She strode over to her writing desk and removed a piece of parchment. Taking up a quill and a bronze inkwell she began to write swiftly. When she was done she folded the parchment over onto its self then dripped wax from a candle burning on her desk onto the seam of the fold and pressed her seal into it.
Xena handed the sealed document to Gabrielle. "Give this emancipation order to the slave master and see that he provides horses, weapons and supplies for them." Xena finished by giving the Amazon concise directions to the slave quarters.
Gabrielle took the document and stared at the floor for a moment, emotion stealing her words. Finally she looked up and in barely a whisper she uttered. "Thank you."
Xena smiled and was about to reply when there was a knock at the door.
One of her personal kitchen servants wheeled in a cart of food and unloaded it onto the small dining table adjacent to her writing desk. She set out three steaming plates of delicious smelling food, a pumpkin pie with a small bowl of whipped cream and one jug of wine, one of fresh water and one of fresh milk.
"This afternoon Mistress we have roast chicken, wild rice with pineapple and almond slivers and fresh asparagus. Then a pumpkin pie for desert." The serving woman said proudly knowing that this dish was always well received by her mistress.
"Very good, leave us now." Xena said eyeing the food appreciatively, having missed the luxury of a personal kitchen. She turned to Gabrielle. "You're welcome but your going to eat with us first."
Gabrielle's gaze took in the appetizing meal and she smiled. "Yes Mistress." She teased.
Xena laughed, no one had ever dared tease her before and she found herself liking it. "Don't start."
The three sat down at the table, Xena and Gabrielle on either side of Seth and ate the meal reverently. Xena poured wine for Gabrielle and herself and milk for Seth. She made a mental note to reward her staff for being so astute; she never drank milk so Meleager must have told the kitchen that she had a child with her. That's one of many past due thanks I owe Meleager she thought. Her reverie was broken when she noticed Seth eating around his asparagus.
"Eat your asparagus boy." Xena said gesturing with her fork.
Seth gave her a pained expression and worked up his most beseeching face.
Xena sighed at the sad puppy eyes and was about to give in when Gabrielle cleared her throat. They both turned to look at her.
The Amazon casually lifted her wine glass and took a drink then taking up her fork and knife as if not to notice them she reached over and began cutting Seth's asparagus into small bits. Not looking up from her task she spoke to them. "You're going to eat your asparagus or no pie."
Gabrielle finished cutting the vegetable and looked up at them. She gave Xena a berating look for being so easy and then turned to Seth who was tiring the same sad face on her.
"Doesn't work on Amazons, sorry kid."
A smiled played on Xena's lips as Seth sighed then began clearing his plate of asparagus. She looked over at Gabrielle and the blonde winked at her. The warrior bit her lower lip to keep from laughing.
All three of them indulged in the pie, not sparing the whipped cream. When they had finished Xena pulled on one of several soft cord lowered through precise holes in the ceiling. A moment later her handmaidens appeared and cleared away the dishes and the basket of laundry. Xena noted that Gabrielle eyed them coldly as they left. She may have to find less attractive handmaidens she thought.
Seth had found his way to her lap, which had become his custom not long after having the midday meal. He laid his head on her breasts and struggled to keep his eyes open.
Xena smiled warmly at him then up at Gabrielle. "Looks like it's nap time."
Gabrielle reached out and stroked the boy's hair with her open hand. "Looks like, I'll see you two later."
Xena's smile vanished and her face took on a pained expression.
Gabrielle shifted her hand from Seth's hair to Xena's cheek. The taller women leaned into the hand and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again Gabrielle's lips were almost touching hers.
"I'll never leave you love. You two are my family, don't worry okay."
Xena nodded unable to speak for a moment.
Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at her then took the dark haired woman's lips in a kiss. They tasted of wine and the blonde had to restrain her passions, which the tall warrior never ceased to ignite. She straightened then winked at Xena. "Bedtime."
Xena smiled back at her then stood with Seth cradled in her arms dozing. "Oh yeah."
Gabrielle took up the sealed document then smiled one more time at her lover, strode to the door and left.
Xena stared after her for a moment then took Seth to the huge canopy bed. She threw back the covers with one hand while she held Seth to her with the other then carefully laid the boy down and tucked the covers over him snuggly.
Seth sighed contentedly and fell into a deep sleep.
Xena sat on the edge of the bed watching the boy sleep for awhile then she kissed him on the forehead and touched his cheek. She rose and crossed the room to the door stopping there for one last look at the sleeping boy before she went to have Meleager brief her on the state of things.
Seth was sleeping with the faint smile on his face that he had come to have so often now. Xena looked lovingly at him then slipped through the door, quietly shutting it behind her.
The slave master stared curiously at the small blonde that strode confidently towards him. She was obviously Amazon but she was different from the others he had in his charge. She never averted her eyes or looked away and there was no uncertainty about her, she just strode towards him with her head held high, this was no slave. Then he remembered the messenger from the palace informing him that the Conqueror had returned and she had taken a consort, an Amazon consort. No doubt this was the one.
"Are you the slave master?" Gabrielle asked once she had come to within a few feet of the large, brutal looking man.
"Yes my lady." The slave master answered in a speculative tone.
Gabrielle eyed the man coolly.
"Good, I want you to gather all of the Amazon slaves here in the court yard in fifteen minutes." Gabrielle ordered not bothering to give the man the emancipation order in her hand.
The slave master was quiet for a moment. He wasn't used to people he didn't know giving him orders and he especially didn't like Amazons. Gods be damned little Amazon whore, once the Conqueror is done with her then I'll give her some orders she won't like, he thought eyeing her luridly.
"That will take some time, there are Amazon slaves working all over the palace." He snorted at her.
Gabrielle swiftly took another step forward and the man involuntary stepped back but Gabrielle kept stride with him then jabbed a finger into the man's chest. "Then you better stop wasting time drooling over me because now you've only got ten minutes!"
"Ten! There's no way I can do it in ten minutes!" The slave master protested starting to get a little worried now that he realized he couldn't intimidate this forceful little Amazon in his face.
Gabrielle grinned at him without humor. "You'll do it in ten and you'll change your attitude real quick or I'll just have to tell the Conqueror how you were staring at me just now and I don't know if you've noticed it, but she's the jealous overprotective type."
The man's face blanched as visions of all the palace slaves and masters alike that had been crucified and worse for far less. Quickly he humbled himself and bowed his head to her. "Y yes my lady, please forgive me."
Gabrielle just eyed him coldly. "Go."
"Y yes my lady." And the man was off in flash.
Gabrielle stared around the courtyard then and noticed a dark haired girl walking into the palace guards barracks with a basket of fresh linen. Varia! No, she lowered her head in sadness as her former warrior chief disappeared inside the barracks. Gabrielle tilted her head up to the sky and took a deep breath of the cool winter air. Varia had been the proudest among her tribe, if she was here then most of them were. She had hoped that they would go deeper into the mountains and join with the northern Amazons but she realized now that the public breaking of Varia had taken more than just her former warrior chief's pride, it broke the spirit of most of the village. Gabrielle stared determinedly at the soldiers' barracks.
"I'll fix it." Gabrielle said in low voice to herself then strode purposefully to the barracks.
Varia had her back to the doorway and was laying out neatly folded linen on a cot when Gabrielle entered the long room.
"Varia." Gabrielle said in a soft voice.
Varia stopped breathing for a moment as she heard the familiar voice call her name. She turned around slowly and stared in shock at her queen. Gabrielle stood at the end of the room.
She had dared to dream that the queen would come and rescue them all but her mind rejected it as fantasy. Now that she was here standing before her she could hardly believe her eyes. She thought when she saw Queen Gabrielle next she would be as battered and wasted as the rest of them, but this Gabrielle was more beautiful than ever. Her fair skin glowed and her piercing green eyes shined bright as stars on a dark night. Her traditional Amazon wear of a short skirt and halter displayed her tight muscles and sensuous curves and she looked healthier than ever.
"Queen Gabrielle." Varia said in barely a whisper.
Gabrielle walked slowly to the stunned slave and put her hands on the girl's shoulders. "It's going to be okay Varia, I'm here now."
Tears poured from Varia's eyes and streamed down her cheeks as a torrent sobs erupted from her. The past weeks of cruelty flowed out in her cries and Varia found that her legs would no longer support her.
Gabrielle took the girl in her arms and guided her to the cot behind them then held her former warrior chief in her arms and cradled her head to her breasts while she cried. Gabrielle slowly stroked the woman's hair and made shushing noising while she cried.
"Shhh it's alright now Varia no one is going to hurt you anymore, I'm here now. Shhh its okay honey."
After a few minutes of crying Varia was able to lift her head and speak. "How?" Was all the former warrior chief could manage.
Gabrielle cupped the woman's cheek in her hand and smiled at her. "It's not important, what's important is that you and the others are free to go."
Varia blinked tears from her eyes as she absorbed the news. "And you too?"
Gabrielle let her hand fall from the woman's cheek. "Yes, but I'm staying here."
Varia looked confused. "But Queen Gabrielle we need you, I don't understand why would you stay?"
Gabrielle smiled at her again and Varia felt the smile's calming affect on her and began to relax.
"My destiny is here Varia, here is where I can do the most good and besides Ephiny is your queen now. I know it's hard to understand but trust me." Gabrielle said reassuringly.
Varia laid her head in the blonde's lap and clung tightly to her waist. "I trust you my Queen. You'll always be my Queen and I'll always love you." Varia's voice was thick with emotion.
"I love you too, I love all of you." Gabrielle said rubbing the warrior chief's back.
"You know Varia we all fall, we all hurt and we all get scared sometimes but what's really important isn't whether you've ever been beaten or not, it's that you never quit. You have to always get back up again, it may take awhile sometimes but you have to get back up. Do you understand what I'm saying?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"I understand Queen Gabrielle." Varia said still clinging to Gabrielle's waist and trying to stifle tears that had begun to flow again.
"Good, now lets go tell the others." Gabrielle said guiding Varia up.
Varia wiped her tears with the back of her arm then hugged Gabrielle again before they started for the door.
Outside the slave master had all of the other Amazons gathered and waiting for them while he stood humbly to the side. The women went wild when they saw their former queen and they all surrounded her each rotating tearfully into her embrace. After nearly an hour of tears and sobs while Gabrielle explained to them that they were free and that she was staying she finally turned back to the slave master.
"Come here." The blonde woman ordered.
The slave master dutifully approached and knelt before the blonde woman completely cowed by her now.
The Amazons looked on in awe as the cruel man who had beaten them and worse knelt at their queen's feet.
"Go and Gather horses for everyone and five pack horses for supplies and they better be good animals." Gabrielle ordered.
"Yes my lady." The slave master said then hurried off to do her bidding, anxious to be out of the Amazon queen's presence.
Gabrielle turned to Varia and handed her the Conqueror's emancipation order. "Here keep this. It's an order signed by the Conqueror freeing all of the Amazons."
Varia took the sealed parchment and noted that Gabrielle was not only entrusting the important document to her she looking to her to lead the others to the northern Amazons and the rest of the tribe. The warrior chief smiled then thanked her again.
Soon the slave master returned with the horses and Gabrielle had him lead them to the armory and supply house where she outfitted the Amazons with weapons and all the supplies they could carry. The women took quarterstaffs, bows and Varia and a few others took finely crafted swords.
In another half hour the women had the horses saddled and loaded. Gabrielle went with them to the front gate for an emotional goodbye. She hugged every one of them and gave them all her blessing barely able to restrain her emotions then finally she took Varia in her arms for a final hug before she let them get on their way.
"Take care of them." Gabrielle said holding Varia at arms length in front of her.
Varia smiled at her. "I will, thank you. I love you Queen Gabrielle and I'll always remember you."
Gabrielle's voice caught in her throat and she was barely able to keep her tears from falling. "Better get going." She said thickly.
Varia smiled at her again then mounted her horse and rode out of the gates, the others following. A moment later they were gone, lost in the busy streets of the city.
Gabrielle stared after them knowing that they would be all right now. Once they were in the forest they would disappear like ghosts in the night. The thought brought a smile to her face as she turned back to the palace and her family.
Xena strode with the casual ease of familiarity, through the arched halls of the palace towards the council chamber where she had Meleager, and other heads of state brief her. The briefing usually consisted of her listening to a trembling governor or other subordinate groveling before her hoping that they wouldn't say anything to incur her wrath.
Meleager was different though; he was one of the few people she respected. Meleager had been a great warrior himself; although not as great as her, he was still quite formidable. Knowing he and his army didn't stand a chance against her he offered his services to her and his warriors for her army.
She had been impressed. He didn't try to bargain or become a partner he just asked for a job, smart. She liked that and ever since she liked Meleager and made him her second in command. The man was tough but fair and fiercely loyal, to his men, the people he served and especially to her.
Xena strode through the door to the council chamber and found Meleager carefully reading over a scroll behind a large mahogany writing desk. He rose to his feet when she entered the room and bowed his head respectfully.
"Conqueror." The graying man said.
Meleager used the formal title although Xena allowed him to call her by name when they were alone.
"Meleager." Xena said in light tone of voice that Meleager rarely heard.
Xena walked lazily across the room and slide into a large comfortable armchair. She lounged in the tufted chair, extending her long legs out in front of her and crossing them at the ankles. She let her hands rest easily in her lap and gave Meleager a lets have it' look.
Meleager took in the Conqueror's relaxed manner cautiously, he wasn't quite sure what to make of it and he decided to tread lightly. He moved out in front of the desk and leaned on it to begin his briefing.
"Everything is well Conqueror, the army is training mostly and there has been only a few minor incidents since you've been gone with warlords that required military force. Taxes are "
"Tell me about the new housing in the lower section of the city." Xena said cutting him off with a dangerously low voice.
Here it comes, Meleager thought, I should have known that she would miss nothing.
"The poor people living in those slums were starving Xena, they needed help. They came to me and I helped them. I take full responsibility." Meleager said tensely waiting for a blow that never came.
"How did you help them?" Xena asked in her low voice.
Meleager cleared his throat. "I suspended their taxes and sent the palace builders to restore their crumbling homes. I know you don't approve Xena but I would do it again. Those people are of no use to us if they starve to death."
Xena eyed him coolly, she knew that he added that last little bit to try and placate her. Meleager she knew would probably go out and help build the new housing for the poor himself if he thought she would let him get away with it. The man felt it was his responsibility to care of those in the city too weak to take care of themselves.
"I noticed when I rode through that part of the city this morning that the people there were smiling at me. You told them that it was my decision to help them?"
"Yes Conqueror." Meleager said stiffly, he was always trying to improve the Conqueror's public image, something she never cared about but seemed important to him.
Xena rose swiftly and crossed the room to face Meleager. The man rose off the desk to his feet but made no move to defend himself; instead he just steadied himself for the blow and hoped that it wouldn't be a fatal one. To his shock though Xena's face broke into a huge grin and she patted him on the shoulder.
"Gotcha. Good work." Xena said grinning madly then resuming her relaxed posture in the chair.
Meleager's jaw dropped and he stood there stunned for a moment just staring at her until Xena began to laugh.
"Thank you Xena." He said weakly.
Xena smiled at him. "I'm going to have you working with my consort, I think the two of you will be able to come up with all kinds of ideas to make things better."
Meleager stared dumbly at her not believing his eyes. "And what about you Xena?"
Xena shrugged. "You two will report to me before you implement any new plans but mostly I think I'll have my hands full with my son. He takes a lot of looking after or he gets into mischief."
Meleager smiled at her then leaned back against the desk. "I don't know what happened while you gone Xena but whatever it was it looks good on you."
The Conqueror actually blushed a little. "A lot happened, a family happened."
Meleager took on a serious expression. "I'm really happy for you Xena. That's something I always wished I could have had, a child and a wife. It just never seemed to work out for me."
Xena absorbed the sadness in Meleager's words. Here was the best man she knew and even he hadn't received the gift that she now possessed. It made her realize again just how lucky she was.
"It's never too late you know. Things will be different now, think about it." Xena said softly.
Meleager looked at her and saw the way her skin glowed and the brightness behind her eyes and he realized that she was right, things would be different now and he thanked the Gods for his ruler's family.
"Maybe." He said wistfully.
They talked for an hour Meleager updating Xena on all the affairs of state when Xena summoned Megan, her red headed handmaiden. The woman made her obeisance, prostrating herself before the Conqueror.
"Yes Mistress." Megan said subserviently.
"I want you to quietly go and check on Seth, the boy sleeping in my chambers." Xena said to the woman at her feet.
"Yes Mistress." Megan replied then quickly set off on her task and returned to her mistress's feet within fifteen minutes. "The prince is still sleeping soundly Mistress."
Xena smiled at that, the prince. It was the first time anyone had referred to the boy as the prince. The prince of Athens she thought with a smile, she liked that. "Good, thank you, you can go now."
The bewildered handmaiden rose and left the room. Thank you? She allowed herself a hopeful smile.
Xena remained in the briefing for another hour before all of the matters at hand were finally reviewed. She left the meeting and headed back towards the sleeping boy feeling light inside.
Seth woke slowly in the large soft bed. He had slept longer than usual, the extravagant comfort lulling him into a deep sleep. He reached his arms over his head and stretched then turned his head to the side looking for Xena. When he didn't find her on that side of the bed he look on the other. Still nothing. The first cold touches of fear began to brush lightly over his skin.
He sat up in bed and looked around the huge room but Xena was gone and the room empty. Panic began to seize him now as he threw back the covers and slid down the side of the bed to the cold marble floor.
He ran towards the bathing chamber and his legs tangled themselves in the tails of Xena's soft cotton shirt that he had worn to bed. He stumbled then fell to the floor in a heap and bruised his cheek on the thick rug.
Hardly noticing Seth scrambled to his feet then into the bathing chamber and searched for Xena. Empty.
He wandered slowly back towards the bed, his eyes methodically scanning the room again. He was shaking now as he backed himself into the corner where the huge bed met the stone wall. He slid to the floor and wrapped his arms around his legs.
The long cold tentacles of terror fully embraced his small body now. He tried to scream but couldn't, he tried to get up and run but he was paralyzed.
He stared blankly forward as the nightmare he couldn't escape from began to play across the screen of his consciousness.
The late afternoon sunlight poured in from the open kitchen window and spilled across the rough-hewn plank table. The sunlight kissed his mother's skin as she cut vegetables into small pieces for a stew.
Seth looked up at her from the edge of the table. Her long brown hair fell across her shoulders and every now and then her intense blue eyes would shift from the blade of her knife slicing through carrots to Seth. She finished with her carrots then turned to her son.
"Hungry huh?" She asked knowingly.
Seth nodded at her.
She took a handful of the sliced carrots and dropped them into Seth's small open palm. A few pieces of carrot spilled out of his little hand back onto the table and his mother laughed lightly.
Seth smiled at her and she touched his cheek with her hand.
The front door burst open and his father bolted inside! The sound of horses moving fast followed him through the door.
"Bandits!" His father yelled as he swept a large double-edged battle-ax from its hooks over the stone fireplace.
Seth stared blankly at him for a moment while his mother immediately stole him into her arms, picking him up and running across the room with him.
Seth watched as his carrots fell from his hand and rolled across the plank floor.
His mother set him down next to the big rope bed where they all slept on the other side of the room.
She hugged him tightly with tears in her eyes then kissed him on the cheek.
"Don't make a sound Seth! You have to hide love and be silent!"
Seth nodded at her and she hugged him again pressing his small body tightly against hers.
"Good boy." She said then stuffed him underneath the bed.
Hidden under the bed Seth watched his mother race back to the kitchen table and pick up the large knife she had been slicing vegetables with.
Just as she reached it the first of the men charged through the door.
The filthy man died an instant later when Seth's father buried his battle-ax in the man's chest.
A moment later though the dead man's cohorts avenged him when two of the five men remaining shot crossbow bolts into Seth's father's chest, spinning him around.
The ax slipped from Seth's father's fingers as blood started to ooze from his mouth. A moment later he collapsed face first on the floor.
Tears streamed from Seth's eyes as he watched his father fall, his face turned towards where he hid underneath the bed. Seth choked back his cries as his father stared at him with sightless eyes.
Seth turned from his father then and looked franticly for his mother.
The five remaining bandits had turned on her. Slowly circling her like a pack of wild dogs surrounding a wounded animal.
Seth's mother stumbled back against the kitchen table looking wild eyed from one intruder to the next, fear turning her normally graceful movements animalistic. She swung the knife at the men and they began to laugh. She lunged at the nearest one with the knife and the man deftly knocked it to the floor, smashing down the blade with his heavy sword.
Defenseless now the men moved in on her. She kicked and clawed at them but it was no use, they were just too powerful for her.
Seth's breath caught in his throat as one of the men backhanded his mother snapping her head to the side and sending blood trickling down her cheek.
Two of the others grabbed her and slammed her down on her back across the plank table, sending the vegetables cascading to the floor.
Seth tried to scream as the men beat her and tore at her clothes but no sound would come. Then they started doing the bad things to her, his mother screaming while the men laughed.
Seth froze then unable to run or look away, he was completely paralyzed.
The men kept doing the bad things to his mother until she no longer screamed only laid there unmoving. When the last of them had finished with her he plunged his dagger through her heart then helped his comrades ransack the house. Finding little of value the men left and rode towards their next victims.
Seth remained under the bed; his eyes open but no longer seeing. As darkness fell on their little house he was unable to move. The day and night came twice more before his uncle showed up. Finding Seth hiding under the bed, still unable to utter a sound. He gave him food and water then loaded the innate boy on his horse. Before they left his uncle set the house on fire with the bodies inside.
They rode away then with smoke billowing from the burning house and the only home Seth had ever known.
A few months later when Seth came out of his trance he couldn't remember what happened to his mother and father, only that they had died.
The nightmare faded and Seth could no longer remember his mother's horrible death. All he knew now was that Xena was gone and a terrible feeling of dread remained in him not knowing what had happened to her.
He sat huddled in the corner, his little body shivering and immobile.
Xena opened the door to her chambers slowly not wanting to wake the boy. She slipped inside and her eyes went automatically to the bed. Fear surged inside her and her heart sank as she saw the thrown back covers and the boy huddled on the floor next to the bed.
"Seth!" Xena cried out as she raced to the side of the bed and took the boy in her arms.
Seth was catatonic, he just stared ahead his breathing shallow and slow. Xena lifted the boy into her lap and sat on the edge of the bed with him her heart racing as she examined him.
"Seth honey, what's wrong?" Xena asked gently, her hands trembling as she looked the boy over.
Seth was dimly aware that Xena was there but he was still unable to speak, his mind closed off protecting itself.
Xena found a red bruise on the side of the boy's face and her fear quickly turned into rage as the thought of someone coming into the room, yanking Seth out of bed and beating the defenseless boy shot through her mind. She screamed for her handmaidens.
The three women poured into the room and knelt on their hands and knees at the Conqueror's feet in front of the bed. They trembled with terror at the harsh tone of her voice.
"Y yes M Mistress." Megan spoke for the group.
"What happened here?" Xena demanded barely able to restrain her rage.
The handmaidens looked confused then Megan asked. "Mistress?"
Xena glared at the women at her feet. "What happened to Seth?"
"The last time any of us saw him he was sleeping Mistress." Megan said meekly.
"None of you saw anyone else enter this room?" Xena barked at them.
All three shook their heads no and Megan said. "No one else would dare Mistress."
"By the Gods if you're lying to me!" Xena screamed at them and the three women began to weep.
Gabrielle heard Xena yelling from down the hall and came running into the room.
"What's wrong?" She asked as she passed through the door and took in the scene.
Xena's eyes went to her and suddenly all her anger was gone and her eyes filled with fear again.
"Something's happened to Seth." The warrior said in a shaky voice.
"What!" Gabrielle said then ran across the room to them.
She stood in front of Seth and took the boy's face carefully in her hands and looked him over.
"Seth, can you here me sweetheart?" Gabrielle asked in a soft voice.
Seth was still unable to respond only dimly aware of their presence.
Gabrielle continued her examination. "Xena this looks like he fell, it doesn't have the shape of a hit by someone's hand."
Xena looked again and sighed, she missed that in her frantic state of mind. "You're right. What could have happened though? Why can't he speak?"
"I'm not sure." Gabrielle turned to the terrified women on the floor. "It's okay you three can go now. You won't be punished."
Two of the handmaidens gratefully rose to leave when Megan crawled forward and tenderly kissed the toe of the Conqueror's boot foot.
"I wish we could help Mistress, I'm sorry." The woman said looking up with watery eyes, obviously feeling she had failed her mistress.
Xena looked down at her suddenly ashamed to have screamed at them.
"It's not your fault. Go on now, it'll be okay." Xena said in a softer voice.
Megan nodded her head at her then looked at Gabrielle and thanked her before she quietly left with the others.
Gabrielle turned to Xena as the handmaidens left and the warrior's eyes flooded with tears and spilled over onto her cheeks.
"Hey, it's going to be alright." Gabrielle said tenderly taking both her and Seth into a hug.
Xena began to sob softly her chest heavy slightly. Gabrielle had never seen Xena so vulnerable and it broke her heart to see the woman in such pain but it also filled her with love that the warrior trusted her enough to let her see that side of her.
After a moment Xena gathered herself and Gabrielle broke the hug. Xena's face took on a look of resolve as she wiped away her tears. She would take care of the boy before she would allow herself the luxury of tears again.
Gabrielle had checked her own fear trying to be strong for both of them and she struggled not to show her emotion but her hands trembled when she reached for the boy's face.
Now it was Xena who was strong for them both. "It's going to be okay." She said with steely resolve squeezing Gabrielle's hand reassuringly.
Xena let go of the Amazon's hand and hugged Seth tightly to her.
Seth was warm and safe and his mind began to clear.
"Maybe he had nightmare." Gabrielle offered sitting on the edge of the bed next to them.
"Maybe." Xena said. "Seth honey, tell mommy what happened."
It was the first time since she had taken the boy and told him that she was his mother for all intents and purposes now that the warrior had used the word and it broke through.
Seth looked up at her then and blinked as recognition dawned on his face, tears spilled down the boy's cheeks as he looked up at her.
"Xena." He said quietly then hugged her fiercely and buried his head in her chest.
Xena and Gabrielle both breathed a long sigh of relief and tears spilled from both of their eyes as they hugged the boy.
"I'm here sweetie, I'm here." Xena said kissing the top of the boy's head.
Xena rocked the boy for a moment then gently asked. "What happened honey?"
Seth looked up at her and took a shaky breath. "I I woke up and you were gone and and Gabrielle was gone too. I looked all over but no one was here."
Gabrielle stood then bent down in front of Seth and touched his face gently. "What happened to your cheek honey?"
Seth looked at her puzzled for a moment then remembered. "I fell and bumped it on the floor."
Xena kissed the top of the boy's head again then asked. "Is there anything else honey? Anything at all?"
Seth looked up at her again. "Y you were gone and I I "
The boy started to shudder in her arms and Xena drew him tighter to her while Gabrielle rubbed his back.
"I I can't remember X Xena." Seth said in shaky voice.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged concerned looks then Xena said. "It's okay honey."
"Y you weren't h here and I didn't know w what happened to you and I was a afraid you and Gabrielle weren't coming back." Seth sputtered out and then he began to cry again, burying his head in Xena chest once more.
Xena felt her own tear welling again as she rocked the boy in her arms. "Oh honey we will never, never leave you."
Gabrielle watched Xena rocking the boy in her arms and her chest starting to heave her own tears spilling over onto her cheeks.
Xena noticed Gabrielle's distress and realized that she was being selfish and she passed the boy to the smaller woman.
Gabrielle enveloped the boy in her arms and Seth kissed her cheek and laid his head on her shoulder. She kissed the boy's head then swung him back and forth in her arms, a terrible feeling of guilt welling within her.
"Oh sweetie we aren't going anywhere, we love you." The Amazon told the boy.
Seth clung tightly to her and Gabrielle felt her anguish slowly subsiding. She continued to softly whisper to the boy while she rocked him in her arms, reassuring him, telling him how much they loved him and that they would never leave.
It was almost time for dinner and Xena summoned the kitchen and told them to prepare something for them and that they would be dining in the room again for the evening meal.
A half hour later Seth was sitting in Gabrielle's lap while the Amazon told him his favorite story when dinner arrived. The three of them ate another superb meal, Gabrielle still not letting the boy skip his vegetables. After another helping of the pumpkin pie the boy was himself again playing with Xena.
They spent the rest of the evening playing, listening to Gabrielle tell stories and just being close and soon time got away from them and it was getting late. Xena had built a fire in the fireplace and she sat in front of it on a thick rug with Seth in her lap while Gabrielle finished telling him the story of Seth and the Lion-headed monster for the third time. By the time she had finished Seth was dozing peacefully wrapped in Xena's arms.
Gabrielle smiled at them. "Guess it's bedtime."
Xena smiled back at her. "And then some, could you fold back the covers for me please?" Xena asked standing with the boy in her arms.
"Sure." Gabrielle said then crossed to the bed a step in front of Xena and tossed back the covers of the bed for the boy.
Xena laid Seth in the center of the big bed, leaving room on either side for her and Gabrielle. The boy was still wearing her soft shirt and he sighed contentedly as Xena laid him down.
The warrior tugged the blankets up to the boy's chin and kissed his forehead.
"Good night, I love you." She whispered in his ear then stepped out of the way for Gabrielle to do the same.
The two women stood over the bed and watched the boy sleeping for a little while. After a few minutes Xena crossed to the tonsu chest set along the wall and took a jug of port from the top of it then retrieved two goblets from a deep drawer in the yew wood chest. She poured the dark fluid into the goblets then crossed to Gabrielle who had taken a seat on the rug in front of the fire. The warrior handed the blonde one of the goblets and the smaller women took it with a smile.
"Thank you." Gabrielle said warmly as Xena lowered herself to the rug and took a seat next to her.
"Anytime." Xena said taking a drink of the port.
The warm fire felt good on their bodies, warding off the cold winter night outside.
Gabrielle took a drink of the port then set her gaze on Xena.
"Xena did Seth ever tell you what happened to his parents?" The Amazon asked in a serious tone.
"No, only that they died when he was little." Xena answered somberly.
Gabrielle thought for a moment then took another sip of the port and looked back at Xena. "I think something really horrible happened to them and especially Seth's mother and I think he saw it."
Xena looked thoughtful for a long moment, a painful expression on her face, then she finally answered. "That would explain a lot."
Xena started to feel the pangs of guilt as she wondered how many families she had destroyed. She never killed children but she had killed their fathers and as happens in any war there was always collateral damage and mothers got killed too. The shame began to overwhelm her as she thought about how much she loved Seth and Gabrielle and how bad it would hurt to lose them; it would destroy her she knew.
Gabrielle picked up on Xena's train of thought right away and stopped her before she got going.
The blonde set her port down and reached out with her hand and took the warrior's face in her open palm. "Don't Xena, there's nothing you can do about it now and Seth and I need you."
Xena looked at her and her heart broke at the look of love in the woman's eyes. "But "
Gabrielle cut her off. "No buts Xena, it's far better for you to put your energy into all the good you can do now instead of feeling guilty for the past. It's behind you now, and the good that you can do will far out weigh the bad you've done. Xena you can make this world into whatever you want now."
Xena was quiet again for a moment before she spoke. "Thank you."
Gabrielle smiled and let her hand drop to Xena's lap. "Anytime."
Xena's mind quickly returned to the boy. "I'm a skilled healer but I'm not sure how to heal this."
Gabrielle looked thoughtful again. "I think he'll be fine as long as we keep drowning him in our love, then I think one day he'll be able to remember what happened and tell us. Then it will be over."
Xena smiled at her. "Well the love part isn't a problem."
The two women laughed then smiled at each other then the smile turned into a sensuous gaze. They drifted into one another then and kissed passionately, tasting the port in each other's mouths. The kiss broke after a long while and Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena's.
"You know what time it is?" The blonde asked seductively.
Xena raised an eyebrow at her.
"Bedtime." Gabrielle said with a smile and Xena's face broke into wide grin.
The two began tugging at each other's clothes urgently, the stressful day making the need for physical contact a desperate one. Soon they were both completely nude sitting in front of the fire leaning their naked bodies against one another, kissing passionately. The flickering flames of the fire sending dancing shadows across their skin.
Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's back then lowered her gently to the rug lowering her own body on top of the blonde in the same motion. Their breasts pressed together and Gabrielle moaned into Xena's lips and she moaned again as the warrior's thigh met her sex that was slick with desire.
Xena broke the kiss for a moment and stared into her lover's eyes taking in the woman's entire being in the look.
"I conquered everything Gabrielle, everything in the entire world looking for happiness and all along it was here in Greece waiting for me." Xena said her voice husky.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and opened them again taking in the warrior's gaze, drowning in her vivid blue eyes. "You didn't conqueror everything Xena."
Xena cocked her head to the side in question.
"You conquered all but the heart Xena, all but your own heart."
Xena's gaze intensified. "You conquered what I never could the first time we kissed. My heart belongs to you now Gabrielle, now and forever."
Gabrielle closed her eyes again and luxuriated in the moment, absorbing it into every fiber of her being. "You're the only woman I've ever loved or will ever love Xena."
The two keep staring into each other's eyes until the passion within them was too great, their bodies burning with love and desire for one another. They gave into it and made love by fire until they had exhausted themselves.
They crawled into bed on either side of Seth giving the sleeping boy more good night kisses. Gabrielle fell asleep with one arm wrapped around the boy with a slumbering smile on her face.
Xena watched the two of them sleep for awhile and she felt whole for the first time in her life. She was complete. Finally she lie back on the pillow and Seth curled his body around her side, one small arm around her waist his head resting on her breast. Gabrielle, still sleeping found her way next to the boy again and they all settled into the soft bed. Just before sleep took her Xena said a silent prayer for the gift of her family and she felt a lightness of heart and joy like she had never known.