The passageway was short, but the trip was interminable. In the dark waters it took Xena several long moments before she was able to locate the white pelt of Pei-cha. Several more before she had sufficient hold on the leopard and on Gabrielle to carry them through the passageway. With one arm wrapped solidly around the cats chest, Pei-cha was a leaden weight to Xena. He was pulled dreamlessly through the water, unaware of the effort it was taking to save his hide.
For her part, Gabrielle struggled strongly through the water, desperate for the return to air above. What she hadnt revealed to the Conqueror was that she had never learned how to swim. Her muscles were uncoordinated in the water, her movements unsure. The weight of the water on all sides of her body caused her endless panic. It was only Xenas sure grip on her hand and the knowledge that the Conqueror would not allow something as trivial as death interfere with her plans, that Gabrielle did not give in to her fears.
Endlessly relieved when she saw light streaming through the water, Gabrielle began kicking toward the surface, anxious to feel the sun directly on her skin and no longer filtered. When she broke through, she began drawing in deep lungfuls of air.
Xena emerged beside her. The Conqueror did not appear to be affected in the least by the journey. The dark ruler gently guided her coughing oracle to the shallow area of the inlet, not stopping until she discerned Gabrielles feet touching bottom. Once assured her lover would not slip back underwater, Xena let go of her hand to grasp fully onto Pei-cha. She hefted the leopard onto the riverbank, settling him down none too gently. The sting of the gravel against his coat roused the cat back to consciousness. With a growl, the dazed look vanished from ice blue eyes and he stretched out.
"You must have nine lives," Xena muttered, having been hopeful the leopard had not survived the second trip. Duty done, she turned back and waded to her oracle. "You all right?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Just catching my breath," she said, each word punctuated by a deep intake of air.
"What did you need to tell me?"
Gabrielle shrugged, trying to minimize what she knew would draw an angry outburst. "I was trembling because I dont know how to swim."
"By all the gods on Mount Olympus, Gabrielle, you should have mentioned that a bit earlier!"
The oracle cocked her head, patiently waiting for the anger to dissipate. "Would it have made any difference? We had to get out of there. The only way was to swim. I knew you wouldnt let anything happen to me."
"When we return to Greece, we will begin your swimming instructions immediately." The Conqueror gave her a meaningful stare. "It is important to me that you are safe in all settings. Whether I am there or not."
"Thank you," came the soft reply framed by an affectionate smile.
"Lets get moving." The Conqueror led them to the side just as Kelryn and Lao Ma surfaced in the middle of the pool. She barely gave them a backward glance as she climbed out of the water and helped Gabrielle do the same.
The Euphrates was a mere stones throw away, its waters filling the inlet. Now standing atop the bank, Xena could see the boats at the pier, waiting for their passengers. Her eyes focused on the one hired by Palaemon, a red scarf identifying it, flying on the mast below the boats own colors. This was the most perilous part of the journey, the approach to the docks. They would have to walk about a stadium length to reach it, completely exposed to the observation of others the entire time.
As planned, nestled in an alcove, was a large sack, containing changes of clothing for Gabrielle and Lao Ma. Xena would not change out of her leathers until they were safely away; the Amazons would follow her example. There were several towels of Egyptian cotton in it as well, for them to dry off as best as they could. Nothing would be more suspicious than five soaking wet women warriors marching along the docks.
Xena gave one towel to Gabrielle and held up another to allow her oracle to dry off and change in relative privacy. Once assured the Amazon Queens modesty was preserved, she used the towel she was holding to dry off her own skin and hair.
Lao Ma and Kelryn joined them in the alcove, also quickly taking care of preparing for the next stage of their trek.
A newly dry Gabrielle and drier Xena emerged when Lari and Wynn surfaced, almost immediately followed by Pompey and Kulam. The Conqueror scowled. She had told Eponin to space out the swimmers better. She became angrier when Eponin and Tamara came bursting to the surface on the heels of the foreign leaders.
Eponin swam furiously for the bank of the inlet. "Theres someone behind us, my Queen! We heard them coming through the tunnels."
"Of all the gods-be-damned miserable things! You!" She pointed to Lao Ma. "Keep Gabrielle safe!" She pushed the nearest Amazon toward Gabrielle as well. "Get her to the boat quickly. Tell Palaemon to set sail immediately."
Kelryn frowned, "Your majesty, what about you?"
Unsheathing her sword, the Conqueror growled, "I will be fine."
Gabrielle was torn between wanting to fight for her right to stay at Xenas side and her wanting to keep Xena safe, which meant not being a distraction to the dark ruler. She hated feeling incompetent in battle, especially since she led a nation of women warriors. When they were back in Greece, Gabrielle resolved to have combat lessons, as well as swimming.
With a parting glance at Xena, who remained at the rear, shoving the Amazons and two remaining rulers ahead of her, the Amazon Queen allowed herself to be pulled along the river bank by the Chin Empress. Pei-cha moved on silent paws beside her, his coat bristling with an angry energy. He snarled at several Babylonians who looked their way which caused them to find other more interesting things to do.
Lari went around them to take the point position, heading for the boat awaiting them. She focused on walking briskly, but not appearing to flee. Her right hand rested on the hilt of her sword, her hazel eyes flicking right and left, watching for danger.
The docks appeared much as they did when they had arrived a few days prior. There were numerous small boats tied up in the Euphrates, most of them in the process of either loading or unloading goods. As with any seaport, there were numerous crates filled with merchandise and animals for market strewn about, hindering progress at times, and large coils of rope crisscrossing the wooden planks. Men, clothed in only loin clothes and sweat, hauled items from one point to the other. Several cast appreciative looks at the women marching through their midst until the leopard convinced them otherwise.
Behind them, Xena marched with her sword drawn, keeping watch on their back. She was gratified that no one had come bursting out of the water. Perhaps it had been Eponin and Tamaras over-eager imaginations. Of course, that would require Eponin to have an imagination, which the Conqueror doubted. That meant soldiers would be coming at any moment.
Xena glanced ahead, to reassure herself that Lao Ma and Gabrielle had not encountered any resistance to their progress. It was then she noticed the commotion up along the main highway running alongside the river, above the docks. She quickly counted at least four troops of soldiers.
She smiled, eighty to her eight, not including herself; and not including the troops she knew now to be behind her, hearing their cries as they sloshed their way out of the water passage and scrambled up the banks. "I didnt plan on having this much fun in Babylon." Pursuing her lips, she sounded a shrill bird call, alerting Palaemon and her Royal Guard to the danger. She was pleased when she saw them immediately spring into action, as she had relentlessly trained them.
Minon climbed the ships mast quickly, reminding the Conqueror of the monkeys she had seen in the Chin palace years before, and began calling down information to Palaemon. While she couldnt make out what he was saying, she knew it would be the size of the opposing troops, their approach and the location of the Conqueror. The latter was confirmed when Palaemon stood briefly on the ships railing and lifted a sword in her direction. He then disappeared, leaping off the ship, onto the docks below, Novan fast on his heels.
Every annoyance of the last few days boiled up within the Conqueror. Every slight, every danger posed to her oracle, every insult, every threat to her own life, came to her mind, producing a white hot flash of anger. This anger transformed itself into Ares image, reminding her why she was his Chosen, why he had sought her out so many winters prior. She had never been defeated in battle, not once, and she did not intend to start when there was so much to lose her reputation, her kingdom and her Gabrielle.
Preferring to fight a battle on one front, as opposed to several, she began deciding how to hinder the rear troops approach. A nearby barge was in the process of loading animals for market. Lying on the dock were several crates full of small fowl yet to be loaded. As she passed them, the Conqueror easily sliced through the ropes binding them closed. A small kick sent the cages open, releasing scores of birds grateful for freedom.
The release of birds obscured the Conqueror from her pursuers, giving her time to duck to the side unobserved. She began tossing crates onto the planks, spilling their contents, creating a hazard for the Babylonian soldiers to navigate. This also roused the dock workers into action, not appreciating their wares being so rudely handled.
Xena grinned, there was nothing she enjoyed more than a big brawl. Especially when the dock workers didnt seem to care who they were fighting, as long as they were connecting flesh with flesh. She pulled one worker to her side, clutching him tightly to prevent him for hitting her. "Listen to me," she spoke into his ear in his native tongue, "these guards have just killed King Nebuharin at the request of Princess Simoa. Now they plan to take over the city and allow a woman to rule." She gave him a shove, sending him back into the fray to spread the word. As she heard him shout out about the unnaturalness of a woman leader, Xena thanked the Fates for the predictability of mens actions.
She vaulted atop a stack of merchandise to check on Gabrielle. The Babylonian troops had descended down onto the docks and now had the others engaged in combat. She spotted her fair-haired oracle rather easily, being a cascade of light in a dark sea of combat. The snow leopard at her side was striking out at any foolish enough to come too close to her. Xena was grateful that the close combat would prevent the Babylonians from using missile weapons for fear of killing their own.
The precaution did not apply to the troops following her, however. One archer spotted her atop the crates and aimed his arrow at her heart. He was more than a little surprised when the dark haired ruler caught it in her hand. He watched in horror as Xena leapt from the crates and used the arrow to impale the neck of one of his comrades, smiling at him as she did so.
The Conqueror continued her approach toward Gabrielle. Every carton she passed ended up strewn across the path behind her. Angry merchants cluttered the way trying to retrieve their goods, and to protect them from the thieves who naturally flocked to take advantage of the distraction. Dock workers fought merchants who fought thieves who fought guards who fought them all, and tried to quell the growing rebellion caused by a single, loud-mouthed man who insisted Princess Simoa was behind some great evil.
The Amazons were faring less well in battle than the Conqueror had anticipated. Without the advantages normally afforded them in Greece trees which provided an extra dimension to the battle they were forced into hand-to-hand combat. Their leathers did not protect them well from sword strikes, being too minimal to prevent or deflect impact. Through the crowds, Xena could see that Tamara had suffered a series of blows to her sword arm, now hanging useless by her side. The Amazon soldiers body was half-turned to still protect her Queen, but her uncoordinated left arm and the severe blood loss she had already sustained were making that task difficult.
A Babylonian soldier dove from atop a crate at the Conqueror. Xena waited until the last possible moment before springing forward, neatly missing his leap. He crashed hard against the docks, the wind momentarily knocked out of him. As the Conquerors sword sliced through both lungs, the wind permanently left him.
Xena marched on. She was challenged several times by those foolish enough to ignore the blood copiously running down the length of her blade. Each of those men contributed their own blood to the flow.
Up ahead on the docks, Gabrielle stood in the center of a protective ring of human flesh. Lao Ma was in front of her. The Chin Empress, without benefit of any visible weapon, had managed to keep the Babylonian soldiers at bay. She spoke in hypnotic, low tones and occasionally waved a hand, directing her opponents attention in another direction. However, Gabrielle noticed her struggling more as the number of their opponents increased.
Eponin was at Gabrielles right side. The Commander kept shoving the Queen in the direction of the ship, toward Palaemon and the other Royal Guard. Her one goal was to form a solid line of defense, with the water at their back. It was too difficult trying to hold off foes on all sides. Especially when Tamara would not last much longer.
Tamara stumbled. Exhausted, her hand opened and her sword clattered to the wooden planks, useless. She turned sad eyes to her Queen as she felt a Babylonian sword impale her. Instinctually, she reached up to protest the meeting of metal and flesh, but never finished the movement. Instead, she fell to the ground beside her sword.
Emboldened by the kill, the soldier took a swing at the woman the others were obviously protecting. He couldnt imagine what a small and insignificant woman could have done to engender such loyalty. Swinging, he moved in for the kill.
Pei-cha waited until the last possible second before leaping for the soldiers throat. His teeth sunk deep into the Babylonians neck, and he shook his head, ripping the throat open. The soldier crumbled to the ground with Pei-cha landing heavily on his chest, the last of his breath leaving through the rent throat. The snow leopard let out a long hiss, the force of the air splattering the soldiers own blood across his still features.
"Good, kitty," Eponin muttered. "Keep moving, my Queen! We must get you to safety!" the soldier shouted over the din of battle.
"Wheres Xena?" Gabrielle cried out. "Where are the others?"
Eponin shrugged broad shoulders, and then parried a blow. "My Queen, she will find you. I know that." The Commander took a step back, forcing the fair-haired woman to move with her. "Please, Palaemon is only a short distance away. We must get to him."
Gabrielle nodded, good sense winning out. She stayed close behind Lari, who had moved in to take Tamaras position, and the four women and snow leopard began moving toward the Greeks.
Palaemon, Novan and Eward had formed a solid line along the dock. The three were accustomed to fighting alongside one another, years of drilling by the Conqueror had taught them teamwork. Palaemon also realized that their only hope lay on reaching the ship and casting off, hoping to use the natural barrier of the water to protect them. He wasnt quite sure how they would escape Babylon, but he wasnt planning on dying on its filthy docks.
The Captain was glad to see the Amazons moving Gabrielle closer to their position. Eponin seemed to have realized what he had done in creating a safe zone for the oracle. Now, he thought, as he blocked a sword strike at his shoulder, they just had to hold it until the Conqueror arrived.
Kelryn climbed over another pile of crates following the one she held responsible for this fiasco. Wynn had slipped away from the Amazons the moment the fighting began. The Amazons heart wanted her to be by her Queen, but her head told her nothing could save them now. The odds were overwhelming. Kelryns one desire had become the elimination of their betrayer. It only made sense to her that Wynn had told someone in the palace of their planned escape. It had to be the painter who had alerted the guards. For that, Kelryn would kill her.
Wynn waited while the fighting raged around her. She wasnt too surprised to see Babylonians fighting one another. Battle was confusing. Especially as she watched the Conqueror throw merchandise everywhere. She waited until the combatants were distracted and then she slipped through the fighting once more. When she finally reached the road, she began sprinting toward the palace.
The Conqueror stepped over Kulams lifeless body. The Persian ruler looked surprised that death had found him. Xena knew that his son would be displeased to not have inflicted the blow himself. It would be for that reason, and not the death of his father, that she believed Persia would declare war on Babylon.
"Xena!" a male voice cried out nearby.
She turned and saw Pompey being forced back by his opponent. He was fighting with his left hand, his right hand having been broken by the Conqueror in the tunnels.
Sighing, she drew a dagger from her boot and threw it at the Babylonian soldier engaging the Roman. It became buried to the hilt in the soldiers neck. "Come on, Pompey."
The Roman did not need a second invitation and he immediately came to her side. Together, they made their way through the battle, which as Babylonians continued to fall, resembled less a fighting force than a common street brawl.
The more professional soldiers, though, were engaged in battle with the Amazons and their Queen. Now, only a bodylength away from the Greeks, it was almost impossible to move.
A Babylonian soldier, taking advantage of the close quarters, unsheathed a dagger from his belt and thrust it into Laris stomach.
The Amazon was shocked by the cold feel of blade and the warmth of the blood pouring out of her gut. She hadnt expected such a short strike. She cried out when soldier grabbed the blade and tore it through the rest of her midsection. Then she stopped feeling the pain.
Gabrielle screamed as she witnessed Laris death.
She screamed again as the knife lodged itself into her upper arm, having been deflected from her heart at the last moment by Eponin.
The Commander head-butted the Babylonian, and, when he fell to his knees, neatly slit his throat. She turned her attention to Gabrielle, "My Queen?"
"Im fine," Gabrielle replied, her voice unwavering despite the pain.
There was no time for the Commander to disagree with her. Another three soldiers rushed them, each sensing victory at hand. One tackled Eponin about the knees, bringing the strong warrior down on Lao Ma. A second leapt atop the heap of bodies, randomly striking with his sword. It was difficult for him to make any good hits, however, in the close quarters. Mostly, he was hitting with the flat of the blade, causing only bruising but no lasting damage.
Eponin struggled at the bottom of the pile. Unable to gain good leverage as Lao Ma was beneath her, she fought as best she could, attempting to dislodge the two large bodies above her.
The third soldier eyed the small Amazon Queen before him. "Youre mine," he whispered, not caring that she did not speak his language. He drew back his sword to impale her when large teeth sank into his wrist. He howled in pain as a snow leopard dangled from his arm, ripping open his skin to expose the muscle and bone below. His sword fell to the ground.
Pei-cha released him and moved back to his defensive position beside Gabrielle. He snarled at the soldier who did not flee despite the wound inflicted.
Instead, the soldier drew his dagger and locked eyes with the beast. With a strong throw, fueled by his injured pride for being wounded by a mere animal, he threw it at the leopard satisfied when it sank deep into the white pelt, near the neck.
Pei-cha let out a low growl of pain as the knife entered his body and he slumped down.
"Pei-cha!" Gabrielle cried, dropping to her knees beside the cat, her hands searching for knife hilt. She pulled it out and pressed her hand against his fur, attempting to staunch the flow of blood.
The soldier bent down and retrieved his sword, grasping it in his non-dominant hand. His two colleagues were still rolling on the ground with the large Amazon. The leopard was no longer a danger. The kill was his. With a cry, he drove the blade into the small womans side. "Victory for Marduk! Death to the heretics!"
It surprised Gabrielle that the second wound did not hurt as much as the first. She knew it was deeper, and in a more dangerous location, but it didnt seem quite real. She tightened her hold on Pei-cha and the two of them fell to the planks.
From across the battle, the Conqueror witnessed the blow. A horror within her welled up and fought its way out of her throat, "No!" She tightened her grip on the bloody hilt of her sword. "No!" Renewed with energy, she began crashing through the battle to her oracle.
Novan witnessed the blow as well and made the only decision she knew the Conqueror would accept. She threw her sword back behind the safe line, to keep it from an opponents hand, and then threw her body in the opposite direction. She sailed through the remaining distance to cover the oracles body with her own. As she was much larger than the petite Queen, Novan curled herself around Gabrielle and waited for the attack to fall on her instead.
Palaemon launched himself at the man who had struck Gabrielle, giving up the line, knowing now that it did not matter. The Conqueror would not leave if her oracle were dead. He knew she would stay until she had slaughtered every last Babylonian herself. There was now no need of escape, only retribution. He was glad to provide it as well, gratified when he removed the mans head from his shoulders.
The Babylonians surged again. Palaemon fought to keep the men away from Novan who lay on the ground, defenseless, protecting the Queen with her own body. However, there were too many and he watched in horror as Novan absorbed numerous strikes, many of which her leathers and armor did not protect her from.
As he began to despair, he saw the Conqueror approach, taking his breath away. She moved with the rage of Ares, her blade neatly slicing through anything in her path. The darkness which enveloped her repulsed soldiers from her. They recoiled in horror as she approached, but she gave them no respite. Any within her reach died swiftly. Bodies littered the planks behind her, their blood flowing free through the planks and into the Euphrates. Palaemon knew the river would run red when she was through.
When Xena arrived at his side, she quickly killed the two soldiers struggling atop Eponin. The Amazon clamored to her feet, helping Lao Ma up as she went. "My Queen!" she gasped, upon seeing the stricken Gabrielle.
Eward moved forward from the line to join Palaemon and Eponin now provide cover for the Conqueror and her oracle. However, there were far fewer opponents than moments before. No new Babylonians wishing to risk the wrath of the dark lord who had gone through their midst moments before. Both sides stood staring at one another, gasping for breath, ready to resume battle at the slightest provocation.
The Conqueror knelt beside Novan. Rolling her Guard over gently, she found Gabrielle in her protective embrace. Gabrielle clutched the bloodied Pei-cha to herself.
Xena was horrified at the amount of blood on her oracle. It covered her arms and chest and hair. Remarkably, her face was clean of it, save for a small smear on her left cheek. Carefully, Xena disentangled Gabrielle from Novan and the leopard, pulling her oracles small body into her own embrace.
The rage within her died as the Conqueror held Gabrielle. She kissed the forehead under chin, and was glad to feel the warmth of Gabrielles skin. She was still alive. Efficiently, Xena ripped the bottom third of Gabrielles dress then used the cloth to quickly bind her wounds. Once the worst of the bleeding was staunched, she gathered Gabrielle in her arms. Then Xena stood and faced the remaining Babylonian troops.
"See to Novan and Pei-cha," the Conqueror ordered Eward and Lao Ma. "Palaemon, Eponin, come with me."
Settling her precious cargo in her arms, the Conqueror began moving through the throng on the docks, heading toward the main road. She abhorred every step she took that brought her back into the city. Yet she knew unless she confronted Vedtrilan there would be so safe passage for them. The opposing soldiers melted away from her as she passed. None were foolish enough to engage her, even with the small woman in her arms, they knew to do so would mean their death.
Kelryn came running down the road and fell to her knees before the Conqueror. "My Queen!" The young Amazon paled at the sight of the unconscious woman in the Greek rulers arms. Quickly remembering her message, she continued. "Your Majesty! Prince Vedtrilan has ordered his sisters capture and Allemanes as well!"
Deadly eyes locked on Kelryns. "Where have you been?" The Conquerors voice was low and held the promise of immediate punishment for the wrong answer.
"Your Majesty, I was attempting to kill the traitor, Wynn, but she wasnt a traitor. She was able to see the Prince. Hes given the order to the army to stop the attack. I I "
"Arrest her, Commander," Xena ordered.
"Your Majesty?" Eponin risked a glance at the dark ruler, trying to understand the order.
"Do as I say."
Eponin stepped forward and reluctantly wrapped her hand around Kelryns upper arm. She pulled the younger warrior to her feet. "Come with me, Kelryn." Eponins hazel eyes tried to convey an encouraging sentiment, but she wasnt so sure of Kelryns future.
The Conqueror resumed her march. While Gabrielles weight was insubstantial, it felt like the one Atlas bore due to her stillness. Xena longed for her oracle to move, to sigh, to speak, to do anything to assure her she would be all right. She tightened her hold on her bundle, rubbing her cheek against the blood-matted hair.
Xena moved along the Sacred Walk, the same one they had used to enter the city a few days prior. Nebuharin had been a fool ultimately. The Conqueror wondered if the end of her reign would be as replete with failure, if an act of hubris would be her last, and if Greece would suffer because of it. But more than anything, she wondered if Nebuharin had cost her the life she valued most in the world.
Approaching her was a procession from the palace. In the center of the group was a tall man by Babylonian standards. Dressed in white, as his father had been, adorned with colorful scarves and beads, Prince Vedtrilan, now King Vedtrilan, came forward and held out his hands in greeting. "Conqueror Xena!" He snapped his fingers and two attendants rushed forward toward Gabrielle.
"Stay back!" Xena warned.
Wynn stepped around one of the Babylonians she had been following. "Conqueror, I have told King Vedtrilan of the treason by his sister and Lord Allemane. King Vedtrilan has sent his troops to put down the uprising."
The Conqueror stared intently at the young man who would now take his fathers place. "Your sister and Lord Allemane conspired to kill your father and frame you for the murder. Failing that, I assume you would have met with a similar unfortunate demise as did several heads of state your father had invited here as guests of his home. Your sister has disgraced your country and your gods. I look to you to restore Babylonian honor."
"Marduk is displeased," Vedtrilan agreed. "He requires our hospitality and protection of strangers within our land. I can only offer you my most sincere condolences and the services of my healers for your companion."
Xena considered his words for a long moment, knowing she wanted to have Gabrielle attended to soon, but she needed more from the new King. "I have several demands. One, Princess Simoas life is forfeit. Two, Lord Allemane is mine. Three, safe passage immediately provided for my party. And, four, there will be tribute paid to Greece by Babylon to forestall our invasion for this egregious affront."
"Princess Simoa will be punished, but according to Babylonian law."
"What she has done is punishable by death," Wynn provided.
Vedtrilan shrugged. "Marduk will decide her fate. And that of her son."
"Her son?" Xena echoed. "I thought Amurin was a child yet, incapable of participating in this uprising."
"Yes, but still very much my enemy." His brown eyes traveled to the still form in the Conquerors arms. "Please, Conqueror, let us attend to her."
"I will go with her," Xena countered, unwilling to let Gabrielle out of her sight in the hostile territory, as she now considered Babylon. Vedtrilans grip on power was too tenuous at best. All she wanted was Gabrielles wounds dressed and a ship provided. Greece would heal all wounds.
So Xena followed the King and attendants back into the hated palace and gardens.
Nightfall greeted the Conqueror sitting by Gabrielles bed. The young oracle hadnt awakened since her injury. Xena and the healers had seen to her wounds, cleaning them and packing them with healing herbs. The only thing that remained to be done was wait. Long years on the battlefield had taught the Conqueror one thing about stomach wounds: they either killed you quickly, or you recovered slowly.
A knock at the door was ignored by the Conqueror.
The door opened slowly and Palaemon stepped into the room. "My liege, how is she?"
"I should destroy Babylon for what has been done to her. I should tear this city down brick by brick and leave nothing alive for her injuries."
Palaemon nodded and ran a large hand through his short hair, trying to rid the Babylonian sand from his scalp. "I would gladly help you, my liege."
"How is Novan?" The Conqueror played with the fingers of Gabrielles right hand, moving them gently, wishing they would grasp her own.
"Badly injured, Conqueror. She took a number of sword strikes meant for Queen Gabrielle. Her lower back suffered the worst."
"When will she be able to travel?"
"The healers will protest, but, if we have appropriate medications and accommodations onboard ship, tomorrow."
Xena nodded, "It will be so. I will see to it." She looked out the window at the darkness beyond. "Report on the others."
"My liege, Minon is dead. He was found dangling from the ships mast, an arrow in his chest. Eward is fine, however, as is Commander Eponin. Tamara and Lari are dead. Kelryn is under your arrest. Wynn is back in the Kings court. Princess Simoa is under arrest, as is Lord Allemane. Triumvir Pompey is being treated for his injuries. Lao Ma is attending to Pei-cha, who is expected to live."
The Conqueror shook her head, "Nothing but bad news, eh?"
"I saw the cat kill several soldiers who tried to harm Queen Gabrielle, my liege."
"I suppose shell make me take it back to Greece with us," Xena complained, smiling down at her lover, wanting Gabrielle to awaken and confirm that desire. Bending down and placing a kiss on the fingers she held, Xena then straightened up. "Stay with her, Palaemon. No one enters through that door but me."
"Yes, my liege."
"And I should be notified immediately of any change in her condition."
"Of course, my liege, on my life."
The Conqueror walked over to Palaemon and grasped his chin her hand, turning his face from side to side, studying it carefully. Just as abruptly, she released him and strode out the door.
The Conqueror had a palace servant lead her to the room where Pompey was being treated. Entering, she found a healer applying salve to the wounds the Roman had suffered in the battle. "Get out," she commanded, her voice allowing for no opposition.
"I " the mans protest died. "Yes, Conqueror." With a slight bow, the man slipped out the door.
Xena stood over the sleeping form and studied the triumvirs slack features. The resemblance between her detested enemy and her trusted lieutenant was uncanny. And was about to become more so.
She walked over to the fireplace providing the main source of light in the room. Squatting down, she withdrew her dagger from her boot and held its blade in the fire, waiting until it glowed red. Xena carried a candle over as she returned to Pompeys side, setting it down so it would cast light where she needed it.
A quick jab to Pompeys throat guaranteed his remaining asleep while she worked; though she did it not out of compassion but so as to avoid any mistakes in her task due to his movement. With equal efficiency, Xena took the hot blade and carved Palaemons scars into Pompeys skin.
Once the Conqueror was satisfied with her work, she wiped the bloody knife off on the bedsheets. "Well be seeing each other again, Pompey. Though, I doubt if youll be pleased to see me." She released the pressure point and left the room as Pompeys screams began.
"King Vedtrilan, the Conqueror of Greece requests an audience."
Even as the announcement was made, Xena strode into the throne room, her dark cape billowing behind her. As she entered, the kings attendants backed away. She stood in its center drawing all attention onto herself, commanding by sheer force of will. "I want to know your judgment on Simoa and I want Allemane delivered to me." She paused when no one sprang immediately into action. "Now."
Vedtrilan shifted on his throne as if it were too big to hold him properly. "Conqueror Xena, I am saddened to inform you that my sister has taken her own life and that of her child. To commit suicide is a terrible transgression against the providence and justice of Marduk. It is an -"
"Spare me the religious dissertation, Vedtrilan. I have no use for yours or any other gods." The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest. "Show me the bodies. I have had enough Babylonian deception to fill my gullet for a lifetime."
The young king was about to protest her comments when good sense won out. His advisors noticeably relaxed upon realizing he would not further insult the dangerous ruler in their midst. A long brown finger lifted from the arm of his chair and pointed to a small alcove off of the throne room.
Xenas gaze followed in that line and settled on two shrouded figures in the area, resting side-by-side. Her footsteps were heavy as she crossed the room, the heels of her boots contacting sharply with the marble floors. With the toe of her boot, she pushed back the linen covering the face of the larger figure. The features on the young woman were similar to Nebuharin. She kicked off the linen from the smaller figure. The child had markedly lighter skin than his mother and the curly hair of Lord Allemane.
The Conqueror looked back into the throne room and spotted Wynn standing among the attendants. "Come here."
Wynn obeyed readily, without bothering to ask Vedtrilan for permission. She went to the Conqueror's side and bowed her head. "Your majesty?"
"Is that Simoa and her boy?"
The artist looked at the two dead figures on the floor whom she had recently painted in portraits. "Yes, Conqueror."
"Very good." Xena returned to the main room. "Bring me Allemane."
"Conqu-" The new king instantly rethought his objection as he took in her countenance. "Do it."
While they waited for the guards to bring the Gaul in from where he was being held, Xena approached Vedtrilan. Speaking in low tones so as to not be overheard, "Do not imagine that the worst is now over, Vedtrilan. Your fathers foolish actions in inviting nine heads of state to Babylon is compounded by five of their deaths."
"Five?" Vedtrilan echoed, counting only Kulam, Dokov, Farza and Gregor.
"Five," the Conqueror repeated. "You will be pressed from the north and the east: Persia and Syria will demand blood. Do not believe, either, that I have forgotten the insult and dishonor shown to me and the Amazon Queen by your country. My memory is long and my fury unquenchable should tribute ever stop being paid to Greece. You will provide me with one quarter of your bounty every year for as long as Greece remains. Know that you rule at my pleasure and anytime you becoming displeasing to me, I will end your reign."
"I serve by the will of Marduk."
Xena shook her head slightly and chuckled. "I know of the festival of Marduk, Vedtrilan, of you possibly atoning for the sins of the people. Do not believe I will hesitate to punish you on Marduks behalf, as you are there communing with the priestess of Ishtar." Xena heard the footsteps of the guards and the prisoner. "As I am about to demonstrate, Greeces wrath is poured out. And is only satisfied by a blood offering."
Allemane was pushed to his knees by Harib, the Marshall of the Babylonian guard. It was apparent from the bloodied lip and swollen face that Allemane had already been subject to interrogation by Vedtrilans forces.
The Conqueror circled the downed man, studying him as the lioness surveys the weakest of her prey. "Make your confession, Allemane."
Dark, insolent eyes peered back at her through a mass of tangled curls.
"Its the only way you may yet live."
Xena licked her lips slowly, as if tasting the words. Inclining her head toward the dead bodies in the alcove, she murmured, "Now, is that any way to talk of your lover? The mother of your bastard child?" Hearing Vedtrilan clear his throat to begin a protest, Xena held up a hand, cutting him off. "You are a coward, Allemane. There are very few things I despise more than a man with no backbone or balls."
Swooping down quickly, she latched a large hand around his testicles and squeezed, crushing the flesh. Just as swiftly, she moved away as he fell on his side, crying out in pain. "You seem to have the necessary parts, but I must assume they are not fully formed in your case." Xena shrugged and wiped her hand on her cloak. "Confess and you may yet live. Tell me of your cowardice."
"I should have killed you first," he spat out between gasps of air.
Xena pursed her lips. "Yes, you should have, if you had wanted to succeed. Instead, in your cowardice, you killed your host by poison. You, a guest in his house, raised a hand against him. You have no honor."
"I have more than you, Destroyer."
"Do not delude yourself. Every ruler I ever killed, I fought in fair battle. I made my intentions clear; I declared myself an enemy, gave them a chance to arm themselves, and perhaps live. I did not come as a guest. I did not drink their wine and eat their food. I did not offer a hand of hospitality. I did not lie."
"O pardon me," came the sarcastic reply.
"I think not. What did you think you could gain by this foolishness? Forestall the invasion of Gaul by Rome by murdering Pompey? But, you were expecting Caesar, were you not? Cut off one leg of the stool and the whole topples." She waved a hand. "It doesnt matter anymore. Your plan was ill-considered, ill-conceived. Like your dead child."
"I only regret I did not kill your whore."
"Ah, in a few moments your only regret will be that she was injured at all. You will beg the gods above to make it not so to end your torment." Slowly, Xena drew from her boot the dagger she had used to deform Pompey and tossed it on the ground before Allemane. "I demand an equal amount of flesh from you for her wounds. If you can carve it off and live, I will let you go."
The Gaul remained motionless for a long moment, staring at the knife a mere arms length away. Pushing himself upright, he regarded it carefully, as if it might spring to life on its own.
"I suggest you start with your unmentionables, you seem to have little need for them."
"You have to kill me, bitch."
Broad shoulders lifted and fell. "As you wish."
There was a blur of activity in front of him and then Allemane looked down at his arms. Both of his wrists were slit side-to-side and blood was spilling out of them.
Xena crouched down beside him and watched the blood splatter onto the marble floor, its sound melodious to her ears. "How does it feel, Allemane?"
"It is a relief to not have long to endure your company."
"Then let me hasten your journey." The knife once again cut through his flesh, this time slicing his arms from elbow to wrist.
"May your whore die!" he forced out, his features growing pale.
A messenger ran into the throne room and bowed briefly before Vedtrilan. Turning to the Conqueror to relay his message, the youth wavered slightly before the gruesome scene. "Conqueror, Queen Gabrielle is asking for you."
Sparkling blue eyes met waning brown ones. "Ah, your final wish is denied, Allemane." As Xena rose, she slit the Gauls throat. "And mine is granted."
Xena stood in the doorway and observed the small figure in the large bed. She could hear Palaemons footsteps as he drew further away from room, having been dismissed by the Conqueror moments before. Her eyes took in how the moonlight spilling through the window played in her oracles fair hair. It reminded her of a camp fire they had shared several moons ago, the way the light had played off Gabrielles features then.
"Are you going to stand there all night?" came the soft inquiry from across the room.
The Conqueror relaxed her shoulders, the tension suddenly dissipated. She had hurried back to the room only to have Palaemon tell her Gabrielle had fallen asleep again. Hearing the gentle voice of her oracle soothed her in a way Allemanes blood had not. After securing the door, Xena made her way to Gabrielles side, falling to her knees unceremoniously. She grasped hold of Gabrielles hands and squeezed them. "Thank the gods youre all right."
Gabrielle smiled at the declaration. "Its good to see you too. I was worried about you."
"Me?" Xena scoffed. "Im fine. You were the one who was hurt."
"Well, I was," Gabrielle assured, squeezing back. "I couldnt see you in the fight. I didnt like that."
"Im here now." The Conqueror leaned forward and kissed her oracle gently, glad for the opportunity to still do so. "How do you feel?"
The oracle shifted and winced. "You dont want to know."
A sword callused hand felt of Gabrielles forehead, gently wiping away the light sheen of perspiration accumulated there. "You have a slight fever," Xena reported. "Thats normal. And I bet your stomach hurts something awful."
Gabrielle nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Itll feel that way for awhile, Im afraid. But your scarring shouldnt be too bad. I did the stitches myself, and Im pretty good at them now."
"You did them?" The weak voice held a note of disbelief.
"Lots of practice on the battlefield. More than once I lost my healer and had to attend to my own injuries." Xena shook her head slightly to clear it of old memories.
"I dont think I could ever do that."
Xenas hand played in the now clean hair of her oracle. "I had hoped I would never have to take care of you in that way, Gabrielle. I am sorry I brought you here."
"Not your fault."
"Dont argue with me," Xena countered. "I know Im right. And you have a continuing obligation to me to always speak the truth." The Conquerors voice was rough with anger.
Gabrielle fully intended to argue this point with the Conqueror, but decided to let it wait until later, when she had more strength and when Xena wasnt so upset with herself. "You dont need to worry, Xena. Im going to be fine. Palaemon told me Novan was badly injured protecting me. How is she?"
"Expected to live. I will see her again when we move her on-board ship. Well be leaving this gods-be-damned country at first light. Im taking you home."
"I like the sound of that," the oracle replied. In more ways than one. "And you arrested Kelryn?"
"She deserted in battle. Shell have to be executed in front of the troops, as an example."
"No!" Gabrielle reached up and grasped onto the Conquerors cloak with surprising strength. "No, Xena. Shes one of my Amazons, I wont have her executed." When Xena opened her mouth to protest, Gabrielles hand traveled further and touched her lips. "Let me handle it."
"I dont want you to have to order anyones execution, Gabrielle. I know it goes against your nature. Let me do this for you, take the responsibility from you."
"No, you cant have it. I have to be Queen and handle it myself; otherwise, I shouldnt rule the Nation." Seeing that Xena wasnt continuing to protest, she moved her fingertips to graze the plane of the Conquerors cheek. "Youve spent so much time these last few moons trying to teach me to be a good ruler, I cant walk away from my obligations now."
"She has to be punished for her actions, Gabrielle. She left you in battle when she was part of your guard."
"Shell be judged by an Amazon court then." As she attempted to shift her position slightly, Gabrielle felt a solid band of pain grip her about the waist and hold her tight. Her breath hitched and she tensed, not moving further.
Having witnessed the reaction, Xena reached out and smoothed her lovers hair. "Relax. You need to relax into the pain or itll hurt worse."
"It really hurts," the younger woman whispered.
"I know it does," Xena soothed. "In a little while we can give you some herbs for the pain. But not until we get on the ship. Can you stay awake for me until then?"
"Will you stay with me?"
"Of course. Im not letting you out of my sight again, Gabrielle."
A warmth spread through the oracle at those words uttered softly by the Conqueror. "That sounds nice." She forced her stomach muscles to release and her body to stop fighting against the pain. Bit by bit, she eased back onto the soft mattress, the worst of the discomfort passed for the moment.
"Well, not many people would agree with you on that point."
Carefully, to avoid stretching her throbbing side, she reached out once again to tangle her fingers in the Conquerors cloak. "I dont care. I know what I want, who I want." She tugged Xena closer. "Lay down beside me, please."
"Its better that I dont, Gabrielle. I dont want to hurt you."
"It hurts me to have to twist to see you, Xena," her oracle countered. "Come up here and tell me what happened while I was unconscious."
"I am not a good storyteller."
"Xena." The request was softly spoken but filled with urgency.
"Shh, all right." The Conqueror leaned forward and placed a kiss on Gabrielles brow. She rose to her full height and walked around the bed to the other side. Very carefully, she lowered herself onto the mattress as close as she could to her oracle without disturbing Gabrielles position. With a free hand Xena spread her cloak over her body, warding off the chill of the night air. "Better?" she whispered, now laying on her side, facing a small, pink ear.
They laid together in silence for a few long moments, and Xenas hand traveled over to rest on Gabrielles forearm, stroking it lightly. "I remember when I had my first gut wound," Xena began softly. "I wasnt even twenty winters and had just secured my hold on all of Thrace."
Gabrielle nodded, afraid to speak, lest Xena stop.
"I was challenged by one of my lieutenants who had more ambition than brains. He got in a lucky strike, though, before I killed him. It slipped right under my armor and into my side, about here." Xena demonstrated by fingering a section of her waist directly above her left hip. Gabrielle was well familiar with the jagged scar located there, one of the few stories written on the Conqueror's skin. "However, I couldnt let anyone know I was injured. If I had, I would have been killed that night." At Gabrielles wide-eyed expression, Xena explained, "Armies are notorious for weeding out the weak leader. So, I stayed out among my men for another candlemark, grateful for my dark leathers, the twilight, and my high tolerance for pain. Once it was safe, I went back to my tent and examined the puncture. I couldnt call in my healer without admitting what was wrong, so I took a needle and the same gut thread used to fix my boots and did my first stitches on myself. Thats why the scar is so big and rough. I didnt know the first thing about the healing arts, but I vowed to learn everything I could from that moment on."
"You stitched your side up with shoe leather?" Gabrielle echoed.
"Ill never complain again."
"No," Xena squeezed Gabrielles arm gently, "I didnt tell you the story for that reason. I just wanted to let you know I know what youre going through. And I think youre very brave, although I wish you didnt have to be."
"I know you do, Xena. Thanks for staying here with me."
"It pleases me greatly to be with you, Gabrielle. I assure you that Babylon would not remain standing had I lost you."
First light found Xena overseeing arrangements for moving to the ship. She and Palaemon conferred in a corner of the room discussing provisions, arms and transport. From time to time, Xena would glance over at Gabrielle to check on her condition, knowing the young woman had to be in a tremendous amount of pain. She would give her the herbs to help diminish it once they were on-board and safe.
Eponin had reported at dawn as well and was now seated by her Queens bedside. Her eyes were tired and her skin sallow as the soldier worried her hands together.
"Eponin, stop it," Gabrielle chided, placed her smaller hand on top of two larger ones. "Youre making me nervous."
"Im sorry, my Queen."
"Were going home, thank Artemis." She took in as deep a breath as she dared to with her stitches. "Did Lari or Tamara have a family? I mean, besides the Nation. A bondmate, a child?"
The Commander nodded. "Lari had a bondmate of a few seasons; Tamara had a daughter and a sister."
"When we are back in Greece, I want to see them and thank them personally for their sacrifice. Gods, I sound so shallow. How can I thank them for the death of someone they loved? Nothing can ever make it right."
"They will be pleased to know Lari and Tamara were true daughters of Artemis until the end, my Queen. Personal and familial honor is very important."
"My Queen, surely you dont believe that life is the only end worth pursuing? If so, were no better than the beasts of the field. Without dignity, duty "
"I know, I agree, Eponin. Its just it hurts so much to lose them." Gabrielle paused and took a long drink of water, pleased when her stomach didnt clench up at the addition to its contents. "Where is Kelryn?"
"Shes already on-board the ship, my Queen, in the brig."
"What would Terreis do with her, Eponin? How would she have handled this situation?"
Eponin took a deep breath. It had been so long since she had thought about her best friend. It simply hurt too much to dwell on. Lately, it seemed the only time she thought of the former Queen was when she heard from Ephiny, Terreis surviving bondmate and regent in the Amazon territory. Im sorry, my friend, your memory deserves better. "She would have an immediate trial for Kelryn. It isnt good for an Amazons honor to be clouded by suspicion, even for a brief while."
"What do we need for a trial?"
"Unfortunately, my Queen, we need three Amazons of age. Each would then be free to ask questions of the accused. Once sufficient testimony was had either from the accused or other witnesses then the three would decide on a verdict."
"Can the Queen be one of the three?"
Eponins brow furrowed, "Of course, but, the accused cannot be."
"Of course not," Gabrielle countered. "But we have three."
"My Queen? Surely, you dont mean the Conqueror?"
"We have Wynn."
Before Eponin could comment, she was surprised by the Conquerors presence at the bedside. She hadnt even heard or felt her approach.
"Were about ready to leave. How are you doing?"
Gabrielle smiled, despite the pain that she felt in every part of her body, to reassure the Conqueror. "I look forward to being seasick."
An inscrutable look passed over the dark rulers features. "I dont think so, Gabrielle." She reached out and brushed the back of her fingers against her oracles cheek. "Youre going to sleep most of the journey and get better."
Gabrielle leaned into the caress. "Its a long journey." She closed her eyes and savored the gentleness of the moment, the Conquerors touch easing the pain she felt. "Will we get to say goodbye to Lao Ma and Pei-cha before we go?"
"Yes, Lao Ma will meet us at the docks. Shes leaving for Chin today as well."
"I wish I could have spent more time with her. Shes an amazing woman."
"Perhaps we will invite her to visit Corinth in the future."
"With Pei-cha?" Gabrielle teased.
"I could only hope not." Hearing a commotion at the door, the Conqueror turned and saw Palaemon admit four Babylonian servants with a litter for transporting Gabrielle. The Captain examined the men and the litter thoroughly before allowing them near the two rulers. "This will hurt some, Gabrielle." The Queen sucked in a breath in anticipation of the pain. "Well make it quick, I promise."
It certainly did not seem quick enough to the oracle, but she forced herself to not cry out in pain. Once she was settled on the pallet, she lay heavily on it, taking deep breaths and forcing the pain to a small corner of her awareness. She felt Eponin settling a light blanket over her and the servants carrying her out of the room. The only thing that made her feel better was knowing it was the beginning of the journey home.
Gabrielle faded in and out of awareness during the march. She was cognizant of Vedtrilan joining them, along with an honor guard of soldiers. She asked Eponin about Wynn at one point, but didnt hear the answer over the pain that suddenly seized her. When she next awoke, they were ascending the plank onto the ship. Almost home.
Lao Ma approached her and clasped her hand, stroking her thumb over Gabrielles wrist. "Queen Gabrielle, I am most gratified to see you still among us. You are a woman of true inner strength. No wonder the Conqueror has chosen you as her companion."
"Lao Ma." Gabrielle swallowed and wished away the pain. "I am so sorry about Pei-cha being hurt. Hes such a fine friend. I will miss him."
Dark eyes met her own. "I am afraid that it is I who will miss him. It has been clear since he met you where his allegiance lies. If you will accept his joining your party, both he and I would be pleased if he would represent Chin in the Greek court."
Fair eyebrows drew together in thought. "Xena agreed to this?"
The Empress laughed softly. "Eventually, yes. It is hard for untamed spirits to accept one another readily. In time, I believe both will well-regard the other."
"Then I accept, gratefully, Lao Ma."
Lao Ma inclined her head. Her free hand drifted over the blankets to rest atop Gabrielles wound. She gently pressed down on the edges of the bandage and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle felt a flood of warmth spill over her stomach, growing in intensity until she was sure Lao Ma held a torch to her side. When it was almost unbearable, it ended.
"May you be well, Queen Gabrielle."
"Thank you, Lao Ma. You too."
Gabrielle slept once more.
Palaemon started at the knock on the cabin door. He stood up and shook himself, trying to wake up, having fallen asleep while watching over Novan. The healer had left instructions for the soldier to have salve applied to her wounds every few hours, to prevent them from drying up, and for the bandages to be changed regularly to prevent infection. At midday the healer retired to his cabin to sleep, having attended to Novan throughout the night, and seen to her transfer on board.
The Captain opened the door and was surprised to find the Conqueror standing behind it with a tray of food in her hands. He took it from her immediately and stepped aside for her to enter. "My liege," he acknowledged, bowing his head. "I wasnt expecting you."
Xena frowned. "I was dismissed from my own cabin by Gabrielle. She has declared it an Amazon council room and she, Eponin and Wynn are speaking with Kelryn now. Somehow, I doubt if there will be an execution taking place on board."
Palaemons mouth twitched but he did not reply for a long moment. "Perhaps, my liege, she will learn how to better serve her queen."
"She had better, or next time I will not step aside."
"Would you like me to serve you?" Palaemon asked, indicating the tray laden with rolled meats, fruit and bread.
Xena waved a hand. "No, no, thats for you two. I will take my meal later. I knew you," she pointed a finger at her captain, "wouldnt leave to visit the galley. So, I made the cook provide enough food for you and Novan for the day. You are invaluable to me in service, Palaemon. Even more so now." Her eyes took in the scars on his face. "You must stay strong."
"My liege, I am your humble servant."
From the pallet, Novan groaned as she adjusted her position, the pain awakening her. As her eyes fluttered open, she realized the Conqueror was standing in the room. She tried to sit up, but was thwarted by a firm hand on her shoulder. "Stay down, Novan. Dont be foolish."
"My liege. Your pardon," the officer whispered through gritted teeth.
"None needed. I am very proud of you, Novan. Your courage on the battlefield and your protection of my interests were well noted. What would you like in reward?"
The large soldier shook her head and swatted at the hair that spilled over her eyes. "Nothing, my liege. Except to continue serving you."
"Granted." Xena bent down and gripped Novans shoulder. "But I am pleased to have you return to Greece as Palaemons second. You will be responsible for the security of the palace, and specifically for overseeing the safety of Queen Gabrielle. In addition, you will be given a room in the palace to live and your stipend will be tripled."
"My liege "
"Do not protest good fortune, Lieutenant Novan. You have earned your place. And you will serve to keep it."
"Now, rest. We have a long journey and I intend to have you assume your new responsibilities immediately upon our return." The Conqueror rose to her full height and regarded Palaemon. "Take care of your lieutenant, Captain."
"Yes, my liege."
Gabrielle shifted on her bed, trying not to jostle her side too badly. She had no desire to conduct the trial at this time, but she knew Kelryn needed to face her Amazon sisters.
The young Amazon sat on a stool next to the wall. She couldnt bring herself to meet her Queens eyes; instead, she sat slumped over, elbows on knees, staring intently at the floorboards. The night and half day in the brig had sobered her. She had asked for, and received, from Eponin a scroll, quill and ink. For what she had done, she knew a possible sentence was death. Kelryn had spent the evening writing to her mother and sisters.
Wynn found it curious that she was included in the Amazon council. She had not even been sure she would still be welcome in their traveling party after she had run back to Vedtrilan. Still more surprising to Wynn was the fact that Gabrielle had not mentioned her flight and yet expected her to sit in judgment of Kelryns.
Eponin seriously doubted her young ruler would be ordering an execution for Kelryns behavior. Gabrielle was so gentle, the Commander had a difficult time imagining she could ever be brought to hurt anyone, whether they deserved punishment or not. Yet, at the same time, Eponin tried to reconcile the tender heart with Gabrielles absolute and public devotion to the dark Greek ruler. I guess anything is possible.
"Kelryn, you are here to answer charges brought against you by your Amazon sisters," Gabrielle began, speaking softly, as drawing in too much breath was painful. "Namely, that during an enemy attack you abandoned your duties as a soldier and member of the Queens Royal Guard and fled. Abandonment and desertion are serious crimes and both are punishable by death. How do you answer the charges?"
Kelryn swallowed hard, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill out. In all her imaginings of her career as a soldier in the Queens service, she had never seen such an outcome. She tried to speak, but her throat was so tight with emotion, she couldnt. Instead, she bowed her head further, wishing she could become part of the floor.
The Commander scratched her jaw and cleared her throat in an attempt to capture Kelryns attention. "You need to answer your Queen, Kelryn."
"Im sorry," came the stark whisper.
"I know, soldier, but thats not an answer to the charges."
Anguished eyes tore themselves away from the wooden floor and met her Queens. "My Queen " Kelryn struggled for control as she felt her voice breaking. "I am guilty of abandonment, but not desertion."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "What happened out there, Kelryn?"
The soldier clenched her jaw shut slightly to quell her emotion and stared at a spot on the cabin wall to the left of her Queen. "I was providing rear guard when the worst of the fighting was taking place. I saw Commander Eponin and Tamara and Lari " Kelryn angrily wiped at tears which escaped onto her cheeks at the thought of her two fallen friends. "I saw them gather around you, my Queen, and move you closer to the ship. I didnt think I guess thats the problem I didnt think I could make it to you or to them. The fighting was so bad. I thought I would die for sure." She took a deep breath and looked at Wynn. "I saw her run away. I thought she was the one who had betrayed you. I thought we were all dead. But I didnt want her to get away with her betrayal. So I followed her to kill her. It was to be my final gift to you."
Gabrielle blew out a breath. Why is that all soldiers think of the death of another as a gift? She knew that the Conqueror would share this viewpoint with Kelryn. Though, the Queen was forced to admit, Xena would never consider defeat to be at hand. "What should you have done?"
"Performed my duties, my Queen."
"What are your duties?" Eponin asked, interested to hear the junior soldiers response.
"To protect Queen Gabrielle and my sisters."
Eponin leaned back and crossed her legs at the ankles. "So what went wrong?"
Angry eyes met the Commanders. The soldier pressed her lips together, fighting her words.
"What went wrong?" Eponin repeated.
"I did what I thought was best at the moment," Kelryn protested, sitting up a bit straighter.
"And that would be the problem," Gabrielle interjected. "Kelryn, I dont doubt that you had the best of intentions in following Wynn."
Wynn chuckled. "You mean in killing me, Gab my Queen?"
The Amazon Queen shared a smile with the painter. "Well, yes." Her green eyes returned to Kelryn. "But, you need to learn that there is much you dont know. You havent been a soldier long enough to make decisions like that."
"I just thought "
Gabrielle raised her hand to stop the protest. "I brought you to Babylon because I believe in you, but I also intended for you to learn from Eponin. She, along with the Conqueror and Palaemon, is one of the finest soldiers I have ever known. Its easy to be young and know more than everyone else. Its difficult to live your talk. Thats what Eponin does each and every day."
The Commander fought a blush that she felt stealing across her features. "My Queen, you honor me too much."
Wynn watched the exchange very carefully, still feeling out of place in the session, but glad she was able to study Gabrielle and Eponin so closely.
"Do you have anything else to say in your defense, Kelryn?"
The youth shook her head.
"You may step outside then while we decide your punishment."
Kelryn pushed herself up to her feet and left the room, her feet dragging heavily across the boards.
With Kelryn out of the room, Gabrielle lowered herself down on the bed with a sigh. Her side hurt, not as much as before, but she needed to lie down. Eponin came to her aid and helped her resettle herself. "Should I get the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle shook her head, knowing that if Xena was brought in she would stop the proceedings. "No, lets discuss and be done with it."
"Excuse me, but why am I here?"
Gabrielle turned her head slightly to regard the red-head. "Youre here because we needed a quorum, because Kelryn deserves to travel home with some peace of mind. As a born Amazon, you can sit in judgment of another. However, I understand your reluctance."
"Why arent I being judged? I ran away too."
"Why do you think?
The painter shrugged and spread her hands. "I have absolutely no idea."
"You ran, but you had no reason to stay."
"Im an Amazon," Wynn protested.
"Born and bred."
"Then why did you run?" Gabrielle asked.
"I didnt. I went for help, because I knew I needed to. I cant fight, I wont even paint a battle scene. But, I do know how to build alliances and how to work them."
"So, why should I think you ran? We all have roles to play in the Nation, Wynn. I have mine, Eponin has hers, so does Kelryn. You have one as well. I trust you, Wynn, and I believe you did what you thought was best. I will continue to trust you until you give me reason to do otherwise."
Wynn nodded. "You wouldnt execute her for being brash, would you?"
"I have no intention of ordering Kelryns death. Do you, Commander?"
Eponin shook her head vigorously. "No, my Queen."
"I think Kelryn should be taught to not trust herself so much, to learn to follow orders. Then she can start thinking creatively."
"How will you do that?"
"I will be leaving that to you, Commander."
Wynn suppressed a laugh as Eponin winced.
"For the next two seasons, Kelryn is yours. I want her doing anything and everything you see fit. Mostly, however, I want her to do things for others, to learn to see others as more important than herself. Can you do that, Eponin?"
As the possibilities unfolded themselves in her mind, Eponin smiled. "Yes, my Queen."
"Lets tell her."
A moon had passed. A moon filled with mostly unchanging scenery, from small strips of green that had lined the banks of the Euphrates, to the burnt ground of the desert, to the clear blue depths of the Mediterranean. Now aboard her private vessel, manned by the Greek Royal Navy, and headed for home, the Conqueror finally allowed herself to relax her constant state of vigilance. In another day they would reach Corinth.
Xena had not tried to think about how close she had come to never seeing Greece again. Had Gabrielle died, Xena had vowed to destroy Babylon, person by person, brick by brick. While her pride would not allow her to concede her own death in such a pursuit, her rational mind could, nevertheless, envision it as a possibility.
Yet Gabrielle lived. And was improving steadily. Lao Ma had helped speed her recovery, as she had Xenas so many winters before. The only unfortunate thing was the Empress had left Pei-cha behind.
The snow leopard was already fully healed from his wounds, being too stubborn to die, at least, in the Conquerors estimation. Of course, anything would flourish under the amount of attention Gabrielle had bestowed on the beast. She fed the feline from her own plate, brushed his fur constantly, and let him sleep at the end of their bed.
That would end in Corinth. Of that much the Conqueror was certain. She would be Caesars puppet before she would allow the cat free reign over her palace and into her quarters. There had to be a line drawn somewhere. Even for something Gabrielle wanted.
Novans health had improved as well. By the time they had boarded The Majesty, the former sailor insisted upon assuming her duties as Palaemons second. This she interpreted as assuming command of the ship and allowing Eponin to assign various duties to Kelryn. The young soldier was learning obedience slowly. Yet, she was grateful to be alive and still in service to her queen.
In a moon, Wynns hair had grown down to her shoulders. The painter had vowed to never cut her hair again, never to be reminded of her prior status as a slave. She kept mostly to herself, preferring the company of the paints she had brought with her than any person. Gabrielle had been unsure, when Xena had asked, about her plans for the returning Amazon. She was torn between wanting to integrate Wynn as quickly as possible into the tribe, and wanting to allow her to acquaint herself at her own pace. Half a lifetime apart from her sisters was a large obstacle to overcome.
Palaemon served diligently. Having won over Eponins respect and loyalty in Babylon, the two worked well together. He knew the Conqueror would reward him upon their return, but he could not begin to imagine what he lacked. He had wealth and influence beyond most mens dreams. He served the greatest ruler any had ever known. If he could say there was one thing missing in his life, it would be his own oracle. One who could bring a professional soldier like himself to the savage tenderness the Conqueror exhibited around Gabrielle.
The Conqueror opened the door to the cabin she and Gabrielle shared. The small oracle was lying on the bed, restless despite the lateness of the night. It seemed that her side hurt most when Helios was gone from the sky, as if the warmth of his light alone soothed the ache.
"Youre still awake?" Xena asked unnecessarily, seeing the gentle green gaze from across the room.
"Yes," Gabrielle sighed. "I dont know whats wrong with me. Why I cant sleep anymore. I never had this problem before in my life."
"Perhaps some fresh air would help?"
Immediately, the oracle nodded, her features lighting up with a smile. As they had neared Greece, Xena had become more and more focused on her plans for her realm. The Conqueror often sat at the desk for candlemarks reviewing the reports concerning Greece during the time of their absence, making notes, discussing her vision with Palaemon. Gabrielle had missed the dark rulers company, having been nearly the sole recipient of it during the first two legs of their journey homeward. "Im sure it would."
The Conqueror offered her hand to Gabrielle, helping her rise from the bed without any undue strain on her side. Pei-cha immediately lumbered to his feet to accompany them. A cold stare met his actions. "You will stay here," the Conqueror ordered.
Pei-cha hissed, the fur on the back of his neck rising.
"Pei-cha," Gabrielle soothed. "Ill be back soon. Its all right."
Together they emerged onto the ships deck to be bathed in moonlight. The moon hung low in the night sky, appearing just beyond the reach of an outstretched arm. In its pale light, they could make out the emerging form of the Corinthian shore.
"Yes, you are," Xena concurred, pulling the oracle back against her and settling her cloak around both their forms. "Am I hurting you?" she asked softly, being careful to keep her arms loosely clasped about the smaller womans waist.
"Not at all," came the soft answer. Of course, even if you were, I wouldnt admit it; I dont want this perfect moment to end. "I remember the last time we were sailing home to Greece." Gabrielle felt the chuckle in the body molded behind hers.
"You were sea-sick."
"I would like to be so again," complained Gabrielle.
A soft kiss to her left temple was the answer. "You will be. But not yet. I wont risk hurting you any more than you already are, Gabrielle. When you are healed, I promise well sail the boat around the harbor and be as sea-sick as you want."
"I just dont want you to not have what you desire."
"Gabrielle, everything I desire is in my arms at this moment."
"I am Greece," the ruler replied. "You are mine. And the future is ours."
Authors Note: I would like to thank those of you who are still reading this saga for your enormous patience. This was supposed to be a short, little, quick story and it turned into 150 pages. This year also turned out to be one enormously tumultuous year in my life and often writing took a back seat to other considerations. For the kindness and patience you readers have shown me, I thank you.
I would also like to thank my two dear friends who have made writing fun again. Were it not for their partnership and encouragement, I dont know if I would still be writing in the Xenaverse. Those two are, of course, TNovan and Tonya Muir. These extraordinary women remind me what true grace is day-in and day-out. I am grateful to have them in my life.
One more group to thank are my dedicated beta-readers. These fanatics seem to actually enjoy finding misused words and dangling participles, and acting as continuity experts. They have made me a better storyteller and I am grateful for their time and encouragement as well.
Finally, there will be another story in the Seven Wonders Series (seeing how we have only been to two so far) Next up will be Queen of the Nile. I plan on starting it in the near future, but will not be posting it until it is complete. No more posting in parts for me; Im learning to be kind to my dear readers.
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