For disclaimers see Part 1 . You can also check out my blog at http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com/
Note: This part contains a scene in which a violent rape occurs that may not be suitable for certain readers. Please be warned.
The first thing she noticed as she drifted up into a hazy half-sleep was that she was wrapped around a warm, soft and very comfortable pillow. The second thing she noticed was that her pillow had a steady heartbeat and was breathing evenly. She lay there contentedly counting the rise and fall of the pillow her cheek rested against. One, two, three…
Her eyes suddenly shot open when she realized not only was she naked, but so was her pillow. The skin-on-skin contact extended from her middle on down her entire length—as did her pillow. She glanced up without moving her head and blinked several times in an attempt to clear her vision. All she saw was a fuzzy blob in front of her. A fleshy blob. A fuzzy, fleshy blob. That steadily rose and fell in tandem with the quiet breathing she was hearing.
This time Gabrielle's head shot up off her makeshift pillow. She found herself staring into a pair of startled blue eyes and the face of—Xena? She looked down at the breast beneath her and then noticed her own arm was draped over the other woman's body.
“'Mornin',” Xena's voice purred.
Gabrielle glanced at a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows on the other side of the room and saw sunlight streaming into the room. The windows looked out over an expanse of green rolling hills that she didn't recognize. Then her gaze took in so much more. The room was elegantly appointed in dark burgundy velvet. An elaborately carved cherry wood desk and chair took up one corner of the large room. And a nightstand with a gold candlestick holder sat next to the bed. Then there was the bed.
She glanced down at the sheet and blanket and noticed both were made of very expensive fabrics. These were not the trappings of a horse trainer or of someone who trained soldiers. Then it dawned on her that Xena's everyday outfit wasn't really something that a simple peasant wore. The fabric of the tunic alone was too fine, not to mention the leather pants and boots.
“Where am I?” She asked in a voice still gravelly from a drugged sleep. “And who are you?”
Xena wracked her brain for an answer to the unexpected questions, as she tried to clear her bleary mind of sleep. Where, indeed? And who was she? Then it hit her like a slap in the face. Gabrielle was wide awake and it was morning.
“What the…” Xena ran a hand through her hair and still tried to clear the cobwebs from her mind.
“Who are you?” Gabrielle tried to push herself up into a seated position, but found that she couldn't move her left arm.
So she did the only thing she could think to do and rolled away from the woman beneath her—and landed in a heap on the floor.
“Oof!” She exclaimed, as her bare bottom hit the carpeted floor and jarred her entire body. “Ugh!”
“Are you okay, Gabrielle?” Xena's concerned face appeared next to her.
Gabrielle tried to get her bearings and just sat there for a moment. Her shoulder ached. And she was naked. And the face staring at her looked like Xena. But the room was all wrong.
“Where am I?” Gabrielle repeated the question, as a jumble of bewildering thoughts raced through her mind. “Xena?”
“Yes?” The woman who looked like Xena answered.
“What…happened?” She managed to get to her feet and padded to the end of the bed, where a discarded dressing gown lay. She pulled the garment over her head and watched it pool around her bare feet, effectively hiding them beneath several inches of extra fabric. “And where are my clothes?” She lifted her good arm and ran her hand through her hair, stopping when she realized the sides were still pulled back away from her face. “Did I drink last night? Is that why I don't remember what happened—how I ended up...” She glanced around at the beautiful room with wide eyes.
“Come back to bed, Gabrielle,” Xena couldn't make much sense out of what the woman was saying, as her own bleary mind was still reeling from whatever Agatha had put in her tea. She had a good mind to flog the woman for what she'd done, then discarded the idea. “Please don't ask any more questions, right now. My head is killing me and I have no answers, especially not any that you'll like, anyway.”
Gabrielle just stood there and stared at the woman still lying in the huge bed. “You haven't told me where we are,” she accused, as she stepped over to the bank of windows and gazed in wonder at the view beyond. “Are we…Are we in her room?”
The question came out as a soft whisper, but Xena heard every word.
“Good morning, my liege!” The greeting was delivered cheerily, as a man in beautiful red velvet livery stopped just inside the doorway with a full tray of food in his hands and glanced from one woman to the other. “My apologies, my liege,” he bowed to the woman in the bed. “Agatha didn't tell me you had company last night.” He set the tray on the table. “I'll just leave this here and return when you're up and dressed.”
Gabrielle stood there with her mouth agape and her eyes wide, as the man made a hasty retreat. Confusion of enormous proportions hit her so hard that she couldn't quite sort through the thoughts that raced through her mind. The man wasn't a simple servant—that much was obvious. Although she'd never met the man, she reasoned that he was probably an advisor or steward to the Conqueror herself. The Conqueror. Xena was the Conqueror.
Green eyes shot to blue and everything became clear in the blink of an eye. And with that clarity came a sudden wave of nausea and an instant moment of absolute, heart-wrenching panic. Everything crashed in on Gabrielle so fast that she couldn't handle the weight of her realizations. She collapsed in a heap on the carpeted floor before Xena could even think of making a move toward her.
“Gabrielle!” Xena shouted, as she watched the woman pass out before her eyes.
Throwing off the covers, she grabbed her discarded tunic, threw it over her head and belted it, then quickly donned her leather pants. She then rushed to the unconscious woman's side and lifted Gabrielle into her arms. Just then, Maida breezed into the room and stopped dead in her tracks.
“My liege!” The redhead exclaimed and then bowed her head. “My apologies, my liege. Aggie sent me to see how the two of you were faring this mornin'. I didn't mean to intrude.”
“Go tell Agatha to meet me downstairs,” Xena snapped angrily, as she swept past the woman and carried her unconscious burden from the room.
“Yes, my liege,” Maida felt icy fear race down her spine, as she followed Xena out and practically flew down the hallway toward the main kitchen.
Xena ducked down a nearby staircase and took the stairs two at a time. Her bare feet slapped on the cold stone floor, as she made her way toward the room next to Agatha's. She was pissed. Pissed that Agatha had gotten a jump on her and spiked her tea. Pissed that Traecus had arrived when he had. Pissed that Gabrielle had fainted and landed on her injured shoulder, probably aggravating the injury further. But mostly she was pissed at herself.
What had she been thinking? Why had she lied? She knew the answer to both questions, but didn't want to admit that she had feelings for the young woman and couldn't stand the thought that Gabrielle would hate her when she learned the truth. Gabrielle was one of her servants, for crying out loud. Not only that, but she hadn't been there very long—less than a week, actually. Xena didn't believe in love at first sight. That was only for bards and minstrels to sing about. It didn't really happen in real life. Besides, love itself was for the weak.
Xena entered the small room that was no bigger than a utility closet and stopped just inside the threshold. What was she doing? Could she really leave the unconscious woman in this windowless pit? She'd seen the way Gabrielle stared out the bank of windows in her room. The undisguised longing on those innocent features told her more than words ever could. Then she remembered seeing Gabrielle sitting at the small table next to the window in the main kitchen. Gabrielle had been staring out the window at the darkness beyond with the same sad longing.
“Are ye just gonna stand there?” Agatha's voice behind her brought her out of her reverie. “Or are ye gonna move aside.”
Xena's anger flared, as she turned with Gabrielle in her arms. “This,” she growled menacingly. “This happened because of you, old woman.”
Agatha glanced at the unconscious woman in Xena's arms and then met the cold gaze. “You gave her the tea?”
“No,” Xena snapped. “I didn't have the chance. She woke up in my arms—although I've no idea how she got there. The last thing I distinctly remember doing is…I drank your tea and fell asleep.” Her eyes flashed with anger. “You spiked my tea. That was what I tasted on the back of my tongue before I went to bed.”
“I figured you'd throw a dollop of honey in it, like you always do,” Agatha shrugged, not intimidated in the least by the woman's flare of temper. “You wouldn't have tasted anything, not with the amount of honey you usually put in your tea.”
“No, not until I couldn't quite wake up, like usual,” Xena snapped. “You had no right, old woman! You made sure I would sleep too long to give Gabrielle the herbs, and then you sent Traecus and Maida in to seal the coffin and expose the truth! She fainted and landed on her injured shoulder!”
“I did what I thought was right,” Agatha said with less confidence than before. “I had no idea she would faint.”
Xena blew out a frustrated breath. “What exactly were you thinking? Did you expect her to find out and just…just…UGH!!!”
Xena spun away from the woman and gently set Gabrielle down on the bed. The unconscious woman still wore the oversized dressing gown, so Xena didn't bother to cover her. But she did spin back around to confront the older woman waiting patiently behind her.
“Don't!” Xena snapped, as she waved an angry finger in Agatha's face. “I don't want to hear your excuses! You crossed a line last night, Agatha! You crossed a line and put all our lives in jeopardy! What if someone had tried to storm the castle last night? Huh? What if an assassin came into my room while I was drugged and slipped a dagger between my ribs?” She put her hand up when Agatha started to open her mouth to protest. “I don't want to hear another GODSBEDAMNED WORD!!!” She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly to let the rage subside a bit. Then she tried to keep her temper in check with her next words. “I want you out of my sight, this instant,” the words were delivered in a cold tone devoid of emotion. “I don't want to see you again until I come up with a suitable punishment for what you've done. Now, GO!”
Agatha snapped her mouth shut, turned and marched back up the stairs without a backward glance. When she was out of sight, Xena turned back to the woman on the bed and sighed. Then she realized green eyes were watching her intently.
“Oh, you're awake,” Xena pulled up short.
“You really are her,” Gabrielle said in a voice so sad and so forlorn that it broke Xena's heart.
“Yes,” Xena stated flatly. “I am.”
A tear escaped from one corner of the smaller woman's eye and slid down her cheek. “I trusted you,” she said in a soft whisper. “But you lied.” She closed her eyes tight and couldn't help the sob that escaped.
“Gabrielle, I…” Xena reached out for the woman, but Gabrielle turned her head away and just let the tears flow unheeded.
Xena didn't know what to do, so she did the only thing she could think of doing—she turned and walked away. Her long strides took her back the way she'd come, until she was back in the safety of her room. Once inside, she slammed the door to her bedchamber and plopped down in a chair that faced the bank of clear windows. It was a bright and beautiful day, but Xena saw nothing as she stared absently outside.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she'd been down there in the silence of the small room. When the tears finally subsided and she was able to sit up, the stiffness in her body made her feel as if days had passed. Her shoulder ached, but the tight wrapping kept her from moving it. She was grateful for that, at least—grateful to the woman who had cared enough to set her dislocated shoulder right.
Just thinking about Xena made Gabrielle's stomach churn with painful knots. She thought back to all the times they'd been together over the last two days. She hadn't even suspected that Xena might not be what she'd claimed to be. Her attire certainly hadn't been much of a clue. Except, now that Gabrielle knew the truth, she realized Xena's outfit definitely stood out from anything anyone else wore around the keep.
“How could I be so blind?” Gabrielle muttered, as yet another tear slipped from one eye to trail down her damp cheek.
She impatiently swiped the moisture away and sniffed back any additional tears that threatened. She was tired of crying, tired of feeling sorry for herself for no reason. Her lot in life was that of a menial servant and nothing she did—no amount of tears in all the world—was going to change that. The Fates had steered her on her present course, and she had to make the best of it, no matter what vial creature she was forced to serve.
“At least she didn't rape me,” Gabrielle muttered again, as she glanced down at the oversized dressing gown she wore. “I don't think she did, anyway.”
She heard footsteps on the stairs before Agatha appeared in the doorway with a small tray and something over one arm. Gabrielle noticed that the woman's eyes were red-rimmed, as if she'd been crying. The older woman silently set the tray on the table and then met her gaze.
“It's good to see you awake, child,” Agatha said in a voice husky with emotion. “I was worried for ye when I left ye with Xena.”
Gabrielle swallowed down the sudden lump in her throat. “I know who she really is, Agatha. You don't have to pretend anymore.”
Agatha nodded and smiled sagely. “I know,” she said and took a seat on the edge of the bed next to Gabrielle. “I'm sorry I didn't tell ye sooner, child. But when Xena makes up her mind to do something, no amount of arguin' will dissuade her from doin' it.” She took Gabrielle's free hand in hers and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Truth be told, I wanted ye to see her as just Xena from the start. It's hard on those of us who see past those invisible walls she erects around herself. We know she's much more than meets the eye, but the majority only sees what they want to see, nothing more.” She sighed. “Deep down, she isn't the ruthless tyrant that the bards portray in their stories. She doesn't send her men out to rape and pillage villages, willy nilly. She's very exacting in what she does and never sets out to do anything without just cause. And underneath it all, Xena is, first and foremost, a woman with a heart that can be broken just as easily as the next person's.”
“Is that why she lied to me?” Gabrielle said in a quiet whisper.
“I don't really know why she lied,” Agatha replied. “If I knew, I'd tell ye. All I do know is that she had her reasons, whatever they were at the time.”
“She killed my sister,” Gabrielle choked on a sob and couldn't stop the tears from falling. “How can I ever forgive her for that?” She shook her head and couldn't meet the older woman's gaze. “I can't forgive her for taking my sister from me. I just can't.”
Agatha reached up and took Gabrielle's chin in her hand, turning her face until their eyes met. “I'm not asking you to forgive her, child. I'm asking you to hear her out. Xena is not a brutal murderer; no matter what you saw her do in your home village. She is very methodical when it comes to leading her army and has a purpose behind the seemingly cruel acts she commits in the name of justice and honor.” Agatha gently wiped the tears from Gabrielle's cheeks. “She has a soft spot for ye, child. Please know that she has been there from the very moment she brought you here to the keep. The Xena you've seen in the last few days is the real Xena. The Conqueror is just one of the many roles she assumes in order to keep this land free of those who would otherwise overrun it with their own brutal and tyrannical ways. Please don't shut her out of your heart. Yer so much more to her than ye'll ever know.”
Gabrielle sniffed and wiped the remaining tears from her cheeks. “I just don't know…” She shook her head and then sighed. “It's all so confusing.”
“It's confusing now, child,” Agatha continued. “But eventually your heart will sort it all out and tell your head what's really important. Just listen to your heart and let it guide ye. The heart knows what it knows.” She reached over, took Gabrielle's hand again and gave it another squeeze. “It's time for me to go now, child.” She leaned over, kissed Gabrielle on the forehead and then gingerly gave her a hug. “I'll send word when I'm settled.”
Gabrielle caught the hidden message in the woman's words. “Wait,” she grabbed Agatha's arm before the woman could leave. “You're leaving? Why?”
“I'm not bound to this place like everyone else,” Agatha explained. “I've family I can return to outside these walls. I finished what I came here to do.” She patted Gabrielle's hand. “I can no longer stay here, child. It would break Xena's heart to punish me in front of the others. It's just better if I slip quietly away and let her carry on without me here to remind her of my betrayal.” She smiled warmly at the still-seated young woman, then affectionately slid her fingers down Gabrielle's face until her palm rested against a soft cheek. “You hold her heart in your hands, Gabrielle of Potidea. Please don't ever forget that.”
And then she left without a backward glance.
The next few weeks passed in a blur for Gabrielle. Maida was the one person in the keep who talked, much less looked, at her. Word quickly spread that The Conqueror was in a dour mood and would talk to and see no one but her steward, Traecus. The man was constantly running back and forth between the kitchens and the Conqueror's suite, as he tried to fill the void left by Agatha's unexpected departure.
Rumors began circulating that the old woman's disappearance was behind the Conqueror's dark moods. A patrol was sent out to find and bring the woman back, but they found no trace of her. The woods, meadows and streams were all thoroughly searched for days, without turning up anything. The Conqueror even had tracking dogs sent to all the outlying villages and beyond, but no trace of her scent was found. The man guaranteed that his hounds could find a needle in a haystack and would be hot on the old woman's trail in no time. They failed miserably.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, knew the truth. Agatha had sent word that she was fine and safely tucked away in the bosom of her family. The note had somehow appeared in a basket of vegetables that Gabrielle was inspecting. When she read tiny scrap of parchment, she smiled and then tucked it away before anyone saw her.
She'd been assigned to light kitchen duty when she'd emerged from downstairs the day after Agatha disappeared. Maida had put her to work filling water buckets—a task that was difficult with only the use of one arm. But she did the work without complaint, lugging full buckets into the keep and taking the empty ones back out to the well to be filled. Her back and shoulder ached, but she didn't mind. At least it gave her something to do and kept her mind off other things.
Her days were long and grueling. By the time the evening meal rolled around, Gabrielle was so bone tired that she could barely stand, much less walk the short distance to the communal eating hall. She sat next to Maida and across from the twins on that very first night after Agatha's departure. But the animated conversation and noise were soon too much for her.
Because no one told her she couldn't do it, she decided to take her meals in the small room downstairs, from that point forward. No one bothered her there, and she ate her meals in silence. As long as she arose early enough to take her dishes back upstairs before anyone noticed, she was fine. She also slept there in the same room, because by the time she finished eating she was just too tired to climb the stairs up to the main level and find the bed Maida was keeping for her. When Maida asked where she was sleeping, Gabrielle shrugged and said she'd found a place that was quiet. Maida never asked again.
Agatha's parting gift to Gabrielle had been two blouses, a serviceable rust-colored skirt and a pair of slightly-worn boots. The clothes actually fit her and the green blouse brought out the color of her eyes—at least that was Trika's shy comment at the table on that first night. The other blouse was cream-colored and dipped low enough to show a bit too much cleavage for Gabrielle's tastes. She preferred the green to the cream, so she kept the cream one tucked beneath the mattress of the bed for safekeeping.
It was three weeks into a blisteringly hot summer, but the keep remained relatively cool throughout the worst of the heat of the day. Those who had the good fortune to work in the main kitchen during the coldest parts of the year had to suffer through the sweltering heat when summer hit.
Gabrielle's shoulder had healed, for the most part, and she was able to resume her duties in the small room where the vegetables were initially stored. She hadn't seen Xena in the three weeks since Agatha's departure, but scarcely missed the woman. There was too much work to be done during the day to spare a thought for the woman, and Gabrielle was far too bone-tired at the end of the day to care. When her day was done, she took her meal downstairs, ate by the light of a single candle and then collapsed into bed for a few brief hours.
Rumors still circulated about the Conqueror, but the woman's dark moods took a different turn. Word reached the keep that there was a new threat to the realm—this one in the guise of one of Xena's former allies.
The name Draco became synonymous with every evil that existed in the realm. He allied himself with one Julius Caesar of Rome and their combined armies were sweeping the land, ravaging villages in their path and subjecting the people to their tyrannical rule.
Xena was pissed. She ordered her army to drill from dawn until dusk and called in the reserves. She spent hours and hours of every day locked in the throne room that was now a war room, discussing battle plans and strategies with her generals. New conscripts were arriving daily and being trained for combat with the rest of the troops. Farmers, merchants and manual laborers had to leave their homes, their livelihoods and their families or risk death at the hands of The Conqueror's men.
The mood within the keep grew somber. Without Agatha's calming presence, things quickly unraveled and the servants began a slow slide towards anarchy and disorganization. Traecus tried to keep them in line—especially the kitchen staff—but without a firm hand to guide them, they were unable to remain a cohesive group that worked together. Not only did the quality of the food begin to degrade, but order turned to chaos in a few short weeks.
Everything seemed to come to a head on a bright and sunny day in mid-June. A shipment of stores was delivered early that morning and left sitting in the sun for several hours. Gabrielle, who was doing the work of two that morning, noticed the crates and boxes stacked haphazardly near the southwest door, as she walked outside to dump a bucket of scraps into one of the carts. It was nearly mid-morning and the stench from the crates and boxes that were left in the sun was enough to rival the slop they fed to the sows.
Heading back inside with her empty bucket, Gabrielle happened to pass one of the young men responsible for carting new supplies into the keep. She dropped the bucket and turned to follow the young man, but he ducked through one of the side doors before she could reach him. By the time she got to the door, he was already gone.
So, she wove her way toward the main kitchen with the intention of grabbing someone else who could help her. When she reached the main kitchen, however, it was in chaos. People were rushing back and forth through the place in obvious disarray, as orders were shouted from several people and others tried to carry them out.
Gabrielle grabbed the arm of a passing cook, known as Old Bart. The man wouldn't have been her first choice, but he didn't seem terribly busy, unlike the rest. He wasn't much taller than she was and had a thatch of greasy gray hair atop his nearly-bald head. He was also in a dour mood.
“Old Bart,” Gabrielle addressed the man, as he glared at her impatiently. “I need your help with something really important.”
“Hands off, little girl!” The man jerked free of her. “Can't ye see I've got work to do?”
The man rushed away, leaving Gabrielle standing there amidst the disorganized chaos. She tried flagging down several other people, but each one merely ignored her and continued on their way. Then she spotted Traecus' gray head peeking through the door on the opposite side of the kitchen from her. She plowed her way through the crush of bodies, until she finally reached the man, then discovered he'd already gone.
Not to be deterred this time, Gabrielle went in search of the slippery steward. She turned a corner in one of the hallways and saw him disappear through a doorway. She'd never been to that part of the keep before and didn't know where the doorway led, but she also knew she had to find the steward. There was no one else to help her sort out the supply mess.
So, she plowed through the door, passed into a narrow hallway and plowed through the door on the other side. The first thing she noticed about the huge chamber she suddenly found herself in was that sunlight streamed through a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows on one side of the room. But this chamber was much bigger than the Conqueror's bedchamber. Large tapestries graced one wall and an imposing velvet-covered throne sat vacant just a few paces from where Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks. A feeling of dread raced down her spine and she knew something was terribly wrong.
When more than a dozen sets of eyes suddenly spun to face her, Gabrielle knew her fears were well founded. The men standing around a large table off to one side were staring at her with open derision. And then a dark head slowly separated from the group and Gabrielle found herself face-to-face with the Conqueror herself.
It had been weeks since she'd laid eyes on the tall, imposing woman. And the look in Xena's eyes told Gabrielle that her intrusion was, by far, the stupidest thing she could have done. Menace wasn't a word that would describe the look. Hatred? Maybe. Derision? Definitely.
She tried to move—tried to breathe—but her body seemed riveted to the spot, as the imposing woman dressed in black leather strode toward her. Gabrielle's eyes took in the sleek lines of the Conqueror's body and the predatory way she moved. She was pure poetry in motion, as well as someone to be feared. Then Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's and her heart did a little flip, as Agatha's words came slamming back to her. You hold her heart in your hands, Gabrielle.
“What are you doing here?” Xena unceremoniously grabbed Gabrielle by the arm and dragged her toward the small side door that few knew existed.
“I…” Gabrielle felt her feet nearly leave the ground, as Xena's painful grip on her upper arm registered in her mind. “Please, you're hurting me, Xe—”
The slip stopped Xena dead in her tracks. She shoved Gabrielle behind one of the hanging tapestries that were used mainly for decoration, her nostrils flaring in anger. Gabrielle felt her back slam against cold, unyielding stone and realized she was truly in trouble.
“Listen to me, little girl,” the Conqueror hissed, as she put both hands on the wall on either side of Gabrielle's head and leaned in close. “You're not to be here and you're certainly not welcome to use that name in my presence—EVER!!! You will either address me as Lord Conqueror, my liege, my lord, or your majesty. Do I make myself clear?”
Gabrielle felt her knees tremble and hoped they wouldn't give out on her—not now. The look in the Conqueror's eyes was that of a predator that had just cornered its latest meal, just before it pounced for the kill. Icy blue eyes held barely-controlled fury, as they gazed down at her from a face that she hardly recognized at all.
“I—I'm s-sorry, m-my l-lord,” Gabrielle stuttered in a small voice, as she felt her heart pounding in her ears and couldn't help but breathe the same air as the woman who was inches from her face. “I—I had n-no idea…”
“SILENCE!!!” The single word was shouted so loudly that Gabrielle felt her teeth rattle in her head, which instinctively slammed painfully against the wall behind her.
“Ouch!” Gabrielle tried to reach up to grab her head, but was stopped by the strong hands that slammed her arms against the wall, instead. “M-my lord, you're hurting me!” She hadn't meant to shout, just as she hadn't meant to rush into a room full of soldiers and one very intimidating woman.
“Oh, really?” Xena's tone changed to a low purr and her features suddenly changed, too. “Do you really want to play games with me, little girl? Huh?” She closed the distance between them and took Gabrielle's mouth in a heated, bruising kiss that was both brutal and hungry. “Maybe you enjoy playing games. Eh? Maybe I should find a new position for you in my household. Would you prefer to be my body slave?”
Gabrielle watched the change come over the woman and felt icy fear race down her spine. This wasn't Xena—not the Xena she knew. This woman didn't even appear human. She was cold, calculating—a demon caught up in a dangerous game. A game of cat and mouse—and Gabrielle was the mouse. The bruising kiss was meant to dominate and it had. But Gabrielle also felt something she hadn't expected—a connection. It was like her soul had finally found its mate—its other half—except that the other half was far too dark to accept.
“Don't do this,” Gabrielle said quietly, as she searched the eyes of a predator—a wolf—who held her fragile heart in the palm of its hand. “Please.”
Blue eyes gazed intently into green, as Xena's heart warred with her need to lash out at the one person who could destroy her. She'd intended for the kiss to show that Gabrielle meant nothing to her. It was supposed to send the young woman into a fit of hysterics. But, instead, those pleading green eyes merely searched her own, until she could actually see her dark soul reflected back at her. And that's what scared Xena the most. That and the feelings that were churning inside her—just below the surface and behind the thin veil of rage she tried to keep simmering there.
“I want you,” Xena breathed the words on a careless whisper, her lips mere inches from Gabrielle's. “I need you like I've never needed another before.”
“Not like this,” Gabrielle felt her own heart sore at the intimate admission, even as her head tried to come to terms with what was happening to her. “Not here. Please. Please?”
Xena slowly backed away from Gabrielle and gave them both room to breathe. She breathed deeply and tried to regain control over the caged beast that wanted nothing more than to ravage the smaller woman right there on the spot. It was difficult—nearly impossible—but she finally managed to gain the upper hand over her errant emotions.
“You're free to go back to your duties,” Xena moved aside enough for Gabrielle to pass. “But don't ever come here again, unless I summon you myself.”
“Yes, my lord,” Gabrielle bowed her head demurely and hurried from the room through the door she had entered.
When the door was closed behind her, she quickly rushed down the short hallway and emerged into the hallway on the other side. Her heart still pounding wildly in her chest, Gabrielle sprinted through the maze of corridors she was finally becoming familiar with, until she eventually emerged into the main kitchen. Without pausing to speak to anyone, she passed through the main kitchen and descended the stone staircase to her room below. Once inside, she shut the door behind her and leaned heavily against the door until her legs finally gave out.
Slipping bonelessly to the cold floor, Gabrielle succumbed to the sudden rush of emotion that washed over her. Silent sobs shook her entire body, as tears coursed down her cheeks and dripped onto her green blouse.
It was well past sunset by the time Gabrielle mustered enough courage to head upstairs to find something to eat. She wasn't particularly hungry, but knew she couldn't afford to skip a meal. It was late, so she wasn't expecting anyone to be in the kitchen by the time she got there. Imagine her surprise when an imposing figure sat at a table in the shadows. She couldn't tell at first who it was, but then realized exactly who was lurking there.
“My lord?” Gabrielle warily watched the woman, whose face was steeped in shadow.
“It's just me, Gabrielle,” Xena said in a tired voice.
“Is there something I can do for you, my lord?” Gabrielle couldn't quite keep the tremor from her voice.
She moved to one of the bread bins and took out a small roll. She then found a wedge of cheese tucked away beneath a cloth in a corner. Setting the items on the table next to the one Xena sat at, she then ducked through the doorway to the room where the milk was kept. She ladled out a small pitcher full and returned to the main kitchen. After rummaging around in several additional tins, she found several cookies left over from a banquet several nights past.
“Would you like a snack, my lord?” Gabrielle took a mug from a cupboard and grabbed another. She poured milk into one of the mugs and handed it toward the silent figure. “It's just milk,” Gabrielle said when Xena merely eyed the mug.
Xena eventually took the offering and set it down in front of her. She wasn't really hungry, but also silently accepted the small plate of bread and cheese the woman handed her.
Gabrielle filled another plate for herself. She then returned all the items to their rightful places and tidied up the crumbs that were left on the table. As she picked up her small plate of food and the milk, she heard something unexpected out of her silent companion.
“Thank you,” Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle stood there with a tentative half-smile. “You're welcome, my lord.”
“Gabrielle?” Xena said before the woman could turn away from her again.
“Yes, my lord?” A blond brow rose in question.
“I'm really sorry about what happened today,” Xena said, as she popped a bite of cheese in her mouth and slowly chewed. “And for…um…other things.”
Gabrielle thought about all the things she could say, but finally decided on the simplest approach. “It's okay, my lord. You really don't need to apologize.” She let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “I can't pretend to know what you're going through right now, but I understand. It's not easy to bear the world's burdens on your shoulders—not even if those shoulders are stronger than most.”
Xena glanced at her plate and then nodded. “It doesn't excuse the things I've done to you.”
“No, my lord, it doesn't,” Gabrielle answered honestly. “But it does help to know a little bit more about you than I knew before.”
Gabrielle made her way across the kitchen towards the stairs.
“Gabrielle?” Xena added, before the woman could leave the room.
“Yes, my lord?” Gabrielle paused in the doorway.
“Do you think maybe we could start over?” Xena asked, as she got up and walked over to stand in the light. “You know, go back to when I was just Xena and you were just Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle considered the request for a moment. Agatha's words, spoken only weeks ago, came back to her with vivid clarity. She heard them echoing through her mind, as she finally realized their true meaning. Xena was the Conqueror, but she was also much more. And there were very few people in the world who were privileged enough to see her thus.
“Join me downstairs?” Gabrielle glanced to the side and caught the almost shy set to Xena's shoulders. “We can sit and talk for a while, just the two of us. No one has to know.”
Xena didn't hesitate. A happy grin split her features, as she followed the smaller woman down the stairs like an overgrown, excited puppy. As they reached the bottom of the stairs, Xena glanced at the dark room next to the one Gabrielle entered. A sad frown flashed across her features, as she thought of Agatha.
The woman had disappeared without a trace. No sign of her was found anywhere—not inside or outside the keep. She had simply vanished. But Xena suspected there was something more behind the woman's escape than met the eye. There were a number of tunnels beneath the keep that branched off in various directions. The old woman could have escaped through one of them, with no one the wiser. Xena's men didn't know about the tunnels—no one knew about them—except Xena.
“Are you coming?” Gabrielle's voice inside the small room brought her back to the matter at hand.
“Yes,” Xena said as she stepped inside the small space.
The room looked exactly the same as it had when Xena had first taken Gabrielle down there. A single candle burned on the tiny nightstand next to the bed and Gabrielle was sitting cross-legged against the wall at the head of the bed. The plate of bread and cheese sat in the indentation of Gabrielle's skirt between her crossed legs, as she munched contentedly on her meager meal.
Xena took a seat on the foot of the bed and leaned back against the wall. “So?”
Gabrielle paused in mid-chew. “So, what?”
“You wanted to talk, so talk,” Xena folded her hands in her lap and waited patiently.
Gabrielle studied her companion for several long moments, as she continued absently munching on her food. “What would you have me say?” She finally asked, as she set her empty plate on the nightstand.
Gabrielle noted the lines of tension and worry around the blue eyes, as well as the tension in Xena's shoulders. Xena's hair was down and she wore the everyday clothes Gabrielle was used to. This was the woman she'd gotten to know over those first few days.
Xena sighed heavily. “Tell me a story?” Her blue eyes lifted until they met curious green.
Gabrielle let a small half-smile touch her lips. “I can probably come up with something.”
“Not about Troy, though,” Xena added. “I was there. It wasn't nearly as…um…romantic as you portrayed in your story.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle frowned. “That story really wasn't mine, actually. I heard it from a bard who passed through Pot—um, my village a few years ago. He'd gone to the Athens Academy of Bards to study.” Her expression turned almost dreamy, before she lowered her eyes to the food in her lap. “I used to dream of being accepted into the Academy one day. But—” She shrugged. “Those days are long behind me.”
“If you had the chance, would you still go?” Xena said in a soft voice.
Gabrielle's eyes snapped up to meet Xena's, her expression completely devoid of emotion. “Please don't,” she said so softly that Xena barely caught the words. “My life is here now, in service to our Lord Conqueror,” her words carried a bitter edge that wasn't lost on her companion.
“You have a gift,” Xena added. “You could be a great bard, Gabrielle. All you need is the proper training.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I have no stories worth telling.” She breathed in deeply and let the breath out slowly.
“Oh, come on,” Xena prodded. “Don't tell me you never once stretched out on the grass beneath the stars and made up stories about princes and…um…other stuff?”
Gabrielle's expression softened. “How could you possibly know that?”
Xena smirked knowingly. “My brother, Lyceus, used to do the same thing. He made up stories all the time about adventurers from distant lands who were able to slay dragons and lead armies into battle against insurmountable odds. But his stories couldn't hold a candle to the one you told me. He had a way with words, don't get me wrong. But he just didn't have quite the passion that you weave into a story.” A dark brow rose. “Even if it was someone else's story you were telling.”
“So, where is your brother?”
“Dead,” was the flat, emotionless response.
“I'm sorry,” Gabrielle pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “I know what it's like to lose the people you love.”
Xena didn't miss the bitter edge to Gabrielle's words.
“He followed me into battle—said he wanted to be a warrior, just like me,” she couldn't keep her own bitter edge from her tone. “I couldn't say no to him and it cost him his life. My actions cost him his life.”
The silence stretched between them, as they sat there in shared empathy.
“My sister had absolutely no imagination,” Gabrielle's soft voice finally broke the silence. “The most imaginative thing she could come up with to do with her life was to marry one of the local shepherds and have a whole passel of babies. She really loves…um, loved children.”
“And what was your dream?”
“You mean after the Academy?” Gabrielle responded with as little emotion as she could muster. “I wanted to travel—see the world. I've heard stories from places that sounded so intriguing that I couldn't help but want to see them for myself. I wanted to taste the food and wear exotic clothing. Some of those places sounded so…wonderful.”
“Where would you go?”
“Persia? Britannia. Egypt, maybe.” The blond sighed. “I've never seen the sea or felt the salt spray on my face. It would be a dream come true to run down a beach and splash in the warm surf. It would be incredible to ride a camel or even one of those paci—pacidarms?”
“They're called elephants,” Xena supplied.
“Yeah, they're really big and have very tough gray hides—” She saw the look of awe in the smaller woman's eyes. “I saw a few in India. Even rode one once. They're pretty fast when you get them going.”
“You've…you were in India?” Gabrielle could barely contain her excitement. “What was it like? Is it as exotic as they say? Do women really wear clothing that you can see through? Did you meet a maharaja? What was the food like?”
“Whoa, there!” Xena held up both hands to stave off the flow of questions. “I was only passing through after escaping from Chin. Didn't get much of a chance to explore the place in great detail.”
“Another—much larger—country across the Himalaya Mountains,” Xena explained. “The Himalayas are some of the highest mountains on earth.”
“Higher than Mt. Olympus?” Gabrielle's eyes widened.
“Much higher,” Xena nodded. “I had to cross through a pass in those mountains during my long journey. There is a small monastery there that houses an order of monks who offer shelter to travelers. They were a little…erm…put off by my attire and made me bunk outside the walls of their monastery. It snowed all the time I was there and that was during the middle of summer. The next morning, I discovered that I'd been buried alive beneath a thick layer of hard-packed snow and had to dig my way out. The pass is only open for two moons out of the entire year, because it's too dangerous to cross any other time. And the snow never melts.”
“Fascinating,” Gabrielle whispered in awe. “Have you been anywhere else in the world?”
“Britannia, Persia, Egypt,” Xena repeated the places that Gabrielle had already mentioned. “I've also been to Eire, Mongolia, and as far east as the rising sun to a place called Japa. It's an island country in the middle of an ocean that stretches to the ends of the earth itself.” Xena couldn't help the smirk that played at the corners of her lips. “I've also sailed across the Aegean and felt the salt air on my face. It's not as pleasant as you might think. Kinda like crossing the desert during a sandstorm. The salt stings your eyes.”
“I take it you've done that, too,” Gabrielle said and received a nod.
“Traveling the world isn't always what it's cracked up to be,” Xena said. “It's certainly not all glamour and glitz, or pleasant people who welcome you with open arms. I had my share of exciting adventures, but—”
“Many of those years were spent making a name for myself,” Xena's expression turned somber. “I raised several armies and lost more men than could fill the entire length of the River Nile. I learned not to trust anyone and to keep my enemies guessing.” Her gaze met Gabrielle's. “Love had no place in my world. There were days, weeks, even months when I was the only woman my men saw for leagues. They respected me—feared me—because I learned to sleep light and kept daggers hidden near my bed and on my person at all times. I learned to wield a sword better than any man and could shoot the eye out of a circling hawk with a single crossbow bolt.”
Gabrielle stifled a shudder. “Did any of them ever…um…you know…try to…um…”
“Rape me?” Xena finished flatly. “There were a bold few who tried, but,” she just shook her head. “Let's just say they never breached my innate defenses. I have a knack for sensing when danger is near, especially when that danger is to my physical being.” Xena's expression turned thoughtful. “Haven't yet mastered how to detect emotional pitfalls, unfortunately.”
Gabrielle sensed what Xena wasn't saying. “I'm sorry about Agatha.”
Xena's eyes snapped to Gabrielle's. “It's not your fault she left.”
“Actually,” Gabrielle shrugged. “I feel responsible, in a way. She was acting in both of our best interests when she did what she did.”
“She manipulated a situation she had no right to stick her nose in,” Xena said flatly. “Besides, she drugged me. That, in and of itself, is an unforgiveable breach of my trust.”
“She put a sleeping draught in your tea,” Gabrielle cocked her head and looked curiously at the woman. “It's not like she poisoned you, my lord.”
“It was tantamount to poisoning,” Xena snapped. “There are few people in this place that I trust with my life. Agatha took advantage of my complete trust in her and abused that trust.”
“She loves you, Xena. That alone deserves some measure of mercy and forgiveness,” Gabrielle didn't even realize she'd made the slip, until she met the shards of ice glaring back at her. “I mean…”
“Agatha deserted me,” Xena's voice was cold and emotionless. “Forgiveness—much less mercy—is not an option.”
“And you lied to me,” Gabrielle added softly. “Does that mean two wrongs make everything right?”
Xena's expression reflected her surprise, even when she blurted, “What?”
“Agatha was tired of lying to me for you,” Gabrielle continued. “She saw…something…between us and only wanted to clear away the last barrier—the lie. She told me…”
“You talked to her?” Xena shot back.
Gabrielle sighed. “She came to see me—to tell me she was leaving. She wanted to spare you the pain of coming up with a suitable punishment for what she saw as her betrayal of your trust.”
“She really said that?” Xena's eyes searched Gabrielle's. “You're not just saying that, are you? You're not trying to protect her, because she treated you kindly?”
“She really said it,” Gabrielle answered simply. “She also asked me to—”She looked away as tears sprang to her eyes.
Gabrielle sniffed back the tears and girded herself for her next words. “She asked me to listen to you—to us—with my heart, not with my head.”
A dark brow rose. “Sounds like something Agatha would say,” Xena smirked and lowered her eyes. “The old woman has a way of seeing right into the heart of a matter—literally.”
“She's staying with family,” Gabrielle added with a gentle smile.
Xena's eyes shot up and met Gabrielle's. “Family?”
Gabrielle nodded. “She sent me a note telling me she is safe with her family.”
Xena leaned her head back against the wall behind her and stared up at the ceiling. “Why didn't I think to look there?” She muttered.
“I take it you know her family?” Gabrielle searched her companion's features for some sign that she had made a grave mistake by revealing too much.
“I know exactly who they are,” Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle. “My mother is Agatha's kid sister.”
“Agatha is your aunt?” She couldn't keep the surprise from her tone.
“Yes,” Xena replied dryly. “She raised my mother like her own a daughter after both their parents were killed in a raid on the village. Agatha ran the inn before Mother took it over.”
“In Amphipolis?” Xena added. “Surely, she told you that's where I'm from.”
Gabrielle's interest perked up. “You're the daughter of…an innkeeper? Really? And you have a mother? A real mother?”
Xena sighed in feigned exasperation. “I certainly wasn't hatched from the bowels of the earth—not that the bards will ever put the truth of my heritage into their stories. It's much more exciting to tell the world that I'm the spawn of some evil, nameless demon from the underworld.” Xena snorted her derision. “Of course I have a mother and, yes, she's an innkeeper. And, yes, Agatha is family. I also have an older brother—miserable excuse for a coward that he is.”
“Ohhhh,” sudden dawning registered. “That certainly explains a lot.”
“It does?” Xena's eyes met Gabrielle's.
“Well, it explains why she left in the dead of night,” Gabrielle elaborated. “It doesn't explain why she was here in the first place, but…”
“My mother sent her here after the keep was built,” Xena supplied. “She wanted someone to keep an eye on me. Agatha volunteered. Said it was the least she could do for the baby sister she raised.”
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. “Why didn't your mother just come here herself?”
Xena chewed on that for a moment. “Because we're not on speaking terms,” she finally answered. “Haven't spoken a single word to each other since the day I returned home with Ly's body. She wouldn't even look at me during the funeral. She accused me of killing him—slapped my face hard enough to leave a mark and told me she wasn't my mother anymore. Then she walked away without another word.” She turned away and stared at nothing. “Draco was right about one thing, the bastard. He said I would never find forgiveness if I ever went home again. I didn't.”
Gabrielle felt her heart constrict at the pain she saw in Xena's eyes. She scooted over to sit next to the taller woman and gingerly took Xena's larger hand in hers. Xena looked at Gabrielle with a sad smile and then gazed down at their joined hands. They sat there in companionable silence for several long moments, neither woman wanting the moment to end and neither one knowing how to proceed from there.
“I'm sorry, Xena,” Gabrielle decided to throw caution to the wind. “I know how hard it was when my mother died after my father left and never returned. She was grief-stricken and never fully recovered from the loss. That winter was the hardest of my life.”
“Harder than watching your sister die by my hand?” Xena felt the body next to her stiffen. “Gabrielle, there's something you should know about that.”
Gabrielle felt bile rise in her throat and quickly swallowed it down. Her breathing quickened at the blurted words and the effect her sister's death still had on her. She closed her eyes and tried to regain control, even when all she wanted to do was bolt from the room and leave the woman next to her behind forever.
“It's not what you think, Gabrielle,” Xena gently added without moving.
“I don't think you have any idea what I'm thinking right now,” Gabrielle ground out between clenched teeth.
Xena gently squeezed the ice-cold hand in hers. “She wasn't well and would never have survived the march from Potidea to the keep in Corinth.”
“What?” Gabrielle's eyes snapped to Xena's. “How can you say that? Lila was in better health than I am—was. She was never ill a day in her life. I always seemed the sickly one. I had the coughing sickness nearly every winter when we were children. I had it that fateful winter, too.” She lowered her eyes to her lap. “It was my fault Mother got so ill. If I hadn't—” She shook the thought away. “How do you know my sister wasn't well?”
“I watched her cough into a handkerchief when no one was looking,” Xena said quietly. “She pulled the handkerchief from her mouth and there was blood on it.”
Gabrielle felt a shudder pass through her, as the cold realization hit her like a physical blow. “She had consumption?”
“She was in the late stages of the illness,” Xena nodded. “It was only a matter of time before she succumbed to it. The exertion of a long march would have exacerbated her symptoms and caused her to suffer needlessly.”
Gabrielle felt her chest tighten. “Y-You k-killed her out of mercy, then?” Fresh tears of grief sprang to her eyes and she didn't bother to hide them.
Xena could sense how difficult it was for Gabrielle to hear the whole truth, but she needed to get everything about that day out in the open. “I couldn't risk exposing everyone in the keep to the disease. I had to end her life before she infected anyone else, including my men. There were others in your village who were already showing signs of illness.”
Gabrielle raised teary eyes to look into Xena's. “The fever I came down with that first night?” She kept her gaze locked on the taller woman's. “Did you suspect—”
“No,” Xena adamantly shook her head. “The fever was brought on by the trauma you suffered during that day.”
Gabrielle looked toward the opposite wall. “And the rest of those from Potidea?”
“I sent the women to live in one of the hostiles near the coast,” Xena answered. “The sisters will watch over them and report any new cases that emerge. The men were sent to the salt mines to work in an isolated section until I'm sure they aren't infected. The disease doesn't affect everyone who comes in contact with someone who has it. But there is no predicting who will become sick.”
“Lila and I lived in the same house, slept in the same room,” Gabrielle said emotionlessly. “I could—”
“No,” Xena squeezed the hand still in hers. “The fact that you were exposed and you haven't shown symptoms tells me you don't have it.”
“I don't?” Gabrielle looked to Xena for confirmation and received a reassuring smile.
“No,” Xena said. “You don't.” She heard Gabrielle take a shuddering breath. “Gabrielle,” Xena turned and placed her free hand on a soft cheek, caressing the skin with her thumb. “You're healthy and strong. And now that you've been living here, you're reaping the benefits of three square meals a day.”
“Two,” Gabrielle corrected, as she unconsciously leaned into the intimate touch.
“Meals a day.”
“We get two meals a day,” Gabrielle corrected, as she felt the thumb still.
“Tell me that wasn't your evening meal, then,” Xena's eyes darkened with anger.
Gabrielle shrugged. “It's more food than I had most days back home, especially after we moved in with Ngila.”
Xena shifted until she could survey Gabrielle from head to toe. She could see that the young woman was at least gaining muscle and a bit more meat on her bones than she'd had when she'd first arrived. The clothes she wore—a green blouse and long rust skirt over a pair of serviceable boots—seemed to fit her fairly well. Her cheeks and the flesh around her eyes had also filled out. Those expressive green eyes were no longer sunken with the ravages of hunger.
And then Xena glanced around the tiny room and her heart rate jumped. She hadn't realized before just how dark and cold the room actually was—not until that moment. There were no windows to let in the light. And the cold stone walls, though dry, were not welcoming.
“Do you sleep down here?” Xena asked in a low tone.
“Y-yes,” Gabrielle answered hesitantly.
Gabrielle misinterpreted the direction of the inquiry. “I know I'm not supposed to, my lord. But the room was vacant and I didn't think anyone would care—”
She felt her last shred of dignity seeping away and knew that she was going to have to face the truth of who she was now—a servant in the Conqueror's household. Her once-lofty dreams of travelling the world in search of adventure were truly gone, replaced by the cold reality that there was no one left in the world to care for her. Her life was not her own. It belonged to the woman sitting next to her. And now she would have to join her fellow servants in the common sleeping quarters.
“Come with me,” Xena said, as she kept a firm hold on Gabrielle's hand and fairly dragged her back upstairs.
Gabrielle had no real idea where the servant's quarters were, as she'd never once been there. All she knew was they were somewhere in the building attached to the main keep—the same building that housed the communal meal room.
But Xena didn't duck outside and take the short walkway to that building. Instead, she took a narrow corridor towards her suite of rooms. Gabrielle vaguely recognized the hallway they marched through and the tiny door that emerged in front of the large double doors. Two guards she didn't recognize snapped to attention at their liege's approach and one moved to open one of the massive doors.
Gabrielle remained silent, as she worked her tired legs frantically in an effort to keep up with the taller woman's longer strides. By the time they reached the bedchamber with its large bank of windows and a sliver of moonlight streaming in, Gabrielle was winded. Xena finally released her hand and grabbed one of the lit candles from the nightstand. She opened another door on the other side of the chamber and ducked inside, then poked her head back through.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered loudly.
Gabrielle pulled her attention away from the grand view outside the windows and followed the woman through the door. She emerged into another narrow hallway with some surprise. She had definitely never been to this part of the keep before. They walked only a few paces down the hall before Xena stopped in front of another door.
“This will be your new quarters,” the tall woman stated, as she removed a key from her pants' pocket and inserted it into the lock.
Xena pushed the door open into a room three times the size of the one downstairs. It was dark inside, so Xena held the candle high above her head and searched for the candle she knew was somewhere. When she spotted it, she quickly held hers to the other until the room was illuminated.
The golden glow from the two candles revealed a much larger bed than the one downstairs, two chairs and a table, a nightstand, a chest of drawers and a large wardrobe against the far wall. There was also a window set in the outside wall that revealed the same sliver of moon and looked down over the sleepy valley of rolling hills.
Gabrielle stood in the doorway, her mouth agape as she looked around. She'd never had her own room before and had been grateful that no one seemed to notice her absence in the communal quarters. But this was much more than she had ever dreamed possible.
“Do you like it?” Xena turned hopeful eyes on the smaller woman. “I know it's not much, but…”
“It's wonderful,” the smaller woman whispered in awe, as she cautiously stepped inside the room.
“It's the only other bedroom on this floor besides mine,” Xena explained. “I had the architect who designed the place include it for the purpose of housing my personal maid or body slave or …someone.” Green eyes snapped up to meet blue, but Xena wasn't looking at her. “Never did find anyone suitable for any of those jobs. The room's never been used. One of the maids changes the bedding once a week and opens the window to air the place out so it doesn't smell. I offered it to Agatha once, but the old codger wouldn't take it. Said she was perfectly content with the small room downstairs.”
“The window actually opens?” Gabrielle couldn't contain the excitement in her voice, as she went over and unlatched the window, throwing it open wide to let the night air in. “Oh, it's simply breathtaking!” She exclaimed, as she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The air was warm and humid, but Gabrielle didn't care. “It's Elysia on earth,” she sighed.
Xena stepped up behind the woman, close enough that they were almost, but not quite, touching. She put her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders and set her chin on top of the woman's head. The view beyond the window really was quite nice, but Xena was more interested in the woman in her arms.
“I'm glad you like it, Gabrielle,” the whispered words were like a gentle caress and sent a shiver down Gabrielle's back.
It wasn't unpleasant—not at all. And Gabrielle unconsciously moved back into the taller woman. Feelings she had never experienced before coursed through her, as Xena relaxed into the embrace. It was amazing—spectacular—and made them both feel special in a way that was a little unsettling. Gabrielle rested her arms on Xena's and just gazed out the window, not wanting to move and break the magical spell of the moment. She especially didn't want the moment to end.
But, eventually, reality seeped in and the voice of reason began to rear its ugly head. Gabrielle turned around in Xena's arms until she was facing the taller woman. The warmth in those blue eyes shined down on her and penetrated the chill in her soul. It was intoxicating and scary, all at once.
“And which am I?” Gabrielle's soft words floated between them.
“Which what?” A dark brow shot up in question.
“Personal maid or…” her green eyes shyly met Xena's, as she pressed herself against the woman. “Body slave?”
A teasing gleam entered Xena's eyes, as she stared out the window over her companion's head. “Hm,” she pretended to consider the question thoughtfully, as she pulled Gabrielle closer and reveled in the feel of the warm body pressed against her own. “I guess that depends.”
“Depends on what?” Gabrielle tried to read her taller companion's mood and failed miserably.
Xena's eyes met Gabrielle's. “On this,” she said, as she leaned down and met Gabrielle's inviting lips with her own.
The kiss began innocently enough, but soon became so much more. Xena's tongue darted out and traced the soft curves of Gabrielle's lips with sensual abandon. When her tongue pressed insistently against those soft, inviting lips to gain entrance into the mouth beyond, Gabrielle hesitantly complied. The kiss deepened and their tongues danced in wild abandon, as their passion flared until they were both breathless with desire.
Xena broke contact first and took a shuddering breath, as she put a palm against Gabrielle's cheek and gently caressed the soft skin. She let her forehead rest against Gabrielle's and tried to calm her racing heart. They were both breathing hard and just stood there basking in the glow of their shared moment.
“I should go,” Xena said quietly.
“Mmmm,” Gabrielle uttered, her eyes fluttering open and studying the face so close to hers. “You're serious?” She sobered instantly.
“I can't, Gabrielle,” Xena gently pushed the hair behind Gabrielle's ear and ran the backs of her fingers along the woman's cheek. “You're…I won't do this to you. Not like this.”
“But, Xena—” Gabrielle tried to protest and found a finger over her lips.
“Shhh,” Xena continued. “No. Please. Just understand that I'm not like that. I won't take your innocence.”
Gabrielle heard the words, but decided not to listen. Instead, she opened her lips just enough to kiss the calloused finger with all the pent-up passion she felt.
“And if I willingly give myself to you?” She said when Xena's finger moved to trace her jaw line.
Xena took a step back. “This is a dangerous game you're playing, Gabrielle.”
“Life is full of danger,” Gabrielle closed the distance between them. “You of all people should know that, Xena.”
“You're not a seductress, Gabrielle,” Xena couldn't help the smirk that split her features and realized, too late, her mistake. “It doesn't suit you.”
Gabrielle felt the rejection like a physical blow. Tears sprang to her eyes, but she turned away before Xena could see them. She returned to the window and stared out at the night with unseeing eyes, as her fragile heart broke into a thousand pieces.
“Gabrielle, I—” Xena started, then realized there was nothing left to say. “Goodnight. Sweet dreams.”
Gabrielle didn't say a word as she listened to Xena's footsteps recede down the hallway away from her. The smaller woman just stood there gazing out her open window and wrapped her own arms around herself, as silent tears coursed down her cheeks and splashed onto the window sill.
It was the bright sunlight streaming in through the open window that brought Gabrielle out of a deep and dreamless sleep. Actually, she bolted upright and gazed around at the unfamiliar surroundings for a moment, before she realized exactly where she was. Glancing at the window, she could tell by the angle of the sun that she had slept much later than she was supposed to.
But she also hadn't fallen asleep until just before dawn. Her conversation with Xena had whirled around in her mind and replayed itself, as did that fateful moment when Gabrielle felt a connection to the woman—only to have her hopes dashed, when Xena shunned her and walked away.
Girding herself to face yet another day, Gabrielle splashed water on her face, donned her everyday clothes and headed toward the door. She grabbed the key that Xena left on the small shelf next to the door and locked the door behind her. As she was about to tuck the key into a pocket of her shirt, she turned to find Nora standing there in the hallway.
“Well, well, well,” the mousy blond crossed her arms over her ample bosom and cocked her head. “If it ain't the little mouse we've all been talkin' about.” She eyed Gabrielle up and down with a disgusted sneer. “Found an empty plate and mug down in that little room next to Agatha's. Thought you'd been bunkin' down there all these weeks. Even told a couple of the girls to keep an eye out for ye. But turns out ye've been hidin' up here right under our Lord Conqueror's nose this whole time.” Her sneer turned into a triumphant gleam. “Can't wait ta see what she does to ye when she discovers ye've been skulkin' around here.”
“I don't answer to you,” Gabrielle tried to push past the woman and found herself slammed against the wall, instead.
“Ye'd be wise ta have a little respect, there, little mouse,” Nora hissed, as she kept her arm against Gabrielle's throat. “I've a mind ta show ye just what I think of ye.” She watched a spark of anger erupt in Gabrielle's eyes. “What? Ye think yer too good ta sleep in the common room with the rest of us? Yer nothin' but a worthless piece of garbage our Lord Conqueror picked up from some filthy little village.” She glared daggers at Gabrielle. “Pathetic little bitch.”
“Let. Me. Go.” Gabrielle managed, though Nora had her arm against her windpipe.
“Or what?” Nora hissed. “Ye gonna tell her lordship on me? Eh?”
Gabrielle could feel the pressure against her windpipe that was cutting off her air. She couldn't breathe and was feeling lightheaded. Then sparkles of light danced in her vision and she knew it was only a matter of heartbeats before she passed out.
She quickly ran through her options and discarded most of them. Nora was bigger than she was and had the advantage of strength and leverage. Gabrielle, however, had the element of surprise on her side. She used it to her advantage.
Kicking as hard as she could, she caught the woman in the knee and heard a surprised yelp. As Nora's hold on her throat loosened, Gabrielle spun around and landed an elbow to the unsuspecting woman's ribcage. She then ducked her head low and charged. Nora didn't see the blond head coming until it was too late. Gabrielle connected with the larger woman's midsection, slamming her into the wall behind her. The impact knocked the wind out of the larger woman and she collapsed to her hands and knees at Gabrielle's feet.
“Never. Underestimate. Me.” Gabrielle breathed heavily from her exertions, as she straightened up and squared her shoulders. She then retreated down the hallway without a backward glance.
“This…ain't…over…little mouse!” Nora shouted angrily at the retreating figure. “Ye'll pay for that! I guarantee it!”
Gabrielle ignored the threats and didn't even spare a glance at the open door to Xena's suit as she passed by. She just kept right on going until she reached the huge double doors that led to the rest of the keep. Her throat hurt where Nora had pinned her, but the pain wasn't enough to bring her down. It was actually just annoying. She was annoyed. She hated bullies and Nora was exactly that.
As she reached for one of the doors in front of her, it suddenly opened and she found herself blocking the way for—the Conqueror? The woman was dressed in one of her elaborate court gowns and headdresses. She stood like a giant and glared at Gabrielle with annoyed impatience.
“Where have you been?” Xena barked.
The question took the smaller woman completely by surprise, as she scrambled out of the way. Xena whipped past her with a flourish of sky-blue silk, as she headed for her suite of rooms. Gabrielle just stood there with her mouth agape and watched Xena hurry past.
And then Xena stopped dead and spun around.
“Well?” The Conqueror's eyes blazed a shade lighter than her dress. “Don't just stand there, Gabrielle! Come on!”
Gabrielle hurried after the woman in silence and followed Xena into the suite. She gently closed the outer door and waited for the woman to address her again. She gazed around at the large sitting room and noted the expensive furnishings. The room was similar to the bedchamber, except there was no bed. Lavish furnishings in dark burgundy velvet, as well as heavy burgundy drapes pulled back from the bank of windows, made up the space. The walls had been white-washed to lighten them and to give the place a homey feel. The light and dark contrasting shades were much like their mistress—both light and dark at the same time.
“Get your ASS in here, Gabrielle!” The shout from the bedchamber brought the smaller woman out of her reverie and sent a shiver of dread down her spin.
“Y-yes, my lord,” Gabrielle answered, as she hurried across the room and ducked through the door on the other side.
When she stepped into the bedchamber, however, she stopped dead again. The sight that greeted her took her breath away and had her heart pounding wildly in her chest. Mouth agape and eyes wide, Gabrielle stood there in stunned silence, gazing on the naked form of one of the most beautiful people she'd ever seen.
Xena stood like a goddess in all her naked glory. Suntanned skin covered sculpted muscles that were in perfect proportion down her entire length. Full, perfectly round breasts perched proudly over a stomach that was washboard flat. The dark triangle between shapely thighs had Gabrielle immediately dropping her gaze to the muscular calves farther down, as a heated blushed suffused her cheeks.
“Stop gawking and get over here!” Xena barked impatiently. “If you're to be my personal maid you'd best get used to this. I need someone to help me don my armor, so don't dawdle.”
“Y-yes, my lord,” Gabrielle couldn't keep the squeak from her voice, as she hurried over to do the woman's bidding.
“The padded shirt first,” Xena indicated the cream-colored sleeveless shirt already lying on the bed.
Gabrielle tried to keep her eyes averted from the taller woman's body, as she grabbed the heavy garment and held it out in front of Xena. Shoving her arms unceremoniously through the arm holes, Xena waited as Gabrielle moved behind her and laced the form-fitting shirt up the back. The garment had a padded flap that pulled up between her legs and also tied in the back and Gabrielle seemed to sense how that worked without direction.
But Xena couldn't still her own pounding heart, as she gazed down at the firm, round buttocks presented to her. She had an overwhelming urge to put her hands on them and squeeze, but she ripped her gaze away and breathed deeply in an attempt to still her errant thoughts, instead. It didn't really work and she didn't realize how flushed her face was.
When the shirt was in place, Xena turned around to the smaller woman and saw Gabrielle's flushed cheeks. A raised dark brow was her only response.
“Now the trousers,” Xena indicated a pair of black leather pants on the bed. “They're fairly tight, so you'll need to help me pull them on.”
Gabrielle swallowed with difficulty when she realized exactly how torturous this was going to be. In the padded shirt, Xena had very limited mobility and couldn't really bend forward very far. So, she sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for Gabrielle to work the pants up from her feet. It was a slow process.
Gabrielle had to work one leg at a time and could only manage to get them so far before she had to work the other leg. The stiff leather was almost impossible to keep a firm hold of and Gabrielle's fingers slipped on more than one occasion and came into contact with the warm flesh of Xena's legs. It was pure torture.
When she finally had the pants up to mid-thigh, Xena stood up and impatiently grabbed them herself. She was much better at working them up over her bulging thigh muscles and quickly had them over her hips, as well.
Gabrielle couldn't pull her eyes away from the magnificent sight of those firm buttocks squeezing into the tight-fitting leather and only just managed to avert her gaze when Xena spun to face her.
“You'll need to tie the front,” Xena directed. “Make sure it's tight. I don't want my pants falling down around my ankles when I address the other servants.”
Gabrielle was so intent on her task that she almost missed what was being said. “Address the s-servants, my lord?”
“Yes,” Xena said, as she absently adjusted the padded shirt. “I need to tell them a few things before I leave.”
“L-leave, my lord?” Gabrielle finished tying the leather pants closed and breathed a sigh of relief when the task was done.
“Yes,” Xena's voice reflected her annoyance. “I'm taking the army and marching on Perrius. I sent a detachment of men there earlier in the week and they haven't returned. A messenger arrived early this morning to say my men were taken prisoner and locked in the dungeon of the keep there. One of my old nemeses has set up shop and it's time I take care of him, once and for all.”
“Oh, I see,” Gabrielle kept her eyes down to hide her disappointment at the news. “How many days march is it there and back, my lord?”
“With the entire army in tow? Three, maybe four days there and back. Could take longer if we run into trouble,” Xena answered, as she grabbed the sleeveless leather overshirt and quickly pulled it on, then waited for Gabrielle to lace it up for her. “A week or two to engage the enemy and roust him from his hole, I'd wager. Then I'll leave a detachment there to clean up the mess and restore order to the place. I should return before the next full moon.”
Gabrielle worked in silence, as she helped Xena don the rest of her accoutrements, including boots, matching black knee, arm and wrist bracers trimmed in polished brass, and the heavy armor breastplate that completed the ensemble. She nimbly worked the ties of each until her fingers ached.
“You did a fine job your first time through, Gabrielle,” Xena complimented with a small half-smile.
“Who will help you with your armor while you're out in the field?” Gabrielle couldn't help the hopeful gleam that came into her eyes as they met Xena's.
“I have a couple young boys who travel with the army for that purpose,” Xena answered, as she turned away to grab her helmet and missed the look of disappointment on Gabrielle's features. She turned back and affectionately patted the woman's shoulder. “Don't worry, you'll have plenty to do here while I'm gone.”
Xena quickly strapped her scabbard to her back and sheathed the freshly-polished blade. She also attached a circular weapon to her hip and shoved a t-shaped breast dagger down between her breasts. Twin silver daggers were shoved into special sheathes in her boots and several more were strategically hidden on her person.
“Magnificent,” Gabrielle muttered, not realizing she'd said the words out loud.
“You really think so?” Xena held her hands out to her sides and looked down at the relatively comfortable ensemble that fit her like a glove. Next to her everyday wear, it was her favorite outfit.
Green eyes shot up and met the teasing gleam in the warrior's eye. “Um…yeah,” Gabrielle blushed to her roots.
“Thank you,” the dark woman smirked, as she made a few adjustment and stomped her feet to settle everything into place. “It doesn't scare you to see me in this?” She asked curiously.
“No,” Gabrielle answered with a firm shake of her head. “Should it?”
“It was the same outfit I wore the day I entered your village,” Xena said and watched closely for a reaction that never came.
“Life goes on,” Gabrielle raised her chin and squared her shoulders.
“That's my girl,” Xena walked over and put a companionable arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. “Now let's go out there and change the world.”
They walked together to the double doors. Xena opened one of the doors wide enough for them to pass through and motioned for Gabrielle to precede her. The guards snapped to attention when Xena passed through behind the smaller woman.
“At ease boys,” Xena said casually, as she continued on without a backward glance.
It was well past midday by the time everyone was gathered in the main hall of the keep. Xena stood on top of the head table, where she usually took her meals, and waited for the gathered throng to quiet down. A hush fell over the crowd, as their Lord Conqueror raised a hand for silence.
Gabrielle stood near the front. Xena had directed her to the place she now stood, explaining that she wanted to keep an eye on her. Maida walked up to stand next to Gabrielle who glanced her way. Their eyes met in silent greeting, but otherwise they remained silent.
“As many of you know,” Xena said in a booming voice that carried over the entire assemblage. “I am taking the army to Perrius to engage an old enemy and former ally. My spies tell me Draco has been busy over the last few moons. He now has an army that is steadily growing stronger and more bold by the day. I intend to wipe them out to the last man.”
The silence was almost palpable.
“I've noticed some things in Agatha's absence that I don't like,” Xena continued. “I'm not happy at all that things have become so lax since she left. I expect more from those who serve me.” She paused to glare at the crowd of servants, making eye contact with many who lowered their gazes immediately. When her gaze finally rested on Traecus, he was the only one who kept his eyes on hers. “I've discussed the situation with Traecus and he agrees that he is unable to oversee all the workings of this place by himself. So,” she scanned the crowd again until her eyes rested on two women near the front. “I've decided to make a few changes that I know can only improve things around here.”
“Gabrielle, come,” Xena reached a hand out to the surprised woman and pulled her up onto the table next to her. “This is Gabrielle of Potidea,” she continued in a stern tone, as she rested an arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. “Many of you know her, some do not.” She glanced around at the murmured responses and the few nods. “Gabrielle will be taking on the duties that Agatha held when she was here. She will oversee both the kitchen and household servants from this moment forward.” Xena leaned down and whispered in the smaller woman's ear. “Do you read, write and can you cipher figures?” A quick nod of the blond head was her response. “She will answer only to Traecus, who will double-check the ledgers after Gabrielle has the chance to look them over and add to them.”
Another long pause, as Xena waited out the murmurs and some louder protests that arose from the gathered servants. Her expression hardened, as she singled out those she knew would protest the loudest.
“During my absence, I expect you to listen to and follow Gabrielle's directives, as if they were my own,” Xena's tone brooked no argument. “If I find out that anyone caused trouble for her or anyone else she appoints to advise her in my absence, I will personally see to their punishment myself, upon my return.”
Silence descended like a heavy pall.
“Gabrielle is not Agatha,” Xena continued in a lower voice, glancing at the younger woman who stood stone-faced next to her. “But I have every confidence that she will rise to the occasion and do a fine job as your new overseer.” Xena patted Gabrielle's shoulder. “The nobles are returning to their respective homes, by my order. There will be no one to entertain while I am away, so this transition should be an easy one for every one of you.” She looked pointedly at the stoic steward. “Traecus will assist Gabrielle with everything she needs and I expect you all to show her the same respect you showed Agatha.”
“Yes, my lord,” Traecus bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement. “As always, your wish is our command.”
“Good,” Xena acknowledged his words with a slight nod. “I expect this place to run as efficiently and with as much discipline as my army upon my return. If it doesn't, heads will roll.”
She finished her words by jumping down from the table and helping Gabrielle down, as well. Neither woman said a word, as Xena ushered Gabrielle out of the hall with a hand to the small of her back. They ducked through a small side door and into a deserted hallway, where Gabrielle leaned heavily against a stone wall.
“Are you surprised?” Xena's quiet voice barely penetrated the haze of shock Gabrielle was experiencing. “Gabrielle?”
“Hm?” Gabrielle lifted frightened eyes to meet Xena's. “Surprised? I'm…a little…um…”
Xena smirked. “The bard is at a loss for words, ladies and gentlemen,” she teased.
“I…um…It's…” Gabrielle blew out an exasperated breath when the words wouldn't come. “It's a little overwhelming, is all.”
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and gently rubbed her upper arms. “You'll be fine. Just breathe.”
“I'm trying,” Gabrielle held a hand up to her chest and felt her heart pounding in her chest. “I've just never…um…had that many people watching me with that many expressions of anger, resentment and outright hatred before. It was a little scary.”
“As scary as me appointing you as overseer for the entire keep?” Xena added with a rakish grin.
“That, too,” Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it slowly, then repeated the process several more times until she didn't feel like she was going to throw up or pass out any longer. “I'm not sure if I'm the right person for the job, my lord.”
“You are,” Xena assured. “I'm a fairly good judge of character, if I do say so myself.” She let go of the woman when she saw a sense of calm resignation come over Gabrielle. “Besides, Traecus is the one who suggested you. I just agreed that you'd do a good job. You have guts, Gabrielle. I'll give you that.”
“Traecus?” Gabrielle's surprised eyes met Xena's steady gaze. “How could he possibly think I…”
“He watched you leave the throne room in one piece,” Xena stated flatly. “Apparently, he was in awe of the fact that you managed to somehow escape with your head still attached to your shoulders. My sudden flares of temper generally don't end well for those caught in the path of my rage.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle nodded. “Well, I guess that's something then.”
“It's monumental,” Xena's voice lowered to just above a whisper. “I'm not always in control when I lose my temper, Gabrielle. I wasn't in control yesterday when I came at you. All I saw was red the instant I caught you standing there. Red usually equates to bloodletting for me. There have only been a handful of people on the receiving end of my rage who survived to tell the tale—and they don't talk about it, to anyone. It's too scary to even contemplate. Now you're among the lucky few.”
Gabrielle searched the face so close to hers. There was so much truth in the words and in the eyes that met hers. That truth sent a shudder down Gabrielle's back. If she was among the survivors, who were the others? And why didn't they talk about their experiences? Was it that traumatic for them? It had been frightening for her, but she hadn't really felt that her life was in jeopardy at any point, except for maybe a split-second in the beginning.
“Agatha and Traecus?” Gabrielle guessed.
Xena nodded. “I broke Traecus' elbow after twisting his arm up behind his back once. He stepped in front of me to save a young page who had accidentally dropped a tray of drinks on the table in front of me.”
“And the page?” Gabrielle asked.
“Banished to the keep at Corinth,” Xena replied. “He now works in the stables and does a fine job training horses.”
“And Agatha?” Gabrielle prodded.
“Argued with me about the ledgers one night after a particularly hard day of drills with the men,” Xena smirked. “I saw red. She stood her ground and slapped me out of it. Literally.”
“I think I was too shocked at having been slapped—it reminded me so much of what my mother did when I brought Ly's body back to her,” Xena shook her head at the memory. “Anyway, Agatha stuck her finger in my face and told me to never do it again. Then she walked away without a backward glance. We didn't speak for an entire moon, just grunts and growls for the most part. I gave her free reign to do what needed to be done from that point forward. Never questioned her again.”
“And me?” Gabrielle asked in a timid voice.
Xena closed the distance between them and lifted Gabrielle's chin up with a hand. “I really can't explain it, Gabrielle. All I know is that I've never felt the way I feel when I'm with you.”
Gabrielle gazed up into eyes smoldering with something that should have scared the daylights out of her. It didn't. It just left her knees weak, bats fluttering in her stomach and blood pounding in her ears. Not unpleasant. Just…warm and tingly—like being wrapped in a pleasant haze of—love? She also felt a warm ache in her groin that she'd never felt before.
The click of approaching footsteps on the stone floor brought both women out of the still and silent moment. Xena stepped back and put a safe distance between them, turning to greet the intruder with a stern scowl.
“My lord,” Traecus bowed his head, as he stopped in front of Xena. “Gabrielle,” he turned a stoic half-smirk on the smaller woman. “I trust her lordship's announcement didn't knock you too far off your stride.”
“I…” Gabrielle stifled the urge to glance at her taller companion, as the blood continued to pound in her ears and the monster butterflies did a few extra somersaults in her stomach. “I'm certainly going to try my best to please my Lord Conqueror.”
Traecus glanced from one woman to the other with a curious look of interest, before he composed his expression into his trademark mask of indifference. “Yes, well—” He cleared his throat and turned his attention fully on Xena. “Commander Jael asked me to inform you that the army is ready to move out, whenever you are, my lord.”
“Thank you, Traecus,” Xena said and gave him a pointed look of dismissal. “That'll be all.”
“Very good, my lord.” He turned his attention on Gabrielle. “I shall meet you in the kitchens and go over the ledgers with you when you are ready, Gabrielle.”
“Thank you, Traecus,” Gabrielle nodded to the older man.
The steward turned on his heel and left them alone again. The two women exchanged a glance and smiled.
“Well,” Xena said. “I guess that's it then. I'll leave you in Traecus' capable hands. Trust him. He won't steer you wrong, Gabrielle.”
“He seems nice enough,” Gabrielle smirked. “Actually, he was the reason I charged in on you by accident yesterday.”
“Oh?” Xena's brow lifted. “Traecus—”
“No, no,” Gabrielle quickly caught Xena before she could continue. “I was trying to catch up to him to let him know about a shipment of supplies that were left to rot in the sun. He had no idea I was chasing him when he ducked into your throne room. And I had no clue I was in the throne room, until I realized I'd interrupted your meeting, my lord. I'm sorry. It was stupid of me to go charging in on you like that.”
Xena slapped a hand over her own mouth to hide the chuckle she couldn't quite contain. The new picture Gabrielle painted about what had actually happened and why the previous day put a far different light on things, Xena realized.
“No need to apologize, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “I think I'm the one who should apologize to you for my overreaction. I was way out of line and let my temper get the best of me. Unfortunately, it's one of my many faults.”
“You have faults?” Gabrielle shot back with a teasing gleam.
“You've no idea,” Xena replied with a droll eye roll.
“Laugh it up, Gabrielle,” the tall woman chided, though her expression softened. Xena reached a hand out and her fingers brushed against a pale cheek. “I'm really going to miss you, you know.”
Her fingers pushed a lock of strawberry blond hair away from the smaller woman's face and then rested against the pale cheek.
Gabrielle put a hand over Xena's. “Me, too.”
They stood there just reveling in the shared moment. Then Xena dropped her hand and took a step back.
“Well,” she glanced behind her. “I guess I'd better go. Don't want to keep the army waiting.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle said. “I have a lot to learn, so I'd better get started.”
They stood there for another moment, until Xena closed the distance between them and took Gabrielle into her arms. She didn't ask permission and just let her lips descend towards the smaller woman's. The kiss was slow and lingering, as both women enjoyed the intimate contact. Tongues danced together, as the kiss deepened and left both women breathless. But the moment ended as quickly as it began, as Xena broke contact first and took a reluctant step back.
“Take care of yourself, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “Try not to get into any trouble.”
“You, too, Xena,” Gabrielle replied. She turned toward the door into the main hall with the intent of cutting across the room to get to the kitchens on the other side, but stopped with her hand on the knob. “Xena?”
Xena was already halfway down the hall on her way to meet up with her men. “Yes?” She stopped and turned back toward the smaller woman.
Gabrielle thought of telling Xena exactly how she felt in that moment, but then thought better of it. “Nothing,” she said with a shake of her head. “Have a successful trip, my lord.”
Xena sensed more to the words than a simple well-wishing, but Gabrielle disappeared through the door before she could say more. So, Xena turned on her heel and marched through the keep on her way to meet up with her men.
Once outside, she basked for a moment in the bright sunlight and heat of early afternoon. Some of the army was assembled in the keep's inner courtyard. The rest she knew would be spread out beyond the massive gates and awaiting further orders. Those in the inner courtyard were mostly officers and aids to the Conqueror herself.
Xena approached a younger man in red and gold armor. “Commander,” she greeted him with a curt nod.
The man bowed at the waist and then straightened to meet her intense blue gaze. “My liege,” he said. “You honor us with your presence.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Jael,” Xena shot him a rakish half-grin. “I see the men are assembled. Good job.”
“Thank you, my liege,” he dipped his head at the compliment.
“I expect all the pomp and circumstance of my position to be dropped as soon as we clear the gates, Jael,” Xena hopped easily up onto a stack of crates and turned back to glare at him.
“Yes, m—Xena,” he answered with a knowing smirk. “I'll be sure to spread the word.”
Xena nodded at him and then turned her attention to the gathered men. “Gentlemen!” She let her voice lift over the gathering and waited for the salute they gave her. She pressed her closed fist against her armored chest and nodded to them. “We embark on an important mission this day! My spies tell me the warlord Draco has amassed enough cowards to challenge my right to rule over all of Greece. Word has also spread that Draco is in league with none other than the bastard of Rome, Julius Caesar, as well as others who would see the peace and prosperity of this land lining their own pockets!” A rumble from the gathered men met her words and she waited until the disruption died down. “I cannot allow such treachery and deceit to continue any longer! It is time we show the cowards exactly what we are made of! It is time to show them the iron fist of the Conqueror of the Known World! It is time for WAR!!!”
The crowd erupted in shouts and cheers, as leather-clad fists were raised and a chant of “Xe-na! Xe-na! Xe-na!” gained momentum and rang through the courtyard.
Xena raised her hands and the ruckus died down instantly. “We march on Perrius not to take prisoners and spare the lives of those who would oppose us! In three days' time, we shall enter the city gates and… KILL THEM ALL!!! ”
Her words were followed by a deafening roar that quickly spread beyond the gates, as the entire army took up the chant of her name.
“Are you sure about these figures, Traecus?” Gabrielle lifted her head from the column of numbers she'd been scanning. “There's something wrong here. This ledger right here says eighty bushels of vegetables were delivered to the keep last week. But here,” she pointed to a second ledger and another column of numbers. “This one says only twenty bushels were used that day. What happened to the rest of it? Did it get used or did someone throw it out? This can't be right.”
Traecus' eyes followed Gabrielle's finger down the column in question. “It appears there is a discrepancy, yes.”
“And look here,” Gabrielle ran her finger down several columns in both ledgers. “These figures don't match up at all and haven't for more than a moon. Someone has been making it look like we need more than we actually use.”
Traecus cleared his throat uncomfortably and moved away from the tomes. “I'm not sure a few bushels here and there really make that much of a difference, Gabrielle. Those are just numbers. They have no real bearing on anything that goes on here in the keep. So someone made a few mistakes…”
“A few?” She shot him a skeptical glare. “Do you realize what this means, Traecus? Can you even fathom the kind of wasteful mismanagement that has been perpetrated here? Someone accepted those deliveries, knowing full well they were taking food out of the mouths of villagers who have very little to eat to begin with. Why, just last week I tried to tell you about a stack of crates and boxes of produce that were left outside one of the side doors to rot in the sun.” She shrugged and ducked her head. “I even followed you to the throne room, just to tell you about it, but…”
“Ah,” the dawning in Traecus' eyes told her was thinking about her confrontation with Xena. “I wondered why you came bursting into the throne room so foolishly like that. I still can't believe her lordship let you live. Anyone else would have never seen the blow coming before their head was severed from their shoulders.”
“Eeeyeah,” Gabrielle remarked. “Can we get back to the ledgers?”
“What more is there to say?” Traecus shrugged. “So someone made errors in the inventory. What difference does it make? Many of these people can barely read or write their name, much less write down a bunch of figures in a ledger. The fact that the numbers don't match means nothing.”
“We need to tell Xe—I mean, the Conqueror,” Gabrielle caught her slip. “She needs to know there's something wrong with the books, so she can rectify the situation.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses, Gabrielle?” He grabbed the ledger closest to him and slammed it shut with a resounding thwack . “Do you have the slightest notion what she would do to the person responsible, much less the person who tells her about it? She's been known to tear a man limb from limb for far less than a few mistaken figures. And that was on a good day.”
“Be serious, Traecus,” Gabrielle scoffed. “Xena isn't like that. She listens to people and weighs the evidence before making any rash decisions.”
“Like she did in the throne room last week?” Traecus gave her a knowing look.
“That was different,” Gabrielle waved it off. “I barged in on an important meeting.”
“She nearly took your head off, Gabrielle,” Traecus added in all seriousness.
“But she didn't,” Gabrielle stood firm. “After she had a chance to calm down a bit, we talked. She even apologized for it later.”
Those words had Traecus' gray brow rising into his receding hairline. “She did?”
“You make it sound like she never apologizes,” Gabrielle shot him a look. “Xena isn't a monster, Traecus. She's a woman with a bad temper that gets the best of her at times. But she isn't a monster.”
He didn't miss her familiar use of the Conqueror's name. “You talk about her as if you are intimately acquainted with her, Gabrielle.”
“She…um…We…” Gabrielle blew out an exasperated breath. “We talk.”
He leaned toward her. “Be careful not to get too attached to her, my dear. Our Lord Conqueror is a woman who does not become attached to those in her service. And she trusts no one.”
“She trusts me,” Gabrielle met his gaze and held it. “And I trust her.”
“You would be wise to remember your place in this household, Gabrielle,” he looked around and lowered his voice to just above a whisper. “There are many who carry a great deal of admiration for her lordship, but who have seen firsthand the violence she is capable of. And there are those who would see your attempts to win her affections as a ploy to create dissension in the household.”
“And which are you, Traecus?” Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest and glared at him in open challenge.
“I am but a humble servant of our Lord Conqueror,” he bowed his head just enough to appear demur. “My loyalties lie with her and with those who serve her.”
“And these figures?” Gabrielle prodded. “She needs to know that they're not accurate and that something is wrong with them.”
“Indeed,” he said. “Leave that to me. I will take care of it upon her immediate return to the keep.”
“Actually,” Gabrielle said, as she scooted away from the table and scooped up the ledger in front of her. “Why don't you let me tell her? That way you won't get your head lopped off.” She smirked at him. “She likes me.”
His eyes narrowed at her, as he picked up the other leather-bound tome. “I think that very unwise, under the circumstances.”
“You haven't lived here as long as I have,” he said, as he held the ledger close to his chest. “You haven't seen what I've seen.” His eyes lifted and met her gaze. “I'm an old man and have lived a long life, while you still have your whole life ahead of you. If our Lord Conqueror is to kill a messenger, it should be me.”
“With age comes wisdom?” Gabrielle's smirk became a full-fledged smile. “What do any of us gain by your death, Traecus? Hm? Besides, I know Xena. I trust her. She won't hurt me, no matter what message I deliver to her.”
Traecus studied her for a long moment. “You seem so sure…”
“I am,” Gabrielle nodded. “Xena may be many things to many people, but to me she is merely Xena.” She shrugged. “I watched her kill my sister in cold blood, so don't think I don't know what she is capable of. But she also isn't a monster. She doesn't kill without just cause.”
“You've never seen her after a battle, Gabrielle,” he shook his head. “And I pray to the gods you never do.”
“Give me the ledger, Traecus,” Gabrielle said in a firm tone, as she reached out a hand to him. “I'll take my chances when I explain to Xena what I've discovered. She doesn't have to know you had any part in it.”
Traecus glanced at her outstretched hand and then met her steady gaze. “She won't stop until she launches a full investigation and discovers the truth. Then all our lives will be forfeit.”
“Give me the ledger,” Gabrielle repeated with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It's not gonna happen.”
“You heard her, Traecus,” Maida stepped into the doorway and stood with her arms crossed over her chest. “Give Gabrielle the ledger.”
He glanced from one woman to the other and then reluctantly handed the leather-bound tome over to Gabrielle. “I really hope you know what you are doing, Gabrielle.”
“I never do,” Gabrielle answered cockily. “But I usually come out all right for it. Sometimes I even learn a lesson or two.”
The man huffed, then left the small room. “I have duties to attend to.” And then he was gone.
Maida shot the smaller woman a raised-brow glare. “I see you and Traecus are getting along. What, may I ask, was that all about?”
“Discrepancies,” Gabrielle slipped past the woman and headed up the hall.
“And where do you think you're going?” Maida trotted after Gabrielle and caught up to her after only a few strides. “You have a kitchen to oversee.”
“That's what I have assistants for,” Gabrielle shot a wry look at her redheaded companion. “I believe one of them is following me at this very moment.”
“That she is,” Maida answered cheekily.
Gabrielle stopped and waited for Maida to do the same. She did, after a few extra strides.
“This had better be important,” Gabrielle growled.
“Oh, you'll want to see this. I guarantee it,” Maida said.
“Just let me put these in my room, first,” Gabrielle ducked through a doorway and disappeared.
She quickly deposited the ledgers in her room and used the key to lock it back up. She then made her way back down the hall and ducked through the door leading to where Maida was waiting. She silently mused on her abrupt change in circumstances since Xena's departure. The woman had only been gone a week, but Gabrielle had learned a great deal in that time. With Maida's help, she now knew her way around most of the keep. There were still a few of the hallways upstairs that she got turned around in, but they weren't really part of her domain.
She also knew the schedules for all the deliveries to the keep, including those for the stables and other outbuildings. Produce came three times during the course of the week, through ten different suppliers. She would soon work with them to come up with new quantities, so there wouldn't be quite the waste there seemed to be. She no longer wanted to take food from the mouths of the villagers and would also come up with a way to add suppliers to the list. That way the produce could come from even more places and provide incentive for expanded trade in the region.
Looking over the budget with Traecus had been long and tedious work. He showed her the ledgers and then went over each expense and its related budget item. By the time they'd gone over every figure, Gabrielle's eyes were blurred and her head pounded from the long candlemarks of squinting at the endless columns of numbers.
The present day's bookwork had included the ledgers for supplies received and supplies used. There were only two ledgers and they'd only spent a few candlemarks in the small room, but Gabrielle was satisfied that her work was progressing right along. By the time Xena returned from her mission, Gabrielle knew she would have the keep well in hand. It was a monumental undertaking, but it was a challenge she was tackling, day-by-day.
And then there were the people—the other servants who worked around the keep. Many of them knew their duties and went about them with little direction. Others, however, weren't so efficient or were just plain lazy. It wasn't long before Gabrielle realized the real challenge was to keep the many kitchen servants on-task. The cooks created the menu for the day, which she had to approve with Traecus' help. Then she had to assign the various jobs while the cooks went about gathering the supplies they needed for the various items on the menu. That's when the real choreography began, as servants raced from one end of the kitchens to the other.
Gabrielle managed to stay out of everyone's way during the early days of her training. She usually found something else to occupy her time, like making sure the scullery maids aired out the linens in the guest rooms or ordering the laundresses to include at least one of the tapestries in their day's wash.
As she ducked through the small door and came back out into the hallway, Maida was patiently leaning against the wall, waiting for her. The redhead had become a good friend, as well as a vital assistant. She wasn't afraid to get right into the mix, if needed. Gabrielle didn't really need to tell her friend what needed to be done that day. Maida just seemed to sense that a job needed tackling and went about ordering someone to do it.
“So,” Gabrielle smiled. “What's today's surprise?” She spared a sideways glance at the taller woman, as she and Maida made their way through the various corridors of the keep. “Did you convince Braen to hang around long enough to give you a ride in his cart?”
Maida blushed to her roots. “Braen is too afraid of the Conqueror's wrath to do such a thing, Gabrielle, and you know it.”
Yes, Gabrielle did know it. But she also knew that her friend was head-over-heels in love with the handsome delivery man with the blond hair and gray-blue eyes. Braen also seemed taken with Maida. Gabrielle had seen him flirt with her friend on more than one occasion, sometimes presenting her with a nice apple or a beautiful flower.
“The Conqueror isn't here,” Gabrielle pointed out with a sly grin. “What she doesn't know won't hurt Braen, or you, for that matter.”
They walked outside through a small side door and into a beautiful garden that Gabrielle had never seen before. She couldn't help but stop and stare in open awe at the array of colorful roses, azaleas and other bushes, trees, plants and flowers in bloom around her.
“Oh,” she uttered quietly. “It's…”
“Amazing?” Maida continued on, snagging a ripe peach from a small tree and taking a bite. “Mmmmm.”
“What is this place?” Gabrielle took a few tentative steps into a world set apart from the one she was used to. She spun a slow circle and took in everything with an artist's eye. “It's paradise.”
“It's our Lord Conqueror's private garden,” Maida found a small patch of green grass and lay down under a shade tree. “Traecus had one of the Athenian gardener's create it a few years back, after she told him she needed a place to escape to in order to clear her mind. Our Lord Conqueror didn't exactly have this in mind when she made the comment, however.”
Gabrielle looked down at the woman reclining in the grass. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Maida took another bite of the juicy fruit and savored it, as the sweet juice slid down her chin. “If you haven't noticed, our Lord Conqueror isn't exactly one to sit and relax in the shade of a tree for any length of time. She's more…um…a woman of action.”
Gabrielle nodded and took a seat against the trunk of the tree Maida was reclining beneath. “She prefers sparring to reclining.”
“Exactly,” Maida finished off the last of the peach, tossed the pit away and wiped the juice from her chin. “Agatha used to have to patch her lordship up at least once a week when the old woman was still here. Her lordship would grumble that Agatha had the hands of a sailor. Agatha would then reply that it served her lordship right for getting hurt in the first place. The old woman would just roll her eyes and grumble under her breath that she did less healing when she lived with the tribe, whatever that meant.”
Gabrielle's interest perked up. “Agatha lived with a tribe? Are you sure that's what she said?”
“That's exactly what she said,” Maida replied. “Apparently she lived with a tribe of women before she came to the keep. Can you imagine? No men allowed. I could never live in a village that only allowed women in it. What's the fun in that? Men are…” Her expression turned dreamy, as her eyes drifted shut.
“Amazons,” Gabrielle whispered in awe. “Agatha lived with the Amazons.”
She sat there and silently puzzled through all the pieces that were now slipping into place. Agatha was Xena's aunt and Xena's mother's much older sister. And she lived with the Amazons before she moved to the keep. Did she go back to them when she left the keep? Was she, even now, living in one of the secret Amazon villages scattered throughout Greece? Was Xena's mother also an Amazon?
The puzzle that was Xena was beginning to come together and take shape. Gabrielle had heard enough stories about the warrior women to know that they were a fearsome people who were better left alone in their wooded villages. Those who trespassed on Amazon lands were never heard from again. The woods that generally surrounded the secret villages were said to be haunted by the spirits of dead Amazon warriors, who appeared from nowhere to claim their victims' souls.
Gabrielle knew there was a village not far from Potidea. Her father had warned her and her sister never to step foot in the woods at the south end of town. When he told them the woods were haunted, Gabrielle knew the truth. Amazons.
Her suspicions were confirmed one summer day when a group of heavily armed travelers emerged from those same woods with stories of masked ghouls who appeared out of the trees and killed a number of their comrades. The masked ghouls then disappeared back into the trees as quickly as they'd appeared, leaving several dead trespassers in their wake.
Although Gabrielle didn't really fear the women she knew lived within those woods, she hadn't really been brave enough to trespass on their domain, either. Everyone steered clear of the woods, including the inhabitants of Potidea. But Gabrielle had also seen the occasional small group of two or three women who visited Potidea's stalls on market day.
The women had feathers in their hair and wore colorfully beaded ankle and wrist bracelets. They were dressed in mismatched peasant garb that was supposed to help them blend in with the other shoppers. But Gabrielle just knew they were Amazons. One of the women had even winked conspiratorially at her once, when she caught Gabrielle staring in open awe.
“Do you think I would make a good Amazon?” Gabrielle didn't realize that she'd spoken the words aloud.
“You?” Maida chuckled. “Are you kidding me? They'd squash you like a bug. They're the most fearsome fighters in all of Greece. Men fear them. Warlords avoid the woods where they live like the plague. I've heard tell that the Conqueror won't even go near them.”
“The Conqueror fears the Amazons?” Gabrielle couldn't keep the amazement out of her tone.
“Naw,” Maida snickered. “The Conqueror doesn't fear anyone. But she has a healthy respect for those who protect their territory like a pack of crazed badgers. All the stories I've ever heard paint them as barbarians who wear little-to-no clothing, who fight like savages and who have mass sexual orgies as they howl like rabid wolves at the full moon.”
Gabrielle couldn't help but giggle at the picture Maida painted of the warrior women. “You need to get out more, Maida.”
“What?” The woman tilted her head back far enough to look at Gabrielle.
“They're just women,” Gabrielle said. “I've even seen a few in our village on rare occasions. They're really not that special.”
Maida rolled over onto her stomach and met Gabrielle's gaze. “Ye did?” She asked in awe. “What were they like?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “They were just women. A few wore feathers in their hair and most wore colorful beaded bracelets, necklaces and anklets. They came to our village during market days and bartered for goods and other supplies.”
“What did they wear?”
“Clothes, like you and me,” Gabrielle smirked. “They really aren't the savages people paint them as.”
“Oh,” Maida's face fell. “Still,” she shrugged. “Don't think I could live in a village where men aren't allowed. Kinda takes the fun out of things.”
Gabrielle snorted. “I'm sure they find ways around that particular…urm…issue.”
Her expression turned thoughtful, as she considered the physical aspects of a relationship with another woman—especially one woman in particular who possessed a pair of expressive blue eyes. She'd been raised on a farm and knew a little something about the coupling between male and female animals. So she was fairly certain it was about the same for male and female human beings. But how did two women…
“Gabrielle?” Maida's voice penetrated her reverie. “What are you thinking about that has you blushing such a bright shade of red?”
Gabrielle slapped her hands against her cheeks and rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Um…er…I…was…um…”
Maida burst out laughing. “Oh, you are so priceless!”
Gabrielle frowned down at the woman. “Shhhh,” she chided. “Someone will hear you.”
“Oh,” Maida rolled onto her back and held her stomach, as she tried to catch her breath. “I haven't laughed that hard in a really long time. Thank you, my friend.”
Gabrielle shot her a sarcastic frown. “Glad you find me so entertaining.”
“Oh, I do,” Maida finally sat up and turned to face her blushing companion. “But we'd better get back to work. Traecus finds us out here and we're dead.”
Gabrielle gazed up at the clear blue sky overhead and drew in a deep breath. “It's nice here. Smells like springtime in the groves back home.” She sighed. “Wish we could stay forever.”
Maida bounded to her feet and reached out a hand to help Gabrielle up. “I certainly won't say a word if you disappear for an hour or two during the day. At least I'll know where to find you if I need you.”
Gabrielle smiled up into the woman's laughing eyes and gave her a hug. “Thanks, Maida. You're a really good friend.”
“Remind me of that when there's another catastrophe in the kitchen,” the redhead put a companionable arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, as they walked to the small door hidden behind some ivy snaking up the side of the stone keep.
“As long as I don't have to get down on my hands and knees to scrub the floor clean of orange glaze again,” Gabrielle teased.
“Hey, I helped,” Maida opened the door for the smaller woman and they ducked back inside.
Both women stopped dead, as the door closed behind them and they came face to face with Nora. The bully had her arms crossed over her ample bosom and was glaring at them with a look that said she knew their little secret.
“So, the mouse and her minion are trespassin' in the Conqueror's private garden, eh?” Nora accused.
“Buzz off, Nora,” Maida stepped in front of Gabrielle. “I was just showing Gabrielle some of the parts of the keep she hasn't yet visited.”
A mousy brown brow rose into the sneering woman's hairline. “I'll just bet the two of ye were sightseein'.” She took a menacing step toward the redhead and her arms dropped to her sides. “We'll see what Traecus has ta say about it.”
“Maida is telling the truth,” Gabrielle stepped up next to her friend and glared at Nora. “Aren't you supposed to be polishing the silver or scrubbing the floor in the main hall? I don't remember excusing you from your duties today, Nora.”
Nora's ruddy features turned bright red with anger. “Ye've no real authority here, mouse,” she spat venomously. “The only reason her lordship gave ye any power at all is because she'll screw ye good when she returns. ‘Tis the way of it for her to pick a pretty young thing to sate her bloodlust.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the crude suggestion, but she held her ground when Nora leaned toward her. “Return to your duties, Nora. Or I'll…”
“Ye'll what?” Nora breathed her foul breath in Gabrielle's face. “Ye'll tell Traecus? Hm? Ye think that scrawny twit will do anything ta his precious Nora? He loves me and will do anything I ask. I've a mind ta teach ye the lesson ye deserve.”
Maida pushed between the two women and managed to shove Nora back a step. “Back off, ye bloody cow! Or ye'll be spending the next week in the godsbedamned infirmary. Ye'd better watch yer step, Nora. Word reaches our Lord Conqueror that you threatened Gabrielle, and ye won't live ta see the next sunrise after her return.”
Nora shoved Maida and sent both women into the wall behind them. “I ain't takin' no more bloody orders from that little whelp, Maida. And ye'd be wise to steer clear of her, too. Won't be long before things change and this place is put right.”
Those words earned her raised-browed looks from the two women.
“And what does that mean?” Gabrielle shoved away from the wall and again stood her ground. “What is changing?”
“I ain't sayin' another word,” Nora said over her shoulder, as she made a hasty retreat down the deserted hallway.
The two remaining women shot each other questioning looks, before Maida's gaze turned to follow Nora's hasty retreat.
“I don't have any idea what she was talking about, but it didn't sound good,” Maida said with a shake of her red head. “And, knowing Nora like I do, it isn't good.”
“From the few run-ins I've had with her, I agree,” Gabrielle concurred. “I just wish she'd give us more than a vague warning of doom.”
“You've had run-ins with Nora before?” Maida turned her attention back to the smaller woman.
“Yes,” Gabrielle answered with a firm nod, as she turned on her heel and marched down the hallway. “And I'm really getting tired of her attitude. Maybe I should talk to Traecus and see what he thinks.”
“He doesn't concern himself with such trivial matters,” Maida said, as she ran to catch up to the smaller woman.
“Maybe it's time he did,” Gabrielle said with conviction.
Xena wasn't happy. As a matter of fact, she was pissed. The army was moving too slowly for her tastes. They should have been in Perrius days ago. Instead, they were still marching at a snail's pace along a dusty road that was three-day's march from the town that Draco held. It was maddening—exasperating.
“Why is this taking so long?” She turned to look at the man riding a sorrel gelding next to her restless mount.
“My lord?” The man gave her a questioning stare.
“We should be camped outside the gates of Perrius by now, Commander,” Xena growled. “I want to know why your men are marching so slowly that I've seen several turtles passing us by.”
He saw the frustration in her steely gaze and realized there was nothing for it but to tell the truth. “We've been gathering troops along the way, my lord. I thought it best to be prepared for any eventuality and ordered the other commanders to give us time to bring the newcomers up to speed.”
Xena's dark brow rose. “How many new recruits have joined the ranks since we set out?”
“Twelve thousand, my lord,” he answered. “They are quite green, I admit. But twelve thousand added to the twenty we already have will give us a considerable advantage, if the rumors are true.”
“Rumors,” Xena scoffed. “My spies tell me those rumors of a Roman contingent marching from Pella are false, all of them. Besides, what would Caesar want with Greece? He's far too busy conquering Gaul and Britannia to come sniffing around our borders.”
“Maybe so, my lord,” Jael shifted in the saddle a bit. “But I still think we should heed the warnings. That oracle back in Dries was very clear when she foretold of the crippling defeat you would suffer at the hands of one who has nipped at your heels for many years.”
“An oracle's words mean nothing to me,” Xena ground out between clenched teeth. “And I will hear no more talk of defeat. Do I make myself clear?” The glare she shot him could melt stone. “I commend you on your forethought, but I want this army moving double-time, NOW!!! If we're not breathing down Draco's neck by sunset tomorrow, your head will decorate a pike outside my tent and Lastius will find himself promoted to commander, in your stead.”
Jael slammed a fist against his armored chest. “Yes, my lord!”
Xena waited for him to drop back and join the other commanders, before she blew out a frustrated breath. She knew her temper was getting the best of her. She also knew Jael's reasoning was sound where the army was concerned. And the rumors? She had no idea if they were true or not. All she knew was what her spies told her and there were conflicting stories from nearly every one of them.
Something was up. She could smell it. And it smelled like a rat. She kicked Ares into a slow canter and left the ranks of her men behind her. Several of her personal guard followed at a discreet distance, not sure what she was doing, but sticking with her just the same. The men she had chosen to protect her were loyal to a fault and would not leave her, no matter what the circumstance. She applauded their fortitude, but often silently rebuked them for intruding on the modicum of privacy she longed for.
“My lord!” A surly man in the distinct red and black that denoted her personal guard from the rest of the army called to her after several moments.
Xena reigned in her mount and patted Ares' neck as he tossed his head. She then met the steady gaze of the man who had called out to her.
“Yes, Darphus?” She kneed the huge black stallion, until he turned enough that she was facing the man. “You bellowed?”
“I only wanted to know how far ahead of the main force you would go before turning back, my lord,” Darphus bowed his head just enough to show her respect, but not enough to break eye contact.
A long scar down one cheek was a blatant reminder that his loyalty would never be in question. However, the look in his eyes told a different story. He had been with her far longer than any of her other men and had earned his place at her side on more than one occasion. He wore the scar on his cheek like a badge of honor and had earned it when he stepped in front of Xena during the Battle at Marathon. That was when she appointed him as her personal bodyguard and gave him the honor of sitting at the head table with her during every subsequent meal.
But Xena had soon grown tired of his pompous attitude and his uncanny ability to set her warning senses off every time he entered the room. She had learned long ago, however, that a true leader kept their friends close and their enemies closer. It was a motto she lived by every day and one she hoped would not eventually bite her in the ass.
“What does it matter to you, Darphus?” Xena challenged. “As leader of my personal guard, it isn't for you to question my actions. Your job is to simply shadow me in the field and watch over my person.”
He dipped his head again, but she could still see the flash of—was it rebellion?—in his dark eyes. “My lord, as always, I defer to you in all matters concerning the safety of your person. I was just concerned that we might run into…unsavory characters…on this particular stretch of road.”
Xena glanced at the men surrounding Darphus and realized they had been handpicked by him, not by her. She wondered what loyalties they harbored. Would they turn on her, as quickly as she sensed Darphus would? Was something afoot, even then?
Xena casually crossed her arms and leaned on the saddlebow, looking like she didn't have a single care in all the world. It was a ploy and one she hoped would finally tip someone's hand. She was tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop—had been waiting for it ever since their rather slow departure from the keep at Surra. The incessant warning buzz had been niggling at her nape hairs for the better part of a week now and she was tired of having to constantly be on high alert.
“We should return to the main force, my lord,” Darphus suggested.
“Why not just wait here until they catch up?” Xena shot him a challenging glare. “They'll get here eventually, even at the snail's pace my commanders have set.”
“Oh, come on, Darphus,” Xena moved her horse to within a few feet of his. “Don't tell me Jael and the others really came up with that little ploy all on their own.”
“I don't understand,” he couldn't help the small smile that tweaked the corner of his mouth, where the scar intersected the corner of his lips.
“I know what's going on, Darphus,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, as she leaned over the saddle toward him. “How much did they pay you? Hm? Or did they promise you a place in the new government?” Her glare turned deadly. “I hope it was well worth it, because when I'm through with you, there won't be anything left to feed to the buzzards.”
She unsheathed her sword from the scabbard at her back in anticipation of the attack that came next. She had already sensed the danger, though. She was completely aware of the horses rustling in the trees that surrounded them on the deserted stretch of road. She had chosen to ride ahead of her men in anticipation of this very thing.
Her battle cry rang out, as the sounds of a hundred swords pulled from a hundred scabbards rang out in the silence that surrounded them. Then she kicked Ares into motion and held on tight with powerful legs, as the beast charged with amazing speed and agility. The black blur of movement took all of them completely by surprise, as Xena swung her sword and cut through the line of men who suddenly sprang into motion in front of her.
She hoped she had given her army the warning they needed to do what had to be done. They knew her battle cry. They also knew her. She just hoped Jael was more loyal to her than her most loyal guardsmen, who fled into the trees when the ambush began.
Unable to even glance behind her to see if Darphus was still there, Xena plowed through the line of attackers with bloody precision and felt her battlelust sore when she heard her army surge forward with loud cheers to join the fray. She would deal with Darphus and his minions, in due time. At that moment, however, she had her hands full with the hundred or so men who were closing around her in a last-ditch effort to cut her off from her main force.
Her sword swung in a blinding arc and took off the heads of the attackers closest to her. She then grabbed the circular weapon at her waist and deftly used it to cut her way through those on her other side. Someone grabbed for Ares' reins, but the stallion sensed the danger and shied the opposite way. Xena didn't miss a beat, as she continued to hack and slice her way through the deadly throng. Her adrenaline surged and her senses were heightened, as she effortlessly guided her tireless mount forward and continued to plow through the ambushers.
She knew the instant the tide turned. She felt it in her bones. Her men pushed through the ambushers, until they were even with her and had laid waste to nearly as many of the attackers as she had. She felt Jael and the others close in behind her and knew an instant's relief that they would win the day. Then she saw something out of the corner of her eye that turned her blood cold with dread.
Up on a ridge not far from where the ambushers had emerged, sat a single horseman bearing a fluttering banner. The banner was as familiar to her as her own and sent a chill of foreboding down her spine. Caesar. The Roman emperor really did send troops to Greece. They really were there waiting for her.
She glanced around at her men and at those fallen ambushers who now lay dead on the ground around her. They wore the armor of Greeks, but their hair was wrong. They weren't Greek mercenaries. They were Roman soldiers in the guise of Draco's men.
Ice-blue eyes angrily snapped back to the ridge, but too late. The banner bearer was gone. It was a warning. That much she knew. The entire affair was a warning. But Xena was not to be deterred. Rome or no Rome, Draco had to be stopped once and for all. It was time to put an end to the man who was becoming more than a thorn in her side. He had plagued her the moment she slit the throat of her worst enemy, Cortese.
Xena had no idea what she looked like in that moment. Her hair was pulled back from the angular planes of her features—features that were covered in blood and set in a stone-cold mask. She closed her eyes as a surge of bloodlust coursed through her again. It was always like that during a battle. She needed to release the anger, the rage that pounded through her veins with each beat of her heart. The battle was over, but the bloodlust remained.
“My lord,” Jael cautiously approached the stone-faced woman sitting silently atop her black steed.
“Yesssss?” She hissed between clenched teeth and didn't bother to meet his gaze.
“We managed to capture one of the ambushers,” Jael said. “My men have him bound and gagged. We await your orders.”
Xena turned the stallion and followed Jael through the carnage that still sent a surge of bloodlust coursing through her. She needed release. She still needed to taste the blood of her enemy.
They reached a small stand of trees and Xena saw the scruffy man on his knees amidst several of Jael's men. She dismounted and strode to the captive, stopping right in front of the man who merely glared up at her in open defiance. She yanked the dirty rag from his mouth and glared back.
“Who do you serve?”
“Go fuck yourself, bitch!” The man's Greek was flawless, despite the cut of his hair and the Roman tunic he wore beneath his Greek armor.
Xena backhanded him hard across the face. “Who…do…you…serve, Roman— PIG!!! ” She shouted, as she jabbed her fingers into either side of his neck with precision. “I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you bastard. You have seconds to live. Tell me what I want to know and I'll kill you swiftly. Hold out and I'll string you up and drop your entrails onto the ground in front of you. You'll die a slow and painful death as you stare down at your own godsbedamned guts.”
His eyes bulged as he indeed felt like his head would explode at any moment. “All—all right!” He ground out between clenched teeth. “Release it and I'll tell you.”
Two quick jabs had him nearly collapsing at her feet. The guards on either side of him, however, grabbed him before he fell and held him in place. His beady eyes lifted until they met Xena's. Then he snorted in derision.
“Son of a whore said you'd do that,” he chuckled, as he caught his breath. “Didn't think it'd be quite so painful, though.”
Xena stepped forward and grabbed his chin in a death grip. “Tell me who you work for,” she hissed again.
“Rome,” he snarled and pulled his face out of her grasp. “You and the rest of these pitiful Greek pussies will soon know the might and power of our fearless leader, Gaius Julius Caesar, you filthy Greek whore.”
No one saw the dagger suddenly appear in her hand until she drove it deep into the man's throat. His eyes wide in shock, he tried desperately to breathe through his severed windpipe, but all he managed to do was gurgle helplessly as the life ebbed from him.
Xena held the dagger for a few heartbeats and then pulled it free with a triumphant smirk. “Your illustrious leader shall soon know that I am much more than a mere enemy of Rome. I just became one of its deadliest nightmares.”
Xena twirled the bloody dagger in her equally bloody fingers for a moment, as she contemplated her next move. There was, indeed, a Roman force out there somewhere. The question, now, however, was where exactly were they?
“Jael,” Xena's voice dropped to a low purr. “Set up camp and take care of our dead and wounded. I don't want to leave them here for the vultures to pick clean.”
“Yes, my lord,” he bowed.
“Oh, and Jael?” She stopped him before he could take two steps.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Send a squad of your best men after Darphus and his guards,” Xena ordered. “I want them brought back from whatever hole they're hiding in. I have something special in mind for their punishment.”
“Yes, my lord,” Jael saluted and strode away purposefully to carry out her orders.
“What news, Lord Pompey?” Draco stood up from his chair and stepped down from the dais to greet the blond Roman general with an outstretched arm. “I am honored by your visit and pleased that Rome sees fit to join in our austere cause.”
“Cut the crap, Draco,” Pompey grasped the man's arm. He then turned his attention to a bowl of juicy grapes sitting on a table next to him and helped himself. “Caesar is engaged in affairs in Britannia, otherwise he would be leading this invasion himself.”
“Still,” Draco motioned for the man to take a seat on the chair next to his. “Your army will join our cause.”
“I brought my army to teach Xena a lesson, on Caesar's orders,” Pompey popped several grapes into his mouth and chewed. “Your message just happened to intrigue both Caesar and myself. We had no idea there would still be opposition to her rule here in Greece.”
“My allies and I are ready to put a plan into action,” Draco said with a wave of his hand. “It is time for true Greeks to rise up against the Conqueror and throw off the shackles of tyranny she has kept us under for far too long.”
“Words, Draco, mere words,” Pompey accepted a goblet of wine from a passing servant and gave the young maid a lascivious wink. “I expect there to be some action behind them, as well?”
Draco saw the lustful look in the Roman's eyes and silently motioned the servant girl to return to Pompey's side. “There are many…er…pleasures that can be sampled here in my domain, Lord Pompey.” He motioned for several more girls to join the first. “These girls will help you relax after your long journey.”
Pompey reveled in the luscious bodies and decided he, indeed, could take some time to recover from the long journey. He pulled one girl into his lap and fondled her small breasts, as another worked the few kinks from his neck and back.
“A room, perhaps?” He smiled to his host.
“Of course, Lord Pompey,” Draco smirked, as he motioned for another servant to escort the Roman and his entertainment to the room they had prepared.
“We shall talk again in the morning, Draco,” Pompey called over his shoulder, as he followed the girls out of the room.
“That we will,” Draco said, as he finished off his own wine and decided to partake in some of his own pleasures.
It was late and she was tired. She stretched the sore muscles in her back and felt a few satisfying pops, as she walked through the corridor to her room. It was quiet, too. Peaceful. She passed by the closed door to the Conqueror's private suite of rooms and stopped in the doorway. She had learned that the same key to her room also fit the lock to the Conqueror's suite. She stuck her hand in her pocket and her fingers instantly found the familiar metal. She absently played with the key in her pocket for a moment, then continued on toward her room.
Shoving the key into the lock, she threw the door open and stepped inside. The room was dark, almost pitch black. The full moon that had shown through the window the night Xena had brought her there was not visible in the sky this night.
Gabrielle quickly walked over to the bedside table where she knew the single candle sat. Before she went three steps, however, someone grabbed her roughly from behind and slapped a beefy hand over her mouth. She struggled to break free, but the person was bigger and stronger than she was. Her struggles were in vain, but she didn't care. She continued trying to free herself and clawed desperately at the hand over her mouth and nose.
“This'll go a lot easier if'n ya stop fightin' me,” the words were hissed in a loud whisper in her ear.
She fought all the harder, as her assailant shoved her down on her bed. Panic shot through her when a beefy hand grabbed her skirt and yanked it up over her hips. The fabric tore with a resounding noise that echoed in the room. She realized what the man's intentions were and felt a surge of energy well up inside her. She pushed with all her strength and managed to free herself enough to ram an elbow into his ribs and a knee into his groin.
He groaned in pain at the unexpected blows, but didn't release his grip on her. Actually, his grip on her arms tightened painfully and he pinned her down with his body. He released one of her arms and backhanded her across the face so hard that Gabrielle saw bright stars dancing in her vision for a moment. The blow left her dazed and gave him the opening he needed.
Gabrielle tried to see who the man was, but it was too dark. “Please,” she pleaded, as she felt him tear her skirt up to her waist and then violently remove her undergarments. “Don't do this.”
“Too late, missy,” his breath in her face was hot and rancid, as he fumbled with the ties on his pants.
“Why?” She couldn't help the catch in her voice, as she realized exactly what he intended to do to her.
With a renewed surge of energy, she pushed against him and tried to scoot out from underneath him, but found that he wouldn't budge. He grabbed her top and yanked hard, tearing the fabric and exposing her breasts to his calloused hand. His fingers dug painfully into her flesh and she cried out at the bruising contact. And then he shoved her thighs apart and stepped between them. Shear panic shot through her, as he grabbed her arms and pinned them over her head with one hand. He then clamped the other hand over her mouth, as he violently drove himself inside her.
White-hot agony shot through her at the unexpected assault. Her body wasn't ready for his penetration and she felt her flesh tear when he entered her. Tears of pain and humiliation streamed down her cheeks and soaked the bedding beneath her head, as she continued to struggle against him. She screamed, but her cries were muffled by the hand held firmly over her mouth. She continued to struggle in vain against his hands, but his grip was firm and immovable. Her feet frantically tried to find purchase on either the floor or the bed, so she could scramble away from him. Nothing worked.
She lost track of time and her mind began to wander, as she wished for the welcome relief of unconsciousness. But it never came. She screamed until her voice was hoarse, but still he continued his assault in a steady, violent rhythm. His breathing changed at one point and became shallower. She had no idea how much longer she could endure the assault. Bile rose in her throat, but she quickly swallowed it down. There was no way his hand was moving from her mouth and she had no wish to choke to death on her own vomit.
Just when she thought the world would finally let her sink into the welcome arms of oblivion, she felt him thrust one last, excruciating time. His body slammed against hers and pushed her legs even farther apart. And then he fairly collapsed on top of her, panting heavily from his exertions.
“There, now,” his harsh whisper reached her ears. “That weren't so bad, was it?”
Gabrielle could feel fresh tears spring to her eyes, as she silently lay beneath him. “Get your filthy hands off me,” she tried to shout the words, but they only came out as a hoarse, raspy whisper.
“Oh, poor little mouse,” another voice approached from the shadows, until Gabrielle turned her head to see someone else approaching her. “'Tis too bad you didn't heed my warnin', girl.”
“Nora?” Gabrielle rasped out in surprise. “What…” Calloused fingers touched her cheek and she instinctively pulled away.
“That's right, little mouse,” Nora's voice fairly dripped disdain. “I asked my lover, here, ta give ye a taste of what a real man is like. Her lordship will never quite measure up to what Bart just gave ye, now will she?” She leaned close to Gabrielle's face. “I just wish it was me, instead of him,” she sneered. “I'd give you what our Lord Conqueror cannot.”
Gabrielle felt Bart's grip on her hands loosen slightly, enough for her to pull one free. She never gave a thought to what she did next. She merely reacted with all the pent-up emotion and rage that suddenly surged through her. Her hand snaked out and grabbed Nora's throat in an iron grip and then she kicked out with all the strength she could muster.
Bart went sprawling backwards onto the floor, while Gabrielle's other hand joined the first. She squeezed with all her might with both hands around Nora's fleshy throat and didn't stop. The larger woman gasped and tried to release the iron grip on her throat to no avail.
Rage—raw and hot—surged through Gabrielle and added strength to the hands closed tightly around the woman's throat. She saw nothing. Heard nothing. Her only focus was on squeezing as hard as she could. She didn't even think about the fact that she was ending a life. She merely acted out of pure self-preservation and rage.
And then something huge hit her, knocking the wind out of her, as she was thrown into the wall. A beefy fist slammed into her face and another slammed into her midsection so hard she felt her ribs crack painfully. She bit her lip to keep from screaming out and doubled over in pain.
“Filthy bitch!” The man shouted, as another blow slammed into the side of Gabrielle's head with such blinding force that she wasn't sure why she was still conscious, much less standing.
And then she felt her knees buckle. She crumpled to the hard floor an instant later and barely registered the impact, in light of the agony she was already in. And still she remained conscious. She watched as her assailant knelt down and checked for a pulse in the still woman lying just beyond her.
“I should kill ye for what ye did to her,” the man wheezed.
He was suddenly holding a rather large knife in one hand, as he moved toward her. Gabrielle felt the panic rise inside her, but found that she couldn't move. She wanted to close her eyes and shut out the horror of what she knew was coming, but they wouldn't respond, either. He knelt next to her and grabbed her hair in a painful grip. Then she felt the knife slice very close to her scalp. Confusion washed over her, as he raised her shorn locks triumphantly in his hand.
“Let's see these assholes follow yer fuckin' orders now, bitch,” he spat, as he tossed her hair away into the darkness. “On'y slaves wear their hair like a bloody shorn sheep. Ain't no one here gonna do what ye say again. Yer life here is over.”
His chuckle was almost maniacal as he reached down and gently picked Nora's body up into his arms. He looked down at Gabrielle with an angry glare. Then he kicked her so hard in the midsection that she was sure she would die right then and there from the excruciating pain.
She didn't die. She lay there on the cold stone floor in pure agony. And she couldn't cry. No tears came to her eyes. No sound escaped her bloody lips. She just lay there—unable to move, unable to do more than take one shallow breath after another. She could feel the cold air on her scalp, where he'd used his knife to sheer her like a sheep. Her eyes stared unseeingly across the dark room until the sky began to lighten. Shadows took shape, as dawn slowly crept over the land and sunlight peeked into her room. And still she didn't move.
Footsteps in the corridor brought her out of the strange half-daze she'd slipped into. She heard the footsteps stop at the threshold and then someone gasped.
“Oh, sweet Artemis!” She knew the voice and wanted to respond, but she still couldn't move. She could only stare at the pair of worn shoes that stopped in front of her. “Gabrielle!” A hand on her shoulder brought a low moan from her lips—lips swollen and caked with dried blood, her blood. “Oh, Gabrielle,” Maida quickly went to the bed, pulled the blanket off and covered Gabrielle with it. “Can you hear me?” A hand brushed a few stray wisps of blond hair away from her face and still she couldn't move. “Gabrielle, can you hear me? Blink if you can hear me, Gabrielle. Please let me know you're still in there.”
Gabrielle forced her eyes to do just that. But, instead of blinking, her eyes merely closed and remained closed. She didn't know which was worse, staring across the room at nothing or having her eyes closed. The darkness behind her lids reminded her too much of the darkness that surrounded her when she'd been so brutally attacked. So, she tried to force her lids open again. But they wouldn't budge. She was trapped in the darkness.
“Hold on, Gabrielle, I'm going to get help,” Maida's words were like a lifeline in the darkness. “Just stay with me. Don't you dare die while I'm gone! Don't you dare!”
She didn't dare. But she couldn't stop the darkness from closing in, just as she couldn't stop the throbbing ache between her sticky thighs or the incessant pounding in her head. She was alive. But for how long? The darkness closed in further and she decided to give in to it. She couldn't fight it anyway. What was the point? So she let it slip around her like a warm shroud, and she sank down into the welcome arms of oblivion—finally.
Xena was in the throws of yet another orgasm when a shiver of dread raced through her. Something wasn't right. She stopped and sat there poised over her latest conquest—a young soldier with hair the color of winter wheat. She didn't see him anymore, as she tried to figure out what it was that had caught her attention. She looked down into eyes the color of honey and the spell was broken. He wasn't…her.
“My lord?” The young man's voice pierced the silence, as he watched her climb off him with agility that was the envy of many. “Did I do or say something to offend you, Lord Conqueror?”
Xena quickly turned her bare back on the young soldier, as she donned a long robe and turned around to address him. She tied the belt of her robe firmly and stood with her hands on her hips.
“Leave!” She ordered in a flat tone.
The young soldier knew better than to argue. He quickly grabbed up his discarded clothing and scrambled from the tent without a backward glance.
Xena ran a hand through her disheveled hair and tried to figure out what it was that had caused her to so suddenly pull up short like that. One moment she was enjoying the rhythmic coupling with the young, nameless soldier who had so enthusiastically accepted her offer. They had shared not one, not two, but three mutual moments of release and she found him relatively attractive.
But then she felt it. Something in her gut stopped her. She still felt the tension in her groin and wanted nothing more than to finish what they'd started. Except…
She sighed heavily and flopped down onto a plush chair. Swinging a bare leg over the chair arm, she grabbed the goblet and pitcher from the table next to her and poured wine into the cup. She gulped down the entire cupful and then poured another. When she finished her third, she set both the cup and pitcher back on the table.
“My lord,” Jael popped his head into the tent. “Are you…”
“Get in here, Commander,” Xena growled. “Stop skulking around outside my tent, before I run you through.”
“Yes, my lord,” Jael hurried inside and closed the tent flap behind him. “I…” He cleared his throat. “I saw Tredius…um…”
“Hightail it out of here with his tail tucked between his skinny, white cheeks?” Xena smirked. “Yes, I chased him out rather abruptly. Had other, um, things on my mind at the time.”
“Okay, my lord,” Jael scratched the dark beard that had started to grow. “I just wondered if there is anything you require.”
“Send Garth in here,” Xena absently brushed a fleck of dust from her sleeve. “I want to send a message.”
“Yes, my lord,” Jael bowed and then ducked back out.
Xena sat there gazing at nothing in particular. Her gut was churning and she still didn't have a reason for the uncomfortable feeling. It wasn't like her to worry, especially about a campaign. She thought about that a moment and then dismissed the thought.
Something else was bugging her and she couldn't quite pinpoint what it was. Her mother? No, that wasn't it. She hadn't worried about Cyrene in years. The woman was a virtual powerhouse and could easily take care of herself. She also immediately dismissed any worry she still might harbor for Agatha. That woman was an even bigger powerhouse than Cyrene. She was also more than capable of taking care of herself.
“So, what is it?” She muttered. “Gabrielle?”
She hadn't thought much about the woman since her departure nearly two weeks prior. But, yeah. That's what it was. She sat up and felt her guts churn a little less with the realization that Gabrielle was the reason for her worry. It hadn't occurred to her that the petite blond meant anything to her. How could she have feelings for a servant? But she did. She cared and it bothered Xena that she had dumped the running of the keep onto the smaller woman's thin shoulders the very day she left on this damned campaign.
So, she would send a message back to the keep and reassure herself that things were running smoothly in her absence. Garth chose that moment to poke his head into the tent opening.
“Come here,” Xena ordered. “I need you to write a couple missives for me.” To take the edge off her words, she then smirked. “You can also include one for your wife, if you wish.”
“Yes, m'lord,” the young man answered with a slight half-grin, as he sat down at the table and took up parchment and quill.
Continued in Part 3
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