My Lord Conqueror: Changes
By Kennedy Northcutt П2010
For disclaimers see Part 1. Don't forget to check out my blog for occasional updates and other stuff: http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com.
It was a gorgeous, cloudless day. The sun was shining brightly and birds were singing loudly in the trees surrounding the open field. Two scantily clad women stood to one side of the field and watched two others sparring in front of them.
"She's a natural, don't you think?" Redheaded Terreis glanced at her slightly-taller, blond companion and smirked.
"She's a peasant," Ephiny replied with an impatient scowl, arms crossed over her sparsely-clad bosom. "Clumsy. No sense of balance. Can't remember her right from her left. Pfft! No wonder she came to us in such sorry shape." Her companion punched her arm. "Hey! Whatdya do that for, Terreis?"
"You're jealous 'cause she's only been at it for a few days and she's already well on her way to becoming a decent warrior," the redhead returned her attention to the two women facing-off on the field.
The taller brunette swung a long stick around and the shorter blond blocked the strike with only the slightest hesitation in her swing. The loud crack of the two wooden staffs resounded across the open field, as the brunette nodded her approval and said something the others couldn't hear.
One last swipe—this one an unexpected maneuver meant to catch the small blond off guard—had the brunette spinning around and aiming for her opponent's legs. The blond, however, easily vaulted the staff and finished with a jab to the brunette's midsection.
"Nice," Terreis didn't bother to hide the gleam of pride or the warm smile on her features. "Way to go, Gabrielle!" She waved at the smaller woman, who was busy helping her opponent up from the ground. "She's really coming along quite nicely. Before you know it, she'll be teaching the newbies right alongside Eponin, there."
"Fat chance," Ephiny snorted her derision. "That kid's got a lot to learn about actual combat fighting. She hasn't even faced off against a real opponent, yet."
"Give it time," Terreis said. "Agatha wants to give those injuries of hers at least another week to heal completely."
"Her 'injuries'," Ephiny mimed quotes, "haven't bothered her for nearly a moon and Agatha returned to her tribe more than a week ago. I don't think another week is gonna make a difference where that kid is concerned."
"Still," Terreis shot her companion a tolerant smirk. "What is it about her that just seems to get under your skin, Eph? Hm? You haven't liked her since day one."
Hazel eyes met curious green. "She doesn't get under my skin, Ter."
"Oh, really?" A red brow shot up. "So you're not sorry the old healer dumped her in our laps? You're not sorry Melosa welcomed Gabrielle with open arms?" She squinted suspiciously at the curly-haired blond. "You're not just a tinsy bit jealous that Gabrielle and I have more in common than you and I do?"
That got the reaction she was looking for, as Ephiny whipped around to face her. Terreis could see the green-eyed monster behind those hazel eyes and it made her heart skip a beat. She knew Ephiny had feelings for her that the stoic warrior would never admit to. It had taken the appearance of a certain severely-injured, short-cropped strawberry-blond shepherd's kid, however, to get Ephiny to even acknowledge there was something there. Not that the stoic Amazon would ever admit to loving her.
"I don't get jealous," Ephiny snapped. "I'm a warrior. Warriors don't give in to petty emotions."
Terreis moved closer to her companion and seductively stroked Ephiny's bare arm with a lone finger. "Oh, really? Not even the petty emotion of…say…love?"
Terreis stepped away from her companion, as the two combatants casually strolled off the practice field at that moment, using their staves as walking sticks. The brunette rubbed her sore midsection, while the shorter woman beamed in triumph and shook out her short-cropped, sun-streaked hair.
"You definitely had me there, Gabrielle," Eponin, the brunette, said to her smaller companion, as the two stopped in front of the other two women. "When did you learn that little maneuver?"
"Solari taught it to me just yesterday," Gabrielle couldn't keep the grin off her face or the sparkle of triumph from smiling green eyes. "Said you wouldn't be expecting me to do something so advanced, just yet. I guess she was right. I'm sorry I hit you so hard, Eponin. I guess I don't know my own strength, yet."
"'Sokay," the woman continued to rub her bare stomach. "You've got quite the jab there. Guess I shoulda seen it coming. You still haven't quite mastered the art of not projecting your next move to your opponent, though. We'll work on that some more this afternoon."
Ephiny glanced from Eponin to Gabrielle and back. "And you call yourself a weapons master?"
"Hey," Eponin tossed her staff into the pile of weapons at the edge of the practice field. "Don't be pickin' on me for not seein' that comin', Eph. She's good. Better than a lot of the kids I've taught over the years. She'd sure give you a run, if you weren't so high and mighty about sparring with newbies."
Terreis playfully jabbed an elbow into Ephiny's side. "Yeah, you should at least give Gabrielle a chance to go up against one of our queen's best and brightest. You never know what surprising things the little shepherd's kid might have up her sleeve."
Two of the four women looked at their bare arms and chuckled.
"Ha! We don't have sleeves," Gabrielle snickered, as she plucked at the now-familiar, skimpy leather outfit she wore.
It was a far cry from the outfit she had worn as a servant in the Conqueror's keep. Had it really been two and a half moons since Maida had spirited her away from the place? Her beaten and broken body had been near death when the hay cart had pulled up in front of Cyrene's inn in Amphipolis. Maida had been beside herself with worry over her dire condition and didn't know what else to do. The healer at the keep had taken one look at Gabrielle and said there was nothing she could do for the girl. So, Maida did the only thing she could think of.
Gabrielle could remember absolutely none of it. She didn't remember the endless days spent in the tiny room next to Cyrene's kitchen, nor the hour-upon-countless-hour of constant care and nursing by Maida, Agatha, and Cyrene. She didn't remember the words of encouragement they whispered to her during her darkest hours, when they all thought she would pass away during the night. Nor did she remember calling out Xena's name in her delirium, as a fever raged through her ravaged body. She couldn't recall screaming in terror when her fever finally broke or the nightmares that started almost immediately thereafter. She didn't even remember the trip to the Amazon village in the same hay cart that Maida had used to spirit her away from the keep.
The clearest memory she had was of the day she met Melosa, Terreis, Ephiny and Eponin. Those first days in the Amazon village, with Agatha as her constant caretaker, were like a new awakening for her—a rebirth of sorts. Everything else just drifted off into the farthest recesses of her mind, replaced by new faces—faces of women who accepted her with open arms and without judgment. Except the dour Ephiny. She had no idea what the curly-haired blonde's problem was.
The day she left the healer's hut and stepped out into the bright sunlight of late summer would forever be imprinted on her mind. She was no longer Gabrielle of Potidea or Gabrielle, servant to the Conqueror. On that day she became Gabrielle of the Amazons and the adopted sister of Princess Terreis. It was also the day she learned that her hair was shorter than it had ever been. But none of her sisters seemed to care—not even Terreis. She just fluffed it playfully and smirked.
Terreis became her best friend almost right from the start. The young redhead came to the healer's hut with armloads of scrolls that they both poured over for candlemarks on end. Their mutual love for the written word instantly bonded them, which was why Terreis suggested that Gabrielle be adopted into the tribe.
The bubbly princess couldn't contain her enthusiasm at finding a kindred soul who loved stories as much as she did. Terreis suggested, time and again and to whoever would listen, that they needed another scholar to oversee the archives. So, when Terreis advised Queen Melosa that Gabrielle would be a welcome addition to the tribe, the dark-haired queen reluctantly agreed.
The one condition to Gabrielle's adoption, however, was that she learn the ways—all the ways—of the Amazons, including how to fight as a warrior. Her first lesson took place the day she emerged from the healer's hut, much to Agatha's dismay. The older woman stood silently by, as Ephiny marched up to Gabrielle and tossed a staff at her that she caught rather awkwardly. Without another word, the curly-haired Amazon then turned right around and walked away, leaving Gabrielle standing there in stunned silence.
"You're to go with her," Agatha prompted, despite her misgivings.
Gabrielle remembered meeting the old woman's eyes and seeing the concern mirrored in them. "I don't know if I can do this."
"You'll do fine, Gabrielle," Agatha said with a gentle pat on her bare arm. "You were destined to join this ragtag group of warrior women." And with that she ducked back inside the hut, leaving Gabrielle standing there, staring at the staff in her hands in dumbfounded silence.
"Hey! Gabrielle!" Terreis' voice tore her from her musings and brought Gabrielle back to the present. "Are you coming? Or are you just gonna stand there and dream the day away?"
Gabrielle quickly caught up to the three women who were already headed back to the village proper. She was glad for the sparse clothing and was even getting used to her short-cropped hair, as the late summer sun beat down on her. Her skin was darkening from the sun's rays and her hair was now streaked with golden-blond highlights. It was no longer strawberry blond, as much as it was just blond, especially on top where the sun touched it the most. Three weeks outside in the fresh air and sunshine was enough to give her a healthy glow that brought out the green in her eyes.
Many an Amazon noticed the change in her appearance, and Gabrielle was aware of the attention several of them were showing her. It was a little strange, but not unpleasant. She just wasn't used to having women openly eye her from head-to-toe or for some of them to openly comment on her muscular physique. Of course, her attire probably had something to do with it, too, she mused. Then again, they all wore similar outfits, so it wasn't like she actually stood out in the crowd.
They passed several groups of women of various ages, as they entered the outskirts of the village proper. Some of the women were engaged in tasks that contributed to day-to-day life in the village, while others just milled around, waiting. The midday meal was almost ready and would be served outside, in deference to the stifling heat. No one wanted to eat their meal inside the stuffy confines of the communal meal hut.
"Can I come by your place later and show you the new story I'm working on, Terreis?" Gabrielle asked, as they took their seats at one of the long tables that sat in the village center. "I think you'll like it."
"What's it about?" Eponin piped in curiously, as she plopped down with little grace and grabbed the pitcher nearest her. She poured herself a mug of cool ale and downed it in several gulps, then refilled her mug. "Mmmm, that hits the spot."
"Slow down, Pon," Ephiny shot the weapons master a scowl. "You won't be sober enough to finish the lessons with your star pupil." Her words dripped sarcasm.
"Ah," Eponin waved a negligent hand at the other woman. "You worry too much, Eph. I can hold my liquor better'n most of the women around here."
Terreis snorted. "Yeah, like you did two nights ago, Pon?"
"Hey!" Eponin sipped from her mug. "I wasn't that drunk."
"You tripped over Drevis, knocked Shilna on her ass in a mud puddle and then dove head-first into a rain barrel, Pon," Ephiny shot back with a wry smirk. "Doesn't take an oracle to know you were drunker than a skunk after only a few mugs of ale."
"Six," Eponin retorted with a scowl. "Margalene and Rayna dared me to down them, one after the other. Said I couldn't do it without pukin' my guts out. I proved 'em wrong. Didn't puke once." A grin split her features.
"And passed out cold in the empty rain barrel," Ephiny's smirk widened a fraction. "You're just lucky I was nearby and saw you go in. If I hadn't fished you out of there and dumped your sorry ass in bed, you'd have slept in the thing all night long."
"I've woken up in worse places," Eponin shot the woman a smug look.
"Yeah, right," Ephiny countered, as she tasted her ale and allowed the cool liquid to pleasantly coat her tongue. "And pigs fly." She snorted, as she gulped down several mouthfuls of the stream-chilled beverage. "You draped your arm over my shoulder and I had to practically drag you back to the communal sleeping hut. You were snoring like a damned minotaur before I could dump your sorry ass into your cot."
"Huh," Eponin shrugged. "Don't remember all that."
"Gee, big surprise," Ephiny just rolled her eyes.
"So," Gabrielle piped in with a bit too much enthusiasm that earned her wry looks from her companions. "What's for lunch?"
"Mutton stew?" Terreis handed Gabrielle a wooden bowl filled with the thick brown substance.
Gabrielle eyed the contents and scowled. Amazon stew was as tasteless and boring as many of the other dishes served at the communal meals.
"What's wrong, Gab?" Eponin caught the scowl on the smaller woman's face. "Food not up to your austere standards?"
"Tch! Yeah, right," Ephiny huffed, as she dug into her meal and grabbed a dark-brown roll from the basket near her. She broke off a chunk of the bread, dipped it in her chunky stew and popped it in her mouth. "'Cause she really remembers eating at the Conqueror's table. Can't remember anything about her time in the keep, why remember what they served for the evening meal, eh?"
"Ignore them," Terreis whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "They're just jealous 'cause they've never met the Conqueror."
Gabrielle shot her a raised-browed look. "And what makes you think I have?"
"Um, good point," Terreis returned her attention to her meal. "Ephiny," she addressed the curly-haired woman. "Could you be any ruder to Gabrielle today? Geez, you'd think she was your worst enemy or something."
"Um," Ephiny's head shot up, as she was caught flatfooted. "I could work on it, I suppose." She shrugged and returned her attention to her food.
Eponin snorted, while Terreis and Gabrielle snickered.
"So, give us a hint about that new story you're workin' on," Eponin said over a mouthful of stew. "Is it anything like that last one you dropped on us?"
Two sets of green eyes with raised brows shot to Eponin's, before one set met the other.
"You told her what I wrote?" Gabrielle accused Terreis.
"Hey, you won't share 'em," Terreis shrugged. "They're good stories, Gab. You need to start telling them to people, yourself, or I'll just keep doin' it for ya."
Gabrielle practically dove nose-first into her bowl. "Not gonna happen," she muttered, as she quickly shoveled the rest of her stew into her mouth. "If you'll excuse me," she suddenly shot to her feet and scrambled away from the table.
"Hey!" Terreis called after her rather shy friend. "Come on, Gab! Don't—Urg!"
But Gabrielle had already cut through the village on her way to the one place where she could escape without anyone finding her—the archive hut. She quickly ducked inside the only mud-and-waddle hut in the place. The cool, dry air hit her like a slap, but she welcomed the change in temperature. After several moments, she finally felt the flush in her cheeks subside, as her racing heart slowed to a more normal beat.
"Gabrielle," the old keeper of the archives greeted her with a solemn nod. "How are you doing this fine day?"
"I've been better, Desmon՟," Gabrielle grumbled as she took a seat near one of the back windows and breathed a sigh of relief. She knew she was far enough away from the entrance to effectively hide from the outside world, which was just fine with her. "Not really in the mood to talk, though."
"Would you like me to recommend a scroll today? Or would you prefer to choose one yourself?" Desmon՟ slowly made her way over to where the young woman sat. "I've been re-cataloging one of the older sections in the caves and stumbled across some very interesting historical documents that might interest you."
Gabrielle put her head down on her folded arms and sighed. "I'm not really in the mood for heavy reading either, Desmon՟. But, thanks."
The old woman pulled up a chair and sat down. The two had become fast friends the moment Terreis introduced them. Gabrielle's natural inquisitiveness and her penchant for creating stories made her a particular favorite of the older woman, who spent most of her waking hours either in the archival caves or in the dab-and-waddle hut.
"Are you feeling all right, child?" Desmon՟ asked with concern. "You look a bit paler than usual. Shall I have a runner fetch Agatha from her village and tell her you're not well?"
"I'm fine," Gabrielle sniffed back the tears that were threatening.
"Oh, come, child. Tell this old woman what's on your mind," Desmon՟ prodded with a warm smile. "I'm a fairly good listener."
Gabrielle sniffed again, but a single tear managed to escape and run down her nose. "It's…I'm just being an idiot. It's nothing, really."
The old woman snaked out a gnarled hand and used her thumb to wipe the tear away. "Are the girls makin' fun of you again?"
"No," Gabrielle answered a little too quickly. "Not really. Ephiny's being her usual rotten self. I don't know what it is about me that always has her in a sour mood, but…" She shrugged. "Terreis has been—" She sniffed again and sat up. "Why is she sharing my stories with the others? Those are my stories, not hers."
The light of understanding finally dawned in the wise old eyes. "Ah, I see," Desmon՟ nodded her gray head sagely. "You shared your stories in confidence, and Terreis is so proud of them that she's sharing them with others. Is that how it is?"
Gabrielle swallowed. "I…I guess so." She folded her hands on the table in front of her and stared intently at a callous that was forming on one thumb. "I'm not really used to sharing my stories. They're private."
Desmon՟ reached up and tilted Gabrielle's chin towards her. "You have written several wonderful tales that are right here in this room, Gabrielle. Anyone can come here and read them, whenever they wish. I myself have read them more than once. Why is that different from allowing Terreis to share them verbally with others? It's how we share our stories with the common villagers who can't read for themselves."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It's different because…" She turned her head away and looked out the small window. "She didn't ask me if I was okay with it…" Gabrielle's voice trailed off.
"So, you don't necessarily mind that she shares the stories, as much as you mind that she didn't ask your permission to do so," Desmon՟ reasoned with a sagely nod of her gray head.
Gabrielle sighed. "I've always dreamed of telling stories to people. I just…" She shrugged again. "I…I can't…"
"You're afraid people will judge you or make fun of you?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath. "It used to be so easy, oh so long ago. But…" She shook her head. "I'm not that naեve little shepherd's kid anymore. The other kids made fun of me all the time and…and…Well, it doesn't matter now, does it."
"No, you're not that naեve child anymore," Desmon՟ sat back and folded her hands in her lap. "You're a grown woman who's been through a some very traumatic moments in her young life and managed to weather it all rather well, I might add."
"Have I?" Gabrielle looked doubtful. "I rarely sleep, except when I finally collapse from exhaustion. What little sleep I do get is plagued with nightmares that I can't remember. I have no memory of what happened to me at Surra. All I know is what Agatha, Cyrene and Maida were willing to share with me, which wasn't much. I've lost so much weight over the last few weeks that my leathers had to be taken in again just last week. And my hair," she grabbed a short lock and held it out. "My mother only trimmed the ends. She said she wanted me to let it grow. Said it was my crowning glory. Now look at it." She ran a hand through the shorn, golden locks and took a shuddering breath, then let her voice drop to just above a whisper. "You tell me if I've really managed to weather it all—much less weather it well."
"You're here and your imagination hasn't suffered," Desmon՟ put a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You need to give yourself time to heal—both emotionally and physically. Your scars run much deeper than most, Gabrielle. And your hair will grow out eventually, if you want it to. I actually like it short. It's a very attractive look for you. And, like your memories, your scars will take time to surface and heal completely. But time is what you need. That is why you are here in our village."
"Why are you here?" Desmon՟ clarified and received a nod. "Because Agatha knows the deep pain that you suffered, and she knows what is best for such suffering. As an Amazon, Agatha has seen a great deal of what this world can do to a soul, and she also weathered many tragedies to get to where she is today."
"Agatha really is an Amazon, then?" Gabrielle knew it was true—had suspected it all along. "I thought…I just thought…Well, actually I don't know what I thought. I guess I never considered why she would bring me here, of all places."
"Having family and friends who care about you around you while you're recovering is very important," the old woman explained. "Agatha knew you would thrive here, more so than if you stayed in Amphipolis. She also knew you would find fast friends here—friends who would accept you, not for who you were in another life, but for who you are in this one."
Gabrielle nodded slowly as she absorbed what the woman said. "Patience."
Desmon՟ narrowed her eyes at the younger woman. "You see a great many things that most people miss, Gabrielle. I believe that is why you are able to put such passion into those stories you write—such detail. You make your reader a part of the story, instead of just a casual observer. You make the story real for them."
"They are real for me," Gabrielle let the hint of a smile touch her lips. "I see them in my dreams as clearly as if I am right there in the center of the action."
Desmon՟ leaned in conspiratorially. "So, tell me then, have you ever met a real Cyclops?"
Gabrielle flashed a genuine smile. "Not really, no." Then she tapped her temple. "But he was right here in my head with me when I came up with that particular tale."
"Are they really that dumb, then?" The old woman asked.
Gabrielle shrugged. "I can well imagine that having only one eye would be quite limiting."
"Then I'm sure if you were ever to meet up with one, you would surely have the upper hand," Desmon՟ said with a smirk. "And just a friendly warning: Stay away from the one that lives not ten leagues from here, on the northern edge of our sacred forest. He's not the friendliest fellow you will ever meet."
Gabrielle sat there in stunned silence, as Desmon՟ got up and walked out of the room without a backward glance. When the old woman's soft shuffling receded, Gabrielle turned her attention back to the window. She stared out at nothing, as the woman's words echoed through her mind.
It was dark. She was damned tired of the dark. Her eyes had adjusted long ago. How long? She didn't know. Too long. She longed for the sun on her face, the wind in her hair. She longed to feel Ares beneath her, as they raced across the countryside at a swift gallop. But Ares was dead and now all she could remotely hope to gain was freedom.
But freedom was fleeting. Hers was, at least. She shifted on the cold stone floor, the chains on her wrists and ankles rattled, and she heard the high-pitched protests of her cellmates. They screeched loudly and skittered farther away into the darkest corners, nooks and crannies of the dank cell. The rough stone on her legs was nothing anymore. She was used to it. Just like she was used to the filth that covered her from head to toe. Filth. Stench. She was beyond disgusted with herself. She was beyond caring.
"Run, you little buggers," her voice was gravelly from disuse and echoed loudly in the cavernous cell. "Grrrrr…"
The growl made her chuckle. Her cellmates wouldn't bother her anymore—that she knew for a fact. They had tried in those early days—the days when she still cared and tried every which way to escape captivity. But those days were long gone. She was not that person anymore. Not the woman who single-handedly conquered Greece and brought it to heel. Her army was gone. Her horse was dead. Her keep was in ruins, at least as far as she knew. Hope was lost.
A pair of green eyes danced in her mind's eye, as she thought of the small blond woman she'd left at the keep in Surra. Gabrielle had never sent a reply to the personal missive Xena had sent with the other notes. Not a word about the woman had been included in any of the missives that arrived on the night before that fateful day of her complete and utter defeat. She would later learn that the missives were written at the direction of Draco himself. The man was somehow able to flank her troops with his own army. He then took her keep right out from under her. It was just one of the many humiliations she was forced to endure at his hands.
She shook her head and the greasy, stringy, matted hair that hung in lifeless strands merely shifted in front of her face. She didn't care to see through it anymore. Didn't need to see what was there. She knew. Rats. Their beady eyes were always watching her, waiting for the moment when she let her guard down. But that moment would never come. She wouldn't let it. They were her greatest enemy now. Not the humans who once captured and incarcerated her with triumphant cheers. Not Pompey. Not even Draco.
She rested her head against the cold stone wall behind her and sighed, as she let her eyes slowly drift shut. Memories swirled around in her mind and exploded against her skull with blinding clarity.
She sat proudly in the saddle atop her beautiful steed at the head of her army. Jael pulled up next to her and she acknowledged him with a curt nod. They both turned to look down into the valley at the vast army spread out before them. It wasn't her army. They were the legions of Rome.
More than ten thousand soldiers stood between her and Perrius—and Draco. The Roman banner she had seen during the ambush had been the warning she knew it was—and so much more. But Xena wasn't one to heed warnings. She pushed her army on until they came to that hilltop. She felt her stomach clench again, as the memories crashed down on her in that dank cell.
Her strategy for gaining access to Perrius was fairly simple and straightforward: Send a covert detachment of her finest soldiers to skirt the main force and breach the city gates. Once inside, her men would secure the city and capture Draco, then secretly remove him from the city and bring him to her. With Draco in her clutches, Xena would have the upper hand. It should have worked, but it didn't.
When her men breached the city gates, instead of a city full of Draco's men, they found the place completely deserted. No Draco. No villagers. No one. Outside the city gates, the Roman soldiers seemed to sense what was happening. Like a sleeping dragon, the entire Roman army suddenly awakened and moved with the speed of a predator hot on a trail of blood.
A detachment of Roman forces poured into the city and wiped out Xena's men to the last man, while the rest of the army converged on her main force like a damned hurricane. The wave of blue that charged up the hill towards her was unstoppable. Her men did their best to fight off Pompey's legions, but there were just too many of them.
Jael went down in the first surge, his head severed from his shoulders in quick order by a Roman commander in shiny blue and gold armor. She fought like a woman possessed, as Roman after Roman came at her from every side. Her entire body was covered in her own blood and the blood of the fallen, as she continued to hack, slash and pummel her way through the tidal wave of Roman soldiers.
But Xena soon realized she was more than a mere target. She was the grand prize the Romans sought. They wanted her alive and were more than willing to sacrifice themselves in order to capture her. Xena's sword strikes were swift and sure, but eventually even she could no longer stave off the exhaustion that soon seeped into every pore of her being.
She remembered the exact moment when all was lost. Several soldiers came at her at once and she felt a blade pierce her defenses. The wound was not fatal, but was enough to distract her for the space of a heartbeat. It was long enough for another Roman to strike a blow to the back of her head. She went down under a pile of punching and kicking bodies. Not long after that, she awoke in chains.
Pompey stood over her in his spotless armor of dark blue trimmed in gold. The Roman toga he wore beneath his armor was pristinely white and trimmed in the same blue as his armor. His deep blue eyes matched the blue of his outfit and contrasted with his blond hair, which was combed down over his forehead in the Roman style. He shook his head at her and tsked in disappointment.
His words reverberated through her memories, as if he were speaking them for the first time: "Such a waste of great fighting skills, Xena. You fight so magnificently! Caesar could use someone like you in his campaign in Gaul—or as a gladiator in the Coliseum in Rome." He paced in front of her with his hands locked behind his back, as she knelt in the blood-soaked mud at his feet. "But, alas," he waved a dismissive hand, "Caesar has no place in his heart for a whore who rebuffs his gracious offers of alliance."
Xena remembered spitting on his sandals at that point and the resounding kick that caught her under the chin. Her head snapped back with the force of the blow and she remembered tasting the tang of her own blood on her tongue. Then someone behind her grabbed her hair and pulled her head back so she was looking up at him.
"You are nothing to Caesar!" Pompey leaned in close enough to gaze into defiant blue eyes. "Draco is your master now, Xena." He smiled that charming, menacing smile of his. "You were always his problem, not Caesar's. Draco will see to it that you pay for your crimes against Rome and against your own people." He then straightened up and adjusted his armor. "I hope you enjoyed your little stint as Conqueror of the Known World, because you will never again taste freedom of any kind. I'm sure even Pluto will welcome you with open arms and find some deep, dark hole to throw you into so he can torment you for all eternity."
He then turned his back on her and walked away, leaving her in the hands of Draco's men. They beat her until she sank back into unconsciousness. When she was relatively coherent again, she was no longer on the field of battle. She was kneeling in Draco's keep at Perrius. And he just sat there staring at her with an annoyingly tolerant half-smile.
"Hello, Xena," the pompous warlord-turned-ruler's half-smile turned into the charming grin she hated oh so much. "Nice of you to make this so easy for me. I figured you'd put up more of a fight than you actually did. And leaving the keep at Surra without protection," he clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Not very sporting of you, Xena. Of course, it really didn't matter much, with three of my most trusted servants passing themselves off as loyal servants of yours. Nora was especially happy to see me when I arrived." He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly with a mischievous grin. "That woman could bring a minotaur to its knees, let me tell ya."
He wore a completely different outfit from the one she was used to seeing on him. A flashy silver-gray vest covered most of his chocolate-brown chest and was belted with an equally ostentatious jeweled belt. He no longer wore the feathery headpiece that looked like a Mohawk and added to his height. Instead, his hair was short-cropped and a silver band, that resembled a crown, circled his head. Tight black leather pants were tucked into shiny black knee-high boots trimmed in silver. He was actually quite handsome, except for the gleam of smug triumph in his dark eyes that Xena wished she could forcibly wipe from his face.
He rose from his elaborately carved and velvet-padded throne and stepped down the two stone steps to stand in front her. Xena didn't bother to look up at him, as he stood in front of her with his feet parted and his hands on his hips.
"So, what should I do with you? Hm?" His words rang through her memories to taunt her. "I could execute you before a grand assembly in Athens." He crossed his arms over his chest and lifted a hand to his clean-shaven chin, stroking it thoughtfully. "That would sure put those damned sniveling pussies from the Athenaeum in their place, don't you think?" He turned away from her, paced a few steps, then turned back with a sly gleam in his eyes. "Or I could just let my men have their way with you for a while. They've been itching for a little payback ever since you killed their comrades during the Battle at Thessaly." One of his men stepped forward with malice in his beady gray eyes. "Hector," Draco slapped a hand on the man's shoulder. "Do you think the men would appreciate some time alone with Xena?"
"Oh, definitely," Hector growled in his gravelly voice, as he practically licked his lips in anticipation. "I know I'd love to get a few good rounds in with her, that's for sure. I'd like to pay her back for this," he put a hand to the grungy scarf at his neck. "Took months for the wound to heal enough for me to talk again."
Xena just knelt there in silence, as several more of Draco's men joined in the taunting. When they were tired of throwing out their verbal threats, they dragged her out into the courtyard, secured her to a whipping post and proceeded to beat her with their bare fists until she lost consciousness again.
The beatings continued day-after-day, week-after-week, until Draco's goons finally forgot she even existed. That's when she was transported to her current residence. She had no idea where she was and didn't really care. To her, it was just a dank hole in the earth and just a hands-breath away from Tartarus. All she knew was she'd been dragged down several flights of stairs to the gloomy dungeon she was now chained in.
The sound of a rusty lock creaking open brought Xena back to her present situation. No one had visited her in days, except for the oaf of a jailer who brought her the one meal she was allowed. Xena listened to the sounds of boot steps on the hard-packed earth and knew it wasn't just her jailer who was coming to visit her. The second set of footsteps belonged to someone else.
The lock on the door to her cell protested when the key was turned. But eventually the door creaked open on hinges much in need of oiling. A thin stream of torchlight entered the cavernous space and was held high. Xena didn't bother looking up at the visitors and squinted as the light filtered through her greasy hair and hit her eyes.
"She's over there," a gruff voice said. "We kept 'er chained, just like ye ordered."
Footsteps crossed the space to where Xena sat with her legs pulled up to her chest. Then the torch was thrust in her face and she recoiled from the bright light.
"Doesn't look so tough now, does she?" She immediately recognized Draco's voice.
"No, Lord Draco," her jailer answered.
"Hello, Xena," Draco's voice dripped feigned cheer. "How are you these days, old friend? I must say you're looking a lot more like the wild barbarian the bards once portrayed in their stories." He touched a lock of her dull, greasy hair and watched with satisfaction as she snarled at him like a wild beast. "Still have some fight left in you, I see. Glad my men didn't completely break you when they were having their fun."
"What do you want, Draco?" Xena growled in a voice low and raspy from disuse. "Come to gloat again? 'Cause I don't give a damn anymore."
His low chuckle reverberated throughout the cavernous cell. "Oh, I wish it were that simple, Xena. No, I'm not here to gloat over your sound defeat and my glorious rise to power." He crossed his arms over his chest and watched her for a moment. "No, I actually came here to personally inform you that I've decided on your fate. It's time for your public execution, Xena. It's time to put the myth out of my misery, so that Greece can move forward into a new age."
"Oh, please," Xena sneered. "You're nothing more than a weasel in a political arena you know nothing about."
Draco bristled. "You have no idea how much the political arena has changed in your absence, Xena. I now have not only Rome breathing down my neck, but also Chin, Persia, and that damned woman from Egypt. What's her name?"
"Cleopatra," Xena spat with a satisfied grin. "Let me guess, they don't like your inept negotiating tactics?"
"They need proof that the Conqueror of the Known World is dead!" Draco barked. "Can you imagine that?" He spread his arms wide. "They won't even listen to a word I say until they see your head on a pike outside Athens or Corinth. Maybe I'll hang your body outside Athens and your head outside Corinth. Hm, that has definite possibilities."
"Not my problem," Xena felt a rush of hope welling within her that her misery was finally at an end. "You could just run me through right here and get it over with. Then you can hang my dead carcass outside the gates of both cities for all to see. It's what I would do to you, if given half the chance, Draco."
She felt the rush of air before the blow struck and knew she had one chance. Just before his fist connected with her face, Xena shot to her feet and grabbed his arm in a vice-like grip. She smirked in triumph as she twisted his arm and felt bones grind and snap beneath her iron fingers. She then wrapped one of the chains that bound her to the wall around his neck and tightened it until his breath was cut off.
"You're mine now, Draco," she hissed in his ear. "And I'm gonna break your scrawny neck, like I shoulda done all those years ago." She emphasized her words by tightening the chain around his neck.
His eyes bulged as he grappled to free himself with his good hand. He felt his life quickly ebbing, as the chain tightened against his windpipe, effectively cutting off any chance at a last breath. As darkness closed in, he made one last ditch attempt to free himself and pushed backward until she slammed against the wall behind them.
The chain loosened and he gasped in a much-needed breath. He then spun around until the chain came free from his neck. As he spun, he raised the fist of his good arm and dealt a hard blow to the face hidden beneath the dark, stringy hair. His blow connected solidly and Xena dropped like a stone onto the hard-packed ground.
"We're gonna need more men," he wheezed out between clenched teeth to the burly jailer, as he staggered away from the crumpled form of his greatest nemesis. "I'll be back with an entire contingent."
"Yes, m'lord," the jailer said, as he followed the man out of the cell. He glanced one last time at the crumpled figure in the darkness, before he locked the door with a resounding clack
"I asked you all here for a reason," Melosa, queen of the Amazons, stood up in front of her throne in the council chamber.
She was surrounded by anxious Amazons who awaited an explanation for their summons into their queen's presence. The six thrones on either side of hers were occupied by elders of the tribe who had been chosen to represent them. Those six women and the queen were tasked with making decisions for the entire tribe, but they also had to answer to the greater majority. As a princess of the tribe and Melosa's heir, Terreis sat on one of the thrones, as one of the elders. Gabrielle stood behind and to one side of Terreis' throne. She held the staff Ephiny had given her, with the tip resting next to her foot on the wooden floor.
Most of the tribe itself was now crammed into a room half the size of the meal hut. The rest of the crowd spilled outside the hut and awaited word from those inside on what was transpiring.
"SILENCE!!!" Ephiny's voice carried over the assemblage in the wake of the queen's words, as she slammed the end of a spear against the wooden floor of the room.
As head of the queen's guard, it was Ephiny's job to keep order in the council chambers, as well as lead the small group of women chosen to protect the ruler. She stood below the dais where the thrones sat and held a ceremonial spear decorated with an array of feathers and beads in one hand. It was that spear that she used to bring order to the assemblage.
"Thank you, Ephiny," Melosa spared a quick smile for the curly-haired blond. She then held up her hands, "Sisters!" She continued in a louder voice. "We received word this morning that the Conqueror is being held by the tyrant, Draco." Murmurs and loud whispers greeted her words and then a hand went up. "Yes, Briesse?"
"She still lives, then?" A middle-aged woman with sun-bleached hair and bearing the marks of a seasoned warrior spoke in a clear voice.
"Yes, the Conqueror lives," Melosa replied with a curt nod. More murmurs greeted her words. "I have word directly from the hand of one of our spies in Perrius that Draco intends to transfer her from the dungeons at Therma to Corinth before the next new moon. They intend to execute her at Corinth."
This time the crowd actually erupted in loud mutters and murmurs, as word was passed to those outside. Another hand went up from someone in the crowd and Melosa merely acknowledged the question with a nod.
"Will we be sending a rescue party to intercept the Conqueror's transport?" A woman with short, curly black hair asked.
"That's what I gathered you all here for," Melosa's melodic voice carried over the assemblage. "I want to do exactly that. The Conqueror is our ally, even if she is no longer in a position of power. The treaty we signed three years ago not only states that we are a sovereign nation apart from the Conqueror's realm, but it also stipulates that we shall remain loyal to her until death."
More murmurs followed her words.
"My Queen," Terreis stood up to address the woman next to her. "I ask that I be allowed to lead the rescue mission."
A dark brow shot up into Melosa's hairline. "Terreis? Are you…sure?"
The redhead nodded. "I also ask permission to choose those Amazons worthy of joining the rescue party," Terreis continued.
"And who would you include on this mission?" Melosa prodded.
Terreis considered for a moment and then turned to the woman standing silently behind her throne. "Gabrielle, for one."
The smaller woman's eyes widened in surprise, but she remained stoically silent, as she stood behind Terreis' throne. It certainly wasn't her place to argue with the princess, even though a thousand butterflies were suddenly fluttering around in her stomach. She had no idea why the princess had chosen her to go on such an important mission, and she certainly hoped she wouldn't be a disappointment.
"I'd also like permission to temporarily release Ephiny from her obligations as a member of your personal guard, My Queen," Terreis continued in an even tone. "I believe she will make a valuable addition to the party."
Melosa glanced at the curly-haired woman, who nodded back. "You have Ephiny, Princess. Is there anyone else that you wish to join you or can I now ask for volunteers?"
"Eponin, Solari, Margalene, Rayna, and Shilna," Terreis ticked them off with her fingers, much to the surprise of Melosa and a few of the elders. "I leave the rest to anyone who wishes to volunteer, My Queen."
"Would those Amazons, so named, please step forward," Melosa called to the assemblage. All five women made their way to the front of the room and stood before their queen with heads bowed. "Do you five accept this mission and all that it entails?"
"We do, My Queen," the five women answered in unison.
"Are there any additional volunteers?" Melosa called to the rest of the group.
"I volunteer, My Queen," a tall, thin brunette stepped forward as the crowd parted.
"As do I, My Queen," a shorter woman with dark skin and kinky black hair stepped forward, as well.
"Katrine, Sheyla," Melosa nodded to the two women who joined the other five. "Anyone else?"
Ten armed warriors passed through the door, as the crowd inside the room parted for them. "My Queen," the warrior in front went to a knee. "We would like to volunteer to protect our princess, as her personal guard."
"Chadrille," Melosa nodded her approval. "I expect you and the other archers to keep Terreis out of trouble."
"Certainly, My Queen," the tall blond said, as she rose to her feet and leaned on the bow tipped up on the floor. "We will also see that this mission is successful."
"As will we all," Eponin piped in with an annoyed scowl at the archer. She then shot Ephiny a glance. "Won't we, Ephiny?"
"Absolutely," Ephiny nodded.
"Good," Melosa then raised her voice above the murmurs of the crowd. "My sisters, go with my blessing and may Artemis shine on your journey as you undertake this important mission. May it be a success and may you all return to us safely."
The crowd quickly dispersed, leaving the volunteers and the chosen to linger for a moment. Gabrielle stood firmly behind Terreis' throne, keeping it between her and the other women. She had no idea why Terreis had chosen her to go on an important mission that would likely involve fighting. She was nowhere close to the caliber of a warrior that the others were and had not even been completely inducted into the tribe. Her initiation wasn't until after the next new moon.
"I want you there with me," Terreis leaned close to Gabrielle and whispered against her ear, as if reading her mind. "I know what it's like on these missions and it's nice to have someone there I can talk to. Warriors are not known for their conversational skills. And none of them can tell a decent story."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "You're not suggesting…"
"Oh, yes, I am," Terreis nodded emphatically. "You can do this, Gabrielle. You can defend yourself with that staff Ephiny gave you and you have some really good stories to tell."
"I'm not telling stories," Gabrielle shot back. "No way, no how."
"You will," Terreis shot back with confidence, as she put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "I have tremendous faith in you, my friend, and in your abilities to weave a riveting tale."
"Ugh!" Gabrielle rolled her eyes and groaned.
It was nothing more than a cage on wheels, she mused as they marched her up the final steps and out into muddy slog of a cold and rainy day. Sheets of icy rain poured down on the muddy courtyard. Dark clouds overhead obscured the sun, but that was fine with her. Her eyes were not used to sunlight, having adjusted during all that time in the dank, dark dungeon there at Therma.
She had barely gone two steps when she was soaked to the skin and shivering uncontrollably. The thin, grungy shift they'd given her, in lieu of her clothing, hung on her bony frame like an oversized sack. Her feet were bare and bore several open sores that her jailers never bothered to tend to. And her hair, much in need of a good washing, hung greasy, limp and tangled in front of her face.
Xena didn't care what she looked like. She didn't care that there were probably a hundred sores all over her body, some of which were oozing yellow puss from infection. She merely tilted her head back and let the icy rain pour down on her face, as her jailers pushed her toward the cage on wheels that would transport her to her imminent execution.
The rusty chains attached to the manacles on her wrists and ankles rattled with every limping step she took. But she didn't care. Those chains were nothing to her anymore. Her wrists and ankles were rubbed raw from the manacles she'd worn since her incarceration. She had tried to escape them—once. But that was long ago. Soon her soul would be in Tartarus and she would eventually have a chance to torment those in death who had tormented her in life.
"Enjoy your trip!" The man closest to her chuckled, as he and his men shoved her up inside the barred transport wagon. "Can't say as it's been a pleasure, my lord ." His tone dripped sarcastic scorn, as he chuckled all the louder.
Xena couldn't catch herself as the wagon suddenly lurched into motion. She sprawled on the wooden floor of the wagon and simply lay there, as the driver steered the vehicle through the main gate and out onto the road. An escort of a dozen horsemen closed in around the cage on wheels, as it lumbered down the road toward Corinth.
They were three days out and already Gabrielle was nervous beyond belief. She was drilling with her staff every chance she got, even while they were on the road. Her skills with her "little stick," as everyone had dubbed it, were improving daily. Although she was quite comfortable with the weapon, especially since she could use it for a walking stick when they were walking, she wasn't quite comfortable at the prospect of fighting. They had yet to meet anyone on the road they were on, which was a good thing. But that didn't waylay her fears.
Her first attempt at telling a story came during that very first night of their journey. They made camp, ate a meal of roast venison courtesy of Solari and Eponin, and then Terreis turned to Gabrielle with expectant eyes. When the words left the princess' mouth, Gabrielle practically threw up her dinner, right then and there. After some further prodding from the more-than-convincing princess, Gabrielle finally relented.
The story she told wasn't one of hers. It was the tale of Cecrops and how Athena forever banished him to sail the seas. Her audience was riveted from those first few words and hung on every word in awed silence until her voice trailed off into the silence of the night. A nearby cricket chirped loudly, as more than a dozen pairs of eyes gaped at her with rapt attention. Then Ephiny broke the silence with a nervous chuckle and reluctantly clapped her hands.
Not sure how to take the usually-dour Amazon's reaction, Gabrielle merely sat there and waited. Others joined in the applause, until they were all talking animatedly about the storytelling skills of their princess' newly-adopted sister. Eponin slapped Gabrielle on the back and offered her a mug of strong mead. Solari passed Gabrielle the flask of port she was drinking from. After a few sips of mead and port, it wasn't long before Gabrielle was feeling the effects of the alcohol. She finally passed out cold where she sat and awoke to bright sunlight in her eyes and a splitting headache. No one else seemed affected by the night's drinking, so Gabrielle swallowed down her discomfort and went about her business.
On the second night, Gabrielle decided to share a different tale. She started out the story with, "I sing the song of a warrior woman with hair as dark as midnight and eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky…" She then launched into one of the vivid dreams she'd had during her convalescence. The dream had been so real, in fact, that she felt like she'd lived every moment of it.
She painted a picture of a warrior woman with a dark past who changed her ways and began a quest for justice against the forces of evil in the land. The story that Gabrielle related had the warrior woman saving a young girl from the grimy clutches of a group of slavers. She wove a Cyclops into the tale and also shared a bit of her own personal sorrows with her sisters. The Amazons were riveted until her last word and applauded loudly when she finished. Needless to say, Gabrielle felt a sense of pride swell inside her that they were actually enjoying her bard skills.
Gabrielle sighed and spun her staff in front of her, as she walked along the muddy road. It had rained for three straight days, only adding a measure of sour discontent to the trip. They slogged along the seemingly deserted road in true Amazon fashion, however. There were few complaints and even fewer smiles from the increasingly dour group.
"I wish this damned rain would just stop, for Artemis' sake," Eponin growled. "Is it too much to ask to have one day without muckin' through knee-deep slop?"
"I'm with ya, Pon," Rayna agreed. "I have moss growing in places moss was never meant to grow."
"My hair's so wet, it's never gonna dry at this rate," Margalene groused. "Did someone order this stuff? Or did we anger the gods?"
Eponin suddenly splashed through a mud puddle at that moment and sank up to a knee. "Urg! See what I'm sayin'?" She glanced down at herself and watched mud run down her legs. "Maybe the damned centaurs have somethin' on being half damned horse. They don't gotta worry about ruinin' a perfectly good pair of leathers in this crap!"
So much for only a few complaints, Gabrielle thought with a smirk of amusement. Her hair was so short that the rain just ran right off it. The hood of her oiled deerskin cape was pulled back slightly, so she could see to practice with her staff. She had only knocked herself on a kneecap and an elbow. At least she hadn't hit anyone else, lately.
"Stop complaining, Pon," Ephiny groused. "By my calculations, we should be running into the convoy soon."
"Yeah?" Eponin pulled her own hood back enough to see through the drizzle. "Or maybe they took the main road, instead."
"Not likely," Solari piped in from behind them. "They'll stick to the back roads to avoid the villages along the way. Wouldn't want any of the Conqueror's men to get wind that their leader is on the way to her execution."
"Besides," Terreis added, "Melosa said the spies were sure that this was the road they would use. The missive Mariss sent arrived right before our departure and it clearly defined the route the wagon is taking."
"Hold!" Ephiny held up a hand for silence, as she stopped in the road and listened. She gave a silent signal for them to disperse into the dense underbrush on either side of the road, which earned a few more groans from the usually silent group.
The Amazons were trained to follow silent signals without question and quickly lay in wait for whatever it was that Ephiny had heard. It wasn't long before the jangle of traces and the snorts of horses announced an approaching contingent large enough to be their query.
A bend in the road hid the convoy from view, until a pair of outriders preceded a wagon pulled by a pair of draft horses. The wagon wasn't so much a wagon as it was a rolling cage covered by a tarp. An even dozen outriders surrounded the lumbering vehicle, all of them armed with crossbows and shiny swords. Alert eyes scanned the road ahead and were ever-wary of any danger that might lie ahead.
The Amazons waited in absolute silence until the convoy was almost upon them, then Ephiny, Eponin and Solari jumped out into the road with swords drawn. The curly-haired blond held a hand out and grinned at the men.
"You have something that belongs to us!" Ephiny shouted, as the two horsemen in front pulled their mounts up short.
"Move, Amazon!" One of the men shouted back. "Or we'll run you down where you stand!"
The rest of the men drew their swords in preparation for an attack. Ephiny stuck the fingers of one hand in her mouth and issued a loud whistle. Several arrows embedded in the ground near the mounted men, causing more than one mount to rear or dance in response to the threat.
"That's just a warning, boys," the curly-haired blond smirked, as the men scanned the trees around them warily. "The next round is aimed for other…um…more important body parts."
"Get 'em, men!" The driver of the wagon shouted to his comrades, as he flicked the reins in his hands and the wagon lurched into motion.
Eponin and Solari caught the lead riders and quickly pulled them from their saddles. They made even quicker work of dispatching the men in due course. Eponin twirled around, swinging her sword in a wide arc that caught her guy across the chest. Solari's sword clashed with her opponent's several times before she finally found her opening and shoved her blade through the man's chest.
As soon as Eponin and Solari went after the lead riders, several other Amazons flew from the bushes to engage the rest. Arrows embedded into the chests of two of the outriders and several arrows stuck in the side of the wagon.
"Don't hit the damned wagon, Amazons!" Ephiny shouted, as she jumped into the saddle of one of the abandoned horses and took off after the escaping vehicle.
Gabrielle and Terreis were among those who jumped out of the bushes to engage the remaining men. Several of the armed men dismounted to engage the women, while a few used the height on horseback to their advantage.
Gabrielle faced off against a guy that was twice her size and held an enormous sword at the ready. He looked at her staff and chuckled.
"Gonna use that little stick against me, girly?" He taunted. "Don't think it'll measure up to what this can do." He swung his sword in several arcs to emphasize his point.
"Oh, I'm sure I can at least give you a run for your money," Gabrielle shot back, as adrenaline suddenly surged through her and gave her the courage she needed to stand firm against her opponent.
He came at her with his sword blade high overhead and brought it down with a loud growl. Gabrielle lifted her staff horizontally and blocked the strike easily. Newly-honed muscles bulged in her shoulders and arms as she braced for impact. Eponin had taught her to find her center of balance and spread her legs wide to take a blow, which she did. The blade hit her staff and the force of the impact reverberated down her back. She then brought the end of her staff around to knock him in the ribs hard enough to send him staggering back a step. He grinned, this time with a bit more respect.
"Nice move there, little girl," he growled. "But your little stick's no match for my blade or my size." He twirled the weapon with one arm. "Yer gonna die."
He lunged for her and she sidestepped in the nick of time, then swung her staff around and knocked him in the head. The blow dazed the guy for a few seconds, but then he was right back at her again. This time he put everything into his attack, using his sword as an extension of his arms, as he pounded it against her staff again and again.
Gabrielle felt her reflexes kick in like they usually did when she was sparring with Eponin. She met each strike and felt each blow reverberate up her arms, through her shoulders and down her back. He was stronger than Eponin, but he wasn't very inventive when it came to trying to get past her defenses. She countered a swing to her left by moving her staff vertically in that direction. When he twirled around and came at her right side, she merely shifted the staff to meet his strike. As soon as she picked up his pattern, it dawned on her that she could mount her own offensive against him. She did.
With Eponin's words of encouragement echoing in her head, Gabrielle lunged forward and swung the staff in a series of maneuvers that the weapons master had taught her only a week ago. Having wasted a great deal of energy on his own offensive, the guy was surprised and a little shaken by the sudden counterattack she came at him with. She was fast, where he lumbered. She was also short and knew her center of balance well. It helped her keep him off his guard. So Gabrielle just continued to drive him back with deadly focus and precision.
She used a swing-thrust-counter-swing maneuver to knock the staff against his jaw, catching him by surprise with the move. She then came around and effectively swept his legs out from under him. His sword went flying in one direction while he went in the other. When he hit the ground, Gabrielle was right there with the tip of her staff against his throat.
"Still think you can kill me?" She panted breathlessly from her exertions, as she saw fear leap into his eyes.
But she didn't count on another attacker sneaking up behind her.
"Gabrielle! Behind you!"
Terreis' warning reached her just in time for Gabrielle to spin around to meet the second guy's blade before he could drive it through her back. She slammed her staff down on his blade, spun around and knocked him in the back. With her attention on the second guy, Gabrielle didn't see the first guy slip away and grab his sword, until it was too late.
Suddenly she found herself in a fight for her life, as both men came at her at the same time. She managed to counter each man's strike, but the extra effort to keep up with both of them was taking its toll. She was tiring fast and didn't know how much longer she could keep fighting them both before one of them got past her defenses.
Then Terreis was there right beside her. The redheaded princess took on the first guy, while Gabrielle shifted into offensive mode with the second guy. She thrust the end of her staff into her guy's midsection, watching with satisfaction as he doubled over with a grunt. Then she swung around and used the staff like a bat to bash in the side of his head. He went flying into his comrade, just as Terreis came around from her guy's other side with her blade. The princess slashed through both men's chests as they stumbled past her. The men landed in a heap and neither one moved again, their blood mingling with the sticky muck at their feet.
"Thanks," Gabrielle panted heavily, as she glanced at the two dead men on the ground beyond the princess.
"We're not done yet," Terreis said, as she spun around to help another Amazon.
Gabrielle took a second to swallow down the bile that rose in her throat, as she realized she'd just help kill two human beings. While she was catching her breath and gathering her wits, however, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye that stopped her cold.
One of the still-mounted men was aiming a crossbow at Terreis' exposed back. In the time it took for her to register the man's intent, Gabrielle watched in horror as the crossbow bolt was released. Gabrielle flew into motion, but knew she was a split-second too late. She heard the distinctive whiz of the bolt as it passed within inches of her head and embedded in Terreis' back with a sickening thud.
Terreis went down hard and Gabrielle could think of nothing else to do, except cover the princess' body with her own. Another crossbow bolt embedded in the ground, inches from Gabrielle's shoulder and a third embedded deep in Gabrielle's thigh.
Everything happened so fast that Gabrielle barely had time to think, much less react. A boot kicked her in the head and sent her sprawling. She looked up and realized the man that Terreis had been fighting was uninjured. He raised his sword to finish off the injured princess and Gabrielle's hand found purchase on the hilt of Terreis' sword.
Without a thought for what she was about to do or for the pain radiating up and down her leg, Gabrielle sprang to her feet and thrust the sword blade up to its hilt in the man's exposed midsection. With all her might, she drove the sword past bone and flesh until the bloody tip emerged from his back.
Her face inches from his, she watched with dark satisfaction as shock registered in his dark eyes and she inhaled deeply of the stench of death on his rancid breath. Blood gurgled up into his mouth and ran down his chin, as he gasped for one last breath and collapsed onto the ground at her feet.
Gabrielle didn't spare the man a second glance, as her injured leg gave out and she collapsed at Terreis' side. The princess was gasping for breath herself, as the bloody tip of an arrow protruded from her chest. Wide hazel eyes searched for and locked on Gabrielle's.
"Oh, Ter," Gabrielle gingerly lifted the woman into her lap and held her close, as tears spilled unbidden down her cheeks. "Come on, Terreis. Hang in there. Don't you dare die."
"Ga-Gab—" Terreis gasped on a half-cough, as blood gurgled up into her mouth and spilled from the corners of her lips. She coughed again.
Gabrielle didn't know what to do to help the woman in her arms. The bloody tip of the arrow protruding from Terreis' chest told her more than she needed to know. She'd been too late to save her best friend. She ignored the fire burning in her thigh, as she concentrated on her friend.
"Oh, gods, Terreis," Gabrielle hugged the redhead close. "I tried. I just—"
"Shh," Terreis put a palm to Gabrielle's cheek, as a weaker cough forced more blood to spill from a corner of her mouth. "'Sokay."
"Please don't die," Gabrielle sniffed back her tears, as she met the woman's gaze. "Please don't—"
"Shhhh, don't talk. Save your strength," Gabrielle interrupted.
"Listen to me, Gabrielle," Terreis' voice was suddenly firm, as a burst of energy overcame her. She looked sternly into sea-green eyes swimming with tears and spoke her next words with conviction. "I need you to accept my right of caste, Gabrielle. I need you to be princess in my stead."
"No," Gabrielle shook her head emphatically. "I—I can't—"
"You…must," Terreis pressed her palm firmly against Gabrielle's cheek. "I know you will make…me…proud. You…already…have." She smiled wanly, as she felt her life ebbing. "You are… a true Amazon, Gabrielle. Accept my right…of…caste…please."
Tears streamed down Gabrielle's cheeks, as she nodded her head. "Okay," she said quietly. "I do."
"I…need…you to say…the words," Terreis choked out weakly, as she watched Ephiny's approach out of the corner of her eye. "Say it…loud, Gabrielle."
"Okay," Gabrielle sniffed and blew out a frustrated breath. "I accept your right of caste, Terreis. Now, please, don't you dare die on me like this. You're too important. You're the princess and m-my best friend in the whole world."
Gabrielle had no idea that a crowd of Amazons had surrounded them at that point. Both Ephiny and Solari exchanged looks of surprise at the unexpected turn of events. But Gabrielle missed it all, as she took Terreis' hand in hers and held it to her lips.
"I will see you…again…one day, my sister," Terreis' words came out as a gurgled whisper. "I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you, too, Terreis," Gabrielle said. "So, please don't—" Gabrielle watched as Terreis gasped one last time and stilled in her arms. "Terreis? Terreis? NOOOOOOO!!!! " The cry of anguish tore through her like an open wound. "No, no, nonononono," she pulled the princess close and buried her face against Terreis' throat. "You can't die. You can't die. Please, please, don't die." The whispered mantra continued.
Gabrielle felt something snap inside her, as every memory she had ever experienced crashed through her mind unbidden. It was like a dam breaking inside her head, unleashing everything in a tidal wave of grief and agony.
With vivid clarity, she suddenly remembered her father riding away on their prized mare that fateful day so long ago. She watched helplessly as her mother shed tears of grief when he didn't return. She remembered the shocked faces of the villagers when they discovered the other girls had been taken by slavers. She then saw her mother take her final breath, as the sickly woman finally gave in to the illness that had plagued her throughout the cold winter months. She remembered the look of shock in Lila's eyes, as Xena thrust her sword into her chest.
She remembered Xena. The tall warrior conqueror in dark leather had been both antagonizer and healer—killer and savior. Gabrielle remembered with vivid clarity the day the Conqueror rode out of the keep on her black stallion, her army following close behind. The sun shining on her sleek, black hair as it blew around her face in the stiff, warm breeze. Gabrielle also remembered the surge of warmth that infused her when a pair of sky-blue eyes turned her way one last time and met her gaze. A brilliant smile split the otherwise stoic features, as Xena looked directly at her and nodded once, before she disappeared through the gates of the keep.
Gabrielle also remembered the days that followed, especially her lessons with Traecus and Maida. The frustration she felt when trying to convince her fellow servants that she was capable of giving orders. The glares she received from those who thought of her as nothing more than a whore in the Conqueror's bed. The open leers from several of the men whose intentions were crystal clear. And the whispers from the women who didn't think she knew what was being said behind her back about her sudden rise to power.
And then she remembered that fateful night with all the clarity of one awakening from a dream. The rape and beating she received at the hands of a faceless assailant and Nora's parting words. Her attacker's words as he sheered her hair completely off at her scalp. It all came crashing down on her like a heavy weight. She clung to the woman in her arms, while her body rocked with sobs that shook her to the core.
Gabrielle was so caught up in her grief and her memories that she was completely unaware of what was going on around her. Ephiny ordered the others to prepare for their return to the village. Having successfully recovered the wagon after killing the driver, the curly-haired woman had several of the others work to remove the cage that housed their prize.
Xena's bruised body was placed on a bed of soft pine boughs, while the wagon was converted from a prison cart, back into a wagon. The cage itself was quickly disassembled and the pieces were tossed into the dense underbrush. The bodies of the men were also tossed as far from the road as possible, while their horses were rounded up for the Amazons to use on their return trip.
Gabrielle and Terreis' body were moved next to Xena, who hadn't stirred once during the entire ordeal. Gabrielle shifted and cried out in pain, as one of the women who carried her jostled her injured leg. The intense pain actually worked to bring her out of the grief-stricken stupor she had so quickly fallen into.
"What's happening?" Gabrielle lifted confused eyes and looked around.
"Ephiny ordered us to bring you over here, out of the way, Princess," Margalene answered.
The taller Amazon warrior knelt next to Gabrielle and examined the arrow sticking out of her thigh with a critical eye. She then waved behind her and another Amazon came forward and knelt next to Gabrielle. The second Amazon examined the wound, as well.
"We need to remove the arrow and treat the wound," Rayna said with a quick nod to Margalene. "Hey, Ephiny!"
The curly-haired blond came up to stand over them. "Yeah? What is it? We're kinda pressed for time here, Rayna."
Rayna pointed to the arrow sticking out of Gabrielle's thigh. "I think we need to take care of her highness before we move out. Don't you think?"
Ephiny ran an impatient hand down her wet face and met Gabrielle's pain-filled eyes. "Damn!" She exclaimed in a hushed whisper. "Just get the bolt out of her leg and wrap the wound as best as you can. We don't have time to do more right now. There's a detachment of soldiers less than three leagues up the road. I think they have orders to provide extra escort for this damned wagon." She blew out a frustrated breath. "We'll just have to take care of her highness' wound after we make camp for the night."
Gabrielle didn't miss the angry glare she received from the curly-haired Amazon. She did, however, miss the meaning behind the woman's words. She thought they were talking about Terreis and only briefly wondered why they would bother with a dead woman's wounds.
"Hold her," Rayna ordered in a stern tone. "I'm going to remove the bolt from your leg, Princess."
Gabrielle's eyes shot up to meet the woman's gaze, as she suddenly realized she was actually the one being addressed with Terreis' title. She felt strong hands grab her arms, as Rayna grabbed hold of the crossbow bolt in her leg. She couldn't help the cry of pain that tore from her throat when the Amazon touched the shaft protruding from her thigh.
"Here," Rayna said as she took off her leather belt and jammed it between Gabrielle's teeth. "Bite down. This is going to hurt like all Hades."
Gabrielle barely had time to bite down on the leather strap before Rayna broke off the feathered end of the shaft and then shoved the bolt through her leg until the tip protruded through the other side. A scream of agony tore from Gabrielle's lips a moment before she passed out cold.
"Good for her," Rayna commented absently, as she grabbed hold of the bloody shaft just below the sharp tip and yanked the bolt free. She then quickly pressed two cloths to the oozing holes and wrapped the leg with a long strip of cloth. "That should hold it until later."
"What about infection?" Margalene's brow was furrowed in concern.
"We'll clean the wound thoroughly once we make camp," Rayna replied, as she glanced at Xena's still form. "I think I'm a bit more worried that we'll make it back to the village with three bodies on our hands." Her gaze then rested on the still form of their former princess. "Heads are gonna roll when Queen Melosa finds out Princess Terreis is dead."
"She's certainly not going to be happy about having the little runt, there, as the princess' replacement," Margalene said, as Rayna stood up next to her.
"No, she's not," Rayna crossed her arms over her chest, as she looked down at the three still figures on the makeshift pine bough bed. "Queen Melosa only tolerated the kid because the runt and Terreis became such good friends. I actually overheard her tell the princess that she would not tolerate a relationship if it were to develop between the two."
"The princess and—" Margalene pointed at the unconscious woman at her feet.
Rayna nodded. "Yep," she said. "I don't think the runt knew it, but Terreis definitely had a bead on our new little princess, there."
"Let's move out, Amazons!" Ephiny's clear voice rang out in the near silence that had descended over them.
Several Amazons scrambled into the saddles of their newly-acquired horses. Others quickly picked up the three inert figures and carried them over to the waiting wagon. Ephiny climbed into the driver's seat, as Eponin settled in next to her.
"We need to get as far from here as possible, Amazons," Ephiny said, as their cargo was settled in the bed of the wagon.
Ephiny glanced back over her shoulder and was satisfied that Terreis' body had been wrapped in the tarp that had once covered the cage. She really didn't want the two living beings to awaken, only to find themselves in their pine-bough covered bed next to a dead body. But Ephiny also wasn't willing to leave Terreis' body behind for the scavengers, either. Her friend deserved a proper Amazon funeral pyre.
The wagon rumbled loudly, as Ephiny maneuvered the horses around so they were headed back toward Amazon territory. Thunder rumbled in the distance and grew louder as the retinue of warrior women made their way home.
"Damned weather," Eponin groused, as she pulled her hood up over her head and then jumped into the bed of the wagon. She yanked Gabrielle's hood over the unconscious woman's face and then threw an extra oiled cape over Xena's still form. "You think these two'll wake up anytime soon?"
"I tried to rouse Xena earlier, but she didn't budge," Ephiny threw over her shoulder. "I don't know what those bastards did to her, but she's in pretty bad shape."
"Yeah," Eponin said, as she took in the deep bruises on the woman's legs and the festered wounds on her ankles. "Did they have her in chains? Ares' left nut! Did you even look at these sores on her wrists and ankles? I think they kept her chained all the time they held her captive."
"Probably," Ephiny shot back. "I took the driver out, castrated the bastard and left him chained to a tree for our friends to find back there. Thought his little wound might give them incentive not to follow us."
"I doubt that," Eponin said, as she adjusted the cape around Xena to her satisfaction. A closer rumble had her looking up into the churning gray sky above. "Godsbedamned weather! Can't it just stop raining long enough for us to make it back to the village? I really don't want to spend the rest of this trip slogging around in the muck."
"Easy, Pon," Ephiny chuckled at the woman's colorful use of expletives. "Let's not enrage the gods anymore than we apparently already have. I don't want them sending a flood our way. Besides, a little rain's the least of our worries, right now. It might just work to our benefit and hide our tracks enough to throw those guys off our trail." Ephiny issued a loud whistle to one of the lead riders. "Take the road to the left when we come to the next fork! Let's see if we can throw those guys off our trail!"
"Right!" Sehran called back over her shoulder.
"Let's pick up the pace here, Amazons!" Ephiny then shouted, as she gave the reins a hard flick and sent the horses into a fast gallop. "Hang on, back there, Eponin!"
"Hey! I think she's coming 'round."
The words barely penetrated Gabrielle's foggy mind, before her eyes shot open and she found herself staring into the concerned faces of more than a dozen women. The one closest to her grinned.
"Welcome back, Princess," Ephiny said. "Have a nice rest?"
"Wha' happened?" Gabrielle rasped hoarsely, as someone put a water skin to her lips and tipped cool water into her mouth.
Gabrielle drank greedily of the cool liquid and let it run down her parched throat. Her head felt a little strange and her eyes didn't seem to want to remain focused. She felt like she was underwater, except that she knew she wasn't.
"You've been out for the better part of an entire day," Ephiny glanced over her shoulder and gave the others a silent signal to disperse. "Sorry about the audience. They were worried you wouldn't come around."
"'S okay," Gabrielle eased up onto her elbows and sucked in a breath when she accidently jarred her leg. "Ugh! Gods on Olympus! That hurts!"
"You were shot," Ephiny glanced at the blood-stained cloth wrapped around the woman's thigh. "Rayna removed the crossbow bolt and wrapped your wound. I don't think she had a chance to clean it, though." She found the tucked end and slowly un-wrapped the bandage. "We should probably take care of it before it gets infected."
"Too late," Gabrielle winced and sucked in another breath, as the bandage came free to reveal an inflamed hole oozing dark-red blood and yellow puss. She picked at another cloth on the underside of her leg and gritted her teeth when that came away soaked in blood, as well. "Hera's left tit! That hurts!"
Ephiny snickered at the familiar expletive coming from those unfamiliar lips, as she examined the two wounds.
"What?" Gabrielle looked at the curly-blond head in confusion. "Did I say something funny?"
"Nope," Ephiny lifted hazel eyes to meet the sea-green eyes staring back at her. The light from the fire cast an orange-gold glow on the smaller woman and Ephiny caught her breath. To hide her reaction, she returned her attention to the wounds. "Unfortunately, I think you're right. Both wounds are showing signs of infection."
Gabrielle was hard-pressed to figure out why the usually-surly Amazon had looked at her so funny and was now staring at her leg with renewed fascination. She and Ephiny had never really gotten along in all the time she'd spent with the tribe. And she still had absolutely no idea why.
"What do we do now?" Gabrielle couldn't quite keep the tremor from her voice, as Ephiny's fingers lightly probed the skin around the wound on the side of her leg. For some odd reason, the woman's touch was sending strange flutters through her stomach and lower—something Gabrielle hadn't felt since...
"We should…um…" Ephiny's words trailed off when she looked up and met Gabrielle's intense gaze. "I should…"
Gabrielle was a little surprised when the woman suddenly scrambled to her feet and hurried away. She was also confused by the strange emotions swirling around inside her. She hadn't ever looked directly into Ephiny's eyes before. But when she did, something in those eyes seemed to call to her. She shook off the feeling and gazed around her.
It was night. A campfire blazed in the middle of the clearing they were in. More than a dozen bedrolls were scattered around the clearing and most of the women from the rescue party were talking in small groups of two or three.
Eponin and Solari were sharpening their swords as they sat on logs in front of the fire. The two women seemed to be sharing a humorous discussion, until Eponin glanced her way and met her gaze. The weapons master's gaze then moved beyond her, before she returned her attention to Solari.
Gabrielle glanced next to her and saw a sight that sent her stomach plummeting. A body was wrapped in a heavy tarp and lay unmoving several paces away. She searched her newly-awakened memories for exactly who the body could belong to and realized it was none other than Terreis. A tear slipped down her cheek when she remembered that her friend had died in her arms.
"Sorry about your friend," a low voice on her other side had Gabrielle's head whipping around.
Gabrielle gaped in surprised awe at the bruised and battered face staring back at her.
"Xena?" The single word came out as a strangled whisper.
"In the flesh," Xena's voice was still hoarse from disuse. "Apparently, it wasn't my time to burn in the bowels of Tartarus."
Gabrielle ignored the pain that shot through her leg, as she launched herself into the dark-haired woman's arms and hugged her tight.
"Oh, I am so glad to see you," Gabrielle whispered into hair that had recently been washed clean and smelled like sandalwood and lye soap. "I never thought I'd see you again."
Xena reveled in the enthusiastic hug, despite the aches and pains that made themselves known to her. "Didn't think I'd see anyone again, other than maybe Draco and his goons and a crowd of eager onlookers at my execution."
Gabrielle pulled back enough to look into those familiar blue eyes. She pushed strands of damp hair away from the woman's face and just gazed into those expressive blue eyes. She felt the butterflies multiply exponentially, as she lost herself in Xena's gaze for several heartbeats.
"The queen sent us to rescue you," Gabrielle finally found her voice again.
"Melosa? Of the Amazons?" Gabrielle clarified, as she glanced down at her rather revealing attire. "I'm almost one of them."
A dark brow shot into Xena's hairline. "You? An Amazon?"
"Mm-hm," Gabrielle nodded with a hint of a smirk. "They took me in after…" Her voice trailed off as the dark memories washed over her again and her face clouded over.
"After what?" Xena saw the look of despair in the once-vivid green eyes. She also noticed how short Gabrielle's hair was. "What happened to your hair? Wasn't it a lot longer and darker the last time I saw you?"
"Someone cut it," Gabrielle shifted positions and instantly regretted the move, when her leg protested. She winced and sucked in a breath between gritted teeth. "Godsbedamned leg!"
"Are you okay, Gabrielle?" Xena asked in concern. "What is it?"
"My leg," Gabrielle gasped and held her thigh, as the pain refused to subside.
Xena glanced down at the oozing wound she could see and winced in sympathy. "It's infected."
"Yes," Gabrielle blew out a breath, but kept her teeth gritted. "It hurts like crazy."
"Crossbow bolt?" Xena gently prodded the flesh around the wound.
"Yesssss," Gabrielle hissed. "Gods! That really hurts!"
"And the exit wound?" Xena turned the woman's leg enough to get a look at the other wound. "There it is. It looks infected, too."
"Probably," Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain and tasted blood on her tongue. Beads of sweat broke out on her upper lip and forehead, as Xena continued to poke the skin around the wounds. "Ouch!"
"They need to be cleaned and treated with a poultice," Xena continued. "Hey, Eponin!"
"Yeah, Xena?" The weapons master stopped sharpening and looked up from the sword in her lap.
"Can you get me some stuff to clean Gabrielle's wounds?" Xena called back. "They need to be taken care of before she loses the leg."
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the woman's words. "L-lose…m-my l-leg?" She glanced down at the still-oozing wound.
"I've seen smaller wounds than this get infected to the point that the limb had to be cut off to save the person's life," Xena said matter-of-factly. "Believe me when I say you don't want yours to get that bad."
Eponin ran off and returned with a leather satchel. She knelt down and dropped her burden on the makeshift pine-bough bed the two women were seated on. The weapons master glanced from one woman to the other curiously, as she made a mental note of how close together they were sitting.
"You two know each other?" Eponin asked.
Xena grabbed the water skin and set it aside. She then rummaged around in the leather satchel Eponin had carried over. She dumped the contents out and laid several items out next to her patient.
"I'm gonna need some wet clay, if you can find any around here," Xena said. "Any worm root in this thing? Oh, here it is." She held the small pouch up in triumph and then dumped it in the pile with the rest.
"We know each other," Gabrielle answered Eponin's question curtly. "I was…I was a servant at the keep."
"Oh, that's right," Eponin looked away and couldn't meet Gabrielle's eyes. "I remember Terreis saying something about that. Sorry, Princess."
Xena suddenly stopped what she was doing and stared at Eponin. "What did you just call her?"
"P-Princess," Eponin stuttered over the word, as she caught the surprise in Xena's eyes.
Xena pulled her gaze from Eponin's and met Gabrielle's. "Why would she call you princess?"
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle looked down at her hands and then glanced over at the tarp-covered body on her other side. "I think it has something to do with accepting Terreis' right of caste right before she died."
"You accepted her right of caste?" Xena asked incredulously. "You know that makes you next in line to become queen of their tribe, right?"
Gabrielle's eyes snapped to Xena's. "What?"
"You didn't know?" Eponin added. "Oh, Gabrielle. I thought you knew what you were doing when you agreed to accept Terreis' right of caste. She made you Melosa's heir in her place."
"I..." Gabirelle swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat. "I had no idea. I just thought that if I did it, Terreis would fight to live. No wonder she was so adamant that I say the words aloud. She knew she was dying." A tear slid from her eye and trailed down her cheek. "She knew."
"She gave you the greatest honor any Amazon can give to another Amazon," Eponin spoke solemnly. "Only the royal family carries the right of caste. It is passed from mother to daughter. In your case, though, I think Terreis saw you as her sister in every way. She bound you to Melosa, her adopted mother, just as she was bound the day Melosa adopted her. You're now not only Melosa's heir, but her daughter, too."
"Oh…boy," Gabrielle felt the world suddenly tilt precariously, right before she passed out cold.
"Whoa!" Xena exclaimed, as she caught Gabrielle before she could topple over. "Nice going, Amazon," she chided with a scowl. "You think you could heap anymore crap on her right now? She's already injured and her wounds are infected. She just lost someone who was, apparently, very dear to her. Now you have to throw the fact that she's now a member of the royal family into the mix? Why not just stab her with your sword and get it over with?"
"What's going on?" Ephiny appeared with a dripping water skin. "What did you say to her?" She looked pointedly at Eponin.
"Me?" Eponin shot back with an offended scowl. "Why do you think it was me, Eph? She's," she pointed at Xena, "the one who—"
"Save it, Pon," Ephiny cut the woman off, as she knelt on Gabrielle's other side. "I brought some fresh water to clean her wounds with." She glanced at the water skin next to Xena. "It's probably better than what's in that skin."
Xena gingerly laid Gabrielle down on the furs and then took the water skin from Ephiny's outstretched hand. She poured some of the water onto a clean bandage and then flushed first one wound and then the other. The holes in Gabrielle's thigh ran red and then pink, then finally ran clear. Once the wounds were cleaned out, Xena ran the damp cloth around the edges of the wounds to clear out any remaining infection.
"Can one of you bring a taper over here, so I can see what I'm doing?" Xena shot both Ephiny and Eponin a look.
Eponin slipped to the campfire and came back with a small taper in one hand.
"Hold it close to her thigh, so I can…yeah, that's it."
Xena gingerly pushed on the side of one of the wounds. Then she pushed even harder until yellow puss oozed from the wound.
"Yuck!" Eponin turned her head away from the sight. "Is that really necessary?"
Xena flushed the wound again and pressed her fingers on the other side again. A loud groan from her patient told her Gabrielle was at least partially aware of what was happening and probably coming around. More puss oozed from the wound and Xena flushed it away again.
"There," she said and slathered a green-brown paste directly into the open wound with her fingers. "That should stop the infection from spreading." She looked up at Eponin and Ephiny. "Wounds like these should be cauterized right from the get-go. It keeps them sealed and helps stop infection from starting in the first place."
"Good to know," Ephiny nodded.
"Help me turn her over?" Xena asked.
Both Amazons helped turn Gabrielle onto her stomach, so Xena had a better angle on the wound in the back of the smaller woman's thigh. Xena then slathered her fingers in the paste and then pushed against the wound from different angles. Blood and puss oozed from the wound as Ephiny poured water on it to flush the infection away. By then, Gabrielle was fully conscious and screamed out in agony. Eponin moved to the woman's head and held her shoulders to keep her still.
"What the…" Gabrielle cried out between Xena's prodding and then let out another loud scream when the woman's fingers dug deeply into the wound.
Ephiny watched Xena work with focused precision. When she actually stuck her entire finger into the wound, the curly-haired blonde's eyes widened in shock.
"What the Hades are you…"
"Shhh," Xena snapped, as she continued to dig down deeply into the wound, while Gabrielle screamed like a banshee gone wild the entire time.
"Is that really…"
"I said, shut up!" Xena hissed loudly to be heard over the screams that finally went silent, as the smaller woman mercifully passed out again. "I think that'll do it," Xena said as she triumphantly pulled her bloody finger from the wound.
"Was digging around in there really necessary?" Ephiny shot Xena an annoyed scowl. "Even I was cringing at what you were doing to her, and, as a seasoned warrior, I've had my share of wounds."
Xena was busy flushing the wound clean again and decided the Amazon's words weren't worth responding to. When the wound ran clear, she took a generous glob of the healing paste on the tip of her finger and shoved it into the gaping hole. She heard someone gag behind her and ignored the sound, as she packed the wound with as much of the sticky paste as possible.
"Oh, go back over to the campfire, Pon," Ephiny chided. "You're just making yourself sick watching Xena work."
"Okay, that should do it," Xena finally said, as she sat back and wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. "Now we need to bandage the leg and keep it clean."
Ephiny grabbed some fresh bandages from the satchel and handed them to Xena. Together they made quick work of wrapping the smaller woman's thigh and settling Gabrielle more comfortably on the thick furs. When they were finally done, Ephiny glanced at Xena.
"You want me to clean those up for you?" The curly-haired Amazon pointed to the festering wounds on Xena's wrists and ankles.
Xena shrugged and patiently allowed Ephiny to minister to the chafed and oozing wounds. She didn't even wince when Ephiny rubbed the healing salve on the open wounds. When they were cleaned and wrapped, Xena lay back on the furs and closed her eyes.
"So, she said you know each other," Ephiny commented, as she cleared away the healing supplies.
"Mm-hm," Xena grunted.
"She was one of your servants?"
"Yessss," Xena growled low. "What of it?"
"She doesn't talk much about her past," Ephiny shrugged. "I was just wondering what she was doing in the keep of the almighty Conqueror of the Known World."
A blue eye popped open and met Ephiny's intense gaze. "You tryin' to pick a fight, Amazon?"
"No," Ephiny shook her head. "Just trying to figure out why you let a servant call you by your given name. It's not like the Conqueror to get too close to the help, unless..."
The unspoken words hung between them like a dead weight.
"We weren't," Xena said flatly and watched a brow lift on the Amazon's face. "It wasn't like that."
Ephiny shrugged. "None of my business what you do or do not do with your servants, Xena. After all, I'm sure you felt that it was your right to…"
"Just stop right there, Amazon," Xena interrupted with a low growl. "You have no idea what you're talking about or who you're dealing with."
Ephiny shot the battered woman a wry smirk. "Give me a break, Xena. You're no longer the threat you were when your army swept across this land like a raging wildfire. Just look at you. You couldn't harm a flea, much less the likes of someone like me."
Xena sprang into action faster than a panther and took the woman down with surprising strength and agility. Ephiny went sprawling on her back with the unexpected wildcat perched on top of her. As Xena stared down into the wide eyes of the curly-haired blond, a feral grin split her dark features. Her grip tightened on the woman's throat and she felt the bloodlust surging inside her.
"Wanna bet?" Xena hissed between clenched teeth.
"O—kay!" Ephiny gasped past her strangled windpipe. "You…win!"
Xena released her hold on the Amazon and climbed off her. She sat there for a moment and let the bloodlust slowly subside. Her heart was pounding in her chest, so she took a few deep, calming breaths to return it to normal. It worked—for the most part.
"Geez, Eph!" Eponin knelt next to the coughing woman and helped her sit up. The weapons master glanced at Xena and saw the menace in those ice-blue eyes that sent a shiver of dread through her. "You of all people should know better than to provoke a reaction out of the damned Conqueror like that."
Xena returned to her makeshift bed and pulled a blanket over herself and the smaller woman next to her. Gabrielle was still out cold, so Xena merely sat there studying the woman for a moment. It had been a while since she'd done that—quite a while, in fact. Had it really been almost three months since she had waved goodbye to the blond at the keep? She remembered that day as clearly as if it were yesterday. But so much had changed since then. She ruffled the shorn locks and then gingerly ran her fingers through the smaller woman's hair. So many changes.
Xena noticed muscles in Gabrielle's shoulders and arms that hadn't been there before. And Gabrielle's skin was tanned and healthy looking, a far cry from what she remembered from the sickly kid who had come to the keep. The dark circles beneath Gabrielle's eyes were gone and her short-cropped, blond hair was more gold than red.
"Beautiful," the word came out unbidden, as a pair of sea-green eyes suddenly fluttered open and she found herself lost within them for several heartbeats.
The spell was almost magical—if it hadn't been for the dozen or so women sitting only a few paces away.
"Hey," Xena smiled and revealed perfect white teeth. "How're you doing?"
"Tired," Gabrielle answered, as she shifted up onto an elbow and winced. "Ugh, why does my leg hurt so much?"
"I had to…um…" Xena couldn't think of anything to soften the blow. "It's infected."
"Ah," Gabrielle nodded her understanding. She then glanced over to see Eponin helping Ephiny to her feet. "Ephiny? What happened?"
The curly-haired Amazon shot a glare at Xena, as she rubbed her still-sore throat. "Ask her, Princess," she rasped.
Gabrielle met a pair of apologetic blue eyes. "Xena?"
"A little misunderstanding," the dark-haired woman shrugged and cleared her throat.
Gabrielle watched Xena lie down on her back and put her hands behind her head. "She looks angry. Are you sure it wasn't more than just a little misunderstanding?"
"It was—" Xena shrugged again. "She's an Amazon. She'll get over it, eventually."
"She doesn't like me much, as it is," Gabrielle commented, as she picked some invisible bit of something off the blanket.
"Who? Ephiny?" Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who was absently watching the women around the fire.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "Hasn't liked me since day one."
Xena felt a little uncomfortable with this particular line of the conversation. She closed her eyes a moment and tried to come up with something that could explain why an Amazon warrior would dislike someone like Gabrielle. That completely eluded her, so she came up with the next best thing.
"Maybe she just doesn't know you well enough," Xena said.
Gabrielle's voice dropped to barely more than a whisper. "It's almost like…Nora."
Xena sat up and looked at the woman next to her. There was a haunted look in those sea-green eyes that caught her attention.
"Who's Nora?" Xena prodded.
Gabrielle swallowed, shook her head and didn't meet Xena's gaze. "No one."
Xena gently lifted Gabrielle's chin with a finger. "Talk to me, Gabrielle. Who is Nora?"
Gabrielle searched those beautiful blue eyes for some sign that Xena was just playing with her. But all she saw in them was genuine concern. It touched a chord deep within her that she hadn't known existed. Tears sprang to her eyes, but she quickly blinked them away.
"She's one of the servants," Gabrielle said in a meek voice. "I…" She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it."
"What did she do to you, Gabrielle?" Xena kept her voice low, even.
She knew there was something the woman wanted to say—wanted to tell her—but she had so little experience with conversations of this nature that she had no idea how to go about it. She wished Agatha or her mother were there. They both knew exactly how to wheedle someone into sharing what was in their heart.
The hand Xena laid on hers was Gabrielle's undoing. The touch was so gentle, so reassuring, that she knew the woman had somehow breached defenses that she didn't even know she had erected. The walls suddenly crumbled and the memories came tumbling in like a pounding waterfall.
"I…I can't…" Gabrielle felt a sob choke her, as she tried desperately to regain some measure of control over her errant emotions.
Xena moved her hand up Gabrielle's arm and gently caressed the woman's bare skin until her hand rested on a bare shoulder. She had no idea why she felt the urge to comfort this woman who was once her servant, but she couldn't seem to stop. Even with an audience of Amazon onlookers so close, Xena didn't care about any of that. And then she lifted her hand to Gabrielle's face and gently wiped away an errant tear from the woman's cheek with her thumb. It was an innocent gesture that held so much more meaning than even Xena could admit.
They gazed at each other for a long moment, neither one knowing what to do or how to react. The fire crackled and the hushed voices around the campfire only added a backdrop to the moment, as Xena let her fingers gently linger on the soft cheek. Then she removed her hand and the spell was broken.
"Um…" Gabrielle cleared her throat and glanced over at the Amazons.
No one appeared to notice what had transpired between her and Xena, as her heartbeat pounded in her ears so loudly that she thought everyone could hear it. But that didn't seem to matter, as she felt a furious blush infuse her cheeks. She shook her head to dispel the strange feelings that were swirling around in her head. Then she flopped down onto her back and stared up at the inky blackness above. She noticed the shadows of clouds moving across the sky, as stars appeared and disappeared, again and again.
Someone stood just beyond the firelight and Gabrielle reluctantly pulled her gaze from the sky above. Her eyes shifted to the woman who hesitantly moved closer.
"Yes?" Gabrielle never even gave the address a thought. It was strange that being the princess was almost becoming second nature to her, but she pushed that thought aside for later pondering. "What is it, Margalene?"
"I brought you something to eat," Margalene knelt next to Gabrielle with a wooden plate in her hands. The Amazon glanced beyond Gabrielle and caught the raised-browed look Xena gave her. "There's plenty here for both of you."
Xena reached across Gabrielle and took the plate from the woman's hands. "Thanks."
Margalene smiled and then met Gabrielle's gaze. "If there is anything else you need, Princess, please don't hesitate to ask."
The woman returned to the fire and Gabrielle blew out an exasperated breath. "I don't know if I'm going to get used to being addressed as princess all the time. It's a little…um…weird."
Xena chuckled, as she took a piece of meat off the plate and examined it, before popping it into her mouth. "And yet you've taken to answering to it immediately, like you've been called princess all your life." She quirked a dark brow and popped another bite in her mouth. "Not bad, by the way," she offered a piece of the roasted meat to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle merely shook her head at the proffered morsel and rubbed her griping stomach. "No, thank you. My stomach's not really up for eating greasy food right now. And I've learned that it isn't a good idea to try to force the issue."
Xena glanced at the grease sliding down one finger. She popped the bite into her mouth and licked the grease away. "Suit yourself."
Gabrielle let her gaze track back up to the stars overhead—or at least, what she knew were stars beyond the clouds. Several sparks from the fire drifted up into the sky and she followed their slow upward progress. Then she let the fatigue wash over her, as her eyes drifted slowly shut.
She lay there listening to snippets of conversation—heard her name mentioned a few times. She heard the words "conqueror" and "princess" mentioned several times, before conversations turned to more mundane topics. When one conversation turned to what was happening back in the village, Gabrielle tuned out the whispers and low murmurs. She concentrated on the crackling fire and on her companion's even breathing.
Just the thought of having Xena there next to her—so close—ignited something deep within her that had her shifting positions. But shifting positions inevitably sent pain shooting through her leg, reminding her why she couldn't just get up and take a walk—maybe forget why there were butterflies as big as bats fluttering around in her stomach.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat and tried to breathe more evenly, despite her body's sudden agitation. With her eyes closed tightly, she could well imagine Xena lying there next to her. As she let her thoughts drift in those moments when sleep is just a breath away, they suddenly conjured images of a lithe body and silk sheets in a fairytale bed. Gabrielle felt her body come alive, as she remembered waking up in the arms of the woman next to her. And then she remembered more and her eyes shot open.
Gabrielle's head turned at the concern in Xena's voice.
"I'm…uh…fine?" Gabrielle's voice squeaked.
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle nodded and she turned her head completely away.
But then her eyes rested on the tarp of the still figure that lay just a few paces away and her heart plummeted. Terreis. Gabrielle shut her eyes against the sight of the still body wrapped in a tarp and she couldn't help the shudder that ran through her.
"You don't really seem okay to me, Gabrielle."
Xena's low voice was so close to her ear that her head nearly snapped around to look at the woman. It took all her concerted effort not to move a muscle—not to open her eyes. She didn't want to see Terreis' body. She didn't want to face those piercing blue eyes flickering in the firelight. She just wanted to forget it all—forget why people were calling her princess, forget that Xena was just inches away from her. Who was she kidding, anyway? There was no way the Conqueror of the Known World could ever have feelings for a…a lowly peasant, a former servant. She wasn't even an Amazon yet. Hadn't been through the initiation, despite the title she now carried, thanks to the death of her…her best friend.
A tear escaped unbidden and she impatiently swiped it away without opening her eyes. She wasn't going to cry. Not now. Tears were for the weak. Isn't that what Ephiny had muttered to Terreis all those weeks ago when Eponin had accidently knocked Gabrielle so hard on the shoulder that tears sprang to her eyes. She had blinked them away then. She would not cry now.
But then, strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her close to a warm body. Gabrielle lost all track of time, as she buried her face against Xena's chest and let the tears flow.
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Xena gently stroked the sobbing woman's back and hair. "That's it. Let it out, Princess."
And so, she did.
The next day was miserable. They ditched the wagon and opted to take a little-used deer path into the denser woods that would take them farther south and east of Amazon territory. A cold, wet drizzle started just after dawn and didn't appear to be letting up anytime soon. The soggy ground sucked at the horses' hooves and made the journey slow and slippery.
Gabrielle rode double with Xena and was pressed against the taller woman's back. Both women wore oiled leather poncho-like capes, as did the Amazons with them. The oiled leather allowed the rain to bead up on the outside of the material and kept it from soaking in. With their hoods pulled up, their upper bodies remained relatively dry.
Gabrielle had her arms wrapped around Xena's waist, as the taller woman expertly guided the large draft horse along the muddy path. The beast's fur was soaked and Gabrielle's leg ached unmercifully, making it hard for her to keep her seat. It was especially challenging when they had to pick up speed for any length of time. The smaller woman tended to compensate by tightening her arms around her taller companion's waist. Xena had already asked her to ease up a bit on more than one occasion.
Keeping her eyes tightly shut and her face pressed against Xena's back, Gabrielle tried not to think about her present circumstances. Instead, she thought back to earlier that morning and remembered waking up in Xena's arms. It was such a pleasant feeling that she hadn't wanted to move. She lay there breathing in the woman's scent and reveling in the feel of the scratchy fabric of the grungy tunic Xena wore. It didn't even matter that the tunic was the same one Xena had been wearing during her incarceration. To Gabrielle, it just smelled like the woman herself—earthy, rugged, totally Xena.
The horse slipped in the muck and jerked them both. Gabrielle felt her legs tighten instinctively. She winced, yet again, as her injured thigh protested the movement. The persistent ache in her leg was steadily growing more painful with each passing league. But Gabrielle just gritted her teeth and remained silent. She might not be an Amazon just yet, but she sure wasn't going to let the others in on her discomfort. Every bounce, every jarring of the big beast sent painful twinges radiating up and down her leg.
At least she was warm, she realized with a tired sigh. Xena's body heat, combined with her own, kept her from shivering with cold. And with her head tucked low against Xena's back and her hood pulled down over her face, Gabrielle could almost imagine that they were merely taking an afternoon stroll in the warm sunshine. Almost.
And still they continued on.
"How're you holding up back there?" Xena's voice broke through her reverie.
"I'm okay," Gabrielle managed to loosen her clenched jaw enough to respond.
"How's the leg?" Xena asked.
"You're not trying to pull one over on me, are you, Gabrielle?" Xena's question hit its mark and Gabrielle stiffened. "'Cause I'm sure the others won't think any less of you if we ask them to hold up for a bit so you can stretch those stiff muscles."
"No, I'm good," Gabrielle lied and hoped her human pillow couldn't hear the slight catch in her voice.
A loud whistle pierced the air and sent a shudder of foreboding down Gabrielle's spine. Xena's posture shifted and suddenly they were standing still.
"What's going on, Xena?" Gabrielle heard Ephiny say.
"The princess needs a break," Xena replied, as she swung a leg over the horse's withers and gently pried Gabrielle's hands away from her waist. "You might want to sit up, Gabrielle."
She had less than a moment to sit upright before Xena slid out from under her and she suddenly found herself alone on the giant beast's back.
"Oh, man," Gabrielle steadied herself by putting her hands down on the warm back.
Her hood fell back from her head and icy rain hit her right in the face. She tried to balance one-handed, as she used the other to pull her hood back into place. But each movement sent more pain stabbing through her leg. And then she caught Xena watching her intently and knew the jig was up.
"Fine," Gabrielle conceded with a tired sigh, as Ephiny and Eponin slogged up next to the taller woman. "My damned leg hurts like crazy, and I don't think I can walk, much less move. Are you happy, now?"
She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the trio standing there glaring up at her. Then the horse suddenly shook himself, as if to get rid of a pesky fly, and Gabrielle lost her balance. She was pitched forward onto the beast's back and just managed to wrap her arms around the barrel of its stomach.
"Ugh!" She cried, as her momentum sent her sliding off the beast's back.
Xena simply reacted. She didn't even think about what she was doing, as she caught the smaller woman before Gabrielle could topple to the ground in a heap. But the ground beneath Xena's sandaled feet was slipperier than anticipated and she lost her footing. Both women landed in the gooey muck with a resounding shlurp! Xena managed to break Gabrielle's fall, but couldn't quite keep the smaller woman from getting dirty.
The two Amazon onlookers tried desperately to hide their snickers of amusement behind their hands. But they both failed miserably.
"Laugh it up, you two," Xena growled from her prone position on the soggy ground, as she swiped a muddy hand across her cheek in an effort to remove the hair from her eyes.
"Some rescue," Gabrielle grumbled, as she, too, pushed the hair out of her eyes and only managed to leave a rather large muddy swipe mark on her cheek. And then she moved. "Ariyargh!" She ground out between gritted teeth. "For the love of the gods, can this get any worse!?!"
"You still gonna tell me your leg is fine?" Xena shot her muddy companion a wry smirk.
Then both women heard the snickers of their companions and they glared up at the Amazons.
"So much for our princess, here, being the modicum of gracefulness," Eponin chortled.
"That's okay, apparently the Conqueror of the Known World isn't as graceful as we were led to believe, either," Ephiny chuckled.
The two Amazons reached down to help Gabrielle to her feet and found themselves on the receiving end of a muddy retaliation. Gabrielle managed to lift a good-sized glob of the gooey muck and fling it right in Ephiny's face, while Xena did the same to Eponin.
Taken completely by surprise, the two women just stood there with mud dripping down their faces and onto their capes.
"Oh, that was sooooo not fair," Eponin grumbled, as she wiped the goop from her eyes. "I think a little payback is in order." But before she could reach down and grab some mud, Ephiny put a hand on her arm.
"I do believe our princess," Ephiny glanced at each woman, in turn, "can get herself back on her feet. Come on, Pon. We have other duties to attend to."
As the two Amazons stalked away in a huff, Xena and Gabrielle sat there and looked at each other. Twin smiles split their mud-covered features, as they both burst out laughing at the same time. The moment was short-lived, as the draft horse stomped his foot and reminded them exactly where they were.
Xena struggled to her feet and then reached down to her smaller companion. "Come on, Gabrielle," she said. "Let's get you out from under this big brute, before he accidently kicks you in the head."
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle looked at the proffered hand. "As much as I want to take you up on that offer, I don't think I can stand."
A dark brow shot up. "Oh," Xena nodded her understanding and carefully reached down to lift the woman into her arms. "Better?"
Gabrielle winced and sucked in a breath, as Xena inadvertently jarred her injured thigh. "Ugh," she groaned, as Xena carried her over to where the Amazons were gathered.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's shoulders and rested her cheek against the firm chest.
"We need to find shelter," Xena said to the group of women, as soon as she approached them. "The princess isn't well."
"She seemed fine a second ago," Ephiny groused, as she finished wiping the mud from her face.
"She has a fever," Xena stated. "And we need to change the dressings on her leg."
More than a dozen pairs of eyes snapped to Xena's face, as they caught the seriousness in her tone. They then noticed that the woman in the Conqueror's arms was sporting a grayish pallor beneath the mud on her face. Dull gray-green eyes looked back at them with far less enthusiasm than the small woman usually showed.
"Oh, for Artemis' sake!" Ephiny glared at Gabrielle. "Why didn't you tell us that you weren't feeling well, Princess? We would have stopped hours ago. There were some caves several leagues back. Now there's just this stupid forest." She glanced up at the fir canopy above. "And it's not gonna keep us completely dry."
"We could make a lean-to." Eponin piped in enthusiastically. "There are enough pine boughs around here to make a decent shelter. I guess it also couldn't hurt to put my tracking skills to good use and hunt down some decent game for dinner. I think I saw some rabbit tracks just off the trail over there."
Ephiny shot the weapons master a skeptical glare, as she glanced in the direction the woman was pointing. The only thing she could see on the trail was mud, mud, and more mud. And the rain was still pouring down in a steady drizzle that didn't look like it would be letting up anytime soon. Ah, well. She straightened her shoulders and shoved the mass of wet curls back from her face in a show of authority.
"Let's get to it, Amazons!" Ephiny turned to the others and started issuing orders.
Xena did all she could for the Amazon's newest princess. She drained the infection from both wounds and cleaned them as best she could. She decided on a poultice to draw the remaining infection out, rather than the paste she had used the night before. As familiar as she was with wounds and infection, she didn't consider herself a healer and thought the young woman really needed one, and soon.
She had noticed the warmth radiating off Gabrielle's body the instant she picked the smaller woman up from beneath the horse. It had alarmed her to realize that Gabrielle hadn't even made a peep the entire time they were traveling that day. Had her leg really been that painfully infected? And how had Gabrielle hidden her condition while wrapped around her?
The instant Xena removed the bandages and saw the inflamed skin around both wounds, she knew the answer to at least one of the questions. Barely touching the area around one of the wounds elicited a sharp indrawn breath and whimper of pain from the smaller woman. Xena glanced up to find tears swimming in eyes gone dull with fever and exhaustion.
Gabrielle was resting fairly comfortably within the protection of the shelter the Amazons had erected in record time. They even threw all their furs together in the small space on top of a pile of pine boughs high enough to allow the water to drain underneath. It was the best they could do and would hopefully keep their princess warm and dry during the night.
Xena traipsed down to a small stream not far from the campsite. She needed time alone, away from the constant chattering and bickering of her rescuers. She hadn't had the chance to just stop and think about all that was happening to her. And there was so much to think about.
She was free. That much was almost too much for her mind to accept. Months spent locked away in a dank hole had all but banished any thoughts of freedom. She couldn't quite wrap her mind around the fact that she was outside, rather than in the dark pit of despair that had become her life. As she stepped up to the water's edge, she gazed around at the lush greenery that surrounded her and breathed in the earthy scent of damp loam and fresh rain. The air that filled her lungs was so clean, so alive with hope, that it almost overwhelmed her.
Xena sat down against the base of a large pine tree that acted as a canopy against the steady drizzle. She didn't mind the rain at all and almost welcomed its cleansing properties. But she also wanted some time to ponder—to allow her mind to accept her new fate.
Her keen hearing picked up the sound of crunching feet on the mushy ground and she knew someone was approaching. By the sounds of it, she figured it was probably either the stocky weapons master or the curly-haired Ephiny.
"Hey," Eponin greeted her, as she sat down on a fallen log a few paces from where Xena sat. "You okay?"
"Just fine," Xena sighed and let her head fall back against the rough bark of the tree. "Never better."
Eponin surveyed her silent companion for several long moments, noting the dark circles under those intense blue eyes. The eyes were slightly sunken, as if Xena had been to the bowels of Tartarus itself. Her wrists and ankles were wrapped in fresh bandages, courtesy of Ephiny, who insisted on taking care of the woman and seeing that her rescue was at least a partial success. Her gaze traveled down the woman's body and noted the gaunt appearance. Xena certainly didn't look like the healthy, hearty Conqueror that everyone once hailed as the savior of Greece.
To Eponin, she resembled one of the bedraggled refugees from one of the outlying villages who were now stumbling into the Amazon village from time to time. Ever since Draco had taken control, things along the borders were getting worse and worse. And he refused to do anything about it.
"Eph thought…" Eponin shrugged. "She thought maybe you could use a friend about now."
"Oh, she did, did she?" A dark brow shot up into damp bangs. "She practicing her diplomacy skills in preparation for a future as a queen's advisor?"
"Eph isn't into all that centaur crap," Eponin shrugged. "She's the queen's personal guard. It's enough for her."
"And you?" Xena met the dark-haired woman's gaze. "You're a warrior, through and through, so don't try to pull one over on me."
Eponin had the grace to blush. "Queen Melosa said you might respond to the likes of me better'n you'd take to one of the others. She just figured you would be a little less combative with a warrior."
"So, you're here 'cause of the alliance," Xena nodded.
"No," Eponin rolled her shoulders and shifted positions. "I'm here 'cause you look like you could use a friend, Xena. It ain't always about alliances or treaties or any of the political crap. Sometimes it's just about being there and listening when someone needs to talk."
"So, talk," Xena shot back with a wry smirk.
"Ugh!" Eponin ran an impatient hand down her face. "Are you always this…um…"
"Interesting? Talkative? Exasperating?" Xena teased.
Eponin eyed the woman with a mixture of respect and irritation. She'd been told what the Conqueror was like. But this woman wasn't anything like the cold, calculating ruler she was supposed to be. The woman sitting a stone's throw away from her actually had a sense of humor and a playful side that didn't jive with her austere reputation.
"You're not what I expected," Eponin finally said.
"Let me guess," Xena's expression hardened. "You were told that I would be more inclined to rip your heart from your chest and eat it while it was still beating, rather than sit down and have a civilized conversation."
"Something like that, yeah," Eponin nodded. "Your reputation for being a merciless tyrant ain't exactly the stuff of mere legend, Xena. And Melosa said you were a hard-nosed negotiator when it came to haggling over the terms of the treaty we signed with you."
Xena sighed. "The Amazons hold a special place in my heart, but that doesn't mean the Conqueror can let them—you—walk all over me. Being hard-nosed comes with the territory, especially when every nitpicky warlord with an army wants to rear his ugly head at every turn."
"I guess," Eponin replied. "So, what's the story with you and the princess?"
Xena's eyes met the weapons master's and she searched for an ulterior motive behind the question. "She was a servant in my keep at Surra," she finally said with a nonchalant shrug. "I basically put her in charge when I left. Imagine my surprise when she suddenly turns up as part of my Amazon rescue party."
Eponin snickered. "Yeah, ain't that a hoot."
"So, why don't you tell me the story behind that," Xena said. "How'd she end up with you guys, anyway? Last I remember, she was dressed in a long skirt and blouse, had long strawberry blond hair and was ready to take on her new duties at the keep."
"Not sure," Eponin shrugged. "All I know is a couple women drove into the village one day. Agatha met with Queen Melosa, while Eph and I carried the poor kid over to the healer's hut. She was really banged up when they brought her in. Our healer and Agatha stayed with her night and day, until she finally came to. She still has really bad nightmares most nights. Wakes up screaming like a wild banshee and scares the crap out of the rest of her bunkmates. The only one who was ever able to get her to calm down was Terreis." She shrugged. "I guess that ain't gonna happen anymore now that Terreis is gone."
"Nightmares?" A dark brow shot up.
"Agatha calls 'em night terrors, 'cause they're so bad," Eponin nodded. "Something happened back at the keep. Agatha wouldn't say exactly what it was, but Eph thinks it had something to do with all the blood the kid lost between the keep, Amphipolis and the village. She had some broken ribs, a bad concussion, broken nose, lots of bruises that turned ugly shades of black and blue and purple and green, along with some other injuries. Her hair was lopped off so close to the scalp that part of her skin went with it. You shoulda seen her," the weapons master just shook her head. "Ain't never seen someone in such bad shape before.
"The woman from Amphipolis—and she coulda been my mother, she was about the right age—she ordered us not to jostle the kid around when we carried the litter to the healer's," Eponin continued after a long pause. "Said the kid'd start bleeding again. Didn't look like she had any real noticeable cuts or gashes, other than the one covered by the bandage on her head, that I could see." Eponin leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees. "Anyway, the kid didn't remember anything when she finally woke up. Agatha said it was amnesia that was probably caused by the trauma she suffered."
Xena frowned. "Someone at the keep attacked her." It was a statement of fact.
"Looked like it to me," Eponin shrugged. "Had all the markings of a seriously one-sided fight. The bruises alone were enough to make me think it was a man that hit her. A fairly big brute of a man who didn't care if he caused any permanent damage."
"So, why did Agatha and the other woman bring her to the Amazons?" Xena kept her expression neutral, even though she knew exactly who both women were.
"Don't know," Eponin shrugged. "Agatha, the one with sharp blue eyes that could melt stone, she seemed to know Melosa pretty well and vice-versa. The queen welcomed the old broad with open arms and a warm smile, even as the younger of the two started issuing orders that Melosa merely nodded at." She rubbed the back of her neck. "The two were similar enough in looks to be sisters, except for the gray hair and blue eyes. The younger woman's hair was dark, curly, and her eyes were greenish-blue."
"They are," Xena concluded with a knowing smile. "The younger woman is my mother."
Eponin's eyes widened. "Seriously?"
"Mm-hm," Xena confirmed. "Her name's Cyrene. The other woman is her older sister and my aunt. Agatha is an Amazon. She's a member of a tribe that lives in the foothills near Thermopolae."
"I knew it!" Eponin slapped a knee. "I had odds with Eph that the two were sisters. I just had no idea the feisty one was your mother. No offense or nothin'."
"None taken," Xena smirked. "Now you know where I get some of my…um…personality traits from."
"Must run in the family," Eponin wisecracked and waited for a blow that didn't come. "So, you got a thing for the kid?"
The question was so unexpected that it caught both women by surprise. Xena glared. Eponin swallowed over a sudden lump of fear. Neither woman moved, otherwise.
"You as stupid as your curly-haired partner?" Xena growled low and menacingly.
"Um…that depends," Eponin smirked. "I've had a few extra blows to the head. Comes with the territory. Can't become a weapons master without getting your share of knocks."
"Hm," Xena just shook her head. "I guess that's true enough."
"You think those amateur cooks finally have dinner ready?" Eponin sat up and slapped her hands against her bare thighs. "I'm starvin'."
"Another dose of charred venison for dinner, eh?" Xena stood up and pulled her companion to her feet with little effort.
"It beats the alternative," Eponin slapped a hand to the taller woman's shoulder. "I don't know about you, but raw meat is not exactly in my diet." She rubbed her stomach. "The old stomach just ain't what it used to be these days."
Eponin suddenly watched Xena stiffen and turn. "What is it?"
"We have company," Xena said and then took several cautious steps away from the tree. She relaxed when Ephiny emerged from the shadows, but then she tensed again when she saw the worry in the woman's eyes. "What's the matter?"
"We have a problem," Ephiny stated flatly, as she stopped in front of the two women and shook the water from her hair.
"And that would be?" Xena crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
"Actually, we have a couple of problems," Ephiny amended. "First, Gabrielle's fever is getting worse and she's rambling. I think she's delirious." Her gaze met Xena's. "She called for you and then said some other stuff that…um…doesn't bear repeating."
"And what's the other problem?" Xena's brow rose.
"I sent a couple scouts back along our trail," Ephiny continued, nonplussed. "We're being followed. Don't ask me how those guys figured out where we are, but they're less than a candlemark behind us."
"In this weather?" Eponin couldn't believe her ears. "What? Are they nuts?"
"Determined," Xena said, as she brushed by Ephiny and headed towards their campsite. "Draco won't stop until he has my head on a pike outside the gates of Corinth."
"He hates you that much?" Eponin asked, as she and Ephiny followed the woman.
"He hates losing," Xena continued. "Allowing me to live would undermine his authority and make him a liability to the enemies of Greece, who have reluctantly allied with him. My death seals their alliance. My life brings nothing but betrayal."
They reached the campsite and Xena immediately ducked inside the lean-to. Her intense gaze took in the flushed cheeks and beaded brow. Eyes closed, Gabrielle mumbled something under her breath. A small whimper escaped dry, cracked lips, as she tossed her head from side to side and her face tensed.
Xena placed a hand to Gabrielle's brow and felt the heat radiating off her skin even before she touched her. She then threw the fur covering off Gabrielle's injured leg and unwrapped the cloth bandage. The wound that was visible was bright red and swollen, a sure sign of deep infection.
"She's burning up," Xena commented to no one in particular. "It wouldn't be a good idea to move her right now."
"We can't stay here," Ephiny urged from just outside the shelter. "Those guys'll be here soon and there aren't enough of us to fight them all off. We have to get out of here before they arrive."
"Go," Xena turned her insistent gaze on the Amazon. "Get out of here. I'll take care of Gabrielle."
"I can't leave the princess here without protection," Ephiny exclaimed. "Besides, you're in no condition to fight off those guys, either."
"I'm fine," Xena insisted. "Get Terreis' body back to Melosa. She'll want to make the arrangements for the funeral pyre. Tell her we'll return to the village as soon as we can."
Ephiny stubbornly crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm not abandoning the princess and I'm not abandoning my mission. We came to get you. That's what this whole damned mission is about and I won't..."
Xena turned her intimidating glare on the woman. "You succeeded in your mission. I'm free. And I won't let anything happen to her, Ephiny. Now, get the Hades out of here before I unleash my wrath on you."
"Fine!" The curly-haired woman threw her arms up, turned away from the lean-to and started issuing orders to the other Amazons.
Xena returned her attention to the woman next to her, as she tried to come up with a solution to their current dilemma. She had two options, really. One, she could keep Gabrielle right where she was and fight the men off herself. That had possibilities, she mused. It would certainly get her juices flowing and work out some of the kinks she'd acquired during her incarceration. But it was too risky. She didn't really know just how up to a fight she really was. Being kept in the deepest, darkest, dankest cell imaginable hadn't done well for her constitution or her muscle tone—especially since they had kept her chained to that damned wall the entire time.
Her second, and the more logical, option was to put the woman on the horse they shared and try to outrun their pursuers. Xena knew the general area they were in and had a good idea of some possible places they could take shelter in. One place in particular had definite possibilities.
"So, what are you going to do?" Ephiny's timely question broke her out of her musings.
"You're right, we can't stay here," Xena conceded with a weary sigh. "Help me get her on the horse and I'll take her to someplace safe. I figure the rest of you can scatter and regroup near the village, maybe throw these guys off our trail and give us a head start."
"Definitely," Ephiny smirked. "Hey, Pon! Bring Xena's horse over here, will ya!"
It was dark by the time Xena pulled the bay gelding up outside the backdoor of her mother's inn in Amphipolis. One arm wrapped protectively around her unconscious charge, she sat there a moment. Ephiny had suggested she use the bay, rather than the draft horse. The Amazon pointed out that the gelding would move more swiftly and would probably be less cumbersome than trying to guide a wagon horse. She was right. The journey hadn't been an easy one, and they'd had to traverse some fairly narrow passages through the forest in an effort to lose their pursuers. But they had also made good time.
Xena thought back to earlier in the day and several harrowing moments when she thought all was lost. A dozen horsemen were on their tail and Gabrielle suddenly had a moment of delirium. Xena had to put a hand over the woman's mouth to keep her quiet, when their pursuers stopped to get a bead on them. Luckily, a flock of birds suddenly took flight nearby and the men gave chase. It was the last time Xena saw them.
"Hello?" A woman's voice suddenly penetrated the darkness, as a sliver of light materialized near the back door. "Who's there?"
"It's me, Mother," Xena answered tiredly, as she dismounted, careful not to let Gabrielle topple from the saddle.
"X-Xena?" The sliver of light widened to reveal a dark-haired woman a full head shorter than Xena.
The woman took tentative steps toward the horse and its riders. She glanced at Xena in her thigh-length cape and sandaled feet. Then she caught sight of the unconscious woman still sitting on the horse's back.
"What's going on?"
"I didn't know where else to go," Xena said, as she gingerly pulled Gabrielle down into her arms.
"Is that…Is that Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked with a worried frown. "But I thought…"
"She was injured," Xena cut her mother off before she could say more. "I need to get her warm and dry, check her leg."
"Of course," Cyrene led the way towards the back door, held it open and followed her daughter inside. "Just take her to your old room, Xena."
Xena didn't pause as she quickly maneuvered through the quiet kitchen, down a hallway and into the room. She nearly stopped in her tracks when she noticed the room was exactly the same as it had been the last time she'd been there—How many years ago had it been?
"Tell me what you need and I'll fetch it for you," Cyrene's voice at the door brought Xena back to the matter at hand.
"Bandages, antiseptic, maybe…um…her leg is infected. I'm gonna need to burn the infection out of it and cauterize the wounds," Xena said, as she gingerly unwrapped the bandaging around the unconscious woman's leg. "Do you still make your own…um…What was that stuff you used on Ly and me when we came home with scrapes and scratches?"
"Pure alcohol," Cyrene nodded. "I keep a still out back and brew it myself. Are you sure you want to use it on her, though? It'll burn like Hades in an open wound, Xena."
"No more so than cauterizing the wounds," Xena continued, as she pulled away the last bandages to reveal the swollen and enflamed flesh beneath.
Cyrene noticed the young woman's grayish pallor and then saw the wounds.
She gasped. "Oh, Xena," she put a hand to her mouth. "What in the world happened to her?"
"She took a crossbow bolt to the leg while protecting a fellow Amazon," Xena answered offhandedly. "They were rescuing me from Draco's goons. Terreis got caught in the crossfire and Gabrielle tried to save the woman. But Terreis died, anyway."
"By the gods," Cyrene breathed out, as she shook her head. "That's terrible. Oh, the poor dear."
Cyrene left the room for several moments and returned with a tray full of supplies. It was a little disconcerting for her to enter the room and have her daughter there. It was even more disconcerting to see her ministering to the young woman who had been brought to the inn only two moons past. The innkeeper paused in the doorway and watched Xena gently stroke the smaller woman's brow. The touch was so gentle, held such nurturing, that Cyrene was momentarily speechless.
"Here we are," Cyrene finally found her voice again, as she breezed back into the room. "I brought some tea, along with the things you asked for. I also brought you a cup of my best port. I figured you'd need something strong after all this."
"Thanks," Xena spared a quick glance to her mother then returned her attention to Gabrielle.
Xena went to work on both wounds, carefully cleaning away the dried blood and puss that was still oozing out. Cyrene heated some water and together they used it to finish cleaning both wounds.
"How in the world did these get so infected?" Cyrene commented, as she watched Xena pour more water over a gaping hole.
Xena didn't bother looking up from her work. "We were on the run for most of yesterday. It was raining. Not much time to tend to the dead, much less the wounded."
Cyrene moved to the other side of the bed and sat down on the edge. She took one of Gabrielle's hands in hers and used the other to gently stroke the unconscious woman's cheek with the backs of her fingers. Xena caught the gesture and frowned. It was such a motherly thing for her mother to do that it took Xena by surprise.
And then Xena's eyes met Cyrene's piercing gaze. "What?"
"Nothing," Cyrene quickly looked away. "It's just…Oh, never mind."
"You're not going to yell at me like you did the last time I was here, are you?" Xena asked offhandedly, as she tossed several soiled cloths aside.
"I…" Cyrene began and then snapped her lips shut.
Xena eyed her mother a moment, then returned her attention to the wounds she was tending. "I'm gonna need your help with her." She glanced up and caught the frown on her mother's features. "I have to pour the alcohol directly into the wounds and she's likely going to fight against me, even though she's unconscious. I need you to hold her down and keep her still." Xena glanced over at the tray of supplies. "Did you bring something to use to cauterize the wounds?"
"I'm not sure that's a good idea, actually," Cyrene shook her head. "Cauterizing them at this point might actually trap some of the infection inside and make her leg worse. I have a poultice recipe that should work. It draws the infection out and allows the wound to breathe."
"Okay," Xena nodded. "I'm still gonna need you to hold her, though."
She was drifting. Peacefully drifting in a warm place full of light and color. Green grass; yellow, orange, purple and red flowers; bright sunlight filtering through the trees overhead; a soft breeze caressing her cheeks; and the clear water of a bubbling brook created a breathtaking backdrop to her sanctuary. Serenity oozed from every pore of her being.
She glanced over to see children playing in the field across from where she reclined in the cool grass. Their laughter soothed her, provided a balm to her weary soul. She sighed and let her eyes drift shut.
Then pain so intense, so excruciating, shot through her leg and radiated throughout her lower body that she couldn't stand it. She screamed. Something held her down. She fought but couldn't escape the iron grip that pinned her. Everything shattered and she fell into a deep abyss. Tartarus? The agony was unimaginable. Unfathomable. She couldn't think—couldn't breathe.
And then the world came crashing back in with blinding force. Her eyes flew open and she saw two women bending over her. A deep frown marred the features of the older woman, who said something unintelligible. The other glanced her way and nodded, then returned to work. Bloody hands worked frantically on her bare leg. The pain returned with renewed force and tore through her again. She screamed, but her voice was lost.
"Poor child," Cyrene gently wiped Gabrielle's wet cheeks with her fingers.
Her heart ached for the young woman who had just suffered such unimaginable pain at the hands of her daughter. Gabrielle's sudden screams had been so loud, so intense, that it tore at Cyrene's heart to hear them. But then the young woman's voice disappeared and the screams became nothing more than hoarse cries. Tears coursed down Gabrielle's cheeks and Cyrene could do nothing more than hold her down—wait out the storm.
"I think I got it all," Xena's own voice reflected her exhaustion. Her steady hands completed the task of bandaging the leg. But Cyrene could see the tense set to her daughter's shoulders. "At least, I hope I did, this time around."
"The poultice will take care of the rest," Cyrene reassured with a gentle smile. "I'll keep an eye on her through the rest of the night, if you want to go to my room and get some rest. You look exhausted, Xena."
Xena sighed heavily and resisted the urge to run her bloody hand through her hair. She felt sweat running down her face and neck and wanted nothing more than to take a hot bath and go to bed. But she also didn't want to leave Gabrielle's side. Something—she didn't know what it was—kept pulling her to stay with the smaller woman.
"Go, Xena," Cyrene insisted. "She'll be fine for a while. Get some rest. I promise to fetch you if there's a change in her condition."
Xena glanced at the unconscious woman and nodded. "Okay."
While Cyrene took a seat in the chair next to the bed, Xena headed towards her mother's room down the hall. She didn't even glance around at the familiar surroundings as she peeled off her damp cape and tossed it in a corner. She washed her hands and arms in a basin of clean water and then practically fell down face-first on top of the multi-colored quilt. It seemed that, as soon as her head hit the pillow, she was fast asleep. But, in reality, it took her a few heartbeats to let go of the day's events and let her mind drift down into the welcome arms of Morpheus himself.
It was an incessant scraping noise that finally brought her out of a deep and dreamless sleep. The scraping was consistent, rhythmic and made a metallic shing sound that rang through her head. It was incredibly annoying—irritating.
"Stop, please," Gabrielle's voice came out as a hoarse croak and she tried to clear her throat. "Please."
The scraping stopped instantly and she was so grateful for the sudden silence that she opened her eyes. Gabrielle blinked a few times to bring the world into focus and found a pair of blue eyes staring back at her expectantly.
"Hey," Xena smiled.
"Hey," Gabrielle returned in confusion. "How long was I out?"
"It's morning," Xena answered, as she moved closer. "I brought you in last night. You were pretty out of it."
Gabrielle glanced around. "Where are we?"
"My mother's inn," Xena answered easily.
"Your mother?" Gabrielle shot back in bewilderment.
"Yeah," Xena shrugged. "Whatdja think? I was raised by wolves or something?" She smiled to take the edge off her words.
"No," Gabrielle returned quickly, afraid she'd offended the woman. "I just…I thought…" She shrugged. "I guess I really don't know what I thought or expected. Didn't you tell me your mother was an innkeeper?"
Xena decided to sidestep the question. "You've been here before, you know."
"Yeah," Xena looked around the room, then returned her attention to Gabrielle. "Not sure you've been in this particular room, but you were here at the inn. It was before you went to live with the Amazons. Mother said you were in pretty bad shape then, too."
"Ah," Gabrielle nodded, suddenly understanding what Xena was talking about. "After—"
Xena watched Gabrielle's expression close up right before her eyes. "You want to talk about it? Tell me what happened?"
"N-no," Gabrielle shook her head. "I really don't."
Xena smiled into surprised eyes. "I'm here if you need someone to talk to, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, as her gaze met eyes the color of a summer sky. "Why are you being so nice to me?"
Xena shrugged. "Why wouldn't I?"
Truth be told, Xena wasn't really sure what she was feeling at the moment. Her thoughts and feelings were a jumble that just didn't make a bit of sense. She knew she could just chalk it up to a serious lack of sleep, but that wasn't really true. She'd managed to catch several candlemarks of uninterrupted rest, before she'd returned to the room to find her mother nodding off in the same chair she now occupied.
"Can I ask you something?"
Xena pulled herself from her musings and met the expectant green eyes watching her. "Go ahead."
"Do you ever…" Gabrielle shrugged, as she tried to find the courage to say more. "Do you ever get the feeling that we—that you and I—that we…um..."
"Know each other?" Xena finished.
"Yeah," the blond head nodded.
"Sometimes," Xena sat back in the chair and gazed fondly at Gabrielle. "I've had strange dreams, where we're…um…traveling together…" She smirked. "Silly, huh?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said and pushed herself up into a seated position with some effort. She leaned back against the pillow behind her and her expression turned thoughtful. "It's like…I don't know. It's like we've done this before, but in a different way—a different lifetime. We were more," she shrugged again, "equal?"
"Partners," Xena nodded.
"Traveling companions," Gabrielle confirmed. "I feel like I've known you all my life."
"Yeah," Xena nodded with a half smile. "Crazy, isn't it?"
"Any crazier than me being an Amazon princess?" Gabrielle smirked.
"Um," Xena considered that thoughtfully for a moment. "Not sure, because that one took me totally by surprise."
"You're telling me," Gabrielle snorted. "I haven't even been inducted into the tribe yet. I have no idea what being a princess means. Terreis was just a normal person and didn't really get treated any differently than anyone else in the tribe—at least, not that I ever saw."
"Not sure what being the former Conqueror means for me, either," Xena mused. "I guess we're both on shaky ground, right now."
"Yeah," Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle. "I feel like I'm standing at the edge of a deep precipice and all I have to do is take a step forward into nothingness. That's all it would take for me to disappear forever. It's a little scary—intimidating."
Xena leaned forward. "You're not alone."
Their gazes met and locked in that moment.
"Xena," she said in a breathless whisper, as she raised teary eyes to meet the other woman's gaze.
"Shhhh," Xena placed a finger over Gabrielle's lips. "Just let me say this." She swallowed and girded herself for what was to come. "I've never been one to let my emotions get the better of me. Actually, I'm not one to let them get to me at all. But," she met Gabrielle's gaze. "I feel…something…for you. I'm not sure what it is, yet, but I know it's more than just fondness, Gabrielle." She watched a tear slip from one watery green eye and her voice caught with a rush of emotion. She swallowed several times and cleared her throat. "I don't know what the future holds for either of us. I mean, look what it's brought us so far." She smirked and then sobered. "I guess what I'm trying to say is…Well, we should, maybe, let this thing—these feelings we share—play out and see how things go?"
"Um," Gabrielle swallowed noticeably. "I…" She shook herself. "Where is this coming from, Xena? Did I die?" She glanced around the room. "Tell me this isn't just one of Hades' realms and I'm simply imagining it all. Is this what eternity has been reduced to for me? Some cosmic joke? I thought I would be spending my eternity in the Elysian Fields, but…"
Xena moved closer and took Gabrielle's hands in hers. "No, it's real, Gabrielle. I care deeply for you." She saw the skepticism in the smaller woman's gaze. "I…I love you."
Gabrielle was stunned. She never dreamed she would hear those words out of anyone's mouth, much less the woman sitting next to her. Xena, the Conqueror of the Known World, just proclaimed her love for…
"Me?" Gabrielle uttered the single word in utter disbelief. "Y-you love…me? Why?"
Xena chuckled and then shrugged. "I don't know. It's not like I planned it or anything. I think it just happened. Probably that first time you stood toe-to-toe with me. You know, after I killed your sister. I'm really sorry about that, by the way," she added sincerely. "If I could change what happened that day, I certainly would. It wasn't my intention to cause you so much pain. I don't want to ever hurt you, Gabrielle. You have to believe me."
"I do," Gabrielle nodded.
Xena glanced down at their joined hands and then met Gabrielle's gaze. "I've wasted my entire life on bloodshed, violence and death," her voice caught and she felt a reassuring hand on her cheek. The touch gave her the courage she needed to continue. "I thought that avenging Ly's death would change things, but it didn't. So, I went the extra step and tried bringing Greece to heel. But that didn't change anything, either. I don't want to be Conqueror of the Known World anymore. If I learned one thing during my time in Draco's dungeon, it's that love keeps you sane, even under the most insane circumstances." A thumb gently caressed her cheek and she reveled in the contact. "I would give it all up just to be with you, Gabrielle. I just want to be with you. Does that make sense?"
Gabrielle smiled through the tears coursing down her cheeks. "Yes, it does. I feel the same way, even though I have no idea why. It just seems so surreal."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers and placed a feather-light kiss on the woman's open palm. "Does this feel surreal?"
"No," Gabrielle's eyes closed as she reveled in the intimate contact. "It feels—right."
Xena leaned in even closer, until their faces were inches apart. She closed the distance and took Gabrielle's lips in a gentle kiss that quickly turned heated. They both reached up and held on for dear life, as their tongues danced and they explored their newfound feelings more deeply.
A throat cleared in the doorway bringing both women up short and the kiss ended on twin blushes. Xena sat back and glared daggers at the intruder, while Gabrielle frantically rubbed her cheeks in an attempt to dispel the embarrassed flush that suffused them.
"I see you two are getting along…um…nicely," Cyrene breezed into the room with a knowing smirk. "I'm not really sure what that says for my daughter's character, though." She set a tray filled with delicious aromas on a side table and dished up several items onto two plates. "Xena, you were always one to just dive in head-first, especially when it came to matters of the heart."
Xena took the plate from her mother's outstretched hand. "Mother…"
"Oh, don't give me any lip, young lady," Cyrene chided and shot a quick wink at the smaller woman reclining in the bed. "How are you feeling this morning, Gabrielle?"
"Better," Gabrielle answered, as she took the plate offered to her. She breathed deeply of the delicious aromas wafting up and smiled. "This smells delicious, Cyrene."
"Thank you," Cyrene eyed her daughter with a 'See, at least someone appreciates my cooking' look. "I expect you both to finish off every last bite. From what I can see, you both need to put some meat back on those bones of yours. I'm not sure what's been happening lately, but it seems to me that neither of you has been taking care of yourselves properly."
"Mother," Xena sighed with food in her mouth and got a glare from the older woman. She quickly chewed and swallowed. "Okay, fine." A snicker from the bed had her glancing at her blond companion. "Not a word, Gabrielle."
"Oh, leave her be, Xena," Cyrene chided and then turned a conspiratorial smile on Gabrielle. "You were saying?"
"Now I know where you get that look from," Gabrielle commented to Xena, in between bites of scrambled eggs and thick slabs of ham. She smirked at the taller woman. "She's as scary as you are."
"I was saying," Xena shot Gabrielle another glare, but it fell flat when the smaller woman just chuckled and shook her head. "You two could really give a person a complex, ya know?"
"Is that really what you were going to say?" Cyrene shot her daughter an exasperated glare. "Really, Xena. I haven't seen you in years and this is the greeting I get?"
"Mother," Xena set her plate on the nightstand and turned her attention to the woman. "I…Oh, for the love of the gods! You're the one who slapped me and sent me on my way, after I brought Ly's body back to you."
"I know," Cyrene conceded with a look of regret. "And I'm terribly sorry about that. You've no idea how much I regret you storming out of here and taking off on your rampage to conquer all of Greece. It's my fault that you ended up becoming the tyrant that you turned out to be."
Cyrene sat down on the end of Gabrielle's bed and faced her daughter. The look in her green-blue eyes said more than words ever could, yet she knew she still had to say what needed to be said.
"She's not a tyrant," Gabrielle's quiet words penetrated the heavy silence that permeated the room. "She never was."
Two sets of dark brows cocked in unison, as both mother and daughter turned their attention to the woman in the bed.
"No," Gabrielle shot Xena a warning look and took Xena's hand in hers again, as she returned her attention to Cyrene. "Xena may have seemed like a tyrant to those who didn't know her. I know. I was one of them, once." She smirked. "The stories the bards told made her out to be ferocious and bloodthirsty—a demon who swept across this land with only vengeance in her heart. But then your sister helped me see the truth. Xena is just and fair in the decisions she's made. Each time she's had to pass judgment on those brought before her, she listens to the evidence and makes a decision based on the facts. The bards were wrong to portray her as a mindless, tyrannical monster who only wanted to crush the land beneath her boot heels. That's not who she is."
A dark brow shot up on the older woman's features, as she glanced from the smaller woman to her blushing daughter. "I see you won her over with your indelible charm, Xena," Cyrene commented with a touch of sarcasm in her tone.
Xena scooted closer to Gabrielle and put an arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. "I killed her sister, Mother," she stated flatly. "I hardly consider that winning her over with my charm."
Cyrene's brows shot into her hairline. "You're…serious?"
"My sister was ill," Gabrielle added, even though a shudder ran through her at the cold words spoken by the woman holding her. "She would have died anyway. Xena simply did what she thought was right."
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head and squeezed her shoulders. "You don't have to defend me, Gabrielle."
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle stated simply, as she met Xena's gaze. "Besides, your mom should know the truth. It's my job to make sure people know the truth."
Cyrene threw up her hands. "I've heard enough," she said, as she walked to the door. "By the way, Gabrielle. You have visitors."
And with those parting words, Cyrene left the room. Xena slid out from the embrace she was sharing with Gabrielle, in time for several Amazons to appear in the doorway.
"Hello, Princess, Xena," Ephiny greeted with a smirk, after having caught a glimpse of Xena moving away from the bed where the smaller woman reclined.
"Ephiny," Gabrielle nodded to the curly-haired woman. "What brings you to Amphipolis?"
Xena rose from her chair and crossed the room in a few long strides. She shot a glare at the Amazon blocking the doorway.
"I'll leave you with your retinue, Gabrielle," Xena turned back and gave the smaller woman a quick smile, before she shouldered her way through the gathered throng of Amazons.
When Xena was gone, Ephiny stepped fully inside the small room and allowed the rest of the Amazons to do the same. The last Amazon to enter and stop at the foot of the bed was none other than Melosa.
"My Queen," Gabrielle bowed her head in deference to the woman's status. "My apologies. I didn't realize..."
"No worries, Princess," Melosa gave the reclining woman a nod. "I trust you're feeling more yourself today?"
Gabrielle tried to sit up straighter and was actually about to get out of bed, when a wave from the queen stopped her.
"I'm much better, thank you, My Queen," Gabrielle answered demurely, as she shot a glance at the curly-haired Amazon standing next to her. "So, what brings you all here? I didn't think Amazons were all that fond of making public appearances."
"We're not," Ephiny scowled.
"Ephiny," Melosa's tone conveyed a warning to the warrior, as she turned a warm smile on Gabrielle. "We came to escort you back to the village."
Gabrielle's brow quirked. "I'm honored that you would personally come here, My Queen, but I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Gabrielle," Melosa addressed her less formally. "You're now the next in line to wear the queen's mask. Surely, by accepting Terreis' right of caste you had to know that you would become a very important and vital member of the tribe."
"Actually," Gabrielle lowered her eyes to the blanket and a blush infused her cheeks. "I really didn't know what I was agreeing to when I told Terreis I would accept her right of caste. No one explained what it meant until later," she shrugged. "We were a little preoccupied with…um…other things. All I know is," she glanced up and met Ephiny's stern gaze, "everyone started calling me princess as soon as Terreis…um…passed away."
"You didn't explain it to her?" Melosa shot Ephiny an incredulous glare.
"We had Draco's goons on our tail, My Queen," Ephiny defended. "It's not like there was all that much time for idle chitchat."
"She's right, yer maj," Eponin piped in. "The princess was injured and those jerks were kinda on our tail the whole time. There wasn't much time for talkin'."
"Besides," Ephiny shrugged. "I gave her the basics. Figured we'd fill her in on the rest when we returned to the village. Didn't know Xena would have us all split up in order to ditch those guys. They took off in one direction and we went in the other."
Melosa glanced from one Amazon to the other and sighed. "Okay, fine," she then met Gabrielle's expectant gaze. "Well, then, I guess I'm going to have to be the one to explain what you agreed to when you accepted Terreis' right of caste." She shot Ephiny an exasperated glare. "Good thing you dragged me along for this, Ephiny."
Ephiny had the grace to lower her gaze. "Yes, My Queen."
Xena sat at a vacant table in the inn's main dining room. Her feet were propped on the table and she was enjoying the quiet, as she pondered the professions of love both she and Gabrielle had made to each other earlier.
The place was relatively quiet, with only a few stragglers still left over from the midday meal crowd. The windows were thrown wide open in deference to the nice, rain-free day and the hearth was empty of the fire that blazed there the night before.
Xena sipped a mug of port that she'd helped herself to from one of the kegs behind the bar. The woody smoothness of her mother's finest slid down her throat and warmed her more than the day's heat could. But it was her thoughts of Gabrielle that had a smile firmly plastered on her face.
"You look pleased with yourself," Cyrene approached with her arms crossed over her chest and a none-too-pleased look on her usually-sunny features.
"I am," Xena raised her mug in salute to the woman who sat down across from her. "I believe this is one of your best batches."
"I wasn't referring to the port, Xena," Cyrene eyed her daughter. "Gabrielle is a wonderful young woman. I must admit that I'm more than a little surprised that she has feelings for you."
"Why?" Xena's expression closed down instantly. "Is it so hard to believe that your warlord offspring is actually capable of finding someone to love and accept love from in return? You heard Gabrielle. I'm not a monster."
Cyrene sat back in her chair and searched Xena's features. "The
last time I saw you…"
"You made it perfectly clear that I wasn't welcome here anymore. I know," Xena finished for her.
"Would you please let me finish, Xena?" Cyrene slapped an impatient hand on the table and then softened her reaction with a shake of her head. "What I was going to say is I really never meant to hurt you like I did. I'm sorry."
A dark brow shot up into the Conqueror's hairline. "You're sorry?"
"Yes," Cyrene conceded. "I was upset that Lyceus was dead. Grief can do funny things to a mother, including make them take their grief out on someone who doesn't deserve it. I don't blame you for his death, Xena. As a matter of fact, I tried to find you—to tell you exactly that—but you were already long gone. And then I kept hearing these outrageous stories of how you were out conquering the known world. My pride got the better of me when the other villagers started shunning me and blaming me for raising a tyrant. I wanted the truth. But you never returned."
"You told me not to," Xena said in a tone that was a little less accusing and a bit more understanding. "I was sure I was too much of a disappointment to ever earn your forgiveness."
"I forgave you the instant I slapped you, Xena," Cyrene said. "I was the one who should beg your forgiveness. I'm your mother and I certainly didn't act like it that day."
Xena's eyes met Cyrene's and she saw tears swimming in the green-blue depths. "I forgive you."
"Oh, Xena," Cyrene jumped from her chair and took her daughter in a warm hug. Tears streaked her cheeks, as she let the hug last for several heartbeats and then pulled away enough to look into her daughter's eyes. "Thank you." She kissed Xena's forehead. "That certainly means more to me than knowing I'm the mother of the infamous Conqueror of the Known World."
"Yeah, about that," Xena smirked, as Cyrene took a seat next to her. "I'm not the Conqueror anymore."
"But, what happened?"
Xena absently scratched her temple. "It's kinda a long story and I'm not really a very good storyteller."
"Does it have something to do with Gabrielle and why Maida showed up here with her nearly three moons ago?" Cyrene added.
"Gabrielle was a servant in my keep at Surra," Xena nodded. "Something happened to her while I was away…um…taking care of business."
"The poor child was raped and left for dead," Cyrene blurted and almost missed the hard look that Xena shot her. "You didn't know?"
"I had no idea what happened to her," Xena explained. "I was captured by a warlord named Draco and have spent the last two moons in a dank dungeon in Therma. I didn't even know Gabrielle wasn't at the keep, until she showed up as part of my rescue party—and in full Amazon garb and with short hair, no less."
"Agatha's doing—the Amazon part, at least," Cyrene chuckled. "The hair is another matter and it's not as short as it was when she was brought here. I can't believe Agatha actually followed through with what she said she was going to do."
"Excuse me?" Xena shot her a confused look. "Eponin said you were there."
"Aggie said she would take the child to her sisters," Cyrene explained with a shrug. "I just figured she'd take Gabrielle to her own tribe. But then we showed up at Melosa's village. I guess Aggie figured Gabrielle would be safer with a different tribe of Amazons."
"Hm," Xena uttered thoughtfully. "Funny how she picked the one tribe that I signed a treaty with."
"You signed a treaty with the Amazons?" Cyrene didn't hide her surprise.
"Thought they deserved their autonomy," Xena shrugged. "Wanted to leave well enough alone where they were concerned. Besides, it's good to have a few allies when you're trying to bring a bunch of power-hungry jerks to heel. Women are much easier to deal with where alliances are concerned. The Amazons mostly just want to be left alone. They don't require much and are willing to step up and fight when the need arises. They don't have a hidden agenda and, generally speaking, won't turn on you when someone makes a better offer."
Cyrene put a hand on her daughter's. "I misjudged you, Xena. For that, I'm truly sorry."
"It's okay, Mom," Xena squeezed the hand in hers. "I wasn't exactly the model child, and I wasn't always this easy to get along with." She smirked.
"You can say that again," Cyrene soften her words with a teasing gleam in her eye. "You were a bigger handful than Toris and Lyceus put together. Neither of your brothers could hold a candle to the trouble you used to get into as a child."
"Thanks a lot," Xena scoffed. "I'll have you know…"
"Down, Xena," Cyrene put a hand to her daughter's cheek. "I was teasing."
Xena rolled her eyes. "I should know better than to fall for that."
Cyrene gently patted her daughter's cheek. "Yes, you should."
The innkeeper stood up and spared a chastising glance at Xena's propped feet. The boots instantly dropped to the floor with a resounding thud, as Cyrene returned her attention to her dark-haired offspring with a satisfied smirk. And then the innkeeper swiped the half-empty mug from the table before Xena had the chance to react.
"I'll just get you something more appropriate to drink, as well as a bite to eat," Cyrene shot over her shoulder, as she headed toward the kitchen. "You look like you've lost a few pounds since the last time I saw you."
Xena watched her mother disappear through the kitchen door, then crossed her arms over her chest and set her features into her best don't-bother-me scowl. She briefly wondered what was taking the Amazons so long and what they wanted with Gabrielle, for that matter. Then again, they were probably regaling their new princess with heroic tales of their exploits during their grand adventure. Xena's scowl deepened when she realized they were probably eating up the fact that they had to rescue the infamous Conqueror of the Known World.
"Damn, I'm never gonna live this down," she muttered.
"Live what down, dear?" Cyrene asked, as she set a bowl of stew, a loaf of bread and a fresh mug in front of her daughter. "That's cider, by the way."
Xena already had the mug to her lips and had just taken a drink of the sickly sweet beverage when her mother's words hit her. She spewed the cider out without a thought to what she was doing.
"Xena!" Cyrene chastised.
"Sorry," Xena met her mother's angry glare with a contrite one of her own. "I don't like cider. Too sweet for my tastes."
"You could have said that before you sprayed it all over my nice, clean floor. Do you know how long it takes to clean it up after a night of revelry?"
Xena glanced at the floor in question. "Seriously?"
"Oh, you," Cyrene playfully slapped Xena's arm and then stopped. "What is that you're wearing, anyway?"
Xena glanced down at the peasant outfit she'd 'borrowed' from her brother's room. "Why? Is something wrong with my outfit?"
"You look like Toris, Xena," Cyrene clucked. "Except that your hair is slightly longer and you're a bit softer than he was when he left for Athens, more than six years ago."
"Toris lives in Athens now?" Xena couldn't keep the surprise from her tone.
"He's some big-shot politico there, from what I've heard," Cyrene didn't catch the gleam in Xena's eye. "Made a name for himself with the locals after he came back here, only to find out that he wasn't particularly welcome. I tried to help him adjust to life here in Amphipolis, but that whole debacle with Cortese really turned everyone against him."
"He ran away like a yellow coward, with his tail tucked between his legs," Xena snorted. "Doesn't really surprise me that he put his hat in with those idiots in Athens who've been shooting their mouths off about Athenian autonomy and all. He always was more the talker than he was a fighter."
"He's still your brother, Xena," Cyrene added. "And he's still alive."
"Pfft! No brother of mine would…" She stopped instantly when she caught the sorrow in her mother's eyes. "Sorry."
"Eat your stew," Cyrene ordered, as she grabbed the mug that Xena had set on the table and walked away. She returned a moment later with the same mug, this time filled to the brim with a frothy liquid. "It's ale, so you shouldn't have a problem with it."
Xena took the mug and sipped. "It's good."
"I'm glad you like it," Cyrene smirked. "I'll leave you to your meal, then." She started walking away.
"Yes, daughter?" Cyrene stopped and turned to meet the sky-blue gaze.
Cyrene merely nodded and continued on her way to the kitchen without a backward glance. Xena watched her mother disappear again, then dove into her stew with gusto. She broke off a chunk of the freshly-baked bread, slathered it generously with butter, dipped it in her stew and ate with relish.
"Mmmm," Xena uttered, as she savored each bite of her mother's cooking. "Definitely worth coming home to."
Continued in Part 4
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