This story is a sequel to My Lord Conqueror: Changes . Xena is no longer Conqueror of the Known World, ruler of Greece or the most feared warrior in the land. After a sound defeat at the hands of Romans and a former ally, as well as a heart-wrenching betrayal by her own brother, Xena is regrouping and preparing to retake Greece and restore her reputation. With the help of a certain green-eyed Amazon queen and her retinue, Xena embarks on a journey to once again conquer the Known World.
Disclaimers and other stuff: XWP and (many of) its characters belong to MCA/Universal. I didn't create them and am just borrowing them for a little side trip through an alternate Xenaverse. This storyline is mine. Please don't reproduce or send it elsewhere without permission. Thank you.
Adult content: This story explores loving relationships between women. This is also a Xena the Conqueror story, so be warned. If you are under 18 or this type of story is illegal where you live or you don't like reading stuff like this, feel free to fly, fly away and best wishes for a happy, prosperous life.
Graphic violence: Yes. There is graphic violence in this story. If you've read anything I've written thus far, you know what you're in for. If not, then go back and read some of the other stuff ( XWP trilogy , Desert Dreams , MLC: Changes , etc.).
Feedback is always appreciated. Or you can just drop a line and say hi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com . Or find me on Facebook. Sorry, I don't tweet.
She was trembling. She could smell the last vestiges of fear in the air and it made her heart pound loudly in her ears. She stood there waiting, as the world around her stilled. A tall, dark figure in black leather trimmed in shining gold walked slowly toward her. Eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky stared intently at her and she felt...
Her body was alive with anticipation, as her heart continued to pound wildly in her chest. A smile split the features of the dark-haired woman who approached. And then Xena was standing in front of her with her hands extended. Gabrielle took those hands in hers and smiled up into blue eyes shining with love.
“A public display, my lord?” Gabrielle teased in a gentle whisper. “Whatever will your subjects think?”
“I want them all to know how much I love you,” Xena said, as she closed the distance, placed her hands on either side of her lover's face and took Gabrielle's lips in a smoldering kiss that left them both weak-kneed and quivering for more. “You're mine, my queen.”
“Always, my lord,” Gabrielle replied, as she returned the kiss with heated abandon, ignoring the gawks and stares of those around them.
Their tongues danced and vied for dominance, as the kiss deepened. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's body and pulled the tall woman closer still until their bodies touched. She felt a hand snake through her hair, drawing her deeper into the kiss as she lost herself in the tumultuous sensations.
A loud cheer went up and echoed off the clean stone walls around the large hall. The cheer soon tapered off into the rhythmic chanting of Xena's name that steadily increased in volume until it was as loud as the cheer had been. Intermingled with the chanting of Xena's name was the chanting of Gabrielle's name by a handful of Amazons who lined the walls.
The kiss ended when both women parted for air. Gabrielle let her forehead rest against Xena's and just breathed in the woman's distinctive scent—sandalwood, leather and horses. Their lips were still mere inches apart, as they tuned out the world around them and simply reveled in the moment. They were as close in body and spirit as two people could ever be.
Gabrielle finally reluctantly took a step to the side and wrapped an arm around Xena's waist. She smiled warmly at the gathered crowd, as Xena raised a hand for silence. It took several moments, but a hush eventually fell and the gathered crowd waited patiently for the women to address them.
“Friends,” Gabrielle's voice lifted and echoed in the large stone throne room of the palace at Corinth. “We have traveled a long way to arrive at this day. We lost some good friends along the way, but we also made some new friends. I am grateful to you all for the work you've done to bring this place back to its former glory. You have all done well.”
“You got that right, yer maj!” Eponin shouted from her place to one side of the crowd.
Xena shot the woman her best intimidating glare. “Really, Eponin?”
There were several hoots, hollers and whistles from those around the room. A few crude requests for the two women to lock lips again had Xena's hackles up, but the arm around her waist squeezed slightly and Xena relaxed.
“Okay, people,” Gabrielle continued in a stern tone. “Time to lay this out for you, so you understand what lies ahead for all of us…”
Corinth – 3 months earlier
Xena marched through the dark halls of the somber palace, her boot heels clomping loudly on the filthy stone floor. She impatiently swept cobwebs away from her face as she continued on with resigned purpose. The place was a mess. More than that, the servants had fled and left the palace in a sorry state of utter disrepair.
Tattered and moth-eaten tapestries barely covered a few grungy stone walls. The floors were covered in vermin-infested rushes in a few rooms, while others were completely bare. The courtyard smelled of decay and rancid manure. And Xena's banner had been half-burned and left on the stone steps leading into the palace.
The once-palatial residence was a heap of grimy stone and rotting filth. And Xena was pissed. She was also on a mission to ring someone's neck.
“Elestan!” The shout echoed off the dingy walls around her. “Elestan, you pig! Where in Tartarus are you?!? Show your sorry face and I just might let you live without your testicles!”
She didn't hold out any hope that he would appear. Xena knew the other servants had fled from the palace in terror at learning that she was re-taking it with a force far greater than their paltry numbers. And take it she had. She sent Amazons and the soldiers loyal to her through the streets of Corinth like demons on a mission. And what a mission it was. The city's residents were rounded up and taken to the city center, where they were told in no uncertain terms that she was back and would tolerate nothing from them except total obedience to her rule. Their betrayal was enough to forfeit their very lives.
After her brother led a third of her army to Athens and sent them off with the Romans, Xena knew it was time for her to forcibly take action against those who had betrayed her. It was time to be the bloodthirsty Conqueror she had been before she let things slip through her fingers.
Ten years of treaties, trade agreements and alliances with neighboring countries went up in flames along with the keep at Surra. It was a new day. Xena knew her only option was to rule with the same ruthless bloodlust that drove her to conquer Greece in the first place. And she was ready to do just that.
“When I get my hands on that worthless excuse for a seneschal, I'm going to…” Xena stopped dead and nearly plowed right into a shorter blond with a pair of expressive green eyes.
“Xena!” Gabrielle put her hands out to avoid a collision. “What in blazes are you doing?”
“Move, Gabrielle,” Xena seethed. “I'm gonna kill him!”
Gabrielle of Potidea, Queen of the Thracian Amazons and joined mate to the woman towering over her, closed the distance between them without an ounce of fear. She met Xena's steady gaze with a challenge in her own sea-green eyes.
“What did Elestan do?” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and felt the woman stiffen. “Maybe I can take care of him, while you go out to the practice field and work off some of this restless energy. Then we can retire to our tent later and do a little extra workout of our own.”
Gabrielle placed a sensual kiss on Xena's chin and heard the quick intake of breath from the taller woman.
“Gaaaabbbrieeellllle,” Xena growled low in her throat.
A spark of amusement flashed in Gabrielle's eyes, as she looked up and met Xena's gaze. “Yeeeeessss?” She cocked her head in open challenge. “My lord wishes to speak?” She wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, grabbed her rear end and pulled her closer. “Or would you prefer to yield to me? Your choice, my lord.”
Xena blew out a frustrated breath and ran a hand through her dark hair. “You know I'm not comfortable with public displays of affection.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle shot Xena a look of pure innocence that almost sent Xena into a fit of helpless giggles.
Fortunately, Xena was able to hold on to some of her dignity and merely scowled at Gabrielle. But the expression fell flat, as Gabrielle nipped her collarbone with her teeth.
“Seriously, Gabrielle?” Xena moved back a step and crossed her arms over her chest. “What has gotten into you lately? You're like an insatiable wolf that just tasted flesh for the very first time and can't get enough.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did Ares visit you?”
“No,” Gabrielle closed in again and this time pushed Xena against the wall behind her. She put her hands on the wall on either side of Xena's shoulders. “I guess I have been a bit ‘insatiable' lately, though, haven't I?” She smirked against Xena's lips and then moved in for the kill. “That's what I get for marrying the most beautiful woman in all of Greece, I guess.”
Their passions escalated from a smoldering spark into a full-fledged conflagration in a matter of heartbeats. Gabrielle traced Xena's lips with the tip of her tongue, until Xena's tongue joined hers. And then their tongues were dancing, as they swayed into each other.
“Aphrodite, then?” Xena's voice was husky.
“Oh, get a room, you two,” Eponin's voice intruded on the moment like a bucket of ice water. “You've been joined for more than a fortnight, now. Isn't the honeymoon over, yet? Sheesh! You're like a couple of sex-crazed weasels. Please don't tell me you're gonna spend the next few moons prowling these halls and jumping each other every chance you get.”
Gabrielle wrenched herself away from the wall with a herculean effort and rounded on the weapons master with an angry snarl. “What in the name of the gods do you want now, Eponin? I thought you were off with Ephiny somewhere!”
“Whoa, there, yer maj!” Eponin held her hands up in front of her to ward off an attack. “Calm down, will ya? I was just kidding. Don't get your leathers in a twist over a little joke.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and snickered. “She's got a point, Pon. What do you want?”
“And make it quick,” Gabrielle glared at the Amazon. “Xena and I have things to take care of.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Eponin eyed each woman in turn, then sobered. “Eph sent me to find you—both of you. She says she's rounded up a few members of the kitchen staff and some of the other servants. But she wants to know which part of the palace you want us to tackle first.”
The answers came in unison and Eponin just stared at the two women incredulously.
“Xena,” Gabrielle stood there with her hands on her hips and glanced over her shoulder at her mate, her consort, the other half of her soul. “We all need a good night's sleep. That's why the bedchambers need to be cleaned up as soon as possible.”
“And I need a place to eat that doesn't smell like a damned pig sty,” Xena shot back. “Have you seen the kitchens, much less the main hall? It looks like someone kept an entire barnyard in both places. There were actually chickens roosting in the fireplace of the main hall and in a few of the ovens in the kitchens, Gabrielle. There's sh—” A hand was suddenly slapped over her mouth, effectively shutting off her next words.
“This whole place is a pig sty, Xena,” Gabrielle returned. “And I can't sleep in a pig sty or a barnyard.”
“Then don't,” Xena argued, once she pulled back enough to speak again. “Our tent is more than adequate for you to sleep in for the time being, love. But I'm getting really tired of having our meals prepared over a fire pit. Charred venison and parboiled beans suck, Gabrielle. The kitchens and the main hall need to be back in working order, so we can eat decent meals for a change.”
“And I want to sleep in a real bed that isn't laid out on the damned ground, Xena,” Gabrielle countered. “Winter is coming and it's going to get colder. As much as I enjoy our traveling furs and pillows, I miss sleeping in a real bed.”
“So,” Xena rolled her eyes and sighed. “We'll get you a bed and put it in our tent, for the time being.”
“It's drafty in the tent and it leaks when it rains,” Gabrielle almost whined.
“I'll get someone to repair the holes,” Xena countered with a resigned glare.
Gabrielle groaned in frustration. “I'm really not going to win this argument, am I?”
“Nope,” Xena firmly shook her head. “Agatha will whip the kitchen staff into shape and put out a summons for more help, if needed. In the meantime, I'm having the kitchens and main hall scrubbed down with strong lye soap and boiling water. I already have several carpenters hard at work building new work benches for the kitchens, as well as tables, chairs and long benches for the mail hall.”
“What happened to the stuff that was here when we arrived?” Gabrielle asked in confusion.
“Remember the bonfire we had two nights ago?” Xena grinned. “I had the men burn it all so we can start new. I don't want a palace full of gripey stomachs and dysentery. Who knows what's been wallowing around in this place in my absence—besides chickens and pigs.”
“Anything else you need from me, Xena?” Eponin piped in.
“In a hurry to get back to Eph, there, Pon?” Xena shot the Amazon a sly grin. “Or are you just anxious to get back out to the practice field and show my men how it's really done?”
“I…uh…” Eponin couldn't help the blush that infused her cheeks.
“Go, Eponin,” Gabrielle gave the Amazon a dismissive wave. “And tell Ephiny I'll see her in my…um…our tent in a candlemark's time. I want to go over a few things before we send the rest of the warriors back to their tribes in the morning.”
“Yeah, gonna miss ‘em,” Eponin smiled sadly. “It's been kinda nice having so many of our sisters to pal around with. It'll be really weird when they're gone. Quiet.”
“They have their orders, Pon,” Xena reassured. “Besides, I really can't put up with that many Amazons for very much longer. I'm in the mood to bash a few heads in, as it is.”
“And we need them to prepare for our eventual return to Greece, instead of squabbling with each other and bickering over stupid stuff,” Gabrielle added with a wry grin. “As much as I enjoy diplomacy, I really need a break from all the squabbling.”
“And the incessant mood swings,” Xena added under her breath and received a slap on her leathers. “Ow!”
“That so did not hurt,” Gabrielle chastised playfully.
“I'll leave you two to your fun,” Eponin said and made a hasty retreat back down the hallway.
As soon as Eponin was out of sight, Gabrielle pinned Xena against the wall again. “Maybe we should continue this discussion in the privacy of our tent?” She cocked her head and waited for a response.
Gabrielle didn't have to wait long.
Xena placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and fondly caressed the bare skin. “I certainly won't argue with you on that, my queen.”
“Vixen,” Gabrielle teased as she nipped Xena's chin.
“Insatiable brat,” Xena took Gabrielle's mouth in a heated kiss that left them both breathless and longing for more.
“Are you sure all the rooms are inhospitable,” Gabrielle panted breathlessly, as she pressed her body closer to Xena's. “It's a long way to our tent.”
“Positive, love,” Xena felt her libido kick into overdrive, as soft lips traced a sensuous path along her collarbone and then dipped enticingly into her cleavage. “Ungh!”
“My thoughts exactly,” Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and hastily dragged her down the hall toward the nearest exit.
Neither woman glanced right or left, nor did they acknowledge the waves and nods that greeted them, as they made a beeline for the outer gate and the encampment beyond. Gabrielle kept a tight hold of Xena's hand, as she led the way toward a large blue tent trimmed in silver.
“No one is to interrupt us, on pain of death,” Xena called to the guards who stood a safe distance away, but kept a close eye on the Conqueror's temporary abode.
The men merely snapped to attention and nodded their heads in acknowledgment of Xena's words.
As soon as the two were safely inside the tent, they quickly divested each other of their clothing and came together in wild abandon. Lips locked and bodies merged, as they fell onto the pile of furs and pillows they had been sharing for the better part of a fortnight.
Naked bodies entwined as they writhed against each other breathlessly. Their tongues vied for dominance in heated kisses that sent them both toward the edge and expressed their mutual need.
“Gods, I want to crawl right inside you and see just what makes you tick,” Gabrielle groaned against Xena's mouth. “I need to feel you inside me, Xena. Please.”
Their hands caressed and moved lower, until they were both pressed together and holding each other closer. Xena moved her thigh between Gabrielle's legs, as her hips set a steady rhythm in time with the insistent thrusts of her tongue inside Gabrielle's mouth. She could feel her lover's slick folds against her heated flesh and felt her body respond. The pressure was building and it was just a matter of heartbeats before her world exploded into a million tiny pieces.
Gabrielle moved her head aside enough to break contact. “Please, Xena,” she panted in a breathless whisper. “I want you so much. Please.”
Xena's lips trailed a fiery path down her lover's heated flesh, as her tongue darted out to taste the salty skin. When her lips encountered a hard nipple, she latched on and teased the nub with her teeth. She could feel her body respond to Gabrielle's cries of pleasure, as the wetness between her legs increased exponentially.
After thoroughly loving both firm mounds, Xena moved lower. Her tongue circled the skin around Gabrielle's belly button and then delved inside. Strong fingers tangled in her hair and pushed her head even lower, but Xena wanted to prolong the torture for as long as possible. She raised her head, grabbed one of her lover's hands and gently nibbled the tender flesh on the inside of Gabrielle's wrist.
“So sweet,” Xena purred, as she felt her lover's hips buck insistently beneath her. “Ah, ah, ah,” she chastised, as her tongue replaced her teeth and she laved at the tender flesh.
Gabrielle was beyond senseless by that point. Her entire body was on fire with need, as she felt Xena shift above her. The woman who had conquered her heart, fully and completely, was driving her to the brink of such exquisite pleasure that she was sure the heavens were opening up to swallow them both whole.
And then Xena's mouth found her center and all was lost. Her entire being suddenly revolved around those luscious lips and the tongue that penetrated her so expertly. Fists clenched in Xena's silky-smooth hair, Gabrielle rode wave after exquisite wave of pure, unadulterated ecstasy.
“Gods on Olympus, you taste so good, Gabrielle,” Xena exclaimed, as she dove in again and again for more.
“Xe…” Gabrielle panted, as she felt an orgasm build to new heights. “Oh…sweet…”
Her release was punctuated by a loud cry of sensual pleasure, as her muscles took on a mind of their own and shook her to her very core. Her mind exploded in a hundred different directions at once, while her body arched in response to her lover's intimate touch. Light and colors she had never seen before dance behind her closed eyelids, and she felt as if every pore in her skin were suddenly alive and tingling.
“I got ya,” Xena's voice purred softly in her ear, as strong arms wrapped around her and held her close.
Gabrielle had no idea how Xena had moved so quickly up to embrace her, but was grateful to just be held. Her breathing was still coming in ragged gasps and she saw stars dancing in her vision. She felt like her head had exploded and then come back together again in the same instant.
“Gods, Xe, what the…”
“Breathe, Gabrielle. Just breathe,” Xena nuzzled Gabrielle's hair.
Gabrielle tried to concentrate on the simple act of breathing, but her entire body was still tingling and twitching in the afterglow of Xena's expert ministrations. Gabrielle knew her lover and mate was experienced at lovemaking—more experienced than she was, by far—but it still amazed her that Xena's skills in bed far surpassed her wildest expectations.
“I'm…” Gabrielle inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly in an effort to calm her racing heart. “That was amazing.”
She closed the distance between them and tasted herself on Xena's lips. It was an erotic and sensual experience that never ceased to send her senses back into overdrive, no matter how many times they made love.
“Gods, I love you,” Gabrielle pressed her body closer, as Xena shifted to her back and pulled Gabrielle on top of her.
“You're beautiful. You know that?” Xena ran her hands through Gabrielle's shoulder-length hair and reveled in the feel of the silky locks running through her fingers. “You're the most beautiful woman in the entire world, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle felt a blush creep up her neck and ducked her chin to Xena's chest. “I look like an ugly sow compared to you, Xena.” And then her eyes met a pair of cerulean blue gazing intently back at her. “It's true. You're gorgeous, strong, and you make my soul come alive when I'm with you. My heart sings a different song everyday that we're together. And I'm so in love with you that I ache inside when we're apart.”
“I love you, too,” Xena said with a warm smile. “You really are the other half of my soul. Whatever did I do to deserve having you in my life?” Her expression softened. “And you're wrong if you think I'm more beautiful than you are, Gabrielle. You light up a room with your mere presence.” She tucked a lock of hair behind Gabrielle's ear. “And your ears are really cute, too.”
“Oh, now you're just being funny, Xe.” Gabrielle kissed the bare skin beneath her chin. She shot Xena a saucy smirk. “Although, I'm sure you weren't half as happy as you've made me since we met all those moons ago and you took me to your keep at Surra.”
Xena's expression turned thoughtful. “I really liked that place. I miss it.”
“Me, too,” Gabrielle tapped Xena's chin and then ran her finger along her lover's jaw line. “You have really pretty ears, too,” she scooted up and suckled on an enticing lobe. “And you smell like sunshine and leather and…mmmmm…”
Her lips found the pulse point on Xena's throat. She flicked it with her tongue and heard an answering purr. Continuing a slow, languorous journey down one smooth shoulder, Gabrielle found a small scar that she traced with her tongue.
“Cross bow,” Xena murmured. “Tip nicked me before I could move out of the way.”
Gabrielle raised her head and looked at Xena, their faces mere inches apart. “I've seen you catch arrows and cross bow bolts in mid-air. So what happened?”
“Inexperience,” a corner of Xena's mouth lifted and a dark brow quirked. “It happened before I learned to catch them—long before I became Conqueror.”
“Ah,” Gabrielle nodded, as she continued her explorations. “And this little scar above your breast?” She dipped her head and licked the small blemish. “I'll bet it has an interesting story to tell.”
“Not much of one, I'm afraid,” Xena lightly ran her fingertips along Gabrielle's spine. “Lyceus and I were climbing trees and I fell. End of story.”
A blond brow quirked. “You got that falling out of a tree? Seriously?”
“No,” Xena shook her head. “I got it on the way down. A damned branch stabbed me. Had a splinter the size of my little finger embedded in there, and Mother had to dig it out.” She glanced down at the scar in question. “Bled like all get-out. But I think Mother was more pissed because I ruined a perfectly good shirt.” She smiled at her lover. “The shirt belonged to Toris.”
Gabrielle chuckled and then sobered. “What are we going to do about your brother, Xena?”
“Urrgggghhh!” Xena blew out a heavy sigh. “If that isn't a real mood killer, Gabrielle, I don't know what is. Did you have to bring him up?”
Duly chastised, Gabrielle decided on another tactic. She took Xena's breast fully into her mouth, at the same time she ran a hand slowly down along the smooth skin of Xena's side. She rolled the taught nipple against her tongue, while her fingers explored her lover's lower body and delved into wet folds with practiced ease.
Xena forgot everything including her own name the instant Gabrielle resumed her ministrations. She felt her ardor return full-force. The world was quickly spinning out of control and she didn't care. All she knew was the feel of her lover's body against her own. The low burn in her groin was quickly fanning into a conflagration, as Gabrielle continued her assault. Xena writhed against her lover, as she captured Gabrielle's lips in a smoldering kiss.
“I want to give you what you gave me,” Gabrielle panted against Xena's lips.
“Not a good idea, love,” Xena captured the swollen lips again.
Gabrielle pulled back enough to look in Xena's eyes. “I want to taste you, Xena. I need to.”
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand in hers and held their joined hands between them. She kissed Gabrielle's knuckles and then pushed one of Gabrielle's fingers up with one of her own.
“Remember what happened before we parted in Amphipolis?” Xena eyed the slightly-crooked finger. “I really don't want a repeat of that little incident. Hurting you is the furthest thing from my mind, Gabrielle.”
“You won't hurt me, Xena,” Gabrielle kissed their joined hands. “I want you so much I can't think of anything else. I'm as much a part of you as you are a part of me. I want this, Xena. Please, let me give you this. Please, my lord conqueror?” She punctuated her words by taking one of Xena's fingers into her mouth and suckling it.
Xena's eyes practically rolled back in her head at the sensations that coursed through her as Gabrielle's velvet tongue gently caressed her finger. She imagined what that tongue was truly capable of and could think of nothing else that she wanted more.
“Okay,” she ceded in a husky voice full of eager anticipation. “Okay, you win, my queen. You win.”
Gabrielle didn't hesitate. She dove back in with gusto and trailed wet kisses along Xena's length. She smiled when Xena's skin quivered beneath her touch. When she finally reached her ultimate goal, she inhaled deeply of her lover's sensual aroma. Her mouth watered in anticipation, as she sat poised over the target of her ultimate desire.
Xena was unprepared for her body's reaction to her lover's intimate touch. Every fiber of her being blazed to life and the world around her instantly shattered into a billion pinpoints of exquisite light that coalesced back into a blazing ember. A scream tore from her lips when Gabrielle's mouth found her center. Her body lurched off the furs and practically hovered in mid-air for the space of a heartbeat, before returning to earth. Senses that had gone dormant after Ares' departure on the battlefield suddenly jumped to life in exquisite agony.
And then she rode the waves of her release, as she buried her hands in Gabrielle's hair and pulled her lover closer still. Shudders rolled through her and then the world suddenly went black.
As soon as Xena went still, Gabrielle looked up in alarm. “Xena?”
When she didn't receive a response, Gabrielle left the still-quivering cocoon she'd been wrapped in and slid up the still woman's body. She put two fingers to Xena's pulse point and felt a steady beat. Sighing in relief that she hadn't killed her, Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena's chest and was reassured yet again by the steady beat of that heart.
“Damn, Gabrielle,” Xena's groggy voice made Gabrielle jump. “How long was I out?”
“Xena,” Gabrielle blew out a breath. “I thought…” Tears sprang to her eyes and a warm thumb wiped them away from her cheeks. “Gods…”
“Don't cry, love,” Xena smiled reassuringly. “Come here.” Xena wrapped her arms around an emotional Gabrielle and squeezed. “Wanna tell me what this is all about?”
“I thought I killed you,” Gabrielle sniffed back the remaining tears and swiped her cheeks. “It's stupid, I know. But when you suddenly went so still, I…”
“It's okay,” Xena rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's head. “I can't say that it's ever happened to me before. But I do know a few people who've had the same…um…mind-blowing experience with the same end result.”
“So, did you just faint or something?” Gabrielle lifted her head and stared incredulously into Xena's eyes. “What in hades happened, Xena?”
“You,” Xena smiled and kissed Gabrielle's nose. “And that gorgeous mouth of yours.” She took Gabrielle's lips in a smoldering kiss. “Mmm...” She smiled brightly when the kiss ended. “I just blacked out for second or two. Kinda like I put the pinch on myself and cut off the flow of blood to my own damned brain. Except that it was much more pleasant than the pinch.”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “You can do that?”
Xena traced her lover's cheek with a finger. “Not really, no. But apparently you can.” Her finger brushed against Gabrielle's lips. “You found just the right spot and sent every nerve ending in my body into sexual overdrive. I got a good dose of sensory overload and apparently my brain actually checked out for a second or two.”
“I don't get it,” Gabrielle's brow furrowed.
“You blew the candle out in my brain, Gabrielle,” Xena chuckled. “Or maybe you sucked all the air out. I'm not really sure.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “I did?”
“Shh, don't tell anyone,” Xena put her finger in front of her own lips. “Next thing you know, people'll be coming out of the woodwork to ferret out my weakness. Can't be fainting right in the middle of a battle, now, can I?”
“Oh, no, we wouldn't want that,” Gabrielle grinned. “What would the neighbors say?”
“They would say I'm nothing more than mush in the face of a much greater threat,” Xena's expression sobered.
Xena suddenly launched a counterattack and flipped their positions. She then looked down at Gabrielle with a saucy grin.
“You, my love,” Xena nipped the skin just above one full breast. “You're the only one who has ever made me feel like I really can go out there and conquer the entire world.”
Gabrielle wrapped herself around the woman she loved with all her heart and soul. She reveled in the closeness they shared, as well as the bond that was building between them. It was that bond—that merging of their souls—that scared her the most. But it was also what made every moment she shared with Xena a moment to treasure.
“I want the battlements cleared by nightfall,” Xena pointed to the stone walls that surrounded the palace. “I don't care if you have to round up every able-bodied man for ten leagues to do it. Just get it done.”
“Yes, my liege,” one of her soldiers slammed a fist to his chest and bowed low to her.
Xena was dressed in her dark leathers and armor, as she stood outside the walls of the city and gazed at them in the late-afternoon sunlight. Corinth wasn't exactly in the state she'd expected to find it in when they had set out a fortnight ago. Not that she'd had hopes of being welcomed with open arms or anything.
After Draco's defeat and the disaster of losing part of yet another army—this time to her brother's slimy betrayal—Xena figured her triumphal entry into Corinth would be a subdued affair. Little did she know what she was in for, until they finally arrived and discovered the real truth.
“Hey,” Eponin walked up and stood next to the stoic warrior.
“Hey, yourself,” Xena didn't bother to look at the Amazon. “Everything go okay? Did you guys get the others on their way?”
“Yeah,” Eponin answered. “Eph and her maj gave ‘em the hoo-rah speech about a strong Amazon Nation and then bid ‘em all a teary farewell. Queen Grenella wasn't too keen on leaving Agatha behind, let me tell ya. Thought the two were gonna have it out right there in the middle of everyone.”
Xena chuckled. “They're both pretty stubborn when they want to be.”
“Sounds like another couple I know,” Eponin shot Xena a knowing grin and merely chuckled when she received a low growl of warning. “You know that don't work on me no more, Xe. Save it for the guys in your army. They're much easier to intimidate.”
Xena shook her head. “I am so losing my touch these days.”
“Yeah, well, that's what being married gets ya,” Eponin teased. “You become a real mushball.”
“And you would know this, how?”
“Hey, I been around enough to hear the talk,” Eponin responded. “'Sides, Eph's been after me ta tie the knot, too. She says it's only right for the regent to take a life mate now that the queen is hitched.”
Xena slapped a hand on the Amazon's bare shoulder. “Somehow, Pon, I just don't see you as the settling down type.”
Eponin shot Xena a skeptical glare. “Oh, and you're such an expert?”
“Actually, I've cornered the market on it,” Xena crossed her arms over her chest with a Cheshire grin. “I have my place in the relationship and Gabrielle has hers.”
“Top or bottom?” Eponin snickered.
“ Grrrrrr ,” Xena glared at the Amazon, to which Eponin merely laughed harder.
“Nice try, champ,” Eponin finally recovered her composure enough to speak. “Your rep as the most feared warrior and ruler in all of Greece definitely poofed when you let a certain short, green-eyed Amazon queen get her hooks into you.”
“How do you know it wasn't the other way around?” Xena shot back with a wry grin.
“Oh ho, yeah right,” Eponin chuckled. “You seen her around the city lately? She makes you look like a fuzzy kitten, Xe. No offense.”
Xena shot Eponin a confused look. “What's Gabrielle been doing? Bashing heads? Running people through with a sword?”
“No,” Eponin shook her head. “But she might as well be doing both. Her intimidation factor is making yours look tame in comparison. I saw her get right up in the face of one of the blacksmiths. The guy was big and bald. She made him cry, Xe. He cried like a baby for a good quarter candlemark.
“It was a sight to behold, let me tell ya,” Eponin continued. “I couldn't hear a word she said, but she was pointing a finger in his face and had this expression that said she wasn't puttin' up with anything he said.” She held up an arm and flexed her bicep. “And the guy had guns, Xe. He coulda just reached out and squashed her maj like a little bug, but he didn't. He stood there with tears running down his face and his guns crossed over his massive chest. And when she was done with him, Gabrielle rounded on another group of city folk and went off on them, too.” The Amazon shivered. “I'm tellin' ya, Xena, I do not want to be caught in her crosshairs, right now. She's on a mission and there ain't a soul in this city or beyond who can stand up to that.”
Xena's dark brow quirked. “Maybe I should send her to Athens after my brother, then.”
“That would be cold, Xena. Really cold,” Eponin shuddered and then turned a surprised look on the tall woman. “Speakin' of, are you still calling him your brother after what he did?”
Xena rubbed the back of her neck. “I don't know. We share the same mother, so…” She shrugged.
“Yeah, I hear that,” Eponin nodded sagely. “Amazons consider each other sisters and it really bites when one of our own betrays another sister, or even the tribe as a whole. All that centaur crap surrounding Velasca and her crew was really hard for the rest of us to swallow. We're still looking over our shoulders every now and then. It sucks.”
Xena sighed. “Yeah, well, Velasca's dead and most of her biggest supporters finally weaseled their way out into the open. That's something. I think my brother's been feeding a line of manure to the Athenian council that's going to make it really hard to topple him from power. I'm not really looking forward to that confrontation.”
“Well,” Eponin shrugged with the hint of a smile on her lips. “You could always just fall back on your old motto.” She raised a fist in the air and shouted, “ Kill them all!!! ”
Xena thoughtfully considered that for a moment. “That definitely has possibilities. I'll have to seriously consider it when the time comes to pay a visit to Athens.”
“Knock yourself out there, champ.”
“Are you sure you don't want to…”
“Give it a rest, Eph,” Gabrielle snapped, as she strode through the marketplace with her personal guard on her heels.
She was a woman on a mission and didn't have time for arguments or suggestions from the woman striding next to her. Gabrielle knew what had to be done and was ready to do it, even if it meant doing it herself. But she was getting tired of having to explain herself at every turn.
Gabrielle rounded on the regent. “You really want to have this discussion right now, Eph?”
Ephiny's eyes widened at the irritation in Gabrielle's tone. “Uh, no. I just think…”
“Don't!” Gabrielle barked. “Just don't think. This is no longer about thinking or deciding. It's about doing. Now, either you're here because you're ready to get your hands dirty or not. Your choice. But the bottom line is I'm going to make sure these people are prepared for the coming winter, even if they fight me tooth and nail.”
“They shot your idea down, your majesty,” Ephiny said. “Doesn't that count for something? They obviously don't want our help. Or they just don't care.”
Gabrielle stopped in the middle of the street and waited for her retinue to do the same. “It counts for everything, Ephiny. Why do you think I'm so adamant that we get this done?”
“Because you're crazier than Xena?” The regent threw up her hands in frustration. “These people don't care, Gabrielle. They don't want our help and they sure as hades don't care if they have food when the winter snows set in. They're living in the moment. It's what they do.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We should just head back to the village and leave these people to their own stupidity. It seems to work for them.”
Gabrielle stepped up nose-to-nose with the regent. “If you feel that way, then maybe you should just go back to the village, Ephiny. I don't need you here telling me what not to do or why. And I certainly don't need an escort following me around night and day. Take them all and just go!”
They all stood there in stunned silence. None of them had ever heard Gabrielle talk to the regent that way or in that tone of voice. And even Gabrielle suddenly realized how she'd just come across.
“I'm sorry,” said Gabrielle. “I didn't mean that.”
“You did, actually,” Ephiny said, her own tone mirroring her shock. “I think you've wanted to say that for a good long time, as a matter of fact.”
Gabrielle let the hint of a grin touch her lips. “Probably.”
“You really want me to leave?” Ephiny couldn't meet Gabrielle's gaze.
“No, of course not,” Gabrielle sighed. “I'm just…Xena expects this to be taken care of and there's no one else to take the reins. So, I'm basically in charge by default.”
“So, put me in charge and I'll get it done,” Ephiny shrugged. “I may not have your finesse when it comes to talking these people into doing what we want, but I can certainly use my own powers of persuasion to get the job done. Just give me the chance and I'll get out of your hair for a while. Okay?”
“Go,” Gabrielle answered with a resigned sigh. “Knock yourself out.”
“I certainly hope not,” Ephiny joked, as she hurried off toward a group of people gathered near the skeleton of a building.
Gabrielle stood there and watched Ephiny's departure. She shook her head as she sensed someone step up next to her.
“I gotta hand it to ya, your majesty,” Solari said with the hint of a smile on her lips. “You do know how to manipulate a situation.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle asked, all innocence.
“Yeah,” Solari glanced at Gabrielle. “You've been itchin' to get out of overseeing this stuff all day, ever since you went off on those guys down by the well. I really thought that big guy was gonna get physical. Instead, you made him cry. Still don't know how you managed that one with only a few words.”
“I could tell he wanted to hit me,” Gabrielle agreed with a small half-smile. “But I just appealed to his softer side.”
“And if he actually had gotten physical?”
Gabrielle kept her attention on the activity in front of them. “Depends,” she shrugged.
Gabrielle met Solari's steady gaze. “If he tried to punch, kick or just make a grab for me.”
“Certainly would have been interesting, wouldn't it?” Gabrielle turned and walked away without a backward glance.
Solari stood there for a moment longer, then turned to find the others in the queen's guard just staring back at her with knowing grins.
“Couldn't leave well enough alone, could you, Sol?” Margalene said with a wry smirk that elicited a few snickers from the others. “You saw her take down Sehran with that stick of hers. You think a few soft city folks are any match for our Amazon warrior queen in training?”
“He's a blacksmith, for cryin' out loud,” Solari threw up her hands in consternation. “Just because she beat the tar out of the former head of her royal guard, doesn't mean she's invincible. It wasn't that long ago that she was knocking herself in the head with that stupid staff of hers.”
“She took out Sehran with three broken ribs, Sol,” Rayna added, while hiding her own snicker. “Or did you forget that little detail?”
“No, I didn't forget,” Solari could only stand there and shake her head, as she watched Gabrielle's retreating figure. “I still catch her wincing occasionally when she doesn't think anyone is watching. Makes me want to kill Sehran all over again.”
“See?” Margalene put in. “Our queen is human after all.”
“And certainly not invincible,” Solari added with a wry grin.
“That's why the Conqueror is her champion,” Rayna shot both women a raised-browed look. “Next to Xena, we all look like a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears, snot-nosed kids.”
“Who're you callin' snot-nosed, girl?” Margalene sneered. “I ain't had snot hangin' from my nose in more years than you've been alive.”
Solari saw where the two were going with their argument and quickly interceded. “Let's get back to work, shall we, Amazons? I would hate for our queen to get into trouble while the two of you are standing here bickering like a couple of wet-behind-the-ears, snot-nosed kids.”
Rayna and Margalene, who were actually going to let off some steam with a little tussle that probably would have been more entertaining than anything, glared at each other and then followed after Solari and the rest of the queen's guard.
“You are something else, you know that?” Margalene hissed under her breath.
Rayna pointed to herself and silently mouthed, “Me?”
To which Margalene merely rolled her eyes.
Gabrielle was feeling a bit smug as she ditched her Amazon retinue and ducked down one of the side streets in the city. She managed to skirt the newly-renovated stables, catching the fresh smell of hay and horses, before she ducked down another street, through a side alley and out a small guarded door that took her beyond the gate. She nodded to the guard on her way out and gave him her most charming smile.
“Hey, Gabrielle,” he responded with an answering grin. “You on your way over to the practice field for some sparring?”
“I am,” she turned around and kept walking backwards as she answered. “I need to work off some of Agatha's cooking.” She patted her stomach. “And please don't tell my shadows which way I went. Let ‘em keep guessing, for now.”
“Xena get the kitchens back in working order already?” He called to her retreating figure.
“Not yet,” she called back and then turned around before she tripped over something and fell in front of him. “But I'm hoping she's as good as her word!” She called over her shoulder back to him. “Agatha's good at cooking over an open fire, but there is only so much you can do without a real kitchen to work in.”
Gabrielle continued on her way with a spring in her step and a grin on her lips. Her cheery disposition had as much to do with losing her escort, as it did at the prospect of seeing a certain someone she hoped was sparring with the men. The field in front of her was lush and green with late-summer growth. And the sun was warm on her face, adding to her good mood.
She knew autumn was just around the corner and hoped Ephiny would be successful in getting that grain building erected before harvest. Gabrielle smirked when she thought of her regent. She hadn't exactly meant to manipulate Ephiny into taking on the task and convincing the Corinthian laborers that it was in their best interests to erect the grain storage building. But she was very glad to have one less responsibility riding on her shoulders. If there was one thing she'd discovered in the weeks since their arrival in Corinth, it was that the people who still lived in the city were stubborn beyond belief.
“Hey, yer maj,” Eponin suddenly appeared from behind a tree, startling Gabrielle.
“What the—” Gabrielle glared daggers at the Amazon weapons master. “Where did you come from, Eponin?”
“I think the more pertinent question might be, where is your escort, my queen?” Eponin shot Gabrielle a knowing look. “Did you dismiss them? Or did you put them to work on a project of yours? If it's the latter, then I'm gonna be kickin' some Amazon butts for a serious breach in protocol. They know that their first responsibility is to watch over you and keep you out of trouble.”
“I don't need babysitters, Pon,” Gabrielle groused. “And I don't get into trouble. Why does everyone insist that I do?”
“Is that a rhetorical question, yer maj? Or do you really want an answer?” Eponin stood there in front of Gabrielle with her hands on her hips.
Gabrielle pushed past the woman and continued on her way. “I'm really not in the mood for a verbal sparring match, right now, Eponin.”
The weapons master caught right up to Gabrielle and kept pace. “In the mood for a different kind of sparring, are we?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Gabrielle shot the dark-haired woman a sidelong glance. “Are you volunteering to be my sparring partner?”
“After you kicked my ass yesterday?” Eponin shook her head. “Uh-uh, no way, yer maj. I have a better idea.”
Eponin veered toward a group of soldiers who were sparring with practice swords. As they approached, one of the men left the group and headed toward them.
“General,” Eponin greeted Braes with a friendly smile and a firm arm shake.
“Amazon,” said the gray-haired seasoned soldier. “What brings you out here on such a fine day?”
“I have a proposition for ya,” Eponin smirked, as she slapped his leather-clad shoulder. “How ‘bout you let our queen, here, spar with a few of your men? Maybe we can put a little wager on a match, eh?”
Braes shot Gabrielle a raised-browed look, before turning his attention back to the Amazon weapons master. He set a hand under his chin and propped his elbow with his other arm. As he appeared to give the question serious consideration, Gabrielle glared from Eponin to him and back again.
During the weeks of travel between the battle site and Corinth, Braes and Eponin had become fast friends. They had shared stories of their battle experiences over many tankards of ale and wine, like a couple of old friends. While Gabrielle and Ephiny were busy with their royal duties and with the other queens, Eponin and Braes found plenty of time to reminisce and drink until they passed out. They were a couple of seasoned warriors who weren't afraid to rib each other over past failures and brag about their successes.
“You think she's really ready to take on more than one opponent?” Braes shot Eponin a questioning glance.
“I'm right here, you two,” Gabrielle responded dryly. “Don't talk about me as if I'm not.”
“I don't know, my friend,” Eponin responded, glancing at Gabrielle as if she were just an immature kid.
“And if you give me that look again, Eponin, I swear,” Gabrielle raised a finger and pointed it at the Amazon.
“See what I gotta put up with?” Eponin acted offended and threw up her hands. “I tell ya, there's no respect from this one. She thinks she's got what it takes. You know what I mean?”
Braes nodded sagely. “I certainly do, my friend.”
Gabrielle merely rolled her eyes at the two and stormed toward the group of soldiers sparring in front of her. She marched right up to the closest one and easily disarmed him by kicking his legs out from under him from behind and grabbing his practice sword as he fell. She then squared off against his opponent, who was looking at her like she'd just sprouted an extra head.
“Are you going to keep looking at me that way? Or are you going to show me what you've got?” She then raised her voice to the others around them. “Feel free to join in at any time, boys! I have some pent-up energy I need to work off and it's time I took my skills to the next level.”
Both Braes and Eponin stood on the sidelines with their arms crossed over their chests. They watched Gabrielle do a decent imitation of Xena's sword twirl, before she set herself into a fighter's stance.
“She ever used a sword to spar with before?” Braes asked, without taking his eyes off the action heating up in front of him.
“Nope,” Eponin answered.
“This her first session with more than one opponent?” Braes continued.
“Yep,” the Amazon nodded.
“Should be interesting to see who comes out on top,” Braes scratched the gray stubble on his chin.
Gabrielle, in the meantime, was having the time of her life. There were six soldiers against her and, although they weren't exactly coming at her all at once, they were keeping her on her toes. She knew she was slightly out of her element in two areas. First, she'd never fought with a sword, not even a practice sword. And, second, she was completely outnumbered.
But that didn't mean she wasn't giving it her best shot. Right at that moment she was using what skills she'd learned with the staff during her bouts with Eponin to fend off two of the men coming at her on either side. With both hands on the sword hilt, she blocked one man's thrust, shoved him back and parried the second attacker's swing. A quick spin to her right and a timely duck had the first attacker missing her shoulder by the width of her little finger.
“Nice one,” Gabrielle complimented the shorter blond, who shot her a sly grin. “Almost had me there.”
“Aye,” he replied with a quick wink.
But Gabrielle wasn't fooled by his attempt to distract her. She spun and met the second attacker's blade, sliding her own blade up his hilt until they were nose-to-nose.
“I give you both kudos for your efforts,” Gabrielle said, as she gazed up into hazel eyes twinkling with mirth.
She barely had time to ponder her next move. With a quick duck, Gabrielle let the third soldier's blade whiz over her head, which she then butted into Hazel Eyes' chin. He fell back a step and she had the space she needed to spin around to face off against the three soldiers closing in.
Gabrielle that she was way out of her element at that point. But she wasn't giving up. She was determined to at least give this session her best effort. It also occurred to her that Xena would probably just back flip over the guy behind her and use him as a shield. But she didn't know how to do a Xena back flip. And then she made a mental note to get Xena to teach her some of her moves.
A smile split Gabrielle's features as she briefly pondered a few sessions with Xena. When they saw her smile, her three attackers suddenly hesitated. The words Use what you know , Gabrielle suddenly echoed in her mind and she knew what she could do to get the upper hand.
“Wait!” She put up a staying hand and felt a tell-tale niggling of her nape hairs that told her the guy behind her was nearly upon her. Everyone stopped dead. “Six against one, guys? Really?” She shrugged and waited for the right moment, then set one hand on her hip. “What would you do in my situation? I mean, the most logical thing for me to do is just give up and let you all win. But, then…” She shrugged again.
A chuckle from the sidelines almost had Gabrielle turning her head in Eponin's direction. But she refrained from moving, except to glance at each of the men in front of her. Focus. Wasn't that what Eponin kept telling her? Eponin's chuckles were then joined by the muffled chuckles of the man next to the weapons master. And still Gabrielle waited patiently for her opening.
When she saw the men in front of her relax just enough, she launched her attack. It was unexpected and caught all three men completely off guard. Her practice sword with its dull blade knocked all three of their weapons to the ground. As soon as she heard Hazel Eyes charge in for his surprise attack behind her, Gabrielle rounded on him and caught his blade on hers.
Unfortunately, his momentum took them both to the ground. Gabrielle rolled backwards and let his momentum carry him over her head. It was the safest thing to do. She also knew her still-healing ribs wouldn't tolerate his full weight landing on top of her. And Xena would kill her if she returned to their tent with bruised ribs—or worse.
Once he was clear of her, Gabrielle rolled to her feet and squared herself for the next attack. This one came from the young soldier to her left who hadn't yet joined the fray. He came at her with his sword held high and a battle cry on his lips. Gabrielle waited for the last possible moment and then blocked his strike while spinning around him. She used her legs to scissor him to the ground and watched him roll into Hazel Eyes with a loud oof!
Someone clapped, but Gabrielle ignored the applause and turned to meet the thrust of a blade to her right. She moved just enough for the blade to slip past her hip and used the flat of her own blade to slap against Blondie's back as he stumbled past her.
So intent on her victory was she, however, that Gabrielle totally missed the sword hilt aimed for her head. She turned right into it and took the blow square on the jaw. Stars and pain exploded before her eyes. She tasted the copper tang of blood a heartbeat before the world suddenly plunged into complete darkness. She was unconscious before she hit the ground and didn't see the shocked expressions on the eight faces around her.
“Artemis' left tit!” Eponin shot forward the instant Gabrielle hit the dirt. She knelt next to her unconscious queen and looked up at the soldier with an angry glare. “Get the hades out of here, before I kill the lot of ya!”
All six soldiers scattered like flies, as Braes knelt on Gabrielle's other side and looked at Eponin. “It was an accident, Eponin. Don't blame them. She turned right into…”
“I know that,” Eponin looked down at Gabrielle, who was sprawled on her stomach with a red swollen spot already showing on her jaw. “You wanna explain to Xena why she's out like a light? Or, better yet, want to lose six good men because the Conqueror's temper got the best of her?”
“No,” Braes shook his head. “What're we gonna do?”
“Carry her to her tent and summon a healer,” Eponin answered.
“You gonna tell Xena?” Braes looked at Eponin with pleading in his gray eyes.
“What? You afraid she'll take your head off, old man?” Eponin snorted.
He rubbed his neck. “Wouldn't put it past her. Been a while since I seen that side of the Conqueror.”
Eponin's brow shot up. “She really used to have a short fuse, like the stories say?”
“Where d'ya think them stories came from?” He said. “Was a time when she'd take a man's head off for sneezin' in her presence. Weren't no sense arguin' with her when she was in a dark mood. She was as likely to gut ya as look at ya.”
“Are you two finished painting Xena in a dark light?” Came a mumbled response from the woman on the ground.
The two looked down at Gabrielle, as she put her hands underneath her and proceeded to slowly push herself up to a seated position. Eponin made to reach for Gabrielle to help her, but the queen merely brushed her off.
“Damn!” Gabrielle exclaimed when she was finally upright. “Anyone get the description of the chariot that hit me?”
Eponin snickered. “You're gonna have another shiner, yer maj.”
“Swelling?” Gabrielle asked, as she gingerly touched the spot and winced. “Urgh.”
“Definitely some swelling already,” Braes confirmed, as he tilted her head slightly to get a better look. “Probably need to head to your tent and summon a healer to take a look at it.”
“Xena'll do it,” Gabrielle reached out to both of them and let them help her to her feet. She wobbled slightly and was silently grateful for Eponin's steadying hand on her arm. “Thanks.”
“No prob,” Eponin then held out two fingers in front of Gabrielle. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Two,” Gabrielle said.
“Any ringing?” Braes added.
“In my head?” Gabrielle shook her head. “No. Just feels like a few teeth got knocked loose. I think my pride hurts more than anything else, right now. Gods.” She glanced at Eponin. “What was it this time? Did I drop my shoulder? What?”
“You turned right into the hilt of a sword,” Eponin answered with a wry grin. “I think you can call it a blindside. You never even saw it coming.”
“No, I didn't,” Gabrielle put a hand to her chin and worked her jaw, wincing at the ache.
“Not too bad for your first sword fight, though,” Eponin added conciliatorily. “And for your first multi-opponent sparring session. I wouldn't recommend getting into any real sword fights anytime soon, though, yer maj. We need to work on a few things before you're ready to use a sword in a real fight.”
“Like the not-turning-into-a-sword-hilt thing?” Gabrielle shot back with a half-grin. “I think I really need to work on that one.”
“Maybe Xena can give you a few pointers,” Braes commented, as he and Eponin each put an arm around Gabrielle for support. “But first let's get you back to your tent so you can rest.”
“I agree,” Eponin said. “I really don't want to face Eph when she finds out what happened. But I'd rather face her than Xena any day.”
“Leave Xena to me,” Gabrielle said with another wince. “Ouch.”
Toris watched the last of what was left of his sister's army board the Roman ship bound for…Well, actually he really didn't care where they were headed. All he really cared about was how he'd outsmarted his sister—again. Yes, he'd done it. He'd won. A wry chuckle escaped him and glanced at the man standing next to him.
“My reward?” His blue eyes took in the opulence of the blond Roman in blue who sported shiny gold armor. “After everything I've done to expedite this process and bring my wayward sister to heel, I deserve what's coming to me. You promised to name me Prefect over all of Greece, Magnus. I expect you to make the announcement soon.”
“Oh, you'll get your reward soon enough,” Pompeii smirked. “First, though, I need proof that Xena is truly out of the picture. I certainly don't want her chasing me all the way back to Rome and showing up on Caesar's doorstep.”
“Oh, Xena is cowed, believe me,” Toris returned with more confidence than he felt.
He really had no idea where his sister was or what she was up to at that moment. His spies were quiet and no one knew where General Braes was. The man had up and disappeared with half the men Toris was supposed to bring to Athens. It was a mystery of epic proportions and one that had sent his allies into hiding. The kings were probably back in their respective castles, hiding away from Xena the Conqueror and praying to the Olympians that she didn't seek vengeance against them. Cowards.
“I need more than your word, Councilor,” Pompeii said. “No offense, but I trust you about as far as I can throw you.” He shot Toris a wry grin. “After all, Xena is your sister. How do I know you're not hiding her somewhere, so she can rise up like the proverbial phoenix and destroy all we've worked so hard to achieve?”
Toris felt a chill race down his spine at the look in the Roman's eyes. “I assure you, Magnus…”
“I don't want assurances,” Pompeii cut him off with a dismissive wave of his bejeweled hand. “I want results, Councilor. This was never a negotiation. It's war. And your life is forfeit unless Rome gets what it wants. Understood?”
“Yes, Magnus,” Toris couldn't keep the telltale quaver from his voice. “I understand perfectly.”
“Good,” Pompeii's expression relaxed slightly. “Once I have proof that Xena is taken care of—and by proof I mean her head separated from her body on a damned silver platter—then we'll talk about your reward, my friend.” He put a hand on Toris' shoulder and squeezed. “You do have the power to make that happen. Right?”
“Yes, Magnus,” Toris bowed his head slightly to the man. “It will be done.”
“Good,” Pompeii smiled his charming smile.
“Hurry up with that scrubbing, lads!” Agatha's voice rang through the empty kitchen. “I want to prepare the evenin' meal in here tonight, if we can manage it. We all need a break from pit cooking and it's high time we have this place up and running.”
A roaring fire blazed in one of the two fireplaces, as six young men scrubbed the stone walls with strong lye soap and several young women scrubbed the floors across the room. One wall was clean, but the other three were still grungy.
“Tain't gonna be done by then, Aggie,” one of the young men called over his shoulder. “This stuff's as thick as pitch.”
“Yeah,” another toe-headed young man said. “Ye'd think they'd been burnin' ogres or a Cyclops in here. ‘Tis thick, s'fer sure. Gonna take a week's scrubbin' ta get it all off every wall.”
“We don't have a week, lads,” Agatha said, as she made her way over to the fireplace that wasn't lit. She stuck her head into the chimney and glanced up. “This one's next, lads. I think I see another nest up there. Someone's gonna need to climb up and clear it ‘fore we can light a fire.” All six young men groaned in unison. “Don't let her lordship hear ya complainin' like that. She'll take yer heads off quicker'n you can say…”
“Ares's yer uncle?” Xena said from the doorway. She was leaning against the door frame with her arms crossed over her chest, as she watched the activity in the main kitchen. She pushed off from her place and strode into the room, surveying the completed section with a raised brow. “Not bad. I guess there really is hope, after all.”
Agatha let Xena walk up and stand next to her. She then shook her head. “Shoulda just burned the whole place down and started over, Xena.”
Xena shot her aunt a raised-browed look. “It's made of stone, if you haven't noticed.”
“Still,” Agatha just shook her head. “More work to scrub it clean and delouse the place than it woulda been to just knock it down and start fresh.” She tsked . “Waste of time, if ye ask me.”
“I didn't ask you, now, did I?” Xena kept her attention on the young men scrubbing the walls.
Agatha turned away. “I shoulda went with Grenella and left you to your own devices, stubborn git.”
Xena grinned. “Probably would have been less trouble for you.”
“More respect, that's for sure,” Agatha groused, as she left the room.
“But you still love me!” Xena called in Agatha's wake.
The Conqueror didn't see the smile that lit Agatha's features, as she continued on her way.
Gabrielle was dozing on the furs in the tent she shared with Xena. Actually, she was drifting in that place between wakefulness and sleep and imagining what life would throw at them in the coming weeks. Her jaw was throbbing, but not unbearably. She just wished she had a certain someone there with her.
And then she sensed someone in the tent with her. She inhaled deeply, her eyes still closed, and knew exactly who it was.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle said, as she opened her eyes and caught the look in the blue eyes staring down at her.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Xena sat on the edge of the makeshift bed. “Nice shiner.”
“Isn't it a shiner when you get hit in the eye, not the jaw?” Gabrielle shot back with an amused half-smile.
Xena reached over and feathered Gabrielle's bangs with her fingers. “You say tomato, I say tom-ahto. What's the difference? A bruise is a bruise. And that's some bruise you got there.”
“I turned into it,” Gabrielle leaned into the gentle touch. “It was my own fault.”
“That's what Eph and Braes both said,” Xena's voice remained calm. “Probably why I'm not out there bashing heads right now.”
“You'd have to catch ‘em first,” Gabrielle snickered. “Your reputation for head-bashing and other pursuits precedes you, love. Besides, those guys only did what I challenged them to do.” She reached up and gently touched the bruise with the tips of her fingers. “And this is the only war wound I have to show for the good quarter candlemark workout I gave them.”
“Eph said you used a practice sword and actually put them through their paces,” Xena shot Gabrielle a proud smile. “I would have paid a few dinars to see you kick butt.”
Gabrielle sat up. “I actually didn't do half bad, for a beginner. But my technique needs a lot of work. I'm not half the Amazon warrior I should be.”
“But I hear you're a whiz with that little stick of yours,” Xena stifled a grin.
“Staff,” Gabrielle corrected. “Is it too much to call it what it is? Saying I fight with a little stick is like calling you a decent fighter. There's just no finesse in that.”
“Okay, staff,” Xena rolled her eyes in feigned exasperation. “So, what did the healer say about your bruise? Or should I call it something else?”
Gabrielle playfully slapped Xena's arm and chuckled when Xena slapped a hand over the spot and winced.
“You are such a brat,” Gabrielle teased.
“And you should learn to duck,” Xena remarked drolly. Then she ran a finger lightly down Gabrielle's cheek and across the bruise. “This face is too beautiful to be marred by bruises…or worse.” Then Xena leaned in and planted a kiss on Gabrielle's lips. “So, what did the healer say?”
“It's a bruise, Xe,” Gabrielle shrugged. “Not a big deal.”
“Okay, let me ask this, instead,” Xena narrowed her eyes at the blond. “Did the healer come by and check you over?”
“No,” Gabrielle answered in a timid voice without meeting Xena's gaze. “I sent him on his way.”
“Gabrieeeeeeelle,” Xena put a finger under the woman's chin and raised it until Gabrielle met her gaze. “Why?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I'm fine.”
“Your jaw is almost the size of my fist, Gabrielle,” Xena argued.
“It doesn't hurt,” Gabrielle countered.
And then Xena touched the spot more firmly and Gabrielle sucked in a breath and let out an unconscious squeak. She pulled out of Xena's reach and glowered back at her dark-haired mate.
“Doesn't hurt, eh?” Xena's brow quirked.
“Well, it doesn't,” Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and held it. “It only hurts when you touch it like that.”
“But it hurts, just the same,” Xena said firmly. “How do you know that you didn't break your jaw?”
“How do you know that half the injuries you sustain aren't breaks or worse?” Gabrielle countered.
“Experience,” Xena shot her a knowing grin. “I've had my share of breaks, Gabrielle. I know what they feel like.”
“This doesn't feel half as bad as my ribs did, so there,” Gabrielle groused.
Xena eyed her for several heartbeats and then threw her hands up in surrender. “Okay. Fine. It's not broken.”
It was Gabrielle's turn to look skeptical. “Just like that?”
“Gabrielle knows best, at least in this instance, I suppose,” Xena said.
“I…” Gabrielle clamped her mouth shut and winced when her jaw throbbed painfully. “How can I tell if it's broken or not?”
“Here,” Xena moved in and firmly pressed her fingers under Gabrielle's jaw. “Any pain when I do this?” She watched Gabrielle shake her head slightly. “What about when I do this?” She then moved her fingers around the area where the bruise was and Gabrielle shook her head again. “Well, I guess that's a good sign. I don't think you broke it.”
“See?” Gabrielle tried for a wry grin and only managed half a grin, instead. “I suppose once the swelling goes down it'll be a lot better.”
“And once that purple and red is done going several shades of green and yellow,” Xena couldn't hide the teasing smile that graced her features.
“Ugh!” Gabrielle groaned. “Good thing we don't have any mirrors in here. I really don't want to see what it looks like when it goes seven shades of yuck.”
“You'll still be gorgeous,” Xena said and stroked Gabrielle's other cheek with the backs of her fingers. “And the bruise will fade soon enough. Just remember to duck next time.”
“Yeah, yeah. Maybe you should get out there and teach me how it's done. There's a whole different technique to using a sword that you seem to have down perfectly.” Gabrielle grinned. “Please?”
“And what's wrong with Eponin's technique?” Xena replied.
Gabrielle traced Xena's bicep with a finger. “She doesn't have your…um…finesse?” She gave Xena a flirtatious grin. “And it's only fitting for the queen to learn from the very best, especially when the very best is her own personal champion.”
“Oo, now who's the charmer?”
Gabrielle smiled, as she brushed her finger against Xena's lower lip. “Always you, my love.” And then she followed her words up with a passionate kiss.
“The plan is simple,” Xena said, as she glanced around at those inside the tent with her. “I've put out a call to arms to every village in Greece. General Braes, you'll follow up on that and make sure the army is ready for my eventual return. In the meantime, Gabrielle and I…”
“And us,” Eponin put in quickly.
“…and my queen's escort,” Xena added with a glare, “will board a ship bound for Rome as soon as the palace is in working condition. We'll gather as much intelligence as we can, see if we can find out where the troops were sent, maybe cause some trouble along the way, and then make port in Athens. Once we meet up with the rest of you,” she met Braes' gaze, “we'll clean house there and then return here to Corinth for the official rig amoral. Maybe a coronation of sorts is in order. The populace needs some kind of ceremony to let them know I mean business.”
“I still don't understand why you're going after those troops the Romans conscripted,” Braes said in a gruff tone. “Why not just let them go and concentrate on increasing the numbers we already have? Why waste the effort?”
“Because I don't like the idea of allowing Caesar to think he can get away with using my own brother to betray Greece and make off with good Greek soldiers for his own slimy purposes,” Xena answered matter-of-factly. “I've dealt with Julius Caesar before and right now he's proven that he and his minions need to be taught a lesson.”
“What lesson is that?” Braes challenged.
A hard edge seeped into Xena's expression. “That you don't screw with Greece and get away with it. I didn't become Conqueror because I played nice with the other kiddies, Braes. And I'm not about to go all soft and mushy again. Look where that's gotten us.”
“No, Gabrielle,” Xena snapped. “I'm done with diplomacy and negotiations. If those beyond our borders want to fight dirty, then it's high time we turned the tables and did the same. We need to show the rest of the world that they can't just walk all over us and get away with it. Rome will learn just how sly and deceptive I can be when my hackles are up.” She glanced around at the others again. “And word from the spies we sent out is that Rome is courting Egypt. Caesar is also sending feelers out to Chin and Persia. If we don't act now, we'll be caught smack dab in the middle of a Roman bid to take over the civilized world. I don't know about all of you, but I really don't want to be forced to speak Latin anytime soon.”
Eponin rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “So, what's our part of the plan, champ?” She caught the glare Ephiny shot her. “What?”
Ephiny shook her head at the weapons master and turned to her queen. “Are you seriously considering going along with this, my queen? We're Amazons. Sticking our noses into world politics isn't really what we do.”
“Do you really want to have to live under Roman rule?” Gabrielle shot back. “I don't know about you, Ephiny, but I'm not really all that fond of Roman togas and living at the whims of a tyrant like Julius Caesar.” Everyone but Gabrielle glanced at Xena. “Oh, please, people. Some of what Xena did may have appeared to be the work of a tyrant, but you don't know her like I do.”
“No, they're partly right, Gabrielle,” Xena conceded with a shrug. “I was fairly ruthless in those early days and did what I had to do to strike fear into the hearts of my enemies. Some might consider what I did to be rather tyrannical, especially when I beheaded those who got too close.” She shot Braes a knowing look. “There were a few commanders in my army who felt the sting of my blade just for raising questions that I didn't want to hear.” Braes' expression suddenly reflected a hint of fear at her words. “But I've also learned that using fear to manipulate those closest to me can have adverse effects. It's better to cultivate trust through open communication and not have to look over one's shoulder for the inevitable dagger to plunge into one's back. Brings better results and makes for a better night's sleep.”
A few nervous chuckles followed her words.
“So, does that mean you're over being mean and impulsive?” Gabrielle shot Xena a questioning look. “Or should I worry that you'll turn on me when the mood arises?”
Xena seemed to consider the question thoughtfully for a moment. “Not really. I think you're pretty safe, for now.”
Gabrielle could see a hint of amusement in the blue eyes and knew she was being teased. “But I still don't consider you a tyrant, Xena. Your ego is far from inflated and you've proven that you can rule with the compassion that a true tyrant lacks.”
Xena threw up her hands in exasperation. “Well, there you go, people. My secret's out. I am a veritable mushball in the presence of a much greater threat.”
The chuckles that followed were genuine this time.
“So, what's this greater threat?” Eponin sobered.
“Love,” Xena stated.
“You got that right,” Gabrielle nodded emphatically and wrapped a possessive arm around Xena's waist. “And don't any of you forget it, either. Love conquers all.”
“Do you really think Caesar will fall for that?” Ephiny tossed in with a skeptical smirk. “Somehow I don't think he'll buy it.”
“Well,” Gabrielle squeezed her taller lover's waist. “We'll just have to drive the point home, now, won't we?”
Laughter followed those words, as the conversation turned to more mundane subjects. Then Braes summarily begged off anymore talk of cleaning the palace and whipping the city's citizens into shape.
“I'll be with the men if you need me,” he said and quickly ducked out of the tent before anyone could stop him.
“I got stuff to do, too,” Eponin flashed a grin at Ephiny. “You comin', Eph?”
“I'll be there in a bit,” Ephiny replied and shot a look at Xena.
“Hey, Eponin, wait up,” Xena leaned down and gave Gabrielle a quick peck on the cheek. “See you later.”
Gabrielle waited for Xena to leave the tent, then turned to the regent. “Yeeeeessss?”
Ephiny moved to the jug of sweet ale on a side table. She motioned to Gabrielle who nodded, then poured two mugs and handed one to Gabrielle. The regent then sat down in one of the leather chairs set in one corner.
“You ready to move into the palace?” Ephiny asked over the lip of her mug.
“Not yet,” Gabrielle took the seat across from Ephiny. “There's still a lot of work to do before the place is inhabitable.”
“I was in the kitchens this morning,” Ephiny downed her ale in a few swallows and set her mug aside. “Agatha has things well in hand.”
“She's very organized,” Gabrielle agreed, as she sipped her ale. “The kitchens will be up and running before the week is out.”
Ephiny leaned her elbows on her knees and clasped her hands in front of her. “I want to ask you something,” she said without looking at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's brow knit in concern. “Is something wrong, Eph?”
“No,” Ephiny shook her head. “I just…” She cleared her throat, stood up and went over to pour herself another mug of ale. After another long drag, she turned to face the still-seated woman. “I want to return to the village and have a joining ceremony with Eponin.”
Gabrielle nearly choked on her ale. “What?”
Ephiny returned to her seat. “I don't want you to think I'm deserting you or anything, but…” She shrugged and downed the rest of her ale. “I want to start a family with her.”
“You do know that's not possible, right?” Gabrielle's brow quirked. “I mean, you're both women, Eph.”
Ephiny grinned. “I know that, your majesty. I…um…we have a plan. There are a few men living with the centaurs who are more than willing to…um…well, you know. I want a baby.” She met Gabrielle's intense gaze. “I'm not getting any younger and neither is Pon. We want a little girl to raise as our own little Amazon princess.”
Gabrielle set her ale aside and got up to pace back and forth a few times across the length of the tent. A myriad of thoughts crossed her mind, as she absorbed Ephiny's words. And then she finally stopped pacing and stood in front of the regent with outstretched hands. She waited for Ephiny to take her hands and stand. Then Gabrielle took Ephiny in a sisterly hug.
“I think that's an incredible idea, Ephiny!” Gabrielle pulled back enough to smile into the uncertain hazel eyes gazing back at her. “I've always wanted to be an aunt!”
Ephiny grinned from ear-to-ear at Gabrielle's enthusiasm. “You're not angry?”
Gabrielle cocked her chin. “Why would I be angry? I think it's fantastic that you and Eponin want to be united and start a family! I couldn't be happier for the two of you!”
Ephiny finally gave in to Gabrielle's cheery enthusiasm. “I am so incredibly happy!” She grabbed Gabrielle in a bear hug and they jumped up and down a few times in their excitement.
Then Gabrielle sobered and pulled up short. “But…” She clamped her lips shut, trying hard not to put a damper on the happy moment. “Oh, never mind.”
“No, what is it?” Ephiny caught the concern in Gabrielle's expression. “Really, Gabrielle, I want to know.”
“If you return to the village for your joining ceremony, Xena and I won't be there to share it with you,” Gabrielle couldn't keep the sadness from her tone. “I really want to be there to perform the ceremony, Eph.”
“Then come with us,” Ephiny said matter-of-factly. “Come back to the village, perform the ceremony and then return here to finish what you and Xena started.”
Gabrielle frowned. “You know I can't up and leave Xena in the lurch like that. Besides, I don't think I could stay separated from her for the time it would take to travel to the village and back, much less plan a joining ceremony and all.”
“Bring Xena along,” Ephiny shrugged. “The more the merrier, as far as I'm concerned. Besides, Eponin would appreciate having Xena there, if for no other reason than to have someone who can drink her under the table.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and chuckled. “I thought Braes was giving her a run for her money where the drinking is concerned.”
“She drinks him under the table, hands down,” Ephiny chuckled. “There are very few people in Greece who can hold a candle to Eponin when it comes to serious drinking.”
“Or Xena,” Gabrielle added with a wry grin.
“So,” Gabrielle eyed the regent. “It'll take us a moon's travel there and back, plus a fortnight to plan and execute the joining ceremony.”
“Oh, please,” Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Don't you think I've been giving this some thought? I already sent someone ahead to the village to notify them. Preparations are underway, as we speak. I figure if we get some fast horses and ride like the wind, we can make it back there in less than a fortnight.”
“You think Sol and the others will be keen on riding like a bunch of wild banshees?” Gabrielle shot back.
“If not, we'll leave them behind,” Ephiny shrugged. “They can stay here and continue overseeing the work that has to get done in preparation for your return. Then you two can make a grand entry into the city, like you should have done when we arrived a few weeks ago.”
“Not really our style,” Gabrielle said.
“Maybe not, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, just the same,” Ephiny argued. “Xena is the Conqueror and you are queen of the Thracian Amazons. You're also lifemates and are bound to each other under Amazon law and in the eyes of the Goddess Artemis. All of those count for more than a mere entry into a city.”
Gabrielle's expression turned thoughtful. “Yes, they do. And that's why you're not getting out of coming with us to Rome.”
“Huh?” Ephiny was bewildered by the abrupt change in topic. “What does you being queen of the Amazons have to do with…”
“A queen must have an escort,” Gabrielle grinned. “You keep pounding that one home. What better way for us to enter Rome without raising suspicions?”
“Why would the Romans care one way or another?”
“Because Xena is the Conqueror,” Gabrielle answered. “But if she arrives as my consort—as consort to the Queen of the Thracian Amazons—then, in Caesar's eyes, she is no longer a threat.”
Ephiny's eyes lit with understanding. “You conquer the Conqueror and Caesar will invite you to join him in his palace, so that he can see for himself that the Conqueror of Greece is no more.”
“A queen must have an escort,” Gabrielle reiterated with a nod. “What better way to distract the Romans from our true purpose?”
“Is this all part of Xena's plan?” Ephiny asked.
“No, but I'm sure she'll be open to it when I explain it to her tonight,” Gabrielle answered with a grin. “After all, what better way to infiltrate Rome and get the information she needs?”
“And if Caesar sees through the ruse and throws us all in some pit under the city? What then?”
“That's why we'll have Xena with us,” Gabrielle grinned slyly.
“I'm not sure I understand.”
“Just in case we need an instant backup plan,” Gabrielle explained. “Xena's really good at coming up with backup plans on the fly.”
“Ah, yes,” Ephiny finally understood. “I see your point.”
“And if all else fails, we'll kick a few Roman butts and get the hades out while we still can,” Gabrielle grinned. “Either way, it won't be a boring trip.”
“With you and Xena in the mix? I don't think boring is even a remote possibility,” Ephiny smirked.
Gabrielle was about to make a witty comeback, but decided to just keep her mouth shut. Truth be told, things were pretty exciting when Xena was around. She certainly hadn't experienced a dull moment since the Conqueror had ridden into Potidea not all that long ago. How long had it been since she'd been a servant in the keep at Surra?
“So,” Gabrielle shook off her musings. “When are you planning on returning to the village?”
“As soon as possible,” Ephiny answered. “Maybe morning after next?”
“Sounds good,” Gabrielle nodded. “It'll give me time to talk to Xena and for her to meet with those she's put in charge of the palace clean up. Maybe she'll have found a new seneschal by then. We still haven't figured out where Elestan ran off to.”
“Let's hope it wasn't Athens,” Ephiny rolled her eyes. “All we need is another traitor on the loose. Bad enough Xena had to hear that her own brother sold out to the stinking Romans.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed. “She keeps kicking herself for not seeing that coming. I really think she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially after all the history that's between them.”
“Will she really kill him when she gets her hands on him?” Ephiny asked.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. “I really don't know, Eph. She's certainly capable of doing it. But…”
“He's her brother,” Ephiny nodded her understanding. “It's hard when it's someone close to you, but having it be your own brother…I can't imagine what that must be like. I never had siblings. My mother died shortly after I was born, so…” She finished with a shrug.
“I guess I can't imagine Lila ever hating me enough to betray me,” Gabrielle said wistfully. “Then again, circumstances are what they are.”
“And people are who they are,” Ephiny added.
“Exactly,” Gabrielle agreed.
They both walked outside into the bright sunlight. Activity in the army's encampment was much as it was on any given day, except that many of the men were either on the practice field or inside the city walls working on getting the barracks rebuilt. Gabrielle waved absently to a few of the men who passed, as she and Ephiny made their way to where Eponin and Xena were standing.
“You two done with your little talk?” Eponin remarked as Gabrielle wrapped an arm around Xena's waist.
Ephiny unceremoniously linked arms with Eponin and started pulling her away. “Come on, Pon. Let's go see if Sol has finally returned with the rest of the queen's guard. I think I owe her an explanation, don't you?”
Eponin frowned. “Explanation? For what?”
“For why our queen decided to ditch her escort and run off to the practice field without them,” Ephiny's voice trailed off, as she and Eponin continued on their way. “See you guys later!” She called.
“Later!” Gabrielle returned and then looked up to find Xena staring at her with a bemused expression. “What?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Xena sat down on a bench around one of the cold campfires. “You want to tell me what the two of you were discussing in there? Anything important I should know about?”
Gabrielle sat down on the bench next to Xena and leaned her head against the leather-clad shoulder. “Want to take a little side trip before our big adventure in Rome?”
“I don't know,” Xena stared off into the distance. “Where would we go? Who is coming with us? And will I enjoy it?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “The Thracian village. Eph, Eponin and the guard. And I can certainly try to make it worth your while—at least, as much as I can in the presence of my Amazon escort.”
Xena sighed heavily and hung her head. “What's the deal this time?”
“A joining ceremony,” Gabrielle put a hand to Xena's neck and rubbed the muscles there. “You can stay here, if you like. But Eph wants me there to perform the ceremony for her and Eponin. They want to start a family soon and really want to get the joining ceremony out of the way before we head to Rome.”
“Do you know how long this will take?” Xena raised her head and looked into the green eyes watching her expectantly. “I don't know if we have that kind of time, Gabrielle.”
“Ephiny sent a messenger ahead to notify the village that we're coming,” Gabrielle said. “The ceremony will be done in a day, maybe two. Then we can return here and make sail for Rome before the next new moon.”
“And what about Corinth?” Xena pointed out. “There's still a lot of work that needs to be done here. I can't just go gallivanting off to the Amazons and leave this place—“
“In the hands of Braes and Agatha?” Gabrielle cut in. “Why not? Agatha alone is more than capable of overseeing the cleaning and repair of the palace itself. And Braes is your general. He should be able to handle the army.”
“I expect new troops to start arriving any day,” Xena argued. “I can't just leave Braes to make sure they understand my brand of discipline and training. They're coming here to serve under the Conqueror, not her general.”
“And Braes is more than capable of whipping them into shape in your absence,” Gabrielle countered. “Just as Agatha is capable of whipping the servants into shape, including those who've been arriving daily from the outlying villages. I've seen her at work, Xena. She's amazing. She took those young giggly girls from Artreaus and had them scrubbing floors, airing linens and doing the laundry with little-to-no fuss only candlemarks after their arrival. Agatha rules over your household like you rule over the land.” She patted Xena's forearm. “Things will be fine during the few weeks it will take us to travel to the village and back.” Gabrielle then decided to seal the deal and forestall any further arguments. “Besides, I need you there with me. I can't go a day without you, much less spend an entire moon separated from you.”
“Yeah, how'd I know that was coming?” Xena shot Gabrielle a wry grin.
“Because you know you'd go crazy and start lopping off heads if I left you behind,” Gabrielle wiggled her brows a few times to emphasize her point.
Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and squeezed. “You're probably right. And it would sure be a lot more fun than traveling with a bunch of crazy Amazons.”
Gabrielle backhanded Xena in the belly. “Remember that you're married to one of those crazy Amazons, champ.”
“No,” Xena took Gabrielle's face in her hands. “I'm married to you.”
And then she planted a smoldering kiss on Gabrielle's lips before the woman could protest or argue further.
“Okay, then,” Gabrielle exhaled when the kiss finally ended. “Then you're not going?”
“Oh, I'm going, all right,” Xena watched the confusion flash in Gabrielle's expression. “I don't trust your Amazons to keep you out of trouble, especially not after what happened the last time we were apart.”
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. “Are you saying I get into trouble?”
Xena's eyes widened and she realized she was in trouble. “Uh, no. Not what I'm saying at all, sweetheart.” She then pulled Gabrielle close and dropped a kiss on top of the blond head.
“Yeah, that's what I thought,” Gabrielle said.
A week later, they were finally on their way. A heavy cloud cover had settled in the previous day and didn't look like it would be breaking anytime soon. Gabrielle glanced up at the murky gray sky and watched a crow make its way from one tree to the next. The dark bird eyed them warily and opened its mouth to caw loudly. Another crow answered the first and soon there was an entire flock of them in the trees above them.
“Creepy,” Eponin glanced up at the birds from atop her sorrel mare. “Why do they do that?”
“I really don't know,” Gabrielle answered and then kicked her own mount into a faster trot until she was alongside Xena's tall stallion. “We're being watched.” She pointed to the trees above with her chin. “You think...”
“I hope not,” Xena cut her off. “I really don't want to tangle with the damned gods on this trip.”
Gabrielle shot her an incredulous look. “I was thinking more along the lines of trouble, but—” She shivered. “Do you think the gods sent them?”
Xena considered the question for a moment. “I don't believe in superstition, so—” She shrugged. “Could just be a flock of crows. Who knows?”
“Hey,” Ephiny pulled her mount up on Xena's other side. “The others are getting a little creeped out by our friends up there.” She glanced up to emphasize her point.
“So?” Xena responded with a shrug. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“They're just crows, Eph,” Gabrielle put in. “It's not really a big deal.”
“Tell the others that, your majesty,” Ephiny leaned forward and glared at Gabrielle. “We're Amazons. It's in our nature to be suspicious of natural phenomena. Besides, they've been following us for leagues. It's like they're tracking us or something.” She shivered unconsciously. “Seriously, it's even creeping me out a little.”
Xena searched the trees and watched closely as a few of the crows appeared to hop from one tree to the next in pursuit of their group. She slowed her mount, glanced up as the sun broke through the clouds, then nodded to herself.
“Let's take a break,” Xena said, pulling her mount to a halt and launching herself into the nearest tree with a quick somersault.
The others pulled their mounts to a halt in the middle of the road and watched Xena ascend like a monkey into the trees. She quickly disappeared into the canopy above. A ruckus of squawking and flapping wings soon followed. Several birds launched themselves into the overcast sky above and flew away, while others continued squawking loudly, until several fell to the ground around the stunned Amazons. Ephiny and Eponin glanced down at the dead birds and then at each other with trepidation.
“Don't. Say. A. Word.” Ephiny rolled her eyes and ground her teeth.
Several moments later, Xena dropped back down and landed atop her stallion with practiced ease. She resheathed her sword and grinned in satisfaction.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena with a raised brow look. “Find anything interesting up there?”
“Not really,” Xena answered with a smug grin. “It was fun to bash a few heads, though.”
Gabrielle glanced at the dead birds on the ground around them. “You killed birds, Xena.”
“They attacked me, Gabrielle,” Xena shot back drolly. “What would you have me do? Let them pick my eyes out and eat ‘em?”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head and then stared into the laughing blue eyes gazing back at her. “I love your eyes. They're one of your most striking features.” She glanced up at the canopy above. “They going to keep following us all the way back to the village?”
Xena shrugged. “Don't know. I thought the god responsible might want a private conversation, but no one showed up. So, I really can't say. Maybe the birds are just curious about a bunch of leather-clad women on horseback riding through their forest.”
“Do you think we can outdistance them?” Gabrielle kicked her mount into a trot and then nudged the gelding into a canter. “Last one to the village is a rotten—”
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances, while Xena merely kicked her mount into a gallop and followed in Gabrielle's wake. The others sat there looking at each other in dumbfounded silence, as the birds above them converged on them all at once. There was a cacophony deafening squawks as the birds descended to the lowest branches, as if they were scolding the remaining riders.
The women sat there with their hands over their ears and looked at each other. When it was as if the birds would not stop their loud chatter, Eponin unsheathed her own sword and charged toward one of the trees. She swung wildly at the birds closest to her and managed to make several of them fly away in fear. The other Amazons decided to do the same and scared away more of the squawking birds.
As soon as the noise died down to a more tolerable level, Ephiny removed her hands from her ears. She glanced at the rest of the group watching her expectantly.
“I'm getting too old for this,” Ephiny said with an exasperated eye roll and turned her mount to follow after Xena and Gabrielle.
“You think you're too old?” Eponin resheathed her sword and turned her own mount. “I think I got a year or two on you there, Eph.”
The curly-haired blond glanced up at the canopy above. “I don't think Xena's little conversation with our friends worked out all that well.”
Eponin looked up, as well. “I wouldn't call them friends if I were you. Those things look ready to attack.” And then a glob of bird poop landed on her shoulder. “Ew!”
“You just scared the crap out of them,” Ephiny chuckled, as she leaned forward and kicked her mount into a fast gallop. “Literally, Pon.”
“Ha, ha,” Eponin replied sarcastically, as she tried her best to wipe away the mess on her shoulder. “That was sooooo not funny.”
The other Amazons were already spurring their mounts into gallops. Ephiny could see the others riding ahead, but couldn't see Xena and Gabrielle anymore. She hoped the two hadn't decided to ditch them, again. Then she silently wished the trip was already completed.
In the meantime, Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at the empty road behind them. “Did we lose them?”
“Not likely,” Xena answered and glanced over her shoulder. “But a girl can sure hope.”
“I wasn't talking about the Amazons, Xe,” Gabrielle chuckled, then glanced overhead. “Do you think we were able to ditch the crows?”
Xena listened intently for a moment. “Not yet. We'll be out of these trees shortly, so we should leave them behind us.”
Gabrielle slowed to a trot and a walk and almost smiled when Xena instinctively did the same. She marveled at how comfortable Xena was in the saddle and watched the subtle movements of her lover's body, as Xena made minor adjustments to her seat without even giving it a thought.
“I love watching you ride,” Gabrielle commented.
Xena met Gabrielle's gaze and smiled. “You're doing a lot better in the saddle than when we first met.”
“I was tied belly-down to a horse, Xena,” Gabrielle frowned in memory. “I hardly think that counts. And it most certainly wasn't a comfortable way to travel.”
Xena looked away. “Yeah, sorry about that. Agatha gave me an earful over it, let me tell ya.”
“She gave you an earful about our leaving her in the lurch,” Gabrielle snickered. “I thought she was going to beat you with that wooden spoon she's always carrying around. I have yet to see her actually use it to cook something.”
“I think it's mostly for intimidation,” Xena relaxed for the first time that day. “She kept waving the thing like it was a sword, as she ranted and raved about all the work that still needed to be done. I left before she could launch into a full-blown rant.”
Xena knew the Amazons were doing their best to hang back enough to allow them a modicum of privacy while they traveled, but she could still feel their presence at her back when they were there. They had yet to catch up and that was just fine with Xena. She was happy to have some alone-time with Gabrielle for as long as it lasted, without curious eyes watching them.
“I feel a little guilty for leaving Agatha and Braes in charge while we're out here on the road,” Gabrielle said, unaware where Xena's thoughts had turned. “It's really not fair.”
“They'll survive,” Xena added. “Braes has his orders and will carry them out without question. Agatha, well,” she shrugged, “I'm sure I'll hear about it when we return. But she was in charge of the keep at Surra long enough to know what needs to be done at Corinth.”
“The palace is much bigger than the keep was at Surra, Xena,” Gabrielle pointed out. “And the place is a mess of epic proportions. How in the world did that much damage occur over the years without anyone taking the time to let you know?”
Xena shrugged. “Who knows when Elestan up and disappeared? He could have run off after I did, for all I know.”
“And when did you leave?” Gabrielle asked.
“Shortly after I finally took control of the city and killed their king,” Xena shrugged. “The battle and siege of the city was far bloodier than I'd anticipated. I lost a third of my army in the battle alone, while Corinth lost more than half their army and a great many of the city's inhabitants. The king at the time—Laerites I think his name was—didn't want to give up his power. But he'd already sent his cavalry against us without provocation. It pissed me off. So I marched my army right up to the city gates. We set up a siege and cut off their supplies, poisoned their water supply—basically I cut them off from the rest of the world. The city wasn't prepared for a long siege.
“My men knew what needed to be done and did it without question,” Xena's expression turned wistful. “Inhabitants of the city started scaling the walls and jumping to their deaths after a fortnight. Apparently the food ran out and the filth and waste was too much for them. A number of weaker ones contracted diseases and pestilence. When we finally were able to breach the walls, what we found was beyond anything I could have imagined.”
“What did you find?” Gabrielle prodded when Xena didn't immediately continue.
“Bodies piled in the city square,” Xena shook her head. “We had no idea there was nowhere inside the city gates to dispose of bodies.” She turned her gaze on Gabrielle. “They'd paved the whole damned city and there wasn't a patch of open ground anywhere. Idiots.”
“Why didn't they just throw them over the wall or something?” Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. “They could have at least burned the bodies, couldn't they?”
“Not without starting the entire city on fire,” Xena crossed her wrists over her saddle bow and sighed. “We were already sending catapults of burning pitch over the walls on a regular basis. The stables were the first to go up in flames, with the cavalry's horses still inside. There was nowhere for them to go, either.”
“It must have been awful,” Gabrielle shuddered. “All those innocent people didn't have to die.”
“I gave them a choice every day,” Xena said. “I stood on a platform and shouted for them to surrender to my army. All they had to do was open the gates and we would have spared the populace. But their king was an ass. He didn't care about his people as much as he cared about his precious palace and the treasury within its walls. He'd already bled the surrounding countryside dry of its wealth long before I showed up. His tyranny, however, was more familiar to them than mine, I guess.”
“So they remained loyal to him, rather than surrender to you,” Gabrielle nodded her understanding. “I don't really blame them, Xena. It's sometimes much easier to continue to serve the enemy you know than to allow an unknown enemy to change the status quo.”
“Doesn't mean they weren't idiots,” Xena said.
“No,” Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's thigh. “And they didn't know you as the just ruler that I do.”
Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers, lifted it and placed a gentle kiss against Gabrielle's knuckles. “Thanks, love.”
Just then, Xena stiffened and dropped Gabrielle's hand.
“What is it?” Gabrielle turned her attention to the road ahead.
“Trouble,” Xena suddenly kicked her mount forward and took off.
A split second later, Gabrielle did the same. “ Hiyaaaaah! ”
As they both cleared the woods and emerged into the blinding sunlight of late afternoon, they rode right into the midst of chaos in an open field. Xena unsheathed her sword, yanked back on the reins to halt her dark stallion and launched herself over his head. She landed with her feet apart and her sword at the ready, facing off against three scruffy ruffians in worn leather who had a woman pinned to the ground between them.
Xena knew there was a village close by. There were several women amidst the ruffians and several overturned or broken jars of water were lying scattered around the area. The women were obviously on their way back to the village from the river, which was less than half a league to the north. There were more than ten scruffy thugs. Some were chasing the women with their swords drawn, while others already had a woman or two pinned between them. Their intent was clear.
“Pick on someone your own size!” Xena called loudly to get their attention.
The three thugs closest to her turned in unison and charged forward. Xena was ready for them. She swung her blade in a wide arc and knocked two of the three men back. She then high-kicked the third in the face, knocking his head back and sending him sprawling. Another thug came at her from the left and she blocked his sword with her own.
He was quick with his blade, but Xena was quicker. She blocked another strike, spun around and punched him in the face. He shook his head and came at her again. She caught his blade on her own and let him get to within inches, then head-butted him in the nose and shoved him away.
Xena could hear Gabrielle fighting somewhere behind her, but didn't take the time to check to see how she was doing. She knew Gabrielle had her staff with her and figured she would use it to take on some of the others. She could still hear women screaming behind her, but was too occupied with the thugs in front of her to pay much attention.
Gabrielle had her staff in hand when she dismounted and joined the fight to defend the women. She jumped right in and swung her staff at the head of the closest thug. A shiver of horror raced through her when she saw what the men intended. Images of her own rape at the hands of one of the servants in the keep at Surra flashed through her mind and almost stopped her in her tracks. But she quickly shook off her dark memories and let her anger loose on the men.
A loud crack rent the air, as her staff struck with deadly purpose and took the thug down in a spray of blood. Gabrielle didn't wait to assess the damage she had inflicted on the man. She merely turned on the next guy and swung with all her might. Unfortunately, he moved at the last possible second and she merely struck a glancing blow off his leather-clad shoulder. Rolling away from his unexpected attacker, the man came up with his sword in motion and an evil gap-toothed grin on his face.
“Well, well, well,” He chuckled when his blade was stopped by Gabrielle's staff. “You're a pretty, young thing, aren't you?” He glanced at the muscles bulging in her arms. “And a fighter, too. Oo, I'm gonna enjoy this.”
Gabrielle didn't speak. She merely set her stance and held firm, waiting for him to make the next move. He did. He threw her back and swung his blade. But he wasn't quite prepared for the quick thrust of her staff into his midsection. The wooden tip struck him just under his sternum and knocked the breath out of him. Gabrielle let him double over and then struck the back of his head with the staff.
But she barely had time to revel in her brief victory, as one of his comrades tossed the woman he was holding aside and focused on Gabrielle, instead. He was younger and more agile than the other thug and it was all Gabrielle could do to counter his attacks.
A noise behind her distracted her for a split-second and it was just enough for him to find the opening he was waiting for. Gabrielle's focus returned just as she felt the hiss of the blade that passed within a hair's-breath of her left ear. Instinctively ducking away, she felt the blade graze her shoulder. It stung like crazy, but she ignored the pain and blocked his backswing.
With quick, sure movements, Gabrielle dodged his subsequent swings and blocked a thrust toward her midsection. As she caught his blade on her staff, she spun around and used the other end of the staff to come at his unprotected side. She managed to strike a hard blow to his ribs, before he came back with a counterattack that put her back on the defensive.
They continued to exchange swings, blocks and counterattacks. Sweat poured off them both, as the clouds finally dissipated and the late-afternoon sun broke through. And then Gabrielle heard a blessed battle cry that signaled that her escort had finally caught up to them and were joining the fray.
“See, I told you!” Gabrielle heard Ephiny's shout above the battle din.
“I'm glad I didn't take that bet!” Eponin's answering shout rang out over the cries of relief from the village women.
Gabrielle ignored her Amazon sisters, as she continued to engage the young ruffian still fighting furiously in front of her. She could feel the trickle of blood down her arm and hoped it was just a flesh wound. She really didn't want to hear the fallout from something more serious.
Her opponent hopped over her staff as she swept it toward his unprotected legs. He then countered by trying to bring his blade down flat on her head. But Gabrielle was quick enough to move out of his way. His blade hit the ground and she spun around to deliver a blow to his unprotected back. But he spun the other way and met her staff with his blade, effectively blocking her strike.
He suddenly stiffened with eyes wide and fell forward face-first onto the ground at her feet. Gabrielle gave Ephiny a tired smile, as she swiped the sweat from her eyes.
“Thanks, Eph,” Gabrielle said with a relieved sigh.
“No problem,” the regent grinned back and motioned to Gabrielle's shoulder wound. “You're bleeding, your majesty.”
Gabrielle glanced at the slice and winced. “Damn. Xena's gonna…”
“It's just a flesh wound,” the familiar voice next to Gabrielle said. “Probably won't even need stitches.”
Gabrielle glanced up into blue eyes shining with a hint of childish glee. “You enjoyed this fight, didn't you?”
“Nothing like bashing a few heads in to get my juices flowing,” Xena grinned. “Better than killing a bunch of lousy crows, let me tell ya. But we'd better take care of that cut. Don't want it getting infected or anything.”
Gabrielle then glanced around and noticed that the fight was over. Men were sprawled on the ground, while the village women were being comforted by Solari and the others.
“What happened to the rest of those guys?” Gabrielle noticed there were only about half lying on the ground. “I thought there were a lot more than this.”
“They rabbited as soon as we showed up,” Eponin answered glumly. “Can't believe you two got to have all that fun without us. Not fair, yer maj.”
“Yeah, like that was fun,” Gabrielle put her hand to her shoulder to stop the blood from oozing from the slice.
“Another one get past your guard, yer maj?” Eponin asked. “You gotta get more sparring lessons in if you're gonna be doing stuff like this.”
“It's just a cut,” Gabrielle snapped defensively. “It's nothing.”
Ugh! She was tired of always being the one to take the knocks in a fight and wished she could just speed up time, so she could be the warrior she was supposed to be. Then again, she thought as she glanced over to see Xena watching her expectantly, maybe speeding up time wasn't such a good thing. After all, she had Xena to give her all the lessons she needed.
“Well, let's take a break anyway,” Xena suggested. “Your Amazons can clean up this mess, get the women on their way, while we take care of cleaning you up so we can get back on the road.”
“Agreed,” Ephiny nodded and herded Eponin back towards the sprawled bodies and the women. “Come on, Pon. Let's leave Xena and her majesty to it and get to work.”
Gabrielle sat on a fallen log and stared out over the sparkling water spread out in front of her. It was quiet enough that she could actually think, and her thoughts quickly turned to the recent battle. She pondered what she'd done and realized, for the most part, she'd done everything right. She'd even managed not to get her ear lopped off, despite the cut that Xena was currently treating.
“I think I killed one of them,” the words came out barely above a whisper.
“Hm?” Xena looked up from the wound she was cleaning.
Gabrielle turned her head and looked into Xena's eyes. “I think I killed one of those men with my staff,” she said and swallowed over the lump in her throat. “I hit him so hard that blood…” She shook her head at the gruesome image that came to her mind. “I'm not sure if I killed him or if he'll eventually just bleed to death. I don't know.”
Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's back, as the woman stared sightlessly out over the sparkling water and a single tear slid down Gabrielle's cheek. Xena brushed the tear away with her thumb and caressed Gabrielle's cheek with the backs of her fingers.
“I'm sorry,” was all Xena could think of to say.
“For what?” Gabrielle sniffed back the remaining tears and turned her face to Xena's. “It wasn't your fault, Xena.”
Xena grinned wryly. “Traveling with me—living with me, for that matter—brings a certain amount of violence and darkness that I really never wanted someone like you to experience, Gabrielle. You're so—” She shrugged. “You were so innocent before I stormed into your village and destroyed everything that you held dear.”
Gabrielle turned completely and took Xena's hands in hers. “I was no more an innocent than those women we just saved, Xena. Life is hard, harder than I ever imagined. I lost my family long before you came and saved me.” She saw the skepticism in Xena's eyes. “Yes, you did, Xena. You saved me from a fate worse than death. I would have had to watch Lila waste away and die, then try to eke out an existence without anyone.” She placed a kiss on the back of each of Xena's hands. “I love you, Xena. You're my life now. I love all of you, even the darkness that you think lives inside of you.” She lifted a hand and brushed Xena's cheek with her fingers. “Where you go, I go—even if it's to the bowels of Tartarus.”
Xena reached out and pulled Gabrielle's head close until their foreheads rested against each other. “You are the best thing in my life, Gabrielle. I don't ever want to lose you.”
“You won't,” Gabrielle reveled in their closeness, as Xena's lips found hers and they shared a slow, lingering kiss that expressed far more than words ever could.
“Ahem.” The throat clearing had them both moving back reluctantly and turning to glare at the intruder.
“Yes, Eph?” Gabrielle cocked her chin and shot the regent an irritated look.
“Sorry,” Ephiny absently toed the sand beneath her sandaled feet without looking at the two women. “Didn't mean to interrupt.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Xena growled low. “Seems to be going around these days.”
Xena resumed her task of cleaning and treating the cut on Gabrielle's arm, while Ephiny stood there expectantly.
“I take it everything's squared away with the women and the guys who attacked them?” Gabrielle finally asked, when she felt the uncomfortable silence had gone on long enough.
“Sol and several others escorted the women back to their village and returned with the constable and his men,” Ephiny explained, as she kept her gaze on the lake. “The constable said he'll get word to the other villages to keep an eye out for the rest of those guys—the ones that got away.”
“That's good,” Gabrielle winced slightly as Xena tied off the clean strip of cloth she used as a bandage.
“How's the arm, your majesty?” Ephiny asked tentatively, as she finally looked at Gabrielle.
“It's fine,” Gabrielle answered, as she tested the arm's mobility by swinging it around a few times.
“I'm sorry we let you down—again,” Ephiny apologized. “We should have kept up with you two and we didn't. Those stupid crows had us all spooked, and we let that get to us when we shouldn't have. It was inexcusable.”
Xena stood up, turned and crossed her arms over her chest. “We ditched you, not the other way around, Ephiny. Besides, we can take care of ourselves.” She shot a grin over her shoulder to Gabrielle and winked, receiving an answering grin from the still-seated woman. Then she turned her head to face the regent. “Despite what Eponin says and the rest of you think, Gabrielle is pretty good with that staff of hers. She's well on her way to being one of the better warriors in your tribe. So, you really don't need to think that you always have to be there to protect her, Eph. She's good enough now that she can take care of herself.”
Ephiny glanced past Xena to Gabrielle. Standing up to join Xena, Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest, as well.
“I know you all think I'm just a kid,” Gabrielle said. “But I'm not, Eph. The sooner you realize that I'm as capable as the rest of you, the easier this will be for all of us.”
“I don't think of you as a kid, your majesty,” Ephiny corrected. “I just—” She inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. “You're our queen. And as your regent it's my duty to do what's best for both you and the tribe. If that means protecting you from danger—”
“Since when was I in danger?” Gabrielle cut in. “Ephiny, you and Eponin and Solari—you all seem to think I'm this helpless little girl who needs to be sheltered and protected from every thug, ruffian and bandit out here. Ever since we set out yesterday, you guys haven't left us alone for one moment. It's like you're afraid that if you let me out of your sight, I'll vanish or something.” She glanced up at her silent partner. “Xena is perfectly capable of watching out for me. That's why I appointed her to be my champion.” She turned back to Ephiny. “And I appointed you as regent because you know what's best for and will always do what's best for the tribe.”
“And that means keeping you safe, your majesty,” Ephiny countered. “No matter how much you argue, the fact is you are queen of our tribe. You are more than just a figurehead who wears a mask and gives orders. It is an important job, a vital role within our tribe, and we just can't lose another ruler right now. That kind of blow in the wake of all that's recently happened would tear apart the very fabric of our existence. It might even send the Nation as a whole into a downward spiral that we could never recover from. Can you understand that?”
Gabrielle thought about what Ephiny was trying to say. Was she really that important to the Thracian Amazons, much less the Amazon Nation as a whole? She didn't think so. After all, she hadn't been queen for more than a few moons and most of that time had been spent away from the village. She hadn't really been ruler of the tribe itself, as much as she was Xena's shadow and companion. And what about the other tribes? How did they fit into the grander scheme of things? How did she fit in with them?
Gabrielle thought about what had happened to Gwyn-Taleen's tribe after their queen had followed in Velasca's footsteps and conspired against Xena and the Amazon Nation. A shiver of recollection raced down Gabrielle's spine when she thought back to what Sehran had done to Gwyn-Taleen.
Sehran. Despite her attempt to take the Thracian queen's mask during her challenge with Gabrielle and despite the tired rhetoric she continued to spew, she still remained loyal to the Amazons to the bitter end.
Gabrielle could still remember with vivid clarity what happened to Sehran, just as if it had happened just the other day. Someone from Gwyn-Taleen's tribe had snuck into the Amazon encampment and slit Sehran's throat before anyone could sound an alarm. Gabrielle was then called to the gruesome scene at dawn the very next morning. She was handed a torn piece of parchment with two words scribbled on it in Sehran's blood: “Velasca lives.”
Realizing the note could only mean one thing, Gabrielle felt a moment of regret for her part in Sehran's death. Sehran was brutally murdered because she had finally accepted Gabrielle as the rightful heir to Melosa's throne. And that acceptance came at a terrible price.
Although Sehran never agreed with Gabrielle's ideals for the eventual peaceful existence of the Amazons, she was eventually willing to listen to and accept what Gabrielle had to say. That was why Sehran had taken it upon herself to mete out her own brand of justice to Gwyn-Taleen. She saw herself as the arm of justice—an extension of Gabrielle's vision for a peaceful nation.
Gabrielle didn't agree with Sehran's twisted interpretation of her vision, and had confronted Sehran about it on more than one occasion. But Sehran was adamant that it was her role, her duty, to be the one to carry out justice for Gabrielle's vision of peace. And it took all Gabrielle's skills as both a bard and a philosopher to counter Sehran's arguments. In the end, however, they merely agreed to disagree.
Sehran was still being held under heavy guard in a small tent on the outskirts of the encampment when the assassin struck. After questioning all of the guards and coming up with no answers, Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin and Solari launched a full investigation. But that yielded absolutely nothing but more questions.
Then a hunting party happened upon a small abandoned encampment not a league from where the army and the Amazons were camped. The party tracked two Amazons down, captured them and brought them back to the main encampment. After a few grueling sessions with Xena and Eponin, one of the women finally cracked and spilled everything.
N'ga-Illya told them that several members of Gwyn-Taleen's tribe had learned of their queen's death at the hands of one of their allies in Velasca's cause. So, they sent N'ga-Illya and her sister, T'lyea, to assassinate the traitor. The news that there were still a few loyal followers of Velasca's still out there was a bit unnerving, but not as much as the look in N'ga-Illya's eyes when she turned to Gabrielle and said she would die a long and painful death.
For her part, Gabrielle merely met the woman's gaze for several long moments, before she pronounced her sentence. Both Amazons were then bound and taken to the center of the encampment where a large crowd was gathered. Gabrielle, despite the churning in the pit of her stomach, then ordered Solari and Eponin to carry out the sentence in front of the entire assemblage.
It was all Gabrielle could do to keep from being sick right there on the spot. She also had to force herself to watch as both women's heads were severed from their bodies in unison. As the bodies dropped to the ground, Gabrielle was grateful for the familiar presence at her back and the strong hands on her shoulders. She stifled the urge to turn away from the gruesome scene and bury her face into Xena's chest. She also just kept her emotions under control and her expression locked in a stoic mask of indifference, as the two executioners turned and bowed formally to her.
She could still hear Eponin's somber words echoing in her mind's eye, “It is done, yer majesty.”
When all was said and done, however, Gabrielle could no longer hold it together once she reached the safety and privacy of the tent she shared with Xena. The instant the tent flap fell back into place, she collapsed bonelessly against the woman who walked in right behind her.
Xena caught her and carried her to their furs, where Gabrielle broke down into heart-wrenching sobs that lasted nearly half a candlemark. She cried for the lives she'd once again been forced to take, as well as for Sehran's untimely death. Gabrielle also cried over the decision she'd had to make in regards to ending Nora's life. It all washed over her and threatened to send her plunging into a dark emotional abyss.
Then Xena's voice lifted in a gentle song and pulled Gabrielle back to herself. The gentle strains soothed the ragged edges of her battered soul and uplifted her spirit. It wasn't long before the sobs turned to sniffles, and Gabrielle felt her world right itself again. She sat there in the cocoon of her lover's arms and let the peaceful strains provide the soothing balm her heart so desperately needed.
And then they made slow and gentle love until Gabrielle knew everything would be okay.
“You still with us, your majesty?” Ephiny's question suddenly intruded on Gabrielle's thoughts. “Earth to Gabrielle. Hey!”
“I…uh…Sorry, I was just thinking about something,” Gabrielle shook the last vestiges of those painful memories away, as she felt an arm slide around her shoulders and pull her close.
Xena leaned down and put her lips against Gabrielle's hair. “You okay?” She asked in a gentle whisper for Gabrielle's ears alone.
Gabrielle turned her head enough so that only Xena could hear her next words. “I'll tell you later,” she said quietly, then turned back to Ephiny. “I understand what you're saying, Ephiny. I really do. But the fact of the matter is I'm not some helpless wallflower who needs to be shielded every time something violent happens. I'm still learning how to be a warrior in my own right, but I'm also more than capable of defending myself and lending a helping hand when the need arises. I won't shy away from a fight, even if you and the others aren't there to watch my back.” She then squeezed Xena's waist. “And I have Xena, here, to do that for me.”
“Yeah, well,” Ephiny blew out an exasperated breath. “Doesn't mean I'm going to stop worrying when you take a knock to the head or a slice from a blade.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Unfortunately,” she glanced at her bandaged shoulder, “it kinda comes with the territory. I'm sure you and Solari have your share of war wounds and battle scars. And I've seen the ones that Eponin carries around on her body like small badges of honor.”
“Yeah, well, we aren't the queen, either,” Ephiny countered only halfheartedly. “And we earned our scars long before you came along.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I have a few deep scars of my own, Eph. They just aren't the kind that you can see, because I don't carry them on the outside.” She watched Ephiny's expression reflect her confusion. “Sometimes the emotional scars are harder to bear than the physical ones. They can also cut the deepest and take the longest to heal. But those scars also make us stronger,” she pointed to her chest, “here,” and then to her head, “and here.”
“Ah,” Ephiny's expression suddenly reflected her understanding and she nodded. “I think I understand what you're saying, your majesty.”
“And stop with the ‘your majesties,' will ya?” Gabrielle huffed. “It's Gabrielle from here on out. I don't want to hear another ‘your majesty' leave your lips until we get back to the village. And make sure the rest of them know it, too. Out here we're all on the same level.”
“No arguments,” Gabrielle cut in. “That's an order.”
“Yes, Gabrielle,” Ephiny couldn't help the grin that split her features. “As you wish.”
“What I really wish,” Gabrielle continued with a saucy grin, “is for you and the others to make camp on the other side of those trees, while Xena and I make our camp here for the night. We need a little time away from you guys for a while.” She watched Ephiny's expression drop. “Not that we don't like you or anything. We just need some space. Okay?”
“Okay,” Ephiny nodded her understanding. “I'll have someone bring your horses and gear to you, right away.”
“Thanks, Eph,” Gabrielle said, as the regent turned to leave. “I really appreciate you doing this.”
“You owe me,” Ephiny shot them a look of annoyance. Then she added, “Both of you owe me, big time.”
Xena moved in behind Gabrielle and wrapped protective arms around her. They stood there watching Ephiny disappear back into the trees and then turned to watch the water shimmer like a million sparkling diamonds. A flock of ducks skimmed along the top of the water and finally landed in the shimmering lake. Their quacks were just loud enough for the two women to hear.
“Nice,” Xena dropped a kiss on top of the blond head beneath her chin.
“It is nice, isn't it?” Gabrielle sighed and leaned back into the embrace. “It's beautiful here. Peaceful. I'm looking forward to a little alone time with you.”
“Actually,” Xena said, as she turned Gabrielle to face her. “I was thinking of how nice it was having you stand up to Ephiny like that.” She rubbed Gabrielle's bare upper arms, careful not to touch the bandage. “I have to say I am thoroughly impressed.”
“Yeah, well,” Gabrielle closed the distance between them and let her head rest against Xena's chest, as she wrapped her arms around her. “Don't get too impressed. I did it so I wouldn't have to listen to the others go on and on about how much they envied us for what we did back there. It was purely self-motivated. Or should I say it was an act of pure self-preservation?”
Xena ran her fingers through Gabrielle's shoulder-length hair. “It's still nice to step aside and let you be the assertive one every once in a while.”
“Assertive?” Gabrielle looked up into Xena's face and saw the hint of laughter in those blue eyes. “You're pulling my leg, now, aren't you?”
Xena just hugged Gabrielle closer to her and placed another kiss on the top of her head. “I love you, my queen.”
“ Grrrrrr ,” Gabrielle growled low. “Don't you start that, now, too.”
A low chuckled followed her words.
Continued in Part 2
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