Stephen fidgeted, sitting at the Royals' dining room table.
Gabrielle brought a bowl of water and a cloth and sat down beside him. "Let me see."
"It's only a scratch."
"No more stories for you," Gabrielle threatened.
"That's blackmail," Stephen protested.
"Sisters are allowed to blackmail their stubborn, wounded brothers."
"I don't recall that rule."
Gabrielle raised his shirt and exposed the wound. It was a hand in length across his left shoulder blade. "That's because you weren't paying attention when the rules were recited. Just like you weren't paying attention to where you were going when you brushed against the tree branch."
Stephen protested, "I was chasing one of the highwaymen who tried to rob me."
"And your point is?" Gabrielle stopped and gave him a critical look.
"Isn't that reason enough?" he pouted.
"I think you've forgotten how to ride your stallion."
"I think it was easier for your brothers to impress you before you became a skilled horsewoman."
Gabrielle washed the wound. "It's not bad at all."
Stephen looked over his shoulder. "I told you."
"Still needs to be cleaned. I don't want to see the cut infected." Gabrielle continued her work.
"Some things don't change. Will you ever stop dawdling over us?"
"Please! Don't think I don't know how much you like my attention. If I am so terrible you wouldn't have told me about the cut."
"And how would I have explained the blood and torn shirt?"
"Then this show wasn't for me, was it? You would have put on your coat and I wouldn't have seen the damning evidence. Oh, I understand now. You came here ready to report to my Lord your great escapade with added embellishment no less and were disappointed to find only me in wait for you."
Being so rightly exposed Stephen could only laugh.
Gabrielle continued her playful rant. "Warriors. You are all the same. Comparing scars and telling tall tales about how you got them."
"I won't have a scar by this."
"And that is for the better. I would command all of my brothers to stay in one piece if it made any difference. I know better. I made the mistake of loving a warrior and her men."
Stephen grew serious. "You don't regret your love, do you?"
Gabrielle shifted her body to better see Stephen. She placed her hand on his cheek. "No Stephen, I don't. You have proven to me that there are men of honor in this world. I once stopped believing that to be true. It is wonderful to have my brothers and know I can count on all of you when I am in need of help."
Stephen recalled their first meeting, "So, you didn't believe me in the beginning."
Gabrielle remembered, "I didn't know what to believe." Gabrielle felt a sharp panic. She dropped her hand. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
Stephen observed the change and waited.
The feeling slipped away. Gabrielle blinked her eyes open and returned a troubled gaze to the Guardsman.
Stephen probed gently, "What is it?"
"I felt… I felt something was wrong. The feeling's gone now."
Stephen set formalities aside. "Is it Xena? Can you tell even from a distance?"
Gabrielle was surprised, "You know I can sense her?"
"Our bond has grown stronger since she returned from Scupi. It's hard to explain. I don't always know what I'm feeling."
"Maybe she ran into her own highwaymen. A moment of surprise?"
"Could be, but Xena is rarely surprised. She senses danger. The last time she was…" Again, Gabrielle did not complete the thought.
"I know." Stephen recalled the day they had been ambushed. As Xena later joked, having two hands, she could only catch two of the three arrows. Though extraordinarily gifted, she did have her limits. "If something is very wrong, would you know it?"
Gabrielle described their bond as best she could. "If she's feeling pain, or angry or frightened – yes."
"Then since you don't feel any of those things she must be all right," Stephen speculated.
"Or she isn't conscious…" Gabrielle feared the worst.
Stephen wrestled a sliver of optimism into the atmosphere of concern. "Don't worry. She won't leave you without a damned good fight."
"I'll be happy when she's home." Gabrielle returned to Stephen's wound. "I better put a bandage on that cut." She completed the task in silence.
Having his shirt drawn back down, Stephen stood up and tucked it under his belt. "I could take a few men and ride after her. I don't care if she calls me a mother hen."
Gabrielle was driven more by the memory of her dream than the one lone moment of panic. "I'm going with you."
The Queen's Guard assembled along with Stephen and another ten men. Jared escorted Gabrielle to Spirit. He preferred to join the search for Xena. However, he accepted that he best served her and Gabrielle by keeping Corinth for both of them. If there was trouble brewing, Corinth afforded the best strategic location to mobilize Greece's armies.
The General held his ward at arm's length. "Lass, promise me no heroics."
"Jared, I can only promise you I'll be careful."
"Have you had any more of your feelings?"
"No. I'm hoping that's a good thing." Gabrielle offered a muted smile, "Xena will wonder why I decided to multiply Acade's escort fivefold."
Jared consoled, "I'm sure the best bard in the land can come up with a good story."
"Other than a case of indigestion?"
Jared smiled. "She'll understand. Surely she'll welcome the company."
Trevor held Spirit's reins. Stephen waited on his stallion.
As Gabrielle mounted Spirit, Jared went to Stephen. "Bring them both back safe."
Stephen nodded. He was the senior officer and would be second in command only to Gabrielle.
The search party rode the day, stopping after dusk. Stephen, Trevor and Samuel split shifts, one always standing at Gabrielle's tent entrance. Though the effort could have been delegated, Stephen insisted on the assignment. Trevor and Samuel agreed that at times of uncertainty it would be they who closed ranks around their sister.
Mid-afternoon the second day they were approached by the Ambassador's contingent. Stephen reined his stallion to ride along side Gabrielle. The two proceeded alone. Ambassador Acade rode center in a line of three.
Gabrielle greeted the dignitary, "Ambassador Acade."
The Ambassador was gracious, "Your Majesty, this is a pleasant surprise. I apologize for my delay. I hope I have not inconvenienced you or the Conqueror."
Though her fear was confirmed, Gabrielle continued in a measured voice. "You did not meet the Conqueror in route? She rode with two Guardsmen to escort you to Corinth."
"No, Your Majesty. I did not have the honor." The Ambassador was sincere in his concern, "I hope she did not experience unforeseen trouble."
Gabrielle stayed on subject, "Ambassador, I need a complete report of your travels."
"As I wrote in my dispatch, we were assaulted by a gang of hoodlums. I lost three men. Two more were seriously injured. We needed the additional days to arrange for their care before continuing."
"There was no mention of an attack in the dispatch I read."
The Ambassador looked beyond Gabrielle, "Is my man with you?"
"No, he insisted on returning to you."
Stephen interjected, "Ambassador, I am sorry to say that your man is probably lying dead somewhere off the road between where he left you and Corinth."
Gabrielle added her own thought, "No one could have guessed that the Conqueror would choose to leave Corinth."
"Why did she come?" Though flattered, the Ambassador did not consider the gesture in keeping with diplomatic courtesy.
Gabrielle chose to given an honest though incomplete answer. "We wanted to expedite negotiations. If we had known of the attack, the Conqueror would have traveled with a formidable escort."
"My assailants may have meant to renew their attack. By killing my messenger and falsifying my dispatch they prevented reinforcements."
Stephen speculated, "Their plans may have changed when they saw the Conqueror. She is a greater prize for ransom or bounty."
The Ambassador considered a political motivation. "My kidnapping or death would have damaged relations between Persia and Greece."
Gabrielle spoke the name of their mutual enemy, "Rome."
Stephen dissected the logistical demands of such a covert effort. "Rome could not have done this alone. There had to be intelligence of Greece's diplomatic dealings. It was no secret among the Lords of Court that the Ambassador would be arriving in Corinth to review our trade agreements." Stephen gave Gabrielle a hard look. "With the discontent in the south…"
Gabrielle's correctly interpreted the unspoken accusation. "If he planned this he shall hang from a cross."
Ambassador Acade looked from Stephen to Gabrielle. "Who, Your Majesty?"
Stephen placed the man. "He is currently in Corinth."
Gabrielle was unimpressed. "Better to distance himself from an indictment for treason."
The Ambassador was willing to acquiesce to the Queen. "What do you suggest?"
Gabrielle was decisive. "General Jared is awaiting word from me. I will dispatch a messenger to Corinth with instructions to isolate Thanos. He shall be put under house arrest. My first priority is to find my Lord. Though Thanos is a probable culprit I cannot rule out other enemies of the realm. Ambassador, I suggest you continue to Corinth. I do not want to complicate the political landscape by taking the risk of your capture."
Acade was an honorable man unwilling to sidestep a fight. "Your Majesty, I and my men are prepared to offer our swords to Greece."
"And Greece is grateful. Ambassador, it is imperative that our dispatch travel unimpeded and in haste. Your swords will serve Greece well by providing escort."
Acade acceded, "As you wish."
Gabrielle spoke to Stephen, "Major, you have a half-candlemark to devise a plan for seeking out the Conqueror's whereabouts." She directed Acade, "Ambassador, please be ready to ride in a candlemark. I will have the dispatch ready at that time."
"We will be ready."
Gabrielle was grateful for the ally, "Thank you."
The Ambassador had always liked the Queen. "Your Majesty, if there is anything else I can…"
Gabrielle offered, "Pray the Fates are merciful to my Lord."
Gabrielle dismounted and led Spirit a distance away from the men. She took a cleansing breath, closed her eyes and reached out with her senses. She felt only her heart's quick beat. She focused on her breath and consciously calmed her emotions until all sounds both within her and outside of her were silenced. She tried a second time to seek Xena out. She did not sense her. Unlike when Xena was taken by the Gods to heal, neither did she feel an inconsolable emptiness. Gabrielle whispered, "Where are you, love? What have they done to you?" She wished her words could travel through their bond and disturb the hush that had taken residence.
Stephen broke the Guardsmen into teams. As they traveled the road they also searched the perimeter for any signs of the Conqueror and her escort. The morning of the third day a team called out to the others. Gabrielle dismounted and approached a circle of men. A path was opened to her. She saw the decapitated bodies of Anton and Geldpac.
She turned away in horror, taking Samuel's arm for support. "By the Gods." Samuel stood as a steady pillar while Gabrielle composed herself. She whispered, "Any sign of Xena?"
Samuel scanned the area, "No."
Stephen went to the fallen men and inspected their bodies. His fingertips traced a mark on Anton's neck. He found a similar mark on Geldpac's. He stood up and ordered Trevor, "Give them a proper burial." He went to Gabrielle. He looked to Samuel for guidance. Samuel nodded. Stephen spoke compassionately, "They have punctures on their necks. I think they were made by darts. The tips were probably dipped in a drug. I don't believe they suffered. You may be right. You haven't been sensing the Conqueror because they have been keeping her unconscious."
Stephen's words carried a modicum of hope. Gabrielle grasped onto that hope with all her might. "We need to move faster. Thanos has a fortress in Messene."
"That may be too obvious." Stephen held to his military discipline. "He could be keeping the Conqueror anywhere in the region. And we don't know for sure Thanos is involved."
Gabrielle countered, "Remember, the Conqueror wasn't their original target, Acade was. The stakes are higher and they know we will be coming after them. They won't waste time."
"One thing to our advantage is that we rode out before Acade arrived in Corinth. We are on their tails and they don't know it."
Gabrielle compromised, "We will stay with your strategy. We will send teams to the different local towns and villages in route. But I'm not going to wait. I'm going to Messene."
Stephen knew better than to argue. "Trevor and I will join you."
With a plan set Gabrielle was impatient to act. "Let's go. The other men can catch up."
Stephen saluted. "By your command." He turned to the others, "Men, let's go. We've got a job to do."
Samuel spoke gently, "I will be your fourth."
Gabrielle looked up to him, "No, Sam. We have too much territory to cover. I want you to lead a second team."
Samuel tried again, "Messene is a big city."
Gabrielle had already forced Stephen to alter his plans. She would not countermand him further. "If Stephen agrees we will take a second team."
Stephen and Trevor waited at the Proud Bull, a tavern and inn situated at the heart of Messene. The Guardsmen kept an eye on a group of Thanos' militiamen sitting, drinking their mid-day meal.
Trevor was mildly sarcastic, "What luck have we that we chose this tavern to meet Gabrielle?"
Stephen ignored Trevor's tone. "It's for the better. Now shut up and listen. You don't know what we may learn."
"We should have gone with her."
"I have never won an argument with Gabrielle. Anyway, she's right. She has a better chance of getting people to talk to her if she doesn't have us standing over her shoulder. We sure as Tartarus didn't have any luck getting answers by ourselves."
A young waitress by the name of Tess came to the table. She was attractive, of medium height with auburn shoulder length hair, hazel eyes and a light tan complexion. Her gestures were restrained. She withdrew physically, an air of caution lingered about her as she moved from one table to the next. She struck Stephen as too modest for a barmaid.
Tess came to their table. "Good day." Her voice possessed far more confidence than an observer of her meek manner would have expected.
Stephen smiled, "Good day."
"What can I get you?"
Stephen inquired, "How's the food here?"
"Passable," the barmaid reported honestly. "The stew and rye bread is worth a taste."
"Two servings then, and an ale for me and this woeful man." Stephen elbowed Trevor.
Tess looked from one man to the other. "Are you friends?"
Stephen smirked. "On a good day."
She smiled, "And on a bad day?"
"Strictly a professional relationship." Stephen grinned.
Trevor was at his patience's end. "Where is she?"
Stephen turned to him. "Don't worry."
The Captain bemoaned, "I shouldn't have let her go."
Stephen tried to lighten the mood. "Like you had a choice. I say again, she can take care of herself."
"Who?" Tess asked hoping they did not think she was prying.
Stephen answered. "His sister. Trevor has a protective streak yea long." He spread out his arms full length to make his point.
"Like you don't," Trevor snapped.
Stephen was righteous, "I have a different perspective."
"Don't go there, mister." Trevor's edginess caused him to be short. "Damn it, she is impossible."
Tess tried to ease the tension. "What is your sister's name."
Stephen spoke over Trevor. "Gabby."
Trevor realized the mistake he was about to make. Disgusted with himself, he shook his head. He muttered under his breath. "What is wrong with me?"
A number of the militiamen called for Tess.
"Excuse me, I need to take care of them." Tess reluctantly left the two men.
Stephen followed Tess with his gaze. There was something about the barmaid that he liked.
Trevor raised his head. He had his elbows on the table, his hands clasped in front of him. A thought came to him "She's going to kill you for that?"
Stephen responded absentmindedly, "Who?"
Stephen smiled and redirected his attention to Trevor. "She'll understand. Better then saying her name in public. Some security chief you are."
"Trevor, you don't see her for who she's become. You still think of Gabrielle as the girl who served us mead and entertained us with her stories. She's not the little sister we adopted because she gave us her heart asking nothing from us in return. We wanted to protect her, not yet knowing that she is as strong and as brave as a lion. She is all grown up now. She is our Queen. She has proven she can lead Greece, fight with us as an equal, and temper the most dangerous creature on earth – our Sovereign."
Trevor spoke of the other Gabrielle. "She still tells stories, still stitches our wounds, still loves us as brothers. You forget she can be hurt."
"You don't have to tell me what I see in her every time I look into her eyes."
Trevor fell silent.
Stephen turned to watch the table of militiamen. They were manhandling Tess.
Trevor noticed Stephen's intense gaze. He followed it. He understood Stephen well enough to know what he was thinking. He cautioned, "Man, you are not going to interfere."
"She doesn't deserve that."
Trevor lowered his voice. "Stephen, we're here to find the Conqueror, not rescue barmaids."
Stephen turned to him, his anger rising with each passing moment. "What would the Conqueror do if she was here?"
"Damn it to Tartarus!" Trevor cursed. "This is not my day."
Stephen stood up. "Watch my back."
As Gabrielle approached the tavern, a militiaman was hurled out of the establishment. She picked up the sounds of fighting. "Not good." She trotted to the door, collected her thoughts and then ducked inside. As she feared, a full-out tavern brawl was in progress.
"Gabby! Watch out!" Gabrielle turned to the left, less because of the name called out and more because she recognized Trevor's voice. Trevor had pushed off two men; one stumbled toward her. She dove under a table. Catching a breath, she got up on one knee. Across from her, under another table, was a woman. They both enjoyed relative safety in the midst of the melee. Gabrielle smiled at the woman.
Stephen joined Gabrielle underneath the table. He had his most brilliant smile. "Hello."
Gabrielle smiled inside. Warriors. "Hello yourself. What happened?"
Stephen looked over to Tess and winked. Gabrielle followed his gestures. "A Guardsman's lesson?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Some things don't change."
Trevor retreated, coming to Gabrielle's other side. "Hey, you're missing all the fun." A body was slammed on the table overhead.
Gabrielle glared at him.
"Don't look at me like that. I didn't start the fight." He jerked his chin to his brother Guardsman.
"Oh, I can explain that." Trevor looked over to Stephen with a completely different expression, a silent plea.
Stephen cleared his voice. "That was my fault."
Gabrielle turned to Stephen, "You?"
"How many beautiful, blond, green-eyed women, so tall," he raised his hand to the top of the table, his gesture arrested by the wood, "named Gabrielle are there? I didn't want to take a chance on someone guessing your identity."
Gabrielle repeated, "Gabby?"
A sheepish grin crossed Stephen's face. "You are a bard and it is easy to remember."
The humor not lost upon her, Gabrielle threatened, "You tell Xena and I will have you doing muck duty in the stables for six moons."
He chuckled softly, "Yes, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle turned to Trevor. "You too."
Trevor nodded. "Understood."
"Good. Glad we have that settled."
A man's body flew, landing between the two tables. The militiaman looked to his right and saw Gabrielle and her male companions. "You!" He shifted to his feet just as reinforcements entered the tavern with their swords drawn. Their table was surrounded.
The man shouted. "Get up!"
Stephen and Trevor looked to Gabrielle. She whispered, "Do as they say." She could see they had hoped for a different order. "Trust me."
The man kicked the table leg under which Tess was hidden. "You girl. Get out of there."
Gabrielle and the Guardsmen stood. Gabrielle offered, "We can pay for damages."
"Shut up!" the militiaman cared nothing for Gabrielle's offer. Their coin would be confiscated.
Stephen and Trevor stiffened.
The man ordered his fellow militiamen. "Take them." He turned to Tess. "Her too."
The prison wagon was filled with the twelve men and women the militia chose to arrest for the tavern fight. What began as a verbal exchange between Stephen and one of the militiamen became a brawl after Stephen ducked the militiaman's swung fist resulting in the blow meeting the chin of another, unforgiving, burly and drunk patron who saw his refreshed mug of mead splattered over his drinking mates.
Gabrielle, Stephen and Trevor sat at the far inward corner of the boxed wagon, claiming their privacy. Gabrielle took measure of her fellow prisoners. They were the common folk of the area. Strong and proud, they worked hard and played hard. Tess seemed the exception. She sat at the prison wagon door, looking out the small opening. The air within the wagon was dry and pungent. Gabrielle envied Tess her access to a fresh breath.
Trevor spoke quietly, "What have you learned?"
Gabrielle turned her attention back to her brothers. She had Trevor to her left and Stephen at her right. "Thanos has built up his militia. In the past few moons he has recruited men from nearby territories paying a premium wage."
Trevor was not inclined to worry. "Even if he triples his force, he doesn't have the men to win the south, let alone Greece."
Stephen saw more clearly. "Caesar?"
Trevor countered. "Thanos would be a fool to go into bed with that viper."
Gabrielle interjected, "Thanos has tried to undermine Corinth too many times for me to ignore the possibility."
Trevor concluded, "If he has the Conqueror it would explain why he hasn't killer her." Gabrielle looked down. Stephen glared at Trevor. Trevor shied, "Sorry."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, you're right." She raised her eyes to Trevor. "Knowing that is to our advantage. He would not keep her in a vulnerable outpost. Either she is in his fortress or in transit to Rome." Gabrielle turned to Stephen. "This is a good way to find out."
Stephen placed his hand over Gabrielle's, "If Xena is in the prison, we will find her."
Trevor was not obliged to agree with either his senior officer or his Queen, "But if she's not what good will it be for us to rot there?"
Gabrielle tightened her hold of Stephen's hand, "Where is your faith, Trevor? Our brothers will miss us tonight and come looking for us."
Stephen leaned back, "Jared will be fit to be tied."
Trevor imagined the temper of Gabrielle's most protective brother. "I'd be more afraid of Sam."
The three chuckled, releasing the tension they shared.
Gabrielle took a breath, trying to settle an anxiety that she had begun to believe was not her own. Her gaze fell back to Tess. She noticed hers was not the only one. She turned to Stephen, "What is her name?"
"This can't be easy for her. I'll go see if she's all right."
Stephen released Gabrielle's hand. "Let me. I owe her an apology for getting her into this mess." Stephen crouched to his feet and made his way to the barmaid. Upon reaching her he knelt on one knee. "Will you speak to me?"
Tess did not expect the courtesy. "Why wouldn't I?"
"I reckoned if it wasn't for me you wouldn't be on your way to prison."
There was truth in Stephen's assessment. Still, Tess had been flattered by his chivalry. "Why did you do it?"
"I don't like seeing women treated badly, especially a woman with as gentle a smile as yours."
Stephen's obvious sincerity caused Tess to accept the compliment instead of discarding it with all the false compliments she received when serving. She looked over to Trevor and Gabrielle. "You and your friend are good fighters."
"Strong peasant stock." Stephen raised his arms in a broad gesture earning a smile from Tess.
The barmaid sobered. "How long do you think they'll keep us?"
"We were going to meet some friends of ours tonight. They'll find us and come pay our fine. Yours too."
"That could be a lot of money."
Tess' gaze returned to the back of the wagon. A shadow crossed Gabrielle's face. What she saw concerned her. "Was Gabby hurt?"
"No, why do you ask?" He turned to look at the subject in question and paused.
Tess observed, "She seems sad."
Stephen explained, "She misses her love."
"Her love… Oh, I thought…" Tess blushed.
"Me?" Stephen saw through Tess' discomfort. "No, I'm as much a brother to her as Trevor."
Tess asked quietly, "Do you have someone…"
"No." Stephen shook his head. "A long time ago a woman won my heart and I hoped the day would come that I might win her. But it wasn't meant to be."
Captivated by the handsome man, Tess wondered what would have prevented the match. "What happened?"
Stephen sobered, "She fell in love with someone else."
"Don't be. Theirs is the finest match I've ever seen. I would be happy with half the love they share." He glanced back to Gabrielle. At that moment he did not envy her. He knew how worried he was for Xena. He could not imagine what Gabrielle felt. He returned his attention to Tess. "How about you? Have you a husband?"
"Not I. No one will miss me."
"I find that hard to believe."
Tess was touched by the man's solicitude. "Stephen, no matter what happens I want you to know that I'm grateful to you. Thank you for trying to help me."
Stephen did not like the sound of Tess' statement. He felt a knot in his gut tighten. "What do you know?"
"Bavavos is Lord Thanos' cousin and leads the militia. He is a cruel man." Tess broke away from Stephen's intense gaze. "He will do to a woman far more harm than…"
Stephen understood. His fear was not only for Tess. Gabrielle was vulnerable.
The wagon jerked and then stopped. The militiamen's voices and footsteps carried into the wagon.
Stephen took Tess' hand. "Stay close to me."
She nodded in assent, feeling a rare comfort from his touch.
Immediately after jumping out of the wagon Stephen was held by two militiamen while a third shackled his ankles and wrists. The same was done to every man. The women were not restrained. They were all led from the courtyard to an entrance leading to a lower level dungeon. Gabrielle and the Guardsmen scanned everything in their sights, keeping the information for future reference.
The march down the steps was slow as the men struggled to maintain their balance. Gabrielle walked between Stephen and Trevor. Tess followed behind the three. They were led through a filthy corridor, at its end the dungeon door. Within the dungeon there was one expansive holding area with metal bars from floor to ceiling and a single entrance door secured by a heavy lock.
The light was dim though the sun would not set for another three candlemarks. A few torches supplemented the natural light coming from the few small windows high above their heads. The occupants, roughly twenty, were comprised of three-quarters men and one-quarter women. The new prisoners quickly claimed spaces sufficient distance from the others to maintain a false sense of safety.
In one corner, alone, lay a figure covered by a torn blanket. Gabrielle paused at the sight. The anxiety she had been feeling intensified. From that short distance pulsated a life force she knew as the completion of her own being. She did not need to be told that it was her Lord who lay hidden. Gabrielle was both relieved to have found Xena and concerned for Xena's well being. Something had to be very wrong for Xena to lie as she did. Gabrielle arrested her desire to go to her. She found a space directly opposite Xena's placement and waited for her jailors to leave.
Stephen and Trevor followed unaware that they were in the presence of the Sovereign. A militiaman secured the Guardsmen's shackles to the wall. Tess followed. There was no room beside Stephen so she sat against a wall at right angle to him. She admired Gabrielle's composure and did her best to mimic the younger woman.
The prison guards entered as the militiaman exited. They threw two water skins each to the women. They were given orders to make sure none of the men died of thirst.
Gabrielle handed one waterskin to Trevor than respectfully addressed the guard. "Sir, what of him?" She motioned with the second waterskin to Xena's cloaked figure. "Should I serve him as well?"
The guard laughed, "That's no man. Though she pretends to be one. That, little lady, is the mighty Conqueror of Greece."
In unison the new occupants of the cell looked over to the huddled body.
Again, Gabrielle spoke with timid politeness, "May I serve my Lord, Sir?"
The guard spoke impatiently, "I don't care a rat's ass what you do. But remember what you give to her is less for your friends."
Gabrielle nodded. She approached Xena, kneeling beside her. She slowly lifted the blanket up. To her relief Xena had no apparent wounds other than superficial cuts and bruises. Gabrielle used her trained healer's eyes, quickly looking for less obvious signs of injury. She found what she was looking for – a series of puncture wounds on one side of Xena's neck. She looked around. Seeing a bowl, she retrieved it, poured water in it and tore a strip of cloth from her tunic. She proceeded to carefully wipe the Sovereign's face. Trevor and Stephen kept close watch upon Gabrielle and the observing prison guard.
Xena opened her eyes. She blinked at the sight of Gabrielle. She thought Gabrielle a dream but chose to speak to her anyway. Her voice was hoarse. "Hello."
Gabrielle chose her words carefully. "Your Majesty."
Xena took note of Gabrielle's uncommon address. Never in a dream would Gabrielle address her in such a manner. She looked over Gabrielle's shoulder, meeting Stephen's cautious eyes. Her gaze traveled to an equally concerned Trevor. She then looked over to the standing guard. Quickly she came to the conclusion that one or more of her companions' identities remained unknown to Bavavos. "What do they call you?"
Gabrielle sighed in relief. "Gabby, My Lord."
Xena smiled through her pain, "Are you a talker?"
"Some think so." Gabrielle smiled in return.
"How long have you been here?"
"We arrived in the city two days ago."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. "My brother, Trevor, and family friend, Stephen."
"You don't have the look of troublemakers."
"It was a misunderstanding."
Xena could not imagine what brought Gabrielle to her. "What kind of misunderstanding?"
Gabrielle was sheepish. "A tavern brawl."
The truth was too absurd not to be sweet. "Though I would not have wished it, your misfortune is to my benefit."
Gabrielle inquired tenderly, "How are you feeling?"
"I'm fighting a strong poison. Right now I can't do any harm." Xena looked over to the high window that overlooked the courtyard. "They've kept me unconscious. It was only today that they stopped with their blasted darts." Xena raised a hand to her neck. "Bavavos doesn't like me and he doesn't much care what Caesar thinks of him. He has said he will enjoy putting me under the lash tomorrow. I think he intends to send my soul to Tartarus and wants to make sure I feel every moment of the journey."
"No, you do not know me." Xena swallowed. Her throat was parched. "Can you spare a drink of water?"
"Yes, of course." Gabrielle lifted the waterskin to Xena's lips. "Here, drink."
Xena took as much water as she could, hoping to flush the poison from her system. "Thank you."
"Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"You remind me of my Queen. I have thought of her often these past few days. I must tell you some things… and then you can find her and tell her for me. Will you?"
Gabrielle was aware of the guard's scrutiny. She continued to clean Xena with the cloth. "If I can."
"No, I won't accept that. She must be made to understand. Promise me."
"I will tell her, I promise."
"Good." Xena paused, gathering her thoughts. "I loved my Queen soon after we met. I don't believe she knew. We were so different. I could not find the courage to swear my love. Do you know what I did instead?"
"I have not heard your story, My Lord."
"No, you wouldn't have. I'll tell you now. I invited her into my life and with time she accepted. We shared many sweet moments together, gentle times of easy conversation and quiet times when nothing needed to be said. Sometimes she would challenge me. I admired her so for it. Few dared to speak to me the way she did, the way she still does. One day when I was hurt and she feared for my life, she confessed that she loved me. It was not the first time she spoke of love. It was the first time I believed she understood the consequences of our life together. But… I still denied her. I didn't want her hurt because of me. She did not care; she risked her life to save me. Could there be a greater love?" Xena restrained herself from reaching out to her partner. "I think not. I have never had the opportunity to prove myself to her."
Gabrielle was ready to protest when Xena raised her hand to stop her.
"Were we in common danger I would give myself up to save her. My Queen, as I know her, would argue differently. She argues well. But, so do I. I would ask her to accept that I have equal right to love her, as she has to love me. Wouldn't you agree?"
A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. "I have heard it said that you and the Queen share a special bond."
"We do. I think it has always been between us. With time it has grown stronger."
"Could it be true that the Queen would choose to follow you in death, rather than live without you and the bond you share?"
"I know she doesn't want to live without our bond. That doesn't mean she wouldn't live without me. She has done so in the past."
"Would you live on without her?"
"I cannot imagine such a life. I confess I have always assumed I'd die first. When my Queen grew ill I was frightened in a way I had never been before. My life would be hollow and dark without her light to fill me."
"If she felt the same?"
Xena understood what Gabrielle was trying to tell her. After reading Gabrielle's poem it did not come as a surprise. Xena did not want to hear it. "We are speaking of thoughts far too sad. Will you hear of Megara?"
Gabrielle smiled anew. "It is a village by the sea, is it not?"
"It is. My Queen and I have a home there. It is a modest place quite different from the palace. We go there for respites. When we do, it is just the two of us, and her Guard who are well trained to give us our privacy without sacrificing our security. My Queen…" Xena was desperate to say Gabrielle's name in spite of its similarity to Gabby. "My Gabrielle writes her stories," Xena's smile broadened as if confessing a whimsical secret, "and I fish. We ride our horses on the beach; sometimes we walk hand-in-hands saying little. We have few worries and our love, as strong as it is every day, blossoms to a power and a beauty that takes my breath away. I have found comfort remembering my days and nights in Megara."
Gabrielle was mesmerized by Xena's confession. She paused her care giving, listening to every word.
Xena spoke in a hush. "I'll tell you a confidence. The truth is that my Queen does not own my heart; she possesses me in a far greater way. My Gabrielle owns my soul. I've lived on with a broken heart. I cannot live with an incomplete soul now that I have known what it is to have it whole. You see I've come to believe that the bond we share is the homecoming of two souls once sundered."
"Those are Plato's words."
"They are. My Queen told me the story on the day of our joining. I think she knew but didn't want to frighten me with the truth of what we would become to one another. She gave me the story to tuck away and to bring out every once in a while, until I came to the same conclusion."
"I believe I understand."
"Good. I never told her that I believe she is as much a part of me as she says I am of her. There is so much I have not put into words. Were she right here with me now I still would have little to say. I don't mean to be immodest but I have always tried to show my affection by the way I hold her." Xena glanced down to Gabrielle's hands. "I miss her touch. If only by holding my hand she calms me. She takes me to a place inside myself that is quiet and at peace."
Gabrielle reached out and covertly cupped Xena's cheek before renewing her effort to clean her wounds.
Xena's eyes followed her partner's retreating hand. "Gabrielle is a bard, yet privately she often falls to silence. Her love speaks equally with a simple gesture or look than with her poet's words. She has the ability of capturing my gaze with her gentle green eyes. When she does I swear she is whispering directly into my heart. Have you heard of such a thing?"
"Yes, My Lord. My love has the same power over me."
"Then the Fates have been kind to us both."
"Yes, they have."
Stephen and Trevor could not help but hear the two women speak of their lives and their love. Doing so felt an improper intrusion. Both men loved the women. Each man held one of the women in special regard. Both had long accepted that their love would remain unrequited. Both had come to a noble place in their hearts where they could rejoice in the unique match of the Conqueror and the Queen. On this day they were given further proof that they were right to do so.
Tess tried not to be obvious in her observation of Gabrielle and the Conqueror. She found the conversation an unexpected insight to the Sovereign. She had never considered that the ruler of Greece would be capable of such tenderness. She concluded that the Queen must be an extraordinary woman not because of the Conqueror's description of her but because she inspired the Conqueror's great love.
"Enough!" The guard had lost his patience with Gabrielle's slow progress. He commanded a halt to her ministering. "Get back to where you belong."
Gabrielle meant to protest. Xena quietly coaxed her to do the guard's bidding. Ultimately, Gabrielle's compliance was motivated by her fear that goading the guard might cause him to retaliate against Xena. She left the water skin, taking to her feet and returning to her place between her brothers.
It did not take long after arriving at the Proud Bull for Samuel to ascertain that the tavern brawl had resulted in Gabrielle and his fellow Guardsmen's arrest. They had been in Messene for two days. Samuel estimated that Jared, the Royal Guard and 1st Army force had to be near. He saw no value in trying to infiltrate Thanos' fortress without reinforcement.
His team rode north intent on traveling throughout the night until they intercepted the forces of Greece. It was near midnight when they caught sight of Jared's camp.
Jared met them outside his tent. "Sam, what do you know?"
Samuel dismounted, "There was a fight and the Queen, Major and Captain were taken prisoners. The tavern keeper said the fight had to do with a barmaid."
Jared was incredulous, "A barmaid. Are you sure?"
"I am. I don't think Thanos' men know who they have."
"I wouldn't be surprised if they used the fight as a way to get into Thanos' fortress."
"If the Queen knew the Conqueror was held inside she wouldn't wait for us."
"No, she wouldn't." Jared knew his ward. Nothing could keep Gabrielle from trying to reach Xena. "We picked up three of the search teams. They had no luck in finding the Conqueror. I say if we find our Queen we will find the Conqueror."
Samuel was in full agreement. "Do we ride, General?"
"We do." Jared shouted, "Men! There will be no more sleep tonight. We ride to Messene!"
Past midnight, all the prison occupants were asleep except one. Gabrielle moved quietly across to where Xena lay alone. She knelt beside her partner, taking her hand.
Xena opened her eyes. Her initial peace in finding Gabrielle shifted to concern. "You shouldn't be here."
Gabrielle placed two fingers on Xena's lips. She leaned forward, her lips near Xena's ear. "If this is to be our last night together, you must hear me."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand signaling her acquiescence.
Gabrielle continued in a whisper. "I love you. In the morning, when they take you away, know that I am still with you. It was our bond that guided me to you. It is our bond that I will use to find you on the other side."
Xena jerked in dissent. Gabrielle quickly clamped down on Xena's hand. She would give Xena a measure of peace without an explicit promise. "My love, listen… However long it takes, whether a day or until I'm aged white by time…"
Xena settled. She kissed Gabrielle's cheek.
Gabrielle struggled to maintain her composure. "Wait for me… Promise me."
Xena whispered. "I promise."
"Under the lash, close your eyes and think of me. If you reach out your hand I will take it and we will go to Megara together. We will lie on the sand in the cove and watch the tide retreat. Together our worries will drift out to the sea and become nothing to us. I will guide you back to our bedroom and we will know each other with all the passion and tenderness we have always given one another. I will slip into sleep, your name on my lips, making sure you stay with me as you have promised, as I need you to. My love, always remember you are my Lord. Of all that you have given me I cherish your love above all else."
Xena's shameless tears fell. "I love you Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Gabrielle leaned back upon her heels. "Hold me."
Xena extended her shackled arms high. Gabrielle slipped underneath them into Xena's embrace, not caring if discovered. The comfort received was just compensation for the forfeiture of her life.
Xena kept alert throughout the remainder of the night as Gabrielle slept cradled in her arms. She would be forever grateful for this night. The day Lyceus died, leaving life had become inconsequential. In retrospect, Xena came to understand that it was her fearlessness that made her a fierce warrior and leader.
Gabrielle had changed her. She lived to be with Gabrielle. Even when she left the throne and settled in Scupi, Xena lived on with the spirit of Gabrielle beside her, a constant reminder of what they shared, a comfort during her loneliest times.
The Fates returned her to Gabrielle's side and to the throne. Their reunion had forged their bond to an extraordinary quality, pure, strong, compelling an awareness of one another that caused them to bend at crucial moments of high tension. They no longer seemed to have a choice but to find a way to each other. Failure caused a sense of separation, a divorce too painful to withstand for any length of time. Reconciliation was their only means to relieving the hurt.
Xena's reward was this night. For a life filled with violence, the gentleness of the passing candlemarks was an incredible grace.
She looked about her surroundings. Had events been different she would have been in Megara. Ironically, it was because she had been thinking of Megara that she sensed the ambush one heartbeat too late. The moment the dart pierced her skin she knew she might never return to the seashore.
Xena thought back to the first time she took Gabrielle to Megara…
Their mid-morning joining ceremony was followed by the official proclamation that named Gabrielle, Queen of Greece. Afterwards they rode to Megara, arriving late in the night, falling asleep in each other's arms. Morning brought Trevor to their bedroom door with the unfortunate announcement of Jared and General Kasen's arrival. Outlaws had taken advantage of the Conqueror's anticipated absence. The assaults against a number of cities were well planned and executed. Xena knew she should return to Corinth immediately. She delayed, hoping the turmoil would subside.
Late into their fourth night Xena finished with the Generals and walked to her bedroom. She found it empty. Gabrielle's absence caused an incomprehensible, overwhelming fear. It did not matter that Megara was secure and Gabrielle was never without an escort. She leaped down the banister calling out for Trevor.
The Guardsmen entered the beach house. "My Liege."
Xena demanded, "Where is the Queen?"
Trevor was relieved that there was no emergency. He answered confidently, "She is on the beach. Sam is with her."
Xena broke out of the back door and ran to Sam. Two tall torches lit his station.
Samuel greeted the Conqueror.
Xena looked down the stretch of beach that led to a small cove. There a fire burned. "Sam, I will cut down anyone who dares disturb us."
The Guardsman did not doubt the Conqueror's conviction.
Xena walked toward Gabrielle. She was angry with herself for allowing the days and nights to pass without attending to her partner. She was angry with the Fates for presenting one obstacle after another to their happiness.
Gabrielle rested against a large boulder. In front of her a small fire burned. With the quiet of the night resting gently over her, she closed her eyes and allowed her imagination to play with a new story.
She heard footsteps in the sand. She accepted the inevitable distraction, releasing her thoughts from her reverie to consider who approached and why. She opened her eyes, pleased to see Xena.
Xena stopped before the fire. The bluntness of her address betrayed her churning emotions. "Gabrielle, it's late."
A heartbeat passed as Gabrielle shifted her expectation from pleasure to caution, "Is something wrong?"
Xena extended her hand. "Come on."
Gabrielle remained unmoved, "You're angry. Why?"
Xena responded impatiently, "Because I went to our bedroom and you weren't there."
"I'm sorry." In her confusion Gabrielle voiced an uncertain culpability.
Having Gabrielle contrite increased Xena's irritation. "Why apologize? Our joining has made you Queen, not re-enslaved you."
Stunned by Xena's harshness, Gabrielle looked down. She did not have the necessary insight to engage the warrior. Truly lost, she waited for the next verbal blow.
Xena was faced with the sight of Gabrielle's recoil. Physically, the young bard withdrew into herself. Shamed by the obvious pain she had caused, Xena shifted to the side of the fire and knelt on one knee. She waited for Gabrielle to look at her. Her partner did not. Xena spoke tenderly, "Gabrielle, I'm not angry with you. You've been patient, more than I could have hoped for. It is I that has been no good to you since we arrived here. This is not the trip away from Corinth I promised you."
Gabrielle looked up. She had heard Xena's sincerity. She now saw Xena's remorse. "You couldn't have known that there would be dissension in the outlands."
"I did know. I chose to ignore the truth. There is much in life I cannot bend to my will."
Gabrielle consoled her tenacious partner, "Isn't that the nature of life? Sometimes we are given no choice but to accept our fate."
Xena was discouraged, "Bitter as it is."
The bard tempered Xena's judgment, "It isn't always bitter, is it?"
Gabrielle was evidence to the contrary. Xena granted, "No. With you I know sweetness."
The bard knew sweetness as well. She had claimed the cove for herself, spending many candlemarks among the stone formations. She wanted to share with Xena what the small piece of beach had begun to mean to her. "If we were in Corinth, feeling as I have, I would have gone to the turret. There I can close my eyes and bring your spirit close to me. It is a place I know you will look for me if you wish to find me."
Xena surmised, "You would have this cove be a place for us alone?"
Gabrielle affirmed, "If I could have it so, yes."
The wish was easy to grant. Xena proclaimed gently, "Then by the Queen's decree it is so."
Gabrielle looked away, not able to see the sea, yet the sounds of the waves gently washing against the shore soothed her. There was a peace in this place. She found her courage in the peace. "Xena, I know you will teach me how to be your Queen. I want to learn. I want to make you proud." She turned to her partner. "Please be patient with me."
Xena searched for words that would assuage the younger woman's doubts. "Gabrielle, I am proud of you…"
Gabrielle begged the question, "Must our joining change who we are to each other?"
Xena paused in thought. Standing before Gabrielle, publicly reciting her vow had changed her. How so she was not sure. She could only testify to a quaking of her soul that left her feeling empowered, and yet, never more vulnerable. "Yes, it must. I want it to. I gave you my vow. Gabrielle, by my vow you are not only Greece's Queen, you are my Queen."
Gabrielle understood when they spoke their vows that her life was forever altered. A new awareness of Xena came to her. It was an awareness she could not articulate, though she felt it deeply. She did not understand it, though her heart told her that what had come to pass knitted their sundered souls. If true, her confidence wavered under the weight of the responsibility. She believed what they shared could only be possible by mutual consent. She was humbled by the knowledge that Xena trusted her so completely. She accepted that by their joining she might be changed in such a way that she could never stand alone again and be whole. The mystery of the uncharted gave her pause. She looked to Xena and placed her faith on the one fact no one could challenge. "As you are my Lord."
"No," Xena protested, " it is time you cease giving me that honor. I shall bow to you, you shall never again bow to me."
Gabrielle sat up onto her knees and moved to Xena. "Don't take away my right to honor you. Even as a slave I had that freedom."
Xena felt unworthy. "Hasn't Megara proven how easy I can fail you?"
Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's arm. "Megara speaks differently to me. Megara is where you've brought me to give me a life separate from Corinth. Megara is where you protect me with your elite guard. Megara is a hope that someday we can be free, if only for a few days, to be with each other in a way we cannot be anywhere else."
Xena tested Gabrielle's resolve. "And if I tell you we must leave at daybreak?"
Gabrielle was not dissuaded. "I say we shall return to this place. These past few days are only the beginning of what Megara will be to us."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand. "I love you."
Gabrielle smiled. "I live to hear you say those words to me."
Xena opened her heart. "And, I've missed you."
Gabrielle leaned forward. The women met in a kiss. The kiss deepened, inciting their passions. Xena guided Gabrielle back to the blanket she laid upon. Her caresses became more intimate.
Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's shoulder as she whispered, "Xena, not here. Not like this."
Xena felt the force of Gabrielle's hand against her and released her hold. She saw the hesitancy in Gabrielle's eyes and her heart was cut by it. She pulled away.
Gabrielle called to Xena by name.
The warrior looked away.
"The guards…" Gabrielle tried to explain her modesty.
Xena raised her gaze high towards the cliffs. She knew where every guard was stationed. "They can't see us. Sam is the closest and between the night and the standing rocks he is as good as blind." She returned her gaze to Gabrielle. "I would never expose you to a set of human eyes other than my own and then only with your permission. I thought you knew that."
Gabrielle fought the shyness her new surroundings instilled, "Might Sam walk here?"
"He will know the end of my sword if he does. I promised him as much."
Her concerns appeased, Gabrielle confidently called to her partner, "Xena, come to me."
Xena was reluctant. "You don't have to…"
"Please." Gabrielle extended her hand in invitation.
Xena took Gabrielle's hand, intertwining their fingers. "Gabrielle, from this moment Megara is yours. You shall set the terms. You shall own the guard. Megara is under Queen's protocol and I swear to you that I will do my best to abide by your wishes."
The concept was new to the bard. "Queen's protocol?"
"Yes, and Queen's Guard."
She doubted the Guardsmen would approve. "The men might not like that."
Xena thought differently. "You already have Trevor and Sam's loyalty. When we return to Corinth the Royal Guard will be given the opportunity to volunteer for the Queen's Guard. Your only concern will be in disappointing those that are not chosen."
Gabrielle was incredulous, "Are you serious?"
"I have never been more serious. You will be convinced of what I have known for some time. Your brothers will not disappoint you."
"Will you help me choose?"
"There is not one man in the Guard who isn't qualified to stand by you. The choice is yours alone. Follow your heart."
Gabrielle solicited, "You trust my heart?"
Xena affirmed, "With my life."
"Then listen to my heart and be with me as only you can be."
Xena repeated her vow, "I am yours, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece. I am and shall always be yours and yours alone."
From a distance Xena heard the jangling keys of a jailer. A look to the window confirmed the light of dawn. She kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "Love, it's time."
Gabrielle was jarred from her pleasant dream to the harsh reality of the dungeon.
Xena warned, "Someone's coming."
"Xena…" Gabrielle did not care.
The warrior pleaded. "Gabrielle, please…"
Hearing the approaching guard, Gabrielle reluctantly got to her feet and stepped back toward Trevor.
The sound of an outer door opening caused the prisoners to stir. Gabrielle and Xena kept their gazes fixed upon one another.
Cofeus shouted angrily. "Brijan! Kover! Wake up you lazy sacks of dung." The chief guard roused the sleeping men, kicking them to wakefulness.
The three approached the inner sanctum. Brijan opened the cell door.
Cofeus entered, his comment directed to the guards. "Lucky for you our royal guest didn't slip out into the night." He turned his attention to the Conqueror. "Bavavos is going to use you for his morning exercise." He pushed Kover forward. "Take her."
Kover and Brijan stepped into the cell, one to the left, the other to the right of Xena. They unlocked the shackles from the wall restraint, grabbed her arms and lifted her up. Given Xena's lingering weakness, they half dragged her toward the door.
Stephen and Trevor got to their feet. There was nothing they could do to stop Xena's death. They could only show her the respect of standing solemn witness.
Xena resisted with what little strength she possessed. She turned to Gabrielle, her voice intimate. "Megara."
Gabrielle smiled bravely, "Yes, My Lord."
"Shut up!" Cofeus slapped Xena across the face. He then turned angrily to Gabrielle. Stephen and Trevor's chains were not so short to prevent them from closing ranks around their Queen. Cofeus paused, having second thoughts. He turned back to the guards. "Let's go before Bavavos puts the lash to us."
Gabrielle's gaze followed Xena as she was taken away.
Stephen whispered to her, "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle looked up to the grieving Guardsman. She had no words for him.
The three sat down and waited. The sun slowly erased the shadow of night that had dominated the cell.
A few muted voices wafted down from the courtyard through the windows. The voices quieted. The sound of the lash ravaging its target's flesh broke the silence. It was followed by a male voice counting the stroke. "One."
Gabrielle's head snapped in the direction of the window, too tall for her to peer through. All eyes followed hers.
Again the sound of the lash was followed by a count. "Two."
Gabrielle turned toward Trevor, leaning her head against his shoulder; her hand grasped his arm.
Trevor's eyes blankly stared at the wall directly in front of him. Stephen dropped his head as he hugged his legs close to him.
Gabrielle's body shuddered. She closed her eyes, reaching out for Xena, trying to find her in the murky darkness.
Gabrielle caught sight of a burning fire ring. She followed its light. As she approached she spied Xena sitting beside the fire, leaning against a large boulder. Xena reached out to her. Gabrielle did not hesitate to take her lover's hand. It was night in Megara. She and Xena lay in each other's arms, the fire offering them warmth and a melody of sounds as the burning wood hissed and crackled. Flames of amber and cobalt danced indiscriminately.
Gabrielle looked over to Xena who leaned her head back enthralled by the stars, a gentle smile on her face.
Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena's cheek and guided the warrior to her. "I love you."
Xena was enchanted. She smiled broadly. She was happy. She was at peace. "Thank you." She leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle.
Trevor remained stoic as Gabrielle began to cry. Her sobs blended with the sounds of Xena's scourging.
Gabrielle was not with Xena. Gabrielle was alone and the scourging was no longer Xena's.
Abruptly, Xena jerked her head back in pain. A groan escaped her throat as she slipped away into the darkness.
A desolate despair consumed Gabrielle. She continued to cry to the sounds of the lash. The count stopped at thirty.
Trevor listened intently. He whispered to Gabrielle, "It's over."
Gabrielle stilled. The sounds of life quieted in Xena's honor.
Bavavos' voice broke the moment of reverence. "Leave her to taunt the buzzards."
Gabrielle had lost all concept of time. Time had no meaning. She kept her eyes closed. Still feeling her partner's life force, she searched for Xena without success. She opened her eyes and turned to Stephen. He continued to hold his head down. Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on his arm. He raised his head and turned his tearstained face to her.
Gabrielle felt a rising fire of contempt. She assured as no other had the power to do. "Stephen, she is still alive." Then she steeled, "If Xena cannot avenge her tormentors, I promise you will do it for her."
Tess was stirred by Stephen's profound reaction to the Conqueror's scourging, more so than Gabrielle's. She suspected that the three companions were not what they seemed. She could not guess who they were. She was certain they were not mere farmers. Tess wanted to comfort Stephen. He kept his eyes down, raising them only when beckoned by Gabrielle. Tess felt that to approach would be to intrude uninvited upon the threesome's fellowship.
The morning passed with no further incidents. Cofeus returned, a pernicious intent evident in his bearing. He entered the cell and walked directly to Gabrielle, standing over her. "It's your turn."
Gabrielle defiantly held his gaze. She was unafraid.
Trevor cast his arm across the Queen, a weak deterrent to her taking. "What are you going to do with my sister?"
Cofeus unsheathed his sword. "Move your arm or I will cut it off."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Trevor, guiding his arm back. "It's all right."
The guard happily reported Gabrielle's ill fortune. "Bavavos has taken a shine to your sister. Her beauty will be rewarded with a soft bed and a hard manhood."
Trevor lunged forward. Gabrielle threw herself between him and Cofeus. Stephen reacted with equal vehemence.
Gabrielle commanded both of them. "Stop!"
Cofeus backed away, caught unaware by the peasants' zeal, equally baffled by their concurrent capitulation to the young woman's plea.
Gabrielle had her back to the prison guard. She placed her hands on the heart of each of her brothers. "Remember my road to Corinth. I will survive this."
Trevor's voice broke. "We swore to you never again."
"You haven't failed me. Be here when I return. I will need you then." She caught Stephen's eyes. "Both of you."
The men stood silent.
Gabrielle smiled. "I love you." She turned to Cofeus. "I'm ready."
The prison guard hated to admit that the young woman impressed him. "This way." He escorted her out of the dungeon without further taunts.
"Damn him to Tartarus!" Trevor cried out, swinging his fists and having them jerked back as the chains' arrested his momentum.
Stephen turned, taking Trevor into his arms in an effort to prevent the younger man from hurting himself. "Trevor, stop… stop now, man."
Trevor struggled against Stephen; his rage would not be curtailed.
Stephen felt every ounce of Trevor's rage. It equaled his. "She will come back to us."
Trevor sobbed, "He will destroy her."
"No he won't. Tracate couldn't. Bavavos is cut from the same cloth. She's stronger than those bastards. She will survive. You hear me. Come on man, you know it's true."
Trevor continued to cry in his brother's arms. He ceased to struggle against him. Stephen held Trevor, tasting the bitterness of life. It had been less than a fortnight that he had watched Xena sitting in the back of Niko's openly enjoying Gabrielle's storytelling. It had been a magical night of epic and comic tales. It was a night when a young bard's gentle beauty and easy smile supplanted her identity as Queen of the people that gathered in audience. It was a night when the most powerful woman in the known world acquiesced to the bard motivated by a pure, selfless love. Stephen could not comprehend why the Fates would wound these women with such unsparing efficiency.
Stephen guided Trevor to rest on the floor. "Sit down. We'll wait for her."
Trevor released Stephen and did as he was told.
At first Tess was relieved that Bavavos had chosen Gabrielle over her. Her relief turned to shame. The undeniable pain of the two men was more than anyone would feel had she been taken. Their sorrow moved her to tears. An only child, she had longed for a sibling who would have cared for her as Trevor cared for Gabrielle. Her thoughts turned to Stephen. The friendship he shared with Trevor was admirable. In spite of his own obvious pain he set it aside to comfort the distraught younger man. Tess continued to feel the displaced bystander, witness to a tragedy she did not completely understand. She wanted to be included even though it was a circle of family and friends in great turmoil.
Cofeus guided Gabrielle to the upper floor of the palace, down a wide corridor to a guarded chamber door. "I will send Katrina to help you prepare for Bavavos. Don't try anything foolish. Etan here can be mean to wayward guests."
Gabrielle took measure of the standing guard. She found no reason to discount the warning. She entered. The door was closed behind her, an ominous echo resounded through the bedchamber. She quickly walked to an open balcony. She was on the east side of the fortress. There was no view of the central courtyard where she assumed Xena had been taken. She was too high to survive a jump uninjured. The balconies to her left and right were too distant to leap to. She was a prisoner in the room. Gabrielle had nothing to do but wait.
She was attracted to movement on the fortress ramparts. She kept a keen eye to the further most corner. Again, she saw movement. A figure she took for a man had scaled the wall. A second man followed. She tracked them as they made their way across the rampart surprising a guard on watch, quickly ending his life. They continued onward. Gabrielle surmised their mission – to open the fortress gates.
Gabrielle had reason to become a distraction. She went to the adjacent bath chamber where a hot bath waited for her. She undressed and entered the water, washing away the dungeon's grime and stench from her skin.
Gabrielle heard the chamber door open. Footsteps, too light to belong to a soldier, marked an approach. She waited, assuming she would meet Katrina.
A woman a decade older than Xena entered the bath chamber. She carried garments over her arm. Her voice was tempered, "You found the bath."
"I brought you something to wear and there's a food tray in the other room. Bavavos will be in soon, so don't tarry."
"I won't." Gabrielle's voice carried no hint of fear or unease.
Katrina did not know what to make of the young woman. "I'll leave you be." She placed the clothes down on a chair. She paused at the threshold and looked back to Gabrielle. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Gabrielle could see that the woman had been beaten down during her years. "No, thank you."
The servant had her suspicions. "Do you know what to expect?"
"Yes." A shadow swept across Gabrielle's face.
What Katrina saw in Gabrielle was far removed from what she had seen in other women, what she carried within her when she first faced a man like Bavavos. Katrina posed what she believed was an incorrect conclusion, "You're not a…"
Gabrielle cut her short, not wanting to hear herself called a whore. "No, I'm not. I was once a slave."
"I see." Katrina's questions retreated, replaced by the knowledge that a slave's life often consumed the humanity of a woman leaving only a shell without thought or feeling, a being that responded to commands without protest so to be fed, clothed and not beaten to death. She pitied the girl. "I'm sorry. There is something to be said for getting old and ugly."
Gabrielle was cold. "That doesn't stop some men."
"It does when their heads are turned by youth and beauty such as yours."
It was an odd compliment. That Xena found her beautiful was a grace Gabrielle accepted as a consequence of their love. That her brothers complimented her was reflective of kindred generosity. When complimented by the Lords of Court, she felt only the flattery afforded a woman of the throne. Their sincerity was always suspect. For a complete stranger, who did not know her identity and asked nothing of her to judge her beautiful was to present the possibility that the servant spoke the unmitigated truth.
"Katrina, thank you."
"I have done nothing for you." Katrina dismissed the girl's confounding gratitude. "Please hurry. Bavavos hurts those who keep him waiting." Katrina turned away and quickly exited the bedchamber. She carried herself far away from the room that too often was a place where young women's screams originated.
Gabrielle stepped out of the bath and dried herself. She inspected the clothes. On the chair lay a simple red tunic and a robe of the same color. She preferred her clothes. She decided to dress for Bavavos. She also placed her clothes at ready for a quick change. She expected a disturbance and prayed that it would come before Bavavos laid a hand on her.
Standing on the balcony Gabrielle saw no further signs of an attack against the fortress. The bedchamber door opened. Bavavos entered. He was a handsome man, tall and well groomed. Gabrielle could not understand why such men raped when, at least on the surface, one would think them able to win a woman.
The common answer that those who raped wanted power to dominate others did not make sense to her. Xena had never taken the unwilling. The power that was a part of their lovemaking was not the power to denigrate. It was the power to create and maintain a sense of security. She surrendered to Xena with the faith that she would be safe no matter how ardent their passion.
Xena claimed Gabrielle, meeting a need to ameliorate the distrusting fragments of her own heart that continued to struggle to transcend the damage done by past dangerous liaisons. In claiming Gabrielle, Xena also affirmed her role as Gabrielle's protector, a role that gave meaning to her life.
Their lovemaking echoed their beginnings yet carried a mature understanding of how their needs complemented each other. Gabrielle would not let the man before her damage her or her intimate relationship with Xena. Katrina had left a knife on the food tray. Gabrielle now held the knife in her hand, within the pocket of her robe.
Bavavos paused in the middle of the room. "You are as pretty up close as you are from a distance."
"Thank you. Sir, I am not from these parts. I do not know who you are. I am impressed by what I have seen."
Bavavos smiled. "I am Bavavos, first cousin of Lord Thanos and I am in charge of his military."
"You are a warrior?"
Bavavos boasted, "I am more than a warrior."
"I did not realize the lords had armies of their own."
"The lesser lords have small militias. I lead an army."
Gabrielle played to his ego, "You are a powerful man."
Bavavos stepped closer. "Yes, I am. I can crush a man's throat with my hand. I can crush you at will."
Gabrielle would not be so timid as to cower. "Sir, I haven't much experience. I am willing to learn to please you."
"What if I don't want you to want to be with me? What if I want you to scratch and claw me like a wildcat?"
Gabrielle looked down shyly. "I have never hurt anyone, Sir."
"No one gave you reason." Bavavos stood toe to toe with Gabrielle. He placed his large hands on her waist.
Gabrielle raised her eyes and kept them fixed on his.
Bavavos spoke straightforwardly, "I want no lamb in my bed."
"I will do my best not to disappoint you."
Bavavos raised his hand and took Gabrielle by her hair, pulling her head back. Gabrielle did not resist. He leaned forward intent on a kiss. Gabrielle tightened her hold on the knife. Banging against the door interrupted their dance.
Bavavos shouted angrily, "What is it?"
A militiaman entered, "We're under attack!"
Bavavos released Gabrielle. "By whom?"
"The Conqueror's Royal Guard."
"Son of a bacchae." Bavavos ran out the door leaving Gabrielle free. She was inconsequential in light of the siege.
Gabrielle changed into her own clothes and quickly made her way down the empty corridors to the courtyard where much of the fighting was taking place.
Tavis went to her. "Your Majesty, are you all right?"
"Tavis!" Gabrielle pointed to a fortress door. "Stephen and Trevor are in the dungeon. Get them."
The intrepid Guardsman did not hesitate. "I'm there!"
Gabrielle continued to the scourging platform. It was empty of its victim. The floor was covered with dry blood.
In number and in skill the forces of Greece had little difficulty overwhelming the rogue militia.
General Jared called out. "Line them up. I want to see these bastards."
Gabrielle stood to the side as Bavavos, Cofeus and the other still living militiamen were herded to the central courtyard.
Sentas took note of Gabrielle. He went to the General and directed him to her.
Jared ran to his ward. "Lass!"
Gabrielle held his extended arms in a constrained welcome. "Jared, where's Xena?"
"We haven't caught sight of her."
"Bavavos put Xena under the lash. She believed he meant to kill her. She survived… Jared he may have sent her to Caesar."
Jared looked back at the militiamen. "Which one is Bavavos?"
"Second row, far left. Jared, Bavavos doesn't know who I am."
"Does it matter?"
"Not any more. He has to tell us where his men are taking Xena. If they left this morning we may not be able to reach her in time to stop a transport to Rome."
"If not he, one of his men will talk."
"The biggest in the first line is Cofeus. He seemed to be closer to Bavavos than the others."
"All right lass, leave this to me."
Jared walked to Bavavos. "My young friend has told me some interesting tales."
Bavavos remain impassive.
"I can put you up on the bar and take the whip to you like you did to the Conqueror. Will that help you find your tongue?"
"You can't touch me. I am of the house of Thanos. As a man of noble blood I can only be judged by the Conqueror."
"You can be judged by either the Conqueror or the Queen." Jared clarified.
Bavavos smiled with a superior flare. "We are a long way from Corinth."
Jared turned to Gabrielle. "Let me introduce you to your Queen."
Stephen, Trevor and Tavis approached the scene. Gabrielle called to Stephen, motioning him toward Bavavos as she stepped in the same direction. Jared moved aside.
Gabrielle knew nothing Bavavos could say to save himself. She gave him the chance anyway. "Why?"
Bavavos was still reeling from the revelation of the Queen's presence. He stuttered, "I follow the House of Thanos."
"Thanos has never given reason for his grievance with the government of Greece."
"Your policies have cost us income."
"As if you don't have enough." Gabrielle took the risk of presenting her speculations as fact. "Do you really think Caesar will be generous with you?"
"He has been very free with his gratitude."
"Riches plundered in his campaign to conqueror all nations."
Bavavos meant to insult, "You know conquerors well."
Gabrielle countered, "I know Caesar will throw the House of Thanos aside once he has what he wants. Tell me, I know Caesar wanted the Conqueror alive. Whose idea was it to put her under the lash, yours or Thanos?"
Bavavos deflected his responsibility, "I had my orders."
Gabrielle continued to bluff. "How could you when Acade was your target?"
"The road from Corinth is long. My cousin has men positioned to relay messages without having to rest. The Conqueror was not in as much of a hurry as our messengers."
Gabrielle needed absolute confirmation. "Thanos ordered you to beat her?"
Bavavos smiled. "Within a breath of her life."
"Have you proof?"
Bavavos was dismissive. "Why would I give it to you?"
Gabrielle had no more patience for the man. She placed her hand on Stephen's arm. "I made the Major a promise. He will choose how best to deal with you. The Major survived torture from a man much like you. He knows your ways well." Gabrielle spoke to Stephen. "I need to know where the Conqueror was taken and to whom she is to be transferred. I also want proof of Thanos' involvement." Gabrielle stepped away.
Tess was uncertain as she approached Gabrielle. She never would have guessed the woman her Queen. She had heard good things about the former slave who had captured the Conqueror's heart. Revisiting the conversation between the Queen and Conqueror, she understood Stephen and Trevor's reactions all the more. "Your Majesty."
Gabrielle turned to the barmaid. She pushed her own concerns down. "Tess, are you all right?"
"Yes, thank you. Will you be leaving?"
"As soon as Stephen…" Gabrielle paused in thought. She chose not to dwell upon Bavavos' fate. "Yes, soon."
Gabrielle gentled, "Please call me Gabrielle."
Tess offered, "Can I be of service to you?"
Gabrielle swept the barmaid's concern aside. "I'm fine… I'm rather self-sufficient."
"Yes, I…" Tess' motive was misunderstood. She needed to be more direct in her request. "You wouldn't need a servant in Corinth?"
Gabrielle realized her error. "Do you want to leave Messene?"
"I have no life here and men loyal to Lord Thanos might…"
Gabrielle understood the injustice of ill-directed retributions. "What are your skills?"
Tess' hopes rose. "I can cook and clean. And, I am passable with a needle."
"Come with us to Corinth. I'll help find a position for you in the city. For now, see the General. Tell him you ride to Corinth as my guest."
Gabrielle nodded and continued on her path away from the courtyard.
Jared followed Gabrielle's trail, finding her sitting beside a nearby well. "Lass."
Gabrielle looked up to him, "Did Tess find you?"
"Yes. She's being taken care of." He knelt on one knee beside his ward. "Did Bavavos touch you?"
"He didn't have the time."
Jared wanted to measure the man. "He would have?"
Gabrielle spoke honestly, "He likes hurting women."
"How are you?"
Gabrielle looked down at her hands. "I need to be strong." She raised her gaze with renewed determination. "We need to find Xena."
"We will find her," Jared reassured. "Right now I want to know how you are."
"I…" Gabrielle yielded to Jared's concern. "She loves me so… Jared, Xena was sure she was going to die. She didn't hold back… she gave me her heart."
"Lass, you've always had it."
A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. "I told her I would take her to Megara. I failed her."
"The day is not done. Stephen will learn what we need to know." Jared reported on the state of the realm, "Our Guard is locking up Thanos' men in the dungeon. I'm keeping a company here to secure the fortress. The rest of the men are readying to travel at a gallop. I've sent word to Paulos to mobilize the 4th Army. Before I left Corinth I sent word to Regan. He is securing the eastern coast as we speak."
Gabrielle's concern was more immediate, "Xena took thirty lashes. I know what it is to take ten. How could she have survived?"
"You must have faith in her. She does remarkable things by will alone."
From a courtyard came a man's cry. Jared and Gabrielle turned their eyes in that direction though they could not see what was happening. The man's cries continued.
Jared spoke matter-of-factly, "It won't be much longer before Stephen is done with Bavavos."
With Stephen's encouragement Bavavos soon confessed all that he knew about Thanos' plan. The transfer of Xena from Grecian to Roman hands was scheduled to take place in Patra. The ship would sail to Brindisi. The name of the ship and its captain were unknown. One of Thanos' men from Corinth was scheduled to meet the cargo and broker the arrangements. Bavavos also directed Stephen to a cache of scrolls holding messages from Thanos.
Stephen concluded his briefing of Gabrielle and Jared. "They left near noon. We might still be able to catch up with them today."
Gabrielle was earnest, "We will find them by night fall."
A scout returned to the main contingent. He had sighted Thanos' men ahead. He counted eight on horseback and one on a tall, canvas-covered wagon.
Jared conferred with Gabrielle. "If we attack they might kill Xena before we can reach her. There is plenty of forest in these parts. We can move fast with our best archers and set up an ambush up ahead."
Gabrielle was quick to agree. "I want twenty of our best swordsmen as well. We will leave nothing to chance."
"By your command." Jared proceeded to direct the troops.
Gabrielle and Jared were perched on a low hanging, abundantly leafed tree branch. Archers stood higher up on the arbor. More were positioned in trees adjacent to them and across the road. The swordsmen stayed on level ground ready to move in after the initial assault.
Thanos' men approached. A line of three horsemen was followed by the wagon, with a horseman on each side. A third line followed behind.
Gabrielle sensed Xena's presence. "Jared, Xena is alive and in the wagon."
"Hold lass. Give Sentas a chance. This won't take long."
Sentas approached from the perimeter stopping directly in the middle of the road. He shouted. "Hey, Ho! Am I glad to see you."
The lead guard called out. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm traveling to the south garrison to relay orders from General Regan. My horse," he pointed to his gelding, "there got lame. I could use a ride back to the coast."
The guard was unimpressed. "Can't offer you a ride. I'll send someone from Regan's garrison for you."
Sentas was persistent. "But man, why not let me share the bench seat with your wagon driver?"
"No." The guard refused his suggestion. "You might disturb the cargo. I'm under strict orders."
"Are you?" Sentas was indignant. "Are your orders so strict you cannot show hospitality to a Royal Guardsman?"
"I have my orders," the guard repeated.
"All right then. Loan me a mount. I'll see it is returned as soon as I finish my mission. You're from Thanos' militia, aren't you?"
"You have a good eye. We're from the House of Thanos."
"The mount?" Sentas prodded.
"And why not?" Sentas was completely invested in his play-acting.
"I can't afford one man less on horseback. The roads are dangerous. I won't lose an advantage."
"The Conqueror will hear about this."
"I don't answer to the Conqueror," the guard retorted angrily.
"Everyone in Greece answers to the Conqueror."
"So says you."
Sentas had given the archers sufficient opportunity to steady their aim. "I'll give you one last chance to do the right thing."
"Get out of our way." The guard drove his stallion forward.
Sentas gave the signal to attack. "Fine. To Tartarus with all of you!"
The air rained arrows; two directed at each soldier. One by one the soldiers fell. Sentas took hold of the wagon horses keeping them from bolting. Gabrielle, Jared and the others converged onto the road. Gabrielle was first to the wagon bench, pushing the dead driver out of her way. She looked inside. The sight of Xena's broken body, the bed of straw she lay on red with her blood, caused Gabrielle to cry out.
Jared opened the rear of the wagon. His heart broke.
Gabrielle composed herself, knowing the Fates could cut Xena's lifeline at any moment. "How far is the nearest village?"
The question jarred Jared out of his grief. "A candlemark further."
Gabrielle was at Xena's side. She felt for a pulse. It was weak. She would take advantage of Xena's unconscious state. "We will move her now while she cannot feel the pain. Send an advance unit to the village. Also send for Dalius. He will need to bring the medicines and salves she'll need to heal. And Jared, make sure the House of Thanos is secure. I want no lynching. There will be a trial."
Jared was livid at the thought of mercy. "Gabrielle, what more evidence do you need?"
Gabrielle was uncompromising. "Jared, there will be no indiscriminate bloodshed."
"As you say," Jared voiced bitterly.
Gabrielle would not argue with him. "General, send Stephen to me and I need our medical supplies and plenty of water."
The formality caused Jared to pause. He gentled his tone. He waved the Major over. "Stephen is right here."
Stephen took Jared's place. The sight of Xena caused him to reach out for a hold of the wagon. He steadied himself.
Gabrielle was decisive. "Stephen, I want you to take all the men you need and go to Patra. Find the ship. Get me all the evidence you can of the conspiracy against Greece."
Stephen's gaze held to Xena.
Gabrielle called to him more forcefully. "Stephen, do you hear me?"
He looked to her; tears welled in his eyes. "Yes."
"Make sure that ship and its captain never sees Rome again."
Stephen took Gabrielle's statement as carte blanche to do all that was necessary to achieve his mission. He did not want to leave Gabrielle or Xena. He accepted that he better served them both by sending a message back to Rome that interference with Greece would not go unpunished. "I will." Stephen observed as Gabrielle carefully took Xena's hand, which had been terribly damaged. Bavavos had not limited his strokes to Xena's back. He had targeted the full length of her body. "Gabrielle… will you be all right?"
Gabrielle turned to him. "We have got to take Xena somewhere safe where she can get care and we need to stop Rome. I'll take care of Xena. Your charge is Rome."
Stephen vowed, "By my honor, I won't let you down."
Gabrielle spoke warmly, "You never have and I trust you never will. Be safe, Stephen."
The advance Guard secured the village inn for the Conqueror and Queen. The Conqueror was transported to the village under heavy guard. The Queen remained beside her at all times. In the best room, the Conqueror was laid upon the bed, her back exposed.
Gabrielle was left alone with Xena. In order to maintain Xena's modesty, Gabrielle draped a light linen over her buttocks. Gabrielle kept a healer's focus, working on one wound at a time, pushing back the horror of what her partner had endured and would endure in the process of her convalescence. Gabrielle cleaned the cuts; using a tweezers she removed bits of leather embedded in the skin. She stitched the deepest and broadest wounds. Xena's remarkable capacity to heal would be tested to its limits. Gabrielle recalled Stephen's injury at the hands of Tracate. She thought no one could survive worse. Xena had.
Her work done she sat in a chair beside the bed, her eyes riveted to the form that was her Lord. For Gabrielle there could be no question of Xena's recovery. Her thoughts went back to a time early in their relationship.
Xena watched Gabrielle as she turned to her side, exposing the least of herself to the Sovereign's gaze. Gabrielle donned her robe and walked toward the door.
"Must you…" Xena did not complete her thought.
Gabrielle paused and turned to her Lord. She had heard the sharpness in Xena's voice and was puzzled by it. Her gaze held Xena's posing a silent question.
Xena shook her head, breaking the connection. She reached for her own robe, wrapping it quickly over her statuesque form. "Never mind."
Gabrielle felt Xena's anger increase. "Have I displeased you, My Lord?"
Xena stiffened. This was at a time prior to Gabrielle's confession that she used the expression ‘My Lord' as a disguised expression of her love "You should get ready if you don't want Makia to scold you for being late with my breakfast."
Instead of going to the bath as she intended, Gabrielle picked up her clothes and shoes and went to the back door which she used to privately enter the Conqueror's suite. She paused in terrible confusion. She was only just beginning to understand the complex woman whom she loved. The shift from their previous gentle evening and passionate night to an air of disdain was too much for Gabrielle. She felt she had failed and the torture was not knowing how. Gabrielle took nothing for granted. "Shall I come to you tonight?"
Xena's spirit was defeated. "Come only if it is your desire to be with me."
Gabrielle could not imagine why Xena questioned her devotion. "What have I done to hurt you?"
Xena shook the question off, "You haven't hurt me."
"Then why are you angry with me?"
Xena stood silent for a moment. "You are beautiful, but you don't see your beauty."
Gabrielle spoke with sincere humility. "I know beauty. Beauty stands now before me. I do not compare."
Xena stepped toward her. "You're wrong, Gabrielle. I hate seeing you hide yourself from me. I know you are modest, but what brings you meekly into your robe is not your modesty."
Gabrielle's gaze fell away from Xena's.
"Unless I am wrong and you keep yourself from me because the shame lies in being seen by me."
"No." Gabrielle raised her eyes shyly. "You have been charitable in your praise."
"Charitable? I have been no such thing. I have spoken nothing less than the truth."
"Your eyes are more compassionate than a true mirror."
"I disagree. But, even if you are right, you have opened yourself to me in our bed. Why do you hide yourself outside of it?"
"I am far more exposed in the light of day. You can see me and my imperfections from a distance without the blinding force of your passion."
Xena went to Gabrielle and took her by her upper arms. "You are wrong. In the light of day I see you with more clarity and with no less passion." Xena lowered Gabrielle's robe over her shoulder, careful not to expose her breast. Her hand traveled over Gabrielle's shoulder blade, her fingers touching the scars left from the lash. Xena had never dwelled upon the scars, but neither did she deny their existence.
Gabrielle closed all distance between them. She begged in a pain-filled voice, her body trembling, "Please, don't."
Xena raised Gabrielle's robe back over her shoulder and then embraced the young servant. "The day will come when you will see your beauty as I do. Aphrodite could not have made you more beautiful to me, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Gabrielle's thoughts returned to the present day. The scars on her back had never been specifically referenced. After that morning she understood that Xena recognized to some extent how the scars marked her sense of self.
With time, circumstances proved that Xena's hatred for Tracate came to life when she first saw and then touched Gabrielle's scars. Xena's torture of Tracate, her cutting of his body, brought to the eyes of all who were present to see what little of him Xena had left staked in an open field, the magnitude of the hatred she harbored. Most judged Xena's act as revenge for Tracate's torture of Stephen and the killing of her men. Only a few knew Xena's vengeance sprang from a far deeper, inconsolable source.
Gabrielle had accepted that Xena saw beauty where she only saw damage. Now she observed more horrible wounds upon her lover's flesh. The wounds did not lessen Xena's beauty. Aphrodite could not make her love Xena more. No God could make her hate less the men responsible for hurting her partner.
Gabrielle felt an unprecedented hatred for Bavavos and Thanos. She never thought herself capable of such disregard for men's lives. She never believed herself capable of a desire for vengeance equal to Xena's.
In the quiet of the night, in the safety of the inn surrounded by the Royal Guard and 1st Army, Gabrielle was alone with her beloved. As deep as her love, equally deep was her sorrow. She was forever changed.
Continued - Part 4 of 5
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