Tess left the inn's kitchen with a tray of food. She had arrived with the rear Guard. By Jared's direction, she oversaw the food preparation and was to personally serve the Queen. Approaching the Royals' room she noted the large brute of a man called Samuel. He watched her every step. She did not feel he trusted her. Without saying a word to the guard, Tess knocked on the door and then entered. The scene absorbed her. The Conqueror laid still, her body ravaged by the lash. The Queen sat beside her in silent watch.
"I've brought you something to eat."
Gabrielle did not recognize Tess' presence.
Tess set the tray down. "Your Majesty, is there anything I can do for you?"
Gabrielle's voice was remote. "No thank you, Tess."
Tess stepped outside. Samuel closed the door.
She looked up to the Guardsman. "How can the Queen bear seeing the Conqueror so hurt?"
Samuel was curt. "She can't."
Tess felt her own loneliness. "Stephen… the Major… when will he be back?"
"It's hard to tell. Knowing him he'll finish his mission quick so he can get back to the Conqueror and Queen."
"Will we stay here long?"
Samuel was feeling impatient with the woman. He preferred to be left in silence, to his own thoughts. "The Queen will decide."
"She's so young…"
Samuel was wary of any statement that might be construed to question Gabrielle's abilities or authority. "The Queen is wise beyond her years."
To Tess the Queen was a lone, vulnerable woman who could be easily overwhelmed by the men that surrounded her. "Would you… they say the Royal Guard would die for her."
"For her and the Conqueror."
"Why? Why not take Greece from her? She is only one woman and the Conqueror is helpless."
Samuel was amazed by how stupid people could be. He also knew such stupidity was dangerous and should not be ignored. "Is that what you believe we should do?"
"No…" Tess tried to explain herself. "It's just that I have never known such loyalty. I am trying to understand."
Samuel eased. "Isn't there been anyone in your life that you've respected?"
"And did you listen to them and take their advice?"
"You wouldn't help them if they asked?"
"It depends what they asked of me."
Samuel shared a crucial reason for the regard many held for the Royals. "The Conqueror and Queen rarely ask for themselves and they never ask for what they believe you cannot give."
"I don't know." Tess was honest. "I have my life to think about. No one else will."
"You wouldn't help someone unless you were guaranteed that you wouldn't be hurt?"
"I didn't say that. I've taken chances."
"Why?" Samuel queried.
To Tess the answer was self-evident. "It was the right thing to do."
Samuel nodded. "Then you know loyalty."
"It's different. I don't live in the world of the Conqueror and Queen. I'm only a peasant and the people I know are no better than me."
"The Conqueror is the daughter of an innkeeper in Amphipolis and before they were killed the Queen's parents were farmers and sheepherders in Poteidaia – villages smaller than Messene."
Tess hesitated, "They're not peasant girls now."
"When I first met the Queen she was a slave, new to the Conqueror's household. My loyalty to her began from our first meeting."
"And when you met the Conqueror, who was she?"
"Xena of Amphipolis, a warlord who had enough of killing. She decided to win Greece and free it from the warlords who ruled the provinces through terror. I wanted my family to be free from the pitiless tyrants. I believed that following Xena was the best chance Greece and my family had for peace."
Tess wondered, "Why did you believe her?"
"I had no doubt." Samuel recalled the young warrior who was as true as she was ruthless. "Those who know her know she lives by her word."
Tess saw Samuel with different eyes. "Your family, are they well?"
"Those living, yes."
"Do you have a wife… children?"
"I and most of my brothers in the Guard are bachelors. It's hard finding a woman who is willing to share a soldier's life."
"Like the Queen?"
"She made her choice. The Conqueror did not want the Queen in danger. Secrets can be kept for only so long. Now they both live with the fear that the other may be hurt."
Tess reflected upon the quiet scene she had just left. "For the Queen it's no longer a fear. She sits never taking her eyes from the Conqueror."
Samuel declared, "And the Royal Guard stands with her."
"She is lucky to have you."
"You still don't understand." Samuel shared the belief that was at the heart of the Guard's loyalty. "It is we who are lucky to have her."
Tess walked away deep in her own thoughts. The Queen made it possible for her to leave Messene. The Queen said she would help Tess find a job in Corinth. The Queen's assistance came easily, so easily that Tess had set aside her history of men and women who turned their backs on her. She was beginning to understand how subtly the Queen demonstrated her virtue.
Stephen chose ten Guardsmen including Sentas and Tavis to ride with him to the port city of Patra. He had them all dressed as mercenaries. Upon entering the city, they split into groups of two and three, their task to make inquiries regarding the ships in port. They met in one of the cleaner inns in the city. Each team reported on the ships, their captains, their known destinations and their cargo. After considering all the facts, they reached a consensus on the best candidate and the best approach. Their plan set, contact would be made the following morning.
The Guardsmen finished dinner and drank moderately. Mason, a younger Guardsman known for his ability to throw a dagger with extraordinary precision, leaned forward. He directed his question to Stephen. "Major… the Conqueror… you saw her wounds. They were bad, weren't they?"
Stephen had tried to erase the stark, haunting memory of Xena lying in the back of the wagon. "They were, Mason."
Sentas remarked, "She's strong."
Tavis added, "And she has Gabrielle."
A fifth Guardsman, Jason, voiced the wish of every man at the table. "The Conqueror will get through this."
Distressed, Mason continued to disturb what was for him an uncomfortable silence, one that drew him close to his fears. "Hard to believe Thanos would kill her so he could have a few more coins in his pocket."
"More than a few," Sentas spat. Caesar must have promised him half of Greece."
Tavis observed, "I always thought Thanos hated Gabrielle more than the Conqueror."
"I'm sure he had his plans for her, too," Sentas countered.
Alem, a bull of a man thundered, "Bastard!" His anger radiated among the men.
Again, Mason turned to Stephen. "Major, will you hear a question?"
Stephen tolerated the young man with waning patience. "What's on your mind?"
"Why did you let Bavavos live? Gabrielle stepped away. You were free to do with him what you liked?"
"I took my piece of him. What is left of him is for the Conqueror."
Sentas turned a cold eye to Mason. "Remember what she did to Tracate."
Sentas continued, "If Bavavos is smart he'll find and fall on a sword."
Gabrielle weighed her options. Xena taught her that there were times when to survive you had to go against your nature. Xena was weak from blood loss. Movement was prohibitive. The healer in Gabrielle wanted to keep Xena in bed, to give her time to renew her strength, to protect her from the pain she would feel if moved. The military strategist in Gabrielle knew that remaining in the village was dangerous. She wanted Xena in Corinth, under the protection of the Royal Guard. She also wanted to return to Corinth to gauge the danger to the realm. Thanos was one of a few disgruntled lords. He was more a politician than a warmonger. Gabrielle had not thought he had it in him to take arms against the realm. If she was wrong about him, she wondered whom else she might have misjudged. It was not enough that dispatches had been sent to all the garrisons placing the armies on high alert.
It was late in the evening when Gabrielle stepped outside the room. Trevor stood at the door.
"I need a way to transport Xena that doesn't cause her any more harm."
Trevor considered the problem. "A hammock on a wagon… We can secure it to the side boards to limit motion."
"Her back… I need her to lie on her side or stomach."
"It can be done. It still will not be easy for her."
"I have enough herbs to keep her asleep."
Trevor was surprised, "You won't wait for Dalius?"
Gabrielle was resolute, "We can meet him on the road."
"I'll get to it."
"Thank you." Gabrielle reentered the room. Her eyes returned to her Lord. She knew what she was about to do had to be done. Knowing this did not lessen the ache in her heart.
Xena moaned as she slipped out of Morpheus' hold into consciousness. She opened her eyes beholding Gabrielle sitting beside her. She wondered for a moment if she was dreaming. A sharp wave of pain charged through her body. She had her answer. She closed her eyes, as the pain became too great to bear. She whispered for Gabrielle, seeking a guide back to a life of gentleness and loving concern.
"I'm here, love." Gabrielle's concerned voice broke through Xena's agony.
Xena opened her eyes anew seeking out Gabrielle, her mainstay. Gabrielle knelt beside the bed, placing herself level with Xena. She touched her partner's cheek with her fingertips.
Xena begged in a low, weak whisper. "Take me back to Megara."
Gabrielle promised. "I will, love. We will go back together. You'll rest and get better."
Gabrielle's promise was one that spoke of the future. Xena was unable to consider the future. The future meant nothing to her. "Now…"
Gabrielle understood. "I have something for you to drink first."
Gabrielle carefully held a cup of water mixed with powerful herbs. The damage done to Xena's arms precluded any thought of asking the warrior to raise herself up. Gabrielle offered the cup. Xena lifted her head and slowly drank the contents. She laid her head back, her gaze stayed with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle coaxed. "Close your eyes."
Xena shook her heads slightly. "Look at you…"
"All right… Megara… We are in our bedroom. The window shutters are open. The sea breeze is gently flowing over our bodies, bringing the taste of salt and the smell of fresh clams being boiled in a cauldron over the fire pit Sam and Trevor have lit. Jared and Stephen are arguing about the best way to eat a lobster, although it doesn't matter because they don't have any."
The herbs made an immediate impact upon Xena's weakened state. Her pain subsided. She focused completely upon Gabrielle, the loveliness she embodied, the sweetness of her voice and the life she painted with the simplest words. Xena believed in Gabrielle as she believed in Megara. She needed to believe. If she did not have Gabrielle, if they did not share Megara there would be no reason to continue on, no reason not to surrender and slip away beyond sleep to death. She heard Jared and Stephen arguing and she smiled.
"From the stables you can hear Argo whinnying. Spirit is misbehaving and she is still trying to figure out what you were thinking when you brought him into our family."
"You…" Xena answered, "I was thinking of you."
Gabrielle left Megara for a moment and returned to their brief time in Scupi. "Were you? I didn't know."
Xena never imagined another mistress for Spirit. "Someday… give him to you."
Gabrielle wondered, "You knew we would be together again?"
Xena confessed, "Hoped… Couldn't live without the hope."
Gabrielle paused as her composure began to crumble.
"Megara…" Xena repeated her request as she began to lose sight of the sea.
Gabrielle promised to take Xena to Megara. She had no choice. She continued her story. She smiled against the feeling of their shared anguish. "Megara. We had a wonderful day. We decided to walk down the beach taking a picnic basket and a blanket with us."
Xena closed her eyes. "Gabrielle…"
"Yes." Gabrielle leaned forward to better hear Xena's faint words, careful not to disturb the bed.
"I know, love. We found a quiet little niche away from the hot sun. You're resting on the blanket and I am sitting beside you. We're safe. Xena, you can rest knowing that no one can hurt us. Rest now, love. I promise I'll be here when you wake."
Gabrielle watched Xena's breathing deepen and her muscles, coiled by pain, relax. The warrior drifted back to a merciful sleep. Only then, unable to embrace Xena's battered body, to lie with her as she had done countless times in the past as a means of comforting, feeling helpless to erase the cruelty of a nightmare realized, did Gabrielle shed her tears
Gabrielle slept in the chair close to Xena's bed. She was awakened by a knock on the door. It was daybreak. "Come."
Jared entered. He stepped softly to his ward. "We're ready to travel."
"Jared, we go to Megara."
"Megara?" His eyes traveled to Xena's still form. "Lass, I know what Megara means to her but is it worth the risk? It means more time on the road. I cannot secure Megara as I can Corinth."
Gabrielle was determined. "Would you deny Xena her last wish?"
Jared was emphatic, "She is not dying."
"I don't know if she will live or die." Gabrielle, as a healer, could not deny the critical nature of Xena's condition. "I will not take the chance that the Fates will finally choose to cut her life string."
Jared spoke of practical concerns, "Court was restless when I left. Thanos' arrest raised many questions. The Lords are waiting for answers."
Gabrielle accepted her responsibilities to the realm. What demands were made of her would not be ignored. "We will pass Corinth on the way. Send word to Targon. I want to meet him and Lords Ayers and Judais at the crossroads. There you will go to Corinth and hold it until I have Xena settled in Megara. Only then will I return to Corinth."
The importance of Megara made clear, Jared reconsidered. He asked too much from Gabrielle. "I can hold Corinth for as long as you need."
Gabrielle had made her decision. "Thanos must be judged swiftly and I must be the one to do it."
The Port of Patra was congested as men toiled loading and unloading ships. Merchants inspected imports while minor peddlers hawked their wares. Stephen, Sentas and Tavis advanced toward the Endeavor, a ship captained by a man named Wastio. The balance of their force was split to each side out of sight.
Seeing a familiar man standing at the aft of the ship, Stephen paused. "Wait." He pointed. "There is Podios. We have the right ship."
Tavis did not know the man. "Who is he?"
"He's from the House of Thanos, a negotiator of trade compacts."
"Does he know who you are?"
"Yes. If he sees me our ruse is foiled."
Sentas did not see the need for caution. "Why bother? Let's give the signal and take the ship."
Stephen had not lost sight of his mission. "We would do better to get closer. Remember, Gabrielle gave us free rein to exact our retribution, but she also charged us to bring back proof of the alliance between Thanos and Rome."
Sentas placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, "Keeping free from our swords will be more important than safeguarding their correspondence."
Stephen's gazed traveled back to Podios. "Our best bet is the Captain's quarters and whatever Podios carries."
"Or has left at his lodgings," Tavis added.
Stephen agreed. "Podios must stay alive long enough to tell us what we need to know."
Sentas offered, "I'll stand between him and my brothers. After this is done I will gut him, tie him with the ship's rigging and hang him on the mast."
Tavis added his own curse. "The birds will pick him apart and his soul will know no rest."
"You two go ahead. I won't be far behind." Stephen placed his hand on Sentas' shoulder. "Sentas, you're a fine actor. Don't forget this is a dangerous stage."
Sentas and Tavis stepped lively. Stephen watched closely, his vision constantly tracking Podios' movements.
Sentas called out, "Captain, a word with you."
Wastio had no time for the strangers. "Make it quick. I have cargo arriving."
"That is the very thing I want to talk to you about." Sentas extended his arms, "Though you can't tell by the look of me, I am a militiaman of the House of Thanos. I was second in command of a contingent charged to ensure that a very valuable cargo reach the port. We came into some trouble along the way and our leader was killed before he could give me instruction. I've made some discrete inquiries and have come to believe you might be the captain of the ship I am seeking."
The Captain was wary. "What makes you think so?"
Sentas took a step forward and lowered his voice. "I'm told your route is usually north and that you have put off your usual clients to serve but one. A merchant told me that you boasted that the payment you were receiving was worthy of a king's ransom." Sentas smiled. "Of course in Greece we have no more kings, only the Sovereign."
The Captain narrowed his eyes. "I may be the captain you are looking for. Do you know a man named Podios?"
"Not by face. He is an administrator for Lord Thanos."
The Captain pointed, "He stands there. He was sent to make the arrangements."
"Then luck has turned my way." Sentas pulled a red handkerchief from his pant pocket and wiped his brow – the signal to attack the ship.
Gabrielle kept Xena asleep throughout the trip northeast. Dalius met the troops on the third day of their travel. He examined Xena and could only offer a salve to assist in the external healing. His assessment echoed Gabrielle's. Other than mitigating Xena's pain, there was nothing else they could do for the Conqueror.
Gabrielle, Jared and the 1st Army waited at the crossroads. The Royal Guard, led by Trevor proceeded to Megara with the Conqueror.
Jared announced the arrival of Targon and the Lords. "They're here."
From her waiting place Gabrielle followed the General to the center of the road. The new arrivals dismounted.
The administrator greeted his Queen. "Your Majesty."
Though her courtesy remained, Gabrielle was devoid of her usual warmth. "Targon. Lords. Thank you for coming."
Lord Judais wasted no words. "How is the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle reported objectively, "She was badly beaten and it will take time for her to heal. Thanos' cousin Bavavos showed the Conqueror no mercy."
Judais focused upon the accusation. "Are you sure it was him?"
"I was in Thanos' fortress when the Conqueror was taken." Gabrielle hardened. "Bavavos confessed a plan to transport the Conqueror to Rome. It was also Thanos' men who attempted to kidnap Ambassador Acade."
"We met with the Ambassador." Lord Ayers reported. "It is his testimony that keeps Court against Thanos."
Judais added, "Thanos has begged many Lords to hear his case."
"Have any gone to him?" Jared needed to measure the threat against the throne.
"A few." Judais answered. "They remain unimpressed."
The General queried, "Have you spoken to him?"
Ayers looked to the Queen. "Thanos knows our loyalties. He did not waste his breath with us."
Gabrielle nodded, accepting the inferred oath. "I have evidence of Thanos' involvement in the conspiracy to undermine relations between Greece and Persia. I'm waiting for more evidence specific to his dealings with Rome."
"Can such evidence be found?" Judais wondered aloud.
Gabrielle depended on Stephen not to disappoint her. "Time will tell."
Ayers warned, "Your reign will be tainted if you keep Thanos in prison indefinitely."
"I need no more than a fortnight. Until then General Jared will hold Corinth."
Neither Ayers nor Judais were surprised to learn that the Queen would not immediately return to Corinth. Had she planned to return, their meeting would have been unnecessary. Ayers asked, "Where will you be?"
Gabrielle unconsciously touched her ring with her thumb, "My first priority is the Conqueror's health and safety. She will be secluded from the intrigues of the realm until she is able to return to the throne."
Judais offered, "What can we do?"
The Queen answered, "Keep your fellow Lords calm as you encourage them to ready their militias for combat."
Judais was taken aback. "You expect war?"
Gabrielle had to prepare the realm, "If there is war it will be civil, not from across our borders. Rome knows that brother killing brother causes more harm than any foreign enemy. I hope that within Greece Thanos acted alone. Until I am sure of it, I will not warrant our security."
Judais presented an optimistic future, "Your Majesty, the realm is strong. Thanos is the exception, not the rule."
Gabrielle remained unconvinced. "Please take care. I must ride on, but first I need to speak to my administrator privately."
The Lords and General excused themselves as Targon waited for his instructions.
Gabrielle offered the frail man an appreciative smile. "I hope the ride was not too hard for you?"
"Not at all, Your Majesty."
"Argo has not been found. Under the circumstances I couldn't spare any men to look for her. Send word to the southern provinces that a 5,000 dinar reward will be paid for her return."
Targon observed, "It would be a shame if the Conqueror lost Argo."
"Too much has been taken from the Conqueror. I will not allow Argo to be a casualty of Thanos' treachery."
Gabrielle placed a hand on the administrator's arm. "Targon, I realize you prefer Corinth to the countryside, but I may have need to call you to Megara."
Targon straightened his body as best he could. "If you do, I will come without delay."
"Your Majesty, is there anything I can do for you or the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle depended on her allies. "Stay well, Targon. I need you now more than ever." She walked away. The administrator watched as the Queen mounted Spirit and road east, escorted by her Guard.
Gabrielle lay beside Xena on their bed. Her hand rested under Xena's the only touch Gabrielle felt she could allow. She had ceased giving Xena a sleeping draught She waited for her partner to wake.
Xena curled her fingers securing Gabrielle's hand in her own. She swallowed a moan, determined not to convey the true magnitude of her pain. She opened her eyes to Gabrielle's attentive gaze. She spoke gently, "I know you."
Gabrielle smiled, "Yes, you do."
Gabrielle understood Xena's abbreviated question but chose to play with her partner "How long have we known each other? More than three years. How long since you were hurt? Six days."
Xena considered which answer meant more to her. "Has it been only three years? You have given me an eternity of joy."
Gabrielle was bested and her heart opened contrary to her resolution to keep her emotion in check. "Xena…"
Xena continued with her questions. For the moment bringing Gabrielle back to the most practical concerns. "Where are we?"
Gabrielle's smile broadened. "Megara."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand, her gratitude immeasurable. "How's my back?"
"You still amaze me. Your minor wounds are healed. The stitches can soon be removed from the worst. How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm in a mist. Kind of vague."
"Are you in pain?"
Xena minimized the extent of her suffering. "A little."
"I can give you something." Gabrielle began to rise.
"Not now," Xena checked Gabrielle's departure. "I've slept enough for a season. I want to clear my head first. Tell me what's been happening."
Gabrielle eased back upon her pillow. "Jared is in Corinth. He has Thanos under arrest. We've secured Messene and are securing the remainder of Thanos' holdings. Stephen rode to Patra to intercept the Roman courier. I expect him soon."
"Anton and Geldpac, have you found them?"
"On the way to Messene. We gave them a proper burial."
Xena's eyes shifted back and forth as she took in the news, her thoughts settled and so too her gaze. "Why didn't you tell me in Messene?"
Gabrielle spoke gently, "They were good men. Hades himself has reason to personally usher their souls to the Elysian Fields. In Messene I thought only of you."
Xena would not shy away from the truth. To honor her soldiers she needed to know their fate. "How did Bavavos treat them?"
"Stephen found dart marks on their necks. I don't think they suffered." Gabrielle would not speak of their decapitation.
Xena's thoughts turned to those who had harmed her. "Where are Bavavos and Cofeus?"
"They are being transported to Corinth. I'm keeping them away from Thanos."
"Good." Xena took mental inventory of her concerns. Her gaze sharpened, "Argo?"
"We haven't found her yet. Bavavos said she ran away when they took you."
Xena smiled. "That's like her."
Gabrielle's reassured, "She will find her way back to you."
Xena set the thought of Argo aside. She had asked after everyone except the one who mattered most to her. A spasm erupted through her lower legs. By will alone she held a steady gaze upon Gabrielle. "How are you?"
Gabrielle answered too quickly. "I'm fine."
Xena knew better. "Gabrielle…"
Gabrielle did not want the discussion. "My Lord."
Feeling she was in a disadvantage lying on her stomach and wanting to take greater measure of the damage done to her, Xena made what she believed was a reasonable request. "I'd like to get out of bed."
Gabrielle was prudent. "How about if we just sit you up for now?"
Xena quipped, "My cautious healer."
Gabrielle smiled. "That I am."
"Very well. I won't argue with you."
Gabrielle helped Xena roll onto her back and then to sit up. Xena lay against the bed board, pillows providing a cushion, easing the pressure and agonizing pain that overtook her the moment she had begun to move. Xena felt lightheaded and had to focus to keep her sense of place and time. Her skin and muscles felt uncomfortably tight. She realized stitches covered the complete length of the back of her legs and arms as well as her rear torso.
Having Xena settled, Gabrielle sat on the bedside.
"Come here." Xena extended her arm invitingly, though the pain in her arms was no less than in the rest of her body.
"Must I bring you to me?" Xena threatened lightly.
Gabrielle gently entered the niche Xena offered.
Having Gabrielle in her arms Xena knew she had a better chance of receiving an unguarded answer. "Now tell me… how are you?"
Gabrielle's hand closed over the linen that draped Xena, taking a firm hold of the fabric. She felt her throat constrict with emotion. Long held at bay, her sorrow rallied to the surface. She began to cry. Xena withstood the jolting pain of having Gabrielle against her and held the younger woman close. With time Gabrielle quieted and then slipped into sleep.
A knock on the door preceded Tess' entrance. Xena observed the young woman. She was familiar to Xena. Xena could not place her. She raised two fingers to her lips.
Tess set the tray down on a nearby table and walked to the far side of the bed. She spoke in a whisper, "Your Majesty, is there anything I can get for you?
"No, thank you." Xena asked easily, "Where have we met before?"
"I was in the dungeon in Messene. I was brought in with the Queen, Major and Captain."
"So you were in the tavern brawl?"
Tess blushed. "Lord Thanos' men were brutish. The Major took exception."
Xena smiled. "Stephen keeps trying to teach the uncouth manners. He always gets a good fight for the trying. I think he enjoys it."
Whatever hesitation Tess had felt speaking to the Conqueror had left her. "He and the Captain did very well."
"I'm sure they did. What's your name?"
Xena was surprised to have a stranger in Megara. "Are you here by the Queen's request?"
"I asked the Queen if I could leave Messene with her."
Tess' answer made sense. Gabrielle would not have turned the woman away. "How do you find Megara?"
Tess smiled, "It's beautiful here."
"It is." Xena wondered how close Tess was situated. "Are you staying in the servant's quarters?"
"They haven't had much use. The Queen and I fend for ourselves when we are here. We value our privacy."
Xena was confused by her comment, "Remember?"
Tess explained, "You spoke of Megara while in the dungeon. It was impossible not to hear."
"I see." Xena turned her gaze to Gabrielle. She had said much to her lover on that day. She did not regret a word of it. A crippling jolt of fire surged through her. She closed her eyes, distancing herself mentally from the internal assault. After a few heartbeats she brought herself back to Tess. Her breathing was labored. "Thank you for the tray. The Queen or I will ask for you if a need arises."
Tess interpreted her dismissal to include a more encompassing command. "I understand." She exited.
Xena waited until her breathing steadied. She returned her attention to Gabrielle. There was a fearful hesitation building inside her, one that pushed through a memory weakened by the lash and the draughts administered to keep her pain at bay. Not prepared to surrender to her doubts, she leaned over to kiss Gabrielle. Just as their lips touched, Gabrielle shifted, causing an excruciating pain to travel through Xena's body. Xena pulled her head back, the torment causing a tear to fall from her eye.
Stephen rode to Corinth and reported to Jared. He was not surprised to learn that Gabrielle had taken Xena to Megara. He was surprised to learn that Gabrielle would return to Corinth as soon as Thanos could be tried.
He and his brothers had accomplished their task. Having sufficient written proof of Thanos' involvement they showed no mercy to Podios, Wastio or the men who defended the captain. Many of the ship's seamen were shocked to learn what cargo they had been contracted to carry. More than one sailor offered to rend Wastio into pieces.
Without delay, Stephen left Corinth for Megara. He looked forward to sharing his story with both Gabrielle and Xena. They could take heart in the knowledge that except for a greedy ship's captain and a few of his men, Greece was not a willing accomplice to the government's downfall.
Arriving in Megara, Stephen dismounted, ran up the beach house stairs and through the front door.
Tess met him. "Major."
"Tess… I thought you had gone to Corinth with the General." Stephen had wondered about the young woman. Not wanting to betray his interest, he deliberately failed to ask Jared about her.
"I've been some service to the Queen."
"Where is she?"
"In the lower bedroom. She never leaves the Conqueror's side."
Stephen's fear for Xena took hold of him. "How is the Conqueror?"
Tess noted how Stephen quieted. "Awake. I spoke to her briefly. I think she is still in pain."
Stephen looked toward the corridor that led to the Royals' bedroom. It represented a haven of joy and passion. It was a private space not to be trespassed. He held it more in reverence than any temple he had cause to enter. Stephen turned his thoughts back to the displaced barmaid. "How are you, Tess?"
Stephen took measure of Tess. She seemed different to him. He realized it was the surroundings. Under the roof of the beach house she carried a humble dignity. She held herself erect and yet kept her hands together in front of her. Instead of a barmaid in constant demand, fighting off unwanted advances, she could and did present herself unassumingly, ready to serve. Stephen also noticed that Tess' dress was clean and pressed, her shoes polished. She wore her hair up neatly. Unlike many of the women in Court who worked hard to be beautiful, Tess' beauty came forth by the very simplicity of her presentation. Stephen wanted no formalities between them. "Tess, please call me Stephen. I'm the same man you met in Messene."
Tess corrected him. "You are no peasant farmer."
Reminded of his lie, Stephen made the best of it. "My father was. I toiled the fields beside him when I was a boy. I am proud of my peasant stock."
Tess cast her eyes down.
Stephen was concerned for her. "Tess, are you sure you are all right. You don't look it to me."
Tess was lonely. Her aloneness was all the more felt in the atmosphere of comradery that was so pervasive in Megara. "I feel an outsider here."
"We are a close knit group. Never more so than in Megara."
Tess had yet to ascertain the human and military dynamics of Megara. "You are a member of the Queen's Guard?"
"No, I am attached to the Conqueror. In Corinth, I am second only to General Jared."
Stephen's rank explained why Gabrielle sent him to Patra. "Did your mission go well?"
"I believe the Queen has been anxious for your return."
Again, Stephen's gaze turned to toward the Royals' bedroom. "I should go to her."
Tess apologized, "I shouldn't have kept you. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. My tarry is my own doing." Stephen confessed, "Now that I'm here I find myself afraid to see how they might be changed."
Tess had not expected such a naked declaration. "I don't understand."
"No, you wouldn't. Right now is not the time to explain." Stephen gave Tess a minor bow. "Excuse me, I can't delay any longer."
Tess watched as Stephen walked to the Royals' bedroom and knocked lightly on the door. She had never met a man like him. He gave her more than a gentleman's courtesy. The door opened and Stephen entered closing the door behind him.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle took Stephen into her arms. Stephen held Gabrielle securely, supporting the young woman whose silence and firm hold conveyed both the depth of her concern and her need of him.
Gabrielle spoke first. "Are you all right?"
Stephen reassured, "I'm well."
"And our brothers?"
"They carry nothing more than minor cuts and bruises."
Stephen's gaze traveled to the bed.
Gabrielle stepped back. "She's sleeping."
"How is she?"
"She tries to hide it from me. but she's in great pain. Dalius has just given her a draught. She refused medicines after first arriving, but the longer she was awake the harder it was for her to go without."
Stephen turned his thoughts to the younger woman. "And you… you look tired."
"I've gotten some sleep." Gabrielle was impatient for Stephen's news. "Tell me, did you fine the ship?"
"I did. Podios was waiting on board."
"Bavavos told the truth." She granted him a mark of gratitude even though he did not offer the information until he was placed under duress. "Where is Podios?"
"In Tartarus along with the Captain of the ship and a half-dozen of his men."
Gabrielle would have preferred to have the men alive to testify against Thanos. She would not criticize Stephen. Still, she hoped his anger did not cost their case. "You brought me evidence?"
"I did. Dispatches between Rome and the Captain and between the Captain and Thanos. Those from Thanos bear his seal. You have all you need to convict him. Jared waits your return."
Gabrielle nodded. She glanced toward Xena. "I hope his trial won't take long."
Understanding Gabrielle's hesitancy, Stephen, in his own way, granted Gabrielle permission to stay in Megara. "Thanos can rot in prison."
"No, I want this done with. I've spoken to Xena and she agrees it's best to send a clear message throughout the provinces that Corinth harbors no enemies and that the hand of justice is severe." She touched Stephen's arm. "Follow me."
Gabrielle led Stephen outside to the central court. There Trevor and Samuel waited. With Stephen's arrival, the men were anticipating a return to Corinth.
Gabrielle called the Guardsmen to her. "I'm returning to Corinth in the morning. I want the three of you to stay here."
"No," Trevor objected in low disillusioned voice.
"What?" Gabrielle was unsettled by his refusal.
Trevor set his feet firmly on the ground, standing tall. He was adamant. "My place is with you."
Stephen warned with a growl. "Trevor…"
"No!" Trevor turned on his fellow Guardsman. "Of course you won't complain. We all know where your loyalty lies."
"Don't say another word." Gabrielle put a halt to the exchange. Trevor treaded on dangerous ground. He had no idea of his disadvantage.
Trevor would not be put off. He set aside all formalities. "By Xena's own charge, I am your champion."
Gabrielle did not hold back her anger. "I name my champion. And, I name my champion's charge. You are proving yourself to be neither my champion nor my friend. My Lord is defenseless. I will only commend her to those whom I trust." She directed her next words to Stephen. "Major, Megara is your command. Do not disappoint me." She walked back into the house.
Stephen turned to Trevor. "You are one word from losing your commission. I suggest you take a long walk and think about what you have just done. And when you come back, you better be ready to take orders without any thought of dissent. If not, pack up and leave. Only men of honor belong in the Guard."
Trevor looked from Stephen to Samuel. Samuel's jaw was clenched. He too felt he belonged beside Gabrielle. No matter how much he disagreed with his orders, he would never use Stephen's love for Xena as a weapon in his argument, especially not in front of Gabrielle. Trevor had breached their code of honor. Samuel would not be his ally.
Seeing no sign of support, Trevor turned and walked away.
The evening hour brought cooler weather. Gabrielle sat outside the bedroom porch listening to the wind and to the sea. It was a deceptively peaceful night. The turmoil previously left outside Megara had now breached Gabrielle's willful defenses, trespassed and stolen what she cherished as an unmerited gift, the confidence that the Fates would bless this small patch of earth under the heavens, leaving it for her and Xena alone to find each other, and in so doing, to find themselves.
"Your Majesty." Stephen approached from the side of the house. He leaned easily against a waist high rail that separated him from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle quashed his formality., "Queen's protocol, Stephen."
The Guardsmen set the foundation in his case. "Gabrielle, Trevor is committed to Xena."
"Listening to Xena being scourged… Watching you being taken away by Cofeus… I have lived more than Trevor. He had confidence in his sword to protect both you and Xena. He is still learning that he won't always be able to do so. He still fights his limitations. Gabrielle, he feels he failed and does not want to fail again."
Gabrielle presented her own case. "I asked him to protect Xena. If he had failed me, I would have looked elsewhere for her protector."
Stephen placed his hand over Gabrielle's. "You and Xena are unfair to us."
"You have made it perfectly clear to me that I am to protect Xena at all cost, including your life. And Xena has asked Trevor to protect you under the same terms. When faced by the decision the very person we are sworn to protect countermands us. How are we to remain loyal to both of you?"
Gabrielle was not convinced. "This isn't about Trevor keeping his oath to Xena."
"Sam isn't very happy with your order either." Stephen smiled. "Lucky for him he isn't as quick to speak as Trevor."
Gabrielle understood Trevor and Samuel's motivations to differ. That difference was crucial. She did not wish to ponder the issue further. It raised a painful memory that was better left buried. She redirected the focus of their conversation. She took hold of Stephen's hand. "And you?"
"Gabrielle, you are my sister as well as my Queen. You made the decision for me and I will honor it even it I lose Xena's friendship because of what you ask me to do. But understand, I don't want to see you hurt."
Gabrielle felt terribly alone. "I'm hurting right now."
Stephen gently squeezed her hand. "I know."
"I live with the fear of losing her. The Gods have her in their sights. She has enemies both within and outside of Greece. Maybe I was wrong to ask her to return to Corinth. If she had stayed in Scupi she wouldn't be fighting for her life right now."
Stephen challenged, "Xena has too much history. It will follow her wherever she goes. You know best what took her away from Corinth."
"The Gods… they had a wager."
Many, including Stephen, believed, contrary to statements made otherwise, that the Gods had played a role in Greece's recent fortunes. "What kind of wager?"
"We don't know for sure. We know it was about the Chosen and that Aphrodite won and Ares lost. We know that Xena's and my life are bound to one another."
"If you know that, why fight it?" Stephen questioned. "What makes you think either one of you is safer apart than together?"
Gabrielle wished, "It would be so much easier if we could just make a life for ourselves away from the realm."
"You have here in Megara."
"Not this time."
Stephen hated seeing Gabrielle so dispirited. "Gabrielle, if Aphrodite won the wager it means that the love you share is stronger than Ares. During the last campaign, the hatred that fuels war did not infect either you or Xena. You take Greece into battle reluctantly, but also decisively."
Gabrielle felt recent events had changed her. One could argue she had been infected by hatred. "Stephen, I will never forgive those who hurt Xena. Bavavos and Thanos have no idea what they have brought onto themselves."
"I would say Bavavos understands."
"You began a lesson Xena will finish. Only then will he know."
Stephen reassured, "She will finish the lesson, Gabrielle. Xena will get well."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair. "I don't want to leave."
"I will keep Megara for you."
Gabrielle returned to Stephen's initial concern, one that weighed heavily upon her heart. "Stephen, I'm thinking of reassigning Trevor. If I am unfair in my expectations it may be for the best."
Stephen did not like the idea. "I'm not sure it would be a kindness. Please don't rush into a decision."
Gabrielle trusted Stephen's counsel. He, better than anyone, understood Trevor's quandary. No change would be made without consulting Jared. "Say nothing to him."
"I won't." Having achieved his goal, Stephen took his leave. "Good night, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle gazed gratefully to a man who had indeed become her brother. "Good night, Stephen."
After Stephen left her, Gabrielle went and stood underneath the bedroom threshold. Xena slept restlessly. In her sleep Xena could not mask her pain. Her attempts at movement caused her body to twitch and jerk in protest. Dalius warned Gabrielle that though Xena superficially was healing, the damage done deep in her body might take far longer to mend. All indications led Gabrielle to the same conclusion.
Gabrielle missed Xena. Except for Xena's first waking in Megara, their conversations were brief and, to Gabrielle's confusion, circumspect. To touch her was to risk hurting her. Xena's guarded expressions of affection increased in direct proportion to the weakening draughts she consumed. She was determined to wean herself off the medicines. The result, a fragile tolerance reflected in her dull and weary eyes. It was Xena's restraint above all else that kept Gabrielle at arm's length.
After their arrival in Megara, Xena consented to see only Gabrielle and Dalius. Her only exception was a brief interview with Stephen upon his arrival. With Gabrielle's departure, Xena agreed to accept Tess' service. However, Dalius would continue in Megara as Xena's primary caregiver.
Gabrielle prayed that her journey away from Megara would be brief.
Gabrielle slept beside Xena. As had become her habit by necessity she rested her hand underneath Xena's palm. When Xena's dreams were most disturbing, Xena would close her hand over Gabrielle's; Gabrielle was an anchor to the promise of a better world beyond the void of uninterrupted darkness.
Gabrielle woke with the first light of dawn. Xena had a firm hold of her. Gabrielle leaned forward and whispered into Xena's ear, "It's all right, love. You're safe. We're in Megara. I'm here with you." Gabrielle bit her lip. She would be leaving within a few candlemarks. During the mornings that followed she would not be able to usher Xena back from her disturbing dreams.
Xena relaxed, allowing Gabrielle to slip her hand free. Gabrielle reached out and touched Xena's cheek. Xena winced. The violation Xena experienced set her body to an acute, subconsciously suspicious alert. Gabrielle drew her hand back. Her caresses were restrained, limited to those given through words. Gabrielle lay resting, memorizing every feature of Xena's face. She grieved the changes she saw etched by the pain and stress of the recent fortnight.
Xena's eyes fluttered open. She turned her head toward Gabrielle. "Hello."
Gabrielle tried to be unaffected. "Good morning."
"Use to be I had to wait for you to wake up."
Gabrielle smiled. "I've learned that getting up first has its advantages."
"Have you found me out?" Xena quipped lightly.
"I don't know. Maybe we find different things worth the effort."
Xena mused, "To watch you sleep, lying beside me without care, allowing yourself to be vulnerable in spite of the life you lived, trusting that I will keep you from harm. I know no greater peace."
Gabrielle's and Xena's eyes met. They exchanged thoughts and emotions without words. There were no words for their intimate union.
Xena was aware that Gabrielle would soon leave Megara. She longed to extend their time together. "What are you thinking?"
Gabrielle blushed. "Something I read by Hesiod about the Muses and kings."
Given Xena's unfavorable opinion of the Gods, Gabrielle recited an abridged version removing what might offend.
[The Muses] pride in the company of august kings.
And if the daughters of great Zeus honor a king….
And look upon him when he is born,
they pour on his tongue sweet dew
and make the words that flow from his mouth honey-sweet,
and all the people look up to him as with straight justice
he gives his verdict and with unerring firmness
and wisdom brings some great strife to a swift end.
This is why kings are prudent, and when in the assembly
injustice is done, wrongs are righted
by the kings with ease and gentle persuasion.
When such a king comes to the assembly he stands out;
yes, he is …treated with cheerful respect.
Xena would not accept the intended compliment. She knew Hesiod's writings. Her response conveyed the impartiality of a skillful scholar. "Only a few lines later in the same poem he wrote, ‘A man may have some fresh grief over which to mourn, / and sorrow may have left him no more tears, but if a singer, / a servant of the Muses, sings the glories of ancient men / and hymns the blessed gods who dwell on Olympos, / the heavy-hearted man soon shakes off his dark mood, and forgetfulness / soothes his grief, for the gifts of the gods diverts his mind.' Gabrielle, I'm not one of the gifted. There is no soothing my grief."
Gabrielle's soul was stricken by Xena's harsh self-assessment. What consolation she hoped to give was rejected. Kept separated, isolated from Xena's greatest suffering, Gabrielle explained herself. "I meant that though of the two of us I am the bard, you do have a way with words. The Muses have touched you, Xena."
"Hesiod sings of kings. I would say he also sings of queens like you. I have always used the sword. You are the one with the power of gentle persuasion."
Gabrielle protested, "I am not as successful as you make me out to be. I have gone to the sword."
Xena denied any assertion that would have her reflection mirror Gabrielle's. "The road you have taken is defensible. For you violence is a last resort, when there are no more options available. I think my pain is deserved. One who lives by violence must be prepared to wear the scars of their violence returned."
"You did nothing to Thanos to deserve the lash."
"I did worse to others who deserved nothing more than to be left in peace. I harmed those no different than you."
"You will not accept my consolation."
"I will not allow you or anyone else to claim that the Muses bless me. To say such a thing is offensive to both the Muses and those who truly deserve their patronage."
Gabrielle was disheartened. "This is not how I imagined our morning. I wanted to leave you gently, not with a disagreement."
Xena was gentle. "Gabrielle, we have no disagreement. I am thankful for your generosity, misplaced as it might be."
The ongoing formality of Xena's words was causing Gabrielle more hurt than comfort. They had lost the light, easy spirit that played between them. Thanos had robbed her of the precious gift of Xena's happiness. "I will hold my opinion, Xena. You cannot convince me to see you with different eyes." Gabrielle shifted her body away, "I better get dressed. I have to be on the road soon."
Xena held her tongue. The world was no longer right to her. All was a struggle, nothing more than being with Gabrielle. There was not one cycle of the sun that did not bring her back to the lash. She feared Tartarus was nothing more than hope arrested. To have the one she longed for just beyond her fingertips, never able to bridge that bit of separation. Hades could be imaginative in doling out cruel torments. She was ready to grant him a laurel wreath for his artfulness.
Standing outside her door Samuel heard the Conqueror call out. He listened carefully. Having determined Xena was having a nightmare; he quickly went outside and signaled Trevor.
Trevor ran to the porch. "What is it?"
"She's having a bad dream. It's getting worse. I think I should get Stephen."
"Damn to Tartarus, Gabrielle shouldn't have left. If she was here the Conqueror wouldn't be having the dream."
Samuel corrected him. "I wish that were so, but the Conqueror's nightmares pay little heed to Gabrielle."
"Go find Stephen. I'll take your post."
Trevor waited impatiently for the men. Though he would have preferred not to rely on Stephen, he knew Stephen was the best man to address the Conqueror's needs. Trevor was relieved to see the two Guardsmen approached.
Stephen listened at the door, as the others stood silent. "I'll wake her."
Samuel cautioned, "Take care, she's capable of killing you in her sleep."
Stephen removed a small taper from a nearby candleholder, entered and closed the door, securing Xena's privacy as best as he could. He lit two candles, illuminating the room sufficiently for Xena to recognize her surroundings upon waking. He went to her bedside, lit a third candle with the taper and then set it against the candle to rest upright.
Xena was in obvious distress. He called her name, forgoing any formalities. He repeated her name a second and third time with no noticeable effect. Stephen said a prayer to the Gods before reaching out his hand and gently placing it on Xena's arm, repeating her name a fourth time.
Xena bolted upright, her strangled voice calling out, "No!"
Stephen tightened his hand. "Xena, you're safe. You were having a bad dream."
Xena turned to Stephen with a faraway look. She then scanned the room. She recognized Megara, easing her anxiety. "Gabrielle?"
"She left this morning for Corinth, remember?"
After a few heartbeats Xena nodded. "Yes, I remember."
"Can I get you anything?"
"No… thank you, Stephen."
Stephen continued to talk; making sure Xena was truly free from her nightmare. "I wasn't sure if waking you was best."
"I was dreaming…" Xena's voice was unsteady, "about the lash."
"Bavavos wanted to make me scream. I wouldn't. That made him stroke the lash all the harder." Xena studied Stephen. She did not want to be misunderstood. "Don't get me wrong. By the twentieth stroke I was ready to cry out. I didn't want Gabrielle to hear me."
Stephen looked down. "She heard every stroke. We all did."
Xena leaned back against the headboard. She did not realize Gabrielle had suffered with her.
As if reading her mind Stephen looked up and asked Xena, "Have you spoken about what happened?"
Xena shook her head. "No."
"It helped me to be able to talk to you after Tracate's torture. If you can't talk to Gabrielle… I can be a good listener."
"I'll remember that." Xena offered Stephen a muted smile. She looked down at her trembling hands. "I don't know if I'll be able to pick up a sword again. My hands have a mind of their own."
Stephen clasped Xena's sword hand. "Grip down."
She did. The trembling stopped.
"Maybe your hand trembles because it doesn't have a sword to hold."
Remembering her own effort to help Stephen convalesce, Xena directed, "In the morning I'll need a staff and your arm. I will walk tomorrow. Let's see how far I can walk before Gabrielle returns."
The following morning Stephen entered the kitchen with Xena's breakfast tray. Tess worked by the stove. She went to him and retrieved the tray. A quick scan of the contents caused her to dismay. "She didn't like it?"
Stephen explained, "It's not your cooking. People tend to lose their appetite when hurt like she is."
"You're only saying that to make me feel better."
"No, I'm not."
"Have you been badly hurt?"
Stephen pushed back a sleeve revealing the scars that marked his arms.
Tess scanned the evidence. "Oh, I'm sorry."
Seeing his scars through Tess' eyes caused Stephen to cover his arm. "I would be dead if it wasn't for the Conqueror."
Tess recalled Stephen's tears in the dungeon. "She means a great deal to you."
"Yes, she does."
Tess put the breakfast tray down. "I didn't know what to expect. I heard it said the Queen was good and gentle and that she loved the Conqueror. It made me wonder what kind of woman the Conqueror was to have earned such love. She couldn't have been the evil warlord…"
Stephen challenged, "She is not evil."
Uncomfortable, Tess returned to the stove. "Is there… Maybe if I fix the Conqueror her favorite foods… maybe she will eat more.
Stephen gentled. He sighed, "If the Queen was here… She misses Gabrielle."
Tess dared to look over her shoulder. She found herself wanting to comfort the Guardsman. She chose to redirect their conversation away from the Conqueror. "When did you first meet the Queen?"
"When did I…" Stephen smiled as the memory came to him. "Gabrielle was serving during a banquet. I took note because I had never seen her before. Some of the nobles were giving her a hard time. They wouldn't keep their hands to themselves."
Tess shifted, leaning comfortably against a work counter. "So, I'm not your only rescue."
Stephen was undaunted. "No, but yours brought me the most unexpected pleasure.
Stephen smiled anew. "Do you want to hear my story?"
Tess reflected his smile. "I do."
"I could see how hard it was for Gabrielle to serve those ingrates. I got up from my table and walked across the room to where she was pouring wine in Lord Thanos' cup. I knew Thanos to be a bastard and a coward. He removed his hand from Gabrielle the moment he saw me. The Conqueror's rule that her servants were to be respected had no exceptions and he knew it.
Gabrielle did not sense me. She thought Thanos had suddenly learned his manners. I could see her smile at him gratefully. The cup filled she turned and bless her, stopped cold no more than this far," Stephen gestured with his thumb and forefinger, "from me."
Unsettled, Gabrielle offered what she did not have to give, having served the last of the wine to Thanos. "Would you like some wine?"
Stephen raised his empty hands. He chuckled, "No cup."
The young slave tried to please, wanting to avoid the consequences of failing to do so. "Would you like me to get you a cup?"
Feeling crowded and sensing the girl felt the same, Stephen stepped back renewing both his and the young woman's personal space. "I have one over there." He indicated his table with a nod of his head.
Gabrielle looked over to the Guardsmen's table. They were not one of her assigned tables. The senior servants reserved the task of serving the Guardsmen to themselves. She later learned it was because of the fondness all the servants held for the courteous men. "Leah serves you."
"Yes, and she does a good job of it."
Gabrielle cast her eyes down. She felt the Guardsman's warmth and wished she could trust that he was sincere. Experience taught her caution. "How then may I serve you?"
Stephen gently reached out and lifted Gabrielle's chin with his fingers. He waited until she looked at him. "I don't need anything from you. I do want a promise."
"A promise…" Gabrielle shuttered.
"Yes. I want you to promise me that you will come to me or one of my brother Guardsmen if we can ever be of help to you. It is our duty, as well as our pleasure, to keep you safe." He looked over her shoulder to the nobles. "I know it's hard, but I hope with time you come to trust us. The Conqueror did not choose the nobles. She did choose us."
"I will try to remember."
Stephen introduced himself with a minor bow." My name is Stephen."
Gabrielle repeated his name trying to remember it among the many she heard since arriving at the palace. "Stephen…"
"And your name?" he gently solicited.
"I hope Corinth is good to you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked back down.
Stephen noted a shadow cross Gabrielle's countenance. "Is something wrong?"
Gabrielle looked up at him with a tiny glimmer of hope in her eyes. "Maybe now Corinth will be gentle to me."
"Are you a servant or a slave?"
Stephen knew the life of a female slave outside the Conqueror's household. "I'm sorry."
Feeling painfully exposed, Gabrielle sought refuge. The wine jar empty, she had reason to leave the banquet hall in order to refill it. "If you'll excuse me, I must get back to work."
"Of course." Stephen stepped aside, watching the beautiful slave move on to the wine reserves.
It was only a few moments later that he stood at Jared's right, witness to the aftermath of Xena's mortal dagger throw into Ridel's back. Lord Gaugan's son paid the price for assaulting Gabrielle. Life in Corinth would never be the same.
Stephen finished his story keeping the violent ending to himself.
Tess felt the affection Stephen held for Gabrielle. She observed, "The Queen is much loved."
Stephen affirmed, "Yes, she is."
"To some love comes easily." Tess was envious.
Stephen bristled. "You would be wrong to believe that love has come easily to Gabrielle. She has and continues to pay a high price for her life and her love. Good night, Tess."
Tess felt chastised. She wanted to protest, to tell Stephen he was wrong. To do so would be to lie and she did not want lies between them. Tess did feel envious of Gabrielle. To be Queen so young, raising herself from slavery, to have the love and loyalty of the Conqueror, as well as the Guardsmen, those were achievements beyond Tess' imagination.
She doubted she would ever find love. Given her age, she could only hope one day to be married to a man who would treat her well and with Demeter's blessing give her a child of her own.
Stephen walked to the beach. Tess had caused him to revisit a time that was not that long ago, yet remarkably very different from the present. Tess had not been fair to Gabrielle. He remembered another conversation with the young girl who would be Queen.
Outside the infirmary, Gabrielle sat on porch steps. With a decidedly buoyant plop, Stephen seated himself beside her. "Young bard."
Startled, Gabrielle denied the title. "I'm not a bard."
Stephen was in good spirits and would not be put off. "You mean that wasn't you telling stories to my brothers?"
"Those stories don't make me a bard."
"Don't they? What does it take for someone to be a bard?"
Gabrielle considered a dream long forgotten. "I haven't studied at the Academy in Athens."
Stephen was dismissive, "Overrated scroll learners. Experience counts for something."
"I don't…" Gabrielle hesitated.
The Guardsman gentled, "What?"
"I'm a slave. No one comes to hear me. I just try to distract the men from their pain… and boredom."
"Ah, a captive audience. So, they listen because they have no choice? I'll tell you something Gabrielle. Guardsmen don't suffer fools. It doesn't matter how wounded they are. Actually, the more they hurt the less patience they have with their tormentors. There isn't one Guardsman in there that wouldn't find a way to get out of earshot if you did not bring them pleasure."
Gabrielle remained silent.
"I know a man or two looking for a cut so they can have an excuse to come by the infirmary and listen to your stories. That makes you a bard to me." Stephen was pleased with himself. "Gabrielle, the bard from Poteidaia. I like the sound of it. It would make your kinsmen proud."
Stephen's enthusiasm had no effect upon Gabrielle. She responded soberly, "I don't think so. My father did not like my storytelling. He thought it an idler's excuse not to work."
"I've watched you. You're not afraid to put in a hard day's labor."
"You don't have to flatter me," Gabrielle continued her rebuttals.
"Is that what you think?" Stephen took Gabrielle by the shoulders and turned her to him.
"Listen to me young lady. It is true you are warm, beautiful and intelligent and half the Royal Guard is falling in love with you, but I am one of the other half. My heart belongs to someone else and you are no threat to her."
Gabrielle pleaded with a small voice, "Please let me go."
Stephen saw the effect he had on the young slave and regretted taking hold of her. He released her. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
The young bard took a breath, gathering her composure. It was only then that she noted a new underlying sadness in Stephen's countenance. "Stephen, I hope we can be friends. Your lady is lucky to have your love. Maybe one day I will meet her."
Stephen stood up. The truth was too painful to share. "Good day, Gabrielle."
The exterior doors of Xena's bedroom remained open as much as weather allowed. She sat reading in a chair set beside the open threshold.
Samuel approached, walking up the porch steps. He remained just on the other side of the entrance. "My Liege, may I have a word with you?"
Xena set her reading down. "What is it, Sam?"
"The Queen's birthday is in a moon's time. With your consent, we men of the Guard would like to give her a gift."
The Guardsman's request puzzled Xena. "Sam, you don't need to ask my permission."
"For the gift we have in mind, I think it's best that we do have you permission."
Xena's puzzlement changed to intrigue. "What is it?"
Samuel reached into his coat pocket and removed a piece of parchment. He knelt down on one knee beside Xena. Xena took the parchment and placed it over her lap. On it was a drawing. She studied it closely. Understanding what the drawing represented, she smiled. "Who did the design?"
"The men together. I painted the colors."
Xena declared, "The Queen shall fly her own banner."
Samuel clarified, "We meant the banner to be for the Queen's Guard."
"I know what the banner means to me. What does it mean to you?"
Samuel was pleased to explain the symbolism. "The smaller quad on the right is white to mark the Queen's purity."
Xena looked over to Samuel. That one thought alone earned the Queen's Guard her heartfelt gratitude.
Samuel continued. "The base of the banner is green for the color of the Queen's eyes. In the heart of the green the staff, quill and healer's laurel will be in black with gold thread borders. They represent her as a protector of the realm, a master bard and an accomplished healer."
"This is beautiful, Sam. It will move Gabrielle to tears."
"So, you believe she will like it?"
"Good. I will tell the men."
Xena handed the parchment back to Gabrielle's brother. "Sam, tell the men that I am proud of what they are doing. This will be as important to Gabrielle as wearing your medallion."
"I will tell them, My Liege. Tomorrow I will have the design delivered to our finest seamstress in Corinth. She will use the best silk from Chin."
"I look forward to seeing the banner when it's done."
"I will bring it to you when it arrives. With your permission, I'll take my leave."
Samuel folded the parchment and carefully placed it back into his coat pocket. He walked to the Guardsmen's quarters. The men were waiting for him to bring word. It was a day for good news and he was happy to be the one to share it.
Tess delivered muffins and scones to the Guardsmen outside the beach house. She purposely approached Stephen after more than half the bounty had been claimed by others.
"Major." She extended the basket of bakery to him.
Stephen retrieved a bran scone. "Have you forgotten my name again?"
"I am sorry if I offended you, yesterday."
"You didn't." He took a bite of the scone. "We are all very protective of our sister."
"Have you noticed this?" Stephen raised a silver chain hanging around his neck, holding his Royal Guard medallion.
"Yes, all the Guardsmen wear one, don't they?"
"We do. So does Gabrielle. When she was a healer's apprentice the Guard petitioned the Conqueror for the right to adopt her. As a symbol of her place with us she was given the medallion."
"But why do you call her your sister?"
"The Royal Guard is a brotherhood. What else are brothers to call her?"
Tess smiled. "I see."
"Here, as long as you are in Megara you should have this." Stephen removed his medallion.
"I can't accept…"
"Of course you can. It's only fair given how we met. I have already staked myself as your defender."
Tess blushed, "Stephen…"
"Tess, please give me this one honor. Wear my medallion until the day we part ways."
Against her better judgment she wanted to accept. "Until we part."
"Good." Stephen secured the scone in his mouth as he placed the necklace around Tess' neck. Finished, he took another bite of the pastry. He raised what little remained. "This is good. You are spoiling us."
"I'm happy to make them for you."
Stephen smiled, "You wear the medallion well, Tess. You could become one of us if you are not too careful."
Outside her bedroom porch, Xena sat on a wooden tall back chair. She was able to walk from her bed to the porch without difficulty, her reward for five hard days of work to rehabilitate her body. With each day she and Stephen increased her exercise. Though painful, she took pleasure in the effort. It suited her better than lying in bed idle.
From afar she spied Stephen walking the beach. Other than Gabrielle and Jared, she could think of no one she trusted more than him. Having been with Stephen as he faced the consequences of his injuries at the hands of Tracate, she knew that he understood what she endured both physically and spiritually.
Stephen had lost all sense of place and time. His thoughts revisited the day. Candlemark after candlemark was spent with Xena as she struggled to regain strength in her legs. He had promised Gabrielle he would keep a watchful eye over Xena. He never expected Xena to give him such intimate access.
Spending time with her, he realized that though he loved her deeply he was no longer in love with her. The moment of revelation was unremarkable. At the end of the second day after Gabrielle's departure, Xena simply looked at him, tired and frustrated, vulnerable yet hopeful and he felt anew how extraordinary he found her to be. He marveled at her determination and her wit as she judged her steps as equal in stride with a snail, acknowledging that to the snail's merit, he carried his house with him and she did not. "How pale I compare," she quipped. They laughed together as good friends do. And there the truth presented itself with undeniable clarity. They were good friends.
Stephen was worried. Trevor continued his brooding. No one could approach him. His tongue was quick and sharp to anyone who inquired after his saturnine mood. The younger Guardsman had lost perspective. His obstinate insistence that Gabrielle erred in keeping him in Megara, if not corrected, might cost him his station in the Guard.
To Stephen's best knowledge, Xena was not aware of the rupture between Gabrielle and Trevor. He could only hope Gabrielle would find a means of mending the severed knit that had once held them together in easy companionship. Stephen recalled the day that he learned that his dream of Xena's love was once again stymied. In that same moment he also learned that Trevor had surrendered his heart to an unsuspecting young slave.
Stephen approached the Conqueror's suite. Trevor, standing guard, informed the senior officer matter-of-factly, "No briefing tonight. The Conqueror is entertaining."
Stephen paused and looked at the door. He bantered, though he did not feel mirthful. "And who has the Conqueror's attentions tonight?"
Trevor said nothing, which surprised Stephen. "Come on, Trevor. Such things don't remain secret very long unless this one is only to be thrown out with the morning trash."
Trevor flinched. "Gabrielle."
"The slave? Our bard?"
Stephen's bitterness rose up. "I suspected she won the Conqueror's favor. I didn't think… Well, she must have learned from her former masters how to please well enough."
Trevor took Stephen and pushed him back against a wall. "Don't you speak of Gabrielle in that way. They are having dinner. Nothing more."
Stephen chose not to thrash the young guard. "How can you be sure?"
"Because the Conqueror does not bed her slaves. You know that just as well as I do."
"There is always a first time."
"The Conqueror will not do anything to hurt the girl."
Stephen looked Trevor straight in the eye, "I see…"
Trevor marked Stephen's tone of insincerity, "Do you?"
"Yes, I believe I do. Now, let go of me, Guard, before I gut you with my dagger."
Trevor released Stephen. "I'm sorry."
Stephen straightened his clothes. "Learn to hold your temper Trevor. If you don't, the day will come when you'll pay a handsome price for a thoughtless act."
Trevor swallowed his response.
Stephen began to walk away. He had a final thought and called back. "Trevor, Gabrielle is lucky to have you as her champion." He smiled, having understood far more than Trevor was willing to admit to himself.
Tess approached the Conqueror carrying a mug. "Your Majesty, I thought you might like some tea."
Xena turned her thoughts away from Stephen. "Thank you, Tess."
Tess set the mug on a small table beside Xena. Straightening up, she noticed Stephen. Without dwelling upon the reason why, she was certain she sensed his internal tranquility. "It's peaceful here."
"Yes, it is."
"Do you think Gab… the Queen will be long?"
"I hope not."
The sounds of the sea, of the wind sweeping across the tall grasses and of the gulls overhead filled their comfortable silence.
Xena considered the servant. She was a handful of years older than Gabrielle. As much as Xena did not want strangers in Megara, she found Tess to be unobtrusive, fitting without effort into the rhythm of life. She inquired, "Tess, are your quarters comfortable? Do you need anything?"
Tess was drawn out from her own reverie. "I am most comfortable, thank you. Stephen… the Major has been attentive to my needs."
Xena smiled. "Tess, has anyone explained the Queen's protocol to you?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"You are included. You may refer to Gabrielle and Stephen by their given names."
Tess noted that the Conqueror had not included herself in the waiver. "Do many called Gabrielle, Gabby?"
Xena laughed aloud. "That was a joke I think. I never did ask her how she got the name in Messene. Tess, I would not call my lady, ‘Gabby.' I don't think she will like it."
"I shall remember." The Conqueror's easy manner instilled a growing confidence in Tess. She acted upon it. "Stephen said you've never had a servant here, until me."
"No, we haven't. As you know we value our privacy. And, Gabrielle enjoys having the kitchen to herself. I think she likes trying new recipes away from our cook's discerning eyes. She knows I have a hearty stomach and can manage her most exotic meals. I don't betray her less successful creations."
Tess smiled, enjoying the Conqueror's carefree depiction of the Queen. When Tess set aside her notions of who the Sovereign and Queen, were, she found them both to be accessible. They were very human. "Leaving you must have been hard for her."
"We do what we must. She takes her responsibilities to the realm very seriously."
Samuel approached Stephen from a distance. He had a fishing pole in one hand and three large fish hanging from a string in the other. Both Xena's and Tess' attention had shifted from themselves to the Guardsmen.
Xena wondered whether her hunch was correct. She observed aloud, "He is a handsome man."
Xena held a smile at bay. The fact that she did not name the man made Tess' reaction all the more funny. "He has a good heart."
Tess turned to Xena shyly. "Did you know…"
Xena's glistening eyes beckoned Tess' unspoken question.
"Stephen said he loved a woman, but that she had fallen in love with someone else. Do you know her?"
The question surprised Xena. She noted the use of past tense. She could only hope that it was true. "Yes," she answered simply.
"Is she a marvelous woman?"
Xena understood Tess doubted a mere barmaid could compare to the women of Corinth, especially the women of Court. It was not a comparison Xena would have fostered. For a moment Xena saw a glimpse of Gabrielle in Tess, and her heart felt for both of them. Xena spoke of herself in honest terms. "She is a woman, flawed as any other."
"Did she hurt him badly?"
Here Xena knew her actions had been beyond reproach. "She has a fond regard for Stephen. The hurt he felt was not intentional. Who knows why we love who we do?"
"Separate souls searching for their mate." Tess smiled sadly.
"Having Gabrielle in my life, it is easy to believe."
"She said she knew you were alive. She was determined to find you."
Under the lash their connection had frayed, becoming a fragile thread. Xena could see a sliver of light in the approaching darkness. She told herself it was Gabrielle. As much as she tried she could not entice the light closer to her. Nor, given her bleeding strength, could she approach the light independently. It had been a greater torture than the cuts upon her flesh.
Tess noted a change in the Conqueror. Her eyes dulled. She encased her torso with trembling arms. The impression was one of inward collapse. Tess spoke softly, "I should get back to work."
Xena broke free from the memory. Physically her formidable stature renewed. She measured Tess and made a decision. "Tess, the bravest thing I've ever done in my life was let myself love Gabrielle. And I think you can say the same for her. She had every reason in the world not to open her heart to me. It's worth the risk. It's worth the difficult times when they come."
Tess confessed, "You are not how I expected you to be."
Xena chuckled. "It's my injuries. Once I'm healthy I'll be as fierce and unapproachable as ever."
Tess smiled brightly, knowing the truth that she now shared with the Queen's Guard. "Good night, Your Majesty."
"Good night, Tess."
Gabrielle stood at the turret. It was night. She found sleep difficult. She walked down the steps pausing in the private passageway. Instead of entering her bedroom she continued until she reached the entrance to her former quarters. Pulling the metal ring on the wall, she waited for the stone to shift, allowing her to slip through into the room.
The room was as she left it. She had spent many nights lying in her bed wondering if Xena would ever come to love her. She was a slave, a servant and finally, a freewoman in this room. She had been chaste and she had been Xena's lover. As Xena's lover she waited for the day Xena would declare her heart. The day Xena made her declaration profoundly marked them both.
In the dungeon of Messene, Xena had set aside her reticent nature and told her love story with the simplest words. She had confessed to loving Gabrielle soon after their meeting. Gabrielle had not known Xena's love had been harbored for so long a time. Xena had previously confessed that she had lied when she denied loving Gabrielle, as she lay wounded outside of Amphipolis. Xena confessed that she loved Gabrielle before Gabrielle entered her bed. When, Gabrielle wondered, did Xena first love her? The question led to a similar self-directed query. When did she first realize that she loved Xena? The answer came easily. Gabrielle had survived the worst of her first illness in Corinth. She was recuperating in the Royal residence. Her admiration and gratitude for the Sovereign was supplanted by love the moment Xena reached out to her and said her name as they sat by the fire.
Corinth, Amphipolis, Megara, Scupi and now Messene. Each place defined a part of their lives and marked a change within and between them. Gabrielle regretted that while in Megara she had not taken the opportunity to speak to Xena about what had transpired between them in the dungeon of Messene.
Gabrielle returned to the Royal suite and sat at her desk. She paused, considering what she was willing to risk. The roads were uncertain.
The mood in Corinth remains solemn in a universal concern for your well-being. I have assured all that your injuries will heal with time and that we will soon have you once again ruling from the throne.
I have decided to grant Lord Thanos' request for a public hearing before the Lords of Court. Lord Thanos argues his actions were justified. His intent was to cause the realm to address concerns he felt were too long unresolved. Lord Thanos disowns Bavavos and his actions against you. So too does he deny a conspiracy to kidnap Ambassador Acade or of having a compact with Caesar.
Corinth has sufficient evidence to prosecute Lord Thanos for treason and I shall proceed accordingly. He is being given time to prepare a defense in response to the evidence. As a result, my return to Megara shall be delayed by as much as a fortnight. I beg your pardon for my absence as these matters of State are addressed.
I am sending you an extensive collection of scrolls from the library for your reading pleasure.
Gabrielle, Queen of Greece
Gabrielle set the parchment aside and reached for another blank page. She wrote a second message, one to be secretly carried.
With this message you shall receive a basket of Makia's finest pastries. Indulge yourself. A separate basket is being sent to my Guard.
Be gentle with Stephen if he is staying close to you. It is by my request. I know you will be safe in his care.
We have not been able to trace Thanos' conspiracy to any other lord in Greece. Either he acted alone and the worst is over, or the instability of Greece is only in temporary hiatus. I believe that by observing the members of Court during Thanos' public hearing, I will have the opportunity to gauge their dispositions toward him, and in turn, toward us. That is the only reason I consented to his request.
I continue to regret the tone of our parting. Believe me when I write that I have not turned a blind eye to your past. I would not forget the truth even if I could. Your past has molded you to the woman you are.
When I look at you I see the peasant girl from Amphipolis, the warlord who commanded a formidable army of raiders, the leader who emerged from Cirra, the Conqueror who treated her slaves with respect, the Sovereign who granted my freedom and my Lord, who has loved me without reservation.
In Messene you revealed a part of you that I had never before seen so clearly. I have not told you what your words meant to me. I cannot imagine ever deserving your trust, your willingness to set aside the disappointment I have caused you. It is not I that am generous with you. It is you who has always been generous with me.
I miss you and long to return to you.
I love you,
Targon entered the beach house. He was directed to the lower bedroom. The bedroom door was open. Samuel stood at the threshold. Within, Xena sat beside the open exterior doors.
Targon entered and closed the door. "Your Majesty."
Xena was surprised to see the brittle administrator. "Targon, is everything all right?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," he immediately assured his mistress. "Queen Gabrielle requested that I carry her dispatch to you personally."
"Here." Xena extended her hand, impatient for word from her partner.
Targon reached in his pouch and removed two scrolls.
"Two?" Xena wondered aloud.
"One is an official communication not so sensitive that I could not surrender it if stopped on the road. The second I carried in secret."
Xena took the scrolls. "Will you be able to ride the day after tomorrow?"
Targon took pride in his role as Queen's messenger. He found the ride from Corinth a minor hardship. He kept in good pace with his escort and had earned their respect. He was ready to repeat his performance. "I do not need more than a few candlemarks rest."
"No Targon. Unless there is urgent news from the Queen, an immediate ride won't be necessary." Contrary to the administrator's contention, his disheveled appearance caused Xena to fear that he would faint where he stood. "Would you dine with me tonight? I would like the opportunity to speak with you further."
"It will be an honor, Your Majesty."
"Good. Have you met Tess?"
"No, I haven't had the pleasure. The Queen informed me of her service to you."
"Go introduce yourself and ask her to prepare enough food for two."
"As you wish." Targon hesitated. He had long carried the burden of an unspoken question. With the Conqueror near death, he felt compelled to pursue the answer. "Your Majesty, may I ask you a question?"
Xena noted the administrator's nervousness and encouraged him with her easy manner, "Of course."
"Did you tell your friend Jabari that I looked like a weasel?"
Xena burst out laughing. "Tell me he didn't say that."
The administrator was mortified by the Conqueror's reaction. "He did."
Xena tried her best to control the fit of humor that had taken her over, yet failed to suppress a grin. "Will it make you feel better if I thrash him the next time I see him?"
"I don't care what he thinks. I only care that you don't think of me that way."
Touched by the administrator's sincerity, Xena grew serious. "Targon, you have proven yourself to me more times than I can count. I think well of you. I'm sorry if I have not let you know it."
"I don't blame you. I never told you…" The administrator lost his nerve.
Xena waited patiently.
"I respect your Majesty and am proud to serve both you and the Queen."
Xena was touched by the dour man's confession. "I am glad to hear it."
Targon brightened. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I will need your services later as my scribe. And then when the time comes you will deliver my messages to the Queen."
"As you wish. I will go see Tess."
"Targon." Xena held the administrator's gaze. "I'm counting on you to make sure our Queen takes care of herself."
"I will do my best." Targon exited, pausing; he took a cleansing breath and smiled.
Samuel looked over. It was rare to see the administrator in good spirits. "You all right?"
Targon looked up to the taller and stronger Guardsman. For the first time since he took residence in Corinth he did not feel envious of the military men. It was true that the Guardsmen could serve the Conqueror in ways he could not. It was also true that he could serve the Conqueror in ways they could not. He did not hide his pride. He relished it openly. "Take care of her."
Samuel was surprised by the administrator's informal reference to the Conqueror. "No need to ask."
"No, I guess there isn't."
Xena waited until she heard a click signally the engagement of the door lock. She chuckled. "A weasel. Jabari, you are too right."
Targon offered Gabrielle an account of his stay in Megara. He reported that Xena was walking with the use of a staff. Having dined with her, he found her to be in good spirits. Impatient to read Xena's messages, Gabrielle excused the administrator after a brief interview. She opened the first message. It was not written in Xena's script. Upon closer inspection Gabrielle identified Targon's handwriting.
Though I am disappointed to learn of your extended absence, I agree that Lord Thanos must be given a public hearing. I am confident Corinth will administer a fair trial. I wish only to see the guilty punished. Protecting the innocent from false accusations is of paramount concern.
I await notice of the outcome of the trial.
You are in my thoughts.
Xena, Sovereign of Greece
Gabrielle opened the second message. The script differed. It recalled Xena's sharp stroke. It also carried a tremulous motion.
I miss you as well.
Give Makia my complements. Let her know I have hoarded all the pastries for myself in spite of the puppyish looks I received from a number of your faithful Guard.
I do not know whether to be grateful or vexed at Stephen's attentiveness. That he was given your direction makes me far more patient with him – a nursemaid he has become without your graceful air or Mother's no-nonsense authoritarianism.
I believe the worst of the lords have played their treacherous hands. With each betrayal we have positioned men of honor. A few more like Judais and Aysel and we can turn our focus on building a better Greece instead of simply protecting the Greece we so love.
The final thought within your letter leaves me speechless. I cannot begin to give you the answer you deserve from me. Know that I embrace you with my heart.
Megara is not the same without you.
The Corinth dungeon was as dark and dank as any. It was kept clean. Prisoners were allocated a blanket each and enough food and water to keep their hunger and thirst at bay. Men and women were segregated, so too the young who could easily become prey of the older and larger. The dungeon was humane but not so much so that anyone would wish it for their permanent shelter.
Gabrielle, carrying her healer's bag, walked down the palace steps escorted by two Guardsmen. She had never entered the dungeon with the reason to meet a specific prisoner. Her previous trips were limited to inspections.
The lead jailor intercepted her. "Your Majesty, how may I help you?"
Gabrielle was subdued in the midst of her surroundings. "I'm here to see Bavavos."
"This way." The jailor led her to the cell. One lone man sat up on a pallet.
A nod of Gabrielle's head signaled for the jailor to open the cell door.
The jailor spoke respectfully, "Your Majesty, may I suggest you leave the door open?"
Gabrielle reached out her hand to one of the Guardsmen, "I'll take that."
The Guardsman relinquished the waterskin he was carrying. Gabrielle exchanged a brief look to both of her escort. Understanding the unspoken instruction, they stood outside the cell in keen watch.
Gabrielle entered the cell, took hold of a chair and placed it in front of Bavavos before sitting. She gazed down, "How is your arm?"
Bavavos thrust the stump in front of her face. "Without a hand, see!"
Gabrielle maintained her composure. "You won't shock me. I've seen far worse. She reached out and gently guided the stump to her lap. She unwrapped the bandage.
Bavavos did not expect her kindness. Stunned, he did not protest.
Gabrielle made a quick assessment. "There's no infection."
"Your man made a clean cut with his axe."
Gabrielle raised her eyes to the prisoner. "Better than a slow cut with a dull knife."
"Such mercy I can do without."
Gabrielle was stern. "Do you really expect me to feel sympathy for you? You are the man who scourged my Lord. I found her in a pool of her own blood, her skin in shreds because of your whip. You are also the man who would have raped me had you been given the chance."
Bavavos was silenced. Gabrielle washed his wound, applied a salve on the red, ugly flesh and bandaged the stump anew.
Knowing Gabrielle would soon leave, Bavavos posed the one question that dominated his thoughts. "So, I sit here and rot. For how long?"
Gabrielle answered factually, "Until the Conqueror is well enough to exact her price upon you."
Bavavos accused, "Vengeance is your game."
"This is no game." Gabrielle tapped his arm. "This is life at its most terrible."
Bavavos' temper eased. "You know Thanos hates you more than the Conqueror."
"No, I didn't know." Gabrielle looked to him, not hiding her surprised. "I have done nothing to hurt him or his house. If our policies cost him a few dinars, he could afford them more than the peasants that were helped."
"He lost the Conqueror's favor because of you."
Gabrielle shook her head slightly. "He never had the Conqueror's favor. He was convenient to the realm."
"Everyone close to the Conqueror is there because they are convenient to her. Thanos' merchant network distinguished him. Then you came to be Queen."
"And his merchant network was still of value to Greece."
Bavavos spoke to the heart of the matter. "But at the price of releasing his slaves."
Gabrielle would not apologize. "If he expected favors, yes. If he was content to manage with his own resources as most Grecians do, he stood well in his trade."
"It wasn't the money. It was his pride. He was undone by a slave."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair. "Do you think the Conqueror was so easily swayed?"
"After… no, the Conqueror's will is greater than that of any other woman or man alive."
"Thanos hates me." Gabrielle had a glimpse of Thanos' motivations. She did not know Bavavos'. "Why do you hate the Conqueror?"
Bavavos refuted the charge. "I don't hate the Conqueror. I'm a warrior. I'm born to fight, to prove I'm the stronger. Beating down others is the only way to move up in the eyes of men."
"I don't believe you. I am surrounded by warriors. They can be brothers. They can help each other grow stronger and more skilled."
"Because they are content to follow the Conqueror. They know they have no chance in beating her. Your Conqueror was a vicious animal until the day she rose from the pack of wolves we all are. And I say whenever one of the pack tries to claim her place the animal in her comes out and rips the challenger apart."
"The Conqueror is honorable." Gabrielle knew the warrior's code. "She does not tie her opponents and scourge them. She fights them sword to sword."
Bavavos justified his action. "I would have, but I had my orders."
Gabrielle knew better. "You are a coward hiding behind Thanos. You only had to offer the Conqueror a chance to pick up a sword."
"You have seen her present a sword to her enemy?"
"And you cheered her?"
Gabrielle's voice softened. "I do not cheer violence by her hand or anyone else's."
"You do not belong on the throne." Bavavos leaned forward. "You must be able to fight. A Queen cannot scurry away from her enemies."
Gabrielle leaned forward, keeping only a hand span between their faces. "You do not know me. That I prefer peace does not mean I won't go to war, leading with my sword."
Bavavos raised his freshly bandaged arm. "So, one day you heal and the next you take a life."
Gabrielle was unmoved. "If I must, yes."
Bavavos leaned back against the wall. "My day of receiving the Conqueror's retribution will come soon enough. Until then I will sit back and enjoy your hospitality."
Gabrielle stood up. "Had you followed the Conqueror I think your life would have been far different."
Bavavos could not help but laugh. "And better? With two hands no less. I think not. An animal is an animal. Doesn't matter that he or she pretends otherwise."
Gabrielle stood in the Royal sparring chamber. The following day she would confront Thanos in Court. She knew what she had to do. Thanos was a blight on Greece. The responsibility to eliminate his threat was hers.
She felt the solid wood of her staff underneath her fingertips. Across the room she imagined Xena standing, waiting patiently for her.
Xena walked the distance from the beach house to the cove alone, using a staff to steady her. Samuel stood at his post with orders that she was not to be disturbed. She walked into a half-circle of standing rock beyond Samuel's line of vision. It was here that she had made love to Gabrielle on more than one occasion.
Gabrielle planted her feet on the hard stone floor. She presented her staff and spoke aloud to the woman of her dreams, "My Lord."
Xena turned upon hearing Gabrielle's voice in her inner ear. Before her stood the specter of her partner. There was a gleam in her eye. Xena thought to protest the obvious challenge. She had only begun to walk without Stephen's assistance. She looked down. The sand was well packed. Her footing would be as sure as it could be under the circumstances. "My Queen." Xena offered a minor bow signaling her consent to the match.
Gabrielle concentrated. Seeing Xena more clearly. The warrior smiled modestly. She was the embodiment of intelligence, courage and beauty. She was not as strong and agile as she was at her best. Gabrielle approached their engagement with restraint. She would not drive Xena beyond her abilities – at least not yet.
Xena waited for Gabrielle to take the offensive, to set the pace. Gabrielle's movements were familiar, marking the beginning to a routine Xena had taught her.
After a half-candlemark of sparring Xena felt her lack of stamina. Her weakened body frustrated her. She took little consolation in the fact that this was only her first staff exercise after an extended bed rest. She was unwilling to call a halt to Gabrielle's well-paced training. The time to rebuild her strength was the present.
A knock on the door brought Gabrielle out of her concentration. The image of Xena slipped away. "Yes!" she called.
Targon entered. "Good news, Your Majesty. A peasant has brought Argo to the palace."
Gabrielle brightened. "Have you seen her? Is she all right?"
"A groom is inspecting her as we speak. His first assessment was very positive."
Gabrielle quickly placed her staff against a wall. "To the stables, Targon."
Xena watched as Gabrielle paused and turn her head aside. Gabrielle took a few steps to her right and disappeared. Xena's gaze remained upon the point in space in which Gabrielle had slipped away from her. Xena knew Gabrielle had not been real, though she had felt real. Xena leaned on her staff. No matter how much she willed, she could not bring Gabrielle to her. She was done with the day's staff drill. She would repeat the effort the following day and the day after that. If she could bring Gabrielle to mind, make her real, if only for a half-candlemark, she would escape her desolation and know bliss.
Gabrielle entered the stables. Argo shook her head and stamped her front hoof upon seeing her mistress' partner.
The groom remarked, "Argo is happy to see you."
"Not as happy as I am to see her. How is she, Voger?"
"In fine shape. The Conqueror will be pleased."
Gabrielle addressed the man standing beside the groom. "Sir, are you the man who deserves my gratitude?"
"I am that brought the mare to you, Your Majesty. My name is Esser. I'm from Olympia. I was traveling to Corinth when I crossed paths with the Conqueror's steed. I had learned from an innkeeper of the bounty you placed for her return."
"I hope Argo didn't cause you much trouble."
"None at all. To be honest I think she was making her own way back to the city."
Gabrielle scratched Argo on the cheek. "I wouldn't be surprised. She is very smart." Gabrielle cheerfully addressed the mare, "Aren't you girl?"
Argo pressed her head against Gabrielle causing the young Queen to laugh.
Gabrielle reassured, "I know. I'll take you to her soon." She turned to Esser. "If you follow my administrator he will pay you the reward."
"No need, Your Majesty. All I did was keep the mare company on the road."
"Surely you could use the dinars."
"What I've done is nothing more than repay a debt. The Conqueror and her army secured Olympia from two dissenting fractions each led by an unscrupulous warlord. They were intent on sacking the populace. My wife was with child at the time and the violence was nearing my home. I feared I would lose everything that was precious to me. Because of the Conqueror, I have my wife and a fine son. She brought order where there was only chaos."
"I am glad to know that the Conqueror was help to you. What brings you to Corinth?"
"I am a smith by trade. I've brought tools I've forged in the past two seasons to sell at the marketplace."
"Accept my hospitality and an escort while you are here."
"It is kind of you, but I have friends I'll be meeting at a local inn." Esser smiled sheepishly, "You know how it is."
"I do," Gabrielle smiled, recalling the high-spiritedness of Niko's. "An inn costs money. Accept fifty dinars to pay for your stay and to buy a round of drinks for your friends."
Esser grinned broadly. "That I will do, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle offered Esser her arm. "Thank you. May the Fates be kind to you and your family."
Esser grasped the Royal's arm. "I wish the Conqueror a quick and complete healing."
Gabrielle spoke sincerely. "You have given my Lord reason to fare better. For that, I will be forever grateful."
"I ask nothing more than you keep Greece free and safe."
Gabrielle spoke for both her and Xena. "We shall do our best."
Continued - Part 5 of 5
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