Disclaimer: Characters do not belong to me, they belong to RenPic, et al and I will be making no money from this little endeavor. There is violence ahead, somewhat graphic, so consider yourself warned. Theres also a bit of sex, some of an alternate nature, so if its against your religion or local laws, convert and move, silly!
Feedback and constructive criticism are always appreciated and desired!! All indiscriminate flamers will be flushed down the toilet where they belong. You can contact me at The_Tenth_Muse@mailcity.com
Great Thanks and Admiration for my fellow Bards from The Bardic Circle, you know who you are! You all ROCK!!
Gabrielle sighed as she rubbed sore and tired feet. The ground was cold and hard but at least it wasnt raining anymore. One of these days she was going to catch her death of cold traveling around as she did. She grinned, a smile lighting the emerald gaze from within after the surfacing of that particular thought which had been pounded into her brain by her mother. Yawning, it had been too long since shed spent the night in a real bed, Gabrielle pulled on her worn boots and stood, scooping up her staff as she did so.
Not everyone respected a bards right to travel unmolested these days, though things could be worse. Most of the warlords were gone, wiped out or consumed by the Conquerors army. The brigands who traveled the roads now were deliberately small bands to avoid the notice of the Conquerors patrols. Which meant that so far, Gabrielle had been able to keep herself safe but shed received that lesson the hard way early on in her travels. During an attack, shed grabbed the nearest weapon at hand, which happened to be a long stick. After clubbing her assailants unconscious, Gabrielle had decided that she liked the feel of wood in her hand and bought a real staff.
Looking up at the cloudy sky, Gabrielle realized that she would have to move faster if she were to reach Corinth by nightfall. Road traffic had increased the closer she got to Corinth and sitting on the side of the road had bestowed upon her a fine layer of dust from the wagons passing by. Several people had given her curious glances as she sat there, practicing her latest work while resting from the mornings travel and eating the last of her journey-bread.
Her stomach growled but Gabrielle ignored it, as shed gotten adept at doing over the last few years. As the hard dirt passed rapidly beneath her feet, the jarring to her knees and hips was barely felt, muscles easily absorbing the impact. It was the third time shed been to Corinth as she traveled Greece but she wasnt going for the city itself; it was far too controlled and quiet for her tastes.
Order had been completely established when the Conqueror had made this her home a few years ago. Rumor had it that an obsession ruled the Conqueror when it came to Corinth though naturally, no one specified what sort or why. Gabrielle suspected it was because Corinth had been the hardest for The Conqueror to subjugate. She also suspected that the more someone or something put up a fight, the better The Conqueror liked it. Gabrielle tried to suppress the shiver that thought engendered but couldnt.
For the last three years there had been an arts competition in Corinth. Gabrielle had traveled to see the first one and been unimpressed both by the quality and quantity of competition for her if shed entered. Last year she hadnt even bothered to go. But this year. A slow smile crossed Gabrielles face as she thought of this years prize. It was something that no true bard could pass up: living in the Palace for two months with a chance to become The Conquerors Scribe.
Gabrielle knew it was insane. She knew that being near the Conqueror was to be near the whim of a raging storm. She knew that it would be as deadly as holding a hydra in your hands and yet something drew her towards The Conqueror and she had no will to resist. For she had seen The Conqueror last season, riding upon her palomino mare in a spring thunderstorm.
The sight had literally taken her breath away. Soaked through by the pouring rain, Gabrielle had simply stared as The Conqueror approached, unable to get her limbs to move out of danger. The Conquerors black hair had been plastered to her head and her armor had jingled noisily as the army rode back towards Corinth. Even the wind, which had battered at every living creature, seemed not to touch The Conqueror. The soldiers had roughly shoved her out of the way and stumbling into the mud.
For a split second, eyes bluer than the sky locked with Gabrielles and her heart had stopped. Intensity never before experienced had lashed her harder than the driving rain. Gabrielles world had come to a crashing halt with just the one look. Though she knew that she looked like a drowned kitten, Gabrielle had continued to hold her breath, praying for the glance to return to her.
After an eternity, The Conqueror had turned slightly in her saddle to take another look. This time when their eyes met, Gabrielle saw a faint look of surprise, maybe even interest, but at that distance, she couldnt be sure. When the man to The Conquerors side began to turn, to see what had captured her attention, The Conqueror had leisurely turned forward in her saddle and not looked back again.
Since then, Gabrielle had been thinking about that almost-encounter off and on though was always in the dark corner of her mind. When the prize for this competition became known, Gabrielle knew this was her chance. That same dark corner of her mind had whispered that perhaps The Conqueror remembered her, perhaps she had seen Gabrielles gear, which marked her as a Bard, and designed this prize for them to meet.
Those thoughts surfaced only in the deepest part of the night when her dreams were filled with fevered imaginings of the strong woman with eyes of blue fire.
Sneezing when the wind blew dust into her nose, Gabrielle tripped over her feet and went sprawling. Laughter sounded heartily from those who continued walking or riding and no one offered to help her up. Brushing herself off as she rose, Gabrielle saw the gate to Corinth in the distance and her scowl lessened at the mere sight.
As she gathered her scrolls and staff, shouting garnered her attention and her gaze traveled to find a band of soldiers riding out from Corinth at a hard pace. People were scrambling out of the way and Gabrielle barely had time to throw herself off the road lest she get trampled.
"Gods above but Im getting as bad as Joxer!" she muttered, picking herself up yet again. This time it took several minutes to collect her scrolls because the wind had picked up and carried a few in different directions.
When she reached the gate, the guards barely even looked her over. Shorter than most, Gabrielle was slight as well and her loose skirt and peasant blouse covered her well-toned muscles. Pretty much everyone she met considered her harmless, which was fine by Gabrielle. The more that people underestimated her, the better off she was.
Instead of the normal cursing and shouting and dispensing of wares in the street that made up a city, Gabrielle found wide, quiet streets with storefronts and homes lining the sides. Soldiers patrolled in bands of four and pedestrians moved about their business with a leisurely pace. Time seemed to slow the further Gabrielle moved into the city as though even time had bowed to The Conquerors will and was graciously filtering by at a deliberate pace.
Yet even here, in The Conquerors chosen city, there was a section where the poverty-stricken lived, where taverns were cheap and the streets narrow. It was there that Gabrielle aimed her feet. She had only enough money to rebuild her supplies, she would have to sing for her room and board and new exactly which tavern to frequent.
"Gabrielle! I knew youd be back!"
Gabrielle shook her head and tried to hide a grin but couldnt quite manage it. Though more often than not Joxer was an annoying nuisance, his enthusiasm and friendship were refreshing, at least in this city of staid caution. Shed accidentally met Joxer when hed literally bumped into her, throwing her into the arms of a large and angry mercenary a couple of years ago. It had only been her fast-talking that had saved them both from crushed skulls. Especially when Joxer had tried to help.
"Joxer, hey. How are you?" Gabrielle asked. She squirmed out of his tight embrace and almost slapped him when a hand reached a little too low before she could get loose.
"Great. This has been a great year for me, Gabby. Ive got the tavern, Ive got you, what more could I want out of life?" Joxer exclaimed, pulling her towards the counter.
"Not much," Gabrielle agreed. Shed stopped trying to correct him about their "relationship" at least two seasons ago. It just wasnt worth the aggravation. And he was sweet in his own, very strange way. Looking around, Gabrielle was surprised to find that the inside of the tavern more run down than usual. There was only one woman working the tables and Joxer immediately moved back behind the counter. "Joxer, how are things, really?"
A sigh and slumped shoulders told her all she needed to know. She patted his arm and said, "That bad, huh?"
Joxer nodded, leaning on the counter. "Things just arent the way they used to be, Gabrielle. Used to be a man could make a living without having to worry about his customers being too loud or out of control. Oh sure, I kept the furniture makers in business but it was a win-win situation. I would sell lots of ale and wine, people would get drunk, start fights, Id buy more furniture and still have enough left over to water down er buy more alcohol. Not anymore! Any sign of trouble and the patrol shows up and puts it down. Now I dont make any money, the furniture makers dont make any money and people cant even get drunk and disorderly without being thrown in jail."
Hiding a grin, Gabrielle shook her head in commiseration. "What is the world coming too?"
"Thats what I said to myself! I said, "Self, what is the world coming to when getting drunk becomes a crime?"
"I suppose crime has gone down too," Gabrielle said sympathetically.
"Howd you know?" Joxer exclaimed. Lowering his voice conspiratorially he continued, "I heard that theyre even jailing beggars these days."
Eyebrows raised skeptically, Gabrielle said, "Uh-huh. Well, that I hadnt heard but then, I just got into town."
"Stick around, youll find out," Joxer informed her knowingly.
"Not to change the subject or anything but is there any chance I could get a room and bath for a nights work?" Gabrielle asked.
Pursing his lips, Joxer hesitated for all of a second before breaking into a broad smile. "Sure thing, Gabby. I am gonna have to charge you for dinner, though."
"Really? How much?"
"A dinar? Oh come on, Joxer, anything served in here is going to give me cramps and Ill probably end up throwing it up again. A quarter dinar."
"What, are you trying to starve me? Gabby, I thought we were friends! Three-quarter dinar."
"Three-quarter? Oh please. Joxer, if I went out and hunted up a rat, Id find more meat than what you serve. Half a dinar and nothing more."
All in all, Gabrielle mused in the tub several hours later, dinner hadnt been that bad. Oh sure it was greasy and unidentifiable but there had actually been some spices in the gravy and the bread had been weevil-free, which was always a bonus. Not to mention that there had been more cheese than mold so she was more than full by the time she began her story telling.
Word had spread quickly that Gabrielle was back and when she took the sorry stage of a stool on a couple of raised boards, the tavern was almost half full. She began with the saga of Oedipus and finished with the Tragedy of Hercules. When her voice drifted off on the last phrase, there hadnt been a dry eye in the house. She was seriously thinking of using the Tragedy of Hercules as her competition piece the next day. There were several versions but hers was completely original and, in her humble opinion, the best of the lot.
Of course it helped that she was there during the events that had led to his death. Her heart saddened a long moment as her thoughts centered on the gentle giant who had changed her life. If only he had lived, maybe this world would be different. She knew that it was a risk, to sing so openly against Ares in the home city of his Chosen but something told Gabrielle that this would be the only chance the real story would come out.
Running the short cloth over her body in the lukewarm water, Gabrielle rubbed away the dirt and filth of the road and slowly relaxed. Anticipation and tension had her muscles knotted tighter than a Hestian Virgins undergarment. It was seldom that she was allowed the luxury of a bath but she wanted to be as clean as possible for tomorrows competition. Shed even hoarded precious oils for her hair to be scented on the chance that she won.
Her stage persona was very different from her everyday-self; everything changed when she performed. Gone was the plain outfit she wore to travel and in its place were golden leather leggings that hugged her form and an almost-sheer white blouse that tantalized in what it almost revealed. A silver dagger, at odds with the shining gold of her hair, would hold her long tresses in place. Even her sturdy and worn boots were tossed aside to be replaced with soft calfskin boots that matched her pants in color.
Green eyes glanced at the outfit hung carefully against the wall while the wrinkles pulled themselves out. She dunked her head under the water and remained under the surface for as long as she could, until her lungs were bursting for air, then she came up, pulling in great gasps of air. Gabrielle wasnt sure why she did that but every so often, she felt the need to take a risk.
I dont know what is wrong with me. I live a good life. I have friends, I have family, I travel wherever and whenever I want and live by my wits. I earn more than enough money when I have a mind to do so and could even find myself a patron should I so desire. My Muse is kind to me; she isnt fickle and has never deserted me. My life is full and my own. So why do I feel as though there is something missing?
Sighing, Gabrielle stood from the small iron tub and stepped onto the towel then began rubbing herself down. After blowing out the candle on the bed-stand, she climbed between the sheets and stared into the darkness, her thoughts chasing after each other until banished by the image of fierce blue eyes.
The hands touching her were rough and callused but the caress softer and more gentle than Gabrielle had ever experienced. Hot lips trailed a moist path up her abdomen to her breasts where first one, then the other, nipple was teased into hardness. Nails burned a lingering fire down her side, teasing and forcing a gasp from her. Gabrielle struggled to see who it was but a curtain of hair blocked her view.
Fingers entered her with a suddenness that brought forth a scream of pain and pleasure. The mouth increased pressure on her breast while the fingers thrust over and over into Gabrielle, ruthless in the drive to take her completely. Her fearful pleading fell on deaf ears and though she arced her back and tried to push away with her feet, she could not escape her merciless tormenter.
Something was building inside her and she couldnt escape. She couldnt escape the hands that pounded into her. She couldnt escape the mouth that bit and licked her flesh. Heat exploded in her groin, her hips snapping up to meet the fingers thrusting into her, wringing another scream from her. The lips left her breasts and then something slow and firm and hot pressed into the intimate place between her legs.
When Gabrielle realized it was a tongue, she nearly passed out from shock. When the tongue left, she whimpered in need. But the mouth came up and encompassed her own, pressing and demanding and when it pulled away, Gabrielle rose up, trying to follow it. Strong hands held her down and at last Gabrielle saw the blue eyes as they burned into her soul.
Gasping awake, Gabrielle found herself covered in sweat and other stickiness as well as breathing heavy. "By the Gods! What was that?"
It was warmer than normal the following day. A trickle of sweat beaded to fall down Gabrielles shoulder as she awaited her turn. The open-air theatre was filled to over-brimming and in the center of the front row sat The Conqueror and her entourage. Gabrielle spotted Joxer towards the back and suppressed a groan. She hadnt really thought he wouldnt come but she had hoped. She was nervous enough about being under that incredible gaze without needing to worry that Joxer was somehow going to get himself into trouble.
Still uncertain what she was going to perform, Gabrielle took several cleansing breaths while she waited. Second-to-last to perform, she had been sitting and waiting almost all day already. That dream plagued her every thought, making it very hard to concentrate. Though she tried not to, every so often Gabrielles eyes strayed from the person on stage to The Conqueror. Dressed in a black silk gown clinging everywhere it was supposed to, Gabrielle had been driven speechless thinking of how to describe the fierce beauty sitting calmly in the front row.
Once during the day their eyes had met. Gabrielles breath stopped utterly under the onslaught. She knew that instant The Conqueror had recognized her and a veritable bolt of invisible lightening went between them. A faint smile had hovered about The Conquerors lips, just a minute twisting of the lips to one side before the mask fell back into place and the woman looked back at the performer on stage.
Thunderous applause rocked her back to the present and Gabrielle realized it was her time to go on. Closing her eyes, Gabrielle did what she did every time she was to give an important performance. She ignored everyone in the audience and stepped out onto the stage. Her heart became heavy with thoughts of Hercules and without conscious decision, the first words slipped from her tongue.
I sing the song of Hercules, tragic hero and friend,
the man to whom this world owes vast honor without end.
Son of the great God Zeus and a loving human beauty,
born as a mortal and raised foremost with kindness and duty.
Her voice was metered and modulated to carry to the farthest person in the audience and yet retained a melodious tenor. Without will, she surrendered to the story, reliving the anguish of watching her friends death. Emotion colored her voice, emotion that she threw out on the wind like a snare, trapping the audience with her pain. Though her telling was a short one compared to the epics performed before her, the words were simple and true and spoken from the heart.
The neglect of his father proved a boon in disguise,
as Hercules moved through our lives strong and wise.
For no God can know the bitter struggle of life,
nor no God can know the loss of a true and beloved wife.
The events of that day etched painfully to his mind,
forced to bury wife and children, murdered, before their time.
The machinations of the scheming war god Ares,
brothers in blood but sworn and grievous enemies.
Neither rage nor upheaval caused by godly powers gone awry,
Neither hatred nor vengeance sworn to the uncaring sky.
Hercules moved on with his life, though empty inside,
Looking for a way to honor his fallen children, and bride.
The strength of their love proved more than Ares could rend asunder
For the gentle giant continued protecting innocents from Ares plunder.
Changing my life, saving me from merciless slavers,
Hercules did that and more for the mortals with his labors.
I sing of the tragedy of Hercules
I sing of the trap set by Gods most deceitful,
I sing of the lowest perfidy,
I sing of the falling of this worlds greatest hero.
The morning dew still fresh on the ground,
The air filled with softness and flowers did abound,
The sun rising steadily, going forward on its path,
The darkness creeping closer, ready to deal in terrible death.
To rescue a child is simply what Hercules did seek,
To shield an innocent soul from harm, he was struck down at his peak.
I watched helpless with horror as into the pit Hercules did fall,
The child nothing more than a whispering ghost of a cruel Gods call.
The laughter of Ares, harsh on the wind,
appearing before me as though on a whim.
A bard and truth-sayer he wanted to restrain,
But never shall I repeat his false refrain.
My place in this life may not be strong,
In riches and wealth I may never belong.
To one thing I shall be true and reveal to my end,
The tragedy of Hercules, the death of my friend.
Utter and stunned silence after the last word died upon the air as the audience waited for a sign that they would not be punished if they responded favorably to something that cast aspersions on Ares. Yet Gabrielle didnt care anything for the audiences approval.
For Gabrielle had done something in this telling that shed never done before. Gabrielle had captured the eyes of The Conqueror and told the story only for her. As a bard, Gabrielle had always lived to perform only for herself and the life of the story. Today her world had changed; she had needed to make sure that The Conqueror knew of her benefactor robbing the world of a great man.
It would probably be her death sentence. Blue eyes never leaving Gabrielles face, The Conqueror whispered something into the ear of the woman sitting beside her. The woman, dressed in fine battle-leathers was obviously someone of high rank. She began clapping slowly and deliberately. Gabrielle instantly understood. The Conqueror herself could not show approval for anything that shed unfavorable light on Ares, but she could give implicit approval by simply doing nothing.
After a few seconds, the clapping spread as quickly as the relief that Gabrielle wasnt going to be killed on the spot. Gabrielle gave a short bow then removed herself from the stage and took her seat. Her vision darkened as her breath grew short in delayed reaction. Gripping the edge of her seat tightly, Gabrielle forced herself to take deep and slow breaths until the world around her returned to normal.
It was halfway through the last performance that the woman in battle-gear moved discreetly out of the front row. Gabrielle was probably the only one who noticed, certainly The Conqueror didnt deign to move her eyes from the bard currently giving his all to the audience. Emerald eyes followed the path of the woman who went first to the sidelines to a small group of soldiers and spoke with them at some length.
Gabrielle barely resisted the urge to pull her decorative dagger from her hair and plunge it into her own chest in anticipation of evading torture. The woman was now approaching her, walking quietly from the sidelines to stand behind Gabrielle. Strong fingers rested on the slope of her shoulders, pinching painfully as a hard voice ordered in her ear, "Come with me."
Swallowing against the fear rising up in her throat, Gabrielle sent a thought to Hercules who surely watched over her from the Elysian Fields. "I would do it again my friend. No matter what comes now, I would do it again."
The sheer audacity of the woman! She must have nerves forged by Hephestus not only to recite Hercules death, but Ares involvement in the matter as well! What on earth is she thinking? She could be killed on the spot! My god her eyes are beautiful. They shine greater than any emerald I possess. And the way she moves as she tells the story; fluid like a dancer and yet she has not left the spot where she took her place. Its incredible!
She doesnt look away from me as every other soul on this earth does. I must look away from her and yet I cannot. Intensity such as Ive never seen before is there in the open, waiting for me to pick it up like a gauntlet. That voice is perfect: low and husky yet it carries without strain probably to the edge of the theatre. A true bard. Her words are biting but without bitterness, how does she do that? She obviously loved him a great deal. A personal friend of Hercules this could be interesting.
Silence brought Xena back to her surroundings, interrupting her thoughts centering on the slight form on the stage. Still unable to look away, Xena murmured to Maia, "Clap but dont be over-enthusiastic. During the last performance, take her and make sure she is left in perfect condition and waiting for me in my bedroom."
"Yes, Conqueror," Maia acquiesced. She clapped strongly but slowly, each clap distinct and perfectly formed.
It wasnt long before the entire audience was clapping loudly. There was no way that Xena could fail to notice their relief in her sparing of the bard; it was almost a physical sensation. Gabrielle of Potedaia. Now she at last had a name for that rain-soaked beauty at the side of the road from last season. Covered in mud and standing with her mouth agape as Xena rode by, the bard had certainly not been the poised performer she was today. She had been unable to restrain herself from taking a second look that day, etching the womans face to memory for future reference.
She had heard of Gabrielle, the Golden Bard of Potedaia, long before this but only as a name attached to sagas and songs running through Corinth and even the far reaches of Greece. That she was the same woman who had dared to meet Xenas eyes that day enhanced the attraction. Maia slipped away quietly and discreetly halfway through the next performance. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw the bard go rigid, watching Maia go about her task. The fact that she didnt run or try to escape what could be coming grudgingly added admiration to Xenas attraction.
Though inwardly impatient to leave and actually meet this brazen woman, Xena remained the impassive ruler awaiting the outcome to an important festival. The judges were all independent but Xena knew they had seen Gabrielles removal and would not name her as winner. Once the announcement was made and the prize bestowed upon the winner, the crowd began to break up and Xena was finally able to make her way back to the palace and her own prize.
Though shed fully expected to be thrown into a dungeon or torture chamber and chained and beaten to death, none of that happened. Gabrielle was marched through the streets, the woman soldier at the fore of the soldiers, and into the palace. They moved over marble floors inlaid with gold and silver patterns. They walked down halls covered in the finest art. They passed by countless servants moving efficiently about there duties.
Then Gabrielle was roughly shoved inside a room. She swallowed heavily as she took in what kind of room it was. Dominating the scene was the bed set against the wall on the same side as the door. It was huge and filled with pillows and coverlets that looked as soft and light as the air on a gentle spring day. The only other furniture in the room was a desk and chair set, a chair by the fireplace and a table holding fruit and a pitcher of wine.
You wanted her attention you idiot, well, youve got it now! What in Hades were you thinking? You practically challenged her in her own city! Of course she isnt going to simply let you fade off into the distance of anonymity again. Gods but she was beautiful. Her hair shone like the finest jet in the sun. The way she sat there, taking in every move that I made? I bet she wouldnt miss the drop of a hairpin in the middle of a banquet!
Wandering about the room for several minutes, Gabrielle saw no escape save possibly through the window, but it was set up too high. Gabrielle looked out the window saw that they were two stories up, not exactly an easy drop and, she was certain, designed that way. She swallowed heavily as she saw The Conquerors retinue returning from the festival. Was it over already?
She sat on the chair by the empty fireplace, turning it to face the door so she would be prepared for when The Conqueror entered the room. She waited and waited and almost against her will the tension left her as boredom grew. The Conqueror simply did not show. The strain of the day took its toll and her eyes began to close as the yawns increased in frequency.
It wont hurt to close my eyes for a second. Im obviously not going anywhere and its well after dark now. Who knows when shell show up or even if she will? Perhaps I won and she just couldnt say so publicly? Maybe these are my chambers? I am so tired. It wont hurt if I just rest my eyes for a moment.
Xena was furious but could not let her agitation show.
After entering the palace several hours ago, Maia had informed her that messengers from Egypt had arrived and needed an immediate audience with her. After that was a messenger from Macedonia telling of unrest in a territory that had never shown unrest, at least not since well before her conquest years ago. Then there had been an assassination attempt as she left the messenger on her way to her chambers. If she hadnt caught a glimpse of him in a decorative shield on the wall, shed even now be visiting with the healer instead of walking to the bard.
Stopping at her door, she asked the guard, "Has she tried to leave?"
"No, Conqueror. I checked on her a short while ago and found her asleep by the fireplace," he replied. "I had the servants light the fire to keep her warm and put a blanket over her."
Xena took a closer look at the guard, a young man with clear blue eyes and an honorable air about him. "My thanks, soldier."
It was obviously not what hed been expecting for, though he was too well disciplined to let his jaw drop, he was definitely startled. "It was my honor, Conqueror."
Good answer, she thought in amusement. She silently opened the door and moved inside, closing the door just as silently. Curled up uncomfortably in the large chair was the bard. The fire caught burnished highlights in her now loosed hair and her head was at a very awkward angle. Thats going to hurt later, Xena thought in amusement, remembering more than one night fallen asleep in much the same position.
The bards face was soft and peaceful and Xena was reluctant to disturb her so she went to change in the next room. Once stripped and dressed in a short robe, Xena walked back to the bard and sat on the floor to gaze upon her.
What was it that draws me to you? Is it that you remind me of Iolaus? You have that same honesty and bold attitude that refuses to be turned by any threat. That same streak of pure stubbornness that I can see a mile away. Xena smiled briefly at that thought, even through the pain as she remembered her former lover. I cant let myself get close to this one, she is dangerous, I can sense it. But perhaps perhaps she is the ally I need so desperately. People respect her. They respect her talent and truthfulness. Perhaps I can use that to gauge just how dangerous she is to me and find out why. I dont know, I dont know what to do! Iolaus, can you hear me? What should I do?
A sharp pain in the neck woke Gabrielle and she groaned. After the groan came a yawn and stretch, along with the opening of her eyes. The Conqueror sat on the floor, staring at her. Flames reflected eerily in the shadowed eyes and Gabrielle swallowed against the fear inspired by the darkness she encountered there. It was a living thing, a presence that could not be denied not matter how well the beauty disguised it.
"Hows your neck?"
Definitely not the words Gabrielle had been expecting. "Um, sore."
"I thought it would be but you looked too tired to wake."
After a hesitant pause, Gabrielle replied, "Thank you?"
That same faint smile from earlier hovered a second before disappearing. "Are you asking or telling me?"
Sitting upright, Gabrielle said firmly, "Thank you."
"Youre quite welcome."
After a moment of silence, Gabrielle asked, "So what am I doing here?"
"Im not sure."
"I see." Gabrielle doubted that answer which was reflected in her voice. Who was this quiet and curious woman sitting before her?
"You will reside here at the palace until I say otherwise. The guard outside is waiting to take you to your chamber," The Conqueror stated.
Knowing a dismissal when she heard one, even a polite one, Gabrielle stood from the chair and gave a short bow before heading for the door. As she reached the door, her name was whispered, rooting her to the spot. Unable to do more than whisper in response, Gabrielle replied, "Yes?"
"I know you." There was uncertain wonder in The Conquerors rough voice.
And there it was. That instant connection which Gabrielle had felt was again in the open and sizzling between them even with Gabrielles back turned. The heat and heaviness of The Conquerors gaze was a weight upon her, a weight that somehow, Gabrielle didnt want to lose. Still whispering, Gabrielle confirmed, "I know," and slipped out the door.
The weather had turned nasty with driving rain and a bitter cold that few wished to challenge. In the dark night, there were only solitary people moving through the empty streets of Corinth. Even in the poorest section of the city, where beggars and thieves made their meager living, the streets were nigh empty.
Which is what made the group of three, heavily armed individuals so conspicuous as they entered the run down tavern.
Joxer looked up and swallowed nervously as the soldiers approached the bar. Pulling down their hoods revealed a woman at the forefront and two men standing just behind her. "Uh, hi there. What can I get for ya?"
"Information," the woman said bluntly.
Which made Joxer even more nervous. People wanting information were not usually nice people. Where was Gabrielle when he needed her? "I dont know what help I can be but certainly for such wonderful people like you I can maybe find out what you need to know I mean I am a bartender and people talk to bartenders and umph!"
The woman had grabbed him by the collar and pulled him roughly over the counter, a dagger in her other hand resting on his throat. "The Bard," she hissed. "Why is she here?"
Puzzled, Joxer answered, "She isnt here."
"I dont mean now, moron, I mean why is she here in Corinth? Why would the Golden Bard of Potedaia show herself here in the stronghold of Ares?"
"I-I dont know. But shes gone now so you dont have to worry," Joxer exclaimed.
"And why should I be worried?" the woman asked, tone deadly.
"Um, that was just a figure of speech, you know. Like saying youre fine when your throats about to be cut?" Joxer rambled.
"Youre supposed to be a friend of hers. If she were to confide in anyone it would be you, wouldnt it?" the woman demanded.
"Who, me? Nah! Gabby never says anything to me. Barely know the woman," Joxer denied emphatically.
"Gabby? You call her Gabby and claim not to know her? Answer me or you will not like what happens next."
"I dont like whats happening now," he muttered.
"I uh-I said I dont know whats happening now. She only said she was here for the festival and thats it."
The woman stared at him then shoved him back so hard he hit the back wall. "This place is closed down. You are to be gone by tomorrow sunset."
"What! You cant do that!" Joxer exclaimed.
"I can and I have. Unless youd rather I shut you down? Permanently?" the woman asked.
"Um, no. This is fine. This is good. I was looking for a way out of this awful business anyhow. Change of scenery and all that. Perfect timing, really!" Joxer babbled.
"Sniveling coward," the woman spat. Without another word, she turned and left, pulling the hood up once more as she exited.
Slamming his fist onto the counter angrily, Joxer exclaimed, "Gabby! What in Tartarus were you thinking? I knew youd piss off the wrong person one day but would you listen to me? Noooo. Why listen to Joxer? He doesnt know what hes talking about. Youre probably being tortured right now and theres nothing I can do about it!"
Joxers voice cracked slightly on the last sentence as his soul was surrounded by anguish at the thought. Hed seen the woman before, a couple of days before at the festival to be exact. Hed seen her take Gabrielle away and, of course, Gabrielle had not returned.
Raising his eyes to the ceiling, he thought, "Hercules, if you have any clout up there, watch over her, please?"
"Is the water too hot?" Xena asked solicitously.
Gabrielle started at the unexpected voice. Shed just entered the bath a few moments before and her suite had been empty except for the last servant pouring in the hot water. Leaning back against the porcelain tub, Gabrielle shook her head. "Its perfect, thank you."
Like a sleek predatory cat, Xena moved to the other side of the tub, leaning on the edge. "You are quite welcome."
Gabrielle remained where she was, arms outstretched along the frame of the tub, head resting against her shoulder. "I havent seen much of you the last couple of days."
Xena trailed idle fingers in the steaming, inviting water. She heard the tacit question and chose to ignore it. Instead, a wicked smile crossed her face and she winked at the bard. "I think I might join you."
Eyebrow raised, Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something then closed it again. "What I have, is yours," she replied ironically.
At that, Xena laughed outright, irrationally pleased at the saucy rejoinder. Standing, she began pulling off her clothes, unbuckling her battle-gear and dropping it to the floor. She had taken off her bracers and arm-guards when there was a whoosh of displaced water and Gabrielle offered, "Allow me?"
Xena caught a full view of naked bard and her mouth dried suddenly at the beauty displayed before her. Though small, the golden haired woman was lean and muscled, far more so than Xena had ever suspected. Taking in the well-defined abdomen and arms, Xena suddenly realized that the staff the bard carried was for far more than simple decoration.
Turning wordlessly, Xena allowed the bard to unlatch and unlace everything, simply shrugging out of the heavy gear and letting them fall to the marble tile. She didnt exactly know what had prompted this little get together but after the grueling work out with her elite troupe, Xena had decided to look in on the bard.
It was three days since the festival. Three days that Gabrielle had been her "guest" at the palace. Three days that Xena had been forced to spend on matters other than the intriguing puzzle presented by the bard. Once fully nude, Xena stepped into the tub and Gabrielle gave way, moving back to her original spot.
"Youre injured," Gabrielle observed quietly.
Startled, Xena looked down at herself and realized there was a huge bruise along her top ribs. Grinning, she replied, "I must be getting careless in my old age. I missed a feint and got the reward of a staff in the ribs. It happens."
"It shouldnt," Gabrielle murmured, concern evident in her eyes.
"Of course it should. And the man who got the hit was rewarded with a promotion. How do you think I establish rank in my army?"
"I never thought about it."
"Its simple to advance in my army, Gabrielle. You conquer your superiors, you get their position."
"What happens when someone conquers you?"
Xena froze, anger rising at the impudence and she glared at the young woman. "No one ever has."
"Thats not to say no one ever will," Gabrielle pointed out. She moved to the side and picked up a soft sponge and doused it liberally with fragrant lotion.
"You dont hold back, do you Bard?" Xena observed, sapphire eyes narrowed at the other woman.
"Why should I?" Gabrielle asked. "It is my duty and privilege to tell and teach truth. May I?"
Xenas lips pursed thoughtfully before she nodded abruptly and leaned back, opening herself to the womans ministrations. Closing her eyes when the sponge touched her stomach, Xena had to force her breath to remain even and controlled as the woman moved it gently over her. It started at the bruise, moving lightly but surely, lingering on the injury before surrounding and circling each breast. Involuntarily, her nipples hardened at the pleasurable sensations. The sponge moved up over her chest and water sloshed over Xena as she felt the woman draw closer. When a small hand joined the sponge, Xenas eyes flew open, pinning the bard with her gaze. "What are you doing?" her voice sounded harsh, even to her own ears.
"Washing you, Conqueror," Gabrielle replied, voice low. "I was about to ask you to turn over so I could wash your back."
Captivated by the green eyes mere inches from her face, Xena did nothing for a long moment then did as requested and turned around. After several passes, the sponge was discarded and strong, small hands replaced it with a massage. Xena leaned forward, resting her arms on the edge and her cheek against her arm, surrendering to this siren touch.
It seemed an eternity that those hands moved in knowing strokes and touches over her back before sliding down to her buttocks. Xena stilled, her breath and muscles tensing simultaneously.
A whispered warning, "Be careful what you ask for."
There was a pause, hands stopping mid-motion, and then, "I ask for nothing, Conqueror. I merely wash your back."
Her lids lowered lazily, Xena relaxed into the touch, curious as to how far the woman would take this. As though sensing the command to continue, the bards hands began to move once more. Nails scratched pleasurably from her buttocks to her shoulders and back again, sending tingles and shivers through Xena. They moved from down to up, up to down, creating warmth and relaxation such as Xena had not felt in a very long time.
Not since Iolaus.
The thought slammed through her and she gasped at the blaze of hurt whipping into her.
"Whats wrong?" Gabrielle whispered, instantly feeling the change.
"Nothing," Xena denied coolly, mask back into place. She stood, water rushing off her, clinging to drip from breasts and hips. "Thank you for your attentions, they were most pleasurable."
Gabrielles jaw tightened, grinding her teeth together at the insult. Xena had just called what had happened something akin to being a whore. The water wasnt the only thing rapidly cooling in the room and Gabrielle stood, immediately leaving the tub. She grabbed a towel and threw it at the other woman. "Get out."
"Excuse me?" Xena demanded, easily catching the towel, though it hit her with more force than shed expected.
"You heard me. Get out! I will not be treated like a whore. I bestow my attentions on whomever I choose and I certainly would not waste them on you! So get out!"
"You forget yourself, Bard," Xena hissed, moving closer.
Chin jutting forward, Gabrielle faced the menacing figure proudly. "I forget nothing, Conqueror. I think it is you who forget. I am not some trifling to be played with."
The two women stood face to face, sparks practically flying between them as neither backed down. Snarling, it was Xena who moved away first. She threw the towel back at the bard and stalked out of the suite.
Gabrielle heard something slam into the outside of her door and could only assume it to be a guard stupid enough to ogle the Conquerors naked form as she strode out of the room. Releasing her breath in an angry sigh, Gabrielle paced the room for a short time, wondering what had happened to bring about the change.
There hadnt been any words between them so it wasnt that Gabrielle had put her foot in it. There was something going on here that needed to be discovered. Something that might unlock the woman Gabrielle saw trying to claw her way out from the Conquerors self-imposed prison.
Though why she was bothering in this dangerous pursuit, Gabrielle had no idea.
Xena slammed her arm into the guard and then slammed him into the door, rendering him unconscious. If she wanted to stroll through her gardens buck naked then she would, never mind the short hall between the two bedchambers.
Upon reaching her chambers, Xena threw herself onto the bed, laying face down until her pillow began to suffocate her. Flipping over, Xena stared at the ceiling, thoughts furiously chasing each other back and forth.
Who does that woman think she is? What makes her believe shes anymore exempt from the punishment I bestowed on someone far less insolent? What makes her think I wont have her killed without a second thought? Why dont I kill her? Why cant I kill her!?
Snarling, Xena rolled off her bed and began to dress. There was no way that she could sleep now. All that comfortable relaxation was gone. She refused to think about who had brought it about in the first place as she pulled on her state outfit. It was time to pay her governors a visit and check up on the state of her treasury. That was sufficient self-castigation for the time being.
By the end of it, she should be sufficiently weary enough to sleep without thinking of an irritating blond bard only a short distance away.
Gabrielle watched as Xena drove herself and her men ruthlessly through the sword exercises and sparring matches. The dark-haired woman was a whirlwind of graceful movement and incredible speed. The heavy sword seemed an extension of her arm, slicing through air and into armor with unerring accuracy.
Gabrielle leaned against the wooden fence of the sparring ring, her eyes never leaving the dynamic figure in the center of the ring. Xena had five opponents at the moment, the previous five already being dispatched. While it was clear they were loath to attack all at once and risk hurting their commander, it was also clear that Xena expected just that. Gabrielle understood their predicament completely.
At some unseen signal, they attacked and Xena moved almost too fast for Gabrielle to follow. A piercing battle cry sounded and Xena was suddenly in the air, flipping over the men, spinning instantly around and kicking one in the face while bringing her sword against the other with such force that he staggered head first into the fence and dropped unconscious. Which left only three soldiers.
A roundhouse punch knocked one out cold. A roundhouse kick sent another flying through the air and out of the ring. Gabrielles breath caught in her throat as the last brought the flat of his sword to Xenas undefended back. She staggered forward under the blow and Gabrielles fists clenched, aching to be there with her staff to protect the other woman.
Xena caught herself on the fence and turned almost right away, sword at the ready. She closed the distance and their swords met with sparks. Back and forth they went, the man almost good enough to get passed her defenses twice more. In the end, though it was hardly a foregone conclusion, Xenas blade parried around his and sent it to land quivering in the ground several feet away.
The man immediately dropped to his knees.
"Very good, Talus, very good indeed. Consider yourself promoted to captain. Report to Lacius in the morning," Xena congratulated. She offered her hand to the man who took it with a broad smile.
Then, as though remembering himself, Talus saluted and said, "Thank you, Conqueror."
Xena nodded, dismissing him wordlessly. Turning to Gabrielle, she walked over and demanded, "What are you doing here?"
"Watching you," Gabrielle answered.
"I can see that," Xena said, exasperated. "Why?"
"Just wanted to see the legendary Conqueror in action is all," Gabrielle lied. She couldnt very well say that she worried about someone not remembering to pull back their sword until it was too late. She certainly couldnt say that she enjoyed watching the Conquerors strength and prowess in any field, even that of battle.
Xena stared at her a long moment then said, "Come. I need to get cleaned up, then well talk."
Surprised but trying not to show it, Gabrielle nodded and fell into step with the warrior. Even as she adjusted her stride to lengthen, she noticed the Conqueror shortened her own and they walked at a middling pace. She also noticed the many looks they were receiving from the people they passed. Glancing to the Conqueror, it was obvious that the woman could care less about others opinions, at least as far as Gabrielle could see.
Bodyguards fell silently into step around the two women almost immediately. Self-conscious about the heavily armed man, Gabrielle moved a little closer to the Conqueror, trying to keep space between her and them though it was impossible to do. The walk through the palace was a quiet one, Gabrielle uncertain what they could talk about in private, let alone in public.
A woman, the one from the festival, eyed her with disdain as they approached the Conquerors chambers.
"Yes, Maia?" Xena asked mildly.
"I have come to inform you that Lao Ma has arrived," the woman reported.
An arched eyebrow was the only sign of surprise the Conqueror showed. "Really. Is she already settled in her suite?"
"Not yet, Conqueror. She only just arrived a short while ago," Maia said.
"When shes ready, have her escorted to my study," Xena ordered.
"As you wish, Conqueror. Shall I have a welcoming banquet prepared?"
Xena shook her head decisively. "Not for tonight. Tomorrow night should be adequate. Lao Ma and I must consult about certain things first. Thank you, Maia."
With a glare to Gabrielle, she saluted and left them.
Once inside the chamber, Gabrielle frowned and commented, "That woman does not like me."
"Maia doesnt like anyone," Xena said dryly.
"Why does that not surprise me?" Gabrielle muttered, making herself comfortable on a chair while the Conqueror began undressing. She watched as the armor was shed and the woman emerged, blushing hotly at the direction her thoughts suddenly took. "Who is Lao Ma?"
"Lao Ma is an old friend," Xena replied with a faint smile.
Intrigued by the description, Gabrielle asked, "I havent heard that name before. Where is she from?"
"And you werent expecting her? That seems a long way for a surprise visit," Gabrielle observed.
Xena stilled in the middle of pulling on a loose cotton tunic, conceding her point with a slow nod. "It is. Would you like to meet her? I think you might find her to your liking."
"Anyone who stays your friend is probably someone Id like," Gabrielle said. Then she realized how that might sound and hastily amended, "Not that you dont have friends. Or that no one would want to be your friend. Im sure you have plenty of friends. Oh Tartarus."
Smiling broadly, the humor rising all the way to set sapphire eyes to sparkling, Xena said, "Gabrielle, relax. Im not going to cut off your head just because you dug your own grave."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, sticking her tongue out. She watched with interest as Xena gathered her armor and battle leathers and put them all neatly in a pile by the table in front of the fire. "What are you doing?"
"Polishing," Xena answered.
"Dont you have people for that?" Gabrielle teased.
"Funny. Yes I do but Ive known too many people to get killed by relying on other people to take care of their weapons. You have to know the strengths and weaknesses of everything that will protect you from an enemy," Xena replied, taking a small wooden box out of a chest Gabrielle hadnt even seen at the foot of the bed.
It was a far different woman who sat quietly on the floor with a polishing rag and mink oil than the ferocious warrior whod worn them. Only moments into the task, Gabrielle rose and moved closer. "Can I help?"
Looking up, Xena hesitated then nodded almost shyly. "Thank you."
Gabrielle sat cross-legged beside her and after a thorough instruction on what to do, was given the bracers and gauntlets to clean and oil. "How did you meet Lao Ma? No, how did you end up all the way over in Chin in the first place?" Gabrielle asked after a brief, companionable silence.
"Its a dark story, not one that youd want to hear, Im sure," Xena answered, concentrating on the leather in front of her.
Without thinking, Gabrielle touched Xenas leg and said, "Id love to hear it."
Xena gazed into the sincere green orbs before nodding raggedly. After all, some of it was bound to come out after Gabrielle and Lao Ma met anyhow. Xena talked more that afternoon than she had in the last year. Gabrielle proved to be a non-judgmental listener and the words just poured out of Xena like a waterfall.
She went further into the past than shed originally intended, wanting to start somewhere that might make later events more understandable. So she began with the death of Lyceus, then Cesars treachery. Xena delved into the heart and despair of that time moving through Borius and Alti, only omitting mention of her son, and onto the brief glimpse of light in Lao Ma. In the end, Xena revealed far more than shed ever believed possible.
Through it all, however, Xena did not look at Gabrielle, finding that she couldnt bear the look of revulsion certain to be present once the story ended. When her voice finally stopped, Xena looked at Gabrielle with trepidation. To her great astonishment, she found tears upon Gabrielles cheeks. Her hand reached out, thumb gently brushing away the moisture. "Why were you crying?"
"Oh Xena, you even have to ask?" Gabrielle breathed. Shed never heard a more heart-wrenching story in her life. From the moment Xena first mentioned her brothers name, a crack of emotion in her voice after all these years, Gabrielle found herself wrapped up in this womans life. Taking Xenas hand in hers, Gabrielle continued, "If any of those things had happened to me, I would have given up, probably died. Your strength to continue, to find your way through the darkness is an inspiration, Xena, not a condemnation."
Xena wanted to believe her, wanted desperately to believe that she wasnt only a bloodthirsty animal who had learned how to bury her corpses. Looking into the shining eyes of the very real woman before her, Xena was drawn closer. Leaning forward, she used the hold of Gabrielles hand to pull her inexorably nearer.
The first touch of lips was gentle and chaste, barely a kiss at all. Their lips remained pressed together for a long moment, a giving and receiving of warmth and understanding. When Gabrielle pulled away, Xena discovered her eyes had been closed though she didnt remember doing so. Before either could say a word there was a gentle but insistent knock at the door.
They stared at each other for another moment before Xena stood and answered the door. Her body-slave Anari stood outside, head bowed in respect.
"Mistress Lao Ma awaits you in the study," Anari said softly.
Xena looked back to where Gabrielle still sat on the floor amidst the leather and armor. "We certainly didnt accomplish any cleaning," she thought with faint amusement. "Tell Lao Ma that I shall be there shortly."
Anari nodded and left.
Standing, Gabrielle said, "Xena, if you want time alone with Lao Ma, I understand. Its been a long while since youve seen each other and I wouldnt want to get in the way of reacquainting yourself with her."
Thats when Xena realized one of the many things that drew her to this woman: her kindness and thoughtfulness for everyone around her, even misbegotten savages like Xena. Stopping in front of Gabrielle, Xena smiled and cupped the bards face. "Thank you. I would appreciate that."
Looking up into Xenas eyes, for Gabrielle could no longer think of her as the Conqueror, Gabrielle replied, "Its my pleasure."
"What will you do this evening?" Xena asked.
Grinning, Gabrielle answered, "Polish leather and armor, what else? Should I await you here?" Her playful tone vanished towards the end, replaced with uncertainty.
Xenas thumb played lightly back and forth over the curving cheekbone but she shook her head. "Dont wait for me, I dont know how long well talk. But thank you."
"For listening," Xena replied simply. Smiling faintly, she continued, "Its been a long while since anyone has."
The loneliness in Xenas eyes was almost more than Gabrielle could bear. She wanted to hold Xena and promise that she would always be there, no matter what, but knew it wasnt the right time. She wondered briefly if that time would ever come. To cover her hesitation, Gabrielle said lightly, "You know where to find me if you want to talk more."
Xena nodded and they stood in silence for a long moment. Then, abruptly, Xena turned and left the room.
"You look relaxed," Lao Ma greeted warmly, taking Xenas hand.
Xena smiled faintly. "I am."
They hugged tightly for a long moment, Lao Ma pressing a kiss to Xenas neck. Stepping away, she looked up at the warrior and said, "Have you found yourself then?"
Motioning for Lao Ma to sit, Xena paced to the other side of the room then returned. "I dont know what Ive found," she replied honestly.
"Indeed? Tell me what has happened since last I saw you." Lao Ma invited, patting the space beside her.
"Where do I begin?" Xena wondered aloud, sitting in the requested spot. The study was almost cozy even though it was a Spartan room with only the one couch in front of the fire, a desk and chair towards the back and a few small tables placed strategically through the room holding expensive vases. On the small table by the couch was food and drink.
"At the beginning," Lao Ma replied, resting her head on Xenas shoulder. Their hands entwined easily as Xena began to speak. She listened intently, not just to the words, but the tone Xena used recounting the last few years. There wasnt much animation in Xenas voice until the man called Iolaus. Lao Ma squeezed Xenas hand encouragingly when she fell silent and the narration continued. The smooth cadence was interrupted upon introduction of a woman named Gabrielle.
"I dont know what Im doing keeping her here," Xena confessed, rubbing her eyes tiredly. "I know that she should either leave or be killed, probably the latter, because shes a threat. I just dont know what the threat is. It feels as though Ive lost control of the situation and you know what happens when I lose control," Xena finished.
There was a long pause while Lao Ma thought over everything Xena had said. Standing gracefully, she moved across the room to contemplate one of the vases. Her silk gown rustled over the carpet but otherwise the room was silent until she spoke. "She is a threat to your isolation, Xena. To the walls you have built so high and thick that no one can penetrate and hurt you. You believe the Conqueror is the one needed to bring order to the world. You believe that the Conqueror is the one needed to maintain discipline and structure. Xena, what happens when the Conqueror is defeated? People will succumb to the vacuum of power left in the Conquerors absence. There will be chaos once more and your empire will fall before it has truly begun."
Xena studied both the woman and the words for a long moment. A half-smile played about her mouth as she commented, "I think I have spoken too much today. Both you and Gabrielle are being kinder than necessary."
Lao Ma stared at her silently from across the room and the longer they stood that way, the more uncomfortable Xena grew.
"I would like to meet Gabrielle," Lao Ma said at last.
"Of course," Xena agreed. "Its late but I could see if she is awake."
Lao Ma shook her head. "Tomorrow is fine. I believe I shall go to bed now."
Xena heard the silent question and sudden heat burst through her at the intensity in the dark eyes that regarded her. Apparently Gabrielle had released enough of the woman inside to interest Lao Ma. Xena stood and crossed the room to stop before Lao Ma. Her hand gently caressed the light brown face, tracing the faint lines with her fingers.
Staring at Lao Mas mouth for what seemed an eternity, Xena finally bridged the distance, covering the warm, pliant mouth with her own. Her hands moved down Lao Mas shoulders and slid around to the small of her back, pulling the smaller woman against her. Though almost the same height, Lao Ma appeared slight and fragile in her silken gown. Xena wasnt fooled, knowing of the iron-will sheathed beneath the delicate exterior.
Xenas hands wound in Lao Mas thick, ebony tresses. Their tongues played back and forth, mouths growing demanding and opening as far as possible. Hot and wet kisses were exchanged, hands roamed over concealed flesh, desire grew hard and unyielding between them. When Xena pulled back, they were both breathing hard but she knew something was different.
She wanted Lao Ma, there was no question of that. Yet there they no longer seemed to mesh as they once had. Xena remembered the heavenly places Lao Ma had sent her so many years ago and yearned to visit them once more.
Lao Ma reached up and ran her hands affectionately through Xenas dark locks. "It seems as though we are both masters now Xena, both Yang. We no longer "
"Mesh," Xena supplied helpfully.
Smiling, Lao Ma caressed Xenas cheek and nodded. "I think our time together is past, Xena."
And Xena was unable to do anything except reluctantly nod.
"Anari, tell me about the Conqueror," Gabrielle asked slowly. She had almost reached the end of the pile of leather when the slave woman had entered the room to set up the evenings fire. Another slave had entered as well, this one bearing a tray of Gabrielles favored food. She finished off the last bit of the battle leather carefully then added it to the neat stack on the bed. She hadnt known where else to put it and watched carefully as Anari began replacing it and the armor into the chest at the foot of the bed.
The slave shook her head mutely as she went about her task.
"Please? Ill tell you a favorite story every night for a fortnight," Gabrielle pleaded with a smile. The dark haired woman again shook her head, though it wasnt as emphatic as before. Taking it as a good sign, Gabrielle moved closer and continued persuasively, "Ill be forever grateful for just a little, tiny glimpse into her, Anari. I cant do my work properly as a Bard if I dont know about my subject now, can I? You wouldnt want me to misrepresent the Conqueror, would you? Now when its in your power to make sure that I dont."
Gabrielle waited as the woman paused. "Are you afraid of the Conqueror, Anari?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.
The womans eyes widened and she shook her head, exclaiming, "Oh no! Mistress has been very kind to me. Much more so than my other owners. I am grateful that Mistress has kept me for as long as she has."
"Really?" Gabrielle was intrigued. "Why?"
Anari blushed and began striking the flint with more vigor than strictly necessary.
Eyebrow raised skeptically, Gabrielle murmured, "Really. Well, I wouldnt have thought her to be a kind lover."
Looking around as though to be certain they werent overheard, though no one else was in the room, Anari said, "The Conqueror is the most incredible woman I have ever been privileged to serve, Mistress Gabrielle. She is kind to me and "
Blushing even more furiously, the woman continued so softly that Gabrielle had to strain to hear the words.
"She is so exciting as a lover. I cant even describe it but more often than not, I I lose myself in her touch. Its as though she has to conquer me every time and if I do not lose myself then she has failed."
"Lose yourself?" Gabrielle asked softly.
Biting her lip, Anari replied, "She makes everything explode and I wake many hours later. Sometimes bruised, sometimes not but always sore and content."
Gabrielle swallowed a suddenly dry throat. Well, you asked, she chided herself. Clearing her throat, Gabrielle said, "What about the Conqueror? Has she ever taken a lover for herself?"
Anari grew distressed at the question, tears entering her gentle eyes.
"What? What happened?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Master Iolaus. He he died protecting Mistress. They were so happy together, they bathed together, worked side-by-side everyday. He gentled her in a way I had never seen and I have served Mistress for many years," Anari answered.
Bathed together. That explained the change in the tub the other day then. Something Gabrielle had done had triggered the memory of this Iolaus and emotionally shut Xena down, pulling her back from the bard. "Thank you, Anari. Youve been very helpful."
"Did you did you mean it about telling me a story?" Anari asked hopefully.
Smiling, Gabrielle nodded and reached out to press the slaves shoulder. "Absolutely. And anytime you want to talk with me about something that is troubling you, please, let me know."
Though Anari nodded, it was plain to see she still didnt quite trust Gabrielle so she let the woman go.
A hot mouth encased her breast, moist and sucking, causing Gabrielle to moan in pleasure. Strong hands caressed and massaged her bare stomach and ribs, nails lightly scraping and leaving a burning trail. The mouth switched breasts and slowly suckled the tender flesh below. Both nipples hardened almost painfully with need and Gabrielle moaned again.
The hands moved lower until encountering the juncture of her legs. Rough, callused fingers slid between the thoroughly wet lips and Gabrielle gasped at the sudden penetration. The mouth moved from her breast to her mouth and Gabrielle was helpless against the demanding passion as a tongue speared inside.
Returning the kiss with every part of her soul and heart, Gabrielle heard her lover moan in response and thrust harder into her sex. Aching fire consumed her as two more fingers joined the first, wet sounds filling the heavy air. The assault on her senses continued until the world exploded and she screamed her release into her lovers mouth.
Waking on the edge of the orgasm, Gabrielle drew a shuddering breath and sobbed with need. When she finally brought her breathing under control, Gabrielle lay heavy on the pillows and groaned in frustration. "Thats what you get for asking questions from a body-slave."
Xena looked at Gabrielle curiously, immediately noting the reddish hue that suffused the womans face yet again when their eyes met. It had taken only moments for Gabrielle and Lao Ma to find common ground being, of course, Xena. They had settled in to a long talk while Xena went over army and reconnaissance reports. It was late in the day and they had been in Xenas chambers most of the day. All day, Gabrielle had seemed nervous around her and it occurred to Xena why that would be. Grinning to herself she said, "I think perhaps we should finish up since the banquet is this evening. Lao Ma and I will need to prepare."
Gabrielle immediately rose. "Of course. Ill leave you to get ready."
"No, Gabrielle, Id like for you to stay," Xena requested.
Startled, Gabrielle hesitated then nodded and said good-bye to Lao Ma.
"We will talk further tomorrow," Lao Ma promised, smiling at the young woman.
Gabrielle nodded and watched her leave, feeling like stalked prey when the door closed behind Lao Ma. The feeling increased when Xena appeared suddenly behind her, strong hands resting on Gabrielles shoulders.
"Youre very tense today," Xena commented, massaging the knotted muscles.
Gabrielle swallowed, wanting to get away from the bonfire massaging her shoulders but unable to do so. "I didnt sleep well last night."
"Mmh. This one is particularly tight," Xena murmured, concentrating on a hard knot.
"Oh!" Gabrielle gasped in pleasure when the muscle released. She finally relaxed into the touch and only moments after, warm lips pressed against her neck. "Xena?" the name was breathed.
"Hush Gabrielle, its okay," Xena assured her. She continued to massage the bards back and shoulders until she felt Gabrielle sway against her. Putting her arms around Gabrielles waist and holding the smaller woman against her, Xena murmured, "I do have to get ready for the dinner but well continue this discussion later. Leave me now."
Gabrielles head lay back on Xenas shoulder and for a moment she didnt move at all, feeling safe and warm in the strong embrace. But Xena gave her a gentle shove and she began walking towards the door. She stopped before leaving altogether and turned, knowing Xena had been watching her. She met the blazing eyes and smiled then turned once more and left.
Xena felt her heart gasp at the smile bestowed upon her and swallowed heavily when the door closed. "What are you doing?" she hissed to herself in the silent room.
Drawing in a deep breath, she released it slowly and went to prepare for the banquet. At the moment she didnt want to analyze her behavior and thoughts at all, let alone close enough to find out why she was playing with fire.
"I thought I would find you here."
Startled at the unexpected voice, Gabrielle looked up to find Xenas commander, Maia, had entered her chamber. The banquet had been underway for a few hours now and Gabrielle had just finished getting ready for bed, dressing in a soft, satin gown that she still had trouble believing was only for sleeping. "What are you doing here?"
Maia looked her up and down with a leer before replying, "I just wanted to tell you that whatever your plan is, it wont work."
Frowning, Gabrielle asked, "What are you talking about?"
"Whatever you have in mind by trying to get Her attention, it isnt going to work. Shes been to see you what, twice, since youve been here? If she were at all interested in you she wouldnt have left your side the first two or three days, believe me. I know her better than she knows herself. You are here to be certain that your seditious "stories" are no longer spread throughout the countryside and thats all. Bard."
Gabrielle was astonished at the venom in the womans tone, goose flesh erupting over her mostly bare skin.
"By the way, I believe Ares is going to be paying you a visit soon so enjoy your freedom and your life while you have them."
Fear snaked through Gabrielle at the announcement and she stood frozen, watching the woman leave. She had no idea how this woman would know such a thing but there was such certainty in her voice that Gabrielle did not doubt it to be the truth. And a visit by the God of War was not something Gabrielle wanted to experience.
"Why not?" a masculine voice asked seductively, hot breath on her neck.
Gabrielle stiffened but before she could move away, an arm stronger than steel wrapped around her waist, pulling her against a hard body. The other hand lay on her hip, thumb roaming back and forth over her caressingly. "Let me go."
"Oh I think not," Ares answered with a laugh. Warm lips pressed into her shoulder before turning into a sharp bite that caused Gabrielle to gasp in pain. The hand on her hip tightened, fingers clawing into her with bruising force. "Ive been meaning to talk to you about that little song of yours. You know the one. About Hercules."
Gabrielle shuddered with fear at the deadly words of promise.
He spun her around and Gabrielle looked up into dark eyes set within an appallingly handsome face. It wasnt right that the God of War should be so handsome with the trimmed, dark hair and beard, the tanned skin and striking features. His hands were tight and painful on her upper arms, holding her immobile.
"What, no words for the occasion?" he asked in a strangely pleasant voice, smiling brightly with sparkling eyes.
Gabrielle barely noticed the hand leaving her arm to slam across her face, sending her spinning across the room. She hit the wall and turned warily, keeping Ares in her sight. If only she could reach her staff, maybe shed have a chance. Right. And maybe a miracle would happen and Xena would come to rescue her.
Gabrielles inner voice snorted in disbelief that she would even contemplate Xena going against Ares for something as trivial as her. She moved slowly across the room and was surprised when Ares did nothing but fold his arms and watch her, obviously amused.
"I know youre going for the staff. Just get it and lets have a go," Ares said, motioning to the wood. In his outstretched hand a golden staff appeared and he cut the air with it a few times.
"Im insane. Im actually going to fight the God of War?" Gabrielle thought helplessly as her fingers closed over the knobby wood. She stepped to the center of the large chamber, bringing up the staff defensively.
They squared off and Gabrielle took the offensive trying to surprise Ares. The staffs met with a solid thunk, the impact vibrating through Gabrielles arms, setting her teeth on edge. They exchanged blows back and forth and when Gabrielle managed to connect with his thigh, all he did was grunt a little and then laugh.
"Good hit!" Ares complimented.
Thats when Gabrielle knew he was playing with her and she swallowed heavily. It seemed that as soon as he saw the knowledge play across her face, Ares decided to stop playing. Suddenly the blows were coming faster and faster and hitting her every other time. Pain exploded at every connection and the final one split her staff in two. He followed it up by spinning around and slamming his rod across her back, sending her skidding across the room.
He tossed aside the staff and it disappeared just before hitting the ground. Grabbing her by the hair and pulling her close, he promised, "I think you need to learn about some of the values of other weapons, Gabrielle. Lets see, weve got all sorts of swords, daggers, no wait! I bet you havent been introduced to the whip yet, have you? It really is a first class weapon, completely underrated."
Gabrielle found herself face down on the floor in the next instant and heard the crack of a whip in the air. When it sliced through her tunic and into her flesh, she didnt even try to hold back the scream of pain. He spaced them out so she wouldnt know when to expect the next burst of pain. After the seventh leisurely stroke, Gabrielle lost count though the fates werent merciful enough to let her lose consciousness.
"Mistress! Mistress!" Anari shouted, coming to a skidding halt in front of the Conqueror. She had thrown caution to the wind at the arrival of Ares and run all the way through the palace to find her Mistress. She knew that no matter what anyone else thought of the captive bard, it was Gabrielles name the Conqueror murmured when pleasuring Anari these last few nights.
Interrupting a banquet was nothing compared to the fury the Conqueror would unleash on the world if another loved one died. And Anari knew that no matter what even her Mistress thought to the contrary, this woman was already far deeper in her Mistress thoughts than she suspected.
"Anari!" the command was ice cold and Anari immediately dropped to the floor, prostrate before the entire room.
"Mistress, please, please may I approach?"
Xena frowned at the stark terror in the slaves voice. After a moments hesitation, Xena barked, "Approach."
Anari rose and moved swiftly forward to whisper in her Mistress ear, "Ares has Gabrielle. In her chamber. I think Maia summoned him."
Xena paled at the revelation knowing exactly what Ares would do to the Bard for her blasphemy. Without a second thought, she bolted out of the room, pulling her sword free as she did so and ran through the palace full speed. As she approached, she heard a scream of pain and put on a burst of speed. The guard at the door didnt try to stop her, shoved open the door a split second before she reached it, relief etched upon his face.
"Ares!" Xena shouted, face twisted with fury. Her gaze found Gabrielle sprawled on the floor, her back a mess of blood and skin. Ares stood over the bard with a lash that dripped with blood. His foot held the woman to the floor as certainly as if shed been restrained by chains.
"Xena! So glad you could join us!" Ares boomed out jovially.
"Get away from her," Xena ordered.
Frowning, Ares remained where he was. "What are you talking about? Ive got the bitch right where we want her. Thats why you captured her, isnt it?"
Xena knew Gabrielle was loosing far too much blood and the longer she stood debating with Ares, the less chance Gabrielle would have of survival. "I said, get away from her!"
"Why Xena, I didnt know you cared!" Ares taunted with laughter. He dropped the lash to the ground and said, "Tell me, Conqueror, when did you lose your spine? Did she talk it right out of you? Shes good at that, isnt she? I bet its that golden tongue of hers."
Roaring with fury, Xena was upon him before he could pull out his sword but he grabbed her arm and spun around with her, using her momentum to throw her into the wall. Reeling from the impact, Xena shook her head to clear it, hearing the hiss of a blade being unsheathed, and pushed against the wall to give herself room.
"This is my woman, Ares. You are not going to touch her again, understand?" Xena snarled.
"Oooh. Awfully possessive, dont you think Xena? What? Would you throw over your kingdom for her? Desert your God for her?"
Their swords met with a flash of spark. Xenas arms quivered with the force of the blows that Ares battered at her. Again and again they met, like titans in the heavens above, shaking the room with their battle. Xenas battle cry rang through the room as she flipped through the air and slammed feet first into Ares chest. He staggered back and she pressed the advantage. First was a cut into his side. Next was a slice across his chest. He bled but did not fall. Of course he wouldnt, he was a God and Xena knew that.
But it didnt stop her from trying. It didnt stop her from battering into him until even he couldnt see the blows raining upon him. It didnt stop her from not feeling the blows he managed to deliver, drawing blood from her in multiple places.
"Enough!" he roared, throwing a bolt of lightening at her and sending her flying through the air.
The wall stopped her flight and Xena fell to the floor as darkness tried to overcome her. Drawing herself up from the floor, Xena grabbed her sword and held it upright, moving forward groggily to stand protectively over the unconscious bard. The floor was slick with her blood and Xena felt her heart constrict at how much there was.
"Whats the matter Ares? Afraid of a little competition?" Xena taunted. "Beating a mortal to death simply because you dont like the tone of her voice? Its not like you to be so insecure of your godhood."
Lip curled in wrath, he spat, "Why are you doing this? You havent even bedded the bitch. It isnt like she paints you with rosy descriptions either, you know."
"Yeah but I dont care what she says. I stand by my choices now and will always stand by them," Xena answered. She sneered and laughed cruelly. "Why are you doing this Ares? What makes you so afraid? Think she might change me? Think you might lose your beloved chosen one?"
Her sword sliced through the air as she stalked towards him. He looked suddenly disconcerted to be on the other end and her grin was feral. "Why am I your chosen one, Ares? There are numerous theories, care to give any insight on the matter? Is there a reason you cant seem to defeat me?"
Knowing that anything he said might give away the secrets he wanted to keep, Ares scowl deepened. "Dont expect any help from me in the future, Xena," he hissed.
Before he even finished vanishing, Xena dropped her sword and knelt at Gabrielles side. Her hands shook above the unconscious woman as she tried to find some place on the small body that wasnt shredded beyond repair. "No! Not beyond repair!" she thought over and over.
"Get the healer! Get her now!" she shouted.
Gabrielle woke just then, gasping in pain.
"Dont move, Gabrielle, please. Just stay where you are, help is on the way," Xena said, trying to reassure herself as well as the injured woman. She bent down and pressed a kiss to the sweat-soaked head.
"Xena, its okay," Gabrielle said faintly. Her back was a fiery mass of agony but all she heard was the anguish in Xenas voice. She took one of the strong hands while the other gently caressed her hair. "Im sorry."
Astounded, Xena repeated, "Sorry? What for?"
"I shouldnt have sung the song of Hercules. Now youre in trouble with Ares," Gabrielle gasped.
"You heard us?" Xena asked.
"A little. It kept fading in and out," Gabrielle admitted.
Lao Ma arrived then with Anari, assistants burdened with all of the womans supplies it seemed. "Gabrielle, Im going to have to knock you out, the pain will be too much for you," Xena murmured softly.
Gabrielle saved her the trouble by passing out all on her own.
"How much longer do I have to stay like this?" Gabrielle complained. "Im getting bruises on my stomach from lying here!"
Xena didnt bother hiding her grin. Not unexpectedly, Gabrielle had proved to be a poor patient once she could start talking. Which was almost immediately, of course. It was almost a fortnight since Ares attack and Gabrielle was healing a lot better than anyone had anticipated.
The first couple of days had been rough, very touch and go as a fever wracked Gabrielles weakened body and blood continued to seep through the bandages. Xena had been at her wits end though outwardly she looked as emotional as a stone. She went through the motions of her everyday life taking only once or twice during the day to check on Gabrielle. She knew that Lao Ma would do everything in her power to heal Gabrielle.
What shed wanted to do was remain by the womans side but not only would that have accomplished nothing, it would have alerted others that she was unduly interested in Gabrielle. And since it had been Maia who had summoned Ares in the first place, Xena felt the noose of intrigue slipping tighter around her throat as time went on.
Then the fever had broken and the wounds stopped bleeding and Gabrielle had regained consciousness. A discreet message from Lao Ma had alerted Xena and as soon as the meeting had broken up shed gone directly to Gabrielles chamber. Though still weak as a newborn kitten, Gabrielle had tried to sit up at her entrance.
"Lay down before I sit on you to keep you there," Xena had ordered firmly.
Gabrielle had subsided with remarkable ease at the command.
Xena took her hand and sat like that silently for a long time. Gabrielle had seemed content to lie there, receiving the caress. Finally, Xena said, "Gabrielle, I cant say what, if anything, might happen between us in the future."
"Xena," Gabrielle interrupted. At Xenas pause, she continued, "I dont need any promises from you. I wouldnt accept any you offered in any case. I am grateful for you saving my life though I dont know why you did it."
Gabrielle stopped, eyebrows raised at the interruption of her interruption. "Yes?"
And just like that, an easy truce had begun between them.
"You must be feeling better," Xena observed, returning to the present with a faint smile. "Think you can try to walk a little today?"
"Yes I can walk today," Gabrielle answered, making a face at her.
Xena helped her out of the bed and they walked to the chair by the window.
"So what happens now?" Gabrielle asked seriously.
Xena shrugged. "I have no idea. This is new to me, Gabrielle. I dont even know what "this" is."
Gabrielle took Xenas hand in hers. "What "this" is, Xena, is friendship."
Return to Main Page