The Boar Hunt
Five men in various states of peasant clothing stood at attention in front of Darphus. "You have all been handpicked by your commanders for a very special mission for me, and for me alone. The Empress Xena has left the castle for an unknown destination. You will each take one of the roads leading out of town and try to find her. I want her brought back here, either alive or dead, it matters not." He stopped and looked at his messengers of death. "The one who returns her or her body to me, personally, will receive a reward of ten thousand dinars. The rest of you…" He paused. "I suggest you just keep on riding because your lives will be forfeit." He turned and walked out of the room.
The five each let out their breaths as one and looked at each other. "How in Tartarus are we supposed to capture or kill the Conqueror?" a scruffy looking man in a black tunic asked.
"By the gods, she'll kill us before we can even get close to her," the soldier to his left replied.
The tallest of the five spoke quietly, "Whatever the case is, we're going to have to go look for her. I intend to at least try my best to find her, and maybe even kill her if I can't convince her to come back peacefully. I'd rather be killed by her than Darphus." He turned and walked out the same exit Darphus had used. The others watched him, and then followed.
No one had seen the timid young man who had been hiding behind the tapestry. Cautiously, he peeked out to make sure he was alone again. He had been preparing to take the tapestry down for cleaning when Darphus and the five men had walked in. Afraid of Darphus for several reasons, the boy had chosen to remain hidden rather than incur the wrath of Xena's second in command. Slipping off his shoes so he could run without his footfalls being heard, the young slave hid them behind the tapestry, and then ran out the door and down the hall to find Alinia. He knew she would want to know what was happening, and maybe he could trade that information for the opportunity to suckle the breast of the Conqueror's personal slave. Only twelve summers, he had not yet been taught how to use his growing manhood. He ran faster, hoping for such a special reward.
Alinia was asleep when she became aware of the frantic rapping at the door to her quarters. Groggy, she stumbled over and opened it. "By the gods, Ephus, this had better be good."
"Please, let me come in, Alinia," he begged while checking around him to make sure he hadn't been followed. The Conqueror's slave stepped back and let him in, then closed the door.
"What is it, boy?"
"Darphus has sent five men out looking for the Conqueror. He knows she isn't in the castle. Someone saw her in Poteidaia night before last." Ephus stopped to catch his breath, and then continued, "There's a ten thousand dinar reward -- alive or dead."
"Thank you, Ephus," she said as she opened the door again. Her mind was working rapidly, wondering where Callas might be. She did not hear the slave boy's pleading voice at first.
"Don't you think this information is worth a reward?" he repeated.
"Yes, yes. Later. Right now, I want you to go find Callas, and bring him here to me. Don't tell anyone else what you've heard, understand?" She saw his eyes were on her breasts and realized what reward he wanted. "Ephus, later. Bring me Callas."
The boy nodded and scooted out the door. Alinia began praying to the gods that Callas would come quickly and be able to find the Conqueror before one of Darphus' men did.
Xena slept quietly through that night, and the entire next day and night, only getting up to use the chamber pot. Though the tea the young healer had given her had long since become ineffective, the patient did not ask for more. She wanted to be in full control of her senses since she was in this strange place.
Gabrielle, however, did not sleep as well the first night, getting up several times to check on her patient and the major wounds to make sure they had not reopened. She was amazed at the woman's fortitude -- her ability to live through such a brutal attack and find her way to this house. Perhaps the Fates had intervened in some way to bring them together. But for what purpose?
While the Conqueror slept the next day, the young bard carefully documented all she had done yesterday so she could give the scroll to her patient and her patient could take it to her own healer. She spent the rest of the day writing down the stories as her grandmother had directed, figuring that way she could be quiet and not waken her guest. The second morning, Gabrielle was adding something to what she'd already written when she heard Victria coming down the lane, whistling. She ran out the door to shush her.
"Victria, be QUIET!" she whispered loudly.
"Why? You're the only one here," her friend said cheerfully.
"No, I'm not. A woman was injured while hunting a boar and came here for healing. I stitched her up, put herbs on her wounds and gave her a pain tea. She's asleep. Don't wake her up."
Victria looked surprised. "Oh! OK. Can we still go in and have some cider and nut bread? I have to tell you about all the excitement in the area!"
After they entered the small house, Gabrielle went over to close the door to the bedroom, leaving it slightly ajar so she could hear if her patient needed something. She then returned to the table where Victria had set out two plates and was filling two mugs with cider. They sat and began eating.
"Ok, Victria," Gabrielle said between bites. "What has you all excited?"
"Word has it that the Conqueror herself is in the region. Lingus returned from Poteidaia late yesterday afternoon and said she'd stayed at the Inn two nights before."
"Why is she in this area? We're not at war with anyone. And how did Lingus know it was the Empress?"
"He saw her ride out early in the morning, two suns ago, before anyone else was up. He recognized her. And then late last night, a man came to the door and asked if we'd seen a woman fitting her description. He said there's a hundred dinar reward for anyone that brings her to him at the inn in Poteidaia. Dead or alive."
Gabrielle almost choked on her cider. "If he wants her dead or alive, then he's up to no good."
"He is. He's working for Darphus, my second in command," came the deep sultry voice from behind her. Gabrielle and Victria both quickly stood, Victria performing a deep bow, Gabrielle with her mouth hanging open.
"Oh, dear gods, you're… you're…" the young blond stammered. She reached down and pulled a stunned Victria up beside her.
"I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself. I am Xena, Empress of the Known World. You are?"
Victria found her voice, "I'm Victria, and this is Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle? The Bard of Poteidaia?"
Gabrielle nodded dumbly, then found her voice as well. "You've heard of me?" she asked, surprised.
Xena smiled and walked slowly over to the table where she had sat while being tended to the day before. "Yes, the innkeeper in Poteidaia speaks very highly of you. Perhaps you will favor me with a tale or two before we part company for good." She broke off a piece of the nut bread and tasted it.
"I'd be honored."
"Victria, did you make this? It's quite good."
"Yes, your Majesty… your Highness…" She stumbled for the correct term.
"I'll have to have you come to Corinth and teach my bakers how to bake it. What they call nut bread has maybe one nut in it and no spices to give it this delicious flavor."
"It's Gabrielle's favorite. I learned a long time ago, you want her to do something, you give her nut bread, or even just promise her nut bread."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle who was blushing, and laughed. "I’ll remember that!" She cut a slice of the sweet and Gabrielle handed her a plate and a mug for cider. "Thank you. Now will you two please sit down?"
They sat and Gabrielle cleared her throat. "How are you feeling, this morning? You lost a lot of blood, and you slept through an entire sun, so I'm surprised to see you up and walking."
"Actually quite well, thank you, although I don't plan on being up for long. I smelled the nut bread and had to come get some." She popped another bite into her mouth. "You really did an excellent job with these wounds."
"I've written everything down in a scroll so that you can present it to your local healer when you get home. You're still going to have to watch for infection, especially in that long gash."
"I will, thanks." The Conqueror turned to Victria. "Tell me about the man who came to your house last night…"
Victria proceeded to tell the Empress everything she could remember.
Callas had ridden all night and was entering the outskirts of Poteidaia as the sun began peeking over the horizon. Feeling the need for food, he guided his horse to the inn and tied the reins loosely to the hitching bar before he went in. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he heard, rather than saw, Darphus' man, Actus. Like Darphus, the man was loud and crude, using vulgar language when addressing the barmaid. "Wench, bring me some more of that wine, and I'll have what you've got between your legs, as well." The barmaid looked at the innkeeper with fear in her eyes, and then took the mug of port to the man. As she set it on the table, Actus reached over and ripped the front of her dress, exposing her breasts. Callus walked over to the man and removed his hand from the girl's bruising tit, allowing her to escape.
"Sir, that action was totally uncalled for," he said evenly. Actus rose unsteadily from his seat and drew his sword.
"I, sir, am an emissary from Lord Darphus, soon to be Emperor of the Realm. I can do anything I damn well please to these peons, and they have to take it."
"Until such time as Xena is officially replaced on the throne, I am her representative, and you know she allows no sexual misconduct against the women of the Realm by the soldiers under her command. I believe that still includes you, unfortunately," Callas sighed.
Getting no response, Callas watched the man's eyes, knowing they would telescope his next move. Sure enough, Actus' eyes drew into a tight slit as he raised his sword and took a clumsy swing at his adversary, missing him by half a body length. His momentum carried him forward and he lost his footing. Callas stepped back to avoid being hit by man and sword, looking down on the inert figure at his feet. He pushed Actus with his toe thinking the soldier had just passed out, but the attacker rolled over and lay on his back, the dagger that had been in a sheath on his belt now sticking out of the man's belly.
"If he'd just been the honorable soldier that the Conqueror wants in her army, he's still be alive," Callas said to no one in particular. He then turned to the innkeeper. "I'm sorry about this. Do you have a constable or someone we should send for?"
"Nah," the innkeeper smiled. "He had it coming. He's been giving my poor girls a difficult time since he got here night before last because we wouldn't give him the information he wanted after we found out what his mission was." He motioned for two of his helpers to carry the dead man out. "Now then, sir, will you be wanting to break your fast?"
Callas shrugged and sat at a table. "Yes, I do believe that's why I came in here. And perhaps you'll be willing to give me the information you would not give Actus, for it is imperative that I find the Conqueror -- a matter of her life or death."
The innkeeper himself brought a plate of food and mug of tea over to the new guest. "We could not believe it when someone told us the woman who had stayed with us the night before was the Conqueror. She was so unlike any of the stories we've heard of her cruelties and debaucheries. She was polite with the serving girls and the maids who prepared her bath, tipped well, and sat in the corner over there not saying anything. It wasn't until Lila, a local girl, saw her riding out of town on her golden palomino that we realized who our guest had been."
"This meal is quite good," Callus commented. "Did she ask you anything about where the best boar hunting might be?"
"That she did, sir, and I pointed her to a wood about half a suns' horseback ride from here. You can't miss it -- there's a small path leading into the area, and numerous animal trails leading to a stream about half a hour into the woods."
"And you haven't seen her since?"
Callas nodded. "Thank you. You've been most helpful."
"As I said, she was very unlike anything we've ever heard about her."
"I assure you, sir, that the tales you've heard are probably true, but Xena has only done what she's needed to for the good of the Empire. She is a fair woman -- you treat her well, she will treat you well."
The bar maid who had been assaulted by Actus came over and set a sack on the table. "Some provisions for your trip, sir. To thank you for coming to my aid."
Callas rose. "That isn't necessary, but I thank you for doing it. It will certainly be better than the trail provisions I have in my saddlebag." He reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins. He gave two to the innkeeper who started to protest. "For what my colleague there died owing you." He handed five coins to the barmaid. "Use this to buy yourself a new dress -- a present from Xena the Conqueror." He picked up the sack of provisions and walked out to his horse, mounted, and left in the direction the innkeeper had indicated.
Gabrielle had been a nervous wreck ever since she found out who her famous patient was. Having heard stories of the Conqueror's cruel nature, she was waiting for the woman who now shared her noon meal to turn on her.
"What are you thinking about, Gabrielle?" Xena asked between bites of stew.
Gabrielle jumped at the sound of Xena's voice. "What?" She blushed. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking how different you are from all the stories I've heard. And the impression you made on me the first time I ever saw you."
"When was that?"
"During the surrender of Poteidaia, when you got so angry with your men for killing some of the villagers."
"Ah, yes, I remember that. There was no need for those men to die. It was simply violence for the sake of violence."
"The Darphus that you mentioned. He was the man leading that band?"
"Yes, he was. He was the only one of those men who was not put to death for that atrocity. Thinking back, I should have had him executed, too."
Gabrielle sighed. "My father was one of those who was killed. My mother, sister and I were hiding in the hayloft of the livery stable. Father had told us to go there to be safe. When Darphus yelled for the town leaders to come out and answer to him, father was one of the men who went. Darphus berated them for not having the supply wagons ready for him to take, then said he had to make an example of them. My father was closest and didn't try to get away when Darphus pulled out his sword the way the other men did. I'll never forget my father looking Darphus in the eyes as the sword cut through him -- a defiant look." Xena saw the tears running down the young woman's cheeks.
"Gabrielle, Darphus' life is forfeit because of what he's doing now to try to take my throne. I will be the one to kill him, and I promise, I will think of your father as my sword spills the bastard's blood. Your father did not die in vain, and his bravery did not go unnoticed by me."
Gabrielle dried her cheeks with the back of her hand. "Thank you, your Majesty. Would you like some more stew?"
The Conqueror handed her empty bowl to the Bard. "Yes, thank you. You're a good cook, too. Your grandmother teach you how to do that, too?" she smiled.
"No, ma'am. I learned to cook from my mother." She dished out some more of the savory concoction and hand the bowl back to her guest. "You know, Majesty, that Victria is going to spread the word that you're here as soon as she gets within earshot of anyone who will listen."
"Is the grapevine pretty accurate around here?"
"Yeh -- yes, ma'am. You tell Victria something and pretty soon everyone in the village ten leagues up the road knows. Why?"
"Because if everything has gone according to the way I set it up before I left Corinth, there's a man by the name of Callas who is looking for me to let me know what's happened. This is one person I want to find me."
"If he stops at one of the inns between here and Poteidaia, he'll find out where you are. I imagine he'll be here by nightfall."
"Wonderful! Now, do you know where my saddlebags are? I'd like to change into a clean shift," Xena smiled, indicating the blood stains on the shift she had worn for two days.
"I put them and your saddle over here. I cleaned the blood off them as best I could yesterday while you were sleeping," Gabrielle said as she walked over to the saddle stand. "I cleaned your leathers and armor, too." She picked up the heavy bags and started back toward Xena.
"You were busy while I slept," Xena said approvingly. "Thank you for giving that extra effort." She took the bags from Gabrielle and set them on the table. Unbuckling one side, the Conqueror began removing items, looking for a clean shift. She didn't realize what items were on the table until she glanced up and saw the look of shock on Gabrielle's face. Looking at the table, Xena saw one of the phalluses that she carried with her whenever she left the castle. Its workmanship was exquisite, carved in the shape of a man's penis and covered with soft sheepskin. The difference in coloration from one end to the other indicated that the phallus had been used extensively. When Gabrielle realized what she was looking at, she turned beet red and did an about-face and picked up a plate to put it on the shelf.
"You're a virgin, aren't you?" The conqueror's direct question startled Gabrielle and she dropped the plate she was holding. It broke into a dozen pieces.
"Um, what?" She bent over to pick up the pieces of the dish. "I, um… What was the question?"
Xena laughed. "I asked you if you're a virgin. You know, no man's land, no cock, tongue or hand between your legs, yet."
The young girl's face was still bright scarlet. "Yes, I am," she whispered. She turned to face her questioner. "Does it really matter to anyone but me?" Her expression became one of defiance.
"It does if I'm going to breed you," the Conqueror replied matter-of-factly.
"Breed me? But you're a…"
"A woman? You've never heard of women breeding women?"
"Well, yes, I've heard of it, but I never thought… I mean… Why would I want to breed with you?"
"Because I order you to." Xena looked at the peasant girl very carefully, watching for any kind of reaction.
"Who do you think you are that you can order me to do something like that?" Gabrielle's tone became one of defiance. "Just a few minutes ago, you were talking to me as though we've been friends for a long time."
"That's how a good warrior gets what he or she wants -- make the prey feel at ease and comfortable, then pounce."
"Is that all I am to you is prey? If I had known who you are when you rode in here, I would have just left you to bleed to death."
"I don't believe that, Gabrielle. Just what little we've talked today, you couldn't deliberately take a life. It's not in you. You don't have the killer instinct." Xena put the phallus and other items back in the saddlebag and opened the other one. She reached in and pulled out a clean shift. "I was just testing you, Gabrielle. I think if someone tried to make you do something you weren't comfortable with, you'd fight tooth and nail."
"You mean you weren't going to…?"
"Rape you? No, Gabrielle. I have an extreme dislike of those who would force themselves on the unwilling, be it man to man, man to woman, or woman to woman. That's one reason I'm so harsh with my punishments of rapists." Not caring what the young healer saw, Xena removed her bloody shift and set it on the table. Gabrielle picked it up and put it into a bucket of cold, soapy water while Xena put on the clean garment.
"We'll let that soak for a while before I scrub it," Gabrielle said. "How are you feeling?"
"Not bad. I have some sore muscles in my shoulder -- I tried to grab onto the branch I was standing on but my hand wouldn't hold."
Gabrielle walked behind her. "Show me where." Xena pointed to a spot. "Is it all right if I touch you?" The Conqueror nodded and the healer ran her fingers over the sore spot. "You've got a big knot here," she said as she began kneading. After several moments, Xena began to feel the pain subside.
"Gabrielle, I want to ask you something," Xena said quietly.
"What's that, Conqueror?"
"When I return to Corinth, I want you to come with me as my personal healer. You've already done a far better job than the castle healer would have done."
Gabrielle stopped her ministrations. "I don't know if I can do that, Empress. Who will take care of my mother and sister? And what about the healing for Poteidaia? Who will do that? And the stories for the children during the festivals? Or at the inn? Or…?"
"Whoa, slow down. You can go back to Poteidaia for the festivals, we'll find a healer for the village, and I'm sure your mother and sister will be fine but you can make trips back once in a while to check on them, too, if you desire," Xena laughed. "Will you think about it?"
Gabrielle returned to the shoulder she'd been massaging. "Yes, ma'am, I'll think about it."
Xena closed her eyes, enjoying the firm, but gentle touch the healer was using to ease the aching in her shoulder.
Callas had ridden hard to get to the wooded area the innkeeper had told him about. If Actus had gotten this close to finding the Conqueror, he felt it would be only a matter of time before others find out where she is. He'd found the path easily and was urging the horse to walk as fast as it could through the underbrush. Half an hour of ducking low hanging branches and he came across the scene of carnage -- a dead boar, flies buzzing around the carcass, lay at the base of a tree, arrow through its heart.
The rider dismounted and went over to look at the flights on the arrow. They bore the Conqueror's mark. He broke it off at hide level so that no one else would be able to identify the arrow's owner. As he looked around, Callas noticed an extraordinary amount of blood on the ground, leaves of the surrounding bushes and the boar, itself. Then he saw the mountain lion, its throat sliced open as if by sword or chakram, partially hidden behind the tree. As he walked around trying to figure what might have happened to the Empress, a glint in the leaves caught his eye. One of her epaulets had apparently been torn off in the struggle. He picked it up, and then saw the trail of blood leading away from the scene. Grabbing the reins of his horse, he followed the trail that led away from the direction they had come.
The blood spatters led to another road that paralleled the one he'd been on. Callas looked both directions, trying to figure where the Conqueror might have gone. The sun was beginning to slide behind the horizon and Callas knew he had to decide quickly when he saw a young woman running up the road toward him. "Hello!" he called. "Can you help me?"
Victria stopped. "Are you lost?"
"I'm looking for a woman who may have been badly injured. Have you seen her, or maybe heard where she could be?"
Victria approached the man cautiously. "Who are you?"
"My name is Callas and I come from Corinth. The Conqueror's personal slave has sent me to find this woman."
"Personal slave? What's his name?"
"Inquisitive, aren't you? The Empress' personal slave is a woman named Alinia."
"Then who is Darphus?" the young woman countered.
"Darphus is the Conqueror's scumbag of a second in command, who, if I don't get this woman back to Corinth, is going to claim the throne for his own."
Victria relaxed and smiled. "I had to be sure you weren't one of those nasty people looking for her. She's at the next farmhouse down that way, with our local healer."
"Young lady, I will be sure to tell the Conqueror how you worked to protect her whereabouts. Thank you."
"Yeh, well, I had a meal with her and she really doesn't seem to be the nasty person we're always hearing about."
Callas put his finger to his lips. "Shhhh. We don't want that to get around, now do we? The fear factor is what helps to keep her enemies in line." He mounted his horse. "Again, thank you. If anyone else should ask, you will, of course, deny everything."
Victria nodded. "I will. I think the Conqueror is waiting for you." Callas nodded and headed down the road toward the farmhouse.
Gabrielle looked out the window and saw a rider coming down the lane. "Conqueror!" she called. Xena emerged from the bedroom. The healer pointed out the window. "Someone's coming."
Xena watched for a moment. "That's Callas! Good!" She looked around. "Where are my weapons?"
"They're over behind the door. Why?"
"Put them where I can easily reach them -- just in case one of Darphus' men followed him. I don't sense anyone else, but it's better to be safe than sorry." Gabrielle retrieved the sword and chakram and put them beside the door, then opened it and went out to greet the new arrival.
"Greetings. Are you lost, sir?"
"My name is Callas and I come from Corinth. I search for the one who hails from Amphipolis." Xena stepped out and the servant dismounted and bowed deeply. "Conqueror! I am delighted to find you alive after the carnage I came across earlier."
"Rise, Callas, and come in. Gabrielle, take care of his horse."
"Yes, Conqueror," the young woman smiled as she led the horse to the barn. The Conqueror had commanded her like a slave. Xena took Callas into the small house.
"What news from Corinth, Callas?"
"It is not good, Majesty. Darphus has sent five men out to bring you back dead or alive. Four continue their search."
"Who is dead?"
"Actus died this morning, your Highness. I encountered him in an inn in Poteidaia and prevented him from sexually accosting the barmaid. As he tried to come after me, he fell and the dagger in his belt stabbed him."
"The man was a lout. No great loss." Gabrielle entered and started to go into her grandmother's workshop. "Gabrielle, this is Callas. Callas, meet Gabrielle, who has a fantastic touch when it comes to healing."
"Pleased to meet you, sir." Gabrielle curtsied as Xena let a small smile cross her face. The Conqueror was becoming more and more fascinated by the rustic, innocent charm of the young woman who had spent so much time putting her back together. Gabrielle stood waiting for the Empress to dismiss her, as a proper slave should, but instead, Xena continued her conversation after motioning for the healer to work some more on her shoulder.
"So what is their incentive for finding me?" the Conqueror asked.
"Ten thousand dinars from Darphus' personal treasury, dead or alive. I got the impression he would prefer you dead, of course. Ephus snuck into Darphus' chambers and saw plans for a very elaborate state funeral for you. The official word was to be that you had died after being attacked by a boar."
"That almost was the truth," Xena winced as Gabrielle began rubbing on a tender spot on her shoulder.
"Conqueror, I saw the carnage -- may I inquire as to what happened?"
Gabrielle looked at her. "Yeh, I'd like to know, too. You almost looked as though you'd been in a battle."
Xena smiled. "No. I was up in a tree along the animal trail when the boar came into view. I shot him with my arrow, and in his pain, he ran into the tree and knocked me loose. As I fell, my thigh got caught on his tusk. The smell of the blood must have irritated the cat because the next thing I knew, I was wrestling with him. My chakram had come loose and landed on the ground a small distance away, and I managed to get to it and slit the cat's throat. So while a lot of the blood that was on me was mine, some of it belonged to the cat as well."
Callas glanced at Gabrielle. "I've looked at the stitching you did on the wounds -- you have a fine touch. There will be little if any scarring."
"Thank you, sir. I had an excellent teacher." Gabrielle went over to the fire, pulled off the pot of stew that had been simmering, and took it to the table. Dishing out three servings into bowls, she sat and listened to the Conqueror and Callas discuss their plan of action.
Ephus was walking toward the kitchen when a hand snaked out from behind a tapestry and grabbed him. He let out a little squeak and another hand clamped over his mouth. "Shhhh. Be quiet, Ephus!" When he heard the voice, he relaxed and the hand was removed from his mouth.
"Alinia!" he whispered. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for you, but I don't want Lord Darphus to see us together," she said quietly. "Have you been able to find out anything more?"
"Not yet. Ever since I almost got caught in his chambers, I've been very careful. I do know that he's not happy because he's received reports from all but one of his emissaries."
"Which one, do you know?"
"Actus. He went north toward Poteidaia."
"All right. All we can do now is pray to the gods that Callas found the Conqueror and she is returning as we speak. One of the other servants told me Darphus is planning to make the announcement of the Empress' death on the morrow and proclaim himself Emperor." She was quiet as she thought a moment. "Go about your business and pretend like you know nothing of what is happening. There is naught we can do until the Empress returns to Corinth." She paused and looked at the boy who was showing fear in his eyes. "What is it, Ephus? What's wrong?"
"Alinia, I fear that Lord Darphus is going to take me before the Conqueror returns."
"Take you? I… " She realized what he was saying. Although he would steadfastly deny such allegations, it was common knowledge that Darphus enjoyed breeding boys who had not yet reached their thirteenth summer. Xena had done her best to put a stop to the practice, but her Second-in-Command had simply taken his activities to a secret location. Now, with the Empress away from the castle, Darphus had made no secret of his desire for Ephus. "Do your best to make sure you are never alone with him -- always have one of the other servants with you. One that you trust. All right? We'll make sure nothing happens."
"Thank you, Alinia."
She peered around the edge of the tapestry, and seeing no one in the hallway, gently pushed the boy from behind the barrier. "Go now. If anyone asks, you have not seen me since yesterday." The boy nodded and went on his way toward the kitchen. Alinia turned and headed back toward her meager quarters.
Darphus stood on a balcony overlooking the town square. Below him, thousands of commoners milled about, waiting for the announcement they had heard he would be making. He lifted his hands for quiet. "Citizens of Corinth, residents of Greece. It is my sad duty to inform you that Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror of the Known World, Empress of all the Greek Realm, has been killed in a freak hunting accident near the village of Poteidaia." The crowd erupted in a chorus of cheers and hurrahs. He continued, "By the laws set forth by Xena herself, I now proclaim myself, Darphus, Emperor of Greece and all her possessions." Another round of cheering greeted his ears before he spoke again. "As my first act as Emperor, I proclaim an official mourning period of one moon, to begin immediately following the state funeral to take place two suns hence. Let us remember Xena as the one person who was able to unite all of Greece, and let the word go forth from here today that Darphus is the one who will bring us to prosperity. Hail to Xena!" The crowd took up the chant, "Hail to Xena" as Darphus muttered under his breath, May the bitch rot in Tartarus.
A pounding at the door brought him out of his reverie. "Yes, what is it?" he growled. "Enter."
Tigus, Darphus' personal slave entered the room. "My Lord, a message from Poteidaia." He handed his Master the scroll.
Darphus opened it, read, and then threw it on the desk in disgust. "Bring Polnus to me. Immediately!" The slave nodded and ran out the door as Darphus picked up the scroll and read it again:
My Lord Darphus,
It is my sad duty to report that your recent emissary to this humble village, Actus, has been killed in a freak accident. While eating breakfast at our inn, and in a high state of intoxication despite the early hour, he accosted and assaulted the bar maid, ripping her dress and exposing her breasts. Another guest at the inn whose name is unknown to me, jumped to the frightened girl's rescue. Actus responded by swinging at the guest with his sword. The guest sidestepped the blow and Actus fell to the floor, dislodging his own dagger which then stabbed him in the belly. Actus died almost immediately. Because the guest had taken no action save that of stepping aside to avoid the blow, he was allowed to continue his journey.
Prior to his death, Actus had been making inquiries among the local populace regarding the whereabouts of a certain woman rumored to be the Conqueror, herself. After following up on this questioning myself, I have determined that the presence of such a woman in this region is highly unlikely.
Please advise what you wish done with the body of Actus.
Perdicas, Constable of Poteidaia.
Darphus started pacing. He opened the door himself when a knock announced that Polnus had arrived.
"My Lord, what's wrong?"
"Actus is dead, a victim of thinking with his prick and not his head," Darphus said bluntly.
"Where was he, sire?"
"In Poteidaia -- the place where our information said Xena had been seen."
"His investigation had uncovered nothing?"
"His investigation as you call it consisted of nothing more than asking the locals if they had seen her." Darphus went over and sat in his chair. "The fool! If she was in the area and he's telling people I sent him to find her, they're going to protect her. Especially if he included the words 'alive or dead'. And if she is in the area, they'll get word to her somehow and she'll know something's up."
"May I make a suggestion, Lord Darphus?"
"Anything at this point, because if she makes it back to Corinth, all our lives are forfeit."
"Send men to set up road blocks on every possible route to Poteidaia. Tell them to search every wagon, every person passing by them that is heading toward Corinth, looking not for the Empress herself, but for someone in disguise."
"And what if she hears about the roadblock leagues before she reaches on and decides to cut through the woods."
"Then have men in the woods for a league on either side of the road as well, sire. With such a net, there is no way she could possibly get through and reach Corinth alive."
Darphus was quiet for a moment. "Make it so." Polnus bowed and left the room. He picked up a dagger from the desk in front of him and began absentmindedly playing with it. Damn you, bitch, he thought. We'll see who's the smarter leader, now. The dagger went flying across the room and imbedded itself between the eyes of the portrait of Xena he kept on the back of his door, adding another hole to the dozens that were already covering her face.
Despite protestations from Gabrielle, Callas had elected to sleep in the barn, saying that he enjoyed the feel of sleeping on a haystack. Giving him a blanket to ward off the night chill, Gabrielle had acquiesced. After he had gone, she turned to her patient. "I should probably dress those wounds again."
"I agree, but let's do it in the bedroom. This chair is starting to get awfully hard." Xena went over to get her saddlebags, and then went into the bedroom. Gabrielle brought a bowl of hot water and the healing salve with her. By the time she got into the bedroom, Xena was already on the bed, naked, her shift hanging on the bedpost. Gabrielle showed no surprise in her face. The Conqueror smiled. "I thought this would be easier than having to keep moving the shift around to get at all the wounds."
The healer nodded. "Yes, it would be." She set the bowl on the bedside table and dipped a rag in the hot water. Gently, she cleaned the scabs and dirt away from the wound, and then applied the unguent while her patient watched.
"Gabrielle, where have you been sleeping?" Xena asked suddenly. "I've noticed there's only one bed in this house."
"Actually, on a pallet on the floor."
The Conqueror looked at her and shook her head. "Tonight, you'll share the bed with me."
"Oh, no!" the young woman protested, blushing. "I couldn't. I mean, you're the Conqueror and all…"
"Do you always blush when you get flustered?" Xena asked as she moved to allow Gabrielle easier access to a wound on the back of her arm.
"No. I mean yes. I mean… I don't know…" the girl stammered, her face getting redder as she spoke.
"Red is very becoming on you," the Empress commented with a smile. Gabrielle put her hand on her face and just smiled, not knowing if she should laugh out loud. After trying to suppress the laughter, it boiled over and she went into a laughing fit that she could not control. At first the dark haired woman just looked at her, but in keeping with the infectious nature of laughter had soon joined in. Every time Gabrielle thought it would stop, she would look at Xena and it would start all over again, which would start Xena laughing again. Finally, it subsided, and the Conqueror sat, watching Gabrielle gathering control of herself again.
Reaching her hand out and touching the bard's cheek, Xena said softly, "You'll never know how much I appreciate what you've done for me." Gabrielle didn't know what to say, so simply gave her a small smile. The monarch leaned forward and gently captured the healer's mouth with her own. At first, there was no response. Then as the Conqueror's kiss continued, Gabrielle began to respond, tentatively at first, then with more fervor, parting her lips to allow Xena's tongue in to explore her mouth. This kiss was unlike any she had received from Perdicas, her betrothed. His kisses had been hard and rough. This was soft and gentle, and the longer it went on, the more she felt a stirring between her legs, a hunger inside her that needed to be sated. A hunger that had actually begun when she had seen the phallus on the table and immediately wondered how it would feel inside her.
Xena felt the girl's desire growing and began fumbling with her top, unlacing it and breaking the kiss long enough to pull it over the girl's head. She ran her fingers lightly over the hardening nipples, eliciting a gasp from Gabrielle. The bard unfastened her skirt and stood up so it would fall to the floor. Xena looked at the young body with admiration --
smooth skin, muscles well defined, a downy triangle of reddish blond hair glistening with the moisture that had already been created. Sliding over in the bed, Xena made room for Gabrielle who climbed in beside her and straddled her hips, her mouth eagerly capturing the Conqueror's own. Xena ran her hands over the young body as their tongues wrestled, purposely avoiding the open invitation between the bard's legs.
Gabrielle broke off the kiss. "Take me," she whispered. "Dear gods, please take me." Xena slid her finger into the wet slit, running it up and down until she found what she was looking for -- the virgin clit. Her lover gasped as the jolt of electricity made its way through her body from that first touch. Rubbing slowly at first, then harder and faster, she could feel the peasant's desire and excitement growing, hips rocking back and forth on the warrior's fingers, fingers sliding closer to the opening of the untouched pussy. Without saying anything, Xena thrust her fingers deep into Gabrielle, meeting the resistance of the girl's hymen. Another, harder thrust and the girl's virginity was lost forever in a brief moment of pain that was quickly replaced with ecstasy as she began climaxing. Sliding her fingers in and out of Gabrielle as she came, she reveled in the clamping and releasing of her hand inside her new lover. When she came, Gabrielle made only the slightest of squeaking noises but convulsed hard. Xena gathered the young woman into her arms and held her tight as the spasms subsided. Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at Xena. "You didn't have to order me."
Xena smiled back at her. "I didn't think I'd have to." She reached over Gabrielle and snuffed out the candle, pausing only to admire the blood on her fingers.
Callas lay back in the soft, fragrant hay, thinking about the plan he and the Conqueror had discussed before retiring. They both knew it would be no easy thing to get her back inside the city walls -- by now, Darphus had been made aware of the death of Actus and would have guards stationed on all the roads between Poteidaia and Corinth. And if he was smart, or if he listened to someone like Polnus, who was a brilliant tactician, he'd also have troops in the forests on either side of those roads.
No, there were only two ways to get the Empress back into the city. One was by sea, which would take too long. The other was right under the nose of the guards. A false bottom in the wagon would take too long to construct. They would have to devise something that would keep the guards from looking too closely. The idea came to him suddenly, like a flash of light. As he thought about it, the better and more feasible it seemed. When he'd finished working out the details in his mind, he rolled over and slept better than he had in days.
Gabrielle woke confused. Opening her eyes, she saw the brilliant azure eyes of the Conqueror watching her and had to remember she was sharing a bed with her.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Xena purred. "How did you sleep?"
Gabrielle stretched and yawned. "Better than I have in a long time." Becoming the healer, she asked, "How are you feeling this morning?"
"Wonderful, thank you." She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle. "How are you feeling is the question?"
"Me? Uh, fine. Why?"
"Oh, I just thought you might feel a little different after last night…"
The younger woman looked at her, not understanding until Xena held up her fingers with the dried blood on them. Her eyes got wide, "It wasn't a dream? You really did…? We really did…? Oh. By the gods…" Now she understood why she was sharing the bed with the Conqueror, and buried her face in her hands, embarrassed.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"I remember, now. I threw myself at you like a common whore."
"No, you presented me with a very special gift, and I thank you for trusting me to be the one to take your virginity."
"No buts. You trusted me not to hurt you. I didn't. And I will never deliberately hurt you in any way. But I'm also hoping that this was your way of telling me you'll return with me to Corinth." She opened her arms for Gabrielle to snuggle closer.
The young blond closed her eyes and sighed contentedly as she burrowed closer to her lover. "I guess I'll have to go with you -- I can never face my mother or sister knowing what I've done. It would be hard enough explaining why I continued letting you stay here after I discovered your true identity, although I don't think anyone would dare tell the Destroyer of Nations to get lost, that is if they valued their life, which I do, naturally…"
Xena chuckled. "Gabrielle?"
"Shut up and kiss me."
When Callas entered the small house, he was carrying an armful of firewood. Placing it by the hearth, he threw some sticks of kindling on the embers and waited for them to catch. His sensitive ears picked up the telltale rhythmic squeak of the bed from the other room, which told him now was not the time to knock on the door. He had once known a soldier who had dared to walk into the Leader's tent while she was bedding the wife of the opposing general. The soldier came out of the tent as quickly as he'd gone in, but with a dagger in the middle of his chest. No one had ever dared interrupt Xena while she was breeding, again. After adding more wood to the blazing fire, Callas slowly took the water bucket out to the well and filled it.
After wasting half an hour looking for eggs from the few hens still about, admiring the flowers and the herb garden in back of the house, and letting the horses into the small corral and making sure the water trough was full, he picked up the water bucket and went back into the house just as Xena emerged from the bedroom. She saw the fire and silently let him know she was grateful he had respected her privacy.
"Good morning, Your Majesty."
"Good morning, Callas. How are you today?" Gabrielle came out of the bedroom and stopped when she saw the man standing with the bucket in his hand. Her face turned bright scarlet as she realized he probably knew what had transpired. She went over to the counter and busied herself with making them something to eat.
"Conqueror, I think I've come up with a plan to get you back inside the city walls, but it will involve Gabrielle as well."
Xena walked over to the chair and sat down. "Tell me what you have in mind."
"Conqueror, there are two things that village and city people all fear -- fire and contagion. If we make it seem as though Gabrielle is a relative or even a village healer bringing you to Corinth to consult with the healers there because she isn't sure if you have something deadly or contagious, or how to treat it, or something like that, the soldiers will be reluctant to do a very careful search of the wagon for fear of contracting whatever it is that you're supposed to have. That will get you inside the city walls. Getting inside the castle is another matter, however." He took a bite of the cheese Gabrielle had set on the table.
"It might work, Xena -- I mean Conqueror. I have all the herbs and potions I inherited from my grandmother that we could pack in the wagon, as well as the scrolls," Gabrielle chimed in. "I'd just need to send a note to my mother and Lila letting them know I was going to Corinth so they wouldn't worry, and I could go."
The Conqueror sat and looked at them both, thinking, going over the pros and cons. "I'd have to wear some kind of make up on my face and hands to make it look as though I have the pox or something, but you know, I think it might just work. Can we be ready to leave this afternoon? I want to get to Corinth with all due haste."
Gabrielle smiled, "Yes, I know just the thing to use for your 'spots'."
"One small suggestion, though, Majesty. I think you and Gabrielle ought to travel alone. If I were to accompany you, with all the trappings of my horse's tack exuding 'Conqueror's household', it would make you seem more suspect. I should either ride ahead of you or behind you by several hours."
"I agree," Xena nodded.
"Perhaps Callas could take the note to my mother in Poteidaia and then ride back to Corinth. That would be a safe interval, wouldn't it?" the young bard asked.
"Good," the Empress replied. "Let's finalize the details while we finish breaking our fast and then get to work." She picked up a piece of nut bread and began outlining the details, as she had already perceived them to be.
Darphus rolled off the woman on the floor and lay there panting, pleased with himself for having bred another of Xena's personal body slaves. From breeding her slaves to pissing on her throne, everything he did from this moment on was to show that sanctimonious bitch that he was every bit as good as she thought she was. Of course the problem was, she would never know what he was doing, because she would be dead. Maybe he could make a sacrifice to the god Hades to let her watch as he took apart her little world, brick by brick.
He looked at the woman beside him -- ordinary, mousy, in fact. Why Xena had kept her for herself was something he'd never understand. "Get dressed and get out of here," he growled at her. Frightened, she hastily threw on her shift and ran out. Darphus got up and started to pull up his pants when he caught his reflection in the mirror. Maybe I ought to offer to let the bitch live if she agrees to become my Mistress, he thought. One look at THIS staff, and she won't be able to say no! He started laughing at the thought of the once-mighty Empress Xena begging him to breed her. Yes, he'd have her begging, all right. Begging for her life.
There was a knock at the door and he hastily refastened his pants. "Enter!"
Polnus entered and bowed. "Lord Darphus, I wish to report that all troops are in place along the roads from Poteidaia, and I took the liberty of sending two ships to patrol the shipping lanes from the north, just in case she decides to come back by sea."
"Good thinking. I'm planning on making the announcement at mid-afternoon tomorrow. By that time, I want all of that wench's possessions stripped from her chambers and my things moved in."
"Yes, sire. What should we do with her things?"
"Burn them, for all I care. Except the weapons, and the torture devices we know she uses for breeding. Leave those there so I can use them. Let me know the minute you hear anything from your troops."
"Yes, sir." Polnus bowed and backed out of the room.
Darphus went over to the window and stared down at the peasants in the marketplace. You fools don't know how good you have it with Xena as your Empress. When I'm in charge, you'll just barely have enough to live on -- ninety percent of what you make will come to ME in taxes, to be put into my personal treasury. Everything you do in your meager little lives will be for ME! For I AM KING DARPHUS, the greatest ruler in the universe! He started laughing uncontrollably, and servants and slaves walking by who heard the sinister sound gave wide berth to the doorway.
Callas rode at a leisurely pace, enjoying the beautiful day and the countryside around him. He had never really taken the time to enjoy his surroundings, but he had orders from the Conqueror to do so in order that she and Gabrielle might have time to get into Corinth before he did. He was riding the Conqueror's golden palomino, the only way they could figure to get the magnificent mare back to the Royal Stables without arousing suspicion. A few dinars to the stable master would ensure his silence when the Conqueror's horse returned under the seat of another rider. In his belt, Callas carried a note from Gabrielle to her family, explaining what was happening and that she would be back as soon as she could.
He really hoped his plan would work -- he could think of no greater agony than to have Darphus as leader of the land. While the Conqueror's actions had often been violent and merciless, there was always a purpose for whatever she did. Darphus pillaged, destroyed and murdered simply to exert power over people. And yet, the Conqueror he had seen in the past 24 hours was different than the Conqueror he had known these many seasons. She was somehow gentler, more subdued than the Destroyer of Nations had ever been, and he wondered if the young healer had had anything to do with the change that had taken place. Probably not. As severe as her injuries had been, the Conqueror's behavior was likely more a result of the pain she was in and her refusal to take painkillers.
Because he was deep in thought, Callas did not see the two men -- one in front of him, one behind him, he would normally have been aware of. The area he was riding through had suffered a rash of highway robberies of late, the two men now fore and aft of the emissary fitting the description of the perpetrators. The rider behind him sped up in order to close the distance between them, while the rider in front slowed. It was not until they were within striking distance that Callas became aware of their presence.
"Good morrow," the rider in front said, his smile showing several teeth missing and others rotting. "A fine day, is it not?"
"Indeed, sir," Callas replied. "A fine day for most anything." His guard went up but not as much as it should have been.
"Where are you headed on this glorious day, thank the Empress?"
"I ride to Poteidaia, to the home of the widow of Herodotus, on business for the Conqueror, herself." Callas mentally kicked himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth.
"The Conqueror, eh?" the rider asked with a feral grin on his face. "That means you might be carrying a gold coin or two, which I will gladly relieve you of right now." The robber drew his sword.
Hearing the sound of metal scraping metal, Callas turned to see another sword pointed at his throat. "And I'll be taking that fancy sword and dagger from you."
"I warn you gentlemen, if you persist in this action, once I reach my destination, you will have Xena's finest regiment after you to avenge my losses."
"Oh, I'm really scared. Aren't you, Autolycus?" the rider in back asked his companion.
"You fool!!" Autolycus snarled. "Why don't you give him the location of our campsite, as well, Joxer?"
Callas smiled. "Autolycus, the King of Thieves reduced to highway robbery? My, how the mighty have fallen!"
"No thanks to Xena the Conqueror," he replied. "Her insistence on high security around everything worth stealing has made it hard for good thieves like me to make an honest living, so I am reduced to this. My oafish companion, here, has never known anything different. He's always been a petty thief."
"Why the swords, Autolycus? The King of Thieves has never been known for violence against his victims."
Autolycus laughed. "Some of these peasants around here won't give up their hard earned cash without a little incentive."
Suddenly Callas drew his sword. "Either will I!" he cried, spurring Argo forward, sword aimed at the King of Thieves' midsection. Autolycus was able to deflect the sword at the last moment so that it only grazed his side. He held his hand to the wound then pulled it away, amazed to see his own blood. He became enraged.
"No one has ever laid a blade on the King of Thieves! You will die for this transgression!"
"Why spoil a perfect record of not harming your victims, Autolycus? Let me go and I will make no mention of the incident."
"NEVER!" Autolycus kicked his horse in the sides and charged toward Callas. Joxer began to give chase as well. Argo was well rested and eager for a run, so took off with little urging from her rider. The chase lasted for several leagues, the two thieves following the lone victim through farmland and woods.
Looking ahead, Callas saw the road split into two branches, one leading to Poteidaia, the other to the sea. "You choose, girl!" he called to Argo, deciding to give the horse her head. The Conqueror often spoke of how the horse had an uncanny sense of knowing which was the correct way to go and which was the wrong. Argo took the branch that led to the sea.
Autolycus saw the horse and rider make the turn and went down the other road, relying on his ability to get to a shortcut he knew that would cut across the countryside to the other road in front of his quarry. Realizing what his partner had in mind, Joxer followed Callas.
A league down the road, Callas turned to see where his pursuer was and saw Joxer a quarter of a league behind him. He turned back in time to see Autolycus emerge from a path in front of him and he pulled back hard on Argo's reins, bringing her to a quick stop. As she stopped, Argo reared, throwing Callas to the ground. His sword landed two body lengths away from him. Autolycus quickly dismounted and ran over to grab the now defenseless man's sword.
"Thought you could get away, did you? " Autolycus said as he placed the point of his sword at Callas' throat, its' point barely piercing the skin and drawing a little drop of blood.
"Autolycus!" Joxer cried as he rode up. "You're not really going to kill him, are you? We've never killed anyone. You said we wouldn't!" He dismounted and ran over to his partner.
"This is different -- he drew first blood," Autolycus said evenly.
"Then get it over with," Callas responded, as he looked Autolycus in the eye. "But I remind you -- as a messenger of Her Royal Highness, Empress Xena, my death will not go unpunished. You will be hunted from one end of Greece to the other, until you are found and executed."
"C'mon, Autolycus, let him go. I want to die an old man in bed with a beautiful woman, not as a thief and murderer," Joxer pleaded. "And you're the King of Thieves, not the King of Murderers."
Autolycus thought a moment, and then lowered the sword. Callas slowly let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding. He reached into his pocket and brought out a dozen gold coins and handed them to his adversary. "This is all the money I have. Please take it and be gone." Autolycus took them, then silently got on his horse and rode away. Joxer followed quickly.
Argo walked over to Callas and put her head down. He looked at her and smiled. "The Fates have been kind, today. Let us go on to Poteidaia and then ride to join up with your mistress." He got up, dusted himself off, and remounted Argo to continue his journey.
Xena sat on a log in a wooded area while Gabrielle went to the wagon to get her healing kit. They had been traveling for four hours when they took a break and stopped for lunch. Xena had walked very little, favoring the injured leg a great deal when she did. But she also refused to let Gabrielle take a look at it. "Conqueror, you must let me," the healer had argued. "What if it's infected?"
"Then I will eventually lose the leg," Xena replied matter-of-factly. Gabrielle playfully hit the leg causing the patient to affect a sharp intake of breath. Gabrielle pulled up the shift and gasped. The leg was swollen, the wound red and angry looking, the skin pulling at the stitches.
The healer went to the wagon to get her kit. When she returned, Gabrielle had also brought a pan of water to put on the fire. She then took a small knife and cut some of the stitches. "By the gods, Xena," she whispered. Quickly removing the rest of the stitches, she cleaned out the putrid smelling infection and packed the wound with herbs. She then began to restitch the wound after the Warrior deadened the nerves.
The Conqueror said nothing during the painful ordeal, but watched with admiration as Gabrielle worked. The smaller woman's touch, her ability to sense when things were not right with her patient were gifts that the Conqueror did not take lightly. She knew that having the younger woman at court would be most beneficial. Plus having a new lover would make the Empress happier than she'd been in a long time. Their coupling that morning had been especially satisfying for Xena -- even more so than when she was using one of her body slaves with the torture devices. And she knew that Gabrielle would never know the feel of any of those instruments of pain and pleasure, only the touch of the Conqueror or the phallus Gabrielle had insisted she use that morning.
Neither of them had said anything during the hour-long ministering, knowing that the less distraction to Gabrielle, the faster she could work and the sooner they would be on their way, again. Xena had been growing anxious as they got closer to Corinth. In her mind, she had been trying to figure the best method for exposing Darphus and his plan, and doing so in front of as many people as possible. The key to her plan would be Polnus.
"Here," Gabrielle said, handing a mug of tea to the Conqueror and breaking her reverie. "Drink this. It's more of the infection fighting herb." Xena smiled and took a sip of the hot brew.
"It may fight infections, but that doesn't make it taste any the better," she said just before she gulped it down. She made a face as she handed the mug back to Gabrielle. The healer set the mug down and sat on the log beside Xena.
“So have you figured out how you’re going to handle things once we get inside the city walls?” the younger woman asked.
“I think so, but the first thing we need to do is get into character in case we meet up with some of Darphus’ guards, don’t you agree?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yes. We’re only about an hour away from Corinth, and I’ve been worried we’d run into a patrol.” She went to the wagon and got a small box, then returned to the Conqueror’s side. “I took the liberty of bringing along some of your old bandages to add to the ones I just removed. Not only do you have to look like you’re infested with some dire disease, you have to smell like it, too. That way, the patrols won’t get too close.”
“Good thinking.” Xena sat quietly while Gabrielle wrapped her hands and her head in the putrid cloths. The smell was overwhelming but she wouldn’t let the young bard see her gag, instead swallowing the bile that rose in her throat. It didn’t take long for her to get used to the odor of disease that filled the air around her. Gabrielle stepped back when she was done. Bloody, infection-filled bandages covered the Conqueror’s face, revealing only her eyes and a small opening through which she could get fresh air. Similar bandages were wrapped around her hands.
“You look awful,” she grinned. “And if a guard comes within 15 feet of you, he’ll lose the last meal he ate.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
The women went to the wagon, Xena getting in the back, Gabrielle in the driver’s seat. Slowly they made their way out of the glade and back onto the road.
They had only traveled about half an hour when Gabrielle said, “There they are. Seven of them, and I can see more in the woods on either side of the road. Darphus must really be scared of you.”
“He is. He knows I’d just as soon kill him as look at him,” Xena whispered. She checked to make sure her sword and chakram were within easy reach under the straw in which she was laying.
The leader of the guard rode up to the wagon. “Where are you going and what is your business?”
“Please sir,” Gabrielle said pleadingly, “We go to Corinth to seek the services of a healer. My sister is quite ill with an unknown disease and our village healer is unable to help her. We thought maybe one of the healers in Corinth would be able to save her.”
The guard dismounted and walked to the back of the wagon. He lifted the blanket covering Xena and gagged. “By the gods, I think it is too late to help this one, but be on your way and be quick about it. And keep a sharp eye out for the Conqueror. She has gone quite mad and has been killing peasants right and left. The last I heard, she’d slaughtered a hundred because she didn’t like the meal she was served in a tavern. She would have no second thoughts about killing a diseased woman and her sister.”
“Yes, my liege, thank you.” Gabrielle clucked at the horse pulling the wagon and they went on down the road and around a curve. She could see the walls of the city and she stopped the wagon. Xena tore off the bandages and climbed up beside Gabrielle, gulping in fresh air to rid her lungs of the stench she had endured. She looked at the city and smiled, then took the reins from Gabrielle.
“I’ll drive since I know exactly where I want to go,” she smiled. They started off toward the city.
Alinia took one of the Conqueror’s gowns from the closet and began inspecting it. Making sure that Xena’s clothing had no rips or imperfections was one of the more pleasurable of her duties, and it helped the time to go quickly. Finding a small tear in the seam, she got out her needle and thread, and sat by the fire while she mended it, occasionally stopping to sip some of the warm tea that was imported from the Chin region of the kingdom.
All morning, she had been hearing a rumor that the Conqueror was dead, that Darphus was about to claim the throne for himself. She wouldn’t believe it, for she knew that Xena was skilled enough to get herself out of any bad situation. Besides, she and her childhood friend had always had a special bond that allowed her to feel what Xena felt, and all she felt now was happiness. She knew Xena was still alive and would be returning to Corinth soon.
The door from the hallway burst open and Darphus strode into the room with two of his slaves. “Take down all this crap and burn it. You may divide the clothing among yourselves if you wish, but I want all trace of the bitch of Corinth out of these chambers by sunset. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Lord Darphus,” the smaller of the two women answered. She looked around at all the souvenirs from conquests and battles that covered the walls – each item having a special meaning for Xena that only she knew.
Darphus spotted Alinia, who didn’t look up from her sewing. “And you, slave, will become my property to do with as I wish. And unless you can convince me otherwise, you will be dead by tomorrow at sunset. Do you understand me?”
The seamstress looked up from her work. “I do not believe it is I who will be greeted by Hades before tomorrow, my Lord.”
“Your mistress is dead, or soon will be,” the gruff man snorted. “And you will join her in Tartarus. The Empire is mine, the people are mine. I want nothing around here to remind me of her! And that includes you.” He turned on his heel and walked quickly from the room. Alinia looked after him, then toward the two slaves.
“Do not do anything to this room. If you do, you will have to answer to me and to your Mistress Xena.”
“But Alinia…” the older slave started to protest.
“No buts. Go down to the kitchen and stay there. I will handle Lord Doofus if he comes back.” The two slaves looked at her, then at each other, and scurried out of the room, closing the door behind them. Alinia returned to her sewing and did not see the tapestry on the wall beside the fireplace move back to reveal the Conqueror.
“Even while I am gone, she works to keep me looking good,” Xena said softly.
Alinia rose to greet her friend. “I knew you weren’t dead,” she smiled. Xena stepped into the room, revealing Gabrielle behind her.
“Alinia, this is Gabrielle, my savior. If it weren’t for her, I might well be as dead as Darphus is claiming I am.” Only then did Alinia see the bandage on her mistress’s thigh. Xena hobbled over to the bed.
“What happened?” the slave asked, reaching over to tend the wound.
“I had a run in with a boar and a mountain lion, all in the space of ten minutes. Argo took me to Gabrielle’s house, and as luck would have it, she’s a healer. Stitched me up. Then Callas showed up and told me what’s been going on here, so I figured we’d better get back.”
“Thank you for taking such good care of my Mistress,” Alinia said to Gabrielle. She then turned to Xena. “Darphus is planning to make his announcement of your death in about an hour.”
“Well, he’ll have a little surprise waiting for him,” the dark-haired Conqueror smiled.
“Xena… Conqueror,” Gabrielle corrected herself when she saw the flash of anger from Alinia’ eyes at the use of the familiarity , “From what I just saw of the man, he’s not going to back down just because you reappear.”
“I’ll just have to kill him.”
“Why not just imprison him?”
“Because there’s always a chance he might escape, and if he does, then there will be an even bigger fight. Better to kill him now than suffer the consequences later.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I understand. I don’t like killing, but it sounds like this might be a case where it’s warranted. Especially since he’s the reason my father was killed six months ago.”
“You’re from Poteidaia,” Alinia said matter-of-factly.
“I think that’s the angriest I’ve ever seen the Conqueror,” Alinia remembered.
“That’s when I knew that Darphus had his own agenda for the Empire,” Xena added. “I’ve been watching him closely, never really trusting him since then, feeding him information I wanted him to have – telling him one thing when actually the opposite was true. It was nothing that could have caused any harm, but enough to let me know just how far I could trust him, which really isn’t too far.”
“Majesty,” Alinia began, “We have to figure out how to get you onto the balcony and hide you before he starts his declaration.”
“I’ve been giving that some thought,” Xena answered. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
The three women put their heads together and devised a plan to get the Conqueror into position.
The rag-tag crowd began gathering in the public square an hour before the designated time. They knew something was in the wind – the Conqueror did not call for public gatherings very often, and usually only to publicly execute a well-known dissident or criminal. As far as anyone in the crowd knew, neither their leader nor her army, had recently captured any one of any repute. Gabrielle made her way to the center of the crowd, per Xena’s instructions. She could see Darphus’ soldiers scattered throughout the crowd, far outnumbering the troops loyal to the Conqueror.
Rumors were flying fast and furious – the Conqueror was going to invade a new land, taxes were being raised, taxes were being abolished, the Conqueror was stepping down, slaves were going to be freed. As the hour for the announcement approached, the speculations grew wilder and wilder. Gabrielle smiled to herself when she heard the one about the Conqueror marrying Caesar, the prefect of Rome, feeling the moist warmth between her legs grow as she remembered their coupling from that morning.
The trumpeters heralded the arrival of the Conqueror and everyone looked up toward the balcony where she would appear. There was a collective gasp from the crowd when Darphus, Xena’s second in command, stepped from behind the curtain.
“Citizens of Greece,” he called. “I come before you with heavy heart as I make the sad announcement that Xena, Conqueror of the Known World, has been killed in a hunting accident near the village of Poteidaia.” The crowd stood in stunned silence, and a small smile crept across Darphus’ face. “As prescribed by written law, I, Darphus, now assume the throne of Emperor of Greece and all lands held by her. My first act as Emperor will be to declare a week of mourning for the Conqueror following a state funeral.”
“The Empress is dead – LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR!!” a voice cried out from the crowd. A few of those gathered took up the cry – “LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR!” – while others just stood there, dazed. Gabrielle saw the curtain behind Darphus move, and knew that was her cue.
“Look!! The Empress!! Xena lives!” she shouted, pointing at the balcony as Xena stepped out from behind the curtain. No one paid attention to the healer at first, but then, as more people saw their Empress, a cheer began to erupt. At first, Darphus thought they were cheering for him. Xena made a noise behind him and he turned.
“Conqueror! They told me you were dead,” he began to stammer. “That’s the only reason I made the announcement. I’m glad to see you’re alive and well,” he continued. Xena saw the fear in his eyes.
“Cut the crap, Darphus. I know what’s been going on, and I’m not going to let you take over. These people deserve far better than you.” Darphus drew his sword and took a swing at Xena, who easily sidestepped it. She drew her sword and stood ready to defend herself. Darphus’ soldiers began to edge their way out of the crowd, wanting to slip away before the people could attack them. On the balcony, swords clanged loudly as Xena and Darphus fought, and the people watched, mesmerized by the events that were unfolding.
Alinia, in another part of the crowd, shouted out – “Darphus’ guards are trying to get away! Get them!” The people surrounding her looked around her and saw several of the Imposter’s personal foot soldiers trying to slink away. They began running toward the frightened men who found themselves quickly overcome.
Darphus fought Xena in a very erratic manner, swinging wildly, missing with every lunge and parry. Xena toyed with him, slapping him with the broad side of her blade, laughing at him, frustrating and infuriating him. His next swing knocked Xena’s sword from her hand. Surprised, he made another lunge at her, which she sidestepped. As he stumbled past her, she took his dagger from its sheath and drove the tip of it up under his sternum and into his heart. He was dead before his body hit the ground.
Almost a year had passed since the death of the traitor, Darphus. Xena had continued to rule Greece in her own way, though many of her subjects happily noted that she seemed mellower, more subdued. Executions for the sake of entertainment had all but stopped, slaves had been given more freedoms than they had previously enjoyed, and food was becoming more plentiful. The changes were subtle, but noticeable.
Gabrielle had returned to Poteidaia and continued her learning from her grandmother’s scrolls. Once in a while, a package would arrive from Corinth – new herbs from the Conqueror’s healers, along with instructions for using them. The herbs were most welcome, especially when a plague ran rampant through the countryside, killing hundreds but seeming to spare those Gabrielle treated with the new medicines.
She thought of Xena often, wondering how the Empress’ leg was, and most of all, if she had someone new sharing her bed. Gabrielle had not lain with anyone since her last bittersweet coupling with Xena, the night before she left Corinth – sweet because of the enjoyment she derived from it, bitter because they both knew it might be the last time they were together. Although Xena had begged her to stay in Corinth, Gabrielle had insisted on returning to her small village where her healing powers would be needed. Reluctantly, Xena had agreed. Since that night, their only communication had been through letters they exchanged once a week or so.
And so it was that Gabrielle was working in her small garden behind the house she still shared with her mother and sister. Pulling weeds had never been one of her more favorite pastimes, but it was something that needed to be done. The sun was hot, and she would stop once in a while and wipe the perspiration from her brow. A shadow fell across her path.
“Lilla, don’t just stand there,” Gabrielle said, annoyed. “Get down here and help me pull these weeds.”
“I wouldn’t know a weed from a carrot,” a voice quietly said from above her. Gabrielle looked up into the piercing blue eyes that appeared before her every night before she went to sleep. Quickly she stood and threw her arms around Xena’s waist, holding her tightly as the Conqueror wrapped her arms around the smaller woman.
“Xena,” Gabrielle whispered through tears. “By the Gods, I am so glad to see you!!! What are you doing in Poteidaia?”
“I missed you,” the Conqueror smiled. “There hasn’t been a day go by that I haven’t thought about you, wondered about you, and wished you had stayed in Corinth with me. The letters are nice, but I can’t make love to a letter.” Gently, she kissed the soft lips she had dreamed of capturing again. Gabrielle responded with a fervor that pleased the taller woman. Reluctantly, Xena broke the kiss.
“Gabrielle, I want to move you and your family to Corinth. I can’t stand being apart from you any longer. I’ll set your mother and sister up in a house near the palace, and you’ll live with me. You can see them whenever you want, and they, and you, will never want for anything again. Please say yes.”
Gabrielle looked up and smiled. “We’ll have to talk to mother and Lila, but even if they decide to stay here, I’ll go back with you. I love you, Xena.”
“I love you, too, Gabrielle. I want you as part of my life forever.” They kissed again, and then hand in hand, walked over to the house to talk with Gabrielle’s mother.
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