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Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and a couple of others belong to whoever owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended.
This is a Conqueror story - Xena is brutal and uses people. Nothing too graphic though.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to my friends on the AUSXIP Talking Xena forum for their encouragement as this story was written and especially to Michael whose original version of the first few pages of this story provided the springboard for the rest of it.
Teaser: The Conqueror acquires a new slave but amidst tragedy, friendships and surprises, Xena gets more than she bargained for.
A pair of massive doors opened, and a tall, imposing woman stepped into the courtyard. She was wearing knee-high boots, black leathers, a bronze breastplate, and a purple cloak made of the finest silk in Ch'in. Her hair was long and wild, and her eyes were as blue as the sky.
"ALL HAIL THE CONQUEROR!" somebody shouted, and the lines of soldiers snapped to attention as one.
The woman entered the courtyard, and walked casually up to a line of young men and women who were tied together with heavy shackles. She let her trained eye roam over the new arrivals taking in their physical attributes, but the way her upper lip curled into a sneer left no doubt as to their quality.
"Darphus, didn't you send me a message saying that you had struck gold? It can't be these pitiful peasants." she snarled at the officer standing at the end of the line.
"My Lord, they are stronger than they appear. They were part of a group that tried to ambush one of our scouts," Darphus said. He was Xena's second in command, and an ugly fellow. Scarred and twisted, Darphus had even less respect for human life than his superior, and by reputation he was feared throughout the Empire.
"Hmph!" Xena snorted and took another look at the peasants. Five men and four women, none over twenty and all with the typical characteristics of people working in the fields; calloused hands and sturdy, muscular frames. "Strip them. Let's take a closer look at the merchandise."
"Yes, Mistress," Darphus said, and commanded his men to tear the clothes off the peasants, a task that didn't take a great deal of effort since they were well torn and tattered already.
Once the peasants were naked, Xena stepped closer, and assessed each one carefully. "Send the men to the mines. They're too strong to waste working in the castle."
"Yes, my Lord, it shall be done." Darphus signalled a man over to unlock the shackles for the men. As soon as they were free, they were taken away by a group of soldiers.
"And now the women. Hmm... ugly dogs most of 'em. Send these two to Marenne." Xena said indicating two of the female peasants.
"Now these last two are more interesting. Don't you agree, Darphus?" Xena smirked at her second.
"Yes, these two will do just nicely as my personal slaves, since I no longer have one. I hope these two will prove to be more… resilient." She chuckled. "Send them to my quarters." Xena sniffed and leaned in to the women, sniffing again. "Oh, and Darphus... make sure they're bathed and powdered first." She grimaced
The two remaining women could hardly have been more different; one was a brunette with dark brown eyes and the other, slightly shorter, was a strawberry blonde with green eyes. Both women held themselves unashamedly upright, but the brunette was defiant.
"How dare you treat us like cattle? We're human beings! You have no right to do this." she said, and spat at the Conqueror.
In a single motion, almost to quick to follow, Xena drew her Chakram, and sliced it across the brunette's throat. The young woman's eyes popped wide open, and she gurgled liquidly as she clutched her throat, blood pouring down her chest. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound emerged. She turned to look at the blonde beside her, her eyes filled with fear.
The young blonde next to the unfortunate woman was showered with blood but she didn't flinch. She looked back at the brunette with horror on her face, her eyes already beginning to fill with tears.
After a few heartbeats, the brunette's knees buckled, and she crumpled to the ground, the shackles forcing the young blonde down with her when she fell.
"Release the blonde," Xena said, and put the chakram back on her belt.
Darphus quickly did as he was told, and forced the blonde woman to her feet.
Xena turned to the blonde. "You're a Thracian?"
"Y-yes." mumbled the woman, wiping her cheeks with grubby hands.
Xena looked thoroughly at the young woman. The absence of stretch marks across her stomach and her firm, small breasts indicated that she was still without children.
"How old are you?"
"Oh, how nice. Just what the healer ordered. Darphus, throw that carcass to the pigs," Xena said, nudging the brunette's feet with her boot before turning and striding briskly towards the palace door.
- - -
A candlemark later, Darphus led the blonde to the Conqueror's chambers, and pushed her roughly onto the floor. She had bare feet, and she was dressed in a tunic that was too large for her. Her hair, although washed clean, had not been tidied and it stuck out at grotesque angles. She had been left free of the shackles but her wrists and ankles still bore tell-tale ring marks where they had chafed on her skin. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging them to her chest, wondering what was going to happen to her.
A side door opened, and the Conqueror entered the chamber. The blonde shuffled up onto her knees and bent forwards in supplication.
"You learn quickly. Good. Get up," Xena said, and sat down on a chair.
The woman rose to her feet, but kept her eyes cast downwards, not daring to look the Conqueror in the eyes.
"Slave, you have three options. One, you defy me to my face, in which case I'll slit your throat on the spot. Two, you defy me behind my back, in which case I'll send you down to sweep the barracks. Naked. I'm sure my soldiers will appreciate that gesture; some of them haven't been with a woman for months. And, three... you do as I command, in which case you'll live. It's your choice."
"I want to live," the blonde whispered.
"Good. Now, I'm sure you've heard some stories about me. I can assure you, the reality is much worse. Serve me, pleasure me, satisfy me, and you will survive. If you fail, well…need I go on?"
"Oh, you do learn quickly. I'm very impressed. Let me see your hands," Xena said, and got up from the chair.
The blonde furrowed her brow in puzzlement, but held out her hands anyway.
Xena grabbed them, and studied the slave's fingers.
"Calloused, but delicate. They will feel pleasant on my skin. Excellent. Make sure you trim your fingernails."
The young woman swallowed, her eyes widening slightly. "Y-yes, Mistress."
"That'll be all for now. I'll have Marenne find you a chamber," Xena said, and clapped her hands twice.
An older, heavyset woman entered the chamber and ducked her head slightly. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Marenne, see to it that this young slave gets a chamber. Preferably one that's close to mine."
"And prepare a bath for me. Breaking in a new slave is an act I want to be clean for. That'll be all."
"Yes, Conqueror," Marenne said, and walked backwards towards the door, grabbing the slave's hand and leading her out of the chamber.
Xena turned away from the door, and walked over to the large windows overlooking her palace grounds. She put her hands behind her back and a small frown crossed her forehead as she thought about her new acquisition. After a few moments, she shook her head and began to whistle a happy, little tune.
- - -
"Come quickly, child." Hissed Marenne as she brushed past the guard standing outside the door to the Conqueror's chambers.
The guard cocked an eyebrow as he watched the old maid hustle off down the corridor with the new slave in tow. A smirk twitched at the corners of his mouth as he took in the petite, lithe form that he glimpsed beneath the too-large tunic as it flapped against the body within. As they turned the corner, out of sight, the smirk turned into a sneer as he glanced left and right and slowly lowered his left hand to his crotch.
"Wh-where are we going?" mumbled the young blonde, taking care to watch where she was putting her bare feet on the rough stones of the corridor floor. She didn't know what to expect but it didn't seem that the Conqueror's instruction to find her a chamber 'close to mine' was being followed.
"Don't ask questions, child, they will only ensure you nothing more than a short life here." Marenne answered firmly. A few moments later she continued in a gentler tone. "We're going to my chamber. I have need of a few items there."
A puzzled frown briefly appeared on the slave's face but she remained quiet, mindful of the maid's warning. The frown remained only for a moment before her face once more took on a lifeless, resigned countenance.
Marenne stopped suddenly at the entrance to another room and poked her head in through the door. "Doriana," she called, "go and draw a bath for the Conqueror. She is waiting for it."
A young woman appeared in the doorway, as Marenne stepped back, and glanced at the blonde, quickly allowing her eyes to track up and down new slave's body. "Is this a new one for her?" she asked, now looking at the old maid.
"Yes." Marenne replied. "Now don't dally. Let's try to keep her in a good mood."
Doriana sped off down the corridor from the direction that the maid and slave had come and Marenne turned to continue on their original course, towing the blonde with her.
"What's your name, child?" she asked, as they reached another doorway and Marenne turned into it, pulling the slave in after her. "Sit!" she said, indicating a chair beside a small table, and then turning to another, smaller table alongside her bed.
The blonde woman sat, as instructed, and looked at the old woman. "What are you doing?" she replied, not answering the question.
Marenne froze, her shoulders dropped and she shook her head slowly. She picked up a hair brush and turned back to face the young, blonde woman, a cross look on her face. "Questions, questions! Do you want to die today?" she asked.
The slave shrugged. "Does it matter?"
The old woman's face relaxed into a slightly surprised look as she regarded the young woman carefully. "Of course it does, child," she said gently. "Why wouldn't it?"
The slave shrugged again. "Nothing much left to live for."
Marenne approached her and slowly and gently began to tease out the tangles from her hair with the brush. "Tell me your story, child."
The slave sat silently, allowing the maid to continue tidying up her hair. She sighed deeply as tears welled up in her eyes and trickled slowly down her cheeks. When she spoke, the maid started a little at the venom in her voice. "That bastard, Darphus, killed my mother and father and…" her breath caught in her throat. "…my sweet Perdicus. And that WITCH just killed my sister without a second's thought. You tell me what I've got left to live for."
Marenne hissed and stepped quickly over to the door and glanced outside to the left and right before returning to kneel in front of the young woman and looked directly into her eyes. "Listen to me, child… What is your name?"
"Now you listen to me, Gabrielle. All of us here, bound in servitude or paid in service, have lost someone to Her Majesty's regime at some time or other. I accept that your loss is greater than many, but not the greatest by any means. Feeling sorry for yourself pays no respect to those you loved nor to those who might now call you friend and who will look out for you and help you."
Gabrielle glared at the woman in front of her. "And what would you have me do?" she snarled.
Marenne surprised the young slave then, by smiling at her. "By using that life and that spirit you have inside you to fight for yourself and for others. To make life better for those around you who are in the same position as you. To honour the memories of those you have lost by doing something they would be proud of."
Gabrielle paused and sat back for a moment, the old woman's words opening new possibilities for her. "That will be hard to do," she said quietly looking down at her hands, "when she will strip away any respect I have for myself." She looked directly into the maid's eyes. "I know what she intends for me."
Marenne cocked her head slightly to one side. "It won't be easy, I'll grant you that. But the alternative is to roll over and give up… or die, which amounts to the same thing, more or less. Is that how you want to be thought of?"
Gabrielle's eyes glazed over for a moment as her sister's last words echoed in her thoughts: 'How dare you treat us like cattle? We're humans!'. She squeezed her eyes tight shut causing another tear to trace its way down each cheek. After a few moments, she opened her eyes again and looked into the maid's eyes, determination settling on her face. "Tell me. What must I do?"
- - -
Doriana burst into Gabrielle's new chamber, disturbing Marenne and Gabrielle mid conversation. "The Conqueror wants her new slave… now!"
Marenne took a deep breathe and sighed, watching Gabrielle steel herself and swallow. "Now remember what we talked about, Gabrielle, try to relax. Xena is not cruel…" she paused, giving herself a moment to catch her thoughts, "…at least not in that way." She continued. "She won't deliberately hurt you unless you anger her but the more you can relax the less… uncomfortable it will be. And remember, be careful about taking the initiative. If you make her feel that you are trying to take control she will correct you swiftly, and that will almost certainly hurt."
Gabrielle chuckled humourlessly to herself trying to imagine herself attempting to dominate the powerful woman who topped her by a good two hand spans. She turned to follow Doriana out of the door.
"And Gabrielle?" Marenne's resigned voice followed her. "No questions!"
"Quickly, quickly!" Doriana hissed over her shoulder as Gabrielle hurried to keep up with her along the corridor.
Gabrielle clutched the white, semi-sheer, mid-thigh length gown that Marenne had given her, tightly to herself, only too conscious that more could be seen through it than was hidden by it. As they scampered past another pair of ogling guards she surreally found herself glad that she was blonde.
Only too soon they stopped outside a large door that Gabrielle recognised as the one she had passed through once before not very long ago. Doriana looked at her, a sympathetic look gentling her features. "Now, remember what Marenne has told you and you'll be fine. Good luck." She moved the door latch and opened the door, placing her hand gently but firmly in the small of Gabrielle's back.
Gabrielle stepped through into the Conqueror's chambers hearing the door latch click closed behind her. She looked around trying not to let her shaking knees buckle and dump her unceremoniously onto the floor. The room seemed to be an office of some kind with a desk and chair against one wall and an array of shelves covered with scrolls on another. Seeing no one in the room, she took two more steps forward and stopped again, hoping that Xena had been called away on some business and she would gain an, albeit brief, reprieve; a hope that was immediately dashed as the Conqueror appeared from a door to the right, dressed in a full-length, silk robe, covered in a brightly coloured floral pattern.
"Ah, here you are." Xena's voice was quiet, almost husky and her eyes scanned openly up and down Gabrielle's figure causing a surprising tingle to emerge from deep within the young slave's pelvis.
Gabrielle found herself staring as the imposing, dark haired woman languorously walked slowly across the floor towards her. She felt, at the same time, scared and excited as the Conqueror's powerful charisma focussed itself on her. Somehow it made her feel attractive and desirable in confusing contrast to the reality of the position she was in.
Xena watched the subtle changes take place in the blonde slave's posture and facial expression, slightly surprised at the extent of the impact she had made. All of the slaves reacted to some extent when she first approached them in this way, but she was most surprised at the way this slave's reaction made her seem to glow. Xena smiled, finding it incredibly attractive.
Xena stopped a pace in front of Gabrielle. "Put your arms down." She commanded. Gabrielle immediately dropped her arms to her sides from their position crossed over her chest and lowered her eyes away from the ice-blue stare. "My, you are a sweet thing, aren't you." It was a rhetorical question that Gabrielle realised probably shouldn't be answered.
Keeping an arms-length distance, Xena slowly moved around Gabrielle carefully examining every inch of the slave's body as she progressed. She reached out one arm to trail her fingers from Gabrielle's shoulder, across and down her back to trace the firm curve of a rounded buttock.
Gabrielle willed herself not flinch at the first touch and then not shiver as the gentle touch across her back reignited the tingle she had felt earlier. She couldn't stop herself, though, from giving a slight gasp and closing her eyes as the touch reached her backside.
"Ah, nice, eh?" purred Xena in response as she continued moving around, returning to face Gabrielle again, her hand never leaving contact with the slave's body through the material of the gown. The hand traced across a hip and began rising again to circle a pert breast, the fingers gradually moving towards its peak where the nipple strained against the gown's material in anticipation. A thumb and finger captured the firm nub of flesh and Gabrielle couldn't prevent the small sound that escaped from her throat.
Xena smiled, a smile that carried neither humour nor pleasure. "But never forget, my sweet thing…" The thumb and finger squeezed the nipple hard and twisted it as the Conqueror's voice lost all its gentleness. Gabrielle's eyes sprang open, fear and pain replacing any and all other emotions on her face. "Never forget that you are here for my pleasure, not yours. Keep that clear in your mind and we shall continue to have some fun. Is that clear?"
The pressure on Gabrielle's nipple remained as she fought her body in its desire to flinch away from the pain. Tears formed in the corners of her now tightly shut eyes. "Yes, my Lord. I understand" she gasped.
Xena relaxed her fingers and instead placed the palm of her hand over the tortured breast and gently squeezed, massaging it gently. "There, good! I think we'll get along very nicely." She purred, her voice, seamlessly resuming its faintly husky tone. She leant forward moving her lips close to Gabrielle's ear and whispered. "It's not wrong to enjoy what I do to you, or even to come for me…" she paused a moment to collect her thoughts. "In fact I will be disappointed if you don't." She smirked. "But remember that it is my choice, not yours." She flicked out her tongue to give the blonde slave's ear a lick before moving away. "Come with me." She commanded as she turned to return to the doorway she had appeared from.
It took a few moments for the gently spoken command to sink in through the sensory haze that had descended over Gabrielle's consciousness. The combination of the tingling in her nipple, the gentle but firm massaging of her breast, the scent of the Conqueror's close presence and the husky whispering in her ear, not to mention the imagery the words had conjured up, proved to be far more stimulation than Gabrielle had ever been exposed to all in one go. Eventually she realised that she was now alone and hurried to follow the Conqueror into the other room.
Xena was standing beside a large bed in the centre of what was obviously her bed chamber, a slightly amused look on her face. "You didn't get lost, did you?" she asked with a smile.
Gabrielle stopped just inside the door and looked puzzled at the tall woman in front of her.
With a little shake of her head, Xena chuckled quietly herself. "Oh, I think I'm going to enjoy this one." fully aware of why the slave had been slow to follow her. "Come over here." She said.
Gabrielle looked at the Conqueror, then looked at the bed, then back to the Conqueror's face. She swallowed the lump that had somehow appeared in her throat and then walked slowly over to stand in front of the powerful predator, her eyes drifting down to look at the floor at her feet.
Xena reached out and gently grasped Gabrielle by the arms just above her elbows and turned them both around. She then took a step forwards causing Gabrielle to step backwards, the backs of her legs pressing up against the edge of the bed. She stumbled, falling to sit on the bed's surface. Xena pushed her backwards so that she was lying down and then lifted one leg to rest her knee on the bed alongside Gabrielle's hip.
"Now," she purred, bending over the startled blonde beneath her and starting to unfasten the laces holding Gabrielle's gown together, "let's start having some of that fun I mentioned."
- - -
Gabrielle lay on the small cot in her own chamber staring sightlessly at the ceiling above her, Morpheus not yet able to lure her into his domain. She didn't know what she felt, a whole jumble of conflicting emotions warring within her for domination leaving her completely confused.
In the several candlemarks after entering the Conqueror's bed chamber, Gabrielle had lost count of the number of orgasms she had experienced and had certainly had the most intense ones of her, albeit short, sexual life. In addition she had, with a little coaching, started to learn what Xena really liked and had found, to her great surprise, that she delighted in giving it to her, making the powerful woman squirm under her touch and cry out in ecstasy.
Eventually, Xena had apparently been sated and had told Gabrielle to go back to her own chamber and get some rest. Gabrielle had slid off the bed, almost collapsing in a heap on the floor before she was able to persuade her legs to start working again. She had found her gown, pulled it on and walked, gingerly, with legs slightly apart, out of the Conqueror's chambers and back to her own.
As her eyelids started to drift closed, she was still unable to make sense of how she felt. A part of her had thoroughly enjoyed herself. Another part hated that, as a slave, she had been given no choice in the matter. There was yet another part that had been fascinated by Xena and another that was astonished that what she had just experienced with another woman simply didn't feel odd or wrong in any way. And then, when she was able to put the memories of the last few candlemarks to one side for a moment, she remembered that this same woman was also the cause of her slavery and responsible for the murder of her whole family.
Morpheus eventually won out and Gabrielle slipped into a deep, and surprisingly untroubled sleep. There would be time enough, when she awoke later, to continue to try to make sense of what was now her life and to then work out what in Hades she wanted to do with it.
End of part 1.
"Gabrielle! Wake up"
"Uh! Jus' 'nother minit." The blonde head burrowed a little further underneath the blanket. Until, that is, consciousness and reality scrabbled its way back into Gabrielle's brain.
Doriana leaped back as Gabrielle sprang upright, the blonde head erupting from its cosy nest and just missing her dark head by a whisker. "Gods!" she hissed.
"Oh Gods!" Gabrielle echoed. "Does she want me again?"
Doriana smiled, unsure whether or not the Conqueror's new body slave realised what she had said. "No, no. Relax. It's just me. It's time you got up though."
Gabrielle, scrubbed her face with her hands and flopped back onto her bed. "Buh! What time is it?" she asked, peering out at Doriana through her fingers.
"Just after mid-morning."
"What?!" Gabrielle sprang upright again. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?" She looked beseechingly into Doriana's face as her shoulders slumped.
"No, Gabrielle. I wish you'd take it easy. Everything's fine, you're not in trouble, it's just that you need to be ready in case the Conqueror does ask for you. She sometimes does want her slave at around midday."
"Exactly. I'm a slave." More than a tinge of bitterness crept into Gabrielle's voice. "Aren't I supposed to be up at dawn, scrubbing floors or making breakfasts or something?" Her hands flew up in the air and dropped onto the bed beside her in exasperation.
"Well, if you were an ordinary slave, then yes you would, but you're not. You're Xena's body slave. Besides which, an ordinary slave would have been asleep several candlemarks before you were." Doriana smirked as she watched the flush colour Gabrielle's cheeks. "Marenne was starting to worry that you weren't coming out at all."
Gabrielle thought about that for a few moments. "I did wonder if I was going to be allowed to just sleep where I was... in her bed." She finished quietly.
"Ooh no." said Doriana, shaking her head briskly. "Her slaves never stay until morning. Well… that is…" She hesitated.
Doriana sighed. "Unless they've annoyed her and… they can't leave… without help." She went quiet and looked down at her feet.
"Oh." Breathed Gabrielle.
A silence stretched on for several heartbeats until Doriana looked up again. "Well, anyway, let's get you into that bath."
Gabrielle shook herself out of her funk as Doriana's words sunk in. "Another bath? I had one only yesterday."
"Yes, well. There are two things our Lord Conqueror insists on from her body slaves. One is that they are pretty; that's why you're allowed to sleep in, and the other is that they are clean and smell nice. Tell me if I'm wrong here but I assume you ended up a bit… um… sticky? Last night?"
Gabrielle's face took on an even deeper flush this time.
"Exactly!" continued Doriana. "Come on; bath time. I've made it nice and warm for you." She turned and headed through the door into the corridor.
Gabrielle swung her legs off her bed, shrugged her shift straight and hurried after her. "Why are you helping me like this?" she asked as she caught up.
Doriana stopped and turned, Gabrielle almost running into her. "Didn't you listen yesterday when Marenne told you that we are all together in this and only by helping each other can we make this life a bit more pleasant for each other?"
"Oh, right." murmured Gabrielle, apologetically. "I'm sorry."
Doriana sighed. "That's alright. You're new. It will take you a little while for you to work out what it's all about here." She turned and resumed walking down the corridor, finishing in a whisper. "Besides, I like you and I want to help you."
At least that's what Gabrielle thought she heard her say.
"Here we are then." Doriana stated as they entered a bathing room.
Gabrielle looked around. The water in the bath was steaming invitingly and there was a strip of linen on the small table, obviously intended for towelling off.
"Do you want any help?"
"No, I think I can manage to bath myself." Gabrielle's words came out more harshly than she had intended.
"I was only offering." Doriana huffed, turning back towards the door.
"Doriana, wait. Please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound…" She broke off looking for words that wouldn't make the situation worse. "Thank you. You've been very kind. I know I'm being a bit snappy, but this is hard…" her voice broke. "You know?" She looked into Doriana's eyes, silently begging for forgiveness and understanding.
Doriana looked back into a sad and resigned face, took the three steps necessary and enveloped Gabrielle in a warm hug. She held on tight as she felt the young body in her arms shake with sobs.
Gabrielle quickly got herself back under control and released her new friend. "Thank you, Doriana. I think I needed that." She smiled.
"You're welcome, anytime, Gabrielle. And please, call me Dori." Gabrielle nodded as her smile broadened. "Good! Now, when you're done here, come down into the kitchens, anyone will tell you how to find them, and I'll have some breakfast for you."
Gabrielle nodded again and watched Dori disappear through the door. She turned and looked at the bath shaking her head slightly from side to side. Stripping off her shift, she trailed her hand in the bath water and, finding it pleasantly hot, she stepped in and sat down, hissing a little as the hot water came into contact with a soreness between her legs. She sat back, reminded of the reasons for it and let her thoughts drift as she picked up the soap and began washing herself.
- - -
Gabrielle found the kitchens easily enough and shyly entered, looking around for a friendly face.
"Ah, there you are, child. Come in, come in. Take a seat. Doriana, have you got that food ready for Gabrielle?" Marenne bustled around making space at the kitchen table.
"Yes, here it is." Dori appeared carrying a small tray containing some bread, cheese and a boiled egg. A mug of watered-down orange juice completed the spread. She smiled at Gabrielle. "Feeling better?"
Gabrielle's eyes were wide, staring at the array of food in front of her. "Wow! This is more than I would have had at home." She said. "And, yes, thank you. Much better." She sat down carefully and quietly sucked in a breath through pursed lips as her bottom made contact with the chair.
Marenne pricked up her ears. "Are you hurt, Gabrielle?" She looked concerned at the small frown that had appeared on the young slave's brow.
"What? Oh… no." Gabrielle's cheeks coloured again. She looked up to find the old maid looking at her with her arms crossed over her chest and her eyebrows raised expectantly. "It's just I'm a bit, you know… sore." Her eyes dropped back to her food.
Marenne humphed and turned back to her tasks.
Gabrielle piled into her food, the first meal that she had eaten for over twelve candlemarks. Eventually she slowed down enough to ask a question that had been bothering her. "Dori? When you said that Xena's body slaves only stay in her chambers if they can't leave on their own, you meant they'd be dead didn't you?"
Marenne stiffened and looked across at Doriana. Doriana glanced back at Marenne, then dropped her eyes before answering quietly. "Yes."
Not noticing the exchange between her two new friends, Gabrielle continued. "Is that the only way a slave stops being a body slave for her?" She took a drink of her watered juice and kept her eyes on the table in front of her.
"Good heavens no, child." Marenne stepped in. "When she tires of a slave some of them are reassigned to other duties." She stopped, hoping that Gabrielle might not pick up on her omission and wishing that she had phrased her answer differently.
"Some of them?" whispered Gabrielle. "What about the others?"
Marenne closed her eyes, cursing herself. She turned to look at the young slave who was now sitting motionless at the table. "Others are…" she sighed, "sold to slavers. But you needn't worry about that, Gabrielle," she hastened to continue, "if it comes to that, I would fight very hard to keep you here."
Gabrielle, looked up and into Marenne's eyes, her own suddenly brimming with tears. "Thank you." She croaked.
Marenne walked over to the table, wiping her hands on her apron, and eased down onto one knee beside Gabrielle's chair. She opened her arms. "Come here, child. I won't let anything like that happen to you." Gabrielle turned to her and fell into the welcoming embrace, sobs racking her body for the second time that morning.
After many heartbeats had passed, Gabrielle once again got herself under control and pulled back, sniffing. "I'm sorry." She found a chuckle from somewhere. "I can't seem to stop doing that at the moment." She brushed at her cheeks with her hands.
Marenne held her at arms length, smiling. "Don't you worry yourself about that. Doriana and I are always here for you and anyone else on the servant staff will help you if they can too." She stood up, grumbling slightly at her aching knees, and returned to her work.
The sounds of feet running quickly along the corridor outside the kitchen brought all three women's attention to the doorway. A young girl, three or four summers younger than Gabrielle, burst in through the door and skidded to a stop a few paces inside the kitchen. She glanced around, her eyes pausing a moment on Gabrielle, before coming to rest on Marenne.
Before she could speak, Marenne spoke first. "Arienne! How many times have I told you not to run into rooms like that. If I had been just inside the door…" she left the outcome to the young girl's imagination.
Arienne looked suitably downcast and mumbled. "Sorry!" She then looked up and spoke again. "The Conqueror wants her midday meal… and she wants her new body slave to take it to her."
"I'm just putting it ready now." said Doriana
Marenne looked at Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, go to your chamber and change your clothing; you can't go to the Conqueror in your shift. Doriana, when the tray is ready, take it to Gabrielle's chamber."
Gabrielle rose from her chair. "Do you think I should wear the gown again?" she asked, clearly a little embarrassed at the thought of walking around the palace in broad daylight with most of her assets on display.
"No. If you look in the box in your chamber you will find a couple of dresses. Wear one of those. Doriana will help you when she gets there if you need it." Gabrielle nodded and left the kitchen.
- - -
Gabrielle walked purposefully along the corridor towards the Conqueror's chambers taking care to balance the tray of food. One of Xena's soldiers rounded a corner in the corridor, walking towards her; his eyes roamed freely up and down her body until she passed him. She shook her head gently from side to side thinking, again, about the dress she now wore. A dress that was significantly different from the gown she had worn the previous night only in the fact that it wasn't translucent. It was predominantly blue, mid thigh length and with a scooped neckline that barely contained even Gabrielle's modest features.
She approached the Conqueror's door and the guard there stepped in front of her. It was a different guard to the one that she had seen the previous day and she didn't recognise him. He clearly didn't recognise her either.
"Well now! Who have we here?" If Gabrielle's breasts could have talked she felt sure that they would have answered since it was clear that was who the guard was addressing. Gabrielle simply stopped and stared at the top of his head.
To his credit, the guard took only a few moments to realise that the breasts weren't going to answer him so he looked up into Gabrielle's face. "So? Who are you?"
Gabrielle sighed. "My name is Gabrielle and I have the Conqueror's meal."
"Well," he growled, "when you've delivered it, why don't you and me go find a quiet spot somewhere and get to know each other?" He twitched his eyebrows and curled up the corner of his mouth.
"Please let me by. The Conqueror is waiting for this." Gabrielle let her eyes drop.
"She can wait another little bit. Come on, put that tray down and let me show you what to look forward to." He reached out and put his hand on Gabrielle's cheek, rubbing her cheekbone with his thumb.
Gabrielle took a step back, fear starting to burn in her belly. "No, please. Just let me in." her voice raised a little in volume as adrenalin surged in her body.
The guard's mouth turned into a full smirk as he stepped forward, his attention focussed on the sport in front of him. A tap on his shoulder interrupted him and he turned just in time to catch the back-hander full in the face that threw him five paces down the corridor.
"She's mine." Xena snarled, "Touch her again and you will die." Blue shards of ice shrivelled the guard's ardour where he lay on the floor. Xena turned her gaze onto Gabrielle, the ice melting a little, and looked at her for a few heartbeats. "Inside!" she said, indicating the open door. As she followed Gabrielle, she turned back to the guard, still motionless on the floor. "Besides," she smiled, "she's way out of your league." The door closed.
"Put the tray over on the desk." Xena said, watching Gabrielle walk across the floor to do as she was told. "Are you hurt?" she asked, noticing Gabrielle's slightly awkward gait.
"No! he didn't really touch me."
"You're walking oddly. Why?"
Gabrielle turned and looked into the intense eyes of her mistress, realising that lying was probably not a good idea. "I'm just a bit… sore. That's all. It's nothing."
Xena considered for a moment, then turned and headed towards her bed chamber. "Come with me." she said.
The blonde slave followed wondering if she was in trouble.
Xena walked over to her bedside table and picked up a jar, holding it out to Gabrielle. "Here. Put some of this on it."
Gabrielle took the jar and looked up at the Conqueror with a puzzled frown.
"It's a lotion made with juices from the Aloe plant. It will help." Xena replied to the unspoken question.
"Oh! Thank you." Gabrielle said, turning towards the door to the bathing chamber.
"No!" said Xena, a seductive tone entering her voice. "Sit on the bed and do it here." She sat down on a chair, facing the bed, and crossed her legs, leaning back comfortably.
Gabrielle looked at the seated woman, who now had an amused and expectant smile on her face. Her eyes widened and she blinked as the intent behind Xena's instruction sunk in, and she gulped.
"And make sure that you do a thorough job. I don't want to be disappointed."
Gabrielle took a breath, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. She looked over at the bed, then at the jar of lotion, then back at the Conqueror, whose smile broadened. She blew out her breath and moved over to the bed. She paused a moment, collecting her thoughts, surprised to feel a now familiar tingling low in her belly, then hitched up her dress, dropped her breeches and perched herself on the edge of the bed, lifting one leg onto it and leaving the other touching the floor. She opened the jar and used two fingers to scoop out a dollop of the cool, slippery lotion and set to work.
- - -
"Now, doesn't that feel better?" Xena asked as she stood up from the chair a short time later and began to unbutton her tunic.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling above the bed, her heart rate and breathing gradually returning to normal. She realised that it was a rhetorical question, but said "Mmm" anyway.
Xena chuckled as she continued to disrobe. "Are you any good at backrubs?" she said.
"I think so." Gabrielle replied, surprised as she sat up and realised that the Conqueror was now almost naked.
"Good. My shoulders need relaxing."
Gabrielle wondered why Xena was undressing completely for a shoulder rub but shrugged off the question and stood up.
Xena stepped forward until she stood directly in front of her slave. Gabrielle wasn't quite sure where to look. Xena slipped Gabrielle's dress off her shoulders and let it drop to the ground. Gabrielle now had a good idea why the Conqueror was also naked.
The tall woman climbed up onto the bed and flopped down onto her front, turning her head to look at Gabrielle. "Use the oil in that green bottle." Her eyes flicked up to look at the bottle in question on her bedside table.
Gabrielle picked up the bottle, uncorked it and took a sniff; it smelled of sandalwood. She followed Xena up onto the bed, kneeling beside her, looking at her and wondering what would be the best place to position herself. She glanced down the full length of the Conqueror's body, hovering for a few heartbeats over the firm backside, then shrugged and swung a leg over to the opposite side, straddling Xena's hips. She tipped a little of the oil into her hand and began to rub the broad shoulders underneath her.
A short time after starting the massage, Gabrielle noticed the muscles under her fingers starting to relax. A few quiet groans had accompanied her ministrations and, after checking that she wasn't doing anything wrong, she started to enjoy hearing them as she continued rubbing. "Can I ask you a question?" The question was out before she realised she was going to voice it.
"Mmm? Go ahead." Xena sounded as if she was half asleep.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief before continuing. "Your muscles were really hard. Why are you so tense today?"
There was a pause and Gabrielle wondered if Xena was going to answer. "Just a stupid village… wound me up."
"Nigrita. They're evading their taxes." An eyelid cracked open and a blue eye peeked up at Gabrielle's face. "I may have to kill 'em all."
Gabrielle's hands stopped and she went still. "I know Nigrita." she whispered. "It's not far from my..." she stopped, a lump appearing in her throat.
"Why have you stopped?" Xena grumbled.
"Sorry!" Gabrielle resumed her massage.
There was silence for a while before Gabrielle whispered. "Do you have to kill them?"
"I can't allow them to get away with it. It will only encourage others."
"But most of the villagers are just ordinary people."
"And your point is?"
"My point is," Gabrielle's voice grew in strength as she became impassioned with the argument. "most of the villagers don't have any say in the running of the village. If the taxes are being withheld then it is probably the village leaders who are doing it. You can't just kill everyone if it's only one or two causing the problem."
Gabrielle had no idea how she found herself on her back with the Conqueror sat on her chest and a large hand wrapped around her neck, squeezing tightly enough to make breathing a bit of an effort. Cold, blue eyes bore into Gabrielle's and Xena's voice spoke of only an absolute certainty "I can do what I deem is necessary. If that is to kill them all, then I will. If that is to kill you, then I will. No one tells me what I cannot do."
The grip around Gabrielle's neck tightened so that now no breath could pass. Her hands flapped helplessly against Xena's legs, her arms uselessly trapped beneath the Conqueror's legs. She stared up into the hard face above her, darkness beginning to encroach into the edges of her vision until she felt that she was looking at the Conqueror through a long tube.
Xena looked down at the face below her, rapidly turning red, standing out starkly against the blond hair spread in a halo around the head. She watched the green eyes begin to glaze over. She suddenly realised that she didn't want to kill this new slave of hers. She had enjoyed having her around and had really enjoyed the previous night's activities with her. She made her decision. Much to her own surprise, she released Gabrielle's neck and rolled off the bed. She stood for a moment just watching as the slave gasped in much needed air, before striding off into the bathing chamber.
Gabrielle lay quietly on the bed sucking in lungfuls of air while gently massaging her neck. "Gods!" she mumbled to herself, breathlessly. "That was stupid." Gradually she began to think more rationally about what had happened. She sat up on the bed starting to wonder why she was still alive.
"You can leave now. I will call for you later." The disembodied voice emerged from the bathing chamber.
"I'm… sorry… I…"
Gabrielle silently got out of bed, wriggled into her dress and, looking once behind her at the bathing room door, she left, through the office chamber, back into the corridor. Once there she broke into a run and didn't stop until she reached her own chamber. She dove into her bed and pulled the blanket over her head, dreading her next summons.
It was the need to pee that drove Gabrielle from her darkened lair beneath the blanket on her bed. It was the need to eat that stopped her from returning to it shortly afterwards. Instead she wandered, shyly, down the corridors towards the kitchen hoping to find something to eat, even though it was now late afternoon.
The absence of a summons to the Conqueror was something that she had very mixed feelings about. On the one hand there was the continued absence of a punishment that she felt certain was on its way; and for that she was very grateful. On the other hand was the fear that bordered on panic when she allowed herself to dwell on the possible nature of such punishment. On top of all of that was the nagging curiosity she felt about how she had been allowed to leave the Conqueror's chambers at all.
Gabrielle entered the kitchen but a quick glance around showed her that neither of her two friends was present. There was, however, a middle-aged man sitting at the kitchen table munching away on a sandwich of some kind. He looked up, as she stopped trying to decide what to do.
"Hello!" he said. His voice was a pleasant baritone that carried no threat. "You must be Gabrielle?"
"Uh, yes!" Gabrielle was initially surprised but quickly guessed that Marenne or Doriana had probably mentioned her to the man.
The man smiled. "I'm Mikael… the Conqueror's carpenter."
"Oh. Nice to meet you. I… I was just looking for something to eat."
Mikael shrugged. "Plenty here," he gestured at the contents of the table. "Come on, take a seat."
Gabrielle nodded to him and sat down at the other chair alongside the table.
"Help yourself," he said. "I've got all I want here."
The young slave pulled off a chunk from the loaf of the fresh bread and took an apple and started picking at them without much enthusiasm.
Mikael watched out of the corner of his eye and gradually a concerned frown appeared on his forehead. Eventually he spoke. "Are you all right, Gabrielle? You look as though you're not sure whether or not you want to eat that."
Gabrielle started out of her thoughts. "Hmm? Oh! I'm fine. I'm just a bit… distracted that's all." Her eyes never left the table in front of her.
"Gabrielle?" He waited until she looked up and he caught her eye before continuing in a very gentle voice. "I know that you don't know me but I'm a friend of Marenne and she's told me about you. I can help… I want to help if I can."
Gabrielle looked carefully into the hazel eyes of the blonde man in front of her and saw nothing other than compassion and genuine concern. "What sort of punishments does the Conqueror give out… to a slave?" she whispered, not losing eye contact.
Whatever Mikael might have been expecting as a response, that was not it. His eyebrows shot upwards, he blinked and his jaw went in the opposite direction. His mouth worked two or three times without any sound coming before finally closing it as he sat back in his chair breathing out the breath held in his lungs, still staring at the young girl sitting opposite. "I don't really know, Gabrielle. I spend only a little of my time in the palace. I don't… I suppose it depends on what it is for." A look of helplessness descended over his features.
"Ah! Gabrielle, there you are." Male and female eyes both turned to the door as Marenne entered the kitchen. She took only two steps before she stopped, looking back and forth between the two faces at the table. Her voice took on a tone of dread. "What's happened?"
Mikael turned his gaze back to Gabrielle. "I think Gabrielle was about to tell us about something she's done."
Marenne quickly crossed the kitchen and pulled another chair up alongside Gabrielle's and sat down. She took Gabrielle's hands into her own and looked carefully into the frightened green eyes. "Tell me, child." She said gently.
"The Conqueror was telling me about a village she was having trouble with and…" she gulped, "I argued with her and…" she dropped her eyes to the table-top, "I told her that she couldn't just kill them."
Marenne and Mikael looked at each other, their eyes widening as an unspoken communication passed between them. Marenne recovered first, squeezing Gabrielle's hands gently and looking back to her. "And then what happened?" she said.
Gabrielle shrugged. "She had her hands round my throat and she was squeezing… I couldn't breathe." She sighed and, if possible, her shoulders slumped even further. "Then she let me go, walked out and told me to leave." She looked up, searching Marenne's eyes for, something.
Marenne and Mikael glanced at each other again.
"She's working out how to punish me, isn't she?" Gabrielle's eyes filled and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Marenne looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "Gabrielle, look at me." She squeezed her hands again and shook them gently until the young slave returned the regard. "Alright, now listen to me." she continued. "I don't know what she's thinking. To my knowledge nothing quite like this has happened before." Marenne wasn't sure that those words were going to be comforting, so she continued. "The Conqueror's punishments tend to be swift and decisive; only acts of betrayal or treason tend to receive delayed and… public punishments. Disobedient or insolent slaves are punished there and then and it is always… severe." She raised her eyebrows in emphasis. "It seems to me that you were punished at the time."
Gabrielle processed the old maid's words before replying. "You're saying I should be dead, aren't you?" Gabrielle's eyes challenged Marenne to disagree.
Marenne bristled slightly. "Of course not, child." She paused, taking a deep breath and calming her voice. "All I am saying is that she has treated you differently. I don't know why but I don't think you need to be too worried about it." She thought for a moment. "What else did she say when she dismissed you?"
"She said she would send for me later. I assumed that would be when she would punish me."
Marenne looked at Mikael, who shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I don't think so, Gabrielle. That's not how she does things."
Gabrielle sucked in a huge breath and sighed it back out again, getting herself back under control. "Well, she hasn't summoned me yet." she said, resignation in her voice.
"Well, she wouldn't." replied Marenne. "She left the palace with a small guard about a candlemark after you took her meal to her."
Three frowning faces glanced at each other across the kitchen table betraying various forms of puzzlement.
"Gabrielle?" Marenne spoke up, breaking the musings of the other two. "Would you help me to prepare some vegetables when you've finished eating, please?"
It took a few heartbeats for Gabrielle to adjust to the ordinariness of the older woman's question after the discussions that had just been going on. "Oh, of course." she replied, smiling.
Marenne smiled to herself as she stood, pleased to give her young friend something else to think about, for a little while at least.
As Gabrielle returned to her meal with a little renewed spirit, she and Mikael engaged in friendly chatter, the young slave really warming to the easy-going artisan.
"Some people think the Conqueror is a god, you know," Mikael casually threw into the conversation. Unseen, Marenne rolled her eyes and shook her head slightly. "However," the blonde man continued, "I can tell you something that she is rubbish at." He graced Gabrielle's rapt attention with a cocky smirk, clearly enjoying the woman's company.
Gabrielle's eyes went wide. "What?"
Mikael looked around carefully, as though checking for spies. "You must promise not to tell another soul though." He frowned, looking seriously into Gabrielle's face, dragging out the moment.
Gabrielle also looked around, well aware she was being teased but very curious about what the carpenter was going to say. She wrestled a frown onto her own face and looked equally seriously back. "I promise, you have my word." she intoned.
Marenne shook her head again and chuckled silently to herself.
Gabrielle did a double-take. "What? Bartering?" she exclaimed.
"Shh!" Mikael looked around again, furtively this time. "Yes. It is a critical weakness."
Gabrielle laughed out loud, Mikael chuckled and Marenne smiled. It was the first time she had heard the young woman laugh and she silently blessed Mikael for bringing it out.
"Actually, I'm being serious." continued Mikael. "A while ago, five or six moons I suppose, the Conqueror asked me about making a trinket box, which was to be a special gift. I sketched a few ideas for a cherry wood box with a flower pattern inlaid in its lid using different coloured woods, which she really liked. Then she asked me what it would cost. Well, for special jobs like that one, I usually start out high expecting to be haggled down to what I really want. Anyway, when I told her my starting price, she mumbled something about it being a lot but, when I said that there was a lot of work involved, she just said; okay but I want it ready this time next moon."
Gabrielle was amused and sat up in her chair. "Well, you wouldn't have got away with that with me." She said, narrowing her eyes at the carpenter but smiling as well. "It must have been something for someone special, eh?"
"Hmm," replied the blonde man, thoughtfully. "That's another strange thing about it. It was ready on time and, shortly after I delivered it, she left the palace for a couple of days taking it with her. When she returned she still had it; I saw it in her chamber shortly afterwards."
"Why is that strange?" asked Gabrielle. "Presumably the person she made it for wasn't there."
"Well, I was curious so I asked a couple of the guards that had accompanied her and, apparently, she went to visit her mother."
"Yes, she does have one you know. She wasn't regurgitated from the belly of a demon fully formed."
Marenne whirled around, hissing. "Mikael!"
"So, you think she had you make the box for her mother, but she turned it away?" Gabrielle said, ignoring the older woman's interruption.
"The guards said that she came out of the inn that her mother owns, with a face like thunder, leaped onto her horse and rode off without a word. The guard captain looked as puzzled as everyone else, apparently."
Without thinking about it, Gabrielle suddenly felt sorry for the Conqueror, whose mother had, apparently, rejected her gift and by inference, rejected her too. She reminded herself who she was feeling sorry for and tried to push it away but a sadness lingered even so.
"Well," Mikael stood up, "I'd better be getting on. It's been really nice to meet you, Gabrielle." He held out his hand.
Gabrielle took it without hesitation. "You too. Thank you for cheering me up."
Mikael nodded and walked over to Marenne. He kissed her on the cheek and left through the outside door.
- - -
The Conqueror's hand continued its exploration between Gabrielle's legs, the feelings generated by its teasing fingers rippling through her body, expanding, intensifying until she felt that they couldn't possibly get any stronger without her simply exploding. Her breathing becoming ragged, consisting of small gasps. Another hand touched her chest, sliding upwards, its fingers spreading out around her neck, becoming tighter, squeezing harder until the gasps couldn't get past them. The need to breathe burning her lungs as her orgasm began blooming up, irresistibly from her centre, meeting each other in a mighty surge of emotion.
Gabrielle's eyes snapped open as she sucked in huge lungfuls of air accompanied by throaty, gasping groans, her body quivering with arousal and panic, her thighs slick with moisture produced from her own body.
"Gods!" she eventually whispered as her breathing and heart rate calmed to more normal levels. She closed her eyes briefly, but the images in her mind were too fresh, too raw. She threw off her blanket and swung her legs off the edge of the bed, got up and made her way to the bathing room. There, she splashed some water on her face and cleaned herself up a little.
As she wandered back towards her chamber, she paused at the doorway and looked in at her bed. She shuddered in memory and turned away, looking up and down the corridor lit with the occasional torch set into their sconces. It was a few candlemarks since the palace had settled for the night and the Conqueror had not returned so Gabrielle found herself with nowhere else she could go. Eventually, she hesitantly set off down the corridor.
Pausing at Doriana's door, Gabrielle had doubts about how her appearance in the middle of the night would be received but, with the only alternative returning to her own chamber alone, she mustered up her courage and knocked gently on the doorframe. "Dori?"
She repeated this again after a few moments of silence before a sleepy voice came back to her from inside the chamber. "Is that you, Gabrielle? God's what time is it? Sorry… come in."
Gabrielle slowly stepped inside her friend's bed chamber, only barely lit with a slow-burning candle standing on a simple table. The chamber was a little bigger than Gabrielle's and, from what she could see, it contained only a few items more.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle? Are you all right?" Dori asked concerned, leaning up on one elbow and peering at her young friend.
"I…" Gabrielle suddenly felt foolish. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have bothered you. Go back to sleep." She turned to leave.
"Hey! Wait! Don't go." Gabrielle stopped, still facing away. "Come here and tell me what's wrong. Something obviously is. Come on, come here." Dori persisted.
Gabrielle sighed and turned, shuffling over to the bed and sitting on its edge. "I'm really sorry. I'm just being silly."
Dori started gently rubbing Gabrielle's back and shoulders. "Well, something dragged you out of your bed in the middle of a cold night, so let me be the judge of how silly it is."
"I had a nightmare, that's all."
"About what happened today?"
"Mmm. Sort of." The blush was invisible in the darkened room.
Dori looked closely at her friend's hunched form perched on the edge of her bed and felt a shudder as it shivered through the slight body under her hand. Pausing only a moment, she made a decision. She lifted the blanket. "Come in here Gabrielle, you must be freezing." She said, knowing that it wasn't only the cold that was the problem.
Gabrielle started slightly and looked over her shoulder at Doriana and at the space beside her in the warm and welcoming bed. She suddenly didn't want to be strong any longer. She wanted to be held, to be cuddled, to feel, just for a short while, that she was safe. She lay down, sliding her feet under the blanket, her back to her friend's warmth. "Thanks, Dori" she whispered.
Dori's arm wrapped around Gabrielle's waist and she gently pulled the young slave up against her. She felt Gabrielle tense up at first but very quickly relax against her. Dori laid her head on the pillow, her nose just touching the blonde hair in front of her. She breathed in Gabrielle's scent and only just held onto a small groan that threatened to escape from her throat. After a few moments the young blonde's breathing started to calm and become deeper. Dori, too, felt her eyelids starting to close. "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle." she whispered. "You're safe here, with me."
- - -
The two women's positions hadn't changed at all by the time sounds of activity out in the corridor started filtering through into the bed chamber.
Dori woke first, the feel and scent of the body pressed up against her making it the most delightful awakening she could remember. She propped herself up on one elbow and looked fondly down at the blonde head, still soundly asleep. Regretfully she knew that she had to get started on the day and also that it wouldn't be a good idea for her to be found in bed with the Conqueror's body slave. She gently squeezed the waist under her arm. "Gabrielle! Come on, time to wake up."
"Jus' 'nother minit" came the immediate response.
Dori chuckled, remembering the almost identical response she had received on the first morning of Gabrielle's residence in the palace. She mentally started counting, waiting for the expected explosion. Her expectation was disappointed but she was absolutely delighted with the alternative.
Gabrielle wriggled backwards, pressing herself against Dori's body. "Mm, this is nice." she said. "Soft and warm."
Doriana couldn't prevent the groan from emerging this time. She coughed quickly to try to cover it. "Yes, well, nice as it may be, we have to get going."
Gabrielle sighed then rolled over, propping her head on her hand in a mirror image to her bed mate's pose. She looked into her friend's brown eyes for a moment before speaking. "Dori… thank you. I really needed… someone, last night." She leaned forward and placed a very gentle kiss on a very surprised Dori's lips before pulling back and climbing out of bed. "I'd better scoot back to my own chamber before someone catches us, I suppose. See you in the kitchen for breakfast." She peered carefully out of the door, gave a little wave and disappeared.
Dori released the breath she had been holding and let her head drop onto the pillow with a thump, a gentle smile shaping her lips as she dreamily looked up at the ceiling.
- - -
The kitchen was quite crowded with Gabrielle, Doriana, Marenne and three others that Gabrielle didn't know, all munching on a simple breakfast of bread and fruit.
The sound of running footsteps along the corridor in a surreal echo of the previous day drew all eyes towards the doorway. The footsteps stopped and then Arienne stepped slowly into the kitchen. She looked at Marenne with a slightly defiant look in her eyes before speaking. "The Conqueror's back. She wants a breakfast, a bath and…" her eyes tracked over to find Gabrielle, "her slave." She finished with her voice barely audible.
Gabrielle immediately lost what was left of her appetite and stood up intending to return to her chamber.
Marenne watched the blonde slave swallow and stand, then took command. "Gabrielle, wait a moment. Doriana, see to the breakfast tray and take it to Gabrielle's chamber again. Bree and Helene see to the Conqueror's bath." The three slaves jumped up to carry out their tasks, Doriana gently squeezing Gabrielle's arm on the way past.
Marenne walked over to face Gabrielle. "Now remember, child. Everything will be fine. Keep that chin up." She flicked her fingers under Gabrielle's chin.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the plump maid and gave a quick squeeze before turning and leaving the kitchen, pushing her fear away even as it threatened to cause her breakfast to make a reappearance.
Doriana entered Gabrielle's chamber to find her sitting on the edge of her bed staring vacantly at a spot on the opposite wall. She carefully balanced the tray she carried on the small table and turned to face her young friend. "Hey. Aren't you ready yet?"
Gabrielle turned not-quite-focussed eyes to Dori's face. "Dori, what do you think she'll do?" she asked quietly.
Dori blew out a breath and crossed to the bed, sitting on the edge next to Gabrielle, closely enough that their hips touched gently. She took a moment to marshal her thoughts before answering. "I think, what Marenne said is right." Gabrielle turned her head to look into her friend's eyes. "If the Conqueror was going to punish you then she would have done." She paused for thought. "She may say something more about it I suppose, but I don't think it'll be too bad." She tried hard to keep the small nagging fear she felt from showing in her eyes.
"I wish I felt as certain about that as you do." Gabrielle muttered, shrugging her shoulders.
"Well, if we don't get you ready and into her chambers quickly, what I think about what happened yesterday will be irrelevant. Come on let's get you changed." Dori stood and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. She crossed over to the box against the wall and opened its lid. "Which do you want to wear; blue, crimson or yellow?"
Gabrielle winced at the garishly coloured dresses she had available to her. "Crimson. She said. "If I'm going to go, I'll go out with a splash." She bent down to grab hold of the hem of her shift and whipped it off over her head.
Dori turned to object to her friend's defeatist comment only to freeze, her eyes widening, when she saw the almost nude figure twisting to drop the shift on her bed and then turn back expecting to be handed her dress.
"Dori? Are you alright?"
Dori's blush reached her hairline even before she could gather herself and turn back to the box to retrieve the dress. She picked up the crimson clothing and handed it to the young slave, her eyes finding something fascinating on the wall just behind Gabrielle's right shoulder to stare at.
A small puzzled smile quirked at Gabrielle's mouth as she looked at her friend's flushed face then she felt her own face warming as several of Dori's comments and gestures over the last two days suddenly combined to provide her with an explanation. "Thank you." She said quietly as she took the dress and quickly stepped into it, pulling it up onto her shoulders. "Can you help me tidy up my hair?"
"Oh, sure." said Dori shyly, finally looking into Gabrielle's face again to find a gentle smile waiting for her. She lowered her gaze, embarrassed at being caught staring so openly. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I…" she gulped, "I just think you're beautiful."
Gabrielle was stunned at the simple but unexpected declaration and felt, she had to admit to herself, very flattered. So many things had happened, to her and around her, since coming to the Conqueror's palace that she hadn't really had time to sort out her feelings about any of it. Dori had been a good friend to her, at a time when she really needed one but, until this moment, she hadn't even considered that it might be something else from Dori's point of view. She quickly wondered how she felt about that, and found herself to be flattered once again.
She looked at her friend's lowered face and felt a surge of affection for the woman, only a few summers older than her. She gently lifted Dori's chin with her fingers and looked steadily into her eyes. "Thank you, Dori." She smiled.
A wash of relief spread across Doriana's features as she smiled back. "Come on," she said, composing herself, "let's get your hair organised."
- - -
Helene wedged her foot against the door, holding it open, and made room for Gabrielle to slip past her and enter the Conqueror's chambers carrying the tray of breakfast.
Gabrielle smiled at the young slave, glancing at the empty pails that she held in her hands. "Thanks, Helene. How's it going?" she said, nodding at the buckets.
Helene smiled back. "That's the last of it. We're done." She paused, wanting to say something else. "Good luck." She whispered and scooted out of the door, closing it behind her.
Gabrielle puffed out her cheeks and looked around the chamber finding it devoid of any tall, dark, intimidating women. She sucked in a deep breath and sighed it out again, taking stock of her emotions at that moment. She was surprised to realise that, apart from feeling scared half to death, she was actually looking forward to seeing the Conqueror again. Shaking her head in disbelief at herself, she set off towards the bed chamber.
As she entered she immediately saw the Conqueror sitting in the same chair that she had been in the previous day, except that it was now at the other side of the room beside a low table. The Conqueror was wearing the colourful, silk robe that Gabrielle had seen before, her almost black hair cascading over her shoulders, and she was lounging back in the chair with her legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles.
"Ah! My argumentative sweet thing." Xena's smile was not dissimilar to what one would expect to see on a hungry wolf just before it makes a snack out of a helpless rabbit. "Put that down on here." She nodded towards the table.
Gabrielle almost stumbled as she hastened to put the tray down before the shaking in her limbs scattered its contents across the floor. Turning, she looked at the woman seated beside her and she suddenly felt the worst of her fear ebb away as a surge of courage, born from the resignation to, and acceptance of her fate, steadied her limbs and gave her the strength to stand a little more upright.
Xena raised an eyebrow as she watched the inner strength flow through her slave. Her predatory smile relaxed a little as she once again found herself incredibly attracted to this petite, blonde woman.
In a moment of perfect symmetry, Gabrielle realised why she had been looking forward to seeing Xena again; the delicious tingling in her belly igniting again as she admired the beautiful features on the face she was watching.
"I've been to visit your friends in Nigrita." Xena broke the slightly longer than necessary silence with a seductively, purring voice.
It took a few moments for Gabrielle to recover full brain function and to realise what the Conqueror was talking about. "Um, they're not actually my friends," she said. "I don't know anybody there, I just happen to know of it because it's near to Potedia."
Xena chuckled and shook her head slightly, dismissing her slave's correction. "Turns out you were right. The town leaders were lining their own pockets with the taxes that the villagers thought they were paying to me."
"Oh! That's good, right?" said Gabrielle, hopefully.
"Mm." replied Xena, non-commitally. "Seems they also had a scheme going with the leaders of a few of the nearby villages too. Evading a lot of my taxes in fact. I've got quite a bit of clearing up to do there."
"So you didn't have to kill them all?" The hopeful words were out of Gabrielle's mouth before she could stop them.
Xena narrowed her eyes and peered at the outspoken slave, long enough for Gabrielle's knees to start quivering again.
"No, I didn't kill them all."
Gabrielle breathed out, the tension draining from her shoulders and her eyes closing in relief.
"Only half of them."
Green eyes snapped open, staring in disbelief.
"Just the women and children."
Gabrielle's mouth was open, her lungs filled with air, the words already forming in her brain, before she noticed the small quirk at the corner of the Conqueror's lips. She closed her mouth and blew out a long breath. "You're playing with me." She blurted indignantly and then after a moment's pause. "You are teasing me, aren't you?"
The Conqueror just smiled, a full, self-satisfied smile, as she leant forwards and picked up a piece of bread from the tray on the table and winked at her slave.
"Thank the Gods." Gabrielle whispered.
Xena raised the bread towards her mouth and suddenly stopped, looking closely at it. "You haven't let a dog lick this, have you?" Her eyes looked up, challengingly.
Gabrielle looked surprised. "What? No! Why would I do that?"
Xena just cocked one eyebrow, paused a heartbeat and then bit off a chunk of the bread.
"Besides," continued Gabrielle after a few heartbeats, "I couldn't find a dog."
The Conqueror stopped chewing and looked up at Gabrielle's face, a hint of alarm in her eyes, only to find a shy smile on delicate lips and in green eyes waiting for her.
There was a silence of several moments while Xena swallowed her mouthful of bread before she broke out into a chuckle which rapidly burst into a full blown laugh. "Oh, I knew there was a reason to keep you around." she said shaking her head gently.
Gabrielle heaved a silent sigh of relief, her instinct that she was talking to the Conqueror's playful side proving to be correct.
Xena tossed her piece of bread back onto the tray and picked up her mug of wine taking a deep draw from it, all the while watching her young slave with eyes that grew increasingly amorous. Their effect on Gabrielle caused the earlier tingling she had felt to swell into a full-blown ache, centring itself deep in her pelvis.
Xena drained the mug and stood, turning towards the bath chamber. "Bath time." She said.
Although not instructed to follow, Gabrielle was certain that she was expected to do so, so she did.
Shrugging off her robe, Xena walked over to the sunken tub and lowered herself into it, turning and sitting to rest her back against its far wall. She watched her slave enter the chamber and hesitantly step forward before stopping a few paces from the tub's edge.
"Are you getting in with your dress on?" Xena drawled.
Gabrielle's eyes widened slightly. "Oh! No. Of course not. I wasn't sure that…" her voice tailed off as she watched Xena's eyebrows slowly climb her forehead. She wriggled out of her breeches and pushed the dress' straps off her shoulders letting the garment drop to the floor leaving her standing completely naked.
Xena's eyes began a hungry caress up and down the length of Gabrielle's body taking in the shapely, muscular legs, the generous curve of her hips, lingering on the youthful, firm breasts, their nipples already puckering in anticipation, before dropping again to focus on the blonde triangle at the apex of her legs.
Gabrielle felt her knees unlock and she only just kept herself upright as she took small steps up to the edge of the bath, eventually lowering herself into it, feeling the pleasantly hot water stimulate her skin.
No sooner had her feet touched the bottom of the bath than Xena surged forward circling Gabrielle's waist with her arms. She spun her captive around pulling her slave's back up against her body, then let herself relax back against the wall of the bath again, carrying the petite body with her. Xena hooked her feet around Gabrielle's legs and firmly spread them apart, her hands already teasing and squeezing and caressing the helpless body in her arms, to the accompaniment of a variety of squeaks, moans and sighs coming from the blonde's throat.
- - -
Gabrielle felt completely boneless as she lounged back against the Conqueror's chest, wondering how it was possible to experience such sensual intensity without passing out completely.
Xena sat quietly, slowly stroking Gabrielle's stomach with one hand, the other holding and gently squeezing a breast. If she had thought about what she was about to say she would have questioned her own sanity. "In future," she said quietly, "I will allow you to ask permission if you want to tell me your views on things… as long as we are alone. However, you will not, under any circumstances, argue with me. Is that clear?"
Gabrielle jumped slightly, she had been half asleep. It took her a few moments to process what the Conqueror had just told her.
"Is that clear?" Xena repeated slightly more loudly.
"Yes, my Lord." Gabrielle mumbled, still not absolutely sure that she had heard correctly. She felt Xena sigh behind her.
"And when we are being… intimate like this, you may call me Xena."
Wide-eyed, Gabrielle stopped breathing for a moment, wondering if, perhaps, she was actually fully asleep and she was dreaming. Taking stock, she decided she wasn't and decided to test out her new freedom. "Thank you… Xena."
"Mm!" Xena purred, finding the sound of her name from her slave's lips quite pleasant.
There was sudden surge of motion and Gabrielle felt the Conqueror rise up behind her, the warm water flowing in to take the place of the firm body against her back. She turned around to find the Conqueror sitting on the very edge of the bath, her legs still dangling into the water, one to each side of her. She looked up into Xena's slightly hooded eyes, an aching desire gazing back at her.
The Conqueror reached out an arm, grasping Gabrielle's blonde hair at the back of her head firmly, but not roughly, and pulled the attached head into the angle between her splayed legs. It wasn't many heartbeats before more sighs and moans emerged, although this time from a quite different source.
- - -
Xena heard the gentle tapping on her outer door as she lounged in the now cooling water and looked across at the blonde head, its eyes closed as Gabrielle dozed.
After Gabrielle had finished her enforced snack and Xena's body had eventually recovered its normal levels of control, the taller woman had slid back into the water and had her slave wash her thoroughly with the perfumed soap. She had then watched as the blonde had relaxed back into the water and allowed her eyes to slide closed, finding herself bemused that it didn't bother her, as it normally would, that her slave seemed content and relaxed to the point where she would simply doze off.
As expected, a few moments later she heard a gentle enquiry from outside her bed chamber. "My Lord?" Another few moments and the question was repeated, this time from just outside the bathing chamber. "My Lord?"
"Yes, what is it?" she replied.
Gabrielle's eyes snapped open and she allowed herself to sink lower into the water so that only the tops of her shoulders were showing.
Doriana appeared in the doorway, her eyes immediately finding the Conqueror before flicking across to observe the other person in the bath. She hesitated, briefly, before composing herself and looking back at her mistress. "My Lord. The Persian weaver is here to show you a selection of his rugs."
Xena closed her eyes and sighed. "Hades, I'd forgotten about that." She looked up into Dori's face. "Bring him up, I'll meet him in my outer chamber."
Dori nodded, turned and left.
Xena hoisted herself out of the bath and began towelling herself off. "Get dressed and join me." She said to Gabrielle, picking up her robe. She walked out of the chamber as she pulled it on over her arms.
Gabrielle took a moment to wonder what Doriana thought about what she had just seen, then stood up to follow the Conqueror's instruction.
Doriana was just escorting the rug maker into the outer chamber when Gabrielle walked out of the door to the bed chamber. The two friends' eyes met and locked briefly before Gabrielle lowered her gaze, a delicate flush colouring her cheeks.
"My Lord, Conqueror. Thank you for this great honour in allowing me to show you the fruits of my labours. My carpets are the best in your empire and I am sure that I have something here that will take your fancy." The rug maker bowed low to the Conqueror who was seated in a chair at the far side of the large table that occupied a large part of the outer chamber.
Dori turned to leave, closing the door behind her and Gabrielle walked slowly over to stand beside Xena.
"Mm, I certainly hope so," growled the Conqueror, "otherwise you will have wasted my time." She scowled at him.
Surprisingly, the artisan held his composure, although he did swallow heavily. "Of course, my Lord. I am sure you won't be disappointed."
Gabrielle watched the man carefully, realising that this was not a simple, local trader. This was a seasoned businessman who would not be easy to intimidate.
The rug maker proceeded to display the rugs that he had brought with him, and Gabrielle had to admit that they did look excellent quality and were beautifully designed.. Eventually Xena made her choice of the one that she preferred and asked the key question.
"So, how much?"
"Ah, you have made an excellent choice, my Lord. This is one of my best that took many days of back-breaking toil and the thread that I used was of the highest quality, purchased from the best and most expensive spinners."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes having heard much the same opening spiels many times, from a variety of different trades people. Even so she was almost knocked off her feet at the man's next words.
"However, for you, my Lord, I can give you a singular, special price. Only two hundred and fifty dinars."
Xena hesitated. "Um, that sounds a lot."
"A fair price for a article of the highest quality, my Lord. There is little profit for me in this."
Xena stroked her chin, thoughtfully. "Mm."
Gabrielle couldn't believe it. She heard the hesitation in the Conqueror's voice and realised that she was about to accept. In the fraction of time before the deal was made, Gabrielle considered whether or not she could stretch her newly acquired freedom to offer assistance and save the Conqueror a lot of money. As was her way, she leapt in without thinking too hard about possible consequences. Leaning forward she whispered very quietly into her mistress' ear. "Xena, if I may, please let me negotiate with this thief for you."
Four different reactions warred for dominance inside the Conqueror. Firstly was the instinct to lash out and discipline the insolent slave who, not only spoke out of turn, but also used her name. This was tempered, however, by the sultry whisper in her ear that was accompanied by a sweet breath of warm air tickling the skin of her cheek causing the hairs at the back of her neck to sit up and take notice. Next there was the possibility of her being able to avoid any kind of bartering, for which she had an absolute hatred. Finally, Gabrielle's use of the word thief raised her hackles and set her wondering if indeed this merchant was trying something on. In the end, she simply sat back, unable to decide what to do, and waved a hand casually towards the puzzled rug maker.
A half candlemark later the rug merchant left the Conqueror's chambers with one hundred dinars in his purse and two fewer rugs than when he arrived. He felt as if he had just been mauled by one of the Conqueror's champion wrestlers and made a note to spread the word amongst his fellow merchants to be wary of the Conqueror's blonde assistant.
"Whew! That went well." chirped Gabrielle, turning to look at Xena with a satisfied smile on her face, a smile that gradually faded as she stared at the blank expression. She started to wonder if the Conqueror didn't think that it had gone as well as she had.
"I think," began Xena slowly, looking up into her slave's eyes, her face betraying no emotion, "that I should use you to do all of my financial negotiations from now on." Her eyebrows crawled up her forehead and she smiled.
Gabrielle let out the breath she had been holding and she smiled back. She made a small bow to the Conqueror. "My pleasure to be of service, my Lord."
"Yes, I know." replied Xena, with a smirk.
A knock at the door interrupted any further conversation. Xena sighed. "Come!"
An ugly man with a scarred face stepped into the chamber, stopped and ducked his head towards the Conqueror.
Gabrielle recognised him immediately as the person who had been in charge of the squad of soldiers that had ridden into her home town only a few days previously, slaughtered many of the villagers, including her parents and fiancé, and took several as slaves for the Conqueror, including herself and her sister. His appearance brought her plight and her losses to the front of her mind again, tears slipping down her cheeks as her head slumped forwards.
"Yes, Darphus. What is it?" enquired the Conqueror, unaware of her slave's reaction.
"My Lord, we have captured one of the warlord's men that has been causing us grief around the Northern border."
"Have you now?" Xena's interest was peaked. "Where is he?"
"I have him just outside, my Lord."
"Well, let's see what he's got to say for himself. Bring him in." Xena stood up from her chair and walked around to the other side of the table, perching herself on its edge.
Darphus waved two guards into the chamber from the outside corridor, dragging with them a man barely able to keep his feet underneath himself. He had been badly beaten, cuts and bruises around his face. His clothes were torn and there were several patches of blood on them, some of it still wet and shiny. By the look of the angle his left arm was hanging at, he also had a dislocated shoulder.
The guards dragged the man to within two paces of the Conqueror and stopped.
Xena looked up at Darphus. "Has he told you anything yet?"
"No, my Lord."
Gabrielle looked at the man, wincing slightly at the bloodied mess that was his body.
"Hm," Xena pondered a moment before stepping forward and poking two fingers into each side of the mans neck. Immediately the man started gagging and his limbs began convulsing. Gabrielle jumped at the sudden action. "I have cut off the blood to your brain. You will be dead in thirty seconds unless you tell me about your leader and his army." Gabrielle's eyes went wide as she looked back and forth between the Conqueror and her captive.
The man gagged some more and looked with panic in his eyes up at the Conqueror. "Toxius", he husked out.
"Toxius!" repeated Xena. "Well," she said turning to look at Darphus, "that's enough to make me feel sick." She chuckled, Darphus joining in. Gabrielle wasn't finding any of this very funny at all, in fact she was the one starting to feel ill. "Where are they camped?"
Around gasps for air, the prisoner croaked, "Serres, half a candlemark, North."
"Good." continued Xena. "And how many men?"
The man paused for moment, collecting the few thoughts that he had remaining. "Fifty." His eyes started to roll back into his head.
Xena sighed as her fingers repeated their stabbing motion and the man gasped in lungfuls of air. "Is there anything else he can tell us?" Xena asked Darphus.
Darphus just shrugged.
Xena turned to Gabrielle, who was working hard at breathing slowly and deeply and keeping her stomach contents where they were. "Pass me that scroll trimmer." She pointed to the table top.
Gabrielle looked over the top of the table and noticed the trimmer, shaped like a long dagger with a jewelled handle. She picked it up and handed it, handle first, to the Conqueror, wondering what she was going to use it for.
Xena turned back to the captured man and simply pushed the blade of the dagger into his chest, just under his rib cage, angled upwards slightly.
The man's eyes went wide as the blade punctured his heart and the subsequent drop in blood pressure caused him to pass out almost immediately. He fell to the floor where his heart continued to pump his lifeblood uselessly into his chest cavity.
Xena pulled out the scroll trimmer as the man fell, turned and handed it back to Gabrielle. "Go and clean that up." she said.
It took a few heartbeats before the command filtered through Gabrielle's shock. She took the blade, staring with wide eyes at the bright red blood coating it, turned and ran for the bathing chamber.
"Get rid of that." Xena commanded the two guards, indicating the body on the floor, then turned to Darphus. "Assemble three squads. I'm going to get rid of this pain in my ass once and for all."
The bustle of activity in and around the corridors of the palace, layered on top of all the events of the last candlemark, was causing Gabrielle to feel a bit disconnected from reality. A complete roller-coaster of feelings and emotions had left her numb and unable to feel anything else at that moment.
After reaching the bathing chamber in the Conqueror's chambers she had dropped the bloodied scroll trimmer into a wash-bowl and had then slid to the floor, sitting on her backside, leaning against a wall while she breathed deeply to push down the feelings of nausea. Eventually she had felt stable enough to stand and do as she had been commanded, washing off the results of the Conqueror's uncompromising approach to interrogation and execution. She had then exited into the bed chamber to find Xena donning armour and weapons. The Conqueror had turned ice-chip eyes on her and told her simply to return the trimmer to the desk and then to leave.
So, she had, finding herself wandering along the corridor, instinctively heading towards the kitchen where she expected she would find a little sanity. The normally quiet corridors seemed full of people, guards and servants alike, dashing back and forth on undisclosed errands causing Gabrielle to step smartly to one side to avoid a collision on several occasions.
Eventually she walked through the door into the kitchen, only to find still more frenzied activity. There were more people present than she had ever seen before in the kitchen with Marenne standing centrally directing activities, the main purpose of which seemed to be that of assembling a large quantity of supplies. She stopped and watched, simply unable to form any sort of plan.
The owner of the name jumped as the shout penetrated her haze-clouded brain and she realised that it was at least the third time that her name had been called, the owner of the voice obviously becoming irritated that she was being ignored. Gabrielle looked across at Marenne who was glaring at her. "Sorry! Yes?"
"Where were you, child?" she demanded, rhetorically. "Get over there and help Doriana with those vegetables." She indicated the far corner of the kitchen where the cool pantry was located, then turned to bark out more orders to someone else.
Gabrielle weaved her way through the mass of bodies to reach Dori's side. "Hey! What's going on?" she asked as she started to help loading vegetables into some sacks.
"Don't you know? You were with the Conqueror weren't you?" came the puzzled reply.
"Well, yes… at least for most of the time." It dawned on Gabrielle that she must have missed something when she had run to the bathing chamber. "I think I must have missed something though." she said, resignedly.
"Yeah, well… the Conqueror is off to war." There was a distinct trace of excitement in Doriana's voice.
"WHAT! War?" Gabrielle shouted in disbelief. "I was only out of the room for a few score heartbeats. How can she start a war that fast?"
Dori stopped what she was doing and turned to her friend, looking pointedly into her eyes. "She's the Conqueror." as if that explained everything Gabrielle needed to know.
"Mm. She certainly is." Gabrielle couldn't keep the distaste from colouring her voice.
Dori stopped in the action of turning back to her work and looked back at her friend. "Gabrielle? Are you alright?"
Gabrielle sucked in a breath and sighed. "Yeah, I think so." She shook her head slightly. "Just a lot happened in there. I'm… a bit confused, that's all."
"DORIANA! GABRIELLE! Stop dawdling and get on with your work." Marenne's voice cut through the moment, startling the two friends out of their mutual distraction. They turned back to their task.
"We can talk later, if you like." whispered Dori.
Gabrielle just nodded, her thoughts turning inside once again.
- - -
It was late afternoon before things quietened down in the kitchen. Eventually the numerous sacks and piles of food supplies had been ferried outside to be placed onto carts. Gabrielle had helped and had been awestruck by the sights and sounds of a small army being assembled and prepared out in the grounds outside the palace.
When the task was complete she and Dori headed back to the kitchen alone, the others loitering to watch the spectacle or drifting off to other locations in the palace. As they walked slowly in through the entrance, Dori slipped an arm around Gabrielle's waist and pulled her close. "So, you feeling any better now?"
Gabrielle relaxed against her friend and tilted her head to rest it against Dori's shoulder. "A bit." she replied, wearily, just as the Conqueror appeared from around a corner wearing full armour and weapons, walking directly towards them. Dori's eyes widened and she immediately pulled her arm from around Gabrielle and moved a half pace away from her.
Gabrielle almost lost her balance as her partial support suddenly disappeared. She looked up to see Xena walking purposefully towards them, her eyes narrowed, partially concealing the cold, blue eyes which were looking pointedly at Doriana.
Xena stopped a pace in front of the two women towering over them, her gaze remaining focussed on Dori the whole time. Gabrielle watched as her friend seemed to almost shrivel under the scrutiny. After what seemed like an age, but was actually only a few moments, Xena turned to face Gabrielle. "I will return in three or four days. Be ready." she commanded and resumed walking, out through the doorway.
Gabrielle watched the Conqueror disappear from sight before releasing the breath she had been holding and turning back to her friend.
Dori sucked in a huge breath that seemed to re-inflate her back to her normal size. "Whew!" she breathed out, relieved. "I thought I was a gonner for a moment there."
Gabrielle looked at Doriana, puzzled. "Why? What have you done?"
Dori looked at Gabrielle with disbelief on her face. "You really don't know, do you?"
"The Conqueror doesn't share." Dori replied, simply.
"Share? Share what?"
Dori rolled her eyes. "Her slave… you!"
The puzzled look on Gabrielle's face intensified for a moment and then her eyes widened as it was replaced by look of faint shock. "Oh! But we're not… I mean… well, we're not!"
"Gabrielle, what did she see when she walked around that corner?" Dori was being very patient.
A small frown crinkled Gabrielle's forehead as she tried to picture the scene. "Oh! But…"
"Doesn't matter." Dori interrupted. "It's what she thinks that counts."
Gabrielle had a sudden flashback to the first time she had delivered the Conqueror's meal to her chambers and remembered the swift punishment dealt out to a guard, simply for making a pass at her. "We have to be careful then." she said quietly.
"Hm. Hopefully she will have forgotten about this by the time she gets back. Come on, I'm hungry." She reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's hand, towing her off down the corridor towards the kitchen.
- - -
It was quite some time later that Gabrielle and Doriana found themselves in the corridors leading to their bed chambers after spending several candlemarks eating and talking with Marenne.
The older woman had wanted to know, in detail, all the events that had taken place in the Conqueror's chambers including those that had led to the army leaving to wage a war. Gabrielle had really got into the swing of telling the tale, excluding the part about the bath of course, finding it very cathartic to share her experiences with her friends. Then they had begun discussing the war, including the fact that the Conqueror had left with her army to actively take part. Gabrielle had found it surprising that it was fairly rare for the Conqueror to do that these days.
It was during the latter part of their conversation, when they had been talking about what would happen when they returned from the war, that Gabrielle had noticed both Marenne and Dori looking at her oddly with what she thought was sympathy and concern in their eyes. Neither of them had said anything that gave her a clue as to why, so she had just assumed it was because she would have to resume her duties after a few days respite.
"So, are you going to tell me what was up with you earlier today?" Dori's voice took on a slightly conspiratorial whisper as she turned her head to look into her friend's face.
Gabrielle sighed and marshalled her thoughts. "It's just that so many things have happened to me. I can't believe I've only been here four days." They rounded the final corner before reaching Gabrielle's chamber.
"And this is bothering you, how?" pressed Dori as they entered the chamber. "Oh, wow!" Dori stopped and stared open mouthed at the floor.
Gabrielle, too, stopped and stared at the carpet, that she instantly recognised was the additional carpet that she had bartered from the rug maker. She slowly shook her head from side to side. "I'm confused." She said.
"What?" said Dori, tearing her eyes away from the plush carpet that was easily as long as she was tall and half as wide, covering a good two thirds of the floor space in the chamber. She looked across at her friend and suddenly the penny dropped. "This is one of the rugs you got from the Persian, isn't it?" she guessed.
"Mm." confirmed Gabrielle.
"You didn't steal it, did you?"
"What? No! Of course not. How could I have done that anyway? I've been with you all afternoon." Gabrielle's voice carried a note of hurt that her friend would think she would do such a thing.
Dori caught the hurt immediately. "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean… I'm… sorry." She looked away.
"That's okay, Dori. I guess that happens a lot around here, so it's probably the most obvious conclusion." Gabrielle bent over slightly to look into her friend's eyes and smiled at her.
Dori looked back and smiled apologetically. "Well, not so much, actually." She paused deciding how to word the explanation. "Let's put it this way; anyone caught thieving never gets the chance to do it again." She grimaced.
"Oh, right. Well I can't say I'm surprised."
"So… Xena must have given it to you, eh? A thank you for getting her a good price."
"I suppose so." replied Gabrielle, somewhat bemused. "It just adds to everything else that's confusing me, though."
Dori took hold of Gabrielle's hand and drew her across to the bed and sat down beside her. "Come on, girl, talk to me." she said, giving her friend her full attention.
Gabrielle blew out a breath. "Where do I begin." she said. "Xena confuses me." She began, at last.
"Well," exclaimed Dori, surprised, "that's the first time I've heard her described that way. Frightens, intimidates, petrifies; definitely. Confuses? Nope. I always thought that you knew exactly what you were going to get with her."
"Mm. I kind of expected that too but I've seen other sides to her as well. She can be playful, passionate, gentle, and now generous. She didn't have to give me that carpet."
With each adjective that Gabrielle used Doriana's eyebrows hiked up a little higher, although she said nothing.
"But then, she can switch in an instant to being the frightening, cold, brutal person everyone thinks she is." Gabrielle shrugged and fell silent.
"I can see how you would be confused." said Dori, eventually. "You have seen sides of her that no one else I know has seen, that's for sure." She watched her friend's face carefully for several heartbeats. "Don't tell me you're starting to like her?"
Gabrielle's cheeks coloured slightly. "It's more complicated than that." she said, very quietly so that Dori could only just hear her.
Dori fell silent, watching.
"How can I like someone and hate them at the same time? How can I want to be with someone and fear for my life when I'm with them? How can I even bear to look at someone who took my whole family, my whole life, away from me?" Gabrielle's voice gradually increased in volume and desperation until she finished, seemingly drained of emotion.
Dori reached out and took Gabrielle's hand in her own, gently rubbing the knuckles with her thumb, totally at a loss for what to say.
"There's more to her than just being the Conqueror, you know." Gabrielle continued, quietly. "The other parts that I see… that's who she really is." She looked into Dori's eyes, seeking understanding.
Dori just raised her eyebrows and looked back sceptically.
Gabrielle looked down. "I know that's hard for you to believe. I don't even know how I know that's who she is, but I just do."
Doriana looked down at their joined hands before mumbling. "Well, that might change when she gets back."
"Why do you say that?" said Gabrielle, looking back up at her friend.
Gabrielle wasn't going to let it go. "No, come on. You and Marenne were both looking at me strangely in the kitchen whenever the subject of Xena returning came up. What's going on?"
Dori stayed silent, cursing herself for opening her mouth.
With a sigh, Dori replied. "When the Conqueror returns from a battle that she has been involved in, she is…" She fell silent, unsure how to explain.
"She is what, Dori?"
"I talked to Mikael about it once. He told me that he had been chatting to one of the Conqueror's senior guards who described it as battle-lust." Dori looked into Gabrielle's eyes, pleading for her to understand without needing any further explanation.
"Battle-lust? Lust as in…" Gabrielle's eyes widened.
"Uh-huh." confirmed Dori, nodding.
"Well," Gabrielle said, after a short pause and with a grimace, "things have got pretty lusty at times already," she blushed, "so I suppose I'll handle it." She didn't mention to her friend that her pelvic tingle had made an appearance as she thought about that.
Dori shook her head. "You don't understand, Gabrielle." She swallowed. "It will be rough."
Gabrielle's confidence, and the tingle, suddenly ebbed away. "You mean I might get hurt?" she whispered, peering into her friend's eyes, searching for a denial.
Dori reached over and took Gabrielle's other hand, holding them both firmly and looking back into her eyes. "Not necessarily… but, yes."
The two friends were quiet for a long time, both lost in their own thoughts, until Dori broke the silence. "Gabrielle, if you'd like me to stay with you tonight…"
Gabrielle looked up slightly startled at the change of subject and silently wondered about the other woman's expectations. "Dori, I don't know that I can…"
Dori guessed what she was about to say. "I know, I know. That's not what I meant. I just wanted to help."
Gabrielle saw only love and compassion in her friend's eyes and found that she didn't want to be alone. "Yes please, Dori. Stay." She said quietly.
After changing into shifts, the two women crawled into Gabrielle's bed, Dori curling around Gabrielle's back, as they had done the previous night. Dori could feel the tension in the young slave's body as she draped her arm over it and pulled it gently into her own. She kissed the back of Gabrielle's head and whispered, "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle felt herself melt backwards into the soft warmth and let the tightness in her muscles slowly ease out. "Goodnight, Dori… and thank you… again." she chuckled.
"My pleasure." Dori replied, smiling.
- - -
By the morning of the fourth day of Xena's absence, Gabrielle had fallen into a bit of a routine, helping Marenne and Doriana with their own regular tasks. There had been no further talk about the Conqueror or her return and Gabrielle had pushed it to the back of her mind, allowing time to fade the memory of her discussions with her friend. It therefore hit her quite hard when news of a messenger arriving at the palace filtered down into the kitchen.
Marenne returned from her reconnaissance to relay her findings to the other servants who had congregated in the kitchen.
"The Conqueror will return by mid afternoon. Apparently her information about the warlord's army was wrong. There were at least twice as many men as she expected, consequently the fighting was much more intense and prolonged. Her army has had many casualties."
"Has the Conqueror been hurt?" Gabrielle was surprised to realise that it was her own voice that phrased the question.
Marenne looked at the source of the enquiry, a gentle look settling on her face. "Not as far as I know, Gabrielle, no." She looked around seeing all eyes swivelling to look at the Conqueror's slave, some curiously, others with sadness. "Now, you all know what must be done to prepare for their arrival. I suggest you get started." She said injecting a tone of command into her voice. People started drifting away in twos and threes, whispering amongst themselves.
Marenne turned to Doriana, who had slipped a comforting arm around Gabrielle's waist. "Doriana, go with Gabrielle and help her get ready." She walked over to a shelf at the far side of the kitchen and retrieved a small flask of olive oil. She handed it to Doriana. "Make sure she applies plenty of this to herself."
Gabrielle looked back and forth between Marenne and Doriana with a puzzled look on her face.
"Doriana will explain. Now go on, off you go." Marenne dismissed them.
Dori gave a single outraged look at the older woman, shook her head then grabbed Gabrielle's hand and disappeared out of the kitchen door.
Marenne stood and looked at the empty doorway for several heartbeats. "May the Gods protect you, child." she whispered.
"All hail the Conqueror!" the cry rang out and the crowd responded by joining in with their own cheers as Xena rode in through the gates of the palace grounds at the head of a somewhat depleted army. The crowd's cheers began to be muted by gasps as the onlookers took in the reduced numbers and also the severity of the injuries that many of the remaining soldiers carried. Of the sixty that had left barely thirty had returned and of those, very few were unscathed. The crowd became restless as individuals began jostling for a good view to see if they could spot a family member or friend in the survivors.
Xena rode up to the Officer of the Watch and slid off the back of her horse, giving it a slap on the side of its neck as she turned to face the man. "Gordius, where is that lying bachae of a prisoner?" she spat, cold blue eyes in a burning fury.
Gordius flinched and swallowed, double-checking in his mind that this wasn't a trick question before he answered. "Um, he was dead, my Lord. We burned him."
"Hades be damned," she cursed, "I wanted to kill him again." She turned to review the condition of her soldiers, her eyes sweeping across them, making mental notes. Eventually she turned back to the officer. "Get the horses cleaned up and make sure the injured are treated. No one in this group is to be back on duty for at least three days, and make sure everyone receives double rations."
"Yes, my Lord. My Lord, may I ask, how went the fight?"
Xena looked at the man, impressed with his courage in asking the question given the obvious cost. She paused a moment, scowling at him before answering. "As well as could be hoped being outnumbered, two to one. The bastard and his gang are finished though; I made sure of that, personally." she snarled. She turned away and stalked into the palace, heading for the kitchen.
"Yes, my Lord?" the old maid answered.
"I hope there's a bath ready. I stink of sweat and blood." Xena grimaced.
Marenne's eyes quickly scanned up and down the Conqueror's body. "Are you hurt?" she asked, concern colouring her voice.
"No, it's not mine… well, apart from a few nicks, but nothing to get excited about." Marenne just nodded. "Send me up some food, I haven't eaten for twelve candlemarks." she paused a moment. "And wait for a candlemark before sending my slave; I want to bathe and eat before she arrives and… distracts me." Xena smirked.
Marenne closed here eyes and sighed quietly. "Yes, my Lord. Will there be anything else?"
"Not until the morning, no." The Conqueror turned and left the kitchen leaving the maid to fulfil her instructions.
- - -
The new rug on Gabrielle's chamber floor was almost worn through with her pacing back and forth waiting nervously for the prescribed candlemark.
Not knowing what to expect she had made final preparations when she had heard that the Conqueror had actually returned and had then discovered she had to wait. She had bathed, Doriana had made sure her hair was tidied and she had decided, a little reluctantly, that the sheer robe she had worn on her first night with the Conqueror was probably required.
She and Dori had also had a very embarrassing half candlemark as her friend had explained how she should use the oil that Marenne had given her. She wasn't really sure why it was necessary but Dori was not very forthcoming with any reasons, just insisting that it was a good idea. She found Dori's reluctance to give her any details a little unsettling, which only added to her apprehension about the coming visit to the Conqueror's chambers.
Now, though, the candlemark was up so Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath and blew it out again, heading for the door to her chamber; to crash into Doriana heading the other way.
"Urgh!" squeaked Gabrielle, as she bounced off the slightly heavier woman back into the chamber.
"Uh! Sorry, Gabrielle" blurted Dori at the same moment. "It's time."
"I know." Gabrielle replied, recovering her balance before looking up and seeing the distress on her friend's face. "Dori? Are you alright?"
A range of emotions flitted across Doriana's face as she stood looking at Gabrielle unable to find an easy answer to the simple question. Her lips parted slightly, then closed again, as if words that wanted to be said refused to form themselves in her mouth. Eventually a tear trickled from her left eye, closely followed by its twin from the right.
"Oh, Dori!" Gabrielle stepped up to her friend and enveloped her in a full, unrestrained hug. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. Tomorrow morning you'll come in here and shake me awake and I'll grumble at you and bury back under the blanket and then we'll go and have some breakfast and have a laugh with each other. You'll see." she whispered through the dark brown hair into Dori's ear.
Dori chuckled and sniffed. "I'm sorry." she said. Gabrielle just hugged her more tightly. "Please, be careful."
Gabrielle nodded. "I will."
They held each other for several more heartbeats before stepping apart. Gabrielle smiled while Doriana wiped away the dampness from her cheeks with her hands.
"I should go." said Gabrielle.
Dori forced a smile and nodded, stepping to one side as Gabrielle slipped through the door and out of sight.
- - -
Gabrielle trailed through the corridors towards the Conqueror's chambers, grateful that her own chamber was quite close by even though the corridors seemed to be deserted. She soon turned the last corner and immediately spied the same guard that had made a pass at her several days ago. Seeing no reason why she should provide him with a free show and give him further reasons to letch over her, she crossed her arms over her chest, raised her chin and walked confidently towards the door.
The guard noticed her approach and turned to watch her closely, still finding plenty of skin visible through the almost transparent material to leer at. Predictably he stepped in front of Gabrielle, forcing her to stop. His eyes continued to scan over her body and he licked his lips. "I can't let you in to the Conqueror's chambers without checking you for concealed weapons." He smirked.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, not only at the predictability of the comment but at the immense stupidity of the man. After the last encounter outside the Conqueror's chambers she felt sure that, if caught again harassing the Conqueror's slave, his punishment would be somewhat more severe than a backhander and an icy glare.
The guard stepped forward forcing Gabrielle to back up until she felt the corridor wall behind her. "Come on, don't be shy." the guard drooled. "Arms out, legs apart." He steadied himself, feet apart, in front of her and reached out with his hands.
Gabrielle felt the fragile grasp on her control, already severely weakened by the preparations and delays of the last few candlemarks, slip and with a surging anger, pent up since her incarceration several days ago, she threw her entire body weight and every ounce of strength that she could muster behind the knee that slammed, crushingly into the guard's groin.
The man's eyes widened to the point where Gabrielle was surprised that his eyeballs didn't fall out and he emitted a scream that the best dramatic actress in Athens would have been proud of, before he bent over at the waist and crumpled to the floor, whimpering.
Gabrielle immediately felt strangely empowered by her actions. She stood up straight, set her shoulders back and walked past the writhing guard. She paused for the merest fraction of a heartbeat before she grasped the door latch, opened the door and walked inside.
The outer chamber was empty, allowing Gabrielle the opportunity to stop for a moment to take stock and let her pounding heart gradually calm down. She felt surprisingly confident, even though there was a slight niggle of fear, and she acknowledged with a small smile when she recognised the now familiar anticipation over seeing the Conqueror again. And of course the delicious tingling deep in her belly also made a reappearance.
The next thing that caught her senses were the mixed scents of lavender and sandalwood, both of which she recognised as being from the Conqueror's soap and massage oil respectively. Gabrielle felt an irrational hurt begin to gnaw at her insides as she remembered how she had used the oil on the Conqueror's tall, firm body and then wondered who else might have done the same.
A sound interrupted Gabrielle's internal musings. A sound that both sent a shiver up her spine and threatened to dissolve the bones in her legs. A sound that carried threat and promise, delivered with a throaty growl and an undeniable aura of command.
"Get your ass in here!"
Almost of their own accord, Gabrielle's feet started moving towards the doorway into the bed chamber. Crossing the threshold, those same feet immediately welded themselves to the floor as the sight of a naked Conqueror, oiled skin glinting and shimmering in the light of the various candles and torches around the room, met her eyes.
Xena stood beside the bed, arms crossed over her chest, legs shoulder-width apart. Every curve on her body, from her flexed biceps, over her ripped abdominal muscles, all the way down shapely, defined legs, caught the lights highlighting the sleek, sensuous power that was the Conqueror.
Dimly, somewhere at the back of her consciousness, Gabrielle knew that she was staring. She didn't realise that she hadn't blinked or breathed for several heartbeats or that her lips were slightly parted, her mouth suddenly quite dry, unlike other areas that were rapidly becoming quite moist. She vaguely noticed that the Conqueror wasn't quite naked, she was wearing breeches of some kind that seemed to be made of leather straps. Gabrielle had absolutely no idea what they were intended for but she quickly forgot about them to resume her visual feast.
Xena smiled, enjoying the effect she was having on her slave. She lowered her arms, placing her hands on her hips, allowing more delicious curves to catch the lights. She watched Gabrielle's eyes widen and focus on the newly exposed areas. "Get onto the bed." she commanded.
Gabrielle swallowed and willed her legs to start moving, carrying her towards the large bed. She crawled onto it's surface and lay down on her back, still unable to remove her eyes from the vision beside her.
Xena's expression took on a predatory cast. "No! On your knees. Take hold of that bar." She pointed to a small bar at the head of the bed about an arms-length above its surface.
Gabrielle hesitated, looking at the bar then back to Xena's face seeing an expression that made her feel as though she was about to be devoured. A shudder ran through her body and slowly she raised herself up and turned onto her knees, shuffling forwards to grasp the bar.
Xena placed one knee onto the edge of the bed and leant forwards, quickly wrapping a strip of soft, silk-like material around Gabrielle's wrists and the bar. She pulled it tight and tied it off securely. Testing it, Gabrielle realised that she would not be able to let go of the bar, in fact, even if she was unconscious, she would be suspended in much the same position as she was now in.
A surge of fear rippled through the young slave's body as she realised that she was now completely vulnerable to the Conqueror. Every part of her body easily accessible for whatever Xena wished to do with it and she was totally unable to even offer any resistance or protection.
Gabrielle's heart was pounding in her chest, her breathing coming in short, shallow gasps. She felt her arms and legs shaking and her belly fluttering wildly. She watched Xena over her shoulder as the Conqueror walked slowly around the bed, the cool blue eyes never leaving the soft, young body spread-eagled before her.
She reached a small chest of drawers alongside the bed and, with one last, lustful stare at Gabrielle, she turned to open the top drawer. Inside was a range of long, cylindrical objects, one end of which was rounded while the other was flat with a flange. Her hand hovered over the largest, as long as her forearm and as thick as her wrist. She hesitated, a small frown crinkling the skin between her eyebrows as she glanced back over at the young woman on the bed. She looked back at the objects in the drawer and moved her hand to pick one up that was somewhat smaller.
Gabrielle watched as Xena made her selection from the drawer but, as the tall woman was turned slightly away from her, she couldn't see what it was that the Conqueror was doing. As Xena turned back, however, Gabrielle's eyes widened and her heart skipped as she took in the sight of the now well-endowed woman. Inexperienced though she was, Gabrielle had no doubt what was going to happen and, in a burst of dark humour, she almost chuckled as the purpose of the olive oil suddenly became all too obvious.
Xena climbed up onto the bottom of the bed and shuffled forward on her knees. She reached out and caressed her hands across Gabrielle's buttocks, gently lifting the hem of the sheer robe and pushing it up onto the trim back. She moved further forward, sliding her hand between Gabrielle's legs, spreading the now abundant moisture there, before leaning in and taking a firm grip on her slave's hips.
The last coherent thought that Gabrielle had was one of being stretched and deliciously filled.
- - -
Doriana raced through the corridors, heedlessly careering around corners, disregarding her own, or other's safety until she emerged into the kitchen, skidding to a stop on the hard, stone floor. Her eyes, brimming with tears, searching the room but not finding what she so desperately wanted to find.
Marenne looked up from her mug of tea as Dori burst into the kitchen, her face a picture of sadness and hurt. "She's not here, child." she murmured. "She never left the Conqueror's chambers last night."
Marenne's declaration seemed to drain all of the energy from her young friend. Dori's shoulders dropped and she stumbled over to a chair at the table, flopping down into it and burying her face into her hands. Tears emerged from behind her hands to drip off the edge of her chin.
"I hate her!" Dori sobbed.
"Hush, child." said Marenne, kindly, leaning over to rub the distraught woman gently on the back.
"Why should I?" Dori said in a louder voice, strength flowing back into her. "She's a bitch. How many is that now? And Gabrielle, for the god's sake. She was such a beautiful, kind pers…" her voice broke before she could finish, dissolving into deep heart-wrenching sobs.
"Oh, Dori, child. I'm so sorry." Marenne slipped off her chair and gathered the young woman into her arms, holding her tightly, rubbing her back while her sobs and tears soaked into the older woman's shoulder.
Marenne glanced up as Arienne sidled quietly into the kitchen and stood silently just inside the doorway watching the two women. Gradually, Doriana's sobs quietened down and the old maid looked over at the young girl. "What is it, child?" she asked quietly.
Dori lifted her head and turned to see who it was that had come in.
"The Conqueror has left her chambers." Arienne said. "She's gone to the training fields."
Dori snorted quietly, a look of distaste on her face.
Marenne sighed. "Doriana, you stay here, make yourself some tea. I will tidy up the Conqueror's chambers on my own this morning."
Dori sucked in a huge breath, drawing strength from it and standing upright, stepping away from the older woman's embrace. "No." she said, firmly. "I want to make sure that…" she swallowed. "Gabrielle is looked after." She frowned and nodded to herself.
Marenne looked carefully at her young friend and smiled gently, admiring the strength and determination she was showing. "Very well, then. Let's get started."
- - -
When Marenne and Dori entered the Conqueror's chambers, Dori found that a lot of her determination had been left outside in the corridor. She hung back, not wanting to approach the door to the bed chamber.
"You make a start in here," Marenne said, noticing the reluctance. "I'll begin through here." she said, moving off towards the doorway.
Marenne stepped quietly into the bed chamber and looked around, dreading that she would see what she knew would be waiting for her. The room was surprisingly uncluttered with only the odd article of clothing and a single pillow on the floor around the bed. On the bed was a different matter. The sheets and blanket were in tangled clumps and half buried in one of the clumps was Gabrielle. She lay on her front, her head, with eyes firmly closed, turned to the left side of the bed, the same side, Marenne noticed, that her robe had been casually tossed onto the floor.
Marenne's shoulders slumped slightly as she stepped towards the bed then she stopped, sucking in a breath as she saw a dark red stain on the pale sheets that covered Gabrielle's bottom. She closed her eyes, steeling herself, then resumed moving forwards until she bent down to pick up the discarded gown, studiously avoiding looking at the prostrate body on the bed.
As she lifted the robe from the floor she glanced to her right and looked directly into a pair of bright green eyes staring back at her.
"AYEE! By all the gods in Olympus!" she cried, falling over onto her backside.
Gabrielle hitched herself up onto her elbow, a concerned frown on her forehead. "Marenne? Are you alright?"
"Gods, child. I thought you were…"
Dori appeared in the doorway. "Gabrielle?" She didn't wait for an answer. She flung herself across the bed chamber onto the bed and smothered her friend in a fierce hug, completely oblivious to the fact that Gabrielle was naked. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Gods, you're alive." Dori rambled.
"I hope so." chuckled Gabrielle returning the hug, totally bemused by her friends' reactions.
Marenne sat on the floor watching the two young women for several moments while her own heart rate slowly returned to more normal levels. Eventually she shook her head and hauled herself to her feet. "All right, you two, break it up. We've got work to be done." She surprised herself at how calm her own voice sounded.
Dori relaxed her grip and the two women separated slightly, then Dori noticed Gabrielle's state of undress. She blushed, deeply. Gabrielle just smiled and chuckled, grabbing hold of the sheet and wrapping it around herself.
"Where's my robe?" Gabrielle wondered out loud.
"Oh, I have it here." replied Marenne holding up the almost torn in half garment. "Ah, I don't think it will be much use though." she said.
Gabrielle snorted. "Not that it hid much anyway." she said.
"Doriana, run down to Gabrielle's chamber and fetch one of her dresses." instructed Marenne.
Dori jumped off the bed, glad of a distraction to take her mind off what she had just been hugging, and headed for the door.
"And don't forget some breeches." Dori glanced back and nodded before disappearing into the outer chamber.
Marenne's and Gabrielle's eyes found each other and locked. "I'm sorry if I scared you." whispered Gabrielle.
Marenne just shook her head slightly. "Wasn't your fault, child. When you didn't leave the Conqueror's chambers last night, especially with her just returning from a battle… well, Dori and I just jumped to conclusions. And then, when I came in and saw you lying so still and I saw the stain…" the maid caught herself in mid sentence, here eyes widening. "Gabrielle, are you hurt?"
"What? No. Why?"
"The stain on the sheet." Marenne grabbed the sheet, quickly finding the dark red mark.
Gabrielle laughed. "Sorry, I shouldn't laugh, it frightened you. It's red wine. Xena spilled it last night trying to pour some…" she stopped, a bright red flush rapidly reaching her hairline.
Marenne chuckled and shook her head. "Well, as long as you're safe. I'd better get on with clearing up."
Gabrielle hitched herself up and leaned back against the bedstead She drew up her knees and hugged them to herself with her arms as her thoughts turned inwards to the previous night's events.
The first few candlemarks of the night's frenzied activities were largely a blur to the young slave, much of the time her senses had been on complete overload. Yes, it had been rough at times, but never cruel and it had also been very gentle too. Eventually, though, the Conqueror had seemed to be sated and Gabrielle had flopped bonelessly onto the bed, equally sated, praying that her dark haired mistress would not send her back to her own chamber immediately but would give her at least a half-candlemark to recover a little strength.
Gabrielle had just been dozing off when she had felt the Conqueror's arm slip around her hip and pull her over. She had mentally groaned to herself, wondering whether the woman's libido was actually endless, when she realised that Xena was actually just pulling her into an embrace. She had felt the Conqueror's long arm slide up her front, nestling itself comfortably between her breasts, and the warm softness of a body curl around her back. She remembered feeling safer than at any previous time since entering the palace and after a few heartbeats she had fallen into a deep sleep, only broken a short time ago when she was disturbed by Marenne moving around in the bed chamber.
As Gabrielle sat there reliving the night's events, she frowned and shook her head slightly, adding yet another contradiction to the enigma that she was starting to realise the Conqueror really was and wondering just what her own part was going to turn out to be.
- - -
"So, come on. Tell me what happened last night." Doriana and Gabrielle were sitting at the kitchen table having a late breakfast, the Conqueror's chambers having been cleaned and tidied. Dori held her mug of tea between her hands as she turned to her friend expectantly.
Gabrielle's eyes widened and her cheeks coloured slightly. "Dori!"
"What?" her friend's eyebrows raised as she smiled mischievously. Since discovering that her friend was still very much alive she had been almost bubbling over with playful energy.
"I'm not going to tell you what we did."
"I didn't mean those details… although…" she stopped when she saw the outraged look on Gabrielle's face and giggled. "What I mean is… you do realise that you are the first person ever to stay in her chambers all night, let alone her bed?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess."
"I don't think luck has anything to do with it. You must be good." Dori smirked.
This time, Gabrielle blushed. "I don't know about that." she said. "I don't know what I'm doing half the time. I'm just doing what Xena wants me to do."
"Well, it must be something special. She obviously likes you."
"Maybe." Gabrielle replied, pulling a face. "Although I'm not entirely sure why. I haven't exactly been the perfect, subservient slave. The more I think about it, the more I wonder why I'm still here."
Dori gazed at her friend's face, her own expression softening. "I can think of a few reasons." she murmured.
At that moment, a guard appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. He pointed at the two friends sitting at the table. "You two, come with me." he barked.
Marenne stepped forward, putting herself in between the guard and the young women. "What's this about?" she demanded.
The guard demurred slightly in the face of the senior maid. "The Conqueror demands their presence to answer charges."
Three jaws dropped. Marenne turned to face the two seated women. "What is he talking about?" her eyes switched between the two, waiting for an answer.
Gabrielle and Doriana looked at each other for a long moment then looked up at Marenne and both shrugged in what could have been a choreographed movement.
"They must come with me, now!" the guard was getting antsy, obviously nervous that this was delaying his carrying out of the Conqueror's order.
Marenne stepped to one side as the two stood and followed the guard out of the kitchen.
"What do you think this is about?" Dori whispered as they trudged briskly through the corridors towards the Conqueror's chambers.
"I have no idea. Unless…"
Dori turned her head to peer at her friend. "Unless what?"
Gabrielle cowered slightly. "I hit a guard last night."
The guard leading them turned his head slightly to glance at the diminutive slave, hiding the smirk that crept across his lips.
Dori's eyes went wide. "You hit a guard?"
"Um, yeah. Well, he was about to grope me." she protested, defensively.
"Where was this?"
"Just outside the Conqueror's chambers."
The guard couldn't help the snort that erupted from his nose.
"And you got away from him, how?" Dori said, incredulously, trying to imagine her petite friend besting a burly guard.
"Well, he was kind of…" she paused looking for the right word. "…incapacitated."
"Inca… what?" said Dori,
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "He was rolling on the floor in pain, alright?"
The guard burst out laughing. Clearly the story of the incident had somehow got around the guards' barracks.
"What did you do to him?" Dori was now having a serious case of hero worship.
Gabrielle paused a moment before answering. "Let's just say that my knee now has two small dimples in it."
The guard laughed even louder while Dori looked puzzled for a heartbeat or two before uttering an "Oh! Ouch!"
They reached the Conqueror's chambers and the guard wrapped smartly on the door, once, and opened it, pushing the two women inside and closing it behind them.
Inside, the Conqueror was pacing back and forth in front of her desk on her new rug. She was wearing a light tunic, loose pants and boots, and was twirling her chakram idly in her right hand. Standing at attention, just off the edge of the rug, stood the door-guard from the previous night.
Gabrielle recognised him immediately and whispered "It's him!" to Dori.
"Get over here!" commanded the Conqueror, angrily.
Gabrielle and Doriana walked slowly over and stood silently in front of the intimidating dark-haired woman. Gabrielle snatched a quick glance at the guard who simply sneered back at her.
"Apparently" snarled the Conqueror into Doriana's face, "you've been sleeping with my slave."
"Oh, Gods!" Dori mumbled, lowering her eyes to floor.
"It's not like that!" Gabrielle spoke up quickly. "Dori was just keeping me company. I had a nightmare and was lonely. She just…was a friend." She trailed off as Xena's piercing stare switched to her.
Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes, failing to see any deception in them. She turned to look at the guard.
"Well, I don't think I make noises like that when I'm with my friends." he sneered. Then he suddenly seemed to realise what he had just implied. "Not that I sleep with any of my friends." The tone of his voice enclosed the word 'friends' in quotation marks.
"That's a damn lie!" Gabrielle almost shouted, glaring at the guard, her own anger building.
Xena switched her gaze back and forth between her slave and her guard, feeling herself getting more and more angry that one of them was lying to her.
Gabrielle put her hands onto her hips, her eyes still boring into the guard's face. "You're just trying to get me into trouble because I mashed your nuts."
"And you're just a focking whore." blurted the guard.
"And I've had about enough of you!" Xena snarled as she casually flicked the chakram across the room, slicing through the guard's windpipe before bouncing off two walls and returning to her right hand.
The guard gurgled in surprise before crumpling to the floor in a heap. It was fortunate that he had been standing off the new rug since his blood immediately started pooling on the floor as it leaked from the deep gash in his neck.
"As for you." Xena stepped back in front of Doriana who looked up, petrified, into cold, blue eyes.
"No, Xena, please." Gabrielle stepped across, putting herself between the Conqueror and her friend.
Xena's anger flared. She grabbed Gabrielle by the arm and threw her roughly to one side.
Gabrielle bumped into the edge of the desk, backside first, her hands stretching out behind her to catch her balance, her right hand dropping onto the handle of the scroll trimmer.
The Conqueror followed her, raising her left arm across her body ready to deliver a backhand slap.
Xena's and Gabrielle's eyes met and locked. In the heartbeat that followed, as they looked into each other's souls, Gabrielle knew that the Conqueror wasn't going to hit her.
"NO!" Dori shrieked and lunged across, grabbing hold of Xena's arm.
Faster than Gabrielle could follow, the Conqueror twisted her arm free, grabbed the back of Doriana's hair, turned her around and pushed her up against Gabrielle, pulling her head back and exposing her neck. Her right hand holding the chakram raised to strike.
Time went into slow motion for Gabrielle and she felt herself become disconnected from her body. The scent of blood reminded her of her murdered parents and suddenly it wasn't Doriana anymore, it was her sister, Lila. Without conscious thought, her hand closed around the handle of the pointed scroll trimmer and drove it unerringly into the Conqueror's chest, just below her rib cage at a slight upwards angle. Instantly, time resumed its normal progress and she released the trimmer, shocked by her own actions.
Xena emitted a muffled grunt and staggered backwards, dropping the chakram and releasing Dori's hair.
Doriana's eyes widened impossibly as she watched the Conqueror step away with the handle of the trimmer sticking out of her chest.
Gabrielle stared in a daze at her hand, wondering why it wasn't covered in blood.
Xena took two more drunken steps backwards before her back thumped against the wall and she sank slowly to sit on the floor. Her eyes dropped to look, puzzled, at the handle in her chest, before closing slowly.
Several heartbeats passed without a sound or a movement.
Eventually it was Doriana who broke it. She shook her head as if to clear it from its paralysis then looked at Gabrielle for a moment before coming to a decision.
"I'll go find Marenne, she'll know what to do. You stay here." she said to Gabrielle and received no acknowledgement. "Gabrielle!" She grabbed hold of her friend's arms and shook her.
Gabrielle looked up into Dori's eyes, her own looking lost and full of horror.
"You stay here." Dori repeated. "I'll tell the guard outside that I've been sent to get some food. I won't be long. Stay here, okay?" she peered into Gabrielle's eyes.
After a few heartbeats, Dori's instruction seemed to find its way into Gabrielle's brain. She nodded.
Dori turned and walked over to the door. She took a deep breath, then, looking back at Gabrielle once, she opened it and stepped outside, closing it behind her.
- - -
The click of the closing door seemed to snap Gabrielle out of her own paralysis. She looked over at Xena. "Oh gods, what have I done?" she whispered. She walked stiff-legged across the room and sank to her knees in front of the body propped up against the wall. "I'm sorry, Xena." Tears finally flooded her eyes and trailed down her face.
A gentle touch on her cheek startled her and her eyes snapped open to find sad blue eyes looking back at her. "Oh, Xena. I'm so sorry." she repeated.
A faint smile twitched across Xena's lips as she continued stroking Gabrielle's cheek, her eyes speaking silently of sadness and regret. She opened her mouth but, at first, no sound came out. She tried again. "What's your name?" she said, hoarsely.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open as she suddenly realised that, for all the time they had spent together and after all the things that they had done, Xena had never once called her by name, and obviously didn't even know what it was. She raised her hand to press Xena's hand against her cheek. "It's Gabrielle." she whispered and turned her head to place a gentle kiss in the palm.
"Nice." Xena croaked.
They stayed like that, looking into each other's eyes, for some time until Xena's eyelids slowly lowered, hiding her blue eyes forever.
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand go heavy and she gently placed it in the Conqueror's own lap. Then she shuffled around and sat, leaning against the wall next to her, their shoulders touching.
- - -
Dori raced into the kitchen, hoping that Marenne would be alone. To her relief, she was.
Marenne turned at the hurried entrance. "Ah, Doriana. Has the Conqueror finished with you and Gabrielle?" Then she noticed the wide-eyed panic on the young woman's face. "Oh, gods, what's happened?"
Dori opened her mouth, then closed it and opened it again, not sure where to start.
"Come over here and sit." instructed Marenne, sitting down herself. "Take a deep breath and start at the beginning."
"Gabrielle has just killed the Conqueror." blurted Doriana.
It took several heartbeats for the older woman to process the statement, then she thought her friend was trying to play a trick on her, until the look on Dori's face convinced her otherwise. "All…right." she replied, slowly. "Now tell me what has happened, from the beginning."
So, Doriana did as she was asked and told Marenne the whole story. Thankfully, no one came into the kitchen during the tale.
When Dori had finished, Marenne sat back taking everything in. Eventually she stood up. "Very well, then. Doriana, prepare a tray of food and take it up to the Conqueror's chambers. That should convince the guard that your story is true. Then I want you to clean Gabrielle up and make sure she is thinking straight and bring her back down here. Don't talk to the guard unless you have to. We have to get out of the palace. Once it gets out that the Conqueror is dead, it will be chaos here and I, for one, don't want to be around when that happens."
Dori looked totally confused, the shock of the last candlemark still having its effect on her. "How will we get out?"
"I haven't worked for the Conqueror for six summers without finding back ways out of the place." she replied.
"Where will we go?" Dori still hadn't moved from her chair.
"To the safest place I know." Marenne whispered. "Cyrene's inn at Amphipolis."
It was several heartbeats before Doriana's head snapped up in surprise. "But, isn't that…?"
"Yes, child. Xena's mother's." Marenne nodded sadly. "And my sister-in-law's."
Dori's jaw almost hit the table top. "Then the Conqueror…"
"Is my niece." Marenne sighed. "Now, enough of this. We will have plenty of time for all of this later. Get moving."
Dori shook herself and jumped to her feet to carry out her part of the plan.
The Conqueror's chamber was silent. Dori and Gabrielle had left, as planned over a candlemark before. Xena remained, still propped up against the wall.
Three shimmers appeared in the middle of the chamber, quickly resolving themselves into the gods Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite. The three looked down at Xena's still form.
"We haven't left it too late, have we?" asked Aphrodite, concerned.
Athena looked carefully at Xena. "No, we still have time."
Artemis looked at the guards body, now surrounded by a substantial pool of blood. "You're sure this will work?" Artemis' voice was very uncertain.
"Am I not the Goddess of Strategy?" purred Athena, haughtily. "As long as you two are correct, then there is a strong possibility that it will… although it won't be easy." she winced slightly.
"Well, I know I'm right." pouted Aphrodite, glaring at Artemis.
"My Amazons, what's left of them," Artemis added reluctantly, "will follow my guidance…as long as her character is strong enough."
"It is." confirmed Athena. She sighed. "I want my beloved Athens restored to its former glory. My brother has had it all his own way for too long…to all of our costs. It's time for a rebalancing."
The other two gods nodded in agreement.
"Very well," continued Athena. "You two should go. Xena must not know who has done this. And for all of our sakes," she said, looking pointedly at Aphrodite, "make sure that Ares doesn't find out."
"As if!" Aphrodite exclaimed before disappearing in a shower of sparkles.
Artemis simply nodded once before following her.
Athena squatted down on her haunches next to Xena and place her hand on the scroll trimmer's handle. She pulled it out of the woman's chest and placed her other hand, quickly over the wound, a golden glow appearing instantly. After several moments, Xena drew in a breath. Athena stood and looked pensively at the still unconscious Conqueror. "Get it right, Xena, and we all win…well, except Ares." She chuckled and disappeared.
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