The Curse of the Conqueror
"Come in?" Gabrielle said curiously, then smiled brightly as the older woman entered the bard's room with the Conqueror following behind, looking down uneasily.
"CYRENE!" The bard jumped up to hug her.
"Are you all right, sweetie?" Cyrene asked, pulling back from the embrace and looking her over with concern.
"Of course I am," Gabrielle said warmly. "I was worried what you would think about me disappearing on you. I'm really sorry about that."
"You are not the one who should be apologizing, Gabrielle." Cyrene responded crisply, glaring at her daughter, whose eyes were still preoccupied with the floor.
"Well, now you know where I am," Gabrielle smiled.
"Are you ready to go home?" Cyrene asked, making the bard's smile fade.
"Go home?" Gabrielle said in confusion, glancing at the tall warrior who could not look her in the eye.
"Xena knows you can't stay here now. Isn't that right, Xena?"
"You can't stay now," Xena repeated, briefly glancing at the bard, then to the ground in embarrassment.
"Oh," Gabrielle said in confusion as her heart fell, not understanding why Xena was telling her to go . . . especially now. "It is good to know I still have a job in Poteidaia, then," the bard managed a feeble joke, forcing a weak smile at the pleased older woman.
"Of course you do, sweetie. Let's go."
"Uh . . . Cyrene? Could I say goodbye to Xena . . . alone?"
"I'll be right at the front gate, waiting. Don't be long," Cyrene said, casting a warning glare at her daughter before she left them alone.
Gabrielle looked at Xena, whose eyes seemed to want to look everywhere but at the bard.
"Well, goodbye," Xena said briskly, briefly glancing at Gabrielle before inspecting her nails.
"Why?" Gabrielle said with poorly disguised hurt.
"Your trip ought to be more comfortable going back," Xena offered with forced nonchalance, trying to ignore the sadness radiating from the smaller woman.
"Why are you sending me away now? I thought we were going to . . . ?" Gabrielle argued with desperation.
"The simple fact is you are a bard. And that's not what I need," Xena explained.
Gabrielle cringed at the painful words. The disappointment she constantly received from her family never hurt this much. "Of course you don't," she said, blinking back tears. "Who needs a bard?" She whispered rhetorically.
"You will be happier in Poteidaia, Gabrielle," Xena offered, needing to try and erase that miserable look on the bard's face.
Gabrielle laughed numbly. "Funny. I've been told by many people what would make me happy. The first person to actually ask was Cyrene . . ."
"She's a good and respectable woman," Xena said firmly. "And she cares for you."
Gabrielle nodded weakly and steeled herself against the ache in her heart. "Xena?"
Xena nervously looked at her, not sure what she would do if tears started falling from those sad eyes.
"I want you to know, that even if you don't need a bard, if you ever just want to talk . . . I'll listen," she said softly.
Xena swallowed hard and nodded uneasily at the sincere and unexpected gesture of friendship. Her heart pounded as the bard started to walk out of the room and out of her life. Towards a happier life, Xena silently repeated what her mother had told her.
The bard stopped at the door and turned back. "And Xena?" The bard motioned weakly towards the small, cozy table and said "You have my word," before she stood tall, took a deep breath, and left.
Xena stood alone in the castle's highest tower, watching her mother's wagon riding away. She watched as the two women and the wagon grew smaller until they disappeared over the horizon.
For the next few hours, Cyrene occasionally glanced at the bard, who hadn't said a work since leaving the castle.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked, only getting a nod and a sigh from the bard, who continued to stare at the terribly empty road ahead of her.
"We'll be home in time for dinner," the older woman said, hoping to strike up a conversation with the usually talkative bard.
Gabrielle sighed again and nodded.
"If you aren't up to performing tonight, I'll understand. You've been through a lot the past couple days."
"I'll be fine, Cyrene," Gabrielle offered with a weak smile. "The show must go on."
"Of course, sweetie. You want to stop for lunch now?" Cyrene asked, gaining a shrug of indifference from the bard.
Xena sat on her throne, staring at the huge portrait of herself covering most of the wall. She used to take pride in that picture, which depicted her magnificence as she stood victoriously, with her bloody sword raised towards the heavens, her raven hair blowing in the wind, and her fiery eyes looking down at the contorted and bloody bodies of the pompous Caesar and his defeated army littering the ground. It was her most amazing victory. She had conquered the unconquerable.
She recalled the amazing high she had felt. Never had she felt so alive, until now. But this 'alive' was so very different. It was as if a piece of herself that had been missing had just been found. And now it was lost.
"Conqueror, am I disturbing you?" Daumas asked as he came in and bowed.
"Daumas," Xena said wearily and sighed, waiting for the red-headed advisor to explain his presence.
"I have the scrolls on the revisions to the tax laws for your review."
"I thought I told you to send them to my room, Daumas," she said with irritation, getting up from her throne and walking towards another portrait of herself. It depicted her defying the Gods and defeating the half-god, Hercules.
How was she supposed to know that beautiful woman was Hercules' wife?
Thankfully, Daumas was right there, ready to deal with the fallout. As usual, she considered with a weary sigh. And Daumas was good at what he did.
No one had learned the embarrassing story of how, out of the blue, this beautiful woman had hit on her and taken her to a remote cottage, where the Conqueror found out the woman was Hercules' wife. The demi-god himself barged in on them kissing on his own bed. She ended up fighting the enraged husband in her shift. But because of Daumas' quick thinking, the embarrassment became a "bold act of defiance." She had felt bad about killing the big guy because she was, after all, groping his wife in his own bed. But he was intent on killing her and she was not about to give up her life without a fight.
"So you did, your highness. But I thought I could save you time and brief you on them. I know how you hate the drudgery of reviewing law."
"There always seems to be changes to the laws, Daumas. Why is that?" She asked, looking at another portrait. It depicted her standing on a hill in Ithaca after a victorious battle. She didn't feel bad about killing Ulysses. It just felt right. He slobbered when he kissed, she recalled with a shudder. Then she found out the bastard was married! Why was it that people failed to mention to her that they were married? She pondered that mystery as Daumas continued.
"The people need them, Empress. Especially, these new taxes."
Perhaps it would help to know potential partners a bit more, Xena considered. Perhaps even ask a few questions, like "are you married?" Maybe if they learned a bit about her too, some of them wouldn't be so afraid. She used to welcome the fear. It helped her rule, Daumas said. But fear was really putting a big crimp in her . . . you know . . . life, she considered with a heavy sigh.
Where to begin, she wondered. She really wasn't a people-person, like Gabrielle . . . .
"The times are hard and to properly finance the government to help those people, we need to escalate the . . . . "
"Enough!" Xena boomed with great anger, startling her advisor. "I am not in the mood to discuss taxes, Daumas. Leave," Xena snapped, waving him away as she returned to sit on her golden throne.
"As you wish, my Lord." He said through gritted teeth as he bowed and left.
"As I wish," Xena whispered dejectedly to the empty room.
As Gabrielle filled the waterskins by the river, Cyrene unpacked the lunch and sighed. She was worried about the bard, who had barely spoken to her since leaving the castle.
Xena had no right to abduct the poor girl, who was obviously still disturbed by the experience. Xena, Xena, Xena, Cyrene thought with a heavy sigh.
The older woman scrambled to her feet, knocking the food to the ground as she dashed towards the river.
"Gods no!" Cyrene blurted as the two horsemen rode off into the forest with the bard.
"Get your filthy hands off me!!" Gabrielle spat as she was thrown into a cage on a wagon, joining three other women.
"Behave, little girl, or you'll be wishing it was just my hands on you," the thug with a few missing teeth and bad breath hissed and left the irritated bard with her cell mates.
Gabrielle looked uncertainly at the three women, who were dressed similarly in rather revealing leather outfits. The red-headed woman smiled at her, seeming much more friendly than the other two, who had scowls on their faces. Those two frightened the bard a little bit.
"Don't worry, they won't touch you," the red-headed woman responded softly.
Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed, glancing at the two intimidating women.
"Yeah. They don't want to soil the merchandise and bring your price down," the blond, curly haired woman explained.
"Great," Gabrielle blurted, resting her head against the bars. "And I thought my day couldn't get any worse."
"The day isn't over yet," the brunette pessimist offered as the wagon began to move.
The friendly red-head, Terreis, introduced herself first, then the two women with her. Gabrielle learned the cute blond was Ephiny and the moody brunette was Solari. Then she learned where they were from.
"You're Amazons?" Gabrielle asked with fascination as she moved to attempt to sit more comfortably on the bouncing wagon floor.
"Yes," Ephiny said proudly.
"Not exactly "wow" since we did get captured," Solari countered, shaking her head.
"We got ambushed," Terreis muttered with annoyance, drawing glares from the other two.
"Melosa's gonna be really pissed," Ephiny said, rubbing her temples.
"If you'll remember, it wasn't MY idea to go all the way to Athens to shop for earrings!" Solari snapped at Ephiny and they once again glared at Terreis, who rolled her eyes.
"You guys worry too much. My sister will realize we are late and send a rescue party," Terreis said with great confidence.
"How will they know where to find you?" Gabrielle asked, doubtful.
"Amazons are the best trackers, you know," Terreis explained to Gabrielle, who smiled with relief.
"You seem to forget what Queen Melosa said the last time we were rescued, Terreis," Ephiny said with a sigh.
"Wait a minute, your sister is the Queen?" Gabrielle asked with amazement.
"Shhh," Solari and Ephiny said, looking around for guards who might have overheard.
"Sorry. So that makes you a Princess?" Gabrielle whispered to Terreis, who nodded with a warm smile.
"If Melosa doesn't kill her," Solari blurted, getting a glare from the Princess.
"Shut up in there!" A guard rode up and banged his sword against the bars.
"No respect for his weapon," Ephiny muttered, gaining nods from the Amazons.
Gabrielle noticed they were heading near a river, then the wagon stopped.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle said with concern.
"We are going to be taken to the river to get cleaned up before we are presented to the buyers," Solari said.
"We could escape!" Gabrielle whispered with enthusiasm, intriguing Ephiny.
"Not likely," Solari said, making Ephiny sigh and nod reluctantly.
"She can't run," Solari informed the bard, pointing to Terreis.
"I can too run!" Terreis snapped defensively, then reluctantly added. "Just not fast."
"Why do you think we always get captured?" Solari offered.
"Can you swim?" Gabrielle asked Terreis, intriguing Ephiny.
"Yes!" Terreis responded happily.
The four women slowly walked to the river, surrounded by their six captors. Two of them were archers.
"We're outnumbered," Terreis whined. Solari and Ephiny looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
"We'll have the advantage of not being bogged down with weapons or clothing," Gabrielle offered optimistically, greatly intriguing Ephiny.
"The archers will be the most dangerous," Solari said, getting a nod from Gabrielle, who glanced to Ephiny, who was gazing at the bard with a smile. A shy smile was returned, making Ephiny's smile brighter.
As the women stripped down to their birthday suits, they endured wolf-whistles and disgusting suggestions from their captors.
"I'll definitely need to take a long, hot bath after this," Gabrielle said, intriguing Ephiny, whose eyes quickly lifted to meet beautiful green. Ephiny smiled and nodded at the genuine strawberry blond.
"The water's cold!" Terreis complained as she dipped her big toe in the water and made a big show of rubbing her arms. Solari glared at her Princess.
As the women started to go through the motions of bathing themselves, they slowly drifted into deeper water.
With very subtle nods between the women, they took deep breaths and submerged, except for Terreis, who squeaked in panic, finding herself alone and being shot at by the archers. The other guards scurried frantically around, blaming each other for the unexpected escape attempt.
Gabrielle popped back up, next to Terreis, as an arrow came dangerously close. "I thought you said you could swim!"
"I can. You never mentioned I had to get my head wet!!!" Terreis shouted back, making the bard groan.
"Follow me or die!" Gabrielle barked, then took another deep breath, before submerging. A very reluctant Terreis took a deep breath and pinched her nose, just before the bard grabbed her and pulled her under.
More arrows were fired, piercing the water as they made their watery escape. One arrow pierced flesh.
Ephiny and Solari broke the surface of the swiftly moving river and gasped, filling their lungs with precious air as their bodies were carried by the strong current. They looked around with concern when they didn't see Terreis or Gabrielle. Unable to fight the current, they had no choice but to swim to the river bank and wait for them to appear.
Terreis and Gabrielle finally broached the surface, gasping. They looked around for Ephiny and Solari.
"We need to get to shore," Gabrielle said to Terreis, who struggled with her injured shoulder. "I'll help," the bard said and pulled them both to the river bank.
"Ow," Terreis groaned and coughed as she was helped out of the water. She continued to gasp as she sat. Gabrielle knelt down beside her and inspected the shoulder wound.
"Thank the gods," Gabrielle said. "It is only a small flesh wound."
"Are you sure? It's bleeding an awful lot, Gabrielle" Terreis said with concern, gingerly touching the area.
"Gabrielle? Terreis!" Ephiny and Solari called out as the Amazons emerged from the forest. "What happened back there?" They asked, kneeling down beside the injured Princess.
"Terreis was . . . "
"Mortally wounded! Look! I'm bleeding!!" Terreis said with irritation, pointing to the scratch and a trace of red running down her shoulder.
"We can pack it in moss, to stop the bleeding," Ephiny offered.
"Eeew," Terreis said with disgust, making Solari want to strangle her.
"I'll help you gather it," Gabrielle said to Ephiny, who nodded.
"I guess I'll stay here and protect the Princess," Solari muttered to herself.
After a long walk into the forest, Gabrielle and Ephiny found what they were looking for. As they busily started to gather the moss, Ephiny kept glancing over at the bard. When the emerald eyes caught her, the bard flushed and looked away uncomfortably, making Ephiny feel guilty for staring.
"Sorry," Ephiny said, clearing her throat. "So, what do you do in your spare time, when you're not running naked through the forest?" Ephiny said to Gabrielle, who chuckled, making the Amazon smile with relief.
"Uh . . . Well, I'm a bard," Gabrielle said hesitantly, wondering if a warrior like Ephiny would consider that a dumb career.
"Really? Amazons have a great oral tradition," Ephiny said with a smile.
"Oh, I would love to hear Amazon tales!" Gabrielle responded enthusiastically, pleased Ephiny didn't seem to mind her chosen profession.
"I am sure, if you want, you will get your fill of Amazon tales when we get back," Ephiny said, glancing appreciatively over the bard.
"Wonderful!" Gabrielle gushed happily. "I can't wait."
As the two walked back to the water's edge, they stopped their chatting when they saw Solari kneeling over Terreis, frantically shaking her. "Wake up!"
"Terreis!" Gabrielle shouted as they ran towards the downed Princess.
"What happened?" Ephiny asked Solari, who looked up from the unconscious Princess in panic.
"I don't know! She said she was going to the forest. She was there a while, then came back. Then she just collapsed! Come on and wake up, Terreis!" Solari said, shaking her shoulders again.
"Come on Terreis, stop scaring us," Ephiny said uneasily, gently slapping her Princess' cheek and feeling for a pulse.
Gabrielle looked down at the Princess' hand and saw a red smudge. Inspecting the smudge more closely, the bard noted some berries on the ground that had fallen from Terreis' hand.
"Sweet Artemis. She's dead," Ephiny blurted.
Xena sat in the grand dining hall, alone, as she had done for many years. Though, tonight was the first time she had felt how big and empty it really was. She pushed her fork through her food and sighed heavily, having no appetite. Glancing at the small bell by her hand, she smiled slightly, remembering how indignant the bard got about the bell. She picked up the bell and weakly rang it with a sad chuckle. It was an annoying sound, she supposed, if you were on the receiving end.
"Yes, Conqueror?" Ungar quickly came in, anticipating her desire for another bottle of wine.
"I didn't . . . " she said and sighed, eyeing the bottle. "Leave the wine."
"Yes, Conqueror," he said, setting the bottle down. "Will there be anything else?"
"No . . . yes," she quickly corrected herself, surprising him with her unusual indecision. "Here," she said and handed him the bell. "Take it away."
He stared at it curiously. "Do I need to repeat myself, Ungar?"
"No, Empress." He said, clenching the bell as he bowed.
"Thank you, Ungar," she said softly, startling the servant with the surprising manners.
"Y. . . your welcome, Empress," he said uncomfortably, and left the Conqueror to her dinner.
She sighed and looked at the enormous, empty stage, remembering each word and each gesture of the small woman whose large presence easily filled that emptiness. Though she didn't believe in all that mush about love, the bard seemed to, the way she told her stories. It almost made her believe too. But love was not for rulers, Daumas said. It made you weak.
She shook her head, having never felt so weak in her entire life. A tear fell. Then another, startling the ruler who had not cried since Marcus' death many years ago. Xena cleared her throat and angrily wiped her eyes.
"I am not weak! I am the Conqueror!!"
She shot up from her seat, angrily knocking her plate and goblet to the floor.
They set the raft on fire and watched the Princess' body become engulfed in flames and taken away by the swift river.
Ephiny and Solari silently watched with great sadness. "The raft was a good idea," Solari said to Gabrielle, who scratched under her newly made hemp and moss shorts.
"Well, the slavers may still be out there," Gabrielle said, glancing around uneasily.
"And I'll bet they are not pleased at having lost the dinars you would have brought them," Ephiny said, scratching under her irritating hemp brassier.
"Ephiny, may I speak with you a moment?" Solari said with worry, though the warrior was very comfortable, never having mastered weaving.
"Ok," Ephiny eyed her uneasy friend curiously.
"You don't mind?" Ephiny asked Gabrielle, who shook her head no and watched the raft's journey as the Amazon sisters stepped back into the forest.
"What?" Ephiny asked, scratching under her brassier again.
"What are we going to do?!?" Solari said in a stressful whisper. "She died under our care."
"It's not our fault! She killed herself eating the damn berries!" Ephiny blurted, then the situation sank in. "Shit."
"Welcome to Tartarus," Solari said and mentioned "She never gave away her Rite of Caste either."
"SHIT!" Ephiny said again, starting to pace.
"I think we've already covered that," Solari said and sighed heavily.
"Well, Melosa won't believe it if we tell her you got it. You two never got along that well," Ephiny said, making Solari sigh and nod.
"Yeah, but everyone knows how ambitious you are. It would look pretty suspicious if you got it."
"Melosa knows I would never harm one hair on Terreis' royal head!!!" Ephiny blurted indignantly.
"Yeah, but Princess Valeska would now have real competition for Queen, if anything happened to Melosa. You know she'd make things very uncomfortable for you, if not come right out and accuse you of murder. Terreis did die under our care."
"SHIT!" Ephiny blurted and paced.
"I knew it was a mistake to accept this job. Of course, the Queen ordered us and we had no choice. But that won't matter at our trial, if we get one. . . ."
"But there might be another option," Solari offered, glancing back to the river's edge.
After riding all night, Xena made it to Cyrene's tavern by morning. She was going to take the bard back, the Conqueror thought with great focus as she dismounted into the deserted Poteidaian street. When she entered the tavern, she found were the people were. A crowd was gathered around her mother, who stood on the small stage.
"Group alpha will canvass the Northern roads, group beta, the South, group gamma, the East, and group delta, the West. Rubus and Perdicus will go with me back to the site and see if we can pick up their trail," Cyrene said.
"What is going on here?" Xena demanded, eyeing the older woman, who was startled to see her.
"The Conqueror." Some gasped with worry as the crowd made a wide berth for the dark woman who approached the tavern owner.
"Gabrielle was kidnapped by slavers," Cyrene admitted, seeing concern, then anger flash in her daughter's eyes.
"Show me where she was taken," Xena said evenly, noting the older woman look around the room-full of people with concern. "Please . . . Cyrene," Xena added softly, making Cyrene nod.
"I'll go with you too," Perdicus said, stepping out from the crowd as Cyrene got down from the stage with her daughter's help.
"No. You won't," Xena hissed.
"Ok," Perdicus squeaked and stepped back.
Xena stood and looked over the crowd assembled to help. "I will handsomely reward anyone who brings Gabrielle back safely," she announced, gaining some nods and murmurs of approval from the surprised crowd. "Slavery is wrong. I will severely punish those who practice it," she promised, provoking loud chatter from the gathering.
"What?" Xena asked with annoyance.
"Uh . . . you have slaves," a young man mentioned nervously, scratching his head. Cyrene looked down with embarrassment. "Yeah!" another woman chimed in.
"Oh. Yeah," Xena said uncomfortably. "Well, that's gonna stop. But right now, we must save Gabrielle!!" She said, thrusting her fist into the air, provoking a cheer before the groups left on their mission.
"Rite of Caste?" Gabrielle repeated curiously as they sat down by the small camp fire. "No . . . " the bard responded thoughtfully, shaking her head. "No, I really don't recall Terreis mentioning anything to me about that."
Ephiny and Solari looked at each other uncomfortably. "Well, it's not really spoken about aloud, you see," Solari explained with a shrug. "But she did give it to you."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely," Solari said, then smiled uneasily.
"She did?" Gabrielle asked flatly.
Ephiny swallowed hard when curious green eyes looked at her expectantly. The Amazon smiled weakly.
"All right, what's really going on here?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously, looking between the guilty looking Amazons.
"Nothing," Solari said. Gabrielle eyed Ephiny, who quickly crumbled.
"TerreisdiedunderourcareandnevergaveawayherRiteofCaste. Wearegonnabekilledif wedon'thaveagoodstorythatsomeonereceivedit," Ephiny blurted. Gabrielle blinked.
"FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!" Ephiny blurted and stormed away from their camp.
"Ephiny! Wait!" Solari got up and started to go after her friend but felt a surprisingly firm grip on her arm.
"Solari, please, tell me what is going on," Gabrielle asked.
"Why did you come back?" Cyrene finally asked her daughter as they rode side-by-side in search of Gabrielle.
"To talk to her," Xena said, which was partially true.
"To take her back, you mean," Cyrene accused with irritation. "Honestly, Xena, I don't know where you've learned to be so selfish."
"Try looking in a mirror, Mother," Xena said coldly. Cyrene wanted to respond, but sighed, realizing the truth in Xena's words.
"Oh dear," Gabrielle said, pacing. "But she was the one who ate those berries," the bard argued.
"But we were the ones protecting her," Solari said with a heavy sigh.
"How can you be expected to protect her from herself?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "You'd have to lock her up!"
"Don't think we didn't think about that," Solari blurted, shaking her head.
"I understand your problem, Solari, but I really don't feel right lying about this."
"You don't have to lie. We'll lie for you. We'll just say you don't want to talk about it. That would be the truth, wouldn't it?"
"I guess. But not saying anything and accepting something like that . .
. would be a lie."
"You don't have to keep it. You can give it back after we get back to the territory and get through this problem. No harm, no foul," Solari said with a shrug, glancing back at the forest uneasily.
"I . . . I don't know." Gabrielle said hesitantly.
"Please. You don't want to see us get killed because of Terreis' mistake, do you?"
"Of course not."
"It's the only way, Gabrielle," Solari said. "Please help us. We need you."
Gabrielle looked at the Amazon, unable to refuse the plea for help.
"It was here," Cyrene said, pointing to the clearing by the river.
Xena crouched down to inspect the ground, where hoof-marks were deeply imbedded in the moist soil.
"They went into the forest over there," Cyrene offered, pointing. Xena nodded and stood up with narrowed eyes. If those slavers harm one hair . . . .
"I should have done something, chased after them. She doesn't deserve this," the older woman bemoaned, wincing with guilt.
"You would have been killed or captured, mother," Xena said, then added, "But you're right. Gabrielle doesn't deserve a life of slavery. She doesn't deserve someone telling her what to do," the Conqueror said softly. "Or someone manipulating her feelings to get her to do what they want," Xena added, glancing at her mother.
"Are you saying I did that?!?" Cyrene asked defensively.
"Are you saying you didn't?" Xena said, looking critically at her mother, whose eyes dropped guiltily. "Mother, no one is innocent here . . . except Gabrielle," Xena added and sighed heavily.
"Why did you come back, Xena?" Cyrene probed cautiously, eyeing her daughter.
"To do exactly what you said, to take her back," Xena admitted stiffly. "But I'd be just like those bastards, wouldn't I? Taking away her choice, as I did before. She doesn't deserve that," Xena said with a heavy heart.
"You really do care for her," Cyrene said with amazement, making her daughter stiffen uncomfortably.
"It really doesn't matter," Xena said briskly. "I hurt her. The best I can hope for is that she lives a long life . . . despising me."
"You know she isn't like that," Cyrene softly scolded her daughter with a small smile. "And I don't think she would have been hurt, if she didn't care for you too. So stop wallowing in your self-pity, Xena. You've got a bard to save."
The next morning, the three women finally made it to Amazon territory. They looked at each other as they heard the loud duck calls.
"Big ducks," Gabrielle noted, looking around curiously.
"Put your arms up in the air, like this," Ephiny said with urgency, clasping her hands and holding them above her head as Solari did. Gabrielle nodded and quickly mimicked the action.
Four Amazons descended from the treetops and gracefully landed in front of the trio.
Gabrielle eyed the tallest Amazon, who stood proudest and fiercest. She was almost as tall as Xena, the bard noted, then felt a pang of sadness.
"I'm sure there's a good explanation for this," Valeska said, crossing her arms over her chest as she eyed the unfamiliar woman in a crude hemp outfit that matched Ephiny's, then Solari, who apparently felt the chilly breeze.
"We have grave news about Princess Terreis, your highness," Solari announced.
Valeska's eyebrows shot up with interest.
"Are you saying SHE was given the Rite of Caste?" Melosa blurted with amazement, eyeing the uneasy bard, who was scratching herself beneath her hemp top.
Ephiny, who scratched the waist beneath the hemp bottom and nodded with Solari, who apparently wasn't as cold in the hut.
Valeska snorted with amusement, eyeing the petite and nervous blond with disgust. Terreis would pick someone like a bard, she shook her head.
Gabrielle cringed at the contempt radiating from the Princess.
"Your highness," Solari said. "The bard bravely pulled the injured Princess to shore. But alas, the Princess died anyway."
"Why were you swimming? Terreis was never a good swimmer," Melosa asked the bard pointedly.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I . . . I had suggested we attempt to escape from the slavers while we were bathing," she said, impressing Melosa with her ingenuity.
"I asked the Princess if she could swim and she said yes."
"She would." Melosa sank down on her throne, shaking her head with a heavy sigh. "She was always sensitive about her lack of athletic ability. I knew one day it would kill her," the Queen said sadly.
"Queen Melosa, I am no warrior," Gabrielle began uneasily. "I do not deserve such a great honor as Terreis' Rite of Caste. I think it would be best if I gave it to Ephiny or Solari. I would not want to dishonor Terreis' memory or the Nation."
Valeska quickly opened her mouth in protest but Melosa silenced her with a wave of a hand. Ephiny looked over to Solari in confusion. The brunette Amazon had told her the bard agreed to be an Amazon Princess and stay in the village. She even said the bard really, really liked her. Could that be a lie too?
"Princess Gabrielle," Melosa said. "You do understand, that to give your title away, you have to die?"
"Uh, no," Gabrielle said uneasily, trying not to faint. "No, I can't say that I really understood that part," the bard said, then glared at Solari, as did Ephiny.
"So now that you do understand, do you still desire to give the Rite of Caste away, Princess Gabrielle?" Melosa asked.
"Uh, no. Un uh. I'm fine here," Gabrielle said briskly, then glanced at the imposing Amazon, Valeska, who continued to eye her with contempt.
"Well, then," Melosa said, standing up. "We shall have a ceremony to bid my sister goodbye and my new sister welcome."
"She really has spunk, you know. I should have sensed she was your type. And of course, you already know she's very pretty," Cyrene said with a warm smile as they followed the deep trail of wagon wheels, reminding the Conqueror why she never really talked to her mother.
"Thank the Gods I'll at least be in comfortable clothing when I die," Gabrielle said as she inspected her skimpy leather outfit. "Though, I might catch a cold first." She added, touching her bare stomach.
"You're not going to die," Ephiny said uneasily and started to apologize again. "You are not a threat to Valeska's position. She's Melosa's heir."
"She's Melosa's daughter?? Isn't she a little old?"
"She was adopted."
"Still. . . ."
"The point is Princess, that you'll be fine. . . ." Ephiny stressed.
"Unless they find out we lied," Solari blurted out as she barely entered the Princess' hut. Ephiny jumped at her, tightly wrapping her hands around Solari's neck. "Blech!!"
"Ephiny, no!" Gabrielle said, grabbing the furious Amazon's arms.
"Why not? She tricked you. She tricked ME. She probably fed Terreis those berries, for all we know," Ephiny growled, reluctantly releasing her grip around the brunette's throat, after the gentle coaxing of the bard.
"I did NOT feed Terreis those BERRIES!" Solari sputtered with a ragged breath. "And even if I didn't like her much, I would never harm her or any Princess."
"That's good to know," Gabrielle said, wishing she had assurance Valeska felt the same way.
"But you really don't have anything to worry about. . . ." Cyrene said to her numb daughter, who rode silently, staring blankly at the road ahead.
" . . . Perdicus is a really sweet boy who has always had a huge crush on her, even when they were toddlers," her mother continued with a smile.
Kill me now.
" . . . but he never really turned her head, well, except perhaps to look for an escape route." Cyrene snorted a laugh.
Xena looked up to the sky and blinked. If that's too much to ask, just make me deaf.
" . . . Oh, did I mention, her all-time favorite food is nut bread?" Cyrene asked warmly, waiting for a response.
Xena slowly turned her head, smiled thinly at her mother, and weakly shook her head no. She could just take her own life, and be done with it. But then, that would just be giving up. And while she might be many things, she was NOT a quitter. I'd rather die than do that!
Her eyebrows furrowed a moment. Whatever. . . .
"Well, it is. Though, she really isn't picky about food as long as she's fed enough," Cyrene said with a chuckle. "Though you really wouldn't know how big her appetite is from her figure, which I'm sure you've noticed. Haven't you dear?" Cyrene said with a smirk, winking at her cringing daughter.
Ok. What if I just make up for every bad thing I ever did? Xena looked up again to the still-silent, clear-blue sky.
"She is a real cutie, isn't she?"
"Oh, little one! Look up there," Cyrene said with excitement, pointing at the wagon on the road ahead of them. It contained a large cage on the back with two prisoners inside.
"Thank you!" Xena blurted with relief as four riders quickly rode towards them.
"What wa . . . ?" Cyrene started to ask as Xena eagerly pulled her sword from its sheath and raced to meet the slavers.
The slavers were easily and quickly defeated by the skilled warrior, who didn't even break a sweat.
Heavily bruised and incredibly sore, they nervously waited on their knees by the wagon. While the Conqueror hadn't killed them, that did not mean they were better off. They had been slaving without the many expensive permits. And they had heard all those stories about what she personally did to those who failed to pay their enormous taxes . . . .
"Well done, dear. You didn't even kill one of them," Cyrene said as she galloped up.
"Thanks, mom," Xena said with a bit of pride as she went to the back of the wagon. With a swift motion, the hilt of her sword smashed the lock, opening the cage.
The two prisoners in the back looked at the woman warrior uncertainly.
"Go on, you're free," Xena announced as she glanced at the slavers with contempt.
The women jumped out of the back and stared at the dark woman. "You're the . . . the Conqueror?"
Xena sighed and nodded, causing the women to drop to their knees. "Get up," Xena said with irritation, not having time for this foolishness.
"Yes, your highness," they said with bowed heads.
"Go home," Xena said and turned to the slavers, who trembled with fear.
"Why?" One of the women timidly asked. The soft voice reminded her of the bard's.
"Because that's where you live . . . ??" Xena turned and eyed her as if the woman was daft.
"No, why are you helping us?" She asked curiously. Cyrene smiled proudly, waiting for her suddenly uncomfortable daughter to answer.
"Enslaving you would take too much time right now! Go home now, before I change my mind!!" Xena snapped, startling the two women who looked at each other before they ran away.
Cyrene sighed and shook her head. Her daughter still had a long way to go.
Xena stood before the shaking slavers, eyeing their apparent leader.
"All right, there's a girl, who is about this high," Xena said, holding her hand at her collarbone. "Who has strawberry blond hair . . . that kind of sparkles in the candle light . . . like fine gold," Xena said thoughtfully, surprising Cyrene. The slavers looked at each other curiously and shrugged, shaking their heads no.
"Her eyes, well, they're a rich green, like emeralds. And when she looks at you, it's like she can see right through all the crap and really see what. . . ."
"Xena, dear?" Cyrene interrupted.
Cyrene discreetly motioned for her to hurry up.
"If you think you can describe her any better, then be my guest!" Xena snapped, causing Cyrene to sigh.
"All right, dear." Cyrene turned to the head slaver and smiled politely. "Did you happen to capture a blond young woman with an ugly peasant dress by the river?" Cyrene asked bluntly, as the slavers' eyes lit up with recognition.
"Oh! The one with the icky blue top?" the head slaver asked as the others nodded, remembering that dress.
"It wasn't that ugly," Xena muttered guiltily, knowing she should have gotten the bard a better dress.
"What happened to her?" Cyrene asked.
"She escaped with the Amazons."
"What! Tell me what happened! And don't you dare leave out any details or . . . !" Xena threatened and roughly grabbed the head slaver's shirt but was interrupted by her mother, who cleared her throat. Loudly.
Xena growled with irritation, glancing back to the older woman, who had that "be nice" glare. Xena wearily sighed, stood up, and walked to her mother. "Have a minute?" She asked with a thin smile.
"Of course, d . . . " Cyrene said warmly as Xena grabbed her arm and quickly walked them away from the curious slavers. ". . .ear."
"Mom," Xena growled angrily, then took a calming breath as she quickly counted to ten. "You do realize that when you threaten someone, it kind of ruins the effect if you're nice, right?"
"But why must you threaten them?"
"It's more efficient." And kinda fun.
"But they've answered our questions so far. Is it really necessary to be "Evil Xena" all the time?"
"Mom, fear is a powerful tool."
"Would it really be so horrible if you smiled more?"
"The Empire would be far more difficult to manage if people thought I was a. . . ."
"But honey, you have such a pretty smile."
". . . pushover."
"Please, won't you at least try to smile more, dear?"
Xena blinked at her. Her mother never asked her for anything, even though she could give her a country or two. Xena sighed with a furrowed brow. I'd rather give her a country.
Slowly, a grimace filled Xena's face and she returned to the slavers. Her attempt at a polite smile managed to disturb the men far more than any threat. As she requested, they told her all about the escape.
Cyrene looked on, smiling approvingly that her daughter got someone to spill their guts without a sword.
On the royal platform, Gabrielle nervously sat on Melosa's left and Valeska sat proudly on the Queen's right. The Amazon village and neighboring tribes stood before them, at attention. It was a truly impressive sight, Gabrielle considered. These are the kind of women that would impress even the Conqueror, she thought with a depressed sigh.
Melosa rose and turned to the newest Amazon. "Rise, Princess Gabrielle," she said.
Gabrielle stood and faced the Queen, glancing at Princess Valeska, fearing that those cold, hateful eyes reflected what was in the Amazon Princess' heart.
"You have been given Terreis' Rite of Caste, an honor that has elevated you to Amazon royalty," Melosa announced grandly to the quiet crowd.
Valeska rolled her eyes. They'll make anyone royalty these days. . . .
"And, as Terreis was my blood sister, I give you my silver arm band, designating you as next in line upon my death," Melosa said, pulling off her arm band and displaying it to the gasping crowd.
Gabrielle was already overwhelmed with becoming Amazon royalty under the stressful circumstances. But she was now ranked above Valeska? She could feel the tension grow tenfold with that statement as well as the hatred emanating from the woman.
"Oh no," Ephiny blurted to Solari, who cringed with panic. They, like everyone else in the Amazon crowd around them, focused on Valeska, whose face was red with anger.
"Should anyone object . . . ."
"I most certainly object!" Valeska said as she quickly got to her feet and came face-to-face with the nervous bard.
"She is not an Amazon! She is not a warrior! She is JUST A BARD! How
could . . . ."
"Now WAIT just a DAMN minute!" Gabrielle snapped, poking the taller Amazon in the chest.
"I am not JUST a bard."
"I'm the BEST . . ."
". . . you'll ever HEAR!" Gabrielle spat at the stunned taller woman. "And if Queen Melosa wants to make me, a mere bard, second in command, she'll make me, a MERE bard, second in command! Isn't that right, Queen Melosa?" She looked at Melosa, who nodded and smiled with amusement.
"Well then . . . " Gabrielle cleared her throat, somewhat embarrassed by her angry outburst as she gingerly withdrew her finger. "Please continue, Princess Valeska," Gabrielle said with a polite smile for the woman who was still stunned speechless. "Continue, if you still wish to second-guess the wisdom of your Queen," Gabrielle added and stepped back with a small bow.
"Wow," Ephiny uttered with amazement.
"Stop drooling," Solari said, glancing around at the crowd who also appeared impressed with the newest addition to the tribe.
"Oh, why don't you put some clothes on," Ephiny snapped.
Solari frowned and glanced down at herself, wondering what Ephiny's problem was.
"A royal objection to a Queen's selection of a second must be dealt with by the counsel," Valeska said firmly.
"I am aware of Amazon law, Princess Valeska," Melosa said evenly, not surprised by the objection.
"Uh, what Amazon law? What counsel? What . . . " Gabrielle asked nervously.
"All will be explained soon enough," Melosa interjected. The bard's eyebrows furrowed unhappily. "For now, you have proven your Amazon spirit, Princess Gabrielle," Melosa said with an approving smile. "Welcome to the tribe," Melosa said warmly, heartily clapping the bard on her back, propelling her a few steps forward as the Amazons began to cheer.
Gabrielle smiled weakly as she awkwardly waved to the crowd.
Valeska growled and stormed off the platform as a small, loyal group followed.
"She is spoiled and used to getting her way, Gabrielle. But she'll eventually learn the wisdom of my choice," Melosa quietly informed the bard.
"Uh huh." Gabrielle said, not yet seeing the wisdom herself.
The sun set over Amazonia as the large bonfire was lit in the center of the village, signaling the beginning of the celebration. Music filled the night as women sang and danced to the rhythms of the drums which carried upon the evening breeze for miles.
At the edge of the territory, Cyrene and Xena could hear the faint beating sound. "A celebration," Cyrene said to her daughter, who nodded.
Hearing duck calls, the skilled warrior quietly informed her mother "they're not really ducks, they're . . . ." Xena stopped when she found Cyrene already raising her clasped hands over her head in the Amazon signal of peace.
Amazons quickly descended from the trees in ceremonial masks and confronted the two travelers.
"Who trespasses on Amazon land!" One bold Amazon barked.
"The Empress of the Known World does not trespass on her own land!" Xena roared.
"What does the Conqueror want with us?" The once bold Amazon asked, swallowing uneasily.
Xena eyed the woman with irritation and almost growled, just to see her jump, but her mother put a calming hand on her forearm.
"Take off your masks. I want to see the faces of those who speak with me," Xena ordered. "Unless you are hideously ugly or something," she added with amusement.
The women awkwardly removed their masks.
"We are looking for a woman named Gabrielle," Xena said, growing concerned when the Amazons glanced at each other uneasily.
"Is this a peace pipe?" Gabrielle asked, as she was handed a long, intricately carved pipe by the Amazon named Eponin. The bard sat in a circle with a group of high-ranking Amazons as the junior warriors danced tirelessly about the fire.
"You could say that," Eponin smiled, encouraging the bard to smoke it. "Henbane makes you VERY peaceful."
"By any chance, has Valeska smoked it?" Gabrielle asked getting chuckles from the relaxed women. "I really don't smoke," Gabrielle said politely, trying to pass the pipe to the next Amazon.
"It would be rude to refuse," Eponin said.
"But, I really don't. . . ." Gabrielle started to respond but stopped when the relaxed women suddenly clenched their weapons and sprang to their feet as the drums stopped beating.
"Sheesh, I'll smoke it already," the bard said with irritation and took a long puff and coughed. "Gods!" She wheezed as the Amazons nervously turned to the camp's edge.
"Hey, what's going on, you guys?" Gabrielle asked, starting to feel more relaxed than she had in a long time. Taking another long puff, she coughed again, looking up at the group of warriors standing around her. "Guys?"
Well, this is great. I'm a Princess, second-in-command even, and no one wants to answer my question. What kind of outfit is this? Gabrielle took another puff and started to crawl on her hands and knees to look through the Amazons' legs. But she couldn't see what was going on because too many legs were in the way. She sighed and looked up with mild irritation as she took another puff.
Whoa!! I guess quite a few Amazons prefer going commando don't they? I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering Solari. The bard giggled and tried to see through the Amazon legs again, but couldn't. Gabrielle looked up with a sigh. Oh, there's Solari! I wonder if anyone told her what a fascinating birthmark she has. Oh, and look at that pretty tattoo on that firm butt over there.
Actually, they all seem pretty darn firm.
Xena and her mother approached the Amazon Queen surrounded by her entourage.
"Conqueror," Queen Melosa said tightly with a respectful nod.
"Queen Melosa," Xena responded and added "this is Cyrene of Poteidaia." She curiously noted the glances exchanged between her mother and the Queen.
"To what do we owe this honor?"
"I am looking for a friend," Xena said.
"You're looking in the wrong place," Valeska responded coldly, eyeing the Empress, who responded with a cold smile.
"Valeska!" Melosa snapped. "Your disrespect will not be tolerated."
"Yes, Queen Melosa," Valeska hissed, bowing her head slightly.
"What is the celebration for?" Xena asked curiously, looking over the crowd of tense warriors, whose eyes were all fixed on her.
"To welcome our new sister and Princess, who needs a few lessons on royal protocol," Melosa said with a little irritation as she turned to the crowd. "Princess Gabrielle! Come and greet our honored guest."
"Princess Gabrielle?" Xena and Cyrene uttered with surprise as they looked at each other, then eagerly scanned the crowd for a glimpse of their friend, who would no doubt have one interesting story to share about her adventure.
Ephiny eyed the Conqueror suspiciously, then turned back to escort her Princess.
"Gabrielle is your . . . ?" Melosa asked the Conqueror, who firmly completed her sentence "FRIEND."
That certainly complicates things, Valeska thought, eyeing the round weapon on the Empress' hip with interest.
"Princess Gabrielle?" Ephiny turned to see the princess sitting on her hip, intently inspecting her butt. An angry glare was thrown at Eponin, who shrugged.
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle exhaled happily, looking up at her friend with a big smile.
"You have to get up now," Ephiny said.
"OK! Weee!" Gabrielle said as Eponin and Ephiny helped the Princess up. "Oh! Psst! Psst!" The suddenly anxious bard blurted into Ephiny's ear. The Amazon looked at her questioningly as she wiped away the moisture. "Is my butt firm?" Gabrielle asked in a loud whisper.
"Uh, I'd say so, your highness. Very."
"Whew," Gabrielle said and smiled broadly as she was taken to greet the visitors. But what about my abs?
Xena and Cyrene watched as the bard, who was curiously looking at her stomach, was helped towards them. Something wasn't right, they each thought, looking at each other with concern.
"My apologies Conqueror, our Amazons and new princess have been celebrating like they fight - hard. Perhaps tomorrow we will have a more appropriate welcome for our distinguished guests," Melosa said with irritation.
"Gabrielle, are you OK?" Xena asked with concern.
Hearing a familiar voice, Gabrielle's head snapped up from her inspection to find mesmerizing blue eyes and a face that made the bard's heart pound.
"By the gods! You are beautiful," Gabrielle gushed, making the Conqueror blush as she self-consciously glanced at the curious Amazons. Xena had been told she was beautiful before, but never by someone who wasn't trying to get something from her, except her mother and Marcus the food taster.
Ephiny glanced to the ground with great irritation.
"Uh. . . ." Xena said, shyly glancing over the bard and her disturbingly becoming leather outfit, and mumbled the answer to her own question. "You look ok."
"Oh Xena! What a sweet thing to say!"
"I guess a lot has happened since you left Xena's castle, Princess," Cyrene offered with a grin.
"Cyrene!" Gabrielle blurted happily with a big smile. "You have nooooo idea!!" The bard's smile quickly faded. "Poor Terreis. She died," the bard princess said with great sadness. "They made me Princess. Someone had to do it. Oh! This is all just a horrible, horrible mis . . . . ," she moaned guiltily, drawing a curious gaze from Valeska.
"Princess Gabrielle!" Ephiny interrupted. "You look exhausted. Perhaps you should retire to your hut?"
"OK!" Gabrielle said agreeably, suddenly happy again.
As Ephiny started to escort Gabrielle back to her hut, Xena stepped up. "I'll see to my friend," Xena growled.
Gabrielle smiled and turned to Xena.
"No need, Conqueror. I will tend to my Princess," Ephiny said tightly.
Gabrielle smiled and turned towards Ephiny.
"It was not a request," Xena said coldly, making Ephiny very uncomfortable.
Gabrielle yawned and turned towards Xena.
"Xena," Queen Melosa said with warning.
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and turned to Melosa.
"Princess Gabrielle is Amazon royalty now, not your bed warmer. You will get a fight if you think otherwise." Gabrielle's eyes widened.
Cyrene cringed but held her tongue.
"I am only going to remind you and your Amazons once," Xena snarled at Melosa, who stood her ground, almost without flinching. "Your nation exists because I allow it. I will not be spoken to as if I must honor any of your customs. I am your Empress," Xena said angrily. "If you choose to forget that the next time you speak, your nation will be no more."
Valeska stepped angrily towards the Conqueror, unafraid. The cocky Amazon did not believe the incredible battlefield stories of hundreds being felled by the Conqueror's sword alone. What glory there would be in defeating the Conqueror, she thought. Empress Valeska. What a nice ring, she mused. Even better than "Queen."
"Just. Try. Something," Xena growled with a feral grin, making the Amazon hesitate.
"Valeska!!" Melosa snapped. "Xena!!" Cyrene called out.
"Whoa people! People! Can't we just smoke the peace pipe and be friends?" Gabrielle said. "You too," she added, glancing at Valeska, who snarled at the blond pest.
"Queen Melosa, Xena has never ever, ever, done anything improper," Gabrielle announced, blinking at the fuzzy woman. "Well, except abduct me against my will, throw me over Argo like a sack of potatoes, and scare the beegeebees out of me. But she never harmed me and she let me go," Gabrielle declared and added sadly "she just didn't need a bard."
Xena grimaced. The way she told it, it all sounded kind of bad.
"So you see, she's just a friend."
Xena glanced at the bard, wincing slightly. I should be happy she doesn't despise me. Why am I not?
"As I said before, Amazon. I'll see to my friend," Xena said, glaring at Ephiny, who looked to her Queen. Getting a nod, the Amazon stepped back reluctantly. Xena looked at Gabrielle and asked softly. "Where's your hut?"
Gabrielle smiled and looked around happily. "I don't know," she responded and looked straight up. "How many stars do you think there are, Xena?"
The brooding Ephiny begrudgingly pointed to the hut, prompting Xena to quickly redirect Gabrielle towards her quarters.
"Look! They gave me my very own hut!" Gabrielle said enthusiastically.
"I can see that," Xena said with amusement as she opened the door for Gabrielle, who entered. Xena and her mother followed the giddy bard.
"I never had anything like this before," she said with awe. "Oh and did you notice the new clothes they gave me?" Gabrielle said, plopping on the mattress.
"Yes," Xena croaked, trying not to notice them too much more, which was difficult since the bards' hands were now rubbing over her bare stomach. That peasant dress was certainly much less . . . distracting, Xena considered.
"Aren't you cold?" Xena said, grabbing a blanket and offering it to the bard.
Cyrene smirked at her daughter's discomfort.
"No. You know this leather is much more comfortable than hemp and moss. Have you ever worn hemp and moss clothes, Xena?"
"Nope. Never have." She responded, eyeing the fascinating . . . table. Look at that finish. Amazon workmanship isn't half bad.
"It's not very comfortable."
"I can imagine," Xena said as her eyes drifted back to the bard's body and winced at her not very helpful imagination. Averting her eyes, she glanced at her mother and found an amused smile. Bitch.
"Though the hemp was better than being naked. People stare when you're naked. How can you possibly be comfortable then?" Gabrielle stretched with a yawn.
Look! Those chairs! Boy, they have . . . magnificent legs. Oh GODs.
"Depends entirely on who is doing the staring, sweetie," Cyrene offered helpfully, getting a glare from her daughter. "Perhaps I'll go see the sights. Don't worry about me, children. I'll find a place to sleep. Wouldn't want to crowd you two," she said with a wink at her uneasy daughter.
Cyrene stepped outside and noticed the Amazon escort lingering outside uncertainly. "She'll always be safe with Xena," she offered softly.
Ephiny looked at the hut skeptically then at the confident older woman. With a sigh, she reluctantly left.
The Amazon drums started again. Cyrene smiled as she headed towards the infectious beat.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked as Xena poured the bard a cup of water.
"Why are you here? Did you get lost or something?"
"Well, I . . . "
"Oh! You know, I was thinking. . . ."
"I'm impressed," Xena said dryly as she pulled up one of those well-crafted chairs and handed the bard the water, while admiring . . . the blanket on the bed . . . with the fine weaving.
"Funny. No, I was! How did you know I was thirsty? You seem to always know what I need," Gabrielle gushed with great appreciation before taking a big gulp.
"You said something about thinking?" Xena said with amusement.
"OH, yes! I think your dinner date must have had some berries. You know, I'm kind of hungry," Gabrielle blurted.
"Hungry? As in I'm starving! There goes my theory about you knowing what I need." Gabrielle sighed heavily and stretched her surprisingly fit body as she yawned. "But I guess you'd have to read my mind. And I don't know how I'd feel about you knowing what I'm thinking."
Xena blinked, grateful the bard didn't know what she was thinking, then quickly retrieved an apple from a basket on the table and handed it to the bard.
"Thanks!" Gabrielle said and crunched into the fruit. "MMMMMmmm. This really hits the spot," she gushed, as Xena watched the juice dribble from the bard's lips and onto the top of her right breast.
"Oops," Gabrielle said, wiping the juice away with a giggle. "That felt kinda cold."
Xena quickly reached for the finely woven blanket again and offered it to the bard.
"No thanks, I'm kinda hot." Gabrielle responded.
Xena looked at her a moment, then blinked and cleared her throat. "Uh, what was that about berries??"
"So what was her name?" Gabrielle challenged with annoyance.
"You know, what's-her-face! The woman who actually liked my story that night. Honestly, Xena, you really should make an effort to at least know their names. I'm just saying, Terreis died from poison berries. She ate them and bam! She's dead. She looked fine, except for being dead." Gabrielle's eyes suddenly started to water.
"Oh Xena! This is such a mess!!!" She started to bawl and reached out.
Xena suddenly found the bard in her lap, clinging onto her for dear life. Awkwardly, Xena's arms embraced the smaller woman, whose body shook with sobs. "Shhhhh, it will be OK, Gabrielle. Shhhhhh." Xena attempted to soothe her. She hesitantly patted the bard's back as if afraid she might break the smaller woman. After a few moments, she felt the bard calm and relax in her arms.
Xena's eyes closed a moment as she enjoyed the rare feeling of peace she had holding the woman who had become her friend. Her peace was short-lived, however, when her eyes opened and she noticed the bard's fingers absently tracing over her breastplate swirls and heading for the scar over her left breast.
"Uh, SLEEP. You should sleep, Gabrielle," Xena said nervously, lifting the bard, and quickly deposited her on the bed. "You'll feel better in the morning."
"I don't think I'll ever feel better," Gabrielle muttered, reluctantly letting go.
"Everything. . . ." Gabrielle said, falling asleep as her head hit the pillow.
In the early afternoon, the bard stirred awake and saw the woman she dreamed about, sitting in the chair by her bed.
"Good afternoon, Gabrielle," the tall warrior said with a small smile.
"You really are here," Gabrielle said with amazement as she sat up. "Oh my GODS!" Her hands shot up to her throbbing temples.
Xena smirked. "That's what smoking henbane will do for you."
"The least you could do is have SOME sympathy, ugh!"
"Why? You did it to yourself, you know."
"Did you come here just to pick on me?" She said with irritation, wincing at her throbbing head.
"No. That would be too easy. Drink this," Xena said, offering a cup.
"What is it?" Gabrielle didn't touch the cup, but looked in it suspiciously.
"Hair of the dog."
"Isn't that just for hangovers? What's in it? It really doesn't contain dog hair does it?" She blurted uneasily, sniffing it. "Eeeck."
"Just trust me."
Without any more argument, Gabrielle sighed, took the cup, and drank the liquid. It was a simple gesture of trust for Gabrielle, but to the Conqueror, it was a rare gift.
"Ahhhhh," the bard sighed with relief, starting to feel much better. "Thank you, Xena," she said softly.
"But it still stinks," Gabrielle added stubbornly, getting a grin from the warrior. "So, why are you here?"
"To rescue you from slavers?" Xena admitted uneasily, seeing Gabrielle's eyes widen with amazement. "Guess I'm a little late," Xena said with an embarrassed chuckle and shrug as she started to get up from her chair. A soft hand on her forearm stopped her as effectively as if she had collided into a stone wall.
Incredible worry and turmoil emanated from the young bard, making the Empress want to fix whatever it was.
"I know I have no right to ask . . . " Gabrielle said with difficulty, not wanting to involve the Empress in her self-inflicted problems but she needed to talk to someone. And as odd as it all was, the Empress of the Known World, whom she had known for only a few days, actually seemed to care about her . . . a mere bard. And that fact gave her hope.
Xena looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. "Ask, and it's yours, Gabrielle."
The intensity of the offer startled Gabrielle, prompting Xena to awkwardly add "I mean, we're friends, right?"
"Yes. I hope we still can be," Gabrielle said guiltily as her eyes started to water again.
Damn! Not again. Gotta stop those tears.
"Gabrielle, I can't help if you don't tell me what's making you so upset."
Gabrielle bit her lip and admitted the horrible truth. "I never received the Rite of Caste." Sobbing once again, the bard instinctively sought comfort in the Conqueror's embrace.
"Uh . . ." Xena said, finding the bard in her lap once again, though this time she was confident she could provide comfort without breaking her. "What happened?"
"We were escaping the slavers in the river when Terreis got a nick on her shoulder from one of their arrows. When we got ashore, Ephiny and I went to get moss to stop the bleeding. When we returned with the moss, she was dead."
"From the berries?" Xena said, gently caressing the bard's back.
The Empress felt Gabrielle nod.
"Then why did you let Melosa think . . . ?"
"I had no choice!" Gabrielle blurted, pulling back to explain. "Ephiny and Solari were supposed to keep Terreis from harm - but she died in their care. They would be killed if Melosa finds out. Valeska already hates me. Now that I'm second in command - she'll want to kill me too!"
"I'll kill her first." Simple, problem solved.
Xena's brows furrowed. "I will not sit by and have someone threaten you."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said warmly, feeling . . . safe. "But she's just angry. And she has every right to be. She should be second. She's Melosa's heir."
"Isn't she a little old to be . . . ?"
"Still. . . ."
"The point is Xena, you can't kill her when I'm the one at fault here."
"This isn't your fault! If anyone is to blame, it's Terreis. What you can and cannot eat in the forest is one of the first things Amazon toddlers learn!"
"Xena, I have to take responsibility," Gabrielle said firmly, gaining a frown from the Empress. "But I don't want to be responsible for two deaths," the bard added and stood up.
The Destroyer of Nations, who was struggling to understand this particular dilemma, offered, "You could just leave. I'll take you back to the castle," but saw the startled look and quickly added "or Poteidaia, or wherever you want to go. Anywhere. . . ."
"I don't think I can leave. . . ." Gabrielle said and started to pace.
"Gabrielle, if you'll recall, I am the Empress of the Known World. That beats an Amazon Queen and Princess every time. If they object, I'll wipe them out." Xena stood with determination.
Simple. Problem solved.
"Xena, that would be running away from my problems. And if you wiped them out, I'd still have blood on my hands."
"Actually, I'd be the one. . . ."
"Xena, I appreciate the sweet thought. Really, I do. . . ."
"But?" Xena said with a heavy sigh, rolling her eyes.
"But I wouldn't be able to look in the mirror if I didn't face the consequences of my actions."
"No problem. I'll give you a servant to help with your hair."
"You are really making this complicated, Gabrielle," Xena complained and wearily added "Any idea of what you want to do?"
Gabrielle's face filled with uncertainty and worry, making Xena wish she could do something to make her feel better. Awkwardly, Xena opened her arms.
Silently, the bard accepted the offer and stepped into a hug.
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