~ If...This Had Been The Beginning ~
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and assorted cast belong to Universal and Renpic. However some characters are my own. No money has or will be made on the following piece of fiction.
VIOLENCE/SEX: Some of both. If offended by two women falling in love...stop now...otherwise enjoy this piece of fiction based on the premise that our hero became the Conqueror. Opinions welcome.
OTHER: I am a recent fan of the show and this piece was the result of a boring day at work. However once I started and being a frustrated bard myself sequels followed. Hope you like this story and would appreciate feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aphrodite opened her eyes and moaned. She was still hung over from the previous evenings entertainment and the persistent noise that was coming from the next room wasn't doing her headache any good. She sighed and swung her long shapely legs over the edge of the bed and rose, knowing that the only way to stop the annoying disturbance was to go and find the source of the problem.
"For Gods sakes Artemis what's wrong?" the Goddess of Love asked, leaning against the doorway that led to her sisters quarters on Mt. Olympus. She glanced casually around the rubble strewn room. She knew that for her sister to cause such destruction, something must be seriously wrong..
"Ares, that Son of Bacchae has done it again," the Goddess of the Hunt cursed their brother. Aphrodite pursed her lips tightly together realizing that the God of War must have trifled with Artemis most flavoured, the Amazons.
"What has he done?" she asked with a sigh before carefully picking her way through the debris to slide into a cushioned bench.
"That insipid loser allowed one of his Chosen to lead an army into Amazonia. Several dozen good warriors were lost before I was able to intervene."
Aphrodite sat quietly listening to her sisters' tirade. Ares was getting out of hand, allowing his Chosen to run rampant across the lands and disregarding the Chosen's of the other God's. She could understand Artemis' anger. The God of War had interfered with more than one of her unions. She tapped a slender finger to her lips thoughtfully. Perhaps it was time for a little payback.
"Do you want to get back at him?" she asked softly and the Goddess of the Hunt paused and cast a narrowed glance at her sister.
"What do you have in mind?"
"I thought we might teach Ares a lesson," the Goddess of Love smiled seductively. "He's becoming a little to arrogant lately. Perhaps we should treat him to some of his own medicine."
Artemis stared at her sister for a moment longer and a matching smile spread across her lips. "What do you have in mind?"
"Nothing much really," Aphrodite smiled, a gleam in her eyes. "He plays with our toys, now let's play with his toys."
The Conqueror glanced idly out the window, bored by the monotone voice of the tax collector as he recited the list of monthly contributions to the Realms treasury. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and the sky was a bright, and clear blue. It was a perfect day to be out on a horse travelling one of the dusty roads that bisected her Kingdom.
Her face clouded over as her pale blue eyes wandered back over the room. Her days of wandering adventure were over and her future now lay within these ornate Palace walls, filled with the mundane task of running the Empire she had created.
She was the Destroyer of Nations but it had been a long time since she had felt the thrill of driving a sword into a man's heart after a lengthy dual. She still kept in shape, practicing her drills every day, but those sparring matches were no substitute to a fight amid a raging battle. She hadn't been a part of a life and death struggle since Draco had challenged her authority several season's earlier.
A wicked grin played at the corners of her lips. It had been an exciting time as she had matched wits and strength with her former General. Even now she could still taste the victory and smell the blood of his defeat on her hands.
She had easily crushed his uprising, personally slaying many of his followers with a savage barbarism that had put fear into the hearts of all her subjects. Her actions had discouraged anyone else from challenging her rule.
She sighed, unable to hide her boredom as she cast a critical gaze over the assembly of minions who had gathered to deliver their individual reports. There were no challengers in this group. No one upon which too keep a weary eye. They were all followers, individuals collected over the years from various regions she had conquered. Even her Generals cowered before her, content to abide by her laws and live off the spoils of her victories. They were competent leaders in the field but meek in her presence and she loathed them all.
In that way she admired Draco in spite of his betrayal. Her former General had stayed true to his nature and it would have greatly disappointed her if he had remained loyal. Killing him had given her a primeval joy that had sustained her spirit for a long while afterwards. But now she was growing unhappy and in need of a new challenge.
Titus glanced anxiously at the Conqueror as she shifted impatiently in her seat. As her second-in-command he had been with her long enough to sense the change of her moods. She had been growing increasingly restless and that made him nervous. She was unpredictable at the best of times but when she was in this kind of mood, not even her most trusted and loyal servants were safe.
He lowered his eyes so as not to appear to be staring. The Conqueror was very beautiful but it was a deceptive facade, for she was also very dangerous. She was often likened to a panther, sleek, dark, proud, strong and fearless. The Empire had been quiet and the panther had been sleeping since the matter involving Draco but now he had the premonition that it was beginning to stir once again.
He watched as her eyes darted around the room. A less knowledgeable person would have thought that the Conqueror had grown complacent but he knew different. Like her beauty, the casual indifference she displayed was a mask, a carefully conceived ploy to lull her opponents into a false sense of security. Those who knew her, knew always to be on their guard.
"Enough!" Xena said abruptly exploding from her chair in one swift, catlike motion, uncoiling from her casual stance.
The room collectively held their breaths as the collector dropped to his knees in a fit of panic, fearing he had done something to displease her. The Conqueror ignored the servant and focused her attention on her General.
"Titus, have my horse prepared," she said in a brisk voice as she moved across the room towards her private chambers.
"Yes," he nodded and then flashed a look at a soldier standing near the door to the throne room. The guard hastily went to do her bidding while Titus hurried after his Empress.
"I have decided to visit my Regional Commanders," she announced when they were in the privacy of her personal chambers. Already she had begun to shed her voluminous ceremonial clothing in favour of her more versatile leathers.
"Yes, My Empress," the General murmured keeping his eyes averted to the floor. "I will tell the Stable Master to prepare the carriage."
"No," Xena barked and swung around to face the military leader, uncaring that she was only partly dressed. "I don't want the carriage or any messengers sent."
"But Empress, you must take the ceremonial guard," Titus wanted her to be prudent. There were many in the Realm who would risk life and limb for an opportunity to slay the Conqueror. He knew that she would not need their help in a fight but it was the appearance that counted.
"All right," Xena conceded to common sense aware that she could easily lose them once they were on the trail. "But I want only six guards and I don't want them in palace armour. Now go fetch Archius."
"Yes," Titus bowed subserviently as he backed out of the room. Moments later there was another knock on the door.
"Enter," Xena barked and the command was immediately responded to by the appearance of a slight, partially balding man.
"You summoned me your Highness?" Archius said glancing politely at his mistress. He had been in the throne room when she had stormed out and now he could almost guess what was coming.
"I am going out to visit my Regional Commanders, is there any one in particular that I should stop and see?" the Conqueror turned and eyed her trusted adviser. Archius had been with her from the very beginning and of everyone that had entered her life before and since he was the one person she trusted. Too slight and frail to be a warrior, he had served as her aide from the days of her defence of Amphipolis from Cortese.
"Your loyal servants have reported increased unrest in the Thrace region. It is rumoured that since Rufus' little foray into Amazonia, tensions with the Amazons are running high," the small man replied. "There is also said to be an increase of illegal activity in the area."
The Empress paused to considered the man's words. Rufus had been a fool to march into Amazonia and his actions had only caused to stir their anger. She knew that the Amazon's would be no trouble to her army if she choose to throw it's entire weight against them, but she wasn't ready for them to be destroyed just yet. She still had some use for them. Right now she was more interested in the other matters. If it was important enough for Archius to mention then there was some reason for concern.
"What type of illegal activity should I be looking for?" she asked quietly, her pale blue eyes narrowing thoughtfully.
"Your loyal servants are uncertain," Archius was honest. "There are troubling rumours of sedition and news of marauding groups of bandits roaming the countryside. Somehow information about the army is being passed around the countryside so that those opposed to your rule are able to move without interference."
"And General Rufus has done nothing in regards to either of these matters?" a dark pair of eyebrows arched menacingly.
"He does only enough," the small man replied quietly.
"Then I now have a destination," the Conqueror replied in a cool voice and continued to dress, pulling on her linen shift and black leathers. "You will be in charge while I am gone."
"Yes, Empress," the man bowed.
Less then a candlemark later Xena mounted a tall golden war horse and pressed her heels into its flanks, turning the creature towards the gates of the Palace. She held her head up high aware of the eyes that followed her departure.
Titus turned from the scene and mounted the steps back into the palace. There was a frown on his features. The Conqueror had not confided in him about what her plans were and that disturbed him. He didn't like being left out of the loop but then he wondered if it wasn't for the best. He was under no illusions. The Empress was off on a hunting trip and he pitied any one unlucky enough to cross her path. He summoned his most trusted aide.
"I want you to dispatch riders to all Commanders in the Region," he instructed the Lieutenant. "Advise them that the Conqueror is on her way and she is out for blood. In particular I want General Rufus warned. I fear the Conqueror just may be headed in his direction."
"Yes, General," the soldier bowed his head and turned to go but the Commander's voice halted his steps.
"I want you to select only the most trusted of the men," Titus said. "This knowledge is to be held in the strictest of confidence. If the Conqueror were to learn that I had forewarned my colleagues she would no doubt take vengeance on myself."
"Yes, my General," the soldier bowed again understanding the gravity of the situation.
Titus watched the soldier depart before turning on his heel and strolling to the nearest window. From the balcony of the room he could see over the walls of the Palace into the city beyond. For a brief moment he allowed himself the pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be Ruler of this Great land. It would be magnificent, he decided, but the goal was beyond his reach as long as the Conqueror continued to live. He was not strong enough to face her alone. He needed the cooperation of the other Generals and he hoped that this small favour he gave them would help to turn some of their loyalty towards him.
He turned away and glanced about the cavernous room, seeing the maps stuck on the wall with every detail neatly imprinted on the parchments. The Conqueror was much more then a formidable fighter, she was also an intelligent and shrewd woman. He could not defeat her with the sword but he thought he had the faint possibility of out smarting her. He would have to hide the plot carefully so that when the trap was finally sprung she would be caught completely unawares.
A cruel smile crept across his lips. She despised him. He could see it in her eyes every time she looked in his direction. She might admire the way he commanded his troops in the field but beyond that she had no respect for him. He was not alone though, for he knew that she had contempt for all her Generals. The only one she had really admired had been Draco and he had turned on her. He knew she had admired the dead General for that.
Well it would not be long before she realized that she had underestimated him. Draco had been too blatant with his opposition. He would not be so open. He would maneuver in the background until all her support dwindled away and then he would use his own sword to kill her. That thought drew a laugh from his lips.
"I will get you Xena of Amphipolis," he snorted. "I will knock you off that pedestal you have placed yourself upon. I will take your body and then I will kill you and no one will lift a hand to stop me." With that he turned and strolled out of the war room not seeing the slender figure that was hidden in the shadowed curtains along one wall.
Gabrielle walked quietly through the forest, listening for any unusual sounds in the surrounding nature. Though it was relatively safe for her to travel through the region, she never knew when she might be confronted by a robber or a peasant who took exception to her special permit from Rufus, Commander of the Region, that allowed her to travel freely about the countryside.
Her father had been critical of her accepting the parchment bestowed by a General in the Conqueror's army. He had even gone as far as to call her a traitor but she had brushed off the stinging words, for only she and a half dozen other people knew how important her work was. She was a more then a simple bard who travelled from town to town, bringing entertainment to the beleaguered citizens.
She sighed and paused to gaze at some flowers which were growing at the base of a tall tree. There brilliant colour was enhanced and fed by the narrow rays of sunshine that filtered through the leaves. Since Xena, Destroyer of Nations, had conquered all of Greece and other parts of the known World, all movement had been restricted. People wishing to travel were required to have a special permit and they were generally only obtained by giving a healthy donation to the Conqueror's bulging coffers.
She had been unable to raise the dinars needed to purchase such a coveted permit, so instead she had volunteered to entertain the General and his troops. Rufus had been so charmed by her manner and talent that he had allowed himself to be persuaded to give her a permit in exchange for her services.
Her father had not believed that she had only given the soldier an evening of storytelling in exchange for such a valuable prize. He had accused her of sleeping with the Commander and thus sullied her reputation for all the eligible men in her hometown of Potedaia.
Not that she really minded, she had no interest in marrying or settling down to the kind of life her parents shared. She had always had a streak of adventure in her soul. A passion she now indulged. She smiled as she plucked one of the wildflowers and brought it to her nose.
Yes, to the world she was a bard, a young woman gifted with the talent to tell tales which lifted people from the despair of their harsh existence and made them happy if just for a few candlemarks an evening and she didn't mind. Only a few knew that she was a brave messenger, carrying news from one town to another for those unable to travel. News and messages that were as simple as the word of a birth in one family, or as dangerous as information regarding the Conqueror's next dealings.
It had all started after one ordinary evening of storytelling in Potedaia. She had been approached by a group of men and women requesting her help. They were people she knew, friends of her family, members of the village. They were also rebels, men and women who opposed the Conqueror's rule. They had asked her a favour and later she had realized it was a test of her loyalty to Greece. They knew of her visits to the General's army camp and they asked her questions. She had told them everything she knew. She had no loyalty to the Conqueror or the General in spite of his generosity.
She knew that some of the information she gave them and the messages she carried brought about actions against the Empire, but she contented herself with the knowledge that she was doing it for the love of Greece. She would be happy if one of her actions helped to better the cause of the people of this land.
She sighed. It was a dangerous occupation in which she was involved but she enjoyed it and it gave her a sense of worth. A sense that she was doing something to fight against the oppressive rule of the Empress.
She took a deep breath and glanced at her surroundings. She was on her way to Amphipolis to perform in a tavern. She had been this way on numerous occasions and knew that there was a small lake nearby. The sun was reaching it's zenith and the heat of the day was beginning to grow oppressive. A late morning dip seemed like a good idea.
Xena sat perched on a rock at the far end of the lake. She had remembered this place from her childhood and when the heat of the morning had become to much she had slipped away from her escort, intent on enjoying a quiet, relaxing few candlemarks alone.
A smirk came to her lips. Alone, it was a funny word to use she mused, especially when she thought of herself. Though she was constantly surrounded by people and never lacked for a warm body to fill her bed when she wanted it, she was always alone.
She sighed and stretched her long muscular body out, feeling the warm rays of the sun dry the tiny droplets of water clinging to her smooth skin. It had been a long time since she had been able to let her guard down and relax without someone watching her. A long time since she had last enjoyed the simple pleasures she had taken for granted as a child. Her position made it impossible for her to trust any one let alone have any friends. Even her own family had disowned her.
She slammed the door on those thoughts. She didn't want to go back there. She didn't want to think about the events that had taken her down this path that had led her to become the feared Conqueror she now was. It hurt to much.
She closed her eyes to stem the unexpected flood of tears that moistened them. She was not a sentimental fool yet those memories, when she allowed them, punished her like nothing else and the only way she was able to keep them at bay was to hide behind the stoic mask of the fierce warlord. The only way to hang on to her sanity was to vent the rage that threatened to consume her soul. It was a rage that was beginning to build in her once more.
Her thoughts abruptly ended at the sound of rustling grass. She rolled swiftly off the rock and stared keenly in the direction of the sound. A feral grin stretched across her lips. Perhaps today was going to turn out to be more pleasant then first assumed, she thought, reaching for the sword that was leaning up against a rock next to her leathers and chakram.
Gabrielle strolled carefully through the long grass placing her bedroll and pouch down on the ground at the edge of the lake before beginning to disrobe. It was hot and already her body was anticipating the refreshing delights of the waters embrace.
She shed her clothes and then her boots before wading into the lake. She dunked her head beneath the surface and then popped out and slowly began to stroke her way to the middle of the clear, cool pool.
"Now, Gabrielle, what tales shall you tell tonight?" she mused out loud to herself in thoughtful leisure. Then without hesitation she launched into a recitation of Hercules and the Cyclops.
Xena sat back on her heels and watched as a young girl appeared out of the surrounding forest. The grip on the hilt of her sword eased as she stared with unabashed interest as the child stripped down and then walked into the water. The prevailing stillness of the forest was soon broken by the gentle splash of water and then the warm tones of a soft voice.
Fool! the Conqueror thought callously as she listened. Didn't the girl know it was dangerous to be out alone in the countryside. The child must be an idiot, she thought and then strained her ears to hear what was being said.
She had expected the girl to be babbling nonsense but instead the words were part of a story and unconsciously she stretched out and listened to the tale of the mighty hero and the Cyclops. She found herself enthralled by the timbre of the voice which spoke the words and involuntarily found herself relaxing. For a moment the rage inside her soul edged back into the deep recesses where it lived.
Suddenly the quiet atmosphere was broken by the sound of branches breaking and Xena felt a swift surge of anger towards the intruders. She had been enjoying herself and the story.
She glanced towards the edge of the forest, her senses once again on alert as six horsemen emerged from the trees. With one swift look she assessed the danger, sizing the men up with the cold calculation of a warlord. From their ill fitting and dirty clothing she knew that they were common thieves who roamed the countryside preying on helpless individuals. Their weapons were old and unkempt. She knew that she could handle them easily yet decided to wait and see how the situation unfolded.
Her eyes strayed to the woman who was now treading water in the middle of the lake. The girl sensibly stayed out in the water and even across the distance Xena could see that her eyes were wide and round though there was only a minimal amount of fear in their green depths. For an instant she was mesmerised and suddenly she saw nothing but the young woman as her heart began to pound unevenly. It was strange this reaction and for a brief moment she lost consciousness of her surroundings and thus did not hear the delighted chuckles that echoed across the sky. She would never have known their origins were from Mt. Olympus itself.
Clovis reigned in his horse as he neared the waters edge. His eyes narrowed as he spotted first the articles on the ground and then the girl paddling quietly out in the water. A cruel smile tipped the
corners of his lips. They had been riding for days without crossing paths with any travellers and the few farms they had come across had hardly been worth the effort they had used to pillage them. His men were tired and as cranky as himself and in need of some entertainment. It looked like they had just found it.
He turned his gaze back out to the girl. She was young but pretty, not that it mattered on either accounts. The mood they were in it wouldn't have mattered what she looked like. But it definitely would make it more enjoyable.
"I think we'll take a break here," he turned and said to the others a smirk on his face. "This seems like a pleasant enough place for a wash and some entertainment."
The men laughed in understanding as they dismounted, tethering their horses nearby before wandering down to the edge of the lake. They bent and picked up the pouch, dumping its contents on the ground before casually sorting through the items. There was nothing of value among the girl's possessions.
"Can I help you?" Gabrielle called breaking the silence between them, annoyed that they were pawing her stuff. Stupid, she thought to herself. Stupid question to ask when they're over there on dry land and you are in here with no place to run or hide.
"Perhaps we can help you," Clovis responded with a grin and the others laughed, dropping her things back on the ground. "What's a wee thing like you doing alone out here?"
Xena suddenly snapped out of the trance that had descended over her mind. She heard the trace of fear in the girl's voice and the infliction in the man's and knew that they were about to have some fun with the young woman. Normally she would have let them play, for it was not in her nature to get involved but the girl was helpless and the fight would not be fair. A feral smile etched itself over her features as she reached for her leathers. Today was going to turn out pleasant after all.
"I'm on my way to Amphipolis," Gabrielle replied furiously wondering how she could talk her way out of this mess. She knew she was in trouble and kept a safe distance from shore. "I am a friend of General Rufus, Commander of the Region."
It was a silly idea, she knew, but she hoped that the mention of the General's name and her association with the man might in some way intimidate these strangers. The men only laughed obviously unimpressed, knowing she was biding her time hoping that some unexpected rescue would stumble her way. But there would be no reprieve for they had not seen any one else in days.
"Perhaps we could accompany you and make certain no one troubles you," Clovis laughed and winked at his companions. "I'm sure the General would be pleased to know that we took care of you for him."
"I would be pleased for the company," Gabrielle replied and mentally kicked herself. She knew what these men were about and she watched as they started to shed their clothing. She glanced swiftly around, calculating the distance to the far shore. She could swim across the lake and hope to escape into the forest but it was likely they would be on their horses after her before she could reach the opposite shore. Perhaps she could occupy them until she thought of something else.
"Of course we would need some reward for that favour," Clovis continued as he began to loosen the belt that was wrapped around his tunic.
"I can tell you a story," she offered silently swimming backwards. Strangely in spite of the circumstances she felt no fear even though these men looked hungry and dangerous. "I am a bard and I travel around entertaining people."
"I bet you entertain people," the man smiled. "Come out and entertain us."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer but the corner of her eye caught sight of something moving swiftly along the tree line completely unobserved by the men. She watched fascinated as a tall, lithe, raven haired creature unfurrowed itself from the forest and moved stealthily towards the gang of thieves. She watched silently as the woman came to a halt behind the men, casually folding her arms across her chest and waiting until she was finally noticed.
"Come on missy, we need entertaining too," the men laughed.
"She said she's a bard and I don't think her type of entertainment is what you have in mind," Xena interrupted the ribaldry, bored at waiting for them to realize her presence. The men turned as one and six pair of startled eyes glanced over her body. Clovis smiled not realizing the danger that stood before him.
"So you have a friend," he snorted in glee as his mind raced with the possibilities. The woman who stood before him was armed like a warrior but he had rarely seen a woman who could fight. He had no fear as he took several steps towards this new arrival. He would enjoy taking this woman. He spoke his thoughts out loud.
Xena allowed a grin to play across her lips as her eyes grew dark and cold. She watched as their gazes met and the man paused, suddenly not so certain of his thoughts. He checked himself, there were six of them and only one of her. He completely discounted the girl in the lake aware she had no weapons.
"Then come and take me," the Conqueror offered with a seductive smile.
The man moved without warning, rushing towards her but Xena was prepared, anticipating his actions. She deftly sidestepped his attack, laughing with cold amusement as he stumbled passed her. Seeing their leader tumble to the ground, spurred the others into action and they rushed enmass and the Conqueror released the warlord inside herself, drawing her sword in one swift motion.
The sound of steel on steel echoed through the still forest as the men thrust towards the woman warrior. Xena only laughed easily parrying and blocking their moves. She was toying with them like a cat plays with a mouse before moving in for the final kill. They were no match for her skill and she soon tired of this game. She dispatched the first man with ease, blocking his thrust before dropping to her knee and bringing her sword across his stomach. Intestines and blood spilled out onto the ground and she laughed with cold delight as she watched him fall.
Clovis knew almost immediately that he had underestimated his opponent. There was something familiar in the way this warrior moved and it nagged at his brain. He watched as his comrade dropped to the ground and at the same time he heard the thunder of horse hooves. A sideways glance told him that there were six mounted warriors heading their way. By their stiff posture he knew that they were soldiers though they wore no identifying uniforms.
"Retreat," he bellowed glancing back at the woman warrior as another of his companions dropped under the weight of the woman's sword as it impaled his chest. Suddenly he knew why the woman was familiar.
The others needed no further encouragement as they turned and raced to where their horses were tied, mounting on the run and riding hard out of the clearing into the forest. Xena was about to give chase when she noticed the mounted horsemen bearing down on her. She cursed Hades as she recognized her escort. They had finally caught up to her and spoiled her entertainment.
"Are you all right, Conq...." Zenon, the leader of the Guard escort began to ask as he reigned in his horse beside the Empress.
"Yes," Xena snarled interrupting him. The warlord was still in control and angry that her fun had been disrupted. She twirled her sword effortlessly in her hand as the blood rage began to subside.
The Palace Guard remained mounted, nervously watching as their leader paced around the clearing, pausing to wipe her sword on the tunic of one of her victims. They had been attached to the Palace long enough to know what was going on. Zenon knew that it was suicidal to approach the Conqueror now and prayed that she would not turn her anger on them. Everyone knew of what happened to the guards that had escorted her during her last tour of the countryside. It was a long moment before Xena realized that the soldiers were quietly waiting for her direction.
"It took you long enough to find me," she snarled and Zenon straightened in his saddle. He was prepared to face the brunt of her anger.
"You are a master in all things," he replied wisely subservient and was relieved to see that the Empress was appeased. He saw her gaze turn from him to the lake and for the first time he noticed the young woman, who was now hastily scrambling into her clothes.
"I will meet you at the fork in the road that leads to Rufus' camp," she said in a low voice.
"But we can't leave you Conq...." Zenon was about to disagree but his voice died as he saw the coldness return to the blue eyes staring at him.
"You interrupted me once already," she said with a sneer, glancing towards the young woman briefly before turning back to the guard. "Are you arrogant enough to try and wrestle another pleasure from me?"
Zenon glanced from the Conqueror to the young woman and then flushed. A faint sheen of sweat appeared on his brow. He would rather ride alone into battle then face the displeasure of the Empress. He bowed his head.
"I am sorry," he apologized and then nodded towards his companions and together they rode out of the clearing.
"Thank you," Gabrielle offered with undisguised relief.
Xena turned to see that the woman was now fully dressed. Earlier she had caught a brief glimpse of the slender yet muscular body with droplets of moisture running own its curvy length. It was a pleasant sight and she felt a thread of desire run through her body. Not all aspects of the warlord were gone.
"Don't you know it's dangerous out here," the Conqueror growled gruffly, surprised by the attraction she felt.
"It's dangerous just walking through your own village at night," the girl retorted with a flash of green eyes and then unexpectedly flushed as she saw deep pools of blue staring at her with an unfathomable expression. "I'm sorry, that wasn't very nice, especially after you have just saved me
from some unknown fate. I wouldn't have gone into the lake if I had thought there would be any danger. My name is Gabrielle."
Xena glanced at the extended hand briefly, not bothering to return the introduction. "You were lucky I happened along. They would have taken their pleasure and then killed you."
Gabrielle tried not to shudder at the thought of what almost happened. She pushed it from her mind and smiled as she fastened a belt around her waist and then pulled her damp hair out from underneath her collar.
"I was lucky," she agreed. "It was fortunate you happened to be in the area."
"What are you doing here?" Xena was interested to know what brought the woman out into the wilds of the countryside.
"I have a permit from General Rufus, Commander of the Region," was the blunt response.
"Oh and how did you manage to get that?" Xena's eyebrows went up in speculation. Perhaps this woman wasn't as innocent as she looked. Strangely she had this intense hope her suspicions weren't true.
"I'm a bard. I tell him stories," Gabrielle was honest. "About once a month I visit the army garrison and entertain him and his troops. The permit is payment."
"Interesting," the Conqueror mused quietly, her eyes narrowing for a moment as a thought cascaded through her mind. She remembered what Archius had said to her before her departure from the Palace.
"Do you have a permit and who were those men that were just here?" Gabrielle suddenly thought to ask and then watched as a lopsided grin creased the other woman's face.
"This is all the permit I need," Xena said displaying her sword purposefully not answering the second part of the question. The younger woman frowned thinking that perhaps she should be afraid, yet she felt no fear. Instead there was an interest that she had not experienced before. She was intrigued by this dark stranger.
"That's rather dangerous, isn't it?"
"Yes, but it's fun," the Empress drawled with a shrug and then looked down at the articles spilled out on the ground. She saw the quill and scroll and her curiosity was piqued. "Where are you headed?"
"Amphipolis," Gabrielle replied. "I'm to entertain in a tavern there. It's run by a really nice lady named Cyrene. Perhaps you would like to join me?"
"No," the Conqueror barked, a dark cloud passing over her features at the mention of the innkeepers name. "I think I had better stay out of town, can't be to careful whose there, might just be someone I don't want to meet."
Gabrielle thought this woman was a bandit just like the men that she had run off. All be it a nicer kind of bandit then the others. Strangely that realization didn't bother her. She had come across all types of persons during her travels and had befriended many of them.
"The people of Amphipolis are really nice," she said instead without thinking, certain this was a safe subject to discuss. It had been a few days since she had any company and it was lonely on the road. She welcomed the opportunity to talk with someone now. "Everyone thinks they must be horrible people because that's where the Conqueror was born but really they are great and the Innkeeper makes the best nutbread I have ever tasted."
"You like nutbread, yeh?" Xena commented absently as she settled on a nearby rock, memories nibbling at her consciousness. She watched as the bard bent and retrieved her meagre possessions, packing them meticulously back into the pouch.
"Yep," the girl looked up and flashed a brilliant smile before settling on the ground to lace up her boots. For a moment the warrior was frozen as pale blue eyes stared at the smaller woman. There had been something about that smile that had reached passed every one of her defenses and touched a part of her cold heart.
"Don't you?" the innocence question snapped the Conqueror back to her senses.
"Yah sure. So you just travel from place to place telling stories," the Conqueror said idly.
"Yep," came the short reply.
"You travel alone?"
"Isn't that rather dangerous?"
"It could be but I guess I'm fortunate," Gabrielle flashed this woman an impish grin. "I have been able to talk my way out of most things. I think people in general are good, you just have to tap into that goodness."
"A lot of people would disagree with you," Xena replied wryly eyeing her companion with amusement and suspicion. She didn't think anyone could be as naive as to believe what this girl did. "I know no one would agree with you in regards to the Conqueror."
The bard scrunched her nose thoughtfully as she finished tying her laces. "I don't think she's as bad as everyone says."
"Oh?" dark eyebrows arched as the Empress couldn't hide her surprise. "She does some horrible things."
"Yes, but there must be a reason," Gabrielle responded after some thought. "Someone doesn't just go out conquering people for no reason."
"Some people do," Xena replied in a low voice.
"Perhaps, but usually people only do horrible things for a reason. Besides she has given us some things to appreciate."
"Oh?" the eyebrows disappeared this time behind dark bangs, her voice sarcastic. "You mean like travel permits and taxes?"
"No, I mean the peace that she had brought to Greece," Gabrielle said reasonably. "I remember a time when there were warlords attacking our village every month, destroying our crops, stealing our supplies and killing our people. Sure we have restrictions but we also have peace."
"You almost sound like you are a fan of hers?" the tall woman remarked dryly, a faint, disturbing sensation in her heart.
"No, I think a lot of what she does is bad for Greece but I try to look at the positive instead of the negative," the bard said simply.
"So, if you were able to meet the Conqueror what would you say to her?" Xena asked with seemingly casual indifference, though those who knew her, would know she was on edge. Gabrielle's brow fused into a pensive frown as she seriously contemplated the suggestion.
"I'd tell her to get rid of the travel permits. People like to be able to move around freely, for economical and social reasons."
"But then it allows them to gather and stir up trouble," the Empress countered. "You would have more thieves and brigands running around the countryside."
"They take the risk now, knowing that they are already wanted by the law, it makes no difference to them," the girl disagreed. "The ones it hurts the most are the farmers who could sell their produce in the other villages for a better price. It would allow families separated by the law to visit together. It's the simple things that people resent having taken away from them, they can live with the other hardships. If you take to many freedom's away, people tend to rebel."
"Are people rebelling?" the Conqueror asked trying to disguise her curiosity behind a mask of indifference.
"Not that I know about," the bard shrugged, not wanting to think about what she knew. "But it's bound to happen eventually."
"Because people can tolerate being unhappy for only so long before someone decides to do something."
"You mean like the Conqueror," Xena replied softly.
"Yeah, she started out by trying to help the people of her village," Gabrielle nodded with a thoughtful frown as she recalled all the stories she had been told. "But she got carried away and didn't stop until she had beaten everyone into submission."
Xena was silent, aware that the woman had made a valid point. It had been a long while since anyone had been this candid and forthright. Most of her retainers and staff told her things that they thought she wanted to hear. Of course, they knew something that this girl did not.
"What else would you say?"
"Well, I would tell her to cut back on the amount of taxes she takes, especially of the harvest. When people have full stomachs they are less likely to grumble. Instead of making people turn over two thirds of their harvest, why not only ask for one-third. Surely that is more then enough to feed her armies."
"But if the farmers want more why don't they just plant more," the Conqueror argued.
"There is only so much one man, one family, one village can do," Gabrielle pointed out. "It's not a matter of not being able to have more, it's a matter of not having the physical resources to produce more."
"And I suppose you have an idea on how to change that?" the raven haired woman quirked an eyebrow again.
Gabrielle visibly brightened. It wasn't often that she got to discuss her ideas with an intelligent person. Most people, including her father, tended to avoid any discussion involving the Conqueror and any words spoken in a tavern had to be guarded for no one knew who was a spy.
"I would make all the soldiers help out in the fields."
"The soldiers are there for fighting," the Conqueror snorted in disbelief.
"But what do they do when there are no wars?"
"Okay, okay, but there must be times when they don't train," Gabrielle said logically. "If they were helping the locals with the planting and harvesting it would foster a better relationship with the villagers and it would also keep the soldiers busy. Didn't someone say a lazy army was a poor army."
"I don't think so," Xena replied in a dry voice but she had begun to think what this young woman was saying made sense. Training could only take up so much time and idleness not only made for a poor army, it made for a discontented one. As for the taxes she would have to consult the collectors.
Gabrielle looked up at her companion and saw the thoughtfulness in the blue eyes. The face was an indifferent mask. The taller woman turned her head and met her gaze.
"If you met the Conqueror I don't think you would be so brave," she challenged the bard. "Besides perhaps I am one of her spies."
Gabrielle hadn't thought of that but she just shrugged. "Then I would be lucky."
"How?" the older woman was clearly startled by the comment.
"Because then you would report what I said and the Conqueror would know how I felt."
Xena laughed out loud at the logic. There was something about this girl that was beginning to grow on her. In just a few short candlemarks this young woman had made her feel a whole variety of emotions that she long thought dead.
"You're not scared of me at all are you?"
"Should I be?" the bard asked deciding that she liked the sound of the woman's laughter.
"Maybe," there was a slight pause. "I could kill you."
"If you had wanted to kill me you would have done something by now," the girl smiled and her stomach growled causing her to giggle. "Gosh, I'm hungry. I haven't much but would you like to share a meal?"
"Yes," the warrior nodded and watched as the bard drew out some food from her meagre cache.
Gabrielle split her food aware she would be at the Inn later that evening. She gave the taller woman a large chunk of bread and cheese and an apple. She watched her eat for a moment and then realized she knew nothing about her companion.
"Where are you from?"
"Here and there," the Conqueror replied with a shrug. "I don't really have a home or family any more."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle sensed sadness in the other woman and was sympathetic. "Are they dead?"
"You could say the Conqueror destroyed my former life," Xena replied choosing her words carefully. "Now I just drift around, stay out of trouble and every one else's way."
"That sounds lonely," the bard commented with a twinge of sadness.
"Perhaps, but I don't think it's much different then your life."
"Oh but it is," Gabrielle insisted and flashed another smile. "I have a sister and parents who live in Potedaia and whenever I get lonely I just wander over to see them."
"And they don't mind that you are out roaming about the countryside alone?"
"They're not happy but they know there is nothing they can do to stop me," she shrugged and left the rest unsaid.
"Is there no young man who could persuade you to settle down and have little kiddies?"
The bard shook her head. "No. I don't know why but I don't think that's supposed to be my life."
"Why do you think that?" Xena was really curious now. She had never before met anyone who fascinated her as much as this girl did.
"I don't know," the strawberry blond shook her head seemingly lost in thought for a moment but just as quickly the now familiar smile flashed across her girlish features. "But I am sure I will know why one day."
Xena finished her food and then stood up. It was time to get moving if she wanted to reach Rufus' camp before dark. Gabrielle was disappointed to see the other woman prepare to leave. She had enjoyed her company.
"Thanks for the food," the warrior said as she began to move off.
"Thanks for rescuing me," the bard replied and watched as the woman paused, turning to flash her a seductive smile that set her heart racing.
"Any time," the Conqueror waved and then kept walking.
"Maybe we'll meet again," Gabrielle called hopefully.
"Perhaps," the Empress agreed a grin spreading across her features. They would definitely meet again, of that she was certain.
Gabrielle sat for a moment trying to make some sense in what she was feeling. She turned her head but the woman was gone and it was only then she realized that she hadn't even gotten a name. Oh well, she sighed, it had helped pass the time. She glanced up towards the sky and realized that it was time for her to move along as well. She stood up a smile on her lips as she thought of the food and hospitality that awaited her.
Xena didn't venture very far. Instead she hid in the forest and watched as the bard collected her things and then resumed her journey. Uncertain why, she decided to follow, taking the reins of her mount and leading him towards Amphipolis.
Perhaps it was curiosity, she decided later. Either way she followed the bard the whole way to the town pausing in the distance aware that if she revealed herself she would be recognized. Not that it really mattered for she was not welcome there any more. She had lead to many of these people's son's and husbands to their death or away from home. Even her own mother blamed her for her younger brothers death.
She slammed the door on her thoughts. It was a wasted effort to think of the past. Nothing could change what happened. She couldn't bring anyone back from the dead. She had determined her
destiny the moment she had mustered an army to defeat Cortese. There was no turning back.
She watched until the bard strolled unmolested into the village before turning around. She hopped up onto her horse and dug her heels into its flanks. She had a hard ride ahead.
Cyrene glanced out the kitchen window and noticed the solitary figure that came trudging through the village square. As usual there was a smile on the girl's face as she waved cheerfully to everyone she passed. A smile tipped the corners of the Innkeepers lips. For the last few days, everyone had been talking about nothing except the bard's impending visit. She, herself, was pleased to see the smaller woman, and not just for the extra dinars her visit would bring to the tavern.
No, Gabrielle was a rare find. A person who was honest, forthright and courageous. A young woman brave enough to wander about the countryside unattended. A young woman smart enough to talk her way out of almost any situation.
Perhaps, her unusual feelings towards the bard stemmed from the warmth that radiated so naturally from the girl. Perhaps it was her pendant to see goodness in everyone. The smile faded from the older woman's lips. If pressed the bard would probably say something nice about the Conqueror.
Cyrene quickly dismissed those thoughts and went out to greet the new arrival. She knew that in a small way Gabrielle was filling the hole left in her heart by the loss of her sweet son Lyceus. Perhaps she was even a substitute for her own daughter, a child she had lost a long time ago. However, it didn't matter what the reason. All that mattered was that for a precious few days she would have the bard's company.
"Tell me, what adventures have you gotten into lately," Cyrene prodded once she had the bard settled with a hot bowl of lamb stew and a mug of cider.
"Nothing much, though I did meet a very interesting woman this morning," Gabrielle replied breaking off a chunk of bread from the loaf the Innkeeper had provided. "She was the strangest person I've ever met. I invited her to town but she said no. I think the authorities must be after her because she was with a band of men, though she didn't look like a common criminal. She was too neat in appearance, her leathers and armour were new and clean."
"What did she look like?" Toris asked and Cyrene looked at her son as the girl's brow furrowed in thought. The older woman had hoped that the two might make a match but the bard seemed unwilling to attach herself to anyone.
"Like you," Gabrielle announced after peering at him for a long minute. "She was tall with long dark hair and the most beautiful blue eyes."
There was complete silence. Cyrene held her breath wondering if it was possible but then dismissed the idea completely. Her daughter had not been back since she had started her rampage across Greece. Xena knew she was not welcome in Amphipolis, though rumour had it that she had visited the region on several occasions.
"Did she say who she was?" Toris finally managed to fill the silence.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head, "but she was so nice. She chased off these six thieves who happened along. I was ever so grateful."
"Oh?" Cyrene smiled with relief, realizing that it couldn't have been her daughter, and then pressed the girl for more information. The bard, always eager to tell a story, launched into a complete and detailed account of the mornings events. She was so absorbed in her tale that she failed to notice the subdued and thoughtful expressions on her companions faces.
"The troops appear sluggish," Xena commented in a harsh voice as she followed Rufus around the military compound. The Regional Commander was leading her through the camp and many of the troops were engaged in weapons drills.
"It's been awhile since they have been tested in battle," Rufus replied in defence of his men.
"While then we will have to find them something to keep them busy," she remarked dryly remembering what the bard had suggested. The more she thought about it the more she liked the idea. It was good for several reasons, however, right now there were other matters that needed to be settled. She paused and turned an icy gaze upon the General. "What was the idea of attacking the Amazon's, I don't remember issuing such an order?"
The General stiffened. He knew he had taken a gamble in attacking the Nation of Women Warriors but believed that he had reason enough to defend his decision. "We received word that several Amazon parties were attacking surrounding villages. I felt that they needed to be taught a lesson."
Xena didn't believe his explanation but she did not call his bluff. She would save that for later when he had gotten his confidence back. She turned and surveyed the camp taking in every detail with one sharp glance.
"Rumour has it that you have a bard come in to entertain."
The General visibly relaxed, relieved that he had not suffered for taking matters into his own hands. He breathed easier at the change of subject thinking himself safe.
"Yes, Gabrielle of Potedaia," he conceded with pride. "It is a real treat for the men. It helps with morale."
"When is her next visit?"
"Not for a fortnight," the Commander answered.
"I have heard much about her," Xena continued walking. "I would be interested in hearing her talent."
"Yes, My Empress, but I am not certain where she is," Rufus was confused by the Conqueror's request. Generally such things were unimportant to her.
"She is in Amphipolis," came the cool answer. "I want you to send down a party to escort her here."
"Yes, Conqueror," Rufus nodded dumbfounded.
"Make certain your men are polite," she added her eyes straying across the square.
"Have you found those bandits I told you about?" she asked as they reached the tent that had been set aside for her use during her visit.
"We picked them up heading towards the mountains," Rufus replied. "They are being brought here now as we speak."
"Good," the Conqueror said coldly turning her head to glance once more around the compound before focusing back on the man at the side. The General automatically stiffened at the sight of the cold blue eyes that bore down into his soul. He felt a tremendous fear rush through his body. "Next time you think to initiate a battle without my consent I suggest that you better at least win, it doesn't look good for me to lose." There was a slight pause and when the Empress spoke again it was in a voice so low that the General almost didn't hear it. "You have made your one mistake, you have no more chances." With that she turned and strolled into the tent pushing the flap closed as she disappeared.
Rufus stared at the closed flaps for a moment before turning and signalling for his Lieutenant. He considered himself fortunate realizing he had gotten off lightly. He had gambled and won and it gave him confidence. Of course the message from General Titus warning him of her impending arrival had come just in time. He had been preparing to send a second party out to entice the Amazon's to fight.
"Yes, General?" Argus bowed his head in respect.
"The Conqueror wishes to hear the bard Gabrielle tell her stories. Send a party of riders to fetch her. I believe they will find her in Amphipolis. In fact send some of her Royal Guard."
"Yes, sir," the man nodded and hastened to do his bidding.
Rufus glanced again at the closed tent flaps and then strolled back towards his own quarters, hoping that the Conqueror would not stay long. He hated to run her errands yet he would do so, aware that it wasn't quite time for him to strike.
Gabrielle was enjoying her visit to Amphipolis. She had just finished delivering her last message when the six armoured horsemen bearing the Conqueror's standard rode into town. The villagers hostility was evident in the angry looks they cast at the intruders. No one from the Conqueror's army was welcome in the town and few soldiers dared to venture inside its limits. The horses came to a halt by the Inn and their leader urged his horse forward to where the girl was standing. He recognized her from that day at the lake.
"Gabrielle of Potedaia," Zenon said and the girl nodded. "We are here to escort you to General Rufus' camp."
The bard was momentarily silent. She was not expected back at the camp for at least two weeks. She had heard that the Conqueror was in the Region inspecting her armies. She thought about the woman in the forest and wondered if she had been a spy.
"You are Gabrielle of Potedaia, are you not?" Zenon asked again thinking that perhaps he had been mistaken. He cast a weary glance about the village aware of the curious gazes they were receiving from the villagers who were peeking their heads outside the doors of their homes and their shops.
"Yes," the bard finally found her voice though it sounded squeaky. "What have I done?"
"The General is entertaining a special guest. The Conqueror has graced us with her presence and he wishes for you to honour them with entertainment."
Gabrielle felt a wave of relief sweep through her body, unexpectedly happy with the knowledge that the woman by the lake had not been a spy. She looked up at the soldier and knew this was a request she would be unable to turn down, though she could not help being flattered that the General had specifically sought her talent. She was overwhelmed by the thought that she might get the opportunity to see and meet the Empress.
"It will take me all day to get there," she murmured thoughtfully.
"We are here to escort you," the soldier replied with dignity.
"Okay, I just need to go collect my things."
"We will wait here," the man bowed his head.
"What do they want?" Cyrene asked hurrying to the door when the bard stepped back into the tavern. She had heard the thunder of hooves and had watched through the tavern windows as the soldiers had spoken to the girl. She had been unable to make out what had been said and was greatly worried for her young friend.
"Commander Rufus wants me to entertain the Conqueror," Gabrielle said not quite believing the sudden turn of events.
Absolute silence greeted her admission and Cyrene glanced over the bard's shoulder to her son who had just entered the tavern. They looked at each other in quiet communication. There was just to much consequence.
"I don't think you should go," the Innkeeper said hesitantly, fearing the worse yet unwilling to reveal her beliefs.
"I have to go," Gabrielle rejected the notion, embarrassed by the idea that she was intrigued by the thought of entertaining the Conqueror.
"No, Gabrielle," Toris said grabbing her shoulders and turning her to face him. Like his mother he was afraid, yet neither of them had the courage to tell this girl the truth, worried that they were mistaken. "We can sneak you out the back."
"Why?" the bard was honestly puzzled.
"The Conqueror is a cruel person," Cyrene interjected and then glanced over her shoulder, making a private decision. "We think that woman you talked to the other day may have been a spy and this is only a trap to capture you."
"What if you're wrong?" the girl asked.
"I hope we are," the older woman sighed. "But even if we are, I shudder to think what she might
do if she doesn't like your stories."
"Then you have nothing to worry about," the bard smiled confidentially. "Everyone likes my stories."
There was nothing they could say to dissuade the girl and later, both watched with a growing sense of dread as the bard was hoisted onto the back of the horse of one of the soldiers for the journey to the army camp. Cyrene watched as the horses departed in a cloud of fine dust. She knew of the girl's propensity to say what was on her mind, and quietly wondered if she would ever see the young bard again. Gabrielle had no such fears.
She had been to the army camp on numerous occasions yet this time she expected it to be different and was mildly disappointed that it was the same. She had come to think the Conqueror's visit would change things but there was nothing overtly unusual other then that the soldiers moved with a quicker step. Her escort handed her over to another military official who she recognized from her previous visits. Her attempts at friendliness were not returned and she sensed that every one was on edge.
Eventually she was turned over to the camp cook, an older woman whose hostile features masked a rather kind heart. She was taken to the bath house and told to wash while the older woman stood guard and when she was done, Gabrielle was escorted back to the meal tent where she was fed a huge plate of stew and bread. Though she tried to make conversation everyone seemed unwilling to talk.
After finishing her food, she was lead to a tent where her things had been placed and told to wait until her summons to the Commander's presence. Her other visits had been much less formal and she had been allowed to wander the camp without supervision. She knew that this trip would yield no new information for her friends.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of her cot and glanced around the tent. Normally the General came out personally to greet her arrival. Today she suspected his attention was occupied elsewhere. She was uncertain how long her wait would be so she pulled her pouch over and removed a scroll. She was intent on keeping a record of this visit, certain that this would make a great story. She had barely begun to write when there was a knock on the pole outside the tent.
"The General requests your presence in the dining tent," the messenger said and then escorted her across the square to the tent that served as a mess hall. It was right next to the tent that was used as a headquarters. She was greeted at the door by the Commander and she noticed immediately the anxious expression on his face.
"Thank you for coming," Rufus was most relieved to see her. He was quite a nice man despite the ruthless reputation he had earned from the locals. He lead her up to the stage at the front of a packed room of sweating soldiers and gently kissed her hand before scurrying to the back of the room, taking a vacant chair next to a cloaked figure.
Gabrielle smiled, allowing her natural warmth to spread out to her audience and then launched into her first tale. It was a story about Aphrodite and the crowd sat wrapped in silence as they listened to the adventures of the Goddess of Love.
Xena had purposefully shielded her features though she wasn't certain why. She watched as the bard entered the room, her pale blue eyes studying the girl's soft and innocent features across the distance. She noticed the way the soldiers focused their attention on the girl and straightened in their seats. She had to admire the bard's bravery for having the courage to walk into a room filled with soldiers who probably all fantasised about taking her to their bed.
She leaned back in her chair, placing a booted foot on a rung under the table. She listened and found her weary senses caressed by the gentle cadence of the young woman's voice. It was a sensual almost seductive experience and looking at the faces of the men nearby she knew that they were as enraptured. She stared hard at the bard allowing her hood to drop, revealing a thick dark mane of hair and piercing blue eyes.
Gabrielle finished one story and then launched into the next, her eyes roaming the audience until they came to a complete standstill. She stared into pools of blue so deep and enticing that she thought she was drowning. Her voice faltered and for a brief moment in time everything was forgotten except for the sharp eyes, the angular cheekbones and the raven black hair of the woman sitting next to General Rufus.
She swallowed and quickly composed herself, continuing the story as if there had been no interruption but Xena knew a connection had been made. A tiny smirk tipped the corners of her lips.
Gabrielle tried to concentrate but was unable to keep her heart from pounding. She had been alone with the Conqueror, the most feared woman in the Known World, and had found her not only beautiful, but charming and a pleasant companion. She remembered all the comments she had made and inwardly groaned. No wonder Cyrene and Toris had been so worried. Perhaps she had been fortunate not to have had her head cut off.
She tried to ignore her predicament and launched into another tale, intent on keeping herself busy until they had had enough. She would worry about the consequences later. Right now she had an audience to entertain.
Xena watched the bard move across the stage her hands delicately fluttering through the air as she described some scene. She had heard the girl's hesitation. It had been a minor interruption. She knew she could have fun with this bard, toy with her as she enjoyed but for some reason she wasn't partial to doing that. It was odd the way she felt.
Finally Gabrielle could speak no more and was rewarded with enthusiastic applause and a handful of dinars that were tossed onto the stage. A soldier was immediately at her side, escorting her through the appreciative crowd to the table where the General and the Conqueror sat. Rufus rose at her approach and extended his hand as he motioned her to a chair across the table from them.
Xena felt an eyebrow lift as she listened to the General's glowing words. He's in love with her, she decided with an amused smirk. The girl has seduced him with her words. Her thoughts abruptly halted. The girl had the same affect on her.
"Gabrielle the Bard from Potedaia," Rufus introduced the pair. "Xena of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror, Empress of Greece."
"We have already met," the bard said cheerfully sitting down to face the woman. She had decided the best approach was a friendly one. Besides it was to late to take back any of her words. "We were never formally introduced though."
Rufus glanced from one face to the next and the Conqueror saw his confusion.
"We crossed paths along the road," was the only explanation that Xena would give.
"Actually she probably saved my life," Gabrielle continued guilelessly aware of the stunned expression on the General's face. "Several ruffians were threatening me and she chased them off."
"It wasn't anything," the warrior shrugged, her voice gruff to hide the embarrassment she felt at the praise. It had been a long time since anyone had been appreciative for anything she had done. It felt good.
"It was something," the bard disagreed looking straight at the Conqueror, "and with your permission I would like to make up a story about it."
"You think my reputation needs some help?" the Empress asked cocking an eyebrow as she leaned further back in her chair. She was amused by the girl.
"It would help if the people heard more of your good deeds," Gabrielle replied aware that she was testing the limits of the Conqueror. She had heard stories of how cruel the Empress could be yet she was somehow unworried. "It would help you seem more human."
Before Xena could respond there was a commotion at the front of the tent and all eyes focused on a large bearded man who strolled into the room. Without pause he made his way through the crowded tables to where they were seated. He bowed his head respectfully at the Empress.
"We have returned with the prisoners," the soldier announced aware that all eyes were on him.
"Give them fifty lashes a piece and then tie them to crosses," Xena said shortly, annoyed by the interruption. With a wave of her hand she dismissed the soldier.
"What did they do?" Gabrielle could not hold her tongue, curious about what these prisoners had done.
Total silence reigned throughout the room. Eyes widened and jaws dropped in stunned surprise. No one had ever dared to question the Conqueror and lived. Fugitive eyes glanced at the Empress, waiting expectantly for her reaction. Rufus had the urge to intervene but even he knew better.
"Who?" came the quiet response.
"These prisoners?" Gabrielle could feel the tension in the air surrounding her but she did not understand it. Perhaps it was her innocence that made her unaware of the danger.
Xena's eyes narrowed. No one had had the guts to speak to her like this since Draco and she was privately thrilled though she showed none of her emotions. This bard had more guts then anyone else she knew. This girl almost seemed fearless and perhaps that was what she found so attractive.
"They are common thieves," came the even reply and for a moment blue and green eyes met in a prolonged gaze.
"Their punishment seems to cruel for their crime," the bard spoke again without thinking and saw the blue eyes glint in response.
"What would you suggest I do with them?"
Gabrielle swallowed sensing the menace behind the stoic facade. There was an energy coming off the other woman that she could feel in every part of her body but couldn't understand. She knew she was out of her league here. She knew it was important to discipline criminals but the punishment proposed seemed so harsh.
"Let them tell their story. They might have a good reason why they turned to crime," she said finally and she could almost see the Conqueror's lips twitch in amusement.
"You want me to let them tell a story and then I suppose you would want me to give them a second chance?" Xena asked in a low rumbling voice. The sound was as intoxicating as the deep blue of intensity that was holding her in a trance. Most who knew the Empress knew to be afraid of that voice but the bard showed no such fear.
"You should at least give them a chance to explain," Gabrielle said and a slow smile etched its way across the warriors face.
"Any one can make up a good lie, however I will tell you what I will do. I will give them a second chance," Xena said and then leaned back in her chair. She glanced up at her associates who had been holding their breaths during the exchange. "Put them in the cells tonight, clean them up and feed them, and then tomorrow I will meet them in the main square. I will use my sword and they can have the weapon of their choice." She turned her gaze back to the bard. "If they win they are free to go. Does that sound fair?"
"That sounds cruel," Gabrielle blurted out and there was a crash as a chair fell backwards onto the floor. The Conqueror placed her hands on the table and leaned forward until her face was only inches from the bard's.
Green eyes stared into pale blue and for an absurd moment Gabrielle had the urge to lean her own head forward and kiss the other woman. She fought hard to control the impulse aware that any such action would probably result in instant death.
"To whom is it cruel?" the Conqueror asked in a quiet voice. "In order for them to win I must die. I am risking my own life to give these men another chance for freedom. Under the circumstances I think I am being more then generous."
Xena eased away, her face once more a stoic mask as she glanced about the room before coming to rest once more on the girl. "Rufus make sure our guest here is comfortable. I want to make certain she is well rested for tomorrow. I think by evening meal I will be ready to hear more of her stories."
With that the Empress stalked off leaving them watch her depart. It was several minutes before a low chorus of murmurs began to circulate once more through the room as the soldiers present, quietly discussed the situation.
Gabrielle lifted her fingers to her temples and rubbed at the ache that suddenly appeared. What have I done, she moaned not understanding the strange emotions that were swirling through her head. She felt a rough hand on her elbow as Rufus lifted her from the chair.
"You are lucky she didn't kill you outright," he hissed brusquely as he escorted her out of the dining tent. "Are you stupid or do you have a death wish?"
"No, why?" Gabrielle winced as the grip on her arm tightened.
"No one talks to the Conqueror that way," he continued angrily dragging her across the courtyard to her quarters. "You best mind your tongue or you might have it cut out."
With that she was shoved into the tent and left alone. She stumbled across the floor and then slumped onto the pallet suddenly very tired. At this moment she was more afraid of Rufus then of the Conqueror might do. She lay down on the cot and closed her eyes, rubbing her temples to ease the tension that had built inside her head. She thought about what the Innkeeper from Amphipolis had said but still she was not worried.
Xena pursed her lips tightly together. She watched from the shadows of a nearby tent as the General roughly manhandled the bard to her quarters. She felt an instinctive pull to intervene but forcibly stopped herself. She had allowed this girl to get away with more than anyone else already, she could not be seen to show any more favouritism.
There was a roll of thunder and she glanced up at the dark, overcast night sky. The scent of freshly fallen rain was heavy in the air. She knew she should be angry at the bard for her interference but she was strangely pleased. She drew the sword from the scabbard on her back and twirled it around in her hand.
A smile creased her face as she thought of the dual she would face in the morning. She had complete confidence that she could defeat any challenges but she could not allow herself to be arrogant. Funny things sometimes happened in sword fights. A little stumble or a slight miscalculation and even the best warrior could be defeated by a lesser fighter. She had seen it happened several times and she never forgot those lessons.
Gabrielle was rousted from her fitful slumber by the insistent calling of her name. It had taken her a long time to fall asleep the previous evening, kept awake by the worry that she had somehow sentenced these men to death. In the end she resolved that at least now they had a chance. Before they had none.
She opened her eyes to a pair of smooth and muscular bare thighs. She stared at them for a long moment appreciating the view before allowing her eyes to travel up the long, length of leather clad body that stood towering over her. Startled she sat up aware that a pair of intense pale blue eyes were staring intently at her.
"I thought you might like to watch the proceedings," the Conqueror said in a low throaty voice.
"I'd rather..." Gabrielle was about to say no but she remembered what General Rufus had said the previous evening. Besides she was the one who had suggested giving the men a second chance. She supposed it was only right for her to watch the consequences of her intervention.
"You'd rather what?"
"Nothing," she said hastily trying to smooth over her hesitation.
"No," the towering woman said firmly. "What were you about to say?"
"I'm not one who enjoys fighting," Gabrielle let out her breath unable to meet the other woman's gaze. "I don't think I could watch those men die."
"What if I am the one to die?" It was an honest question and Gabrielle glanced up with startled eyes.
"I just naturally thought..." her voice trailed away.
"That I'd win," the Conqueror quirked an eyebrow, amused and a little proud that this girl knew of her reputation. She dropped to her hunches so their faces were level. "There are no guarantees in life except that death will eventually come. Any good fighter will tell you that sometimes victory only comes from the will of the Gods."
There was silence as they stared at each other. A faint jolt of energy passed between them and Xena recognized again the look she had seen in the girl's eyes the previous evening when she had leaned
across the table. She had meant to intimidate the girl but it hadn't worked. She had struggled with her self control not to close the space between them and kiss the bard. She had seen the same conflict in the girl's eyes.
"Come," the Conqueror said standing up. "You said you wanted to write a story about me, perhaps this will be one the people will remember forever. The Conqueror dies, killed by honourable intentions. Just think you will have been there to see it. You wouldn't want to miss that, would you?"
Gabrielle shook her head not trusting herself to speak. She didn't want to see anyone die, not even this woman whom she knew she should hate but didn't.
"Will the fight be fair?" she asked tossing off her blankets, acutely aware of the intent glance the warrior cast her as she stood up in her sleeping shift. The pale blue eyes glinted.
"I have instructed Rufus to ensure that no one interferes," was the even reply.
"Will they listen?" the bard was curious and the warrior cocked an eyebrow as a smirk creased her lips.
"I am not popular, not even among my own soldiers," Xena was honest. "Most of them would be quite happy if someone put a sword through my breast."
"Then why do they fight for you?" Gabrielle was confused.
"Every soldier wants to be in the winning army. They want to fight but they also want a full belly. They want to share in the spoils that victory brings. Many do not care under whose banner they fight as long as they get what they want. The soldiers in my army are not loyal. They are with me because I am a winner," there was a slight pause. "No one will interfere. Now hurry up, I am anxious to fight."
With that the Conqueror spun around on her heel and stalked out of the tent. Gabrielle watched for a moment and then hastily retrieved her travelling clothes. She dreaded the thought of watching the fight but she was also anxious to see the Conqueror in action.
Rufus watched grimly as the Empress emerged from the tent where the bard was staying. Instinct told him that something was up but he couldn't figure out what. His eyes narrowed as the Conqueror strolled across the courtyard where the soldiers were beginning to gather in anticipation of the upcoming fight. He could see the way she flexed her muscles in preparation for battle. There was a feral smile on her face and he knew that she would enjoy this mornings exercise. A shiver raced up his spine and he felt a moment of pity for the men she would face.
His attention was momentarily diverted by the bard as she came rushing out of her tent. Something was going on between the two women yet he wasn't quite certain what it was. The Conqueror had never allowed anyone to speak to her the way the girl had done the previous evening, not without being severely punished. Briefly he wondered if the bard was one of the Empress' spies.
He caught her eye and motioned her to join him on the platform that faced out onto the square. A circle of soldiers now ringed the courtyard as the prisoners were brought out of their jails. Gabrielle instantly recognized the four men as the ones who had approached her at the lake. She sucked in her breath, uncertain what to think as she glanced at the Conqueror who was looking at her with a smile.
"Do you see that woman there?" Xena turned her attention to the four men and motioned to Gabrielle. The bard saw their eyes widen in recognition. "She asked me to spare your lives. Unfortunately that would be unfair to all those people who are honest and fair. So at her insistence I have agreed to give you a second chance. Together you will fight me, if you win you are free to go. If you don't...."
She allowed her voice to drift, allowing them to fill in the rest. The Conqueror nodded to the Weapon's Master who tossed a variety of deadly armaments down on the ground at the prisoner's feet, while she unsheathed her sword.
Gabrielle caught her breath, enhanced by the primeval look of the Conqueror as she braced herself for battle. She watched as the men hastily snatched up the weapons and advanced. She didn't want to watch but she found herself drawn to the scene.
There was a clanging of metal as blades of steel clashed together and then groans of pain as sharp edges found bare flesh. Though outnumbered the Conqueror was in complete control, swinging her sword to deflect a blow or jumping aside to avoid a thrust. It was almost like a beautiful and intricate dance and Gabrielle knew she would have enjoyed it if it hadn't had such deadly consequences. She was mesmerised by the fluid movement of the warrior. At times her actions seemed physically impossible and more than once the bard thought it was over but the Conqueror would make some deft move and avoid being trapped.
Xena enjoyed this exercise and though she felt the sting of metal as several thrust came close, she easily handled her opponents. Finally she wearied of the battle and the next thrust that got through pierced one man's heart. The next swing sent another man's head rolling across the square. She faced the remaining two men. The blood in her veins beginning to boil, the animal in her out in the open. They attacked and she fought back gutting one man before impaling the last.
Gabrielle stared with sickening fascination at the carnage in the square. Her guts were churning even while a tiny part of her was relieved that nothing had happened to the Empress. Out of the corner of her eyes she caught sight of something that didn't seem right.
"Xena behind you," she screamed and the alert Conqueror whirled around in time to grab the arrow that was headed towards her back. In the next motion her sword was flying through the air and lodging into the chest of a man still clinging to an empty crossbow.
The Conqueror glared at the men standing in a circle around the square and they collectively took a step backwards in fear. She stalked over to the dead man and pulled out her weapon, spinning it around in her hand. Her eyes were wild and they could all see the animal in her. The animal that made her Ares Chosen.
"I'm here now, is there someone brave enough to face me or are you all cowards like this man?' she asked of the gathering. There was complete silence and even Rufus a man who had fought in many fierce battles was afraid to move least he draw her attention. "I thought not." There was another pause. "I have an announcement before you disperse. From now at the time of planting and harvest, unless otherwise engaged you will be dispatched to the nearby villages to help in the fields."
There was a shocked surprise and then a low rumble of murmurs that filtered through the camp. The Conqueror slowly turned on her heel taking in the scene with a glowering stare. Silence fell over the square.
"Anyone not agreeing with my new policy are welcome to step forward and challenge my authority," she invited again and Gabrielle glanced with baited breath at the soldiers. She knew that if the men wanted to do something they could. They far outnumbered the Conqueror and even though she was a good fighter, there was no way she would be able to defeat everyone.
"We are fighting men," someone dared to shout from the safety of the crowd.
"Who will grow lazy with no battles," the Conqueror replied icily. "You will help in the fields or you will no longer fight in my army. Rufus I wish to speak to you."
With that the Empress turned and strolled towards her quarters. Every muscles in the General's body tensed and Gabrielle could feel his seething anger radiate from every pore. She watched as he waved for his second-in-command to clear the bodies away before hastily hurrying after his Commander. He
knew that he was to be disciplined. There was nothing that the Conqueror despised more then an undisciplined army.
"I am disappointed in you Rufus," the Conqueror said without turning to look at her General. They were alone in her tent and though she was turned away from him, he could feel her rage. "Your men are undisciplined and arrogant." He watched stiffly as she turned to face him. He visibly flinched at the cold rage that he saw in her pale blue eyes. "Give me a reason why I would not kill you as an example to them?"
The General stood silently. He knew that there would be no reason that the Conqueror would find acceptable for the behaviour of his men, so he remained speechless. He squared his shoulders and prepared himself to die. He could not know that his refusal to make excuses was the only thing that saved his life.
"You are wise to keep your mouth shut," the Conqueror growled turning away and pouring some wine from the pitcher on a table into a nearby mug. She was still struggling to put the warlord back into the part of her soul that it occupied. She turned back to the man. "You are lucky that I am in a charitable mood, however I will not excuse any more such behaviour from your men. You are a good soldier and I am trying to think of any reason not to make you an example to the rest of your men. So I will say this only once. Find the one who questioned my authority in the square and kill him as well as anyone associated with the soldier who so cowardly tried to assassinate me. If you fail to do so then I will be forced to take action and I assure you if that happens you may no longer have an army to guide and if there is no army then there is no reason for your existence. Now get out of my sight before I change my mind and kill you anyway."
Rufus wordlessly backed out of the tent, afraid to turn his back on the woman. He paused for a moment to catch his breath realizing that he had miraculously survived. The features on his face darkened. He would have to find those responsible for the attack on the Empress and he would make an example of them for he had no doubt that she would take matters into her own hands as she promised.
Gabrielle hung unobserved around the edges of the square as the soldiers cleared the bodies away and then dispersed, returning to their regular duties. She could feel the tension in the air and it sent a shiver down her spine. She waited until Rufus came rushing out of the Empress' quarters, murmuring under his breath. He ignored her and so she was able to saunter unimpeded over to the Conqueror's tent. She knocked on the pole outside the door.
"Who is it?" Xena barked in an angry growl as she took another swig from the mug of wine. She was in no mood for any visitors. She was in a foul temper and several of the cuts that she had received in the fight had gone deeper then she had thought. All she wanted was to be alone so she could stitch up her wounds.
"It's just me," Gabrielle announced quietly, stepping through the flap door and the Conqueror whirled around to see the bard standing tentatively just inside the tent.
"What do you want?" the question was almost a snarl.
Gabrielle winced at the tone of voice but she squared her shoulders. "I came to see if you were all right." She had seen the Empress take a couple of hits and now she allowed her eyes to run quickly over the tall warriors body, noticing the cuts on her thighs.
"I'm all right," the Conqueror barked gruffly yet it was without the same fierceness as before. Something inside her told her that she would be unable to intimidate this girl.
"You're hurt," the bard disagreed pointing at the cut on her thigh and the blood that was running down her leg. Xena briefly glanced at the wound. She had been showing off, wanting this girl to be amazed by her ability and strength. That was the reason she had toyed with the men as long as she had and thus the reason she had taken a few blows.
"It's nothing," she dismissed the injury.
"Please let me stitch it for you."
Silence enveloped the pair and for a moment pale blue eyes met sea green ones. No words were passed. It had been a long time since anyone had gone out of there way to help her. Most every one she knew wanted to see her bleed. She merely shrugged and sat down on the edge of the cot.
Gabrielle moved immediately across the room to the basin on a table stand by the bed. She poured some water into the bowl from a nearby pitcher and then grabbed a linen cloth that she could use to clean the wound. She knelt in front of the Conqueror and silently began to tend to the injury. Xena swallowed finding it difficult to breathe, aware of how soft the bard's hands felt against her skin.
"Well, it looks like your story isn't going to have a happy ending," she mused dryly, needing the words to defuse her thoughts from the sensations that were rippling through her body.
"It almost did," the bard replied without thinking as she remembered the soldier with the crossbow.
"I'm sorry I couldn't oblige you," Xena said in a tight voice, masking the unexpected hurt she felt at the girl's comment. "But I would like to live a little longer yet."
"Oh my...I didn't mean it that way," Gabrielle stammered, flushed with embarrassment. "What I meant was you were almost killed by that crossbow arrow."
"Yah, I got lucky," the Conqueror murmured. She was almost ashamed to admit the truth. "Your warning saved me."
The bard averted her eyes, the colour in her face deepening. She said nothing. Could she admit the truth, she wondered. Was she brave enough to say that she was fascinated by her and didn't want their acquaintance to end just yet. No, she decided and remained silent.
"Why did you do it?" the Conqueror wondered quietly. "If the truth ever got out that you saved me, people will treat you badly."
"It doesn't matter," the bard responded in the same quiet voice. "As much as I might disagree with your policies and methods, I couldn't let you be killed in cold blooded murder."
"Then it was my lucky day," Xena murmured softly and then did something she had not done for many years. "Thank you."
Gabrielle's hands jerked unconsciously at the words of gratitude and she glanced up to look at the woman's face. There was no expression on her tanned features but she could see in the pale blue depths of her eyes that it was sincere.
"You're welcome," she mumbled confused by the wash of emotions that flooded through her body. She smiled unexpectedly. "I'm glad I could return the favour. Where is the needle and gut, this will need some stitches?"
Xena nodded towards a pouch on a table and the bard moved across the room, selected what she needed before returning to her knees in front of the warrior. She was careful as she stitched the wound marvelling that the woman did not flinch once as she pierced her skin with the sharp instrument. There was silence until she finished and when she finally moved away the Conqueror glanced down at the wound. The stitches were small and there would not be a scar.
Gabrielle put the needle and remainder of the gut back in the pouch and then turned to face the Conqueror. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at the tall woman thoughtfully. There was something else she needed to say.
"Thank you for making the soldiers available to the villagers."
"I don't know if anyone will appreciate the effort," the Conqueror commented wryly. "As you heard the announcement wasn't greeted very well by the troops."
"There probably will be some distrust in the beginning from both sides," the bard agreed, "but I think once every one gets used to the idea it will work out." There was a slight pause as she watched the taller woman stand up and test her leg. "Why did you do it?"
Xena shrugged. "It was a good idea that made sense. I don't need a lazy army on my hands. Besides the more the farmers can produce the more I can put in my coffers." There was another pause as pale blue eyes focused on the girl "Do you carry any kind of weapon?"
"I told you before I don't like fighting," Gabrielle replied no longer able to look at the other woman. "I have no desire to kill anyone even in self defence."
There was silence as the Empress studied the girl. She could see that she was stubborn and principled but she didn't like the idea that the bard travelled about the countryside without some means of protection. It was odd but she didn't want to analzye why she cared.
"Here. I have a weapon that is not deadly, but something you can use to defend yourself if needed," the Conqueror stood up and crossed the tent. From a corner she selected a stave and Gabrielle watched as she shifted it in her hands. The taller woman turned and held it out and the bard casually accepted the offering, immediately feeling the unfamiliar weight in her arms.
"You can have that," Xena said gruffly. "I'm not always going to be around to chase away every thief that might accost you during your travels." There was a slight pause and a hint of a smile on the dour features of the stoic woman. "When you don't need it for defending yourself it can also be used to lean on when you grow tired while walking."
Gabrielle smiled at the gesture and then chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. Perhaps it would be helpful if she knew how to protect herself. Until now she had been fortunate but she knew her good luck wouldn't last forever. "Will you teach me how to use it?"
The warrior merely nodded. "Come."
They left the tent and walked through the camp to the drilling field. Xena began the lesson by explaining how to handle and use the innocent looking staff. This instruction was followed by several exercises and after a few misses Gabrielle soon got the hang of its use. The Conqueror was surprised and pleased by the girl's dexterity and grace. It was time for noon meal when the Empress finally called a halt to the session. The bard glanced down at herself realizing she was covered in sweat and dust.
"Come I know of a quiet place where we can have a bath and an undisturbed meal," the Conqueror said interpreting the girl's thoughts. They retrieved a basket of goodies from the kitchen and a pair of linen cloths from her tent. She had no desire in dining with the rest of her sweating soldiers and it was to nice a day to take her meal alone in her quarters. Gabrielle was only to ready to agree. She had enjoyed the physical aspect of their exercise and already certain parts of her body ached.
They walked for half a candlemark before passing through a stand of trees and coming out into a small glade with a placid looking lake in the middle. There were wild flowers of all colours peeking up through the tall grass. They found a quiet spot along the bank and stripping off their clothes they dove together into the cool water. After washing off the dust they climbed out drying off before dressing and settling onto the blanket to share the basket of food. Gabrielle was pleased to see a variety of goodies that included cheese, bread and fruit.
The bard was silent, enjoying the peace of the afternoon. She chanced a sideways glance at her companion. She had never thought that in her wildest dreams she would ever get to see or meet the feared Conqueror yet here she was sitting under a small tree sharing a picnic with the woman.
A tiny smile cracked the corners of her lips as she tried to imagine what her family would say if they knew what was happening. Her parents would be horrified and even Lila, who was more open then the others would be shocked. She knew her friends in Amphipolis would have the same reaction.
"Why are you smiling?" the Warrior asked seeing the look on the girl's face as she munched on a chunk of cheese.
"I was just imagining what my friends would say if they knew I was sharing a meal with the Conqueror of Greece."
"They would probably be horrified."
"Probably," Gabrielle conceded. "Everyone sees you as this cruel blood thirsty warlord."
"I am a cruel, blood thirsty warlord," Xena replied blandly but the girl only continued to smile.
"Yes, but you are also a human being with the same emotions as the rest of us," the bard said. "Look how nice you have been to me."
Xena was silent. She couldn't explain her reaction to this woman. She didn't know why she was indulging in her impulses. Perhaps she concluded it was because she was caught at a moment of loneliness and this girl seemed a safe and amusing diversion.
"Don't be fooled," she said in reflex. "You mean nothing to me. I could kill you just as soon as sit here and have lunch with you."
Gabrielle was momentarily flustered by this response. She knew she should have been afraid but she sensed something else in the woman's words, just as she had come to determine there was something more then the stoic mask she wore on her face. The Conqueror had spoken on reflex. A reflex to protect herself.
"I don't think you could," she murmured softly denying the claim and the Warrior glanced at her sharply, startled by the earnest voice.
"I am beginning to think you are cracked in the head."
"No," the bard laughed and then continued undeterred by the reaction. "Maybe before you knew me you could have killed me, but now that you do know me and know that I am harmless, you have nothing to fear and therefore have no reason to kill me."
Xena stared at the girl. You are not harmless and you are the most feared thing to come into my life.
The words tumbled through her brain, shocking her own self, but she easily dismissed them. This girl could not fight.
Gabrielle used this silence to press her point. "Most people see you as this heartless person who rampaged through Greece destroying everything in sight."
"I did that," the Conqueror acknowledged wondering what this woman was getting at.
"Yes but you never killed any children or harmed helpless people."
"Children died because of what I did," Xena corrected softly, unwilling to let this bard believe any lies. "Helpless people were trampled beneath the hooves of my army. I am not a good person."
There was silence as Gabrielle glanced at her companion. She saw something in the Conqueror's eyes that she had not expected. There was a sadness, a remorse that no ruthless warlord could have conjured up. The truth was it only continued to stir the belief that Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Empress of Greece wasn't as bad as she liked to portray herself.
"I still don't think you are as tough as you pretend," the girl concluded and then shoved a piece of bread into her mouth.
The Conqueror was frozen, unable to move for almost a quarter of a candlemark. She had been restless, driven by some invisible force of late and this woman's words had touched on a very sensitive area of her thoughts. She had locked away all her crimes in a prison inside her head and she thought it was safely buried there but suddenly all these thoughts and feelings came rushing back to her.
Since Cortese she had been singularly characterized as a cruel warlord and in order to survive she had developed the tough as leathers attitude. She was the Conqueror and in order to remain in charge she had ruled with an iron fist burying the humanity of her personality. It annoyed her that this slip of a girl, hardly more then a child, had so accurately seen this.
She sat in the shadows watching the bard perform later that evening, remembering their afternoon conversation. She had been tempted to prove to the girl that she was wrong but she had been unable to raise a fist let alone a sword against her.
"Who are you?" she whispered staring across the crowded room at the girl.
Gabrielle unexpectedly looked up and met pale blue eyes, so intense that she thought she would be swallowed whole by their depths. Later that night as she lay in the darkness of her tent she wondered what was happening to her. She was doing and saying things without thought, she was walking on a narrow cliff in danger of tumbling over the edge, yet she couldn't help herself. She couldn't turn back.
continued in part three.
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