Disclaimers in Part One
Complications pt 2
"What in the Gods names are they doing here?" Xena fumed. It was the most important of about a thousand questions Xena wanted to ask Gabrielle. Calming herself somewhat on the walk to her tent she tried to focus on the situation logically. 'They aren't hurt so I'll just let Gabrielle explain when she gets the chance.' Reconsidering her hasty decision, she knew that having Solan brought to her tent was a mistake. 'I'll change my mind, but I'll have to have a good reason.'
Xena was seated a long low couch that doubled for a bed in her quarters when the guard brought in her two prisoners. Their traveling cloaks had been removed and their hands were now tied securely with rough rope. Xena noted the blonde guard's leering look and lingering touch as he checked Gabrielle's restraints. 'Sentry duty for him.' She thought. 'Although he does know what to leer at.' She took another long look at the firm body of her lover. Short boots and short skirt left little of the amazon's muscular legs to the imagination. The hideous green cropped top also only covered the absolute necessities for modesty leaving her stomach muscles free for anyone's casual inspection. The reality of the situation struck her again. Gabrielle was here. As the guard began to cut the bindings on their wrists Xena rose gracefully. "Leave hers, Iolaus." She smiled at the widening green eyes. "She will have to earn her freedom." It was more of a glide than a walk that brought her within inches of shining green eyes. Bound hands were no match for The Conqueror's superior strength and a demanding kiss was taken from the captive. Xena was impressed with Gabrielle's acting. 'I thought she was really fighting me for a minute.' Glancing at Iolaus' jealous expression she let a wicked grin touch her eyes. "I have changed my mind about the boy." She returned her gaze to the captive woman. "If there is that much fight in you. He probably shouldn't be here tonight." Ripping her eyes away from Gabrielle she focused on Solan. This was the first time she noticed the slight bulge of muscle in his biceps. "Take him to the kitchen. He looks strong enough to lift and carry and he can keep an eye on his sisters that way." She held his chin and forced him to look in her eyes. "Don't make any trouble. You wouldn't want to make me angry now, would you?" Her back was to the guard so she gave him a quick wink and a flash of a grin before turning towards the guard. "He can help them carry breakfast. I want them all present when I judge the girl's cooking." Watching his back as he led the young man from the tent, she drawled loudly. "Now bard, let's see what that mouth of yours can do." Smiling as Iolaus' step faltered. 'Sentry duty for a month.' She decided as he cleared the door.
Thoughts of the guard were no longer possible when she felt Gabrielle's bound arms loop over her head. "Don't be too hard on him, love." The amazon laughed at Xena's amazed face.
"How do you do that?" She knew she had only thought about reassigning the man. "How do you know what I'm thinking?" Searching the green eyes intently she found only love and a little amusement.
"The same way you know what I'm thinking." Gabrielle focused on the woman in her arms. "Try it." She narrowed her eyes, concentrating her message as Xena ducked to capture her lips. Their months apart melted away in a few moments. Smiling as she broke off to take a breath Gabrielle laughed, "See. It's easy."
"Oh yeah? What am I thinking now?" Xena narrowed her eyes at the laughing captive. Her crooked grin gave away her thoughts to the now sober amazon.
"You wouldn't." She mock protested. "I can't defend myself." She wiggled her hands and somehow Gabrielle didn't think that helped her argument. She was right.
Xena scooped up her love and carried her quickly to the soft bed. Her voice was just audible through her low growls. "That, my bard, is precisely the point." She easily pinned the woman's bound hands above her head. Smiling as her sultry voice sent visible chills down Gabrielle's spine. "I have you now." She lowered for a kiss.
Breaking off for air, Gabrielle corrected. "No." Smiling at the warrior's confused look, she continued. "You have me ...... always."
Xena began to wonder who exactly was captor and who was captive. She looked at the woman below her. Green eyes, dark with passion, peered up from a halo of auburn and she knew they belonged to each other. A small shiver raced through Xena. Letting someone so close was frightening to her. Everytime she had they betrayed her somehow. Father, Caesar, Lao Ma, Boriaus, Marcus all of them. She didn't think she would ever let anyone that close again but now, this was different. This was Gabrielle. 'Gabrielle will never hurt me.' She thought. 'Gabrielle will never leave me.' Praying to whatever Gods might be listening that it was true, because if the unthinkable happened she wasn't sure the form her wrath would take, knowing only that 'The world would tremble.' At that thought the dark sleeper in her mind stirred. Realizing she had stopped the attack on her captive, she tried to lighten her mood and grinned. "What was I thinking about then?"
Totally serious now, Gabrielle freed her hands from the loosened hold and looped her arms around Xena's neck. "You were thinking about how much you love me."
Xena did not confirm the statement but didn't resist when the increased pressure pulled her down for a long, slow, heart-melding kiss. She still had a thousand questions for the Amazon Queen. None of which seemed quite as important when Gabrielle's hands began to explore her body, reminding themselves of the softest and most sensitive places. It did register in her mind that Gabrielle was free of the ropes. One eyebrow shot up and the laughing amazon chided her.
"Amazon's know quite a lot about ropes and knots." She caressed a favorite curve and chuckled when Xena moaned incoherently. "Very useful." She spent the rest of the night reacquainting Xena with several other useful skills amazons knew.
The guard's knock on the door frame of the tent evoked a gruff enter command. He held the flap open for the three newcomers to enter with the large breakfast trays. A gasp from the cook and growls from the woman and boy forced the guard's attention into the tent. He nearly gasped himself. The captive apparently had not won her freedom. She was hanging by her bound wrists from a hook on one of the tent support poles. There were several bruises and a few bite marks visible on her neck, arms and shoulders. There was a thin blanket wrapped around her but it was obvious to Iolaus the woman was naked underneath.
He chuckled to himself. It had concerned him recently, since she returned from the Amazon campaign, that Xena wasn't acting like herself. Seeing the bruises and bite marks, it occurred to him that she hadn't had any ... companionship... since her return. 'I guess that was the problem all along.' He breathed an inward sigh of relief.
'Rayna really knows her stuff' Karis thought taking another look at Gabrielle as she arranged the trays on the table, noting that the bite marks were real. It was the little cook's suggestion to use berry juice for convincing bruises. They had perfected the mixture during their journey and concealed a small vial in Gabrielle's boot. The Queen had warned them that the Xena they knew in the village was not the same Xena that ruled the world. It would be too risky for The Conqueror if it seemed she was going soft. They had also been warned that, if this plan was used the possibility of nudity was not ruled out. It was a good thing they opted for a covering. The guard's leering looks at her queen were almost enough for Karis to kill him herself. She could only imagine what Xena must be planning for the man.
Xena casually smoothed the fabric of her favorite black silk robe. "You planning on stealing something else from me Iolaus?" Xena's face was expressionless but her voice was steel.
Reminding him of their first meeting as often as possible was good policy. 'He's not just a thief.' she reminded herself. 'Anyone who could survive through the destruction of their village at such a young age, deserves some respect.' He was actually one of the best hunters she had and he seemed to be loyal. She trusted him as far as she trusted anyone in her employ. He did however have an eye for the ladies as did several of her men. She would have to do something to protect Karis and Rayna or the guards were liable to get carried away with the newcomers. The first night they were safe because the guards would've been unsure of her claim but the longer they stayed the more danger they were in, unless.... Grinning wickedly she walked to her apparently beaten captive. Keeping her back to the guard she whispered. "I need to protect Karis and Rayna or the guards will have them."
Widening green eyes conveyed understanding and just a little mischief. Gabrielle licked her lips and groaned. "Yes. Please." She saw Xena's jaw clench and her brilliant blue eyes narrow slightly at the deliberate echo of the previous night. Warm fingers on her chin forced her compliance in a demanding kiss that she mock struggled to escape.
Karis tried to control her emotions as she watched Xena take the forceful kiss from her Queen then approach her with deliberate intent. She knew what was going to happen. She had seen the look in several of the guards' eyes last night. 'Now I know how Darphus felt.' She thought. 'Gods... I can't move.' It was very difficult to make herself combat against the soft lips. Solan's presence during the journey here had done nothing for her frustrations. She did however manage a respectable struggle and glare at the upraised eyebrow when the kiss was finished. The nuzzle at her ear and Xena's soft, warm whisper nearly broke her. "Tell Rayna, I have to or he will." Karis saw blue eyes glance at the guard. It was a few subtle hand signals later that Rayna's eyes flew open and a quick acknowledgment was given. Karis followed her queen's lead in audible covert responses. She saw the corners of Xena's mouth quirk at her breathless response, "Yes." Karis watched as the little cook fought bravely against the dark towering woman.
Keeping her hand cupped against Rayna's cheek, she said. "I don't like it when things are stolen from me." She gave the guard a pointed look and noted the disappointment in his eyes. Xena sat and prepared to enjoy her breakfast. Knowing it would be excellent because Rayna prepared it. She only wished she could let the others share it with her. Looking suspiciously at the cook and her translating sister, Xena gestured to Solan, "Com'ere boy."
Solan glanced at Karis before beginning his slow walk to the table. He was still fighting the emotions stirred when Xena kissed Karis. He had been confused, angry and a little jealous until the hand signals to Rayna explained the reason.
She appreciated his hesitant compliance. "You will eat this too. Just in case your sister got creative with some poison." Xena looked at Karis and gestured to Gabrielle. "Get her down. All of you will eat this." She saw Iolaus' expression and continued. "Just in case."
Naturally there was no poison and the next half hour was almost pleasant. At the end of the meal, Xena announced that Rayna was indeed an excellent cook and in exchange for her talents at every meal, she, her sister and her brother would have a place with the kitchen staff. Dragging Gabrielle back to the post she laughed, "This one will stay here a while longer though."
Gabrielle watched while they gathered the dishes and when the guard had taken her companions back to the kitchen she slipped out of the bindings around her wrists. "Xena? Will they leave us alone now?" She peered cautiously at the door.
"Yes." She knew Iolaus wouldn't interrupt what he thought was going on. "Until I have to meet the spice traders at noon." Xena leveled her gaze at her not so captive amazon. There were questions to be answered. "So you just happened to be in the neighborhood? What's up with that?"
Xena's face darkened with rage as she heard the long story of Brenin and the events of the past several weeks. "I knew I should have killed her when I had the chance." Xena was pacing now, heavy boots thumping ominously, and growling. "I knew it."
"No, Xena. It is an Amazon matter. Ephiny will deal with it according to Amazon Law." Gabrielle was actually more concerned with the real reason she was here. "It's over now. Thanks to Karis."
"Ephiny will deal with it?" Xena was confused. Amazon customs were not well known in the outside world. "Is she some kind of judge?"
"Actually..." Gabrielle looked sheepish. "She is the Queen now." Holding up a hand to forestall Xena's outraged reply she continued. "Only in my absence. I made her my Regent. She has all the authority of Queen as long as I'm out of the Territory."
"Why are you out of the Territory and why is Solan with you? Now that I'm asking, why isn't Karis back at the village protecting Ephiny?" Xena still wasn't sure why they had made the journey here. "She is still head of the Royal Guard right?" After the lengths she went to protecting Gabrielle if she wasn't the leader already she should be promoted.
Gabrielle snorted. "Right. Like Eponin is going to let anything happen to Ephiny." She was stalling because she didn't want to tell Xena the real reason Karis was along. Taking a deep breath she began to explain. "Solan is with me because I wasn't sure where we were going from here."
"What do you mean?" Xena was becoming frustrated at Gabrielle's evasions and was still angry from the Brenin story when the guard's footsteps could be heard approaching. She checked her bracers and looked up to see Gabrielle, hands back in the ropes, hanging from the pole, moaning softly. One eyebrow went up and back down just as Iolaus entered the tent. No knock. The eyebrow went back up.
"The spice traders are in the negotiation tent." He sounded respectful but his eyes wandered to the hanging woman.
Frustrated enough to let The Conqueror take over for a short time, Xena strode out of the tent, punching Iolaus in the gut as she went. She stopped momentarily to lean over and whisper, "Knock next time." Leaving him on his knees gasping for air, she went to meet the unfortunate spice traders.
It took several minutes for him to regain a normal breathing rhythm. Standing slowly he checked the door and walked over to the captive. "So you caught her attention did you?" When he got within arms reach he wrinkled his nose. He reached out and ran a finger across a berry juice bruise and furrowed his brow.
"Caught the contents of a wineskin." Her sullen voice was low. She was glad that some of the bruises were real, as were the bite marks. It had been long months for both of them. Now it just added credibility to her captive identity. "Could use a bath."
He nodded and laughed. "Why didn't she just lick it off?" Smiling at his own private joke.
Gabrielle looked up, pure hatred flashing in her eyes, "She got tired."
Ignoring the look, Iolaus took a step closer. "I'm not tired."
"Are you insane? She nearly killed you for not knocking. What do you think will happen to you if you do this?" Gabrielle was preparing to slip her hands out of the bindings when footsteps approached the tent. A quick hand signal was all that kept the new arrival from attacking the man.
It took three deep breaths for Karis to control her outrage. "I brought you some lunch, sister." She indicated the bowl in her hand. It seemed that Iolaus was hesitating on allowing the meal so she continued, putting as much venom in her voice as she could. "I thought you might need your strength for Xena this afternoon." It was a lucky thing his back was turned or he would have seen Gabrielle's wry grin.
They were all silent for a moment, until shouts and screams could be heard from a short distance away then suddenly, silence. Iolaus quickly forgot about his opportunity with the captive and brushed past Karis to see what was up.
'That felt good.' The Conqueror laughed, remembering the sound of air escaping Iolaus. From the protests coming from the negotiation tent, it was only a taste of things to come. Xena strode into the tent. Even her intimidating presence wasn't enough to keep the men from arguing. The growl that escaped her was as close to animal as a human can get. She grabbed the nearest trader, that happened to be the Egyptian and dragged him out of the tent. The guards brought the other two. The trader's confusion only lasted until they realized the crosses were in sight. Then the screaming and begging commenced in earnest. The trader's screams could be heard all over the compound until Xena's steel voice cut through the din. "The next person that makes a sound gets their legs broken." Utter silence drifted over the clearing. She looked at the cross maker. "Three more." He nodded and was gone, in search of more wood. Turning her gaze to the second in commands she raised both eyebrows. "Noon tomorrow." It was their deadline and they knew it. 'Now we will get somewhere.' She chuckled to herself as they began talking quietly to each other.
Greed had started the whole stupid problem. Egyptian and Indian spice trader's profit margins weren't where they wanted and they decided that spices from Chin were cutting in on their business. Refusing to allow Chinese ships docking privileges had seemed like a good idea to them. Without being able to stop in India or Egypt, Chinese ships didn't have enough room to carry the supplies needed to get past Egypt and spices to sell as well. Their only choices were to go overland by a treacherous northern route or pay outrageous waterway fees to the Persians. Xena could order that the ships be allowed to dock, of course, but that would cause more problems than it solved. Leaving men to insure that her orders were carried out often became a larger problem than the original. The people involved had to work it out for themselves but due to the world wide impact the solution had to have Xena's approval as well.
At this point Xena didn't even care, she would gladly give up her favorite foods for the rest of her life if it meant not dealing with these fools anymore. Immediately upon entering her tent she found herself wrapped in an embrace. It took a second for her mind to understand it was Gabrielle but her body knew instantly and relaxed under the touch.
"You had to put them on the cross, didn't you?" When she was on Amazon land Gabrielle didn't have to think about the ruthlessness of her love's ruling tactics. Even in Potidea Xena's rule was lax because of the proximity of Amphipolis. Ironically, it had been that lapse in control that allowed the slavers to operate in her area three years ago. Here, however, in the middle of Xena's camp there were constant reminders of the reasons for The Conqueror's cold, heartless reputation.
Karis had seen the tension fade from Xena's body as soon as Gabrielle's arms surrounded her. 'It must be great to love someone like that.' The image of Solan's smiling face came to her mind and she smiled. 'It is.' Xena's voice interrupted her thoughts.
"The second in command's will work it out." She looked at the amazons wryly. "Indian's have a caste system you know." Grinning at their shocked faces she continued. "Not as complicated as amazons but the Indian leader was a political/warrior caste. He just couldn't make himself give in to the others offers. His second is a trader/farmer caste he will be much more willing to negotiate. By noon tomorrow an agreement will be reached." The relief Xena felt was evident in her last statement and in the look she gave Gabrielle.
Karis cleared her throat to get their attention. "I had better get back to the kitchen. I don't want to leave Solan or Rayna alone for too much longer." She smiled at Gabrielle's knowing grin and left before Xena could see the blush rising on her face.
Reluctantly releasing the warm embrace, Xena crossed to her clothes chest. "Here." The warrior tossed Gabrielle a length of silky white material.
Using the light from the dying fire, she examined the gift. "It's just like my favorite robe at home." Gabrielle was grateful for the small taste of home. The pangs of homesickness that hit her during the journey here were unexpected. After the turmoil of her rescue from slavers and her new life with the amazons, she had never once missed her village life. Slipping into her newest garment she hugged Xena tightly.
"Do you miss home?" Xena returned the embrace, savoring the feel of warm skin penetrating the cool silk robe.
"Never when I'm with you." Gabrielle looked into the darkening blue eyes, inwardly sighing because she knew this was the opening she needed to tell the rest of the story. "Do you?" She saw confusion at her question and clarified. "Your village, I mean."
It was a long thoughtful moment before Xena answered. There were a lot of variations and reasons but she settled on the plain truth. "Yes. Sometimes." She smiled. "After I found you. I wished I could go back and thank mother for forcing me to baby-sit that day."
"Why don't you?" Gabrielle held her breath. This was important.
"I don't want to hurt mother. She..... "It was difficult to talk about but this was Gabrielle. "It's not safe for her and..." Xena closed her eyes against the painful memory of her mother's eyes and the hatred she had seen in them at her brother's funeral. " ... I don't think she wants to see me."
"Xena." Gabrielle waited until the blue eyes opened and focused on her. "She does want to see you."
"You sent scouts?" Xena was touched by the gesture. She had always wanted to stay in contact with her family but to do so would mean exposing them to the danger of her enemies.
"I sent Ephiny and Eponin. I didn't trust anyone else." Gabrielle was worried about Xena's reaction to the news. "I had to come myself. I was afraid you wouldn't believe anyone else." And she wanted to be here for moral support. She tried to keep the pain out of her eyes but she knew Xena could see it. "She is sick Xena, very sick.... "Gabrielle swallowed hard but could only manage a whisper to finish her statement. " ...and she's asking for you."
Xena nodded absently, thinking of routes to return home and pass by Amphipolis without causing questions or raising suspicions, and tightened her embrace. "I would have thought it was a trick." She knew if anyone else had told her that her mother was ill she never would have believed it.
Gabrielle returned the embrace for a moment then cleared her throat. "Iolaus knows about the fake bruises." She held up her hand to stall Xena's outrage. "I told him I spilled wine and I think he bought it. You might want to order a bath though." Gabrielle grinned at the raised eyebrow. "Do you have a tub big enough for two?" Laughing as both eyebrows joined Xena's hairline.
"Gabrielle," Xena chided. "I am the supreme ruler of the world." She spread out her arms and spun in place to encompass everything.
Gabrielle yawned and waved her hand in the air. "Yes. Yes. I know all that." She paused and grinned. "But do you have a tub big enough for two?"
"No." She admitted then grinned. "Better. Come with me." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and led her to the back of the tent where a tear in the seam allowed their exit. It was harder for two to go undetected especially in the middle of the day but Xena managed to make it up the ridge to the small cave entrance with no one the wiser. "This is why I set up camp here."
Gabrielle looked around the cavern. From the outside it looked like any other ridge ledge. The entrance to the cave was so small it was hardly visible until you were right on top of it but once inside it was magnificent. The walls of the large cavern were lined with some kind of glowing material so no torches were necessary. The best part was a large pool of steaming water in the center of the cave. She could barely speak, "Oh Xena, It's beautiful." She didn't wait for Xena but simply dropped her newly gifted robe and stepped into the water.
Xena had no idea how Gabrielle managed to glow brighter than the iridescent lichens on the wall. She purred softly. "Yes it is." It only took a moment to join her in the water.
"This is wonderful, Xena." Gabrielle snuggled back against the warm chest and hugged the arms holding her. She knew the warrior was worried about her mother. She almost regretted telling her the news. They had to stay here until at least another day and now Xena would be worried the whole time.
"Mmmmmm..." Xena kept her eyes closed and tilted her head to catch the warmth of the lowering sun. "This ledge is one of the best things about this place." She opened her eyes to take in the view. >From this vantage the plains stretched out to the horizon. "You see that." She loosened her embrace and gestured broadly to the panorama.
Gabrielle looked out across the plains. "What?"
"My Realm." She tightened her embrace and inhaled deeply.
For Gabrielle, it was an overwhelming thought. "The whole world."
Xena felt more than heard the amazon's response. Flexing her arms, she bent to her lover's ear. "Everything the light touches."
"Oh Xena." At one time during their months apart Gabrielle had wished Xena would give up being the Ruler of the World and stay in the Amazon Nation with her. It was a wish that, now, Gabrielle knew would never come true. How could she ever think Xena would give this up for her?
"Would you like it?" Xena shifted to the side to see confusion in wide green eyes.
Laughing and gesturing again the warrior answered. "The world, Gabrielle. I am offering you...." Caught in shining green eye the rest came out as a whisper. " ...... the world."
"I don't want the world Xena." She turned her back on the magnificent scenery to face, what she considered the more breathtaking sight. "All I want is you."
It was a valiant effort on Apollo's part. The sunset he painted was spectacular. Everyone who saw it that night swore there were colors they had never seen before. Still, the two women on the ridge only had eyes for each other.
It was getting late and Xena knew they needed to get back. The evening meal would be served soon. Iolaus knew better than to skip that. She was slightly surprised that activity in the compound had not lessened during their mid-day escape. There was nothing really to do but wait for the traders to come to an agreement. She tried to slip them back in unobserved. It wasn't like she couldn't go where she wanted but she wanted to keep the location of the cave her secret. After a few tense moments, Gabrielle pointed to a relatively safe looking path back to Xena's tent. Xena looked and nodded affirmative. Once back inside the darkened tent they relaxed. "I have figured out an overland route to reach Amphipolis. I'll have to stop and deal with the Persians along the way......" Footsteps approaching, stalled Xena's explanation of their plans.
Quickly pushing Gabrielle back into the darkness of the tent, Xena stepped in front of the smaller woman. The black robe Xena wore was her favorite for more than the comfort factor. It was also great camouflage in shadows. No one entering the tent would be able to see them unless Xena wanted them to.
Iolaus stalked through the darkening compound. His mind whirled, trying to make sense of the disappearance. Xena was missing. It was all he could do to keep it from the other guards. 'Did Xena take the little slave somewhere or was it the other way around? If something happens to Xena, I will be killed.' That thought drove him on toward the kitchen and, in his mind, the one's responsible for his predicament.
The entire kitchen staff watched the magnificent sunset fade before returning to their duties. When Iolaus entered the kitchen they all watched but said nothing as he roughly tied the newcomer's hands together and led them away. It was a common enough occurrence. They were all just glad it wasn't them.
When Solan winced at the tight ropes, it was all Karis could do to keep from killing the man. Logic prevailed, however, maybe Xena had asked for them to be brought, besides it was too public here. Quick hand signals to the others advised them not to struggle. Solan and Rayna both signaled back affirmative.
Nearly dragging them through the compound, Iolaus shoved them through the entrance of the tent and quickly followed. "Where are they?"
Karis looked around the apparently empty tent, decided to torment the man and possibly draw his attention from the others. "How long have they been gone?" It was a logical question that seemed to make him angry.
"You tell me." He shoved her shoulder.
Karis' body twisted to absorb the shove but her feet didn't move. She did a conscious imitation of Xena's low growl. "You don't wanna be doin' that."
"Oh no?" Iolaus was taunting her now. He turned to Solan. "How 'bout this then." Shoving Solan to the floor and smiling.
Karis prepared to release her hands from the restraints. She didn't have to imitate Xena's menacing voice now.
"You really don't wanna be doin' that." Xena's low voice flowed from the darkness. She took a step forward and pulled Gabrielle to her side.
Karis turned at the sound. She saw Xena emerge from the darkness and Gabrielle appear at her side, as if from nowhere. For a moment she just stared at the couple. Light and Dark, complete opposites and yet they fit together perfectly.
"Xena!" Iolaus was confused and then he looked at the smaller woman. Now he was captivated. She was beautiful, radiant. His eyes began to water from the sight. 'She looks like a Goddess.' He thought.
The corners of Xena's mouth twitched and a few small wrinkles appeared at the edges of her eyes. "She cleans up nice, huh." Her good mood only lasted until Solan started to rise from the floor. "You all right boy?"
Blinking to clear his vision, Iolaus heard the tone in Xena's voice. It was the dangerous velvet sound of death. He prayed and let out a sigh of relief when the boy said he was fine. Then he looked again at his leader. 'Why is she so concerned about him?' Other than the tone of voice though there wasn't any sign that she was concerned with the boy at all. She actually seemed more interested in the translator. "You weren't here earlier and I thought...."
Karis shook with rage as Solan picked himself up off the floor. She wanted to go to him. She wanted to help him and hold him and tell him everything would be OK. She wanted to kill Iolaus. 'Get a grip, girl. He is fine.' She reassured herself. Slowly calming down, she tried to follow the conversation.
"I wasn't aware I needed to report my activities to you." She made herself comfortable on the couch and pulled Gabrielle into her lap.
"No of course not. I just... was concerned that's all. When I couldn't find you and the prisoner was missing too... well...I thought.." He couldn't figure a way to say it without getting another punch to the gut.
"You thought, I had been taken." She supplied. The menacing edge of her voice raked his nerves. "You thought, I couldn't defend myself during the heat of passion. You thought, this ONE little woman could take me." Careful not to hurt her, Xena negligently tossed Gabrielle off her lap and rose to her full height. "You thought, I needed YOU to protect ME." Now she towered over the shaking guard. "You thought, WRONG."
His hand reflexively gripped the hilt of his sword. It was a conscious effort not to draw, knowing if he did he was dead, even though she was unarmed and in a flimsy robe. He looked at the ground and shook his head, causing his blonde curls to dance. "I know. I'm sorry. It will never happen again."
As if a dam had burst, Xena suddenly calmed down. "Yes, Well see that it doesn't."
He looked up to see the smaller woman standing at Xena's side with her arms around The Empress' waist. 'Gods she surely doesn't have that kind of power over Xena.' He looked again at the embrace. 'But if she does..... ' He cleared his throat. "I will go get your meal." Motioning to Karis, Rayna, and Solan he began walking toward the exit.
"Leave them." Xena's order was clear. "I want to talk to them."
"Uh... OK." He tried to be casual. "Back in a flash."
"Just don't spill anything and bring plenty. Washing captives makes for hungry work." She sent a grin down to the blushing woman.
It would have looked like a leering grin to anyone else. With his knowledge of the woman's calming effect, however he knew it was more than that. His own grin could have been interpreted as wry but it would have been more accurate to say sly as his mind processed the new information about the travelers. 'Interesting......' He had a lot to think about on his trip to the kitchen.
As soon as Iolaus was out the door, Xena and Gabrielle were at Solan's side. Each one examining him for injuries. Both asking him rapid fire questions. "Are you OK? Did he hurt you?" He held a hand to his head. "Did you hit your head? Are you feeling dizzy?" Xena did a quick exam of his skull and looked in his eyes. Pushing slightly on his ribcage she asked. "Does this hurt?" At his negative response she was finally satisfied that she wouldn't have to kill Iolaus, yet. Gabrielle waited for Xena to finish the exam and then hugged him tightly. "You were so brave."
He wasn't sure what caused more embarrassment the women's treatment of him or the fact that they did it in front of Karis. He looked over at the dark haired amazon and was startled to see the same look from her that his mother was giving him. 'Great.' He thought. He had had just about enough of all this motherly mush but maybe he could turn this to his advantage. "I didn't see you at first Xena.." He looked up at the tall warrior.
"At first? Did you see me before I spoke up?" Xena was concerned she hadn't hidden well enough.
"No I didn't really see you as much as I felt you watching." He smiled at her amazed look then turned his gaze to the amazon guard. " But I knew Karis would protect me."
Xena watched the blush rise on Karis' face and suddenly knew why the girl was along. "Oh." One eyebrow raised. She wasn't sure if she approved. Her son was still very young.
They were sitting around the large table when Iolaus directed two heavily laden kitchen drudges into the tent. Xena noted the looks their three co-workers got as the meal was set on the table. 'Rumors will be flying in the kitchen tonight.' Xena chuckled. 'Each rumor would only safeguard the girls and possibly......' Xena looked at Karis in a new light. 'Possibly .....'
Gabrielle was studying Xena carefully. 'Something's up.' It was a thought that she wasn't sure she liked. She tried to keep from being jealous at the amount of time Xena spent looking at Karis. Her tension eased when she realized it was an evaluation Xena was doing. Thinking back to her own intelligence reports and events up to this very dinner, she realized what Xena was going to ask Karis to do. It was more than she could take. "Xena." Her voice brought the cool blue gaze back to her. "May I talk to you for a moment." She rose and walked toward the back of the tent.
Xena looked at the startled faces of her dinner companions and shrugged, then grinned. "Yes my Queen." She compliantly followed the smaller woman.
Once they were out of earshot Gabrielle hissed. "You can't ask her to do that."
Xena was stunned at the topic of conversation. "Gods ...... How do you do that?" The accuracy of Gabrielle's mindreading trick was unnerving.
"Look you know as well as I do, if you ask her she will but please think about this." Gabrielle didn't want to be left with no fall back plan. If they started out on this path there would be no turning back.
"Gabrielle." Karis' soft voice caught the arguing couple's attention. Karis was rising from her seat. "I'll do it." She closed her eyes and then opened them to Solan's confused face.
"Do what?" He didn't like the sound of whatever it was and he didn't even know what it was yet.
Glancing at Xena she looked directly into Solan's eyes. "Xena wants me to infiltrate the resistance. I'm going to have to be very angry when we get back to the kitchen. I'm going to say a lot of vile stuff about Xena and the way she rules. I should be able to get some attention if not from members at least from sympathizers. " She didn't want to tell him what kind of attention she would be getting from the loyal guards. 'Beatings or worse.' She thought.
Xena was impressed. She had not only deduced what she was supposed to do, she already had a plan to do it! "You were definitely a good choice, captain."
"It sounds dangerous." Solan was not at all convinced this was a good thing
for Karis to be doing.
A loud bang from Rayna's fist on the table made them jump. When their attention was focused on her she began to explain her outburst. Gabrielle translated for Xena. "They will never believe it." She looked at Karis. "No offense but your body language is all wrong." She smiled at the shocked face. "Granted I am better at reading body language than most but it is still all wrong." She paused to try and gather her thoughts. "You just don't seem afraid or angry when you say the words." Sparing the briefest glance at Solan she continued. "You were convincing with Brenin in the pools. Can you manage that again?"
Karis shook her head. "That was a special circumstance. I had been planning that for weeks." She looked at Xena. "Rayna's right. I can see how much Gabrielle loves you and I just can't make myself afraid of you." She saw relief in Gabrielle and Solan but only grim determination in Xena.
Processing Karis' reaction to Iolaus' treatment of Solan, Xena silently approached the would be spy. Diamond blue eye's drilled into earthen brown as her voice chilled them all. "Be afraid." She was now within reach of her victim. "Be very afraid." Lighting fast hands touched Karis' neck and the now gasping Amazon was on her knees, Xena immediately following to whisper in her ear.
Solan slowly joined his mother while Xena menaced Karis. When he saw Xena whispering in her ear, he quietly turned to Gabrielle. "What's she telling her?"
The one arm draped around his waist tightened reassuringly. She started to smile down at the boy but found herself looking slightly up at the young man. "Just the truth."
Rayna couldn't hear the warning Xena gave but saw the guard's body signals shift after the pressure points were released. 'Wow. Whatever she said to her worked great!' When they looked at her to confirm the change she only signed one word. "Good."
Ephiny sat regally as the guards brought the prisoner before her. For weeks now it had been part of her normal daily routine right between eating breakfast and sparring practice, but today was different. Today was the last day. Today was her last chance. She studied the woman as she was presented to her for the last time. It was still inconceivable to her that this woman, so average looking, could be so twisted. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height. Her peaceful occupation didn't lend itself to muscles but she was toned, as all amazons were. Life in the Nation was not easy. A person would be hard pressed to find an out of shape amazon. 'She looks like every other amazon. Can anyone just snap the way she did?' That thought scared her. She looked around the packed council room. 'Could any of these women be the next one to go?'
The scrutiny was becoming unbearable. 'Why doesn't she just get this over with.' Brenin tried to avoid the hazel eyes, only then noticing that more than one set of eyes were upon her. 'Gods...' She swallowed convulsively. Every off duty member of the royal guard, in fact every person that could manage it, was packed into the council chamber silently watching. It was apparent to her that they wanted her dead. 'I guess some people do get what they want.' It was an irony she didn't appreciate.
Ephiny rose from the ornate throne. "Brenin." She waited for the woman's attention. "The charges against you are serious. The penalties are equally serious." She scanned the crowd, then leveled her gaze at the quiet scribe. "Treason can be punishable by death. Do you have anything to say today?" She waited a long silent moment. "This is the last chance you get before sentencing. Are you sure you have nothing to say in your defense?" The crowd murmured when Ephiny finally shook her head at Brenin's silence. "Very well." She sat and trying to imitate Gabrielle in Queen mode, looked up at the woman standing next to her. "Eponin would you please read the charges?"
The temporary head of the royal guard took a step forward and began reading from an official looking scroll. "It has been charged that Brenin did willfully and with malicious intent threaten the life of the head of the royal guard, Karis." Pausing to take a breath, she waited for the crowd to settle, then continued. "It has been charged that Brenin did willfully and with malicious intent threaten the life of Queen Gabrielle." Eponin scowled at the last charge and took a step back rolling up the scroll as she went.
The Regent looked out into the crowd. Taking a deep breath and unclenching her jaw, Ephiny spoke with the low tones of someone who didn't really like what they were saying. "The charge of threatening Karis has been dropped." She held up her hand to forestall the crowd's frustration. "Karis explained to me, before she left, the circumstances of that threat were unusual. Therefore, we agreed to let it drop." Turning her full attention to Brenin she continued. "Threatening the Queen, however, is another matter entirely. I have sworn testimonies from three members of the royal guard that state you threatened Queen Gabrielle's life." She paused to let that sink in. "I have been petitioned however to spare your life."
Brenin's heart did a flip and she spoke before she could stop herself. "Gabrielle.."
"NO!" Ephiny's hard voice silenced everyone in the room. "My instructions from Queen Gabrielle were to follow the law." She waited to see if the woman would think about the one other person who wouldn't want her dead, saddened when several minutes past without an inkling of comprehension. Scanning the murmuring crowd she realized that most people had forgotten too. "I have never heard five more persuasive words. 'Please don't kill my Mommy.' She said. I wiped away her tears and promised her I wouldn't." A deep breath and a quick scan of the now chastened crowd gave her voice confidence. "The Queen of the Amazons ALWAYS keeps her promises." She took a deep breath and projected her declaration to every corner of the room. "The sentence of death is commuted."
Brenin closed her eyes when she heard Ephiny repeat Micha's plea. For one brief, frightening, moment she returned to reality. 'My daughter, Gods what's going to happen to her? What's going to happen to me?' Her thoughts of the future were cut off as the seriousness of Ephiny's voice brought her firmly into the present.
"You will gather your belongings and leave the village before nightfall. You have three days to be off of Amazon Land or this decision will be reversed..... I promise. You no longer have any rank or status in the Nation. You are, from this moment on..." Ephiny paused to take a deep breath." ..... no longer an Amazon." Ephiny held her breath and waited. She would only give the woman until her breath ran out, one chance and one chance only, because Gabrielle requested it.
For an Amazon, not being able to claim her birthright was a fate worse than death. As the sentence penetrated Brenin's brain she realized what hadn't been decided. "What about Micha?"
Ephiny let out her breath. 'Gabrielle was right. Brenin gets to make the decision after all.' She thought sadly. Trying to keep her voice as normal as possible she offered the choices Brenin had for the fate of the child. "Amazons don't punish children for their parent's crimes." She paused to scan the murmuring crowd and thought. 'It's a good thing too or a certain young prince would be in a world of hurt.' Thoughts of Solan's unlikely mother and the possible danger to the boy still sent her reeling. "If you decide to take Micha with you, she may return at anytime. She will always be welcome here. You may however choose to leave her here to be raised as an amazon."
"By who?" Brenin looked around the room. She wasn't sure she trusted anyone anymore. Everyone hated her who would care enough to raise Micha?
"Micha is a wonderful little girl." Ephiny's laced her fingers with Eponin's. "There are many of us who would be willing to share responsibility for her care." The emphasis on us made it clear who would be Micha's primary caretakers if she were allowed to stay. "In a few years she will be old enough to begin preliminary warrior training and she has asked me before about scouting. It won't be long before she is living in the training barracks." The decision was up to Brenin, but Ephiny desperately wanted Micha to stay. She had spent a lot of time with the little girl during the past few weeks and although she loved Phantes, she had always wanted a little girl too.
The evaluation of Micha caught the scribe off guard. She suddenly realized she didn't really know her daughter at all. 'Scouting?' She thought. 'I never realized she even thought about doing that. Much less talked to Ephiny about it.' It was a hard decision but for the first time in months, it was the right one. "I think she should stay." Brenin grip on reality was fading. "I know she will be well cared for here." 'And maybe.' She thought, back in her fantasy world. 'Since Ephiny takes care of Solan too. Micha can convince Gabrielle to let me back on amazon land, after she gets back from wherever.' The fact that she didn't know where Gabrielle began to gnaw at the back of Brenin's mind.
Eponin tightened her jaw at the pressure Ephiny was putting on her hand. If the situation hadn't been so serious she would have smiled. "Eph is gonna spoil her rotten.' She felt the final squeeze as the personal matter was over and it was back to Nation business for the Regent Queen.
"The guards will escort you back to your hut. Gather your belongings and say good-bye to Micha. You may go any direction you want but an escort will be provided until you reach the border." Ephiny gestured and two members of the royal guard stepped forward.
The guards stood quietly one on each side of Brenin. It took a moment for the scribe to shake her thoughts of Gabrielle and head out the door. She packed quietly taking only a few things she needed and left the rest for Micha. She was nearly finished when her daughter arrived.
"You have to leave now?" There were tears in the girl's eyes. She didn't know her mother very well. It seemed that most of her time was spent copying and delivering treaties. The last few months she had practically no contact with her at all. Brenin had been on border patrol for a month before she started spending all her time watching Gabrielle, and then there was jail. During the last few weeks, Ephiny had been helping her with her lessons and Eponin seemed to enjoy teaching her to hunt with a bow. Still, she didn't want to see her mother go.
"Yes." She stopped packing long enough to fall to her knees and hug her daughter tightly. "Ephiny and Eponin will take care of you."
"Queen Ephiny is nice, huh?" Micha was glad that The Regent had kept her promise.
Brenin couldn't think of a response to that so she simply repeated the word. "Nice." She got up, double checked her packs and looked around the hut. 'There's not much left.' She thought and looked at the sad little girl. "The rest of this is yours. Ephiny will help you decide what to do with it later."
"Mom?" Micha's quiet voice pulled her back to sanity for a moment. "You wouldn't really have hurt Queen Gabrielle. Would you?"
Trying to find a good way to answer she hugged the child again. Her impulse reaction was that she would never hurt Gabrielle, but after she thought about that night with Karis she wasn't sure. "I don't think so honey, but I can't be sure." Taking a deep breath she continued. "It's better if I go away so Gabr... Queen Gabrielle is safe." She looked at the guards, their stares were cold but both were nodding. This was the story Micha would hear from now on. Brenin left to insure the safety of the Queen. It was an acceptable compromise for the child's sake. The mention of the Queen had however pushed her back to her own little world.
"But she isn't even here now. Can't you wait to go until she gets back from China?" Micha didn't understand the urgency of the departure. She had heard Solan talking to Phantes before he left on his trip. It seemed to her they were going to be gone a while.
"No. Ephiny says it's best if I go now." She looked at the guard's again, now desperate to leave. This time asking for confirmation. "Isn't that right Bekka?"
The guard walked over and knelt beside the child. She was often on duty during storytime so the child was familiar with her. "It's true. Queen Ephiny said it was better if your Mom left before Queen Gabrielle returns. That way everyone is safe." Bekka looked into the child's sad eyes. 'Gods... seven is way to young to have to deal with stuff like this.' The thought increased her dislike for Brenin. She tried to think of a way to get the girl away from her mother. "Isn't it time for class?"
"She doesn't have to take lessons today." They were all startled and turned toward the door where Ephiny and Eponin stood hand in hand. The Regent quietly continued. "Sometimes life is more important than school." She spared a one-sided smile for the quiet little girl before turning to Brenin, once again all business. "Are you ready?" At Brenin's nod she continued. "Poni and Bekka will escort you to the border." She held out her hand to Micha and spoke in a softer tone. "You ready to go?" She was glad she had already given her orders. The lump that formed in her throat, as the little head nodded, rendered speech impossible and the small fingers closing around her hand may as well have been closing around her heart.
Eponin caressed her partner's cheek with the back of her curved fingers and returned the warm smile it caused. "Back soon, love." She motioned for Brenin and Bekka to proceed out of the hut and the escorts followed the condemned woman's decisive lead. 'It's going to be hot today.' She thought. 'At least we won't have the sun in our faces this afternoon.'
'Now that ...... is a thing of beauty.' The Conqueror's voice rang clearly through Xena's head. 'It's even more glorious when there are more of them.' She called up a memory of thousands of X crosses dotting the landscape each with its own tormented soul attached. 'Ahh... The good old days.' Her dark sister's memories were not amusing to The Warrior Princess. She scowled. 'Those days are gone. Be grateful for what you get.' The Conqueror chuckled a 'We'll see' and was silent.
Xena looked up at the hungry and tired traders. Her voice conveyed the disdain she felt toward the so called leaders. "Your second's have come to an agreement. Thanks to them you get to live." She gestured to the guard. "Cut them down." 'It doesn't matter if they live or not.' The Conqueror sneered. 'It was these three that kept us from Gabrielle so long in the first place.' The Warrior Princess reluctantly agreed but simply replied. 'Gabrielle wouldn't like it if we left them there.' She walked slowly back to her tent, giving orders to break camp along the way. On impulse she changed her path and walked to the main food preparation tent. Karis, Rayna and Solan were all there, just as she hoped.
Seeking out the head cook she gave the orders for breaking camp. "We will be leaving in the morning. I want to leave at first light so break down as much as you can tonight." As she spoke, she continually glanced over at Karis, taking note in the process of each of the amazon's activities. The translator's back was toward her and she seemed to be occupied, helping Rayna with the current meal's preparation. Solan was moving wood from the stack outside to the small interior firepit. It struck her again how he was growing so quickly. She could see the Centaur influence in his movements. Watching him walk she could see Gabrielle's staff training was having an effect on him as well.
Upon seeing Xena enter the tent the robust woman had commenced gathering lunch for two. Glancing up from packing the meal basket, she asked. "Am I gonna hafta do without the girl tonight?" The cook had been around long enough to know, good food was not the only thing Xena had an appetite for. "She was quite angry with ya last night." The woman nodded at the upraised eyebrow. "I think she called ya a few names that hadna been thought of yet."
"Really?" Xena took a longer look at the new girl and sighed. "Probably not. Her sister is still fairly amusing." Returning her attention to the cook she continued her orders. "Cold supper and light breakfast. I don't want to have to wait for a fire pit to go out before we leave." She saw the woman acknowledge the standard order and looked again at Karis, raising an eyebrow thoughtfully she voiced her thought. "Names that haven't been thought of yet, hmmm..........." She left the slowly nodding woman and began a purposeful approach toward Karis.
A quick sign to the little cook warned her not to alert the guard. Rayna watched as Xena stalked her unsuspecting prey, the girl wondered that Karis was ever NOT afraid of warrior.
It was not a sign but Rayna's sudden stillness that alerted her to the danger. Karis whirled to see Xena only inches away. Every instinct she had screamed 'Move' but her muscles were frozen solid in the hypnotic, ice blue, stare. The guard in her said this was necessary. By treating her this way Xena was insuring the motive for her hatred while giving her a future opportunity to get close. Anyone attracting this much of Xena's attention would eventually be in her bed and everyone knew it.
It was unnecessary but her firm hand on the back of Karis' neck, thumb under her jaw made eye contact unavoidable. "I'm told you were quite creative in your tirade against me last night." Her low chuckle took on a sultry tone. "Your sister was quite creative last night as well.....and this morning." Her fingers traced the amazon's jawline to her chin and back, then continued down to her collarbone. Letting her index finger remain at the hollow of Karis' neck, she arched one eyebrow and laughed. Releasing her gaze, she turned, walked back to the head cook and retrieved the meal basket. "You keep her .... for now." She nodded a greeting to Iolaus and continued out of the tent as he entered.
He looked at the head cook. "She's in a good mood." It was a statement but also a question to see if the cook knew why.
The woman made a disapproving noise and filled a basket with the perimeter guard's meal. "She's got a new plaything." She gathered the meal and giving Iolaus a sly look handed him the basket. "Karis."
He thought about Xena's newest distraction, her angry outburst last night and her sister's calming effect on the angry warrior. 'Interesting.....' The perimeter guards thought the choice was interesting as well.
A gentle touch on Ephiny's forearm diverted her attention from the scroll she was reading. Looking up to see Micha standing there, she smiled and raised her eyebrows in question. "What is it honey?" It had been several days since Brenin had left and the Regent was trying her best to make Micha feel comfortable.
"I.. I wondered if you would have lunch with me?" She usually ate with Phantes at the school but his class was on a day trip and the girl didn't really have any other friends. Micha was still unsure about her new living arrangements. She had spent a lot of time with Ephiny lately but it seemed weird somehow to suddenly be living with the Queen. It was like she was being rewarded while her mother was being punished. She wondered how long it would take for Ephiny to begin ignoring her like her mother had done for so long.
Ephiny squinted out the window. "Is it lunch time already. Wow." She grinned at the now smiling girl. "Thanks for telling me." She heard a sound and looked over at the door. Seeing Eponin with a lunch tray she leaned to the girl conspiritorily. "I guess I have two people looking out for me, huh."
Micha's smile grew wider when she realized that Eponin had brought enough for all of them to share. The weapons master hadn't forgotten her! It was a pleasant lunch. Eponin told Ephiny all about the new girls in her weapons training class and Ephiny let Eponin know how much the ancient law she was reading bothered her. The girl noticed that both women smiled more when they were around each other and was delighted when they even asked her questions from time to time. Scouting and its consequences interested Micha the most though. "When you go off on scouting missions, what happens to me?"
A quiet look passed between the women. "If we both leave at the same time, you will stay in the nursery. Like you did when your Mom was on border duty." It was unlikely that they both would be gone at the same time. Gabrielle didn't like to assign duties that way when children were involved. The trip to Amphipolis was an extraordinary circumstance.
"So why didn't Solan stay in the nursery while Gabrielle went to China?" Micha's question was logical and heartstopping for the women.
"Well he is older than you." The Regent began. She brushed the little girl's bangs from her eyes. "How do you know Gabrielle is in China?" Ephiny's voice was normal but Micha could tell both Eponin and the Regent were upset.
"I heard Solan tell Phantes that he was going to China with Queen Gabrielle. It sounded like they were going to be gone a long time." Micha saw the looks on the women's faces and her voice became small and frightened. "Did I do something wrong?"
Ephiny immediately hugged the little girl. "No." She reassured her. "You didn't do anything wrong. It just surprised me, because I didn't think anyone knew where Gabrielle was." She rested her chin on the girl's shoulder and looked at Eponin. "By the way, did you tell your mother where Gabrielle was?"
When the little girl nodded affirmative, a thought hit Eponin and she gasped. "Gods... Ephiny. Brenin went east." She watched her lover's hazel eyes close at the revelation.
Xena sat with her back to her favorite depression in the rock ledge. The light from the rising moon bathed the plains in a pale soft glow. It was, in its own way, as spectacular as the afternoon sun-drenched vista. She could see small animals scurrying to find their meals before any larger animals found them. Losing herself in the sounds of the night and the warmth of Gabrielle in her arms, Xena closed her eyes.
"We will need to go back soon." It was a quiet admission from the thoughtful warrior. "I told everyone we would leave at first light."
"Do they know the route we are taking? Are they upset?" Gabrielle was sure everyone would be annoyed about the long overland trek instead of the longer but much easier shipboard voyage. She for one was glad of the reprieve from the incessant sea sickness she suffered.
"Some do and some are." Her smile touched her, now open and twinkling, eyes. "But I don't care. They do what I say and I need to check on the Persian's control of the inland water route." She had heard of the huge taxes the Persian's were exacting from anyone they deemed unworthy to use their waterway. This seemed like an excellent way to overtly check on that situation and covertly check on her mother at the same time.
Helping Gabrielle to her feet Xena couldn't help being overwhelmed once again by her partner's beauty. Moonlight washed all the red tint out of her hair leaving only pale blonde silk in its place. It was amazing the effect darkness had on her eyes. Rings of deep green floating on dark pools nearly drowned the warrior. She felt her heart flutter and take control of her voice. "You are so beautiful." Gabrielle's smile rivaled the moon and Xena caught her breath. 'Gods...' Bending to kiss those perfect lips, Xena was struck by a thought. 'This may be the last time we are ever here.' It was a depressing thought. In only two days they had made some wonderful memories.
Gabrielle was up to her old mind reading trick again. "We will come back here someday. Won't we?"
Xena moved to nuzzle her lover's ear. "Only if you want to." She whispered. The ever present lilac/leather/Gabrielle scent momentarily overpowered her. "We will do anything you want."
"Did you hear that boys?" Gabrielle addressed the rocks and any small animals within the sound of her voice. She chuckled and dropped her voice to a fair imitation of Xena's purr. "Anything."
The moon was nearly finished with it's journey when they finally returned to camp. Sometimes 'anything' turns out to be 'everything'.
Karis looked up from the back of the wagon to see Iolaus' concerned face. Taking the offered cup she smiled. "Thanks." Her eyes watered at the potent drink. "A little early don't you think?"
Bolder now, he stood in front of her and rubbed her shoulders. "It'll help with the tension." Feeling her relax slightly he gave her a final squeeze and sat down next to her. "She won't bother you again until we stop to set up camp."
"BOTHER ME!" Karis' outburst caused several glances their direction before the curious onlookers continued packing. She lowered her voice and leaned closer to hiss at the man. "I would hardly call what she's doing bothering me." The memory of yesterday's hypnotic gaze sent a shiver of excitement down her spine and a shudder of outrage through her frame. Taking a deep breath she controlled her anger and her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How do you know she won't call for me until then?"
He chuckled and shook his blonde curls. "It's her pattern. She never has
more than one..... companion...during a move." Smiling he gestured to the women
on the large golden horse. It was evident the Empress wasn't going to let the
smaller woman out of her sight.
"She seems fairly satisfied with your sister."
Following the man's waving hand, Karis saw Gabrielle wrapped in Xena's embrace. It looked like she was afraid of the warrior behind her. "My sister has many skills." Glancing again at the terrified expression on her Queen's face she thought. 'Acting seems to be one of them.'
Gabrielle wasn't really acting. The fact was, she was scared of horses. She only agreed to ride because Xena assured her she would be safe if she rode in front. Admittedly she did feel quite comfortable for the first few seconds, until the beast actually moved. Seeing Karis and Iolaus, the queen raised her left eyebrow. It was part of the coding they had worked out. 'Is this the one?'
Looking down and to the right Karis answered the signal. 'Possibly.' Massaging her own shoulders with her left hand continued the covert conversation. 'Too soon to tell.' Iolaus took over the massage and once again the tension temporarily drained away, until Solan walked up to the wagon.
"Get your hands off her." Solan's still deepening voice was almost menacing. He clenched his hands into fists but held them at his sides.
Iolaus laughed. "Who's gonna make me?" The girl's brother was very protective but also too small to be a threat.
Solan had spoken out of anger. When he saw the man with his hands all over her he couldn't help it. Karis had explained the necessity but he couldn't get over feeling jealous. He wished he had a staff.
Gabrielle saw Solan approach Karis and Iolaus. Getting Xena's attention with a gasp, she quietly directed her gaze to the confrontation. The bard in her wondered exactly what language Xena was speaking, the curse sounded very .....colorful. She tried to ease the warrior's tension slightly. "Gods... Are you planning to kiss your mother with that mouth?"
Xena snorted, relaxed and led Argo to the tense scene, reining to a halt next to Solan. Tapping the boy's shoulder with her toe, she drew his interest away from the guards. "You have work to do, boy." It was not a question. For a second she thought he winked at her. 'It must have just been something in his eye.' She thought. She watched him walk away, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand as he went. Letting her gaze shift to the guards Xena continued her royal orders. "You have work to do as well." She let a slow feral grin spread across her face as she leacherously raised her left eyebrow at Karis.
Looking down and to the right and massaging her shoulders with her left hand, Karis stood. Her walk was slow as she moved to help pack the last kitchen wagon. Iolaus watched her go and looked up at Xena questioningly. The Empress knew what he was asking and denied it. "Don't even think about it." Karis had covertly confirmed her suspicion that Iolaus was probably involved in the resistance. 'I knew he was trouble the first time we caught him stealing food.' The Conqueror sneered. Xena laughed at his dejected look and slow walk toward his duties.
Everyone within the sound of Xena's cold laughter was on their best behavior. The traveling company were all seasoned members of The Empress' permanent entourage and the reason they had lasted so long was easy. 'Don't make Xena mad' It wasn't as easy as it sounded but it had kept them alive. If you ever did find yourself face to face with an angry Empress it was best to just relax and watch her, mostly expressionless, face. Grins, sneers, and snarls were usually OK but Gods help you if she smiled because when Xena smiles, it's too late anyway.
It was the slowest trip Xena ever remembered taking. She was anxious to get to Amphipolis. The last report Gabrielle had from her scouts put her mother's condition as declining and Xena wanted to get there as soon as she could. Checking the landmarks and the lengthening shadows, she silently cursed. 'Now I have to stop and deal with the Persians.' Thinking of the time she had wasted in negotiations with the spice traders, filled her with dread. 'The Persians won't take that long.' The Conqueror's tone was agitated. The Warrior Princess was surprised. 'You're worried about mother.' The accusation caused a sneer from her dark sister. 'Of course not, I just want to put more people on the cross. You know how I love to see our initial dotting the landscape, striking fear into the hearts of everyone who sees it.' The warrior could almost see The Conqueror rubbing her hands together. Still she wasn't convinced. Her dark part loved Gabrielle. She knew that was true because when the Amazon Queen was around The Conqueror stayed in the background. Since the capacity for love was there she thought it was entirely possible that her dark side had feelings for their mother as well. 'I don't think the cross will be necessary in this case.' She grinned at The Conqueror's disappointment. 'A little good old fashioned intimidation should do the trick.' It was The Conqueror's chuckle of glee that made Gabrielle look up.
"Xena? Are you OK?" Gabrielle had been relaxing in the warrior's embrace during the trip. She was almost ready to admit that horseback riding wasn't so bad.... when someone was holding you. During the last few minutes she had felt the shifting in muscle and attitude, then when Xena laughed the woman was entirely foreign to her. Immediately after she asked the question, Gabrielle felt her familiar warrior return.
"Yeah, I'm fine." She briefly tightened her embrace. "I was just having a little conversation with.... myself." Her dark part's chuckle echoed in her head. 'You mean with me.' With the Warrior Princess firmly in control Xena outwardly grinned in reassurance at the bard and inwardly responded to The Conqueror. 'That's what I said.' She urged Argo forward toward the cluster of messengers. "We're stopping here." She announced. "Spread the word." She made a satisfied noise as they scattered to their assigned stations and the large caravan came to a quick halt. She leaned down to Gabrielle's ear. "See. They do what I say."
The amazon snorted. "What choice do they have?" She smiled up at her protector. "You're irresistible."
Xena's retort was cut short by a messenger's approach. "Queen Xena." He dismounted and kneeled. "I have a message from my Lord Cortese."
"Cortese?" Despite Gabrielle's presence, Xena felt The Conqueror surface. Gabrielle felt it too.
"Yes, my Queen." The messenger was oblivious to the change. He was terrified of Xena anyway. The Conqueror was known to kill the messenger, sometimes even before the message was read. Swallowing hard he continued. "He heard you were passing through the area and wishes to speak with you. His castle is not far and he offers his hospitality during the talks." Finished delivering his message the man looked up. Seeing for the first time the true danger he was in.
Xena's outraged sneer was cold. "HE WISHES!" Her voice dropped low and dangerous. "You can tell that walking, talking piece of pig shit that if he 'wishes' to talk to me he can do it here." The initial outrage at the name was over and The Warrior Princess regained temporary control. She continued the angry onslaught. "And as for hospitality, he had better bring anything he needs with him because MY hospitality only extends to not killing him on sight!"
The messenger was visibly shaking now. No longer able to speak he only nodded frantically and turned to leave when The Conqueror's low growl stopped him in his tracks.
"Did I say you were dismissed?" Xena's eyes narrowed at the terrified man as he turned to face her. She grabbed Gabrielle and dismounted. Setting the amazon aside she jumped toward the man applying pressure to his neck and dropping him to the ground. Closing in on the dying man she whispered in his ear. "You only have seconds to live so listen close. Never, EVER, turn your back on me or leave my presence without being dismissed. Do you understand?" She took his frantic nodding as a yes and released the gasping man. Crossing her arms and looking down, she waited for him to catch his breath and look up. Her face was expressionless save one arched eyebrow. "Now you may go." Gesturing to his horse with an open palm hand, she suppressed a grin as he backed away from her and only turned when he needed to mount. She saw him shudder when her cold laughter followed him back down the trail.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's concerned voice brought The Warrior Princess firmly back into control. "Was that really necessary?" Gabrielle knew that Cortese was the warlord who had attacked Amphipolis all those years ago but still.
Dreading the hatred she would see in Gabrielle's eyes she turned to find only warm green love. She basked in the warmth for a moment before returning her thoughts to Cortese. Embracing the concerned amazon, she took a deep breath and replied. "Yes. Yes it was."
A chuckle from the lengthening shadows caused an abrupt end to the women's embrace. The laughing woman advanced on the pair and knelt before them. "Yes my Queen." Confident that no one would suspect she was addressing Gabrielle. "Revenge is sweet." Smiling gray eyes focused up on twinkling green. "Almost as sweet as....... ambrosia."
Xena looked at the kneeling amazon. 'What is she doing here?' Glancing at Gabrielle she noticed that the smiling redhead was concerned at the scout's presence but not surprised. "What do you know about revenge?" Their previous meeting had really only been long enough to pass on the required information.
"I know how I felt when I slit the throat of the person responsible for Melosa's death." Velasca's matter of fact statement was enough to convince any skeptic.
"Xena." Keeping eye contact with the kneeling scout, Gabrielle offered her hands to help Velasca up. "Queen Melosa was Velasca's mother." She smiled warmly at the amazon scout.
"Your mother?" Xena took in the hawklike features of the woman and warily noted the hands clasped around Gabrielle's. She wasn't sure she liked the idea of such a bloodthirsty woman being so familiar with her bard. 'HA! Look who's talking.' The Conqueror's chuckle bounced in her head. "Wouldn't that make you Queen?"
"Adopted mother." The scout supplied, rising and patting Gabrielle's hand affectionately. "And I was never meant to be Queen."
"Wait a minute. You said, Melosa was killed in a hunting accident." Xena pointed an accusing finger at Gabrielle's chest.
"She was." Gabrielle eyed the pointing finger, frowning like it was a dangerous weapon, which in some cases it was, then smiling because in some cases it wasn't. That thought left her temporarily at a loss for words.
Velasca came to her Queen's rescue. "It happened during a hunting trip. It's a long story but in short a warlord was trying to stir up trouble among the amazon factions and thought her death would do it." She smiled. "All it got him was dead."
Xena was about to ask for the whole story when she saw Iolaus approaching their group. "Empress Xena. I was told to inform you your tent is ready." He looked at the new arrival with extreme interest and questioned Xena with his eyes. 'If Xena claims this one too.... I think I'll just explode.' He thought.
With a wry grin Xena introduced Iolaus to Velasca. "This..." She clasped Velasca's shoulder in a firm grip. "... is the best assassin I have." Gabrielle had already told her that the amazon was the best scout and considering the revenge story, assassin was not a far stretch.
He looked at the new arrival with a curious and, realizing Xena put no claim on her, lecherous grin. "What makes you the best?"
"Pain." Playing along with Xena's assassin story, she returned a savage grin. "I like it. I like what it does to people and I like what it makes people do." She glanced at a now chuckling Xena and her amused Queen. Locking her twinkling eyes with the curious guard she dropped her voice low. "And I'm good at it."
"That's why she's the best." Draping one arm companionably around the scout's shoulders and one arm possesively around Gabrielle's she led both amazon's toward her tent.
Iolaus watched the women walk away. It struck him that the little slave walked with almost as regal a stride as Xena did. 'Interesting....' Combining that with the fact that the 'assassin' seemed to defer more to the plaything.....'What had Xena called her? Gabrielle....Where have I heard that name?' .... than Xena peaked his curiosity. 'I may be able to endure a little pain to get some information.' He thought, smiling. 'Anything for the cause. Right?'
"Hello. Anyone here?" The woman's soft voice echoed in the empty tavern. The creaking of a cot and shuffling feet from the room behind the bar encouraged her to walk forward. "Hello?" She waited for a response.
An older woman emerged from the back room. Her long blue dress was worn but clean and well mended. Her salt and pepper hair was slightly frazzled but it seemed more due to ill health than hard work, only because the tavern was empty. Taking a deep breath and suppressing a cough, she smiled at the potential customer. "Can I help you?"
"Yeah. I was looking for someone. About so high." She held her hand up to her chin. "Reddish hair, green eyes. She would have a boy with her. Her name is Gabrielle. Have you seen her?" It was too much to hope that Gabrielle would stop in this rathole town but you never knew.
The woman thought for a moment. "No. Can't say as I have. Not too many people come through here these days." Under her breath she cursed the Persians and their high waterway fees. "If I do see her, who should I tell her is looking for her?"
"No one important. I'll catch up to her later." She fished a coin out of a small pouch. "I could use an ale though and directions."
Smiling wider at the sight of the coin and ignoring the pain in her chest, the barkeep poured her new customer a drink. "Directions to where?"
Brenin took a sip from her cup and smiled appreciatively. "Potidea."
Xena held Gabrielle in her arms and listened to Velasca's report. She glanced down at the woman with quiet appreciation. The Amazon Queen had given her scout precise instructions. After meeting Xena in India she was to continue overland to investigate the Persian waterway problem. Velasca's thorough investigation impressed Xena.
At the conclusion of the report, however, Xena could only focus on one fact. Cortese was responsible. The Conqueror laughed with evil glee. 'Now I get to kill him.' Xena shifted in her seat and hugging Gabrielle close she answered her dark sister. 'No.' Surprising even herself with the thought. 'I do.' She was unprepared for The Conqueror's response. "That's what I said."
Questioning green eyes only hesitated a moment before taking command of the situation. "Thank you for your report. I told Xena you were the best." She smiled at the scout's grin. Giving Xena a pat on the cheek she rose and escorted Velasca to the door, speaking quietly to the amazon. She patted the woman's arm and only watched for a moment as the scout crossed the compound. Turning back to see Xena now pacing the length of the tent, she smiled at the unconscious finger wiggling Xena always did when she was planning.
Upon discovering Cortese was responsible for this unwelcome situation Xena immediately regretted not taking him up on his offer to meet. She began pacing to try and figure out what to do if he didn't come to her. 'I could just sneak in during the night and kill him. No. That's no fun.' The Conqueror snorted. 'Of course it is!' Ignoring her dark side, Xena continued her thoughts. 'I could change my mind and go see him.' This brought an outraged roar from her head. "NO.' She thought. ' Yeah you're right, not after what I did to his messenger.' She didn't regret the action. She wasn't lying when she said that it was necessary. 'I had to let off some steam.' Xena thought. 'I would have killed him otherwise.' The Conqueror's casual correction amused her. 'You mean I would have.' She smiled sweetly to her internal demon. 'That's what I said.' Leaving her dark part to ponder that, she was back to the problem at hand. 'Gods... what if he doesn't come.'
"Xena." Gabrielle caught up with the pacing woman and held the large nervous hands between her own. "He'll come." Letting go of her hands she cupped both sides of the larger woman's face with her small hands. "I told you you're irresistible." It only took a gentle pressure to bend the dark head down to her lips.
"I'm going to kill him." Xena's trepidation at voicing the thought to Gabrielle was immediately replaced with shock at the amazon's almost casual response.
"I know." Smiling at her lover's shock Gabrielle nuzzled closer. "I just don't want to talk about it." With that said, Gabrielle proceeded to make talk of killing not only unwelcome, but impossible.
Solan was collecting wood for the kitchen firepit when a familiar voice attracted his
"Hey, Bub, Com'ere a minute." The low voice was followed by a shaking of some shrubbery to his right.
He cautiously looked around to make sure he was alone and slowly moved to his right. It was not as dangerous as it seemed. He only knew one person that called him Bub. His eyes lit up when he saw the figure in the shadows. "Aunt Velasca!" He quieted his suddenly too loud voice. "What are you doing here?" He dropped his burden to hug her.
Gabrielle had received the rite of caste from Melosa's true sister and since the queen had adopted Velasca the title of aunt was correct. Velasca smiled down at her young nephew, but not very far. 'He has grown.' She thought. "Gabrielle asked me to stop and check on you before I leave." She tilted her head at his expression. "Com'on now don't be that way. She loves you."
He ran his hand through his hair with an exasperated sigh. "I know, but she needs to worry about herself." A random thought bounced around his head. 'Besides Karis will protect me.'
"She also wanted me to tell you to stay away from Iolaus." The scout gripped his shoulder's tightly, shaking them for emphasis. "This is important. Karis has to gain his trust." She looked at him wryly. "If you keep after him, she will start to display more than sisterly feelings for you and that will get her in trouble."
A flare of hope shot through him. "What do you mean 'more than sisterly'?"
"She is the head of the royal guard. You are the Amazon Prince. There is no way she will let anything happen to you, even if she has to blow her cover to do it." Velasca had known Karis' mother and if Karis had half the sense of duty her mother did the scout felt very safe leaving her extended family in her care. "How's Rayna holding up?"
Solan was disappointed at the explanation of Karis' concern but did a double take at the casual question about Rayna. "Fine." He answered, then grinned at his concerned aunt. "I'll tell her you asked."
"I'll bet you will." She paused and examined her teeth with her tongue, then making a decision continued. "If you're going to give her a message, tell her.... tell her.. I miss her cooking." She couldn't hide the softening of her eyes. She grinned and rolled her eyes at his confusion. "She'll know." That reassurance was all he was going to get. Footsteps in the underbrush warned them of guests. Solan leaned over to pick up the wood he had dropped and when he stood he was alone. 'Geez, I hate it when she does that!' He didn't have any more time to think about amazon disappearing tricks as one of Xena's guards approached.
"Hey! I found him!" The stocky guard yelled back at his associates and eyed the boy intently. Frowning at the small amount of wood in his hands until he saw the larger pile at his feet. "I guess you get away with it this time." His displeasure at tromping about in the woods for an errant boy was obvious by the twitching of the scar on his cheek.
Since he had been the one to find the boy, the stocky guard was assigned the task of escorting him back to the kitchen tent. When they arrived he immediately sought out Karis. She saw him approaching but pretended not to notice, so she was not totally unprepared as he thrust Solan at her and barked. "Keep your brother on a shorter leash."
It was harder to keep herself from dodging the blow across the face than she thought. 'Gods.. He's slow.' Crumpling to the ground she took Solan with her. She found his ear and whispered. "Play along." Squeezing a tear from her eye she whined. "Please don't hurt him. He'll be good from now on." She looked at Solan frantically. "Won't you."
He was wrestling with his feelings. He wanted to hurt the guard that had hit Karis but now she was rolling around with him on the floor so it wasn't that bad. Her voice in his ear had left him speechless so he simply nodded yes.
The guard wasn't really convinced but he had other duties. "You just make sure he doesn't cause anymore trouble." He left the threat hanging and stomped out of the tent.
Solan kept his hands in Karis' as they rose from the floor. "Gods Karis I'm sorry. I didn't...." Her shaking head stopped him mid-apology.
"It's all right." She released his hands to examine her jaw, gently testing the extent of the damage with a slight side to side motion. "Now we know he's a loyal one." The grim thought floated through her mind. 'One down, twenty nine more to go.' She smiled at his concern. "Cheer up." She playfully touched his cheek. "They won't all be that bad." Her smile didn't quite touch her eyes as a bleak thought floated across her conciousness. 'Some will be worse.'
Continued in Part 3
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