Through the Eyes of the Conqueror by Cheeya

Through the Eyes of the Conqueror
by Cheeya

Chapter 1

“Godsbedamnedpieceofshitbastards!”

The roar echoed around the room, making the windows rattle in their frames and several guards wince.

“Your Majesty, please,” the healer soothed. “Just another moment.”

The queen nodded and tightened her fingers in the sheets, gritting her teeth against the pain. The healer carefully cleaned the wound and poured some herbs into it before placing layers of bandages over it and tying them down. The queen, propped up on one elbow, pushed her sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes. “Have they found them yet?” she asked, suddenly feeling totally exhausted. She lowered herself carefully onto the black silk sheets and rested her head, blowing out a long breath as the searing pain eased to an excruciating ache.

The captain of the guard stood to attention. “No, Majesty, not yet.”

Somehow, the queen found the strength to raise her head again. “I want them found, Palaemon, and brought to me. No one gets away with attempting to assassinate the ruler of this land.”

Captain Palaemon raised a fist and tapped his chest in a salute before turning crisply and heading out the door. The queen sighed and rested her head again. “Stupid,” she muttered. “Thought I wouldn’t be able to get myself out of trouble, didn’t you, you sick bastards.”

The healer pulled the sheets up over his queen’s shoulders and bowed to her. “I’ll be back to check on you in a few hours. Until then, try to get some sleep.” He reached out boldly then and stroked her hair. “Xena, I’ve known you a long time and I know what you’re like. I don’t want to see you sparring or on your horse for a least a sevenday. Do you understand?”

With a quirk of her lips, Xena sighed and closed her eyes. “Alright,” she mumbled. “But only because you asked nicely.”

Salmonius chuckled and packed up his healer bag. “I’ll be back soon. Rest now.”

Xena was asleep before he even reached the door. Sparing a fond look for the queen, he left to get some rest himself.

**

As Palaemon strode across the yard to the barracks, a drizzle of rain began to fall and he sighed, wondering if he’d see his bed this night at all. Not that he really cared. Someone had hurt his queen and now that someone would pay. A surge of anger welled up inside him and he gripped the hilt of his sword, squeezing it and stomping the ground with each step. “I shouldn’t have let her go out there,” he muttered. “I should have stood up to her.” He had to pause a moment and chuckle. “Yeah, right. I’d probably be dead now if I had.” He waved at the guard in the watchtower and stopped for a moment to make sure everything was quiet before ducking into the barracks. The men who hadn’t gone after the queen’s would-be-assassin were busy mending armour and cleaning their weapons but they stood to attention when their commander entered the room.

“Evening Cap’n,” one man greeted. “We were wondering, Sir, how Her Majesty is doing?”

Palaemon sighed and leaned against the wall, folding his arms and crossing his ankles. “She’s alive.” A collective sigh of relief whooshed through the room and he smiled a little at his men’s loyalty to their queen. Most of them had been part of Xena’s army when she was a vagabond warlord and had a healthy respect for her fighting ability and wisdom. Every man in the place would give his life for her… and do it gladly. “I want any public court sessions and functions patrolled until the assassin is brought to justice and I want you all to be extra vigilant. Got me?”

“Yes, Sir!” came the chorused reply and he nodded proudly.

“Good. Now, I’m going out to dig a little. The queen gave me a lead that I need to follow up. As you were.”

With that, Palaemon strode out of the barracks and into the waning light of dusk.

**

Groaning softly, Xena eased her head up and propped herself up on her elbows. She’d slept for a few hours and she felt a bit stronger but stiffness had set in and made movement a little difficult. She eyed the chamber pot in the corner and sighed, counting slowly to five to psyche herself up. Rolling her eyes, she moved up onto her hands and knees. “Just do it, Xena,” she growled and with a quick flip, got herself into a sitting position. Her back hurt like Hades and she had to take a moment to stop seeing stars while trying to get her laboured breathing under control. “Not good,” she murmured as her stomach threatened to rebel.

Steeling herself for the pain, Xena took a few deep breaths and then stood. She caught her balance and then slowly walked to the chamber pot, cursing every god she could think of along the way and some that she probably made up. “Damn arrow.” The queen glanced over at the low dresser where the bloody arrow still sat and shook her head. “And you didn’t even see it coming. Some warrior you are.”

This, she suddenly realised, was bothering her more than the hole in her back. For the first time in longer than she could remember, the part of her that was a warrior hadn’t even sensed the attack. With a mixture of anger and bemusement, Xena wiped her sweaty forehead on her forearm. “You’re getting soft, Xena. Lording it over these people has taken up so much of your time and thoughts that you’ve let yourself get rusty.”

Xena was suddenly in a foul mood and she finished up her business quickly before moving back to the bed. The short exertion left her exhausted and she sank into the sheets with a long sigh. A short time later, she was asleep again.

**

Crouching behind a bush, Palaemon signalled for his men to stay back. He parted the foliage carefully and quietly and peered into the clearing. Tents… He smirked… Just as the queen had expected. He sent her a quiet word of thanks and praise. Signalling for his second to come forward, Palaemon replaced the branches. “Surround the clearing,” he whispered. “I want total silence. We’re going to hit these guys so quickly that they won’t know which way to run.”

“Yes, Sir,” Saterus replied and then crawled back to pass on the orders. Moments later, Palaemon led the first wave of silent attackers into the camp. His men were well trained and efficient and before long, the small band of mercenaries was in custody and tied up.

The captain prowled the camp, looking for the leader’s tent. He wanted information but he also needed proof that it was these men who tried to kill the queen. Finding an arrow with the leader’s colours would do the trick. Palaemon spotted a larger tent standing a little away from the others and approached it quietly. He ducked inside and paused a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloom. The tent was in perfect order and a table in the centre was covered in neatly folded maps and scrolls. “A tidy warlord. That’s one for the books,” he chuckled but a small sound made him spin and draw his sword. “Come out!” he ordered toward a pile of blankets and rags sitting in the corner and very slowly, the blankets parted and a tear streaked face peeked out. “Come out,” he said again, this time more softly as he realised that the face belonged to a woman. “It’s ok. I won’t hurt you.”

The blankets parted further and a short, slim, trembling body appeared along with the face, framed by dishevelled blonde hair. “They captured me,” she said very softly. “I’m not sure how long I’ve been here.”

Palaemon moved a little closer, squinting in the dim light but he shook his head when he got a closer look. “You’re just a kid,” he blurted out.

The young woman met his eyes. “I’m not a kid,” she replied. “I’m nineteen.”

They just looked at each other for a moment but then the captain chuckled. “C’mon, Kid. Let’s get you outta here.” Nodding gratefully, the young woman followed him out of the tent. She wrapped her arms around her middle, willing her body to stop shaking but to no avail. Tears of relief welled and before long, she was crying. Palaemon blinked and then awkwardly patted her shoulder. “There, there,” he soothed. “We’ll have you back at the palace in no time. When Queen Xena hears that you were here, she’ll definitely want to speak to you. Did you know that these men…” He chucked a thumb over his shoulder at the line of bound and gagged mercenaries. “Tried to assassinate her?”

“I heard some of their plans,” the young woman replied quietly. “They didn’t think I was paying attention but I was.”

“Well then… um… What’s your name?”

The young woman smiled shyly. “Gabrielle.”

Palaemon returned the smile. “Gabrielle, I know for a fact that the queen is going to want to meet you. You have valuable information.”

Putting on a face that was a hundred times braver than she felt, Gabrielle nodded. “I’ll do anything I can to help. I owe you my life.”

“No,” the captain replied. “Your life belongs to you, Gabrielle, not me.”

With a heartfelt whisper, the kid squeezed the man’s arm. “Thank you.”

**

Salmonius tutted as he pressed his hand against the queen’s forehead. “You have a fever, Xena.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she replied testily. “I know a chill when I feel one.”

“Hmm, feverish and bitchy,” he teased as he got out his herbs and started to mix them together into a small cup.

Xena tried not to grin. “Just get on with it, you old goat.”

“Yes, Majesty.” Salmonius chuckled as he poured some hot water in on top of the mixture.

Xena’s nose crinkled. “That smells really bad. I’m laying bets that it tastes worse.”

“That’d be a safe bet,” the healer replied with a sympathetic smile. “You know damn well how this tastes. You’ve administered it enough times.”

“Yeah,” Xena sighed, remembering the number of times she’d had to treat her own men for the coughing sickness. The queen was a skilled healer in her own right but, in her position, she could afford to have someone else take care of her. Despite that, Xena pretty much took care of herself. She didn’t need people to fawn over her but in this case, she had no choice due to the position of the wound. She couldn’t reach her own back.

With an exasperated sigh, the queen took the cup and swirled the liquid for a moment. “Bottoms up.” Then she grimaced, knocked back the entire contents of the cup in one gulp and chased it with a swallow of wine. “Oh gods, that sucks,” she muttered as she lay back down on her belly. “Hey, is Palaemon back yet?”

“Not that I know of,” Salmonius replied as he pulled back the sheets and carefully lifted the bandages away from the queen’s back. She didn’t make a sound but the tension in her body and the way her fingers gripped the sheets told of the agony she was experiencing. “It’s looking very…”

“I know. Just do it,” Xena ordered. “You have to get the nasty stuff out.”

The queen almost bit her lip through in pain as the healer applied pressure to the wound and then cleaned out the yellow pus. Once thoroughly cleaned and bandaged, he sat on the edge of the bed and covered Xena’s clenched hand with his own. “It’s done.”

She nodded, loosened her grip on the sheets and sniffed back any tears that threatened to leak through her stoic exterior. She looked up at him. “Thanks.”

“Take care of yourself. I’ll be back soon to check on you again.”

Xena nodded and then collapsed back onto the bed in utter exhaustion. Her pillow muffled her voice when she groaned. “I really hate being hurt.”

**

Gabrielle was almost asleep when she felt the movement under her stopping abruptly. She lifted her head and looked around her, her green eyes trying to make out where she was in the darkness. Palaemon slid down from the horse and offered her a hand. “C’mon, Little One. We’ve arrived at the palace.”

Oh. The palace. “Wow, it’s huge,” the young woman said softly, her voice full of wonder as the captain set her gently down on her feet.

“Yeah, it is. Xena had it extended when she got rich and powerful.”

Gabrielle nodded, suddenly very curious about meeting Xena: Warrior Princess, Conqueror of Nations and Queen of Greece and it’s surrounding lands. “Where is she now?”

Palaemon shook his head. “I’d imagine she’s in bed, in considerable pain. She took an arrow in the back.”

Gabrielle gasped and her green eyes widened. “By the gods.”

“Yeah,” the captain replied. “She was judging a riding contest and before I know it, she’s on her knees with an arrow sticking out of her back. She didn’t even sense the attack coming.”

“Sense?” Gabrielle asked confusedly.

“Sure. The queen can catch arrows but she never saw it coming. If she hadn’t turned slightly just before the arrow hit, she’d be dead right now.”

“Is she going to be ok?” the young woman asked.

“She’ll be fine, Kid. The queen is a tough woman. Now come on. Let’s find you somewhere to sleep.”

Gabrielle followed Palaemon into the palace and waited while he spoke to the head servant. A few moments later, the woman led her to a warm and comfortable bedchamber. “Get settled, Miss and I’ll bring you something to eat and drink.”

“Thanks,” Gabrielle replied with a warm smile. The servant left her and she wandered around the room, studying the tapestries and paintings on the wall. “How beautiful,” she whispered as she gazed at a portrait of a tall, muscular woman with long, dark hair and very blue eyes. The painting mesmerized her and she just stood there, soaking in its essence until the servant woman returned with a tray.

“I hope you like chicken and bread,” she said. “I’m afraid there isn’t much else at this time of the night.”

Gabrielle gladly took the tray. “This is wonderful. Thank you.”

“Well.” The woman smiled and bustled across the room. “You eat up while I turn down your bed.” Gabrielle demolished her meal, much to the servant’s amusement, and washed it down with a mug of warm milk. “I’ll leave you to sleep now.” After gathering up the tray, the woman left the room and Gabrielle took off her old dress. She washed quickly at the washstand and then climbed, exhausted, into the high, comfortable bed. On the count of three sheep, she was asleep.

**

“What do you mean ‘She’s alive’? Don’t tell me you missed.”

“I didn’t miss. She moved at the last moment. I got her in the back. She went down but she’s alive and in more than a little pain.” The assassin shifted from one foot to the other. “I’ll try again.”

“No, you moron! She’ll be on guard now. We’re going to have to come up with something else.”

“But my men, they’ve all been arrested. I was just lucky that I went to the village for supplies.” The man wiped his brow with a grubby handkerchief. “They’re probably dead by now.”

“I don’t think so. Xena will want to interrogate them. Leave it to me. I’ll think of something.”

**

Chapter 2

Xena was not a happy queen.

Her wound was aching pretty badly and she was still tired from blood loss but she got up anyway and began her daily routine.

Three servants carried buckets of hot water into her bathing chamber and dumped it, steaming and fragrant from rose oil, into the huge, marble tub. The queen sighed as she lowered herself carefully in and she was almost relaxed when a knock sounded at the door. “Come in!”

“Majesty, I…”

Xena chuckled as Palaemon stopped speaking suddenly. “In the bathing chamber. Come in.”

The captain entered and quickly turned his back to the tub. “Majesty, you were right. We’ve caught them. They were camped in a clearing a few miles away from here.”

Scrubbing at a bloodstain on her hand, the queen nodded. “Have you interrogated them yet?”

“No, Majesty.” Palaemon shook his head. “Not yet. I also have another piece of news… this time, it’s good.”

A dark eyebrow shot up. “Oh?”

“Yes, in the leader’s tent, I found something that will be of particular use.”

“I’m not in the mood for riddles, Palaemon,” Xena growled. “Spill it.” She went back to her scrubbing.

“Forgive me, Majesty. I found a young woman the mercenaries had kidnapped. She claims to have heard some of their plans.”

“She does, does she?” the queen said thoughtfully as she scratched her cheek with a sudsy hand. “Where is she now?”

The captain stood a little straighter. “I brought her back here, thinking that you might want to speak to her. She’s young but she seems to have a brain in her head.”

“Hm.” Xena thought about that for a moment. Then she carefully stood up, allowing the water to run from her naked body in rivulets. “Hand me a towel,” she purred.

“Yes, Majesty.” Palaemon grabbed a piece of linen and shook it open but when he turned and found the queen standing before him in all her glory, he almost swallowed his tongue. He quickly lowered his eyes and stepped forward to wrap the towel around her, ignoring her wicked chuckling. “Shall I bring the young woman to you, My Liege?”

Xena placed a hand on his shoulder and slowly got out of the tub, wincing with pain as she stretched her back. “Yeah. Have her come here. I’m not in the mood for any daytrips. Actually, I think I’ll stay in my chambers so cancel court for today and have someone bring me up my meals.”

Palaemon bowed at the waist. “Yes, Majesty. Anything else?”

The queen considered this for a moment and then shook her head. “Nope. Now get lost.”

She chuckled as his boot steps echoed across the stone floor and faded to nothing.

Then she towelled off.

**

Gabrielle frowned as she gazed at her reflection in the full-length mirror. “I’m a mess,” she muttered. “I can’t go to see the queen looking like the village waif.” She stripped to the waist and scrubbed herself until her skin glowed with a slightly red hue and she was shivering with the cold. She ran her fingers through her hair to try to straighten it and then redressed. Gabrielle was a little happier with her appearance but she was still nervous of what Queen Xena would think of her.

Walking to the window, the young woman looked out and watched the sun rising over the nearby mountains. She smiled wistfully, thinking back to the days when she’d had a family and a good life with them. Now though… Steeling her resolve, Gabrielle walked to the door and stuck her head out into the hallway. There was a guard a few feet from the door and she smiled at him as she stepped out. “Hi.”

“M’Lady,” he replied formally. “Can I help you?”

“Um… no, thanks. I was just wondering if there’s anyone around. Have you seen the captain?”

The guard shook his head. “‘Fraid not, M’Lady. Not this morning.”

Gabrielle looked up and down the hallway, eyeing the busts that lined each wall. Large tapestries sat proudly on the walls, lit by carefully placed torches in brass sconces. “Do you know where the queen’s chamber is?” she asked.

“Yes, M’Lady. It’s on the other side of the palace. She has the east wing to herself. No one goes up there unless summoned by the queen herself… No one except Salmonius or Palaemon.”

“Oh. I see. So I have to wait until…”

“Gabrielle!” The young woman turned to find Palaemon coming along the hallway, his helmet tucked under his arm. He bowed to her. “Good morning. You slept well, I trust?”

“Quite well, thanks,” Gabrielle replied with a smile. “Have you seen the queen this morning? How is she?”

“She was up when I called in to her this morning. She asked that you be brought to her.” Palaemon chuckled at the look on the young woman’s face. “Don’t be nervous. She doesn’t kill before breakfast… well… not usually.”

“N…not usually?” Gabrielle squeaked, feeling a little… ok, a lot… panicked.

The captain chuckled and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “C’mon, Kid. Let’s go see the queen.”

Gabrielle gazed around her in awe as she walked through hallway after hallway. Each one was beautifully decorated with statues, urns and tapestries and the young woman felt like she was in the Athens Museum. “Where did all this stuff come from?” she asked as she fingered the plush curtains hanging from the high windows.

“Everything pretty much came from the castles of Xena’s conquered. A lot of these were gifts too. Everyone likes to stay on the queen’s good side.” The young woman nodded slowly. Her stomach knotted at the thought of having to face this woman. She didn’t even know what she looked like for the gods’ sakes. “Just be honest with her, Gabrielle. Xena likes and respects a good mind… and you have one.” Palaemon stopped at a large wooden door and pushed it open. “This way.”

Leading the way, the captain climbed some steps and knocked briskly on another door identical to the first. A small man with a beard and kind eyes opened it. “Palaemon, come in.”

“Good morning, Sal,” the captain replied. “This is Gabrielle.” Then in a lower voice. “How is she?”

“She’s fine,” came a voice from the inner chamber.

“Nothing wrong with her hearing,” Salmonius teased with a grin.

“Ha ha,” came the disembodied voice, this time in a flat, disinterested tone.

Palaemon chuckled and patted Gabrielle on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you to it. Salmonius, would you please bring our guest in to see the queen?”

The healer bowed. “It would be my pleasure.”

“Yes, it would,” came the voice again and this time, Gabrielle laughed a little, forgetting her fear for a moment. Salmonius led Gabrielle across the room and through another door.

“Your Majesty, this is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Her Majesty Queen Xena, Ruler of Greece and…”

Xena waved her hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re Gabrielle, I’m Xena. C’mon over here so I can see you better.”

It was only when Gabrielle moved closer that she realised who this woman was. The young woman sucked in a gasp of air as she set eyes on the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen in her life… the woman from the painting in her room. “Your Majesty,” she whispered, unable to break eye contact with the queen.

The two women gazed at each other and silence descended on the room. Salmonius looked from one to the other and a slow smile spread across his face. Xena couldn’t speak. Those sea green eyes, so full of innocence and light, seemed to reach right into her soul and she could barely breathe. Finally, she found her voice and patted the edge of the bed. “Come sit next to me, Gabrielle.”

On closer inspection, Gabrielle realised that the queen was a young woman too. She perched on the edge of the bed and smiled shyly. “Your Majesty has been very kind to let me stay in the palace.”

Xena smiled. “Contrary to most people’s knowledge, I actually don’t like being called that. I prefer that people call me by my name so, when we’re in private, please call me Xena.” She noticed the young woman’s glance toward Salmonius. “He doesn’t count,” she explained. “Sal’s been my healer since I had my first army.” She grinned then. “Let me guess. You’re a young village girl, probably a farmer’s kid, who was doing her washing by the river when a bunch of nasty thugs or slavers came up behind you and whisked you away.” The grin settled into a smug smile.

Gabrielle lowered her eyes and shook her head, surprising the queen. Xena reached out a hand and tilted the young woman’s chin up so she could look into those green eyes again. “Tell me,” she said softly. All traces of smugness were gone, now replaced with a serious expression.

“I’ve been on the road for a while now. I left home because…” The young woman took a deep breath and then exhaled. “My father drank a lot. He drank away most of our farm before we even realised it. My mother… she got the coughing sickness two winters ago and passed over. My sister, Lila, got married and moved away.”

“She’s younger than you?” Xena asked.

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah. My father was upset because I’m the eldest but…” A single tear crept down her cheek. “I’m not like the other girls in the village. I don’t want to settle down and have children… at least not yet.” She wiped the tear on the back of hand. “He… My father I mean… threw me out. I’ve been alone for a while.”

“He threw you out?” The queen was not impressed and her eyebrow lifted slowly. “What will you do now?”

With a look of sadness that reached in and squeezed Xena’s heart, the young woman shrugged. “I dunno. Get a job somewhere, I guess. Xena, I’ll be forever grateful to you and Captain Palaemon for rescuing me from those mercenaries.”

The queen shrugged one shoulder. “I didn’t do anything. I probably woulda left you there. You’re lucky it was Palaemon.” She shot a glance at Salmonius. “Sal, have them bring up enough breakfast for two, wouldja?”

“Yes, Majesty,” the man replied with a grin and a bow. “Enjoy your… meal… Xena.”

Xena growled something intelligible and scowled until he disappeared, laughing, out the door. Her face changed completely though when he was gone. The queen’s ice blue eyes took on a deeper shade and she smiled. “How do I know you?” she murmured as she gazed at the beautiful face before her.

“We’ve never met,” the young woman replied shyly. “Believe me, I’d remember.”

“Oh yeah?” For some reason she wasn’t quite sure of, Xena felt a smile coming on and she had no inclination whatsoever to stop it. “So, tell me, Gabrielle. What do you know of the mercenaries’ plans?”

“I… I heard them planning to hurt you. They said that the man they were working for would pay them a lot of dinars to do so.”

Xena snorted and settled back into her pillow. “Paying them money that has my head stamped on it. Lousy bastard.” She shook her head in annoyance. “Did you hear this man’s name?”

“No,” Gabrielle replied regretfully. “They never mentioned his name. I’m not even sure if they knew who he was. Wait… their leader did because I heard him say once that he’d met their employer.”

“Hm.” Xena turned onto her side and propped her head up on her hand, ignoring the uncomfortable pull of her wound. From this position, she had a really good view of the young woman’s face. She followed the planes of the youthful face, her eyes lingering at full, pink lips as her mind wondered if they would feel as soft as they looked.

“Majesty?” The queen almost jumped when the young woman spoke and she realised that Gabrielle was blushing hotly.

“Ah ah, I don’t like that. My name is Xena, remember?”

A gentle smile lit the young woman’s face as she nodded shyly. “Yes, I’m sorry.” Gabrielle was a little confused. The look on the queen’s face had made her heart beat a little faster and she wasn’t exactly sure why.

Just then, a knock sounded at the door and a servant entered carrying a large tray. A wonderful aroma floated across the room, making Gabrielle’s stomach growl. Xena chuckled. “Was that you?”

The blush returned and the young woman nodded. “Um… yeah. Sorry. I guess I’m a little hungry.”

“Why don’t you see what’s on that tray then,” the queen suggested, her eyebrows disappearing into bangs that were in need of a trim. She wiggled her fingers and stretched her legs. “I’m hungry myself. What did they provide for the royal breakfast this morning? I hope it’s not…”

“Porridge,” Gabrielle stated flatly, her nose crinkling a little in displeasure.

Xena sighed. “Figures. They’re trying to get me to eat things that are good for me. Bleh!” She leaned a little closer. “What else is there?”

The young woman lifted another cover. “Mmm, bacon.”

“Yeah?” Xena sniffed the aroma. “Mm. Good. Any toast?”

Another dish uncovered. “Yeah. A whole plateful.”

The queen sniffed and ran a hand though her hair. “Good thing too. Wouldn’t want to have to kill anyone before breakfast. I hate that.”

Gabrielle smiled weakly. “Um… yeah… Palaemon mentioned that.”

“He did?” The queen smirked a little. “Glad to see my reputation is still intact. C’mere and share this breakfast with me.”

Nodding, Gabrielle moved the table, complete with tray, right up beside the bed. She resumed her perch and put some bacon and toast on a plate. She added a little cheese and, to Xena’s surprise, offered it to her. The look on the queen’s face made her stop and look at the plate. “What?”

“It’s just…” Xena sighed. “I normally have a taster here to… you know…” She shrugged and looked at the plate again.

The young woman nodded, a little hurt that Xena would suspect her of being an assassin, however, she was smart and knew Xena was too. The queen would of course be cautious since the attack on her life. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Slowly and carefully, Gabrielle closed her eyes and picked a random piece of bacon. Then she brought it to her mouth and popped it in, chewing slowly and then swallowing. A piece of toast was next and went down the same way. Then she opened her eyes, fixing the queen with a questioning look. “I’m not here to hurt you, Xena,” she said softly.

Xena’s eyebrow lifted and her eyes changed shade again, much to the young woman’s astonishment. She examined Gabrielle’s face for a moment. “That remains to be seen,” she finally replied. Then she took the plate from the young woman’s hands and balanced it on her lap. “Thanks.”

“Xena?”

“Hm?”

Gabrielle kept her eyes lowered as she nibbled her breakfast. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

The question surprised the queen and she exhaled as she considered her reply. She decided on honesty. “Hurts like Hades,” she replied, weariness colouring her tone. She shrugged her good shoulder. “Just have to live with it until it heals.”

The young woman shook her head sadly. “I… No one should have to suffer that,” she replied after a moment. Then she looked up to find wary eyes studying her.

“Gabrielle, I’ve done quite a few things that might make you reconsider that statement.” The quiet resignation in the older woman’s voice awaked something in Gabrielle’s heart and something made her reach out to touch the strong hand resting on top of the blanket. Xena’s skin was warm and soft.

“No one deserves bad things happening to them, Xena. Not me, not you, not anyone.”

After a moment of silence, Xena pointed at a small jug. “Pour me some cider, wouldja, Gabrielle?”

“Yes, Majesty,” the young woman replied without thinking but when she looked up she saw a fleeting expression of hurt travel across the queen’s face. A sense of wonder filled her as she realised that Xena really didn’t like people calling her by her title. A queen that doesn’t like being called queen. How strange.

“I was thinking…” Xena couldn’t stand the silence and had to break it, to get back some of her customary control. “Maybe you could stay here and work for me?”

The young woman’s face lit up in a smile. Xena felt one of her own coming on and brought her mug to her lips to hide it.

“That would be wonderful, Xena! How… What… I mean… What would I do?”

Blue eyes twinkled. “You could always be my official food taster.”

Gabrielle went very still, not sure exactly what to say. She couldn’t really tell if the queen was… Oh. She saw the twinkle and grinned. “Wouldn’t that be dangerous? I’m a coward, Xena.”

“I think you’re lying, Gabrielle,” the queen stated seriously. “I don’t think you’re a coward at all. In fact…” She paused uncertainly but didn’t see anything in the young woman’s face that told her to stop. “I think you’ve lived through some pretty scary stuff. If those bastard mercenaries didn’t scare you to death, then being my food taster will be a breeze.” She paused. “Speaking of which, I feel an interrogation coming on. We didn’t capture the leader and he seems to be the only one who knows who my enemy is.”

Gabrielle nodded and poured the cider, handing it to the queen and smiling shyly as the older woman’s fingers brushed over hers. “Who will interrogate them?”

The queen just smiled.

**

Chapter 3
Following the queen, Gabrielle once again took the opportunity to examine her surroundings. No one had told her she was a prisoner in the palace and Xena had been nothing but civil, if not friendly, but she still didn’t think that wandering off would be a good idea. She suddenly realised that the tall woman had spoken. “Um… excuse me?”

“I asked if you’d ever been to an interrogation before?”

The young woman shook her head. “No… Is that what’s you’re going to do now?” Her eyes widened as a dagger appeared in the queen’s hand.

“Yes, it is,” Xena replied coolly. “I want to find out which bastard around here tried to kill me. If I have to cut out tongues, I’ll do it.”

Silence descended between them and Gabrielle was suddenly nervous of the queen. She could feel the tension and anger radiating from her tall, lean body. “Xena?” she said softly.

“What is it, Gabrielle?” Impatience crept into Xena’s tone but she stopped walking and looked at the young woman. For a moment, she was lost in her eyes and… She shook her head, berating herself for being stupid. She had men to torture after all… plus she’d had a good breakfast. Why was she in such a strange mood?

“If you’re going to… um… hurt those men, I’d rather not be part of it.” The green eyes gazed steadily into the queen’s and she felt as if this farmer’s kid was peeling away her layers.

Xena studied her quietly for a moment, noticing, not for the first time, how cute the young woman was. “You mean to tell me,” she said slowly. “That, despite the fact that they kidnapped you, you don’t want them to be punished?”

Pursing her lips, Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair and shook her head. “They deserve a fair trial, not torture.”

Spoilsport. “But I need to get information out of them…”

Smiling, the young woman placed a hand on the queen’s arm. “Maybe you should just try asking them the regular way first, Xena.”

The tall woman scowled regally but then her scowl softened and she put her dagger back wherever it came from. “The regular way,” she murmured with a resigned sigh. Then she started walking again.

Gabrielle grinned broadly and trotted after her.

**

The dungeon was just how Gabrielle imagined it… dark, dank and smelly. She huddled a little closer to the queen’s solid form and, to her surprise, felt a warm arm drop onto her shoulders. Looking up, the young woman saw the torchlight shimmering in Xena’s pale, blue eyes and she felt a little… something… flutter in her stomach. The queen was soft, yet muscular, tall, yet feminine and very, very beautiful.

Then Xena smiled.

White teeth flashed for a brief second as Xena’s eyes met hers and connected with her on a level she’d never felt before. Who was this woman? The woman who made her breath shorten with a smile and her heart pound painfully with a simple word. Gabrielle filed that away for further thought. Right now, she was too busy gazing up at the queen’s chiselled face.

Xena glanced up ahead and then focused back on her companion. “Doing ok?” The young woman nodded, speechless. Xena chuckled. “Never been in a dungeon before, huh?”

“Um… no, never.”

“Good. It’s not nice in places like these.”

The queen of understatement “Indeed.”

Xena suddenly steered Gabrielle to one side and slapped an outstretched hand away. “Get back!” she ordered. “Get back or I’ll let you all starve to death! One infraction and you all die!” The hand drew back and the queen nodded. “There are some real throwbacks in here,” she commented quietly as the hand disappeared back into its cell.

“Why are they here?” Gabrielle asked, feeling sick to her stomach from the stench and the appalling conditions the prisoners were forced to endure. “Surely they’re not all assassins?”

Xena chuckled. “No, not all assassins, Gabrielle, but they have wronged in some way.”

“Oh.” The young woman closed her eyes and found herself leaning into the queen for support. Xena just tightened her grip.

“We’re just there. Hang in there.”

Nodding weakly, Gabrielle was pleased when they came abreast with a large wooden door. The queen swung it open to reveal a small room. Inside was a table and on the wall hung a sconce with a lit torch. Orange shapes danced on the walls, their colours muted by the sheer misery of the place. Daring a look at the queen’s face, the young woman realised that even she wasn’t comfortable there.

With what Gabrielle was beginning to understand was the queen’s customary take-charge attitude, Xena strode into the room and leaned against the table, her arms folded. “You know who I am,” she growled softly. “I’m alive despite your best efforts and now I want to know who it was you were working for.” The prisoners were lying on the floor, mostly curled up in an attempt to keep warm and none of them answered. Xena pursed her lips and scratched her jaw. “Ok, is it a case of your not wanting to tell me or…” She let the question hang. Again, no answer. She nodded. “Okaaaaaay. Gabrielle, we tried it your way.” Her dagger appeared. “Now lets try it mine.”

Six pairs of terrified eyes peered up at her as she straightened to her full height but she was suddenly looking into a different pair and gentle hands were pressed against her stomach. “Xena, wait.” Gabrielle swallowed as she felt the warmth of the queen’s skin through her robe but she forced her attention back to the problem at hand… stopping Xena from killing those men. “Please. Just… let me try.”

A pause… then an almost imperceptible nod.

Gabrielle exhaled and squared her shoulders a little more. Then she turned her back to the queen and raised her voice a bit. “All Her Majesty wants to know is the name of who you were working for. If you provide this name, she will see to it that you receive a fair trial with a suitable and quick punishment.” She paused a moment, glanced at Xena and then pitched her voice a little deeper and breathier, the way the queen’s was and growled. “The alternative, I assure you, will make you beg to be put out of your misery.” Another glance at the now smirking Xena. “Give yourself a fighting chance.”

They waited. Gabrielle took up a position next to the queen, leaning against the other half of the table. Xena leaned a little closer and whispered into her ear. “Well done. I like it.”

The young woman smothered a grin. “Thanks.” Then she watched as the queen paced.

“Tell me now and I’ll make sure that you’re released when I have him in custody.”

Gabrielle blinked. It was an offer, she knew, they couldn’t resist, especially with the threat of torture hanging over them.

The eldest man rose to his feet and straightened his dirty tunic. “Your Majesty. We know not the name of the man our Cap’n was working for. We were merely following orders and we weren’t even close by when the… attempt… on your life was made.” Xena nodded. He felt a little safer. “Our Captain’s name is Iolaus and he’d left to buy supplies when we were captured.”

Even with her back turned, the rise and fall of Xena’s shoulders and the coiled tension in her body told Gabrielle that she was angry. A glint of light slice the air as the dagger reappeared and the young woman knew that she only had a split second. She bolted for Xena and stood in the way as the knife arced toward her. She ignored the pain as the blade sliced into her shoulder, instead putting a hand on the queen’s. “Xena, don’t, please,” she said softly.

Xena took a step back, a shocked look on her face. “I… I cut you,” she whispered and her hand reached out to cover the now freely bleeding wound. She pulled the young woman back toward the door and out into the corridor. “What in HADES NAME did you think you were doing?! I could have KILLED you!” Xena’s eyes flashed blue fire and Gabrielle shook her head, wondering the same thing of herself. The answer came easily.

“I couldn’t let you kill him. He told you the truth. Those men… they were just following orders. Killing them would be pointless.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” the queen replied coldly. “It would have made me feel a lot better.” Then she turned on her heel and stalked away. Gabrielle sagged against the damp wall, her stomach in knots. The look of anger and hurt in Xena’s eyes had really shaken her up and she wasn’t sure why. Hurt… All she knew was that she didn’t want Xena to feel hurt.

Ever.

Oh boy.

**

From the open doorway of Gabrielle’s room, Palaemon watched the young woman studying her hands with absolutely no interest. She had a look of total dejection on her face and he thought she was on the verge of tears. Unable to stand the expression of misery any longer, he rapped softly on the doorframe and waited for her to look up.

Green eyes lifted and Gabrielle smiled weakly. “Hi,” she said softly.

The Captain moved to the bed and waved a hand at it. “May I?”

The young woman pointed the space beside her. “Sure. Have a seat.”

Leaving a more than respectable space between them, the soldier placed his helmet beside him and ran a hand through his hair. “You look… as if you’ve just lost your best friend.”

One shoulder lifted as Gabrielle shrugged, her attention back on the hands cupped in her lap.

“What did she say?” he asked gently.

“Nothing.” There was that shrug again. “Nothing, she didn’t say anything at all.”

Palaemon smiled and nudged her a little. “She can be abrasive and she’s as ruthless and as scary as hell… but she beautiful and actually does have a heart buried inside her somewhere.”

“She’s beautiful… and wise…” Gabrielle admitted. “And I did… I mean… I made her mad at me.”

The Captain chuckled and rested his large hand on the young woman’s shoulder. “I do that all the time,” he replied. “Xena’s a strange one. One minute she’s madder than Hades at you and the next, she’s saving your butt.”

Gabrielle smiled then. “She saved your life?”

Palaemon got up and paced in front of the bed. “More than once,” he said softly. “She took a sword thrust for me once. Damn near cut her arm off but she did it because…” He paused then. “I’m still not really sure why she did it.”

“Because I woulda missed your sorry behind,” came a soft voice from across the room. Gabrielle and Palaemon turned to find Xena leaning casually against the doorframe. She smiled at the Captain and told him to get lost with a jerk of her chin. He nodded, patted Gabrielle’s shoulder reassuringly and headed out the door. Xena closed it after him and watched in silence as the young woman went to the window to gaze out over the kingdom. The queen moved to join her, standing beside her and letting their arms brush together. “You were being true to your nature, I understand that,” she said quietly. She looked at Gabrielle. Her pale blue eyes caught the last rays of light from the setting sun. Gabrielle felt her breath being stolen once again. “It’s been so long since I’ve had to worry about them, that I think I’ve lost my manners totally. I apologise for my outburst. However, what you did was very dangerous. My body could have reacted and killed you out of pure instinct.”

Gentle green eyes blinked. “Why didn’t it?”

The question caught Xena off guard and she needed a moment to collect herself. Why indeed? Hadn’t she killed the last man who tried to get near to her? What had made her stop? The answer came to the queen in a rush of… something… that made her feel a little dizzy and a lot crazy. She’d felt her. She’d felt the kid and known it was her. What the…? “I don’t know,” she finally replied. “But…” Searching the green eyes patiently awaiting her reply, the queen couldn’t help but reach out and touch the young woman’s cheek. “I’m glad it didn’t.”

Gabrielle blushed and a little grin tugged at her lips. Xena felt a smile coming on and didn’t even bother to stop it. She was confused but, looking into those eyes, framed by adorably shaggy, blonde bangs, she knew she’d deal.

Yeah.

**

Chapter 4
Gabrielle winced as the bandage pulled tightly around her wound. “You know, Salmonius could have done this for me,” she pointed out, smiling a little at the tiny frown of concentration on the queen’s face. “Especially since you’re hurt much worse than I am.”

“Hm.”

Okaaay. “What do you plan to do about this Iolaus guy?”

A shrug. “Dunno.”

“You could send Palaemon out to find him.”

“Hm.”

Gabrielle shook her head and captured the queen’s hand in her own. “Xena,” she said softly.

Xena stopped and slowly lifted her gaze. The young woman gently squeezed the hand. “It’s ok. It was an accident.”

“I hurt you,” came the simple reply.

“I know you didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t blame you so please, Xena, don’t blame yourself.”

The queen was quiet for a moment. Then she blew out a long breath and perched on the bed beside the young woman. “I want to get this guy, Gabrielle. I want to make him pay for this… all of it. I haven’t felt this damned tired in a long time and it’s really pissing me off.”

“Why don’t we take a day off?” Gabrielle suggested with a grin.

“A what?” Xena was sceptical.

“A day off… you know… a day where you don’t have to be queen and I don’t have to think about Iolaus.”

A day off, huh? Xena’s eyebrow lifted as the idea sank in. “I… I guess we could do that.” She lounged back on the bed a little, leaning on her good shoulder, and looked up at the young woman. “What would we do on our day off?”

“Well, we could take a walk. I’m sure you have a forest around here.”

Xena nodded, her blue eyes twinkling. “I’m the queen. Of course I have a forest.” She winced a little as her wound pulled and wanted a distraction from the pain. “What else?”

“I’m really liking the idea of the walk,” the young woman replied with a shy smile. “We could bring a picnic.”

“Right, a picnic,” the queen nodded thoughtfully. “Tell ya what. We’ll make tomorrow our official day-off day, ok? We’ll take that walk and have that picnic. Sound good?”

Gabrielle leaned back on her elbow and looked into Xena’s eyes. “Sounds wonderful,” she replied very softly.

Entranced by the young woman’s gentle green eyes, the queen swallowed and had a sudden urge to… She got to her feet and began to back out of the room. “I’m going to lie down for a while. I probably won’t see you until tomorrow morning. I’ll come get you, ok?”

Gabrielle smiled and nodded her understanding. “I’ll be waiting,” she replied.

The queen turned and walked to the door but, once there, she stopped and caught the young woman’s gaze. “I’m sorry for hurting you,” she said and then abruptly left the room.

Gabrielle just closed her eyes and smiled.

**

Pacing back and forth in her bedchamber, Xena told herself not to be ridiculous. She had more important things to worry about than a walk and a picnic with a farmer’s kid that she barely knew. She knew she should be concentrating on a plan to find and get this Iolaus guy but her mind kept drifting back to green eyes and a beautiful young face.
Xena scowled and suddenly hated herself for making that promise to Sal that she wouldn’t spar or ride for a sevenday. Restless energy coursed through her body and she had no way to purge it so she just lay down on the bed and tried to relax.

It didn’t work.

She sat up and shook her head, giving in to what she really wanted. She wanted to see Gabrielle. Xena straightened her robe and wandered out into the corridor. The young woman’s quarters were on the far side of the palace and it suddenly occurred to her to change that. A few moments later, the queen stopped outside Gabrielle’s door and knocked softly. There was no answer so she knocked again and then pushed the door open. The room was dim, lit only by the moonlight streaming in through the window. Xena walked slowly to the portal and looked out, wondering where the kid was. Then she saw her.

The young woman was in the garden, strolling along the path and stopping every now and again to smell a bloom or gaze at the sky. Xena wanted to be there… wanted it more than she’d wanted anything and she left the room, intent on getting what she wanted. Time be damned. She was the queen and she was started their day off early.

**

Gabrielle stopped walking and looked up at the sky. Stargazing was one of her favourite pastimes but she’d never had the pleasure of doing it in a beautiful garden like this before. She smiled and sat down in the grass, folding her legs under her. The fragrances of roses and other blooms tickled her nose and she inhaled deeply, savouring the moment. Then she surprised herself by thinking of something that would make this moment better.

“It’s late,” came a soft voice and Gabrielle’s eyes flew open in surprise as she jumped. She recognised the little laugh and smiled reflexively as she clutched at her chest in mock terror. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“That’s ok,” the young woman replied. “I was feeling a little restless. Just felt like some air, I guess.” She exhaled slowly. “It’s beautiful here.” She looked up at the queen, lit by moonlight. “So beautiful.”

Xena eased her body down onto the ground, stretching carefully. She was pleased to feel only a dull ache rather than searing pain. She rotated her shoulder slowly and then reached out to touch Gabrielle’s arm. “How’s the shoulder,” she asked, her eyes screaming apology.

“It’s fine. A little sore but nothing serious,” the kid replied with a smile. “You did a good job on the stitches.”

“Thanks,” Xena replied softly. Then she lay flat on her back and studied the sky. “Do you miss your family?” she asked quietly, as if making a loud sound would fracture and destroy this moment.

“Mm, a lot,” Gabrielle replied sadly. “I miss my sister but she’s living her own life now…” She paused and Xena heard the catch in her voice. “Besides, she’s probably… ” She swallowed. “Ashamed of me.”

The queen shook her head. “Ashamed? Gabrielle, why would she be ashamed?”

Slim shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I’m not married, I haven’t got a job, I’m nobody. I’m just a hick village girl with nothing to my name.” She looked at her hands. “Xena, can I… I mean… I need to tell you something.”

Xena shifted, moving to sit cross-legged, knee-to-knee with the young woman. “What is it?” she asked.

“When I was with those men… I… They used me for…” Tears spilled over from her green eyes and Xena’s closed in pain and anger.

Oh Gods. Bastards. Godsforsakenpieceofshitbastards. “I understand.” She took Gabrielle’s hands and squeezed tightly. “I’m here. Everything’s going to be ok.” The young woman sobbed quietly and Xena, acting out of pure instinct, wrapped her arms around her and pulled her closer, hugging her tightly and rocking her a little. “Awwright, everything’s ok,” she whispered. “I’m not going to let anyone hurt you ever again.”

And, sitting there in the garden, under an inky black sky dotted with pin pricks of light arranged in complex patterns, holding a young woman in her arms and wondering what the Hades she was doing…

Xena meant it.

**

Gabrielle woke with a low groan and slowly pried her eyes open. She was in her own bed and the early morning sun was beginning to sneak little rays into her bedchamber. The last thing she remembered from the previous night was being…

“Oh my Gods, I fell asleep in her arms,” she groaned, rolling over and burying her face in her pillow in utter mortification. Then another thought struck her. “She must have carried me up here. She’s hurt and she carried me all the way up here rather than waking me up.”

A little tendril of happy erupted in Gabrielle’s body and she grinned recklessly. Something was going on. She had no idea what it was, but she could feel it. There was something in the queen’s eyes, something special about her that constantly reached in and grabbed Gabrielle by the heart… and sometimes other places too. The young woman blushed a little and a shiver ran through her as she thought about the warmth of the queen’s body and the softness of her skin.

She swallowed. Oh boy.

Rolling out of bed, Gabrielle quickly walked to the door and beckoned to the guard. “Morning. Could you ask for some hot water for a bath please?”

“Yes, Miss.” The guard saluted and jogged to the end of the corridor to pass on the request. A quarter candlemark later, some servants carried large buckets of hot water into her room and dumped them into the bath. Gabrielle waited for them to leave and then disrobed and lowered herself into the bath. She sighed as muscles she didn’t even realise she had began to relax and loosen up.

Humming softly, the young woman scrubbed her body until it was gleaming and then climbed out of the bath to towel off. Her eyes strayed to the old dress lying on her bed and she shook her head, wishing she had something nice to wear for her day with Xena. Then she jumped a little as a loud knock sounded at the door. “Come in!” she called making sure the towel was covering her modesty.

A servant entered and curtseyed to her. “Good morning, Miss. The queen asked that you accept this as a gift from her.” Then she laid a parcel on the bed. “She has also requested that you join her in her quarters for breakfast as soon as you’re ready.”

Gabrielle was almost speechless. She looked at the parcel and then back to the servant. “F-for me?” she stammered. “F-from Xena?”

With a patient smile, the woman nodded. “Yes, Miss… and if I were you, I’d take it and get ready quickly. The queen seemed…” She paused and smirked. “Anxious to see you.”

“Ok,” the young woman nodded. “Thanks…” She raised her eyebrows.

“Minya,” the woman replied. “I’ll be outside, Miss, waiting to take you to the queen’s chambers.”

“Thanks again, Minya.”

The woman merely smiled and ducked out of the room. Gabrielle sat down on the bed and pulled the parcel toward her. It was soft and springy but, when she turned it over, there was something heavier and harder inside. “Hm.” Gabrielle gently and slowly unwrapped the contents and a joyous smile spread across her face as she ran her hands reverently over her new clothes. “Oh Xena,” she breathed as she lifted the soft green shirt and matching leggings. The shirt was embroidered with exquisite gold thread detail and the leggings had a matching seam of gold running down the outside of each leg. Gabrielle had never owned… in fact she had rarely even seen… such wonderful clothes. The young woman set the clothes carefully aside and removed the last items from the package. She nodded approvingly at the tooled leather belt and slid her hand into the soft leather boots, loving the feeling of them against her skin.

Tears welled and spilled over but she wiped them away impatiently. This was not a moment for tears. This was a moment for happiness and gratitude to the queen. With a sniff and a smile, Gabrielle dressed and belted her shirt snugly around her slender waist. Then she slipped the boots on. They were a perfect fit and she wondered how Xena knew what size her feet were… until she noticed that one of her old shoes was missing. That meant that the queen had done all this over night. Tears of joy welled again and this time she let them come. She was happier than she could ever remember being before.

A few moments later, hair brushed and flowing freely over her shoulders and dressed in her new finery, Gabrielle stepped out into the hall. Minya smiled at her and nodded. “Beautiful,” she complimented. “Her Majesty will be very pleased.”

“Thanks,” Gabrielle blushed. “I can’t believe she did this for me.”

Without further comment but with a suspiciously knowing smile, Minya led the young woman to Xena’s chambers. There was a bounce in Gabrielle’s step that had nothing to do with the new boots she was wearing but was caused more by the lightness and happiness in her heart. Maybe, she thought, maybe I can learn to forget what happened to me in that camp. Maybe Xena really can make it all go away.

**

“So much for my day off,” Xena muttered as she added her signature and royal seal to yet another scroll. “The reason I have regents is for them to do this stuff so I don’t have to.”

Her advisor, Joxer, nodded. “Yes, Majesty,” he agreed. Xena glared at him and he shied away. She knew he was only agreeing with her because she could have him beheaded at any time and for any reason. She glanced at the door then and wondered where Gabrielle was. It was getting a little late and Xena was anxious to get the day started. She was sick of paperwork.

Speaking of paperwork. Xena got up and went to the table under the window. On it were two scrolls and she picked them both up and brought them back to her writing desk. After a quick read over of them both, she signed them and added her royal seal. “Joxer.”

“Yes, Majesty?” He bowed low enough to let his long sleeves touch the floor.

Xena threw the scrolls at him and rolled her eyes as he fumbled and dropped one of them. “Deliver them to Palaemon and Salmonius for me.”

“Yes, Majesty.” Xena wondered for a moment if he knew any other words other than ‘Yes’ and ‘Majesty’ but she dismissed the thought when a light knock sounded at her door.

“Get out,” she told Joxer as she stood up. “And let whoever that is in.”

“Yes, Majesty,” he replied and scuttled out of the room.

Xena stared after him in annoyance but her face changed as Gabrielle stuck her head around the door and grinned. “Hi. Good morning.”

“Um…” The queen was so taken with the vision of beauty that was walking toward her that she almost forgot to answer. But when the vision gently hugged her, she did forget… totally. All she could do was feel the gentle squeeze of the arms around her waist and the light pressure of the head resting against her chest. She exhaled shakily and tentatively hugged back, feeling the tremor that ran through the slim body pressed against hers. Oh gods, this feels so…

Equally shaken and disorientated, they both pulled back a little and gazed at each other. Finally Xena managed to speak. “Hi,” she whispered.

Gabrielle was trembling. When she’d made the unconscious decision to hug the queen, she hadn’t been prepared for the sudden bombardment of emotion. It was too much and she had to swallow a few times before speaking. “I have so much to thank you for,” she said very softly. “For listening to me when I needed it. For carrying me to my room even though you were hurting. For giving me these beautiful clothes. But most of all, Xena, for making me feel as if I’m someone special and not the nothing farmer’s kid that I really am.” She was crying now and she closed her eyes briefly, trying to expel her grief through her tears.

Xena’s hand lifted and her fingers gently wiped the tears away. All of the sadness in the young woman’s heart was echoed in her eyes and, before the queen even realised it, she was moving closer to her. “You are special,” she replied and then she leaned in and gently kissed the young woman’s lips.

Gabrielle’s head swam and she gasped when the softest sensation she’d ever experienced washed over her. Xena kissed her gently, taking her time and giving her an opportunity to pull away if she wanted to. Gabrielle didn’t want to and, when the queen’s tongue swept briefly over her lips, she moaned and parted them, allowing entrance. A wave of passion crashed over her as Xena’s tongue explored her mouth and she wrapped her arms around the queen’s neck, tangling her fingers in the long, dark hair she’d longed to touch.

She felt as if she couldn’t breath but she didn’t care. All she could do was go with it and experience all that Xena had to offer and when the queen ended the kiss and smiled at her, she just groaned and rested her head on her shoulder. The taller woman chuckled and rubbed the young woman’s back gently. “You ok?”

“Just don’t let go of me,” came the reply, muffled against her shoulder. “I think I might fall over.”

This brought a genuine laugh from Xena and a little grin from the face that looked up at her. “You’re very cute, you know that?” the queen asked.

“I am?” Gabrielle retorted with a blush. “Um… thanks.”

“Ready for our day off?”

The young woman nodded happily. “Sure and hey, it’s really starting off wonderfully.”

With another laugh, Xena took her hand and led her out of the bedchamber.

Gabrielle followed willingly.

**

Chapter 5
“I’m telling you, Iolaus, she’s going to be wary from now on.”

“I know, My Lord, but she has to let her guard down some time.” Iolaus was pacing back and forth impatiently. “There must be something coming up that will give us an opportunity.”

The Lord nodded. “I’ve heard that Xena will be hosting a dinner to celebrate the wedding of one of her allies. It will be a night of music and free-flowing wine. I think we’ll have our chance then.”

The mercenary nodded and a cruel smile crossed his lips. “The only question left is… How much do you want her to suffer?”

The Lord mirrored the smile. “As much as possible. That bitch deserves all she gets. I only wish I could do it myself but if I’m going to have a chance at taking the throne, I’m going to have to look innocent in all this.”

Iolaus held out his arm and the Lord grasped it in a hearty shake. “I’ll make the plans. When is the celebration?”

“One week from today as far as I know. If there’s any change, I’ll let you know.”

Iolaus bowed. “Yes, My Lord. I’ll be ready.”

**

Salmonius was walking along a first floor corridor when he glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of the queen. She was strolling across the training yard toward the forest walk with the young Gabrielle and a servant was trailing behind them, carrying a basket. The healer frowned in confusion, wondering what was going on. Xena wasn’t supposed to be out and about yet. She was still injured. Then he sighed, knowing well what the queen was like. Xena was Xena and nothing would change that. Well, he thought, it remains to be seen what influence this young woman has on the queen. Never know, might give her some sense. He chuckled softly and went to tend to his patients.

**

Joxer lowered himself into a large chair and began looking over the list of guests the queen had written. The wedding dinner was going according to plan and he was very pleased with the preparations. After he’d delivered the scrolls to Palaemon and Salmonius, he’d spoken to the groom himself and double-checked the family he and his bride would ask to attend. His numbers were correct and the meat ordered from a local farmer. All was going well and the celebration was going to be the best ever held in the palace. He was beginning to get excited. Xena would be pleased.

**

Palaemon re-read his scroll for the fiftieth time, still unable to believe what was written on it.

Palaemon,

In recognition of your excellent performance as Captain of the Queen’s Personal Guard, I hereby promote you to General of the Queen’s Army with all the privileges of that rank. You will also receive a rise in pay to reflect my gratitude.

Well done, My Friend. You deserve it.

Xena.

Running his finger over the broken seal, Palaemon looked up toward the palace and smiled proudly. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Queen Xena but now…

Now his life, as well as his sword, was hers.

**

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. “So what you’re saying is that you’ve never actually been up here before?”

Xena extended her senses and tightened her grip on the young woman’s hand. Quiet for a moment, she confirmed that there was no danger in the area before she relaxed a little and looked down at the patiently waiting Gabrielle.

“Um… I was up here once before. I haven’t really had a reason to come back.”

The young woman was amazed. “But don’t you ever like to just come out here and walk and get some air and exercise… or…” She smiled at the expression of amusement on the queen’s face. “What?”

“Gabrielle,” Xena replied. “I don’t have time for leaving the castle for walks. I’m the ruler of nine countries. I tend to be a little busy. Besides, to get air and exercise, I ride and spar with my captain… who, by the way, I’ve promoted to general so be sure to congratulate him when you see him.”

“Xena, that’s great. He deserves it.” She stopped walking and looked up into the queen’s eyes. Then she hugged her.

“What’s this for?” Xena chuckled as she gently returned the squeeze.

“Just because…” The young woman shrugged. “I dunno. Just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

A soft clearing of a throat broke their silent gaze. They’d forgotten about the servant who’d been trailing them from the castle. “Leave it and go,” Xena ordered without breaking her gaze.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle added as she gazed into liquid blue. The servant gladly left the queen and her friend alone.

“So,” Xena said softly. “What’s involved in this walk and picnic thing?”

“Well, we’re doing great so far,” the young woman smiled. She tightened her grip on the queen’s hand and lifted it a little in demonstration. “We’re holding hands, which is important. What we do now is pick up the basket and walk to a nice spot for lunch. Then we relax and eat… maybe spend a few quiet candlemarks… and then we walk back with, hopefully, a lighter picnic basket.”

“Ah,” Xena nodded. “I get it. We spend a few candlemarks lazing around and eating. Sounds like my type of event.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “I’m laying bets, My Queen, that you won’t be able to stay still for more than half a candlemark.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” Xena replied in a teasing tone. “I accept your bet. What do I get if I win?”

“You get a surprise,” came the quick answer. “What do I get?”

“The same.”

“Deal, now let’s go. It’s nearing lunchtime as it is.”

Xena tried to pick up the basket but gasped as her wound protested. “Damn,” she murmured. “Shouldn’t have sent that servant away.”

Gabrielle took the basket from her. “It’s ok. I’ve got it. You rest that shoulder.”

“But…” Xena began to protest.

“Nope. It’s not that heavy. I’m fine.”

“What’s in it anyway?” the queen asked as she swung their hands a little.

Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. “I don’t actually know. I just asked the cook to put together a picnic basket and she did.”

To Gabrielle’s surprise and happiness, Xena leaned in and kissed her briefly on the lips. “Thanks,” she softly. “I’m liking this day off thing already. You know what, I’m going to do this once a sevenday. I’m the queen, I should be able to take a day off if I want one.”

“I agree,” Gabrielle replied and boldly kissed the queen back. “I think we should spend one day a week together doing something day-off-ish.”

“I can think of something I’d like to do on my day off,” Xena murmured against the young woman’s lips. Then she captured them for a deep kiss. By the time she broke away, Gabrielle’s breathing was ragged and her face was flushed. Xena ran a finger along her red cheek. “Think about it.” Nodding dazedly, Gabrielle allowed herself to be drawn along the path.

It was a beautiful day. The cloud-speckled sky lay lazily above them and the shade of the trees was a welcome relief from the heat pouring down from the sun. Gabrielle was sweating so she opened the laces on her shirt a little to let the air in. Xena’s eyes was fastened on her and she blushed, wondering if she should feel this way about someone, well a woman anyway, looking at her. She stopped walking and set the basket down. “I…” She faltered when the queen blue eyes twinkled back at her. “You… By the gods, Xena, you’re beautiful.” Her fingers twisted in the fabric of the queen’s robe and she rested her forehead against her chest. “How can I feel this way after such a short time of knowing you?”

Xena smiled and stroked her hair. “I don’t know, Gabrielle, but it feels ok, doesn’t it?”

The young woman chuckled. “It feels more than ok. It feels wonderful.”

Here was silence for a moment and then the queen sighed. “For me too, Gabrielle. For me too.”

**

Chapter 6
A candlemark later, Gabrielle tugged on the queen’s hand and pointed into the trees. “How about there?”

Xena shielded her eyes from the sun, as she looked the clearing over. It was small and couldn’t be easily seen from the path. Yeah. It looked good. “Sure. It’s perfect,” she replied. Taking the basket from Gabrielle, she carried it carefully into the clearing and set it on the ground. The forest floor was littered with leaves and pine needles, creating a soft, springy place to sit. Gabrielle opened the basket and pulled out a blanket, which she spread carefully on the ground. Xena sprawled on it and watched while her… she didn’t exactly know what Gabrielle was but she decided to go with friend for the meantime… friend laid out covered dishes. “Gabrielle, what is all this stuff?” she asked as she snuck a peek under one of the lids.

The young woman frowned a little. “I’m not exactly…” She lifted a lid. “Oh, Xena, look. Chicken legs. Mmm. I love chicken.”

“Me too,” the queen agreed as she lifted another lid. “This one is salad and…” She sniffed it suspiciously. “Um… a dressing of some sort, I think.”

“And bread…” Another lid removed. “And cake. Chocolate cake.”

“Yeah?” Xena leaned over, broke a bit off the cake and popped it into her mouth. She chewed and then smiled. “Not bad.” Then she offered some to Gabrielle but, to her surprise and pleasure, the young woman licked it slowly from her fingers, keeping her eyes solidly locked with the queen’s. Xena swallowed and suddenly felt a little warm.

“Mmmmm, tastes great,” Gabrielle replied, pushing her blonde hair back from her face and smiling wickedly. “And the cake isn’t bad either.” But she got the surprise of her life as Xena grabbed her by the front of the shirt and pulled her in for a kiss. The queen tried to fight the urge to take this too quickly but she wanted so much to feel Gabrielle’s skin under her hands and couldn’t stop herself slipping her hands under the shirt to caress the young woman’s back. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was feeling things she’d never before felt in her young life and points more southern on her body were beginning to make themselves known. “Xena,” she whispered as they separated for air.

The queen smiled and took a moment to trace the planes of her face with her fingertips. “Yes?”

“I’m… um…” Gabrielle blushed a little. “I’m not sure exactly what…”

Xena shook her head. “It’s alright,” she replied. “Let’s just take everything slowly, ok?” Gabrielle agreed gratefully and, after another lingering kiss, they settled down to eat lunch. “So what did you do for fun back in…”

“Poteidaia,” Gabrielle supplied. “Nothing really. There wasn’t much time for fun. Lila, my sister, and I used to play catch or tag in the fields but most of our time was taken up with chores and keeping our father happy. My favourite thing to do, though, was to listen to and tell stories.”

The queen was delighted. “You’re a storyteller, huh? A bard?”

“I enjoy it,” Gabrielle admitted. “I even had an idea about going to the Athens Academy but…” She shrugged. “I’m a village girl. They don’t let village girls in.”

“Why not?” Xena demanded. “Everyone should have a fair chance at fulfilling their dreams.”

“I agree,” the young woman replied. “Sadly, life isn’t always fair.”

Xena popped a piece of chicken into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Why hadn’t she known about the Academy’s rules about entry? No one had ever told her and it had never occurred to her to ask either. Why would it? Xena and poetry mixed like Greek fire and water… and she knew it. She glanced at Gabrielle. Maybe… “Hey, why don’t you tell me a story?”

“Um… now?” Gabrielle swallowed a piece of bread and stared at the queen like she had suddenly grown another head.

Xena laughed and brushed her blonde hair back from her eyes. “Yes, now. I mean when you’ve finished eating.”

The young woman nodded. “Ok. I’ve finished anyway.” She began to pack the leftover food into the picnic basket. Then she picked up the end of the blanket and shook it a little, waiting for the queen to move.

Xena grinned and stood up. “Pushy little thing, aren’t we?” she teased.

Gabrielle just smiled. “That’s what Perd… um… never mind.” Her face clouded over and she went back to her task but Xena had seen the change and curiosity got the better of her.

She let her hand rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder and smiled as the green eyes looked to her in question. “What were you going to say?”

The young woman exhaled shakily and then laid the blanket out again under a nearby tree. She sat down with her back against the trunk and patted the space beside her but smiled when Xena lay on her back and rested her head in Gabrielle’s lap. Gentle fingers ran through the queen’s dark hair, idly sorting through the soft strands. “I was engaged to be married to a man called Perdicus. He was the son of a friend of my father’s and we’d grown up together. In fact, next to Lila, he was my best friend. Our fathers had thought that we’d be a good match for each other but…” She sighed. “I guess we just… I think he was in love with me but…”

Xena nodded a little. “You’re not in love with him.”

“No,” Gabrielle agreed. “Not in a lovers way. I’ll always love him as a friend but the spark just isn’t there.” She smiled a little then. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” she went on. “Perdicus married Lila and I’m sure they have a child by now. She wanted to have kids as soon as possible.”

“But you were kicked out of town.” Xena was still angry with Gabrielle’s family. “Why didn’t Lila or Perdicus do something to help you?”

“I didn’t want them to. Being around them…” Gabrielle suddenly found it very difficult to explain how she’d felt. “I wanted to depend on myself. I wanted to get out and see the world.” A sheepish smile crossed her lips. “I just never thought about food or where I was going to sleep.”

The queen chuckled. “Yeah, those things are quite important, Gabrielle.”

“What about you?”

“Me?” Xena closed her eyes and wiggled a bit to get more comfortable. “Mine is a simple story. A warlord named Cortese raided my hometown… Amphipolis by the way. It’s close enough to your home village. He killed my mother and my two brothers so I was pretty much left on my own. My brother, Lyceus, and I used to practice sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat so I was a good fighter, even for a fifteen-year-old.” She shrugged. “I guess from then on, I just went from one scrape into another until I found myself sitting on a throne in my palace over there. Damned if I wanted the title but it was expected of me since I killed the old king.” She shrugged again. “It took me a long time to learn this diplomacy thing. I’m a warrior first and foremost.”

“A warrior,” Gabrielle repeated as she stroked the queen’s hair. “Xena?”

Xena was basking in the warmth of the attention she was receiving. “Hm?”

“Do you regret any of the things you had to do to get to where you are now?”

The question was like a slap to the face and Xena sat up, her temper flaring. “Why the Hades should I?” she snapped. “No one gave a shit about me when I was starving and alone after my family was killed. Why should I care if innocent men died by my sword?!”

Gabrielle just blinked in surprise. She hadn’t expected the queen to lose her temper like that. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound judgemental.”

Their eyes locked for a long moment and Xena’s anger flowed away. “No.” She sighed and lay back down, this time on her side, and wrapped her hand around the young woman’s thigh. “I shouldn’t have jumped on you like that.” Silence fell for a long moment and then Gabrielle felt the movement as the queen took a deep breath. “Yes, there are things I regret.”

Gabrielle smiled a little and resumed her gentle stroking of the queen’s hair. Before long, Xena was dozing but the young woman got the feeling that had something threatened their peace and quiet, the warrior would awaken in a split second. She suddenly felt very safe and let her head rest against the tree trunk for a little nap of her own.

**

Joxer frowned and scratched his head in confusion. He’d just received another reply about someone confirming their attendance to the wedding dinner, however he didn’t remember sending the invitation in the first place. Aw well. He shrugged and tossed the reply on the table. One more wouldn’t make a big difference. They still had plenty of food and wine for everyone.

**

Palaemon was furious. He was so angry that even his neck was red.

“A PICNIC!” he roared. “SHE WENT ON A PICNIC? ALONE?!”

Salmonius placed a hand on the general’s shoulder. “Calm down,” he said. “Xena is taking a walk with Gabrielle, followed by a picnic. Then they will be returning to the place.”

Palaemon spluttered. “Bu…”

“She hasn’t even left the palace grounds,” the healer went on. “They’re just having some fun. Xena is a young woman, you know, despite the fact that she’s done so much. She’s twenty-six years of age. Let her have some fun. Besides…” A smile crossed his lips. “Something tells me that Gabrielle might be a good influence on our Xena.”

Palaemon stiffened. “What do you mean?” he asked warily.

“Haven’t you seen her when she’s around that young woman? Palaemon, there’s something there. I know it. I haven’t seen her smile this much in moons.”

The general was not a happy man. “We hardly know this kid. What if she isn’t what she seems?”

Salmonius shook his head. “Don’t do it, Palaemon,” he said softly. “Don’t let your feelings for Xena cloud your judgement.” The general’s gaze dropped. “Face it, my Friend. The queen isn’t interested in a relationship with a man.”

“But…”

“Palaemon, Gabrielle is as genuine as they come and Xena obviously likes her. Be happy for her.”

With a resigned nod, the general picked up his helmet and wandered out of the healer’s room.

**

It was late afternoon. The birds sang sweetly and cheerfully in the trees surrounding the little clearing. A pair of blue eyes blinked slowly open and the ruler of the land yawned sleepily. Then she chuckled softly. How long has it been since you’ve fallen asleep like that, Xena? Try never. She moved her head slightly and felt the small fingers tangled gently in her hair. Gabrielle was still asleep but nature was calling and Xena couldn’t ignore it. She squeezed the young woman’s thigh through her leggings and then shook it a little. “Gabrielle?”

A little moan. “Mmmm.”

Xena tried again. “Gabrielle?”

Green eyes pried themselves open and a grin settled firmly on the young woman’s face. She stroked an arched, dark eyebrow. “That’s so cute… that thing you do with your eyebrow.”

Xena growled. “I am NOT cute,” she replied indignantly.

“You’re right,” Gabrielle replied seriously. “You’re not cute.” The eyebrow arched even further and she leaned down to kiss the queen’s forehead. “You’re beautiful. In fact, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life, Xena.”

The queen blinked, unaccustomed to receiving compliments from someone who actually meant them. “I…” She decided on comedy. “You’re young yet,” she replied with a smile. “But thanks.” Then she grimaced. “I have to pee… bad.” Gabrielle released her hold on the older woman and giggled as she got up and dashed to the nearest bush. A moment later, a sigh of relief drifted to her. “We should get back to the palace. Wouldn’t want them to bust a gut worrying about us, would we?”

“No,” Gabrielle replied with a laugh. “I guess we wouldn’t.” She picked up the blanket, folded it and put it back in the basket. Xena bent to pick it up but Gabrielle swiped it. “No, you have to be careful of that wound remember?”

“What about you?” Xena replied, gently touching the slight bulge that was the bandage wrapped around Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“That? Pshaww! That’s just a scratch,” the young woman replied with a smile. Xena nodded and kissed her gently on the lips. Gabrielle returned the kiss and then took the queen’s hand. “C’mon. I’ll bet Palaemon is looking for you.” She grinned. “Actually, I know he’s looking for you,” she teased as they headed back toward the palace.

Xena’s eyebrow lifted. “What? Why would… How do you know?”

“Come on, Xena. The guy is totally in love with you. A blind man could see that.”

“No, he’s not,” the queen protested weakly. Twin golden eyebrow lifted. “He’s loyal, that’s all.” The eyebrows disappeared into Gabrielle’s hairline. Xena scowled. “Alright, alright. Maybe he does but that doesn’t change anything. I don’t love him.”

“I know. Just let him down easy, ok?”

“Ok,” the queen agreed.

The walk back to the palace was pleasant and for the first time in her life, Xena felt at ease. She was amazed to find herself chatting about nothing in particular and laughing at things Gabrielle had said. She felt alive again and a little bit of happiness crept up on her. She looked at the smiling young woman who she’d met only the previous morning and knew she wanted her around for a long time. She’d finally found a friend and it made her grin recklessly.

“Xena?”

Gabrielle’s voice brought her out of her thoughts. “Yes?”

“I was thinking about what you said about working for you.”

“Yeah?” Xena’s ears perked up.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle smiled. “How about me being a royal bard?”

The queen thought about that. “Mm. Sounds interesting. However, I haven’t heard you tell any stories yet.”

The young woman nodded. “That’s true. How about a little demonstration?”

Xena swept her hand out regally. “Be my guest, My Bard.”

After a moments thought, Gabrielle smiled and laced her fingers with the queen’s. “Once upon a time,” she began softly. “Everyone had two heads, four arms and four legs…” Xena snickered but said nothing. “But the gods became angry and sent down great bolts of lightning that split us down the middle so that everyone now had one head, two arms and two legs. However, because we only had one soul, it had to be divided and each body was given one half. Now, every human must spend their life looking for the other half of their soul, so that it may be whole and at peace again.”

Xena smiled and squeezed her friend’s hand. “I think you’re hired,” she said softly, leaning in to kiss her forehead. “That was lovely, Gabrielle.” She wrapped her arm around the young woman’s slim shoulders and hugged her gently. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said. “I’ve had you moved into a bedchamber in my wing so we can see each other without having to walk halfway to Hades. Is that ok?”

Gabrielle laughed. “You’re asking me if it’s ok that you’ve had me moved closer to you?” She shook her head. “Xena, I was going to ask you that myself. Gods. I want to be close to you.”

Xena smirked. “Good.”

**

Inside the palace, it was cool and quiet. Sunset was almost upon the land and torches were lit in the brass wall sconces to provide light to the inhabitants. Xena and Gabrielle strolled along the hallway in comfortable silence, as if they’d done it a thousand times before. But then Xena stopped outside a large, oak doorway. “This is it,” she said. “I hope you like it.” Then she pushed the door open.

Gabrielle’s jaw hit the floor. Xena smiled and pulled her into the room.

The young woman’s green eyes roamed the chamber in utter disbelief. It was huge. A tall, canopied bed sat under the open window. It was dressed with silk sheets and a brightly patterned, woven comforter. The canopy was made of net that draped lavishly over the support beams. The chamber was decorated with urns and tapestries and a portrait of Xena hung on one wall. Gabrielle smiled and moved closer, peering at it intently. It didn’t do the queen justice. Xena was much more beautiful in real life than in the painting.

The queen herself was impatient though and took Gabrielle’s hand, dragging her over to a half open doorway. “Look at this, Gabrielle. I had them made for you. A Royal Bard needs pretty clothes.”

Gabrielle opened the door and her hand shot up to cover her mouth. Inside the large, walk-in closet were rails of dresses, tunics, shirts, leggings and underwraps. On another rack were three rows of shoes and boots. “Xena,” she whispered. “They’re beautiful. I’ve never…” Her voice broke and tears streamed down her face.

The queen was suddenly anxious. “Did I do wrong?” she asked. “Should I not have…”

“NO!” Gabrielle flung herself at the worried queen, hugging her with all her strength. “No one has ever been this kind to me. No one! I love them, Xena. I love the clothes and the room and I love you.” Both women froze. Gabrielle looked up into shocked blue eyes. She hadn’t even known the words were coming until they were out but, now that they were, she acknowledged the truth of them in her heart. In only two short days, she’d fallen in love with Xena. Her eyes gentled and she cupped the queen’s cheek with a trembling hand. “I love you,” she repeated quietly but with the honesty of her heart behind the words.

Xena was speechless. Oh Gods, she loves me… Now what?

**

Chapter 7

Iolaus leaned against the bar and watched the sway of the serving young woman’s behind as she moved across the room. A mug of port, his fourth, was perched on the counter beside his hand and he grabbed it up and drained it in a couple of swallows when he saw who he was looking for entering the tavern. The man caught his eye and ducked back outside. Iolaus went to meet him, making sure he wasn’t followed as he stole quietly behind the building. No greetings were exchanged and the conversation was hushed and simple.

“Will it work?” Iolaus whispered. The man nodded silently. “Will she be able to tell?” The man shook his head. “Will it be instantaneous?” Another shake of the head. “Will it be painful?” This time the nod was accompanied by a cruel little smile. Iolaus smiled in return. “Good.” Then he exchanged a money purse for his requested item and they parted company.

**

Palaemon paced slowly along the perimeter of the palace. He was feeling a little restless but he wasn’t sure why. He had a bad feeling about something but couldn’t put his finger on it. He’d been really angry with Xena and he’d had to bite his tongue when he met her leaving Gabrielle’s new room. In fact, she’d looked rather dazed, he realised in hindsight. He’d bowed as she wandered past but didn’t think she’d even seen him. The general was thinking about his queen when he bumped into his second-in-command. “Sir, we have a lead on Iolaus. He was seen in a tavern a few miles from here. I’ve put together a few loyal men to go after him.”

Palaemon nodded, pleased. “Well, done. Go get him and bring him straight to me so I can wring his scrawny neck.”

“Yes, Sir.” Saterus replied with a crisp salute and then he headed toward the stables. Palaemon kept walking the perimeter.

**

Sitting down on her huge canopied bed, Gabrielle felt exhausted. Her declaration of love had taken Xena totally by surprise and she knew it. The queen had accepted her words as the truth without question but had excused herself, citing a need for time to think.

This Gabrielle understood. In fact, she needed time herself to sort through the jumble of emotion she was feeling. Xena’s parting kiss had been gentle and passionate but she had told her that she’d see her at dinner. In fact she’d invited Gabrielle to dinner in her bedchamber… alone.

Alone. Oh boy. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and then fell back onto the bed, puffing out a breath to flip back her bangs. She thought about the day they’d spent together. Xena had been charming, attentive… fun even. Then the room and the clothes… There was so much about the queen that the young woman didn’t know but she found that she wanted to know it. She wanted to know every inch of the queen’s mind, soul and… She blushed horribly… body. Now there was another problem. Gabrielle didn’t know anything about making love with a woman. Sure, she had ideas but nothing solid. However, something inside her told her not to worry about it, that it would all become clear. The young woman hoped that her little voice was right.

After a candlemark of thought, Gabrielle had narrowed down her wants into a few key points. She wanted to be with Xena in every way possible and she wanted to be with her for the rest of her days. “I’m hopelessly in love with her,” she whispered. “And I can’t stop.” She looked over at a stuffed bird sitting in a display case. “But you know what, Buddy? I don’t think I want to stop. In fact, I know I don’t.”

And so, the decision was made. All that remained was to wait and see how Xena felt about everything. Now, Gabrielle was scared…

**

Xena was nervous… Hades, she was terrified. After leaving Gabrielle, she’d returned to her quarters, undressed and climbed into the bath. She was scrubbing her toes when she finally realised where she was and what exactly had transpired. “She loves me,” she whispered as she washed her big toe. “What the Hades do I do now?” She moved to the other foot. “If I let myself fall in love with her, I’ll have her around for the rest of my life. Do I want that?” She smiled a little then and looked deep inside. “Do I really have a choice?” Then she rolled her eyes. “Since when have you been such a big softy, Warrior Princess?”

Silence.

Then a resigned sigh. “Since the moment you set eyes on that farmer’s kid.” She drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around them and resting her forehead on them while ignoring the pain from her wound. “I love her,” she murmured shakily. “I don’t know what the Hades happened… but I love her.”

The queen nodded firmly. “Now it’s time to prove it.”

**

At the pre-arranged hour, Gabrielle was standing nervously outside the queen’s door. Her stomach was in knots and she felt like throwing up but she set her shoulders and knocked on the portal. It swung open and the queen appeared before her, smiling broadly. “Hi,” the young woman greeted shyly.

Xena’s smile broadened even further. “Hi. C’mon in.”

Gabrielle stepped over the threshold and smiled when Xena enfolded her in a long, tender hug. “You look beautiful,” the queen whispered in her ear and then nuzzled her neck.

Gabrielle shivered as yet another new sensation scurried through her body. “Thanks,” she replied almost breathlessly. Then she looked around the room. “Wow, this looks great.”

A table was set in the middle of the room, lit by candles. Silverware, glasses and dishes of steaming food drew the young woman to the table and she smiled as Xena stood behind her chair and held it out for her. “Sit down and enjoy. Can I get you a glass of wine?”

“Um…” Gabrielle had rarely drunk wine in her young life but she nodded. “Yes, please.” She sat on the chair and Xena pushed her in to the table. “White or red?”

Gabrielle examined the contents of the dishes. Beef, vegetables and potatoes. She wasn’t sure which wine to choose. “What would you recommend?” she asked as the queen smiled down at her.

“The red,” Xena replied, thinking her friend was very smart for not admitting she didn’t know.

“Then I’ll have the red, thank you.”

The queen quietly poured the wine for them both and then took her own seat. She unfolded her napkin carefully and set it on her lap. “I have to admit that what you said earlier caught me by surprise.”

Gabrielle nodded. She had to swallow her heart before she could speak. “I guessed as much.”

“Yeah. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” She took a deep breath. “Gabrielle, I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen years old. Sure, there have been a few lovers along the way but no one I’ve ever wanted to spend all of my time with…” Xena paused, carefully watching the young woman’s face. She wasn’t breathing. “Until now.”

Gabrielle’s breath whooshed out of her lungs and she grasped the table to keep herself upright. She felt as if she was going to pass out. Then Xena was kneeling next to her, gazing up at her and smiling. “Breathe, Gabrielle. I don’t want to lose you. I’ve just found you and I love you so don’t you dare go anywhere on me.”

“Xena, gods,” the young woman gasped and she threw herself at the queen, knocking her over. They went down in a tangle of limbs, both making of exclamations of pain at the same time.

“Shit!” Xena hissed.

“Owwww,” Gabrielle groaned.

But when their eyes met, the pain was forgotten. “I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly and then she kissed her. She let everything she was feeling creep into the kiss and melted into Xena’s arms when the queen returned to contact. It was long moments later when they finally parted and seated themselves back at the table again. Both women were too happy and nervous to eat but they shared a plate and drank a glass of wine each, sharing morsels of food and kisses equally.

After dinner, they took a bowl of grapes to a large armchair and Gabrielle sat in Xena’s lap, sharing the sweet fruit with her. “This feels like a dream,” she said as she caressed the queen’s face. “Is this a dream, Xena?”

“If it is, it’s the best damned dream I’ve ever had and it gives me ideas for how to approach you tomorrow,” Xena teased. “Wonder if you’ll turn me down?”

“I’ll never turn you down,” Gabrielle replied in a seductive purr.

Blue eyes lifted to meet hers seriously. “Are you sure about this, Gabrielle?” Xena asked quietly.

“I’m scared,” the young woman replied honestly. “But I’m sure. I love you, Xena. I want you to be my first.”

“F-first?” Xena’s eyes widened. “You were a… Oh Gabrielle.” She hugged the young woman tightly.

“Teach me, Xena,” the young woman whispered as her hands moved against the silk covering the queen’s chest.

With a tender smile, Xena stood up, cradling her love in her arms. “Maybe we can teach each other.”

**

Deposited on the bed, Gabrielle wiggled a little to get comfortable as the queen eased down next to her. All but one torch had been extinguished and the room was almost, but not quite, dark. An open window let a breath of wind hurry across the room and it tossed Xena’s hair a little, making the queen huff the strand out of her eyes and Gabrielle giggle. The emotion was high in the room and Gabrielle’s face turned serious as Xena smiled and leaned over her, tracing her face with gentle fingertips. “Don’t be afraid,” the queen said softly. “I won’t hurt you.”

The young woman nodded and exhaled shakily as she willed her body to stop trembling but when Xena dipped her head and kissed her, Gabrielle felt herself melting. The queen’s lips were soft and supple and the young woman returned to them over and over as her clothes were peeled off piece by piece.

It was a haze of pleasure Xena found herself in. The feeling of the young woman’s skin against hers ignited every nerve ending in her body but when Gabrielle tentatively touched her breast, she thought she’d die from lack of oxygen. Xena could barely draw air into her lungs and, judging by the gasping breaths coming from the young woman, it seemed that she was having the same problem.

Ohmygods Ohmygods Ohmygods… The words spun through Gabrielle’s mind as a feather-light gust of air caressed her naked body. Her fingers, tangled in the queen’s hair, tightened as her hips lifted of their own accord and a low moan escaped from her throat. Her shoulder wound was hurting a little but it added to the sensations bombarding her senses. Xena’s lips and tongue were teasing the skin around her navel and she giggled a little, releasing one hand from the dark locks and running it down the queen’s back, carefully avoiding her wound.

Xena almost lost her resolve when she felt the petite hand caressing her skin. She wanted to make Gabrielle’s first time as wonderful for her as possible… to erase the memories of what those men had done to her… but it was turning out to be pretty damned good for the queen too. The young woman’s skin was so soft and flawless that Xena wanted to explore every inch but when a second wordless groan came from Gabrielle, she decided to move it along a little. Moving back up the bed, she lay next to the young woman and ran a finger from her collarbone, down between her breasts, to her navel, which she tickled to elicit a giggle. It worked. Then Xena leaned in again and kissed her as her hand slipped into a more intimate position.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened comically and she wrapped her arms around the queen’s neck. “Xena,” she gasped as little bolts of pleasure ran through her body.

“Just relax and trust me, Gabrielle,” Xena answered softly and smiled when the young woman nodded and buried her face in the queen’s neck. Slipping her free hand between the bed and Gabrielle’s back, Xena shifted a little for greater body contact. The young woman clung to her as she continued her intimate caresses and little moans floated to the queen’s ears every now and again. Then Xena felt Gabrielle’s body stiffen. The young woman’s breath had been coming in ragged gasps but she suddenly sucked in a breath and arched her body against Xena’s. Her cry of ecstasy filled the room and she clutched at the queen in an attempt to keep herself grounded. Then she came to rest, her young body shaking but enfolded in the queen’s strong arms.

Gabrielle could hardly move. Xena had rolled onto her side, taking the young woman with her and cuddled her close as she stroked her sweat-soaked hair back from her eyes. They didn’t speak. There were no words to speak. There was only the bond of intimacy and closeness… a bond that spoke louder and clearer than any words could.

But Xena decided to try. She kissed the young woman’s forehead and pulled her even closer. “I love you, Gabrielle.”

Sleepy green eyes blinked open and Gabrielle smiled. “I love you too.” She kissed the queen’s shoulder and rested her forehead against it. “You’ve blown me away.”

Xena chuckled wickedly and a sexy smirk settled on her lips. “Nah,” She waggled her eyebrows. “That’ll come later.”

Despite their intimate position, Gabrielle blushed hotly and buried her face. “Xena!”

The queen laughed and hugged the young woman, feeling happier than she had in a long, long time.

Life was good.

Yeah.

**

Chapter Eight

Wow.

Gabrielle moved her hand slowly across the queen’s stomach, still trying to accept that the whole thing wasn’t a dream. After they’d made love, she’d rested her head on the queen’s shoulder and fallen into a peaceful sleep. Now, it was nearly dawn and in the weak light of the rising sun, Gabrielle closed her eyes and sighed. “Now I know what love is,” she whispered. “It’s life.” She slowly eased away from the queen and propped herself up on her elbow, wanting a closer look at Xena’s face. “So beautiful.”

Even though Xena’s eyes stayed closed, a little smile crossed her lips. The queen, Gabrielle realised, was faking it. She leaned in and slowly kissed her way across the older woman’s jaw. Xena’s smile faded but her hand came up and began a slow stroking of her bedmate’s skin. “Morning,” she growled softly and her very blue eyes cracked open just a bit.

“It’s a great morning,” Gabrielle replied with a charming smile.

Xena hugged her close for a long moment. “How are you doing?” she asked as she ran her fingers through tangled blonde locks.

The young woman thought about that for a moment. “I feel… whole,” she finally replied. “As if I’ve just been given something I didn’t know I was missing.”

Xena’s eyebrow lifted but she didn’t comment. Instead, she rolled Gabrielle onto her back and lay over her, holding her weight on her elbows. “You know what they say?” she whispered as she nibbled on an interesting bit of skin.”

“Mmm… What?” the young woman asked, as her breathing quickened along with her heart.

The queen growled and cupped Gabrielle’s breast, running her thumb over the nipple and watching it swell. “Practise, My Love, makes perfect.”

Gabrielle just groaned.

**

“Alright,” the queen stood in front of her throne and swept an icy gaze around the room. Her arms were folded across her chest and she was doing her best pissed off queen impression… that was perfect because it was exactly what she was. Xena glanced briefly at the warm presence at her side and Gabrielle’s lips quirked in acknowledgement before the queen fixed her attention back on the court. “Someone had the balls to try an assassination. I’m now issuing a challenge. If the person who wants me dead comes forward and beats me in a fair fight, I’ll relinquish my throne to him, whether I’m dead or not.”

Dead silence fell around the room and the nobles present looked at each other in shock. Xena almost wanted to laugh at the look on their faces but her anger overrode her amusement and kept her face set in stone. Gabrielle held her breath.

No one stepped forward.

Xena tutted and held her hand out to her friend. “C’mon, Gabrielle.” The young woman gladly took the queen’s hand and smiled as Xena laced their fingers together. Shooting one last disgusted look at the assembled nobles, Xena shook her head. “Cowards.” Then she swept regally from the room.

**

Joxer looked around the room, noting all the bemused and dismayed faced staring at the door the queen and her friend had just walked through. He smiled at the queen’s customary tenacity and shook his head, thinking about the man who was going up against her. He had guts. The advisor strolled back to his chambers, looking forward to both the wedding meal and to watching the queen continue in her search for the assassin.

**

With powerful, ground eating strides, Palaemon covered the distance between the palace and the barracks in a few short moments. The messenger was waiting for him there.

“General Palaemon, Captain Saterus sent me on ahead to let you know that we’ve captured Iolaus and they’re bringing him in for interrogation.”

“Excellent,” Palaemon praised, patting the man on the back. “I’ll inform the queen.”

**

Xena felt sleepy. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt that way. On the other hand, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept with someone wrapped around her after sex either. It felt really good. Gabrielle was still asleep. Creeping away for some time with the young woman after court, the queen decided, had been a great idea, even if she did feel just a tad guilty. She was supposed to be out on the archery range not curled up between silk sheets with a warm body tucked up against her.

Xena wrapped her arms tighter around Gabrielle and pulled her closer, smiling as the young woman released a little sound and fussed a little. Making love with this farmer’s kid was a treat for the queen. Gabrielle approached Xena’s body with curiosity, touching gently and exploring with her lips, tongue and hands until she drove Xena crazy with need. The pleasure for Xena had been intense and she’d actually yelled. She couldn’t remember ever yelling before that. A grin pulled at her lips.

“Xena?” Xena jumped and looked down to find a pair of glazed green eyes smiling up at her. She grinned. Gabrielle’s smile widened. “You ok?”

The queen kissed her lover slowly and passionately. Her hands roamed over the petite body and she felt it respond to her touch. Gabrielle groaned as Xena’s thumbs brushed her nipples and then continued down to stroke the sensitive skin around her navel. The queen felt the muscles expand and contract as the young woman fought to control her breathing. “No,” she whispered. “Just let go. Go with it and see where it will take us.”

Nodding slowly, Gabrielle reached up and wrapped her arms around the queen’s neck, pulling her down to kiss her. “Xena,” she whispered against full lips. “I know where I want to go. Take me.”

With a sensual growl that made the young woman’s nape hairs stand on end, the Warrior Princess nodded. “I fully intend to.”

No more words were spoken that afternoon.

**

Standing nervously at the door to the Great Hall, Gabrielle fussed with her hair. It was her first big dinner and she was as nervous as Xena was relaxed. The young woman envied the queen her composure but realised that this was everyday stuff for her. “Xena?” she said as she peered into the room. “That’s a whole big bunch of people.”

“Sure is,” the queen chuckled. “And they’re all here to see you. They heard you were my new little love slave.”

“Me?” Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “Bu… um… Gods.”

Blue eyes twinkled. “But you are, aren’t you?”

“I am n…” Gabrielle stopped, seeing the grin pulling at the queen’s lips. She smiled sweetly and stepped up close to the taller woman. Xena looked down and her eyebrow lifted as Gabrielle ran her finger straight down the centre of her chest. “Actually,” the young woman said softly. “I was kinda thinking that it was the other way around.” She stroked Xena’s ribs through the black silk of her robe, smiling a little as the queen sucked in a quick breath.

“Keep that up and we won’t make it to dinner,” Xena whispered as she leaned in to nuzzle the young woman’s ear. “And I can’t really miss another court dinner, no matter how much I want to.”

Gabrielle sighed dramatically. “Oh the burden of being the most powerful woman in the country.”

Xena shrugged as she held out her hand. “I could take it or leave it.”

This surprised the young woman a little and she frowned as she took the proffered hand. Xena laced their fingers together and gave the guard a nod. He saluted and entered the hall. “Lords and Ladies, bow before the might of Queen Xena…”

“You really mean that?” Gabrielle asked quietly.

“Sure,” the queen nodded. “These guys want me dead. I’m sick to death of them. Things were simpler when I was out with my army. It was just us and the road. Now…” She sighed. “Now, I have people fussing and fawning over me but none of them really care about me… except maybe you.”

Gabrielle squeezed her hand. “There’s no maybe about it. I love you, Xena.”

The queen took a step forward and tugged lightly, drawing the young woman forward. “That’s going to get me through the next few hours, Gabrielle.” The young woman grinned happily and followed the queen across the room to the raised dais where the throne sat but, to her surprise, Xena shook her head. “I don’t want to sit there. Let’s sit with Palaemon.”

“Ok,” Gabrielle replied and smiled as several people got up to let her and Xena sit down next to the general.

Xena pointed at her throne. “You all can sit up there if you like. I’m not in the mood for being on display.” Sitting down, the queen pulled Gabrielle into her lap and gave her a quick kiss. “This is better than all the pompous idiocy surrounding the royal title.”

Gabrielle looked around. All eyes in the room were focussed on her and Xena. She felt a little uncomfortable and leaned in close to the queen’s ear. “I think you’ve shocked them.”

Xena’s very blue eyes swept around the room. Then she leaned in and thoroughly kissed Gabrielle, running her fingers through her soft, blonde hair and losing herself entirely in the emotion running through her. Finally, as they parted and gazed into each other’s eyes, music struck up and the attention shifted to the minstrels. “Now we’ve shocked them,” the queen said softly, tracing the young woman’s face with her finger. Gabrielle just laced their fingers together and leaned against the queen’s shoulder. Her heart was floating and she let the moment pass in quiet contemplation.

**

Sipping on a mug of mead, Xena nodded, approving of the battle strategy being laid out for her. “Yes, but if you hold back some men and march them in after the main force, you can reinforce the structure of the movement.”

“You’ve used that move before, haven’t you, Xena?” Palaemon chuckled. “Back when you were gunning for Caesar.”

The queen laughed and kissed Gabrielle’s head. “Yeah, he didn’t see that one coming at all. I cut him off from his own troops and then came down on him like a ton of bricks. Took Rome quite easily in the end.”

Palaemon leaned a little closer to her and smiled. “Your Majesty, I think Gabrielle is bored with this conversation.”

Xena looked at the young woman sitting on her knee and then at the mug clasped between her fingers. “Gabrielle, how much did you drink?” she asked as she noted the decidedly glazed look in her eyes.

A shrug. “Dunno. Tastes good though. Pamel… um… Palaemon said iswas good for me.” Green eyes blinked slowly. “Can I hasome more?”

“Oh no,” the queen chuckled. “I think you’ve had quite enough for tonight. In fact, I think we should get you to bed.”

Gabrielle giggled and kissed the queen soundly. “Sounslike a great i…” She hiccupped. “Idea.”

Blue eyes rolled. “To sleep, Gabrielle, to sleep.”

The young woman pouted and opened her mouth to speak but Xena covered it with her hand. “Gentlemen,” she addressed the table. “It’s been good talking to you. I must now retire.”

“Your Majesty,” the general said quietly. “I have one more piece of news.”

Xena eyebrow lifted in question. “Which is?”

“Iolaus… We got him. He’ll be here at first light.”

With a sound akin to a growl, Xena nodded. She stood and cradled Gabrielle in he arms, despite the protest of her still healing back wound. Can’t wimp out now, Xena. The guard stood at attention to announce her departure but the queen waved him aside. “Let them party. I’m off to bed and they really don’t need to know that.” She winked then and the guard grinned back at her.

“Goodnight, Majesty.”

“‘Night.” Xena looked down at the adoring gaze coming in her direction. “Ready for a little sleep?”

“Only if you’re with me,” Gabrielle replied with a tender smile. “Love you, Xe.”

Carrying her lover through the dimly lit passageways of the palace, Xena felt a quiet peace steal over her. Alone, in the dark, she was just Xena, a village girl, Gabrielle was the same and they were two women deeply in love.

Love.

Xena shook her head in mild disbelief. Falling in love isn’t something that I ever thought was on the cards for me. In a way, this damned wound has brought me more peace than pain. Kicking open the door of her bedchamber, she smiled as Gabrielle’s hand came up to touch her lips. “I love kissing you,” the young woman stated softly.

“Yeah?” Xena replied as she laid her gently on the bed. “Well, that’s good because I intend to do a lot more of it. Gabrielle, it’s time to sleep now, ok? I have something I need to do in the morning and then we’ll spend the rest of the day together, ok?”

“Mm.” Gabrielle was fading fast. “Sounds great.” She barely helped as the queen undressed her and then stripped out of her own robe. The young woman giggled softly. “You have the most amazing body,” she said admiringly. “I’m looking forward to exploring it fully… after my nap. Xena, I’m exhausted.”

Gentle fingers sorted through blonde hair. “I know,” the queen replied. “You just sleep.” Then Xena climbed under the sheets, taking Gabrielle with her and cuddling her close. “Xena, Warrior Mattress,” she murmured and felt the vibrations as the young woman laughed. “‘Night, Kid,” she whispered.

Gabrielle snuggled even closer. “‘Night, Xena.”

**

::THWAP::

Iolaus grunted as he smashed, shoulder first, into the stone wall. Xena winced and flexed her hand but never took her eyes off the whimpering man.

“Tell me who you’re working for!” she demanded, narrowing her eyes into intimidating slits.

Iolaus coughed and licked the blood away from the corner of his split lip. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied.

A dark eyebrow shot up. “Oh really?” Xena grabbed him by the throat and pulled him into standing, shoving him hard against the wall. “Then why do I have a bunch of guys in the next room telling me you’re their leader? Hm? I’m not stupid, you pitiful excuse for a man! You were ordered to assassinate me and I want to know who gave that order.” Iolaus said nothing. Xena tightened her grip on his throat. “I’m not known as the Destroyer of Nations because I have a charming or forgiving nature. You’re going to die painfully if you don’t tell me!”

The man’s face took on a slightly blue tinge but Xena just squeezed harder. He clawed weakly at her hand and tried to speak. She let him go and he pulled a couple of breaths into his body. “Your Majesty,” he wheezed. “I swear by the Gods that I have nothing to do with this.”

Xena smiled thinly. “I wouldn’t swear by the Gods. They’re not going to do anything to save you.” She turned to the guard. “Ten lashes in the public yard. Then I’ll speak to him. If he doesn’t tell me, give him another ten and so on until he’s dead.”

“Yes, My Liege.” The guard saluted briskly and then bowed as the queen swept out of the room and headed toward the yard. But halfway there, Xena stopped and her gaze was drawn to the stairs that would lead her up to her bedchamber and the waiting Gabrielle. She frowned, realising that she didn’t want the young woman to see this public flogging.

A protectiveness she didn’t even know she possessed flared up in her, making her regret her decision to dole out the lashing. And Xena hated second-guessing herself.

“Dammit.” The queen closed her eyes and leaned against the wall for a moment. Then she straightened, squared her shoulders and started up the stairs.

**

Iolaus was terrified. His hands were shaking and his knees felt weak but he carried himself with as much dignity as he could muster. All the way to the flogging pole, he professed his innocence but when he was tied up and the back of his shirt was ripped away, he fell silent.

“Gods help me,” he whispered as they waited for the queen to arrive.

**

Gabrielle eased awake to the feeling of gentle lips moving against her cheek. A grin tugged at her lips and she reached up to caress Xena’s cheek. “Hi,” she said softly. They kissed deeply, highlighted against a backdrop of rays from the morning sun. Then Xena gathered the young woman into her arms and hugged her. “Hi,” she whispered.

But the tautness in the queen’s muscles made Gabrielle pull back a little and look into her eyes. “What’s wrong, Xena?” she asked.

Shaking her head, the queen sighed. “Nothing… it’s…”

“Honey, you’re upset,” Gabrielle sat up and waited worriedly.

“I don’t ever want to hurt you, Gabrielle,” the queen replied. “But I don’t think I can shelter you or protect you from who I really am. This me… the Xena that goes on picnics and has tickle fights and makes jokes… that’s not the woman who rules this land. Xena, the Warrior Princess… the Destroyer of Nations… that’s who I have to be when we’re in the public eye.”

Confused, Gabrielle nodded. “I know that, Xena. I understand that you’re a different person in private than in public. Why are you so upset about that?”

“Because…” Blue eyes closed in silent pain. “Because I’m afraid that I’ll have to do something that will disgust you. I… I love you, Gabrielle. I can’t lose you.”

Suddenly, it all fell into place. Xena, in her heart, was not the Destroyer of Nations. She was just a village girl who got caught up in something she hadn’t been able to control very well. Now, she was afraid of what she’d become.

“You won’t.” Gabrielle leaned in and kissed Xena gently on the lips. “I love you so much that it hurts sometimes. You’re not going to wake up one morning and find me gone, understand?”

“Bu…”

“No buts, Xena. Now…” The young woman took a chance. “Go and do what you have to do.”

For a long moment, the dark woman just gazed into the green eyes that had brought her peace. Then she stood and straightened her robe, plucking a piece of imaginary lint off her sleeve. “Guess it’s time to play queen.”

And then Queen Xena, Destroyer of Nations, strode out of the bedchamber.

**

Chapter 9

Gabrielle wandered over to the window and looked out over the courtyard. Down below, she could see Xena standing under a canopy of some kind. Despite the distance, the young woman knew that the expression her lover’s face was one of composure… even coldness. Waiting to see what would happen next, Gabrielle reached behind her to take an apple out of the fruit bowl but, when she heard the first crack of a whip, it dropped from her hand. She leaned out the window as far as she could and barely made out a man tied to a pole. A second crack made her jump and an agonised cry drifted to her from the courtyard below.

“Oh no,” she whispered as a third crack, followed by a scream of pain, sounded out and she backed away from the window, covering her ears with shaking hands. “This is what you meant, Xena.”

The flogging continued and Gabrielle just sat on the bed, willing Xena to hurry back.

**

After the tenth stroke of the whip, Xena raised her hand and walked toward Iolaus. He was hanging by his arms, his legs having long given out under the pain. She took hold of his face and turned his head toward her. “Well?” she asked softly. “Are you ready to give me his name?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Iolaus whimpered, hoping to the gods that the queen would believe him.

“Uh huh,” Xena replied, nodding sympathetically. Then she turned on her heel, waving her hand as she walked away. “Another ten.”

**

“Dammit all to Hades!” Xena roared, standing rigid with anger in front of her seat. Iolaus was dead and she was no closer to finding out who had tried to kill her. “Get him out of my sight.” Sitting back down in her chair, the queen watched as the body was carried away. She was seething. I need to see Gabrielle. What the…? This thought shocked the queen. Since when have I needed anyone except myself? Rubbing her cheek, Xena slowly stood and walked toward the kitchen door.

The cook, noticing that the queen had entered, curtseyed and lowered her eyes. “Good Morning, Your Majesty,” she greeted.

“Morning,” Xena murmured absently. She moved through the kitchen, pausing only to steal an apple, and headed for her bedchamber.

**

Gabrielle wiped the tear tracks from her face as she heard footsteps approaching. She knew it was Xena and the moment the queen opened the door and ducked inside, she felt the tension radiating from her. “Xena?”

“What?” the queen snapped, her blue eyes glaring. “What is it, Gabrielle?”

“I…” The young woman sighed. “Never mind.” She turned on her heel and went to the window, leaning on the sill to look out into the courtyard.

Xena felt like a slug. She shook her head, angry with herself for taking her bad mood out on Gabrielle. “Hey,” she said softly. She went to the young woman and wrapped her arms around her waist but Gabrielle pulled away. It was like a slap in the face but she accepted it. “I guess I deserved that,” she said softly. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry.”

“You had him flogged,” came the quiet reply and the queen felt her stomach tie itself into a knot.

“I.” For the first time in her life, Xena was at a loss for words. She sighed and sat on the bed, burying her face in her hands. She was tired and her wound was hurting and dammit, it wasn’t fair! “Leave me,” she ordered, as her stone cold mask dropped into place.

Gabrielle was shocked. “Bu…”

“I SAID LEAVE ME!” Xena yelled, her temper snapping. “GET OUT!”

Green eyes filled with tears and Gabrielle nodded. She felt like she’d been kicked in the chest and she could hardly breathe as she turned and left the chamber. As she shut the door, she heard something thump against the wall and the queen’s voice raised in anguish. “I DON’T NEED ANYBODY!” She sat on the carpet and cried in earnest, the stress of the day and the queen’s rejection of her finally getting through her resolve.

It hurt.

**

Grabbing her sword from the rack hanging on the wall, Xena started into her drills. She pushed harder and harder, faster and faster until sweat ran down her face in rivulets and her shoulder ached fiercely. She didn’t care though. Pain was her friend. It reminded her that she was still alive, that she was in control. But suddenly, her blue eyes caught sight of something sitting on the floor under the window. She paused in her drills and went to pick it up, peering at it. It was an apple. She frowned. What was an apple doing…?

Gabrielle.

Did the kid drop…? Oh no.

The flogging. She actually saw the flogging.

Xena suddenly felt sick to her stomach and had to sit on the bed for a moment until the nausea passed. She rubbed her nose with a shaking hand and then stood. She had to find Gabrielle, to apologise and tell her she loved her.

Opening the door of her chamber, she looked up and down the hallway. Nothing. She quickly changed into a fresh, plain tunic and leggings… very different from the robes she normally wore… and bounded down the corridor. Where would the kid go?

And suddenly… she knew.

**

Sitting under their tree, Gabrielle pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, thinking of the look on Xena’s face when she’d told her to leave. The young woman just didn’t understand. She buried her face and cried softly, her heart breaking. She loved Xena with all her heart and the queen had just told her to get out. Coldly. Harshly.

Then she felt it.

Looking up, she saw Xena standing at the other end of the garden, a look of utter shame and remorse on her face. Taking one step forward, the queen suddenly hesitated and met the young woman’s eyes squarely. Their souls connected and Gabrielle rose, drawn forward by something she didn’t understand. They walked toward each other, their eyes still locked and when they reached each other, Xena opened her arms, gathering the young woman up into a tender hug. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. I love you, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle exhaled shakily, sinking into the warm and loving embrace. She was too choked up to speak and just pressed her face into the queen’s chest, hugging her as close as she could. More tears spilled over but they were tears of relief. They soaked into Xena’s tunic but the queen didn’t care. Having Gabrielle in her arms made her feel…

“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” the queen whispered, nuzzling the young woman’s neck. “Don’t ever leave me.” She inhaled and pulled back a little, looking into watery green eyes. “You saw the flogging.” She waited as Gabrielle swallowed.

“I… Only the first… I… heard it,” the young woman replied. “I heard the screams. Xena…”

“I ordered it,” Xena replied. She wasn’t going to make any more excuses for what she was. “Gabrielle, I’m a cruel and heartless bitch. I wanted to get that information out of him so I tortured him to death.”

Despite the revulsion Gabrielle felt toward the act, she didn’t feel it toward the queen. No. Right now, she just wanted to hold Xena forever and make the pain she saw in her azure eyes go away. “No,” she said softly. “Xena, you may have ordered the punishment but I don’t think you enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s who you are anymore.”

The queen tightened her grip on her lover and whispered to her. “I wish…” She paused. “I think you’re the only person who actually believes that, Gabrielle.”

Looking deeply into Xena’s eyes, Gabrielle smiled. “No,” she said softly. “You’re wrong. You believe it too.”

And then the young woman kissed her. It was slow and deep and loving and Xena felt a slow fire igniting in her guts. She moaned softly and for a moment, wasn’t sure that her knees would hold her up. Then she didn’t care and lowered the young woman to the grass. They kissed and touched for a few exquisite moments but then the young woman pulled back a little. Her eyes had darkened with desire and she cupped the queen’s cheek gently. “Let’s go inside,” she said. “I’m thinking… maybe… bed?”

With a growl, Xena bounded to her feet and pulled the young woman up. “C’mon,” she said. “I know a good place.”

Gabrielle grinned.

**

Joxer walked through the palace with a jaunty bounce in his step. With only a few days to go ’til the wedding dinner, he was growing more and more excited. He loved a good feast and was looking forward to it. The queen had, earlier in the day, sent him out to check on everything and he’d arrived back to the palace at early after noon.

“Hi,” he greeted a guard as he entered the great hall but he was surprised to see that the queen wasn’t there. He looked at the guard. “Where’s Her Majesty?”

“I don’t know, Sir. She hasn’t been here since before the flogging.”

“Flogging?” Joxer’s brows drew together in a frown. “What flogging?”

“The queen’s personal guard found the assassin, Iolaus. He wouldn’t give her any information so she ordered him flogged. He died under the whip.”

Joxer nodded tersely. “Did she get anything out of him?”

“No,” the man replied, shifting his grip on his spear. “He wouldn’t tell her anything.”

The advisor’s lips twitched a little. “A shame,” he said. Then he nodded and left the room.

**

Lying in the comfortable circle of Xena’s arms, Gabrielle sighed and ran her hand slowly up and down the queen’s stomach. The muscles moved slightly with each stroke and she smiled slightly, kissing the breast right by her lips. She threw her leg over the queen’s thigh and snuggled even closer, giggling as long fingers traced her ribs. “Whatcha doin’?” Xena asked, her voice husky from sleep.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you,” Gabrielle apologised.

“S’okay.” Xena yawned and turned onto her side, going belly to belly with the young woman and pressing their bodies tightly together. Their legs tangled comfortably and Xena trailed her fingers up and down Gabrielle’s back as the young woman rested her chin in the crook of the queen’s neck and shoulder.

“Xena, have you ever been married?” Gabrielle asked suddenly.

Xena chuckled. “No, never.”

“Do you have any children?”

This time the queen laughed. “Nope. No way.”

Gabrielle looked up at her curiously. “But you’ve… um… been…. with men, haven’t you?”

A dark eyebrow slowly lifted. “Where’s this going, Gabrielle?”

The young woman shrugged one shoulder and rested her head again. “Nowhere, just curious.”

With a sigh, Xena ran her fingers through the young woman’s soft, blonde hair. “Yeah, I have,” she replied softly. “But I’ve never felt… I mean… With you it’s… different.”

Gabrielle frowned. “Different… bad?” she asked.

“No!” Xena shook her head emphatically. “No, you’re the best I’ve ever…” She paused to regain her composure. “You’re ok,” she teased.

But the young woman was grinning. “The best, huh?” She kissed the queen’s chin and then her nose. “Well, since I don’t have anyone to judge you by…” She giggled at the sheepish look on Xena’s face. “Honey, you’re pretty awesome.”

The sheepishness turned into a satisfied smirk. “Hm. Good.”

Xena sighed as a comfortable silence fell between them. A slight breeze fluttered across the room from the open window. Xena smelled rain and sure enough, a few moments later, the pitter-patter of fat droplets sounded around them. “I love you,” she said softly as she kissed Gabrielle’s forehead.

“Love you too,” came the gentle reply.

And a thought ran simultaneously through both of their minds.

This feels so right.

**

Chapter 10

Salmonius strode toward the queen’s bedchamber with a purpose born of anger. He reached her door and pounded on it waiting a moment before pounding again. Then the door creaked open a little and a blonde head peeked out. Gabrielle smiled. “Oh… Hi, Sal.”

“Gabrielle,” the healer greeted tersely. “Is Her Royal Annoyance in?”

The young woman stifled a giggle as she looked back at the bed and caught the indignant look on Xena’s face. “What do you want, you Old Goat?” the queen yelled. “I’m naked.”

“Never bothered you before,” Salmonius yelled back and Xena couldn’t help but grin.

She wrapped the sheet around her body and nodded to Gabrielle. “Let him in.”

Gabrielle opened the door more and stood back, allowing the testy healer entrance to the main chamber. “Xena,” he growled. “I thought I told you no riding or sparring for at least a sevenday. I remember telling you and I remember you promising.”

Damn. “Um… I… ” Xena felt like a castigated child and her fighting spirit reared its head. “I’m the queen. I can ride and spar if I like,” she stated arrogantly. Gabrielle shook her head and rolled her eyes. Xena blushed. “Alright, yes, you did and yes, I promised. I’m sorry, Sal.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he replied. “Just improve. Now, show me that wound.” The queen obediently flipped onto her front and pulled down the sheet a little. Salmonius chuckled as he examined the wound. It was almost healed. “Amazing,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone else who heals that quickly.” Xena shrugged. “Well, ok. You’re off the hook. Just be careful, ok?”

“Ok,” the queen agreed. “I will.”

Salmonius picked up his bag and headed for the door, smiling at Gabrielle. She opened the door for him but, as he reached the threshold, he stopped and looked back to Xena. “By the way,” he said. “Your hickey is a lot bigger than Gabrielle’s. You’ll have to do better on hers next time.” Then he left the room. Xena and Gabrielle stared dumbly at each other and then burst into laughter.

The young woman closed the door and padded across the room, still chuckling. “What do you want for dinner tonight?”

“You?” Xena replied.

“Tch. I’m serious, Xena.”

Dark brows waggled. “So am I.”

Ignoring the lascivious look on the queen’s face, Gabrielle dressed and went back to the door. “I’ll be back soon.”

Xena nodded and lay back on the bed. She grinned and wryly acknowledged that she was happy.

Loving Gabrielle made her happy.

Weird.

**

The Lord paced back and forth, anger and worry creasing his brow into a frown. With Iolaus dead, his plans were no longer working. Who would he be able to trust to put the poison in the queen’s food? He knew the cook was loyal because Xena had let her personal healer treat the woman’s child when she grew sick last winter. The kid would have died otherwise and the cook constantly sang the queen’s praises. No good. He needed someone corruptible. Someone low that the queen quite possibly didn’t even know about. A stable hand? No, one of Xena’s passions was horses. She’d know the stable hands. He also had the extra trouble of having to get rid of that pesky, irritating, blonde kid the queen seemed to have taken a liking to.

He sat in a high-backed wooden chair and gazed unseeingly at a tapestry on the wall. Getting rid of the young woman wouldn’t be too hard. Xena couldn’t watch her every candlemark of the day after all. He came up with a plan and leaned back in his chair, running through it one last time in his mind. He nodded. It would work. He’d make sure of it.

**

Gabrielle walked along the dining table, perusing the available dishes. There was no court dinner tonight and she was selecting something for herself and Xena for a meal. The cook wandered over to her and curtseyed. “Evening, Miss. What can I get ya?”

“Xe… um… Her Majesty and I would like something for dinner. What would you recommend?”

“Ah.” The cook smiled. “I have just the thing for ya. ‘Er Majesty really likes this.”

“Yeah?” Gabrielle was curious and she followed the cook to the end of the table. Blonde eyebrows lifted. “Rabbit? Xena likes rabbit that much?”

“Loves ’em as much as she loves lamb. Used to hunt ’em and live on ’em when she were out with ‘er army years back.” The cook chuckled. “Only thing she can cook half decent too. Told me that ‘erself.”

Rabbit? Gabrielle marvelled. Wow. Xena really is a village girl at heart.

“Um… thanks. I’ll take two of them. I bet she’s hungry.” One of Xena’s less-than-ladylike comments suddenly popped into the young woman’s head and she had to bite her lip to stop the threatening giggle. “Ok, for me… hm… Oh. I’ll have some chicken please. I’ll also take a bowl of vegetables and… oooh… that cake looks great.”

The cook nodded as she gathered up the items and put them on a tray. “I’ll get someone to carry this for you, Miss. It’s ‘eavy enough.”

“Thanks,” the young woman smiled. “I appreciate it.”

“Anything for the queen,” the cook smiled. “Saved my little young woman, she did, when Mara was real sick. Treated her herself and asked me not to tell anyone but I don’t think she’d mind me telling you.”

Gabrielle was flabbergasted. Her mouth made a little ‘O’ and her heart swelled with love and pride. Xena had saved a little girl’s life.

“Thank you,” she whispered. The cook nodded and beckoned to one of the kitchen staff. She instructed him to follow Gabrielle with the tray and a few moments later, the meal was sitting on a table in the queen’s outer chamber. Xena was taking a bath and Gabrielle took the time to lay the table and pour some wine. Then she ducked into the bathing chamber. “Xena, dinner’s ready.”

The queen raised a suds-covered hand in acknowledgement and then dunked her head under the water to wash away the soap. Gabrielle grinned and went back outside to wait. She was pottering around and humming happily when Xena emerged, all scrubbed and shining, from the bathing chamber. The queen was dressed in a simple linen tunic and leggings that outlined her lithe, muscular body. “This looks great,” she said but then she paused. “Is that rabbit?”

Gabrielle nodded. “I heard you like it.”

“I love rabbit,” Xena grinned. “How did you know?”

“A little bird told me,” the young woman replied. “Someone downstairs thinks the sun shines out of you.”

A dark eyebrow rose as Xena snorted. “Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically.

Gabrielle moved to her and hugged her. “You’re pretty amazing,” she said softly.

When she pulled back, the queen’s face was a study in bemusement. “I don’t understand,” Xena stated.

“I spoke to the cook. She told me, Xena.”
The queen sighed and smiled a little. “Thought that might have hurt my reputation,” she shrugged. “Xena the Conqueror couldn’t be seen carrying a little girl into her private bedchamber to nurse her back to health.”

“Xena the Conqueror couldn’t,” Gabrielle replied. “But the Xena I know and love certainly could.”

The queen thought about that for a moment. “I guess it was this Xena who did it.”

“See?” the young woman replied. “It’s not so hard. Xe, all you have to do is treat people like people. Have compassion and they will return it. No one knows how you really are because they were all conquered. Maybe you could show them?”

“Maybe… Now, let’s have some dinner.”

Over the meal, they discussed the upcoming wedding feast.

“So Marmarus is marrying Alicel?” Gabrielle asked. Xena nodded, her mouth full of rabbit. “Why are you holding their feast here?”

The queen swallowed. “Alicel’s father is the general that Palaemon replaced. He was too old for the job so I gave him a stipend and let him go home. Should take care of him for the rest of his days. He deserves it. He worked damned hard all his life and was a loyal soldier. Part of my gift to him was the wedding feast. It’s gonna be some party.”

“I’ll bet,” Gabrielle replied. “Who’s going?”

Xena laughed softly. “I think it might be quicker to make of list of those not coming. But I was wondering if you’d like to come to the party with me.”

Gabrielle grinned, delighted. “Wow. I… I’d love to.” Her smile faded then. “Xena, what will the nobles think? I know they’ve seen us in public before but… I don’t know if they like me.”

The queen stood then and moved around the table to crouch alongside the young woman’s chair. She took her hand and kissed it as she gazed up into her eyes. “I love you, Gabrielle. I don’t care what the others think. They don’t control me or who I want to be with. Understand?”

Gabrielle nodded and reached out to cup Xena’s cheek. She rubbed the soft skin with her thumb and then leaned in to capture her lips. “I love you too,” she whispered. “With all my heart.”

“Then it’s settled.” The queen stood and went back to her chair to finish her rabbit. Things were looking up.

**

Palaemon rocked on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back. He peered at a portrait of the queen, deciding, as he always did, that it didn’t do justice to her beauty.

Salmonius approached, a large scroll clasped in his hand. “Palaemon? You were looking for me?”

“Yes.” The general turned and walked with the healer toward the infirmary. “Sal, I’m worried about Xena.”

“Are you?” Salmonius asked. “In what way?”

Feeling a little silly, Palaemon sighed. “I have a bad feeling that Xena is in danger but I can’t see it coming. I mean… we have enough guards on duty to keep three helpless queens safe, let alone the greatest warrior queen in the world. She’s constantly inside the palace or in the grounds so…” He shrugged. “What do you think?”

Salmonius nodded. “I know what you’re thinking but don’t forget, Xena’s gonna be on the lookout herself. She’s a whole lot more aware of danger than she has been over the past few months.”

“There’s something else,” Palaemon said. “I’m worried about Gabrielle. It’s very obvious to everyone that Xena cares for her a great deal. What if they try to get to the queen by using the girl?”

They had reached the door of the infirmary. “Maybe you should speak to Xena,” Salmonius advised. “If she cares for the young woman as much as she seems to, she’s going to want to know all the angles.”

Palaemon nodded. “Yeah, thanks, Sal.” And with a pat to his back, Salmonius sent Palaemon on his way.

**

Curled up on the sheepskin rug in front of the fire, Gabrielle offered a forkful of cake to the queen. Neat, white teeth took the morsel and Xena made numerous humming noises as she chewed. “Good cake. Cook’s?”

“Mmhm. She said you’d like it.” The young woman grinned. “She knows an awful lot about you, Xena. Should I be worried?”

The queen chuckled. “Well, you might have to prove to me that you can out cook her. I mean, the way to the queen’s heart is through her stomach.”

“I know that,” he young woman replied, kissing the aforementioned body part.

The surface moved as Xena laughed. “You are too cute, you know that? Hey, Gabrielle, want to take a trip somewhere after the wedding feast?”

“Where would we go?” Gabrielle asked as she offered another piece of cake.

The queen shrugged. “Dunno. Where do you want to go? Fancy a trip to Rome? Did I mention I own Rome?”

The young woman giggled. “I’m sure you did. I’d love to take a trip with you.”

Xena grinned happily. “Great. One trip to Rome starting next sevenday. Now, what are we going to wear to the party?”

**

Chapter 11

Standing on the balcony of the queen’s bedchamber, Gabrielle watched the hustle-bustle of people in the yard. Pounding footsteps mixed with yelled orders floated up to her and a smile wrinkled the skin of her nose. She knew Xena was standing behind her. She could feel her.

“You know, the cook is as bossy as you are,” she said, turning her head a little to look over her shoulder.

Xena snorted and moved up close, pressing her body against the young woman’s and wrapping her arms around her waist. Gabrielle leaned back into the embrace. “Why do you think I put her there? In case you haven’t noticed, I like good food.”

“Mm,” the young woman nodded. “I did notice.” They just stood in that embrace for a few moments, savouring the closeness and contentment of being together. The rest of the week had gone smoothly and Xena was pleased with the plans for the wedding feast.

“I’m looking forward to tonight,” the queen said softly. She chuckled as she nibbled Gabrielle’s earlobe. “I don’t think I’ve really ever looked forward to a party before. It’s good to know that I’ll have someone who isn’t a total nitwit to talk to.”

“Not all the nobles are nitwits, Xena,” Gabrielle replied with a smile. “Besides, I’m hardly the most interesting person in the world.”

“Really?” Xena whispered. “Because I find you riveting.” She slipped her hand under the young woman’s shirt and explored the warm skin she found there. Gabrielle’s breath left her in a whoosh and she moaned softly as the hands moved a little higher. “In fact,” the queen breathed. “You’re about all I can focus on right now.”

“Xena,” the young woman whispered reaching behind her to tangle her fingers in Xena’s soft, dark hair. Gentle lips explored her neck and shoulders until a knock at the door interrupted them. Gabrielle sighed. “We’d better see who that is.”

The queen kissed her briefly and then strode to the door, flinging it open in annoyance. “This had better be…” She stopped abruptly when the servant bowed before her. “What is it?”

“Your Majesty, there’s been an accident. It’s Salmonius. He’s been kicked in the head by a horse.”

Xena’s face paled under her tan and she raced across the room to grab her healer bag. “Gabrielle!”

The young woman bolted inside. “What?”

“Salmonius… a horse kicked him in the head. Come on!”

The run from the bedchamber to the infirmary seemed like the longest Xena had ever made. As she sprinted along with Gabrielle trailing behind her, she thought back to the first time she’d ever met the old healer. It was fuzzy at best…
Ten Winters Ago…
“You! Get those horses inside! I don’t care if we’re short of space. I won’t lose the horses!” Xena strode across the camp. The snow covered mud crunched under her boots and the chill wind whipped her long, dark hair around her face. The warrior was freezing but she just pulled her cloak tighter around her body and increased her pace. “Darphus! Get over here!”

“Yes, General?” The lieutenant blew on his frozen fingers. “Is there something you need?”

For a moment, Xena second-guessed herself but then she sighed. “Yeah. Ride into the nearest village and bring back a healer.”

“A healer?” Darphus chuckled. “Who needs…?” He stopped when he saw the Warrior Princess’ blue eyes narrowing and her lips lifting in a snarl.

“Just do it!” she barked. “Bring him to me.” Then she squared her shoulders and walked away, using all of her considerable willpower just to keep herself on her feet. In fact, she made it all the way inside her tent before her knees gave out and she collapsed, wet coughs wracking her body and making her just want to die. After a moment, Xena got back on her feet and stumbled to her cot, dropping into it and pulling the bear skin up to her throat. “Damn,” she whispered as her teeth chattered violently. The healer in Xena knew she was very ill but the warrior in her refused to show any weakness in front of her men. This couldn’t go on though. Warrior or no warrior, she wasn’t dying from any damned coughing sickness.

Xena closed her eyes and pulled a shaky breath into her lungs, wincing as the pain made it catch. She knew she was in trouble but she rolled over onto her side and drew her knees up, trying to relieve the pressure on her chest. The position helped a little and she slipped into a fitful sleep, the fever making her dreams more vivid than ever before but even in her delirious state, her instincts told her there was someone approaching.

The warrior’s blue eyes snapped open and her hand shot out from under the covers. “Not so fast,” she croaked, surprised by the scratchiness of her own normally silky, low voice. “What in Hades do you think you’re doing?”

The man blinked kind, brown eyes. “You’re very ill,” he replied. I need to take this fever down before I do anything else. Here, drink this.” He held out a cup and Xena took it in a shaking hand before sniffing suspiciously at it. He sighed. “I’m a healer, Xena. I don’t take lives.”

Xena studied him a moment and then nodded tersely. “What’s your name?” she asked.

The healer smiled and tipped the cup toward her mouth, nodding approvingly as she downed half of the fever reducing herbal tea. “Salmonius. I’m at your service, Xena.”

“Make me well again, Salmonius. I have a responsibility to get my men through the winter and I can’t do it from a godsbedamned sickbed. They need food and medical treatment.”

Salmonius looked at her curiously. “A warlord who cares about what happens to the men she commands? Interesting.” Xena looked back at him with something akin to embarrassment but then let her eyes slide shut as the herbs took effect. The healer smiled and brushed a lock of dark hair back from the woman’s face. “So young,” he whispered. “So lost.”

As Xena drifted off to sleep, a gentle hand held her own and she felt like she belonged.
Snapping out of her thoughts, Xena skidded to a halt outside the infirmary. For a moment, she almost didn’t want to have to face the fact that her friend might…

Gabrielle reached out a hand and rubbed the queen’s back. “He needs you,” she said softly.

Xena exhaled and squared her shoulders. “Yeah.” Then she pushed the door open and ducked inside. Gabrielle followed silently, ready to offer any support she could.

Salmonius was lying unmoving on a low pallet. His skin was grey and his eyes dull and lifeless. A large bandage encircled his head and covered a swollen, hot lump. Xena knelt by the bed, taking his clammy hand in her own. “Sal?” she said softly. “Hey, look at me, you old goat.”

A weak chuckle made her heart leap into her throat. “My sweet Xena,” came the weak voice. “I wish I could look one more time upon your beautiful face but the horse messed me up good. The swelling in my head has made me blind.”

“Salm…” Xena cleared her throat and tried again. “Salmonius, you’re gonna be just fine.” She leaned in and kissed his forehead.

The healer sighed. “I’m afraid it’s not going be possible to fix this one,” he said softly. “I’m sorry, Xena.”

“But you can’t leave.” The queen gently lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. “Who’s going to yell at me and tell me that I’m not taking care of myself?”

A smile crept onto the man’s face. “Gabrielle? Is she here?”

The young woman knelt opposite the queen and reached out to take his free hand. “I’m here.”

Salmonius smiled. “Here.” He moved his hands, bringing Xena’s and Gabrielle’s together and then covering them with his own. “Gabrielle, it’s your responsibility to take care of her now. She’s a tough one so make sure you keep her in line. I know you love her, Gabrielle. Love her well.”

“I do,” the young woman whispered, locking eyes with the queen. “I love her with all my heart. I’ll take very good care of her.”

Sal nodded slightly and then turned his head toward Xena. “And you. Be good to Gabrielle. She’s the one, Xena. I can feel it.”

The queen could no longer hold back her tears and she let them fall. “I know, Sal,” she whispered. “I… I love you, you old goat.”

With a tired sigh, the healer closed his eyes. “I always knew you were destined for greatness, Xena. You’ve made me proud.” And with that, his last breath whistled from between his lips and he passed over peacefully.

“Salmonius,” the queen whispered. Then she rested her head on his chest and cried.

**

“Are you sure about this?” Gabrielle asked as she twitched Xena’s robe straight. “I mean…”

“Sal would have wanted this,” the queen replied. “It’s been planned for a long time. Alicel and Marmarus have just been joined. It’s an important day for them. Tomorrow though, I’m going to get to the bottom of what happened. No one was able to give me any details but someone must know something.”

On impulse, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the queen and hugged her. She felt the tall body trembling and heard Xena’s shaky exhale. The queen was fighting tears, she knew but she also realised that Xena would grieve for the man she’d thought of as a father figure, in her own time. “I love you, Xena,” she whispered. “And I’m going to do just as Salmonius asked.”

Strong arms held her close. “I love you too, Gabrielle.” Then Xena straightened and tugged on her sleeve. “C’mon, the public awaits.”

Hand in hand, Xena and Gabrielle walked to the Great Hall. The guard was about to announce the queen’s entrance when Xena patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t,” she said with a smile. “This is the happy couple’s day. Today, I’m just another guest.”

Gabrielle smiled and allowed herself to be led into the hall. “That was a nice thing to do, Xena.”

The queen just shrugged and found them an out-of-the-way table. A servant caught her eye and frowned but Xena just smiled and winked. At the top table where the throne was sitting, Alicel and Marmarus were talking quietly. Every now and again, Marmarus would look at the throne and then toward the door. Xena chuckled wickedly and called the guard over. “Hi. I want you to go up there and tell Marmarus that, since the queen said she won’t be attending and that he may sit in her throne.”

“You Majesty?”

“Tonight, I’m just plain old Xena of Amphipolis. G’wan and tell him.”

With a wary look back at the queen, the guard made his way to the top table and spoke into Marmarus’ ear. The young man pulled back, surprised and looked at the throne but he quickly shook his head. Xena chuckled and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder. The young woman picked up a piece of rabbit, offering it to the queen. A dark eyebrow lifted. “Where did the rabbit come from? I don’t see rabbit anywhere else…”

Gabrielle just smiled and looked down at her plate.

Xena was stunned into momentary silence. “You did this for me?”

Slim shoulders rose in a shrug under Xena’s arm.

“You did this for me.” This time, a statement.

“I wanted to do something nice for you.”

Turning sideways on the bench, the queen cupped her lover’s cheek and stroked her thumb over the soft skin. “You make me so happy, Gabrielle.”

“Just returning the favour,” the young woman replied. She glanced up at the top table and smiled wistfully as the happy couple shared a kiss.

Xena’s eyes widened. She wants this. She wants to get married and have a party like this someday. The revelation made the queen feel more than a little bemused. “Gods help me,” she murmured. “But I want this with her too.”

And now, Xena had a new plan.

**

Chapter 12

“Hey, Philbert!” Xena beckoned to the Lord as he passed by.

“Your Majesty? We were told you weren’t coming.”

The queen shrugged. “The queen said she wasn’t coming. I’m just here like everyone else. I do want you to do a favour for me though.”

Philbert nodded. “Anything, Majesty.”

Xena leaned in close to whisper into his ear. He smiled then, bowed a little and went on his way. With a satisfied grin, the warrior rose and offered her hand to her partner. “Gabrielle, would you like to dance?”

The young woman looked nervously up at Xena. “I’m not… um… a very good dancer. I…” A dark eyebrow lifted and the proffered hand still hovered. Gabrielle nodded with a little grin. “I’d love to.”

“Good.” Hands clasped, they made their way out onto the dance floor where many of the other couples were already moving to the music. Marmarus and his bride were dancing together, gazing into each other’s eyes.

Gabrielle smiled as strong arms wrapped around her and held her close. “They make a nice couple, don’t they?”

“Sure,” Xena replied.

“Of course,” the young woman continued. “I’m the one dancing with the most beautiful woman in the room so I guess I’m the lucky one.” She looked into the queen’s eyes and, if it were at all possible, fell in love all over again.

“Ahem, Your Majesty?”

Xena glanced up, a sharp retort on his lips but she stopped when she saw who it was. “Yes, Philbert. Have you done as I asked?”

The man bowed a little. “Yes, Majesty.”

“You’ve done well, thanks.” Xena dismissed him and continued dancing with her lover. Gabrielle looked up at her curiously. “Don’t ask.”

“Ok, but I’m likely to keep making puppy-dog eyes at you.” The young woman made puppy-dog eyes as promised and Xena chuckled.

“I’m not telling you, Gabrielle. It’s top secret queen business.”

“Uh huh,” Gabrielle replied but instead of protesting further, she just pressed her face into the queen’s silk robe and squeezed her. “I love you,” she finally murmured. “Even if you keep me in suspense.”

Xena slipped a finger under the young woman’s chin and tilted her face up. “You won’t be in suspense for much longer, Sweetheart.” The queen dipped her head to kiss her lover but a piercing scream startled her. “What the…”

**

Palaemon had heard the scream too and raced toward the top table. Alicel was standing in front of her husband’s lifeless body. Xena arrived at the same moment as her general and knelt next to the body. Pressing her fingers against the man’s neck, she felt for a pulse. Nothing. With a small shake of her head, she looked at Gabrielle and then to Alicel. “I’m sorry,” she said. The young woman dropped to her knees next to her husband and lifted his upper body into her lap, hugging him and sobbing. Xena stood and shook her head but she noticed something. At some stage, Marmarus had moved to sit in her throne and had been served his meal there. The queen picked up the plate and sniffed it. Her senses didn’t detect anything strange but she beckoned to one of the servants. “Bring me in one of the old dogs from the yard.”

The servant left and Gabrielle moved closer to the queen. “What is it, Xena? What caused this?”

With a frown, Xena glanced at her friend. “I’ll know in a moment,” she said cryptically. The servant returned with an old mongrel and Xena patted his head. “Alright, Boy. Here, eat this.” She set the remainder of Marmarus’ meal in front of the dog and watched as he cleared it in a few swallows. Then she waited.

Gabrielle was watching closely from beside the queen when the dog suddenly whimpered. Then he collapsed onto his side and went very still. Xena knelt next to the dog and put her hand to his nose. “He’s dead. The meal was poisoned.” She stood then and peered around the room. “Clear the hall. The party is over. Have Marmarus taken to the temple.”

Once the hall was emptied, Xena dropped into her throne. She blew out a long breath and beckoned for Gabrielle to come closer, pulling her into her lap when she did so. “The poison was meant for me,” the queen said softly. “I was supposed to be served that plate, not Marmarus. Godsdammit, Gabrielle, it’s my fault that man is dead.”

The young woman exhaled shakily and wrapped her arms around the queen’s neck. “Xena,” she breathed. “Oh Gods. It’s not your fault. You had no way of knowing.” Gabrielle swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m such a bad person,” she whispered.

Xena pulled back in surprise. “What do you mean?” She tipped the young woman’s face up to look into her eyes. “Gabrielle?”

“I… I can’t help it. I’m sorry Marmarus died but…” A tear spilled over. “I’m glad it was him and… and not you.”

“Oh Gabrielle.” Xena wiped the tear away with her thumb and smiled. “You’re not a bad person for thinking that.”

Their gazes locked and time stood still.

“I can’t lose you,” Gabrielle whispered fiercely. “I won’t.”

“You won’t,” Xena replied. “I promise. Everything’s going to be ok.”

The young woman nodded and her gaze drifted around the room. “So what now?” she asked.

“Now,” Xena replied, her voice hoarse with anger. “Now we catch this bastard. Gabrielle, I don’t think Salmonius death was an accident. I think we have a double murder on our hands.”

**

The Lord paced angrily back and forth. “AAARRRGGGHHHHH!!!” He picked up a chair and flung it across the room. It hit the stone wall and crashed to the floor, finally coming to rest in pieces. “That woman has the luck of the GODS! I get the healer out of the way and she still manages to avoid the poison!”

The servant nodded. “My Lord, we didn’t know she wouldn’t be sitting there. The queen’s… um… friend… had a special meal prepared for her.”

“I will kill her,” the Lord replied. “She murdered my family. I will make her pay with her life’s blood.” He paused then and a little smile crossed his lips. “If I can’t get to her directly, I’ll lure her to me… and I know the perfect bait for the trap.”

**

Lying cuddled together in the centre of the queen’s large bed, Xena and Gabrielle savoured their time together. The young blonde was painfully aware of how close she’d come to losing the woman she loved and her guts were knotted up with fear and tension.

“Hey,” Xena said softly, feeling the stiffness of her lover’s body. “Gabrielle, try to relax.”

“I can’t,” Gabrielle replied. “I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I could be lying here right now without you.” The thoughts were making the young woman sick and she tightened her grip on the queen as if to reassure herself that the older woman was really there. Xena rubbed her back gently, feeling the knotted muscles at her neck.

“Whoa, that’s a bad one,” she said, massaging there with knowing fingers. Gabrielle immediately felt the tension beginning to slip away and she moaned softly, pressing her cheek against the queen’s shoulder and closing her eyes.

“Mmmm, Xe, that feels so good.” The massage led to languid kissing and touching which led to a more passionate need. They made love tenderly, both needing to reaffirm their bond in the uncertainty of the future and when they came to rest, they felt closer than ever before.

“Love you,” the queen mumbled as she felt the irresistible tug of sleep.

Gabrielle smiled and kissed Xena’s chest. “Me too,” she whispered as she heard the older woman’s breathing deepening and evening out. The steady pounding of Xena’s heart sent Gabrielle to sleep, it’s comforting sound reminding her once more that her lover was ok.

**

Dawn. The first rays of light crept across the stronghold, easing into cracks and chasing shadows away. Xena tucked her cloak tighter around her body as she strode across the yard. She could see her breath in the chilly air and wished that she’d thought to wear her thicker leggings. Oh well, too late now.

Xena had risen, dressed and snuck out of her bedchamber without waking the deeply sleeping Gabrielle. The queen wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery and she knew that she had to find out exactly what happened to Salmonius. She was wary though and unwilling to place herself in any more danger than she was already in so she’d tucked her sword and chakram under her cloak. It felt good to be wearing them again and her body compensated automatically for the familiar weight, altering her stride a little and giving her a little swagger to her step. Yeah, it felt really good.

Peeking her head around the door, Xena scanned the interior of the stable for anything strange. Her senses didn’t warn her so she ducked inside and moved silently to the stall containing the horse that’d kicked the healer. The queen knelt and lifted one of the horse’s hooves, examining it. It had been freshly shod, Xena could tell by the fact that there were very few scratches on the metal. The queen examined the mare’s coat then. It had been freshly washed and brushed.

Xena frowned. “Why treat a horse, that’s going to be destroyed, this way?” she murmured, her blue eyes automatically scanning the stall for other clues. Nothing immediately jumped out at her so she stepped out and swung the door closed but a sudden noise caught her attention. Someone was outside the stable door. The warrior silently moved to the door, lifting her chakram off her belt as she went. Xena pressed her back flat against the door and waited for the telltale creak of the door. Her heart had picked up it’s pace and adrenaline pumped through her veins. A little smile, feral but controlled, crossed her lips. Gods, I’ve missed this. The door creaked, Xena heard the first boot step inside and shot out her arm, catching whomever it was right in the chest and knocking him to the ground. Then her sword was pressed against his throat.

“Please,” he wheezed as he tried to drag a breath back into his body.

Xena grabbed him by the front of his tunic. “Get up,” she snarled. “What are you doing here?”

“Your Majesty…” The man was tall and muscular but he was dressed in a simple tunic and was unarmed.

“Who are you?” the queen barked. “You have ten seconds before I start hacking.”

“Your Majesty, my name is Bellus. I’m Marmarus’ brother.”

Oh. Xena frowned. The brother. “Awwright,” she drawled, sheathing her sword and patting the dust from the front of her own tunic. “What are you doing here, Bellus?”

“Your Majesty, something strange is going on here. Am I the only person who noticed that the meal my brother ate was meant for you?” He shook his head. “Another assassination attempt…”

Xena held up her hand with a sigh. “No, Bellus. You’re not the only personal who noticed it.” Her eyes narrowed then. “I know why I’m here. Why are you here?”

“I asked around about the person who served the meal. I was told that his name was…”

“Arctus,” Xena finished. “Yes, I know. Listen, Bellus. Go back to your room and let me handle this. Someone wants me out of the way and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. I also know that Arctus has disappeared, along with one of my horses.” Bellus’ eyes widened in surprise but Xena just shrugged. “There not much going on around here that I don’t know about. I’ve been up a couple of hours already and I’ve spoken to a few people. Right now, General Palaemon and some of my men are out looking for Arctus.”

The man nodded. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

The queen shook her head. “I’m doing this because I want to find out who’s after me. Contrary to general opinion, I want to live as much as the next woman does. I don’t have a death wish.”

“Of course not,” Bellus replied with a slight wink. “You’ve got something precious to live for.”

Surprised, Xena blinked but a genuine smile graced her features. “Yeah… and she’s waiting for me. By the way, Arctus was a new stable hand that I’d never met before. Chances are that he arranged Salmonius’ death too. I’ll have a lot to say to the son-of-a-bacchae when we find him.”

Xena patted the man’s shoulder and then left the stable. Her stomach growled and she changed direction, heading for the kitchen instead. The queen ducked inside and slipped her cloak off, draping it over her arm as she paused to grab something to eat.

“My Liege,” the cook smiled as she bustled over. “What can I get you?”

Xena grinned. “Got any eggs?” The woman nodded and went to the stove to fill a plate. “Better make it two,” the queen amended. “I’m sure Gabrielle will appreciate them.”

“Such a sweet girl,” the cook commented. “Always treats us servants with respect. I guess she learned that from you, Majesty.”

Xena smiled. “I think that’s just Gabrielle’s way,” she said. “She doesn’t care who you are or where you were born…” Her voice softened. “Or what wrongs you’ve done in your life. You’re right. She’s a keeper.”

With an understanding nod the cook placed the plates on a tray along with some cider, toast and a small dish of butter. “Let me get someone to carry these for you.”

“It’s ok,” the queen replied. “I’ve got it.” She picked up the tray and balanced it carefully. “Thanks.” Then she carried it up to her bedchamber. Xena placed the tray carefully on the table and sat on the edge of the bed, watching the young woman as she slept. “You’re so beautiful,” she whispered. “And you make me feel so much.” She brushed a lock of fair hair back from Gabrielle’s eyes and kissed her cheek. “I love you.”

As if the young woman could sense her lover’s presence, she reach out and wrapped her hand around the queen’s. “Mm… Love you too,” she mumbled, still deeply asleep. Xena felt tears rise and blinked them back, not wanting anything to spoil this moment. “We’re going to be together forever, Gabrielle,” she whispered and then shook the younger woman gently. “Gabrielle, time to wake up. I have breakfast.”

With a moan of decided displeasure, Gabrielle blinked her eyes open but, when she saw Xena, smiled widely. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” the queen chuckled. “I have eggs.”

“Cooked, I hope,” the blonde replied with a grin. She hoisted herself into a seated position, not bothering to pull the sheet back up when it pooled around her waist.

“Mm. Breakfast and a wonderful view,” Xena purred as she felt her body respond to her lover’s nakedness. She slipped her hand into Gabrielle’s hair and gently pulled her forward for a kiss. It was lazy and unhurried and left them both slightly breathless.

Gabrielle hugged Xena and then peeked at the tray sitting on the table. “You said something about breakfast,” she reminded.

The queen chuckled and went to the table. “So impatient,” she teased. “You’d swear there was a monster living inside your stomach, the way it growls.”

Blonde eyebrows lifted. “Who says there isn’t a monster? Hey.” She slipped out of bed and went to the queen, slowly undoing the buckles of her tunic and sliding her hands inside. “Maybe it’s the monster that turns me into a total beast when it come to making love with you. It just seems…” She caressed hardening nipples. “As if I can’t get enough of you.”

Xena groaned softly. “If you don’t stop that, you won’t be getting eggs for breakfast.”

“Mm,” Gabrielle replied, her lips only a hair’s breath from the queen’s. “I’ll live.”

The eggs went cold.

**

The Lord chuckled softly as he scanned through the contents of the scroll. “Perfect,” he murmured. “Things are back on track.” He beckoned to the man waiting nearby. “Arctus! Plan Beta. Do it.”

The man bowed. “Yes, My Lord.” He left immediately. It would be a long way back to the palace.

**

Chapter 13

The flames burned brightly, licking at the dark sky and sending showers of sparks into the air. Xena stood at the head of the two pyres, her bearing noble and strong as throngs of people formed a large circle around the area, making the scene seem more intimate to the queen.

“My friends,” she said, her voice’s strength carrying to even the furthest man away. “We are here to mourn the deaths of our loved ones, Salmonius and Marmarus and to send their spirits to the Elysian Fields.” She paused and took a deep breath. “My mother always said that the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. I believe her. I…” She swallowed a lump in her throat but suddenly, warm fingers laced through hers, squeezing gently. It gave her the strength to continue. “So here, on this summer’s eve, I tell you this! Our friends are no longer of this earth but they shall forever live on in our minds and hearts!”

The royal musician took his cue and played a song of mourning to which Xena sang. Gabrielle stared, wide-eyed at her. The queen’s voice was beautiful and tears rose to her eyes as she listened to the haunting melody. She blinked and they trickled down her cheeks, but then Xena’s arms were around her and she buried her face in the queen’s silk robes.

Then they just stood and watched the pyres burn. Nearby, a wolf howled. Xena knew how it felt.

**

“Poor Alicel. She’s devastated,” Gabrielle said softly as she and Xena strolled hand-in-hand through the garden. This was a longer route that would lead them toward the queen’s bedchamber.

Xena nodded. “Death is never easy,” she replied. “Never. Do you…” She rubbed her cheek. “Do you believe in fate, Gabrielle?”

The young woman thought about that for a moment. “I believe in the existence of the Fates but… I dunno, Xena. If everything we do is completely mapped out for us, why bother living?” She shrugged. “Just seems like someone is pointing at us and laughing and saying. ‘I knew you were going to do that! Ha ha!’ and I don’t like that.”

Her adorable pout made a smile creep onto the queen’s lips. “Salmonius believed in fate. He told me that he actually saw the Fates the day before he met me.”

“Hm,” Gabrielle replied. “That’s a little strange.”

Xena’s eyebrow shot up. “A little? I thought he was crazy but now…” She sighed and pulled her lover closer, wrapping her arm around slender shoulders. “Now I’m not so sure, Gabrielle.”

“Why now?” the young woman asked, leaning into the embrace. “Has something happened to change your mind?”

“Yeah,” the queen replied mildly. “I met you.”

A little grin. “You think you and I are fated to be together? Xena, that’s sooo…”

“Crazy? Loopy? Utterly ridiculous?” Xena supplied.

“Romantic,” Gabrielle finished. She wrapped her arms around the taller woman’s neck and hugged her. Then time slipped away as they stood in the moonlight and kissed.

Xena was almost lost in the moment and she thought her heart would shoot out of her chest, so hard was it beating but she pulled away a little and tugged something out of a little pocket in her robe. “I… I’m not much for romantic talk,” she began softly. “But I do know that I love you.” She opened a tiny box and offered it to her lover. “I had this made for you. Would you please accept it and consent to be my wife.” She smiled a little. “Please?”

“I… ” Gabrielle was so shocked that for a moment she couldn’t speak so, instead, she nodded emphatically. A huge grin lit her face.

Xena chuckled and slipped the ring onto Gabrielle’s finger. “I take it that’s a yes?”

“YES!” Gabrielle threw herself at the queen and hugged her hard. “A thousand times yes. Oh Xena, I love you too. I want to be your wife more than anything!”

Xena was suddenly at a loss. “Well, I guess that’s settled.” Then with a sudden burst of happy laughter, she swept the younger woman up into her arms and carried her into the palace. “This requires a celebration!”

And celebrate they did, long into the night.

**

Gotta love a spot parade. Xena chuckled inwardly while maintaining her fierce exterior. This was a great opportunity to kick her men in the ass a little. She walked slowly up and down the ranks of soldiers, pointing out minor discrepancies but something… or rather someone… drew her eye. “You,” she yelled pointing at the youngest soldier she’d ever seen. He snapped to attention and Xena was suddenly worried that he might sprain something so she strode over to him and tugged on his tunic, efficiently straightening it. “How old are you?” she demanded.

The kid was visibly shaking and Xena realised that he was afraid of her… and, deep down, the knowledge hurt. “Fourteen, Your Majesty.”

Xena grasped his chin and examined his cheeks. She shook her head and tutted. “Not even old enough to shave every day. Go home to your family. I’ll not allow the deaths of children in my army.” She tossed a small bag of gold at him. “There. That’ll keep your family until you’re old enough to earn a wage here if you’re really bent on being a soldier, that is.”

“Yes, Majesty. Thank you, Majesty.” He bowed and then scampered away.

Xena allowed the chuckle to surface this time. Kids. She suddenly found herself wondering what it would be like to have a kid toddling around the palace. Then she almost keeled over with shock. Me? Kids? No way in Hades! She paused then. Wonder if Gabrielle wants children?

Deciding to ask Gabrielle later, she continued her way along the ranks until she reached Palaemon. He looked at her with a questioning expression and she smiled grudgingly. “Maybe making you General wasn’t such a mistake after all,” she teased. Then she grinned. “I’m pleased, Palaemon. Just…” She patted his cheek. “Keep them over eighteen, ok?”

“Yes, Majesty,” the general replied with a smug smile. “Over eighteen.”

Then the entire army watched the queen wandering toward the garden, wondering how they got off so lightly.

Must have caught her in a good mood.

**

Gabrielle was sitting quietly under their tree, reading a scroll when Xena caught up with her.

“Hey,” the queen offered as she lowered her body onto the ground and lay with her head in her wife-to-be’s lap.

The younger woman chuckled and gave Xena’s scalp a little scratch. “Hi. I found something pretty amazing.”

“Yeah?” Blue eyes peered up at her intently. “What is it?”

“It’s a poem… by Sappho.” Gabrielle traced the eyebrow that slowly lifted.

“Poetry, huh? Does it rhyme?”

“Not all poems rhymes, Xena,” the young woman replied with a little laugh.

“Well, you should know,” the queen replied smoothly. “You’re the royal bard.”

Gabrielle cleared her throat softly. “Yeah, I am so… want me to read it to you?”

Xena’s eyes twinkled gently. “Sure.”

Having already memorised the poem, Gabrielle ran her fingers through her love’s hair and gazed into her eyes. Unconsciously, her voice softened and lowered almost an octave. She spoke slowly and carefully, meaning every word.

“There’s a moment when I look at you,
And no speech is left in me.
My tongue breaks.
Then fire races under my skin and I tremble
And grow pale for I am dying of such love.
Or so it seems to me.”

Xena’s mouth opened. Then it closed. She exhaled slowly and then sat up, shaking her head a little as she tried to process what had just happened. If she hadn’t known better, she would have admitted that she’d fallen in love all over again in that moment.

But… She couldn’t have… Could she?

“Gabrielle, that was… that… Gods. I’ve never heard anything quite so beautiful in my life.”

Gabrielle smiled. “It’s the truth. I love you more than anything, Xena.”

“Me too,” the queen replied. Then she blinked and took a deep breath. “Gabrielle? Do you want children?”

Silence.

“Um… uh…” The young woman laughed a little. “Boy, we’re springing all kinds of surprises on each other at the moment, huh?” she replied. “Xena, do you want children?”

“I want what makes you happy, Gabrielle. It wouldn’t be easy… I mean… I have many enemies and any child of mine would be a target but…” She stroked Gabrielle’s cheek. “If you want a baby, Gabrielle, I’ll do everything in my power to see to it.”

A sheepish grin landed on her partner’s face. “Um… Xena? I don’t think that we could accomplish that feat together, even with your many skills.”

“But you haven’t seen them all yet, Sweetheart,” the queen replied innocently.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened.

Oh boy.

**

Night. Inky blackness swamped the land and torches were lit in an attempt to cut through it. A lone figure scaled the palace walls and slipped unnoticed into the Great Hall. Dressed in black, the figure moved silently through hallway after hallway, ducking behind a tapestry every now and again if a guard made a pass nearby. Intelligent eyes blinked and the figure made for the queen’s bedchamber, a dagger in hand and ready to be used.

**

Gabrielle woke slowly, unsure of what had disturbed her. She was curled up against Xena, her head pillowed on the queen’s shoulder and an arm tucked neatly around her slender waist. The steady rise and fall of Xena’s chest was hypnotic but the young woman sighed as her bladder protested her falling back to sleep. Gabrielle slowly and gently untangled herself from her partner and rolled out of bed, padding sleepily across the room to the chamber pot.

The moon sent a few beams of light into the chamber as Gabrielle wandered back to bed but, midway across the room, she heard a sound and paused in her tracks. Tilting her head a little, she listened carefully. Someone was making noise outside. Gabrielle peered across the room at the still sleeping queen and was annoyed that someone was disturbing the rest Xena obviously needed, so she slid into a robe and moved silently to the door. A moment later she was stepping into the hallway, ready to have words with the guard but he was nowhere to be seen.

Gabrielle frowned. “Weird. Wonder where…”

She didn’t hear the figure slipping up behind her and a sharp blow to her head knocked her out quickly and quietly. The young woman slumped to the floor, only to be carefully bound at her wrists and ankles and wrapped in a blanket.

No one saw the figure escaping from the palace grounds with a petite bundle slung over their shoulder.

**

Chapter 14

Xena jerked awake, totally aware as usual and with a knot of fear in her stomach that made her press her hand against it. “What… Gabrielle?” She looked around the room and got out of bed, hurrying to the bathing chamber to check it. Then she threw on a robe and ran to Gabrielle’s seldom-used bedchamber down the corridor. No sign there and suddenly, she knew. “Oh no,” she whispered. “No.”

**

The palace was a hive of activity. Since the queen called the alarm, everyone was up and preparing for a rescue mission.

“They can’t be more than a few hours ahead of us,” Xena stated tersely as she buckled her armour and slid her sword into its sheath on her back. Her face was tense and haunted and her body was thrumming with anger and frustration. “Palaemon, where were the guards? How did someone get into the castle, kidnap Gabrielle and get out again without being seen?”

“Your Majesty, I…” the General shook his head.

“Dammit, Palaemon!” the queen roared. “If as much as a hair on her head is hurt, I’ll gut you like a pig and serve your head on a platter to your own men!”

“Xena,” the man said softly. He took his life into his hands and moved closer, taking her gently by the shoulders. “We’ll get her back.”

Blue eyes closed and Xena exhaled shakily. “I can’t be without her,” she whispered.

The general smiled. “I know. She loves you too, Xena.”

“I asked her to marry me. She said yes.”

Palaemon chuckled. “Why am I not surprised? C’mon, Xena. Let’s go get her back.”

**

Sitting atop her gold mare, Xena gazed out over the land. The scouts had found tracks leading from a point at the palace walls and had followed them. Now the rest of the party was following. The sun was just beginning to rise but the rays of sun did nothing to warm the chill in the queen’s heart. She new, however, that Gabrielle was alive. The knot of fear in her stomach was only partly hers. She could feel her partner and instinctually know that they were moving in the right direction. “You up front!” she yelled. “Move faster!” The lead soldiers increased the pace and Xena nodded. At least she felt as if they were doing something.

“Your Majesty!” Palaemon fell back to ride next to her. “I’ve just had news from one of the scouts. They’ve found the end of the tracks and a horse tethered to a tree.”

“C’mon,” she said quietly. “The others can catch up.”

With that, she kicked Argo and urged her into a gallop. Palaemon followed right after her. It was only a half candlemark later when Xena swung gracefully down from her saddle and joined the scouts in their hiding place. “There, Your Majesty,” the leader pointed. “I took a quick look and the tracks lead into the woods. It’s a man and he’s definitely carrying something.”

“Thank you,” Xena replied. “I’ll take it from here.”

“Bu…”

“I said I’ll take it,” Xena snapped but then her voice gentled. No sense in taking her worry out on her men. “G’wan. I know what I’m doing.”

With a little nod, the man signalled his men to move back. Xena took a breath and ran her hand over her chakram as she felt the familiar excitement of the hunt rise inside her. Then she took off into the woods, her eyes on the tracks in the ground and her senses fully extended. She smiled a little. Palaemon was following her. She could hear the little squeak of his boot. Ah well, let him follow. He might be useful.

Peeking around a tree, the warrior eased to one knee and examined the tracks in softer dirt. The front of the boot print was deeper than the back, which, to Xena’s practiced eye, meant that he was leaning forward. Yep, he was definitely carrying something and the warrior was certain it was Gabrielle.

The queen glanced up at the sky. Grey clouds had moved in and were beginning to cover the sun. Now she was expecting rain and rain could wash the tracks away. Xena picked up her pace and headed on at a run. The surrounding forest was beautiful. Forest flowers swayed gently in the breeze and birds sang merry tunes but Xena noticed none of it. Her sole intent was finding her partner. Trees and birds be damned.

Then she saw it. Her eyes widened a little. I’ll be damned. I know this place… but how? I’ve never been here before.

The temple was huge. It rose from the ground and continued up until Xena had to tilt her head up to see the roof. Stone pillars stood at the front and the entrance was a single tall door. The whole structure screamed danger to the queen but she took a breath to settle herself and moved forward.

Drawing her sword, Xena came right up to the door and peered inside. It seemed to be abandoned. Cobwebs hung thickly from the statues near the altar but an eerie orange light burnished the interior. Then the queen smelled sulphur.

“A lava pit?” she said softly. “I didn’t know there were any of those in this area.” She shrugged then and entered the temple, her sword held in both hands in front of her. Then, she heard the little squeak and stopped. “C’mon, if you’re coming,” she said and Palaemon moved up beside her.

“What is this place?” he asked, not surprised in the least that she’d known he was there.

Xena shook her head as her eyes moved around the interior. “I’m not sure. It appears to be a temple to some god but I can’t figure out… oh wait.” The queen moved closer to a statue with an inscription.

Palaemon peered at it. “No use, it’s not in Greek.”

Xena tutted at him and looked back at the writing. “It’s Britannic. I lived there for a while,” she said and then began to read. “Bow before the might of the true God, Dahak. He will seek a blood innocent and, through them, arise to rule the world.” She frowned. “Dahak? Never heard of him.”

“Me neither,” the general replied. He looked up at the ceiling. “But this can’t be good for Gabrielle.”

“We have to find her,” the queen stated. “You take that side, I’ll take this one.”

“Ok.”

**

Gabrielle groaned as she rolled onto her side. She was shivering a little but she knew it was from shock rather than cold. She pressed her hand against her head and pried her eyes open. “Ow, damn,” she cursed as she tried to sit up but she jumped as a chuckle echoed around the room.

“You’re awake I see.”

“Very observant.” Gabrielle was in no mood for wisecracks. Sitting, naked, on a cold stone floor was not conducive to being happy. “Who are you?”

“My name is Altacar. I brought you here.”

“You are in sooo much trouble. The queen is gonna have your miserable hide.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I feel sorry for you.”

“Shut up,” Altacar snapped. “I’m not afraid of that bitch.”

“Hey!” Gabrielle yelled. “Don’t call her that!”

“What’ll you do,” the man sneered. “Talk me to death?”

“No. I doubt you have the attention span to allow that to happen.”

The man stiffened and Gabrielle really regretted the words when he slapped her hard across the face. The side of her head slammed into the wall and she groaned as she saw stars and tasted blood. “Just stay quiet,” he warned. “The Lord will see you shortly and he’ll explain everything.”

The Lord. That’s the guy Xena is looking for. Gabrielle suddenly felt very panicked. Oh no. He’s going to use me to draw Xena into a trap.

**

Xena was beginning to feel frustrated. She’d searched every inch of the temple but hadn’t found a sign of Gabrielle. Now she was at the altar, examining the scripture on it. It was a bunch of drivel about how wonderful and blah-blah-blah Dahak was. She scratched her nose and glanced upwards, catching the rope out of the corner of her eye.

There.

“Palaemon, I think I’ve found something.”

The general sprinted across the temple to join her at the altar. “Where?”

“Here.” Xena leapt into the air and grabbed the rope, swinging on it a little. Nothing happened. She scowled and was about to let go when her weight slowly pulled it and a rumbling began. To her surprise, the altar lowered to reveal hidden stairs. Once Xena’s boots had touched the ground, she tied the rope to a statue and signalled to the general to follow her. “Quietly,” she whispered. Palaemon nodded.

It was a long staircase. The steps were cut directly from the rock and, as Xena and Palaemon descended, the temperature increased. “It’s hot,” the general whispered.

“It’s the heat coming from the lava pit. It’s coming through the walls.” Xena swiped her arm across her forehead to stop the sweat from running into her eyes. “C’mon. We’re getting closer. I can feel her.”

They continued down the steps until the heat abated a little and they came into a small chamber lit by torches set in sconces on the walls. There were two doors leading from the chamber and Xena paused as she tried to make the decision on which one to take. She closed her eyes and extended her senses but a moment later, one of the doors opened and a figure dressed in purple robes emerged.

It was the Lord.

“JOXER!” Xena blurted out in profound surprise.

“Yes,” the man stated mildly as a number of guard filed into the room and surrounded them. “And now I have Queen Xena, her general and her irritating, blonde girlfriend right where I want them.”

The queen took a step forward, her hands balling into fists. “You bastard!” she growled. “I’m going to kill you with my bare hands.”

“Ah ah!” Joxer wagged his finger. “I wouldn’t do that.” He pushed open the door behind him and Xena froze as she saw a man holding a sword to Gabrielle’s neck. The young woman was bruised and bloodied but she was conscious. She looked right into Xena eyes and their souls connected.

“Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice was hoarse with pain and a tear trickled down her cheek. “I’m sorry.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle replied. “I love you.”

“Touching,” Joxer commented casually. “I have no sympathy for you, Xena. Why should I when you caused the death of my wife and children?”

“I…” The queen was at a loss for words.

“Yes,” the man went on. “It was five years ago. You and your army rode through my land, destroying villages. My wife and children were attending a festival in one of them. Your men killed them.”

“No,” Xena replied. “I never allowed my men to kill women and children.”

“They were trampled under some stampeding horses.” Joxer’s voice broke but he cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. “My God, Dahak, needs a blood innocent in order to rise again. I saw a great opportunity for revenge. I give Gabrielle to Dahak for his ritual and I get to see you suffer the same pain as I did when you killed my family. Then we’re all happy.”

“Joxer.” All heads turned toward the sound of a new voice. “This is not the way. Revenge doesn’t ease the pain and guilt in your heart.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I know what it’s like to be wronged in a grievous way but I also know that revenge would not erase the pain. You need to forgive your enemy.”

Xena smiled gently as she nodded at her partner. “Gabrielle’s right. I’ve spent many years as a warrior, Joxer. I’ve killed countless innocents and I regret every one. I’m not proud of my past and that includes the death of your family. I’m so, so sorry.”

The queen’s former advisor looked down for a long moment but then he shook his head. “No. Sorry just isn’t good enough, Xena. I will not be free of my grief until you are dead. Take them!”

“Gabrielle!” Xena yelled as four guards grabbed her and tied her hands together. “Gabrielle!”

“Xena!” the young woman yelled back, struggling against her bonds. But Altacar lifted her up and slung her over his shoulder.

“Don’t touch her!” the queen screamed as she struggled with all her strength. “Gabrielle!”

The man started up the steps and Gabrielle managed to raise her head enough to see Xena’s face. “I’ll love you forever,” she said.

Then Queen Xena, Conqueror of Greece and its surrounding lands, was clubbed over the head.

The world went black.

**

Chapter 15

Gabrielle was terrified. Her breath came in panting gasps as Altacar tied her to the altar and tears crept from her eyes into the soft hair at her temples.

“You know, Gabrielle,” he said. “This is a great honour. You will bear the child of Dahak and bring his reign into this world.”

“You’re crazy,” the young woman whispered. “You’re crazy to think that any woman who’s about to be taken against her will would consider it an honour.” She turned her head as she heard a noise and saw Xena being carried to the altar. The queen was bound to a pole by her arms and her body hung motionless in unconsciousness. “She won’t stop,” Gabrielle said, looking seriously at the man. “If you kill me, she won’t stop until every last one of you is dead.”

Altacar laughed. “Who said anything about killing you? It’s not you who’s going to die. It’s Xena.”

Gabrielle looked over at her partner. “Xena! Wake up! Xena!”

But the warrior was injured. Gabrielle could see the blood running from a scalp wound. She closed her eyes, a feeling of despair rising inside her despite her best efforts to push it away. Xena, Honey, I need you. Please wake up. Open your eyes and wake up.

For a long moment, Xena was still but then, to Gabrielle’s relief, her eyes fluttered open. She groaned a little but she got her boots under her and managed to stand, taking the weight off her arms. Her head was pounding and she was seeing lights in front of her eyes but she managed to focus on her partner. “You called,” she said softly, managing a smile.

Altacar looked confused and moved over to the warrior. “What are you talking about?” he said.

Xena smiled thinly, her eyebrow lifting a little. “You really want to know?”

“Yes.” He moved a little closer.

“Well, it’s like this…” She suddenly swung on her bindings, kicked her legs out and wrapped them around his neck, choking him. He started to gasp and cough. “Gabrielle and I have a special connection that’s stronger than anything you or Jerkster could ever throw at us.” She clamped her legs even tighter, the muscles in her thighs and arms straining. Altacar’s knees unlocked and he collapsed. Xena let her arms relax so she could keep her grip on him. He finally passed out and she quirked an eyebrow at her partner. “He couldn’t take the pressure.”

Despite her fear, Gabrielle laughed softly. “Funny. Now, how do we get out of here?”

Xena released her leg clamp and stood, examining the knots in the ropes. No good, they were tied too tight to undo. Then she looked down the front of her bodice at the dagger tucked between her breasts and had an idea. She’d used it only once before and hoped she could still do it. Taking a deep breath, she concentrated a moment on aim. Then she exhaled explosively and sent her sent the dagger into the air. Xena caught it in her mouth and winked at Gabrielle, whose eyes had widened with awe.

“Impressive,” the young woman said.

“Tnks,” came the muffled reply. Then Xena looked up at the rope and tensed her arms, pulling herself up until the blade edge was pressed against it. Nodding her head slowly, she sawed the rope, persevering until it began to break. The queen lowered herself and took a few breaths. She was tired and her head injuring wasn’t helping but she pulled against the ropes with all of her considerable strength until they finally broke and she was free.

Xena tucked her dagger back into her bodice and staggered to the altar where her partner was tied. She was seeing double now and she had to grasp the edge of it to keep herself upright. The queen untied Gabrielle and then smiled, a sense of profound relief flowing over her as she held her lover in her arms and hugged her tightly.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle whispered. “Thank you for saving me again.”

“It was for purely selfish reasons,” Xena whispered back. “I couldn’t live without you, Gabrielle, and I really want to live.”

“Me too,” the younger woman replied.

“Touching!” came a voice from behind them. “Pity it’s going to be the last thing you’ll ever say to each other.”

Altacar climbed to his feet and pulled his sword. Blue eyes rolled and Xena turned slowly. “Some people just don’t know when to quit.” Her eyes narrowed. “You killed my dear friend and you killed an innocent man in a pathetic attempt on my life. Now, you die.”

The man laughed. “What are you going to do? Try to choke me again?”

“No,” Xena replied solemnly. In a lightening fast move, her dagger was suddenly in her hand and she threw it, sinking the blade into Altacar’s skull, right between his eyes. “I’m in too much of a hurry,” she finished. Then she grabbed a curtain hanging near the altar and wrapped it around Gabrielle. “Let’s get you out of this rat hole. I have to find Palaemon.”

Supporting each other, they headed toward to main door but a loud voice stopped them both in their tracks.

“Xena! Gabrielle!”

They turned and Gabrielle gasped as she saw Palaemon hanging over the lava pit, supported only by a single rope.

“Xena, get out of here!” he yelled, swinging a little. “Get Gabrielle to safety!”

The queen paused, her eyes darting around the temple looking for something that would help make a plan. Then she saw something she’d missed before. Altacar was wearing a bag over his shoulders and, just peaking out of it was her chakram.

“Gabrielle,” she said quietly. “I need you to pretend to collapse. Drop to your knees and I’ll go with you, ok?”

The younger woman nodded. “Ok.”

“What do you want, Joxer?” the queen yelled defiantly.

“I want you to bring Gabrielle back up here. She will bear Dahak’s child and become powerful among all women.”

Xena nodded and moved them closer to the altar. “Don’t hurt Palaemon. We’ll do what you say.”

“NO!” the general yelled. “Leave me! Get to safety!”

Gabrielle looked at Xena and the queen smiled a little. “Ready?”

“Ready,” the Royal Bard confirmed.

“Go for it.”

Gabrielle suddenly stopped. “I can’t, Xena. I can’t do this.” She dropped to her knees.

Xena dropped with her but suddenly rolled toward the bag and grabbed her chakram. Bounding to her feet, the warrior threw the weapon and then ran toward the lava pit. Smoke and heat rose from it, making Palaemon look as if he was shimmering but Xena ignored that and leapt out over the pit. The chakram cut through the rope and the general began to fall, but warrior caught him mid-air, her momentum carrying them to land safely in a tangle of limbs on the far side of the pit.

Palaemon coughed, slightly winded. “Damn, Xena, if that wasn’t the most foolhardy thing you’ve ever done.”

The queen chuckled. “Yeah. Cool, huh?”

“Yeah.”

They got to their feet and Xena looked for Joxer. “Gabrielle, where is he?”

“Right here,” Joxer replied as he came out of the smoke and slammed a dagger into the warrior’s stomach. It passed right through her leathers and she gasped with pain but her body reacted and her fingers shot out, hitting the pressure points on his neck.

Joxer collapsed onto his knees, clawing frantically at his throat. Xena eased down onto one knee, her hand pressed against her wound. “I’ve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain,” she said tiredly. “You’ll be dead in moments.” Her voice lowered to a growl. “Say hello to Hades for me.”

Then the queen pushed herself to her feet and walked slowly toward her partner who was standing on the other side of the pit, waiting for her. Palaemon came to her side and wrapped an arm around her waist, helping her to walk. Xena was grateful and leaned a little on him but when she came to Gabrielle, she threw her arms around her and hugged her hard. “It’s over,” the younger woman whispered.

“Yeah,” the queen croaked. “Damn,” she looked down at herself. “I’m leaking.”

Gabrielle ripped a piece of material off the curtain wrapped around her and pressed it against the wound. “Is it bad?” she asked, her heart in her mouth.

“Nah, he wasn’t strong enough to get the blade far past my leathers. I’ve had worse,” Xena chuckled. “C’mon, let’s go home.”

With an arm wrapped around her tall partner, Gabrielle led her out of the temple but, once outside, Xena turned and looked back at the building. Palaemon nodded. “Do it.” The queen unhooked her chakram and threw it at the loose slabs of rock over the main door. With clouds of dust and a loud rumble, the slabs crumbled and collapsed, sealing the entrance with tons of rock.

“What about your sword?” Gabrielle asked.

The queen shrugged. “I can get another one. That one was a little old anyway.” She patted her chakram. “This is the important thing. It’s one of a kind.” She smiled. “Just like you.”

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the tall warrior. “I was so afraid that I would lose you,” she said softly. “I love you, Xena.”

“Me too. I was out of my mind with worry when I realised that you were missing. I’m never letting you out of my sight again.”

Green eyes twinkled. “You promise?”

Xena chuckled. “I promise.”

With that, the queen, her general and the love of her life started back toward the waiting scouts.

**

Xena winced a little as she lowered herself into the huge bath. Gabrielle was already there, washing the dirt and blood from her body. She was covered in tiny scrapes and bruises and her lip and nose were still sore from the punches Altacar had given her but all that aside, she felt pretty damned good. She grinned as the queen let out a long, pained breath and moved closer to her kissing her gently on the lips. “Sore, Honey?”

“Yeah. I’ve been worse though.” The young woman began to wash her partner’s back, running the washcloth gently over her skin. Xena’s eyes drifted shut. “Mm. That’s nice.” The queen’s shoulder wound was almost completely healed and Gabrielle placed a little kiss on it. Then she kissed her way along Xena’s shoulder and up her neck.

“I know you’re tired. Let’s wash up, have something to eat and go to bed.”

The queen nodded tiredly. “Ok.”

A candlemark later, they were curled up in bed together, holding each other close.

“Xena?”

“Hm?”

“Let’s get married before we go to Rome.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Let’s just have a small ceremony with our friends. We can go to Rome on our honeymoon.”

The queen chuckled and hugged the petite woman closer. “Whatever makes you happy, Gabrielle.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe we can try for a baby while we’re in Rome too.”

“Mm, sounds like a plan.”

Snuggled together, relieved and happy to be alive, the lovers drifted off to sleep.

Outside an owl hooted.

In her sleep, Xena smiled.

**

Chapter 16

“I need a new advisor,” Xena grumbled as she signed yet another scroll and sealed it with her royal seal. “Gabrielle?”

“Hm?” Gabrielle looked up from her scroll, her eyebrows raised.

“Who do you think would make a good advisor to replace Joxer?”

“Um…” the young woman frowned a little. “I don’t really know. Who is there to choose from?”

The queen nodded thoughtfully. “Good point.” She stood and stretched, pleased that her body was almost back to normal. Gabrielle was looking better too. The bruising around her eyes and lips was fading and she had regained her trademark cheerfulness.

“You know,” Gabrielle commented. “It’s much better not having to worry about someone trying to kill you.”

Xena laughed and wandered over to her lover, bending to kiss the top of her head. “Sure is.” She stroked her face. “I love you.”

“You old romantic, you,” the young woman giggled.

Xena scowled. “I am not.”

Gabrielle patted her cheek. “Sure you’re not.” She stood then and wrapped her arms around the tall woman’s neck, standing on her toes to kiss her lightly. “But you are pretty damned wonderful and you’re definitely my hero.”

“I am, huh?” the queen smirked. “Hey, why don’t we have one of our day-off days?”

“Today? Aren’t you busy getting stuff done for our trip to Rome?”

“Well, everything’s pretty much done. The wedding’s organised and I’ve pretty much reviewed and signed these scrolls.” Xena shrugged. “I don’t really have anything else to do.”

That wasn’t quite true. Xena was still waiting to hear back from Philbus. The night of the earlier wedding feast, she’d asked him to do something for her and he was keeping her appraised. She smiled inwardly. Gabrielle didn’t know what was going on but she would be very pleased when it was all arranged.

“Ok,” the younger woman replied. She sat back down on her chair and picked up her quill. “I’ll finish up here. You finish up there and we’ll take the rest of the day off then.”

Xena bolted back to her chair, making Gabrielle laugh. The bard returned to her scroll and got lost in her story.

**

“Your Majesty.” The guard bowed as the queen passed by, holding hands with her wife to be.

“Hi,” she replied and kept walking. “Hey, Gabrielle, now that I’ve no advisor, I’m going to have to be a lot more hands on in the kingdom. That will mean more trips away from the palace.” She smiled as the bard’s eyes lit up and ruffled her blonde hair. “You’d like that, huh?”

“Having a chance to travel with you and see new places and be alone together?” Gabrielle replied, her face serious. “No, I’d really hate that.” She laughed then and kissed the queen’s shoulder. “Of course I’d like it! By the gods, Xena, it’s been my life’s dream to travel and meet new people.”

“Well, I guess you’re coming then.”

They made their way across the courtyard to the stables.

“Xena, I think it’ll be good for you to get out and see the people. There are a lot of problems out there. Maybe we can do something to help?”

“Maybe. I guess I’ve been kinda closed off,” Xena admitted. “Being afraid for your life does that to you.”

Gabrielle felt the pain in the pit of her stomach. “Oh, Honey, is it really that bad?”

The queen shrugged. “I live with it… or should I say… exist with it. I started living when I met you.”

The younger woman smiled, a lump forming in her throat that forced her to swallow before she could speak. “And you say you’re not romantic,” she whispered, leaning her head against her lover’s arm.

Xena just chuckled and opened the door of the stables. As usual, they were in pristine condition and the queen was pleased. Inside, the chief stable hand, Timlin, bowed. “Your Majesty, would you like me to saddle your horses?”

“No thanks, Tim, I’ll do it. I’m just taking Argo out today. My betrothed wanted some air.”

Xena calling her ‘her betrothed’ made a little ball of happiness bounce up and down inside Gabrielle. She grinned widely. “Hi.”

“M’Lady,” Timlin smiled, bowing to her too.

Xena nodded approvingly. “See you later, Tim.”

“Your Majesty,” Timlin said and then sauntered, whistling, out of the stables.

“He’s nice,” Gabrielle commented.

“Sure,” the queen replied. “I’ve known him years. He’s looked after my horses since I had my first army.” She went to Argo’s stall and rubbed her nose. “Hello, Girl.” The gold mare snorted and nudged her gently. Xena picked up her saddle and set it on top of the saddle blanket, adjusting the straps and tackle. Moments later, she swung up into the saddle and set her boots firmly into the stirrups. She offered her hand. “Coming up?” With a grin, Gabrielle grabbed the proffered her hand and was pulled up. She scrambled into the saddle but was surprised when she was lifted and placed in front of the queen. “Better view,” Xena whispered as she nibbled the younger woman’s neck and slipped her hand under her shirt. “For me.”

Gabrielle let a little chuckle escape which turned into a little moan as the queen caressed her breast. “Xena, mmmm… Honey, I thought we were going riding.”

The queen drew back with a little sigh. “We are. Let’s go.” Xena guided Argo out of the stables and through the courtyard. The servants and soldiers bowed to them and, for the first time in a long time, Xena felt pretty good. Word of her rescuing Gabrielle and her saving Palaemon had spread and she was a hero to everyone.

Gabrielle smiled at the admiring faces and looked over her shoulder at her stoic partner. “See what a little bit of good press can do?”

“Gabrielle,” the queen growled but the young woman just laced her fingers through the ones pressed against her abdomen.

“I want everyone to love you as much as I do,” she said softly.

Xena shook her head and shifted a little in her saddle. “I don’t know if I want to be loved by the people like that, Gabrielle. I’m an old, beat-up warlord. I’m queen of these lands because I was given the title, not because I wanted it.”

“So give it up.” The green eyes were serious. “If you hate it that much, give up the title and leave the palace. Just consider this, Xena. Who would take your place? Who would you trust to do as good a job as you do?”

“What would you do if I did give up the title?” Xena asked very quietly.

“What?” Gabrielle was puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Would you still love me?” There was such profound fear in the queen’s blue eyes that Gabrielle actually felt it right in her soul.

“Xena,” she whispered, turning in the saddle to look at her fully. “I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you. I saw a portrait of you in my first bedchamber and I thought you were the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. When I met you, I realised the painting was lacking. I fell for you, Xena, hard. I fell for you, not for the queen. Do you understand?”

The dark head nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good because, no matter what title you hold, to me you’ll always be Xena, love of my life.”

And then strong arms were around Gabrielle, holding her tightly.

“I love you too, Gabrielle.”

**

Philbus stood as his messenger entered his study. “Well?” he asked.

“I found them, My Lord. They’re on their way and will arrive by tomorrow evening. They have instructions to come here, rather than to the palace.”

“Wonderful!” Philbus clapped the man on the back. “Her Majesty will be pleased.”

**

There was a heavenly breeze blowing that cut through the oppressive heat of the summer afternoon. Even in the shaded forest, it was hot. Gabrielle looked back at her lover and chuckled. The queen looked perfectly cool.

“What?” Xena asked, her eyebrow lifting.

“Oh nothing. You just look cool. I’m melting here.”

“No, I’m hot,” the queen replied absently as her blue eyes scanned the area. She pulled on Argo’s reins and stopped the horse before sliding out of the saddle and landing with a little bounce. “Gabrielle, stay here. I’ll be right back.”

“Ok,” the younger woman replied but Xena was already jogging into the tree line. “Be careful,” she added belatedly but to her surprise, the warrior looked back and grinned. “Boy, she has incredible hearing.” With a little sigh, Gabrielle added that to her ‘Wonderful Xena things’ list. Then she slipped out of the saddle and stretched the kinks out of her legs. Riding made her knees hurt a little and she suspected that she’d need to find a horse more suited to her diminutive statue. This made her scowl but finally she shrugged and began to wander around, looking at the wildlife.

Xena had been gone a while when she began to get worried. Gabrielle paced the clearing, walking to the tree line and then back to Argo and she was almost going to look for the queen when she appeared, a very pleased look on her face. She produced some red roses. “Found them growing nearby. Thought you’d like them.”

All of the young woman’s annoyance slipped away. “Xena, they’re beautiful, thanks.” They shared a kiss.

“Well,” the queen replied. “I just realised that we’re getting married day after tomorrow and I’ve never even given you flowers.”

“They’re much appreciated. Hey, how about a walk?”

Xena grinned. “Do we get to lie under a tree and take a nap again?” The queen was a little tired after the run she made to Philbus’ castle and back but she was extremely pleased too. She tied Argo to a tree and smiled charmingly.

“Sure,” Gabrielle laughed. “C’mon.

And, holding hands, they strolled off into the woods.

“Are you nervous about getting married?” Xena asked.

“A little,” her partner admitted. “I’m looking forward to it so much. I can’t wait.”

“Good. I have a feeling it’s going to be a day to remember.”

They strolled on in silence until Gabrielle looked up at her tall partner. “Tell me about your mother, Xena?”

“My mother?” The queen let out a long breath. “My mother was a tavern keeper in my home village. She raised us alone after my father died but she was a strong willed woman and made it on her own. My brother, Toris helped her around the place while I was taking care of my younger brother, Lyceus. I guess we had a fairly happy childhood.” Xena smiled. “I was a tomboy and Ly and I used to practice sword fighting with sticks…” Her face fell then. “Until, one day, we had to fight for real. A warlord attacked our village, intent on taking everything he could. Ly and I fought his men but Toris wasn’t a fighter. He was killed trying to defend our mother and then the raiders killed her too. Lyceus took a sword in the chest and I was left alone.”

Gabrielle squeezed her hand. “It must have been so awful for you.”

The queen nodded. “I was alone in Amphipolis for a time but I finally persuaded the elders to allow me to build an army. It went from there.”

“And now you’re queen.”

“And now I’m queen.”

“You’re not going to give up the title, are you, Xena?”

The queen chuckled. “Nah.”

**

Chapter 17

Running her fingers through the queen’s dark hair, Gabrielle tried to remember if she’d ever been as happy a she was at that moment. She really couldn’t. Xena’s arm was wrapped around her thigh and the older woman was dozing lightly so the bard decided to work on a bit of poetry. She murmured the sentences, her eyes fixed on the queen’s peaceful face.

“Love’s face fills my mind.
Pools of eyes draw me in,
Drown me deep,
But smother me in grace.

Happiness enshrouds me
Like a blanket woven of joy.
My heart offered gladly
To one seeming hard but is not.”

Gabrielle paused as the queen’s pale, blue eyes opened and she totally lost her train of thought.

“That was beautiful, Gabrielle,” Xena smiled. “I knew I made the right choice for the position of Royal Bard.”

The younger woman chuckled. “I haven’t finished it yet.” She continued running her fingers through the queen’s hair.

“Find any grey?” Xena asked, her eyebrow lifting.

“No, not a one. Hey, Xena, you’re young, you know.”

“Not as young as I used to be. I’m coming up on twenty-seven winters, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “That’s young still.”

Xena suddenly sat up. “When’s your birthday?” she asked.

The young woman shrugged. “We never celebrated birthdays much back home.”

Xena frowned. “That’s not what I asked,” she growled a little.

Gabrielle blushed and grinned sheepishly. “It’s in five days. Xena, we’ll be on our way to Rome at that stage.”

“Hm… Nineteen summers, huh? Getting old, Gabrielle. Maybe I should check you for grey hair?” That earned Xena a swat to the shoulder and she laughed. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that it’s illegal to hit the queen.”

“It doesn’t count when she deserves it!” Gabrielle replied smugly.

“Oh yeah?” the aforementioned queen challenged.

“Yeah!”

With that, Xena pounced on her younger companion and tickled her mercilessly. Gabrielle squealed, making Xena laugh, and fought back, going for the Royal ribs but Xena was too strong for her and sat on her hips, pinning her hands to the ground. “Do you surrender?” she asked.

“Well.” The bard was panting a little. “That depends on what I’m surrendering to.” The queen thought about that for a moment and then leaned down a little, barely brushing her lips over her lover’s. Gabrielle smiled. “If I give up, do I get you?” she asked, her voice lowering to a seductive purr.

“Mmhm,” Xena nodded as she released the young woman’s hands.

Gabrielle immediately wrapped her arms around her lover’s neck and pulled her closer. “Well, then I definitely surrender,” she whispered and kissed the queen until they were both breathing raggedly. Xena opened the laces on the young woman’s tunic and pushed it aside, ducking her head to nibble on her breast and chuckling as a breathy moan escaped Gabrielle’s throat. The queen let her hand slip under the tunic to caress the bard’s ribs as she gently sucked a nipple into her mouth. This earned her another moan and she suddenly wanted access to more skin so she lifted the tunic and slipped it off over the younger woman’s head. “Beautiful,” she smiled, watching the rapid rise and fall of firm breasts. Then she stretched out next to her lover and drew her in, kissing her deeply.

Gabrielle’s body shuddered with desire and she pressed herself firmly against the queen, loving the feeling of leather against her bare skin. “Xena,” she moaned as she tangled her fingers in the queen’s dark hair and drew her closer still. She probed deeper with her tongue, wanting and taking everything Xena had to give. She felt the gentle tickle of the light breeze as the rest of her clothes were removed and then she gave herself over to the pleasure of making love with the woman she loved more than anything.

Xena’s gentle strokes nudged her further and further toward the edge and she curled against the queen’s longer body, burying her face in the crook of her neck and groaning as the powerful contractions shuddered through her body. She rested a moment and then kissed her lover, pushing her gently onto her back and smiling. “My turn,” she whispered as she lowered her head and bit lightly on a hardened nipple.

Xena chuckled. “Eager little thing, aren’t we,” she teased but her eyes widened as the young woman’s kiss moved down her body and then became most intimate. “Ungh… Gabrielle…” she moaned as the gentle contact continued and, only moments later, she cried out hoarsely and arched her back. Then she came to rest and Gabrielle crawled up her body to snuggle with her.

“You know,” the bard said softly. “I really like our days off.”

“Me too,” Xena replied with a grin. “Damn, I can’t remember the last time…” She stopped suddenly.

Fair eyebrows lifted. “You made love outdoors?”

A sheepish look crossed the queen’s face. “Um… yeah.”

“Well, let’s make it a habit, huh?” Gabrielle purred, kissing her wife-to-be on the lips.

“Definitely,” Xena replied. Then she looked up at the sky. “We should be getting back. We have court tonight.”

Gabrielle sighed. “Yeah.” She dragged herself to her feet and dressed quickly as the queen refastened her leathers. Then they strolled hand-in-hand back to Argo to begin the ride back to the palace.

It was getting dark when they rode into the courtyard and Timlin appeared out of the stables, a lantern in his hands. “Did you have a nice ride, Your Majesty?”

Xena grinned at Gabrielle. “I had the ride of my life,” she replied, chuckling as the younger woman blushed. “Isn’t that right, Gabrielle?”

“Um… yeah,” the bard squeaked.

The queen just laughed and grasped her by the hand, leading her quickly into the palace. “Goodnight, Timlin,” she yelled over her shoulder. The man snickered and headed back to the stables.

**

Leaning casually against the frame of the huge door leading into the Great Hall, Xena watched the servants scrambling to serve the meal while it was still hot. The queen was feeling very content and a smile rose uncensored as she caught sight of her petite partner conversing with one of the nobles. Even as she watched, Gabrielle’s shoulders rose as she took a deep breath and turned, immediately zeroing in on the tall queen and smiling a smile that Xena knew was reserved only for her. The young woman excused herself and made her way across the room through the throngs of guests.

Gabrielle blew an errant lock of hair out of her eyes and grinned. “Boy, this place is full tonight and… Hey, what were you doing over here all alone?”

Xena shrugged. “Watching you.”

“Me? Why?” The young woman was puzzled.

“Because you’re the most gorgeous thing in this room and I can’t seem to keep m’damned eyes off you.” Gabrielle blinked and then sucked in a breath, unable to find her tongue for a moment. The queen chuckled. “I think I just made you speechless,” she teased. “That has to be a first.”

Gabrielle exhaled as Xena ran a finger slowly along her flushed cheek. “I wasn’t expecting that,” she said very softly. “Thank you.”

“Just telling the truth,” the queen replied. “Now come on. I’m starving.” She strode toward her place at the centre of the table with a slightly bewildered Gabrielle right on her heels and stood in front of her throne. “I’m hungry,” she yelled. “Don’t make me kill you for not hurrying into your places.” Gabrielle scratched her nose, stifling a giggle behind her hand. Xena scowled regally at her and squared her shoulders as a flurry of activity whirled through the hall. Seconds later, everyone was waiting for her. “That wasn’t bad. I’ll forego the killing.” She chuckled as a collective sigh of relief echoed around the room. “SIT!” Once everyone was seated and the meal served, the queen banged her fork on her plate. “As you all know, Gabrielle and I are getting married day after tomorrow.” A cheer went up around the room and Xena grinned down at her wife-to-be. “And since I’m in a good mood, I’ve decided to lower the taxes by one third. No one should be starving in my kingdom.”

Silence.

A dark eyebrow lifted as Xena waited for the shock to wear off. Then suddenly, everyone jumped to their feet and yelled their allegiance.

Gabrielle smiled as she watched her partner basking in the adulation. This was what Xena needed.

Encouragement.

**

“Damn.” Xena was feeling a little fuzzyheaded as she held out her cup to be refilled. “No, gimme water,” she told the servant. “I need to be alive for my wedding.”

The man chuckled. “Congratulations, Your Majesty.”

“Thanks,” Xena replied absently. Her eyes followed as Gabrielle walked quietly along the dais to a small, raised platform. “What’s she doing?”

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the young woman called, her voice barely audible above the din.

Xena bristled and stood up. “Shut up!” she bellowed and the hall fell immediately silent.

“Thank you, Majesty,” the young woman said with a smile. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am the Royal Bard and, if Her Majesty pleases, I would like to tell you a story.” Gabrielle waited for Xena to reply, knowing that she was surprised.

“Oh, she pleases,” the queen chuckled and she gave a little wave. “G’won, Gabrielle.”

The young woman squared her shoulders and took a breath to settle her nerves. Then she began.

“In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a warrior princess forged in the heat of battle. Her power, passion and courage would change the world…”

Xena leaned on the arm of her throne, her eyebrow hiking and a little smirk rising to her lips.

This was going to be an interesting story.

**

“And the Centaur said ‘Not me. I was just standing here!'”

Palaemon laughed as he poured another mug of ale. “That, my friend, was the worst one yet.”

Xena chuckled. “I’ve got plenty more where those came from,” she advised.

Gabrielle shook her head and gently patted the queen’s muscular stomach. “Maybe you should leave ’em there, Honey. It’s late.”

Blue eyes twinkled gently. “Tired?”

The younger woman leaned against her lover and kissed her shoulder. “Yeah. I’m worn out.”

“You did great tonight, Gabrielle. That story was amazing.”

The bard smiled, Xena’s praise making her feel ten feet tall and making the time she spent on it even more worth while. “Thanks. I was shaking.”

The queen stood. “C’mon, time for bed. ‘Night, Palaemon.”

“Goodnight, Majesty, Gabrielle.”

Xena took her lover by the hand. “You looked very confident out there. The mob loved you and that story.”

“I had an interesting subject,” Gabrielle replied as they strolled out of the hall and down the corridor toward the queen’s wing. “People love to hear about their queen’s deeds.”

“You made me out to be some sort of a damn hero,” Xena grumbled a little but the little smile gave her away.

“That’s because, to me, you are.” The young woman looked up into slightly embarrassed, blue eyes. “Xena, you risked your life to save me. I owe everything that I am to you.”

Pushing open the door of their bedchamber, Xena pulled Gabrielle into the room and hugged her close. “And I owe everything to you,” she whispered. “I was getting to the stage where I wasn’t bothered about ducking anymore.”

Gabrielle sucked in a pained breath and tightened her grip. “Oh, Xena…” she whispered.

“But now.” The queen exhaled. “Now I want to live for you, for us… and for our children.” She gently rubbed the younger woman’s back and then helped her to undress. “You know,” she continued. “It could be pretty cool to have a kid.”

Blonde eyebrows lifted. “Yeah? Why the sudden change of heart?”

“Well.” The queen grinned charmingly. “If they all looked like you, they’d be the cutest kids in the kingdom. And, being part of you, I’d love them with all my heart.”

“They’d be part of you too,” Gabrielle gently reminded, touched by her partner’s words.

“Sure,” Xena shrugged. “But not in the traditional sense. Hey, let’s get the wedding over us before we think about the kids, huh?”

“Ok,” the bard chuckled. “Wedding first, kids later. Got it.” She untied the sash of the queen’s silk robe and pushed the garment off her shoulders to pool on the floor at their feet, ignoring it as she kissed between the taller woman’s breasts. “You,” she said, her voice slightly husky. “Are the most beautiful woman in the world.” She nuzzled the warm, soft skin as her dress was opened and quickly pulled off to join Xena’s robe on the floor. Then the queen bent and scooped her into her arms, carrying her to and placing her gently on, the bed.

The silk sheets rustled as Xena pulled them back and waited for her lover to scoot under them. Then she climbed in beside her and they snuggled together, allowing the tension and tiredness of the day to evaporate from their bodies. Gabrielle lay on her belly, an arm and leg sprawled over the queen as they settled down. “Goodnight, Xena,” she whispered and smiled as a tender kiss brushed the top of her head. “I can’t wait for the wedding.”

“Me, neither,” Xena replied with a grin. “Goodnight.”

As silence descended over the palace of Xena the Conqueror, Xena the Loving pulled her partner closer and joined her in sleep.

**

“You!” Xena barked as she strode across the yard. “Bring me a sword!” The soldier jumped to attention and dashed off into the barracks to bring a weapon for his queen. He returned and dropped to one knee as he offered it to her. “Get up! In the field, bowing or kneeling to me could get me killed.” The man scrambled to his feet but the queen pushed him out of the way and stormed on. A small matter had been brought to her attention and she was angry about it.

“Majesty,” Palaemon panted as he caught up with her. “Is this the best idea?”

“Are you questioning me, General?” Xena asked, her eyes flashing blue fury.

Palaemon know better than to say yes. “No,” he replied seriously. “But you’re angry and sometimes things happen…”

The queen stopped suddenly and grabbed the front of the man’s tunic. “You’re damned right things happen. I’m going to gut whoever wrote those things about Gabrielle and I’m going to hang his body on the palace gates for the buzzards to eat.”

“Bu…”

“You have two choices, Palaemon,” Xena snarled. “Either you help me or you GET OUT OF MY WAY!” She dropped him and stormed away. The general rolled his eyes and ran after her.

“Your Majesty! Wait! XENA!” He caught her up and strode along next to her. “You knew there would be a certain amount of opposition to your marriage. She’s a commoner, Xena, a peasant! There are plenty of Lords out there who’d make perfectly good suitors.”

The queen stopped, swung her fist and smacked her friend right in the nose, sending him sprawling onto the ground on his back. “Don’t ever say that again,” she growled. “There are plenty of Lords out there alright but I wouldn’t marry them if they were the last men on earth. There’s one person in this world I love and her name is Gabrielle.”

With a smile, Palaemon picked himself up off the ground and faced his friend. “Feel better?”

Xena paused, blinked and then exhaled, her shoulders relaxing a little. She felt damned rattled and sat down on a bale of hay to collect her scattered temper. Then she stood and pulled the general closer by the front of his tunic before pushing him down to sit on the bale as she examined his bloody nose. They said nothing but Xena gently wiped the blood away, patted his cheek and wandered back toward the palace. Palaemon released a shaky breath and chuckled.

Another situation diffused.

**

Fussing a little with her hair, Gabrielle looked at her image in the long mirror. She was wearing her wedding dress and smiled a little as she followed the line of the cloth. The pearl-embroidered bodice was tight fitting and clung to her gentle curves gracefully before sweeping into a full skirt with a long train. Gabrielle felt like a princess and her smile widened as she remembered that she kinda would be after she married the queen. Her heart was full to bursting with love for Xena and, after hearing of the queen’s rampage that morning in her honour, she knew now more than ever that their love would be the strongest force in the world.

Now, all she wanted was for tomorrow to come quickly so that they could officially seal what their hearts already had.

**

Chapter 18

The scent of rain tickled Gabrielle’s nose as she sat cross-legged on her bed. With only three candlemarks to go until the wedding, she felt a strange calm drifting over her that surprised her somewhat. The young woman had expected to be terrified. Instead, she just felt the rightness of it all.

Xena was the one.

Gabrielle smiled a little as she tucked her scroll and quill away, leaving her story to be finished another day. Today’s story was hers and Xena’s alone.

The queen had been away all morning, making sure that the preparations were complete so the bard had been left to her own thoughts. Of course, since her thoughts had been on her wife-to-be, Xena was never far away. Gabrielle got up and wandered over to the window, looking out over the yard and leaning out the window to see what was going on.

“HEY!” The young woman almost fell out the window in fright but she recognised the strong voice and leaned out even further. “No peeking, Gabrielle!” Xena was standing in the courtyard under the window, her hands perched on her hips and an indignant look on her face.

“Sorry!” Gabrielle replied. She pulled herself back inside and padded over to her dress. The young woman gently fingered the fine silk and chuckled to herself, glad that it wasn’t white when she thought about their night of lovemaking. “I’d have some explaining to do to Xena about that one.” They had decided to each choose their own wedding clothes so that it would be a surprise for the other on the day. She was lost in visions of Xena in different colours and styles when a knock sounded at her door. “If you’re not Her Majesty, then come in!”

Palaemon stuck his head in the door. “I’m definitely not Her Majesty,” he grinned. “But Xena would like to see you for a few moments.”

With a nod, Gabrielle put on her boots, straightened her tunic and ran a hand through her hair. “Ok, where is she?”

“She’s in the Great Hall. Follow me.”

Walking quickly, the pair made their way to the Hall. Xena was waiting at the door with a big smile on her face and Gabrielle immediately grew suspicious. “Honey, when you grin like that I get a little jittery.”

The queen kissed her lightly. “Oh ye of little faith,” she replied as she took her hand. “C’mere.”

Palaemon bowed and went about his business as Xena led her partner into the Hall. She pointed. “What do you think?”

Gabrielle’s mouth formed a little ‘O’ when she saw what the queen was talking about. There, in all its glory, sat Xena’s throne… with another new one sitting next to it. “It’s for you,” Xena stated needlessly. “Because you’re going to be ruling with me.” The young woman was genuinely speechless. She shook her head and Xena frowned. “You don’t like it?” she guessed, worriedly.

“No, no, I love it, Xena. I just…” She rubbed her cheek absently. “I can’t see myself sitting up there next to you. You’re so powerful and regal and I’m just…” Gabrielle’s brows drew together in a frown but Xena gently tipped her face up.

“Just the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen and the love of my life,” she said softly. “Gabrielle, I want you to rule by my side but if you don’t want to…”

“No.” The younger woman took her partner’s hands and brought them to her lips. “I love you, Xena and it would be my honour to sit beside you up there.” She hugged the tall woman, feeling her relieved sigh and smiling a little. The most feared and powerful ruler in the world had been nervous and Gabrielle loved her all the more for it. “Now,” she said, giving the queen a little pat on the butt. “I have to go get ready. I’ll see you in a couple of candlemarks.”

“Yes, you will,” Xena replied, rubbing her knuckles gently along the younger woman’s cheek. She smiled and then strode back toward her chamber. Gabrielle walked to her own and ducked inside to find a servant waiting for her.

“Hi, Minya,” she greeted as the woman curtseyed.

“Lady Gabrielle,” she said with a huge, proud smile on her face. “I’ve been sent to help you dress.”

With a kind smile, Gabrielle nodded. “Thanks. I want to look my best for Xe… um… Her Majesty.”

“Yes, My Lady. Shall I draw a bath?”

“Please.”

As Minya bustled away, Gabrielle spent a few moments looking at her dress again. Then she moved to her dresser and sat down, carefully brushing her hair and humming to herself until Minya returned.

“All ready, My Lady,” the woman said.

“Thanks. I can manage now. Could you bring me some tea please?”

Minya curtseyed again. “Of course.” Then she bustled out of the room.

With a little grin and a shake of her head, Gabrielle undressed and climbed into the bath. She scrubbed every inch of her body until she was gleaming and then carefully washed her long, blonde hair. Moments later, she was sitting on her bed, wrapped in a long piece of linen and towel drying her hair. Minya returned with her tea and she sipped the gentle steaming brew for a moment, allowing her nerves to settle down and her stomach to un-knot. Now that the ceremony was so near, little butterflies were making their presence known. The tea was helping though.

When she’d emptied her cup, Gabrielle finished drying off and dressed in her underwraps. Then Minya helped her with her dress. The material of the bodice clung to her slim waist and the skirt outlined her petite body.

Minya watched as Gabrielle smoothed her hands over the dress and nodded, her face admiring. “It’s beautiful, My Lady. You look beautiful.”

“Thanks,” the young woman replied shyly. “I’ve never worn anything like this before in my life. I hope Xena likes it.”

“She’ll love it,” the servant replied. “Now, it’s time to go. She’s waiting.”

The Royal Bard took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. It was time to go marry the woman she loved.

Gabrielle had never been happier.

**

In her bedchamber, Xena stood in front of her mirror and fussed with the sleeves of her robe. She was nervous and she knew it. In some ways, she would have preferred to have a private ceremony with just herself, Gabrielle and a witness but the queen knew that, if the ceremony hadn’t been made public, the kingdom would not have recognised Gabrielle as consort and co-ruler.

Xena sighed. “Why do things have to be so difficult?” she murmured. At least all of the preparations had gone smoothly enough and she hadn’t had to kill anyone. Xena was beginning to take on a dislike for killing and, quite frankly, she was surprised at how much Gabrielle had to do with that. She acknowledged wryly that she didn’t want to hurt or let her partner down. No one had ever made her feel that way before.

The queen was mulling that thought over when a knock sounded and her servant went to answer the door. Xena’s sensitive ears picked up the conversation. “Tell him to come in!” A moment later, Palaemon stood at the door, an admiring look on his face. “Your Majesty, you look beautiful.” The general moved to her and took her hand, bringing it to his lips to kiss it gently. “Gabrielle is a very lucky young woman.”

Xena smiled but she couldn’t meet his eyes. “Palaemon,” she said softly. “I know things haven’t worked out the way you’d hoped but…”

To the queen’s surprise, the general shook his head. “No, things have worked out precisely as they should. You and that girl are meant to be together. I’ve never seen such love between two people in my life and I’d never come between that.”

Xena blinked and then, to Palaemon’s total shock, hugged him but as she pulled back, she poked his chest. “Don’t you ever tell anyone I did that or I’ll cut your balls off, got me?”

“Gotcha,” the general replied with a lopsided grin.

Xena just rolled her eyes. “So can we go already?”

**

For the thousandth time, Gabrielle glanced at her reflection in her mirror. She was just about to leave for the Great Hall and wanted to make sure that everything was perfect. She had her wedding gift for Xena tucked into a little hidden pocket in her dress and she patted it, just to make sure it was still there. For a moment, she thought about her family and a pang of pain crept into her heart. She was really missing them but she shoved the feelings aside and nodded to Minya. “I guess it’s time.”

The servant followed her along the hallways, holding the train of her dress up so it wouldn’t get dirty. The butterflies in Gabrielle’s stomach were now bat sized and she took deep, even breaths to calm herself down. It was the most wonderfully terrifying day in her life.

**

Standing near her throne, Xena smiled at Helladus, the priest from the nearest Temple of Aphrodite. “Thanks for doing this,” she said.

The man nodded. “It’s my pleasure, Your Majesty.”

“Sure it is,” Xena chuckled. “Wait ’til you see my bride-to-be. She’s a stunner. Nice woman too. Makes me laugh.” She shrugged. “This love stuff is kinda weird, huh?”

The priest smiled knowingly but asked anyway. “How so, Majesty?”

“Since I’ve met Gabrielle, things have been totally screwy. I haven’t been myself.” She lowered her voice and leaned in closer to him. “I went on a picnic.”

Helladus nodded solemnly. “I see. Hardly something Her Majesty would have done with Gabrielle had she not been in love.”

Xena thought about that for a moment and then shook her head. “Nah, woulda done it anyway ‘cos she’s my best friend too.” And that she had said it out loud surprised her into thoughtful silence. A little smile tugged at her lips. “Wow.”

The queen turned toward the door and frowned. “Where is she anyway?” She lifted an eyebrow at the guard standing at the door and he peeked out before looking back at her and nodding. Xena immediately felt her nerves settling and she fussed with the sleeve of her robe as she waited for her bride to enter.

**

As she reached the entrance to the Great Hall, Gabrielle took a moment to compose herself. In a moment, she would enter that hall, walk the aisle to her partner and become wife to Queen Xena. She felt wonderful.

“My Lady, it’s time,” the guard said. “She’s looking for you.”

Gabrielle frowned and positioned herself in front of the open door. She saw Xena fidgeting with her sleeve and grinned happily. The queen was a nervous as she, Gabrielle, was. It made her own nerves settle a little so she began the walk to the altar as the music struck up around her.

**

“By the gods…” Xena’s voice was a strangled gasp and she swallowed a few times as her bride began the walk toward her. Gabrielle was dressed in a cream silk dress, the bodice of which was embroidered with the swirling design on Xena’s armour in gold thread and pearls. The skirt was straight and the hem just touched the bard’s ankles. Gabrielle’s long, blonde hair was loose and flowed over her shoulders as her green eyes shone with happiness. A bouquet of flowers completed the ensemble and to the queen’s eyes, her young lover was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her entire life.

Gabrielle was thinking the exact same thing. The queen’s outfit was representative of her stations as both warrior and queen. She was dressed in a pair of soft leather pants and a matching embroidered shirt, over which she wore an open, black robe bearing her royal emblem. Her boots were polished and her belt shone brightly in the torchlight as she held out a hand to her bride. Gabrielle grasped it and allowed the queen to help her up onto the slightly raised dais.

The murmurs of admiring comments died down as the priest lifted a hand and smiled warmly. But Xena and Gabrielle hadn’t even acknowledged his presence. The queen’s hand cupped her bride’s cheek and she kissed her gently of the lips. “I’ve never seen anything in this world as gorgeous as you are,” she whispered.

“Funny,” the bard replied. “I was thinking the same thing about you.” She trailed her hand down the front of Xena’s shirt. “This leather looks incredible on you but I look forward to taking it off you.”

The queen barely managed to hold back her laughter. Instead, she winked. “I’m holding you to that.”

Helladus pretended not to hear any of this and raised his voice. “My Lords and Ladies, welcome to the wedding of Her Majesty Queen Xena of Greece and its surrounding lands to Lady Gabrielle of Poteidaia.”

Xena and Gabrielle looked into each other’s eyes and waited to make their vows.

**

Chapter 19

There were many things going through Xena’s head, the moment she took Gabrielle’s hand and stood in front of the priest. Unfortunately none of them made the least bit of sense apart from the one that screamed ‘get on with it!’ All around them hung garlands of sweet smelling flowers, which filled the hall with a fresh, outdoors scent that both Xena and Gabrielle had come to relish during their ‘day off’ days.

The afternoon sun poured through the window, reflecting off the banners of the Queen’s Colours, which were placed at intervals along every wall. Xena smiled. Gabrielle had insisted on that, citing the fact that she was joining the queen’s household.

Bringing her bride’s hands to her lips, Xena kissed them as she thought about how empty her life had been before she met this feisty farmer’s kid and how much she wanted Gabrielle with her for the rest of her life.

A sense of wonder grabbed the bard by the heart and she took a step closer to her love, needing to feel the warmth of their connection. Then she realised the priest was speaking to her.

Xena chuckled. “Pay attention. He asked if you wanted to be my partner.”

“Oh! I do!” the bard said loudly. “Yes!”

The queen laughed this time. “We get it.” She kissed her bride’s temple.

Helladus nodded. “Do you, Queen Xena, take Lady Gabrielle of Poteidaia to be your partner? Will you love her and cherish her and keep her safe from harm for all time?”

“I will,” Xena replied, her eyes twinkling with more than just love. She sniffled a little, much to the priest’s surprise.

“Now,” Helladus said. “You must exchange a gift as the symbol of your love.”

Xena reached into her pocket and pulled out a small ring. She took Gabrielle’s hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. “This is my mother’s wedding ring,” she said. “Until now, it was the only thing in the world that meant everything to me. It’s only fitting that my two most treasured possessions should be together.”

“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle looked at the ring with something akin to utter shock and then brought it to her lips to kiss it. “I’ll treasure it forever.”

“Now you, Gabrielle,” Helladus coaxed.

“Um… right.” The young woman turned to Minya, who was standing nearby, and accepted something with a smile. Then she turned to Xena, took her hand and laid it across her palm.

Xena blinked. It was a scroll, held closed with a seal Gabrielle had designed for herself. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Read it, Love,” the bard replied softly.

The queen gently broke the seal and unrolled the parchment, her blue eyes scanning the first few lines before she began to read aloud.

“My queen, you take my breath away.
My love for you is greater than the sky.
I need you here for me to be complete from day to day.
And my soul will never ask the question, why?

I just know that you and I are one heart.
Two halves of a single whole that reunited stand.
Together, for fate cannot and will not drive us apart.
As long as you are here to hold my hand.”

Xena chose to keep the last few lines private…

Xe,

I love you so much, I feel as if I have a constant fire burning in my heart. And when you touch me, the fire moves from my heart into my soul and burns so brightly that I almost drown in passion. I want to be yours, to love and be loved, for all time. I promise, I’ll always be there.

G.

Xena had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could meet those incredible green eyes but when she did, she realised that what she’d read in the scroll were reflected in them with an intensity that sent a thrill through her very soul. “So will I,” she whispered as she bent her head and kissed her bard with quiet passion.

The priest chuckled. “I now pronounce you bonded for life. You may kiss your bride.”

The congregation cheered but they might as well have not been there for, to Xena and Gabrielle, there were only each other.

**

“Xena?”

“Mm?”

“Do we have to go to the party?”

Blue eyes looked up from their view of a naked belly as Xena slipped into a lighter outfit for the feast. “You don’t want to go to our wedding feast?” she asked, confused.

“No.” Gabrielle wandered over and started a little exploration of that aforementioned belly. She tickled the queen’s navel, smiling as Xena squirmed a little and captured her hand. “I was just thinking we could show up a little… oh, I dunno…” Her lips kissed a piece of interesting skin. “Late?”

Xena’s eyes slipped closed and she shivered as her partner’s touch slipped a little lower. “Um… well…” A little happy sound escaped her. “I am the queen after all.”

“Yes, you are,” Gabrielle agreed as she slowly dropped to her knees. Another nice little sound came from the trembling warrior and her hands moved to tangle in the bard’s hair. “Gabrielle…” she moaned as her thighs were nudged apart.

“Mm?”

“I love you.”

A little smile. “Me too.”

**

Smoothing her hair, Xena laced her fingers through her partner’s as they stood on the threshold of the entrance to the Great Hall. “What are we going to say?”

“We started early?” Gabrielle grinned adorably and Xena chuckled, shaking her head.

“You’re gonna get me into trouble one of these days,” she mock complained, covering her eyes.

“Oh hush,” the bard laughed, surprising the guard with her tone. “I never get into trouble and you know it.”

“Yeah, right,” Xena snorted. Then she shrugged. “By the way, I have a surprise for you.”

“You do?” the bard’s eyes lit up. “What is it?”

“That, my love, you will find out in a few moments.” She kissed Gabrielle’s cheek and tugged on her hand. “Let’s go frighten the masses.”

On reflection, Gabrielle thought that Xena really knew how to make an entrance but at the actual time of the entrance, she was too amazed by the lights and bugles to actually register the thought. Now she knew what her partner had been planning behind her back. Gabrielle’s favourite flowers were strewn about the hall and decorative candles sat in tasteful designs in the corners and along the walls. A special flower arrangement sat in front of the two thrones and as the bard took her seat at Xena’s right hand, she began to realise what it was like to be Queen Xena.

“Alright?” the queen asked with a wink.

“A little overwhelmed but… wonderful… it’s all so perfect, Xena.” Gabrielle shook her head and grinned. “I can hardly believe it. It’s like a dream.”

“Well, I mentioned another surprise, My Love.” The queen waved her hand and the guards parted to reveal two lone figures.

Very slowly, Gabrielle stood up, her eyes wide with disbelief. There, right in front of her with a huge smile on her face, was her sister, Lila and her brother-in-law, Perdicus. The younger woman was dressed in a fine silk robe and her husband looked wonderful in his tunic and pants. “Lila,” Gabrielle whispered as she moved closer. “Oh Lila!”

Xena smiled as the sisters finally flew into each other’s arms and hugged hard and long. After a moment, Perdicus joined them, wrapping his arms around both women. The queen stood a little to the side but when Gabrielle broke away she immediately looked for her, holding her hand out to her partner with a sparkle in her eyes that let Xena know she’d done ok.

“You did this for me. Oh Xena, thank you. Thank you with all my heart.”

The queen hugged her tightly. “No, thank you for coming into my life,” she replied. “I love you.”

Lila watched them a moment, her hand curled around her husband’s. Then she touched her sister’s shoulder. “Gabrielle, we were so worried. We thought you were dead. We’d heard…” She shook her head. “Gods, I’m so glad you’re safe.”

“Lila, you have no idea how much I’ve missed you and Perdicus. Xena’s personal guard saved me from those men and brought me here.”

Lila and Perdicus bowed before the queen. “We are indebted to you, Your Majesty,” Lila said, her eyes shining with admiration for the tall woman.

Xena just shrugged. “I didn’t do anything. It was Palaemon. Don’t bow and please, call me Xena. We’re family now.”

Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her partner and smiled up at her. “Yes, we are, Honey… forever.”

Xena smiled. “Forever.” She raised her hand then. “LET’S PARTY!”

The music struck up and Xena grabbed her partner, hefting her over her shoulder and carrying her to the dance floor where she gently set her on her feet. Gabrielle giggled. “You’re crazy,” she mock scolded. “And I love you.”

Xena pulled her partner close and they swayed to the music. She bent her head and whispered into the bard’s ear. “Crazy like a fox. I got you, didn’t I?”

“Mm. You sure did.” Gabrielle nibbled the queen’s neck. “I’m hungry.”

“Dinner will be ready soon,” Xena replied enjoying the attention.

Gabrielle grinned adorably, her nose crinkling into that little expression that Xena loved. “Not quite what I meant, Honey.”

The queen chuckled. “Later, I promise. It would be rude to leave our guests.”

“Yeah,” the bard reluctantly agreed. “It would.”

They shrugged together. “Later.”

**

Morning. Xena firmly kept her eyes closed, trying to ignore the sunlight, which was painting rays across the bed. Tucked in her arms was her still sleeping partner and, after their long night of lovemaking, Xena wanted to let her sleep for as long as possible.

She sighed and cracked one eye open a little, trying to judge the time. The sun was quite high and the warrior needed to pee so she gentle disentangled herself from her partner and went to the bathing room with a quick stop at the chamber pot on the way. The queen washed in cool water and slipped into a plain tunic and leggings before slipping out the door and into the hallway.

The guard saluted her. “Your Majesty.”

“Hey. Nice morning, huh?” Xena strolled along the corridor, chuckling to herself. The guard had been so shocked with her sweet reply that he’d almost dropped his spear. He was used to mindless grunts from his mistress, not friendly enquiries.

In the kitchen, the servants were bustling about getting breakfast but they all stopped and lined up for inspection, the cook at the head. “Good morning, Majesty.”

Xena eyed them all and then smiled. “I’m here for two reasons. Number one… I wanted to thank you for the great job you all did at the wedding feast and number two, I want to get some breakfast for my partner and I.”

“Th-thank you, Majesty,” the cook stammered. “And I’d like to offer the staff’s congratulations on your joining to that lovely lady.”

The queen grinned. “Thanks. Now, got any scrambled eggs? It’s Gabrielle’s favourite.”

“Coming right up,” Cook replied and then minutes later, Xena was carrying a tray back up to her bedchamber. She booted the door open and found sleepy green eyes blinking at her.

“I knew I smelled eggs,” the bard smiled. “Did you go to the kitchen?”

“Yep. Cook made this fresh for us.” Xena leaned over and kissed her partner. “Mm. But you taste better.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Gabrielle chuckled as she lifted the lid on the plates to take a peek. “Thanks, Xena.”

With a little smile, the queen stretched out next to her wife to enjoy their first breakfast as a married couple.

And Xena was happiest woman in her kingdom… well… she looked at Gabrielle who was humming delightedly as she spread butter on her toast… maybe the joint happiest.

**

Chapter 20

“Attention!”

Queen Xena’s eyes swept over her troops. Dressed in crimson tunics and black pants, the queen’s colours, the men stood proudly, awaiting her orders.

“Xena, how many of them are there?” Gabrielle asked, as she stood next to her tall partner.

“Um… About thirty, I think.” Xena replied quietly. “We’ve got five servants each and two cooks so we need them.”

Looking up into her partner’s blue eyes, the bard frowned. “Expecting trouble?”

“Not really,” the queen said absently. She was watching Palaemon walk along the line, inspecting the men. The general stopped and pulled one man’s sword out of its sheath, examining it carefully. “Stay here, Gabrielle.”

Xena strode along the line until she reached Palaemon. “Problem?” The soldier began to sweat nervously as the general handed the weapon to the queen. She examined it too. Then she handed it back to him. “Who gave you this sword?” Xena asked, going nose to nose with the man.

“T’was my father’s, Majesty,” he replied, keeping his eyes level and on a spot just over her shoulder.

The queen nodded. “That’s an impressive weapon and you take care of it very well. You father must be proud.” The man smiled a little, keeping his eyes firmly fixed in place. “What’s your name?”

“Mael, Majesty.”

Xena nodded. “Well, Mael. You’ve earned the right to carry the Queen’s Colours. Report to General Palaemon after parade.”

“Thank you, Majesty,” Mael replied, puffing his chest out proudly. “It is an honour.”

“Of course it is,” the queen replied with her trademark dryness. “Hop it.” She spun on her heal and strolled back along the line until she reached Gabrielle.

“Ready to go on our honeymoon?” she asked but paused when she saw the broad smile on the younger woman’s face. “Ok, what’s the grin for?”

“That was a really nice thing you did. Wasn’t he the guy who was getting picked on because of that sword?”

“Was it? I wouldn’t know,” Xena sniffed but her eyes twinkled gently and a little smile pulled at her lips. She rested her arm over her lifebond’s shoulder and hugged her a little. “C’mon, time to get ready.”

**

Perched on her horse, Gabrielle had a great view of where they were going and, when she turned in her saddle, where they’d been too. The sky was blue, even with the early hour and warm rays of sunlight caressed the travellers as they moved along the road south from Xena’s stronghold. They were heading for one of the Queen’s favourite ships, the one in fact that used to be her flagship in the early days.

With a little grimace, the Royal Bard rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the stiffness of sitting in the one position for the past few hours. She looked up ahead at her partner who was riding with Palaemon and discussing battle tactics. Xena looked totally at ease and very beautiful in her new black leathers and crimson cloak. Her hair was blowing gently in the breeze and she tucked it angrily into her hood as it swept across her eyes. Gabrielle smiled at her partner’s trademark impatience but it widened as blue eyes searched for, and found, her green. A little jerk of Xena’s chin and Gabrielle was riding toward her, the guard parting to make way for her.

“Get lost?” the queen asked, her eyes twinkling.

“Um… no…” Gabrielle replied. “I stopped to smell some flowers and kinda…” She grinned sheepishly. “Got left behind.”

“I see,” Xena replied thoughtfully. “Maybe I could tie you to my horse. That way you couldn’t get left behind again.”

“Xena!” the bard exclaimed indignantly.

The queen couldn’t help it. She laughed out loud and reached out to stroke her partner’s cheek. “I was just kidding. Gods, the look on your face was priceless.”

“I’ll give you priceless,” Gabrielle muttered and then leaned over to kiss Xena deeply and passionately. When she pulled back, the queen’s eyes were half-lidded and her heart rate was definitely up. She grinned stupidly, making Palaemon stifle a laugh of his own even as Gabrielle glared at him. “Maybe we should tie Her Majesty to my horse,” she informed him regally. “She seems to be a bit dazed.” But a little growl came from Xena’s direction so she held up her hand. “Never mind.”

They smiled at each other then and Palaemon rode away to check on the convoy. Moving into position next to her partner, the Royal Bard settled more comfortably in her saddle. “I remember,” she began. “A long time ago back in Poteidaia, there was this guy who used to ride around on his donkey with his kid tied to it by the hand. The village women used to gossip about how cruel it was for the child but no one would do anything about it. I remember it as clearly as it was yesterday. The little kid would run next to the donkey or risk being dragged along the ground.” Her jaw clenched. “It used to make me so mad that no one would do anything to help him.”

Xena nodded. “People don’t like to get involved in other people’s business, Gabrielle.”

“It wasn’t that, though,” the bard went on. “Everyone was afraid of him because he was a judge who’d moved to Poteidaia from another village.”

A dark brow lifted. “I take it you weren’t afraid of him?”

“I…” Gabrielle shrugged. “I was more sorry for the little kid than I was afraid of him.”

“What did you do?” Xena asked, truly interested.

“I stole his rope.”

Xena spluttered into disbelieving laughter. “You what?”

Gabrielle grinned. “I stole his rope.” She shrugged. “I went into his barn and stole every last piece of rope I could find, including what he was using as a halter for the donkey. He couldn’t tie his kid to the donkey then.”

With an amused shake of her head, the queen lifted her partner’s hand to her lips to kiss it. “Gabrielle, I love you… but you’re nuts.”

“Thanks. I love you too,” the bard smiled but her smile fell as Xena held up a hand and her body went rigid. The convoy stopped dead as the queen pulled her long distance seeing thing out of her saddlebag and stood in her stirrups. Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the sun and peered into the distance. She couldn’t see anything. “Xe? What is it?”

“Something’s not right,” the warrior replied. “Listen.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes and waited. “I don’t hear anything,” she replied softly.

“Exactly.” Xena jumped down from her horse and walked back through the men to find Palaemon, who was conferring with his second in command. “Palaemon?”

“Yes, Majesty, we’ve spotted it too.”

“What do you make of it?” The queen rubbed her forehead on her cloak, erasing the sweat threatening to drip into her eyes.

“Raiders?” Saterus suggested.

“Could be just a village house fire or something like that,” Palaemon put forward but Xena’s gut was telling her that it wasn’t something as simple as an accidental fire. What had caught her eye had been a thin plume of smoke but it was now visible to everyone, which meant the fire was getting bigger.

“Alright,” the queen stated tersely. “We’re going to continue along this road. Palaemon, send some men to check that out. Tell them not to get into any fighting but to come straight back here and report to me. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes, Majesty,” the general replied, saluting formally. “Right away.”

Xena strode back to her horse and mounted gracefully. Gabrielle looked at her expectantly. “What is it?”

“I dunno, Gabrielle, but I have a feeling it’s not a simple house fire.”

Seeing her partner uneasy made the bard a little afraid. After all, Xena was the most powerful person in the land. Surely… She paused then. Xena was mortal. Of that, she was painfully aware and she suddenly wanted to run, run away and take her partner with her. “Gabrielle? Hey.” Gentle fingers were lifting her chin. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”

“But who’ll keep you safe?” the bard whispered, scared to death. “Xena, I won’t lose you.”

With a gentle smile, Xena shook her head. “What’s this nonsense about losing me, huh? That’s never going to happen, Gabrielle, because I promise you with everything I am that I’ll never leave you. Not even in death. I’m gonna stick around to haunt your cute little butt, hear me?”

Gabrielle smiled a little and sniffled. “I hear ya.”

“Good.” Xena leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Let’s get this convoy moving again.” She lifted her hand and waved. “Move out!”

A candlemark later, Xena was tucking her cloak into her saddlebag. It was hot and Gabrielle was feeling sticky and grubby. She unhooked her waterskin and took a drink before offering it to her partner. “Xe?”

“Hm? Oh, thanks.” The queen took a swallow and then handed the skin back. “You doing ok?”

“Yeah,” the younger woman replied. “I’m ok. Just a little hot and sticky, I guess.”

“I think everyone could do with a break, don’t you?” Xena’s eyes lit up then. “Hey, I know a good spot for swimming near here. Wanna try it?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle grinned. “That’d be great.”

Once again, Xena held up her hand and stopped the convoy. “We’re taking two candlemark’s break. Find some shade and get some rest!” Then she slid down from Argo, her horse, and offered her hand to Gabrielle whom she caught around the waist as the bard slipped down from her saddle.

“Owww,” Gabrielle moaned. Her thighs muscles were aching and she had to stretch them before she could stand on her own. “Damn.”

“The water will help,” Xena chuckled as she scooped her partner into her arms and headed into the forest. “Everyone stay here,” she called back over her shoulder. “No peeping or I’ll cut your eyes out.”

A round of chuckles made their way through the men and Gabrielle blushed profusely, hiding her face by pressing it into the nice smelling leather covering her partner’s shoulder. “You are wicked,” she giggled.

“Me? Nah,” the queen replied dismissively. “Here, stand up.” She let the bard down gently and then began stripping her of her tunic. “You can swim, right?”

“Mmhm,” Gabrielle nodded, enjoying the attention. As the last piece of clothing was swept from her body, she went to work on the laces and buckles that held her partner’s leathers in place. Soon they were both wading into the cool water of a lovely little lake. “Xena, this is gorgeous.”

“Yeah,” the warrior grinned. “Cool, huh?”

“How do you know about this?” Gabrielle lifted her arm and let the water trickle down it. “Did you find it when you were travelling?”

“I found it a long time ago when I got separated from my men. I was pretty badly injured and I hid out in a cave…” Xena looked around and then pointed. “Over there. Damn, that was a bad week.” She lifted her right arm and pointed to a long jagged scar above her right hip. “Took a spear in the side. Damned lucky it didn’t send me to Tartarus.”

“Damned lucky for me,” Gabrielle replied, moving up close and hugging her partner tightly. They just stood that way for a few long moments, enjoying the water lapping at their overheated skin and the closeness of their bond. “You’re my soulmate, Xena. With you, I’m complete.”

Xena hummed contentedly. “Yeah, soulmates. I…”

“XENA!”

“Damn,” Xena pulled back a little. “It’s Palaemon. The scouts must be back.” She waded out of the water with Gabrielle in tow. “I’ll be right there!”

They quickly dried off and pulled on their clothes and boots before heading back at a run to the convoy. Palaemon met them at the edge of the forest. “Raiders,” he said tersely. “About fifty men or so. They’re moving through the valley attacking village after village.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed and a dark energy rose inside her. She welcomed it and she growled a little as the blood and adrenaline began to pump through her veins. “Those villages belong to me,” she said in a dangerously soft voice. “I will not tolerate anyone taking what is mine.”

Gabrielle swallowed. She had rarely seen this side of her partner outside of the bedchamber. The queen fairly exuded sexual magnetism and the bard was drawn to her. She licked her lips a little and had to force herself to stay where she was. “What now?” she managed to ask, albeit a little breathlessly.

“Now,” the queen replied. “We fight to defend those people. They are my people and I won’t let them get hurt anymore.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes and smiled.

A hero was born.

**

Chapter 21

Crouching next to her soulmate, Xena’s very blue eyes scanned the immediate area. It was dull inside the forest, despite the sun shining in the sky overhead. Gabrielle shivered as a leaf fell from a tree and floated downwards to land at her foot. It was too quiet. She touched Xena’s elbow and then pressed a little closer to her, looking up into her eyes. The queen smiled and signalled the men to proceed. Then she pressed her lips to her partner’s ear. “We’ve found them on the other side of the clearing,” she whispered. “They’re planning their next attack.”

“What are we going to do?” the bard asked very softly.

Xena’s eyebrow hiked. “You are staying here. I’m going with the men.”

“Bu…”

“No.” The queen’s sternness surprised Gabrielle into silence but then Xena’s face softened into understanding. “I know you want to help but I won’t put you at risk, Gabrielle. Please… just do as I say.”

How can I refuse that? Gabrielle sighed but nodded her agreement. Soft lips brushed the top of her head and then the queen moved off into the trees, her men creeping silently behind her. Moments later, Xena was on one knee, her forearm resting on the upraised one as she considered her options. She was outnumbered three to one. For a moment, her eyes unfocused…
Through the stinging rain, Xena could barely make out the legions coming at her. She shook her head wildly, tossing her hair out of her eyes and allowing a feral grin to rise to her face as she growled. Her men were vastly outnumbered but she knew they’d follow her right into Tartarus.

“Xena!” The Warrior Princess looked down at her lieutenant and for the first time ever, saw fear in his eyes.

“What?!”

“There are too many of them! This is crazy!”

Xena’s boot suddenly lashed out and caught him in the chest, sending him sprawling onto his backside. “This is MY army, Darphus, and I say we fight! You got a problem with that?”

“No, Xena, no problem,” the man replied as he picked himself up off the ground and dusted his leathers off.

“Good,” Xena grinned. “Now get going. I want everyone to be in position by dark.”
“Xena?” A gentle hand on her shoulder brought her back to the present and she let the past drift away as Palaemon leaned in close to her. “There are about sixty men out there. You sure you want to do this?”

“Yes,” the queen replied with a quiet surety. “I don’t want to hide away in my palace anymore, Palaemon. I’m sick of it. These are my people and I’m going to help them.”

The fierce protectiveness in Xena’s eyes rocked the general to the core and he suddenly realised what the farmer’s kid from Poteidaia had actually done. She’d reached right into the queen’s heart and taught her something that the warrior hadn’t really thought possible. Gabrielle had taught Xena how to really, truly love. “Let’s get those sons of bitches,” he growled.

Xena grinned and drew her new sword. It was an exact replica of the one she’d lost at the temple except it was made of fresh steel and the blade was the sharpest she’d ever seen. It had been measured, balanced and fitted precisely for her hand and it was almost like an extension of her arm, as comfortable as it felt to her. “I love it when you talk dirty,” she chuckled. “C’mon and… Palaemon?”

“Mm?”

Xena was quiet for a moment as she thought hard but blue eyes lifted then. “If anything happens to me, tell Gabrielle…” A pause and a breath. “Tell Gabrielle she’s the best thing in my life.”

With a nod the general patted her arm. “Tell her yourself when we get back, Xena.”

The queen smiled then. “I’ll do my best.”

Then they moved into attack formation.

**

Sitting under a tree, which was almost wider at the base than she was tall, Gabrielle waited anxiously. A stalk of grass found its way into her hand and she twisted it rhythmically until it was nothing but green mush staining her fingers. “Damn,” she murmured softly. “Why did I let her talk me into staying here? Because she asked, her conscience told her. And you can’t refuse her anything.

Suddenly, it hit her.

It was dark, powerful, ominous and sensual all at the same time and Gabrielle groaned as a sensation of raw, animalistic pleasure coursed through her. Her senses were more alive than she’d ever felt before and her hands gripped convulsively at the grass under her.

Then it eased away…

The bard was left gasping for air and she brought a trembling hand to her face, covering her eyes as she leaned back against the tree trunk. “By the gods,” she whispered. “Xena, what are you doing, Love?”

**

With a wild yell, Xena dove on another group of men. They tumbled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs but the warrior was on her feet before they’d even realised what hit them. Her blade moved in a blur around her muscular body and man after man fell to it as the darkness, the part of her that was Ares, rose inside her. Her eyes were wide and flashing with battle fury and her hair whipped around her as she swung around, meeting attack after attack with reckless courage born of her confidence in her skills.

The men had barely known what had hit them before their sloppy battle procedures got them moving. Xena’s men had had the advantage of surprise and they stormed the camp, slashing through the raiders until they were all dead or as good as. All around her, her men were fighting but soon, they were looking around, realising with a start that there were no more raiders to take care of. A bubble of power and sensual pleasure rose in Xena’s body and she thrust her sword into the air, roaring out her victory. Her men joined in and their cry tapered off to chanting… the chanting, she acknowledged proudly, of her name.

“Xena! Xena! Xena! Xena!” The queen grinned fiercely and moved through her men, slapping them on the back and ruffling their hair and, at one point, it all came into perspective for the once Destroyer of Nations… They had fought for the sake of the people, for others…

And it felt damned good.

As Xena walked through the fallen, looking for her own men, she felt rather than saw the blonde streak moving toward her. Her reflexes kicked in and she spun in time to catch a very relieved bard and swing her up into the air. “Hey,” she said as she lowered the young blonde and tucked her into her arms.

“Hey yourself,” the bard replied with an adorable grin. “You were incredible!”

Xena goggled. “You saw? Gabrielle, I told you to…”

A hand suddenly covered the warrior’s lips and she arched an eyebrow menacingly which had no effect whatsoever on her wayward partner. “Hush, Xena. I didn’t get close. I watched from those trees over there. Boy, you like winning!”

“I… Well, yeah, I do but…” The queen wrinkled her nose. “That was a strange thing to ask.”

“No, it’s not,” Gabrielle chuckled. “I felt you.”

Silence.

Xena rubbed a hand over her face, as she searched for a reply. “You… um… felt me?”

“Yeah, it was awesome!” the blonde replied excitedly. “It was like a huge wave crashing over me and sending my body into overload.”

“It was, huh?” Xena chuckled as she waggled her eyebrows. “Hey, I know what else can make you feel like that.” She leaned in and nibbled her partner’s ear, eliciting a squeak and then a giggle. But her nibbling changed and slowed into something more sensual. “You know, Gabrielle, I really feel like stopping for the day.”

“But…” Gabrielle exhaled as her body responded to her love’s gentle touch. “It’s not even midday yet.”

The queen merely shrugged. “I feel a ‘day off’ day coming on.”

Their lips met in a passionate kiss, leaving them both breathless and the men staring open mouthed. “Know what?” Gabrielle breathed into her partner’s ear.

“What?”

“Sometimes, your being queen rocks.”

With a growl, Xena lifted the bard into her arms and carried her toward the secluded shade of the trees. “Hell yeah.”

**

Ow. That sucks. One blue eye reluctantly opened and then closed again, even though it was fairly dark. Xena experimentally stretched her body, wincing as the cuts and bruises she’d received in the battle ached a little. It also didn’t help that Gabrielle was sprawled on top of her. Ungh… but, damn, I got off lightly. She chuckled softly. It had felt very, very good to be out on the field, fighting alongside her men again. You locked yourself away, she admonished herself, and it took Gabrielle to get you to admit it.

“Dinar for ’em,” a sleepy voice burred softly.

“Not really worth it,” Xena replied, trailing her fingers slowly down her partner’s bare back. Gabrielle’s skin was soft and perfectly smooth under their tips.

“Everything you think or feel is important to me, Xena,” the bard said very softly. She kissed the queen’s chest and smiled. “I love you so much.”

Xena rolled them over and nibbled an interesting bit of skin above Gabrielle’s navel. The bard inhaled sharply and giggled as teasing fingers tickled her ribs. “Xe… no… please… I… no!”

The warrior growled as she continued her assault but then she sighed and rested her head on Gabrielle’s belly, closing her eyes contentedly. The blonde began a gentle stroking of her partner’s long, dark hair. “Love you too, Gabrielle,” the queen murmured before she quietly dozed off. “You’re the best thing in my life.” Gabrielle just smiled delightedly and relaxed.

It was, after all, time for bed.

**

Chapter 22

It was strange, Gabrielle thought as she tilted her head and looked again. Everyone, even down to the horses, showed Xena respect as she passed by. Yet, they didn’t quite seem to be afraid of her… not anymore. The bard wondered if the queen had noticed and if it bothered her at all. Awe. She nodded a little. Yeah, it was more like awe.

“Gabrielle, what are you doing?” Palaemon stifled a grin as he recognised the dreamy look on the young woman’s face.

“Um… noth… a…” Gabrielle sighed. “I can’t help it. She’s so beautiful.”

“She is,” the general replied softly. “She’s a lucky woman.” He smiled kindly down at the young blonde, enjoying her light blush. “Aye. Very lucky,”

“I’m the lucky one,” Gabrielle grinned back.

“Why lucky?” Xena asked as she strolled over and caught the end of the conversation.

“I have the most precious thing in the world,” the younger woman replied. She reached out and caught the queen’s fingers, bringing them to her lips for a kiss.

“Oh.” Xena wasn’t quite sure what to say so she just smiled and nodded. “I think we should probably get on the road. We have a honeymoon to get started on.”

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked as they wandered toward their horses. “Who rules Rome in your place?”

“The new emperor’s name is Augustus. He is Caesar’s adopted son and is a very good man. He rules well in my name.”

“But…” A little confused expression rose to Gabrielle’s face. “Why did you kill Caesar?”

“He betrayed me,” came the growled reply. “Many years ago, Caesar had me crucified and had my legs broken.”

“Gods,” Gabrielle gasped. “No wonder you hate him so much.”

“Mm.” For some strange reason, another young face came to Xena’s mind. M’Lila. The queen rolled the name around in her mind. It had been after Caesar’s men had killed M’Lila that she’d changed.

So. Caesar was responsible for more than she’d even dreamed.

“Xena?” The soft voice brought the queen back from her musings and she made an effort to smile.

“Mm?”

“You were miles away. Are you ok?”

A good question. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just some bad memories, Gabrielle.”

The young woman smiled as she took her partner’s hand and led them firmly back to the horses. “Let’s make some good ones, ok?”

Xena smiled easily this time. “Sounds like a plan.”

**

After rejoining the rest of the convoy, the queen was in a much better mood. She enjoyed listening to stories from the Royal Bard and even sang a travelling song or two, which she hadn’t done since she’d been out with her army years earlier.

The air was warm and the sky was clear so she decided to camp overnight in a glen large enough to take them all. Palaemon immediately set up the perimeter guard while a handful of men raised the queen’s tent.

“Xena?” Gabrielle called from the sleeping chamber, which was separated from the rest of the tent by a hanging fur. “Where did you put my sleeping shifts?”

The queen snickered. “What shifts?”

A blonde head appeared around the fur. “The ones I left out for you to pack in…” She paused, noting the smirk on her partner’s face. “You didn’t pack them, did you?” she asked flatly.

The queen shook her head. “Nope. You won’t need them.”

“I… bu…”

Gabrielle grinned as Xena eased up to her and leaned in close. “No sleeping shifts for Royal Consorts,” the queen whispered seductively as she nibbled a tasty earlobe. “I like my women naked.”

“You do, huh?” the bard replied, shivering as a hand undid her shirt and slipped inside to stroke her skin. “Um… Xena… I… Wow…”

The queen cupped the young woman’s breast and stroked her thumb over her nipple. “I want you,” she whispered. Gabrielle’s shirt was off and lying on the floor before she even knew it.

“Y-You too.” The bard was trembling and she fumbled the buckles on Xena’s leathers until the queen chuckled and undid them herself.

“Better?” Gabrielle’s reply was to duck her head and Xena groaned as an eager tongue danced over her breasts. She gasped as the bard pressed their bodies together and began a gentle exploration with soft, knowing hands. “Gods, Gabrielle.”

“C’mon,” Gabrielle smiled. She took the queen’s hand and drew her toward their bed of furs. “I think we have time before dinner.”

With a nod, Xena followed and they collapsed with a giggle onto their sleeping furs.

They were just a little late for dinner.

**

Trudging along the muddy road, Xena was very quiet. An early shower of rain had delayed them more than she’d liked and her mood had been dark all morning.

“Xena?”

Gabrielle waited for her partner to answer and slowly, Xena’s blue eyes met her green. “Mm?”

“Is there something I can do?”

“For what?” the queen asked impatiently.

“To make you feel better.”

Xena silently cursed herself for her mood. They were supposed to be on honeymoon and, so far, things hadn’t really gone according to plan. She sighed a little. When did things ever go to plan? “I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” she said softly. “I just… I’m…” She sighed again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Maybe some hot tea would help. We’ve been walking a long time now.”

Xena looked up at the sky and nodded wearily. “Good idea. Maybe you could take a look at my shoulder for me? It’s aching pretty badly.”

Gabrielle nodded, quiet worry shining in her eyes. “Of course I’ll take a look.”

A brief smile later, Xena was holding up her hand. “We’re stopping for a break. Half a candlemark.” Then she moved to sit on a log, wincing as her injury protested. It was almost completely healed and she hadn’t really felt it in the fight the day before but now… something didn’t feel right. Then Gabrielle’s gentle hands were undoing the buckles of her armour and sliding the leather from her shoulder.

“Oh… Xena, this looks really… red. I think your leathers might me… Oh yeah. Honey, your leathers are rubbing.”

The queen was horrified. Never, in the history of all her years of fighting, had her leathers ever rubbed before. They were always a perfect… “I must have… Damn, with all the rest I’ve been getting, I must have put on a few pounds.” Great, add that to my sucky thing list.

“I think you’re perfect and very sexy.”

What sucky thing list? Xena’s eyebrow shot up. “You do, huh?”

The bard kissed her partner’s shoulder and nuzzled her neck. “Yes, I do. Now let me take care of this so we can get some tea, ok?”

With a happy smile, Xena acquiesced.

**

It wasn’t long before Gabrielle had finished and she was going to look for some tea for the queen when a gentle hand stopped her. “Sit down, Love. I’ll get it.”

“But…”

Xena chuckled. “You know, I used to have to do things for myself before I was the queen. I think I can manage a couple of mugs of tea.”

Gabrielle grinned and let Xena go, sitting down on the log and relaxing for a moment. She spent a few moments just thinking. Her life had been pretty hectic over the past few days and it was nice to just… take it easy. She heard Xena come back and take a seat next to her, but the queen didn’t try to bother her. Instead, Xena just waited. “It’s ok. You can speak to me,” the bard smiled.

“I didn’t want to disturb your quiet time. I know you like time to yourself,” the queen replied.

“I was just thinking about how much my life has changed over the past few weeks. Meeting you is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Xena.” Taking the queen’s hand, she kissed the fingers and smiled. “I love you. What you did yesterday was totally amazing, you know that?”

Xena shrugged. “I just did what I had to, to keep the peace.”

“No,” the bard replied eagerly. “I saw you, Xena. You were fighting for those people. You were fighting to save them.”

“I guess they kinda reminded me of…” The queen shrugged. “Home.”

“Really?” Gabrielle asked, surprised. “I didn’t think you really thought about that anymore.”

“I don’t really,” Xena admitted. “But maybe I should.”

“I don’t understand,” the bard replied softly.

“I just… Maybe I should have kept my people in mind when I became…” Xena trailed off as she caught a noise. “Get down!”

Lunging forward, Xena shot out her hand and caught an arrow. Then she covered the bard’s body with her own. “Palaemon!”

The general appeared and crouched, holding a shield over them and trying to keep the hail of arrows away from himself and his queen. “Stay down,” he yelled but Gabrielle suddenly cried out. Xena looked at her to find the young woman’s teeth gritted with pain.

“Gabrielle?” Easing back, the queen scanned her partner’s body and her eyes widened when she saw the arrow protruding from the bard’s thigh. “Alright, Gabrielle,” she soothed. “Just try to relax. Palaemon, what the Hades is going on?”

The general eased the shield down and peeked over the top, relieved when he didn’t get hit between the eyes. “I don’t know, Majesty,” he replied quietly. “But we need to get to cover. We’re damn vulnerable here.”

Xena got to her feet and lifted Gabrielle into her arms. “I can walk,” the bard protested but the queen shook her head.

“No, you can’t. Now do what you’re told and stop squirming, Piglet.”

“Piglet?” If Gabrielle hasn’t been in so much pain she knew she’d have been outraged but, coming from her lover, it sounded almost…

Sweet. The moment was sweet when they looked into each other’s eyes and felt their love strong and sure. Then the bard rested her cheek against Xena’s shoulder and relaxed.

“Good,” the queen nodded. “Just take it easy. We’ll have you sorted out in no time.”

“How is it that arrows follow you?” Gabrielle mumbled, making Xena chuckle.

“I guess it’s my attractive personality.”

“Funny, Xe,” the bard smirked.

“Or maybe they want to overshoot me?”

“Funnier.”

Blue eyes rolled but a little grin pulled at the warrior’s lips. “Alright, let’s get that leg looked at.”

And, as Xena walked, she cast a glace to the heavens. Can’t you just give me a break?

**

Chapter 23

“Ok, Gabrielle. I’m going to have to take the arrow out. This is going to hurt.” The queen ran the blade of her knife through a candle flame a few times and then leaned over her lover’s thigh. “Bring the candle closer so I can see better,” she ordered.

Palaemon sat cross-legged next to Gabrielle and held the candle closer, making sure that wax didn’t drip onto the young woman. Xena’s brows contracted in concentration as she made small incisions near to the arrowhead. The weapon was deeply embedded so pushing it through was out of the question. Gabrielle nearly bit her lip through trying not to cry out but when the queen guided the arrow back through the incisions, her cry echoed around the glen. With a growl of anger, Xena snapped the now free arrow and tossed it away. Then she heated her knife again and used it to stop the bleeding. Gabrielle passed out from the pain and, after bandaging the wound, Xena sat on the ground and lifted the young woman into her lap to hold her as she started to come around.

“Go away,” she ordered and everyone cleared the immediate area, taking the medical supplies with them to be repacked. Gabrielle mewled a little and burrowed into Xena’s leathers as the queen tightened her grip and buried her face in golden hair. “You scared me,” the warrior whispered into a pink ear. “I’m the queen and I order you never to do that again or I’ll have ya…” Xena found that she couldn’t think of retaliation bad enough so she just sighed and kissed the crown of Gabrielle’s head. “I love you.”

**

The first things Gabrielle realised when she woke up were that she was toasty warm and in quite a bit of pain. “Urgghh.” She brought her hand to her head and rubbed her eyes before letting them ease open. It was dark and from her position, she could see the gently twinkling stars. “Mmmm. It’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” the queen replied as she shifted a little to get more comfortable. She could feel her heart settling back into its normal place and rhythm now that her lover was awake.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Xena replied, a troubled expression clouding her beautiful face. “But I’ve discussed everything with Palaemon. We’re going back to the stronghold. Something’s not right, Gabrielle. I haven’t done this much fighting since I was a damn warlord.”

“Going back?” Gabrielle was disappointed but she agreed that something strange was going on. “Alright. I’m not up to sightseeing anyway.” A weak smile came to the queen’s lips so Gabrielle cupped her cheek and drew her close for a kiss. “It’s alright, Xena. There’s plenty of time for a honeymoon. Besides, anywhere is perfect as long as it’s with you.” The bard suddenly realised that they were moving and she lifted her upper body a little. “Um… Xena? Are we on…”

“A litter,” Xena confirmed.

“Being pulled by a horse?”

“Two actually,” the warrior deadpanned. “It’s a queen sized litter.”

“I see,” Gabrielle replied snuggling closer to the queen and pulling the furs up over her over shoulders. “That’s good. It means I can sleep. I love you, Baby.”

Baby?

Xena chuckled a little. “Goodnight, Piglet.”

Somewhere in Gabrielle’s hazy mind, she decided to ask Xena why they had built a litter.

And Piglet?

**

Humming. Low. Melodic. Gabrielle blinked sleepily, trying to get her brain working. The humming persisted and a pair of lips gently kissed her ear. The bard suddenly realised that it was Xena who was humming, right into her ear, and smiled happily.

“You know,” the queen stated softly. “You’ve turned me into a total mush ball.”

“I have?” Gabrielle replied with a gentle smile.

“Mm. I can’t believe I’m curled up on a litter with my little, blonde lifebond, humming to her of all things.”

Gabrielle rolled over and went belly to belly with her lover. “There’s only one problem with this,” she commented seriously.

A dark eyebrow rose. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle leaned in a little and whispered something into Xena’s ear.

A lazy, very sexy smile came to the queen’s lips. “That can be fixed,” she whispered, slipping her hand under her lover’s shirt and caressing a bit of warm skin she found.

Gabrielle sucked in a breath and grinned. “I was kidding,” she replied on an uneven breath.

“I’m not,” Xena growled as her hand slipped lower and trailed up the bard’s thigh, careful of her injury. Gabrielle gasped as the touch turned very intimate and tangled her hands in the queen’s shirt.

“Xena,” she breathed, burying her face in the taller woman’s neck, her breathing laboured now. “Gods.” The pressure built to epic proportions and it was all the blonde woman could do not to yell her head off. She clenched her jaw muscles shut and rode it out, finally collapsing against the queen and smiling as she felt the chuckles roll through her solid frame. “You’re mean,” she grinned, looking up into twinkling blue eyes. “But I love you.”

“Your Majesty!”

Xena pulled her eyes away from her partner and frowned. “What is it, Palaemon?”

“We’re being followed,” the general replied with a worried look.

“What the Hades is going on?” the queen growled. She untangled herself from Gabrielle and hopped out of the still moving litter. “Stay there and rest,” she instructed and then strode out of the bard’s sight with Palaemon on her heels.

Lying quietly on her back, Gabrielle studied the fluffy, white clouds. Her thigh was aching and, although Xena’s little distraction had taken her mind off it for a while, the pain was back. She shifted a little to find a more comfortable position but finally resigned herself to being in pain. Sighing softly, the bard wondered how Xena made things better just by being there. It always worked and Gabrielle wasn’t completely sure why. Was it love? She thought about that for a long time as birds squawked and circled overhead. It must be, she decided, because Xena seems to think the same thing. She grinned and murmured softly. “Love rocks.”

**

Xena mounted her horse, twirling her cloak around her to settle comfortably over her thighs. She exhaled slowly as she settled her body and her nerves and then peered ahead. “Awwright,” she drawled. “Palaemon, I want you to lead everyone on. I’m going back to check up on our unwanted guests.”

“Majesty, let me go,” the general replied. “You shouldn’t put yourself at risk.”

Xena held up her hand, amused. “Palaemon, you seem to forget what I used to do before I was queen of everything,” she pointed out. “I can take care of myself. Now, do as I say.”

“What about Gabrielle?” the man asked. “You know she’s gonna be worried sick about you.”

Xena took a moment to savour the feeling that brought to her. Someone to worry about her… the queen never thought she’d ever have someone who cared about her like that and she really liked the idea that someone actually did now.

“I know,” she replied softly. “But I have to do this.”

The general nodded and turned his horse before trotting to the head of the entourage and giving orders. Xena turned in the opposite direction, stopping to check on Gabrielle, who’d once again, fallen asleep. She spent a moment watching her sleep and then sighed. “I love you, Gabrielle,” she murmured and then took off.

The wind riffled through her hair as she rode, guiding her mount into the trees to come around back of their pursuers. Xena slid down from her saddle and hitched the horse to a low hanging tree branch. Then she headed silently into the woods, her dagger gripped in a sure, steady hand. Ah. Her senses picked them up immediately and she changed course slightly, placing her boots carefully by instinct alone. She could see them slightly ahead… Six men, all armed with bows and swords. They seemed well organised and their leathers and weapons were well cared for. Not mercenaries then. They were all dressed in black but she couldn’t make out any insignia so she decided to get a little closer.

Xena moved forward, took two running step and somersaulted into a tree, landing with a muffled scrape of boots on bark. Then she crept forward, balancing carefully on a branch as she traversed it and leapt into the next tree. Moving on again, the queen finally got ahead of them and waited for them to pass under her before leaping onto the back of the last horse and snapping the rider’s neck. Xena shoved his body off the horse and kept riding. Then she cleared her throat. “Nice day for a ride,” she commented mildly. The five men immediately turned, their eyes widening in surprise when they realised that the queen was happily jaunting behind them. Xena pulled on her horses reins and then slid down from the saddle, drawing her sword and beckoning to the men as she completed a figure of eight with the razor sharp blade. “You want me?” she asked, her lips twisting into a feral smile. “Come and get me!” The queen laughed as they all jumped from their horses and descended on her, blades drawn and eyes fearful. That’s right, you know who you’re dealing with, don’t you? Xena backed up slowly until she had a satisfying amount of room to manoeuvre in. “Well, what are ya waiting for?” she growled. “A written invitation?”

The men exchanged glances and then, with yells of might, charged.

**

“What do you mean, she went after them?!” Gabrielle demanded, lifting her upper body and wincing as her thigh wound protested. “Palaemon, you let her go alone?”

“Gabrielle,” the general replied tiredly. “You say that as if I had a choice. I have to obey her orders. Besides, everyone here knows that Xena is the best warrior of all of us.”

The bard glared at him a few moments longer and then nodded, a little sigh escaping. “I know, I know,” she admitted. “It’s just… I’m sorry.”

“You’re worried. I know that, Gabrielle. Hades, I told her you would be but…”

With a knowing smile, Gabrielle relaxed back on the litter and smoothed the covers back over her petite body. “It was something she felt she had to do. Palaemon, the longer I’m with Xena, the more I understand where she’s coming from. She’s fiercely protective of her people and she’ll do anything to keep them safe.” A pause. “I should know.” A light wind eased across them, lifting Gabrielle’s blonde hair and cooling her a little. “Palaemon, if she’s not back by sundown…”

“I’ll go myself,” the general replied.

“Thanks,” came the quiet reply. “Now get something to eat, ok? I’ll bet you missed lunch.”

“Um…” Palaemon scrubbed his short hair. “Yeah, actually I did. How about you?”

The bard winced. “The herbs Xena gave me are making me queasy. I think I’ll pass… but thanks.”

“Well, how about some soup?” the general asked. “Think that might help? We’ve got some left from breakfast and it’ll only take a few candledrippings to heat it.”

Gabrielle considered that a moment, scratching at her cheek absently. “Um… yeah, thanks. The heat might do my stomach some good.”

With a chuckle, Palaemon winked. “Coming right up, my Lady.”

**

Xena lowered her sword and swiped her arm across her forehead. Four bodies lay scattered at her feet and the fifth was on his knees, ramrod straight and shuddering. “I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain,” she growled. “You have thirty seconds to live unless you tell me what I need to know.”

“I’ll talk,” the man wheezed. “I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

The queen wiped her sword on his shirt and then slid it soundly into the sheath on her back. Then she swiftly jabbed his neck, removing the pinch. “Alright. Why are you following me?”

“We were sent to keep an eye on you. You’re not supposed to be returning to the stronghold yet.”

“Who sent you and why?”

“One of the lords has just returned from Chin. He has made an alliance with the ruler there and wishes to take your throne.”

“He does now, does he?” Xena murmured. “Who is it?”

“Lord Antius, Your Majesty. He’s attempting to sway your army over to his side.”

Xena’s face stilled and her eyes grew icy cold. “My own uncle,” she said softly. Then she shook her head, wondering why she was surprised. Everyone betrayed her sooner or later. Except… The queen nodded and then slugged the man, knocking him unconscious. “Thanks for the information,” she muttered and then whistled for her horse. Argo cantered gracefully to her and Xena mounted fluidly. “Let’s go see Gabrielle, huh Girl?”

**

Gabrielle chewed thoughtfully on a fingernail. Xena had been gone candlemarks and she was beginning to get really worried now. It was almost sundown and they were camping in a small clearing. The men had erected the queen’s tent and gently carried her inside to rest on the warm sleeping furs that held her lover’s scent but she wasn’t really tired anymore. She smiled as Palaemon announced his presence before ducking inside. “Is she back yet?”

The man shook his head no. “Not yet. I dunno, I have a bad feeling, Gabrielle. I’m going after her.”

“No, you’re not,” came a low voice by the tent flap.

“Xena!” Gabrielle hiked herself up onto her elbows as the queen strode to her and dropped onto the furs for a very thorough kissing.

“Damn, that felt good,” Xena murmured as she pulled back a little. “How are you feeling?”

“Hurts still… but much better than it was,” the bard replied, tracing a dark eyebrow and then tugging a little on silky, dark hair. “I oughta be mad at you for running off like that,” she scolded but her face kept betraying her and grinning. “But I’m just so damned glad to see you…”

Xena chuckled and kissed her lover gently on the lips. “Sorry,” she murmured.

“I forgive you,” Gabrielle replied. “Now what the Hades is going on?”

Xena turned to Palaemon, who was discreetly looking elsewhere. “Hey, we’ve got trouble.”

Brown eyes fixed on her immediately. “What kinda trouble?”

“The worst kind,” the queen replied seriously. “Insurgency.”

**

Chapter 24

“Insurgency?” Palaemon repeated, her eyes widening. “You mean…?”

Xena nodded and sat up, folding her long legs under her. “Antius,” she growled. “Has forged an alliance with the Green Dragon. He’s trying to take my throne.”

The bard frowned. “But…” She shook her head. “Xena, what about the men in the stronghold? Surely they won’t…”

“Everyone can be bought for the right price, Gabrielle,” Xena replied softly. Except maybe you, my love. “Soldiers fight for whomever pays the most.”

Gabrielle stiffened as a wave of anger stormed through her. “They’d betray you for a few extra dinars? Those bastards!”

Had the situation not been so serious, Xena might have chuckled at her partner’s fierce protectiveness but betrayal was a fact of life for the queen and she had learned not to trust easily. Except maybe with Gabrielle. That had been so damn easy. “It’s to be expected.”

“So…” Gabrielle let her fingers entwine with her partner’s. “What are we going to do?”

A good question, Xena thought, and one she didn’t have the answer to… yet. “Give me time,” she replied.

The bard merely nodded and rested her head on the queen’s shoulder. She didn’t need to tell Xena that time was exactly what they didn’t have to spare. By the look on the dark woman’s face, she knew that already.

**

Speaking in low voices, Xena and Palaemon came up with a plan to get inside the stronghold. Gabrielle watched from her comfortable bed of furs and smiled as she watched the queen’s jaw clench when she leaned over a map and pointed. Palaemon nodded and then left the tent.

“Xena?”

“Mm?”

“Could you come here a minute please?”

The queen wandered over to where her partner was sprawled and dropped down next to her, leaning close and smiling. “Yes?”

Gabrielle grabbed the front of Xena’s tunic and pulled her even closer, kissing you teasingly. “You look really tense. Is there anything I can do?”

Blue eyes slid closed as Xena went back for another kiss. “Just being here with me is enough,” she replied. “Being out here alone would royally suck.”

The bard smiled and opened her arms wide. The queen blinked for a moment, unused to displaying any kind of weakness, but then she lowered her long frame and rested her head on her partner’s chest, closing her eyes and relaxing her body as Gabrielle’s arms closed around her and hugged her gently. “I love you so very much, Xena,” the bard murmured. “Please be careful out there.”

“I will,” the queen replied. “And I love you too, Gabrielle.”

And, after placing one last kiss on Gabrielle’s lips, she strode from the tent to begin her plan.

**

“What do you think?” Xena asked, sparing a glance for her general.

Palaemon scrubbed a hand through his short, bristly hair and shook his head. “We’re vastly outnumbered.”

“Mm.” Blue eyes studied the stronghold. “What if we went in by the hidden entrance? I know what I want to do when I get inside but I’d rather get in quietly without having to bust heads.”

The general stared at his queen for a long moment, shocked at her attitude. “Uh…”

Xena chuckled a little. “I promised Gabrielle that I’d be careful. Now, we’re going in from around back.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Palaemon grinned. He stood up and drew his sword, waiting for the queen to do the same.

Xena rose, her eyes hardening with determination. “Let’s go get my home back.”

**

Crouching low, Xena waited a moment, letting the senses reach out and gather information. It seemed that the secret entrance was still secret so she crept forward, her boots silent on the ground, until she reached the door. Then she signalled for the men to follow.

The queen pressed a stone in the wall and grinned as the door slid open and she could duck inside. The passageway was dark and cobwebs hung from the ceiling, but they moved quietly along it until they reached the end. Xena knew that they were behind her throne in the main throne room and searched for the lever that would release the opening. Finally she found it and the panel grated lightly as it slid back to reveal the empty throne room. Xena snorted with pleasure. She was in.

“Palaemon,” she whispered. “Take the men and round up as many loyal soldiers as you can. I’m going to find Antius and make him wish he was never born.”

“Yes, Majesty.” After a quick check, the general ducked out of the passageway and led the men away. Xena then stepped out and closed the door behind her. Then she strode to the door, drawing her sword as she walked and twirling it slowly in her hand. There was a smell of smoke in the air and it made the queen’s sensitive nose twitch. She slowly stuck her head out the door and looked up and down the corridor. It was deserted and she frowned a little.

“Where the Hades is everyone?” she murmured as she sheathed her sword and crept down the stone-floored hallway. Turning right, she saw the door to the Main Hall was open a crack so she moved silently to it and put her eyes against the crack. Ah. There he is, the bastard. Antius was sitting on the edge of a table, arguing with Xena’s captain. The queen had to admit that the deal he was offering was very good but, to her surprise and pleasure, the captain shook his head.

Antius stood and went to the man, leaning in close to him. “Do you want to die? Take the offer!”

“No,” the captain said again.

Antius scowled. “If you don’t stand down and give me control of the army, I’ll kill you! I swear!”

“That’s what I was going to say.”

The Lord spun, his eyes bugging out when he saw the queen standing in all her tall, splendid glory, covered in dust and mud. “Xena!”

“Damn right,” said queen growled. “What the Hades do you think you’re doing, you stupid bastard.” She shook her head in disgust. “Did you think for one moment that Lao Ma’s son will keep his alliance with you? I’ve spoken to others who allied with him and then found themselves overruled. That’s why I didn’t accept the terms of his agreement last year.”

Antius’ face dropped and he fell to his knees. “Forgive me, Majesty. I just wanted what was best for the kingdom.”

“And you thought that getting rid of me was the best for the kingdom?” Xena drew her dagger and grabbed her uncle by the hair, lifting him up and pressing the blade against his throat. “Give me one reason why I should spare you,” she snarled.

“I’m your uncle, your family,” the man whimpered.

Cold blue eyes glared back at him. “Wrong,” the queen replied softly. “There is only one person in this kingdom who is truly my family and her name is Gabrielle. Pity you’ll never get to meet her.” And with that, Xena whipped the blade back, slicing through his throat and sending a spray of blood over her arm and chest. Antius jerked and his chest heaved but Xena kicked him away from her, leaving him to bleed to death on the floor.

The Captain dropped to his knees, his fist over his heart. “Majesty, we held out as long as we could. I knew you’d be back.”

Stepping forward, Xena ruffled the man’s hair. “You made me proud,” she praised. “Now go help Palaemon take the traitors into custody.”

With a sharp salute, the man dashed away to carry out his orders. Xena sighed with relief. Things hadn’t been as bad as she originally thought and she made a mental note to reward the men who’d stayed loyal to her. Then she wiped her dagger off on Antius’ chest and slid it back its sheath at her side. Xena wandered through the stronghold, stopping eventually at the quarters she shared with her wife. She’d sent Palaemon out to bring Gabrielle back and she was stripping out of her gear when she heard a soft voice at the door.

“I can’t leave alone for a minute without your getting yourself into a mud pile.”

Xena spun and grinned when she found Palaemon standing at the door with a smiling Gabrielle cradled in his arms. “C’mere you.” She walked to them and took Gabrielle into her arms, hugging her gently. The General crept out and closed the door, locking the queen and her wife away from the prying eyes of the world.

“Are you ok?” Gabrielle asked softly. She ran her knuckles along the queen’s cheek.

“I’m fine,” the queen replied. “It was a piece of cake. Captain Saterus wouldn’t take the damn deal so Antius didn’t have a leg to stand on apart from the few soldiers who went over to his side for the promise of a few extra dinars. Thing is, I can’t really blame ’em.”

“I can,” the bard replied, anger flashing in her green eyes. “Bastards.”

Xena chuckled and hugged her partner closer. “I love you so much,” she whispered. Then she sat the bard on the bed to examine her thigh. The wound was still painful but beginning to heal and the queen nodded, satisfied. “Rest here for a while,” she said. “I have to see to the clean up of this mess.”

“No, you don’t,” Gabrielle replied, catching her hand and pulling her back. “Palaemon is handling it.”

“But…”

“No buts, Xena,” the bard said gently. “You and I are going to spend the evening here. I asked the kitchen to send up a meal and I plan on letting you make love to me all night.”

A dark eyebrow hiked sharply. “Letting me?”

Gabrielle winked and offered her wife a sexy smile. “Uh huh.”

“Mmmm…” Xena grinned. “Sounds like fun.”

And it was.

**

Sitting quietly in her throne, Xena let her hand drift across to the hand to her right, lacing her fingers with Gabrielle and squeezing gently. Her eyes were cool and her demeanour calm but, inside, she was in turmoil. She knew that this weak attempt at insurrection could have turned out much worse than it did and she knew things would have to change. “Palaemon,” she said and nodded as he knelt in front of her.

“Yes, Majesty?”

“I want you to arrange that Captain Saterus receive a medal for bravery and loyalty. He is also to receive a property of his own. He didn’t take the deal from Antius, so I’m granting it to him as a reward.”

Palaemon grinned. “Yes, Majesty.”

“Also,” the queen went on. “Every man who stayed loyal to me is to receive fifty dinars.”

The general’s eyes widened. “Yes, Majesty. Fifty dinars.”

“And Palaemon?”

“Yes, Queen Xena?”

Xena’s eyes twinkled. “You did good. Make sure you get some property and a nice house for you and that woman I hear you’ve been courting.”

Blushing a little and bowing his head, Palaemon smiled. “Thank you, your Majesty.”

Xena exchanged knowing looks with Gabrielle, then stood and looked around the room. “The men who betrayed me are in the dungeon and have been sentenced to death. However, since I’m in a good mood, I’m going to spare them. Let them go and toss them outside the stronghold on their asses. They’re banished from the area. Next time, I won’t be so forgiving.” Offering her hand to her partner, Xena smiled, ignoring everyone else in the room. “Care to go riding? We’ve got our real honeymoon to plan.”

Gabrielle smiled as she took the proffered hand and eased up onto her good leg. “Sounds like fun.”

Xena bent a little and scooped her wife up into her arms, mindful of her injured leg. “I promise you, it will be,” she replied. “Not just now… but always.”

And, somehow, Gabrielle just knew it would be.

The End.

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