The African Queen
by Bibbit

Disclaimers
Legal: The characters in this story belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I thank the Studio for creating these great ladies and giving them to the bards of the fan fiction world, who have made them truly remarkable. This is my small contribution and was written purely for fun. No copyright infringement was intended.
Violence: This is a story about a chick who carries a sword. Of course there’s violence. However, the blood and gore level does not surpass what might be seen on any given episode, so only the really violence-wary need pull the covers over their heads.
Subtext: Although this story concentrates on other plot areas, the fact that these two women are in love with each other is apparent throughout. If you do not wish to read a story based on this premise, exit, stage left.
Copyright: Bibbit, 1999
Chapters: 1-5

All comments are welcomed. Send e-mail to:  bibbit@brightok.net

Chapter 1

Watching the scene before them in rapt silence, the crowd failed to notice the arrival of two new spectators. All eyes were focused intently on the golden throne before them and the man perched regally upon it. A dark-haired warrior stopped at the outer edge of the gathering, peering over and between the absorbed people. Her golden-haired companion stood on tiptoes, frustration evident on her round face.

"Xena, what’s going on? I can’t see anything." The short woman jumped up once, then twice, unable to comprehend the spectacle before her from the momentary view the motion afforded.

The warrior allowed a slight smirk to grace her lips as she gazed at her friend, who was still struggling valiantly to see what was happening, jolting her compact body with each hop. "Calm down Gabrielle. You’re not missing much." She put a hand on the bard’s green clad shoulder to stop another round of hopping, as amusing as it was. "I thought you wanted to wait at the inn anyway."

The shorter woman peered up at Xena with an exasperated expression. "That was when all I had to think about was heaving up my guts. Something is going on here and I’d like to see what it is. I can heave later." With a sweet smile, she turned back to the turban wearing man in front of her and began to jump once more.

"Stop that. I’m not taking a chance with you puking again. I just managed to get my boots clean. Come on." Shaking her dark head, the warrior grabbed a muscled arm out of mid air, pulling the body attached to it with her forcing her way through the tightly knit crowd. Even after two days on land, the stormy seas they’d encountered on the voyage to Israel still had Gabrielle’s stomach throwing fits. Xena was thankful that her friend was slowly returning to her feisty self, even if she was still a little green around the edges. Allowing her front-row seats to whatever was happening was the least she could do after the miserable trip. Discovering what the gathering was about might also help them find their prey.

Strong shoves and nasty warlord glares soon had the pair at the front of the crowd, looking curiously at two kneeling women pleading with the regally seated figure, a small child cradled delicately in his arms. His eyes were focused on the bundle as he spoke, one finger clutched by a tiny hand, his voice a smooth growl.

"A child can have only one mother. It is impossible for you both to claim him." The man stroked his long black beard impatiently, looking to the woman on his left to give an explanation. Set deeply in her drawn face, dark eyes revealed the pain of what must have been a hard life, somehow surviving under the harsh desert sun. Her white dress, turned ruddy by the blowing sand, displayed only her golden brown hands and face.

The woman kept her eyes to the ground, her voice shrill with anger. "The child is mine. His father is the shepherd Nimon and he has lived with us since I gave birth to him." Her small fists clinched in the panels of her dirty shroud.

Tears ran from the other woman’s eyes, leaving a clean streak on dirty, plump cheeks as she turned her face up to the seated man. Moving his glare to her, the arbiter motioned for her to speak. After several tormenting moments, she seemed to make a decision, nodding her head as she responded, her voice small and filled with pain. "I can say no more than I am this child’s mother, King Solomon. He is my life and I cannot willingly let this woman have him." Large shoulders slumping, her head turned back down to the ground, away from the judgmental stare of the King.

"If neither of you will come forth with the truth and allow this child to go with his true mother, I will be forced to decide his fate." He waited in silence for one of the petitioners to speak up, but both merely kept their heads turned down to the soil. People in the crowd shuffled from foot to foot, the silence tense. The King’s dark eyes searched the sky for an answer, which came with a low grown of frustration. "Very well. Since the true mother has not been shown to me, I find that you both are his mothers and you both will have him." Solomon stood from the golden throne, the baby cradled in his arms. "Guard, come with your sword."

Gabrielle tensed, glancing up at the warrior in question. "Xena...?"

"I don’t know, but I don’t like it." She whispered fiercely. She could feel every nerve twitching, ready to send her body into immediate action. An internal voice whispered for her to wait, though, and after years of developing her art, the warrior trusted her instincts. Ice blue eyes surveyed the scene, waiting for the signal that would allow her to wait no more.

The closest guard rushed from behind the throne to stand beside his master. Gold armor gleamed almost as brightly as the rest of the amazing temple surrounding them. The building stretched high into the morning sky, paneled completely in shimmering gold. His sword, gleaming silver against the background, sang lethally as he pulled it from the sheath at his belt. Solomon turned to the women and gave the order, his voice devoid of emotion. "Cut this child in half and give one side to each of his mothers."

The crowd collectively gasped in shock, as did Gabrielle at Xena’s side. The bard reached for the warrior’s arm, squeezing it in anticipation as she pleadingly looked up into fiery blue eyes. Xena subtly motioned for her to wait, moving one hand to her chakram in case the guard actually tried to harm the child. She thought the King might have something else in mind, though.

Another guard marched from beside the throne, grabbing the child roughly, holding him upside down, legs askew. The King stood motionless ignoring the guards at his side, his eyes trained on the women before him, who stood slack-jawed in fright. The large woman’s hands were drawn to her face in agony, her eyes as wide as saucers. The guard raised his sword above his helmeted head, pulling it back as far as possible to generate more momentum for the strike. His armored shoulders moved forward, clinking loudly in the silence, the sword beginning its descent.

With a heart-wrenching shriek, the large woman leapt from her knees, throwing herself between the guards, crying out to the mercy of the King. "Please, do not harm him. I am not his mother. Deborah is his mother. Please don’t hurt him." Arms held wide, the woman cried the words over and over. "Please don’t hurt him."

King Solomon stepped up to the guard and removed the squirming child from his hands, the baby making the first protestations since the beginning of the ordeal. The man’s demeanor changed perceptibly, a long breath released from his chest. He cooed at the child to no avail, playfully tickling his chin and nose. Smiling brightly, the King placed the baby in the large woman’s arm, chuckling at the confusion playing across her features. Nonetheless, she pulled the bundle tightly to her bosom and rocked it gently. The crying ceased in only a few moments of his mother’s gentle attention.

"You, my lady, have shown true love for this child. By law he is yours, to be challenged by no man or woman." Straightening to his full height, the King spoke the words as a challenge, surveying the crowd with a menacing stare, stopping on the thin woman still kneeling before his thrown. "You are dismissed. Leave here today with a heavy heart, knowing how foolish you have been."

Gabrielle turned away from the spectacle and focused on her friend, a sigh of relief escaping her lips. "That was fun. I don’t think I like this guy, Xena. Are you sure we’re here to help him?" Her small hand tucked errant wisps of golden hair behind her ear in irritation.

"I’m sure." The warrior stood with her hands to her side, arms relaxed, radiating menace as her exterior mirrored the anger in her breast.

Solomon raised his hands in signal that the council was over as the remainder of the group began to file away, on the heels of the two women scurrying away with thanks for their lives. He watched the exiting crowd with a mixed expression of pride and pity, clearly a king who cared for his people. Xena had heard of his practice of conducting problem-solving meetings with his subjects, but she had no idea she’d be a witness to such a revealing one. His legendary wisdom was apparent from the way he’d discovered who deserved the child, even if his methods were very suspect.

"C’mon. Let’s go talk to this jerk." Xena was in full warrior mode. The bard quirked a smile as she followed her forward. Gabrielle was already having a wonderful experience on this journey, despite the rocky boat ride. Although it was unusual for Xena to come to the aid of a king without an extraordinary reason, she’d decided to make an exception this time. Some opportunities were just too good to pass up.

Turning his gaze to the approaching pair, the King’s intelligent dark eyes sparkled in recognition. The message he’d sent had been brief, stating only that the warrior was needed to save the life of a visiting ruler, the only way to stop an imminent war. She and Gabrielle had set out immediately, traveling by land and sea, blowing desert and rocky waters. They’d probably arrived before he expected.

"Well, well, I am honored by the presence of the great warrior, Xena." As he stepped forward to offer his hand, two guards flanked him protectively to either side. Wind whipped through his shoulder length raven hair and silky white robe.

The warrior squeezed his forearm briskly in greeting, her angular face an emotionless mask. "King Solomon." Stepping back a pace, she stood as a wall between the trio and Gabrielle. "I received your message."

"Yes..." He flashed the warrior a dismissive grin and stood taller in an attempt to see the bard more clearly. "And who is this lovely young woman?"

Uh oh. While she had accounted for the King’s legendary wisdom, Xena realized she had too easily dismissed another legend about the man. He’s got hundreds of wives and concubines. I’ll be damned if he’s getting Gabrielle too. As if it were actually possible, the warrior straightened further to block his curious glare.

At that moment, the bard chose to step up to Xena’s side with a defiant smirk. The warrior could already hear the first whispers of the infamous ‘I Can Take Care of Myself’ speech churning in her friend’s brain. She decided to try and head it off at the pass.

"This is my partner, Gabrielle." The bard quickly lost her smirk, her eyes going round in surprise at the warrior’s use of the term. Without showing any outward emotion, Xena smiled inside at the reaction. She only hoped that Gabrielle believed the statement. It was truer than she could ever know, whether she said it often or not.

Solomon softly kissed the bard’s hand, causing her to blush delicately. "My pleasure."

Xena was tired of wasting time, not to mention that she didn’t like the look the King was bestowing on her friend. It could be best described as seductive, his eyes wandering all over the bard’s Amazon clad body. Most of the men in this land didn’t often get to see two women dressed as such outside of a dark bedchamber. "What’s your problem, King?"

Shifting his attention back to the impatient warrior, the King sighed heavily before motioning for a guard to join them. "I am sure you ladies are weary from your journey. Please rest at the palace while I complete my duties." He gave the guard a look they both seemed to understand. "I will explain everything when you join me for dinner."

The thought of rejecting his presumptuous behavior briefly crossed Xena’s mind, but one look at her friend was all she needed to stifle that reaction. Gabrielle needed a nice hot bath and a good meal or two to put her back up to full functioning levels. Besides, Gabrielle gets so excited when we stay in palaces. How can I refuse that? With a wave of her hand she indicated that they would follow the guard, setting them off through the still bustling streets into the heart of Jerusalem.

She let Gabrielle walk behind the guard, as much to keep an eye on her as to protect her. Xena could hear the telltale signs of a market a street or two over, clanking wares and angry bargaining echoing between the buildings. If she didn’t watch out, her friend would be bolting off to shop for hours on end. Can’t let that happen. I can only take so much shopping before I kill people. The buildings they passed were fine houses, if entirely too close together. Banners with brightly colored crests hung over the doors, displaying the owner’s sign to the world. Though the houses were obviously well cared for, even their grandeur couldn’t escape the layer of dust that seemed to cover everything.

The palace was impressive. It stood away from the houses around it, dwarfing them all in size and elegance. Gold stood out against the stone in shimmers, giving it the wealthy demeanor of the palace without the overpowering presence of authority. An average person would be out of place sleeping in the chambers within, but a man of nobility might find such a place a comfortable home.

Guards perched in front of the large, double doors admitted the small group into the house. The inside was as elegant as the outside, brilliant hangings adorning every wall, and fine furniture sitting appropriately throughout the expansive entryway. The warrior and bard were silent as they followed the stern guard down the empty halls.

Stopping in front of a door, he finally spoke. "The King welcomes you to his home. These rooms are at your disposal." He pointed to the next room before walking back the way they had come.

The pair looked at each other skeptically before entering the nearest room. Gabrielle immediately collapsed on the huge four poster bed that took up most of the floor space. Xena meticulously placed their gear in an empty corner before sitting beside her friend on the bed’s edge.

"This is pretty nice, Xena. We need to work for kings more often." The bard bounced slightly on the bed.

The warrior rolled her eyes and sighed. "You wish...but I’m glad you like it."

Stilling the bed, Gabrielle turned a serious expression to her friend. "What’s your plan?"

Eyeing her warily, Xena could see the wheels turning behind the bard’s eyes. That’s never good. She leaned back on her elbows casually, bringing her to eye level with the lying woman at her side. "I have no idea. I don’t know what’s going on yet."

"That’s kind of curious, isn’t it? I mean, you don’t normally go into something so blind." Green eyes waited intently for an answer.

The warrior was torn as to what she should say. Part of her soul begged for the truth to come out right here, all of it. The more dominant part, however, stilled the words at their source. "Well, I...I wanted to meet Solomon, for one thing."

Gabrielle’s lips turned up in a bright smile. "I can understand that. I’ve heard amazing stories about him. He worships the one god, ya know."

"I know." Xena could tell her friend was going somewhere with the conversation. Sometimes she tended to ramble aimlessly. At others the bard was meticulous in her line of questioning, a gift the warrior could easily appreciate. Interrogation could be an invaluable asset in their line of work.

That suspicious look again filled the bard’s eyes, small lines appearing at their corners as they narrowed. "What was the other thing you came here for Xena? I...I want to be prepared in case I’m about to learn something horrific about your past." The comment began as if to be humorous, but her voice trailed off to a murmur, as if she’d said too much.

Xena sat up on the bed and turned away. Guilt flooded her system at the hurt implicit in the question. She hadn’t expected it. Long ago she’d lost count of the times her past had caused Gabrielle some sort of pain. The closer they became emotionally, the more intense the pain caused by the frequent revelations about how bad a person the warrior had been. And it seemed lately that they’d been becoming closer everyday. Causing that sort of emotional disturbance to her friend was the last thing Xena had on her mind. Just like it was the last thing on my mind the last time it happened.

Sad blue eyes turned back to the bard, who was still lying quietly in the big bed, apparently counting the cracks in the stone ceiling. "That’s...I hope...that’s not going to happen, Gabrielle. No guarantees, but I don’t think I know anyone from here." A strong hand ran nervously through her hair as she made a decision. "I’m helping Solomon because I wanted you to see Israel. That’s all." And that was mostly true. She wanted to tell her friend everything to set her mind at ease, but the warrior held her resolve. This is supposed to be a secret, if very silly.

Gabrielle sat up beside her friend, surprise and relief passing over her features. Her throat worked as if to form words, but she said nothing. The warrior gave her a small smile, choosing to let the moment go by without remark, even though she loved to tease the bard when she caught her speechless. A statement was eventually made clear to both of them when Gabrielle gently laid her golden head on the warrior’s muscled shoulder.

Chapter 2

The bard thought she’d never seen a longer dining room, or an emptier one. The table stretched on and on, capable of seating numbers in the hundreds, she was sure. She and Xena sat at one end, farthest from the golden doors they’d passed through to enter. Though she knew it to be almost impossible, Gabrielle was beginning to believe she could hear the warrior’s normally silent breathing echoing off the cold stone walls.

"Gabrielle, quit staring at me." The softly whispered command filled the chamber.

The bard cringed visibly and felt the blush fill her cheeks. I hate it when she catches me doing that, not that I can help it. She’s just so smug about it. "I wasn’t staring. Since you hadn’t said anything in a candlemark I was just making sure you weren’t dead."

Xena looked down at her with a smirk. "Don’t worry. When I go next I’m taking you with me." She elbowed her friend in the side and watched her giggle. Blue eyes eventually traveled to the still sealed doors in agitation. "We have waited long enough for this cretin, though."

Though Xena wasn’t known for her patience, Gabrielle did have to admit that they’d been waiting quite some time. With each passing moment, her excitement at dining with King Solomon was dwindling, not to mention that her stomach was regularly complaining about the lack of food. The guard that summoned them had long since left, leaving warrior and bard alone at the table. Being alone with Xena wasn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, except when she was edgy with anticipation and stingier than normal with conversation as she was now. The golden-haired woman couldn’t help but drum her fingers against the table in agitation.

 

Only a moment later, two fully armored guards opened the huge doors, standing at attention with their hands on the intricately carved handles. They spoke as one. "King Solomon and Queen Makeda."

The pair walked through the opening arm in arm, both dressed in fine silks and shimmering jewelry. Gabrielle couldn’t take her eyes off the woman striding regally toward them. She was magnificent. Obviously from a foreign land, her skin was a deep caramel, her hair short and pitch black. Smaller in size than the bard, the Queen was also not any older than her. Solomon motioned for them to stay seated as he and his companion sat across from them.

"Thank you for being patient, ladies." He directed an apologetic smile at both of them. The

bard still wasn’t convinced that the King was as wise as the legends painted him, but there was no doubt that he had a special charm. "I would like to introduce you to Queen Makeda, better known as the Queen of Sheba. She is visiting from her kingdom in the south." Solomon’s eyes were lit with a fire the bard knew well as they landed on the woman beside him. She glanced to Xena, knowing her partner caught the exchange as well.

Always straightforward, Xena wasted no time in getting to the point once the polite greetings were over. "So tell us what’s going on, Solomon." She was the only person the bard had ever seen who could treat a king like a commoner and get away with it.

The corner of the King’s mouth pulled up in a grin. "Not even a ‘nice to meet you’, Xena?" He swallowed hard at the answering glare from the warrior. "Apparently not." A tanned arm raised into the air in signal to a waiting servant, silk falling back in smooth rows. "Please let us partake in the blessings of the Lord. Then I will tell you why you have been summoned across the world to my kingdom."

The warrior bowed her dark head in acceptance, her eyes darting to meet Gabrielle’s. The bard’s grip on her knee probably had a lot to do with the daggers being sent her way from the blue depths. A little obstinancy from Xena was worth a wonderful meal in such a fine palace, though. In the very least she was getting dinner out of their journey.

By the time the table was filled with food, Gabrielle was licking her lips in anticipation. She could definitely identify only a few vegetables, but it all looked delicious anyway. What’s in a name? She wasted no time digging into the unfamiliar dishes, blatantly ignoring the glare her partner was casting her way.

King Solomon formally ended the meal by once again calling a servant, who dutifully cleaned the plates from the table, practically having to wrestle away the bard’s dishes. "The reason I have asked for your help, Xena, is that I fear many lives are soon to be lost."

Xena waited emotionlessly for the king to continue.

He bristled under her intense gaze. "Makeda rules the kingdom of Askum, far to the south, beyond the great, mysterious sea. She came to Jerusalem to council with me, as she had heard of my unique abilities." Solomon gently smiled at the woman beside him. The warrior was still not moved, so he went on. "On her long journey here, an attempt was made on her life."

The bard could take it no longer. She had to speak. Xena was normally the most valuable interrogator in situations like this, simply being able to scare information out of people, but sometimes the stoic warrior routine got old. Besides, the warrior had complimented her friend more than once on her ability to ask an important question. Okay, so it was just once, but I could tell she meant it. She had that sweet smile on her lips when she said it. "Where is the assassin now?" Green eyes turned in question to the dark woman, who remained still, save the approval in the eye contact she allowed her friend. The bard had no control over the smile that moved over her face.

"He no longer walks this earth, Gabrielle. His deed cost him his life." The king cast his dark eyes away from the women in contempt. "Makeda was uninjured and continued to my protection. Soon after she arrived, one of my personal guards made another attempt on her life."

The young Queen closed her eyes and grimaced at the remembered pain. Gabrielle understood completely. She’d long since lost count of the times people had tried to kill her. Most of all, though, she could still feel the pain of the first attempt, the cold tingles and hot rage caused by the realization that anyone could even conceive of doing such a thing.

Solomon locked gazes with Xena, concern clear in his expression, a question behind his lips. "I fear that these actions are a conspiracy to discredit me to the neighboring kingdoms. More than that, I fear that success could lead to a horrible war."

All eyes turned to the expressionless Xena, waiting to hear her take on the situation and her magical plan to solve it. She still wasn’t comfortable in this role, so similar and yet distant from her warlord days. Gabrielle sensed it in every problem they involved themselves in. The warrior constantly worked to keep her darker powers in check, somehow managing to tackle events with more civilized methods rather than the violence of her past. The only eyes Xena’s crystal blues settled on were the bard’s, leaving no doubt that she saw everything the young woman was thinking. If they could prevent this one woman’s death, Gabrielle couldn’t refuse to help. An almost invisible softening of the warrior’s chiseled features completed the silent communication.

Xena finally turned to Solomon, folding her arms defiantly over her chest. "I’ll help prevent your war and protect the Queen, but we do this my way." Her voice told that no argument would be accepted, even though the bard knew that perception probably wasn’t completely true. If she asked, things might be different. But that wasn’t necessary at the moment.

"I defer to your superior skills, warrior. I only ask that you keep this fine woman safe from harm." His dark eyes twinkled at Makeda, who looked away with a youthful blush. Gabrielle had sensed that Solomon and this woman were involved in at least some degree, but the dark woman seemed so innocent. She also wondered what of Solomon’s wife would think as he surely had one.

Ignoring the flirting between the royals, the warrior set up a plan. "Gabrielle and I will see that the Queen is guarded at all times. That should keep her safe from a single assassin." The bard beamed at being included in the scheme. Not long ago she would have been concerned that she would be left stewing in some room guarding Argo’s saddle, but things had changed in the last few moons. Xena was no longer willing to leave her behind. It was a pleasant change, to say the least.

"Your rooms are beside Makeda’s, so you can keep an eye on her while she sleeps." Solomon offhandedly added the information, though there was great concern underlying his voice. The bard realized that he truly cared for this young Queen.

"Great. Gabrielle can stay with her tomorrow while I get to know your army a little better. By the end of the day we should have some clues to go on to find out who’s behind this." Xena stood, signaling the end of the conversation. Gabrielle followed suit after bidding their companions goodnight, following the warrior as her long strides led them from the hall.

The bard found it hard to hold her tongue for the entire trip to their room, but somehow she managed. Most of the time she knew that Xena didn’t mind her rambling. She’d learned over the years, though, that the warrior sent certain little signals to indicate that she was not in the mood for idle chitchat. The stern set to her companion’s shoulders told her this was one of those times. Following the silent warrior into the large room, she leaned against the door to shut it, launching into her tirade of questions. "So what do you think, Xena?"

"I think I’m going to bed."

The bard sighed, preparing herself for the chore it was going to be to get her friend talking. "No. I mean about Makeda and Solomon. Who’s trying to kill her?"

The bard moved casually to the bed, sitting with one leg on the floor, facing the warrior, who was reclined in a plush chair facing the bed, beginning the ritual sharpening of her sword. "Gabrielle, I still have no idea. I’ll talk to the army tomorrow and try to see if anyone there holds a strong grudge against either of them." The dark woman looked up from her work to look at her friend perching on the edge of the bed. "The best bet is that someone on the inside is responsible."

"Maybe it was just those two guys." She pushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and leaned closer to her friend.

The warrior seemed to consider this, her brow furrowed in concentration. "Perhaps, but I doubt it. The two attackers were from two different armies. Looks like a bigger conspiracy to me. We’ll see."

"Okay." Gabrielle was almost…disappointed. She knew that Xena was merely mortal, but the things she did often made her friend forget that she couldn’t perform miracles. Most of the time she managed to do the impossible. When she didn’t, it was hard to remember that the warrior was just a woman. An amazing woman indeed, but not quite a goddess.

The bard walked across the room to search through their supplies, stacked neatly in the farthest corner. She separated her sleeping shift from the rest of the clothes, shook it out with a crack of the air, then stripped off her travelling garb. Pulling on the light fabric, she walked to the bed absently and hopped under the covers. Leaning on her elbow, the bard watched her friend’s hands rhythmically stroke her sword.

A raised eyebrow and slight smirk alerted her that something was amiss. She knew that inquiring look well. Thinking furiously, the young woman puzzled over what her friend was internally laughing at. I hate it when she does this. The last straw was Xena shaking her head and returning her attention to her task. "What?"

Sparkling blue eyes turned back to her in amusement. "Nothing. I was just wondering what’s wrong with your bed."

"Oh…I…" Fair cheeks immediately began to shade darker. She’d forgot all about the other bedroom they’d been given. Lately there was never a question as to one room or two. Gabrielle enjoyed being close to her companion and had an idea that Xena shared her feelings. There was an emptiness when they were apart.

The warrior didn’t wait too long to take pity on her. "Don’t worry about it. The bed’s plenty big enough for both of us."

The bard let out a relieved breath and settled into the pillows. Sometimes the warrior surprised her with her ability to understand. Watching her best friend’s restless routine, Gabrielle allowed the rasping sound to lull her into a contented sleep.

Chapter 3

Even in the beautiful palace housing them, the routine for warrior and bard remained strangely normal. Xena arose before the rooster’s crow, pulled on leather and armor in silence, stole a glance at her sleeping companion, then quietly exited the room. She knew that Gabrielle would wake soon, missing her presence, but the bard was used to it, having resigned herself to the warrior’s unbreakable routines.

Besides, Xena enjoyed the opportunity to see her friend sleeping. She was so innocent and beautiful. There couldn’t be a better way to begin a day in the tumultuous world where they lived. With her tendencies to darkness, she often needed the reminder that light was all around if she would just look hard enough.

The barracks were a respectable distance away from the palace, far enough to not diminish its beauty, but close enough to provide a defending battalion of soldiers in a heartbeat. The warlord in Xena appreciated the setup, directly in the heart of the ancient city, fully protecting it from surprise. She’d already noticed the patrols of soldiers that protected the city’s borders. If for nothing else, Solomon had her respect for knowing how to protect his precious city.

Pulling her warrior persona completely to the surface, eyes cloudy with unleashed fury, the dark woman strode purposefully to the attentive soldier guarding the entryway. He bristled in anticipation, swallowing nervously, but stood his ground admirably. A slight breeze shook the stripped armor over his thighs. "Halt." His voice was loud, lacking only slightly in conviction.

Xena loved this part of her image. She’d give it all up to bring back the lives she’d taken over the years, but since that was impossible, the warrior didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying men trembling at her feet. "Take me to your leader."

The man swallowed heavily again, his fuzz-covered throat swelling with the effort. "Who…by whose orders?"

"I’m here on behalf of the King." The nervous man didn’t move a muscle, either not believing her or paralyzed with fear, she couldn’t tell. She took a step to bring herself within his space, looking down on him with menace. "Take me to your commander or I’ll go by myself. You choose."

Eyes growing wide, the guard stumbled clumsily back. "This…this way." He was finally able to blink his eyes again, turning toward the building and leading the warrior down the hallway.

The bricked barracks were simple in construction, inside and out. Soldiers didn’t need much, of course, so it was virtually perfect. Rows and rows of cots lined a dusty walkway leading to the lone room in the back. The commander’s area was separated from the rest of the building by a beaded curtain door, much more colorful than seemed appropriate for the basic surroundings.

The guard, seemingly recovered from his insecurities, parted the curtains and flowed through the door, holding the beads open for Xena to enter. "General, a warrior to see you."

As he looked up from the maps on the mahogany table, his eyes told her all she needed to know. It wasn’t the startling colorlessness of them, but the defiant recognition blazing beneath the surface. Xena didn’t recognize him, she knew she would remember if she’d ever seen him before. His dark features were consistent with the rest of the people of the land, but his hair was a snow white and his eyes stood out starkly. Copper skin was chiseled with scars and lines reminiscent of many hard years. Even if he didn’t know her from the past, his eyes told her that he hated her already.

A feral smile graced his thin lips. "Ah…Solomon’s pet finally comes to rest at the master’s feet."

The warrior sighed inwardly. Beautiful. This is going to be a blast. I’m glad Gabrielle isn’t here. With a move the general didn’t see until it was too late, a strong grip was clutching his throat, pinning his body against the nearest support beam. His large hands attempted to free his throat to no avail. "The only person who is going to be resting…permanently…will be you if you talk to me like that again."

She held him there for several gasping moments, until the wildness left his eyes and a hint of fear took over. Much to her muscles’ delight, she allowed him to slide back to the ground, keeping her face inches from his and her fingers lightly clenched around his neck. "I’m here to get answers. We can do it the hard way, or the easy way. It’s up to you."

As the shaken man seemed to make a decision, his jaw set tight. He nodded his head and looked away as the warrior took a step back. "All right. What do you want to know?"

Knowing that the chances at getting any good information from him now were shot, Xena set out to find out all she could about this man. He didn’t appear to have any great love for the famous King he served.

"What do you know about the attacks on Queen Makeda?" The warrior waited patiently with hands on hips.

"Nothing. Her own guard attacked her. I wasn’t there." Anger still sparked his pale eyes as he answered through gritted teeth.

Striking down the urge to throttle the man, Xena kept her own anger from her voice. "Had you ever had contact with her army before she came to the kingdom?" She knew he was lying already. Solomon himself had said the second attack came from one of his guard.

The man bristled sharply, the wild look returning to his face. "You’re crazy if you think I had anything to do with this."

"Everyone has a price." The warrior spoke flatly, sure of her statement. Everyone had a price, of that she was sure, a lesson she’d paid for a hundred times over in blood through the years. She was only just beginning to learn that the price didn’t always involve gold.

"You may, but I serve King Solomon. I don’t have any reason to act against him." White hair flew from his shoulders as he took a violent step backwards, distancing himself from the dark woman. "Take your accusations elsewhere, foreigner."

Holding back a smirk, the warrior exited the room without further words. She’d seen all she needed to. It wouldn’t take much for that man to turn, no matter how much he protested otherwise. The General was full of self-importance, king or no king. The person with the highest price could have his services if it so suited him.

He wasn’t the only person in Jerusalem with means of harming the visiting Queen, though, so Xena set off to talk to anyone who was willing. Somewhere she would pick up the clue to lead her where she needed to go.

The gruff, bearded guard stood at attention as she exited the barracks. His eyes cut to her in apprehension, but he seemed to have overcome his fear of her from the earlier confrontation. When the warrior turned to questioningly face him, the man tried to reclaim some of his honor. "What do you want from me, warrior?"

"Do you serve your King or your General?"

Dark eyes narrowed in confusion. "I serve my General to serve my King."

The guard was simple, his brain visibly working behind his eyes, but Xena could see the honor in his countenance. "Then your King needs some information. Will you give it to me?"

Straightening perceptibly, the man’s leathers creaked as he answered. "I would give my life for the King."

She smiled inwardly. As long as she could find a few men like this, the answers to this little puzzle wouldn’t take so long to find. Then she could get onto more important things. "What do you know of the attacks on Queen Makeda?"

"Only what the General told us…and that her life is still in danger." His shoulders shrugged in dismissal.

The answer was less than satisfying. "What exactly did the General tell you?"

The man shifted a little, suddenly uncomfortable. She could see the war going on within him, wanting to be loyal to his leader, but also wanting to do what was best for the kingdom. "Just that the leader of her guard tried to slit her throat. The General was there with King Solomon’s honor guard. He ran the bastard through right off." The pride was strong in his thick voice.

"Are you saying that the General was there when the second attack happened?" Xena’s eyes widened at the break. If it was true, the General had lied to her in their brief encounter.

Still full of pride, the soldier puffed his chest up to it’s maximum. "He was right there. The General helped saved the Queen. He’s a great leader." The man had no idea that his statement was less than true.

So loyal and so blind. I can’t count the number of men who served me like that and died. The warrior shook her head slightly with regret. If she could help it, this man would not come to that end. "Thank you soldier. You’ve done a service to your king." She nodded to him and continued on her way.

Stalking through the city streets, she planned the rest of her day, intending to spend it systematically questioning the populace. The army was the most important factor. The more of them she could get alone, the better. That meant the first stop was the training grounds she had seen at the edge of the city filled with brave young men marching in unison through the shining sand.

Chapter 4

Soft rays of light fell across Gabrielle’s fair skin, warming it perceptibly as she slowly pulled herself from sleep. Eyes still closed, a small hand immediately fell upon the empty bed beside her, feeling for her friend out of habit. One day she knew she’d wake up and Xena would still be there. It hadn’t happened yet, but she had tremendous faith.

Groggily stumbling out of bed, she began the involved ritual it took to bring herself fully awake. She relished that this morning she could take her time, knowing that no camp had to be deconstructed. It also helped that Xena wasn’t buzzing about her, even though he gentle morning nagging was kind of cute.

A gentle knock sounded from the door just as Gabrielle finished lacing her tall, burgundy boots. As she stood, the long rust skirt covered her footgear, much to her chagrin. Xena had convinced her that she would best serve their purpose by blending in with Queen Makeda’s entourage. She already stood out because of her golden hair and light skin, but at least with a more modest dress she wouldn’t draw so many outraged or lecherous glares. Still, it eerily reminded her of her days as a young girl, her mother constantly trying to teach her all the rules to being a proper young lady.

Thank the gods I didn’t listen to all that crap. With a spring in her step, she hopped up from the bed and moved toward the door. "Come in."

Queen Makeda poked her dark, curly head in before coming fully into the room. In the morning light she seemed even younger than before, her eyes gentle and innocent. Her dress was still regal in its silkiness, but she chose a more conservative than her previous ensembles, perhaps to fit with her newest guard. "Good morning." Spoken so shyly it was almost a whisper.

The bard bowed slightly before addressing the woman. "Good morning, Your Majesty."

"Please Gabrielle. No formalities between us. Call me Makeda and I will call you friend." Shining white teeth enhanced the young woman’s smile as she took in the bard’s nod.

"Okay." She was already feeling a kinship to the mysterious young woman, though she had no idea why. Xena would probably just make a quip about how Gabrielle never met anyone she didn’t like, which wasn’t far off the truth, but Makeda had a quality that reminded her of something. The look in her eyes was so familiar.

The Queen hopped upon the bed’s high mattress in a flourish, smiling as she continued to bounce for a few moments. The actions were less like a regal queen and more like a girl. "Are you staying with me today?"

"Yeah…so what’s the plan?" She’d spent so many years with her warrior friend that the bard was always ready to execute some sort of tactically sound plan.

A delicate hand flew to Makeda’s mouth to muffle her giggle as she fell back on the bed. She finally looked up at Gabrielle, a bright smile on her lips. "There is no plan. I am just waiting in the palace until I have lunch with Solomon." She struggled back up when her companion sat beside her on the soft bed.

With a thoughtful look, the bard nodded her head. Apparently this assignment wasn’t going to be as exciting as she’d first imagined. "Oh, okay." No reason the day should be completely uneventful. I am sitting here with a queen, after all. A glint appeared in caring green eyes. "So, what is the King like?"

Taking a deep breath, dark, dreamy eyes moved to study the ceiling. "He is the most wonderful man I have ever met. So smart and handsome…" Her voice trailed off.

Gabrielle’s eyebrows shot under her bangs in surprise. The answer was nothing close to what she’d expected. Here she was, sitting with the leader of a powerful nation, listening to her coo like a lovesick teenager. Of course, she was a teenager, but still. "Are you…" The bard bit her tongue upon realizing how personal her intended question was.

Makeda turned to her friend with wide eyes, a deep blush visible even through her dark skin. "Oh n…no…" Her voice shook.

"I’m sorry, Makeda. I had no right to ask that." Inwardly kicking herself, she shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

Compassionate dark eyes turned to her. The Queen placed a hand gently on the bard’s knee. "It is okay, Gabrielle. I just…well, nothing has happened between us."

"But you’d like it to." Finishing the thought for the reluctant Queen.

The petite woman let out a deep sigh as she stood from the bed. Her whole bearing changed with her emotions. She moved over to the window and took in the interior courtyard in silence. Brightly colored drapes on both sides of the window made her silver silk robe glimmer radiantly. Her short, coal black hair glistened in the sunlight, the center point of the picture.

When she finally spoke, her voice overflowed with sadness. "Have you ever been in love, Gabrielle?"

Although she hadn’t expected the question, there was no hesitation. "Yes."

Arms tightly over her chest, the Queen turned away to face the room, a melancholy smile on her face. "Good, then maybe you can help me."

Alarm flooded the bard’s body. She suddenly knew that being in love and being able to give advice about it were two very different things. As a matter of fact, from the circumstances of her complicated love life, or lack of one, she knew that she was probably the last person in the known world who should be giving such advice. "Umm…I don’t know if that’s such a good idea."

Makeda chuckled as she settled back on the bed. "Do not worry, I will not hold you responsible. It is nice to have someone to talk to about it. None of my royal guards are exactly the sensitive types."

That got a relieved smile from the bard. She’d never had anyone to talk to about such matters, so she knew exactly where the young woman was coming from. "Alright. As long as you know I’m no expert, tell me all about it."

"I had never been in love until I met Solomon. I never expected it to happen really. The responsibilities I have to my people dictate the course of my life. Every man I have ever met has only known me as the Queen." She smiled sadly and gratefully accepted the sympathy coming from her companion. Her dark eyes showed maturity not present in the girl who was just gushing about a handsome beau.

"The first time I saw him, my heart skipped a beat and I knew that he was like no one I had ever met. At first we talked of stately matters and he showed me all the courtesies of a hosting king." Makeda’s dark eyes turned to the window again, not seeing what was there, but some dream far off in her mind.

After a few moments of silence, Gabrielle decided to try to bring the woman back to the conversation. "And then something changed."

The Queen sighed and turned back to her friend. "Yes and no. I had only been here half a moon, but it felt like a lifetime. Solomon proved to me that he was indeed a wise man, but he’d also stolen my heart. It was a shock to me to realize I never wanted to leave this place." She surveyed the simple guestroom, eyes moving across the padded chair, polished dresser, and carved table without seeing them.

"Does Solomon feel the same way?" The bard ached at the sadness permeating from the woman beside her.

"I think so, though we have never talked of it. When we are together I can see the longing in his beautiful eyes, though he has not so much as kissed me." A mirthless laugh escaped her throat.

Tucking golden hair impatiently behind an ear, Gabrielle’s mind began to work on the problem. At this moment, the broken heart facing her seemed much more important than any possible assassins or wars. This was something she could relate to. Her own dilemma might continue, but this she could solve. "Is the King married?"

Dark brows furrowed and Makeda looked thoroughly confused. She stared at her friend a moment before answering. "Yeeesss." She drew out the word. "I guess he does not wish to add another number to his harem."

Hmmm…Married. That is a problem. No problem was greater than love, though, she was sure. "If he loves you, we can find a way."

"Gabrielle…" The Queen stopped in mid-sentence as a guard stepped through the door. His gleaming armor clanked quietly as he stood rigidly at attention. "Yes?"

"The King requests your presence for the mid-day meal, Your Majesty." His eyes remained fixed somewhere over the women’s heads.

Makeda turned with a smile to the bard. "We can continue this debate later. Please join me for lunch." Her official attitude was firmly in place.

Never one to turn down a good meal, Gabrielle perked at the suggestion, standing enthusiastically. She could mend broken hearts better on a full stomach anyway. "Lead the way, your majesty." A firm arm swept before the Queen.

The young woman smirked at her friend, leading them out of the simply furnished bedroom toward the massive dining hall. Tapestries adorned the passageways throughout the palace, scenes of ancient men doing historic things. Gabrielle didn’t understand them yet, after only seeing them briefly on two passes, but they appeared to depict some of the stories she’d heard about the One God religion. She’d definitely have to arrange it with Xena so that she could spend some serious time just roaming the palace halls.

The bard wondered what kind of trouble her friend was making for the poor citizens of Jerusalem. They’d been apart for a few hours, which provided ample opportunity for the warrior to scare most of the people in any given area witless. Hopefully she’d already figured out this whole assassination mess, so they could spend a while taking in the strange sites of the land.

Once seated at the distractingly long table, the two women chatted amiably, waiting patiently for the king to arrive. The bard was beginning to think that it must be wise to make a grand late entrance when Solomon finally strode through the wide doors. An elegant red robe swished behind him as he made his way to the chair beside Makeda.

"Please forgive me for keeping such beautiful ladies waiting." He appealed to the pair with dark, pleading eyes and a crooked smile.

 

Makeda slapped his arm playfully as he sat, followed shortly by a graceful blush when their eyes met. The chemistry between them was as palpable as the air. "Gabrielle has been telling me about Greece. It sounds like an amazing place."

"Ah… full of heathens is what I have heard." Solomon smirked at the bard and raised an eyebrow in a disturbingly familiar motion. His voice was light and full of laughter. As much as the weight of the world had been on his shoulders in their previous encounters, he seemed like a carefree child sitting beside the Queen, his robed arm resting on the chair back behind her.

Gabrielle was delighted by his playfulness, especially the opportunity to be included in it. She’d heard things about the man, but this was definitely not one of them. No one talked about the Great King Solomon as a mirthful soul. Xena would never believe her. "From where I sit, you look more like a heathen. Doesn’t seem too wise to me."

"Yes, yes, I am Solomon the wise. You must have questions of me. Are you not a bard?" The question suggested that she was somehow failing in her duty to the world. Servants came to their far end of the table and began distributing food to the trio as they bantered.

"I am a bard." She took a bite of a fowl leg as delicately as possible. "That doesn’t mean I need your wisdom, though." Her golden head tilted defiantly, green eyes twinkling.

Solomon tsked at her through a mouth full of vegetables, an action somehow strangely regal. "Do you not need to know how to get your father’s sheep to breed more rapidly. Or how to mill grain so that ale stays fresh longer." He picked up his jeweled wine goblet and tipped it toward her. "Surely you know someone who could use such information."

Eyes slightly narrowed, the bard wondered how he surmised she knew people who might use those facts. Perhaps he did have some keen insight others lacked. She certainly didn’t think she looked like a sheepherder’s daughter any longer and she knew without a doubt that Xena didn’t look like an innkeeper’s progeny. Whatever the answer, she was unwilling to break the reverie they were engaging in to ask idle questions unlikely to be solved.

Small hands released a ravaged leg bone, dropping it on her ornate china dish with a clink, a single finger pointing to the smiling King. "I have most of the knowledge in the known world available to me at the snap of a finger." She made her point by snapping two fingers enthusiastically, waiting an appropriate moment as two pairs of dark eyes looked at her skeptically. "Xena is the wisest and most intelligent person I’ve ever met. She can solve any problem a person, or god, can create. One time…"

And she was off, much to the delight of her companions, spinning tale after tale of her best friend.

Chapter 5

Shutting the heavy wood door with a muted thud, the warrior entered the bedchamber expecting to see Gabrielle fast asleep in the monstrous bed. What she got was a brilliant smile and sparkling green eyes, shifting and mysterious in the flicker of the candlelight. The bard was dressed in her tattered sleeping shift, sprawled on her stomach across the bed, hand perched above a scroll, tightly clutching a delicately carved quill. Xena felt her heart speed up at the vision, swallowing hard and forcing herself to continue on into the room.

"That took longer than you expected I guess, huh?" As always, Gabrielle was giving her the easy way out, knowing the explanation before one was given. The woman knew her far too well.

Xena sat down at her friend’s side, placing one hand gently on her shoulder, silently apologizing for her long absence. "Yeah, I had to follow the troops on maneuvers to talk with some of them."

"So, did you figure out who’s after her yet?" The bard’s eyes took on a challenging glint, one her friend knew well. Many late night discussions had revolved around the warrior’s seeming limitless ability to solve problems. She could never quite convince her friend that her abilities were anything less than godly.

Crossing her arms over her chest, the dark woman gave her friend a menacing look. As an answer she received an elbow in the ribs, which caused the whole bed to jiggle and creak loudly. "I may have learned a thing or two, but I couldn’t convince anyone to blatantly rat out the conspirators."

She hated to leave her friend’s warm energy, but a routine was a routine, so Xena left the bed and crossed to their bags. Silently, she pulled out the stone and rags, settled herself in the room’s only chair, and began to sharpen. Gabrielle took the break in the conversation as a chance to put up her scrolls and move to the head of the bed, snuggling in under the plush covers. The warrior noticed the contented little sighs, feeling a sweet lethargy begin to settle over her body. It took a violent mental shake to pull herself out of that little trap, though she longed for the day when she could fall in willingly.

Gabrielle peered dubiously at her friend’s cleaning routine, seeming to take extra care to examine the familiar sword. "You didn’t have to use that today, did you?" She tried to keep her voice unconcerned, but Xena could hear that slight tremor of worry.

"Nooo." She drew out the word. "I told you I was just investigating today. When you’re not with me it’s much easier for me not to kill people." They both chuckled at the comment, not acknowledging that it was an uncommonly true statement.

Lying on the bed in contented silence, the bard closed her eyes, listening to the sweet sounds of their nightly ritual. The warrior was almost convinced that she had drifted off when her friend finally continued the conversation. "Do you have any suspects?"

Stilling her hands, Xena considered the question. She’d talked to most of the soldiers in the city and the answers she got were almost all the same. And all pointed unerringly to the same unpleasant person. "I do. It seems that General Suttan is the winner of our contest." Resuming her strokes, she concentrated on what she had learned about the man. "It seems that he doesn’t have much love for King Solomon and doesn’t shy away from telling anyone who will listen."

The bard opened her eyes, studying the woman in the chair beside the bed. "Why does Solomon keep him in the army?"

Xena shrugged. "That’s a question I’d like to ask the almighty wise one." Gabrielle smirked at her and tried unsuccessfully to raise a disapproving golden eyebrow. "I talked to the General first and he lied to me about the attack on Makeda."

"So he’s the one?" She turned to face the warrior in anticipation.

"Likely." Xena stood lazily from the chair and crossed the room gracefully. In moments she was wearing her sleeping shift and crawling under the covers beside her friend.

Scooting over to make more room for the dark woman’s bigger frame, the bard looked at her skeptically. "You don’t sound convinced."

Leaning heavily on the headboard, the warrior ran long fingers through silky dark hair. She wished that she could go arrest Suttan right now and get this business over with. It was too early to do that, though, and she hated it. "Just because people don’t like him or he doesn’t like me is no reason to conclude he did it." The bard tilted her head in reluctant agreement. "I haven’t found any concrete evidence and don’t think I can."

Gabrielle frowned, a deep sigh escaping her lips. "What do we do now?"

Xena smiled, warmed immeasurably by the bard’s implicit trust in her to solve any problem. "For now we just need to keep an eye on Makeda and make sure she’s safe. As far as catching the people responsible for the attacks…" The next part wasn’t going to be met with approval and she knew it. It was hard to tell Gabrielle something that would offend her sensibilities. "Well, we just have to hope they try it again."

Propping herself up on her elbows, the bard glared at her friend. "Xena. Isn’t there another way? She shouldn’t have to go through that again."

"If we want to catch them, it’s the only way. They may not even try it again. And if they do, we’ll be ready." She placed a hand on her friend’s leg and patted it gently. "I promise I won’t let her be hurt, Gabrielle."

That seemed to soothe the little woman. She leaned back down onto the bed, pulling the covers back up under her chin. Although the weather was quite pleasant during the day, the chill that settled over the palace at night required the thick blankets. "I know you won’t." Trusting eyes turned back to the warrior. "I just don’t want to have to wait for an attack. You…Someone could get hurt." She turned her head up to study the ceiling.

Xena gently grasped her chin and pulled her eyes back over. Smiling gently at the bard, her fingers ran over the soft cheek below them. "Not gonna happen. I like where I am. I’m not leaving." Gabrielle’s tender smile locked the breath in her throat and the warrior could feel her blood begin to race. I’ll never understand what she can do with just a look.

The bard nodded slowly, breaking the spell their locked gazes created. Xena leaned back against the headboard and collected her thoughts. They had been discussing something…

"Do you think she’s safe enough?" Concern filled Gabrielle’s sleepy voice.

That was enough to get the warrior’s thoughts back on track, though it was always hard to leave the sweet trail she’d been traveling. "I think so. She’s got guards outside the door and patrolling the courtyard. I checked on her earlier and she was fine."

That seemed to comfort the young woman, her eyes closed again as she spoke. "Good. I really like Makeda. We had a lot of fun today. We didn’t really do much except talk and walk around the palace and stuff." She snuggled further under the covers and yawned. "The best part of the day, though, was when we ate with Solomon. After that I met his wife."

Snorting internally, Xena knew that now was as good a time as any to talk with the bard about this. She was going to find out eventually, and a nice, frank discussion about some of Solomon’s less than noble traits now might save her friend some embarrassment later. "Which one?"

"What do you mean which one? How many does he have?" The young woman yawned again.

Seeing her friend like this, totally open and vulnerable, made the warrior grasp the constant desire to protect her from all harm. She smiled down at the golden head and decided to answer truthfully, even though she knew the bard would be bouncing off the ceiling in a matter of moments. "Five hundred the last time I heard."

Wide green eyes stared at Xena, the bard now fully awake and sitting rigidly on the soft mattress. "Holy minotaurs! Why does he have so many wives?"

She couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on her friend’s face. This was one of the many disadvantages Xena had witnessed of believing in the indefinable concept of true love. And Gabrielle believed in it with all her heart. "I don’t know, but he also has several hundred concubines."

Gabrielle spun around on the bed, twisting the thick comforter below her. The dark woman wished that the king in question were here to witness this, although she knew he would somehow get an earful about the subject. "For goodness sakes. You mean King Solomon?" The bard was clearly having trouble grasping the concept that the man she knew could do something so against her code.

"That’s the one." Xena chuckled harder.

"I can’t believe it. He seems like such a nice man." The bard shook her head in disbelief, her eyes going off in deep thought, sadness filling them. The silence in the room turned chillingly serious.

Something was going on with her friend that the warrior didn’t quite understand. Her mind raced in an effort to find an answer. She knew that Gabrielle would question the King’s matrimonial practices, but she couldn’t have guessed it would cause the profound pain that filled the strong woman’s body. Over the years Xena had learned not to try and guess what would affect the bard in this way. Beauty and tragedy that the warrior couldn’t even comprehend often touched her.

She placed a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, waiting for her eyes to refocus and return to her. "I’m sure there’s a reason we don’t know, Gabrielle. From what I can see, he’s a fine man."

"If he was such a great man, he wouldn’t toy with a woman’s affections like I saw him do today. Makeda is in love with him." The young woman was outraged, her eyes filled with disgust and loathing for the breaking of another’s heart. If Gabrielle hated anything, it was seeing someone without love in their life. On more than one occasion, she’d brought lone travelers to the campfire, offering a warm meal and at least one night’s worth of companionship.

Xena had no idea what to say. The bard had made a friend with this little Queen and now there would be no way to explain away the wrong being done her. She had a fighter in her corner from now on. "I’m sure she knows about his wives."

"It’s not right to give your heart to someone when it’s not yours to give. Even if she knows, Solomon can never devote himself to her with all those obligations." A small hand brushed back golden locks as the bard visibly thought through her options. "I wouldn’t share my soulmate with even one person."

Even in the low firelight, the warrior could see the faint blush creeping up her friend’s cheeks when their eyes met. "Neither would I." The words were soft.

A small smile graced the bard’s lips as she took a deep breath, nodding her head in acceptance of the statement. "I feel so bad for her." Letting go of the tension from the revelation, she turned and leaned back into her pillows.

Knowing it would be a while yet before the sleepiness would reclaim her friend, Xena opted to redirect the conversation. "What was his wife like?"

Golden brows furrowed momentarily before she answered. "Okay, I guess. She acted like Makeda didn’t even exist, but she wasn’t mean or anything." She shrugged her shoulders, pulling them from under the covers and then back again. "Kinda stuck-up, really."

"Where did you see her?" It was odd of the bard to have a negative first impression of a person. Every person they’d ever come across seemed to merit the benefit of the doubt. For Gabrielle not to like this woman, she had to be a real bitch.

"She came into the dining hall while I was telling stories. Reminded Solomon that he was supposed to go to the temple with her later on." The bard’s eyes were closed and her breathing was beginning to even. Xena knew that the soft snores that she’d learned to adore were soon to come.

Settling down into the bed for the night, the warrior filed away the information for later evaluation. At the moment it was time to enjoy one of the precious gifts in her life and get a little rest. "Night Gabrielle."

"Goodnight Xena. Sweet dreams." A small hand snaked under the cover unconsciously and gently grasped a larger one.

Taking a deep breath, the warrior accepted her lot for the night, hoping that the rest of her life would be as sweet as this moment.

Continue to Chapters 6-12 (the conclusion)

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