Lunch was delicious, consisting of several huge helpings of roasted lamb, filled with tangy herbs and spices Gabrielle had never tasted before, at least not in that combination. If she hadn’t been about to explode and Xena hadn’t been giving her that look, she probably would have eaten another helping or two. After all, they’d probably never be in this part of the world again. Best to take advantage of the local flavors while they were available, she reasoned.
Which was exactly the reason she was so excited when Queen Makeda declared she wanted to go to the bazaar for the afternoon. Xena wasn’t so amused and tried to talk her out of it, but the young woman had insisted. So as the entourage trotted from stall to stall, closely examining every trinket and cloth, one very irritated warrior followed behind, her eyes piercing any soul who dared to step too close.
Being used to such attention from her friend, the bard merrily walked beside the Queen, continuing the constant chatter they’d been sharing since their first meeting. "Ooohhh, look at this Makeda." She held up a billowy silk blouse, a blue as deep as the ocean depths. "You would look great in this."
Dark eyes studied the garment in question critically. "Actually, I think Xena would look better in it than I."
Gabrielle considered that, imagining her friend’s smooth form moving gracefully beneath the soft material, and decided that the Queen was right on target. "Hmmm."
The petite woman snickered at her daydreaming friend, pulling the shirt out of her hands, folding it neatly and replacing it on the peddler’s table. "It is Sumerian, and for a man." Her voice was a whisper as she laced her fingers around Gabrielle’s firm biceps and led her on the short journey to the next booth.
The bard looked back at the shirt and blushed, turning her eyes to the more practical clothes featured at the next station. "Oh…" Makeda turned understanding eyes to her, patting her arm gently, which made the golden haired woman’s fair skin darken further. Although she’d certainly never voiced her feelings about Xena, she had an idea that the young Queen had figured it out by now. The sparkle in her dark eyes practically confirmed that they had something in common besides their slight statures.
"A caravan of traders came from Sumeria to show their wares this week. That is why I wanted to come to the market today." The dark woman picked up a small trinket, examining it thoroughly. "I will never make it there myself, so this is as close as I will ever get." She smiled sadly at her friend.
Gabrielle thought she was beginning to see how hard Makeda’s life really was. True, she was privileged and never needed to worry about food or clothing, but by being the ruler of her nation, she gave up the normal life that many people took for granted. She couldn’t walk out into the market without the large group of guards that accompanied them now. And she also couldn’t get a date with some guy she thought was cute, or wise. Many other considerations had to be taken into account, and somewhere in the mix, a simple life was sacrificed for the running of a kingdom and the forming of alliances.
The young woman seemed at home in the market, much as the bard at her side did. The dusty square was filled with rows and rows of crowded booths, barely leaving room for three people to walk side by side through them. Colorful banners draped the tops of the stalls, each trying to draw the shoppers’ attention. The guards in front of them seemed unconcerned with the people bustling past the Queen, keeping a respectable distance to allow her some freedom while still close enough to intervene should something happen. The guards behind allowed less distance, mainly because Xena was behind them, pushing them closer to the bard and Makeda anytime they strayed too far.
The next booth was filled with the most beautiful vases Gabrielle had ever seen. Each had a scene carved around the swell, telling of legends and history the bard had never been told. The Queen seemed enchanted by them as well, holding one reverently in her dark hand, studying the story it told. "This is amazing." Her voice was a whisper, barely heard over the murmur of voices and the rumble of wagon wheels.
Running her fingers over the glazed surface, the bard was amazed to feel the detail in the carved figures. A blind person could as easily read this tale as she could. "Xena should see these." She glanced back to see the warrior looking at her, their gazes locking gently, a barely detectable smirk on her lips. Gabrielle could see a great deal of ribbing coming at her expense about this trip. She loved to make Xena shop every once in a while. Her friend could take it up to a point and they would have a wisecrack competition about it for a week.
Eyes still locked with her friend’s, the bard felt her heart drop into her stomach as a look of alarm raged into those beautiful blue orbs. An instant later, sweaty, hairy arms closed around her from behind and Makeda was screaming an ear-piercing wail. Dragging her backward, the man holding Gabrielle firmly stopped as he bumped into the large cart that had been pulled into the narrow path between the stalls, effectively blocking the guards in front from their charges.
At the same time, a man in a dirt stained robe pulled Makeda around to face him, a wickedly curved blade raised in his filthy hand. As the blade lowered with blinding speed, the bard could hear Xena’s battle cry and see her somersaulting over the dumbfounded guards ahead of her. She wouldn’t make it before that shiny metal was buried deep in the Queen’s chest, though, so the golden haired woman knew she had to act.
Stretching her body as far as her height would allow, Gabrielle kicked out at the man attacking the Queen, one foot glancing off his shoulder. The impact caused him to fall to his right, but not before the knife entered Makeda’s body.
Then Xena was there, throttling the attacker as he fell toward her, a strong roundhouse punch connecting solidly with his jaw. He crumpled to the ground at the same time as his victim, both making empty crashes into the sand-covered walkway.
Ice blue eyes turned to the grubby man holding Gabrielle and the woman in his arms could feel a shudder run unabashedly through his body. Seeing an opportunity, she thrust her elbow into his ribs, sending the man curling up behind her, gasping for breath. The bard ran to Xena, who asked her with a look if she was all right. After a nod of her golden head, the warrior continued to close in on her prey.
Before she reached him, though she could have been there in a moment if she chose, the man straightened and pulled a curved, wide bladed sword from his cloth belt. Not waiting for him to swing it, the warrior kicked with one long leg, hitting him in the face with a booted foot, smashing his head back with a crack, sending his body lifelessly to the ground.
Gabrielle rushed to Makeda’s still body, crouching beside her in horror, placing a small hand gingerly on her back. She looked to Xena, who knelt down on the other side, gently turning the woman onto her back. Blood covered her chest, sticking the silky green robe to her dark skin and seeping off onto the ground in a growing puddle. The bard couldn’t bear to look at the knife protruding from her body. This life she led made it hard to invest in friends, knowing that an occurrence such as this was always a possibility. Her heart ached already, tears spilling silently down her fair cheeks.
Xena ripped Makeda’s dress with savage movements, wrapping the strip tightly around the knife. Blue eyes turned to the watching guards, a hint of disgust lurking behind the concern. "Keep pressure on this and take her to the healer, now." Her voice was stern, making the men jump to take the Queen back to the palace as fast as humanly possible.
The men set off with the wounded Queen, leaving the warrior and bard in the middle of a crowd filled with shocked shoppers. Gabrielle was still crouched in the dirt, tears streaming from her soft green eyes. Xena gently drew her up, placing an arm around her shoulders, steering her toward the palace. Once out of the crowd of bustling people, she spoke softly. "She’ll be okay, Gabrielle."
The bard turned blood shot green eyes to her friend. "Really?" Her voice shook with emotion.
"Really. It’s just a shoulder wound." She placed her index finger just under the straps at the bottom of her shoulder pads. "The knife was keeping the bleeding low and the healer will know what to do."
Gabrielle let out a relieved sigh, poking her friend in the ribs. "You could have mentioned that a couple of minutes ago." Xena sheepishly shrugged her shoulders. The bard snorted in exasperation. "Why was she unconscious?"
"I think she just passed out." The warrior rolled her eyes.
"Don’t laugh. I get that feeling all the time when I’m about to be killed." She poked her companion’s firm stomach again, glad the tension of the moment before was gone.
Xena laughed her low, rumbling laugh, still cradling the bard’s wide shoulders. "That wouldn’t happen if you’d quit offering yourself up to every thief, degenerate, and murderer we pass."
"If you didn’t attract them like moths to a candle I wouldn’t have that problem, Miss leather and muscles." She knew that it seemed like she was a magnet for bad luck, but the bard refused to believe that the Fates had it in for her. And even if they did, she wouldn’t trade all the harrowing episodes she’d survived if it cost her the chance to spend her life with Xena.
Despite the recent attack, a smile creased both women’s faces as they walked through the huge double doors of the palace.
Standing at the back of Queen Makeda’s luxurious quarters, leaning lithely against the grainy wall, one foot flat against its surface, Xena could see every inch of the room. No one could enter without the warrior springing onto them from her perch. The young woman had somehow escaped death, but the wound had left her weak and vulnerable. Leaving her unprotected for a moment could cost her life.
I should have guarded her like this back in that street and maybe this wouldn’t have happened. The warrior berated herself for the thousandth time since the incident. Failure didn’t happen to her often, but when it did, it left her mind in a whirling rage of self-loathing. And not only that, she’d promised her partner that nothing would happen to her new friend. Jaw muscles clinched, her mind raced again over what went wrong in the bazaar. One moment the guards were tightly packed bookends against the shopping pair, the next moment had been filled with chaos, ending with a knife protruding from the Queen’s chest. It could have been Gabrielle. The thought echoed throughout her tormented brain.
As though sensing her friend’s discomfort, the bard turned gentle green eyes on her dark form, flashing a brilliant smile meant only for the warrior. Her small hand still rested on Makeda’s forehead, running a wet cloth against the warm surface. The woman had a low fever, so the healer had started her on several different herbs right away. She’d woken up once since they settled her in her own room, then drifted back off in a medicine induced sleep once she realized she wasn’t dead.
Gabrielle was sitting casually at the small woman’s side, where she’d been since they’d arrived from the market. Xena had been watching her carefully administer to Makeda, love in each touch, even for this woman she barely knew. If she didn’t know how caring Gabrielle was, the warrior knew she’d be jealous.
Not breaking eye contact, the bard waved her friend over to the bed. "C’mere."
Though she had no idea why, the soft words and gentle gesture brought a flush to the warrior’s skin. Trying to regain control of herself, she pulled her body off the wall to join her friend by the bed. "Hey." Her voice was low and emotional, looking into those gentle eyes that touched her soul. If something would have happened to Gabrielle…She couldn’t stop the feeling as it rushed through her, thanking any of the gods that might listen to her wishes.
Laying a hand on the warrior’s arm, pulling her so that their legs touched, a puzzled face looked up at her tall friend. "What’s wrong?"
"Nothing." Xena did her best at a smile, hoping the bard didn’t see through it to her true fears. Neither of them were ready for that. "I’m trying to figure out who did this." Steel blue eyes glanced to the prone woman.
Giving a look that made it perfectly clear she didn’t believe that explanation for one moment, Gabrielle let her get away with avoiding the question. They had an understanding developed over years of travel. The bard didn’t ask and the warrior didn’t tell. Xena knew her friend waited patiently for her to express herself on her own, biting back questions she was practically dying to ask, giving smiles of delight when the recalcitrant warrior actually let loose with an emotion.
Gabrielle stood, pulling Xena away from the bed, stopping in front of the window overlooking the courtyard. "Are you gonna put the pinch on the guys who attacked us?" The spunky woman’s eyes glinted with excitement at the thought, the hand that wasn’t holding the warrior’s arm imitating the maneuver in question. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
Finally regaining her composure completely, Xena smirked at the bard. I’m gonna have to teach her pressure points one of these days. She placed a hand on Gabrielle’s firm shoulder, briefly noting the proximity of her friend, most definitely within her personal space, and the now familiar fact that she simply didn’t care. "I thought I might. Want to come and interrogate him?" Pale blue eyes sparked dangerously.
The bard’s face transformed with a brilliant smile, her hand tightening further against the warrior’s arm. Then she looked back to the bed and the sleeping figure there, returning bittersweet green eyes to her companion. "I’d better stay with Makeda in case she wakes up."
Before Xena could respond, her attention was drawn to the guarded door, where Solomon was passing through, impatiently waving off the soldiers who attempted to follow him. The King was dressed in uncharacteristic trousers and a sweat stained white shirt. Stopping abruptly at the side of the bed, he reached out a shaking hand, holding it just above the Queen’s forehead.
Gabrielle returned to the bedside, quietly facing the distraught King. "She’s going to be okay." Her voice was soft.
Misty dark eyes looked up to her, seemingly noticing her presence for the first time. "I just heard what happened. I…" He stopped in a choked gasp, putting a hand over his mouth and turning his glare back to the woman on the bed.
The bard’s expression softened as she looked at the man try to hold back his tears. Xena knew her friend was regaining some of her faith in the man’s character, just as she was. No matter how many women he kept at his leisure for whatever reason, Solomon truly cared about Makeda. The tears streaming down his coppery cheeks were proof.
Another set of footsteps, heavy and hurried, prompted the King to wipe his face clean with a sleeve. The woman appeared at his side, looking at the prone Queen with an emotionless stare. The warrior looked to Gabrielle, who seemed to not be too shocked at the woman’s presence.
"Perhaps she should leave now." The woman directed the statement to Solomon, an unrestrained hint of venom in her voice.
"The trip is long, Miriam. She will leave soon enough." His voice was low and exasperated, the automatic statement evidence that the argument was an old one.
Xena observed the woman closely, remembering Gabrielle’s less than enthusiastic impression of her. She shared the sentiment, noting the woman’s hostile posture, her plump body as rigid as the pull of the earth would allow. Long black hair fell over the shoulders of her seamless gray robe. She may have been one of the King’s wives, but her appearance was anything but regal. If not for the richness of her clothing, she could have been any common servant.
"Send extra soldiers with her and they can travel more slowly." Her voice was nasal and high. As an idea formed in her mind, the warrior was very glad she didn’t have to stay around that for long.
Solomon’s temper snapped, turning blazing black eyes on his wife. He straightened to full height and bellowed. "That is enough. You have no right to be here. Leave." A demanding finger pointed to the open door.
The pair on the other side of the bed kept their eyes away from the scene as much as possible. Xena hated being an intruder on interpersonal relationships almost as much as she hated people intruding on hers.
The large woman reluctantly fled the room, leaving a furious Solomon standing beside the bed, hands shaking at his sides. "I am sorry about that ladies. Miriam is a little strong willed at times."
"It’s okay, Solomon." Gabrielle flashed him a gentle smile before his eyes returned to the delicately sleeping woman.
Silence settled over the room, an eerie breeze flowing over the occupants. Though the Queen was well out of danger this time, she was still in a precarious position. Someone was trying to kill her and it didn’t look like anything was going to stop them from other attempts. Thankfully, some potentially great leads waited for the warrior in the prison.
Not wanting to disturb the grieving man, Xena made pinching motions in the air, tilting her head toward the door. The bard nodded with a smirk, a stern look telling the warrior not to take it too far. She gave her own crooked smile in return, striding from the room on a mission.
The smell of the prison was almost overpowering, even to Xena, who had been around the stench of death more times than she liked to recall. The large structure, tucked indiscreetly among the long rows of clustered white brick buildings, was distinctive enough for all citizens to be reminded of its presence. It towered over its neighbors, bars covering the small, high windows.
The burly guards at the door had let her through without protest, apparently already under instruction from the King himself. She found the attackers in the first cell in a very long row of filthy cages. Neither man was fully conscious, both groaning with each breath expelled from their lungs.
Pushing back the desire to punish the soldiers who were responsible for the beating the prisoners had obviously suffered, Xena waved them off, standing in the open door of the cell, looking down at what she had to work with. Blood covered the already dirty clothes each man wore, their faces unrecognizable masses of swelled, damaged tissue. The warrior’s blood boiled at the sight. Someone had beaten these men in the hopes that they died, no doubt so she would not be able to get information from them. Neither looked like they would make it another candlemark.
She knelt down next to the closest man lying on his back in the dirt-encrusted straw. His eyes fluttered open as he tried to speak, his mouth only opening in empty gasps. Tears streamed down his cheeks when he was finally able to make a ragged sentence, barely heard by the warrior’s keen hearing. "I…can’t…move."
Inhaling a deep, frustrated breath, Xena put a hand against his stomach, immediately feeling the high-pressured swelling and misplaced ribs. He didn’t have long. "It’s okay." She whispered near his ear. Casting eyes across the man’s body to the other prisoner watching her raptly, she made a decision, thankful again that the bard was not with her.
"Who are you working for?" Her voice was emotionless, her eyes hard set, transparent in the dim light coming through the slit window at the top of the wall. The man below her merely gasped, a slight trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth.
Pushing all the memories fighting to surface far away, the warrior slammed her fingers into his neck, exhibiting only her well-practiced nonchalance at the man’s pained expression. "Tell me who hired you." She didn’t think he needed the rest of the explanation. From the short distance that separated her from his glassy eyes, Xena could see the fear, and acceptance, pouring forth. Still, it was little consolation. This was just more blood on her hands she’d hoped to avoid.
A few pained expulsions of blood-filled air marked the man’s passage, his body losing all traces of rigidity, his eyes staring fixed into her soul. Stepping over his limp form, seemingly unaffected, the warrior crossed the cell, stopping just short of the sitting man, bristling at the absolute terror in his bloodshot eyes. He scooted away until his back hit the grainy wall, sending a dusty cloud onto his head, unnoticed in his fright.
"Who are you working for?" She advanced on him relentlessly, stopping when her boots touched his. Despite his battered appearance, his eyes lost all traces of injury, wild with the desire to flee.
"I…I’m not sure of his name." He stammered over each word, his voice shaking uncontrollably. "We met him at a tavern. Levi…I think that’s ‘is name."
"Exactly what did he ask you to do?" The man looked puzzled at the question. Xena merely stared at him menacingly, detached from the whole scene, refusing to notice the stench of the man’s now wet tunic.
Smashing himself further into the wall, the prisoner looked close to passing out from fear. His eyes shot from her towering height to the door, pleading for rescue. "To kill the Queen."
The warrior nodded, satisfied that she had him exactly where she needed him. "What did this Levi look like?"
"A soldier. He was a soldier. Long black hair and a beard." The frightened man smiled slightly, clearly hopeful that the interrogation was over.
Xena sighed. That description fit almost every man in this area of the world. The Fates wouldn’t allow him to say that the man had snow white hair and clear eyes. At least he’d given her a name. It was something. "Where is this tavern?"
"Just past the market. Has a boar’s head over the door. Can’t miss it." A shaking hand pointed in the direction of the bazaar.
Without a further glance at the quivering prisoner, Xena left the cell, bypassing the attempts of the guard to question her. As she strode up the empty street, the dead man’s face filled her vision, his sightless eyes staring, blaming her. If the buildings would have had breaks between them, instead of being built contiguously as they were, the warrior knew her instinct to bolt out of the town would have overcome her. An overwhelming urge to get away from the people crowding every corner and the tightly packed houses and herself rushed through her being. As it was, she was trapped on her course, heading for the market place and the tavern that would hopefully yield a solution to this ever-frustrating mess.
The structure was like all the others around it, white bricks making up the walls, a cobblestone walkway leading to the door. The only distinguishing feature was the wooden sign dangling from a pole over the entrance. A boar’s head was painted in sloppy brush strokes, barely forming the animal’s features, ivory tusks abstractly distinguishable from its snout. Xena had to chuckle when she saw the less than spectacular representation. She had expected a dried head to be hanging over the door, the boar’s fierce spirit protecting all those who entered. I’ve either spent way too much time listening to a creative bard or too much time killing stuff. She sighed sadly.
Concealing her identity to the patrons’ of the tavern, a dark cloak swished in the wind as she closed the heavy door behind her. Unlike her normal entrances, a head or two turned in her direction, then returned to the interior of the room, back to something more interesting. If she’d been only in her warrior garb, the game would have been over before it began. This way she could get some answers. She spotted the most useful person to her, the barkeep, and walked toward him.
The beefy man poured mug after mug full of ale, working the barrel’s tap as though he could do it in his sleep. His eyes landed on Xena momentarily, unconcerned, then returned to the rote task. After a moment, she spoke above the bunched voices behind her. "Do you know a soldier named Levi?"
Raising his dark eyes, he peered past her, not acknowledging the question. He scanned the tavern with practiced eyes, not stopping long on each table or person, not intruding in his patron’s privacy. The room was filled with sturdy round tables, candles lighting each center, rough looking soldiers sitting around them in clusters. If nothing else, the place looked safe from attack, at least for a few more hours. No one seemed to be drunk yet.
Just as the warrior considered introducing the barkeep to her famous fists, he turned to her and spoke. "He’s in the corner with a lady." His hand set down a full mug of ale, then pointed to the back of the room.
Giving the man a nod, Xena studied the scene. She could see the profiles of the couple, taking in the soldier with familiarity, the lines on his face evidence of a fighting man’s hard life. There was nothing striking or menacing about him. Just another soldier, blurred together in her mind with the multitudes she’d seen in her time.
As her eyes turned to the woman, dressed in robes too fine for the simple establishment, Xena felt a burst of blood rush though her veins. Her lips wanted to curl into a smile, of joy, of relief. It was Miriam, as she’d suspected, idiotically sitting in the middle of town talking to a conspirator to the assassination attempt. The warrior hadn’t liked the woman since their brief encounter and her reaction to Makeda’s latest attack had raised a red flag in her mind. She didn’t know if or how General Sutan fit into the scheme, but now she knew the motive and had at least one guilty party.
Xena didn’t want to confront the woman here, in a crowd. Nor did she think it was her job at all. This was something that needed to be left up to the King and his infinite wisdom.
A raucous round of laughter drew her attention as she arose from the barstool. At the table nearest the door sat a group of celebrating soldiers, rough and rude as any in the place. What distinguished this group was the man sitting lead at the table, his silver hair setting him apart from all of his men. Suttan didn’t seem to notice the warrior walk past his table, nor did he seem to notice two conspirators covertly talking in the back corner of the room. The man was caught up in the life a soldier, oblivious to all that was going on around him. At most, he was an incompetent leader of men. Xena marked the information down in her book, confident that she could strike him from the conspiracy suspect list. Though he wasn’t doing a stellar job leading Solomon’s army, he also wasn’t involved in any crime that didn’t entail wine, women, and debauchery.
In the dry, fresh evening air, away from the smell of sweat and leather, the warrior evaluated her options. Once Solomon arrested Miriam, the only thing left to do would be to round up the soldiers assisting the disgruntled woman and turn them over to justice. After that, she and Gabrielle could book passage back to Greece, away from stinging sand and the sticky heat.
Then what once we get back? More fighting, more killing. Xena shook her head in disgust. She realized that one of her infamous foul moods was coming on, but felt incapable of stopping it. The image of her latest victim stuck in her head, empty eyes seeming to mirror her soul. Though she only hastened his imminent death, it still struck deep in her battered heart. It seemed the more she tried to redeem herself, to work for Gabrielle’s indefinable "greater good", the more people that died at her sword.
Her mind told her that the man took his own life by trying to take another, while her heart spoke of an end to violence and a better way. The part of her that was Gabrielle looked on with a disappointment that injured her more than a knife in the back. Things were supposed to be different now that she walked this path, and she sadly noted that they were. Before, when a man fell to her blade, she tilted her face to the sun, letting it bathe her in glory. Now, as the blood of even the guiltiest soul soaked the ground before her, the warrior felt the blow acutely in every fiber, every tear. She longed for an end to the killing.
Each step to the door of the palace fell to her dark demeanor, her stride purposeful and confident. The skin was taut along her high cheekbones, her jaw clenched against the anger. Soldiers parted for her as if she were the King himself, though she barely noticed, her mind trained on bringing an end to this escapade. They’d spent far too much time in the land of Canaan for Xena’s taste.
Knowing that at least Gabrielle would be there, the warrior entered Makeda’s room, quickly noting the young woman sitting up in her plush bed. Solomon sat on one side of her, Gabrielle on the other. As she’d become accustomed during her long reign as chief intimidator, all conversation, joyful only a moment before, ceased abruptly when the warrior’s presence was detected. Only the bard looked up at her with welcome.
Gabrielle stood from the bed, meeting the warrior as she reached the foot. She placed a hand gently on Xena’s arm. "I’m glad you’re back, I was getting worried."
Taking a deep breath, Xena did her best to ignore the comforting presence that her friend provided. Right now, more than anything, those well-built walls of hers needed to stay firmly in place. If they didn’t things wouldn’t be pretty.
She roughly pulled her arm out of the bard’s grasp, choosing not to look at the young woman’s face, already knowing the hurt would be there, as she’d seen so many times before. Her eyes drilled into the seated King. "Miriam is the one trying to kill Makeda." As usual, short and to the point, just the way she liked it.
"Mir..that is ridiculous. Miriam wouldn’t do something like that. You must be mistaken." His dark head shook in disbelief.
"I saw her speaking with a man involved in the last attack." She held her body tense, trying to project as much authority as possible. She didn’t want this man’s personal feelings getting in the way of ending this threat. "She’s the one, Solomon."
His eyes narrowed at the way she said his name. "I will speak with her. I am sure there is an explanation." Solomon’s shoulders straightened in defiance.
Feeling the rage boiling just under the surface, the warrior cast her gaze over the King’s head, into the courtyard. "Do what you want. I just hope Makeda doesn’t pay the price for your ignorance."
Much to her dismay, Xena couldn’t calm her building stress. Even with the mystery solved, her shoulders still weighed heavy under pressure. Nothing had gone the way she intended. Gabrielle had been hurt through Makeda, Solomon hadn’t turned out to be the all-seeing man she’d hoped, and she still hadn’t secured the scroll she’d hoped to find. She berated herself for believing in such things. She’d been around too long to pick up her friend’s innocent dreams.
Letting her eyes pass over Gabrielle’s appalled face as she moved, Xena turned from the quiet trio, striding purposefully through the door. She’d done what she could to convince the King to take action against Miriam, short of taking the woman into custody herself. Hopefully it was enough.
After a few minutes of angry silence, Solomon finally dismissed the warrior’s words, turning his attention back to Makeda and Gabrielle. "What we need, ladies, is a celebration." His smile was wide as he said the words.
"What kind of a celebration?" The young Queen’s voice was much stronger than it had been earlier in the day. Her strength was returning much faster than it would have if Xena hadn’t been there to treat her wound on the scene. As it was, she only lost a minor amount of blood.
Taking her delicate hand in his larger ones, he unconsciously placed a kiss on the dark skin. Makeda’s eyes lit up delightedly. "A private one, for you and I, and Gabrielle…" He turned to the bard, nodding to her in approval. "We need a celebration of new friends, of old souls, and of bittersweet partings." His face took on a sad expression, his eyes going distant for a moment, then returning to Makeda.
Gabrielle had never seen him so uninhibited. Since sending Miriam away, he’d been doting on his young love, charming her with sweet words and gentle touches. There was no mistaking his motives now. Whether for the first time, or the five hundredth, Solomon was in love. The bard knew the look well. She also knew well his caution, never quite saying his real feelings, or touching as expressively as he wanted to touch.
"That’s a great idea, Solomon, but I don’t think now is the time." She motioned to the prone woman between them.
"That might be true, Gabrielle, be if we plan on a celebration, we have got to do it soon. Makeda is leaving in less than a quarter moon. Her entourage is preparing as we speak." The King stood, arms crossed over his silk covered chest.
Mirroring the action, the bard sighed in dismay. She’d only met these people, and now she was going to have to part from them, perhaps forever. "Does she have to leave?"
Makeda cleared her throat, interrupting Solomon’s answer, apparently not too happy about being discussed as if she was not in the room. Her eyes drooped slightly, her voice sleepy. "I must return to my kingdom, though I would wish nothing more than to stay here with my friends. As soon as I am able, we go back to Askum."
"Then we’ve got to make your last few days special." She accepted Makeda’s nod, watching her tired eyes close. The Queen’s breathing evened almost immediately. The bard motioned Solomon to the window and spoke in a low voice. "What are you going to do?"
His voice was a tortured whisper. "I am going to watch her leave."
Gabrielle looked out into the courtyard, seeing the answer to her questions in a rigid, leathered body. Xena was seated on a low bench, her hands gripped tightly on the smooth wood beside her legs. Just the thought of being in Solomon’s situation made the bard cringe, her heart pounding for the man’s pain. There had to be something she could do for him. "I…I don’t think I could stand that, if it happened to me."
"I want you to know, Gabrielle, that I care very deeply for Makeda. But I knew from the beginning, from the first time her eyes looked into my soul, that this would happen." The candlelight behind them flickered across his face, showing lines of age that hadn’t been there before. "We both have duties that will not allow what we may want. No matter how badly we want it. That…that is why I have not allowed us to get any closer than we have. I do not want to see her hurt."
Turning her eyes to him, the bard shook her head. For someone so wise, Solomon was totally missing the point. "But don’t you see, Solomon, she’s already hurt." He let out an explosive breath and turned away from her. "If you refuse to express your feelings now, you’re only putting up a dam when the river’s already flooded over the land."
The King ran a hand through his pitch hair, looking anything but regal. At the moment, he looked more like a confused boy, wishing the weight of the world wasn’t settled so squarely on his shoulders, amazingly similar to the warrior still brooding outside the window.
Sensing Solomon’s internal struggle increase, Gabrielle spoke in her most soothing, gentle voice. "I’ve been told that it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Maybe you should take advantage of the time you have left together and deal with the consequences after." The bard had to fight the desire to laugh at her, of all people, saying that. She realized that her own situation made her want to help the star crossed lovers all the more.
"Is that what you have done, Gabrielle? Thrown all caution to the winds for your love?" He turned back to her, his dark eyes brimming with tears, his voice cutting. His arms were out from his sides, palms turned up in question.
Gabrielle couldn’t help but drop her head at the harsh question. She hadn’t realized that even he had seen her heart so clearly. "No, you know it’s not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do." She cast strong green eyes on him, pulling one of his trembling hands toward her body. "You’ve just got to have the courage to take the chance, Solomon. My day of bravery hasn’t come yet. You’re about to miss yours."
Tears streamed down his face as he nodded his head in acceptance. Still gripping her hands firmly, he stroked her cheek gently with the other. "How did you become so wise, young one?" His voiced trembled.
The bard laughed softly. "I’m anything but wise. I don’t go a day without doing something utterly stupid and usually dangerous." Solomon moved his hand so that his larger ones covered both of hers completely, comfortingly. "Naïve maybe, but never wise."
"No, no. You are wrong Gabrielle. I can see an amazing wisdom in you. You have the truest heart I have ever known. You should trust it." He turned his head to the window, directing both of their attentions to the still figure framed there.
The smile that creased her face was involuntary, but she wouldn’t have stopped it if she could have. Solomon said to trust her heart. It sounded so easy, and tempting. One day… "Perhaps." She squeezed his hand one last time, then pulled free, taking a step back. "Right now I, uh, need to go."
Solomon gave her a knowing smirk. "Of course you do. Come back and stay with Makeda in the morning. I will have plenty of business to attend to and I do not want her to be left alone." He waved her away, pointing to the open door.
"I’ll see you then." She left the room, barely noticing the rows of guards placed all over this wing of the palace, her steps taking her to the interior courtyard. Standing still in the cool night air, the bard waited patiently for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, taking in soothing breaths.
She soundlessly approached the warrior, knowing that her presence had been detected by her friend’s keen senses before she even stepped out of the palace. Gabrielle was thankful of the covering dress she was still wearing. The air was just cool enough to put prickles on her arms, as a slight breeze rustled through her golden hair.
The courtyard was empty, save the two silent women, several well cared for trees, and a pool of clear water. Silver light rippled off the surface, reflecting a perfect sliver of moon and a million dots of light. Gabrielle sat gingerly on the cold smoothness of the bench, leaving a space between them. Earlier, she’d seen the guilt and grief of the past in Xena’s eyes, a past she feared the warrior would never let herself be free of. Knowing her friend’s self-torture, the bard found the slights she was often given easier to take.
After several moments of hearing only their own breathing and the rush of the wind, the warrior broke the silence. "Makeda looked better." Her voice still comprised of anger, she kept her eyes across the yard, her hands still firmly gripping the wood below her.
"She is. She’ll be leaving in a few days." Studying the warrior, Gabrielle noted the relieved exhale of breath, and the slight withdrawal of tension from her shoulders. "It’s hard to watch two people so in love be torn apart."
"Either she leaves or someone will kill her. Solomon doesn’t seem very willing to take care of that problem." A group of soldiers marched across the other end of the courtyard in formation, armor clinking in the stiff breeze. "Love won’t do her any good if she doesn’t have a life."
Gabrielle smiled at her friend’s typically practical view of life. Xena could be the most complicated person in the world at times, but when it really came down to it, her acceptance of the simplicity of life defined her. Still, the bard enjoyed trying to get her to see the beauty in things. "She might say that life doesn’t do you any good without love."
Blue eyes turned her way, a smile slowly creeping into them, some of the anger fleeing into the night air. "Or you might say that."
"I might." Sensing her chance, Gabrielle scooted across the wood until their thighs were touching lightly. "What happened tonight?"
The warrior released a mirthless laugh, shrugging her broad shoulders helplessly. "I killed a man and found out who was behind the assassination attempts. What do you think happened?" The softness of her voice took the sting out of the words.
Nodding her head in understanding, the bard put her arm casually around her friend’s waist and gave an affectionate squeeze. "I think you saved the day and stopped all the bad guys, just like you always do."
Xena shook her head in mock bewilderment. "What am I gonna do when you finally figure out I’m not the hero you think I am?" One eyebrow raised in question.
Gabrielle could hear the humor in the statement, but knew it was an old, old fear of the warrior. "That’ll never happen."
"I wasn’t much of a hero today. You could have been killed and Makeda almost was." Frustration was evident in her silky voice.
Staring up at the night sky, the bard searched for the words to express her faith. "But we weren’t."
"I wasn’t fast enough to prevent the whole thing. I should have been. I promised you she wouldn’t be hurt." Blue eyes remained fixed across the empty courtyard.
"You’ll always be my hero, Xena. No matter what happens, you’ve already saved me a million times over." She placed her golden head on a strong, well-padded shoulder, soaking up her companion’s warmth and the night’s peace.
The warrior was silent for a time, leaning into the embrace without reservation. Though the bard knew her tough warrior would never say it, moments of reassurance and commitment like these were very important to her. She needed to be dragged back to the present after being pushed so violently into her past, as often happened.
Not realizing she’d fallen asleep, the bard startled when the warrior’s arm closed over her shoulders. She blinked sleepily into blue eyes, accepting the silent tug that pulled her up from the bench, toward the warm comfort of the palace and their room.
Walking through the hallowed halls of the temple, gold adorning every surface, Xena wished this mission wasn’t a secret one and that the bard could be with her. While Gabrielle would love the gift she was procuring, she’d also very much like to see the inside of the magnificent building. The warrior knew that if she could appreciate the beauty of the place, her observant friend would be giddy in her appraisal. The warrior smiled as she imagined the way the bard’s eyes would light up at the grandeur of it all, which also brought up the picture of her friend as she’d seen her last, sleeping peacefully in their rumpled bed.
When she’d first read the message from Solomon, a simple plea for help, an idea had formed in her mind. Looking back on it, she couldn’t help but laugh. Here she was, the fierce warrior princess, traversing the world to buy a birthday present for her friend. The bigger you are…
The guard led her into a spacious office where the King sat studying parchments. The dark man looked up at her with a smirk. "I see you have come for payment."
"I’ve come for what we discussed, yes." She couldn’t meet his eyes. Not that he was so unlike her, pining for a woman he couldn’t have. They were both pretty pathetic in her eyes.
Solomon thumbed through the scrolls piled on the desk until he found the one he wanted. He held it gingerly, tapping it against one palm. "She will like this." He smiled at the warrior’s nod. "Gabrielle is a very remarkable person. I am thankful she was not hurt in the attack."
Putting her hand out for the scroll, Xena’s expression turned grim. "So am I. You really need to reevaluate your security system, Solomon. It bites."
"You have noticed that, have you." His chuckle trailed off as her face remained distant. "I plan to take care of it. All of it." He clinched his jaw, a determination setting in his eyes.
The furrow of his brow convinced the warrior that he was serious. He certainly hadn’t wanted any of the situation to happen. "Thank you for this." She waved the scroll to him, a small smile playing at her lips.
"Anytime." He raised his chin in her direction.
Strolling back down the high-ceilinged corridors, Xena turned the scroll over in her hands. Gabrielle would appreciate a gift like this, even if she didn’t have much herself. The last thing left to do was to catch Miriam at her game, somehow, and get them on the first ship out of Jerusalem. The idea of that was very appealing.
"Calm down Xena." Probably the tenth time Gabrielle had said it in the last ten minutes, the gentle reprimand still didn’t do anything to stifle the warrior’s anger. "They’ve got to do this."
After Xena had seen him earlier in the morning, Solomon had casually announced that the midday meal was to be Makeda’s final state affair, entailing practically every person of stature in the city and hundreds of bustling servants and soldiers. The King was trying to provide ample protection to the young Queen; armored, angry looking men orbited her periodically. Xena was glad to see that. What made her mad was the fact that in this chaotic environment, there was no way to completely keep her from another attack, no matter how much security was provided.
The dining room looked nothing like it had the last time they’d eaten quiet meals there with the King. The long table seemed short now, stuffed with people on both sides, food stacked in disarray covering it from end to end. Among the engorged platters, candles burned in the table’s center every few feet. Judging from the times that she’d already seen one tipped over, the warrior was sure a fire would break out at any moment.
The gurgle of meaningless chatter and people buzzing about her was putting Xena on an even thinner edge than usual and she found it hard not to pull her sword and do something that would definitely make Gabrielle give her that disapproving glare she had down so well. Taking deep, even breaths, she tried to ignore that urge and kept her eyes in a steady scan of the room, watching for anything out of place, as if she’d be able to tell in the sea of activity.
"They don’t have to do this." She looked to Gabrielle at her side. The golden-haired woman was stacking her plate, again, with colorful vegetables and meats that neither of them had ever heard of. The younger woman seemed completely unconcerned with all the commotion.
The bard took a moment to finish her task, dutifully ignoring the scowling warrior. "You’re right, Xena, they don’t have to do this, but they are. It’s a royal thing and it’s important to both of them." She punctuated the speech with a wave of her hand, holding a familiar looking piece of dried meat. "You’re gonna have to get over it."
Xena realized that the only thing bad about having Gabrielle as a companion was that she could get away with saying something like that to her, when no one else in the world could. She shook her dark head, grumbling lowly, very pleased at the bard’s quiet chuckle and dazzling smile.
One thing keeping the warrior amused, despite the precariousness of their situation, was the dour looks she and the bard were receiving from the rest of the nobles in the room. The seating arrangements were apparently not to their satisfaction. Solomon was alone at the head, as expected, but his closest advisors were no where close to him. Gabrielle and Xena sat closest to him on one side, with Makeda and Miriam directly across from them. That left the rest of the nobles to be ignored further down the table, as the King was thoroughly occupied by his new array of friends.
Xena didn’t particularly like the idea of Miriam sitting so close to the Queen, but she accepted the reasoning. Before the majority of the guests had been allowed to enter the hall, Solomon had told her that Miriam had denied any involvement with the attacks, or even knowing a soldier named Levi. Insisting that he believed her, he still wanted to take precautions. If she was sitting next to Makeda, Xena could keep an eye on her and she would be less likely to have someone try a violent attack with her so near by. The warrior understood, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
Feeling a soft hand touch her leg under the table, Xena turned to her friend, who was leaning close to speak into her ear. "If you don’t quit looking at her like that she’s gonna drop dead before we can prove she’s behind all this." Gabrielle’s voice had such a nice singsong quality about it, soothing to her even in the current chaos.
Without smiling, the warrior let a wave of tension flow away from her, if only for knowing that it would make her friend feel better. Besides, this is almost over and nothing has happened. I might as well relax a bit and enjoy dessert. She raised one dark eyebrow at the bard. "Maybe I was just appreciating the lovely dress she’s wearing."
Gabrielle snorted at that, but they both looked back to Miriam, who happened to be wearing a bright green dress, cut low in the front, revealing entirely too much of the hefty woman’s cleavage. The color didn’t quite match anything the warrior had ever seen in nature, except perhaps some of the productions Gabrielle put on during their most recent sea voyage. Not only did that color clash abhorrently with her coppery skin, the red veins running through the fabric made her look like some overgrown throbbing seed pod. Xena knew that she wasn’t very fashion minded, but even she knew better than to wear something as utterly ugly as that.
And the way the woman was looking at the dessert tray as it stopped behind Makeda as she was served, was almost criminal. The woman had enough reserves that she certainly didn’t need any of the sweet delicacies being offered from the tray.
Xena noted that Gabrielle’s hand was still perched on her thigh, mainly because the bard was beginning to squeeze her leg with some force. She was about to ask if her staring had crossed the line again when she noted the alarmed look on her friend’s round face. Looking in the direction that those green eyes were staring, Xena internally cursed herself for letting her mind wander. This was the moment she’d been expecting all night, and when it came, she was worrying about an ugly dress.
The dessert cart was probably the actual dessert cart, but the men pushing it were not waiters. One man clad in the castle servant’s customary blue tunic stood between Makeda and Miriam, offering the Queen a fluffy white dessert. The other, dressed in the same plain uniform, stood directly behind the dark woman, discreetly moving a knife toward her throat. The warrior couldn’t imagine how much gold it must have taken to get these men to take such a chance.
Chairs clattering to the stone floor, warrior and bard stood at the same time, drawing every gaze at the table to them. The movement also alerted the assassins, whose faces took on expressions of panic and terror. In only a moment, the long, curved knife was moving toward Makeda’s throat, the young woman not even aware of the man at her back.
Xena cringed internally as she willed her body to move, afraid it would be too late for the Queen. She’d let the man get too close and reacted too late. Even in the air as she flipped over the table, she registered surprise at Solomon’s lightning quick response when he became aware of the threat. He lunged at the man, grabbing his arm, explosively pulling it away, a breath short of its target. Then the men were wrestling with each other, curses and grunts filling the suddenly silent dining hall.
Knowing better than to let down her guard, the warrior turned her attention to the other conspirator, still perched beside the Queen. He didn’t seem to be aware of her as he pulled the knife from his belt, his eyes trained on Makeda, ready to finish the job. Xena grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulling him toward her with sudden power, strategically connecting her head to his. She released him an instant later, letting his unconscious form slide to the ground.
Makeda’s dark eyes were wide, trying to understand the whirl of commotion around her. The warrior moved toward the remaining assassin, still struggling with Solomon, apparently partly successful, judging from the small, bleeding cuts on the King’s arms. His soldiers were no where to be seen as the men fought.
Pulling her sword with a metallic wisp, Xena waited for her opportunity to end the wrestling match. The large knife was still firmly gripped by the assassin, Solomon clearly tiring from the battle. As the back of the blue tunic squared itself to her, the warrior brought the butt of her sword down on the man’s head, absorbing the satisfying sound of his crumple to the floor.
That sound was followed by a high pitched shriek that sent a stabbing pain to the pit of her stomach. Xena turned in time to see Gabrielle’s fist connect with Miriam’s jaw, followed by the large woman falling to the floor in a heap, the assassin’s knife slipping from her grip, and the bard jumping up and down, frantically shaking her hand.
Letting out a sigh of relief, her blue eyes rolling exasperatedly, the warrior moved closer to her muttering friend. "Are you all right?"
"You’ve really got to teach me how you do that." The little woman continued shaking her hand, blowing on it occasionally.
Solomon shouted some orders to a few of the more military looking nobles in the room, including General Suttan, to which they responded by hastily scooping up the unconscious attackers and leading them from the room. He settled down at the silent Makeda’s side, speaking softly to her and stroking her hands.
The warrior stood behind him, back straight and head high in defiance. "Believe me now, King?"
Dark eyes shot up to her in anger, the King visibly holding his tongue. After a moment of locked gazes, he let out an explosive breath and nodded. "I am sorry Xena. I should have listened to you."
"Where are your soldiers?" The room quieted considerably as the nobles left, correctly sensing that the celebration was over, if not a way of life.
The King shook his head angrily and stood, betrayal stinging brightly in his eyes. "I do not know. I did not realize that Miriam had such a following. She was my first wife." He shrugged his shoulders as if that explained everything.
"I suggest you reorganize your army…soon…and with all new recruits." Gabrielle moved in front of her, placing a hand on Makeda’s shoulder. The woman seemed mostly composed, although the far away look in her eyes told of the pain she was feeling from this latest attempt on her life.
Solomon ran a hand through his hair, his eyes lighting with revelation. "I agree, Xena, and I need you to do it for me. Lead my army, Warrior Princess." He put a challenge in his voice, his chin proudly pointing in the air.
"No, no, no, no, no." She shook her head vigorously. If she’d had this offer once, she’d had it a thousand times. Her days of leading an army were over, thankfully and with good reason. "You don’t need me, Solomon. You just need to make wiser decisions." She raised a dark eyebrow, issuing a challenge of her own.
The King laughed heartily for a moment, letting a smile unabashedly cover his face. "All right…I will see what I can do." He gently placed both hands on the Queen’s shoulders, pulling her up from the chair. "Right now, I think you need to rest. Too much excitement for one day, I am afraid."
Makeda nodded groggily, exhaustion evident in her features, allowing Solomon to lead her from the room. His arm cradled her shoulders as he guided her, their heads bent together in quiet conversation.
"What now?" Gabrielle stood beside her, watching the royal couple leave the room.
Xena laughed lightly, placing her own arm over the bard’s shoulders. "What? We can’t just relax for a minute?"
"You? Relax? Puhleeze." She jabbed the warrior playfully with her elbow. "I know it’s over, but not all your work is done yet."
The warrior sighed, smiling as she began moving them toward the door. "I know. I just need a few minutes to come up with a plan." Her mind began turning over any possible way to allow King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to shed their titles, and their fears, and to be normal people for just one night. Gabrielle wanted these two people to share their love, completely, for one night, and there was no way she could deny that request.
She was an expert when it came to uniting people in love, right? Right.
Adjusting Makeda’s blue, oversized tunic a final time, the bard stepped away from her group, satisfied that this little plan would work. She and Xena were also dressed in the blue servant’s outfits, with Solomon knocked down to the lowly rank of a common soldier, a shiny sword hanging from his waist.
"Are you sure this is necessary Gabrielle?" The King straightened his shoulders, metal ringing on metal, a skeptical look on his dark features.
Xena stepped toward the door, opening it and motioning for the rest of the group to pass through. "This is the plan, it’s going to work, end of story. Let’s go." An ice blue glare settled on Solomon, silencing his grumbling complaints.
The bard smiled at her partner appreciatively. She’d been ecstatic when the warrior had asked for her to come up with an idea for this little adventure, and even more excited when she actually said they’d do what she came up with. It’s not like it’s a life and death situation or anything. Just romantic. So here they were, sneaking out of the palace to lead the lovers to one night of solitude. They’d scoped out a perfect place for a midnight picnic, settling on a small, mossy clearing on the bank of a gurgling stream, and packed a basket full of wine, food, and blankets.
What they were doing was really kind of weird if she thought about it. She and Xena had come up with a plan, complete with disguises and contingencies, to sneak two people out of a castle to have one night of passion together. Maybe we should take this much interest in our own love lives. Hmmm…. But it felt right to be doing it, especially for Makeda, who was soon to return to a life with mixed blessings, without the man she loved.
The halls of the palace were relatively empty, Solomon having purposefully sent his personal guards away for the night, assuring him that he and the warrior could take care of the Queen by themselves. That left only the normal watch stations at the end of each main corridor and outside the entrances to the massive home. The King had advised the bard that they should be able to pass through without much suspicion, dressed as they were.
That’s why the bard froze in terror when they walked out into the night air to find a huge, unshaven soldier standing in their way, blocking the path to the forest. "What is your name, soldier?" His voice was gruff.
Solomon’s eyes were wide at the unexpected question when he finally figured out the man was talking to him. He’d taken it for granted that the security in the palace was so lax, considering what had happened earlier in the night. "Ahhh…umm…I…" His stammering was anything but royal.
Gabrielle looked at Xena in question, knowing the warrior would understand her plea, the one she’d given so often, for her to save the day. Rolling those amazing blue eyes, the dark woman strode forward, pulling the guard’s attention from the floundering King. "’Scuse me sir, but we’re looking for the river." She was using one of her high pitched bimbo voices and an accent that the bard thought was native to the north, but where to the north she didn’t know.
Finding it hard not to laugh, Gabrielle bit her lip as the man’s eyes raked lustfully over the warrior. "What’s at the river?"
"Dincha’ hear what happened at the palace? Elim here saved the Queen of Sheba from assassins. He was sooo brave." She batted her eyes at Solomon, who’d finally closed his mouth and was trying to keep his composure and go along with the game.
"Looks like the hero gets all the girls, huh?" The guard’s eyes surveyed the rest of the group, passing over the distinct differences in nationality of the women without even noticing.
Xena gave him a bright smile and knowing leer, patterned after a hundred different tavern winches, no doubt. "Seems that way." She moved closer to Solomon, running her hand suggestively down his chest and stomach, stopping only when he grabbed her hand.
The soldier laughed, envy filling his eyes. He threw a thumb over his shoulder. "River’s that way. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do."
Solomon put on the most macho look he had, tilting his chin at the man. He put an arm around Xena’s waist, leading the group out of the palace. They crisscrossed through several streets, slipping between the bunched houses when they could, until finally leaving the populated city behind.
When they reached the sparsely-treed forest, the warrior stopped the group, pointing to a barely discernable path through the trees. "Follow that trail and you’ll reach the spot in no time. There’s a fire pit already set up."
"Thank you Xena." Makeda shyly stepped forward, gripping one of the warrior’s hands in her smaller ones.
The warrior looked down at her grasped hand, a blush rising across her skin. The bard delighted at seeing this often buried gentle side of her partner. "No problem. You guys just…have a good time. We’ll be close enough that you can yell if you need us." She fidgeted at the attention still on her.
Gabrielle waved them away. "Go on now. Time’s a wastin’." The couple smiled gratefully before turning and moving off down the path, moonlight casting short shadows behind them.
The bard moved closer to her friend, both of them still watching the retreating couple. The sight warmed her heart, knowing that at least this one time, love truly won. And they were responsible for at least two people having a night of joy. Taking the warrior’s hand, Gabrielle sensed that even Xena, with her ever-practical mind, could see the beauty in this moment.
"Thanks for letting us do this, Xena." The golden-haired woman looked up at the strong profile beside her, noting for at least the millionth time how noble and striking it was. Her heart began to beat faster as the muscles resting there transformed into a wide smile that reached up to the warrior’s eyes.
Crystal blue turned to her, robbing her of any possibility of breathing. "Well, not even I can deny true love."
As their gazes remained locked, Xena seemed suddenly short of breath, her hand closing tighter over the bard’s. Gabrielle swallowed hard, trying to rein in her wildly swirling emotions. "No, no you can’t." Her voice was a whisper.
Shying away from the intensity of the moment, both women looked down the path. Two silhouetted figures stopped, turning to each other, a slight breeze brushing through their clothes. Makeda drew a hand up to Solomon’s cheek, pulling him down into a soft kiss.
Gabrielle looked back to her friend to find crystal blue eyes trained on her. She knew Xena wanted to kiss her, she wanted it too. But they still weren’t ready yet and this wasn’t the time or place. Back in Greece, though, things would be on course to change. The bard could feel it.
Xena could feel it too. It showed in the gentleness of her eyes. Slowly, deliberately, the warrior pulled Gabrielle’s hand to her lips, brushing a soft kiss against its back, promising of things to come.
She smiled brightly at the warrior, who managed a sweet smile back, her eyes reflecting acknowledgement of the inevitable. Standing under the stars, moonlight falling on them like a comfortable blanket, they turned to watch King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba disappear into the trees, accepting fully that love ruled their lives, waiting for the day they were brave enough to show it.
I really hope you enjoyed this story. For some reason, I feel compelled to explain why it turned out as it did. This is my fourth year of slowly trying to develop my writing skills. Each story I’ve written in the past has been a big, sappy love story, which is where my heart lies. In an attempt to develop my skills, I decided to write a tale where love wasn’t the main purpose. The reason is unknown to me, but this story jumped into my head to tackle that exercise. So, even though this wouldn’t be my favorite fan fiction story, as I love the really, super mushy ones, it is the one I have written.
As for consistency with the Xena time line: is there really one? Solomon was the son of David, as in David and Goliath, as in ‘The Giant Killer.’ I decided to just ignore that little point. Thank you for indulging me. Same with the fact that the citizens of Israel would not have been speaking fluent Greek. Petty details, if you ask me.
Finally, I’d like to thank the people who helped me edit this story to within an inch of its life. PD Wonder is a great beta reader for anyone who needs one. And Intensity is exclusively mine in all his glory. Thanks guys.
The Final End