Two brief notes:

1. This story involves a slightly different view of the Xena and Gabrielle characters from the H:LTJ episode "Armageddon Now, Part II." It was inspired solely by a spoiler for that episode written by Michelle (Mickisix), for which I'm very appreciative.

2. Although there is quite a bit of overt subtext, there is no graphic sex in this story.



"I have just returned from the traitors' cell, Princess. I have their confession."

Muffling a slight yawn with one hand, Xena used the other to pinch the end of the parchment between finger and thumb, taking care not to touch the grime-covered hand of whichever member of her royal guard this was. She spared him a glance, remembering vaguely. Edran or something.

She turned her attention to the note, an eyebrow beginning a slow ascent as she read the words carefully. Finally, lips pursed, she looked up at the man who had been charged with interrogating their newest prisoners.

"Edran," she drawled, noting the usual stiffening of the spine when she addressed one of her underlings by name, "do you know how to read?"

The guard shook his head. "No, Princess."

"Uh huh." Xena casually tendered the note to the man standing attentively by her side. While he read it, she noticed for the first time that Ennaus had shaved off his sideburns and beard, another indication of the early spring they were anticipating; her aide usually kept the natural insulation until later in the year. The severe cut of dark brown hair was still there, but now there was nothing to mask the bright crimson inching slowly up his face.

We confess to resisting the notion that any citizen is inherently superior to any other.
We confess to deploring a regime that enforces its will through intimidation rather than seeking a consensus through mutual respect.
We confess--

"This is an outrage!" Ennaus exploded. "The man who penned this insult--"

"--should be writing my speeches," Xena interrupted dryly. She reclaimed the note from her aide's shaking fingers and returned her attention to the guard, who was beginning to feel a bit edgy.

"I want whoever wrote this brought here," Xena ordered, flicking the paper. "Now."

A clenched fist slammed against the guard's chest, and he departed. Xena took a moment to peruse the so-called confession again. Very clever, she congratulated the unknown author, thinking that, in a way, it was unfortunate that all the clever ones had to die.

The closer the big man drew to the prison, the angrier he became. That bitch had written something bad on the paper, he just knew it. Had made him look a fool to the Warrior Princess. No one did that to a member of the Royal Guard.


Six young faces turned toward the gravelly voice, instinctively moving closer to each other as Edran shoved a heavy key into the lock, their hands clasped in an unconscious display of unity.

"Back off," he growled. "You," he repeated, jutting his index finger at a young woman with honey red hair near the center of the cell. "Come with me."

The group closed in beside her. "Why?" she asked nervously. As if she didn't know.

"Because I said so." He turned his snarl on the others. "The rest of you, back off, or Harn and I will back you off," he said, indicating the cell guard with a jerk of his head.

A young man stepped out from the group. "No. She's not going anywhere."

The speaker was just the type that had always rubbed Edran the wrong way: Tall and scrawny, like he'd never done a real day's work in his life; brainy, probably; and too smug for his own good. Women probably fell all over him, swooning over light brown curls that, to Edran, just made him look like one of them.

"Raubert, don't be foolish." The red-haired woman placed a hand gently on her protector's cheek. "Hey, this is what we've been waiting for, right?" she said, smiling weakly.


She took his hand between hers. "We knew this would happen, Raubert. I'm ready." She gave each of her comrades a sincere smile. "I'm glad to have known all of you," she said, then hurried through the cell door and toward her fate.

The outer door to the prison clanged shut, and Edran dutifully waited until he heard the bolt wedged firmly into place before advancing on his prisoner.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

Without warning, the guard's fist struck her squarely on the jaw, knocking her to the ground.

She pressed cool fingers against the side of her face, providing little relief from the burning sensation, and forced herself to meet her assailant's gaze. "Why . . . ?" He did not reply, and a horrible thought entered Gabrielle's head: There was to be no trial, legitimate or otherwise; the Conqueror's guard was simply going to beat her to death.

"I'll show you what happens when someone disrespects the royal guard," the big man muttered. He reached down and yanked the girl to her feet, drawing back his hand again.



Xena rose and prepared to meet the parodist who had converted a supposed confession into a brazen diatribe against her Realm. The door swung open and a slight form was propelled into the room, aided by a shove from the guard.

The girl stumbled forward a couple of steps before regaining her balance, and then, like all of the Conqueror's first-time guests, willing or otherwise, her mouth fell open at the breathtaking splendor of the ruler's quarters, struck dumb by the brilliant interplay of paintings and rugs and flowers of every imaginable color.

Xena studied the prisoner with mild surprise. A young slip of a girl, no more than twenty years old, whose face currently bore one or two distinguishing features of recent origin. "What happened to her?" she asked.

"She resisted your command to be brought here," Edran said, confident that the girl would not risk another beating by revealing his lie.

Xena eyed him through narrowed lids. The soldier was a bad liar, but was at least smart enough to personalize the girl's alleged disobedience. Both qualities -- his clumsy lying and his unexpected craftiness -- irritated her, and she tucked away the information for another day. First things first.

She returned her attention to the prisoner. "Have her cleaned up and brought back here," she ordered, dismissing them both without another glance.

To her relief, Gabrielle's escort in the bath and back to Xena's chamber was not the hostile guard, but instead an agreeable matron who appeared to listen to her nervous monologue and tended her wounds with care and did not try to hurt her.

The older woman rapped twice on the door and opened it, using her elbow to give a subtle nudge to her ward, who took the hint and stepped reluctantly into the chamber. Hearing the door closing behind her, Gabrielle swung her head around, disappointed to see the woman backing out of the room. Alone now, she thought.

"Well, you're more presentable now," Xena said. She ran her gaze down the simple, knee-length white tunic that had replaced the young woman's peasant garb. Oh, yes, Xena saw now, definitely a woman, perhaps a few years older than Xena had initially estimated.

"Ennaus," she said, her eyes still on the other woman, "go check on the arrangements for this evening." He did not reply, and she looked over to see him staring at their guest. "Did you hear me?"

Ennaus had seen the spark in the Warrior Princess' eyes when she first laid them upon the peasant and, unless he was mistaken, Xena was attracted to the girl. An annoyance, but no threat. The Conqueror had never confused transitory pleasures with the higher needs of the Realm. "Yes, Highness," he said.

"When you pass the kitchen," Xena added, "pick up some scraps for our extra guest here."

"Yes, Princess." Although Ennaus was the only member of the Conqueror's staff from whom a salute was not required, public relations dictated a respectful bow before the aide pivoted to make his departure.

"Oh, and Ennaus . . . ."

He turned back to her.

"Take your time."

He lowered his head and withdrew, shutting the doors behind him.

"Ennaus doesn't like it when someone insults the Realm," the Conqueror said to her prisoner. The tone was neutral, but the other woman stayed fully alert. "And you are?"

"Gabrielle of Potedaia."

"So, Gabrielle of Potedaia," she said, mocking the girl's proud tone, "I understand you wrote this 'confession' for yourself and your fellow traitors."

Gabrielle's mind raced. Would it help or hurt to acknowledge responsibility?

"When I ask a question, I expect an answer," Xena snapped.

Gabrielle tensed, rebuking herself for freezing up after so long spent preparing for this moment. From the instant she had been summoned by the guard, through the beating outside the prison, through the silent march to the castle, through the bath that had cleansed her sufficiently to be presented to the Conqueror, Gabrielle had steeled herself to do this.

How many times had she and her comrades fantasized aloud about what they would do in the unlikely event they ever found themselves face to face with the Warrior Princess? They would not cower before the beast, they had vowed. They would shout their beliefs, their despair, their hatred, preferably before an audience if they could draw the attention of any listeners, sympathetic or not.

This was Gabrielle's chance. She would never have another.

"You didn't ask me a question," she said. Not exactly a declaration, but a first step.

Xena's lip curled. "So I didn't," she said. "Perhaps that's why I have a hard time communicating with your type. Everything has to be spelled out for you, is that it?"

"No," Gabrielle said. "The truth reveals itself."

"How poetic."

Her disdain did not go unnoticed by the prisoner, but Gabrielle's heart was thudding too wildly for her to bother with taking offense. Here it comes . . .

"You have a rather distinctive style," the Warrior Princess continued. "In fact, when I read this" -- she held up the confession -- "I was reminded of another fascinating piece of literature I ran across a while back."

Xena drifted over to a jewelled box on the mantle above the fireplace, fully aware that her guest's tension was escalating with each delay in the questioning. With tantalizing deliberation, she opened the lid and took out a parchment, unfolding it as she walked to her throne. She settled into its ornate depths, making herself comfortable for her recitation. "Stop me if you've heard it before," she said sarcastically.

"What is a leader?
A leader may be defined by his words, or his deeds, or his methods. But a true leader may also be defined by what he doesn't do.
A leader does not steal the voices of the people by punishing those who only wish to express true concerns.
A leader does not tax the poor and elderly til their death, without compassion, without exception, simply to line his already bursting vaults."

Xena looked up from the text. "I could go on, but I think you know how it ends."

The hammering of Gabrielle's heart was becoming painful. She kept her eyes trained on a dark knothole in the floorboard beneath her toes.

"This garbage was spewed by a man in the western quadrant last month," Xena said. "He managed to escape the guards who heard it," she added, still irritated about that display of incompetence, "but when we find him, he'll receive the usual punishment for treason."

The cross, Gabrielle shuddered. More than one of her associates had shared that fate over the years. An image of her mother's loving face materialized in Gabrielle's mind, and she calmed a little.

Xena studied her listener. "I might be willing to exchange his life for that of the person who wrote this," she said, curious as to which the woman would choose. Xena had often seen idealism fade when a captive found his own head on the block.

A long moment passed, and Gabrielle realized that the Conqueror was waiting for her to respond. She swallowed her fears, telling herself it didn't matter what she did now; she was probably going to die today anyway. "If I were you, I would be searching for those guards," she said.

"Oh?" Xena replied archly to the unexpected remark. "And why is that?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "There is nothing in that document that refers to the Warrior Princess. I would ask them why they assumed it was about you."

Xena stared at her, then held up the seditious exposition on leadership. "Who wrote this?" she demanded.

"Someone who believes that everyone should have the right to express his own beliefs," Gabrielle replied, her green eyes burning into the ruler's. Knowing that the fate awaiting her in Xena's dungeon would be unaffected by anything that happened here had strengthened her resolve.


"Or hers," Gabrielle conceded. She held the other woman's gaze, waiting for the inevitable question.

You wrote it. That much was plain, but Xena held back. Not yet. She would know what she needed to know soon enough; in the meantime, the girl was at least a temporary distraction from an otherwise tedious day. The Conqueror had long ago determined the most strategic placement for her armies throughout the territories, the most effective means of enforcing her laws, the most persuasive methods for demanding her tributes and the loyalty of her people. Now, too many days were filled with routine affairs of government. One problem with being a successful ruler, she thought, no great conflicts to stir the blood.

She strolled over to the refreshments table, her gold-fringed robe swaying sensually with her movements. "You know, it's selfish for people to spout such tripe," she said, removing the lid from a carafe and inspecting its contents.

"Selfish?" Gabrielle gaped at her.

"It detracts from a ruler's other duties," Xena replied. Light golden liquid filled two cups to their rims and Xena set the bottle down, turning back around. "It takes a great deal of effort to rule over lands this size," she said. "Your petty complaints surely don't warrant more attention than the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on me for their survival."

Gabrielle pressed her lips together, trying to decide whether the Warrior Princess was in fact inviting a debate with her. Xena raised an eyebrow invitingly, and Gabrielle plunged ahead.

"Our complaints" -- she stopped to correct herself -- "the complaints of those who fight for their rights are not petty," she said. "Truth is not petty. Justice for all, not merely those who curry your favor, is not petty. Freedom to speak out against oppression is not petty."

Xena listened to the words flowing from the young woman's mouth, and almost smiled. This woman would not keep from the cross for long. Much like a newly hatched asp, she was tiny, but would soon develop fangs. Her eyes flickered over the woman's physique. One difference, she observed: Baby asps were never attractive.

She returned her attention to the impassioned speech which didn't seem to be in danger of ending soon. "--and if they had freedom to chose, to forge their own paths, they wouldn't be dependent on you or anyone else for their survival," the woman continued. "But I suppose that would--"

Gabrielle abruptly cut short her harangue, suspecting that she was about to cross the line, if she hadn't already. She swallowed at the comprehension of what she had just done.

"Well," Xena said, "you certainly have a lot to say."

"The people have a lot to say," Gabrielle replied. "I just give them voice." Careful, she thought. She was dangerously close to admitting something she hadn't been asked yet.

"So what does that make you, some sort of bard?"

Gabrielle considered her answer. A bard? No, bards created their own words, drawing from within to paint pictures of events real and imaginery. When she was growing up--before Xena's army had taken Potedaia in its brutal sweep of Chalcidice--Gabrielle had occasionally tried to convince her parents that she was destined for something more than the inevitable pre-arranged marriage, tossing out the suggestion once that she could become a bard. Her parents had brushed off such unconventional notions, but Gabrielle had never completely abandoned the idea.

Until four years ago.

Since that day, Gabrielle no longer conjured up whimsical narratives, no longer dreamed of performing her own tales of the gods' misadventures to a packed auditorium. Now all she wanted was to give voice to the unheard. The words were theirs, not hers; she was merely the means of conveying them.

"A scribe," she decided.

"You just write what others tell you," Xena said, a hint of skepticism in her voice.

"Yes," Gabrielle replied. To her, it was true.

Xena held out the second cup. "Have some wine," she said.

"No, thank you."

"Have some wine," she repeated.

It would be supreme irony, Gabrielle recognized, to survive lecturing the Warrior Princess only to draw her wrath by declining her hospitality. "Thank you," she said, stepping forward to accept the gift.

Xena dropped onto a couch and patted the place beside her. Gabrielle eased herself down, half-wondering how far from the dark-haired woman she could settle without committing offense, and half-wondering how Xena had managed to plop down like that without spilling any of her wine. Unlike the ruler, who reclined leisurely against the overstuffed cushions, her guest remained stiffly at attention.

Why doesn't she just get it over with? Gabrielle wondered. Did it give the Conqueror greater pleasure to toy with her victims before sending them to the cross? She sipped her wine. Or the block..

Gabrielle took another healthy gulp of wine, failing to associate the light buzz she was beginning to feel behind her eyes with the fact that she hadn't eaten or slept for two days. She hadn't had alcoholic beverages often in her life -- who could afford it? -- but even her untrained palate appreciated that this one was excellent.

Her mind drifted back to the previous subject. Would it be the cross, or beheading? Or some other method she hadn't thought of? For some reason, it was suddenly essential that Gabrielle know. "How would you have me killed?" she asked.

Xena's hand stilled, cup raised part way to her lips, and she searched for signs of impudence in the other woman, who followed up her unexpected question with another generous taste of the grape.

"Specifically," Gabrielle articulated with care, "would it be the cross? Or would you have my head chopped off?" Another thought occurred to her. "Or do you even decide ahead of time?"

"Well, I'm having a few ideas at the moment," Xena said, but she had lost her audience. She straightened, watching with interest as the blonde head drooped . . . slowly . . . slowly . . . until finally it pitched forward into Xena's lap. The scribe's arm flopped over the side of the couch, her glass falling from lifeless fingers. No wine left in it to spill onto the rug, Xena noted.

She stared down at the -- exhausted? drunk? -- rebel snoring into the folds of her royal robes. Well, this is a switch, she thought. She'd never had one fall asleep on her beforehand.

Xena opened her mouth to shout for a guard, then chastised herself for being lazy. Oh, what the hell. She picked up the petite bundle and carried it to the four-poster bed in the curtained bedroom, pulling back the coverlet with one hand while balancing her load with the other. She deposited the woman on the sheets, tossed the coverlet over her, and returned to the comfortable couch.


"I told him that was fine with me, if he wanted to see his mother's head on a pike." Claius laughed loudly at his own joke, then tore off a hunk of pheasant with his teeth and washed it down sloppily with a swig of ale.

Xena smiled encouragingly, mindful that it had not proved easy to find commanders willing to live year-round in the desolate western region. She would tolerate a certain amount of boorishness so long as Claius tolerated the dry weather of that isolated territory.

Suddenly a sleepy blonde woman emerged from Xena's bedchamber, yawning as she ran a hand through her hair. She blinked, realizing when everything came into focus that she was being stared at by seven pairs of eyes, five curious, one angry, and one -- Xena's -- unreadable.

Nervously, she looked at Xena. "Am I . . .," she glanced at the six newcomers, ". . . supposed to go now?" Free to go? she was really asking.

Xena noted the lustful expressions of her regional commanders, and smiled slyly. She knew how to work a crowd. "No, come join us. You must be hungry," she said. "I certainly am."

Gabrielle hesitated for a moment longer, then cautiously approached the only person in the room that she knew. Crossing her ankles, she began to lower herself at the foot of the Conqueror's throne, but Xena circled her waist and drew her down onto the wide arm of the chair.

It felt strangely secure sitting beside the former warlord, now queen of all warlords, and Gabrielle discreetly scanned the six men in their company, easily concluding that she wouldn't want to be alone with any of them. One of them, the one who had been with Xena earlier, was glaring at her as if she were Medusa, and the others were leering as if she were the evening's entertainment--

She stiffened. Oh, the gods! What if she was the evening's entertainment?

Xena felt the woman's body tense, and wondered what had brought it on. She gave the scribe a light shove. "Get some more ale for my men," she said, smiling alluringly at her guests, "and wine for me, with a glass."

"Make it two jugs, girl," Claius added.

And how am I supposed to carry all that? Gabrielle wondered. Oh, of course--two trips. I guess their legs have withered from all that riding, she groused.

She hoisted one of the jugs from the refreshment table, and was startled to see that the Warrior Princess was now beside her. "I don't want you spilling it," Xena said, excavating a chilled wine bottle from its basket.

Gabrielle ignored the implication that she was incapable of carrying a bottle of wine and instead glanced at the rowdy soldiers, one of whom was busy illustrating some questionable tale for the others with crude hand gestures.

"Xena," Gabrielle began. "I mean, Princess." She waited to see if her slip would be excused, and was encouraged when Xena arched an eyebrow, wordlessly permitting the question to continue. "Why are those men looking at me like that?"

'Like what?' she was tempted to ask, just to make the scribe say it. Xena smiled at the thought. "You're not for them," she replied, correctly perceiving the nature of the young woman's concern. Not tonight, anyway, she added mentally, keeping her options open. That western position was very hard to fill . . . .

She was somewhat curious, though, as to just how naive this intense young woman might be. "They're looking at you that way because they think we were together in the bedroom," she continued, casually handing a second jug to Gabrielle. "They're picturing my hands on your body."

The jugs dropped to the table, and Xena smirked. Wine bottle and glass in hand, she glided back to her throne.

"Why don't you ask them?"

Ennaus glowered at her. There. She had done it again. Interrupted them -- again.

This was the second time, and on neither occasion had Xena made any move to silence her, physically or otherwise. He had expected to see the back of the ruler's hand draw blood from the girl's flapping lip, but to his dismay, Xena had almost seemed to heed the intrusions. Why hadn't Xena sent the girl back? She'd had her pleasure already. Unless she was planning to keep her overnight . . . . Hades. Couldn't the Conqueror ignore her libidinous impulses just once?

"Since you've narrowed it down to two choices, and you don't care which one," Gabrielle said, wagging an index finger in the general direction of the commander in question, "why don't you ask the people you're supposed to be leading or commanding or whatever?" Hopeless, Gabrielle decided; how could they expect things to improve when the Realm's rulers couldn't even see the obvious?

Xena exchanged speculative looks with her northern commander. "Up to you," she shrugged. "Just don't let them think it'll become a habit."

Endless crudities and exaggerations later, Xena's attention drifted to a guard who stood, hand poised above the hourglass, waiting for the last grain of sand to drain before turning it over for the fourth time since the Conqueror's guests had arrived. She could feel herself beginning to tire, whether from the rather single-minded conversation of her soldiers or the copious flowing of wine, she wasn't sure.

She looked over at the scribe, who had long since fallen asleep, head propped against the back of the throne, her soft snoring drowned out by the carryings on of the Realm's good-humored commanders.

Xena rose. "Whaddaya say we call it a night, fellas?"

Her guests had not risen to command-level positions in Xena's army by being slow to recognize an order. Stiff from hours on the floor with very little motion except the bending of elbows, the men rumbled to their feet.

Xena tapped the scribe's shoulder with the back of her hand and smiled when the young woman jerked awake, momentarily confused as to her surroundings. Memory returned quickly enough, and Gabrielle climbed off the arm of the chair, wondering what was going to happen to her now.

"You didn't introduce us to your little friend, Xena," Claius declared, his eyes wandering up the girl's calves to the hem of her tunic, then continuing upward on a speculative journey.

"Oh, sorry, fellas," she said. "This is Gabrielle of Potedaia," she pronounced meticulously, extending a palm toward the young woman.

"Potedaia, eh?" Claius laughed. He massaged his damn right leg that had fallen asleep on him. "They put up a hell of a fight, didn't they, Xena?"

Icy green eyes pierced him. "The Potedaians fought honorably," Gabrielle said.

Xena's eyes narrowed at the insinuation, and she snapped her fingers to catch the attention of a guard. "Take her back to her cell," she ordered.

"Her cell?" Claius laughed again. "Hell, should have figured," he said, giving Gabrielle another lewd inspection. "How 'bout a going-away present, Xena?"

Gabrielle glared at the Warrior Princess. She would kill herself before being sold by the Conquering Tyrant or anyone else.

Xena jerked her thumb toward the door, and the scribe was dragged from the room.


Five bodies huddled closely together under the shared blankets, trying with little success to generate some warmth in the damp enclosure that had become like an icebox in the hours since the sun went down.

A young man on the outside stared unseeingly at the wall, his thick brown curls cradled against a bicep. From the sound of it, Nyus had finally drifted off to sleep. Raubert let himself be amused briefly at the thought that surely Nyus's snoring must violate the rules against excessive noise in the cells. He closed his eyes again, and prayed that sleep would take him.

A loud metallic scraping sounded from the cell door, and he jerked his head toward the entrance. He was used to the darkness, and instantly recognized the figure shoved into the cell and to the ground.

"Gabrielle?" he whispered.

"Yes," she replied, careful to keep her own voice down.

A hand curled around her shoulder. "Are you all right?"

Gabrielle almost laughed, from relief that she was still alive and the realization that she was, indeed, all right. Xena had never asked her to confirm her authorship of the speeches. Gabrielle would not have lied, and the answer would have meant her death. She closed her eyes, grateful for the interruptions of wine and soldiers that had spared her life.

"I'm fine, Raubert," she replied.

"What happened?"

Gabrielle's eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness, and she could see her cellmates crammed together on the hard, frozen floor, with probably little more than a bowl of porridge -- if that -- in their stomachs. What could she say? That her interrogation at the hands of the Conqueror had involved a bath with scented oils, fresh pheasant and expensive wine, nestling in a luxurious bed, capped off with conversation with the Warrior Princess herself, who, in this isolated setting, had proved rather charming?

"Nothing," she said. "I'm fine. Go back to sleep." Seeing no signs that he intended to heed her request, she added, "Please, Raubert. I'm really tired." She groped for the edge of a blanket and slipped under it, already feeling a chill beginning to set in.

"Here." He shifted his position so that she was sandwiched between him and another warm body. Gabrielle drifted off to sleep easily, not noticing when his arm slipped around her waist.


"By the gods, Gabrielle -- she beat you?"

At Celice's exclamation, Gabrielle instinctively raised her fingers to a walnut-sized lump on her forehead. There were others, she knew, and discolorations, and she wondered briefly why none of the Conquerer's guests had mentioned her battered face last night. Of course-- they just assumed Xena had done the damage herself, perhaps even while--

She shifted her thoughts away from the humiliating images the soldiers apparently had been conjuring up while she sat beside Xena. "No, it was the guard."

"Doesn't matter whose hand it was, we know who controlled it," Raubert spat. "That bitch!"

"Shh!" Gabrielle glanced toward the cell door. If one of Xena's men heard him, they would all pay the price. "I'm not saying she wouldn't have done it," she explained, "but I don't think she knew about this."

Raubert exchanged looks with Celice, gnashing his teeth. One problem that Gabrielle had had as long as he had known her was a frustrating tendency to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even soulless demons like the Warrior Princess. Somehow that failing had never affected her persuasiveness, though, and over the past couple of years, Gabrielle had become the movement's most effective speechwriter. Her pen would glide across the parchment with amazing steadiness, and then, due to the unfortunate reality that the people of Corinth placed more confidence in male orators, Raubert and the other men would try to do justice to her words.

He dropped the subject, content to have the beautiful blonde woman near him again. It would make the passage of time in the dank prison almost bearable. Gabrielle smiled at him, and an answering smile rose by its own volition. Yes, almost bearable.

Xena sank back into her throne with an extended sigh. Bored again.

At times, the Warrior Princess longed to be back at the head of an army, living off the land and the thrill of the attack. Closing her eyes, she fantasized a desperate soldier crashing in to warn of an invading force, and could almost feel the bloodlust coursing through her veins.

She opened her eyes. No desperate soldiers today, or yesterday, or the day before. She slid her hands down the silk garment clinging to her limbs, and reflected on the soft bed beyond her bedroom curtain, and admitted to herself that being back on the road might have a few drawbacks.

She tapped her fingers absently against her thighs.

She could stage another contest, but the last few had been disappointing. She could have taken any of those gladiators with one hand tied behind her back. Hell, she had taken them with one hand tied behind her back. The current crop had been harvested from a foolish crew who had sought to ambush their ruler as she traveled between capitals. They had gotten as far as looping one wrist around her waist when the legendary Conqueror's temper showed itself. The few survivors now served as examples as well as periodic entertainment for Xena and her cabinet.

Xena puffed air through her lips again, and then a thought occurred to her.

The familiar sound of a key rattling in the lock alerted the cell's occupants, who rose nervously. They weren't due for a latrine break any time soon, and weren't likely to get one when it was due.

"You." Edran barked at the woman in the center of the group. "Come with me."

Gabrielle hoped the guard wouldn't risk inflicting more damage on her after the Conqueror had noticed last night. "Why?" she asked.

Edran laughed. "I should try you out myself," he growled. "It's not often the Princess beds someone twice."

Gabrielle heard a collective gasp, and raised her hands reassuringly. "She didn't."

Edran laughed again at the girl's denial. He'd heard it straight from Claius's mouth.

"It's not true," Gabrielle insisted, a little more adamantly. Gods, how disgusting.

"Come on." Edran jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "The Princess says you're to eat with her."

Gabrielle shook her head. "No," she said. "I'll eat with my friends."

The thick guard gawked at her. He'd never had one refuse before; most had more brains, and more regard for their skins. Now what? He didn't think it wise to try his usual method of persuasion, not after the Princess had questioned him about the girl's bruises last night.

He weighed the problem for a long moment, then slammed the cell door in their faces and stomped off.

Raubert clasped her arm. "You shouldn't have done that, Gabrielle," he said soberly. "He'll be back."

"I'm not a slave to be ordered around," Gabrielle said. Better to receive another beating than have her friends believe she was being singled out for special treatment, she thought, especially after the guard's vile aspersions.

"Where is she?"

Edran hesitated, hating the girl for putting him in this position. "She . . . would not come, Highness."

Xena stared at him. "Would not come?" she repeated. "And did you ask her politely?"

"Yes, Highness," he answered, missing her sarcasm.

The blue of the Conqueror's eyes darkened. The inconceivable insolence of that woman . . . .

In less time than she had hoped, Gabrielle heard the heavy footfalls of the guard returning. She kept her eyes closed, once again taking comfort in her mother's image.

"By the gods!"

Gabrielle's head jerked up at Celice's exclamation, and she found herself looking directly into the eyes of an angry Warrior Princess. Her stomach turned over.

"Open it," Xena directed, nodding her head toward the cell door. Edran hastened to comply, and Xena strode inside, quickly familiarizing herself with the layout. It had been a while since she'd been inside the prison. Usually, its occupants were brought to her, either to her quarters or the sentencing block in the square.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Conqueror's gaze landed on the reason for her visit. "You disobeyed my order," she said evenly.

The scribe shook her head, unable to speak. She had badly misjudged the situation.

Xena turned to Edran. "Remove her and kill one of the others."

"No! Oh, gods!" Gabrielle threw herself at the ruler's feet, clasping a sandal in her hands. "No . . . please . . . Warrior Princess . . . I'm sorry." She pressed her lips against the top of Xena's foot. "It won't happen again. Please," the latter barely above a whisper.

The Conqueror's expression remained unchanged as she watched the traitor beg. Finally, she pulled her foot away. "Take her out," she said. She waited until the other woman looked up at her. "You'll not disobey me again."

Gabrielle shook her head, tears trailing down her face.

Her point made, Xena spun around and nearly collided with the heavy guard, who had edged closer for a better view of the wench's humiliation. He scrambled out of Xena's way, then almost bumped into her again when she stopped unexpectedly, her nose wrinkling in distaste. "Get her cleaned up," she instructed, "and have this place scrubbed down. I'm sick of the stench every time I want to interrogate a prisoner."

The matron had been a little more creative in dressing her ward this evening, Xena observed, noting with approval the light blue tunic cinched at the waist with a twined gold belt. The young woman's hair was braided in an attractive, loose style; even the sandals were new. Hmm. This was not an employee preparing a sacrifice for the Conqueror's use; this was loving attention. She likes her.

Xena made a mental note to reward Melba's attentiveness. Just as the Conqueror punished incompetence, she remembered good service.

"Come here," she said, and the prisoner walked forward soundlessly until she stood a few feet away, her eyes downcast. "Sit down." Settling across the table from her guest, Xena looked at the scribe over the rim of her glass. "Don't you have anything to nag at me about tonight?"

Gabrielle shook her head.

Xena studied as much of the other woman's face as she could see. This wasn't insolence; the woman was truly terrified of her. Xena frowned. She had intended to teach her a lesson in the cell, not silence her completely.

What could she say? Order the prisoner to argue with her? Tell her she wouldn't really have had her friend killed? That wasn't true, and they both knew it. Xena would have let the order stand without a second thought but for the scribe's grovelling.

The Conqueror had finally found something she couldn't order: genuine interest in talking to her. She grimaced, never having encountered the situation before. Maybe a direct question . . . . "Did one of my guards beat you?" she asked.

No answer.

"Nothing you say will leave this room," Xena assured her.

Gabrielle pursed her lips, then finally nodded.


"I don't know."

Xena pressed her fork into a cube of ham. "You didn't provoke him?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "I said I'd go with him. But when we got outside . . . he just . . . ."

Xena made another mental note. Aloud, she said, "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle looked at her with mild skepticism.

"I don't tolerate disobedience," Xena said, "but I don't have prisoners beaten without reason."

"Right," Gabrielle muttered, raising a spoonful of corn to her mouth.

"Do you have a contrary opinion?"

Gabrielle debated with herself. If she got into this, it could only make things more difficult, but she couldn't let an outrageous lie like that go unchallenged.

"You're free to say anything you want," Xena said. "In this room," she clarified.

"How can you say you don't inflict pain on anyone without reason?" Gabrielle erupted.

"Because I don't."

"The fields are lined with your crucified victims," the scribe said.

"There were reasons."

"Hmpf." Gabrielle speared at her ham angrily.

"You have no idea what it takes to run a kingdom, let alone one that spans half the known world," Xena said. Gods, this woman annoyed her. Why had she thought it might be fun to subject herself to this again? "Keeping its borders safe, the people protected--"

"Protected? From whom? You've killed more Corinthians in the past three years than any marauding enemy could hope to take out." Gabrielle felt her temper rising, and struggled to tamp it down. For whatever reason, the Conqueror had conferred immunity on her for this meal, but there was a limit to what she could expect to get away with.

"Do you have any specific examples of things I've done that don't meet with your approval?" Xena asked. "It's difficult to answer blanket condemnations." Which is probably why you use them so much in your speeches.

"The people of Caterra are starving; why won't you give them any assistance?"

Xena waved her hand impatiently. "That's something I *haven't* done; tell me about something I have done that's criminal or diabolic or whatever you call it."

"All right. You had us arrested because we-- because you thought we were speaking out against the Realm." She took a sip of wine to keep her throat from drying up. "Don't you want to hear other people's viewpoints? Wouldn't it help you make your decisions?"

"I have no difficulty making decisions, and the right ones," Xena said. "If I want input, I have consultants. Most people are ignorant or self-centered. For example, did you know that the Caterrans knew they were building on a flood plain? My engineer advised them against it, but they decided their harvests would be richer. Should I reward them for their recklessness?"

"Should you let them starve?"

"I can't feed everyone. People have to be self-sufficient."

"But you don't let them be self-sufficient. And you don't know what people go through when they have to struggle to stay alive."

"I know," Xena disagreed. "I've been those people."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not any more. Not for too many years. You've lost touch."

Xena bristled at the allegation, but didn't have a ready response. "I have not," she said finally.

"How much does a bushel of leeks cost?"

"How much does a mace cost?" Xena countered.

"People don't need maces."

"They needed them when the Persians tried to overrun us," Xena reminded her. "And the Horde."

Gabrielle's mind went back to the stories she had heard about the Horde. At the time, the people had been grateful to the Warrior Princess for taking them on; now they compared her to them.

"How many more Greeks would have been slaughtered if my forces -- with my maces -- hadn't protected them?" Xena continued.

"A government can't live in the past. You have to be prepared to help people through their problems today. You may have consultants, but I doubt if any one of you knows how much a carpenter makes in a year, or how much it costs a family just to eat."

Xena felt her blood stirring; quarrelling with this woman was nearly as stimulating as a well-executed sword fight. Unfortunately, she was slightly better equipped for swordplay. "Yes, I do," she said, irritated that that was the best she could come up with.

"Do not."

"Do, too."

"Bet you."

Xena blinked. "You'll bet me?" This was getting ridiculous.

"Yeah. Come on," Gabrielle challenged. She was really getting into this, forgetting for a moment that the woman she was taunting happened to be the ruthless Conqueror.

Xena pursed her lips. "Bet what?"

Gabrielle hesitated only an instant. "Our freedom." Deep green eyes held hers. "If I win, you let us go."

"Uh huh." Xena crossed her arms. "And what do I get if you lose?" She raised an eyebrow, tempted to make a suggestion of her own. The glow on the other woman's face from the childish contest was quite provocative, stirring the thought in Xena's mind that the scribe would be equally lively in other settings. It occurred briefly to the Conqueror that she could take what interested her without a wager, but for some reason that scenario didn't particularly appeal to her.

"You get to win." Xena stared at her, and Gabrielle laughed. "OK, I didn't figure you'd go for it, but it was worth a try." Gabrielle ran her tongue along her upper lip, further mesmerizing her host. "How about a blanket?"

"A blanket?"

"We've got two blankets in our cell for six people," Gabrielle said. "And no fire."

Xena wondered if it was the same for all prisoners, or whether the guards were having a little fun with the new inmates. "How have you been staying warm?"

"Ha." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "We haven't. I thought I was going to freeze to death last night."

Xena felt a brief twinge.

"So, a blanket if I win," Gabrielle continued her planning. "If you win . . . ." She tried to think of something.

Hmm. What would annoy the scribe the most? Xena wondered mischievously.

"If you win . . . ," Gabrielle said again, as if repeating the words would inspire her.

"You write me a poem. And sign it."

Gabrielle's eyebrows rose. "A poem?"

"Yeah. Something funny." Xena held up a hand. "Something I'll think is funny."

The women eyed each other. "Deal." Gabrielle extended her hand, and Xena shook it. "OK, get me some paper," Gabrielle said, rubbing her hands together. Xena gave her a look, and Gabrielle quickly rephrased it. "Um . . . I mean, do you have any paper?"

With a smirk, Xena rose to fetch a box of parchment along with quill and ink from her desk.

"Wow." Gabrielle stared longingly at all that blank parchment. That could hold a year's worth of speeches, she calculated, keeping that thought to herself.

Ten minutes later, the door to Xena's chambers flew open, and the Conqueror thrust a square of parchment at a surprised guard. "Have Tova indicate the cost of these items," she instructed, then retreated back inside.

The guard dutifully went about his task, returning a short while later with the requested information. Before he had even completed his knock, the Conqueror had yanked the door open, snatched the paper from his hand, and slammed it shut again.

The women sat beside each other on the couch adding up the figures, then checked the final tally against their own estimates. "Six dinars," Gabrielle declared triumphantly.

A crumpled ball of parchment hit the back of the fireplace. "Stupid game," Xena grumbled.

Awkward silence followed, Gabrielle's normal exuberance at winning a bet dampened considerably by the recognition that she had just angered the Conqueror with her impulsiveness. "May we still have a blanket?" she asked finally, wishing they didn't need one so desperately.

"No." Xena shouted for a guard. "Take her back to her cell," she ordered.

Gabrielle opened her mouth, but decided she'd better let it go. She had been making bad mistakes with the Conqueror all day.

The cell's other occupants were surprised to see her back much earlier than the previous night.

"Gabrielle!" Raubert clasped her hands. "You're--" He paused to run his eyes down her new clothing. "Wow. You look beautiful."

Gabrielle chuckled. "I'm lucky I don't look dead," she said. "Two nights in a row," she marvelled, shaking her head. Two nights in a row she could have killed me and she didn't.

"What did she do to you?" Raubert caressed her hand.

"Nothing. We got into an argument, made a bet, and then she got mad when she lost and threw me out."

Her friends stared at her, wide-eyed, torn between admiring Gabrielle for her bravery and fearing that she had lost her senses completely.

The loud tromping of boots alerted them to more unwelcome news. Three guards? "You must have really ticked her off," Raubert whispered nervously.

"Everyone out!" The speaker's helmet identified him as a captain.

"Oh, gods," Celice uttered. "Everyone?"

"You heard me. Out!"

"Where are you taking us?"



A hard shove encouraged them to make their way down the corridor. As they reached the outer door, the captain held up a hand. "Which one is Gabrielle?" No one spoke, and Belile grunted. "It's either you" -- pointing at Celice -- "or you" -- his intended target. "Answer the question."

The scribe stepped forward. "I'm Gabrielle."

Belile drew a cloth sack from the corner. "From the Conqueror. Said she accepts your original terms. Said to give this to a carpenter or something."

Cautiously, Gabrielle reached a hand into the bag, hoping it wasn't a severed head or anything. A confused expression crossed her face, and she drew out a head of cabbage. Handing it to Raubert, she reached in again and pulled out a jar of honey. She smirked, now knowing without looking what else would be in there: A leek, an apple, some butter, and -- it escaped her for a second -- oh, yeah, some flour.

"She said to tell you that next time there will be no mercy." He opened the door. "Now, out, all of you."

The six scrambled out the door and melted into the City. Belile watched the little blonde woman run, wondering why she didn't just drop the bag. Its contents, a few common staples, were of little value; why did she struggle to carry it with her while she fled? Women.

He turned to his men. "Help me block off the first cell," he ordered. "The Princess visited the prison today--"

The guards blanched.

"Yeah, lucky for you she didn't catch you taking a nap," he needled them. "She said she didn't appreciate freezing her fingers off in the cell. She wants fire pits installed."

Emor grunted. "She never comes down here," he said. He couldn't even remember the last time, except today, apparently. "No one's ever in those cells but the damn prisoners. Seems like a--"

The captain halted his stride, waiting with narrowed eyes for his soldier's next words.

"--good idea," Emor finished.

"I'm sure she'd be thrilled to know you agree with her. Now, get to work."


Jump to Part II of Resistance

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