Resistance Part 2--By Della Street

PART II


Gabrielle opened the door to a tall, hooded stranger.

"Yes?" she asked, a little warily. She could no longer afford the trusting nature she had had in the years before she joined the protest movement. It was too dangerous now.

A gloved hand drew back the hood, and Gabrielle's mouth fell open. "Xena?" she gasped, forgetting the presumption of using the Conqueror's given name.

"Can I come in?" Xena asked.

"Uh-- of course," Gabrielle stammered. She stepped back to make way, then poked her head outside. No guards waiting to spring, so far as she could see.

Xena surveyed her surroundings. This is where the scribe lived?

The young woman's entire home was confined to a square footage considerably less than a single room in Xena's palace. A small wall fireplace, crudely adapted for the makeshift quarters, but apparently providing adequate ventilation, had no difficulty warming the tiny space. Filling the entire west corner was a narrow bed, above which hung a curtain that could be drawn for privacy. Rumpled sheets indicated that the scribe had been awakened by the arrival of her early-morning visitor.

To Xena's immediate left was a three-drawer chest that apparently contained all of the woman's clothes; at least Xena didn't see anything else that could hold them. A washbasin rested atop the chest. No private facilities, of course; she supposed the scribe had to wander down the alley when the need arose.

Her inspection ended on two wooden chairs placed in close proximity in front of the fireplace. For socializing -- or plotting -- the ruler assumed; handmade pillows had been placed in the seats for extra comfort.

Gabrielle closed the door. "How did you know where I live?" she asked. Xena arched an eyebrow, and Gabrielle grimaced. "Oh." The ruler of most of the known world would have her sources, she supposed. She wondered what else Xena knew about her.

"Um, please sit down, if you want." Why are you here? Gabrielle wanted to scream, but instead she held her hand out for Xena's cloak, taking the time to appreciate the remarkable garment. Dark wool, silk lining, not really that heavy considering how thick it was. Gabrielle ran a finger across the intricate gold stitching on the sleeves. "This is beautiful," she said.

"You want one?" Xena asked casually.

"Oh,--" Gabrielle rolled her eyes, chuckling. "What am I saying? Nevermind."

"Why not?"

"Me with a coat like this? My friends" -- accomplices, Xena translated -- "would think I'd gone over to the other side."

"Maybe they'd just think you have a wealthy lover," Xena joked, a little surprised when the other woman seemed to take the remark seriously.

"Right," Gabrielle snorted. "Then they'd know something was wrong."

Xena settled into one of the chairs, extending her long legs in front of her toward the fireplace. This wasn't so bad, she decided; kind of toasty. In a way, it reminded her of the days when she had led her army in the field, instead of by proxy.

"Oh, yeah?" she said. "And why's that?"

Gabrielle didn't answer immediately, being preoccupied at the moment with a quandary: The chairs were closer together than usual, having been moved to facilitate sweeping and not yet returned to their original positions. Should she leave her chair close to the Conqueror's, which might be a little awkward, or move it farther away, which might be a little obvious?

Her dilemma was resolved when Xena patted the other chair, impatient for her host to make herself comfortable so that she might be comfortable. It had been many years since Xena had ventured out on a regular, non-royal, non-conquering visit, and it felt foreign enough as it was.

"Why is that?" she repeated.

"Pardon?" Gabrielle had forgotten the question.

Xena hadn't. "Why wouldn't your friends believe you have a wealthy lover?"

Gabrielle studied her fingers, which seemed to be constructing some sort of steeple, a slow blush rising up her throat. She didn't particularly care to discuss her lack of opportunities in that sort of thing. Everyone knew the Conqueror had never had that problem; she would just laugh at her. 'The cause is first and only,' Gabrielle always insisted. That was why she wasn't interested in any of the young men who approached her, why she hadn't ever--

She glanced up to see Xena still waiting for an answer. "Well," Gabrielle said, "I mean, it's just that I'm so busy . . . ."

"Doing what?" Xena asked, smiling. As if I don't know. She was kind of curious, though: How did one support herself by rabble rousing?

Gabrielle met her gaze. "Charity work," she replied, and both women smiled.

"Is that enough to support you?" Xena asked.

Sensing that Xena really was interested, Gabrielle nodded, spreading her hands to indicate their surroundings. "It's not exactly the lap of luxury," she said, "but it's plenty for me."

"How . . . ?" Xena puffed out her cheeks, not sure how to ask it.

"How does charity work support me?"

Xena nodded.

"People . . . contribute," Gabrielle answered carefully. "I get . . . enough for this room" -- she hoped Xena wouldn't deduce from the comment that the room was donated -- "and food, and some clothing." She pointed to the simple floor-length skirt she was wearing.

"Nice," Xena acknowledged. And it was. Carefully cut and stitched, but neither a color nor design that would accentuate the scribe's natural beauty. No, something deep green would be better, Xena thought, with a sharp V neckline. She imagined how striking Gabrielle would look, then pictured her slovenly guards drooling over the same sight. The fantasy neckline moved a few inches up the blonde woman's chest.

Xena turned her face toward the fireplace, which crackled satisfyingly. Folding her hands across her stomach, she noticed a small square of parchment on the hearth, apparently the result of someone's poor aim. She leaned over to pick it up, intending to toss it in the flames, then brought it closer to examine it.

The scribe snatched at the paper, but Xena drew her hand out of reach and continued to study the drawing. A tall woman with long dark hair, royal dress, and sandaled feet; nothing out of the ordinary--except, perhaps, the two prominent fangs protruding from the woman's mouth, dripping some substance she assumed was supposed to be blood. The blood of the people or some other tired cliche, she supposed.

Gabrielle couldn't read Xena's expression as she looked at Mica's caricature, and a sense of dread began to set in. How could she have forgotten for even an instant that this woman was the Conqueror?

Xena held up the sketch. "Did you draw this?"

Gabrielle shook her head.

"Not a good likeness." Xena tossed the drawing to the floor, dismissing it, then directed her cool gaze at the scribe.

Gabrielle suspected that the warrior would honor some sort of truce for her home, for tonight anyway, but it didn't matter; she could not have resisted what she was about to do anyway. "I have a better one," she said.

Narrowed blue eyes followed the scribe over to a writing table, where she pulled open a drawer. Gabrielle rifled through a stack of loose papers, pausing at the sudden realization that drafts of some of her speeches were in there, parchment too precious a commodity to use only one side. Casually, she shifted her body, positioning it between Xena and the table, effectively concealing the contents from the Conqueror's view.

The young woman's movement, and its purpose, did not escape Xena's attention, and she was tempted to storm over there, yank the drawer out and empty its contents on the floor. For now, she remained in her seat.

The scribe had apparently found what she was looking for, and she walked back holding out a slightly worn square of parchment. There, in black and white, was a sketch of the Warrior Princess, astride a magnificent palomino mare. Xena turned the paper over, squinting at some long-faded words . . . flour, nuts . . . .

She flipped the paper over again. No date, no clues in the sparse background. It could have been any valley.

"Potedaia," Gabrielle answered, and Xena's head jerked up. The blonde woman was staring intently at a red weave on the fireplace rug. "We heard you were coming, but some of us thought what we had heard wasn't true," she said. The things they had said were inhuman, too horrible to be true. "My sister and I sneaked up the west hills, and I saw you with your men. On your horse."

Xena knew where this was headed, but waited for her to continue.

"Your army came the next day." Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Potedaia isn't there any more." She reached for the sketch, running her eyes across it unnecessarily--the image had been seared into her memory those four long years ago. "My father and sister were killed by one of your men. He ran them through with his sword, even after my sister tried to surrender." The scene ran through Gabrielle's mind, as painful as if she were witnessing it again at this moment. "My mother was taken for the slavers," she continued tonelessly. "I never saw her again."

She held out another parchment. Against her better judgment, Xena found herself looking down at the head and shoulders of an older blonde woman, below which was some intricate calligraphy. Hecuba of Potedaia.

Gabrielle took back the drawing and carried both parchments to her desk.

Xena stood and grabbed her cloak, fastening the clasps efficiently. "Traitors against the realm will hang in the square," she said, levelling an icy gaze at the scribe. "And all who stand with them."

Gabrielle stared back at her, then nodded once at the declaration of their mutual enmity. She held open the door, and her visitor stepped outside into the harsh glare of the rising sun.

Xena strode away from the stone building, cursing herself for the drunken impulse that had brought her to this hovel. A dozen or so mugs of ale, tossed back between scuffles at familiar dives during the night, had persuaded her that the traitorous mouse might prove interesting company for a few minutes.

She scowled. She hadn't perceived the lateness of the hour, and now she would have trouble getting into the castle unnoticed. She could get past her own pathetic guards undetected, that much was certain, but Ennaus would have been by already for a morning briefing. Although ordinarily he knew better than to look behind the bedroom curtain, he unquestionably would have done so when the ruler failed to acknowledge his presence, if only to yell at him to go away.

She tucked the hood more snugly around her face, not nervous but cognizant of the awkwardness of explaining her presence in this part of the city. There were no soldiers' haunts here, nothing but run down tenements and walled enclosures that people like her -- Xena's lip curled -- pathetically called homes.

She rounded a corner and headed away from the castle.

***** 

Gabrielle hurriedly tossed another stack of papers in the fire. The wooden box was now empty, save for two drawings: One a golden-haired woman with loving green eyes, and one a fierce black-haired woman astride a horse.

Gabrielle brought the first sketch to her lips, and replaced the treasure gently in its container. The other drawing she held up longer. A memory surfaced of two girls peering over the top of a hill, watching a woman in dark leathers give orders to her men, and Gabrielle could almost remember feeling . . . something, some fascination for this woman who was unlike anyone she had ever seen before.

She hadn't been prepared. She always had quill and ink knotted into her belt, but she didn't have any parchment with her, except for a new recipe the blacksmith's wife had sent home for Hecuba.

Gabrielle had quickly unfolded the square, holding it flat with one hand as the other moved swiftly across the page. Later that evening, Lila had centered the parchment on their shared bedstand while Gabrielle carefully placed a heavy sack of flour on it, working out how they might wipe off the inked words from the back of their prize tomorrow.

Three days after the attack, when she regained consciousness at the home of a stranger, the first of many who would show her kindness in the following months, Gabrielle had found the drawing in her pocket. She hadn't intended to keep it, but in her desperation to save her mother's portrait from the flames, she had accidentally snatched both parchments. Looking at it, Gabrielle had, without hesitation, known where she needed to go: Corinth, where she would devote her life to destroying the existence of the woman who had destroyed hers.

In some ways, Gabrielle mused, it was hard to reconcile the woman of her illustration, a monster who stood by while her men sacked and burned a grossly outmatched village, with the intelligent, at times engaging, woman she had spent two evenings with, who had let her go for no other reason than that she had been bested in a wager . . . .

Gabrielle stared at the drawing a while longer before dropping it back into the box.

*****

Thwack!

The Conqueror backhanded another challenger into oblivion, then downed her prize in a single gulp. Suddenly the doors burst open, and three of her Guard entered the darkened tavern.

About time. She had been waiting for them to 'find' her for hours.

One of the men advanced, while his two colleagues hung back nervously. Cowards, she cursed. They should rot in her dungeon.

"Princess," the brave one bowed, "Lord Ennaus wishes to know whether you would like an escort back to the castle, if you are . . .," he glanced at the bodies lying in various stages of hurt, "finished here."

"Whatever," she mumbled. Not bad looking, she supposed. Too bad she was so out of it. "What's your name?"

"Esor, your Highness."

"Whatever." She slammed her empty mug down and steadied herself with a hand on the counter. Whoa. She hadn't been quite this wasted in some time. She started toward the door, her balance slightly less assured than usual.

"Wait!" The distressed cry of the tavernkeeper's apprentice reached her from behind the bar. The girl spread her hands out, indicating smashed tables and chairs, a gaping hole in one end of the counter, and other remnants of the devil woman's visit. "The damage . . . ."

Esor stiffened. How dare she! Did the fool not know whom she addressed?

The girl shrank from the hostile glare of soldiers, taking refuge in the bleary-eyed but comparatively calm gaze of the woman who had wrecked her uncle's establishment. She swallowed, but the certain beating she would receive from her uncle overrode the speculative harm that might befall her at these strangers' hands.

"Do you know who I am?" Xena asked.

The girl held her breath, afraid to admit that she didn't. "Please," she said, her voice quivering. "We don't have the money to repair this."

Xena studied her. Pale complexion, red-gold hair; under the flickering light of the wall torches, she looked almost like--

"Insolent girl!" Esor took a step forward, but Xena's bark stopped him.

"Here!" She drew a small coin purse from beneath her cloak and launched it at the far wall, gold coins spewing across the floor as it burst open. "Take it. I've got thousands more of these. 'Lining my already bursting vaults,'" she quoted disdainfully. "She'll line the square with the others," she muttered to herself.

The guards looked at each other. Who knew what she was talking about?

Word that the Princess had been out for a night of lively entertainment travelled through the castle, and the place was deadly silent as servants tiptoed about their chores, not wanting to be the one to accidentally wake her.

Xena dozed on and off, no longer sleeping off her binge, but unwilling to drag herself from the warm comfort of her bed.

"Princess?" Her aide's too-loud voice carried through the cloth curtain.

She draped a forearm across her eyes. "What."

"Princess, we must discuss matters of castle security," Ennaus said, pressing ahead in spite of her mood. Secretly, he was thrilled; if Xena had amused herself with a soldier last night, she would not be in such a foul temper today.

Xena closed her eyes. One thing she did not need right now was another lecture about her occasional nocturnal outings, the only real fun she had these days. Most of the time, anyway. She wouldn't make last night's mistake again. "Later," she yelled.

Ennaus smiled. "Yes, Princess." He had the information he wanted anyway.

*****

Potedaia isn't there any more.

Good. One less problematic village in her way. Xena wondered how the so-called scribe had escaped the raid. Ran, probably, she thought uncharitably, then admitted that it was unlikely. That woman, even before she was a woman, would not willingly have abandoned her family.

Xena wished she knew which of her soldiers had disobeyed orders and killed the man and girl trying to surrender. Not that it was a much better fate, but they should have been sold to Canzas along with the old woman, whatever her name was. A recollection of elaborate handwriting -- Hecuba of Potedaia -- forced its way into her consciousness, and she jumped to her feet in search of a distraction.

Judging by the position of the sun, they would be leaving for Sparta within the hour, she noted. She was looking forward to this. A month or two away from the suffocating walls of Corinth and its ungrateful residents was just what she needed.

She paused before the window and looked out at the peasants scurrying about their business, forming a colorful potpourri of baskets and rugs and robes as they moved along. This was one reason she had ignored the urgings of her second in command to take an inside chamber. It would have been safer, yes, but even more isolated than she already felt at times. What was it that irritant had said? Out of touch.

Far more annoying than the scribe's accusations was the fact that Xena was still thinking about them. Who cared what some mule-headed traitor thought? So, she was attractive--beautiful, in fact, if one could get past that mouth. So were hundreds of other women who would gladly accept an invitation to the royal chamber. One body was just as warm as any other between the sheets.

Xena turned her attention back to the street scene outside, her eyes settling on a stooped woman, far more gray than black in her hair, who was leading a stubborn goat down the passageway. Xena's fingers clung lightly to the curtain as she watched other pedestrians navigate around the tussling figures.

In a way, the goat symbolized her subjects, Xena thought: Useful in some respects, but stubborn and thick-skulled. You could not reason with a goat; getting its attention and obedience required a firm hand. Yet still the woman struggled to convince the goat with words to cooperate. Foolish hag; her task would take all day if she didn't lay a hand on the animal.

Behind them, a stocky young man, a trader by the looks of him, strode briskly up the narrow street, and Xena's eyes narrowed. She recognized the walk--not his in particular, but the arrogant gait of those whose time is more valuable than others'. Annoyed at the obstruction in his path, the trader shoved the old woman aside and she lost her grip on the rope.

Xena craned her neck for a better look at him before returning her gaze to the woman, who was being helped to her feet by friendly passersby. The goat had scuttled only a few feet away, and a little girl held up the leash to her. A hand pressed against her side, the old woman resumed her battle of wills with the four-legged creature; a complete waste of time, as far as Xena was concerned, but she supposed the little scribe would wax eloquent about the old woman's trials or such. She smiled slightly, picturing green eyes ignited with indignation, or passion, or delight, whatever the emotion of the moment might be.

A long moment later, Xena whirled around and strode to the door. "Have Achias report to me," she directed.

The two guards nodded respectfully, trading speculative glances after the door closed. The words were never spoken aloud, but it was no secret why Xena kept the ex-soldier on her payroll. Achias would pay Xena a visit, and within weeks or even hours a problem of Xena's would conveniently be solved: A disobedient king would be found on his throne without his head; an uncooperative landowner would vanish from his home without a trace.

At times, members of the guard speculated -- well beyond the castle walls -- on how a man with only one arm could be so effective. His appearance probably lulled his victims into lowering their guard, they figured. Of course, no one knew it was Achias, because no one ever saw anything, but everyone knew. The junior guard hurried to fulfill his assignment.

Xena poured two glasses of port in anticipation of her guest's arrival. The man had been an exemplary member of her second army until a shoulder wound had weakened his sword arm to the point where Xena had to send him home before he lost it. Too late, as it turned out.

She smiled. Achias was quietly loyal, discreet, a killer without conscience, and the closest thing Xena had to a friend.

*****

"Highness, your carriage--" Ennaus halted, irritated to see that smug henchman standing beside Xena, both bent over a map.

"Do whatever it takes," the Princess was saying. Achias nodded, fully understanding the scope of his authority.

"Princess?" Ennaus tried to gauge where Xena's hand had been resting on the map, but she straightened casually and rolled up the document.

"Join us, Ennaus," she said pleasantly. "We were just about to have some more port."

Behind her back, the two men grudgingly acknowledged each other's presence, Ennaus openly irritated at his exclusion from whatever was going on, Achias with that same damn non-expression he wore whether he was plucking a flower or slitting a man's throat.

"Another time, Highness," Achias said. "By your leave . . . ." He bowed, and withdrew.

*****

Closso arrived late to the meeting, but his news could not wait. "The Conqueror was attacked on her way back from Sparta," he interrupted breathlessly.

All eyes in the group widened.

"And?" Raubert held up crossed fingers.

"Three of her escort were killed, but Xena was not injured," the guard said.

"Damn."

"Raubert! You don't mean that," Gabrielle said.

He looked at the scribe as if she had just announced that the sun never rose in the summer. "Of course I mean it. Who here wouldn't love to see the Conqueror dead at his feet?"

"At our feet, yeah," Timmor chimed in, "to kick her rotten corpse to pieces."

"Nice image," Gabrielle said. "How do we know we'd end up with any better?"

"Because there is nothing worse," Raubert reasoned, encouraged by several nods of agreement.

"Well, I agree that she's . . ." Gabrielle wasn't sure what she wanted to say. "She's . . . ."

"A heartless bitch?"

"A rabid dog?"

"She's harsh," Gabrielle said, ignoring the suggestions. "But look at what's happened in the months she's been gone. The pogrom in Carmal, hundreds of desert dwellers massacred. The attacks on the newcomers by the Corinthian purists, a dozen killed last week alone." She ticked off horrors on her fingers. "The--"

"Nothing compared to the terror she's inflicted over the years." Marcas waved her off. "Remember the Saldan rebellion?"

Yes, she did. Stories had travelled fast and far of thousands of civilians overrun by sword-wielding cavalrymen on the Conqueror's order. "I still think you're too unfeeling," she said, with less confidence than she had felt earlier. "Isn't it better to give Xena a chance to learn the error of her ways than simply to wish her dead?"

"Right, Gabrielle," Timmor said. "She's gonna change her ways after all these years. Did you hear about Cormus?"

"I was there," she replied, recalling vividly the man's broken body hanging from the cross. Horrible, yes, but what did they expect Xena to do to someone who fired a crossbow at her? she thought. Had Xena let that go unpunished, her life would be in constant danger, wouldn't it?

Raubert smiled down at her, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You're so naive sometimes, Gabrielle."

She jerked away from his touch. "Just because I don't agree with everything you say doesn't make me naive," she snapped. "Let's just get on with the meeting."

*****

In the northeastern region of Xena's realm, a man in full Guard regalia dismounted and dusted himself off. He strode confidently to the door, where he was met by a nervous lord of the manor.

The visitor removed his feathered helmet and tucked it under his arm. "Terellis of Duche, I bring greetings from Xena the Conqueror," he said.

Terellis paled. So his guards had reported it correctly. The stranger's words were polite, but everyone knew that an unexpected visit from Xena or one of her agents never bode well.

"An honor," he replied, recovering from his shock sufficiently to bow. He straightened, and swept an arm across the extensive grounds. "My humble abode is yours for as long as you wish to stay."

Achias stepped over the threshold into a decorative entryway. "This will not be an extended visit," he said. It had taken the emissary longer than he had expected to track his prey to this estate, and he wanted to head out without further delay. "You have something the Conqueror wants."

*****

The Warrior Princess was carried smoothly into the square, two well-muscled attendants lowering the pallet carefully to the ground.

Xena swept her gaze over the sizeable crowd. Always good attendance at a sentencing, she observed dryly. For most, it was a way to satisfy perverse curiosity; people wanted to see a man killed, even as they turned away.

For others -- and Xena suspected she could name at least one -- viewing a sentencing was a way to personalize the ruler's cruelty, to paint more vivid pictures of her depravity. The image of a blonde woman scribbling across a blank parchment slipped into her head, and she found herself scanning the crowd for a particular face. She would be here, of course, working her way toward the front as the sentencing progressed like a good little scrivener.

"Hamron!"

The captain of the guard called for the first condemned man, who was hauled forward and deposited in the dirt at the Conqueror's feet.

"A thief, Highness," the captain explained.

Xena sighed. "You know the penalty for theft," she said in a bored tone. "Your hand has offended the Realm." She jerked her head, and two guards hauled the struggling man to a platform, securing one arm across its diameter, immobilizing it even as the man fought desperately to pull away.

The executioner handed a razor-sharp implement to his apprentice, who was expected to work his way through lesser limbs before earning the right to take someone's head. The axe swung up and over the younger man's head, and Gabrielle closed her eyes, the nauseating sound of metal severing flesh and the prisoner's screams temporarily overwhelming her senses. No matter how many of these she attended, she could never become accustomed to them.

Xena watched with indifference as the thief, now unconscious, was carried to the healer's. Movement caught her eye, and she spied Achias making his way toward the spot where she had expected to see him. Xena secretly studied the woman with him, reluctantly shifting her attention to the next prisoner, whose name she had missed.

"A violator of women," Belile pronounced.

Xena's lip curled. She thought she had made it more than clear her intolerance of such conduct, particularly since an attack on the Doge of Marguelle's daughter during his visit a year ago had ended in an ill-advised attempt to lay siege to the City. Messy business it was, finally forcing her to cut the Doge's throat and replace him with a less aggressive counterpart.

***** 

Achias handed the woman beside him a square of parchment folded carefully in two, a light wax seal binding the two edges together. "Don't lose that," he said. She peered down at the paper and back up again, but he was gone.

***** 

"You know the penalty for rape," Xena declared. "Your pathetic manhood has offended the Realm." With a jerk of her head, the criminal was dragged toward the hospital. Too much blood loss had killed the last one by mistake. Xena hadn't been particularly bothered by his fate, but she had her system, and certain punishments were now meted out under the healer's direct supervision.

"She must be tired today," Raubert said behind his hand. "No lectures about how 'this should serve as a warning' and all that."

There was no answer from Gabrielle and he leaned down to repeat his comment, pausing at the look on her face.

Gabrielle stood frozen, staring in disbelief at a woman standing a dozen yards away. Pen and parchment slipped unnoticed from the scribe's fingers, and she started slowly forward.

"Mother?" she whispered.

***** 

"The final prisoner, Highness, is--"

Belile was interrupted by a scream from the crowd, as all heads turned to see two women clasped tightly together, crying.

"What the--"

The captain's growl was forestalled by a soft command. "Let it go, Belile; it seems harmless enough. Continue."

***** 

From his carefully selected vantage point amid the assembly, Achias studied his commander closely. Subtly, almost undetectably, yet unmistakable to one who had known her for years, the Conqueror's glance was returning again and again to the two women clinging to each other at the edge of the crowd. Hmm . . . .

***** 

Gabrielle wiped gently at her mother's face with the back of her fingers, still in shock. Hecuba tensed, and Gabrielle took her hand.

"What is it?" she asked, bringing her mother's hand to her lips, then pressing the other woman's palm to her cheek.

"The man who brought me here," Hecuba said. "He'll be back."

"Who was it?"

"My owner."

Fresh tears rolled down Gabrielle's face. Her mother, still a slave? Were they just passing through Corinth? She would not lose her again now; she would follow them wherever they went. Gabrielle reached for her mother's other hand, but it was balled tightly into a fist.

"What's the matter?" Hecuba uncurled her fingers, and Gabrielle noticed the parchment. "What's this?"

"I don't know. He gave it to me before he left."

Gabrielle brought it up to inspect it, slipping a finger between the edges to break the seal.

"Gabrielle, don't!" Hecuba gasped.

"It'll be all right. We'll tell him it was an accident."

Hecuba stared at her. It was obvious that her daughter had never been a slave, for which she thanked the gods.

Gabrielle edged her finger through the wax and unfolded the paper. She read it, then mutely held it out to her mother, who shook her head anxiously. If her master saw them--

"It's a declaration of freedom," Gabrielle said. She closed her eyes, then brought the parchment up to read it again. Those were the legal words; Gabrielle had borrowed them once from an emancipated slave's certificate to issue a blanket declaration of freedom of all Corinthians from Xena's tyranny.

The signature on this document was sloppy, but it was embossed with an official seal that would prove the claim were anyone to dispute it. Oh, gods. She took her mother into her arms again.

***** 

Another convict was tossed before the Conqueror, requiring her full attention. Damn it. "What is his crime?" she asked irritably.

The man looked up at her. "I spoke."

"He incited the people against you, Conqueror," Belile said.

Xena rose from her platform and approached the captive as he struggled to his feet. "Are you guilty?" she asked, actually stalling for time. The penalties for speaking against the Realm were unambiguous, and Xena had never hesitated to enforce them, but she wasn't particularly in the mood today.

She contemplated the prisoner a moment longer, wondering idly if this was a friend of the scribe, who was probably still watching from the crowd. For the first time in her reign, the Conqueror felt a hint of indecision. Too tired, she decided. She hadn't had much opportunity for rest since returning from Sparta; perhaps she should postpone the sentencing until--

She felt it almost as she heard it. The crowd went silent, holding its collective breath as Xena wiped the spittle from her face. An instant later, she had drawn a sword from the captain's sheath and impaled the traitor through the chest. She tossed the bloody weapon to to the ground, returning to stand in front of her pallet.

"His heart offended the Realm," she shouted. "Know this: All who speak against the Realm will die like this dog."

She lowered herself to the pallet, and was transported back to the castle. Nearly a quarter league in the distance, a mother and daughter held hands as they walked toward the younger woman's home, having left the horrors of the sentencing square far behind them.

***** 

"Highness." The soldier saluted. "We raided one of the traitors' meetings," he reported proudly. "Caught nearly a dozen of the bastards."

Xena straightened in her throne. "Where was it?"

"Where was what, Highness?"

She gritted her teeth. "The - meeting," she said slowly.

Eban's brow furrowed. The Princess didn't seem to be as pleased with this news as he had anticipated. Just his luck to catch her in a bad mood.

"On the east side. A house behind the mausoleum. We burned it."

Xena nodded. "Good work. Nearly a dozen, huh?"

The soldier gulped. He'd overstated it a little, not expecting her to quiz him about details. "Well, Highness, eight, I believe."

Xena smiled supportively. "All orators?" All men, in other words?

"Seven of them, Highness. One was a girl."

"A girl?" Xena uncrossed her thighs slowly, diverting part of Eban's attention, then recrossed them with equal deliberation, capturing the rest of it. "Are you sure she was with them?"

Eventually, Eban registered the question. "Oh -- yes, Highness. She had quite a mouth on her. Belile says that you have arrested her before."

"I see." Xena sat back and gripped her thighs. She had done all she could. She had warned them all what would happen if they were arrested again. The scribe would now join her friends in their fate, and this muddled interval in Xena's life would finally be over.

It was far too distracting -- and ultimately dangerous -- anyway. In Sparta, she had nearly made use of a willing housemaid until something the girl said or did brought the scribe to mind and kept her there. Cursing the interference of a woman thirty leagues away, Xena had ordered the servant back to her own quarters. Over the next weeks, honey gold hair and green eyes would flash unexpectedly into her brain while she was attempting to conduct business -- "Excuse me, Highness, you said Potedaia again" -- until finally she just gave up and cut short the visit.

She needed this to be over. To spare the woman would be to lose credibility with her own men and the citizenry, and would only encourage other dissenters. It wasn't an option, no matter how much Xena desperately desired to do it. She sighed at the inadvertent admission. Yes, she wanted to spare Gabrielle. She wanted the scribe to be here instead, with her, talking to her, smiling at her.

She cringed at an image of Gabrielle on the cross. She could at least spare her the pain and indignity of a lingering death. "I'll see them," she said.

The guard took a deep breath. His captives were important enough for the Conqueror's personal attention. A true feather in his cap.

"Let's go," she said.

The soldier's jaw dropped. Now? She was going to the prison herself? He could not have asked for a greater honor. "Oh." The Conqueror was standing at the entrance, waiting for him. "My apologies, Highness." He hurried out the door and down the hallway.

***** 

There was a firepit in the cell now, Gabrielle noticed. "This is new," she said conversationally, acting the good host for the Athenian dissidents who shared her cell. "They spoil us here." She laughed half-heartedly. "I'm really sorry about this; your first visit to Corinth and you're arrested." The other irony, that she had been the one appointed to share speeches and ideas with them, hadn't occurred to her. "That's basically what it's like here."

She knelt beside the pit, testing the kindling for dampness. At least they wouldn't freeze to death before they were executed.

"I warned you."

Gabrielle whirled around to face the Conqueror's piercing blue eyes through the cell bars.

"I told you that this time there would be no mercy," Xena said.

The scribe could not speak, but it didn't appear that the Warrior Princess would be interested in anything she had to say anyway.

"I am sick of your interference and your insolence," Xena continued, directing her remarks to all the prisoners. Almost as an afterthought, she added, "I have no choice." She turned to her captain, who had hustled to the prison at word that the Conqueror was paying another unannounced visit. "Hang her in the square at dawn," she ordered, and then disappeared again into the darkness.

Gabrielle sank to her knees. She had heard about the brutal slaying of an orator at the sentencing last month, but somehow had thought, had hoped, that it was an instinctive reaction to being spat upon. That wouldn't excuse it, but Gabrielle thought she could at least understand it. The Warrior Princess had been a creature of instinct nearly all her life; she couldn't be expected to change that overnight.

But this-- this wasn't instinct. Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling a sense of loss that had nothing to do with her impending death. When the guards came to separate her from the others, she went without protest.

***** 

Xena put aside the question of why she was doing this. For the hell of it, she had tried to persuade herself. Because she was bored. Because it was a challenge. Unfortunately, she knew better. It was because she couldn't think of any other way to keep the scribe alive.

She had given up trying to understand why she gave a damn about what happened to the woman from Potedaia. They had not spoken since Xena's ill-fated visit to that cramped basement months ago, when the scribe had made clear her utter contempt for the Conqueror. Since then, Xena had seen her from a distance at sentencings, at proclamation days, and, in somewhat of a surprise, at a non-lethal wrestling exhibition over which Xena had presided.

On one occasion, Xena had taken a chance and met the scribe's gaze, which to her astonishment was more curious than hostile. The women had stared at each other until, with a grin, the scribe had raised her quill and parchment menacingly, causing Xena to laugh in the middle of announcing an outbreak of anthrax. After that, despite her aide's strong disapproval, the Conqueror had scheduled weekly outdoor events of one type or another throughout the summer, and had seen glimpses of red-blonde at all of them.

Portions of treasonous speeches had also been found or transcribed, and Xena had no trouble identifying the passionate hyperbole of one scribe in particular. She grinned, remembering the time she got wind of an imminent oration and quickly announced a change in whatever minor policy it was, just to imagine the scribe's consternation at having spent all that time writing a now useless speech. That one had gotten her a raised eyebrow and crossed arms from the end of the platform, and ultimately, when Xena answered with a wide-eyed expression of innocence, a laugh.

Smiling at the pleasant memories, Xena fastened her cape. Whatever the reason, be it involvement of the Fates or simply her own bad judgment, she felt an inexorable connection with this woman, and more alive than she had in years. She could no more change her plans tonight than she could refrain from breathing.

She pursed her lips. First and foremost: No killing. The death of a Royal Guard had automatic repercussions under the law, and the scribe would hardly be appreciative of freedom that came at the cost of a hundred lives.

Mask drawn tight across her eyes, Xena drew her legs across the sill and dropped from her window to the earth below.

The first of . . . ten prison guards, if she recalled correctly, opened the outer door to a hard fist that sent him flying. A figure clothed entirely in black, long sleeved shirt tucked into formless pants that cinched around calves at the bootline, darted inside, spent a few seconds seeing to the bolt, and headed deeper into the prison.

The next two never saw her. Asleep on the job, Xena noted, making a note to discuss discipline with Belile; two quick jabs and they were out of her way. She could feel her blood beginning to boil; it had definitely been too long since she'd had some fun.

The prisoners pressed theirs faces against the bars, curious about the commotion down the hall that they could hear but not see. Seven members of Xena's guard had surrounded the intruder, lashing and stabbing at the form that constantly eluded them, who now leapt into the air and took out three of them with slashing kicks.

"Get him!" Belile shouted. Xena spun away from him to slam an elbow into one of her men, swiping with a torch at four others who charged at the same time. The brief distraction was enough for Belile to lunge in with his dagger, feeling a satisfying plunge into flesh.

A spark of fear coursed through him when, other than a sharp intake of breath, the warrior made no sound as the knife sank into his back. By the gods, it hardly even seemed to slow him down.

Xena spun around, knocking two more guards off their feet. Her timetable had just been sped up; she needed to get Gabrielle and get out before she lost too much blood. Nice shot, Belile. She might add weapons training to his responsibilities.

Time seemed to pass slowly as she battled her way into the cell area, until finally the last of the outer guards fell beneath her boot. A jolt from the hilt of a confiscated sword floored the cell guard, and she bent to retrieve the key from his belt.

There she was, the condemned woman, segregated from the others in accordance with custom. The cell door swung open with a twist of the key, and Gabrielle rushed out.

"What are you doing?" she gasped. The man had to be insane, taking on Xena's Guard like this. The Conqueror would have his head. She opened her mouth to offer a further warning, but was stopped in her tracks at a glimpse of bright blue eyes through the mask. Familiar eyes.

Gabrielle brought her hands to her mouth. "Wh--?"

Xena placed her hand across the scribe's, and shook her head. Gabrielle snapped out of her trance just as Xena dropped the key ring onto the unconscious guard's chest.

"Wait." Gabrielle pulled back from her rescuer's grasp. "What about them?" Xena stared at her. "You can't leave them."

Xena snarled. Did the ingrate not know the risk she was already taking? She shook her head again and pulled at the young woman's arm.

"No!" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's sleeve and pulled the taller woman down to whisper urgently in her ear. "They'll think it was someone I know. What'll I tell them?"

Godsdamnit! Xena glared at her, than stomped over to the guard and retrieved the keys.

"No -- not that one," Gabrielle cried, seizing Xena's hand as it reached for the cell next to the scribe's. Its occupant had regaled Gabrielle more than once with the nature of his crime, describing, in graphic terms, what he would do to her if he could get into her cell. "Over here."

A minute later, seven more radicals were free and running -- the wrong way. Xena spoke into in the scribe's ear.

"Wait! This way!" Gabrielle shouted. "Follow us."

The escapees swept through the back door and over the wall, scrambling up the temporary stone block ladder that Xena had constructed before her grand entrance. With a grunt, the Warrior Princess positioned a solid boulder against the door; she had already jammed the bolt in front to where it would not likely come free before breakfast.

Gabrielle watched the last of her colleagues leap from the top of the wall, then pivoted to see Xena propped casually against the wall. "Hey, come on! We've got to go!" she said.

"I agree," Xena rasped. "But I'm not going to make it over that wall."

Gabrielle reached out to her, staring with shock at the blood that coated her hand. "Oh, gods, Xena, you're hurt."

"No kidding." The old Warrior Princess was going soft, Xena thought disgustedly; in the old days, a wound like this wouldn't have taken her out for hours. The sound of a battering ram slamming against the back door brought her back to the present, and she wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "Let's go." She jerked her head toward the south. "This way. There's a--" She took a breath, too fatigued to explain. "You'll see."

It was a good idea, Gabrielle realized; she hadn't even seen the abandoned irrigation canal until she literally stumbled across it. She assisted Xena into the crevice and to the ground. "What happened?"

"Stabbed in the back," Xena chuckled. The concept seemed rather funny, all things considered.

"I'm glad you find it so amusing," Gabrielle said, moving Xena's shirt aside to get a better look at the wound. "Oh, gods." She raised a hand to her forehead, smearing blood across her skin and hair. "I don't know what to do. What should I do, Xena?"

"First, relax," Xena said calmly. "This isn't a bad wound."

"How do you know that? You can't even see it."

"I can feel it, and I've had a lot worse. I'll show you the scars some day."

"I don't--"

"Trust me," Xena said, and Gabrielle swallowed the rest of her objection. "I need some bandages and some clothing."

"Clothing?"

"I can't show up with bloodstains after what happened."

She heard the sound of cloth rending, and some wadded up portion of Gabrielle's outfit -- her skirt, Xena assumed -- was pressed against the wound. She ground her teeth together, reminding herself not to take out her discomfort on her companion.

"Can't you say you were attacked or something?"

"And ruin my reputation?" Xena joked. She tried to shake her head, but gave up on it. "Too hard to explain. Gabrielle," she said, "I need something to bandage--"

"OK, OK, I'll get some." Gabrielle raked a hand through her hair. She thought she recognized where she was now. "I'll go get some," she said again. "OK?" She waited for Xena's nod, slipping off her belt to tie it loosely around the compress.

Gabrielle raced through the streets, her mind reeling with scenarios of vindictive soldiers coming across a helpless Xena, not recognizing her before they ran her through. She quickened her stride, already feeling as though her heart were going to burst. Lack of oxygen to her brain disoriented her for a moment, but finally she located the eagle statue that marked the house.

Raubert opened his door to frantic pounding, shocked to see the beautiful blonde woman covered in blood, her clothing torn, almost incoherent in her panic.

"What?"

"Bandages!" she repeated. "Cloth . . . " She gulped for air. "Bed linen . . . anything!"

"Gabrielle, what's--"

"No time!" she shouted, shoving him aside to tear through his closet. She yanked out several thin towels, then remembered Xena's other instruction and hurried over to a dresser, pawing through drawers until she had compiled a more or less complete outfit. "I need these," she said. Wait--would she need to sew up the wound? Xena hadn't mentioned it, but maybe she had assumed . . . . "Needle and thread," she said.

Without thinking, Raubert gestured toward a small basket in the corner. "Gabrielle, are you--"

"I've got to go," she interrupted, taking a couple of long, slow breaths in preparation for the return trip. She stepped out into the night, precious bundle stuffed under her arm, and turned back quickly. "Thank you, Raubert. I owe you."

Then she was gone. Raubert closed the door, wondering what exactly she owed him.

***** 

"Princess!"

Xena pivoted slowly at Ennaus' call.

"Princess, we have been searching for you for hours. The--" He eyed her warily. "May I ask what you are wearing, Highness?"

"A souvenir, Ennaus," she replied. "Of a rather . . . impressive . . . and . . . vigorous young man." She smiled suggestively. "Pretty good fit, don't you think?" She twirled around, gritting her teeth at the excruciating pain the display was costing her. "I would have expected the trousers to be larger," she added with a wink. She resumed her journey down the hall, hoping the hesitation in her stride would seem the result of overindulgence in activities of several varieties.

Ennaus did not care to hear the details of the Warrior Princess's latest conquest, and was pleased that he had just the news that would dampen her good mood. "While you were away, Princess, someone attacked the prison and released the traitors."

Xena spun around. "What?" Blue eyes flashed, the emotion in her performance enhanced by the nearly debilitating pain spiralling through her body. "Am I surrounded by sheer incompetence?" she shouted. "Can I not indulge in a single evening's pleasure without being humiliated by yet another example of it?"

The need to lie down was overwhelming; if it wasn't in the next few minutes, it would be here in the hall. Xena wished she could have sneaked Gabrielle in with her. Gathering up one last reserve of energy, she stormed down the hall and through the doors opened hurriedly by her chamber guards. "I want Belile brought to me at first light," she ordered.

The doors closed behind her, and she sank to the floor.

*****

Xena took a deep breath. It was now or never. The old woman was probably there, but Gabrielle would just have to talk her way out of it. That shouldn't be a problem, she grinned. Just as she raised a fist to knock, the door swung open and Gabrielle shrieked.

"Shh. It's me," Xena said quietly.

"Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle ducked her head back inside. "It's nothing, Mother. A friend of mine with a message." She stepped outside and shut the door.

"How'd you know I was here?" Xena asked.

"I ought to make something up," Gabrielle said, matching Xena's grin, "but I didn't know. I was actually, um . . . ." She tossed her head toward the far end of the alley.

"Oh. Sorry. You better go ahead."

"Walk with me." Gabrielle took Xena's arm. "I'm glad to see you. I never got to thank you."

"No need."

"Yes, there is. You risked your life for me."

Xena wondered if she should point out that she was the one who had imposed the death sentence from which the scribe had been rescued. Gabrielle tightened her grip on her arm, and Xena smiled. "Aah, I was bored anyway," she said.

"Oh. Nevermind, then." They grinned at each other. "Did your back heal all right?"

"It's getting there. Wanna see the scar?"

"Yeah!" Gabrielle's smile faded. "Oh--you were kidding, weren't you?"

"Well, not if you really want to see it."

"Well, you did promise to show me all your scars once," Gabrielle said, then blushed at the way that sounded.

They had reached the outbuilding, and Gabrielle stepped inside. A minute later, she emerged again and they strolled, arm in arm, back to her quarters. "OK--let's see it," Gabrielle said, stopping beneath a torch-light.

"I'll have to pull down my leathers," Xena warned.

"Oh." Gabrielle's eyes widened. "That's OK, it's not-- I don't want you to feel uncomfortable."

"I don't care," Xena said, and she didn't. "I just wanted to make sure that you . . . that you knew that."

"Well, I, uh, certainly don't mind that, I mean I don't care one way or the other," Gabrielle sputtered. "I'd kind of like to see it, but . . . ."

Xena unwrapped her cloak and pulled on the two straps until her leathers were at mid-waist, holding the front against her breasts.

"Wow, that's amazing." Gabrielle traced a finger along the indentation. How could a tear in her side that big make a scar that small? Without conscious intent, her hand strayed across the surprisingly smooth skin of the Conqueror's back. Amazing . . . . "Oh--sorry." Gabrielle drew her hand back as if Xena's back were on fire.

Xena hadn't been bothered by the scribe's exploration. At its abrupt end, she pulled the straps back up and shrugged into her cloak, hesitating before drawing down the hood. She opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. "I need to head back," she said.

"How about a goodbye kiss?" The words were out before Gabrielle could stop them. "Uh, you know, like friends do all the time." She looked up uncertainly. "We are friends, aren't we?"

Xena nodded slowly at the recognition. Yeah, she guessed they were.

"I mean, we don't really know when we'll see each other again," Gabrielle rambled on, wishing she hadn't opened her stupid mouth to begin with. "Just to, you know, sit down and visit or something."

Xena smiled. "Right." She leaned down and lightly pressed her lips against the other woman's, and then she was gone.

Gabrielle leaned against the door, reliving the too-brief moment their lips had met. It wasn't enough. She popped her head into the small room. "I've got to help someone out, Mother," she said. "I'll be back later this morning." She dashed to the corner and looked both ways, hands on her sides. Which way would Xena have gone?

Countless streets and corners later, Gabrielle was pretty sure she was still making her way toward the castle, but she was beginning to think that following the Warrior Princess -- or, more accurately, trying to follow -- hadn't been the best idea. She wasn't very familiar with this part of the city.

The sun was a good hand or more above the horizon now. Gabrielle held her hand in front of her eyes, shading them, and her eyes widened. Was that the castle? Hades, she was a lot closer than she thought. Xena would undoubtedly be inside the walls by now.

A sound behind her alerted Gabrielle that she was not alone, and she turned to see two men advancing on her. She whirled back round to see another pair approaching, closing off her only avenue of escape.

***** 

Xena encircled her knees, tucking her thighs into her chest. She hadn't fully understood how much she wanted the kiss until it happened; now she could think of nothing else.

The Conqueror surveyed her domain from her perch atop the roof of the armory, unable to bring herself to end the experience by returning to the realities of government. She needed to get back to the castle soon, or Ennaus would discover her gone. Too many unexplained absences would eventually trigger the aide's curiosity.

A woman's scream caught her attention, and her head jerked toward the sound. Her mind was too focused on the scribe; the terrified cry almost sounded like--

Another high-pitched shout, abruptly smothered, propelled the Warrior Princess from the roof to the street below and down the block at top speed, her fears confirmed at the sight of four dead men tearing at the most beautiful creature in the world.

"Aiyiyiyiyiyi!"

The men spun around to see a hooded attacker flying at them, blue eyes nearly red with rage. She wrenched the sword from the closest of them and thrust it through his chest, nearly severing his shoulder when she yanked out the blade.

Freeing his hands to defend himself, a second man threw Gabrielle against the hard rock wall and drew his own sword. The weapon was raised to strike when Xena lunged, her sword tearing through soft abdomenal flesh. Within seconds, she had cut down the remaining two, revelling in the satisfaction of her blade piercing one son of a bitch's throat, severing the other's head from his body with sufficient force to drive the corpse ten feet away.

"Gabrielle." Xena cradled the scribe's head in her lap as she examined her. From over her shoulder, she saw the beginnings of a crowd, three guards trailing behind. From city patrol, she noted, not the jail, which meant they were unlikely to recognize the injured fugitive.

An older woman knelt beside them. Poor girl, Beltha thought; not much older than her own daughter. "Is she all right?"

From beneath the pointed cowl of her cloak, Xena peered at the bloody gash in Gabrielle's skull. The wound was not fatal; with some basic care, she would be all right.

"You there!" The guards were calling to her. "What's happened here?"

Xena took the woman's hand and placed it over the wound, then placed her own over it.

Beltha had seen the nervous glances over the hooded man's shoulder. Wanted by the law, probably. "I'll take care of her," she said. "Go."

A brief squeeze of the stranger's hand was all the thanks Xena could give. Resisting the urge to kiss Gabrielle, she rose and leapt to the roof of an adjacent building.

"You! Stay where you are!"

She ignored her guards' futile instructions and jumped to another roof, and then another, soon disappearing from their sight.

Circling around, Xena landed across the alleyway on a rooftop directly behind the guards. Another woman had joined the first beside Gabrielle, and they were securing a brightly colored cloth to the scribe's forehead. The guards leaned over the three women, apparently conferring about the situation.

Xena monitored their efforts until, reluctantly acknowledging the sun's position, she returned to the empty walls of the castle.

***** 

Ennaus breezed into the Conqueror's chamber to find her seated upon her throne, wrapped in her favorite striped robe. His favorite as well.

"Good morning, Princess," he smiled.

"Hardly," she retorted. "What's all the racket?"

"A mere fracas, Princess. Nothing of concern."

Blue eyes narrowed at him. "I didn't ask your opinion, Ennaus, I asked what the noise was. Anything that wakes me from a pleasant dream is my concern."

Ennaus reddened, nodding to acknowledge that he had overstepped his bounds. "A girl, I am told, wandering around looking for trouble."

"Hm." Xena plucked an apple from a basket at her side. "Found it, did she?" She polished the fruit on her robe.

"Yes, Highness. Four men obliged her."

"Where are they now?"

"Dead."

"Dead? The girl did it?" She sank her teeth into the sweet pulp.

Ennaus shook his head. "No, Highness. Reports are of a cloaked man who came to her aid and then disappeared."

"How noble," Xena said, sounding bored with the topic already. "And the girl?" She took another bite.

His shoulders moved up and down. "Dead, I expect."

Xena's head jerked up. "What?"

"They saw no reason to bother with her," he said. "She was just a peasant, probably a woman of the streets. They dispersed the crowd, and notified the street cleaners." That apple in Xena's mouth was looking awfully good, Ennaus decided.

"But she was--" Xena lowered her gaze, seemingly inspecting a bruised area on the fruit, fear and anger battling her mind's efforts to stay calm. "She was injured; she had to be."

"I suppose so," he conceded. "But we cannot permit peasants to assemble around the castle walls." He reached into the basket. "What concern is it of ours, Princess? You've not trifled with disputes between peasants in the past."

"She was near the castle grounds, Ennaus," she said. "An odd place to be at that hour alone, even for a woman of the streets. She may have been witness to something." She threw her apple core in the fireplace. "I want her found and attended to immediately, then send the healers to me." A thought occurred to her, and she added, "No need for you to be bothered, though; have someone else handle it. I want to discuss the Akkadian situation with you."

He nodded, glad that the Princess did not expect him to see to this troublesome girl personally. A waste of time for all around, as far as he could tell, but Ennaus was not one to question the Conqueror's instincts. They had served the Realm well throughout the years.

He swept out of the room and Xena sprinted into her bedchamber, slinging the robe onto a chair, easing out of her leathers and into more traditional attire. She wished she could have gone to Gabrielle herself, but there would be word soon.

Instead, the sun had nearly reached mid-sky before the doors finally opened to admit two ancient women. About time, Xena thought, meeting them half-way across the room with her arms crossed. She had been waiting for their report all damned morning. "Yes?"

"You sent for us, Highness," said what appeared to be the elder of the two, no small achievement. Xena raised an eyebrow, and the woman continued, "About the girl brought in this morning."

"Yes. What is her condition?"

"The peasants had bound her wound, but she lost a fair amount of blood," the healer began.

Because those cretins left her there to die. Xena unconsciously clenched her fists. She would find out who they were, and--

"She will recover, but it would be best to keep her another day, Princess."

"Whatever." A look passed between the elders. "Is there a problem?" Xena asked.

"She . . . ." The healer pressed her lips together. "It does not appear that she has money for our services, Princess."

Zeus. Indigents -- peasants, as Xena had always referred to them -- were not permitted to receive care from the castle's skilled doctors. She walked slowly toward her throne, searching for a way out of this situation. Gabrielle's health came before all else, and to Hades with the suspicions of Ennaus or any other--

"Princess." The healer looked at her sister again, encouraged by the other woman's nod. "We are not busy today. We have spare beds, and we don't mind sharing our gifts with those who cannot pay. If you could--"

Of course. It was a familiar plea, the healers pestering her once a year or so about donating medical care to the peas-- the poor.

". . . at no cost to the Realm."

Xena raised a hand. "Enough!" She whirled around. "I am tired of this constant nagging from you crones." She flicked her hand impatiently. "Do what you wish. I have no interest in what you do in your spare time. Just be certain that no employee of the Realm goes without," she warned.

"Oh, yes, Highness, thank you, Highness," the women uttered excitedly. Finally--their prayers answered.

Ennaus frowned. Free medical care for the peasants? What next?

"When the girl is able to talk, alert one of the hospital guards," Xena said. "I want to know why she was there." The two elders exchanged smiles, and Xena's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Has she regained consciousness?"

"Momentarily, Highness. She was rather light-headed and did not say much," the healer answered, "but I suspect you will find her no threat."

"Explain yourself," Xena ordered, concealing the relief surging through her. Gabrielle had been awake, for a while at least. She wondered if she could get away from Ennaus long enough to--

"She did not witness anything which could pose a danger to you, of that I'm certain," the older woman said.

"That doesn't answer my question."

"She was rather disoriented . . . ."

"Get on with it."

"She said only that . . . ." The healer shrugged, smiling. ". . . she wanted another kiss."

Xena turned to hide the crimson that was making a rare appearance in her cheeks. "Useless information," she said, waving them away.

Another kiss, huh? Xena grinned. She thought she could handle that.

***** 

"I doubt if they'll try that again." Xena's other guests joined the nobleman in enjoying his joke on the fools who had trampled his pasture.

Xena smiled. The morning had been pleasant enough, but unsatisfying. Something was missing, the same something that was missing from everything she did now.

A guard arrived with her daily messages, and she motioned for him to read them aloud, tiring almost immediately of the recitation of routine invitations and petty problems of lesser kingdoms.

Reaching the end of the parchment, the guard hesitated.

"What?"

He licked his lips. Why did he have to be the one to relay this to the Conqueror? "I'm sorry, Highness. It's--" He shook his head. This had to be a mistake. "It's nothing, Highness."

Achias smirked. Wrong answer.

"Nothing?" Xena asked, leaning forward in her throne. "It's on my message scroll?"

"Yes, Highness."

Ennaus shot daggers at the witless guard who had been stupid enough to mention whatever it was in the first place. It was probably some lascivious remark from a recent bedpartner that no one cared to hear. He wished Xena would just let it go.

"The Conqueror's messages are not important to you?" Xena continued.

"No! I mean yes!" the guard stammered. He held up the scroll, clearing his throat. "There will be fresh pomegranate at the market today."

Xena blinked. Pomegranate? What kind of idiotic-- Unless . . . . "How was this message delivered?" she asked.

"A woman from the market. She said you had requested to be informed."

Achias eyed his old commander, a suspicion beginning to form.

"Yes," Xena said. "That will be all. Tell Tova I will accompany her to the market today." Noting the raised eyebrows of her guests, she shrugged. "I've been having a craving."

***** 

"We select only the finest produce," Tova assured the Conqueror for the fourth time, seeking confirmation from her assistants.

"I'm sure of that," Xena said. "I am not being critical; I simply felt like joining you."

"But--"

"Tova . . .," she warned.

The other woman clamped her mouth shut.

Behind them, a silent figure tracked their progress.

Xena stood at one end of the circus that was Market Street, unhappily taking in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who had chosen this day to go shopping. "Where are the pomegranates?" she asked.

"At that booth, Highness," Tova said. "And those," pointing to several others, "and down there."

Xena pursed her lips. "Great."

Barely noticing agitated patrons scrambling to let her through -- Oh, the gods! Was that the Conqueror? It couldn't be -- Xena ambled over to the first booth Tova had indicated, peering down at a bunch of little red fruit. She picked one up, frowning. Just how did one identify a ripe pomegranate?

Achias watched the scene with some interest. A homemaker now, was she? He didn't think so.

Xena replaced the thoroughly squeezed and shaken object in its bed under the merchant's anxious gaze. Did her selection displease the Conqueror? Not quite satisfied, apparently, her picky customer proceeded to the next stall.

"I believe this will meet with your approval, your Highness," a sultry voice said from close beside her. A small hand offered up a plump pomegranate for her inspection.

If he had not been paying such close attention, Achias would have missed the brief flash of white that accompanied Xena's acceptance of the fruit. She scrutinized it, apparently finding everything to her satisfaction.

It was all beginning to add up: Tracking down the address of some peasant girl for reasons Xena did not disclose, buying the old slave woman only to have her released, and now a clandestine rendesvous that Achias was certain had little to do with a sudden hankering for pomegranate seeds.

The Conqueror's little helper made a well-timed exit, and Achias watched Xena stuff produce into a cloth sack provided by the excited merchant. The ex-soldier could predict what would happen next: Xena would hand the sack to her kitchen staff and stroll casually away from the market, taking the first private (she thought) opportunity to read the note, a brilliant smile illuminating her face while she hastened toward a pre-arranged destination.

Achias watched Xena nearly break into a run, and resumed his surveillance. In for a dinar . . . .

***** 

Gabrielle nervously set a bowl down on one edge of the small table. "It's not exactly pheasant," she apologized. "I don't really have--"

"It smells wonderful," Xena interrupted, smiling. "And I get tired of pheasant." She wouldn't have cared if it were hedgehog. She was just thrilled that Gabrielle's mother would be away for the afternoon, grateful to whoever's sister it was who had failed to return to Corinth when expected. She had been deprived of Gabrielle for too long, including an eternity spent tucked into the alcove across the alley waiting for the old woman to finally leave.

Gabrielle smiled back at her, but still felt self-conscious. How stupid to invite Xena for lunch--Xena, who enjoyed elaborate meals every night prepared by the finest chefs in Corinth. "It's just soup," she said, feeling more foolish by the second. Stupid.

Xena raised a spoon to her lips and blew on the hot liquid. "Mmm. It's very good."

"It's--" Gabrielle turned away abruptly, embarrassment paralyzing her vocal chords.

"Hey." Xena caught her around the waist. "What's the matter?" She stood, maintaining the physical contact. "It's truly wonderful," she said quietly.

She slipped her other arm around Gabrielle's waist, waiting for signs of understanding, and acceptance, of what she was really saying. Arms slid behind her neck, telling her all she needed to know, and Xena slowly lowered her head.

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the feel of Xena's lips on hers. She tightened her embrace, drawing Xena in closer, deepening the kiss, breaking away for only a few seconds to catch her breath and then diving in for more.

Xena's thoughts of a gentle approach flew out the window, and she placed her hands on Gabrielle's breasts, swallowing the other woman's sharp cry. Gods, she wasn't sure she could make it to the bed.

***** 

Achias rolled his eyes. How had he gotten himself into this?

He waited long enough to make sure it wasn't a false alarm, then slipped down the passageway. Not happy at all, he approached the old house, telling himself that Xena would thank him for this.

Right.

Shaking his head, Achias tromped down the stairs and pounded on the lower door. There was no reply, and he slammed his fist against the door again.

Finally, the one he expected to see -- a little out of breath, disheveled, her blouse hooked unevenly -- answered. "Yes?" she said, a bit testily.

He shoved the door open the rest of the way and strode past her. "Xena." His head swiveled from side to side. Where the heck was she?

"What in the name of Zeus are you doing here?" Movement registered from the corner of his eye, and Achias chuckled. Damn, she was good. Standing against the side wall the whole time, and he couldn't see her. Now that he could, he noticed that the Warrior Princess' armor was nowhere to be seen, and the shoulder straps of her leathers were seriously askew.

"The old woman is headed back this way," he said.

Gabrielle's eyes widened. "My mother?"

Aha. Thought so.

"Godsdamn it," Xena growled. Not now, for Zeus' sake! "How much time do we have?"

Achias shook his head. "Only a few blocks." He looked over the tiny blonde woman whose hair needed to have a comb run through it. Like you'd want to hurry with this one anyway, he thought.

Xena hauled her armor up from beside the bed and buckled it into place, sliding her bracers over her forearms, all the while watching the scribe pour untouched soup back into the kettle and return the second spoon to its box. Under Xena's admiring eye, Gabrielle bent over to straighten the coverlet on the bed.

"Come here," Xena said. She positioned Gabrielle away from Achias' view and unhooked the other woman's blouse.

"Xena . . . ."

Xena placed a finger to her lips, then rehooked the buttons in correct order, unable to resist brushing her palms against Gabrielle's breasts.

"Oh, gods, don't," the scribe whispered. "This is hard enough as it is."

Xena gave her a lop-sided smile. "Sorry. Just didn't want you to forget." She fell into Gabrielle's sea green gaze. "Achias, go stall her for a minute. Do your beggar act or something." She just needed one more minute.

"Not a good idea, Princess," he said. "She'll know me."

Gabrielle looked over at him. "Know you? Know you from where?"

Uh oh. Achias had just assumed that the girl knew, and was 'thanking' Xena for the present.

"Oh, my gods." Gabrielle stared at Xena. "It was you?" Gabrielle buried her head in her hands. "We couldn't figure it out." She shook her head. "I should have . . . . I never . . . ." Gods, it was so obvious now.

She threw her arms around Xena's neck, and once more Xena cursed the fates for their cruel timing. She leaned down for a goodbye kiss that brought both their passions roaring to life again, reluctantly breaking the contact to hurry outside with her godsdamned pain-in-the-backside friend. At the junction of alley and street, the pair casually moved aside for an older blonde woman who rounded the corner and continued down the alley.

They trudged toward the palace in complete silence, until Xena couldn't take it any more. "Not one word, Achias," she warned, shooting him a look.

He raised his hands, hurt at his old friend's suggestion that he would make fun of her. "Of course not."

Xena pressed her lips together and picked up the pace a bit.

"You'll hear nothing from me."

Her eyes narrowed.

"Nope. Not one word about Xena the Conqueror fleeing from the mighty Hecuba."

She jerked her head around. "Achias, have you ever wondered what it would be like to lose your other arm?"

Mindful of what he had interrupted only a few minutes earlier, Achias concluded that discretion was the better part of valor. Wonder if whistling's off limits, too. He unpuckered his lips--better safe than sorry.

***** 

Incredible. Far beyond anything the scribe could ever hope to put into words. The few minutes Gabrielle had experienced of the Warrior Princess's lovemaking had exceeded a lifetime's imagination.

Gabrielle blushed at the recollection of her own clumsy efforts, mortified now at losing all semblance of control, burying her face in the irresistable mounds of flesh hidden beneath Xena's leathers, getting her hand caught in a shoulder strap as she tugged desperately on it, nearly knocking Xena off her feet as she tried to pull her down to the bed.

Xena hadn't complained, but she would have enjoyed herself more with someone more experienced, someone a little more in control, Gabrielle knew. Still, she thought back to Xena leaning over her on the bed, forearms on either side of her head, back arching luxuriously as the scribe's hungry mouth found her--

"Gabrielle?"

Nine curious gazes were focused upon her. "Um, I'm sorry . . . . What did you say?"

"Come on, Gabrielle, this was your idea," Marcas said. "What do you think would make Xena squirm the most?"

Gabrielle's eyes widened.

"Should we address it to Xena, or the Realm?"

"'We, the people of Corinth, demand that Xena agree to a debate on public issues of the day,'" Raubert suggested.

Oh, yeah, the debate. One of the scribe's contributions to last month's agenda. Xena would never agree to it, of course, but the refusal would provide nearly as much fodder. Gabrielle pictured Xena standing tall on a platform, wind sweeping through her dark mane as she spoke passionately . . . .

"Gabrielle?"

"Sorry," she mumbled. "I just can't -- I'm not myself today," she said. "I'll catch up with you later." Grabbing her wrap, she peeked cautiously out the side door, making sure there weren't any surprises waiting for them. She needed to think.

***** 

"Highness," Ennaus said again, striving to be patient with his queen, who was in a royal mood this evening.

"Why are you wasting my time with this?" Xena snapped. "Can't you take care of it?"

"I could, Princess, but typically you would address the matter personally, since it involves one of your chosen."

Xena scowled. "Chosen or not, he needs to learn to handle things on his own."

"But Princess, he is hardly in a position to take on Tarouf. Daron's army numbers only--"

"Nine hundred. I'm well aware of the armed forces within my realm, Ennaus."

"Of course, Highness."

Xena pressed two fingers against her head.

"Are you unwell? Perhaps you need--"

"I know what I need," she snarled. And it's not here. Her thoughts returned to gentle hands . . . moist lips . . . soft skin . . . .

The ruler did not elaborate, and Ennaus thought it best not to push the issue. He knew the Warrior Princess well enough to figure out what she thought she needed, although he didn't remember her ever being quite this worked up about it before.

Xena's mind travelled through back alleys to a basement with a single candle in the window. Would she be there if--

"The delegation from Senturia will be here within the hour, Princess." Ennaus looked up from his notes and blinked at the sheer hostility in the ruler's expression. "You do recall issuing the invitation?" he reminded her diplomatically.

In answer, Xena stormed into her bedroom, hurling layers of clothing around as she changed. A steady stream of expletives attended her efforts, increasingly strident and creative with each passing minute.

Ennaus frowned. He hoped the Princess' temperament would improve before the landowners arrived to discuss her latest inspiration from out of the blue, this time to limit ownership of olive groves in the valley. Who cared if all the groves were controlled by a few noblemen? They knew better than to extort members of the Realm with their pricing, and were useful collaborators. The aide simply could not see why Xena had taken it upon herself to interfere.

A thunderous crash -- "Godsdamnit!" -- came from behind the bedroom curtain, and Ennaus expelled air through his lips. At this rate, the Senturians would be lucky to end up with a single tree.

*****

Jump to Part III of Resistance

 

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