|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
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
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
"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.
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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."
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"I'm fine, Raubert," she replied.
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
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
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
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
Xena puffed air through her lips again, and then a thought occurred
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.
Edran laughed again at the girl's denial. He'd heard it straight from
"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
The scribe shook her head, unable to speak. She had badly misjudged
Xena turned to Edran. "Remove her and kill one of the
"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
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.
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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.
Xena blinked. "You'll bet me?" This was getting
"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?"
"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
"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
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
"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
"Everyone out!" The speaker's helmet identified him as a
"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
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
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