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He Who Would be King

by TrueBlue

Disclaimer: This story contains violence. If you are easily offended by this please choose another story.

Chapter 1
A Fight

I call this tale "He Who Would Be King." It's about an evil king, a vicious murder, and a beautiful princess. And how Xena, the Warrior Princess, and I, Gabrielle, the Bard of Potadeia, brought a killer to justice. It's a story of castles, and royalty, and the lust for war. But it starts in a little inn, in a little village, on a cold, nasty night when I awoke with a start.

My heart was pounding and my breathing rapid. I had woken from a deep sleep, but I wasn't altogether done with my dream. I was drifting in that world half-way to wakefulness; that place where your arms and legs feel like sand bags, and where reality and dream dance together. But something important had woken me. A sound maybe? I wasn't sure. I forced my eyes open.

I saw nothing in the pitch black, but then a dim flash of lightning lit the room. In that flash the walls glowed a faint blue. A roll of distant thunder followed a few seconds later. The sound rumbled though the open window next to my bed, chased by a cool, damp breeze that spirited into the room. Walls...window...bed. These were all unaccustomed luxuries. Xena and I had been on the road for weeks, and this was the first time in a moon cycle that I wasn't sleeping on the ground.

I took a moment to appreciate the feel of the smooth sheets that surrounded me, and I turned my cheek into the incredibly soft feather pillow under my head. My limbs were starting to respond to my mental commands, so I pulled the blanket up over my shoulder in response to the breeze. I could smell the wet ground outside and I figured I had slept through the storm; the storm that had threatened earlier and had delivered us to this inn in the first place.

Xena had been expecting a storm. We spent a good deal of time searching for suitable shelter for the night, but the only cover we could find was a cave that already had occupants. As we stood in the trees and surreptitiously watched the big sow bear and her two cubs lumber into the dark hole in the side of the rocky slope, I turned to Xena. She arched an eyebrow at the sight, and felt for the dinars in the purse at her waist. Fortunately, we had just enough coin to get a room for the night.

Xena. I peered in the direction of her bed, which I knew was only a couple of steps from mine. I couldn't see anything in the darkness, just the outline of the bed frame against the wall. But then there was another flash of distant lightning. In those few seconds of light I saw the blankets pushed back, Xena's bed empty, and the sword that usually rested in the scabbard, gone. At the other end of the small room I noticed the dim light from the hallway through our cracked open door. The thunder rumbled in the distance, and I felt the control flood back to my body.

Somewhere in the building an old woman screamed.

Instantly, I was out of the bed. Without a glance, I grabbed my fighting staff and dashed out the door. I ran down the dark hallway, groping my way along the wall as I raced in the direction of the rising screams. I stumbled to a stop at the top of the stairway. Open below me I knew was the main gathering room of the inn, although I could see nothing in the darkness save a couple of dim coals that glowed orange in the stone fireplace.

Then, from out of the black, rose up Xena's war cry. The hair on my arms stood on end at the sound. There was a crash as bodies collided with tables and chairs in the main room below. A man yelled and another cursed.

I clutched my staff in my right hand and my heart pounded inside my chest. An evil laugh danced through the dark room as Xena reveled in her battle lust, and another body crashed into a piece of furniture.

I fumbled for the rail and I hurried down the stairs. Suddenly, the room lit up as lightning flashed through the slats of the shutters. In that flash of light and shadow the action below me stopped to appear as an insanely ornate, life-sized frieze. In that real-life work of art two men were poised in the act of charging the warrior princess, as Xena stood coiled like a gleaming, black cobra ready to strike its attacker. Instantly, the scene went dark again. Bodies collided. A man screamed. Thunder boomed.

"Xena!" I called out. Right away I heard the clomping steps of a third man as he blundered toward me. Actually, I smelled his alcoholic breath before I heard him. Instantly, I swung my staff around and took his legs out from under him. I heard him cry out and crash to the floor. I leapt over the general area where I knew his body would be lying and headed for the center of the room.

Another man staggered into me in the blackness. I pushed him away with all of my strength. He lunged at me again. Hands grabbed my upper arms painfully. In response I swung my staff high. I had intended to strike my attacker in the shoulder, but the sickening "crack" and then the "thud" of a body as it hit to the floor told me I had missed my mark.

"Let's get out of here!" a male voice yelled. The main door flew open and three...four...five men ran to escape the building.

Then I heard the trembling voice of an old man as he called out a woman's name. He entered the room to my left holding a candle. His frightened expression was encircled by the dim light, and dark shadows plowed deep furrows into his weathered, worried face.

The shimmering flame from the candle traveled up to an oil lamp, and suddenly the room came alive in an orange light. Chairs and tables sat perched at odd angles, like toys in a child's doll house that had just been tipped over. Colorful shards from a broken clay jug decorated the floor, and near the bar, in a vacant little corner, an old woman cried. A dark, shadowy form quickly stepped across the room toward the curled up ball of a person. Xena.

I hurried over to the warrior and the old woman. Xena, still tense from the fight, knelt down to the frightened victim. Then the tightness in her long, muscular frame melted away, and with the gentleness of a mother picking up her newborn baby, she helped the innkeeper's wife off of the floor. Right away I was at the woman's shoulder as well, comforting our hostess who trembled uncontrollably. The man with the candle rushed over to us, tripping over a couple of broken chairs in his haste.

"She's fine. Just a little scared," Xena said in a low, reassuring voice as the couple embraced.

Xena slowly stepped away from the two and then bent over to right a table. I grabbed the other end of it to help her, and as we set the table on its feet, my brain began to click with thoughts beyond the fight. Were these the thieves we had heard about on the road? Could we follow their tracks in the fresh mud outside? Did I go to bed last night with clothes on? My hands darted to my chest. With a breath of relief I felt the material of my top under my palms.

Xena picked up a few more chairs and I went to stand beside her.

"What happened?" I asked, my voice still pitched high from the excitement. At least my pulse was finally starting to slow, although I could actually feel the soreness of my heart from its earlier frantic pounding.

"Bungled burglary attempt," was her response.

Thwarted, I thought, was probably a better word. Then Xena turned around to look for another chair, and I saw the swelling, bloody bruise rising on her cheek.

"Xena! You're hurt!" I cried, and Xena looked at me casually. Her expression was relaxed and her gaze cool despite the angry red injury on her face. The only emotion she revealed was a hint of annoyance as I stepped close to examine the injury .

"Yeah, I got hit," she said nonchalantly as her hand went up to ward me off. She turned away and leaned her hip into a table to push it back into place.

Suddenly, I remembered the crack I had heard as I struck an unseen attacker in the dark. A flooding sensation of nausea overtook me.

"Oh, gods Xena! I didn't hit you. Did I?" I whimpered.

Xena turned to look at me in surprise. "No," she said simply.

That sweet little word filled me with tremendous relief, but it still left a lot of questions. I was about to grill Xena in-depth about the injury when I noticed her tighten, and her gaze narrow at some stimulus undetected by me. Quickly, her eyes scanned the room. The survey stopped as she spotted a sight hidden from my view by an overturned table.

"You hit him," she said, and with six long strides she crossed the room as I quickly followed.

She shoved away the table that obscured the object of her attention, and finally I noticed the man who struggled to get off the floor. Xena stood over him for a moment to observe his actions as he clumsily tried to right himself.

Something was wrong with the way he moved. As I stood a step behind Xena, my staff raised, I watched him sit up, and then fall over. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, and even the left side of his face seemed to droop. He began to mumble unintelligibly, and then his eyes rolled back into his head. Immediately, Xena was down on one knee to hold him as he collapsed into her arms.

"What's wrong with him?" I choked. My voice had caught in my throat in concern for what I had done.

Xena gently laid the man down on the floor, and the lighting improved as the old innkeeper stepped over to us carrying a second lamp. There was no blood on the man that I could see, but he didn't look good. He was deathly pale and drooled copiously from the drooping side of his mouth. Suddenly, he began to thrash around. The innkeeper and I jumped back in fright as the injured man jerked his arms and legs in a storm of movement.

Xena kicked the table away from the thrashing man and held his head carefully off the floor. Soon, the seizure passed. Xena took the opportunity to push her fingers into the thick, black hair on his scalp. She drew them back to reveal blood on the first and second fingers of her left hand. It wasn't a lot of blood, but I remembered hitting this guy really hard. She set his head down and gently pulled his eyelids back to look into his eyes.

I knelt beside Xena. The innkeeper had been hovering over us with his lamp, and Xena reached up to pull the light in his hand closer. Together, Xena and I looked into the man's eyes, and we both saw the unequal diameter of his pupils. His right eye was dilated wide despite the bright flame.

"He's bleeding into his brain," Xena said flatly.

Chapter 2
To Save Him

My heart stopped. "You've got to do something!" I gasped when I could finally speak.

For a moment, Xena turned to look at me with great sadness. I couldn't breathe at that look. It was a look that said, "There's not much I can do." Deep desperation began to well up inside me. I started to tremble. Xena may have killed more men than she could count, but I had never killed anyone. To take the life of another human being was a responsibility I knew I couldn't bear.

Hot tears stung my eyes and then, as she watched me, I saw Xena's gaze grow hard. A look of determination steeled across her face and she turned to the innkeeper.

"Is there a carpenter in this town?" she asked.

"Next door," the old innkeeper responded.

"Good. Bring me his drill. I need a bit the width of your little finger," she said squarely, and then she turned to her patient as the innkeeper hurried off.

"Gabrielle, get me a needle and thread. Fast!" I did not need the admonishment to hurry as I was already charging up the stairway to our room.

I stumbled into the dark room and felt for the saddlebags on the small table. I did not take the time to find the items I wanted, and instead slung the bag over my shoulder and ran back to Xena. As I pounded down the stairs, with each foot strike I heard Xena's words, "You hit him. You hit him." But as my heels thumped the landing I heard, "You killed him."

When I got back to Xena she was already holding the blade of her dagger over the hot flame of a candle. I knelt down beside her and dug the needle and thread out of the saddlebag. I shoved a piece of string toward the needle's eye, but my hands trembled too badly to thread it on the first two tries. I clamped my teeth down on my lip, and I stared at my hands as I willed them to steady. Xena needed me. He needed me. On the third try the line slipped through the small opening and I quickly knotted the end of the thread. I pulled some bandages out of the bags, and set all these items beside her.

"Now hold his head very still," she said. I jumped around to straddle his head with my knees, and I held his skull firmly between my hands.

Xena leaned in toward his right temple with her knife, and he suddenly began to thrash around in another seizure. Xena backed off, and I carefully held his head suspended off the floor, as I had seen Xena do, to prevent further injury. Inside my chest my heart pounded in a rhythm even more furious than during the fight.

We waited for the seizure to pass, and when it did I again gripped his dark head firmly. Xena leaned in with her knife. She cut a half-circle into the skin and thin muscle at his right temple. She deftly pulled the tissue away to reveal shimmering white bone under a wet, pink film. Blood poured from the vessels of the cut tissue, and quickly she stitched the skin down, attaching the flap to his brow.

I swallowed hard against the bile that rose in my throat. Once, in a tavern, I had heard a bard tell a tale of Xena where she was supposed to have skinned a man alive for accidentally tripping her horse. Xena and I had had a hearty laugh about it at the time. Now, however, as I looked at a good section of someone's forehead peeled away, I morbidly wondered if the task of skinning a man alive would start at his head.

The old man appeared beside us holding the shiny metal drill. Xena grabbed the instrument and held the bit over the candle flame.

Blood ran from the man's sliced flesh in bright rivers to the floor, and some of the blood trickled to pool in his eye sockets. Then the blood dripped from the corners of his eyes like big red tears. He cried bloody tears in fear for his life; the life I may have stolen from his body.

"Oh, gods!" I croaked, as my vocal cords strangled around the words, and Xena moved the drill bit into position on the white bone. I closed my eyes against the sight.

I couldn't believe this was happening. For a moment I thought I was still up in my bed. Still dreaming. My dream had turned into a nightmare, and I pleaded with myself to wake up. I forced my eyes open, but instead of the walls and windows, and Xena beside me, I saw the little curls of bone crawling up from under Xena's drill.

Carefully, she cranked the instrument. The tool was obviously very sharp, but the bone was hard and progress was slow. My knuckles went white as I clutched at the man's head. I looked into his cleanly shaven face, and suddenly I wondered if he looked more like his mother or his father, and if he had any brothers or sisters with his same thin nose and round face. What seemed like hours must have only been a couple of minutes, and then Xena pulled the drill away.

The bluish-white membrane inside the skull bulged through the small opening, and Xena carefully brushed the little bits of bone away.

"Does that look like it's throbbing to you?" Xena asked, and I peered at the pearly protrusion.

"No," I responded. Really, I had only mouthed the word, but fortunately the sound had followed.

"Good," Xena said, and quickly she had her knife again. She held the blade delicately in the long, capable fingers of her right hand, a hand so steady it seemed frozen in time. Then she made a very careful cut.

Xena just managed to dodge the blood that squirted out from incision. The spout rose to a height of five feet before it rained back down on the three of us in a gruesome red shower. I cringed at the feel of each drop that landed on my scalp as its "plop" reverberated through my skull. Xena didn't even seem to notice the grisly rain.

With swift, nimble fingers she cut the threads that held back the flap of skin and immediately she had the bandages in her hand. Carefully, she pressed the absorbent cloth against the wound. My right hand began to cramp as I firmly held the man's skull, but at a gesture from Xena I managed to release my grip a little bit, and I raised his head to help Xena wrap the bandages in place.

Xena rested her bloody hands against the man's forehead and gently lifted back his eyelids to check his pupils. Then she moved a hand to his mouth where she felt for his breath.

"He's going to be okay, Gabrielle," she said, and, despite my best efforts to refrain, I burst into tears at her words.

I buried my face in my hands, and the wet tears mixed with the sticky blood on my right hand from the cut on his scalp. I felt Xena put one strong arm around my shoulders, and I turned my head into her chest. Xena had saved a young man from dying, and she had saved me from becoming a killer. And there was no way either of us could ever repay her.

Xena held me against her for a moment, but then went back to business.

"Pull yourself together, Gabrielle. The next twenty-four hours are going to be a dangerous time for this man. If his brain starts to swell he still may not make it." Xena shook my shoulders a little bit to bring me back and instantly I was alert again.

"What do we need to do?" I asked, watching the blood start to seep through the bandages like a large spill of deep red wine soaking through a thin linen napkin.

"Normally, I wouldn't move someone in this condition, but there's an officer I know at the king's castle. He is an excellent healer and has good facilities. The castle isn't far from here, so we'll take this man there."

Xena turned to the small crowd that had gathered around. I hadn't even noticed the people. She barked a couple of orders for a wagon, a fresh horse, and some belongings from our room including our boots. Soon, with the help of some of the other guests at the inn, we carefully lifted the unconscious man into the small wagon. Xena took the reins and cracked the leather to urge the horse forward. I stayed in the back and held the man in my arms, cursing every bump in the road.

The air was cold and damp, and I pulled the blankets a little tighter around the injured man. Off in the distance the lightning flashed chaotically to illuminate the canopy of roiling clouds that hung low in the sky above us. The wind rattled through the wet leaves of the trees, but the thunder was too far away now to hear. It occurred to me that it must have been a nasty storm, even though I had slept through the whole thing. The storms that came in off the sea could be vicious, and this little kingdom was seated right on the coast.

Xena urged the strong mare along through the pitch black night. Only the blinking of the lightning and the small ring of light around our torch guided our way. We forded black puddles the size of small ponds, and struggled through mud that sucked at the wheels of our wagon like demons attempting to pull us down into our graves. Xena seemed determined, however, that none of us would go to our grave that night.

The man -- actually, barely a man; he looked even younger than me -- started to come around a little bit on the trip. Briefly, he opened his deep brown eyes to look at me with the fear of doe shot by an arrow.

"You're gonna' be okay," I cooed to him softly, and I began to stroke the tuft of black hair that rose over the bandages. Xena took a moment to look back at us. "We're taking you to a fine healer who will fix you up good as new. Nothing's gonna' happen to you. I swear it!"

His eyes began to roll back in his head. My throat clenched shut and I had to gasp to pull the air into my lungs.

"By the gods, I'm so sorry for what I've done," I told him. "I'm so very... very sorry."

Then his eyes went dark again and he drifted back into unconsciousness. Xena turned away too, her attention back on the treacherous road. Even with a man in my arms and my best friend less than an arm's length away, never before had I felt so alone.

Chapter 3
Old Crowns and New Kings

At the castle entrance we met the soldiers who guarded the gate. They threw off the oil cloths they had wrapped around their shoulders to protect themselves from the cold and the earlier rain, but water still dripped from their armor. Xena spoke to them firmly. She demand that they bring her a particular officer, but I really wasn't paying much attention to what she was saying. I was too busy holding the young man in my arms and feeling for his heartbeat in his chest. Anxiously, I awaited the feel of every beat, dreading the thought that I may be the one responsible for putting a stop to that pulse, even if it was just an accident.

The gates opened. An old soldier walked through the massive wooden doors and up to Xena. He fumbled to put on his helmet despite the fact that he had no boots and was dressed in only a loose tunic. He was a solid man with massive calves. His skin was brown and creased liked old leather. Across his broad jaw was the overgrown gray stubble that passed for a beard, and above his thin mouth was a nose that looked like it had been broken one too many times to sit exactly in the center of his face.

The soldier shook Xena's hand firmly and praised her unexpected arrival. Apparently, Xena and the soldier were old friends, and he promptly ushered us inside the castle walls.

Torches lit the interior of the compound, and the sky was clearing in the east. The pink fingers of dawn had begun to work their way through the clouds on the horizon, and they cast a warm red glow on the stone walls and gray plank buildings that surrounded us. Quickly, Xena described our patient's injuries, and how and why they happened.

"The infirmary is this way," said the old soldier as he strode along beside our wagon. Several guards had been drawn to our commotion, and I saw them curiously eye the man I held.

The wagon stopped beside some barracks, and Xena's friend barked a couple of orders at some soldiers to get our patient inside. I reluctantly released him to their care and quickly stepped through the mud and shallow puddles to follow the men into the building.

The soldiers carefully laid the unconscious man down on a cot, and then Xena's friend ordered the men from the building. Xena and the old soldier leaned over their patient and discussed his care intently. They worked together to cut off his clothes, and inspect him for other injuries that may not have been noticed in the haste to treat his head trauma. Then Xena washed the blood off the patient, and herself, as Karolious stitched the incision closed and rebandaged the head.

I stood in a dark corner, willing the man to wake up. At one point I looked down and noticed the blood on my hands. I began to tremble at the sight. I ran to the water bowl and quickly washed the blood off my limbs and face, and I vigorously scrubbed at the blood that tangled my hair. Xena glanced at me for a moment, and I saw the pain in her eyes that she felt for me. Then her attention returned to her patient as her fellow healer continued with his questions.

"You say he started coming around on the ride over here?" asked the soldier.

"Briefly," Xena responded, and the gray-bearded man nodded his head in approval.

"That's a good sign. He must have received a pretty solid hit," the healer continued, and I cringed at the words.

"Yes, he did," Xena replied.

"Looks like you took a pretty solid hit too, Xena," the soldier said as he examined the wound on Xena's cheek. The words actually startled me, and suddenly I remembered Xena had been hurt too. I stepped forward a little bit in concern to get a better look at my dear friend.

The old soldier gestured to the man on the cot. "We've done everything for him that we can. Here, let me fix up that cheek for you." The man then took Xena by the arm and led her over to a chair to sit down as he soaked a couple of bandages in a bowl of water. With the two of them away from the patient, I moved over to sit beside the unconscious man, and hold his hand.

Xena sat down in the chair and smiled. "Just like old times, eh Karolious?"

Karolious chuckled as he began to dab at the injury with the wet cloth. His hands were large and weathered. His knuckles were scarred, and his fingers were thick like sausages. But he was surprisingly nimble with the cloth, and his gentleness was apparent as he tended Xena's wound. "I was constantly cleaning up sword cuts, scrapes and bumps on you," he said. "Splinting broken bones too. I probably used up a whole spool of thread on your stitches alone."

Xena laughed heartily. "Well, I've gotten a little better at fighting. I don't get hurt nearly so much anymore," she said.

"That's good to hear," Karolious responded. "In fact, I don't think this will need stitches either," and he dropped the bloody, wet rags into the bowl. Then he dunked a compress into some more fresh, cold water and gave it to Xena to hold against the injury. Xena held the compress against her face and smiled in good spirits. I, however, was miserable and still quite teary, although I did feel a little better. The morning sun streamed though an open window of the infirmary, and I could see that my victim's color had improved considerably. His face no longer drooped on one side, and he hadn't had any more seizures since the operation. I was very happy for that.

Xena readjusted the compress on her face. "How's King Croman doing?" she asked, and at her question the pleasant smile on Karolious' face dropped.

"He died just a couple of days ago," Karolious responded.

Xena startled and I saw the momentary shock on her face. Quickly, though, she tucked away the emotion, and she looked at Karolious coolly.

"How did it happen?" Xena asked.

"He fell down some stairs and landed on his own dagger. He was found with his right hand around the hilt and the blade in his heart. It was an accident," Karolious said. And then he mumbled under his breath, "...or so they say."

Xena lowered the compress from her face as she turned to eye Karolious carefully. "Who is king now?"

Karolious responded lowly, "King Croman's only son, Prince Leroc, will be king after the coronation two days hence."

Xena's gaze narrowed. "King Croman sired a son?"

The old soldier's face twisted in contempt. "King Croman sired a demon."

"What's going on in here?!" a voice demanded and the three of us, Xena, Karolious and myself, turned as a regally dressed young man burst into the infirmary. I quickly stood up and Karolious bowed his head. I followed Karolious' lead and lowered my eyes as well. I didn't have to see Xena to know she would not be displaying such reverence.

"Your Majesty. These travelers came by with an injured man. I wanted to demonstrate to them the king's graciousness, so l let them bring him to the infirmary for treatment."

"You overestimate my graciousness, Karolious," the prince growled, and he strode over to the bedside where I quickly stepped away to stand at Xena's side.

Leroc eyed the man on the bed and then turned to us. "The soldiers outside say that he was hurt trying to commit a robbery in the village."

"Yes," Xena responded. "But we've made sure he survived so he can face the king's justice," she added diplomatically.

Leroc looked Xena up and down with hard, gray eyes. His stare was so piercing he seemed to be trying to look right through her, right into her soul. I practically felt the coldness emanate off my friend at the visual intrusion. I glanced at Xena myself, but she had slammed up that barrier she uses to mask her emotions. There was nothing to see in those vivid blue eyes but the walls of the impenetrable fortress that surrounded her soul.

His incursion effectively repelled, the Prince turned his eyes to me. He was tall, handsome and young, maybe only five years older than me. He had curly black hair and fair skin, but his defining feature was his incredibly cold eyes. Those eyes were like two pieces of polished gray granite, compassionless and chilling. When he turned to examine me, I shivered under his gaze.

"Hello," he purred at me, and I frowned at the suggestion in his voice. I felt Xena stiffen at my side as well, and I stood almost waiting to see how long it took before Xena's fist knocked the prince's leering gaze from my chest. Just when I felt the blow was imminent, Leroc unknowingly saved himself by moving his eyes back to Xena.

"Are you a gladiator?" he asked, noticing Xena's combat leathers and armor.

"I'm Xena," she responded simply.

"The Warrior Princess," he replied. Although he was apparently familiar with the name, no sign of recognition alit upon his smooth face. "Did he do that to you?" continued the prince, gesturing to the patient and then to the injury on Xena's cheek.

"I believe it was him," she said.

Again Leroc walked over to the helpless man on the bed. He looked him over once. Then, with a movement like a snake strike, Leroc pulled a dagger from his clothes and deftly plunged it into the unconscious man's heart.

A scream caught in my throat. Xena lunged toward the young king, but the act was already done. Karolious quickly grabbed Xena and firmly pulled her back.

"There," the prince said, drawing the knife out of the body. A nasty grin settled across his face as he wiped the bloody blade off on the snow-white bedding. "The king's justice is done."

He looked at Xena and smiled charmingly at her as I saw Xena clench her fists in rage. "Consider it a little favor from King Leroc for the Warrior Princess."

The prince then strode from the room and out to the courtyard as I watched him in shock. Beside me I could feel every muscle in Xena's body tensed for a fight. She spun around and started to storm after the prince. Karolious quickly grabbed her and shoved her back into the room. Xena glared at the old soldier with a look of a hundred pointed daggers. Karolious raised his hands in submission, but he did not move from his position blocking the door.

"No, Xena. He's dangerous," Karolious said in an ominous tone. I ran to the bed.

"Xena!" I cried.

Distracted by my call, Xena hurried over beside me. She only had to look at the knife wound before she pulled me off the still-warm body, and half-carried me to the other side of the room. She stroked my hair as I buried my face in her shoulder. Karolious went over and pulled the sheet over the young, peaceful face.

After a minute, I decided to compose myself and I pulled away from Xena to mop my face with my forearm. She kept one strong arm around my waist.

"So, he's gonna' be the new king," Xena sneered to Karolious.

Karolious shook his head sadly.

"This would have never happened under King Croman's rule, and he's only been dead for two days." Karolious clenched his teeth as he glared at the body covered by the sheet. "We have laws and courts. Everyone is guaranteed a fair trial. That's the way Croman wanted it. But with Leroc as king, this country will become just another land of peasants ruled by a lawless tyrant."

Xena was quiet beside me, but her body was hard and I could feel her anger.

"I won't let that happen," she said coldly. "King Croman did me a favor once. And if I can't return the favor until after his death, then so be it."

Karolious stepped up to us. "Xena, there's nothing you can do. Leroc is the next in line for the throne. And even though everyone thinks Leroc committed the murder, no evidence has been found to link him to the crime." Karolious sighed heavily at the look of resolve in her face. "King Croman's funeral is tomorrow," he said. "You should stay for that. And the queen mother would probably like to talk to you."

Xena nodded once. I glanced over at the still form under the sheet, and then I returned my face to the warrior's comforting shoulder.

Chapter 4
A History Here

Karolious arranged an audience with King Croman's mother for the next day. That morning, however, we returned to the inn. We had intended to just collect the rest of our things and leave, since we didn't have a dinar left to our names to pay for another night's stay, but the old innkeeper insisted that we spend the night in gratitude for driving away the robbers.

After a brief lunch of the last of our dried fruits and salted meats, I went back to our room to lay down. I had intended to just rest my eyes for a little bit, but I awoke sometime later to find Xena in the room crushing the leaves she likes to have on hand for healing. As I groggily sat up, she glanced over to me and then to my staff.

"Come on," she said, carefully brushing the little bits dried leaves into a small satchel. "Let's work out for a while."

"Oh, Xena," I responded, rubbing my bleary eyes and feeling not at all refreshed despite the nap. "I'm not up to it right now. After last night I just don't..." But I darted my hand forward to catch the staff as Xena threw it at me, just barely avoiding a knock in the head.

"You fall off a horse, you get right back on," she said squarely. "Let's go." She set the satchel on her bed, and then walked out the door. I reluctantly followed.

We went out to an old barn behind the inn. The building was in poor repair, but it housed a healthy looking milk cow and a couple of contented pigs. The warm smell of hay and fresh manure filled the barn, and the afternoon sun streamed through the weathered planks to paint yellow strips of light across the gray interior. Fine bits of chaff lazily drifted through the air. As the little specks of straw floated from sunlight to shadow they blinked like tiny fireflies on a hot night.

Then, faster than my eyes could follow, Xena solidly kicked my staff. The stick vibrated like a bow, but somehow I managed to hang onto it as my hands reflexively gripped the wood. I jumped back and used my staff to ward off two more blindingly fast kicks. I responded with cross swing which the Warrior Princess adeptly dodged, but the return stroke she had to block with her gauntlet.

She smiled at me nastily, in pure enjoyment of the fight. I swallowed hard, my eyes as wide as saucers. She circled around me, and we moved to the center of the barn. That malevolent laugh danced up from her throat. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I shivered ever so slightly at the sound.

Xena watched me closely. The animals eyed us curiously and a couple of foolish chickens fretted around our feet. I gripped my staff, waiting for Xena's next attack. But instead of an assault, Xena reached into the top of her bodice and snapped out a dish rag she must have borrowed from the kitchen. She approached me with the cloth, and tied it securely around my head as a blindfold.

"Now strike me," she said from some distance away. I blinked against the feel of the material pressed to my eyelids, and I balked at the confusion induced by the darkness behind the cloth. It occurred to me that maybe Xena blamed herself for the mistake I had made in our last fight; that maybe she felt she hadn't trained me well enough to deal with the situation. I wanted to discuss this with her, but then the hiss of steel as Xena drew her sword snapped me to attention. I rolled my staff in my hands to settle its smoothness into my palms, and I crouched down into my defensive position.

"Strike me," Xena repeated. By the sound of her voice I could tell she had stepped considerably closer. I knew how tall she was, where she was standing, and how far my staff would extended. Now, this was only practice. Xena could dodge any blow I directed at her, but my target would be her right shoulder; right below the joint where the muscle connected to the bone. A solid strike there would render an attacker's sword arm useless for the duration of the fight, but the blow would need to be well placed. Too low and the hit would be ineffective. Too high and...

I flashed back to the "crack" I had heard during the fight the night before. The sound echoed inside my head and my heart begin to race. I heard Xena take another step. My target was still her right shoulder...but I swung my staff low at her knees.

My stick whooshed through the air making contact with nothing but empty space. The force of the swing carried me around in a half circle exposing my back to my opponent. My maneuver was rewarded with a stinging swat across my bottom applied with the flat side of Xena's blade.

"I'm armed, Gabrielle," was the cool response, and I spun toward the voice which had dizzyingly circled around to my left. My first objective was to disarm my attacker. With the blindfold on, I couldn't see where she held the blade, but a high swing could knock the sword from her grip. The blow to the shoulder, however, was still the best strategy. I began to sweat.

"Come on!" Xena barked. I jabbed the staff forward toward her gut. She dodged the blow easily, grabbed my stick and yanked me forward, wrenching my staff from my grasp. I fell into her chest . Her left hand pulled me solidly against her body, and the cold steel of her blade descended against my throat.

Then, slowly, she released me. I spat a curse over my shoulder and backed away. I reached up and tore the blindfold off so I could find my staff. From under my lashes I glanced up at Xena, expecting to see a look of disapproval, but only finding a stone mask across her face. Quickly I looked away and found my staff resting in a pile of straw near the door. A chicken pecked at it repeatedly in an effort to persuade the long piece of oak to leave the barn.

"Stupid chicken," I grumbled, as I grabbed the staff away from the bird. It flapped and squawked at me angrily. I knew exactly how it felt.

And so the drill went on for the rest of the afternoon. I tried to fight well, but the thoughts of what had happened at the inn tormented me, and made me pause before every strike.

There was another time when I hesitated before every swing. It was when I was just learning how to use my staff. I had never been in a fight before, and the prospect of actually hitting someone greatly upset me. Xena use to coax me to swing at her, and gave me constant reassurance to build up my confidence. In the stuffy old barn that day, however, she teased me relentlessly. She goaded me with nasty taunts to strike her, and she separated me from my staff at every opportunity. And more than once she drove my face into the soft straw that covered the floor when my hesitation gave her the opening.

Eventually I got so angry and frustrated that I couldn't think about what had happened the night before. Viciously, I wanted to at least clip the warrior with my staff; to give her a little something to think about, and maybe even a welt to match the one I could feel rising across my ass from her first strike.

But I never even got close. With all of my senses available to me I was no match for Xena. With the blindfold on, my ferocious sparring was mere child's play to her.

When we returned to our room, I expected Xena to be angry with me for my poor performance in the barn. I, certainly, was angry with her, and I was angry with myself too. But, to my surprise, Xena was quite relaxed. She talked to me softly and dispensed with the usual play by play analysis after one of our bouts. She even carried bucket after bucket of hot water up to our room so I could have a warm bath. She claimed she needed the exercise. And as she washed my back and my hair, she even took the time to rub the tenseness out of my shoulders with her strong, gentle hands.

When Xena finished helping me bathe, I tucked as much of myself as I could in the basin so I could enjoy the water. Then I noticed her stuff the blindfold into the saddlebag. With a heavy sigh, I realized we would be practicing the dish-rag drill for the next several months.

Later that evening, after we had both dressed and bathed, the other guests began to congregate for dinner. Xena went off to try to track down someone who knew the young man Leroc had executed, but I stayed at the inn and prepared to tell some stories in hopes of making a little money to pay for our meals.

I grabbed a good spot in front of the fire and surveyed the crowd. Mostly a young audience. A couple of families with children. No drunks, thank the gods. I would keep this session light.

"Gather around, people," I announced. "I, Gabrielle, the Bard of Potadeia, feel like telling a story, and you all are just fortunate enough to be here to hear it."

Introductions are everything.

"Any requests?" I asked. "My specialty is stories about the Warrior Princess, Xena."

"Xena!" someone in the crowd shouted. "That murderer! She pillaged my town up the coast five times!"

We were fairly close to Xena's hometown of Amphipolis, and Amphipolis was where she began her reign of terror ten years ago. It always made me a little nervous to talk about Xena as a hero when there were people in the room who I knew despised her; men and women who taught their little children to say prayers before bed asking for Xena's death. Still, more than any other reason, this was why I told the heroic tales of Xena.

Xena was spending her life helping people to make up for the crimes she had committed in her past. I knew she couldn't quit until she could forgive herself for all the things she had done. Through her deeds, Xena hoped to redeem herself in her own eyes. With my stories, I hoped to redeem her in the eyes of others.

"So," I said calmly. "Xena has a history in this area. She attacked your villages."

"She never came through here," a woman interjected. I turned to the woman in ragged traveling clothes and a face covered in dirt from the road. She nursed an infant at her breast as a boy of about two leaned against her arm. "She sacked all of the surrounding towns, but she never came into this kingdom."

"Why not?" I asked, and the woman shrugged.

"I know why not," spoke the wavering voice of an old man in the crowd. My audience turned to him.

"Croman came to defend Amphipolis from a warlord while Xena was at sea," he said. "She was off stealing treasure to pay her army their wages. News got back that she had been killed by the Romans. Crucified with her men for their crimes; that was the story. Her army at Amphipolis deserted and it wasn't long before raiders were back around. But she did return. And mad!" The old man whistled through his rotten teeth in express the extent of the warrior's rage.

"But Amphipolis was safe?" I prodded.

He nodded. "'She came back without a single man or one gold coin. But Amphipolis was safe, 'cause of Croman."

This was a story I hadn't heard before, and I listened intently along with the rest of the crowd.

"She really went wild after that," the old man continued. "Killing people, burning down entire villages. She took over this whole province, but she left this kingdom alone because of the favor Croman had done for her, protecting her home village like that."

"So Croman and Xena were good friends?" I asked.

"Well," the old man said, rubbing a gnarled old hand across the gray stubble on his chin. "Croman wouldn't have too much to do with Xena after that."

What, exactly, had turned a basically good Xena into something so evil? Once again that question was raised in my mind. Certainly her brother getting killed at the hands of a warlord had something to do with it, but that couldn't be all. I knew Xena's favorite wild flower, where that itchy spot was on her back, and exactly how much she liked her meat salted, but some of the most basic parts of her character were still a complete mystery to me.

She had told me once that she had turned evil because she had, "forgotten how to feel", but she wouldn't tell me anymore than that. I hate to admit it, but a few times, on those dark nights when I couldn't sleep and my fears got the best of me, I had thought to myself that maybe the real question was, what had turned a basically evil Xena to good?

Xena returned to the inn sometime later with no more information than she had left with. Apparently, the boy had been a member of a roving gang of thieves, and his friends had no intention of returning for him. She asked me how the storytelling went, and I showed her the couple of dinars I had made. I didn't mention what I had learned of her past.

Chapter 5
A Royal Family

Early the next morning, before our meeting with the queen, Karolious sent some soldiers to bury the young man in an unmarked grave outside the castle walls. Xena made sure we were there for the interment.

As the soldiers lowered the body into the freshly dug hole, Karolious stepped over to us carrying a little trinket. He handed it to Xena.

"It was the only thing of value we found on the boy," he said. Xena turned the small object and its string over in her fingers, "If you could call it valuable. Its not worth anything really. Just a little figure carved in a chunk of wood. What should we do with it?"

Xena eyed the item for a moment, and then reached over to hand it to Karolious.

"Bury it with him," she said.

"No, wait!" I interjected, and I grabbed the little statue away from Xena and Karolious' approaching hand.

I examined it closely. It was a small figure of a woman, no larger than my thumb. It was roughly carved, but I could tell that she was suppose to be attractive and provocatively posed. I thought that maybe she was the figure of the dead man's girlfriend, and I pictured the boy sitting at a campfire, lovingly carving out her every curve from memory, as he was off traveling distant lands. The girl was his first love, and he still thought about her and dreamt about the day he would return to her arms.

"Maybe it was important to him," I said softly.

"Gabrielle," Xena began in surprise, "its just a naked doll that he probably carried around for..." she searched for her word, "...amusement."

"You can't tell she's naked," I grumbled half under my breath, and I reached up to tie the trinket around my neck. I tucked the statue into my shirt, between my breasts, and I turned to eye the warrior and the soldier defiantly. They, in turn, looked at each other. Then they both shrugged me off, and returned to the task at hand.

As the impromptu ceremony began, the soldiers stood respectfully, and I cried quietly. Karolious spoke a couple of words for the deceased man whose name we didn't even know. Then Xena sang a dirge for the wasted life as the dirt was shoveled in over the body. Although I was unfamiliar with the language she sang, I had heard the song before, and I recognized that Xena was singing yet another verse. I half-wondered if she made up the verses for each new burial we attended, or if she was just familiar with more funeral songs than any one person should know.

The last piece of dirt was pounded into place with the back of a shovel, and the soldiers, done with this detail, left to complete their other tasks. I could tell by their haste that they hoped to have some time left at the end of the day to enjoy the beautiful weather. It was beautiful, too. It had been hot and dry for weeks. The storm had brought in a refreshing coolness, and the scenery had greened up almost overnight. There was a cold nip in the air, but standing in the warmth of the bright sun I couldn't even feel the chill. It was a good day to be alive, and I pitied the poor soul under the fragrant pile of fresh dirt, who would never feel the warmth of Apollo on his face again.

"Do you think he would have survived?" I asked Xena as the two of us were left as the sole mourners over the grave.

"The head injury?" she responded. My silence was her reply. Xena was quiet for a moment as well. "I don't know, Gabrielle. Maybe he would have survived. Maybe he would have even been okay."

Even been okay? What did that mean? Rather than being a comfort, Xena's words left me disturbed.

"Xena, at first you didn't want to do that surgery on that man at the inn. How come?" I demanded.

She returned my look with her own steady gaze, and squared her shoulders.

"Because I've never seen it work before," she said calmly. My eyes widened.

"You've never had a man survive that kind of injury, or the operation?" I asked, my throat tightening at her words.

"I had one man survive," her gaze grew cool. "But he would have been better off dead."

I buried my face in my hand. Xena's control weakened, and she put an arm around my shoulder.

"You didn't kill him, Gabrielle. Leroc did."

"Did he?" I replied as I choked on my own words. "Or did he just finish the job I started."

I cried in Xena's arms for a good, long time after that as we stood over the grave. She didn't try to argue with me, or to convince me of anything, and for that I was thankful. She was just there for me, as she always had been, and I knew she always would be. If I was a killer now or not, it didn't matter to Xena. But it mattered like Hades to me, and I didn't even know the answer.

When my tears finally dried up, and I began to feel a little like myself again, we went back to the castle to meet with Croman's mother. The queen mother greeted Xena with the same fondness I had seen Karolious express for my friend.

"Xena," the old queen sighed as she turned her eyes, blind with age, on the warrior. "Let me see you." The woman reached out her hands and Xena knelt down. As Xena looked up into the old woman's clouded eyes, the warrior seemed to see something that she couldn't face. Xena dropped her gaze, and lowered her head. The matron's withered, old hands lightly descended on Xena's hair.

Karolious, who had introduced us to the queen, stepped back silently to stand motionless in a dark corner of the room.

"I was so happy to hear that you had turned to good," the old woman barely whispered from emotion. "I knew it was within you."

The old woman's hands descended to Xena's face, and Xena turned her bruised cheek into the frail hand to feel the caress. "So you had told me," Xena responded. Again Xena looked up with brilliant blue eyes into the blind, rheumy, eyes of the queen, but at least this time Xena could hold her gaze. "I am so sorry about your son. King Croman was a good man."

Xena rested a hand on the queen mother's knee as the old woman dropped her own thin boned hands into her lap. "Yes. He was a fine king. Why the gods saw fit to curse him with such an evil son, I don't know."

The queen began to stroke Xena's long, dark hair as she talked. I knelt down beside the warrior and we both listened intently at the woman's feet.

"Leroc seemed like a perfectly normal child when he was born with his twin sister," the old woman began, and her unseeing eyes drifted off in visions of the past. "He was a beautiful baby with dark curls and long lashes. To set him next to his sister, Lenore, they seemed like perfect reflections of each other, but they were so different in every other way, even as infants. Lenore was such a happy baby; always giggling, always cuddling. Leroc...he was different. When he was eight he attacked a chamber maid with a knife and his father sent him away. My son felt that Leroc was too dangerous to be allowed to stay in the castle. He always feared Leroc would kill his sister or his mother...turns out it was his own life for which he had to fear."

" think Leroc killed his own father too?" I asked quietly, and the look of pure sadness that came into the queen's deeply lined face was my answer.

"When the children's mother died of pneumonia after their fifteenth birthday, I thought poor Lenore's heart would break. But Leroc, who had returned from gladiator school for the funeral, showed no emotion at her death. He was just a boy, smooth faced and thin, but he never shed a tear for the loss of his mother."

Under the weight of her distress and her extreme age, the queen mother quickly began to tire, so Xena politely excused us with promises to visit her before we left the kingdom. We then left the elderly matron and headed for the room assigned to us within the castle, escorted by Karolious.

We reached our room and Karolious turned to face Xena. Karolious opened the door and stepped aside to let us through, but before Xena stepped inside Karolious stopped her to look deeply into her eyes. "I'm glad you turned to good too."

Xena bobbed her head once in appreciation, and a little smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She grabbed Karolious' hand and shook it briskly in allegiance, and then entered the room. I followed.

Karolious shut the door behind us, and I turned to Xena and looked up at the stunningly classic lines of her face. Her beauty was barely marred by the dark bruise on her cheek that, remarkably, was already disappearing in the healing process.

"Xena?" I began.

"Hmm?" she said as her eyes quickly moved around the small room, examining the shadows in the corners and the location of the exits.

"We were just going to pass through this kingdom. We weren't planning on stopping at the castle. Why didn't you want to visit your friends?" I asked slowly.

Xena took a big breath. She eyed me side-long under her lashes and then moved her gaze to the single bed against the wall directly before us.

"These are good people, Gabrielle. And they watched me go from a warrior protecting her homeland, to a bloodthirsty warlord, conquering the lands and the people I wanted..." then she took a deep breath, for it seemed she could not continue her thought without it, "and destroying those that I didn't."

She didn't say any more about it; she didn't need to. Although she never made excuses for her past, and she never tried to cover it up, I knew that sometimes it was still hard for her to face.

"Are you glad you came?" I asked.

She looked at me directly, and then the half-smile that could melt my heart alit upon to her face.

"Yes," she said, "I'm glad I came." And I smiled broadly back at her.

I strode into the room and leaned my staff against the wall. I jumped on the bed and gave it a good bounce. It was small, but the two of us would fit on it just fine. There were a lot of visitors in the castle who were there to attend the funeral and subsequent coronation, so room within the compound was at a premium.

"Maybe there are some other people here you should visit," I said as I fluffed one of the pillows to lay claim to the side of the bed that I wanted; the side facing the room and not the side up against the cold, stone wall. Three nights in a row on a real bed. I was getting spoiled.

"There's at least one," Xena said slowly.

"Do you think he'll meet with visitors today?" I asked.

"Oh, I bet he'll have lots of people coming to see him."

We settled ourselves into our room, and then we went out so Xena could reacquaint herself with the layout of the castle and the grounds. The castle walls were high and I couldn't see anything beyond them, but from all the gulls that circled overhead I figured we had to be very close to the coast, if not right on it.

Once Xena felt secure in her knowledge of the facilities, we went back to the main building and followed a line of dignitaries who paraded into a small room off the great hall. There we found the body of King Croman. Apparently, this was the man Xena wanted to visit.

The body was on display for the mourners, and I cringed at the gruesome sight. Although I was sure that he had been a handsome man in his day, with dark, curly hair and well cut features, now he was...well...dead. His skin was completely white except for the deep tinge of purple that marked the right side of his face. Someone had tried to cover up the dark color with makeup, but it still shone through clearly. His upper lip had already begun to contract to reveal his front teeth, and his eyelids had sunk into the sockets.

As we stepped up to the casket, I reached out to put a hand on Xena's arm. I felt great pity for her as she had to view yet another dead friend, but as I looked up to her, I saw that she was all business. Her eyes were carefully scanning his clothes and his features. She looked up and took in the windows, doors and furniture of the room. Then, from under lowered lashes, she eyed the two guards who stood just outside the doorway, and the priests in the room that were there to maintain a constant vigil until the funeral.

Then Xena gestured us back. There were other people in line who wanted to see the body, and apparently she didn't want to attract any attention. As we stepped out of the room, she pulled me aside.

"Gabrielle," she said to me quietly, but intently, "how did Croman land when he fell on his knife?"

At first I was surprised by the question, but then I thought for a moment. "Well..." I began, "Karolious said his right hand was wrapped around the dagger, so when he fell down the stairs he landed on his front with his right arm under him."

"Correct," she said. "With his right arm under him, could he block his fall?"

"Not on his right side," I responded.

"How hard would his right cheek have hit the floor?" she asked.

"Pretty hard," I said, thinking about the bruise on Xena's cheek that was almost invisible now.

"How did Croman's right cheek look to you?"

"Well..." I began, "he did have an awful purple bruise."

"It was purple because he died with his right cheek on the floor. There wasn't a lot of blood left in his body when he died, but when Croman's heart stopped beating his blood started to pool in the lowest tissues. That wasn't a bruise, Gabrielle. That was the mottling that happens shortly after death."

"Then I'd have to say, his cheek looked pretty good," I said.

"Yes, it did," she replied. "Not a scrape, or a scuff or even a scratch on his face, or his hands. He didn't fall down those stairs and land on his right side, Gabrielle," she continued, as I listened intently. "He didn't fall down at all, and he didn't land on his own dagger. He was murdered."

Chapter 6
The Dinner

Later that evening, after we had retrieved our things from Argo's saddlebags in the stable, we returned to our room and cleaned ourselves up. We scrubbed our hands and faces and behind our ears, and we put fresh braids in each other's hair. Then we went down to the great hall to dine with the other guests at the castle.

Upon our arrival we found the room filled with a rainbow of colorfully clad lords, ladies and wealthy merchants. A flutist and a lute player entertained from a corner, but their efforts were barely noticed among the din of chatter.

The overpowering scent of many highly perfumed and anointed bodies filled the room, and I frowned as I thought about how the sickeningly sweet smell might interfere with my enjoyment of dinner. The fragrant women all had well powdered faces. Every last man had carefully manicured hands. And all had their very fine manners on display as they politely interacted with one another. I just hoped that when the meal started Xena could resist wiping off her greasy fingers on her naked thighs as she was prone to do at the campfire.

"Mingle a little bit," Xena said quietly at my side. "Be friendly. Find out if anybody here would have a reason to kill King Croman."

My eyebrows went up at Xena's request, but then she stepped away to do her own mingling. I watched as she walked up to a small group of people who quickly backed away at her intimidating presence. She stepped closer to one particular man who lowered his eyes and slipped nervously back in response to her attempt at an amiable greeting. Weapons, armor, and that warrior attitude just were not the things to wear to a dinner party. I figured that I would have to be the one to carry out this assignment, so I turned to step into the sea of beautiful clothes and expensive jewelry.

I opened my ears to the conversations around me. The trick would be to find somebody who was not just a good talker, but a good gossiper as well. I needed someone who had all the latest dirt on whose husband was sleeping with whose wife, and which wives weren't sleeping with their own husbands. Someone who knew everybody's business. Every village had such a person, as did every castle, and I just needed to find that person.

"Excuse me," an accusatory voice whined at my shoulder.

I turned around to face one of the powerfully perfumed and anointed bodies herself. She was a rotund woman who barely came up to my chin, and she was bedecked in precious stones and metals. Her dress looked for all the world like a wildly colorful tent, save the strained corset that thrust her overly generous and highly powdered bosom out the top of her brief bodice like two huge, white, over-filled bladders of wine. Behind her stood two soldiers who waited for her next direction.

"The servant's entrance is that way," she said, and she thrust one large, meaty arm in the direction of the kitchen. The quick movement caused the flesh of her upper arm to flap to and fro, and her breasts to jostle for position within the shallow basin of material above the corset.

My eyes narrowed at her remark, and I caught the looks of several of the guests who glanced over their goblets at our confrontation. Oh, how I longed for my staff which I had left up in our room. For an indulgent moment, I pictured the surprised look on this woman's face as she landed on her wide, royal arse at the influence of a blow from my lighting-quick staff. The two guards beside her though, might have a little problem with that, and, well, we didn't want to wear out our welcome. I politely smiled.

"Ah, I see you have never seen the traditional garb of my people," I said brightly.

"People?" she repeated suspiciously, and her beady, blue eyes disappeared in the slits of her eyelids.

"Yes. I am Gabrielle of Potadeia, heir of Melosa, caste of Terrais, and Queen of the Amazons."

My own chest puffed out at the words, and the differences in our endowments were made even more obvious. "I'm royalty," I added. Just to make sure she knew who she was talking to.

"Amazon?" I heard someone say in the crowd, and the two soldiers visibly tightened. And soon a number of young men in the room approached me to get a look at a real Amazon warrior.

My adversary seemed to have second thoughts about having me thrown out as the men impolitely moved in front of her. Eventually she gestured away the soldiers who both nodded to her in deference and left the room. With an expression of high annoyance, I saw her bright little blue eyes look me up and down skeptically, and then she stepped away. I smirked at my victory.

Then I made the briefest of apologizes to the young men who had gathered around me, and stepped away. I knew none of them would have the kind of information I wanted.

After that, I managed to engage a couple of hopeful prospects in conversation, but nobody was able to think of anyone who would want to kill King Croman. Quite the contrary, most everyone was appalled at his death, especially since it meant that Prince Leroc would now be king. Repeatedly, the word "unstable" was mentioned with Leroc's name, and apparently no one but Leroc himself seemed to think he would make a good king. And no one could think of a reason why anyone but Leroc would want Croman dead.

But I got the distinct impression that my targets weren't the best gossips in the room. Mrs. Bosoms-Out-To-Here was probably the busybody I needed to talk to, but I really didn't want to deal with her again.

I spotted Xena across the room. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but I watched as she stared down one particular man who looked like he had already had just a little too much to drink. He tried to return Xena's look of challenge, but I knew it wouldn't be much of a contest. And soon enough he slunk away as Xena glared at his back. I sighed heavily. Be friendly, she had told me.

The music in the corner caught my ear. I decided to take a break and listen to a few tunes before I returned to my mission. The lute player smiled at me brightly when he noticed he finally had an audience, and the dull little tunes the two played shifted into exuberant jigs under my attention. At the end of a particularly festive round I clapped my hands solidly in a chorus of one. The lute player bowed graciously and the flutist pulled the reed from his instrument. He gestured to his partner to indicate some sort of repair, and departed. The lute player watched the other man leave, and then turned to smile at me charmingly.

"You're very talented," I said.

"And you're very sweet," he responded with a laugh in his voice.

"It's the truth," I replied. "These people just don't appreciate good music."

The musician held his instrument to his ear and absent-mindedly tuned it as he watched me with his twinkling green eyes. "Oh, they know good music when they hear it. They're just too busy talking about this lord fighting with that lord, and gossiping about the paternity of their inbred children."

I perked up at his remark.

"Do you ever get to hear any of the gossip?" I asked, barely able to conceal the rising enthusiasm in my voice.

"Oh honey, I hear it all," he said with a grand wave of his hand. "My partner and I travel around this area to make our living, and we do a lot of gigs for the well-to-do set. We need to plan in advance so we're conveniently around to hire for the parties and the weddings. To do that we have to keep up on what's happening. I always know the latest news."

Jackpot! And it was about time, too, because I had spotted Xena again, and the task of pleasant socializing with snobby blue-bloods seemed to really be taking its toll on her. I could see her simmering from across the room as some fat landlord loudly pontificated about the poor being too selfish to pay their rents on time.

The lute-player's list of who was sleeping with who was quite a long one, so we had to skip most of that. And my new friend couldn't think of anyone who wanted King Croman dead, but he did give me some interesting information so I wouldn't have to go back to Xena empty-handed.

As I stepped up to the Warrior Princess, two servants pushed aside a tall partition that had divided the great hall in half. Revealed behind the partition was a long table set with delicate dinnerware and lovely, flowered centerpieces. My first instinct was to rush to the table and grab a couple of chairs near the kitchen which would be the first to be served. But Xena held back, apparently interested in knowing which guests would sit next to whom, so I stayed beside her.

And then Leroc walked into the room. He had on marvelous white clothes embroidered with fine golden threads. He politely nodded his head to acknowledge the respectful bows, and on his arm he escorted his feminine reflection, a beautiful young woman with long, curly, black hair, fair skin, and piercing gray eyes. Immediately, I knew who she was.

"Lenore," Xena breathed beside me.

I looked up to see Xena staring at the lovely young princess, almost mesmerized. We stood like that for a moment. I noticed some the guests at the table look at us quizzically, wondering if we were going to sit down, so I gave Xena's hand a little tug. The movement seemed to snap Xena out of her trance, and she followed me to the table.

I found two chairs near the far end of the table. Leroc seemed to barely notice our arrival, but as Xena seated herself beside me I saw Lenore's gaze catch the warrior, and Xena stiffened sharply under the princess' watchful stare.

The non-verbal interaction between the two women piqued my curiosity. As we all waited for the meal to be served, the princess carefully kept an eye on Xena, and I could almost feel the discomfort radiating off of my friend. I was about to ask Xena what, exactly, was her history with this young woman when one of the servants put a platter of roast pheasants in front of me. Despite myself, I grinned widely.

Promptly, the table was laden with bowls and plates bearing colorful vegetables and yeasty buns. There was a wonderful mutton stew and fresh fish smothered in a delicate white sauce. Sliced fruits tumbled from carved melons, and the dessert pies that followed convinced me that if the Elysian Fields had kitchens, that was where Croman had found his cooks.

"I hope you had better luck than I did," Xena said to me quietly as the other guests around us chatted busily.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah," I said, washing down a mouthful of gravy soaked biscuits with some spiced cider. "You see that tall man seated next to Prince Leroc?" Using a half eaten leg of pheasant, I pointed down the table. Xena looked over to the man. "That's Leroc's uncle, Magnus. Croman's younger brother. Next to Magnus, that skinny guy with the bald spot, he is a lord from the kingdom just south of here. Everyone is shocked that anyone from the southern kingdom showed up. Turns out Croman and Lenore had been working hard to settle a dispute with them over borders. Croman and his daughter finally came up with a resolution, but it meant giving up a little land to the other kingdom. The deal made most people happy, but even before Croman's death Leroc was talking about starting a war to get the property back."

"Mmm," Xena voiced, and her eyes narrowed at the prince.

"Magnus, the prince's uncle, has told everyone he will talk Leroc out of war. Leroc trusts no one, but he has some faith in his uncle, and he may listen to reason if it comes from Magnus."

"Anything else?" Xena asked as I paused to mop up the butter that had dripped on my chin.

"Yeah. Nobody wants Leroc to be king. Even Croman didn't want him to be king," I lowered my voice as the information got more secret. "Before his death, Croman had been visiting the neighboring kingdoms to look for a new wife. After his first wife died he had no intention of remarrying, but a couple of months ago he decided he needed to father another son." I sneaked my eyes across the table to make sure no one was listening as I prepared to divulge the most secret information I had. Xena leaned her ear toward my mouth in anticipation. "Croman intended to pass Leroc and crown his future son as king."

Xena turned to look at me.

"There's been some precedent for such a maneuver," I continued. "Although it's highly unusual."

I tucked a couple of tender carrots, smothered in a sauce of milk and honey, into my cheek, and Xena leaned back in her chair to contemplate the new information.

"So," she began quietly, "possibly the killer was someone who would profit from a war, or was a rival for a potential wife..." I leaned close to Xena and listened intently to her thoughts, "...but most likely the killer was Leroc. He had the most to lose if Croman remarried...and the most to gain if Croman died." Her icy blue eyes narrowed and I could hear the growl in her voice. "We've just got to prove that he did it."

My concentration was so focused on Xena that it was something of a surprise when the loud talking at the other end of the room escalated into shouting. I looked across table to see Leroc stand up with such force as to send his chair sailing into a back wall. His face was beat red as he yelled at the lord from the southern kingdom. The target of Leroc's aggression jumped to his feet as well, and everyone at the table fell silent as the two men screamed at each other.

It was terrifying to see Leroc so angry. His granite eyes glared with rage, and when his hand moved to the hilt of his dagger, half the table jumped up at the provocation. Several soldiers ran over to the two men to intervene, but Magnus already had his nephew in his arms, and he half-escorted, half-carried the young king from the room.

Promptly, Lenore was at the lord's side. He shouted at her angrily, but she responded to him in a soothing tone and gently laid a hand on his arm. At Lenore's calm request the rest of the guests returned to their chairs, and it was then that I noticed Xena standing directly behind the lord.

I glanced and the empty chair beside me. When she had moved to the site of the altercation, and how she had gotten there so fast, was beyond me, and it annoyed me greatly that I had had no idea she had even left.

"If you must leave," I heard Lenore tell the lord, "before you go please take a couple barrels of our finest mead. I know how much you like a good mug of mead."

The lord actually smiled at her remark, and quickly the princess excused herself to escort her guest from the castle.

The dinner broke up quite soon after that. I waited till most of the guests had left so I could snitch a few pieces of fruit for breakfast in the morning. Xena and I then headed back to our room. On our way we bumped into Mrs. Bosoms-Out-To-Here herself as she entered her room. She took one look at me, stuck her nose haughtily in the air, and stepped into her room slamming the door shut behind her.

"Friend of yours?" Xena asked. I rolled my eyes.

We turned the last corner of the hallway, and to our surprise we found the beautiful Princess Lenore standing before the door to our room. She was tall and trim, and her black, curling hair shone like wet basalt in the dim light from the torches. Then, the most unlikely of things happened. Xena froze.

The girl strode confidently up to us, with the bearing only a woman raised as a princess could carry, and she peered coldly into Xena's eyes. Xena got herself unstuck and opened her mouth to speak.

"Lenore. Look at you!" Xena said with a nervousness in her voice that was strange to my ears to hear. "You're a beautiful young woman now."

Xena's hands came forward in friendship, but her arms dropped at the cold smile on Lenore's face. "Xena, I was so very surprised to see you here. If I'd known you were coming, I would have had a couple of peasants slaughtered in your honor."

My first thought was that the princess had just made a bad joke, but the girl's smile lowered, and I noticed the simmering rage that filled her gray eyes. I figured out that her remark, although not serious, wasn't meant as a joke.

Xena's expression turned cool and her eyelids dropped low to shelter her gaze. "Lenore..." she began.

"Just try not to steal anything, or murder anyone while you're here," the princess said, and then she stepped past us to stride gracefully down the hall, and disappear around the turn.

That night, as our room was lit by one small candle and the light from the moon that shone through our open window, I looked over to Xena who relaxed on the narrow bed with her eyes closed. I thought about how very beautiful she was in the dim, blue light from the waxing moon. Really, she was beautiful in any light, but now, as the soft beams framed her fine features and flawless skin, I thought no one but the goddess of serenity herself could look more peaceful. My, but how looks can be deceiving.

Xena had been an absolute bear since our meeting with Lenore. She had snapped at me every time I spoke to her, and I couldn't even breathe without annoying the warrior. And questions about Lenore brought icy stares that told me this was not an issue she wanted to discuss.

Now, I've been traveling with Xena long enough to know that when she was in one of these moods, the best way to deal with it was simply to avoid her. I had learned the hard way that trying to get her mind off of what was bothering her by asking her give comments on a new story, or contribute a few lines to a poem, would only result in sarcastic remarks that were not intended to be helpful.

And by the gods you DON'T want to cheer her up by secretly polishing her weapons for her. Trust me.

So I decided to leave the room and take a little walk. We would both be happier that way. But before I left I quietly hung a couple of my things on the bedpost that faced the room so it would be clear who had dibs on the side of the bed away from the wall.

Once I left the room I knew what I needed to do. The royal suites were on the upper floors of the castle, and that was where I had to go. Two burly guards, however, stood between me and stairway to the suites.

"Hi boys!" I said cheerfully, and I gave the guards my most charming smile. They looked at me suspiciously. "I need to see the princess."

"Talk to the royal secretary and make an appointment," was the pat reply.

"Really, I'm sure she'd like to talk to me," I said as I started to try to move past them and up the stairway. The men stepped together to block my progress, and both of them glowered down at me dangerously. I smiled uncomfortably up to them.

"Right," I said, and I backed away.

As I put a little distance between me and the guards, I looked back at them to contemplate my situation. I gripped my staff in my right hand. They certainly weren't expecting an attack from me. I knew that with the element of surprise I could easily take both of them out. Then I could head right up to the princess' room unmolested.

But I sighed heavily and stepped away. After our little encounter with Lenore, I wasn't at all sure she'd agree to make an appointment to talk to me, but clobbering guards would, once again, quickly wear out our welcome. What I needed was a good reason to see the princess; or somebody who had a little clout with the guards. I needed a plan.

Chapter 7
Broken Faith

I headed down the hallway with a vague idea of what I needed to do next. I found the door I was looking for. I thought to myself, "The plan will come to me," and with that I burst into the little room.

Mrs. Bosoms-Out-To-Here shrieked at my entrance and looked at me in complete fright. She was sitting in front of a mirror in a flowing dressing gown as she took off her makeup. Even the night-dress under the gown had a low cut neck-line that bared her impressive cleavage for all viewers. She shrieked again, and then I had my plan.

"Shhh!!!" I said, and I gestured to her wildly to be quiet. Then I plastered the side of my face into to door as I listened intently for noises down the hall.

"What are you doing in here?!" the squat woman shouted in a pitch high enough to break glass. I dashed over to her and slapped a hand across her fleshy mouth to keep her quiet.

"Shhh!" I repeated urgently. She froze. Her small eyes were as wide as she could make them, and she peered at me fearfully. Then she grabbed my hand and yanked it off of her face.

"What's wrong?" she demanded, looking up at me as I stood over her. She was still seated; my abrupt entrance hadn't given even her the opportunity to stand up.

"Assassins!" I said dramatically. Her jaw dropped, and several additional chins appeared above her neck.

"Assassins!" she repeated loudly.

"Shhh!" I admonished yet again, and she clamped her mouth shut. "Several years ago my Amazons captured an assassin," I whispered urgently. "He managed to escape and we never were able to track him down. But I just saw him! He's in the castle now!"

"Here?!" she repeated in shock, and I leaned close to her to impart the seriousness of my words.

"Yes. Here! He's a wily, skilled assassin. He doesn't even need to carry a weapon. He can kill with poisons, pressure points and a thousand other ways that leave no trace. But his favorite way to kill a man is to stab him through the heart with his own dagger!"

Mrs. Bosoms gasped. "That's how King Croman was killed!" she breathed. Then, with speed I didn't think she was capable of, the woman launched herself out of her chair and ran for the door. "Quick! We've got to get a guard!"

"No, no!" I darted myself in front of her and threw my body before the door to block her exit. "They'll never catch him. He's too crafty. We'll need to secretly mobilize the soldiers to have any hope of capturing him."

Bosoms looked at me for a moment. "We have to go tell Prince Leroc," she said. I began to protest, but she continued as she re-thought her plan, "No, no. He's crazy. We'll have to tell Magnus!" And with startling strength she shoved me aside with one ham hock of an arm like I was a child's doll.

"Wait," I said, again leaping in front of her to block her progress, but this time with a little more respect for her physical abilities. "We can't talk to Magnus."

Those beady, blue eyes narrowed at me suspiciously. I had to think for a minute. "I'm Amazon, see. I don' men."

She raised an eyebrow and gave me a good looking over with the one eye that was still painted.

"I really don't like men," I repeated to emphasize the point. "Can't even talk to them."

"Uh, huh," she said warily. And then she took a careful little step back, as if standing too close to me would inflame my immoral passions. "So I guess we'll have to talk to the princess then."

"Excellent idea!" I said with a big smile, and I stepped to the side as she swiftly opened the door.

We hurried down the hall, and I carefully peered down each intersection that we approached so we did not "accidentally" encounter the assassin. Soon we were by the soldiers who guarded the royal suites. Mrs. Bosoms took the lead.

"I'm sorry, but..." one of the soldiers began as we approached. With some degree of pleasure I watched the short woman shove the man aside as effectively as she had removed me from in front of the door earlier.

"Out of my way, clod!" she said, and the soldiers parted nervously. Bosoms began to march up the stairs and I followed my escort past the soldiers. One of the men, however, grabbed my arm to stop me. The woman spun around to glare at the soldier.

"She's with me!" she barked at him, and she knocked his hand from my arm. I nodded apologetically to the man, and then quickly followed the short, round woman up the stairs. I could barely conceal my relief. As I had suspected, this woman had some pull with the guards. Probably the wife of some high-ranking officer who could make all their lives miserable if they didn't do what she wanted.

"The princess' quarters are this way," she said looking over her shoulder at me as we turned the hall. We arrived at the door and I moved to stand in front of the woman to grasp her round shoulders.

"Thank you. With the help you've given me, we may be able to catch Croman's killer," I said solemnly. The general's wife leaned away from me and eyed my hands on her shoulders with an obvious measure of distaste. I let go and she backed away to pull her robe over her exposed cleavage, apparently not wanting to tempt me further.

"Now go back to your room and lock yourself in," I said conspiratorially. "If the assassin saw you with me he'll try to kill you too."

"He will?" she said in surprise.

"It's a long story. Something to do with that time I had him arrested. Now hurry!" And I gave the woman a shove to get her started down the hall. In a quick waddle she headed for the stairway. "And remember," I called after her in a loud whisper. "Not a word to anyone!"

She waved at me in acknowledgment, and disappeared around the turn.

I turned to the door, and knocked quietly. Promptly, the door opened.

"Hi. You don't know me, but..." I began with a clumsy curtsy, as Lenore opened the door.

"You're Xena's friend," the princess interrupted.

"Yes," I said. "I'm Xena's friend. My name is Gabrielle." I smiled and extended a hand. Her eyes narrowed, and she glanced down the hall.

"How did you get up here?"

I didn't really want to answer that question, so I dropped my unaccepted hand, and I plowed ahead through the door and with my reason for being there. "We need to talk. About Xena."

I turned to face the princess and I saw a look of complete contempt mar her beautiful face. She wasn't moving away from the open door, so I hurried over to close the door gently. She eyed me narrowly.

"She's not a warlord anymore," I began, and the young woman turned away from me to walk briskly into the room. I followed. "She's a warrior who helps people now. She's changed."

Lenore spun around on her heel to glare at me. I startled under the coldness of those gray eyes. "And she changed before that. And she'll change again." The venom practically dripped from her voice as she spoke.

"Princess," I began slowly, "I don't know what exactly happened between you and Xena, but..."

"Well then," Lenore interrupted, "let me at least tell you what happened to Xena." The princess stepped close and glared down at me. Despite my best attempt to hold her gaze I quickly found myself admiring the fine construction of her sandals. "Xena was a rising warlord. My father didn't approve of the way she was conquering the villages in the area, but he saw in her the potential for great leadership. He believed that once Xena felt her home village was safe, she would consolidate her lands into one strong kingdom. He told me that then all the people would finally be safe from the raiders that were constantly hitting the area. He even helped her. He sent her his best soldiers to train her and teach her how to use her new army."

The girl sneered nastily and continued, "But let me tell you, your warrior friend changed."

"Look," I said, "I know Xena's done some evil things, but I really think she's past all that. I have faith that..."

"My father had faith in her once," Lenore interrupted. "I had faith in her. And she became a monster. It happened before. It can happen again. If you had any sense, you'd go on your way without her."

With that, the princess opened the door, and gestured for me to leave. I could see that she was too angry to talk, so I quietly departed.

Well, that sort of answered some of my questions. Karolious was probably one of the soldiers Croman had sent to work with Xena when she was still a novice at fighting battles. And Croman had started helping Xena when she was still trying to protect her homeland, but he withdrew his support when her goal became sheer conquest.

Strategically, Croman's defense of Amphipolis was probably the wisest military move made by any regent of the area, because once Xena's mission changed, no one but Croman was safe from her wrath.

When I got back to the little room I found Xena still relaxing on the bed. I had hoped she had cooled off a little bit while I was gone. After my encounter with Lenore I really wasn't up to dealing with her dark mood. Unfortunately, she was just as testy as when I had left.

The debate over what side of the bed belonged to whom had been brief, and as I laid under the blanket next to Xena it was a toss up as to which was chillier: the silent stone wall on my left, or the even more silent stone warrior on my right. Earlier, I had wanted to talk about Lenore; Xena, however, didn't. But now she was tired, and when I wanted to know something a little persistence when Xena was tired often got me the information I desired, just so I would be quiet and let her get to sleep. It was a dangerous maneuver, but I really wanted to know more about Lenore.

"Xena, tell me about the princess," I said quietly, and she growled lowly at me in return. "What kind of relationship did you have with her?"

"Go to sleep, Gabrielle," was the only reply.

I contemplated her temper, and her level of fatigue, and then I continued. "Did you know her well as a child? What was she like? How did you meet her father? When was the last time you saw her?"

Xena took a big breath of resignation and I chalked up another victory to my wait-till-she's-tired technique. Someday it might get me seriously hurt, but it worked again that night.

"Lenore was a sweet young girl who had just lost her mother," Xena began, "a wonderful woman I had the privilege of knowing for only a brief time. Lenore saw in me the figure of her mother, or possibly an older sister. Lenore's grandmother was frail, even then, and there were no other women in the castle the girl could turn to. So I spent as much time with her as I could when I was here." Xena's voice grew more quiet as she continued. "She looked up to me like I was some kind of hero. I could do nothing wrong in her eyes. Often she told her father that she wanted to be just like me when she grew up." Xena turned her head to face me and I gazed into the blue glint of her eyes that was barely visible in the dim light. "I suppose since she hasn't murdered anyone, she never reached that goal."

Her words held no anger or sarcasm. That fact alone pierced my heart. My hand went out to stroke Xena's soft cheek. "Her father just died. She's in a lot of pain right now," I said.

Xena's voice lowered and I felt the anger begin to fill her body. "Her father was murdered."

Chapter 8
Another Plan

The next morning I was abruptly shaken awake by my bed-partner.

"Come on, Gabrielle," she said urgently, tossing me my boots as I groggily sat up. The boots thumped me in the chest and landed on the floor. I pried a reluctant eye open against the morning sun.

"There's rumors of an assassin in the castle," she said, pulling a hairbrush out of a saddlebag and tossing it to me. The brush clipped me on the shoulder and landed on the floor next to the boots.

"Assassin?" I repeated, my head clearing a little at the word. I reached up to feel for the carved figure of the girl that hung around my neck, just to make sure it was still there. It was.

"We've got to find him. He was spotted last night. Apparently he's being tracked by Amazons." Xena ripped off a piece of bread from a loaf she must have brought up from the kitchen, and tucked the morsel into her mouth.

Slow recognition of the little assassin fib I had told filtered into my brain. "Oh...him," I said. Then I dropped back into the pillow, and tucked my legs under the blanket. "You don't need to worry about him," I told the warrior. I closed my eyes and prepared to drift back to sleep. Rudely, however, I was removed from the bed.

"What are you talking about," Xena growled at me, her fists wrapped around the front of my top as she held me practically suspended off of the floor. The material of my shirt bit uncomfortably under my arms, and I gingerly danced on the icy stone floor with my toes.

"That was my story. I started that rumor...Quit it!" I pulled at Xena's hands and dropped onto the bed when she released me.

"Why are you making up stories of assassins in the building?" she asked as I pulled on a boot with a hard yank.

"I..." It was too early in the morning to be making up more stories, but I really didn't want to tell Xena I had been prying into her past. "I was testing the security around here." Well, I sort of was testing the security. And apparently it wasn't very good since I did manage to get past the guards last night.

"Why are you...? Why did you...?"

I glanced up at Xena as she stammered. She looked at me quizzically for a moment, and then just rolled her eyes and stepped away.

"What's the plan today?" I asked, stuffing my other foot into a boot.

"Well, the plan was to tracked down that assassin, but since we don't need to do that I want to find out if anyone besides Leroc wanted a war. Then I want to talk to that person."

I picked up the brush off the floor and began to drag in through my snarled hair.

"Well," I began, "there must be someone in the area who sells weapons. He could make a good profit from a war. Who was the local arms dealer the last time you were in the area."

"I was," came the annoyed reply.

"Oh...well..." I set the brush down and began to tie up my hair the thong Xena slowly walked over to hand me. "Somebody must have taken your place. We should talk to him."

"Yes," Xena said, "but I don't know who he is. Karolious would know where to find such a man, but he's at sea to escort some nobles to the funeral tonight. How about that minstrel who gave you your information, Gabrielle?"

"Gone," I said, walking over to the warrior and helping myself to the bread in her hands. "He should be halfway to the next castle by now on his way to a wedding."

Xena puzzled for a moment, "Mmm. We need someone else who knows what's happening in the kingdom."

I sighed. I knew who that someone was.

We found Mrs. Bosoms-Out-To-Here in the kitchen harassing some of the staff about the presentation of the pomegranates at breakfast. I interrupted the chastisement to a grateful look from one of the servants who quickly departed the scene.

Mrs. Bosom's painted eyes opened to the size of small beads when she noticed me. "You!" she exclaimed, and the dimples on her knuckles disappeared as she wrapped her fingers around my shoulders. Then she continued in a conspiratorial whisper, "Did you find the assassin?"

After the words were already out, she suspiciously eyed the tall, dark, female warrior beside me.

"No," I said gravely. "He slipped out of the castle before anyone could stop him." Xena arched an eyebrow and eyed me sidelong under her lashes. I charged ahead. "Once again I need your help. For the safety of the princess and the others in the castle, we've got to find this man." The little woman squared her plump shoulders and leaned forward to listen intently to my words. I continued, "I know this assassin likes to hang out with arms dealers. Do you know of anyone in the area who sells weapons?"

"Yeah, I..." Bosoms paused to once again eye Xena and the weapons she carried. "Is she okay?" the woman said, gesturing with her thumb in Xena's direction and speaking in a whisper that was loud enough to be heard across the room, much less by the object of the question herself.

"Yes," I said reassuringly. "She's with me."

"One of your...Amazons?" the woman asked warily.

"Mmm," I responded noncommittally. Just barely, I heard Xena growl.

Bosoms took a step closer to Xena. She looked the warrior over carefully. Then she glanced again at Xena's outfit.

"What's this?" she asked, gesturing to Xena's armor. And then, much to my utter surprise, the round, short woman reached forward to snap Xena's breast plate with her forefinger. A bright, metallic, "thonk" echoed through the room as her fingernail struck the polished brass. "Not very practical in a fight. Must be some kind of fashion statement."

In fright, I darted my gaze to the warrior's face. As surprised as I had been at the disrespectful action, I think Xena was doubly so. As I looked at Xena, her eyes were wide with astonishment. Quickly, however, the gaze narrowed. Then she practically quivered as every muscle in her body went taut. She bared her straight, white teeth at the lady and took a menacing step forward. I threw myself into the Warrior Princess.

"Ha, ha!" I said nervously. I was leaning into Xena with every ounce of strength I had, but I sort of wondered if my friend even knew I was there. "Well, that probably wasn't the thing to do," I added, directing my comment to the short woman.

I spun around as Xena slowly pushed me into Mrs. Bosoms who wasn't budging. Then, with the sharp edges of Xena's armor poking me in the back, and the enormous chest of Mrs. B. crowding out my diaphragm, I managed to lever the two women apart.

As the two women glared daggers at each other, I dug my elbow deep into Xena's side a couple of times to get her attention. When she fired an annoyed glance at me I returned it with my own exasperated expression. This woman had information we needed. Xena seemed to read my thoughts and she reluctantly backed off. Bosoms watched Xena's retreat with a look of tremendous self-satisfaction. I said a quick prayer to the gods that Xena wouldn't rip the woman's throat out until after she told us out what we wanted to know.

I turned back around to smile graciously at our informant. "She's perfectly safe," I said nodding to Xena. "She knows all of my secrets."

Bosoms still eyed Xena distrustfully. I began to worry that she wouldn't talk with the warrior there, so I slipped an arm around Xena's waist and rested my hand low on her hip. The gesture was fairly intimate, and the move seemed to clearly communicate what I had intended it to say.

"ALL...of them," I added just so it was clear.

Xena, however, seemed completely baffled by my actions and my remarks. To her credit, however, she kept her cool and only responded to the position of my hand with a second slight arch of her eyebrow. Another person would have gotten knocked clear across the room.

But Mrs. B. immediately knew what I was saying. I could tell by the look of distaste that crossed her face. But my actions had the desired effect, and the lady opened up.

"Yeah, I have heard of the arms dealer who works around here. I even know where Croman thought his hide-out was." The squat woman looked Xena and me up and down slowly. I just knew she was picturing us in all sorts of wild, sexual scenarios, and I fidgeted uncomfortably under her disapproving stare. "Say," she continued, "why would an assassin who doesn't use weapons hang out with an arms dealer?"

"He likes to keep up on the latest technology," I stated, a little too quickly. "Just to see what the competition might be using."

"There is a cove north of this castle," she said conspiratorially, "He gets his shipments by boat, and then hides the goods in the caves along the shore."

"What's his name?" Xena interjected coolly.

Bosoms craned her neck back to lock her tiny eyes with Xena's vivid blue ones, and the two women stared at each other defiantly.

"Sihafa," she said, and I felt Xena stiffen.

"Sihafa," Xena repeated quietly, and she followed the word with a low growl.

From off in the kitchen area came the racket of crashing dishes. A servant shouted in surprise and immediately Bosoms spun around to march in the direction of the accident. Xena and I watched as she yelled like a drill-sergeant at the poor servant who had dropped the dinnerware.

"Xena, do you know him, this, Sihafa?" I asked, although from her earlier reaction I pretty much knew the answer.

"Yes," she said. "He trades in silks and spices from the lands east of Greece. But he's made most of his wealth trading in other supplies."

"Weapons?" I asked, and she nodded.

"We'll have to be careful when we talk to him. Sihafa and I have the past. And Gabrielle..."

"Mmm?" I voiced, as I pondered what, exactly, those business disputes could be.

"Get your hand off my butt."

Chapter 9
A Man With Morals

After that, we immediately headed for the stables where we got Argo saddled and ready to ride. We left the castle and circled around it. It was then I discovered that the back side of the castle was built on the edge of a towering precipice that rose up from the sea. On the very bottom of the cliff was a narrow stretch of beach, and littered along the beach were enormous boulders that had been sharpened into blades by the battering waves.

Xena glanced over the landscape and the water.

"It's low tide," she said. "The ride will be easier along the beach. We'll have to be careful, though, not to get caught against these limestone cliffs when the water rises.

We walked Argo down a treacherous path to the golden sand, and then I climbed onto the saddle behind Xena and we galloped off to the north.

The cove we stopped at looked just like all of the other inlets we had passed; a convex of the white capped sea into the rocky land. But something about this particular stretch of sand seemed to make Xena think that it was a prime location to do a little smuggling, so Xena slowed Argo down to a walk and I loosened my grip a little bit from Xena's waist.

From the shore we could see lots of caves in the cliffs that surrounded the cove, but the footprints of men carrying many heavy loads to and from the shore led us like a road to the cave we wanted. We dismounted Argo, which I was quite thankful for, since I don't much like riding. Actually, I don't much like heights, and it's surprising how far off the ground you are on a horse.

We neared the cliffs as we followed the tracks through the sand, where we were promptly greeted by Sihafa's guards.

"Captain," one of the guards called as we entered the dark cave lit by a single bright torch. There were stacks of crates everywhere, some piled all the way up to the low rock ceiling of the cave. "We've captured two prisoners."

I rolled my eyes at his words. There were only two of them, and although they had taken Xena's sword, they hadn't taken her chakram or my staff. We weren't prisoners.

The "captain" then strode out from behind a curtain that blocked the rear of the cave. He was short, but very solid, with brown skin, brown eyes, and a thick black beard. His clothing was long and flowing, and he wore a white turban wrapped around his head. One look at Xena and the captain's composed expression contorted in rage.

"Xena!" he roared. Our "captors", upon hearing the warrior princess' name, jumped away from us and pointed their blades at us in fright.

"Sihafa..." Xena began smoothly, and she slowly lifted her hands forward in a gesture of friendliness. Sihafa and his men didn't seem at all willing to be friendly.

"Thief!" Sihafa shouted at Xena. "Pirate!" And he pulled a long curving sword out of his waistband to point at the two of us.

"Sihafa," Xena purred, and her white teeth flashed in the torch-light as she smiled at the man. "We may have had our little disagreements in the past, but..."

"Disagreements! I still have a price on my head because of you!" Sihafa shouted in a thick Arabic accent, and he swung his glinting blade over and over around his head like a madman. I clutched my staff a little harder.

"Sihafa," Xena continued, seemingly unperturbed by the crazy man waving the really big sword. She even took the time to lift the lid on one of the crates to admire the shiny crossbows inside. "I'm sorry I had to relieve you of your merchandise so many years ago, and I'm sure it caused you a lot of trouble with your clients, but I really needed those weapons. I offered you a fair price, but you turned me down."

"A fair price?!" Rather than calming Sihafa with her silky words, Xena only seemed to inflame him. I glanced at her nervously, wishing she would take an approach that was a little less aggravating for this man. "You offered me a third of what those weapons were worth. I couldn't sell them to you for that!"

"Well, selling them to me would have been better than the alternative, now wouldn't it?" Xena said with an evil grin. The remark broke the last thread of sanity that was holding the Arab back, and he charged Xena with his sword.

I jumped back and Xena took a little step forward to meet her attacker. With a movement almost too quick to see, she ducked under the swing of the sword and lunged down to pull Sihafa's right leg out from under him. He landed with a solid thump on the sandy surface of the cave.

The two soldiers behind me charged but I quickly took out one, then the other, with my staff. I knocked their swords away from them and held them both at the point of my staff. As I guarded the men, I glanced over to Xena who was standing on Sihafa's right wrist. He clenched his teeth and his face contorted in pain, and Xena grabbed his sword as he reluctantly let it go. She leveled the blade at his throat.

"Sihafa," Xena cooed, not even breathing hard from the encounter, "didn't you learn anything from our last engagement?"

"Yes," he growled, as the blade of his sword hovered over his Adam's apple. "I learned to hire protection."

Xena nodded her head in the direction of the two guards I so capably had under my control. "Them?" she sneered.

"No," Sihafa replied, "them."

On cue, six of the biggest men I have ever seen stepped out from behind the curtain. They all had a long curving sword drawn, and they stared at us murderously. Xena's eyes widened. I swallowed hard.

The biggest of the men took a step forward, and the guards under my staff scampered away. Xena held her ground though, and kept Sihafa's sword at his throat. She smiled at him viciously.

"Call them off, Sihafa," she said, her voice carrying a hard edge now rather than that silky smooth tone of earlier. "Call them off unless you want another hole in your windpipe to breathe through."

Sihafa's face twisted as he contemplated Xena's words. Then he lifted a hand and the biggest man, the one who was still stepping toward us, stopped. Xena raised her blade a little bit in return.

Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I watched one of the smaller guards grab the single torch from its sconce and drive the flame into the sand. The torch snuffed out in a hiss and in the last second of light in the cave, I saw the six men charge.

Really, except for giving Sihafa a chance to get away from the blade at his throat, with the lights out the advantage belonged to Xena and me. Sihafa's "protection" might have been familiar with the contours of the cave, but they were large and heavy men. They couldn't slink around silently in the dark like Xena and I could, and right away I heard one of the men go down as he struck his head against the low stone ceiling of the cave.

Xena would circle around to the left, as she liked to do in a fight, so I moved to the right. In the dark, unable to coordinate their attack, all six of the big guards, and probably both of the small ones that had met us outside, would go after their most dangerous threat, Xena. That would leave me free to pick out my targets one at a time.

Xena sounded her war cry and her voice echoed off the cave walls. The cry must have disoriented her attackers because I heard them all stop in mid-charge as they tried to figure out which direction she had moved to. Promptly, I heard one of the big soldiers shout as he was sent sailing into a cave wall.

I got up behind one of the men as I heard him stumble around in the center of the cave. There was a clang of swords nearby and I knew Xena wasn't far. I would do my best to stay out of her way. I heard my target turn a couple of circles and, when the sound of his breathing told me his back was to me, I swung my staff in the general direction of the side of his knee. The man cried out and hit the floor. He should have fallen to his right so I circled around to his left. From there I took a jab in the vague direction of his midsection. This blow succeeded in catching him under the diaphragm and he forcefully expelled a lung-full of air.

I left the man on the ground, struggling for his breath, and went to search out another target. However, my next target found me. I instinctively ducked at the whoosh of a sword as it cut through the air over my head. Somewhere in the cave I heard Xena laugh nastily as two men cried out in surprise. I ducked again at the sound of another whoosh, and I felt the blade just brush the top of my head. With his right arm across his body from the force of the swing, this was my chance. Another fighter, a better fighter, would have taken the opportunity I provided with my ever-so-slight-hesitation. But I hauled my staff around and struck this man solidly in the right shoulder before he could bring his sword-arm back around. The fleshy "smack" and his howl of pain told me that this time my hit had been directly on the mark.

A second sword swung in my direction, and this time I did not hesitate. As soon as I felt the wind from the blade sailing past my face, I responded with an immediate down-stroke onto my new attacker's collarbone. I heard the bone snap under my blow. It was not a dangerous injury, and not even a particularly painful one, but he wouldn't be swinging a sword for at least a month, and it was exactly the damage I had intended to inflict.

"Gabrielle!" I heard Xena call near the entrance of the cave. I stumbled after her, and followed her to the blinding sunlight outside.

I blinked against the bright light, and almost ran into Xena who had Sihafa in a headlock under her right arm. I glanced back at the cave entrance, but we must have taken care of all the guards inside because no one was following us. I felt for the trinket around my throat, to make sure I hadn't lost it in the fight, and then Xena threw Sihafa down onto his knees.

"What do you know about King Croman's death?" she asked nastily.

A little bit of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth and he spat pink into the sand. "You no-good, murdering, daughter of a...!" but Sihafa's tirade was cut short as Xena snapped her fingers into the pressure points on his neck. The movement caused two long muscles in his neck to contract, clamping themselves over the large veins that ran to his head, and restricting the blood flow to his brain. Sihafa faltered and gasped.

Xena leaned down to growl in his ear. "Be nice when you talk about my mother. Now, you've got more weapons in there then one man could have accumulated in a few days. And not just enough arms for the occasional skirmish with the King's guard. You've got enough equipment in there for a whole army. How did you know there would be a war soon?"

Sihafa gasped again as the shade of red on his face began to deepen in color. "I...I..." he began, "A month ago I stopped through here to scout out these caves. A messenger from the castle came to meet me."

"Yes?" Xena prompted as Sihafa struggled to maintain consciousness.

"He handed me a note on royal stationary that asked me to find an assassin to kill Croman. He promised me a lot of money. But I don't do murders. You know that, Xena."

"No. You just sell the weapons to the murderers. I know, Sihafa. You've got morals. So who wanted Croman dead?" Xena demanded, hauling the teetering Arab around to face her.

"I don't know. But he wanted it done soon. I figured that crazy son of Croman would start a war sooner or later once his old man was dead, so I decided I'd get the jump on the competition." Sihafa groaned and struggled, and his head was starting to remind me of the time I had gotten a ring stuck on my right index finger. Before Xena had finally managed to break the metal of the band, my finger had swollen up and turned a frightening shade of purple, just like Sihafa's head was doing right now.

Xena eyed the man for a moment. Then, apparently convinced that he had not held back any information, she again snapped her fingers into his neck, this time releasing the contracted muscles. Sihafa collapsed into the sand, barely conscious.

Xena stood up and began stride toward where we had left Argo on the beach.

"Come on, Gabrielle," she barked at me. "We've wasted all morning and most of the afternoon on this wild-goose chase. Let's get back to the castle," she glanced up at the sun to check the time. "Croman's funeral will be soon."

Chapter 10
Another Funeral

We arrived at the castle just in time for the funeral, and the guests already filled the great hall for the ceremony. Although it was a solemn occasion, it was still an event to be seen at, and the visiting dignitaries were decked out in their finest attire. Xena looked a little out of place in her battle leather and armor, and I looked even more out of place in my simple Amazon clothes and fighting staff, so we stayed toward the back of the room which made it all that much easier to slip out when the funeral ceremonies began.

"We don't have a lot of time," Xena whispered to me as we tiptoed through the corridors of the castle. We peered around one of the halls, and saw the four soldiers who guarded the door of the room with Croman's body. Quickly, Xena signaled me back before we were spotted.

Although the soldiers were still there, the priests were now in the main hall to perform the prayers for the funeral. Croman would be kept in the little room until the proper reverence had been instilled in the attendees of the funeral with words and song. Then the body would be brought out and presented to the crowd.

"Why do you want to go in there?" I whispered quietly to the warrior.

"I want to get another look at that body," Xena whispered back, and she quickly began to move down the hall. I followed until she stopped at a door. She drew her dagger and deftly picked the lock open. In a heartbeat we ducked into the room and closed the door behind us. It was a some sort of storage room, but on the far wall Xena found what she was looking for. A window.

We hurried over to the window and Xena freed the whip at her waist. We both leaned out the opening. Xena peered up and I looked down. Xena smiled. I didn't. Below us -- way below us -- crashed the foamy surf against jagged rocks as the castle sat perched on the very edge of the sheer cliff face.

I lurched back into the room and leaned heavily against my staff. I gasped for the breath that had left my lungs as surely as if someone had punched me hard in the stomach. Xena, however, leaned out the window even farther. She snapped the whip up to wrap around some object on the exterior of the castle wall. Next to us, I knew, was the room with the body, and I figured she had her eye on a window to that room which was probably several paces away from this one. She eyed her target across the wall again, and then leaned back inside to wrap her arm around my waist.

"Wait a minute!" I dropped my staff and began to protest as she pulled me tightly against her. She gave the whip a hard tug to test its hold.

"This'll be easy," she said to me with a big smile, and she picked me up off the floor and jumped out of the window. I clamped my arms instinctively around her neck and I buried my face in her chest as we swung over the exterior wall of the castle.

Almost immediately we were through the other window. Xena yanked her whip free, pried my cramped fingers from around her neck, and pulled my face out of her bosom. She ran over to the coffin by the door, and I stood by the window waiting for my stomach to join me in the room.

"Look at this, Gabrielle." Xena whispered urgently, and her words brought me back to our situation. I quickly stepped over to her, and found she already had the king's beautiful coat and shirt open to reveal the stab wound on his chest over his heart. She pinched the edges of the injury to make the dead flesh gape open, and my stomach took that opportunity to leap back into my body to protest the sight.

"You can just barely make out a second edge to this cut," she said, peering at the injury. I tried to look myself but couldn't discern what she was talking about. Then she drew her dagger and began to cut the wound open further. My eyes widened at her actions, but I knew there must be a reason for what she was doing. Using the thumb and forefinger of her left hand, she spread the tissue apart exposing a rib and the sternum. With her right hand, she manipulated her dagger to dig some object, unseen by me, out of the tissue under the bone. When the item was free, she set her blade down on the dead man's chest and sunk her fingers into the opening to retrieve the object. She then pulled out a small, bloody bit of metal.

"What's that?" I whispered, examining the triangular piece of steel, half as small as the nail on my little finger.

"It's the tip of a dagger," she responded quietly. Carefully she placed the item in the purse at her waist, and picked up her dagger to wipe it off and tuck it back in its concealed location between her breasts. Then she began to rummage though the king's clothes.

"The tip of the knife broke off when he was stabbed?" I asked, looking into the cold, white face of the dead man. I felt like I wanted to apologize to him for this desecration.

"Yes," she responded, and she drew a dagger out of a sheath hidden at the king's side. Although Croman's sword would be handed over to the next king, the dagger was still his, and, apparently, he would even be cremated with it.

We both looked closely at the knife, but clearly the tip was still intact. Xena slipped the dagger into her boot as evidence, and quickly we began to put the king's clothes back in order.

"Leroc committed the murder with his own dagger," Xena said. "He stabbed the king, but the blow missed its mark slightly and the tip of the blade broke off on a rib. Then he pulled out his knife and drew the king's dagger off the body. He drove that dagger into the wound, and left the body at the bottom of the stairs where it would look like the king had fallen on his own blade," she continued as she buttoned up the last of the clothes. In my mind I pictured the incredibly quick movement Leroc had used to stab the man in the infirmary, and I wondered if that same grin was on his face when he killed his father.

"If we find the dagger with the broken tip..." I began.

"...and we can find someone who can identify the dagger as Leroc's..." Xena added.

"...then we can prove he was the killer," I finished.

Just then we heard a key turn in the door. I froze at the sound, but Xena had her hands on my shoulders and she dragged me behind a long, ornate curtain that divided the room in half. Quietly, we listened as the soldiers entered the room, walked over to the coffin, hoisted it onto their shoulders, and left. With the coffin gone, the soldiers no longer guarded the door, so Xena and I slipped out of the room, retrieved my staff, and went back to the rear of the great hall where we watched the rest of the ceremony.

At the end of the presentation the coffin was taken outside to be placed on the pyre. With great reverence, eight soldiers carried the ornately carved casket across the courtyard. Behind the coffin, Leroc, stony-faced as always, lead the procession of friends and family as was the tradition. The queen mother, assisted by her granddaughter, Lenore, and her second son, Magnus, were next, followed by a parade of nobles and their assistants. Way in the back of the courtyard, behind a row of soldiers, a crowd of peasants stood quietly, waiting to watch the burning.

By the looks of all the tear-stained faces, King Croman obviously had been well-loved, and more than once I saw a murderous stare turn in Leroc's direction. None, however, looked as sad as the poor Lenore. Although fully grown she was orphaned now, and she cried into her grandmother's shoulder with wracking sobs that tore my heart out to witness. Her uncle, his face streaked with tears, put his arm around the girl, and together they attempted to comfort each other in their grief. Leroc, however, seemed impervious to all this.

A priest put a torch to the pile of dry wood under the coffin, and in minutes the cords were consumed by roaring flames. The drums that had ushered the procession out to the courtyard were silent, as was every last voice, save a sob here and there. And as the orange flames rose to lick the wooden box, Xena began to quietly hum the melody of that all-too-familiar dirge.

The sun set without its usual chromatic fanfare, and swiftly the dark night descended on the courtyard. Although the flames of the pyre were still rising, the crowd began to thin as a slow trickle of people headed back to the castle. Lenore and her grandmother left early, but for some reason Leroc seemed determined to stay. Xena decided it was time for us to be getting back to our room as well, but she wanted to talk to Karolious before we left. She left me to search the old soldier out, and I stood before the pyre with my staff to await her return.

As I stared into the hypnotic flames, I realized my hand was wrapped around the little figure at my neck. In fact, my knuckles were white from gripping it so tightly, and my fingers were cramped. I opened my hand to look down at the carved wood. It glinted in the light from the fire, and I moved my thumb over the curves had been rubbed smooth.

I wondered what her name was, and if she would have ever had children with the boy if he hadn't died...if he hadn't been killed. I stared back into the fire, and in the flames I saw the happy faces of never-to-be-born children. Children with long, thin noses and round faces.

The circle of people around the pyre began to widen as they were driven back by the increasing heat. I took a step back myself, and lifted my hand to shield my face from the intense flames. But through the waves of heat and the orange sparks that danced like tiny nymphs against the black sky, I felt a sudden chill. I turned in the direction of the sensation and saw Leroc watching me with his inhumanly cold gaze. He strode across the courtyard to approach me.

"I'm sorry about your father," was all I could think to say as Leroc stepped up to me. He nodded politely, but he continued to stare at me with that constant look of challenge in his eyes. "It was a nice ceremony," I continued as I tried to make small talk in response to Leroc's silence. He nodded again, and I began to feel awfully uncomfortable standing in front of this murderer.

I nonchalantly moved my staff in front of me so I could quickly block a blow should Leroc decide to pull his dagger and stab me in the heart too. I knew I was perfectly safe in front of all these people, and that Leroc had no reason to kill me, but still, the defensive movement made me feel a little better. And then, because I couldn't resist the temptation to ask, I said, "Are you going to miss your father?"

Leroc looked at me with no surprise in his face at my question. He turned toward the burning pyre, and the reflection of the flames in his eyes belied the icy stare. Then, I could almost see him decide that, in fact, maybe he should be feeling some grief at this point. He buried his face in his hands and started to cry.

"I can't hold back any longer. I was trying to be strong for my family, but I can't keep it up," he wailed into his hands. My first instinct was to put my arms around him and comfort him, but the emotions were so contrived that it was easy to hold myself back. "He was my father. Of course I'll miss him," he cried, and he looked up to peer at me in despair. Despite the fat tears that welled up in his gray eyes, I couldn't believe that he was sincere. Still, I put a hand out to pat his shoulder.

"What am I going to do? How will I get through this?" he asked me pleadingly and, although I doubted the truth of the emotions he expressed, I put an arm around his shoulders to comfort him.

He leaned down to bury his head on the top of my shoulder. It occurred to me, at that moment, to wonder what if I was wrong in thinking him the killer. Xena initially seemed to have some doubts. Leroc cried pitifully into my shoulder, and, just in case I was wrong about him, I reached up to stroke his black curly hair.

"How will I get through the night?" he cried. "I can't stand the thought of being alone. I need someone with me. Someone who can help me make it through my grief."

Silently, I began to tic off the names of people with whom he could share his grief. His grandmother came to my mind first, but then I remembered that she believed Leroc had murdered the king, and I thought that he probably shouldn't go to her. I was about to suggest that he talk to his uncle Magnus when I felt Leroc's lips as he kissed my neck. For a moment, I thought I was imagining it.

"Would you help me? Could you comfort a suffering man?" he said huskily into my ear, and his hands traveled low down my hips to rest uninvited on my bottom. In shock I yanked myself free of his grasp and pushed him away with my staff.

"Have you ever made love to a king before?" he purred at me with a low smile as I stared at him wide eyed.

"Have you ever dented oak with your face before?" I spat back, moving my staff in front of him so he'd get a good look at it. Then I spun around to march away, but Leroc was quickly upon me. He grabbed me by my upper arm and yanked me around to face him. The sudden look of rage in his eyes frightened me, and he gripped my arm painfully.

"You, a commoner, are turning down an invitation to spend the night with a king?" he questioned me nastily, moving his face in close to mine. I leaned my weight away from him and my fingers clenched around my staff as I prepared to strike him if he didn't back off soon. But then his eyes darted up at a motion behind me, and he slowly straightened and released my arm. I took a step back, and then I felt Xena's hand descend upon my shoulder. I moved to take a step behind her, and from that position of safety I glared at the young king as he carefully watched my warrior.

Xena didn't say anything, although the look she gave him spoke volumes. Then he simply smiled and glanced back over to me. "When you finally realize that she can't satisfy you, come to me and I'll show you how a real man makes love."

My knuckles went white as I clutched my staff. I trembled from the effort it took to restrain myself from knocking the cocky grin off his face. And then he turned around on his heels and headed for the castle.

"That monster!" I growled through clenched teeth. "Hitting on me right in front of his father's funeral pyre..."

Xena turned around to face me and interrupted my vituperation. "Listen, Gabrielle. Karolious searched Leroc's quarters immediately after the murder and no blood evidence was found. Karolious told me he specifically examined the knives in Leroc's possession to see if any had blood on them, and he says none of them had a broken tip. Now, the king was murdered in his suite, and those quarters have been vacant ever since. No one will be allowed in there until after the coronation tomorrow. Then the key will be given to Leroc, and the royal suite will become his. I think the murder weapon is still in that room. I want us to find it...tonight."

I nodded and the two of us headed back to the castle.

Chapter 11
The Search for Evidence

Xena and I waited until the movement of people around the castle stopped, and all was quiet. We then left our room and headed to the chambers that housed the royal family on the upper floors. As we approached the stairway that led to the royal suites, we spotted the two soldiers who guarded the entrance. We ducked behind the wall and I looked at Xena questioningly.

"I'll go talk to them," Xena said to me, and then she stepped away and walked confidently up to the guards.

I couldn't exactly hear what was being said, but the guards didn't look like they were interested in listening to reason. When Xena started to argue with them I began to wonder if there was another way up to the suites. Then, to my surprise, I watched Xena reach out, grab the guards, and soundly knock their heads together.

The two men clattered to the stone floor in a racket of armor and weapons. Right away Xena had her arms wrapped around one of the soldiers and was dragging him over to a shadowy corner. When my surprise finally wore off enough that I could think, I ran over to grab the other guard.

"You're not concerned about wearing out our welcome?" I whispered to Xena between pants as I dragged the heavy body across the floor.

"The coronation is tomorrow morning. After that even if we can prove that Leroc was the murderer, we may not be able to bring him to justice." Xena began to rip at the guards clothes to make gags and bonds for their hands and feet. "Leroc will BE the justice in this kingdom."

Quickly, we secured the unconscious men in case they woke up too early. We ran up the stairs and tiptoed to the royal suite. At first I feared there would be more swinging over plunging cliff drops to get into the king's quarters, but the room was unguarded and getting inside was merely a matter of picking the lock and slipping in.

Once inside I found a flint next to a lamp, and I managed to ignite the wick with a small flame. Xena used the lamp to light a torch she found in the room, and quickly we were searching the large, two-storied suite, looking for the murder weapon.

We wanted to be in and out of there fast, but the time ticked away and we weren't having any luck finding the dagger. I opened a door to what I thought was a closet of some sort, but what I found were the private toilet facilities of the king.

Unlike the marvelous plumbing engineered throughout Athens, and similar to the way other castles in the area dealt with human waste, the facilities here were merely walled up towers with openings on the top to sit on, like indoor outhouses. When the towers filled up they were simply closed off and more were built. Such lavatories were usually communal, but the king apparently merited his own private indoor outhouse.

"You search the balcony; I'll search the loo," I told Xena. She nodded as she rummaged through the blankets in a chest, and then I saw her freeze and turn around to look at me. I walked into the little closet-like room and began to search through the pile of clean straw that is used for wiping and then is discarded down the pit. The pit itself was covered with a heavy wooden lid, and a large, open window was positioned next to the location of the seated occupant for ventilation. Immediately, Xena was standing in the doorway behind me examining the room.

"Nothing in here," I told her as I dropped the straw into its pile. I moved to stand in front of Xena, and I waited for her to exit the door frame. Instead, she grabbed my shoulders and pushed me back into the room. She set her torch in a sconce by the door. She stepped over to the window, and leaned out to look down. Then she left the ledge to reach over to lift the lid on the pit.

"Ah...if you need to use the facilities, I could leave," I told her as my hand went up to my nose to ward off the stench of raw sewage.

"It's down there," she said simply as she peered down the pit. My eyes went wide as I peered down the pit as well, but all I could see was complete darkness.

"If Leroc did kill Croman, he must have decided to get rid of the dagger because it wasn't in his room. And there's not a lot of places between his room and this one to lose the knife. The best place to get rid of it would have been to throw it down there." She paused. "We have to get that dagger."

"What do you mean, 'we'?" I asked darkly as I contemplated just, exactly, how the knife would need to be retrieved.

"Well..." Xena looked at me carefully as I eyed her dangerously, "not 'we', I suppose."

"That's right," I said resolutely.

"I'd never fit down that opening," she added slowly.

My eyes went even wider as I stared at Xena in disbelief, and then I darted my gaze to the stone opening of the pit that was maybe just wide enough to accommodate my shoulders and hips -- if I really squeezed.

"Oh no!" I growled viciously, and I reached over to slam the lid shut.

Xena interjected, "Nobody's been in here since the night of the murder. The knife should be right on top."

"I'm not going down there," I said coldly and with absolute determination.

Xena continued calmly, "Don't you want to save these people from war, Gabrielle?"

"I'm not going down there!" I repeated a little more loudly.

"Look for a cloth of some sort too. He must have used something to wipe up the blood."

I reached out and grabbed Xena's shoulders tightly as I yanked her down close to my face. "I'm NOT going down there!"

Xena smiled at me sweetly, and grimaced as she peeled my fingers from her upper arms.

"I'll get a rope," she said brightly, and she patted my hand and raced from the room.

"I'M NOT GOING DOWN THERE!" I shouted in a stage whisper after her retreating form.

I followed Xena out of the lavatory but she was quickly out the main door, leaving me standing in center of the suite, shaking my fist at her departure. I then began to search the room again, frantically this time. I was determined to find the knife before Xena returned. I ran up to the second story of the suite, convinced that I had missed something up there, and I fumbled through drawers and vases, looking for anything sharp. I picked up a couple of heavy gold statues to check under them, even though there was no way a knife could have possibly been hidden there. I was desperate.

I heard the door open and close on the floor below, and I rushed down the stairs to greet Xena, intent on explaining to her why it would be impossible for her to dangle me down that pit.

"Xena?" I called, but I jumped back in surprise upon reaching the lower floor as I spotted Mrs. Bosoms herself in her flowing white nightgown and robe.

"What are you doing in here?" she asked me, the accusation fairly dripping from her voice. "Where are the soldiers who are supposed to be guarding the stairwell?"

I bit my tongue as I tried to think up a story. I realized then that if this woman knew the truth she would probably leave without giving me away. Heck, she would likely even help me look for the murder weapon, but I had told her too many fibs already. It was too late to try to gain her trust now.

"I noticed those guards were gone too. I was concerned for the princess, and thought I would come check on her." The short, round woman looked at me with obvious disbelief. "This is the princess' room, right? Shoot. I must have gotten turned around in the dark."

I chuckled at the lady in an attempt to lighten the mood, and I lifted up my hands for a friendly gesture. I had forgotten about the two gold statues I still held.

"Thief!" the woman screamed at me, her big chest almost bursting the seems of her dress as she hauled in a lung-full of air to shout the accusation. Then, with that same quickness that had surprised me before, she barreled out of the room and into the hallway, shrieking at the top of her well-developed lungs the whole way.

The only escape I knew was down the same stairway I had come up. So I dropped the statues I held and picked up my staff. I charged out the door after the woman, her voice echoing through the stone hallway like a dozen clanging alarm bells. I flew past her and raced to the intersection of hallways where I spun around the corner that led to the stairs. I stopped in my tracks, however, as I was greeted by Leroc in a rumpled nightshirt and four guards at his back.

"Thief! She's a thief!" screamed Mrs. Bosoms from down the hall, and my eyes went wide as the soldiers leveled their swords at me. I looked back to Leroc. The vision of him stabbing the thief in the infirmary whirled before my eyes. I thought for a moment, and then gave the prince the most charming smile I could muster.

"I can explain..." I began, but I could have saved my breath. Leroc and his men were on me in an instant. I did manage to take two of them out though before I was arrested.

Chapter 12
All Dungeons Are The Same

If you've never been in a dungeon, let me describe one for you. Some are above ground, and some are subterranean. Some have bars, benches and chains, and some are just plain stone rooms with blank wall. But really, they are all pretty much the same. Cold, dark, and dank. There are always a couple of louse ridden residents who have been there for Zeus knows how long, and you can always find at least one obnoxious drunk who's been thrown in to stay overnight till the alcohol wears off.

The drunk in my cell was particularly obnoxious.

"So, 'Gabrielle' is it?"

Leroc's smooth voice reverberated off the stone walls, and I carefully turned away from the drunk to see the prince enter the dungeon beyond the barred area of the cell. I was almost glad to see the murderer. I had just finished threatening the particularly obnoxious -- and particularly large -- drunk with a nasty beating if his manners didn't improve. It was starting to look like we were both about to find out if I could deliver on my threats.

Leroc strode up to bars and clutched them to lean in close. "We haven't been able to find your partner in crime, but, rest assured, you and Xena will be together again soon."

"I have absolutely no doubt," I responded sincerely.

"It's too bad you had to miss my coronation this morning. It was a grand affair." He smiled at me widely.

"Was it worth killing your father for?" I asked in annoyance, trying to determine which was more objectionable; Leroc's grinning presence or the powerfully bad breath of one of my rotten-toothed cell-mates.

"I didn't kill my father. The old fool tripped and landed on his own dagger. That's what the investigation concluded," he said cavalierly.

"Yeah. Right," I responded under my breath.

"But it was just as well. My father was a weak king. He could never see the opportunities around him, and when he did he was too much of a coward to pursue them." He smiled at me again, "But now that I've finally been named king, all that will change." Then the smile descended and his face grew dark. "Starting today this kingdom will take what rightfully belongs to it!"

My eyes grew wide, and I finally noticed the flawless armor he wore, and the polished weapons at his side. "Today? What happens today?"

Leroc grinned at me maniacally. "There's a piece of beach to the south of this kingdom that my cowardly father turned over in negotiations with our neighbor. Now that I am king, I have the legal authority to declare war and so I have. I leave with my army before the hour is out to take the glory that is due me!" He shook his fist in the air in anticipated victory.

I furrowed my brow in consternation. "The beach by the village Pylor?" I asked. He smiled.

Xena and I had seen that beach on our journey to this kingdom. Xena had even commented on how well the geography of that particular piece of shore had been exploited by the forces protecting it. The beach was surrounded by cliffs, and the only possible approach for an attacking army was to march along the shoreline, and then charge directly up the cliffs. But with archers stationed on top, the attackers would be picked off like so much target practice.

"It'll be suicide!" I breathed.

"It'll be glorious!" Leroc roared. "My uncle was right! Once I pull off this victory that would be impossible for an ordinary man to accomplish, whole kingdoms will bow down at my feet!" Then Leroc stared at me with a cold heat in his eyes. "I've heard of the exploits of your Warrior Princess, before she gave up her army, and I've truly admired her accomplishments. But I'm going to make her reign of terror look like child's play!"

I shook my head slowly at his words and, in a voice merely a whisper from my emotion, I said, "You're crazy!"

"I'm visionary!" he shouted in return, and he stormed from the dungeon as the guard slammed the door shut behind him.

I stared at the closed door for just a moment, and then in frustration I rattled the bars before me. I looked up and around at the walls and the ceiling. Xena could get out of this prison, but I couldn't think of how she would do it. I turned and walked across the cage to sit down on a bench as far away from the most odoriferous occupants of the cell as I could manage. Once again the drunk began to size me up as helpless victim or possible opponent. I braced myself to wait for a rescue. Fortunately, I did not have to wait long.

The two heavy thuds of bodies hitting the other side of the dungeon door told me that Xena was nearby. And sure enough, the door promptly opened and my savior stepped in.

"Xena!" I shouted happily as I ran to the front of the cage. She rewarded me with a little smile, but quickly she put her index finger to her lips to request silence as she peered over her shoulder into the hallway beyond the dungeon.

My fellow inmates then all rushed to the front of the cell as well, and my personal foe, the drunk, shoved himself in front of me. More men elbowed their way in front of me and pretty soon I was standing behind them all, unable to see what was happening outside of the cell.

I jumped up a couple of times trying to see over the pack of men who blocked my view, but I had no luck. Then I heard the keys rattle in the lock, and I knew what was happening. The dozen men all surged forward as the cell door opened, and I followed to meet Xena outside the bar door. I began to follow the men as they raced from the dungeon, but Xena quickly grabbed my arm and yanked me in the other direction.

Just beyond the cells, there was a small window barricaded with a heavy wooden grate. Xena pulled me over to that window, and then I noticed the long length of rope looped over her shoulder. She took a running charge at the window, gave her war cry, and leaped into it. The sturdy wood splintered like toothpicks under her powerful kick, and quickly she was tying an end of the rope around one of the cell bars.

I jumped as I heard one of my former cell-mates scream from down the hallway. Then I heard the shouts and cries of soldiers as a battle began just past the dungeon door. Xena threw the rest of the rope out the window. She put her arm around my waist and lifted me up to the window ledge. This was all starting to feel very familiar.

As I collected my balance on the ledge, I felt my blood run cold as I tried to orient myself as to what side of the castle we were on. Xena joined me on the ledge, and with a feeling of complete and utter dread I peered over my shoulder to see what awaited me outside the window.

"Oh gods!" I shuddered as I wrapped my arms around Xena in fright. My intense dislike of heights overwhelmed me, and the crash of waves against the shore below combined with the screams of men down the hall to create a deafening roar inside my head.

"This'll be easy," Xena cooed softly into my hair, and immediately we were out the window.

With arms powerful enough to once again make me think that she was something more than mortal, Xena lowered us down the rope, hand over hand, as I clung desperately to her body. Then, as we neared the jagged rocks below, we both looked up at the shouts of soldiers above us. My heart jumped into my throat as a watched a guard lean out the window, and start to saw at our rope with a knife.

Instantly, Xena's right fist wrapped around the front of my shirt, and, one-handed, she hoisted me onto the tiniest ledge as I clutched at a little shrub that was growing out of the rock. Then, still holding on to the rope with her left hand, Xena disengaged her chakram from the clasp at her waist and whipped it up at the soldier. I peeked up just long enough to see the sparks as the round blade ricocheted off his metal helmet. The soldier fell back into the dungeon, and the knife flew from his hand to turn in lazy circles as it fell all the way down to the beach. Xena grabbed me again, and I moved my grip from the shrub to her armor. Then, once again, we were moving down the rope, though a little more quickly this time.

After an entire lifetime, we finally reached the bottom. The soldier that had been knocked away from the rope leaned back out the window to peer down at us. He cursed us mightily, and Xena retorted with a mocking laugh and a rude gesture. The she gave a self-satisfied look down the endless ribbon of beach lay before us. She whistled sharply and Argo quickly trotted out from behind some rocks to approach us. Xena gave the mare's muscular golden neck a pat, and she began to tighten the straps of the saddle.

I sucked in a great big lung-full of fresh salt air. The breath helped to erase the sickening smells of the dungeon from my memory, and then I took a second breath to celebrate the fact that I had made it to the bottom of the cliff alive. It was a good day to be alive, I thought. But then that thought brought on another one.

"War," I said.

Xena turned to look at me.

"War," I repeated more urgently. "Leroc went off with part of his army to fight a battle for the beach at Pylor."

"I know," Xena growled. "I'll head to the castle in that kingdom. The sooner I can get the message of the attack to their king, the sooner he can respond with reinforcements. Hopefully, with overwhelming odds Leroc's men will surrender before too many of them are killed."

The soldier above us continued to swear and I did my best to imitate the gesture I had seen Xena give. I grinned nastily as the soldier retreated from the window in anger. Then, to my utter horror, I noticed my little wooden figure dangling from the shrub I had clung to. Its glinting form bobbed back and forth in coastal winds, beckoning me to retrieve it.

I snapped my head in Xena's direction. She was adjusting some items in Argo's saddlebags. I knew she wouldn't understand.

I grabbed the rope that still dangled from the window above. I heaved myself up, my feet scrambling on the rocky cliff. I managed to move up the rope faster than I thought I could, and I was just out of Xena's reach when she finally noticed me.

"Gabrielle!" she called after me in concern. Then, when I figured she had noticed the object I was after, she repeated her call, but this time in a full-throated angry bellow. "GABRIELLE!"

I continued unabated up the cliff. My feet kicked down a shower of little -- and some not-so-little -- stones on my partner as I clambered up the cliff. Xena cursed me even more foully than the guard at the window, but I reached my goal and grabbed at the little trinket in triumph.

"Gabrielle, above you!"

Xena's warning immediately had my attention, if only because it interrupted the flow of oaths from her mouth. I looked up to see the guard poised on the ledge of the window with an ax over his head. I looked down below to the spear-like rocks directly under me, and I screamed in fright. With a "chop" from above the rope released and I fell.

My life passed before my eyes: the fights with my sister, making dinner with my mother, and showing Xena how to darn the holes in her shift. When I hit the ground, I was sure I was dead. The slicing pain in my chest, however, told me different. I opened my eyes.

"Are you okay?"

I looked up into Xena's blue eyes. The weight of her body was on top of me, and the soft sand was under my back. In between wheezes and gulps for air I groaned in response. Xena lifted herself off me and I carefully sat up, clutching at my sides in the belief that my every one of my ribs were broken. I groaned again, and then I noticed the little wooden figure in the sand an arm's length away. I darted my hand out and hauled the object in. I carefully checked it for damage and hurriedly tied it back around my neck.

"You're okay," I heard Xena say with a breath of relief. I looked up at her, wanting to apologize but not having the breath to do it. As I gasped due to the blow from being knocked away from the jagged rocks, Xena was apparently compelled to reach forward and give me a little hug.

"Xena...I..." I began, but the warrior only released me to grab me again, this time by my shirt, to bark a couple of choice words in my face for risking my life for a trinket. The tirade was halted, however, as a whizzing arrow sailed just past our heads. We looked up again to see the soldiers at the window with bows as they began to rain arrows down at us.

Xena and I scrambled over to Argo, and soon we were racing south down the beach on the golden war-horse. From the back of the saddle I clung to my warrior, and it wasn't long before we spotted the tracks of Leroc's army in the sand. I wondered how many of his men would survive to see the sun set that day, if any.

Chapter 13
To Catch a Murderer

We galloped along the bright beach. Then, to my surprise, Xena pulled her horse to a stop. I lifted my head from her back and saw an army off in the distance as they slowly approached us. Xena seemed to contemplate turning around and finding a way up the cliff to escape the men, but something about them, or the way they moved, must have piqued her curiosity, because she urged her horse forward and soon we were upon Leroc's army.

Xena's old friend Karolious lead the procession, and he halted the men at Xena's approach. I felt Xena stiffen sharply at some sight blocked from my view by her broad back, but Argo had stopped so I quickly dismounted.

Upon touching ground I looked up and spotted the sight that had caused Xena to tense. Draped across the back of a large black stallion was the dead body of Prince Leroc. The hilt of a dagger protruded from his back, and blood dripped from the curly-haired head that hung beside the horse's flank.

I walked over to the gruesome sight to get a better look.

"What happened?" I asked, as Xena and the men all stood in complete silence.

Karolious spoke up first. "He fell off his horse and landed on his own dagger." He paused for just a moment and then continued, "It was an accident."

My eyes went wide and I looked up at the rough, gray-bearded man. "He fell with his back into the dagger?" I asked in disbelief. It was ridiculous to think of the contortions that would have made such an injury possible.

Karolious looked at me with steady eyes. "Yes," he said.

"Did you SEE it happen?" I asked incredulously. He nodded slowly.

"Did YOU see it happen?" I asked another solder who stood nearby.

"I saw it happen," the soldier said resolutely. "He fell off his horse and landed on his own dagger."

I turned to another soldier. "And you?"

That soldier nodded at me as well, and when I turned to another man, he nodded too. I looked over to Xena, but she was silent and her face was unreadable. She got off her horse, and strode over to Karolious who then dismounted his horse as well. The two began to discuss the tide, and the quickest way to get the men up over the cliff and onto high ground.

In disbelief I looked from the body of Leroc, to the soldiers, to Xena and Karolious, and then to the deep blue sea. Gulls stalked the shore as they hunted down the small creatures that had been exposed by the tide. In the limitless sky above, other gulls soared high enough to disappear into tiny white dots; their high-altitude journeys motivated by what could only be the sheer pleasure of flight.

Xena stepped up to my side. We stood together, looking out over the rolling ocean. The wind whipped our hair around our shoulders, and we both squinted at the bright sunlight as it sparkled off the sea like divine glitter. Then I spoke.

"They shouldn't have done it, Xena. They shouldn't have just...stabbed him in the back like that."

Xena was quiet for a moment. She took a big breath and released it slowly. "They were scared, Gabrielle. He was leading them to their deaths for an unworthy cause."

"They could have refused to fight. Or surrendered before anyone got hurt." I responded. A tern dived to the sea and rose from the surface with a silvery fish in its talons. "They didn't have to kill him in cold blood."

"And then they would have been imprisoned or maybe even executed for refusing to follow orders. Or Leroc might have sent them into another battle where they would have had to kill unarmed people," Xena said softly.

I shook my head angrily. "There must have been another way," I said, and Xena fell quiet again.

Then she turned her head to look at me, and I turned mine to gaze up into her intoxicating eyes that were bluer than the whole sea spread before us. "But sometimes there is no other way," she said. "Sometimes, there are no good options, Gabrielle. Just a selection of bad ones. And the best that you can do is try to pick the option that's the least terrible."

I looked back out over the water and I closed my eyes against the sunlight. I tried to think about what Xena had said, but it wasn't making a lot of sense to me. The soldiers may have been trying to save their lives by killing Leroc, but the dagger in the man's heart made it clear that they had also decided to execute him for the murder of King Croman. I, too, was certain that Leroc had committed the murder, but if we had no real proof he had committed the crime, then it was death without laws and without a fair trial. It was a death without justice. Like the thief's death in the infirmary.

I felt Xena's hand fall on my shoulder, and I lifted my own hand to rest my fingers on hers. She gripped my hand tightly. I returned the hold.

I closed my eyes again to feel the sun on my face, and to hear the crash of the waves and the cries of the sea birds. It was a good day to be alive. I guess Leroc's soldiers felt the same way about that as I did. And maybe it was just as simple as that.

"Xena," I said, turning to the warrior, "I can forgive a man who makes a mistake trying to protect himself."

Then, as Xena watched, I pulled the little trinket out from around neck and untied the band. I gave the statue one last look, and then I tucked it into my fist. That's all it was now, just a trinket.

Xena smiled. And for a moment I saw the wall that she hid her emotions behind crack. This warrior before me had taken the lives of countless men. So many that a "clean kill," a kill done for self defense against a well-matched opponent, couldn't even move her anymore. But through me, she could still experience that pain of taking another life, even in a clean kill. Buried behind that wall was the guilt, the rage, and that darkness in her soul that scratched and clawed for freedom, but also behind that wall was her vulnerability, and as her vulnerability peered back at me through that crack, I saw that it had my face.

Then Xena and I both turned as a soldier called out a warning at the approach of others. We watched as two men on horseback came riding along the beach, approaching from the direction of the castle. As the men came closer I could make them out to be a soldier and Leroc's uncle, Magnus. Apparently, one of the men had been sent to deliver the news of Leroc's death to the castle.

"At attention, men," Karolious said to his soldiers. "Our new king approaches."

The soldiers stiffened and quickly Magnus arrived. He immediately dismounted and strode over to the body. The pain on his face was clearly apparent as he saw the sight. Right away I felt deep pity for the man. Leroc might have been a madman, but he was still Magnus' nephew, and Magnus obviously had some fondness for the prince.

Magnus buried his face into the body and began to weep pitifully. The soldiers all backed away uncomfortably, and Xena and Karolious stepped away to leave the man in his grief. But his pain was too much for me to bear, so I went over to him to put an arm around his shoulder to console him.

"Why? Why?" he asked me pleadingly. "He was such a smart young man, with a good family. Why did he have to turn out so bad?"

"I don't know," I choked in reply, as tears welled up in my eyes for his loss.

Magnus pulled himself away from the body and began to mop his face with his sleeve. He struggled to pull himself together, and then he turned to Karolious. "It wouldn't be dignified for the king to arrive at the castle draped over his horse like a common piece of merchandise. Have the men build a litter."

Karolious nodded and began to order his men around for the construction. Magnus turned to the body, and drew a dagger from his clothes to cut the ropes that held Leroc to the horse. And as I watched Magnus, I noticed that the dagger he held had a broken tip.

The significance of the damage to the blade suddenly hit me. My eyes widened in shock as I stared at King Croman's brother. He caught my gaze, and to my surprise I noticed that his eyes were the same cold, hard gray that Leroc's had been.

The look on my face must have told Magnus exactly what I was thinking, because suddenly Magnus' expression turned cold, and he unceremoniously yanked the body off the saddle. I took a quick breath and hastily composed myself, but it was too late. Those piercing gray eyes were already boring into my soul, reading the thoughts that spilled into my mind: That he had tried to hire an assassin to kill Croman. And he had talked Leroc into attacking that piece of beach, knowing the prince would be killed in battle or murdered by his own men. That he had murdered his own brother. And that he had did it all so he would be king.

I slowly began to back away from Magnus, but he leapt upon me like a panther on its prey. I tried to beat him off, but I didn't have my staff and he wasn't just another ruffian who could be easily thrown. He was a trained fighter, he was very strong, and he had that broken-tipped dagger shoved in front of my face.

"Shut up!" he snarled. And I froze as the sunlight glinted off the blade before me.

Xena and the soldiers were already some distance down the beach, trying to find decent pieces of wood from the broken timbers that were scattered along the shore. I saw Magnus contemplate his options for a moment. I knew he was the murderer, and I had to be silenced. He could kill me here, in front of witnesses, or he could kill me somewhere else, and think up a plan later.

"Get on the horse!" he growled at me, and he stuck the tip of the dagger into my left breast, just over my heart. I startled as the broken blade scratched my skin. Once again I saw the thief being stabbed to death in the infirmary, and then I pictured Magnus driving his blade into the chest of his own brother. I climbed onto the horse. Magnus clambered up the saddle behind me, and before I knew it, we were racing down the beach on the slick, black stallion.

Things happened very fast after that. I held onto the saddle horn for dear life as Magnus kept his blade pointed at my gut. I couldn't see what was happening behind me, but I heard the sound of a second set of hoof-beats as they approached. Suddenly, there was a flash of metal and I saw the dagger in Magnus hand knocked from his grip by Xena's chakram.

Then I felt Magnus being torn out of the saddle behind me. He almost dragged me off as well, but I managed to hang on. A riderless Argo came up beside me, and I quickly grabbed the reins of the black stallion and pulled the horse to a stop.

I jumped off the beast, and spun around to see Xena and Magnus rolling around in the surf in a deadly fight. Xena finally got the upper hand and with one...two...three powerful blows to his jaw, King Magnus' body went limp, and Xena stood up over his unconscious form.

Chapter 14
It's Good To Be Alive

We stuck around at the castle for two more days after that so we could attend the coronation of the good Queen Lenore. With all of the male heirs to the royal throne dead or imprisoned, it fell upon her shoulders to rule the kingdom.

After the ceremony Xena and I went back to our little room to pack up our belongings.

"I was sure that Leroc had killed King Croman," I told Xena as I folded her freshly laundered white shift and packed it in the saddlebag.

"So was I. If you hadn't spotted the broken tip on Magnus' dagger, no one would have known Magnus committed the murder," Xena responded, rubbing some of the salt from the sea spray out of her armor before readjusting it on her body.

"Yeah, about that dagger..." I said dangerously as I stepped over to the warrior. She raised an eyebrow at my tone. "...the dagger you were going to dangle me over a pit of human filth to retrieve."

"Well...I..." Xena began, backing away from my ominous approach.

"A dark, dank, disgusting hole filled with sh...."

"Let me see if I can talk the cook into giving us some sweet cakes for the road," Xena said quickly. "I'll be right back." She smiled brightly at me and swiftly fled the room.

There was one last thing that needed to be taken care of before we left, so after Xena departed, I went to find Lenore.

I stepped around the corner and spotted the soldiers who guarded the stairway to the royal suites. My mind began to turn with strategies to get past them. I came up with a quick story about an urgent message from Karolious for the queen, and I squared my shoulders to approach the men with solid determination. But I didn't need to say a word. As I stepped up to the men, they both smiled at me and waved me past.

I went up the stairway and followed the wide hall to Croman's quarters, now Lenore's, and I knocked on the massive wooden door. Lo and behold, who would greet me but Mrs. Bosoms-Out-To-Here herself.

"You!" she barked, and her little blue eyes narrowed to tiny slits.

"I've got an urgent message for the queen from the captain of the guard, Karolious," I said with a completely straight face as I eyed the woman seriously. In response her hand darted out to grab the front of my shirt, and with surprising strength she yanked me down to her face.

"You might be a hero around here, girlie; but you lied to me, you tricked me, and you scared me half to death with your stories about assassins," she snarled into my face.

"Yes...well..." I sputtered as I attempted to pry her fingers from my blouse, but they held like metal talons.

"But you also found the King's killer, and helped Lenore become ruler instead of her nut brother." Then her voice cracked unexpectantly. "Thank you!" she exclaimed, and she threw her large arms around my neck to give me a huge hug. I found myself trapped in her grateful embrace, her hold pinning my face into her enormous bosom. I was overcome by the gratitude, the friendliness, and the lack of oxygen. Of all the potential deaths I had faced on my adventures with Xena -- burning at the stake, falling to my death, getting my throat cut -- suffocation by a pair of breasts was a new one.

When she finally released me I staggered back and gulped for air. I leaned against my staff, and through my dizziness I watched Lenore step up to us.

"Gabrielle," the queen said. I tried to speak, but I needed to catch my breath. At first, Lenore looked surprised to see me, but then her gaze turned cold. "I don't want to talk to you, or your friend," she said flatly.

She turned on her heel to walk away, and disappointment began to flood through me. Then, however, Mrs. B's hand darted out to grab the girl by the arm. She unceremoniously yanked the young woman back and turned her around to face us.

"Now listen here, missy!" the short woman growled as she shook a stubby finger in Lenore's face. "That's no way to treat someone who just saved your royal butt. You owe this girl and her friend a lot." The queen dutifully lowered her eyes at the admonishment. "Now I think you ought to be friendly and invite the girl in." Then, the realization of who she was talking to seemed to strike the short woman, and she did a little curtsy. "My Queen," she added warily.

Lenore nodded to the woman, and gestured me into the room. I stepped in and Mrs. B. began to leave, but just before she closed the door she eyed the queen sternly.

"But don't get TOO friendly," she warned. The lady lifted a suspicious eyebrow in my direction and then looked back to Lenore. "She is an Amazon, you know. Doesn't like men," and with that, Mrs. Bosoms-Out-To-Here left.

I gritted my teeth in irritation, but I was in. Lenore stood before me in the fine purple gown she had donned for the coronation. Its silver embroidery reflected the color and shine of her eyes, and her milky white skin stood out against the dark royal color of the dress. Her black hair was pulled up and back, and silky tendrils curled down around her face.

"I...I wanted to say good-bye," I stammered uncomfortably. It wasn't the real reason I was there.

"Good-bye...and thank you," she said. Then the cool expression on her face was broken by a gentle smile. I took the little gesture of friendship as an opening and began with my real purpose for being there.

"I bet Xena would like to say good-bye to you too." The little smile faded, but I plowed ahead anyway. "Shall I bring her up?"

There was a pause as I expectantly leaned toward the door, and the princess eyed me warily.

"Gabrielle..." she began.

"Look," I interrupted, "I know...I know Xena disappointed you. What she did...the things she did in her past were terrible." I stepped up to the lovely woman. "You were young, and you looked up to Xena. When she turned into just another evil warlord, that must have hurt you a great deal." In her eyes I saw the young woman begin to emotionally retreat from me. I put a hand on her arm to draw her back. "Believe me when I tell you that she is truly sorry for what she has done."

The new queen pulled away from me and turned to step across the room. I decided to take a different tack.

"You're a queen now, Lenore." The girl paused at my words. "As queen, one of the most important qualities you'll have to learn is mercy."

The woman squared her shoulders and turned to face me. She was taking her new role as ruler of this country very seriously, and I could use that to my advantage.

"A good queen is strong and consistent, but she knows when forgiveness will accomplish more than animosity. And a good queen knows a potential ally when she sees one."

Those gray eyes bored into me as the girl contemplated my words. Then I saw her soften, and she took a little step toward me.

"I don't know if I can forgive her yet," Lenore said, and suddenly I saw the fifteen-year-old girl with the broken heart. I moved to stand in front of her.

"You don't have to forgive her today, tomorrow, or even in another ten years. But she's here now, and you do have to talk to her. That way, forgiveness will still be a possibility someday."

It took a little more talking, but not much. I led Queen Lenore down to our room to wait for Xena, and when the Warrior Princess opened the door of our little room, fondness filled Xena's eyes at the sight of the young queen. I knew forgiveness wouldn't be far away.

I stepped out of the room to leave the two women to talk, and I walked toward to the courtyard for a little stroll. I passed two more soldiers in the hallway, both of the whom smiled at me. One of them turned to follow me out of the castle, and I stopped to hear what he had to say.

"Ms. Gabrielle. I was at the beach when Magnus had you, and you dropped this." He held his hand forth, and on his palm rested the little wooden figure of a woman, still on its string.

"Oh," I said, a little surprised. I had sort of forgotten about that necklace. I picked it up and gave it a look over.

"She's very pretty," the soldier said, and I looked up to see him blush at his own remark. Well, I suppose she did look naked.

"Do you like her?" I asked. He nodded bashfully. I handed it back to him. "Then keep her. She's yours."

The young soldier looked at me, and then grinned. He wrapped his palm around the token, nodded to me in thanks, and strode back to his partner.

I continued on my stroll to the courtyard where I could enjoy the weather. The sky was a beautiful blue with big, fluffy white clouds, and the temperature was perfect. Two children laughed as they played with a ball on the grass, and the sun shown down upon us all with tremendous graciousness.

It was a good day to be alive.

The End.

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