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ORIGINS

Chapters 31 - 33

By M. Parnell
Copyright 1997

 

Chapter 31

 

"Sweet Gabrielle." The voice was unmistakable. Gabrielle forced herself to stop and wait, when every instinct told her to flee. Callisto sauntered up, smiling, hands at her side. "So good to see you dear. You look so good out of that bitch's shadow." She pulled a blossom from a nearby tree, stole a glance at Xena, who watched the scene from the window of Cletus' study, and handed the flower to Gabrielle. "I think we might even be friends, now that you're no longer with her." A smirk played on Gabrielle's lips. "I know, you're thinking about poor Perdicus," Callisto guessed. "You have only yourself to blame for him, you know. And me, a little," she conceded. "But you were the one who chose to be friends with Xena," she chided.

Gabrielle, sniffed the blossom, swallowing the bile that rose in her throat at Callisto's words. "I thought you were going to enjoy spending time with your sister; what happened?" she asked the blonde warrior.

"Xena happened," came the venomous reply. "Insatiable. I guess you know that," she giggled. "She wants Daddy to make her regent." She laughed. "Xena. Running a kingdom. He said no, and she didn't like it one bit." Her face turned sour. "She'll find another way," she predicted. "She'll sleep her way to power, with that bard. Does it make you happy that you left Xena with a taste for literature?" She laughed again, at her own wit.

Gabrielle gave her a token scowl, it would be expected, but she was thinking hard. What Callisto said might explain Drusander, she thought. She immediately wondered if she was being too quick to find an explanation, to make the thought of Xena and Drusander being together less painful. She hadn't expected Xena to want power in Prestia; she had seemed anxious to shake the dust from her boots and leave the place. But Gabrielle had to admit Xena had become something of a puzzle to her. Xena had, after all, agreed to be publicly acknowledged by Cletus. Princess Xena. She shook her head. Princess Callisto, she smiled ruefully, standing here before her. She turned her attention back to the woman, still unable to see any similarity to Xena.

"I wonder how Drusander likes my decorative skills," she was saying. "I'm sorry you'll never see it dear. I managed to catch Xena at a bad moment." She savored the memory. "I seared my mark into her forever. Painfully. When she was conscious again, my little surprise seemed to upset her for a moment. But you know our Xena; she accepted it like all of life's other bruises, and moved on." She cast a knowing glance at Gabrielle. The bard didn't want to hear anymore. She had guessed at the origin of the scar; hearing Callisto talk of it with glee was unbearable.

"Callisto, she's not 'our' Xena; she's yours. She belongs to you and Cletus and Teremon. And Drusander if he wants her. I don't want to hear about her anymore." Her conviction

seemed to satisfy Callisto, who spoke now as to an ally. "I always wondered how you could stomach her; welcome to the rest of the world, Gabrielle," she said softly, reaching a hand to gently coil a strand of her hair. "I think Cletus is catching on to what she's really like. I hope Drusander understands, before it's too late; and Teremon. I don't think he liked hearing about Cirra; if he knew she left her own son to be raised by centaurs, maybe little brother will stop thinking she's Warrior-Wonderful." Gabrielle heard the jealousy in Callisto's voice. Sibling rivalry. It would be safer for Teremon if he didn't like Xena, she decided, or at least liked Callisto more. "Callisto, can't you talk about anything else?" she demanded.

That stumped the warrior. What else is there to talk about, to think about, she wanted to say, but knew somehow that that was not an okay answer. She waved a coy farewell to Gabrielle, and strolled along the shady path through the gardens.

In the study, Xena's fingers left her chakram. Damn the Amazons, she thought. It wouldn't make things easier having them around.

 

Sunlight came in through the chambered windows, catching particles of dust in its rays.

Delia seemed pleased to see Gabrielle again, more than little astonished with the news she'd heard that she was, in fact Princess Gabrielle, and an Amazon guard waited in the street for her. "Fancy royalty sleeping on a pallet in my bedrooms," she marveled, setting a cup of cool juice at Gabrielle's elbow. "Fancy you coming back to see me after the way we spoke of your friend. And Xena turning out to be a princess of the realm!" She shook her head in disbelief.

Gabrielle's first purpose in her visit was to ask after the still-recovering Woody. He sat on a cushioned chair under the windows, still looking peaky, a long scar running around his neck, where Filxon had slit his throat. His other scars were hidden by his shirt. He was healing, he assured her, but still chuckled over his own stupidity at doubting the judgement of the Warrior Princess. "How is Xena?" he asked. "Arcus said she took a nasty jab in the thigh. Sounds like things were a right mess out there."

"She's healing," Gabrielle assured him. "How is Arcus? And Barrus?"

"Back on duty," he said proudly.

"Arcus said he'd be in for an early supper. You can see him if you stay a bit," Delia put in.

"I'd like that," she replied, and so, an hour later she sat in the courtyard of the cottage, sipping her juice , while Arcus quaffed strong ale.

"I just want to know about Xena," she said directly. Arcus knew there was no malice in the girl, but considered his response in light of his first loyalties, in this order: King and country, and the heirs of the King. He would die for Cletus and Prestia. Teremon was on that list, and Xena had joined them. He felt a second loyalty to Xena as a respected comrade in arms. "Your Highness," he began deferentially.

"Gabrielle will do," she said and he smiled.

That's how Xena answered, he told her; 'Xena will do'. "Look, I know you were great friends once, and you still care for her, but I can't speak of her behind her back."

"I respect that, Arcus, and I'm glad she has a friend like you, but I'm just asking how she is," Gabrielle pointed out, sincerely. "Say 'she's fine', or 'not well', or tell me if she needs anything. That's all. How can that harm her?"

He couldn't argue with her logic. She counted on that. "Xena's all right. That leg wound doesn't look like its healing, but she won't do anything about it. Says she's got too much to do. Seems to me like she should be on vacation. She certainly earned it, but she can't sit still. If she isn't walking around the city, 'getting a feel for things', she says, then she's asking a pack of questions about the army, the castle defenses, the troops at the border. She rousted the mounted troops from breakfast for a surprise inspection." Her laughed at her cheek. "No one argued. Warrior Princess is an impressive title, coupled with Peer of the Realm. She has an aura around her men recognize."

Some women, too, Gabrielle mused.

"You feel, with her, you could never lose. Something of a cachet in being under her command. She's won the troops over. Astonishing to think they'd ever snap to for the Doom of Cirra." He opened his mouth to apologize for the gaffe, but Gabrielle had moved past it eager to know more.

"Is she happy?" That stumped him; he knew the answer, but how to say it, without making it a betrayal. "I can't say, Gabrielle. I know I've never seen her smile, a real smile, or laugh; but I don't know if she does those things."

Oh, she does, Gabrielle thought. More often than people would believe. "Well, then, Arcus, she's not happy."

"No, I didn't think so," he said, relaxing a bit. He had sensed a lot of the feeling these two women shared, didn't believe that Xena felt anything close to that for Drusander.

"Arcus, I can't stay here forever; would you do something for me? If Xena ever needs me, even if she doesn't know it, would you send word?" She spoke from the depth of her heart; the soldier nodded, and responded in kind. "I wish she was leaving with you; this place is no good for her."

 

Radec looked on Glaucon's handiwork, Balceres/Krykon, dressed in garments worthy of his soon-to-be estate. The younger man disdainfully sniffed at a sleeve, anxious to demonstrate superiority over these two useful commoners. The gesture was not lost on the two men. They passed a quiet smile. This lowlife they'd plucked one step short of the gutter actually believed he had some status here? They were in the rooms Glaucon had hired at the Inn of the Four Gardens, preparing for the all-important audience with Cletus.

"Your father will be impressed, Krykon," Radec said, playing the sycophant. "Just remember, whatever he says about the little boy, don't get testy. He hasn't any support in law to name Teremon successor, and he'll have to accede to your claim. Just don't make it difficult for him. Promise you'll take care of the boy, promise to name Teremon your successor. We'll take care of him once you're secure."

"I do understand," Radec," he said with thinly-veiled contempt. "I cut my teeth on royal intrigues." Which, I suppose, explains how you ended up making a living by cheating people in taverns, Radec thought. What he said was: "Of course. Royal blood tells. Just follow my lead," he warned, "or the hand is more difficult to play."

 

"Xena, I've never seen you smile." Drusander held her face in his hands and sighed. She moved her mouth in imitation of a smile, and both knew it was only that. "No," he admonished her, "a smile." He demonstrated, showing his real pleasure at having her in his bed, in his arms, at his side whenever he could find her. Or the time to be with her. Learning the inner workings of Prestia was not a part-time task.

Xena lay with her head on his shoulder, thinking of the things she should be attending to, regretting her ill-considered decision to join him this afternoon. At least it was highly visible, she consoled herself. Everyone in the castle knew where Drusander spent his nights, and at least one afternoon. Now he wanted a smile, too. "I'm sorry," she managed,

"just a little pain." That, at least, was true enough. She sat up, keeping a part of the sheet over her legs, wanting not to see the scar, slapping his hand away when he tried to look. "Leave it," she said. "I have a lot to do."

 

She dressed quickly, reviewing ideas in her mind, Drusander all but forgotten. She had felt all day as if the first thunder clap of a storm was about to break. As she entered the courtyard, one of the guards approached her quietly. "Xena," he began, using the name she preferred over a title, "Radec's just entered. There's someone with him."

"Good man, Lendor," she said. She knew most of the guardsmen by name. Those she didn't know were working overtime to come to her attention. She fairly flew up the stairs, although, oddly, she seemed not to be hurrying. She arrived a few moments before Radec and his contender were ushered in. They found her lounging on a bench under the window, apparently having a chat with her father, the king.

Krykon took her in as he entered the room, and bit hard to avoid the curses that sprang to his lips. Radec forced himself through the preliminaries, wondering at Xena's presence in the room, and at the eye contact that had passed between her and Krykon. Something was wrong, and he didn't know what it was. Blast the woman! She always seemed to have the advantage. Someday he would wipe that superior grin off her face, he promised. He'd see her sweating blood in the dungeon before long.

"Your Highness," he said, with a deferential bow. She indicated her half-brother. "You said he's Krykon. That would make me his older sister. I'm Princess Xena, Krykon," she said, lazily, not bothering to rise. She examined him as if wondering for all the world what sort of creature he might be, yet understanding why he had seemed so familiar in Brinnia. She could see herself, in his features.

She had stolen Radec's thunder. "You seem to know all my secrets, Highness," the First Minister said.

Her lips moved in a slow grin. "Father and I have no secrets from each other," she told him. Cletus listened as if in a fog. She had never called him father before. Would barely acknowledge that he was her father; now in sight of Radec and this stranger, she acknowledged him. Why? The dreams he had of his children were fast-fading. Radec thrust something before him: proof that this man was who he said he was, Krykon, the son of Ghirella. That would make him my son. He looked at him with little interest, then felt ashamed that he would be so toward his own flesh, and embraced him. "Welcome home, my dear son."

Radec stepped in with a polite cough. "I know you will agree that we are fortunate that Krykon showed up when he did. Before you made any rash announcements concerning the succession."

Xena held her grin, dividing her glances among the three men. Krykon wanting to wring her neck, Radec squirming as he tried to figure what she was up to, and Cletus, writhing under the weight of paternal responsibility. There is a price to be paid for everything, she mused. She wasn't surprised that Radec was willing to hold off on a public announcement of Krykon's existence, or that he would stay in quarters outside the castle until then. Krykon didn't seem happy about it, but he would do as his minders said, she had no doubt. He couldn't be trusted here, and it wouldn't do to make his connection to Radec too obvious, by say, housing him in the headquarters of the Security Forces. People had been very obliging, so far, she observed contentedly, doing as they were expected.

"Still holding out for Teremon?" Xena asked Cletus when the two had gone.

"Xena it will be Teremon," he said with quiet insistence. "I'll deal with Radec."

"No you won't," she said, you'll do just what I expect, she thought wearily, and then I get what I want.

 

"You've met." Radec's tone was nearly as insolent as Xena's look had been, Krykon decided. He looked away from Radec's glare, as they rode along the street together.

"She was rude to me in a bar. How was I to know the slut wasn't for hire?"

Radec didn't believe the lie, thought it was laughable. He would find out the truth in his own way he decided.

 

Gabrielle caught her as she made her way to the stables. She reached out to grab her arm then pulled her hand back. "Xena?" she asked tentatively. Xena had known she was approaching , and stopped reluctantly at her voice.

"Yeah, Gabrielle, what is it?" she said impatiently. Xena was often impatient when something was on her mind. This was a big something, Gabrielle decided, from the rock hard muscles in her jaw, the scowl on her face, the soft explosion of air which escaped with her words. Unless it was pain. "I just wanted to say hello," the bard smiled. "It seems silly that we're living under the same roof, so to speak, and can't even say hello."

Xena eyed her warily. "I know I said I'd stay away, and believe me, I won't try and seduce you," she said blushing, "but, for Zeus' sake Xena, we spent part of our lives together. I still care about you. As a person," she stressed. "I still think of you as a friend.

Can't I even say hello? If we can pass the time of day with Callisto, we can certainly say hello to each other." Except it's easier to get over hate than love, Gabrielle told herself.

Xena pulled herself back from Radec and Krykon and looked at Gabrielle, wondering why she was smiling at her. "Gabrielle, after everything...How can you want to be near me?"

The green eyes were warm, inviting. "I still like you Xena; I can't turn that on and off."

Meaning that I can, Xena, mused. She started walking again, not bothering to cover for the limp; no one in Prestia could have missed it she thought. It did seem worse than usual at this moment. Gabrielle moved quickly to keep pace. "Are you checking on Argo?" she guessed. "I brought her some apples." It was true; she had plucked them from the nearest tree when she saw Xena headed to the stables. Xena didn't answer, but went directly to Argo's stall, her face relaxing for the first time, her voice dropping into the lower registers Gabrielle so loved. Argo paid special attention to Gabrielle, even before the apples were offered. Those she took with a satisfied nicker, as if they were her due. "I've missed you Argo," Gabrielle whispered, and heard a sharp intake of breath from Xena as she rose suddenly from her examination of a rear hoof. Gabrielle let it pass.

"How long are you, I mean the Amazons, staying on?" Xena asked abruptly.

I don't know," she said truthfully. "Until the treaties are negotiated, and trade arrangements are made." All of which , she knew, would be concluded rather soon. "Things are changing here, in Prestia," she ventured. "I think it has Ephiny worried."

"Changed?" That got the reaction from Xena that Gabrielle wanted. It was one word, but she was looking at Gabrielle now. "Some Amazons, Hela, Ritessa and Ophena took a stroll to the river, through the old section, and were taunted by those men who wear brown. There were words scrawled on the walls, as well, about, um, certain Amazon ways of living."

"I've missed those," Xena said with self-reproach, not a little angry.

"The words weren't there on their walk out, just on the return." The implication was that Radec's men had been responsible. One way of clearing them from the castle before he made his move. Xena's eyes were still cold, but no longer empty. They were calculating fast.

"Ephiny filed no protest?"

"I think she had a battle with Eponin over that. And Solari. They wanted to go bust heads." So do I, Xena thought." But Ephiny wants no trouble. She just asked us to stay close to the castle."

"Do as she says," Xena said as if putting the topic behind her. She was combing Argo vigorously, the strong muscles along her back and shoulders moving under the soft skin. The effect was almost hypnotic. For a long time they were silent, then Xena neared the end of her chore, and Gabrielle remembered to speak again. "I was surprised when Cletus announced about you being his daughter." Xena didn't reply, but her body tensed, waiting for the rest of the Bard's words. "It just didn't seem like you, to be so - public."

Still no reply. "I thought you just wanted to leave Prestia."

"Well, I changed my mind, Gabrielle. Is that all right?" she asked testily. "I don't want to leave Prestia just yet, I like it here."

"New army to play with, huh? I saw you drilling them," she explained as blue ice-chips fixed on her. "I never noticed how dark your eyes look, sometimes," she said, determining not to be intimidated. Xena collected the grooming tools, her back to Gabrielle, wondering how much the woman had guessed. Danger emanated from that innocent girl, the green eyes saw things...She could undo everything. She wondered what Callisto had told her.

Gabrielle's instincts told her that somehow, she had gone to far. Her probing had made her something of a threat in Xena's eyes. This was a new feeling for her, to be a threat to Xena. She backed off. "I'm glad you decided to stay for a bit Xena," she said looking for something to say. "Maybe you and Cletus can -" wrong thing to say, she realized. "Or not," she smiled. "Anyway, I hope I see you again." She made a hasty exit. Xena made no move to follow.

 

Chapter 32

 

Xena's appearance in Ephiny's quarters was unexpected. The Amazon Queen greeted her with friendly informality, and listened cautiously to the carefully worded request. First came the apology: "I hear that Amazons have been treated with disrespect in Prestia. That shames my entire kingdom. I give you my apology, and assure you that it will be addressed."

Ephiny nodded her acceptance, but pointed out: "The people of Prestia have been warm and hospitable, Xena. There are louts found everywhere. They can't all be shut up."

Xena's lips stretched in a humorless grin. "True, but the apology stands, and I'd like to offer a further token of good will." Ephiny inclined her head with interest. "Let me take a group of Amazons to experience first hand the other side of Prestia."

"What did you have in mind," Ephiny asked suspiciously.

"A stroll through the town, dinner at a local inn, a taste of Prestia's best. Whatever else offers itself. I haven't had a full purse since I've known you Ephiny. I'd like to repay some of the hospitality I've been shown by the Amazon Nation."

"Who did you have in mind," was the next question.

"Eponin, certainly. Solari, if she can stop glaring at me long enough. I think they would best know who else might enjoy the evening. Oh," she added as an after thought, "Hela, Ritessa, and Ophena."

Ephiny understood the proposal for what it was, and considered carefully, sharing Xena's anger, knowing it would make a statement to the women under her command. They had felt the insult as a slap in the face to the nation, and were not happy with Ephiny's judicious non-response. "When are we leaving?" she asked.

"Sorry, Ephiny. I think the Queen should avoid late night revels, in public places, anyway. You have a reputation to maintain."

"You're a princess, Xena. You have your own reputation to maintain."

"That's just what I'm doing, Ephiny," she said with a broad grin.

 

In the end, Eponin had to command a host of Amazons to stay behind.

The stroll became a tour of the city. Xena seemed anxious to cover every inch of the city, and in every street and alleyway the people watched with smug satisfaction as brown-clad bullies retreated into doorways, or ducked around corners, rather than face the steady gaze of the Warrior Princess. These women were certainly not in a mood to turn the other cheek. At one corner a girl stepped away from her cart, and handed Xena a bunch of flowers. She recognized the girl as the one whose cart had been upset in the road. "Gods be with you, Xena," she whispered, as she stood on her toes to plant a quick kiss on her cheek. Several Amazons giggled at Xena's startled reaction. Eponin and Solari exchanged knowing glances.

 

They were thirsty and hungry when they entered the Inn of the Four Gardens. The public rooms of the inn were crowded. One corner of the inn was dark with brown-shirts over muscled shoulders. They looked up from their cups when Xena stepped into the room, their eyes wide with surprise at the sight of so many Amazons behind her. The room fell silent as the patrons watched the power of the room center on the tall warrior and her friends. Radec's forces shrank to insignificance.

The innkeeper hurried over, seeing profit in this new group. "Have you room for fifteen. We need supper." Xena asked loudly enough to be heard. He weighed his options: roust the brown-clad men who parted with few Prestian dinars in the hours they occupied a table, risking trouble down the road? Or turn away the Princess, and her hungry friends?

He settled on profit, and the sentiments of his patrons. The Princess was often spoken of, in the absence of Radec's men, toasts were raised to her health. "Drinking only, stand at the bar," he announced, and moved to usher the women to the newly cleared spaces at table.

"Could you have the chairs wiped off," Xena drawled, getting the attention of the sullen, displaced men.

"Yeah," and open a window, Solari added, following Xena's lead. The patrons had watched the proceedings with interest. When the last of Radec's men had left, slamming the door behind him, soft calls of greeting to Xena were raised. Someone rose and drank to the Amazon nation. Xena recognized him as a member of the King's Advisory Council of Citizens. So far, so good, Xena smiled, raising her own cup for the first of many times that evening. Soon the room was loud with music and laughter, muted only when the group tucked into the platters of food which seemed to never stop coming. Xena kept a close watch on the group, particularly the younger women. "Tonight is not the time to empty the jug," she warned. "It's a long walk back."

The merry sounds were not what Glaucon expected when he arrived for his dinner with Krykon. He looked in vain for his allies; in their usual place sat the Warrior Princess, Xena, with a horde of Amazons. He spied Krykon in a dark corner, his eyes throwing daggers at his royal sister. "I expected this establishment would keep the riff-raff out," he said softly, as Glaucon approached.

"We can eat in your rooms," the other man responded.

"Those harlots won't dictate where I take my meals," he insisted. "What news do you have," he demanded. "When is the announcement to come?"

Glaucon paused to sniff air into his lungs through his mouth. His face still bore the black, blue and red of heavy bruising around his eyes and nose. "In time, Krykon, in time." Glaucon tried to hide his annoyance, but the man bothered him. He'd learn when he was king who held the power. The door opened and Krykon's face suddenly changed. Glaucon watched with interest. What could the merchant, Salmoneus, have to do with Krykon? "I think maybe we should sup in my rooms," Krykon decided. Too late. Salmoneus was making his way through the crowded room, intent on his own thoughts, until he passed Krykon's table. He stopped and seemed to rack his brain for a name, then pointed a finger, and said in his characteristically loud voice: "You. Balceres? Did they finally run you out of Brinnia? Caught cheating too many times, huh?" Glaucon glared, but the entrepreneur focused on sturgeon roe, and dinars, and forged ahead. "Well, Prestians are pretty savvy, don't try anything here," he cautioned. The room was paying close attention now. Cheating? More than one eyebrow raised. Glaucon's eyes moved from Salmoneus to Krykon, knowing how much rested on this response.

"Who are you?" he asked with disdain. "I've never seen you before."

"You took half my purse before you were found out," Salmoneus insisted, moving his gaze now to include the entire room. "Brinnia, just a few weeks back?"

"I've never been to Brinnia," Krykon maintained, speaking calmly, with the air of an innocent, or of a liar with much experience.

"Are you calling my friend a liar?" The husky voice carried across the room. Xena's frame slowly raised itself to its full height, and the room was hers.

Glaucon shrank in his seat, knowing his interference would not help.

"I'm saying he's mistaken," Krykon persisted in his lie, even knowing the outcome was no longer in doubt.

"Well I don't make mistakes," she announced, as she strode toward the encounter. "And I saw you in Brinnia, too. You must remember me," she urged. "I'm the one who threw you out on your rump." She laughed, and the room joined her. "Thanks for the warning Salmoneus." She patted his shoulder, and sent him across the room. The innkeeper was staring at Krykon, disgust evident on his face. "A lot of my patrons have lost to you at dies," he remembered. "Like me," came a voice from the far end of the room; "And me," came another.

"What name do you use here, little brother?" Xena asked. "Balceres, or Krykon?" She looked at the crowd with an embarrassed grin. "Yes," she confirmed, "another little bastard. All the chickens have come home to roost."

Glaucon could have killed Krykon on the spot. How stupid! How greedy, to gamble, and cheat, even when his fortune was in sight. And the bitch had flayed him with a few words, made any pretensions he had to the throne impossible! Radec would have someone's head for this. Maybe more than one.

Xena had an amused grin on her face as she turned her back on Krykon. She knew his type, and was not surprised when the small dirk was pulled and thrown at her. She turned a quarter slow, and took it in her left arm, just above the elbow. It stuck there for a minute, both hilt and blade showing from opposite ends of the slit it had made in her flesh. The Amazons tensed to move. Xena's wolf-like grin held the room frozen while she pulled the blade cleanly away and it thudded into the table in between Krykon's splayed fingers. Without apparent effort she lifted him from his seat by the neck, and drove her left elbow into his face, splashing her own blood on his tunic. He fell forward, and she placed a knee in his groin, then stood back as he doubled over onto the floor.

"I'm sorry for the problems my brother has caused," Xena said to the room. She found his rather full purse and tossed it to the innkeeper. "He'd like to pick up the tab, tonight, to apologize for any inconvenience." She picked him up again, while a perspicacious patron held the door open. For a second time Xena tossed her half-brother into the street.

While the crowd cheered her, Glaucon removed himself by the rear exit.

 

She returned to her seat, smiling; it had been no more than an interruption. Eponin tied a bandage improvised from napkins around the wound. Salmoneus sat by her elbow. "Did you mean that Xena? That creep is your brother?"

"Half-brother," she amended. "Quite a family, huh?" she said to the table. "Callisto, Krykon, and me."

 

They were the last to leave the inn, and a very happy innkeeper bid them safe home. Salmoneus was happy not to be walking in the dark streets alone. Krykon was no match for Xena, but he would hate to be on the receiving end of the man's wrath. They took a route he didn't understand, and at last came to an area near the docks where few lights shone, but he could still make out the crude depiction of a naked woman, wearing an Amazon mask. The caption made him blush. They paused, as if waiting for someone, and they weren't disappointed. A sharp whistle sounded and men came flying out of doorways and alleys, armed with clubs and swords. They fell on the women with a vengeance, while streams of vulgarities spewed from their mouths. Xena and the Amazons formed a phalanx, shoulder to shoulder, and met the attack, driving them back, with staffs aimed to break a kneecap, or a neck, littering the road with men. Radec's bully-boys regrouped, and sprang forward again, more angry now,

and trusting to superior numbers to wear the women warriors down. At that moment, Xena emitted a piercing, ululating cry, and sprang from the center of the phalanx to land behind a line of attackers. "Hey, boys, come after me," she called, and half the men turned to face her. Her sword turned in an intricate figure eight above her head, then slashed forward, catching another blade and wrenching it out of the wielder's grasp. Her booted foot met his chin and sent him reeling into the men beside him; both fell sprawling in the road. Her sword flashed again and a hand fell, fingers still clasped around the hilt. She leaped high in the air, legs split wide, and a man fell on each side. On all sides of the phalanx, Amazons bested their attackers, staffs and swords taking a fearsome toll. The thugs were forced back by the Amazons, and found Xena in their line of retreat. At last the survivors broke and ran, not willing to die this night.

Eponin did a quick appraisal of her warriors. A few bruises, scrapes and cuts, no one was down. Xena was still busy, stripping a bloody shirt from a corpse. She noted that no brown shirts were worn for this task, Radec was too clever for that. Xena turned to a nearby man who groaned softly, stunned more than hurt she decided. She thrust the bloody shirt in his hands, and hauled him over to the wall. "Get rid of it," she commanded harshly. He looked at her puzzled. She held his face inches from the offensive picture and said again: "Get rid of it. All of it." Solari sauntered over, hands on hips, mouth twisted in an appreciative grin. "Xena," she said, "you certainly know how to show a girl a good time." The warrior half-smiled, then turned to oversee the work at hand. Satisfied with the result, she cocked a fist and put the hapless soldier to sleep for the night.

 

"I'm certain she knew exactly where the blade would strike, and how deep it would go."

Solari shook her head in admiration.

"Are you telling me that Xena took the knife in her arm deliberately?" Ephiny asked. It was well past midnight, and Ephiny was hearing the most minute details of the evening.

"It looked that way," Eponin agreed. "She could have avoided that knife, or caught it." She shrugged. "She chose to catch it in her arm."

"Why?" Ephiny raised an eyebrow with interest.

"To please the crowd, Ephiny. Her people. She certainly won their sympathy. Everyone in the place stopped by to ask how she was and wish her well," Solari said in response. "If Krykon wasn't already discredited as a cheat, he ruined his chances as the man who stuck a knife in the Princess, when her back was turned. I'd have a better chance of becoming king of Prestia." She paused to consider. "Xena was born to lead. She has made the people of Prestia love her. If all the stories that circulate about her coming to the aid of harassed citizens were true, she'd have had to have spent every minute of the past year patrolling the streets. They want to believe she's their champion, and she's letting them do it."

"I guess you're no longer angry with her, eh, Solari?" Ephiny said, amused at the woman's enthusiasm.

"Ephiny, I've just seen the best at work. Let me enjoy that for a few hours, then I'll think about her flaws and get angry all over again." She grinned, but Eponin took it seriously.

"Let me just say I'm glad she fights on our side."

Does she? Ephiny wondered. Certainly the Amazons felt better after the payback to Radec's troops, but it appeared as if events had served a dual purpose. She needed to speak with Xena about that. She didn't like the idea of her people being used. "Where is Xena now?" she asked.

"We asked her back, to have her wound stitched. She said no. Maybe she wanted to hurry back to what's-his-name." Solari knew she wasn't being fair, but couldn't bring herself to say 'Drusander'.

 

Xena had watched the Amazons return to their enclave with a degree of envy. She would have liked to empty the jug with them this evening, but it was too likely she'd encounter Gabrielle. The wound was still bleeding; she didn't feel like waking a healer. She'd have to reach it herself. Maybe Drusander would be some use, she hoped. His face at the door to her quarters gave her no cheer. It also stirred no sense of guilt. We're using each other, she told herself, he knows there isn't anything else. Drusander's greeting didn't support that. He enveloped her in a warm embrace, concern on his face and in his words. "Xena, where have you been? It got so late..."

"Sometimes, Drusander, I stay out all night. Get used to it." She began to strip off her armor, and held her arm out for his inspection. "I'll need a little help stitching this."

"You were in a fight?" he asked, with disapproval..

"An attempt on my life," she replied with a straight face. "Didn't work."

 

"Xena, I don't like Amazons being used." Ephiny turned to the breakfast plate that was before her. The sun was hot this morning, considering the hour, and bees already swarmed around the fragrant blossoms which surrounded the courtyard.

"Ephiny, that's not how it was." The warrior glowed, fresh and confident, as if she borrowed the energy of the sun. She might have slept through the night, instead of for the two hours she had. Only she knew the pain that had flared again in the thigh, and she casually sat on a chair far from the blonde bard.

"Salmoneus wasn't a setup?"

"Of course he was, but the Amazons weren't involved in that. I'm very busy; I accomplished two objectives in one evening."

"A productive evening," the Amazon agreed. "You eliminated a contender for the crown, bloodied Radec's nose, put on a little show for your people, and oh, yes helped avenge the honor of the Amazons."

Xena endured the scolding silently, wishing only that Gabrielle wasn't there.

"You don't think the attack was more ferocious because you denounced your newest brother?"

"Why would it be?" She swirled the contents of her cup, pulpy bits of apricot mixed with an infusion of some sort.

"I'm not stupid Xena. Another brother shows up, living incognito in the shadow of the castle. It's not hard to guess he's another candidate for the crown; and who might be supporting him? Radec is the only name that comes to mind. You ruined his chances with a few words. I think Radec might be upset by that. Upset enough to sic his dogs on you, and whoever might be nearby. I don't suppose it hurt to have a little back up?" Gabrielle held her breath, wished that Ephiny had not said that.

Xena's mouth twisted as she answered, and Ephiny understood too late the awful insult she'd delivered. "I fight my own battles, Ephiny. Just as I assumed the Amazons would prefer personally to avenge the insult to their honor, rather than have me do it for them. I got it wrong. I'm sorry." She stood to go.

"Xena, I don't know why I said that," Ephiny apologized. "That's not how I feel about you."

Xena nodded curtly, but offered advice to the two women. "The treaties only need minor adjustments. Sign them and go home. I don't want your return journey to be a funeral procession." She turned back once, before being lost to their sight in the trees. "It wasn't like that," she insisted, in a final plea for understanding. One more scolding, she told herself, as she turned to the wing which housed the royal family.

"I believe her Ephiny," Gabrielle said. "Xena was really angry yesterday, when I told her about the insult. If she had plans made with Salmoneus already, I guess she couldn't change them just to separate problems."

"So I put my foot in it, helped that black cloud settle around her again..."

"You see it too?" Gabrielle asked. "You know, Ephiny, there was one more thing she accomplished last night. She made it possible for us to leave without anyone suggesting we left with our tails between our legs. We can leave now with our pride restored; and she does seem anxious for us to leave. Too anxious."

 

"Xena, you have spilled blood in the streets of Prestia. There has not been fighting in this kingdom since its settlement. When Pres Prima crossed the river and settled this land, in time immemorial, it was ordained by the gods, that Prestia would be a land of peace and plenty."

Xena nodded, a knowing sneer on her face. "Yes, I've read about Pres Prima. A warlord. When he had enough loot, slaves and conscripts, he set up an enclave sheltered by river and mountains, to keep him safe from vengeance, justice, and the greed of other warlords."

He met her contempt, anxious to defend his royal house. "Yes, Xena he was a warlord, until he struck a deal with Zeus. He would lay down his arms, and Zeus would grant him peace on this side of the river. That peace has held for centuries. Until now."

"Until me?" She smirked. "In Gods we trust? Put that on your money and the value of the Prestian dinar will plummet." She looked into her father's sad blue eyes. "Is that why you spent so many years away from home? Only place you could slake your own thirst for fighting? Not to mention whoring." She saw his fingers curl into loose fists, and felt a quiet satisfaction. "Have you ever considered that Zeus might have meant for Pres and his descendants to just stay on this side of the river? It sure sound to me as if he was putting you all in quarantine."

"Maybe you're right, Xena. Read the tapestries, and then tell me."

"Tapestries?" Xena had always been aware of the tapestries which hung throughout the castle, but had been too preoccupied to do more than glance at isolated scenes. She remembered the raised tapestries on Dracatha.

"The history of our family, and of this kingdom, are there. Some hangings are ancient, some reproductions of ones which have fallen to shreds. Some were commissioned by me, to tell of recent events. They are history, they are myth, some have maintained they are prophetic. You would do well to find the time for them." He turned back to the scroll he had been reading when she arrived. "Say hello to Teremon, someday, if it won't pain you," he requested. "He misses you. In your absence, I think he's growing overly fond of Callisto."

"He couldn't have a better friend," she responded cryptically. "Now, you'll have to excuse me; I have better things to do than get caught up in family lore." Or hear another lecture. The only people who seemed pleased with the results of the night before were the participants, and the Amazons who had not been privileged to join them. Their only complaint was that they had not been there. Xena suspected Ephiny would have objected to nothing about the evening if she'd had the chance to bust heads herself. She didn't really blame Ephiny for her suspicions, it was her job to look out for her people. Responsibility was a heavy burden.

 

Chapter 33

 

Xenaís body jerked spasmodically as she woke, trembling, cold with a sudden sweat.

Drusander had slept through this one, she realized, happy to know that she hadnít cried out. She almost cried now, so tired of the nightmares, of the chronic pain that sometimes left her breathless. She had expected that when she lost the intensity of emotion she felt for Gabrielle, the dreams would stop, or at least change. But Gabrielle still haunted her, and the only change was ominous: for a second night, Gabrielle reached out to her while she hung on the cross. She couldnít move away, could only watch helplessly, as the woman got closer...Gods, what was Gabrielle going to do? The thought propelled her from the bed. No more sleep tonight, she admitted. The palliative effect of Drusander beside her, with her, had worn off rather quickly. She would have had a bath drawn, it sometimes eased the pain, except for fear that it would wake Drusander, and he would want to join her.

Her brow concentrated, as she remembered something Cletus had said; in truth, it had been on her mind half the day. She drew a silk robe around her, took a slender dagger

from her boot, and padded barefoot down the hall, carrying a torch. A narrow stair led to a quirky middle-floor room, which she had never entered. The door was locked, but a momentís work with the dagger and it swung open. Stuffy, dusty air seemed to lap over her in waves as it sought escape down the corridor. Xena entered and moved around the room lighting the candles. In every corner, a rich tapestry came vibrantly alive, as the light-bearer passed. When the room was illumined, she took her bearings and began to examine each hanging in earnest. The old man said they were history, myth, and maybe prophecy. The trick was deciding where to start. They seemed to be arranged in no order,

like the scrolls in his library. She moved to one that looked older, more faded and worn than the rest. Then she recalled that some of the ancient ones had been reproduced, as they fell to shreds. Age was no signifier of precedent. So much of Prestia was a model of order, yet Cletusíprized possessions lay in dusty chaos. It occurred to her that the cryptic old king liked it this way, to keep others from knowledge, and hence, from power. "Well old man, letís see what I can learn here," she said softly, and began her work.

 

The first rays of sunlight found her in a large wooden chair, legs tucked beneath her, robe carelessly parted. She might have dozed; she wasnít sure. The crowd of thoughts that had occupied her through the night might all have been one bad dream. The candles had burned to their sockets. She stared at nothing, as the sun rose higher, each minute giving new light to the room. The hangings looked different in this light, the splashes of bright color shone more freely; they lacked the ominous quality candlelight gave them. She rested her head in her hands, remembering what she had learned, or thought she had learned. Damn, she thought, why couldnít people write what they meant, clearly, plainly on a scroll, instead of leaving things to guesses and imagination. Gods, if I gave orders that way, my army wouldnít have known whether to take the village or a three day pass. The idea of that choice made her chuckle in spite of herself. She moved back to the tapestries, to one in particular, and examined it again, for long minutes. She crossed the room and repeated the process. "I never had a choice," she acknowledged, mouth twisted in resignation. The blue eyes held a new understanding and resolve when she emerged.

 

Fully dressed and armed, the warrior crossed the courtyard to an area far beyond the stable, where the castle barracks displayed a stolid order, standards flying over each unit, sun gleaming off the helms of the sentries. In the nice weather, breakfast mess would be outdoors, she knew, and she would be welcome. A friendly murmur rose as she walked past the small cookfires. This was their Princess, who could fight better than any man in the army, and whose rare smile was worth waiting for. They had all heard the tale of her leading the Amazons in battle against the Security Forces. There was strong sentiment among the troops to put the uniformed thugs in place, but they had been forced to sit and drill, while the pseudo-warriors terrorized the populace in the shadow of the castle.

"Take me to fight with you, next time, Xena," a soldier called out. She bestowed on him the smile Drusander longed to see.

She moved on, stopping at the standard of a particular unit, the Blue and Golds, the shock troops. She wanted to know these men better. Space was willing made for her around the fire, and she shared their simple meal, quaffed their morning ale, listened to the tales they told of past battles. A rousing song of conquest was raised, and she joined in, her pleasing voice a new delight for them.

Now it was their turn. She challenged them to show their skills, and their first officer, Tarimides led them through series of drills until she had settled on their best. This one she brought forward for a lesson in winning. They fought with swords, and she stayed to the manual of arms, attacking, parrying, thrusting within the limits of the soldierís considerable abilities. She seemed to put her pain aside when in action, they noted with approval. When she was satisfied the soldier had proven his expertise, she showed her own. In an array of twists and sword movement not found in any manual, she disarmed the man and put him helpless on his back. The troops looked on with sympathy for their comrade. There was no shame in losing to the Warrior Princess. She extended her arm to help him up, and said "Good man. Iíll take your sword any day." The blue eyes took them all in.

"What wins battles, and keeps you alive isnít always in the book." She looked at the first officer, but her words were addressed to the men. "Your officers are going to arrange a little competition. Iíll join the winners for supper very soon." She walked away, outlining the nature of the competition to the officer.

 

She stopped for her daily grooming of Argo, promising her that action was at hand. Then she headed back across the castle grounds, ready for a bath, and her next task. That would not be nearly as much fun. The attack came without warning, but she adjusted and met the onslaught with a quick blade. Callisto's brown eyes held hers for a moment, at swordís length, until she produced a shrill, monotonal shriek and flipped over Xena to land behind her, ready to kick her in the head. Xena reacted with her own flip, which sent her twisting in mid-air, to land ten yards away, facing her sister once again. From behind her, she could hear Teremonís excited voice: "I can almost see it, Callisto!"

Callisto shook a critical finger at Xena. "Couldnít you even produce one of your annoying cries for the boy? He needs a little excitement in his life." This was a game, Xena realized angrily, a show for Teremon. A passing troop of soldiers had stopped to watch now, and Callisto set to in earnest, screaming anew, and running straight at Xena. The taller woman engaged her blade as she came near, and hilts met, as Callisto continued the attack. She could speak in Xenaís ear now, and did: "You had your little fun the other night, Xena, showing off for the crowd. Why didnít you ask me along? We donít have many common enemies."

"Youíre sort of hard to find, Callisto. Where exactly do you sleep, anyway? Your room is never occupied."
"How sweet of you to notice, Sister. Maybe I stay in Drusanderís bed. Heís never in it. It makes me a little, jealous, Xena." She ended with a quick knee to Xenaís thigh. The warrior was blinded by searing pain, but knew where the next blow would be directed, and just wasnít there anymore, dropping to one side and rolling away fast, while she fought to clear her head and see past the pain. Callisto followed relentlessly, her cry again disturbing the peace of the castle.

At that, Xena answered with her own cry, and the resonance she gave it thundered in the ears of the onlookers, startled those who were not watching the battle, and chilled them all. Teremon was a little afraid now, and listened for the clash of swords with trepidation. There was no further clash of steel-on-steel. Xena was in no mood for games, and her men were watching. She got to her feet as Callisto charged, turned her back, and dropped forward to land on her hands as Callisto arrived, to meet Xenaís booted feet flying at her mid-section with fury. Then Xena was on her feet again, laughing, a tight grin on her lips, and flew through the air to land with both knees on her sisterís chest. As the air whooshed out of Callisto's lungs Xena relaxed. Teremon listened for more movement, then asked: "Xena. Did you kill her?"

"No, Teremon, I didnít kill her, but the show is over." She scowled at the supine form, and headed for her bath.

 

Gabrielle heard about the encounter before Xena had stepped into her bath. The general feeling in the Amazon wing was that theyíd missed something. Gabrielle felt a chill down her spine. Things turned uglier with each passing day. There were too may things going on at once; she didnít know what to worry about first: Callisto, Radec, Krykon, or Xena herself. She had watched Xena carefully, or asked questions of the right people, enough to be certain that Xena had a plan under way. She had little time now to get to the bottom of things, but she understood more than before.

Ephiny had announced that the treaties would be concluded and signed the next day, and the visit would end with a traditional Amazon feast that evening. The day after, they would begin the ride back to Amazon territory. Gabrielle had fought hard for a few more days to figure things out, but Ephiny had been adamant.

"The women back home are doing double tasks; itís hardly fair to extend our working holiday, Gabrielle," sheíd reasoned. "Itís time we gave them a break, and the little presents weíve bought for them."

"Youíre right, Ephiny. Again."

"Sure; thatís why you chose me to be queen," she replied with a smile. Her tone changed, and she addressed Gabrielleís real concern. "I know you donít want to leave Xena. We all can see that sheís headed for trouble, of some kind; maybe trouble of her own making.

But Gabrielle, sheís made it clear she doesnít want our interference."

"You mean my interference," the bard corrected her. "Sometimes I almost think sheís afraid of me. Imagine Xena being afraid of me." She had laughed, but Ephinyís eyes had darted away, and her lips tightened as if to hold in a secret.

"Ephiny? Is that it? Xenaís afraid of me?" Ephiny groaned in indecision. She had respected Xenaís confidence, and the whole thing now seemed a big mistake. Damn Jalani and her vision quest anyway. "Ephiny. Tell me. In the long history of the world, this is a thing to do now. Before someone, or a lot of someones, get killed."

"All right," the monarch compromised, "let me say youíve made a good guess."

"Ephiny," the bard exclaimed in disbelief, "how could she think that?" Her mind flew back to that night in the castle, when Xena was led away in shackles. "Is this still because of Atrius? Because I didnít tell her he was dead?"

Ephiny said only this: "Gabrielle, that morning in the purifying-hut, Xena was talking to me about something very personal. It was something she really wanted to discuss with Jalani."

Jalani. The dream-reader. Xenaís worst fears seemed to exist only in dreams, vivid nightmares that sometimes left her trembling in the dark. "She sees me in her dreams? As As a threat?" She had thanked Ephiny, and set off, determined to speak with Xena once more.

Now, as she hurried across the castle grounds, she considered what she knew of Xenaís life in Prestia: she was sleeping with Drusander, there was no doubt of that, yet her own eyes told her that there was no love between them. Drusander glowed in her presence, and she was affectionate in return, but Gabrielle knew Xena in love. This was not that Xena. Teremon seemed to have been forgotten. Gabrielle knew that Xena liked children, although she allowed herself to be close to few of them. She had guessed, that first night at the banquet, that Xena stood aside in favor of Callisto. They both knew he was safer with Callisto on his side. Gabrielleís real worry was Xenaís connection with the army. She had spent most of the hours since her return inspecting, visiting or drilling the troops. Her attention could be seductive, in fact, Gabrielle believed that Xena was intent on seducing the whole kingdom. For those who resisted, she would find other methods. The question was, why? The only answer that came to mind frightened the young woman. Callisto's words came back to her: ĎXena. Running a kingdom.í Callisto had laughed. Gabrielleís spirits sank. With the best intentions in the world, Xena could get in trouble. There were too many elements in common with her days of conquest: the army, the power, the urge she had to protect what was hers. She would use any weapon, any device necessary. That was too dreadful to contemplate.

 

"Xena canít you try to be nicer to Callisto?" The warrior had made the mistake of responding to her fatherís request for a visit. "Teremon says she was just entertaining him."

"I donít have time for her games," she said curtly, "and I donít have time for a lecture."
"I know," he said soberly. "Radec is here to see you. I suspect he has information about your street-brawl." Cletus squinted against the bright sunlight to see his daughter better. She looked tired, limped now, and sported a new bandage on her left arm. It would have been better for her if she had never come to Prestia he admitted; it had taken a toll. "Xena, try to stay out of trouble," he told her.

"In this place," she laughed. "How do I do that? Iíve read your tapestries." Her face might have been sculpted from ice.

"I didnít ask you to come here, Xena. You sought me, remember?"

"When I make a mistake, itís never a small matter," she conceded ruefully. "Your First Minister doesnít have time to wait," she ended.

"You are expected for dinner, Xena," he called after her.

 

Radec had agreed to see her in the castle, rather than in his office. One didnít say no to a

member of the royal family, sheíd learned, even if one wanted her dead. They met in the empty Council Room. Radec arrived first, and thought to make a point by taking his customary seat at the right hand of the kingís place. Xena understood his intention, and

asserted her own dominance; to Radecís surprise she sat in the kingís place. The gesture was not lost on him.

He began to speak, a preliminary comment on the incident with the Amazons. She cut him off.

"Iím not here to listen to your complaints, Radec. We have no audience, so cut out the crap and listen. Iím not letting this place be torn apart by civil war or frittered away by fools. Iíve seen too much waste and destruction to stand for that. Iíve caused too much waste and destruction," she amended herself, to remind Radec of her capabilities.

"So you propose...?" he asked, trying to hide his fascination.

 

One side of her mouth curled in a sly grin. "I take the throne."

 

Radec emitted a short laugh. "Why should I let you take the throne?"

 

"Because it keeps Callisto and Teremon at bay."

 

"I can do that with Krykon."

 

"Donít waste my time," she spat. "He couldnít get a job mucking out the a stable here." Radec knew it was true. The incident at the Inn of the Four Gardens had been heard in every street. Krykon was ruined.

"There is one other reason, for you to let me have the throne," she said with a cold spark in her eyes. "If you donít, Iíll take it anyway. I know youíd like to end up on the winning side."

"How do you plan on doing this?" His eyes betrayed the sudden chill he had at the notion of opposing her. "You have no power base, no troops."

"Didnít Glaucon give you the toll I took on his Ďtroopsí, " she asked, toying with the word.

"Yes, he did. You are formidable, but you canít defeat an entire army alone, even sound. And look at you," he gestured at her injured leg.

"Then Iíll just have to try harder," she said, softly, confidently, making it impossible for him to doubt her. "Besides, I donít have to defeat the army; theyíll come over to me. Soldiers understand power. They understand me, as I do them. Then I wonít be alone anymore." She fixed him with a bone chilling stare. "And Iíll come after anyone who stands against me. It wonít be pretty," she assured him softly.

"If itís so easy Xena, why do you need me? Why not Ďcome after meí?"

She shook her head, as if confounded by his lack of discernment. "Radec, what would I do with a kingdom to run? Do you think I want to sit in boring council meetings, figuring out ways to tax the peasants?" She shook her head, "No. That would be your job. I want the army," she said flatly, "well-equipped and well-paid. You provide the funds for that, and I donít care how much you skim off the top. Thatís not a license for you to be a tyrant," she warned, steel in her voice. "Those thugs of yours have got to go. I wonít have you provoke rebellions while Iím occupied elsewhere."

Radec was curious. "Elsewhere? What would you do with your army?"

"I would make Prestia rich, and powerful beyond its dreams. With an army supported by Prestia, and its future possessions, I could rule the world." Her voice had a rich timbre now, almost sultry, as it spoke of her true desire.

Just the idea of power excites the bitch, Radec thought, unable to take his eyes from her.

"And when the lists of casualties arrive home...?" he asked.

"That will only be in the initial phase," she replied. "As I conquer, I will take conscripts from the vanquished. They wonít be in a position to complain," she assured him with a small smile.

"Youíve given this thought," he observed.

"I have thought of this, dreamed of this, my whole life," she said passionately. "With one digression," she confessed. But thatís in the past."

He considered, afraid to enter an alliance with the woman, more afraid not to. "What of Krykon?" he asked, buying time to think.

"What of him?" She didnít hide her contempt. "Will anyone even care what happens to him? Send him off with a bag of gold. Or kill him. Itís cheaper, " she said with a small chuckle, then grew sober again.

His thin lips stretched back over yellow teeth, in appreciation of her ruthlessness. "What of Teremon?" This, he suspected, might be a different story.

"Iíll deal with him," she said simply. "Cletus trusts me; and Drusander canít see past the

foot of our bed."

"I wondered how deep that affection went," Radec said, with genuine interest.

"He has no reason to complain," she assured him.

He nodded his understanding, then expressed a misgiving: "One has heard that the Warrior Princess does not kill women and children."

"Tales told by bards, Radec. It suited my purposes. Youíve seen evidence to the contrary.

Did you believe Cirra was an accident?" She arched an eyebrow in question. "A child spewed on my boots; I was having a bad day," she shrugged with a small smile, that didnít touch her eyes. "Iíll take care of Teremon."

She started at a sudden noise inside the wall; Radec started a split second later. "Are you with me Radec," she asked, even as she moved silently, sword drawn, to the wall. Radec stood still, and responded, to her question, and to the inquiring look in her eyes as she sought the latch to open the hidden place. "I need to consider further," he said, as his hand guided hers to a sconce that needed only to be turned, to allow entry... She froze at what she saw, and immediately covered with a quick sheathing of her sword, and words thrown at Radec. "Must be a rat, thereís no one here." She held Gabrielleís eyes for a quick moment, cold fury washing through her. The bard stood pressed against the far wall, barely visible in the dark, hands covering half covering her face, revealing only the eyes, which held fear, and a kind of sick loathing.

Xena left her alone there, and closed the hidden panel quickly. "Donít consider too long, Radec. I know what course Iím taking, and I wonít be in a forgiving mood later."

Radec seemed to make a decision suddenly. "Only a fool would work against you Xena.

Iím not a fool." He held out his hand. She ignored it. "For your sake, I hope not," she said. "We have plans to consolidate. I need to see your maps of the area. Letís leave this room to the rats." It was a long time later that the shaken bard was able to summon the strength to move from the little room, cursing the curiosity that had led her there.

To be Continued ... Chapters 34 - 37


Gabrielle with Scroll

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