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The African Queen
Legal: The characters in this story belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I thank the Studio for creating these great ladies and giving them to the bards of the fan fiction world, who have made them truly remarkable. This is my small contribution and was written purely for fun. No copyright infringement was intended.
Violence: This is a story about a chick who carries a sword. Of course there’s violence. However, the blood and gore do not surpass what might be seen on any given episode, so only the really violence-wary need pull the covers over their heads.
Subtext: Although this story concentrates on other plot areas, the fact that these two women are in love with each other is apparent throughout. If you do not wish to read a story based on this premise, exit, stage left.
All comments are welcome. Send e-mail to:
Watching the scene before them in rapt silence, the crowd failed to notice the arrival of two new spectators. All eyes were focused intently on the golden throne before them and the man perched regally upon it. A dark-haired warrior stopped at the outer edge of the gathering, peering over and between the absorbed people. Her golden-haired companion stood on tiptoes, frustration evident on her round face.
"Xena, what’s going on? I can’t see anything." The short woman jumped up once, then twice, unable to comprehend the spectacle before her from the momentary view the motion afforded.
The warrior allowed a slight smirk to grace her lips as she gazed at her friend, who was still struggling valiantly to see what was happening, jolting her compact body with each hop. "Calm down Gabrielle. You’re not missing much." She put a hand on the bard’s green clad shoulder to stop another round of hopping, as amusing as it was. "I thought you wanted to wait at the inn anyway."
The shorter woman peered up at Xena with an exasperated expression. "That was when all I had to think about was heaving up my guts. Something is going on here and I’d like to see what it is. I can heave later." With a sweet smile, she turned back to the turban wearing man in front of her and began to jump once more.
"Stop that. I’m not taking a chance with you puking again. I just managed to get my boots clean. Come on." Shaking her dark head, the warrior grabbed a muscled arm out of mid air, pulling the body attached to it with her forcing her way through the tightly knit crowd. Even after two days on land, the stormy seas they’d encountered on the voyage to Israel still had Gabrielle’s stomach throwing fits. Xena was thankful that her friend was slowly returning to her feisty self, even if she was still a little green around the edges. Allowing her front-row seats to whatever was happening was the least she could do after the miserable trip. Discovering what the gathering was about might also help them find their prey.
Strong shoves and nasty warlord glares soon had the pair at the front of the crowd, looking curiously at two kneeling women pleading with the regally seated figure, a small child cradled delicately in his arms. His eyes were focused on the bundle as he spoke, one finger clutched by a tiny hand, his voice a smooth growl.
"A child can have only one mother. It is impossible for you both to claim him." The man stroked his long black beard impatiently, looking to the woman on his left to give an explanation. Set deeply in her drawn face, dark eyes revealed the pain of what must have been a hard life, somehow surviving under the harsh desert sun. Her white dress, turned ruddy by the blowing sand, displayed only her golden brown hands and face.
The woman kept her eyes to the ground, her voice shrill with anger. "The child is mine. His father is the shepherd Nimon and he has lived with us since I gave birth to him." Her small fists clinched in the panels of her dirty shroud.
Tears ran from the other woman’s eyes, leaving a clean streak on dirty, plump cheeks as she turned her face up to the seated man. Moving his glare to her, the arbiter motioned for her to speak. After several tormenting moments, she seemed to make a decision, nodding her head as she responded, her voice small and filled with pain. "I can say no more than I am this child’s mother, King Solomon. He is my life and I cannot willingly let this woman have him." Large shoulders slumping, her head turned back down to the ground, away from the judgmental stare of the King.
"If neither of you will come forth with the truth and allow this child to go with his true mother, I will be forced to decide his fate." He waited in silence for one of the petitioners to speak up, but both merely kept their heads turned down to the soil. People in the crowd shuffled from foot to foot, the silence tense. The King’s dark eyes searched the sky for an answer, which came with a low grown of frustration. "Very well. Since the true mother has not been shown to me, I find that you both are his mothers and you both will have him." Solomon stood from the golden throne, the baby cradled in his arms. "Guard, come with your sword."
Gabrielle tensed, glancing up at the warrior in question. "Xena...?"
"I don’t know, but I don’t like it." She whispered fiercely. She could feel every nerve twitching, ready to send her body into immediate action. An internal voice whispered for her to wait, though, and after years of developing her art, the warrior trusted her instincts. Ice blue eyes surveyed the scene, waiting for the signal that would allow her to wait no more.
The closest guard rushed from behind the throne to stand beside his master. Gold armor gleamed almost as brightly as the rest of the amazing temple surrounding them. The building stretched high into the morning sky, paneled completely in shimmering gold. His sword, gleaming silver against the background, sang lethally as he pulled it from the sheath at his belt. Solomon turned to the women and gave the order, his voice devoid of emotion. "Cut this child in half and give one side to each of his mothers."
The crowd collectively gasped in shock, as did Gabrielle at Xena’s side. The bard reached for the warrior’s arm, squeezing it in anticipation as she pleadingly looked up into fiery blue eyes. Xena subtly motioned for her to wait, moving one hand to her chakram in case the guard actually tried to harm the child. She thought the King might have something else in mind, though.
Another guard marched from beside the throne, grabbing the child roughly, holding him upside down, legs askew. The King stood motionless ignoring the guards at his side, his eyes trained on the women before him, who stood slack-jawed in fright. The large woman’s hands were drawn to her face in agony, her eyes as wide as saucers. The guard raised his sword above his helmeted head, pulling it back as far as possible to generate more momentum for the strike. His armored shoulders moved forward, clinking loudly in the silence, the sword beginning its descent.
With a heart-wrenching shriek, the large woman leapt from her knees, throwing herself between the guards, crying out to the mercy of the King. "Please, do not harm him. I am not his mother. Deborah is his mother. Please don’t hurt him." Arms held wide, the woman cried the words over and over. "Please don’t hurt him."
King Solomon stepped up to the guard and removed the squirming child from his hands, the baby making the first protestations since the beginning of the ordeal. The man’s demeanor changed perceptibly, a long breath released from his chest. He cooed at the child to no avail, playfully tickling his chin and nose. Smiling brightly, the King placed the baby in the large woman’s arm, chuckling at the confusion playing across her features. Nonetheless, she pulled the bundle tightly to her bosom and rocked it gently. The crying ceased in only a few moments of his mother’s gentle attention.
"You, my lady, have shown true love for this child. By law he is yours, to be challenged by no man or woman." Straightening to his full height, the King spoke the words as a challenge, surveying the crowd with a menacing stare, stopping on the thin woman still kneeling before his thrown. "You are dismissed. Leave here today with a heavy heart, knowing how foolish you have been."
Gabrielle turned away from the spectacle and focused on her friend, a sigh of relief escaping her lips. "That was fun. I don’t think I like this guy, Xena. Are you sure we’re here to help him?" Her small hand tucked errant wisps of golden hair behind her ear in irritation.
"I’m sure." The warrior stood with her hands to her side, arms relaxed, radiating menace as her exterior mirrored the anger in her breast.
Solomon raised his hands in signal that the council was over as the remainder of the group began to file away, on the heels of the two women scurrying away with thanks for their lives. He watched the exiting crowd with a mixed expression of pride and pity, clearly a king who cared for his people. Xena had heard of his practice of conducting problem-solving meetings with his subjects, but she had no idea she’d be a witness to such a revealing one. His legendary wisdom was apparent from the way he’d discovered who deserved the child, even if his methods were very suspect.
"C’mon. Let’s go talk to this jerk." Xena was in full warrior mode. The bard quirked a smile as she followed her forward. Gabrielle was already having a wonderful experience on this journey, despite the rocky boat ride. Although it was unusual for Xena to come to the aid of a king without an extraordinary reason, she’d decided to make an exception this time. Some opportunities were just too good to pass up.
Turning his gaze to the approaching pair, the King’s intelligent dark eyes sparkled in recognition. The message he’d sent had been brief, stating only that the warrior was needed to save the life of a visiting ruler, the only way to stop an imminent war. She and Gabrielle had set out immediately, traveling by land and sea, blowing desert and rocky waters. They’d probably arrived before he expected.
"Well, well, I am honored by the presence of the great warrior, Xena." As he stepped forward to offer his hand, two guards flanked him protectively to either side. Wind whipped through his shoulder length raven hair and silky white robe.
The warrior squeezed his forearm briskly in greeting, her angular face an emotionless mask. "King Solomon." Stepping back a pace, she stood as a wall between the trio and Gabrielle. "I received your message."
"Yes..." He flashed the warrior a dismissive grin and stood taller in an attempt to see the bard more clearly. "And who is this lovely young woman?"
Uh oh. While she had accounted for the King’s legendary wisdom, Xena realized she had too easily dismissed another legend about the man. He’s got hundreds of wives and concubines. I’ll be damned if he’s getting Gabrielle too. As if it were actually possible, the warrior straightened further to block his curious glare.
At that moment, the bard chose to step up to Xena’s side with a defiant smirk. The warrior could already hear the first whispers of the infamous ‘I Can Take Care of Myself’ speech churning in her friend’s brain. She decided to try and head it off at the pass.
"This is my partner, Gabrielle." The bard quickly lost her smirk, her eyes going round in surprise at the warrior’s use of the term. Without showing any outward emotion, Xena smiled inside at the reaction. She only hoped that Gabrielle believed the statement. It was truer than she could ever know, whether she said it often or not.
Solomon softly kissed the bard’s hand, causing her to blush delicately. "My pleasure."
Xena was tired of wasting time, not to mention that she didn’t like the look the King was bestowing on her friend. It could be best described as seductive, his eyes wandering all over the bard’s Amazon clad body. Most of the men in this land didn’t often get to see two women dressed as such outside of a dark bedchamber. "What’s your problem, King?"
Shifting his attention back to the impatient warrior, the King sighed heavily before motioning for a guard to join them. "I am sure you ladies are weary from your journey. Please rest at the palace while I complete my duties." He gave the guard a look they both seemed to understand. "I will explain everything when you join me for dinner."
The thought of rejecting his presumptuous behavior briefly crossed Xena’s mind, but one look at her friend was all she needed to stifle that reaction. Gabrielle needed a nice hot bath and a good meal or two to put her back up to full functioning levels. Besides, Gabrielle gets so excited when we stay in palaces. How can I refuse that? With a wave of her hand she indicated that they would follow the guard, setting them off through the still bustling streets into the heart of Jerusalem.
She let Gabrielle walk behind the guard, as much to keep an eye on her as to protect her. Xena could hear the telltale signs of a market a street or two over, clanking wares and angry bargaining echoing between the buildings. If she didn’t watch out, her friend would be bolting off to shop for hours on end. Can’t let that happen. I can only take so much shopping before I kill people. The buildings they passed were fine houses, if entirely too close together. Banners with brightly colored crests hung over the doors, displaying the owner’s sign to the world. Though the houses were obviously well cared for, even their grandeur couldn’t escape the layer of dust that seemed to cover everything.
The palace was impressive. It stood away from the houses around it, dwarfing them all in size and elegance. Gold stood out against the stone in shimmers, giving it the wealthy demeanor of the palace without the overpowering presence of authority. An average person would be out of place sleeping in the chambers within, but a man of nobility might find such a place a comfortable home.
Guards perched in front of the large, double doors admitted the small group into the house. The inside was as elegant as the outside, brilliant hangings adorning every wall, and fine furniture sitting appropriately throughout the expansive entryway. The warrior and bard were silent as they followed the stern guard down the empty halls.
Stopping in front of a door, he finally spoke. "The King welcomes you to his home. These rooms are at your disposal." He pointed to the next room before walking back the way they had come.
The pair looked at each other skeptically before entering the nearest room. Gabrielle immediately collapsed on the huge four poster bed that took up most of the floor space. Xena meticulously placed their gear in an empty corner before sitting beside her friend on the bed’s edge.
"This is pretty nice, Xena. We need to work for kings more often." The bard bounced slightly on the bed.
The warrior rolled her eyes and sighed. "You wish...but I’m glad you like it."
Stilling the bed, Gabrielle turned a serious expression to her friend. "What’s your plan?"
Eyeing her warily, Xena could see the wheels turning behind the bard’s eyes. That’s never good. She leaned back on her elbows casually, bringing her to eye level with the lying woman at her side. "I have no idea. I don’t know what’s going on yet."
"That’s kind of curious, isn’t it? I mean, you don’t normally go into something so blind." Green eyes waited intently for an answer.
The warrior was torn as to what she should say. Part of her soul begged for the truth to come out right here, all of it. The more dominant part, however, stilled the words at their source. "Well, I...I wanted to meet Solomon, for one thing."
Gabrielle’s lips turned up in a bright smile. "I can understand that. I’ve heard amazing stories about him. He worships the one god, ya know."
"I know." Xena could tell her friend was going somewhere with the conversation. Sometimes she tended to ramble aimlessly. At others the bard was meticulous in her line of questioning, a gift the warrior could easily appreciate. Interrogation could be an invaluable asset in their line of work.
That suspicious look again filled the bard’s eyes, small lines appearing at their corners as they narrowed. "What was the other thing you came here for Xena? I...I want to be prepared in case I’m about to learn something horrific about your past." The comment began as if to be humorous, but her voice trailed off to a murmur, as if she’d said too much.
Xena sat up on the bed and turned away. Guilt flooded her system at the hurt implicit in the question. She hadn’t expected it. Long ago she’d lost count of the times her past had caused Gabrielle some sort of pain. The closer they became emotionally, the more intense the pain caused by the frequent revelations about how bad a person the warrior had been. And it seemed lately that they’d been becoming closer everyday. Causing that sort of emotional disturbance to her friend was the last thing Xena had on her mind. Just like it was the last thing on my mind the last time it happened.
Sad blue eyes turned back to the bard, who was still lying quietly in the big bed, apparently counting the cracks in the stone ceiling. "That’s...I hope...that’s not going to happen, Gabrielle. No guarantees, but I don’t think I know anyone from here." A strong hand ran nervously through her hair as she made a decision. "I’m helping Solomon because I wanted you to see Israel. That’s all." And that was mostly true. She wanted to tell her friend everything to set her mind at ease, but the warrior held her resolve. This is supposed to be a secret, if very silly.
Gabrielle sat up beside her friend, surprise and relief passing over her features. Her throat worked as if to form words, but she said nothing. The warrior gave her a small smile, choosing to let the moment go by without remark, even though she loved to tease the bard when she caught her speechless. A statement was eventually made clear to both of them when Gabrielle gently laid her golden head on the warrior’s muscled shoulder.
The bard thought she’d never seen a longer dining room, or an emptier one. The table stretched on and on, capable of seating numbers in the hundreds, she was sure. She and Xena sat at one end, farthest from the golden doors they’d passed through to enter. Though she knew it to be almost impossible, Gabrielle was beginning to believe she could hear the warrior’s normally silent breathing echoing off the cold stone walls.
"Gabrielle, quit staring at me." The softly whispered command filled the chamber.
The bard cringed visibly and felt the blush fill her cheeks. I hate it when she catches me doing that, not that I can help it. She’s just so smug about it. "I wasn’t staring. Since you hadn’t said anything in a candlemark I was just making sure you weren’t dead."
Xena looked down at her with a smirk. "Don’t worry. When I go next I’m taking you with me." She elbowed her friend in the side and watched her giggle. Blue eyes eventually traveled to the still sealed doors in agitation. "We have waited long enough for this cretin, though."
Though Xena wasn’t known for her patience, Gabrielle did have to admit that they’d been waiting quite some time. With each passing moment, her excitement at dining with King Solomon was dwindling, not to mention that her stomach was regularly complaining about the lack of food. The guard that summoned them had long since left, leaving warrior and bard alone at the table. Being alone with Xena wasn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, except when she was edgy with anticipation and stingier than normal with conversation as she was now. The golden-haired woman couldn’t help but drum her fingers against the table in agitation.
Only a moment later, two fully armored guards opened the huge doors, standing at attention with their hands on the intricately carved handles. They spoke as one. "King Solomon and Queen Makeda."
The pair walked through the opening arm in arm, both dressed in fine silks and shimmering jewelry. Gabrielle couldn’t take her eyes off the woman striding regally toward them. She was magnificent. Obviously from a foreign land, her skin was a deep caramel, her hair short and pitch black. Smaller in size than the bard, the Queen was also not any older than her. Solomon motioned for them to stay seated as he and his companion sat across from them.
"Thank you for being patient, ladies." He directed an apologetic smile at both of them. The
bard still wasn’t convinced that the King was as wise as the legends painted him, but there was no doubt that he had a special charm. "I would like to introduce you to Queen Makeda, better known as the Queen of Sheba. She is visiting from her kingdom in the south." Solomon’s eyes were lit with a fire the bard knew well as they landed on the woman beside him. She glanced to Xena, knowing her partner caught the exchange as well.
Always straightforward, Xena wasted no time in getting to the point once the polite greetings were over. "So tell us what’s going on, Solomon." She was the only person the bard had ever seen who could treat a king like a commoner and get away with it.
The corner of the King’s mouth pulled up in a grin. "Not even a ‘nice to meet you’, Xena?" He swallowed hard at the answering glare from the warrior. "Apparently not." A tanned arm raised into the air in signal to a waiting servant, silk falling back in smooth rows. "Please let us partake in the blessings of the Lord. Then I will tell you why you have been summoned across the world to my kingdom."
The warrior bowed her dark head in acceptance, her eyes darting to meet Gabrielle’s. The bard’s grip on her knee probably had a lot to do with the daggers being sent her way from the blue depths. A little obstinancy from Xena was worth a wonderful meal in such a fine palace, though. In the very least she was getting dinner out of their journey.
By the time the table was filled with food, Gabrielle was licking her lips in anticipation. She could definitely identify only a few vegetables, but it all looked delicious anyway. What’s in a name? She wasted no time digging into the unfamiliar dishes, blatantly ignoring the glare her partner was casting her way.
King Solomon formally ended the meal by once again calling a servant, who dutifully cleaned the plates from the table, practically having to wrestle away the bard’s dishes. "The reason I have asked for your help, Xena, is that I fear many lives are soon to be lost."
Xena waited emotionlessly for the king to continue.
He bristled under her intense gaze. "Makeda rules the kingdom of Askum, far to the south, beyond the great, mysterious sea. She came to Jerusalem to council with me, as she had heard of my unique abilities." Solomon gently smiled at the woman beside him. The warrior was still not moved, so he went on. "On her long journey here, an attempt was made on her life."
The bard could take it no longer. She had to speak. Xena was normally the most valuable interrogator in situations like this, simply being able to scare information out of people, but sometimes the stoic warrior routine got old. Besides, the warrior had complimented her friend more than once on her ability to ask an important question. Okay, so it was just once, but I could tell she meant it. She had that sweet smile on her lips when she said it. "Where is the assassin now?" Green eyes turned in question to the dark woman, who remained still, save the approval in the eye contact she allowed her friend. The bard had no control over the smile that moved over her face.
"He no longer walks this earth, Gabrielle. His deed cost him his life." The king cast his dark eyes away from the women in contempt. "Makeda was uninjured and continued to my protection. Soon after she arrived, one of my personal guards made another attempt on her life."
The young Queen closed her eyes and grimaced at the remembered pain. Gabrielle understood completely. She’d long since lost count of the times people had tried to kill her. Most of all, though, she could still feel the pain of the first attempt, the cold tingles and hot rage caused by the realization that anyone could even conceive of doing such a thing.
Solomon locked gazes with Xena, concern clear in his expression, a question behind his lips. "I fear that these actions are a conspiracy to discredit me to the neighboring kingdoms. More than that, I fear that success could lead to a horrible war."
All eyes turned to the expressionless Xena, waiting to hear her take on the situation and her magical plan to solve it. She still wasn’t comfortable in this role, so similar and yet distant from her warlord days. Gabrielle sensed it in every problem they involved themselves in. The warrior constantly worked to keep her darker powers in check, somehow managing to tackle events with more civilized methods rather than the violence of her past. The only eyes Xena’s crystal blues settled on were the bard’s, leaving no doubt that she saw everything the young woman was thinking. If they could prevent this one woman’s death, Gabrielle couldn’t refuse to help. An almost invisible softening of the warrior’s chiseled features completed the silent communication.
Xena finally turned to Solomon, folding her arms defiantly over her chest. "I’ll help prevent your war and protect the Queen, but we do this my way." Her voice told that no argument would be accepted, even though the bard knew that perception probably wasn’t completely true. If she asked, things might be different. But that wasn’t necessary at the moment.
"I defer to your superior skills, warrior. I only ask that you keep this fine woman safe from harm." His dark eyes twinkled at Makeda, who looked away with a youthful blush. Gabrielle had sensed that Solomon and this woman were involved in at least some degree, but the dark woman seemed so innocent. She also wondered what of Solomon’s wife would think as he surely had one.
Ignoring the flirting between the royals, the warrior set up a plan. "Gabrielle and I will see that the Queen is guarded at all times. That should keep her safe from a single assassin." The bard beamed at being included in the scheme. Not long ago she would have been concerned that she would be left stewing in some room guarding Argo’s saddle, but things had changed in the last few moons. Xena was no longer willing to leave her behind. It was a pleasant change, to say the least.
"Your rooms are beside Makeda’s, so you can keep an eye on her while she sleeps." Solomon offhandedly added the information, though there was great concern underlying his voice. The bard realized that he truly cared for this young Queen.
"Great. Gabrielle can stay with her tomorrow while I get to know your army a little better. By the end of the day we should have some clues to go on to find out who’s behind this." Xena stood, signaling the end of the conversation. Gabrielle followed suit after bidding their companions goodnight, following the warrior as her long strides led them from the hall.
The bard found it hard to hold her tongue for the entire trip to their room, but somehow she managed. Most of the time she knew that Xena didn’t mind her rambling. She’d learned over the years, though, that the warrior sent certain little signals to indicate that she was not in the mood for idle chitchat. The stern set to her companion’s shoulders told her this was one of those times. Following the silent warrior into the large room, she leaned against the door to shut it, launching into her tirade of questions. "So what do you think, Xena?"
"I think I’m going to bed."
The bard sighed, preparing herself for the chore it was going to be to get her friend talking. "No. I mean about Makeda and Solomon. Who’s trying to kill her?"
The bard moved casually to the bed, sitting with one leg on the floor, facing the warrior, who was reclined in a plush chair facing the bed, beginning the ritual sharpening of her sword. "Gabrielle, I still have no idea. I’ll talk to the army tomorrow and try to see if anyone there holds a strong grudge against either of them." The dark woman looked up from her work to look at her friend perching on the edge of the bed. "The best bet is that someone on the inside is responsible."
"Maybe it was just those two guys." She pushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and leaned closer to her friend.
The warrior seemed to consider this, her brow furrowed in concentration. "Perhaps, but I doubt it. The two attackers were from two different armies. Looks like a bigger conspiracy to me. We’ll see."
"Okay." Gabrielle was almost disappointed. She knew that Xena was merely mortal, but the things she did often made her friend forget that she couldn’t perform miracles. Most of the time she managed to do the impossible. When she didn’t, it was hard to remember that the warrior was just a woman. An amazing woman indeed, but not quite a goddess.
The bard walked across the room to search through their supplies, stacked neatly in the farthest corner. She separated her sleeping shift from the rest of the clothes, shook it out with a crack of the air, then stripped off her travelling garb. Pulling on the light fabric, she walked to the bed absently and hopped under the covers. Leaning on her elbow, the bard watched her friend’s hands rhythmically stroke her sword.
A raised eyebrow and slight smirk alerted her that something was amiss. She knew that inquiring look well. Thinking furiously, the young woman puzzled over what her friend was internally laughing at. I hate it when she does this. The last straw was Xena shaking her head and returning her attention to her task. "What?"
Sparkling blue eyes turned back to her in amusement. "Nothing. I was just wondering what’s wrong with your bed."
"Oh I " Fair cheeks immediately began to shade darker. She’d forgot all about the other bedroom they’d been given. Lately there was never a question as to one room or two. Gabrielle enjoyed being close to her companion and had an idea that Xena shared her feelings. There was an emptiness when they were apart.
The warrior didn’t wait too long to take pity on her. "Don’t worry about it. The bed’s plenty big enough for both of us."
The bard let out a relieved breath and settled into the pillows. Sometimes the warrior surprised her with her ability to understand. Watching her best friend’s restless routine, Gabrielle allowed the rasping sound to lull her into a contented sleep.
Even in the beautiful palace housing them, the routine for warrior and bard remained strangely normal. Xena arose before the rooster’s crow, pulled on leather and armor in silence, stole a glance at her sleeping companion, then quietly exited the room. She knew that Gabrielle would wake soon, missing her presence, but the bard was used to it, having resigned herself to the warrior’s unbreakable routines.
Besides, Xena enjoyed the opportunity to see her friend sleeping. She was so innocent and beautiful. There couldn’t be a better way to begin a day in the tumultuous world where they lived. With her tendencies to darkness, she often needed the reminder that light was all around if she would just look hard enough.
The barracks were a respectable distance away from the palace, far enough to not diminish its beauty, but close enough to provide a defending battalion of soldiers in a heartbeat. The warlord in Xena appreciated the setup, directly in the heart of the ancient city, fully protecting it from surprise. She’d already noticed the patrols of soldiers that protected the city’s borders. If for nothing else, Solomon had her respect for knowing how to protect his precious city.
Pulling her warrior persona completely to the surface, eyes cloudy with unleashed fury, the dark woman strode purposefully to the attentive soldier guarding the entryway. He bristled in anticipation, swallowing nervously, but stood his ground admirably. A slight breeze shook the stripped armor over his thighs. "Halt." His voice was loud, lacking only slightly in conviction.
Xena loved this part of her image. She’d give it all up to bring back the lives she’d taken over the years, but since that was impossible, the warrior didn’t see anything wrong with enjoying men trembling at her feet. "Take me to your leader."
The man swallowed heavily again, his fuzz-covered throat swelling with the effort. "Who by whose orders?"
"I’m here on behalf of the King." The nervous man didn’t move a muscle, either not believing her or paralyzed with fear, she couldn’t tell. She took a step to bring herself within his space, looking down on him with menace. "Take me to your commander or I’ll go by myself. You choose."
Eyes growing wide, the guard stumbled clumsily back. "This this way." He was finally able to blink his eyes again, turning toward the building and leading the warrior down the hallway.
The bricked barracks were simple in construction, inside and out. Soldiers didn’t need much, of course, so it was virtually perfect. Rows and rows of cots lined a dusty walkway leading to the lone room in the back. The commander’s area was separated from the rest of the building by a beaded curtain door, much more colorful than seemed appropriate for the basic surroundings.
The guard, seemingly recovered from his insecurities, parted the curtains and flowed through the door, holding the beads open for Xena to enter. "General, a warrior to see you."
As he looked up from the maps on the mahogany table, his eyes told her all she needed to know. It wasn’t the startling colorlessness of them, but the defiant recognition blazing beneath the surface. Xena didn’t recognize him, she knew she would remember if she’d ever seen him before. His dark features were consistent with the rest of the people of the land, but his hair was a snow white and his eyes stood out starkly. Copper skin was chiseled with scars and lines reminiscent of many hard years. Even if he didn’t know her from the past, his eyes told her that he hated her already.
A feral smile graced his thin lips. "Ah Solomon’s pet finally comes to rest at the master’s feet."
The warrior sighed inwardly. Beautiful. This is going to be a blast. I’m glad Gabrielle isn’t here. With a move the general didn’t see until it was too late, a strong grip was clutching his throat, pinning his body against the nearest support beam. His large hands attempted to free his throat to no avail. "The only person who is going to be resting permanently will be you if you talk to me like that again."
She held him there for several gasping moments, until the wildness left his eyes and a hint of fear took over. Much to her muscles’ delight, she allowed him to slide back to the ground, keeping her face inches from his and her fingers lightly clenched around his neck. "I’m here to get answers. We can do it the hard way, or the easy way. It’s up to you."
As the shaken man seemed to make a decision, his jaw set tight. He nodded his head and looked away as the warrior took a step back. "All right. What do you want to know?"
Knowing that the chances at getting any good information from him now were shot, Xena set out to find out all she could about this man. He didn’t appear to have any great love for the famous King he served.
"What do you know about the attacks on Queen Makeda?" The warrior waited patiently with hands on hips.
"Nothing. Her own guard attacked her. I wasn’t there." Anger still sparked his pale eyes as he answered through gritted teeth.
Striking down the urge to throttle the man, Xena kept her own anger from her voice. "Had you ever had contact with her army before she came to the kingdom?" She knew he was lying already. Solomon himself had said the second attack came from one of his guard.
The man bristled sharply, the wild look returning to his face. "You’re crazy if you think I had anything to do with this."
"Everyone has a price." The warrior spoke flatly, sure of her statement. Everyone had a price, of that she was sure, a lesson she’d paid for a hundred times over in blood through the years. She was only just beginning to learn that the price didn’t always involve gold.
"You may, but I serve King Solomon. I don’t have any reason to act against him." White hair flew from his shoulders as he took a violent step backwards, distancing himself from the dark woman. "Take your accusations elsewhere, foreigner."
Holding back a smirk, the warrior exited the room without further words. She’d seen all she needed to. It wouldn’t take much for that man to turn, no matter how much he protested otherwise. The General was full of self-importance, king or no king. The person with the highest price could have his services if it so suited him.
He wasn’t the only person in Jerusalem with means of harming the visiting Queen, though, so Xena set off to talk to anyone who was willing. Somewhere she would pick up the clue to lead her where she needed to go.
The gruff, bearded guard stood at attention as she exited the barracks. His eyes cut to her in apprehension, but he seemed to have overcome his fear of her from the earlier confrontation. When the warrior turned to questioningly face him, the man tried to reclaim some of his honor. "What do you want from me, warrior?"
"Do you serve your King or your General?"
Dark eyes narrowed in confusion. "I serve my General to serve my King."
The guard was simple, his brain visibly working behind his eyes, but Xena could see the honor in his countenance. "Then your King needs some information. Will you give it to me?"
Straightening perceptibly, the man’s leathers creaked as he answered. "I would give my life for the King."
She smiled inwardly. As long as she could find a few men like this, the answers to this little puzzle wouldn’t take so long to find. Then she could get onto more important things. "What do you know of the attacks on Queen Makeda?"
"Only what the General told us and that her life is still in danger." His shoulders shrugged in dismissal.
The answer was less than satisfying. "What exactly did the General tell you?"
The man shifted a little, suddenly uncomfortable. She could see the war going on within him, wanting to be loyal to his leader, but also wanting to do what was best for the kingdom. "Just that the leader of her guard tried to slit her throat. The General was there with King Solomon’s honor guard. He ran the bastard through right off." The pride was strong in his thick voice.
"Are you saying that the General was there when the second attack happened?" Xena’s eyes widened at the break. If it was true, the General had lied to her in their brief encounter.
Still full of pride, the soldier puffed his chest up to it’s maximum. "He was right there. The General helped saved the Queen. He’s a great leader." The man had no idea that his statement was less than true.
So loyal and so blind. I can’t count the number of men who served me like that and died. The warrior shook her head slightly with regret. If she could help it, this man would not come to that end. "Thank you soldier. You’ve done a service to your king." She nodded to him and continued on her way.
Stalking through the city streets, she planned the rest of her day, intending to spend it systematically questioning the populace. The army was the most important factor. The more of them she could get alone, the better. That meant the first stop was the training grounds she had seen at the edge of the city filled with brave young men marching in unison through the shining sand.
Soft rays of light fell across Gabrielle’s fair skin, warming it perceptibly as she slowly pulled herself from sleep. Eyes still closed, a small hand immediately fell upon the empty bed beside her, feeling for her friend out of habit. One day she knew she’d wake up and Xena would still be there. It hadn’t happened yet, but she had tremendous faith.
Groggily stumbling out of bed, she began the involved ritual it took to bring herself fully awake. She relished that this morning she could take her time, knowing that no camp had to be deconstructed. It also helped that Xena wasn’t buzzing about her, even though he gentle morning nagging was kind of cute.
A gentle knock sounded from the door just as Gabrielle finished lacing her tall, burgundy boots. As she stood, the long rust skirt covered her footgear, much to her chagrin. Xena had convinced her that she would best serve their purpose by blending in with Queen Makeda’s entourage. She already stood out because of her golden hair and light skin, but at least with a more modest dress she wouldn’t draw so many outraged or lecherous glares. Still, it eerily reminded her of her days as a young girl, her mother constantly trying to teach her all the rules to being a proper young lady.
Thank the gods I didn’t listen to all that crap. With a spring in her step, she hopped up from the bed and moved toward the door. "Come in."
Queen Makeda poked her dark, curly head in before coming fully into the room. In the morning light she seemed even younger than before, her eyes gentle and innocent. Her dress was still regal in its silkiness, but she chose a more conservative than her previous ensembles, perhaps to fit with her newest guard. "Good morning." Spoken so shyly it was almost a whisper.
The bard bowed slightly before addressing the woman. "Good morning, Your Majesty."
"Please Gabrielle. No formalities between us. Call me Makeda and I will call you friend." Shining white teeth enhanced the young woman’s smile as she took in the bard’s nod.
"Okay." She was already feeling a kinship to the mysterious young woman, though she had no idea why. Xena would probably just make a quip about how Gabrielle never met anyone she didn’t like, which wasn’t far off the truth, but Makeda had a quality that reminded her of something. The look in her eyes was so familiar.
The Queen hopped upon the bed’s high mattress in a flourish, smiling as she continued to bounce for a few moments. The actions were less like a regal queen and more like a girl. "Are you staying with me today?"
"Yeah so what’s the plan?" She’d spent so many years with her warrior friend that the bard was always ready to execute some sort of tactically sound plan.
A delicate hand flew to Makeda’s mouth to muffle her giggle as she fell back on the bed. She finally looked up at Gabrielle, a bright smile on her lips. "There is no plan. I am just waiting in the palace until I have lunch with Solomon." She struggled back up when her companion sat beside her on the soft bed.
With a thoughtful look, the bard nodded her head. Apparently this assignment wasn’t going to be as exciting as she’d first imagined. "Oh, okay." No reason the day should be completely uneventful. I am sitting here with a queen, after all. A glint appeared in caring green eyes. "So, what is the King like?"
Taking a deep breath, dark, dreamy eyes moved to study the ceiling. "He is the most wonderful man I have ever met. So smart and handsome " Her voice trailed off.
Gabrielle’s eyebrows shot under her bangs in surprise. The answer was nothing close to what she’d expected. Here she was, sitting with the leader of a powerful nation, listening to her coo like a lovesick teenager. Of course, she was a teenager, but still. "Are you " The bard bit her tongue upon realizing how personal her intended question was.
Makeda turned to her friend with wide eyes, a deep blush visible even through her dark skin. "Oh n no " Her voice shook.
"I’m sorry, Makeda. I had no right to ask that." Inwardly kicking herself, she shifted uncomfortably on the bed.
Compassionate dark eyes turned to her. The Queen placed a hand gently on the bard’s knee. "It is okay, Gabrielle. I just well, nothing has happened between us."
"But you’d like it to." Finishing the thought for the reluctant Queen.
The petite woman let out a deep sigh as she stood from the bed. Her whole bearing changed with her emotions. She moved over to the window and took in the interior courtyard in silence. Brightly colored drapes on both sides of the window made her silver silk robe glimmer radiantly. Her short, coal black hair glistened in the sunlight, the center point of the picture.
When she finally spoke, her voice overflowed with sadness. "Have you ever been in love, Gabrielle?"
Although she hadn’t expected the question, there was no hesitation. "Yes."
Arms tightly over her chest, the Queen turned away to face the room, a melancholy smile on her face. "Good, then maybe you can help me."
Alarm flooded the bard’s body. She suddenly knew that being in love and being able to give advice about it were two very different things. As a matter of fact, from the circumstances of her complicated love life, or lack of one, she knew that she was probably the last person in the known world who should be giving such advice. "Umm I don’t know if that’s such a good idea."
Makeda chuckled as she settled back on the bed. "Do not worry, I will not hold you responsible. It is nice to have someone to talk to about it. None of my royal guards are exactly the sensitive types."
That got a relieved smile from the bard. She’d never had anyone to talk to about such matters, so she knew exactly where the young woman was coming from. "Alright. As long as you know I’m no expert, tell me all about it."
"I had never been in love until I met Solomon. I never expected it to happen really. The responsibilities I have to my people dictate the course of my life. Every man I have ever met has only known me as the Queen." She smiled sadly and gratefully accepted the sympathy coming from her companion. Her dark eyes showed maturity not present in the girl who was just gushing about a handsome beau.
"The first time I saw him, my heart skipped a beat and I knew that he was like no one I had ever met. At first we talked of stately matters and he showed me all the courtesies of a hosting king." Makeda’s dark eyes turned to the window again, not seeing what was there, but some dream far off in her mind.
After a few moments of silence, Gabrielle decided to try to bring the woman back to the conversation. "And then something changed."
The Queen sighed and turned back to her friend. "Yes and no. I had only been here half a moon, but it felt like a lifetime. Solomon proved to me that he was indeed a wise man, but he’d also stolen my heart. It was a shock to me to realize I never wanted to leave this place." She surveyed the simple guestroom, eyes moving across the padded chair, polished dresser, and carved table without seeing them.
"Does Solomon feel the same way?" The bard ached at the sadness permeating from the woman beside her.
"I think so, though we have never talked of it. When we are together I can see the longing in his beautiful eyes, though he has not so much as kissed me." A mirthless laugh escaped her throat.
Tucking golden hair impatiently behind an ear, Gabrielle’s mind began to work on the problem. At this moment, the broken heart facing her seemed much more important than any possible assassins or wars. This was something she could relate to. Her own dilemma might continue, but this she could solve. "Is the King married?"
Dark brows furrowed and Makeda looked thoroughly confused. She stared at her friend a moment before answering. "Yeeesss." She drew out the word. "I guess he does not wish to add another number to his harem."
Hmmm Married. That is a problem. No problem was greater than love, though, she was sure. "If he loves you, we can find a way."
"Gabrielle " The Queen stopped in mid-sentence as a guard stepped through the door. His gleaming armor clanked quietly as he stood rigidly at attention. "Yes?"
"The King requests your presence for the mid-day meal, Your Majesty." His eyes remained fixed somewhere over the women’s heads.
Makeda turned with a smile to the bard. "We can continue this debate later. Please join me for lunch." Her official attitude was firmly in place.
Never one to turn down a good meal, Gabrielle perked at the suggestion, standing enthusiastically. She could mend broken hearts better on a full stomach anyway. "Lead the way, your majesty." A firm arm swept before the Queen.
The young woman smirked at her friend, leading them out of the simply furnished bedroom toward the massive dining hall. Tapestries adorned the passageways throughout the palace, scenes of ancient men doing historic things. Gabrielle didn’t understand them yet, after only seeing them briefly on two passes, but they appeared to depict some of the stories she’d heard about the One God religion. She’d definitely have to arrange it with Xena so that she could spend some serious time just roaming the palace halls.
The bard wondered what kind of trouble her friend was making for the poor citizens of Jerusalem. They’d been apart for a few hours, which provided ample opportunity for the warrior to scare most of the people in any given area witless. Hopefully she’d already figured out this whole assassination mess, so they could spend a while taking in the strange sites of the land.
Once seated at the distractingly long table, the two women chatted amiably, waiting patiently for the king to arrive. The bard was beginning to think that it must be wise to make a grand late entrance when Solomon finally strode through the wide doors. An elegant red robe swished behind him as he made his way to the chair beside Makeda.
"Please forgive me for keeping such beautiful ladies waiting." He appealed to the pair with dark, pleading eyes and a crooked smile.
Makeda slapped his arm playfully as he sat, followed shortly by a graceful blush when their eyes met. The chemistry between them was as palpable as the air. "Gabrielle has been telling me about Greece. It sounds like an amazing place."
"Ah full of heathens is what I have heard." Solomon smirked at the bard and raised an eyebrow in a disturbingly familiar motion. His voice was light and full of laughter. As much as the weight of the world had been on his shoulders in their previous encounters, he seemed like a carefree child sitting beside the Queen, his robed arm resting on the chair back behind her.
Gabrielle was delighted by his playfulness, especially the opportunity to be included in it. She’d heard things about the man, but this was definitely not one of them. No one talked about the Great King Solomon as a mirthful soul. Xena would never believe her. "From where I sit, you look more like a heathen. Doesn’t seem too wise to me."
"Yes, yes, I am Solomon the wise. You must have questions of me. Are you not a bard?" The question suggested that she was somehow failing in her duty to the world. Servants came to their far end of the table and began distributing food to the trio as they bantered.
"I am a bard." She took a bite of a fowl leg as delicately as possible. "That doesn’t mean I need your wisdom, though." Her golden head tilted defiantly, green eyes twinkling.
Solomon tsked at her through a mouth full of vegetables, an action somehow strangely regal. "Do you not need to know how to get your father’s sheep to breed more rapidly. Or how to mill grain so that ale stays fresh longer." He picked up his jeweled wine goblet and tipped it toward her. "Surely you know someone who could use such information."
Eyes slightly narrowed, the bard wondered how he surmised she knew people who might use those facts. Perhaps he did have some keen insight others lacked. She certainly didn’t think she looked like a sheepherder’s daughter any longer and she knew without a doubt that Xena didn’t look like an innkeeper’s progeny. Whatever the answer, she was unwilling to break the reverie they were engaging in to ask idle questions unlikely to be solved.
Small hands released a ravaged leg bone, dropping it on her ornate china dish with a clink, a single finger pointing to the smiling King. "I have most of the knowledge in the known world available to me at the snap of a finger." She made her point by snapping two fingers enthusiastically, waiting an appropriate moment as two pairs of dark eyes looked at her skeptically. "Xena is the wisest and most intelligent person I’ve ever met. She can solve any problem a person, or god, can create. One time "
And she was off, much to the delight of her companions, spinning tale after tale of her best friend.
Shutting the heavy wood door with a muted thud, the warrior entered the bedchamber expecting to see Gabrielle fast asleep in the monstrous bed. What she got was a brilliant smile and sparkling green eyes, shifting and mysterious in the flicker of the candlelight. The bard was dressed in her tattered sleeping shift, sprawled on her stomach across the bed, hand perched above a scroll, tightly clutching a delicately carved quill. Xena felt her heart speed up at the vision, swallowing hard and forcing herself to continue on into the room.
"That took longer than you expected I guess, huh?" As always, Gabrielle was giving her the easy way out, knowing the explanation before one was given. The woman knew her far too well.
Xena sat down at her friend’s side, placing one hand gently on her shoulder, silently apologizing for her long absence. "Yeah, I had to follow the troops on maneuvers to talk with some of them."
"So, did you figure out who’s after her yet?" The bard’s eyes took on a challenging glint, one her friend knew well. Many late night discussions had revolved around the warrior’s seeming limitless ability to solve problems. She could never quite convince her friend that her abilities were anything less than godly.
Crossing her arms over her chest, the dark woman gave her friend a menacing look. As an answer she received an elbow in the ribs, which caused the whole bed to jiggle and creak loudly. "I may have learned a thing or two, but I couldn’t convince anyone to blatantly rat out the conspirators."
She hated to leave her friend’s warm energy, but a routine was a routine, so Xena left the bed and crossed to their bags. Silently, she pulled out the stone and rags, settled herself in the room’s only chair, and began to sharpen. Gabrielle took the break in the conversation as a chance to put up her scrolls and move to the head of the bed, snuggling in under the plush covers. The warrior noticed the contented little sighs, feeling a sweet lethargy begin to settle over her body. It took a violent mental shake to pull herself out of that little trap, though she longed for the day when she could fall in willingly.
Gabrielle peered dubiously at her friend’s cleaning routine, seeming to take extra care to examine the familiar sword. "You didn’t have to use that today, did you?" She tried to keep her voice unconcerned, but Xena could hear that slight tremor of worry.
"Nooo." She drew out the word. "I told you I was just investigating today. When you’re not with me it’s much easier for me not to kill people." They both chuckled at the comment, not acknowledging that it was an uncommonly true statement.
Lying on the bed in contented silence, the bard closed her eyes, listening to the sweet sounds of their nightly ritual. The warrior was almost convinced that she had drifted off when her friend finally continued the conversation. "Do you have any suspects?"
Stilling her hands, Xena considered the question. She’d talked to most of the soldiers in the city and the answers she got were almost all the same. And all pointed unerringly to the same unpleasant person. "I do. It seems that General Suttan is the winner of our contest." Resuming her strokes, she concentrated on what she had learned about the man. "It seems that he doesn’t have much love for King Solomon and doesn’t shy away from telling anyone who will listen."
The bard opened her eyes, studying the woman in the chair beside the bed. "Why does Solomon keep him in the army?"
Xena shrugged. "That’s a question I’d like to ask the almighty wise one." Gabrielle smirked at her and tried unsuccessfully to raise a disapproving golden eyebrow. "I talked to the General first and he lied to me about the attack on Makeda."
"So he’s the one?" She turned to face the warrior in anticipation.
"Likely." Xena stood lazily from the chair and crossed the room gracefully. In moments she was wearing her sleeping shift and crawling under the covers beside her friend.
Scooting over to make more room for the dark woman’s bigger frame, the bard looked at her skeptically. "You don’t sound convinced."
Leaning heavily on the headboard, the warrior ran long fingers through silky dark hair. She wished that she could go arrest Suttan right now and get this business over with. It was too early to do that, though, and she hated it. "Just because people don’t like him or he doesn’t like me is no reason to conclude he did it." The bard tilted her head in reluctant agreement. "I haven’t found any concrete evidence and don’t think I can."
Gabrielle frowned, a deep sigh escaping her lips. "What do we do now?"
Xena smiled, warmed immeasurably by the bard’s implicit trust in her to solve any problem. "For now we just need to keep an eye on Makeda and make sure she’s safe. As far as catching the people responsible for the attacks " The next part wasn’t going to be met with approval and she knew it. It was hard to tell Gabrielle something that would offend her sensibilities. "Well, we just have to hope they try it again."
Propping herself up on her elbows, the bard glared at her friend. "Xena. Isn’t there another way? She shouldn’t have to go through that again."
"If we want to catch them, it’s the only way. They may not even try it again. And if they do, we’ll be ready." She placed a hand on her friend’s leg and patted it gently. "I promise I won’t let her be hurt, Gabrielle."
That seemed to soothe the little woman. She leaned back down onto the bed, pulling the covers back up under her chin. Although the weather was quite pleasant during the day, the chill that settled over the palace at night required the thick blankets. "I know you won’t." Trusting eyes turned back to the warrior. "I just don’t want to have to wait for an attack. You Someone could get hurt." She turned her head up to study the ceiling.
Xena gently grasped her chin and pulled her eyes back over. Smiling gently at the bard, her fingers ran over the soft cheek below them. "Not gonna happen. I like where I am. I’m not leaving." Gabrielle’s tender smile locked the breath in her throat and the warrior could feel her blood begin to race. I’ll never understand what she can do with just a look.
The bard nodded slowly, breaking the spell their locked gazes created. Xena leaned back against the headboard and collected her thoughts. They had been discussing something
"Do you think she’s safe enough?" Concern filled Gabrielle’s sleepy voice.
That was enough to get the warrior’s thoughts back on track, though it was always hard to leave the sweet trail she’d been traveling. "I think so. She’s got guards outside the door and patrolling the courtyard. I checked on her earlier and she was fine."
That seemed to comfort the young woman, her eyes closed again as she spoke. "Good. I really like Makeda. We had a lot of fun today. We didn’t really do much except talk and walk around the palace and stuff." She snuggled further under the covers and yawned. "The best part of the day, though, was when we ate with Solomon. After that I met his wife."
Snorting internally, Xena knew that now was as good a time as any to talk with the bard about this. She was going to find out eventually, and a nice, frank discussion about some of Solomon’s less than noble traits now might save her friend some embarrassment later. "Which one?"
"What do you mean which one? How many does he have?" The young woman yawned again.
Seeing her friend like this, totally open and vulnerable, made the warrior grasp the constant desire to protect her from all harm. She smiled down at the golden head and decided to answer truthfully, even though she knew the bard would be bouncing off the ceiling in a matter of moments. "Five hundred the last time I heard."
Wide green eyes stared at Xena, the bard now fully awake and sitting rigidly on the soft mattress. "Holy minotaurs! Why does he have so many wives?"
She couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on her friend’s face. This was one of the many disadvantages Xena had witnessed of believing in the indefinable concept of true love. And Gabrielle believed in it with all her heart. "I don’t know, but he also has several hundred concubines."
Gabrielle spun around on the bed, twisting the thick comforter below her. The dark woman wished that the king in question were here to witness this, although she knew he would somehow get an earful about the subject. "For goodness sakes. You mean King Solomon?" The bard was clearly having trouble grasping the concept that the man she knew could do something so against her code.
"That’s the one." Xena chuckled harder.
"I can’t believe it. He seems like such a nice man." The bard shook her head in disbelief, her eyes going off in deep thought, sadness filling them. The silence in the room turned chillingly serious.
Something was going on with her friend that the warrior didn’t quite understand. Her mind raced in an effort to find an answer. She knew that Gabrielle would question the King’s matrimonial practices, but she couldn’t have guessed it would cause the profound pain that filled the strong woman’s body. Over the years Xena had learned not to try and guess what would affect the bard in this way. Beauty and tragedy that the warrior couldn’t even comprehend often touched her.
She placed a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, waiting for her eyes to refocus and return to her. "I’m sure there’s a reason we don’t know, Gabrielle. From what I can see, he’s a fine man."
"If he was such a great man, he wouldn’t toy with a woman’s affections like I saw him do today. Makeda is in love with him." The young woman was outraged, her eyes filled with disgust and loathing for the breaking of another’s heart. If Gabrielle hated anything, it was seeing someone without love in their life. On more than one occasion, she’d brought lone travelers to the campfire, offering a warm meal and at least one night’s worth of companionship.
Xena had no idea what to say. The bard had made a friend with this little Queen and now there would be no way to explain away the wrong being done her. She had a fighter in her corner from now on. "I’m sure she knows about his wives."
"It’s not right to give your heart to someone when it’s not yours to give. Even if she knows, Solomon can never devote himself to her with all those obligations." A small hand brushed back golden locks as the bard visibly thought through her options. "I wouldn’t share my soulmate with even one person."
Even in the low firelight, the warrior could see the faint blush creeping up her friend’s cheeks when their eyes met. "Neither would I." The words were soft.
A small smile graced the bard’s lips as she took a deep breath, nodding her head in acceptance of the statement. "I feel so bad for her." Letting go of the tension from the revelation, she turned and leaned back into her pillows.
Knowing it would be a while yet before the sleepiness would reclaim her friend, Xena opted to redirect the conversation. "What was his wife like?"
Golden brows furrowed momentarily before she answered. "Okay, I guess. She acted like Makeda didn’t even exist, but she wasn’t mean or anything." She shrugged her shoulders, pulling them from under the covers and then back again. "Kinda stuck-up, really."
"Where did you see her?" It was odd of the bard to have a negative first impression of a person. Every person they’d ever come across seemed to merit the benefit of the doubt. For Gabrielle not to like this woman, she had to be a real bitch.
"She came into the dining hall while I was telling stories. Reminded Solomon that he was supposed to go to the temple with her later on." The bard’s eyes were closed and her breathing was beginning to even. Xena knew that the soft snores that she’d learned to adore were soon to come.
Settling down into the bed for the night, the warrior filed away the information for later evaluation. At the moment it was time to enjoy one of the precious gifts in her life and get a little rest. "Night Gabrielle."
"Goodnight Xena. Sweet dreams." A small hand snaked under the cover unconsciously and gently grasped a larger one.
Taking a deep breath, the warrior accepted her lot for the night, hoping that the rest of her life would be as sweet as this moment.
Lunch was delicious, consisting of several huge helpings of roasted lamb, filled with tangy herbs and spices Gabrielle had never tasted before, at least not in that combination. If she hadn’t been about to explode and Xena hadn’t been giving her that look, she probably would have eaten another helping or two. After all, they’d probably never be in this part of the world again. Best to take advantage of the local flavors while they were available, she reasoned.
Which was exactly the reason she was so excited when Queen Makeda declared she wanted to go to the bazaar for the afternoon. Xena wasn’t so amused and tried to talk her out of it, but the young woman had insisted. So as the entourage trotted from stall to stall, closely examining every trinket and cloth, one very irritated warrior followed behind, her eyes piercing any soul who dared to step too close.
Being used to such attention from her friend, the bard merrily walked beside the Queen, continuing the constant chatter they’d been sharing since their first meeting. "Ooohhh, look at this Makeda." She held up a billowy silk blouse, a blue as deep as the ocean depths. "You would look great in this."
Dark eyes studied the garment in question critically. "Actually, I think Xena would look better in it than I."
Gabrielle considered that, imagining her friend’s smooth form moving gracefully beneath the soft material, and decided that the Queen was right on target. "Hmmm."
The petite woman snickered at her daydreaming friend, pulling the shirt out of her hands, folding it neatly and replacing it on the peddler’s table. "It is Sumerian, and for a man." Her voice was a whisper as she laced her fingers around Gabrielle’s firm biceps and led her on the short journey to the next booth.
The bard looked back at the shirt and blushed, turning her eyes to the more practical clothes featured at the next station. "Oh " Makeda turned understanding eyes to her, patting her arm gently, which made the golden haired woman’s fair skin darken further. Although she’d certainly never voiced her feelings about Xena, she had an idea that the young Queen had figured it out by now. The sparkle in her dark eyes practically confirmed that they had something in common besides their slight statures.
"A caravan of traders came from Sumeria to show their wares this week. That is why I wanted to come to the market today." The dark woman picked up a small trinket, examining it thoroughly. "I will never make it there myself, so this is as close as I will ever get." She smiled sadly at her friend.
Gabrielle thought she was beginning to see how hard Makeda’s life really was. True, she was privileged and never needed to worry about food or clothing, but by being the ruler of her nation, she gave up the normal life that many people took for granted. She couldn’t walk out into the market without the large group of guards that accompanied them now. And she also couldn’t get a date with some guy she thought was cute, or wise. Many other considerations had to be taken into account, and somewhere in the mix, a simple life was sacrificed for the running of a kingdom and the forming of alliances.
The young woman seemed at home in the market, much as the bard at her side did. The dusty square was filled with rows and rows of crowded booths, barely leaving room for three people to walk side by side through them. Colorful banners draped the tops of the stalls, each trying to draw the shoppers’ attention. The guards in front of them seemed unconcerned with the people bustling past the Queen, keeping a respectable distance to allow her some freedom while still close enough to intervene should something happen. The guards behind allowed less distance, mainly because Xena was behind them, pushing them closer to the bard and Makeda anytime they strayed too far.
The next booth was filled with the most beautiful vases Gabrielle had ever seen. Each had a scene carved around the swell, telling of legends and history the bard had never been told. The Queen seemed enchanted by them as well, holding one reverently in her dark hand, studying the story it told. "This is amazing." Her voice was a whisper, barely heard over the murmur of voices and the rumble of wagon wheels.
Running her fingers over the glazed surface, the bard was amazed to feel the detail in the carved figures. A blind person could as easily read this tale as she could. "Xena should see these." She glanced back to see the warrior looking at her, their gazes locking gently, a barely detectable smirk on her lips. Gabrielle could see a great deal of ribbing coming at her expense about this trip. She loved to make Xena shop every once in a while. Her friend could take it up to a point and they would have a wisecrack competition about it for a week.
Eyes still locked with her friend’s, the bard felt her heart drop into her stomach as a look of alarm raged into those beautiful blue orbs. An instant later, sweaty, hairy arms closed around her from behind and Makeda was screaming an ear-piercing wail. Dragging her backward, the man holding Gabrielle firmly stopped as he bumped into the large cart that had been pulled into the narrow path between the stalls, effectively blocking the guards in front from their charges.
At the same time, a man in a dirt stained robe pulled Makeda around to face him, a wickedly curved blade raised in his filthy hand. As the blade lowered with blinding speed, the bard could hear Xena’s battle cry and see her somersaulting over the dumbfounded guards ahead of her. She wouldn’t make it before that shiny metal was buried deep in the Queen’s chest, though, so the golden haired woman knew she had to act.
Stretching her body as far as her height would allow, Gabrielle kicked out at the man attacking the Queen, one foot glancing off his shoulder. The impact caused him to fall to his right, but not before the knife entered Makeda’s body.
Then Xena was there, throttling the attacker as he fell toward her, a strong roundhouse punch connecting solidly with his jaw. He crumpled to the ground at the same time as his victim, both making empty crashes into the sand-covered walkway.
Ice blue eyes turned to the grubby man holding Gabrielle and the woman in his arms could feel a shudder run unabashedly through his body. Seeing an opportunity, she thrust her elbow into his ribs, sending the man curling up behind her, gasping for breath. The bard ran to Xena, who asked her with a look if she was all right. After a nod of her golden head, the warrior continued to close in on her prey.
Before she reached him, though she could have been there in a moment if she chose, the man straightened and pulled a curved, wide bladed sword from his cloth belt. Not waiting for him to swing it, the warrior kicked with one long leg, hitting him in the face with a booted foot, smashing his head back with a crack, sending his body lifelessly to the ground.
Gabrielle rushed to Makeda’s still body, crouching beside her in horror, placing a small hand gingerly on her back. She looked to Xena, who knelt down on the other side, gently turning the woman onto her back. Blood covered her chest, sticking the silky green robe to her dark skin and seeping off onto the ground in a growing puddle. The bard couldn’t bear to look at the knife protruding from her body. This life she led made it hard to invest in friends, knowing that an occurrence such as this was always a possibility. Her heart ached already, tears spilling silently down her fair cheeks.
Xena ripped Makeda’s dress with savage movements, wrapping the strip tightly around the knife. Blue eyes turned to the watching guards, a hint of disgust lurking behind the concern. "Keep pressure on this and take her to the healer, now." Her voice was stern, making the men jump to take the Queen back to the palace as fast as humanly possible.
The men set off with the wounded Queen, leaving the warrior and bard in the middle of a crowd filled with shocked shoppers. Gabrielle was still crouched in the dirt, tears streaming from her soft green eyes. Xena gently drew her up, placing an arm around her shoulders, steering her toward the palace. Once out of the crowd of bustling people, she spoke softly. "She’ll be okay, Gabrielle."
The bard turned blood shot green eyes to her friend. "Really?" Her voice shook with emotion.
"Really. It’s just a shoulder wound." She placed her index finger just under the straps at the bottom of her shoulder pads. "The knife was keeping the bleeding low and the healer will know what to do."
Gabrielle let out a relieved sigh, poking her friend in the ribs. "You could have mentioned that a couple of minutes ago." Xena sheepishly shrugged her shoulders. The bard snorted in exasperation. "Why was she unconscious?"
"I think she just passed out." The warrior rolled her eyes.
"Don’t laugh. I get that feeling all the time when I’m about to be killed." She poked her companion’s firm stomach again, glad the tension of the moment before was gone.
Xena laughed her low, rumbling laugh, still cradling the bard’s wide shoulders. "That wouldn’t happen if you’d quit offering yourself up to every thief, degenerate, and murderer we pass."
"If you didn’t attract them like moths to a candle I wouldn’t have that problem, Miss leather and muscles." She knew that it seemed like she was a magnet for bad luck, but the bard refused to believe that the Fates had it in for her. And even if they did, she wouldn’t trade all the harrowing episodes she’d survived if it cost her the chance to spend her life with Xena.
Despite the recent attack, a smile creased both women’s faces as they walked through the huge double doors of the palace.
Standing at the back of Queen Makeda’s luxurious quarters, leaning lithely against the grainy wall, one foot flat against its surface, Xena could see every inch of the room. No one could enter without the warrior springing onto them from her perch. The young woman had somehow escaped death, but the wound had left her weak and vulnerable. Leaving her unprotected for a moment could cost her life.
I should have guarded her like this back in that street and maybe this wouldn’t have happened. The warrior berated herself for the thousandth time since the incident. Failure didn’t happen to her often, but when it did, it left her mind in a whirling rage of self-loathing. And not only that, she’d promised her partner that nothing would happen to her new friend. Jaw muscles clinched, her mind raced again over what went wrong in the bazaar. One moment the guards were tightly packed bookends against the shopping pair, the next moment had been filled with chaos, ending with a knife protruding from the Queen’s chest. It could have been Gabrielle. The thought echoed throughout her tormented brain.
As though sensing her friend’s discomfort, the bard turned gentle green eyes on her dark form, flashing a brilliant smile meant only for the warrior. Her small hand still rested on Makeda’s forehead, running a wet cloth against the warm surface. The woman had a low fever, so the healer had started her on several different herbs right away. She’d woken up once since they settled her in her own room, then drifted back off in a medicine induced sleep once she realized she wasn’t dead.
Gabrielle was sitting casually at the small woman’s side, where she’d been since they’d arrived from the market. Xena had been watching her carefully administer to Makeda, love in each touch, even for this woman she barely knew. If she didn’t know how caring Gabrielle was, the warrior knew she’d be jealous.
Not breaking eye contact, the bard waved her friend over to the bed. "C’mere."
Though she had no idea why, the soft words and gentle gesture brought a flush to the warrior’s skin. Trying to regain control of herself, she pulled her body off the wall to join her friend by the bed. "Hey." Her voice was low and emotional, looking into those gentle eyes that touched her soul. If something would have happened to Gabrielle She couldn’t stop the feeling as it rushed through her, thanking any of the gods that might listen to her wishes.
Laying a hand on the warrior’s arm, pulling her so that their legs touched, a puzzled face looked up at her tall friend. "What’s wrong?"
"Nothing." Xena did her best at a smile, hoping the bard didn’t see through it to her true fears. Neither of them were ready for that. "I’m trying to figure out who did this." Steel blue eyes glanced to the prone woman.
Giving a look that made it perfectly clear she didn’t believe that explanation for one moment, Gabrielle let her get away with avoiding the question. They had an understanding developed over years of travel. The bard didn’t ask and the warrior didn’t tell. Xena knew her friend waited patiently for her to express herself on her own, biting back questions she was practically dying to ask, giving smiles of delight when the recalcitrant warrior actually let loose with an emotion.
Gabrielle stood, pulling Xena away from the bed, stopping in front of the window overlooking the courtyard. "Are you gonna put the pinch on the guys who attacked us?" The spunky woman’s eyes glinted with excitement at the thought, the hand that wasn’t holding the warrior’s arm imitating the maneuver in question. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
Finally regaining her composure completely, Xena smirked at the bard. I’m gonna have to teach her pressure points one of these days. She placed a hand on Gabrielle’s firm shoulder, briefly noting the proximity of her friend, most definitely within her personal space, and the now familiar fact that she simply didn’t care. "I thought I might. Want to come and interrogate him?" Pale blue eyes sparked dangerously.
The bard’s face transformed with a brilliant smile, her hand tightening further against the warrior’s arm. Then she looked back to the bed and the sleeping figure there, returning bittersweet green eyes to her companion. "I’d better stay with Makeda in case she wakes up."
Before Xena could respond, her attention was drawn to the guarded door, where Solomon was passing through, impatiently waving off the soldiers who attempted to follow him. The King was dressed in uncharacteristic trousers and a sweat stained white shirt. Stopping abruptly at the side of the bed, he reached out a shaking hand, holding it just above the Queen’s forehead.
Gabrielle returned to the bedside, quietly facing the distraught King. "She’s going to be okay." Her voice was soft.
Misty dark eyes looked up to her, seemingly noticing her presence for the first time. "I just heard what happened. I " He stopped in a choked gasp, putting a hand over his mouth and turning his glare back to the woman on the bed.
The bard’s expression softened as she looked at the man try to hold back his tears. Xena knew her friend was regaining some of her faith in the man’s character, just as she was. No matter how many women he kept at his leisure for whatever reason, Solomon truly cared about Makeda. The tears streaming down his coppery cheeks were proof.
Another set of footsteps, heavy and hurried, prompted the King to wipe his face clean with a sleeve. The woman appeared at his side, looking at the prone Queen with an emotionless stare. The warrior looked to Gabrielle, who seemed to not be too shocked at the woman’s presence.
"Perhaps she should leave now." The woman directed the statement to Solomon, an unrestrained hint of venom in her voice.
"The trip is long, Miriam. She will leave soon enough." His voice was low and exasperated, the automatic statement evidence that the argument was an old one.
Xena observed the woman closely, remembering Gabrielle’s less than enthusiastic impression of her. She shared the sentiment, noting the woman’s hostile posture, her plump body as rigid as the pull of the earth would allow. Long black hair fell over the shoulders of her seamless gray robe. She may have been one of the King’s wives, but her appearance was anything but regal. If not for the richness of her clothing, she could have been any common servant.
"Send extra soldiers with her and they can travel more slowly." Her voice was nasal and high. As an idea formed in her mind, the warrior was very glad she didn’t have to stay around that for long.
Solomon’s temper snapped, turning blazing black eyes on his wife. He straightened to full height and bellowed. "That is enough. You have no right to be here. Leave." A demanding finger pointed to the open door.
The pair on the other side of the bed kept their eyes away from the scene as much as possible. Xena hated being an intruder on interpersonal relationships almost as much as she hated people intruding on hers.
The large woman reluctantly fled the room, leaving a furious Solomon standing beside the bed, hands shaking at his sides. "I am sorry about that ladies. Miriam is a little strong willed at times."
"It’s okay, Solomon." Gabrielle flashed him a gentle smile before his eyes returned to the delicately sleeping woman.
Silence settled over the room, an eerie breeze flowing over the occupants. Though the Queen was well out of danger this time, she was still in a precarious position. Someone was trying to kill her and it didn’t look like anything was going to stop them from other attempts. Thankfully, some potentially great leads waited for the warrior in the prison.
Not wanting to disturb the grieving man, Xena made pinching motions in the air, tilting her head toward the door. The bard nodded with a smirk, a stern look telling the warrior not to take it too far. She gave her own crooked smile in return, striding from the room on a mission.
The smell of the prison was almost overpowering, even to Xena, who had been around the stench of death more times than she liked to recall. The large structure, tucked indiscreetly among the long rows of clustered white brick buildings, was distinctive enough for all citizens to be reminded of its presence. It towered over its neighbors, bars covering the small, high windows.
The burly guards at the door had let her through without protest, apparently already under instruction from the King himself. She found the attackers in the first cell in a very long row of filthy cages. Neither man was fully conscious, both groaning with each breath expelled from their lungs.
Pushing back the desire to punish the soldiers who were responsible for the beating the prisoners had obviously suffered, Xena waved them off, standing in the open door of the cell, looking down at what she had to work with. Blood covered the already dirty clothes each man wore, their faces unrecognizable masses of swelled, damaged tissue. The warrior’s blood boiled at the sight. Someone had beaten these men in the hopes that they died, no doubt so she would not be able to get information from them. Neither looked like they would make it another candlemark.
She knelt down next to the closest man lying on his back in the dirt-encrusted straw. His eyes fluttered open as he tried to speak, his mouth only opening in empty gasps. Tears streamed down his cheeks when he was finally able to make a ragged sentence, barely heard by the warrior’s keen hearing. "I can’t move."
Inhaling a deep, frustrated breath, Xena put a hand against his stomach, immediately feeling the high-pressured swelling and misplaced ribs. He didn’t have long. "It’s okay." She whispered near his ear. Casting eyes across the man’s body to the other prisoner watching her raptly, she made a decision, thankful again that the bard was not with her.
"Who are you working for?" Her voice was emotionless, her eyes hard set, transparent in the dim light coming through the slit window at the top of the wall. The man below her merely gasped, a slight trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth.
Pushing all the memories fighting to surface far away, the warrior slammed her fingers into his neck, exhibiting only her well-practiced nonchalance at the man’s pained expression. "Tell me who hired you." She didn’t think he needed the rest of the explanation. From the short distance that separated her from his glassy eyes, Xena could see the fear, and acceptance, pouring forth. Still, it was little consolation. This was just more blood on her hands she’d hoped to avoid.
A few pained expulsions of blood-filled air marked the man’s passage, his body losing all traces of rigidity, his eyes staring fixed into her soul. Stepping over his limp form, seemingly unaffected, the warrior crossed the cell, stopping just short of the sitting man, bristling at the absolute terror in his bloodshot eyes. He scooted away until his back hit the grainy wall, sending a dusty cloud onto his head, unnoticed in his fright.
"Who are you working for?" She advanced on him relentlessly, stopping when her boots touched his. Despite his battered appearance, his eyes lost all traces of injury, wild with the desire to flee.
"I I’m not sure of his name." He stammered over each word, his voice shaking uncontrollably. "We met him at a tavern. Levi I think that’s ‘is name."
"Exactly what did he ask you to do?" The man looked puzzled at the question. Xena merely stared at him menacingly, detached from the whole scene, refusing to notice the stench of the man’s now wet tunic.
Smashing himself further into the wall, the prisoner looked close to passing out from fear. His eyes shot from her towering height to the door, pleading for rescue. "To kill the Queen."
The warrior nodded, satisfied that she had him exactly where she needed him. "What did this Levi look like?"
"A soldier. He was a soldier. Long black hair and a beard." The frightened man smiled slightly, clearly hopeful that the interrogation was over.
Xena sighed. That description fit almost every man in this area of the world. The Fates wouldn’t allow him to say that the man had snow white hair and clear eyes. At least he’d given her a name. It was something. "Where is this tavern?"
"Just past the market. Has a boar’s head over the door. Can’t miss it." A shaking hand pointed in the direction of the bazaar.
Without a further glance at the quivering prisoner, Xena left the cell, bypassing the attempts of the guard to question her. As she strode up the empty street, the dead man’s face filled her vision, his sightless eyes staring, blaming her. If the buildings would have had breaks between them, instead of being built contiguously as they were, the warrior knew her instinct to bolt out of the town would have overcome her. An overwhelming urge to get away from the people crowding every corner and the tightly packed houses and herself rushed through her being. As it was, she was trapped on her course, heading for the market place and the tavern that would hopefully yield a solution to this ever-frustrating mess.
The structure was like all the others around it, white bricks making up the walls, a cobblestone walkway leading to the door. The only distinguishing feature was the wooden sign dangling from a pole over the entrance. A boar’s head was painted in sloppy brush strokes, barely forming the animal’s features, ivory tusks abstractly distinguishable from its snout. Xena had to chuckle when she saw the less than spectacular representation. She had expected a dried head to be hanging over the door, the boar’s fierce spirit protecting all those who entered. I’ve either spent way too much time listening to a creative bard or too much time killing stuff. She sighed sadly.
Concealing her identity to the patrons’ of the tavern, a dark cloak swished in the wind as she closed the heavy door behind her. Unlike her normal entrances, a head or two turned in her direction, then returned to the interior of the room, back to something more interesting. If she’d been only in her warrior garb, the game would have been over before it began. This way she could get some answers. She spotted the most useful person to her, the barkeep, and walked toward him.
The beefy man poured mug after mug full of ale, working the barrel’s tap as though he could do it in his sleep. His eyes landed on Xena momentarily, unconcerned, then returned to the rote task. After a moment, she spoke above the bunched voices behind her. "Do you know a soldier named Levi?"
Raising his dark eyes, he peered past her, not acknowledging the question. He scanned the tavern with practiced eyes, not stopping long on each table or person, not intruding in his patron’s privacy. The room was filled with sturdy round tables, candles lighting each center, rough looking soldiers sitting around them in clusters. If nothing else, the place looked safe from attack, at least for a few more hours. No one seemed to be drunk yet.
Just as the warrior considered introducing the barkeep to her famous fists, he turned to her and spoke. "He’s in the corner with a lady." His hand set down a full mug of ale, then pointed to the back of the room.
Giving the man a nod, Xena studied the scene. She could see the profiles of the couple, taking in the soldier with familiarity, the lines on his face evidence of a fighting man’s hard life. There was nothing striking or menacing about him. Just another soldier, blurred together in her mind with the multitudes she’d seen in her time.
As her eyes turned to the woman, dressed in robes too fine for the simple establishment, Xena felt a burst of blood rush though her veins. Her lips wanted to curl into a smile, of joy, of relief. It was Miriam, as she’d suspected, idiotically sitting in the middle of town talking to a conspirator to the assassination attempt. The warrior hadn’t liked the woman since their brief encounter and her reaction to Makeda’s latest attack had raised a red flag in her mind. She didn’t know if or how General Sutan fit into the scheme, but now she knew the motive and had at least one guilty party.
Xena didn’t want to confront the woman here, in a crowd. Nor did she think it was her job at all. This was something that needed to be left up to the King and his infinite wisdom.
A raucous round of laughter drew her attention as she arose from the barstool. At the table nearest the door sat a group of celebrating soldiers, rough and rude as any in the place. What distinguished this group was the man sitting lead at the table, his silver hair setting him apart from all of his men. Suttan didn’t seem to notice the warrior walk past his table, nor did he seem to notice two conspirators covertly talking in the back corner of the room. The man was caught up in the life a soldier, oblivious to all that was going on around him. At most, he was an incompetent leader of men. Xena marked the information down in her book, confident that she could strike him from the conspiracy suspect list. Though he wasn’t doing a stellar job leading Solomon’s army, he also wasn’t involved in any crime that didn’t entail wine, women, and debauchery.
In the dry, fresh evening air, away from the smell of sweat and leather, the warrior evaluated her options. Once Solomon arrested Miriam, the only thing left to do would be to round up the soldiers assisting the disgruntled woman and turn them over to justice. After that, she and Gabrielle could book passage back to Greece, away from stinging sand and the sticky heat.
Then what once we get back? More fighting, more killing. Xena shook her head in disgust. She realized that one of her infamous foul moods was coming on, but felt incapable of stopping it. The image of her latest victim stuck in her head, empty eyes seeming to mirror her soul. Though she only hastened his imminent death, it still struck deep in her battered heart. It seemed the more she tried to redeem herself, to work for Gabrielle’s indefinable "greater good", the more people that died at her sword.
Her mind told her that the man took his own life by trying to take another, while her heart spoke of an end to violence and a better way. The part of her that was Gabrielle looked on with a disappointment that injured her more than a knife in the back. Things were supposed to be different now that she walked this path, and she sadly noted that they were. Before, when a man fell to her blade, she tilted her face to the sun, letting it bathe her in glory. Now, as the blood of even the guiltiest soul soaked the ground before her, the warrior felt the blow acutely in every fiber, every tear. She longed for an end to the killing.
Each step to the door of the palace fell to her dark demeanor, her stride purposeful and confident. The skin was taut along her high cheekbones, her jaw clenched against the anger. Soldiers parted for her as if she were the King himself, though she barely noticed, her mind trained on bringing an end to this escapade. They’d spent far too much time in the land of Canaan for Xena’s taste.
Knowing that at least Gabrielle would be there, the warrior entered Makeda’s room, quickly noting the young woman sitting up in her plush bed. Solomon sat on one side of her, Gabrielle on the other. As she’d become accustomed during her long reign as chief intimidator, all conversation, joyful only a moment before, ceased abruptly when the warrior’s presence was detected. Only the bard looked up at her with welcome.
Gabrielle stood from the bed, meeting the warrior as she reached the foot. She placed a hand gently on Xena’s arm. "I’m glad you’re back, I was getting worried."
Taking a deep breath, Xena did her best to ignore the comforting presence that her friend provided. Right now, more than anything, those well-built walls of hers needed to stay firmly in place. If they didn’t things wouldn’t be pretty.
She roughly pulled her arm out of the bard’s grasp, choosing not to look at the young woman’s face, already knowing the hurt would be there, as she’d seen so many times before. Her eyes drilled into the seated King. "Miriam is the one trying to kill Makeda." As usual, short and to the point, just the way she liked it.
"Mir..that is ridiculous. Miriam wouldn’t do something like that. You must be mistaken." His dark head shook in disbelief.
"I saw her speaking with a man involved in the last attack." She held her body tense, trying to project as much authority as possible. She didn’t want this man’s personal feelings getting in the way of ending this threat. "She’s the one, Solomon."
His eyes narrowed at the way she said his name. "I will speak with her. I am sure there is an explanation." Solomon’s shoulders straightened in defiance.
Feeling the rage boiling just under the surface, the warrior cast her gaze over the King’s head, into the courtyard. "Do what you want. I just hope Makeda doesn’t pay the price for your ignorance."
Much to her dismay, Xena couldn’t calm her building stress. Even with the mystery solved, her shoulders still weighed heavy under pressure. Nothing had gone the way she intended. Gabrielle had been hurt through Makeda, Solomon hadn’t turned out to be the all-seeing man she’d hoped, and she still hadn’t secured the scroll she’d hoped to find. She berated herself for believing in such things. She’d been around too long to pick up her friend’s innocent dreams.
Letting her eyes pass over Gabrielle’s appalled face as she moved, Xena turned from the quiet trio, striding purposefully through the door. She’d done what she could to convince the King to take action against Miriam, short of taking the woman into custody herself. Hopefully it was enough.
After a few minutes of angry silence, Solomon finally dismissed the warrior’s words, turning his attention back to Makeda and Gabrielle. "What we need, ladies, is a celebration." His smile was wide as he said the words.
"What kind of a celebration?" The young Queen’s voice was much stronger than it had been earlier in the day. Her strength was returning much faster than it would have if Xena hadn’t been there to treat her wound on the scene. As it was, she only lost a minor amount of blood.
Taking her delicate hand in his larger ones, he unconsciously placed a kiss on the dark skin. Makeda’s eyes lit up delightedly. "A private one, for you and I, and Gabrielle " He turned to the bard, nodding to her in approval. "We need a celebration of new friends, of old souls, and of bittersweet partings." His face took on a sad expression, his eyes going distant for a moment, then returning to Makeda.
Gabrielle had never seen him so uninhibited. Since sending Miriam away, he’d been doting on his young love, charming her with sweet words and gentle touches. There was no mistaking his motives now. Whether for the first time, or the five hundredth, Solomon was in love. The bard knew the look well. She also knew well his caution, never quite saying his real feelings, or touching as expressively as he wanted to touch.
"That’s a great idea, Solomon, but I don’t think now is the time." She motioned to the prone woman between them.
"That might be true, Gabrielle, be if we plan on a celebration, we have got to do it soon. Makeda is leaving in less than a quarter moon. Her entourage is preparing as we speak." The King stood, arms crossed over his silk covered chest.
Mirroring the action, the bard sighed in dismay. She’d only met these people, and now she was going to have to part from them, perhaps forever. "Does she have to leave?"
Makeda cleared her throat, interrupting Solomon’s answer, apparently not too happy about being discussed as if she was not in the room. Her eyes drooped slightly, her voice sleepy. "I must return to my kingdom, though I would wish nothing more than to stay here with my friends. As soon as I am able, we go back to Askum."
"Then we’ve got to make your last few days special." She accepted Makeda’s nod, watching her tired eyes close. The Queen’s breathing evened almost immediately. The bard motioned Solomon to the window and spoke in a low voice. "What are you going to do?"
His voice was a tortured whisper. "I am going to watch her leave."
Gabrielle looked out into the courtyard, seeing the answer to her questions in a rigid, leathered body. Xena was seated on a low bench, her hands gripped tightly on the smooth wood beside her legs. Just the thought of being in Solomon’s situation made the bard cringe, her heart pounding for the man’s pain. There had to be something she could do for him. "I I don’t think I could stand that, if it happened to me."
"I want you to know, Gabrielle, that I care very deeply for Makeda. But I knew from the beginning, from the first time her eyes looked into my soul, that this would happen." The candlelight behind them flickered across his face, showing lines of age that hadn’t been there before. "We both have duties that will not allow what we may want. No matter how badly we want it. That that is why I have not allowed us to get any closer than we have. I do not want to see her hurt."
Turning her eyes to him, the bard shook her head. For someone so wise, Solomon was totally missing the point. "But don’t you see, Solomon, she’s already hurt." He let out an explosive breath and turned away from her. "If you refuse to express your feelings now, you’re only putting up a dam when the river’s already flooded over the land."
The King ran a hand through his pitch hair, looking anything but regal. At the moment, he looked more like a confused boy, wishing the weight of the world wasn’t settled so squarely on his shoulders, amazingly similar to the warrior still brooding outside the window.
Sensing Solomon’s internal struggle increase, Gabrielle spoke in her most soothing, gentle voice. "I’ve been told that it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Maybe you should take advantage of the time you have left together and deal with the consequences after." The bard had to fight the desire to laugh at her, of all people, saying that. She realized that her own situation made her want to help the star crossed lovers all the more.
"Is that what you have done, Gabrielle? Thrown all caution to the winds for your love?" He turned back to her, his dark eyes brimming with tears, his voice cutting. His arms were out from his sides, palms turned up in question.
Gabrielle couldn’t help but drop her head at the harsh question. She hadn’t realized that even he had seen her heart so clearly. "No, you know it’s not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do." She cast strong green eyes on him, pulling one of his trembling hands toward her body. "You’ve just got to have the courage to take the chance, Solomon. My day of bravery hasn’t come yet. You’re about to miss yours."
Tears streamed down his face as he nodded his head in acceptance. Still gripping her hands firmly, he stroked her cheek gently with the other. "How did you become so wise, young one?" His voiced trembled.
The bard laughed softly. "I’m anything but wise. I don’t go a day without doing something utterly stupid and usually dangerous." Solomon moved his hand so that his larger ones covered both of hers completely, comfortingly. "Naïve maybe, but never wise."
"No, no. You are wrong Gabrielle. I can see an amazing wisdom in you. You have the truest heart I have ever known. You should trust it." He turned his head to the window, directing both of their attentions to the still figure framed there.
The smile that creased her face was involuntary, but she wouldn’t have stopped it if she could have. Solomon said to trust her heart. It sounded so easy, and tempting. One day "Perhaps." She squeezed his hand one last time, then pulled free, taking a step back. "Right now I, uh, need to go."
Solomon gave her a knowing smirk. "Of course you do. Come back and stay with Makeda in the morning. I will have plenty of business to attend to and I do not want her to be left alone." He waved her away, pointing to the open door.
"I’ll see you then." She left the room, barely noticing the rows of guards placed all over this wing of the palace, her steps taking her to the interior courtyard. Standing still in the cool night air, the bard waited patiently for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, taking in soothing breaths.
She soundlessly approached the warrior, knowing that her presence had been detected by her friend’s keen senses before she even stepped out of the palace. Gabrielle was thankful of the covering dress she was still wearing. The air was just cool enough to put prickles on her arms, as a slight breeze rustled through her golden hair.
The courtyard was empty, save the two silent women, several well cared for trees, and a pool of clear water. Silver light rippled off the surface, reflecting a perfect sliver of moon and a million dots of light. Gabrielle sat gingerly on the cold smoothness of the bench, leaving a space between them. Earlier, she’d seen the guilt and grief of the past in Xena’s eyes, a past she feared the warrior would never let herself be free of. Knowing her friend’s self-torture, the bard found the slights she was often given easier to take.
After several moments of hearing only their own breathing and the rush of the wind, the warrior broke the silence. "Makeda looked better." Her voice still comprised of anger, she kept her eyes across the yard, her hands still firmly gripping the wood below her.
"She is. She’ll be leaving in a few days." Studying the warrior, Gabrielle noted the relieved exhale of breath, and the slight withdrawal of tension from her shoulders. "It’s hard to watch two people so in love be torn apart."
"Either she leaves or someone will kill her. Solomon doesn’t seem very willing to take care of that problem." A group of soldiers marched across the other end of the courtyard in formation, armor clinking in the stiff breeze. "Love won’t do her any good if she doesn’t have a life."
Gabrielle smiled at her friend’s typically practical view of life. Xena could be the most complicated person in the world at times, but when it really came down to it, her acceptance of the simplicity of life defined her. Still, the bard enjoyed trying to get her to see the beauty in things. "She might say that life doesn’t do you any good without love."
Blue eyes turned her way, a smile slowly creeping into them, some of the anger fleeing into the night air. "Or you might say that."
"I might." Sensing her chance, Gabrielle scooted across the wood until their thighs were touching lightly. "What happened tonight?"
The warrior released a mirthless laugh, shrugging her broad shoulders helplessly. "I killed a man and found out who was behind the assassination attempts. What do you think happened?" The softness of her voice took the sting out of the words.
Nodding her head in understanding, the bard put her arm casually around her friend’s waist and gave an affectionate squeeze. "I think you saved the day and stopped all the bad guys, just like you always do."
Xena shook her head in mock bewilderment. "What am I gonna do when you finally figure out I’m not the hero you think I am?" One eyebrow raised in question.
Gabrielle could hear the humor in the statement, but knew it was an old, old fear of the warrior. "That’ll never happen."
"I wasn’t much of a hero today. You could have been killed and Makeda almost was." Frustration was evident in her silky voice.
Staring up at the night sky, the bard searched for the words to express her faith. "But we weren’t."
"I wasn’t fast enough to prevent the whole thing. I should have been. I promised you she wouldn’t be hurt." Blue eyes remained fixed across the empty courtyard.
"You’ll always be my hero, Xena. No matter what happens, you’ve already saved me a million times over." She placed her golden head on a strong, well-padded shoulder, soaking up her companion’s warmth and the night’s peace.
The warrior was silent for a time, leaning into the embrace without reservation. Though the bard knew her tough warrior would never say it, moments of reassurance and commitment like these were very important to her. She needed to be dragged back to the present after being pushed so violently into her past, as often happened.
Not realizing she’d fallen asleep, the bard startled when the warrior’s arm closed over her shoulders. She blinked sleepily into blue eyes, accepting the silent tug that pulled her up from the bench, toward the warm comfort of the palace and their room.
Walking through the hallowed halls of the temple, gold adorning every surface, Xena wished this mission wasn’t a secret one and that the bard could be with her. While Gabrielle would love the gift she was procuring, she’d also very much like to see the inside of the magnificent building. The warrior knew that if she could appreciate the beauty of the place, her observant friend would be giddy in her appraisal. The warrior smiled as she imagined the way the bard’s eyes would light up at the grandeur of it all, which also brought up the picture of her friend as she’d seen her last, sleeping peacefully in their rumpled bed.
When she’d first read the message from Solomon, a simple plea for help, an idea had formed in her mind. Looking back on it, she couldn’t help but laugh. Here she was, the fierce warrior princess, traversing the world to buy a birthday present for her friend. The bigger you are
The guard led her into a spacious office where the King sat studying parchments. The dark man looked up at her with a smirk. "I see you have come for payment."
"I’ve come for what we discussed, yes." She couldn’t meet his eyes. Not that he was so unlike her, pining for a woman he couldn’t have. They were both pretty pathetic in her eyes.
Solomon thumbed through the scrolls piled on the desk until he found the one he wanted. He held it gingerly, tapping it against one palm. "She will like this." He smiled at the warrior’s nod. "Gabrielle is a very remarkable person. I am thankful she was not hurt in the attack."
Putting her hand out for the scroll, Xena’s expression turned grim. "So am I. You really need to reevaluate your security system, Solomon. It bites."
"You have noticed that, have you." His chuckle trailed off as her face remained distant. "I plan to take care of it. All of it." He clinched his jaw, a determination setting in his eyes.
The furrow of his brow convinced the warrior that he was serious. He certainly hadn’t wanted any of the situation to happen. "Thank you for this." She waved the scroll to him, a small smile playing at her lips.
"Anytime." He raised his chin in her direction.
Strolling back down the high-ceilinged corridors, Xena turned the scroll over in her hands. Gabrielle would appreciate a gift like this, even if she didn’t have much herself. The last thing left to do was to catch Miriam at her game, somehow, and get them on the first ship out of Jerusalem. The idea of that was very appealing.
"Calm down Xena." Probably the tenth time Gabrielle had said it in the last ten minutes, the gentle reprimand still didn’t do anything to stifle the warrior’s anger. "They’ve got to do this."
After Xena had seen him earlier in the morning, Solomon had casually announced that the midday meal was to be Makeda’s final state affair, entailing practically every person of stature in the city and hundreds of bustling servants and soldiers. The King was trying to provide ample protection to the young Queen; armored, angry looking men orbited her periodically. Xena was glad to see that. What made her mad was the fact that in this chaotic environment, there was no way to completely keep her from another attack, no matter how much security was provided.
The dining room looked nothing like it had the last time they’d eaten quiet meals there with the King. The long table seemed short now, stuffed with people on both sides, food stacked in disarray covering it from end to end. Among the engorged platters, candles burned in the table’s center every few feet. Judging from the times that she’d already seen one tipped over, the warrior was sure a fire would break out at any moment.
The gurgle of meaningless chatter and people buzzing about her was putting Xena on an even thinner edge than usual and she found it hard not to pull her sword and do something that would definitely make Gabrielle give her that disapproving glare she had down so well. Taking deep, even breaths, she tried to ignore that urge and kept her eyes in a steady scan of the room, watching for anything out of place, as if she’d be able to tell in the sea of activity.
"They don’t have to do this." She looked to Gabrielle at her side. The golden-haired woman was stacking her plate, again, with colorful vegetables and meats that neither of them had ever heard of. The younger woman seemed completely unconcerned with all the commotion.
The bard took a moment to finish her task, dutifully ignoring the scowling warrior. "You’re right, Xena, they don’t have to do this, but they are. It’s a royal thing and it’s important to both of them." She punctuated the speech with a wave of her hand, holding a familiar looking piece of dried meat. "You’re gonna have to get over it."
Xena realized that the only thing bad about having Gabrielle as a companion was that she could get away with saying something like that to her, when no one else in the world could. She shook her dark head, grumbling lowly, very pleased at the bard’s quiet chuckle and dazzling smile.
One thing keeping the warrior amused, despite the precariousness of their situation, was the dour looks she and the bard were receiving from the rest of the nobles in the room. The seating arrangements were apparently not to their satisfaction. Solomon was alone at the head, as expected, but his closest advisors were no where close to him. Gabrielle and Xena sat closest to him on one side, with Makeda and Miriam directly across from them. That left the rest of the nobles to be ignored further down the table, as the King was thoroughly occupied by his new array of friends.
Xena didn’t particularly like the idea of Miriam sitting so close to the Queen, but she accepted the reasoning. Before the majority of the guests had been allowed to enter the hall, Solomon had told her that Miriam had denied any involvement with the attacks, or even knowing a soldier named Levi. Insisting that he believed her, he still wanted to take precautions. If she was sitting next to Makeda, Xena could keep an eye on her and she would be less likely to have someone try a violent attack with her so near by. The warrior understood, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
Feeling a soft hand touch her leg under the table, Xena turned to her friend, who was leaning close to speak into her ear. "If you don’t quit looking at her like that she’s gonna drop dead before we can prove she’s behind all this." Gabrielle’s voice had such a nice singsong quality about it, soothing to her even in the current chaos.
Without smiling, the warrior let a wave of tension flow away from her, if only for knowing that it would make her friend feel better. Besides, this is almost over and nothing has happened. I might as well relax a bit and enjoy dessert. She raised one dark eyebrow at the bard. "Maybe I was just appreciating the lovely dress she’s wearing."
Gabrielle snorted at that, but they both looked back to Miriam, who happened to be wearing a bright green dress, cut low in the front, revealing entirely too much of the hefty woman’s cleavage. The color didn’t quite match anything the warrior had ever seen in nature, except perhaps some of the productions Gabrielle put on during their most recent sea voyage. Not only did that color clash abhorrently with her coppery skin, the red veins running through the fabric made her look like some overgrown throbbing seed pod. Xena knew that she wasn’t very fashion minded, but even she knew better than to wear something as utterly ugly as that.
And the way the woman was looking at the dessert tray as it stopped behind Makeda as she was served, was almost criminal. The woman had enough reserves that she certainly didn’t need any of the sweet delicacies being offered from the tray.
Xena noted that Gabrielle’s hand was still perched on her thigh, mainly because the bard was beginning to squeeze her leg with some force. She was about to ask if her staring had crossed the line again when she noted the alarmed look on her friend’s round face. Looking in the direction that those green eyes were staring, Xena internally cursed herself for letting her mind wander. This was the moment she’d been expecting all night, and when it came, she was worrying about an ugly dress.
The dessert cart was probably the actual dessert cart, but the men pushing it were not waiters. One man clad in the castle servant’s customary blue tunic stood between Makeda and Miriam, offering the Queen a fluffy white dessert. The other, dressed in the same plain uniform, stood directly behind the dark woman, discreetly moving a knife toward her throat. The warrior couldn’t imagine how much gold it must have taken to get these men to take such a chance.
Chairs clattering to the stone floor, warrior and bard stood at the same time, drawing every gaze at the table to them. The movement also alerted the assassins, whose faces took on expressions of panic and terror. In only a moment, the long, curved knife was moving toward Makeda’s throat, the young woman not even aware of the man at her back.
Xena cringed internally as she willed her body to move, afraid it would be too late for the Queen. She’d let the man get too close and reacted too late. Even in the air as she flipped over the table, she registered surprise at Solomon’s lightning quick response when he became aware of the threat. He lunged at the man, grabbing his arm, explosively pulling it away, a breath short of its target. Then the men were wrestling with each other, curses and grunts filling the suddenly silent dining hall.
Knowing better than to let down her guard, the warrior turned her attention to the other conspirator, still perched beside the Queen. He didn’t seem to be aware of her as he pulled the knife from his belt, his eyes trained on Makeda, ready to finish the job. Xena grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulling him toward her with sudden power, strategically connecting her head to his. She released him an instant later, letting his unconscious form slide to the ground.
Makeda’s dark eyes were wide, trying to understand the whirl of commotion around her. The warrior moved toward the remaining assassin, still struggling with Solomon, apparently partly successful, judging from the small, bleeding cuts on the King’s arms. His soldiers were no where to be seen as the men fought.
Pulling her sword with a metallic wisp, Xena waited for her opportunity to end the wrestling match. The large knife was still firmly gripped by the assassin, Solomon clearly tiring from the battle. As the back of the blue tunic squared itself to her, the warrior brought the butt of her sword down on the man’s head, absorbing the satisfying sound of his crumple to the floor.
That sound was followed by a high pitched shriek that sent a stabbing pain to the pit of her stomach. Xena turned in time to see Gabrielle’s fist connect with Miriam’s jaw, followed by the large woman falling to the floor in a heap, the assassin’s knife slipping from her grip, and the bard jumping up and down, frantically shaking her hand.
Letting out a sigh of relief, her blue eyes rolling exasperatedly, the warrior moved closer to her muttering friend. "Are you all right?"
"You’ve really got to teach me how you do that." The little woman continued shaking her hand, blowing on it occasionally.
Solomon shouted some orders to a few of the more military looking nobles in the room, including General Suttan, to which they responded by hastily scooping up the unconscious attackers and leading them from the room. He settled down at the silent Makeda’s side, speaking softly to her and stroking her hands.
The warrior stood behind him, back straight and head high in defiance. "Believe me now, King?"
Dark eyes shot up to her in anger, the King visibly holding his tongue. After a moment of locked gazes, he let out an explosive breath and nodded. "I am sorry Xena. I should have listened to you."
"Where are your soldiers?" The room quieted considerably as the nobles left, correctly sensing that the celebration was over, if not a way of life.
The King shook his head angrily and stood, betrayal stinging brightly in his eyes. "I do not know. I did not realize that Miriam had such a following. She was my first wife." He shrugged his shoulders as if that explained everything.
"I suggest you reorganize your army soon and with all new recruits." Gabrielle moved in front of her, placing a hand on Makeda’s shoulder. The woman seemed mostly composed, although the far away look in her eyes told of the pain she was feeling from this latest attempt on her life.
Solomon ran a hand through his hair, his eyes lighting with revelation. "I agree, Xena, and I need you to do it for me. Lead my army, Warrior Princess." He put a challenge in his voice, his chin proudly pointing in the air.
"No, no, no, no, no." She shook her head vigorously. If she’d had this offer once, she’d had it a thousand times. Her days of leading an army were over, thankfully and with good reason. "You don’t need me, Solomon. You just need to make wiser decisions." She raised a dark eyebrow, issuing a challenge of her own.
The King laughed heartily for a moment, letting a smile unabashedly cover his face. "All right I will see what I can do." He gently placed both hands on the Queen’s shoulders, pulling her up from the chair. "Right now, I think you need to rest. Too much excitement for one day, I am afraid."
Makeda nodded groggily, exhaustion evident in her features, allowing Solomon to lead her from the room. His arm cradled her shoulders as he guided her, their heads bent together in quiet conversation.
"What now?" Gabrielle stood beside her, watching the royal couple leave the room.
Xena laughed lightly, placing her own arm over the bard’s shoulders. "What? We can’t just relax for a minute?"
"You? Relax? Puhleeze." She jabbed the warrior playfully with her elbow. "I know it’s over, but not all your work is done yet."
The warrior sighed, smiling as she began moving them toward the door. "I know. I just need a few minutes to come up with a plan." Her mind began turning over any possible way to allow King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to shed their titles, and their fears, and to be normal people for just one night. Gabrielle wanted these two people to share their love, completely, for one night, and there was no way she could deny that request.
She was an expert when it came to uniting people in love, right? Right.
Adjusting Makeda’s blue, oversized tunic a final time, the bard stepped away from her group, satisfied that this little plan would work. She and Xena were also dressed in the blue servant’s outfits, with Solomon knocked down to the lowly rank of a common soldier, a shiny sword hanging from his waist.
"Are you sure this is necessary Gabrielle?" The King straightened his shoulders, metal ringing on metal, a skeptical look on his dark features.
Xena stepped toward the door, opening it and motioning for the rest of the group to pass through. "This is the plan, it’s going to work, end of story. Let’s go." An ice blue glare settled on Solomon, silencing his grumbling complaints.
The bard smiled at her partner appreciatively. She’d been ecstatic when the warrior had asked for her to come up with an idea for this little adventure, and even more excited when she actually said they’d do what she came up with. It’s not like it’s a life and death situation or anything. Just romantic. So here they were, sneaking out of the palace to lead the lovers to one night of solitude. They’d scoped out a perfect place for a midnight picnic, settling on a small, mossy clearing on the bank of a gurgling stream, and packed a basket full of wine, food, and blankets.
What they were doing was really kind of weird if she thought about it. She and Xena had come up with a plan, complete with disguises and contingencies, to sneak two people out of a castle to have one night of passion together. Maybe we should take this much interest in our own love lives. Hmmm . But it felt right to be doing it, especially for Makeda, who was soon to return to a life with mixed blessings, without the man she loved.
The halls of the palace were relatively empty, Solomon having purposefully sent his personal guards away for the night, assuring him that he and the warrior could take care of the Queen by themselves. That left only the normal watch stations at the end of each main corridor and outside the entrances to the massive home. The King had advised the bard that they should be able to pass through without much suspicion, dressed as they were.
That’s why the bard froze in terror when they walked out into the night air to find a huge, unshaven soldier standing in their way, blocking the path to the forest. "What is your name, soldier?" His voice was gruff.
Solomon’s eyes were wide at the unexpected question when he finally figured out the man was talking to him. He’d taken it for granted that the security in the palace was so lax, considering what had happened earlier in the night. "Ahhh umm I " His stammering was anything but royal.
Gabrielle looked at Xena in question, knowing the warrior would understand her plea, the one she’d given so often, for her to save the day. Rolling those amazing blue eyes, the dark woman strode forward, pulling the guard’s attention from the floundering King. "’Scuse me sir, but we’re looking for the river." She was using one of her high pitched bimbo voices and an accent that the bard thought was native to the north, but where to the north she didn’t know.
Finding it hard not to laugh, Gabrielle bit her lip as the man’s eyes raked lustfully over the warrior. "What’s at the river?"
"Dincha’ hear what happened at the palace? Elim here saved the Queen of Sheba from assassins. He was sooo brave." She batted her eyes at Solomon, who’d finally closed his mouth and was trying to keep his composure and go along with the game.
"Looks like the hero gets all the girls, huh?" The guard’s eyes surveyed the rest of the group, passing over the distinct differences in nationality of the women without even noticing.
Xena gave him a bright smile and knowing leer, patterned after a hundred different tavern winches, no doubt. "Seems that way." She moved closer to Solomon, running her hand suggestively down his chest and stomach, stopping only when he grabbed her hand.
The soldier laughed, envy filling his eyes. He threw a thumb over his shoulder. "River’s that way. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do."
Solomon put on the most macho look he had, tilting his chin at the man. He put an arm around Xena’s waist, leading the group out of the palace. They crisscrossed through several streets, slipping between the bunched houses when they could, until finally leaving the populated city behind.
When they reached the sparsely-treed forest, the warrior stopped the group, pointing to a barely discernable path through the trees. "Follow that trail and you’ll reach the spot in no time. There’s a fire pit already set up."
"Thank you Xena." Makeda shyly stepped forward, gripping one of the warrior’s hands in her smaller ones.
The warrior looked down at her grasped hand, a blush rising across her skin. The bard delighted at seeing this often buried gentle side of her partner. "No problem. You guys just have a good time. We’ll be close enough that you can yell if you need us." She fidgeted at the attention still on her.
Gabrielle waved them away. "Go on now. Time’s a wastin’." The couple smiled gratefully before turning and moving off down the path, moonlight casting short shadows behind them.
The bard moved closer to her friend, both of them still watching the retreating couple. The sight warmed her heart, knowing that at least this one time, love truly won. And they were responsible for at least two people having a night of joy. Taking the warrior’s hand, Gabrielle sensed that even Xena, with her ever-practical mind, could see the beauty in this moment.
"Thanks for letting us do this, Xena." The golden-haired woman looked up at the strong profile beside her, noting for at least the millionth time how noble and striking it was. Her heart began to beat faster as the muscles resting there transformed into a wide smile that reached up to the warrior’s eyes.
Crystal blue turned to her, robbing her of any possibility of breathing. "Well, not even I can deny true love."
As their gazes remained locked, Xena seemed suddenly short of breath, her hand closing tighter over the bard’s. Gabrielle swallowed hard, trying to rein in her wildly swirling emotions. "No, no you can’t." Her voice was a whisper.
Shying away from the intensity of the moment, both women looked down the path. Two silhouetted figures stopped, turning to each other, a slight breeze brushing through their clothes. Makeda drew a hand up to Solomon’s cheek, pulling him down into a soft kiss.
Gabrielle looked back to her friend to find crystal blue eyes trained on her. She knew Xena wanted to kiss her, she wanted it too. But they still weren’t ready yet and this wasn’t the time or place. Back in Greece, though, things would be on course to change. The bard could feel it.
Xena could feel it too. It showed in the gentleness of her eyes. Slowly, deliberately, the warrior pulled Gabrielle’s hand to her lips, brushing a soft kiss against its back, promising of things to come.
She smiled brightly at the warrior, who managed a sweet smile back, her eyes reflecting acknowledgement of the inevitable. Standing under the stars, moonlight falling on them like a comfortable blanket, they turned to watch King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba disappear into the trees, accepting fully that love ruled their lives, waiting for the day they were brave enough to show it.
I really hope you enjoyed this story. For some reason, I feel compelled to explain why it turned out as it did. This is my fourth year of slowly trying to develop my writing skills. Each story I’ve written in the past has been a big, sappy love story, which is where my heart lies. In an attempt to develop my skills, I decided to write a tale where love wasn’t the main purpose. The reason is unknown to me, but this story jumped into my head to tackle that exercise. So, even though this wouldn’t be my favorite fan fiction story, as I love the really, super mushy ones, it is the one I have written.
As for consistency with the Xena story line: is there really one? Solomon was the son of David, as in David and Goliath, as in ‘The Giant Killer.’ I decided to just ignore that little point. Thank you for indulging me. Same with the fact that the citizens of Israel would not have been speaking fluent Greek. Petty details, if you ask me.
Finally, I’d like to thank the people who helped me edit this story to within an inch of its life. PD Wonder is a great beta reader for anyone who needs one. And Intensity is exclusively mine in all his glory. Thanks guys.
The Final End.
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