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I thank Ren Pic and RT, JS, SR, LL, ROC and all the other initials in NZ for letting me use their creations. I hope I have not abused them too badly. If so I promise to repair or replace them at my expense.
This story has almost no violence and very little sex. Darn it. However I do have a lot of loving and caring and Xena and Garbielle say lots of nice things about each other. Probably because they are lovers and lovers do that sort of thing. To those who are offended I say get your own fantasy life and leave mine alone.
Do I encourage reader response? Of course. I don't write this stuff for my health. I write it to get people to talk to me by e-mail. Hello. Hello. Anyone out there. What did you think. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Tell me. Tell me. Oh please tell me. I can be reached at Aleckk1@hotmail.com
As for spelling and grammer I can only say what a friend of mine said in her disclaimer. 'To the God of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies. The God of Grammer can bite me.'
And so enough fore play. The plays the thing. I offer for your enjoyment.
|The Fortress||The City||The Journey||Meg's||The Lion's Wall|
BY JIM KUNTZ
The sun was hanging low when Xen and Gabrielle bagan passing through the small villages that were scattered along the last few leagues of road before Xora.
People looked up from the every day tasks they were performing and immediatly noticed the flash and sparkle of the jewels in the fabled Scepter on Xena's back. Some ran up to shake their hands and pat Argo, shouting their joy. Others just stood by the side of the road and clapped and cheered. Both friends felt embarassed by the attention and Xena tried to urge Argo on faster but the big war horse was too tired to respond with much more than a half hearted attempt at increasing her pace. Finally they passed through the last village before the gates of the city. At a bend in the road where they were out of sight of the village and the city Xena halted Argo and jumped down. She carefully removed the Scepter from the loops on her scabbard and took out a cloth from the saddlebags and wiped off the dust and dirt of the road. Gabrielle took a big drink from their waterskin then poured a little into her hands and washed her face. Her nose was still tender to the touch but as she felt it with her fingers it did not feel too large. She handed the waterskin down to Xena.
"How do I look?" The bard asked anxiously.
Xena regarded her for a moment and smiled.
"Fine Gabrielle," She lied. "Just fine."
Xena did not have the heart to tell the bard that though her nose was much better the purple around her eyes had turned black and she resembled nothing so much as a red nosed raccoon. The Warrior Princess washed her hands, arms and face and hung the waterskin back on the saddle horn. She then handed the Scepter up to a shocked bard.
"What's this?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously.
"Hold it in the crook of your arm." Xena instructed. "I'll lead Argo."
"Whoa there." the bard said sharply, staring down hard at Xena. "Things are going too fast here. If any one should be parading into the city with this thing it's you. You're the one who liberated it. I should lead Argo."
"No Gabrielle." Xena moved close to Argo's flank and put her hand on the bard's thigh, looking into her face with the most serious expression. "The Queen of the Amazon Nation is going to return this Scepter and she should arrive looking like a Queen."
Gabrielle regarded Xena for a long jmoment, her mind carefully reviewing all the events of the last week.
"So, I should have known." She said finally. "When the Chief Priest and his delegation came to us and begged us to get the Scepter back I never thought for a moment you would agree. I know how you feel about the God's and their silly trinkets, but they looked so pitiful and unhappy and things like this," Gabrielle gripped the Scepter a little tighter, "are important to a city and its people Xena. But still, when I said I was willing to try you caved in way to quick. I thought at the time you were just humoring me. But you had some devious warlord strategy working here all along didn't you?"
"Listen to me." Xena said in a quiet, intense voice, her eyes locked on Gabrielle's. "You remember all those talks we had with Ephiny while we wintered with the Amazon? All the ideas you had for bringing them out of their isolation? Trade contacts, embassies, mutual defense treaties, real participation in the life of Greece again. They are all excellent ideas. Ephiny thinks so too. But ideas unacted on are worthless Gabrielle. Now you have a chance to act. Xora is only a small city but their King is about to owe you. Owe you big. And every long journey has to begin with the first step."
"But Xena, this is your accomplishment. I have no right..."
"My love," Xena interupted, "this is not about who did what. It's time to see things from a larger perspective. I have no army. No villages pay me tribute. Those things are a fading memory. All I have in the world are a horse, a sword and a reputation and I could lose all three in one bad afternoon and no one would know or care. But you Gabrielle are Queen of the Amazon. One thousand of the bravest, best disciplined warriors in Greece will live or die at your command. Six villages of young and old will prosper or suffer because of your decisions. It's time for Gabrielle to grow. For the good of the Amazon people it's time for Queen Gabrielle to rule as well as reign."
Xena watched the bard's face intently for any sign of fear or denial. Any sign that she wanted to duck the responsibility. But Gabrielle's face was a blank mask of hidden emotion and fierce concentration.
"Xena." She said at last.
Gabrielle straightened her spine and rolled her shoulders back. She adjusted the Scepter in her arm till it was perched like the Royal Scepter of Cleopatra. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and smoothed her clothes.
Xena's heart thumped in her chest and her face grew hot with the most intense pride she had ever felt.
"Yes my Queen." She smiled and turned around to grasp Argo's bridle.
"Xena." The bard said quietly.
"Yes." The Warrior Princess answered without turning back.
"Many people will call me that. But not you."
Xena turned around to find the bard leaning down from the saddle, her hand stretched out toward her. Looking quizically at Gabrielle Xena reached up and took it in her own.
"I would know and I would care, always."
Xena smiled through a sigh and pulled Gabrielle's hand down and kissed it.
"That's why I'm richer now than I've ever been in my life." she said.
The light was fading rapidly as Xena and Gabrielle approached the main gate of Xora. A young boy of ten or eleven recognized the Scepter and went racing back into the city pointing and shouting the news. Xena watched approvingly as the gate guard poured out of its barracks just inside the city wall and assumed a blocking position in two precise ranks across the city entrance. The sargeant at arms stepped out in front of his warriors and they snapped smartly to attention. Xena led Argo up to the soldiers and the sargeant put out his arm to stop them.
"Halt." the short husky leader bellowed in his most official voice. "Advance and identify yourself, your business and your destination."
The Warrior Princess took a step forward.
"Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation and Xena of Amphipolis." She said in a loud, clear voice. "We are here to return the Scepter of Athena to Xora'a Temple of Athena."
Behind the guards there was a burst of clapping and cheering. Xena could see some of the young soldiers losing their solemn bearing and giving in to a grin but the sargeant was too old a warrior for such unprofessional displays.
"Number one." he bellowed.
The soldier at the left end of the first rank took a step forward.
"Go to the Royal Residence at once. Inform the Commander of the King's Guard that Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation and Xena, the Lion of Amphipolis, have entered the city and are proceeding to the Temple of Athena to return Her sacred Scepter."
The soldier turned on his heel, stepped around the two lines of guards and began pushing and cursing his way through the throng of people that were rapidly collecting around the gate. With a slight flicker of her eyes Xena acknowledged the honor done her by the old warrior and he returned the salute with the smallest nod of his head.
"Number two!" he bellowed.
The guard at the end of the second line took three steps forward.
"Sargeant!" he sang out crisply.
"Take your file and form an escort. You will lead our honored guests to the Temple of Athena immediatly."
"Yes sargeant!" The soldier did a smart about face. "Second file." He called. "Six men to the right, six men to the left. Form escort. Move!"
The warriors broke ranks and quickly formed two lines, one on each side of Argo.
"First file!" shouted the sargeant. "Clear the gate. Now!"
The file did an about face and the men set about pushing and cajoling the crowd that blocked the entrance to back up and clear a path. Finally after much cursing and grumbling a lane was cleared.
Number two looked back at Xena. "Would you follow me please." he said with a slight bow. Xena nodded her head.
"Second file, ready, march!" number two shouted.
With practiced precision the warriors went forward in perfect cadance and Xena quickly fell into the rthym of their step. They passed through the gate and entered the city. The street they marched down was straight and narrow. On either side three story apartment blocks of mud brick and wood loomed over them. The ground floors were all small shops with large entrance ways that were jammed with people who had cleared off the street. They clapped and pointed and shouted approval and thanks to the bard and the Warrior Princess as the procession passed them.
Gabrielle noticed that there were small balconies set at regular intervals along the third floor of the buildings and these were filled with women and children laughing and waving. Suddenly flowers, tossed one at a time from above, began to sprinkle down like a summer shower on the parade. Argo started a little at the unfamiliar objects flashing through her vision but Xena immediatly had her under control, one hand firm on the bridle, the other soothingly rubbing her nose. A small bouquet of carefully tied roses landed on the saddle horn in front of Gabrielle. She grabbed them before they could fall and looked up to see where they had come from. No one on the balconies close above stood out as the thrower so the bard waved the bouquet at all of them in appreciation. The gesture caused a general roar to erupt up and down the avenue the like of which Gabrielle had never heard. The noise seemed to become a living thing, lifting her, pressing on her, pulling the air out of her lungs. The bard looked down at Xena for some sign of reaction or reassurence but the Warrior Princess continued to walk as if she were strolling down a deserted country lane, unaware of anything but the road ahead.
Abruptly the street came to an end as the procession spilled out onto the large central plaza of the city. One hundred yards by one hundred yards square and paved with flagstone, an ornate fountain with a white marble statue of Xora stood in the center. On the far side of the plaza from Xena and Gabrielle stood the Temple of Athena. They both recognized instantly that it was a smaller version of the great temple in Athens. Still, even at this reduced scale, in the last fading light of day it was an impressive structure.
Number two suddenly drew his sword. He turned back to Xena with a worried expression.
"We had better increase the pace before we are trapped by the crowd." He said tensely.
Xena's eyes made a sweep around the plaza. From every street people were pouring into the square. Some carried torches against the advancing gloom. Many of the men had small children on their shoulders while wives followed close behind clutching the hand of another child. The roof tops of the buildings facing the square were also filling with people, all of them seemingly pointing and waving at Xena and the bard.
"I agree." Xena said curtly.
"File quick step march!" Number two cried.
The warriors increased their pace to a fast walk just short of a jog. Xena quickly fell in with their step. Number two began waving his sword.
"Clear a path, out of the way, clear a path!" He shouted. Most people complied willingly and stepped back. Only a few had to be physically shoved out of the way.
Finally, just as the throng became so packed around the little group that they could no longer get out of the way if they wanted to the base of the thirteen steps to the portico of the Temple was reached. None of the crowd dared to actually mount the steps for it was sacrilege for any worshipper of Athena to touch the Temple without first ritually bathing and annointing oneself.
Gabrielle looked up to see young accolytes with torches race out of the Temple and mount them hurridly into brackets on the six great columns that spanned across the portico. After they had disappeared back into the Temple six priests in flowing red robes marched out to the edge of the steps, turned and spaced themselves evenly across the left half of the portico. They were followed by six priestesses in green who spaced themselves across the right half.
There was a brief pause now and Gabrielle could hear the crowd behind her buzzing but she kept her eyes focused on the Temple entrance. Suddenly, like an other worldly presence, the Chief Priest materialized out of the dark doorway, his long white robes billowing out so that he appeared to float like a disembodied spirit across the portico to the edge of the top step. He held his hands up above his head and the hum behind the bard stopped.
"My friends," His clear deep voice rang out. "The day we have prayed for has arrived. Blessed be Athena and all who serve her."
'Blessed be Athena and all who serve her' the throng repeated solemnly. The Chief Priest lowered his hands and extended them toward Gabrielle along with a warm loving smile. It was not until this moment that the bard was sure the imposing Priest before her was the same man who had come to the tavern to send them on their quest. But she was certain only one man in the world could possess such a smile. Xena turned and offered her hand up to Gabrielle. The bard took it and swung her leg around to dismount. Before she did however she hesitated and looked deep into Xena's eyes, imploring her with her own for some guidence on what she should do next. The response was that hard blank warrior mask that Xena used to hide herself from the world. The Queen of the Amazons understood she was on her own.
Gabrielle slid down off Argo and faced the Warrior Princess. She took the bouquet of roses she had stashed under her arm while she dismounted and handed them to Xena.
"Hold these for me will you please." she said with a poisonously sweet smile.
Xena's eyebrows shot up higher than normal peoples can. She reached up slowly and grabbed the bouquet like she would the throat of a rat.
"Thank you so very much." the bard said with an even sweeter smile.
Xena snapped her hand down to her side and hid the flowers behind her leg.
Gabrielle flexed her neck and shoulders, trying to ease her tension, then set sail up the steps, concentrating fiercely on each one, terrified she might stumble. At the twelveth step she stopped and looked up at the Priest. He smiled a benevolent smile and held out a hand. The bard took a deep breath and started to speak but suddenly her mouth flew shut. The old Priest looked puzzled. Gabrielle grinned shyly at him and then turned to face the crowd. The murmuring in the throng died away as people realized she was about to speak. Gabrielle again took a deep breath.
"People of Xora," She began in her clear, practiced bard voice. "Five days ago your Chief Priest came to us and told us of your terrible misfortune. The loss of your sacred symbol of connection to the divine Athena and to your founder. As Queen of the Amazons and worshipper of Artemis, Athena's sister, we understand the power and importance of these holy symbols. We believed that it was Athena's and Artemis' will that we come to the aid of out Xoran friends, for the Amazon believe that all people of good will should stand ready to help one another in time of need. With the blessing of the divine sisters to strengthen us the success of out quest was never in doubt. So we stand before you now, tonight, to humbly offer this gift of friendship from the Amazon people. The return of Athena's sacred Scepter."
Gabrielle turned and carefully placed the Scepter in the Priests outstretched hands. The old man brought it to his lips then held it high over his head.
"What was our is ours again." he cried. "All the worshippers of Athena say with full hearts to the brave Amazon Queen and her people, THANK YOU!!"
With those words the citizens of Xora erupted into a howling volcano of sound that seemed to shake the steps beneath Gabrielle's feet. The bard had been cheered before of course. By small gatherings at taverns and inns who wanted to show their apppreciation for a good evenings storytelling and the sound always left her with a warm glow of satisfaction. But this was different. In every way. This was thrilling. Thrilling to the very center of her being. The noise seemed to suppress all the other senses so that her only link to the world was the pounding rthym of the sound. For a few moments she actually felt free from the bounds of earth, like a feather floating on the currents of the roar. After a few seconds the bard came back to herself enough to search out Xena's face, to share this magical moment. When she found her however, Xena's look startled and disturbed her. The Warrior Princesses face did not seem happy or proud but strangely intense. Her eyes were focused on Gabrielle as if she were trying to stare straight into the bard's soul. Gabrielle recoiled and looked out at the throng. Thousands of people, shouting themselves hoarse in her honor. What did it mean? What did they really think of her, want from her? What more did she have to give them? Suddenly too many contradictory thoughts and emotions crashed through her brain at once. She felt overwhelmed, almost panic stricken. She found Xena's face again and was relieved to see her expression had completly changed. She could read Xena's thought in her eyes. 'Gabrielle, come down.' The bard turned suddenly to the white robed Priest and bowed deeply. The Priest made a bow in return. The bard turned again and marched slowly down the steps, shoulders back, head high. Somehow the roar seemed to increase with each step until she reached the bottom and Xena boosted her back up on Argo. The old Priest let the roar go on for a few moments, then put the Scepter in the crook of his arm and raised the other hand. The great noise died away to a startling stillness.
"My friends." the Priest began. "Two days hence, at the first light of dawn, we will hold a rededication ceremony. All the worshipers of Athena are welcome to the celebration. Till then let us all offer up prayers of thanks to our Goddess. Blessings on Athena and all who serve her."
'Blessings on Athena and all who serve her' the people of Xora answered. The old man made a slight bow, turned on his heel and floated back into the Temple, followed by his priests and priestesses in two perfect lines. The Scepter safely returned the crowd slowly broke up and melted away into the dark.
Xena was about to ask number two where they might get a good meal when a man who could only be the Captain of the King's bodyguard, and two aides, came pushing through the dispersing throng and presented themselves.
"I am Theacles," He announced rather self importantly, as if Xena and Gabrielle should recognize his name, "Chief of King Tyros' elite Guard." He looked up at the bard, then to Xena. "The King wishes to send his personal thanks and congratulations on your achievement and to invite you to lodge tonight in rooms prepared for you in his royal residence. A late dinner can also be provided if you wish. His Majesty also hopes that you will join him for a noon reception and banquet in your honor tomorrow?"
Theacles stared expectantly at Xena waiting for some response but she only stared blankly back. His face darkened as the silence began to build uncomfortably. He was about to say something he knew he would regret when Xena said quietly.
"I am but a servant of the Queen of the Amazons."
A brief question passed across Theacles face and then a look of startled embarrassment. He looked up at Gabrielle and then made a deep formal bow.
"Your Majesty?" He said.
The bard, who had been looking down wondering why in the world Xena did not answer, immediatly assumed her role. She made a bow that she hoped was formal but also just slightly condescending.
"We would be honored to accept the King's generous hospitality" She said regally. Then she leaned down and motioned the Chief Guard closer.
"But you know," she continued with a friendly, conspiritorial grin, "it's been a long trip and we could both use a really good bath." The bard nodded her head toward Xena, "Especially her."
The Warrior Princesses eyes narrowed to two small slits while Theacles suppressed his laugh by coughing into his hand.
"Filus." He said. One of the aides stepped to Theacles side. "This is my son Filus, also my chief aide. He will show you to Servius' bathhouse. The finest in the city. And Filus," the commander said turning to his son, "you make sure that Roman dog gives our guests the finest service and not a word about money. If he gives you any problem, arrest him."
Xena regarded the young man for a moment. Clean limbed, strongly built, with an open friendly intelligent face and a downey coat of dark fuzz on his cheeks and chin. A son to be proud of. The thought pricked Xena's heart like a pin.
"When you are done my son will escort you to your rooms, a meal will be waiting."
Theacles took several steps back and bowed.
"I will see you in the morning your Majesty."
"Thank you Theacles" Gabrielle replied.
The Chief turned and, followed by his other aide, disappeared into the poorly lit space of the now almost empty plaza. Filus dismissed the file of gate guards with a hearty well done and they also marched away into the gloom.
"Who is this Servius?" Xena asked as she walked along beside Filus. She still led Argo by the bridle while Gabrielle waved at the people who called friendly greetings to her as they passed.
"Oh, he's a Roman who showed up eight or nine years ago and bought old Fermes bath house. Fermes didn't know how to run the place and it was falling apart. But you know Romans. They love their baths and Servius soon had this place turned into the best bath in the city. He ran the competition right out. Now he's a rich, mean, arrogant, unpleasant skinflint and I hope he gives me trouble so I can throw his ass in the royal dungeon."
Xena chuckled and Filus smiled and embarrassest smile.
They moved off the plaza and down a narrow torch lit street. At the end Filus pointed to the left. There stood the bath, a long low building only one story tall, made of mud brick but with a front facade faced with elegant white marble. A narrow ally ran between the back wall of the bath and the city's great defensive wall.
"It's really amazing," Filus said as they walked toward the entrance. "There's a natural spring underneath so he has plenty of fresh water and he keeps huge kettles boiling constantly and he has pipes that bring the hot water to the different tubs around the building so you can have a hot bath any time, day or night."
"Yes" Xena answered. "We've seen the same in Rome."
"Wow, Rome!" Filus was genuinly impressed.
They stopped in front of the entrance. Xena turned and whispered something in Argo's ear then stepped back. In one rapid motion the big palimino slumped down to her knees and rolled onto her side. The bard could barely get out "Argo, wait" before she was rolling on the ground and bumping up against the side of the bath house. A horrified Filus rushed to her side and offered a arm to help her up. She grabbed it and stood up, glaring an evil glare at Xena.
"Thank you young man, thank you." She said, patting his arm without taking her eyes off the Warrior Princess. The bard marched up to Xena, so close she actually had her body pressed against her. The Warrior Princess looked down at the glaring green eyes with a cool air of unthreatened nonchalance.
"Would you like to explain that last little manuever warlord!" Gabrielle hissed with undisguised intensity.
"I thought the Queen might find it easier to dismount if the horse were a little closer to the ground." Xena answered with calm indifference.
"Is that some comment on my height?" the bard demanded.
"No," Xena answered. "That's a comment on your lack there of."
There was now a long moment of silence as the two women stared at each other. A few feet away Filus was in an agony of indecision. Certainly a Queen should not be talked to or treated in such a manner. But attacking the imposing warrior with the sword and chakram did not look like a prudent course of action either. Finally when he was about to pull his sword and hope that his death would be remembered as a glorious one Xena brought her hand up and cupped it gently around Gabrielle's face and instantly both women were laughing uproariously. Filus let the air escape slowly from his lungs as he realized he would live to see another sunrise.
Xena looked over at Argo still lying obediantly in the street. "Up Argo." She commanded. The big warhorse rose to her feet, but Xena noticed it was more of a struggle than it should have been.
"I'll speak to our host." Filus announced mater of factly and while he went to the door and began pounding rather violently Xena walked over to Argo and began scratching her in that special spot. After a few moments of banging Filus was thinking of breaking down the door but before he could a deep harsh voice shouted from inside.
"Stop making that infernal damn noise. I'm coming you big..." The last words were unintelligable as the speaker lowered his voice to an irritated mumble.
Gabrielle walked over to Xena and watched with interest as the door opened to reveal a stocky man of medium height with big thick hairy arms sticking out of his night shift and a large Italian nose preceding his deeply lined face. He had no hair on his cheeks or chin, in the Roman fashion, and Gabrielle noticed his shift was made of fine linen. Only a rich man had dinars to waste on a fancy night shirt.
"What do you want, I'm closed." the man said, not attempting to hide his disgust at this unwanted disturbance of his sleep.
"I'm Filus of the Kings personal Guard." Filus replied evenly. "These two honored guests of His Majesty require the services of your bath." The young soldier nodded his head toward Xena and Gabrielle. "I'm sure you will be happy to see the King's guests are properly provided for."
Servius stared sullenly at the bard and the Warrior Princess for a moment, then suddenly opened the door wider and disappeared back inside without a word.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and flashed a grin. "My Queenly presence has been known to strike people dumb like that. It's one of the many burdens I bear."
Through the doorway Xena could see Servius lighting torches along the wall. Light began flooding the bath house.
"I need to tend to Argo." Xena said, eyeing the Roman suspiciously. "Will you feel safe with him without your staff?"
Gabrielle looked at Filus. "Well, what do you think? Is he dangerous?" She asked.
"No." He answered. "Just obnoxious."
"Good enough for me." The bard looked at Xena. "Last warlord in the tub has to scrub my back."
Xena eyed Gabrielle and the corner of her mouth curled up.
"First, last, I always seem to end up scrubbing your back."
Gabrielle smiled sweetly and patted the Warrior Princesses elbow.
"Come now Xena. We all have a purpose in life. It's too late to start questioning yours."
Xena enjoyed the look in Gabrielle's laughing emerald eyes for a moment then her gaze shifted up to Filus waiting patiently in the doorway for them.
"No," she said quietly, after a pause, almost to herself. "it's never to late for questions."
Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze then looked back at the Warrior Princesses serious face. She stretched out her hand and laced her fingers between Xena's and squeezed.
I'm here my love, always.
Xena could feel Gabrielle's thought through her hand. The unwavering commitment and loving kindness of it drove back the black clouds that had begun to gather in her mind. She shook her head to clear the last of them then smiled at Gabrielle and looked over a the young warrior.
"Filus." She said. "I need to bed Argo down for the night. Is there a good stable close by?"
"Yes," He answered immediatly. "Just two streets over is a very good stable. I know the owner and his son. Very nice people."
All three of them shared a smile as just at that moment Servius passed close to the doorway mumbling darkly to himself.
The door was still standing open when Xena and Filus returned from the stable. Xena had noticed that the young man seemed a little tense about something as they walked back and when they approached the doorway he suddenly went a few steps ahead of her and made a stiff little bow as she passed him and entered the building. As she was tired and anxious for a bath she decided to ignore the whole perplexing business.
In front of Xena stretched the great common room of the bath. Starting at the wall on the far right six huge tubs were sunk into the stone floor one after the other till the last two were on Xena's left. After the last tub was another wall but this one did not extend all the way to the front wall. A space was left so that Xena could see a hallway that ended with the far left outer wall. Spaced evenly were three entrances each covered by a red woolen curtain. A beautiful tile mural of peaceful pastoral scenes covered the walls and ceiling. Xena had to admit to herself it was an impressive place.
She nodded toward the corridor. "Private baths?"
"Wealth has its priviledges." Filus answered.
Suddenly the first curtain snapped back and Servius stepped into the hallway. He had a bunch of towels in his arm and the same put upon look on his face.
"Is the Queen in there?" Filus asked as civilly as possible.
Servius just scowled and gave a shake of his head that said 'of course you idiot.'
Filus and Xena exchanged a disgusted look and started to walk toward Servius. Servius started toward them, head down, mumbling. When they got close he shouldered his way past without so much as a grunt of apology and, intentionally of not, both Filus and Xena clearly heard him mutter under his breath.
"middle of the night serving a raccoon woman and her Amazon freak of na..."
Servius turned his head when he heard the sound of Filus sword leaving its scabbard, which allowed him to catch a glimpse, from the corner of his eye, of Xena's fist just before it crashed into the side of his head. The thick bath house owner collapsed like he had been shot through the heart with an arrow. His face bounced once on the stone floor then settled and became motionless.
Filus stared wide eyed. It strained belief that this ox of a man could be felled with one punch. He looked at Xena expecting to see rage on her face, but the look was more of distain. As if she had just stepped in something unpleasant. Feeling slightly ridiculous with the useless sword still in his hand, he replaced it in its scabbard and walked around to Servius' head. He knelt down on one knee and placed his fingers on the prone man's jugular. After a moment he stood up.
"Bad luck I'm afraid." He looked at Xena. "He's still alive."
The Warrior Princess could not suppress a grin. "Yes indeed. Bad luck."
"I'm going to haul the worthless lout to the dungeon right now." Filus said with determination.
"Well, I don't know." Xena answered. "He looks awfully heavy. I don't think I would want to break my back hauling him anywhere. Besides," Xena could not help another smile. "We've disturbed his rest once already tonight. Twice would be down right rude."
Filus smiled too. "You're right. It would be rude. I'll just let him sleep."
"A wise decision I'm sure. Well Filus," Xena looked back at the red curtain. "I'm ready for a bath, if you'll excuse me."
Filus snapped to attention and made a formal bow.
"Certainly. I will wait for the two of you by the entrance Warrior Princess."
Xena arched her eyebrows at the young warrior.
"My friend at the stable whispered it in my ear." Filus continued, shifting uncomfortably with chagrin. "I must appear very stupid not recognizing the Lion of Amphipolis. I apologize."
Xena gave a snort. "I haven't seen you do anything stupid yet. In fact you're a very impressive young man." She said. "And Filus, my happiest day will be when I'm no longer recognized by anyone."
This last statement brought a cloud to the young warriors brow. He did not know quite what to make of it. But the compliment produced a flush of embarrassed pleasure. He bowed again, turned on his heel and marched back to guard the bath house entrance.
Xena pulled back the curtain to find Gabrielle standing naked in front of a large, highly polished silver coated shield. The bard gave her an anguished look.
"Oh, 'you look fine' you said." Gabrielle's shoulders slumped as she looked back in the mirror. "I look like a raccoon Xena. What must the Xorans think."
Xena turned her head, covered her mouth with her hand and pretended to cough to hide her smile. She walked over behind the bard and put her arms around her shoulders.
"It was dark most of the time Gabrielle. Most of those people couldn't see you well enough to notice anything except that you were an impressive looking young Queen. As for the ones who could see. Well, if they had anything unkind to say, I'd put an end to their rudeness quickly enough. You haven't seen any stray bodies lying about have you?"
Gabrielle shook her head no.
"So, you see, stop worrying. Those circles will disappear in a week. Till then they give your face," Xena concentrated hard on the visage in the mirror, looking for the right word, "character."
The bard let out a sharp laugh. "Oh yes. That's a well chosen word. As in 'there goes that character Gabrielle, looking like a raccoon!'"
Xena could not help a chuckle. "Stop it now." She said. "The Queen of the Amazon Nation has more character than to wallow around in silly self pity."
The bard sighed and brought her hands up to rub Xena's forearms.
"I suppose so." She said quietly.
"Besides," Xena said, her face suddenly serious and her eyes finding Gabrielle's through the mirror, "what I really want to talk about is your speech."
The Warrior Princess could feel the bard's body stiffen and see her face tense. Some laughing little demon in Xena's brain caused her to pause for a long moment, just to let Gabrielle agonize. Finally Xena broke into her most triumphant smile, so bright it was like another torch had been lit in the room.
"It was magnificent!"
The words sent a thrill through the bard that Xena could feel through her skin.
"Your words and tone were just right." Xena continued. "You didn't step on Xoran pride yet you left no doubt who their benefactor was. And you did it all with a humbleness that can't help but win the Nation friends. And you put old Tyros so far on the hook he can never wriggle off. He has to grant you almost anything you desire or come off looking like an ungrateful ingrate in front of the entire city. They say the old orator Demostenes in Athens never said a word in public without hours of rehersal but you did all that just off the top of your head. Gabrielle you truly are the most remarkable person I know. I'm always so proud of you I think sometime my heart is going to burst in my chest."
The bard took a couple of deep breaths to still her racing heart and tried to get her face back under control before her excited smile split her cheeks. At last she turned and wrapped her arms around Xena and pressed her body against the Warrior Princess'. She looked up into blazing blue eyes.
"I don't know if you realize how much it means to me when you say things like that." She said in a hoarse half whisper. "I so much want you to be proud of me Xena. As proud as I am of you."
Xena stared down into the green pools of love inches from her face and had the peculiar yet distinct sensation that she was falling, falling into Gabrielle's eyes. She put her hand behind the bard's head and let her mouth come down to meet Gabrielle's. The touch of her lips and tongue was electrifying and Xena felt her desire rising up like a raging forest fire and from the movement of Gabrielle's body she knew the bard's fire matched her own. She pulled her head back to see those beautiful emerald jewels sparkle at her again and when she looked into them...
The Warrior Princess straightened and tried to smile but it came across more as a grimace.
The bard could feel Xena pulling gently away and her heart sank like a rock disappearing into a deep well. Xena gave Gabrielle a quick peck on the lips.
"I'm so dirty my love, let's get clean. Okay?"
The last word was spoken almost as a plea for mercy. Gabrielle released her grip around Xena and turned away.
"Of course." she said tonelessly.
Xena watched her beloved walk silently to the sunken tub in the center of the room and ease herself into it and the Warrior Princess' body sagged as if Atlas had suddenly shifted the entire weight of the world to her inadequate shoulders. But almost instantly, with a visible act of will, Xena forced herself erect again, and forced a smile to her face. She undressed quickly and jumped with a purposely big splash into the tub.
"You're such a child Xena." Gabrielle whined, wiping water from her eyes. "Can't you just climb in like everyone else?"
"Nope." Xena said, submerged in the hot soothing water to her bottom lip.
The bard lifted herself up onto the edge of the tub, only her legs still dangling in the water, and picked up the lump of lard soap from the small bucket beside her.
"Come on," she said, "I'll do your hair first and then you can do mine and... scrub my back."
Xena disappeared under the water and came up between Gabrielle's legs, her long raven hair dripping and ready to be washed. The bard began slowly working the soap into the elegant tresses. She took a particular pride in seeing that Xena's beautiful hair was properly cared for.
"Can I ask you a question?" Gabrielle said as she scrubbed the back of Xena's head.
The Warrior Princess tensed. "Of course."
"Why did you look at me so strangely when I was standing with the Priest? You know. When the crowd was roaring."
"I wanted to see if the Queen of the Amazons had any character."
Xena turned around so she could look Gabrielle in the eyes.
"You felt it didn't you?" she said, watching Gabrielle's face intently. "You felt that floating sensation, like a leaf in the wind. You felt the thrill of... power. I could see it in your face."
The bard's visage became dark as she concentrated on reliving that moment. The memory came back easily and vividly. One of the memories she already understood would be as clear twenty years from now as it was at this moment.
"Yes, I felt like... I felt like I could soar with the eagles."
Xena smiled an unpleasant smile as she relived her own experiences with the feeling. But she pulled her mind away quickly from the memories and focused again on Gabrielle. "And you felt something else, didn't you." She whispered.
"Yes, I felt," the bard took a sudden deep breath and let it slowly escape, using the pause to try to make some logical sense of the thoughts and emotions roiling in her mind. "I felt afraid, afraid because I didn't know what it all really meant. Were they cheering me Xena, or just the accomplishment. And if they were cheering me, why? I only did what I thought was right. What else could I do. What else would they expect me to do.? Oh, I don't know," Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders in resignation, "everything seemed more complicated and unclear than I could deal with right then." The bard searched Xena's eyes. "Am I weak Xena, too weak to be a Queen?"
Xena reached up and stroked the bard's cheek. "It's not called weakness my love, the ability to separate yourself from temporary flattery and seek the truth, it's called character. Something Gabrielle has in endless quantity and Xena is almost devoid of."
The bard's face clouded with anger. "That's not true." She spat heatedly.
"Oh, but it is." Xena said sorrowfully. She turned around and slumped back against the wall of the tub, her head resting against Gabrielle's stomach. "When I was a warlord the only time I allowed myself to live in the present was during that moment after every successful battle or sacked village when my army would regroup and I would parade before it, the proud and haughty Destroyer of Nations while they chanted my name like a sacred mantra til the hills echoed all the way to Olympus. Gods Gabrielle, I drank up that sound like a bachae drinks blood. It banished all my fears and doubts and lifted me up, as you said, with the eagles." Xena paused and sighed. "So that I could look down on all those tiny, insignificant people and be reassured again that they existed only to serve my will and chant my name. Speed, strength, skill, intelligence, courage, a will of iron, the God of War himself at my elbow to teach me. All I lacked was the character to see power as a tool and not as an end. And the result, ten years of..."
Xena's voice faded away and she began to slowly shake her head. Gabrielle placed her hands on the Warrior Princess' shoulders and bent down and kissed the top of her head. There was a long silence as the bard absently washed Xena's hair, both women lost in their own thoughts. "Rinse." Gabrielle said finally and Xena slid down into the hot water and rinsed the soap out of her tresses. Then the friends silently switched places and Xena began scrubbing Gabrielle's reddish blonde locks.
"What did you mean when you said you 'lived in the present for a moment' while they chanted your name?"
Xena smiled to herself. Sometimes the alertness and curiosity of Gabrielle's mind was stunning. It was one of the things Xena loved most about her.
"Well, how can I explain," Xena began while scrubbing behind the bard's ears, "a good warlord, and I was the best, lives life in the future. The future is the umcompromising enemy that you battle every waking moment and then dream of all night. You must learn to understand it, anticipate it, master it, or lose everything. The demands of it consume you. Supplies, recruits, training, the next battle, campaign, short term goals, long term strategy, tommorrow, next week, next year, all carefully plotted and planned. The past doesn't exist. The present is only a blur of sights, sounds, smells."
Xena paused to think and to let her hands caress the bard's neck and shoulders.
"Gabrielle, I have stood in pools of blood in the middle of a burning village where the sounds of the screaming villagers drowned out the roar of the flames, and the smell of burning flesh hung so heavy in the air you could taste it in your mouth and I couldn't feel anything about any of it because I wasn't there. I was already planning the next days march. The next weeks campaign. The next months conquest." The Warrior Princess sighed. "The future is a sterile, soul deadening place to live my love. A place where any atrocity is possible because you don't have to be present at any of them. You don't have to feel the pain of anything. You're just an emotionless brain endlessly calculating the next move in the 'great game' as Ares always called it. I guess to him it is."
Xena meant to stop talking now. But for some reason she could not begin to explain her thoughts continued to tumble out.
"Finally, when my life had reached a point of complete dispair, Hercules appeared. A gift I didn't deserve. And he helped me pull myself out of that dead place and for a few short weeks I lived in the present with that kind, loving man. But our destiny's will always be seperate. We both understood that. And when we parted," Xena took a sudden deep breath and Gabrielle could feel her body shudder, "the tidal wave that had been building behind me unnoticed for ten years crashed down and swept over me. I would have drowned in my past Gabrielle, several times, if you..." the words caught in Xena's throat and she yanked them back and buried them deep. Gabrielle, who missed nothing, said nothing, letting Xena find her own path. She had already, in the last moments, talked more about herself and her feelings than she had in the last year.
Xena pushed Gabrielle forward a little and started scrubbing the bard's back. Normally she would have let things drop into a long silence. Talking about herself was always a painful thing to Xena. But tonight something was different. Something in her desperately wanted to communicate with Gabrielle. To share herself with the person she valued most in all the world.
"For what is it now," Xena began again hesitantly, "three and a half, four years, the past has dominated me. Shaped my every action. Controlled my every response. Driven me at times I think, to the brink of maddness." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "Only finding you made it bearable. But now, in these last few months, since we found the courage to touch this winter with the Amazon, there seems to be some kind of balance to my life I haven't known since childhood. A future that can be planned for but I don't have to control. A past that doesn't threaten to destroy me at any moment. And just this morning I sat and enjoyed the most glorious sunrise and the only thing I could think about was how happy I was that you were there sharing it with me."
Gabrielle tried to say something but the lump in her throat was too thick to let any words escape. In four years together she had just heard the first time that Xena had associated herself with the word happy. The bard coughed out the lump and regained her composure.
"Yes, it was wonderful. Thank you for waking me to share it."
Xena stood suddenly and reached for some towels. She had talked enough for one night.
"We shouldn't keep poor Filus up all night. Growing boys need their sleep." she said.
"He looked full grown to me." The bard answered with a sly grin while drying herself.
"Watch out Gabrielle." Xena answered, her back to the bard to hide her smile. "Don't make me kill that nice young man."
When the friends emerged from the bath Gabrille almost tripped over the still prone Servius. She immediatly turned a scowl on the Warrior Princess.
"Whaat?" Xena responded plaintivly.
"Don't give me that." The bard grabbed a torch from its bracket and held the light close to the Roman's head. "That's your fist print in the side of his face isn't it? I should know, I've seen it enough."
Xena bent over and took a closer look.
"Well," she said defensivly. "He was complaining of a lack of rest. He seems to be resting comfortably now."
"Xena, you can't knock out every unpleasant person you meet in this world."
"As a matter of fact Gabrielle, yes I can. Now don't you think we should be going before we disturb this poor man twice in one night."
With a disgusted but resigned shake of her head Gabrielle replaced the torch and the two of them stepped over the sleeping Servius and left the bath.
The sun was almost to its apogee when Theacles, with Filus at his elbow, knocked politely at the door of Xena's and Gabrielle's rooms. Xena answered before he could knock again. Both men immediatly noticed the bright, polished shine of Xena's breast armour and the well oiled sheen of her leathers. A string of white beads was tastefully braided through her hair along the top of her skull while the rest of her raven tresses hung, carefully brushed, around her shoulders. Further back in the room, anxiously brushing and straightening the forest green, over the shoulder wrap that she had been working on furiously since dawn was Gabrielle, her red blonde locks arranged in intricate braids to frame her face. Xena chuckled to herself to see the remarkable similarity in the smiles the two men flashed.
Gabrielle grinned a pained little grin and put her hand to her cheek. "I know the black eyes look funny. I was hoping to find some make.."
Theacles interrupted with a stern rumbling clearing of his throat.
"The Queen of the Amazons is a vision of royal beauty." He said with an admiring smile. "Is she ready to be escorted to the reception?"
The bard looked at Xena who nodded approvingly.
"Yes she is." Gabrielle said with a radiant smile. "Thank you."
The bard swept gracefully across the room, brushed past Theacles with a wink and presented herself to Filus with a slight curtsey.
"Shall we go?" She said, looking Filus in the eyes.
The stunned young warrior glanced uncertainly for a moment at his father and Xena then burst into a glorious grin. He offered his arm, which the bard instantly took, and with a bow he led the Queen off down the hallway, his chest puffed out like a proud peacock. After a few steps Gabrielle turned her head and flashed a coquetish grin at Xena, then looked up to Filus to whisper some pleasantry in her handsome escorts ear. Theacles and Xena watched the two young people disappear down the corridor then turned to each other and smiled.
"Your son plays a dangerous game commander." She said with mock seriousness.
Theacles sighed. "Yes, I'm afraid the boy is something of a rake with the ladies." He looked at Xena, puffed out his chest like a proud peacock and grinned a devilish grin. "He takes after his father that way you know."
Xena chuckled. "Yes, I can see that. We had better catch up before somebody gets hurt. Most likely me."
After a brief introduction to the graying, fiftyish King and his new consort Gabrielle was led to the place of honor in the royal reception line. Theacles took his place two steps behind the King's right shoulder, his protector and strong right arm. The bard reached out to grasp Xena's hand and pull her beside her in the line but Xena, with a shake of her head, pulled discreetly away and placed herself two steps behind the young Queens right shoulder, her protector and strong right arm. Gabrielle looked for just an instant into the Warrior Princess' eyes and then turned and faced the procession of incoming guests. Her always erect posture became somehow straighter and to anyone watching closely, as Xena was, the bard grew an inch.
Xena closed her eyes and took a long deep breath.
If ever I fail you Gabrielle, I pray that Ares slits my throat and throws my worthless soul into Tartarus.
Artemis I pray, make me worthy of the confidence Xena has in me. Don't let me fail her.
As the line of Xoran elite approached the King and the Amazon Queen the murmuring was all about the impassive warrior standing behind Gabrielle. Tall, imposing, athletic, beautiful, the legendary Lion, the one time Destroyer of Nations who had turned her back on evil. But as the guests were seated for lunch at the three long tables in the great banquet hall the buzz among the people had become an excited comparing of opinions about the charismatic Queen of the Amazons. About her unaffected directness, her gentle self deprecating humor and the way she made every person she spoke with feel her good will.
As the bard was shown the chair next to the King by the Chief of Protocal she whispered in his ear. He stared at her horrified and started to speak but the look on Gabrielle's face silenced him. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity at the head table as people were crowded down one place amid looks of consternation and polite fury until the King's second cousin found himself uncerimoniously removed to the second table. Gabrielle walked over to Xena and grasped her arm and escorted the Warrior Princess to the seat next to hers, letting Xena know with her eyes that refusal was unacceptable. When all was ready the King took his place and everyone sat after him. King Tyros looked down the table and noted the missing person. He smiled to himself. He bent over close to the bard's ear.
"I've never liked that self-serving little syncophant. Lunch will be much more pleasant without him buzzing about."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm glad I could be of service to your Majesty." she said with a smile.
Xena, who was carefully watching this exchange, noted that the young Xoran Queen was also watching, with an unpleasant look on her face, like she had just swallowed a bug.
Lunch was exquisite and plentiful and Gabrielle did not deny herself anything. Between bites she turned the full force of her engaging personality on the Xoran King and as the meal progressed it was obvious that the good will was being returned. Xena spent the time nibbling at her meal and discreetly making inquirys among her dinner companions about Xoran politics. She discovered that the King had lost his beloved wife of twenty five years two years before and that she had died barren of children. After an exhaustive search of all Greece and the sacrifice of sundry animals to the gods of fertility, it had been decided that this young daughter of a noble Theben family was the best candidate for quickly producing an heir for the Xoran throne. However, after a year there was no sign of a child and for this unfortunate creature time was running out. She was a jealous, insecure, frightened young woman. As Gabrielle's newly self appointed Chief of Security Xena made a mental note to memorize the Queens face and carefully analize the situation later.
As the last plates were being cleared and the tooth picks passed out Gabrielle leaned over to whisper in Xena's ear.
"The King has invited me to meet in his private office after lunch." The bard smiled. "I may just be good at this politics thing. He wants to discuss a trade agreement."
"He may want to discuss other things as well." Xena whispered back.
"He can talk about anything he wants Xena, I'm no virgin. As long as I get some concessions for the Amazon. If he gets too frisky I'll just knock out some teeth. It works for you."
"Okay," Xena nodded. "Be careful, I'll find something to amuse myself with for the afternoon and meet you back at our rooms later."
"If you run into Filus tell him I said hello."
Xena pulled her head back to look at Gabrielle. "I am going to have to kill that boy aren't I." she said grimly.
Gabrielle smiled. "Jealous?"
Xena smiled back. "Completely."
Gabrielle let her hand go down and squeeze Xena's thigh. "Good."
After Theacles and Xena escorted the King and the bard to Tyros' private office Xena asked if there was anything physical to do. She felt the need for a good workout after two long days of riding.
"Of course," Theacles answered. "One of the companies of the guard is doing staff drill in the private courtyard. Come on."
In a few moments the two warriors were standing at the edge of the courtyard watching the drill. Three large circles were painted on the flagstone floor. Two contestants were in each circle while a line of Guardsmen waited outside each one. It was king of the mountain. Whoever won each contest, by bringing his opponent to the ground or forcing him out of the circle, stayed until he was beaten. Xena casually picked up a staff from the pile beside the middle circle and joined the end of the line. Theacles quietly went over and sat on a bench against one wall of the courtyard. The contests went on while the soldiers pretended not to notice her. But when she reached the front of her line all activity stopped. The last contest in front of Xena became a heated one as the two warriors vied for the priviledge of being first to test the Lion.
Finally the husky Guardsman with the powerful arms and barrel chest forced his comrade out of the circle with a loud grunt. Xena politly waited while the man regained his breath and took a drink from the ladle of water he was offered. He walked to the center of the circle and made a little bow that he was ready. Xena, who was leaning relaxed on her staff at the edge of the circle reacted like an uncaged panther. With a scream of her war cry, in two strides she was in front of the shocked soldier sweeping his feet out from under him before he could react. He landed with a thud on his back. The silence in the courtyard was deafening.
Xena straightened and looked around at the gaping warriors through hard narrow eyes.
"When you say you're ready, be ready! Focus is everything here. Those without it will suffer."
Any thought of practice ended. The brave lined up to test Xena. The rest gathered around the center circle to watch and learn. A dozen men entered the testing ground and were dispatched. Most quickly. Some lasted longer because they assumed a purely defensive stance and just tried to survive as long as possible. After each unfortunate was brought to the ground or forced out Xena offered a simple and often harsh critique of the mans mistakes, including calling one man a coward for stepping back out of the circle rather than accepting the blow to the head he was about to receive. As the thirteenth man fell to his knees from a thrust to the ribes Xena watched the circle of Guardsmen part on one side and a grinning Filus appear, flanked by two breathless friends who had obviously run to fetch him. He immediatly threw down the ceremonial helmet he was wearing and pulled off his brightly polished breastplate. A friend handed him a staff and he did a few simple exercises to loosen up. Then grinning ear to ear he cautiously entered the circle and began stalking the Lion.
Watching Filus' face Xena lost some of her focus as memories of Amphipolis flooded her brain. The constant joyful competition with Torris and Lyceus, before Cortese, when the mock battles with staff and wooden swords had been contests of skill and strength to be endlessly argued over later while sharing a cup of ale secretly siphoned from one of mothers barrels, not grim rehersals for the infliction of pain and death. As Filus approached for his first pass Xena grinned back.
The first clash of staffs was cautious as both contestants felt one another out, judging speed and strength. In the second clash Filus tried a few basic attack moves but concentrated more on not being suprised by anything Xena might do. On the third pass the young warrior let loose with a sustained barrage of blows that Xena easily parried but she could feel his confidence growing. On the fourth pass Filus unleashed all the speed, skill, and fury he could muster, pressing Xena back to the edge of the circle. But just before she stepped out she faked low and when Filus brought his staff down she launched herself into a flip over his head and landed softly in the center of the circle. The Guardsman whirled to face her again and through an awed smile he mouthed the word 'incredible'. Xena shrugged her shoulders and smiled back.
The Lion had discoverd in the last pass what she needed to know. The flaw in his technique. The fifth pass had barely begun when she took advantage of it to give Filus a nasty crack to the cheek. The young warrior was on his feet immediatly, arm extended and a red tinge to his smile. Blood trickled from a cut on his lower lip. Xena took the offered forearm and pulled Filus closer.
"Your good." she said, only loud enough for him to hear.
"Yes, but your the best." Filus answered. "It was an honor to be in the circle with you. I'll never forget this."
Filus bent down picked up his staff and wiped some of the blood from his lip with the back of his hand.
"And I think I know how you did that. I won't make that mistake again."
Xena smiled and slowly nodded her head.
"The demonstration is over." Theacles announced, pushing through the crowd around the circle. "Return to your duties."
The Guardsmen quickly broke up and began streaming toward the entrance to their barracks, all of them talking excitedly at once about what they had just witnessed. Theacles walked up to his son and briefly examined the cut.
"See the healer before you return to duty." He said quietly.
"Yes sir," Filus answered. "And thank you for sending for me."
The commander acknowledged his son's appreciation with a slight nod of his head and Filus headed off to the healers rooms with his two friends on either side talking as fast as they could get the words out and Filus nodding and smiling.
"So you set that bulldog on me did you?" Xena said when Theacles walked over to her.
Theacles laughed. "No. The boy's the best staff man in the Guard but I wanted him to see what greatness looks like. It's easy to get a swelled head when your the big fish in a small pond. I wanted him to understand there is a bigger pond out there."
While the commander spoke Xena watched Filus disappear through a doorway with his two comrades.
"Your a lucky man Theacles, a very lucky man."
The commander understood from the timber of Xena's voice that there was more to her statement than pleasant flattery. He turned to look where his son had just gone.
"Yes," he said slowly, "Athena blessed me greatly. Sometimes I forget how much."
Xena took a deep breath and blew out the sad thoughts with the air.
"I'm going to see after my horse then go to our rooms to meet the Queen. We may be leaving early tomorrow so if I don't see you again commander thank you for your consideration and hospitality."
Theacles put his arm out and Xena took it.
"Some day I hope to bounce a grandson on my knee Xena, and he will hear about how his father stood in the circle and did his best against the great Lion of Amphipolis and how his grandfather was honored to call her friend."
Xena looked Theacles in the eyes and gave his forearm a hard squeeze and then she abruptly turned on her heel and walked from the courtyard, without looking back.
Gabrielle was sitting at the writing table scribbling furiously when Xena entered their rooms. She jumped up and flashed the Warrior Princess a triumphant smile. Xena arched her eyebrows and closed the door.
"So tell me, what happened?" She asked.
The bard fairly floated across the room and wrapped her arms around the Warrior Princess.
"Tell me you love me Xena."
Xena looked deep into the bard's emerald eyes.
"I love you Gabrielle."
"Tell me I'm a genius."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "Your a genius Gabrielle."
"That you talk too much and say too little."
Gabrielle laughed and hugged Xena close.
"Okay, okay. It's just I'm a little excited about how things went. Sit down and I'll tell you."
Xena took a seat.
"Well, first of all," the bard began to pace, "the King was a perfect gentleman. Oh, a little pompous maybe but that's probably a job related hazzard don't you think? Anyway we danced around some trade proposals, nothing big, just something to get us started, build a little confidence. And then he mentioned that if there were any problems we could iron them out at the Corinthian Conference. Of course I said to myself whoa! Corinthian Conference. I haven't heard of any Corinthian Conference." Gabrielle stopped pacing and looke at Xena. "Have you?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders. "Nope."
"Yes, so anyway." the bard began again. "I latched on to that bit of information and began wheedling and worming until I found out everything. So to make a long story short, the Corinthian Conference will be held in early fall in, duh, Corinth and include all the city states of southern Greece to discuss trade, defense, you know, whatever else may come up. It's invitation only and guess who now has an invitation.?"
Xena grinned. "Could it be the Queen of the Amazon Nation?"
Gabrielle pulled a scroll from a pocket in her skirt and did a deep curtsey.
"The one and only." she said with a self satisfied shake of her head.
Gabrielle went over to the writing desk and held up the scroll she had been working on.
"I've written a long letter to Ephiny explaining what I've done here and I'm sending copies of the invitation and trade agreements. I sent a message to Theacles to please find a volunteer to deliver them to the Amazon. Someone with a level head. I'll have to instruct him on how to approach the border outpost without being turned into a pincushion."
The bard walked to Xena and plopped down on her lap, putting her arms around the Warrior Princess' neck.
"I don't know how to describe it Xena." She said. "I am absolutely bursting with ideas on what we can do at this Conference. It's an incredible opportunity to introduce ourselves to the outside world. We have to handle things just right. It will take a tremendous amount of work."
Gabrielle sighed happily thinking of the challenge. Then suddenly her face darkened and she looked into Xena's eyes.
"Of course we'll have to go to the Amazon villages a lot earlier than we planned and I haven't talked to you about what you think we..."
"Gabrielle!!" Xena's voice was so sharp that it startled the bard. "The Queen of the Amazon does not need to clear her decisions of State with me. Her only concern is the welfare of her people."
The bard leaned back stunned and a little hurt, not sure what to say. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's neck and drew her closer.
"If you ask my opinion about things Gabrielle I will gladly give it." Xena said quietly. "But as Queen you must make your own decisions according to your own judgement, and they cannot be influenced by trying to make me happy or unhappy. You must control your own destiny, as I control mine."
Gabrielle's green eyes searched deep into the blue of Xena's. A tremble of fear floated up her spine and settled in her heart.
"And what is your destiny Xena?" She whispered.
"I chose it long ago my beloved." Xena whispered back. "It's to be wherever you are."
END OF THE CITY
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