DISCLAIMERS: Part 1
SUBTEXT: Oh, yes, getting more and more like maintext <g>
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Special thanks to my beta readers: CAS, Slaw & Extra! :-)
And a special thanks to my Warrior for her support and encouragement. :-)
She could hear the howling as the wind whipped around the palace. The rain was falling so fast and furious that it sounded like a thousand horses were trampling over the roof. The storm had indeed shifted, and the Conqueror found herself on the island that she was once intent on conquering. Alone. Her fleet was on its way around the island and, with any luck, would never encounter the storm. She was alone. No back-up, no supporters... alone in hostile territory.
Phantasia's Royal Palace may not have been as grandiose as the Conqueror's, but Xena was impressed nonetheless. She had not had the grand tour, however, since everything had been rushed once they reached the island. As soon as they were safely on land it was noted that the storm was shifting and would be upon Phantasia within the hour. Royal messengers had already begun to race through the countryside on horseback, warning as many villages as possible.
Now here she sat, in the throne room, several hours later. The wind was so strong that there was nothing they could do but hunker down and wait it out. Since Phantasia was not new to heavy storms, it was predetermined that the queen wait out the storm in the throne room, along with the Royal Guard and Ria. On this occasion they were joined by the Conqueror.
"By the gods." Xena heard the soft whisper from the woman seated next to her, as Zeus's lightening bolts razed the country side. Worried green eyes turned to the Conqueror. "I can't remember a storm quite this bad," the queen whispered. Xena tried to give a reassuring grin, "It'll be fine. I've been through worse." She was lying, naturally. This was a bad one, "bad" being a great understatement.
Gabrielle felt a bit of her fear fade at the Conqueror's words. She sensed that Xena's reassuring statement wasn't entirely true, but was both amazed and touched that the Conqueror would make an attempt to make her feel better in the first place. A true enigma.
"You should take your cues from your son," Xena commented. At Gabrielle's questioning look, the Conqueror continued, "He told me how he loved it when the gods made all the light and noises and rain." A smirk crossed the tall woman's face.
The queen chuckled, "He's never been frightened of storms. When he was a baby, the patter of rain and the roll of the thunder would lull him to sleep." Both women smiled.
Ephiny watched the soft-spoken exchange between her queen and the Conqueror, from her
seat on the other side of the table. Since the queen's return, she had seen a camaraderie
between these two women that, frankly, she didn't understand.
A young woman entered the throne room, and the queen excused herself. "I'll be right back."
Xena watched as the woman bowed to the queen before she began speaking. This news was obviously urgent. The Conqueror fought the urge to rise and join them. She was the ruler and should know what was going on, right? Wrong. Gabrielle is their queen, I have to remember that. I am simply a guest. An honored guest, Xena mused.
"You can't stand it, can you?"
Xena turned and gave the Amazon a glare. "And what would this it be?"
"The fact that you have no control here. You are not the ruler."
Who does she think she is! I'll slit her throat. No, I can't. Oh, yes I can. The internal battle was on as the Conquer fought for control. It was a battle that was fought often, especially of late. The anger and hatred that had controlled her for so long had begun to fade, but that left an internal struggle.
"Is there a problem?"
Both Amazon and Conqueror were startled by the stern voice, although Xena hid it better than Ephiny. Neither had noticed the queen's return. Both had been committed to a staring contest, which Gabrielle found slightly amusing. Warriors. However, this was not the time or place. Her gaze shifted from one to the other. When she didn't receive an answer she held her gaze on her friend.
"I asked a question."
"No, my Queen. There is no problem."
Gabrielle nodded and turned to the Conqueror, who was struggling between anger and amusement at being treated like an impertinent child by this woman. I am the Conqueror! She fixed her eyes on the queen and her anger began receding. Yes, you are the Conqueror who was being childish. Admit it. Face the music. But seeing that she was the Conqueror, she couldn't very well look contrite to anyone, let alone her prisoner.
Who's the prisoner here, Xena?
As the seconds ticked by and she held the green-eyed gaze, Xena came to two realizations. One was that she didn't see Gabrielle as her prisoner anymore, and two was that she could indeed look contrite to this woman.
Xena leaned back, making a failed attempt at looking casual. "There is no problem, Your Majesty." That gained the Conqueror an appreciative grin from the queen and a bewildered look from Ephiny. Obviously, the Amazon wasn't expecting that response from the Conqueror. But it was the queen that Xena and Ephiny now focused on as she relayed the latest events.
Gabrielle knew it was bad but the sight before her made her catch her breath. The storage room on the east grounds of the palace, just off the main kitchen, had collapsed. That in and of itself could have waited until the storm passed, but several of the servants had been holed up inside. They had thought that it would be safe - they were wrong. A large oak tree, the oldest and largest on the island, was struck by lightning and fell directly on the storage room.
Several people were already attempting to move some of the rubble. The wind was whipping around while the rain was falling so hard it felt like tiny daggers prickling the skin. Gabrielle withstood the onslaught, and made her way to the rubble, with Xena and Ephiny by her side. Both warriors had objected to the queen going out in the rainstorm, but Gabrielle quickly dismissed their concerns.
"I am their queen! I will not stand by and do nothing while their lives are in danger." The warriors found themselves facing the hard stare of one determined woman.
Xena turned to the Amazon, "Is she always this stubborn?"
"Yes," came the quick reply, much to Gabrielle's further irritation.
Reluctantly, the warriors agreed to let Gabrielle accompany them. But each had silently vowed to stick by her side.
The queen felt her stomach tighten at the thought of the people trapped inside. One by one they moved the large pieces of stone, thatch and logs. It took over twenty minutes, but their determination lead to the rescue of the three trapped women.
As they made their way back Gabrielle heard a loud crack. She felt something slice across her right side and arm. Intense pain followed.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny cried out. The Amazon had been momentarily blinded by the flash of lightning. When her vision had cleared she saw a branch, sheared off of a tree, heading for her queen. She saw the branch slice into Gabrielle as she raced to her side.
The queen cried out as she felt herself being lifted into someone's arms. "It's all right. I've got you." Gabrielle heard the words as she settled into the comfort of the embrace. Her side throbbed and she was cold and soaked, yet, she felt the solace of the arms around her and forgot about the pain and the freezing cold. Opening her eyes, she looked up. Her ears had not betrayed her. It was Xena.
"Xena?" The queen questioned.
"Shhhh... I gotcha, just a little farther."
Seeing the Conqueror whisk Gabrielle towards safety, Ephiny rushed in ahead and cleared a path. "The queen is injured! Move! Out of the way!"
Frantically, people made room for their queen. The table in the kitchen was cleared and Xena gently placed Gabrielle down, immediately going to work on the wound. Her arm was merely scraped but there was a gash in her side that would need stitches. Xena knelt down to examine the wound.
"Xena, it's not that bad," the queen stated as she attempted to sit up. She was held down by a firm, yet gentle, arm.
"Stay put. Let me look at it, Gabrielle." Blue eyes implored the younger woman and Gabrielle found herself unable to argue. She laid back down and let Xena check her wound.
"Sira, over here!" Ephiny called to the healer.
Sira moved next to the queen and noticed, for the first time, that the Conqueror was there. For her part, Xena was so intent on what she was doing she did not notice the healer walk up next to her. The queen, however, did notice and smiled at the healer, trying not to let the pain show on her face.
"I'm all right, Sira. Really. It's just a scra - ow!" Gabrielle gasped, as the pain shot through her side. The healer gave a knowing smile, "I can see that, Your Majesty."
"This is more then a scratch, Gabrielle." Xena noticed the healer standing beside her, "I'll need some twine and a needle."
"Sira can handle it," Ephiny flatly stated.
Now, Sira was a wise woman. She had been the palace healer since Gabrielle's late father in-law reigned. Looking between the two warriors the woman could see the truth of the situation. However, wisdom meant knowing when to keep your comments to yourself. Sira simply opened her bag and handed the Conqueror what was needed. That elicited a glare from Ephiny, but the healer was unaffected.
For her part, Ephiny was torn. She was protective of her queen and the Conqueror was an enemy. She isn't acting like an enemy and Gabrielle doesn't treat her as an enemy. She did save Gabrielle. Maybe...
A gasp escaped the queen's lips and her breathing was labored. The pain was unbearable. Sira watched as the Conqueror quickly jabbed a spot on Gabrielle's side. The queen's breathing became normal and her face relaxed from the agony it had revealed seconds earlier.
"By the gods."
Xena looked down at her patient with a knowing smile. "Feeling better?"
Gabrielle was amazed at how quickly the pain dulled. "Yes. What did you do?" The smile never left Xena's face as she returned her attention to the sutures. The queen then remembered the ship and her sea sickness. "More pressure points?" she asked. Xena simply nodded.
All eyes were focused on the table in the center of the room. Outside the fury of Mother Nature was in full force, but no one noticed.
The storm finally passed and it seemed that all the occupants of Phantasia were out assessing the damage. Everyone pitched in. Fallen trees were chopped to be used for firewood. Supports were put in place in homes and structures that needed it and animals were rounded up.
The fleet of the Conqueror had safely navigated around the island and waited for the weather to clear. The lead ship, Amphipolis, had made its way to the eastern docks of Phantasia. Once Xena had learned that there was no sign of Brutus' ships, she ordered the fleet to protect the shores of Phantasia until further notice. She would soon deal with Brutus, but for now Gabrielle's island was safe. Gabrielle...
Xena looked around the hospice, her eyes searching for the young queen. When she found her, the Conqueror's eyes showed the worry that filled her.
Gabrielle rested her aching body against the back wall of the full hospice, that only yesterday had been empty. She had been asked to take it easy, by almost everyone. However, she was the queen and there was work to be done. Xena had understood that, although she hadn't been pleased when Gabrielle wanted to actually go out and take a hands-on approach.
"No! You're not going."
The blonde head whipped around in response and faced the tall woman. It was bad enough that Gabrielle had been forced to argue with Ephiny, Gallus, Ria and most of her staff, but to be ordered, and loudly, by the Conqueror, in her own palace... the queen would not stand for that.
Her response came in a measured but resolute tone. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
Xena had almost had to take a step back from the sheer force of the queen's voice. She had faced many things in her life - mortals, gods, fires, floods, wars, death. Almost always she would come out the victor. But this small woman who was shooting green daggers at her was something altogether different. She is beautiful when she's angry.
She was going to lose this battle. Ah, but which battle, Xena? The Conqueror asked herself. Keeping the queen indoors and resting, or the much larger battle, the one you've already begun to lose. Being a stubborn woman, Xena refused to answer herself. Instead, she focused on the blonde standing before her, who looked as though she was about to give the Destroyer of Nations a dressing down.
Xena's face softened and she allowed a bit of her concern to show through. "Gabrielle, you can't risk pulling out those stitches."
The look of concern was not lost on the queen, and her own features softened. She knew everyone was worried about her. Even Xena. That observation was not as shocking as it might once have been. So much had happened in such a short time. It was hard to fully grasp what was occurring between her and this leader of nations. That thought had lead Gabrielle to her response. Xena was a leader, surely she felt the same as Gabrielle, at least on this issue.
"What if it was you, Xena. Would you sit in your palace and wait for others to fill you in?"
Silence. As much as she wanted to, Xena couldn't lie. She would be out there helping to make sure the buildings were secured, the wounded were tended to and the debris cleared. She always took a hands-on approach to ruling. Her responsibility as a leader was not lost on the Conqueror. She found she was more effective working alongside her men than simply sitting back and giving orders. That simple approach helped her build her first army. She garnered the respect of her men and kept it. As the ruler in Corinth, Xena knew she would be outside among her men and the people, injuries be damned.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the silent ruler. "You got me there," Xena admitted, "but I'm going with you." This elicited several eyebrow raises from the others. The Conqueror looked unaffected. "To make sure you don't overdo it, and in case you do indeed pull out those stitches."
The queen grinned and turned back to her staff. "Satisfied?" Mumbles and nods were the response. "Good. Now, I believe we all have work to do. The threat from Rome has at least been delayed. I expect everyone working on repairs and clean-up..."
Xena watched and listened as Gabrielle went into complete "queen" mode. The ruler found that she was impressed.
"Gallus, I want a full report on our ships..."
She commands respect. They listen to her, obey her... I'm certain they would die for her. Yet she is caring and gentle.
Xena's musings had continued as she strode alongside the queen. They had stopped and assisted anywhere that was needed. Gabrielle listened to the people, whether they be servant, merchant, old or young. The queen showed no prejudices and never put on airs. She was genuine, sincere and honest. There was nothing she would ask others to do that she was not willing to do herself.
After spending time with, and watching, this young woman, the Conqueror knew one thing for certain. I'm going to lose this battle.
A weary sigh escaped the queen's lips before she could stop it. She shut her eyes for just an instant, yet when she opened them her view of the large room was blocked. Blue eyes, filled with worry, were staring intently, causing Gabrielle to jolt in surprise.
"Xena! Gods!" The queen raised a hand to her chest.
"I didn't mean to startle you. Come over here," Xena gently requested, while placing a hand on Gabrielle's arm to guide her.
The queen allowed herself to be lead to a chair. Needing no coaxing, she sank into it. A rugged sigh escaped her lips and she closed her eyes. She ached all over. Her side felt like it was on fire and she was bone tired. It had been several hours since Mother Nature ended her rage and the young woman had been going non-stop ever since. She told herself she was fine, but she knew she needed rest.
Xena had been wonderful. That thought brought a small smile to the queen's lips. The warrior had stayed close, but did not hover. When something needed to be done she was there, no questions asked. She did have an over-protective streak, however, never letting Gabrielle lift or move anything that she deemed to be too heavy. The queen's smile broadened.
She had to admit it was nice to be looked after. Especially by Xena. That thought made Gabrielle's eyes fly open and her heart began to race. What is wrong with me? As if to answer her unspoken question, the queen looked up into the eyes of the figure standing in front of her. The concern and worry that was etched in the tanned face was mixed with care and tenderness that Gabrielle correctly assumed few others had seen from this woman in a very long time.
"Hey," Xena's voice was gentle as she knelt down in front of the queen, placing her hands on the young woman's knees, "are you okay?"
Concern was written plainly on the Conqueror's face. Her back was to the room and her sole concentration was the young woman seated before her. She knew Gabrielle was pushing herself and she was worried the queen was overdoing it. She needed to put more salve on the wound and to make Gabrielle rest.
The queen collected her thoughts as she watched Xena kneel before her. A shiver ran through her at the feel of the Conqueror's hands resting on her. By the gods, I hope she didn't notice that. The further crease between Xena's eyes told Gabrielle that the Conqueror was, to her chagrin, very observant.
"Gabrielle, I'm going to get you home."
There was such gentleness and concern in the tall woman's voice, the queen found that she couldn't argue. She nodded and began to stand. Unfortunately, her legs refused to cooperate. The queen found herself, once again settled into the arms of the Conqueror.
"Xena, you don't have to carry me. Besides, it's much too far."
"Nonsense. You're too weak to walk and I am very strong." Two eyebrows wiggled, causing the queen to chuckle and finally rest her head against the leather-clad chest.
On the other side of the room, Ria stood up. She had finished giving an injured woman a drink of water and was heading to the next bed when she spotted them. Fear gripped her heart as she watched the Conqueror grab the queen. Before she could react, she saw the exchange between them and then the queen's smile while placing her head against her captor.
Ria stood, her eyes trailing them as they left the room. Her brain was still registering what she saw. Was the Conqueror actually caring for the queen? Was it possible that these two women had gone from enemy to friend? She had seen the signs since Gabrielle's return. The interaction between queen and conqueror was respectful, sincere and honest. Yet, she couldn't help but to be concerned.
Her thoughts continued as she followed the two women.
As they approached the queen's bed chamber, Xena took note of the guard across the hall. He came to full attention when he noticed the queen. Anticipating their movements, the guard marched to the queen's door and opened it.
"Thank you, Davis," the queen said politely.
The guard nodded and stepped back, allowing their entrance.
Ever so gently, Xena placed Gabrielle on the bed. The queen winced and watched the tall woman remove a pouch from her belt. Everything that was needed to clean the wound was emptied onto the bed.
"Where did you get those?"
Xena smirked, "Gabrielle, we were in a hospice."
She knew she was being teased but the queen simply couldn't bring herself to banter back. The pain was getting worse and she felt light-headed.
Once again pressure points were used to ease the queen's pain. Xena gently eased Gabrielle's shirt up to reveal the blood-stained bandage. She removed the wrapping, only to find that the queen had indeed pulled some of the stitches and blood was oozing from the wound.
The queen watched the Conqueror's face darken with worry, then become a mask as she began her task.
"Is it bad?"
"You pulled a couple of stitches. I'll get you sewn back up and put more salve on it." The voice was all business, no emotion.
Gabrielle knew she overdid it and was now regretting it. Here was the Conqueror, her enemy a week ago, tending to her with such care. It was not fair to put her through this. Why did I have to get hurt? Why do I feel so guilty? Maybe it's because I love the way she takes care of me?
"I'm sorry," she whispered, never taking her eyes off the ceiling.
Xena looked up, "For what?"
"For putting you through this. If you ask Davis to call Sira you won't have to deal with it. I know I should have taken it easy today, but I was needed. You all warned me, but I couldn't just sit back and let others do everyth-" The queen was silenced by a hand covering her mouth. She titled her head and stared at the dark-haired woman.
"Gabrielle, stop. It's all right. I'm not going to call Sira unless I need her. I've got you stitched up and with some rest," emphasis placed on the last word, "you'll be good as new."
The queen sighed and closed her eyes. Xena removed her hand but not before noticing that Gabrielle felt warm. She placed her hand on the woman's forehead and found it to be quite warm as well. A breeze blew in from the window and, instantly, Xena placed the blanket over the queen, protecting her from the chill. Rising, she moved to the window and closed the shutters.
"No, don't. It's so hot in here," Gabrielle protested.
The Conqueror turned to find that the queen had kicked off the blanket. Walking over and replacing the cover, she gently scolded the woman, "It is not warm in here, it's chilly. The fever is making you feel hot. So keep this over you."
"No buts." Xena sat on the edge of the bed. She could see the beads of sweat on the queen's face and knew that she was having a difficult time keeping her eyes open.
"Sleep now." Without thought, Xena instinctively reached out and brushed damp blonde locks away from beautiful green eyes. "You'll feel better in the morning." I'll be here when you wake up. "Rest now." I'm losing this battle and I don't even care.
As the queen began her entrance into Morpheus' realm, Ria quietly closed the bed chamber door. She looked at Davis, who nodded to her. With a smile, she nodded and walked back the way she came. It was apparent to the woman that her queen was in very good hands this evening.
The moonlight reflected off the calm ocean waters, helping to make it a beautiful evening. A lone figure sat on a log on the beach, not noticing the peacefulness of it all. Her heart was filled with such turmoil. How had this day ever come?
She knew what was happening. It was there to be seen by anyone willing to look close enough. They were attracted to each other. Only time would tell what the results of this attraction would be but there was no denying that it was there. It's impossible. How could these two woman be friendly let alone have an underlying attraction?
Ephiny jumped up at that thought. Am I? No. I couldn't...
The Conqueror was known throughout the lands as a cruel, ruthless and evil woman. Who better knew this evil than the Amazons. Xena saw to it that their homelands were destroyed, forcing them into hiding. They lived as best they could, teaming with the Centaurs, until a young queen brought salvation. And now she had made an enemy of the Amazons' new home by kidnapping their prince. How could the queen find any type of allure from such a woman?
The Amazon began to pace, kicking up sand. She loved Gabrielle, of that Ephiny was sure, but was she really in love with her?
The realization hit her. She stopped and shook her head as if to clear it of all thoughts. Solare had said as much. She had teased her for the way Ephiny looked at the queen when she thought no one was paying any attention, and scolded her for brushing off Eponin's advances so quickly in favor of a queen who saw her only as a friend. It had been light banter at the time but now the Captain knew the truth of the teasing.
I have to brush these feelings aside. They do me no good. Especially with the Conqueror so close.
A sound alerted her, causing her to spin in the direction of the noise.
"Ephiny, it's me." The voice was familiar, even if the figure was shrouded in darkness.
"Good evening, Ria."
"I thought I'd find you here."
"Is everything all right? Is Gabrielle -"
"She's fine, just fine. She's resting now." Once close enough to see the Amazon's face, Ria gauged whether to tell her more. "It seems that she did overdo it."
Ephiny gave a sigh of relief at hearing that Gabrielle was all right, then smirked. "That sounds like Gabrielle."
The two women sat down and watched the moonlight dance on the waves. Both silently contemplated the implications of what they saw happening between their queen and the Conqueror, yet, debated whether they should confide in the other. Ephiny made the decision first.
"Ria, what do you think of the Conqueror?"
The older woman gave thought to her response. "She is not what I expected, I can tell you that. I was more than a little frightened at the thought of her here, and then when I saw her... she is so tall and menacing. But I couldn't help being taken aback by her interaction with Her Majesty. It was friendly," She paused, reflecting on the exchanges she had witnessed, "I don't know what happened over in Corinth but I think the queen has made a new friend."
The Amazon had to chuckle at the older woman's way of putting things. Her thoughts grew serious and she turned fully to the woman, "Do you trust her?"
"Yes." Ria surprised herself with that answer, but only for a second.
Frustrated, Ephiny let out an exasperated sigh and turned back to the ocean.
Ria knew the Amazon's frustrations and decided to elaborate. "Do you remember when that warlord, Draco, arrived here several years ago?" Ephiny nodded. "He was such a charmer. I think most of the women were flirting with him and the men admired him."
"Not Gabrielle," the Amazon interrupted.
"Exactly, not Gabrielle. She didn't like him and wouldn't trust him." Ria paused, letting her story sink in. "And several moons after he left Phantasia we heard how he had destroyed numerous villages, killing innocent women and children, only to be stopped by the Conqueror herself," she continued, "Gabrielle knew. That child has a sixth sense about people." She chuckled, imagining the queen would be none too happy at being referred to as a child. "That's one of the reasons I trust Xena. Because it's obvious that Gabrielle does."
Ria stood and turned to head back, "Then again, maybe I'm just a romantic old fool," she added with a laugh. Ephiny joined her in both the laugh and the walk back. There was much to think about, but right now the Amazon simply wanted to lay her aching body down and relinquish control to Morpheus.
He could hear the laughter coming from the women on the beach. He was sure he wasn't detected. He would wait... his time would come.
To be continued...Part 8
Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse | Phantasia