Disclaimers (and legal stuff): No, this isn't about someone overcoming a drug habit. <G> Although I wish I could say Xena and Gabby are ours, they are not. They belong to MCA/Universal last we heard. This story however is ours and ours alone. There's a lot of violence but not too graphic. Alt sex, you bet! If you are too young, read no further. If you live some place where this may not be kosher, read no further. However, if you are open-minded, old enough and live in a progressive neighborhood . . .enjoy! Nothing poetic is our's, belongs to unknown author. Thanks to Kamouraskan, Jlynn, Mary and the Bardic Circle for the beta. Email the author's at CNWinters@hotmail.com  or MurphyCG881@aol.com

aConquering Heroineb
Chapter 1
I rolled on my side to bring my bard into my arms, but I came up empty. Since I'm the one who usually rises first, I wondered out loud where she could be.
"Gabrielle?" I called.
No answer.
Tossing my bedroll aside, I wandered to the water's edge, still not seeing her.
"Gabrielle?" I called again, the irritation rising to my voice.
Where in Tartarus is she? I wondered. A flash of blue light burst behind me, reflecting off the water. It had Ares stench all over it and I doubled back to where I saw it. But when I arrived, I came up empty for the second time that day.
"Ares!" I shouted. "I know you're out here somewhere. Show yourself!"
He appeared with that smirk of his that always brought bile to my throat. I knew he was up to something.
"You rang?" he asked, his arms folded across his chest.
"Where's Gabrielle?" I asked, taking three strides to come nose to nose with him.
"Why, whatever are you talking about?" he answered with a cocky tone.
"You know damn well what I'm talking about. What are you up to this time?"
Ares paused a moment, as if wondering if he should confess. It didn't matter to me at this point; I could see behind his dark eyes. He was never good at keeping his mouth shut when he came up with another scam - his ego and his pride were always his downfall in such matters. I knew it was just a matter of time before he'd spill it.
"You're always so quick to blame me Xena," he grinned.
"You're always so quick to cause me grief," I pointed out. "So what's the newest plan? Gonna make me play a game of hide and seek the bard? Or perhaps you decided to test out Gabrielle's warrior skills again?" I prodded. He wasn't going to get off the hook that easy.
"That's what I always loved about you Xena. So keenly observant and focused."
"Answer the question, Ares!" I snapped. I was growing tired of this game.
"Okay, okay," he relented. He realized he'd pushed me far enough. "She's not here. Let's just say I gave her a 'new life'. Or, more to the point, 'your life'."
"What are you saying, Ares?" I asked. I imagined where he was going with this and I feared the response, but I had to know.
"She's one heck of a little fighter, that bard of yours. As I've said before, perhaps I was wasting my energy on the wrong warrior."
Cryptic. He was talking cryptically. Now I realized why Gabrielle hates it so much when I do it. "What does that mean Ares? What have you done with Gabrielle?!"
"My, my, did you get up on the wrong side of the bedroll today?" I reared back to hit him but he held up his hands, relenting. "Okay, look. She's okay. She's safe. She's in another reality however. I could send you there but you have to realize something . . . she's not the bard you know."
"She didn't leave the family farm to follow the Warrior Princess. In fact she's never heard of the Warrior Princess. In her new world, no one has. She left home after a warlord torched her village - murdered her family, raped and killed her sister. She's not the same woman Xena."
"You bastard!!" I spat.
"She's not the same woman Xena…She's better. She's stronger - more lethal, more focused. Right now she controls all of Greece and she's taking on the Romans - and winning. She's about to engage in her last major battle against Caesar. If she wins, Rome will fall next. Just as Egypt did. Just as Gaul. Just as Britannia and even the Norse country. She's got the world, Xena . . . She's my warrior queen."
My right hook left before Ares saw it coming, the force of it snapping his head back. "You son of a bitch!"
I had to do something. If there was a way Ares created this world there also had to be a way to undo it I was sure. But I knew I couldn't do it from this reality. "Send me to her," I told him.
Ares chuckled. "Why? She doesn't know you. She'd just as soon kill you as to look at you if you walked into her life. Just what do you think you're going to do?"
"I'll figure it out when I get there. Just send me," I ordered him. "After all, don't you think it will make life more interesting? Your Warrior Princess battling your Warrior Queen?"
Ares chewed on the inside of his cheek in thought. "It does hold some fascination, I must admit. But realize if she kills you in that world you die in both. Don't say I didn't warn you," he teased.
"I'll take my chances," I drawled. With a wave of Ares hand I felt myself being transformed, sucked through to another dimension.
I appeared, and with a painful thud, landed on the ground near what looked like Athens. This was not the normal hustle and bustle area I was used to. Gabrielle loved to drag me here so she could shop and see all the bards perform. I started on my way towards the city and I could feel the darkness seeping from this place chilling me to the bone. I remembered Iolaus telling me about his time with me as the Conqueror and I shuddered.
Athens used to be a place where a traveler could come and go freely, but now there was a wall surrounding it with a huge guarded gate. I waited in line behind a variety of folks, from fellow warriors all the way to what looked like farmers.
"Halt!" I looked at the hand that was on my shoulder then to the guard whose hand was soon to be broken.
"Where's your papers, warrior?" I raised one eyebrow and gave my chin a scratch.
"Papers?" No need to knock his lights out just yet.
"Are you deaf or dumb, warrior?" he asked gruffly. I just grinned. "The papers for the Conqueror's competition." He answered when I didn't reply. Interesting, I considered.
"Warriors are only allowed into the city by the invitation of Lord Conqueror." This might be a way to get close to Gabrielle.
"I don't need papers." I smiled broadly. "Allow me to demonstrate." Still grinning I knocked the guard beside him out and pressure pointed this one. "I've just cut the flow of blood off to your brain you have thirty seconds to live." I glared at him. "What are the competitions for?" I watched as the blood flowed from his nose.
"She holds competitions to find the best warriors for her royal guard," he gasped out. "She is going against Rome and demands nothing but the best." Two quick jabs and he fell back, pulling in as much air as he could.
"Tell the Conqueror to look no further." I unsheathed my sword and did some drill moves to impress him with my speed. I twirled my blade so quickly I was sure the guard was getting nauseous just watching. "I am the best." I said with full confidence and grinned when I noticed the guard had his mouth hanging open in awe.
"Why don't you tell her yourself, warrior?" A voice behind me asked. I turned to see my bard but what I saw made me freeze in place. Gabrielle was in armor and leathers with a very impressive looking, sword strapped to her back. What made my heart pound loudly were the scars I could see on many places on her body, her face was very statuesque with an icy stare to match. Did I look like that not so long ago, I wondered? Next thing I knew was the pain in my face before everything went dark.
I woke up with the cold feeling of water splashing my face. "Wakey, wakey Xena." The voice was one that I was not in the mood to hear. I raised my head up to see Ares smirking at me. My head was pounding and I was chained to a wall.
"Xena, Xena." He paced in front of me shaking his head. "What do you think of my Conqueror?" He seemed very proud of himself. "The look when you saw Gabrielle was priceless." He let a long, menacing laugh out. "You haven't seen anything yet." With that he disappeared.
I couldn't afford to let anything slip to Ares until its time. He was right though. I had to give him that. When I turned and looked into Gabrielle's eyes it made my heart stop. Dull, almost empty, her eyes so harsh that it took me by surprise. Gabrielle, even in the darkest of times, had a glimmer of some kind of hope.
I had to get it into my head that this was the Conqueror. I wondered how much of my life Ares had given her. The idea of Gabrielle going through anything I had, made me sick and my head hung down in shame.
"I see you're awake." That made my head snap up. I didn't hear her come in. She walked towards me with cat-like grace. Almost like stalking a prey, which unfortunately was me.
Time to get my bard back. I considered formulating a starting place. I looked over towards the Conqueror who resembled my bond-mate yet in the same breath, looked nothing like the woman I knew.
"Yes Lord Conqueror, I..." I couldn't say my next word with her fist in my face. She hit me so hard it snapped my head back into the wall where it stung and I bet left an impression on my face.
"Silence!" She gave me an icy stare and I cleared the cobwebs from my brain. Then she grabbed my throat, her grip tight enough to cut off my air. "I don't remember telling you to talk yet, warrior." I just shook my head, ready to breathe as soon as she let me. "Who are you? And please know if you lie you'll be dead before suppertime." I shook my head again and she released my throat.
It took me a moment to get my breath back.
"My name is Xena," I told her as I continue to gasp for air. She raised an eyebrow at me. "I was born in the village called Amphipolis," I added.
I watched her scrunch her eyes in examination of me - trying to figure me out, just like always. This time however I felt it's for a much darker purpose than when the bard I knew did it.
"So you're here for revenge I assume?" she began. When I simply shake my head no, she continued of her own accord. "My men sacked that village years ago." She grinned, as if wanting to get a reaction out of me. I just stayed calm looking at her, trying not to picture her attacking my hometown - besides MY Gabrielle wouldn't do that to anyone's hometown. I had to stay focused and calm if I was ever to get MY Gabrielle back.
"My cook was a tavern keeper there." The tavern keeper? She had enslaved my own mother? Now that made me glare at her and she loved it. I understood exactly what Gabrielle was feeling. The power of having the upper hand over someone, the power to twist the knife deeper and knowing there was nothing to stop you from continuing the assault. "Who did you say your family was?" she asked.
I needed to think quickly.
"You didn't let me finish, my Lord." I was trying hard not to show my anger that was slowly rising. "I was born in Amphipolis but my parents were killed when I was a babe." I watched as the Conqueror seemed to think on that. "My mother's sister took me in and moved me to the land of Chin." She looked me in the eyes again after that was said. I wonder if Ares gave her my memories of Lao Ma?
"Is that where you learned the pressure point technique?" She started to pace back and forth.
"Yes, my Lord." I was losing feeling in my shoulders, this was a much quicker answer then to try and explain M'lila.
"So what makes you think you are the best warrior?" She raised her eyebrow at me again.
"I don't think so, I know so." I said meeting her eyes.
She let out a deep chuckle at my brazen style, "Is that so ... Xema, was it?"
"Xena, my lord," I corrected her as politely as possible. "Allow me to prove it." I met her eye to eye as I spoke. "It has been a dream of mine to serve you and I have trained long and hard for that purpose, my Lord." I bowed my head to her.
"I'm sure you could serve me," she said while eyeing my whole body. I knew there were lecherous thoughts that ran behind the sultry look I was getting. "You'd better be right, warrior," she added with a sigh.
"Guards!!" she suddenly shouted, making me jump slightly. Two huge men came racing in. "Escort this warrior to the competition barracks." She eyed me once more. "We've got a new contestant." With that she quickly walked away.
It felt good to be freed from those damn chains. "Move!" The guard gave me a little push and I glared at him. He so kindly backed away from me. We walked through a long stretch of hallway to a door. The guard opened it and it led me to the arena where I guessed all the warriors fought. I could see the throne where the Conqueror would sit and plenty of benches around for all the spectators. What I didn't expect to see was that guard I put the pinch on crucified in the center of the arena. The Conqueror must have considered him a weakness and got rid of him. I know I would have.
The guards opened the door and there were several entrances on both sides on the hallway. When the door slammed behind me in my room, which was nothing more than a bed with a pot, I finally allowed myself to crumble on the floor. I was so happy to see my bond-mate, but deeply troubled and saddened by the look on her face. She was so cold. So harsh. So much like I was before she came into my life. But I could breathe a small sigh of relief. At least I was close enough now to where maybe, I could get in touch with the real Gabrielle. I could find someway to turn her life in a different direction, just as she had done with mine.
I pulled myself together when I quickly realized I was no longer a prisoner. I pushed the door to my chamber to have it open freely. Perhaps I could do a little snooping here and there. Any insight I could gain would be useful to destroying the new world Ares had created. If it could be done then it could be undone too. Finding the key would be difficult at best. I walked to the end of the hallway to the sound of a commotion on the other side of a large wooden door that sat there. I pushed inside to see what looked like a large banquet. All noise and eating ceased as soon as I stepped inside. And every eye in the grand room turned to me.
A large, burly man stood up from a table to address me, clearing his throat.
"You must be the fresh meat," he chuckled. Soon his comrades all joined in. I gave my best feral grin and strutted over.
"Name's Xena," I said offering my hand. "And you?"
"Tibereus of Thrace," he said, replied. "Pretty warriors like you shouldn't compete, you know?"
As he said the words my grip tightened and I could feel his fingers on the verge of snapping at the pressure. He hid his wince from his cronies - surely he could let a 'mere pretty lady' make him tear up. His pride would keep him in check.
"I hadn't heard," I told him as I released my grip. "But I'll take that under advisement. Mind if I join you?"
"By all means," he said with a grin and a nod of his hand. It was obvious that he was the 'leader' of this group. If I earned his respect, it could be a wonderful means to my end. He and I locked eyes, nether of us refusing to yield to the other.
I can take him, I thought. And I think he knows it. As soon as the thought entered my mind he relented and pretended to be distracted by the plate in front of him. "So where you from, Xena?" he asked, digging into his potatoes.
"Amphipolis," I told him. Once more the forks stopped rising to mouths and chatter came to a halt.
Tibereus shakes his head. "And you're competing in the tournament to serve the Conqueror, after what she did there five years ago? Damn," he chuckled. "You must be one cold, ruthless warrior."
Inside I wondered just what had Gabrielle done and my first reaction was fear. She had mentioned the attack in my cell, but she didn't provide much detail. But I knew I couldn't let my surprise show. I had to play along.
"I admire strength," I told him. "The Conqueror has that. And let's just say I want to be a part of it. After all, isn't that why you're here too?"
He lets out a hearty chuckle. "I do believe you are right, Xena. Here, have a mead," he said sliding a cup down as a peace offering. "A toast - to the warriors of Greece. May the best and bravest win."
"I'll drink to that," I replied and without wasting anymore time I drained the mug. "Think I'm gonna mingle, Tibereus," I said as I rose and started to case the room, sizing up the competition. I saw two women warriors in the corner talking. Although they were dressed in full leathers and armor there was something very 'amazonish' about them. Perhaps it was the way they held their shoulders - upright and broad - as they conversed. Otherwise the room appeared to be filled with men. My eyes scanned the room until a sight in the corner stopped me in my tracks. Seemed there was another woman in the room and I had to wipe my eyes to make sure I was seeing things clearly.
With light steps I approached the woman who sat sharpening her sword with short careful strokes. She looked up at me as I neared, but she put on the air that she was not impressed by my presence and returned to sharpening her sword with a sigh.
"Not a lot of female warriors in this thing," I started off conversationally.
"No," she replied. "And none of them enjoy chit-chat," she added coldly.
I wasn't sure how to continue this conversation, but I knew I had to. I had to find out what Ares did with her fate. I decided to try the old faithful approach and I stuck out my hand.
"Xena," I told her.
She paused a moment to examine it before deciding to grasp it with a firm shake. "Callisto," she answered.
I had an uneasy feeling about this, one of many I had to admit. "So you're here to serve the Conqueror?" What else was I going to say?
"No sweetie." She gave me that wicked smirk of hers. "I think I'm here for the same reasons you are. I'm from a town called Cirra before it was burned by the dear Conqueror." Her face twitched and in my mind I whispered, it was me. "Overheard you were from Amphipolis. My my, how do you sleep at night?" We were face to face. "I mean the massacre of Amphipolis is legendary." I knew she was enjoying this. "Oh well, gotta run, it was so nice to meet you, Xena." No hand shaking this time, she just turned and walked away. Bet a dinar she had a huge grin on her face.
My mind was reeling. It was like watching parts of my life being acted out right in front of me with an added twist to make me suffer more. One word kept going over and over in my head: massacre. I had to know what happened and I knew the place to look.
I made my way back through the banquet towards the kitchen area. I hesitated before going in, not knowing what to expect. I entered, almost plowing into a slave bringing out more mead for the wild bunch at the banquet. There was a figure by the fire stirring the huge pot of stew I would know anywhere; my mother. She looked thinner, almost frail. I couldn't stop my lip from quivering and I could not move. I just stood there staring at her.
I watched as she handed platters of food to the servant slaves and did a lot of one arm waving, but did not say one word. They just seemed to know what to do by her simple hand movements. Gathering courage I walked over to her, excusing myself so I didn't startle her.
"Hello." She turned quickly towards me and just looked. "I don't mean to interrupt you." She just shrugged her shoulders and looked at me like, what? Still no words.
"I have no idea how to start." I shook my head and she raised an eyebrow at me and turned to continue her work. "My name's Xena. I'm from Amphipolis." I jumped back as the glass she had in her hand dropped and she turned to look at me with a look I had not seen since Lyceus was killed. Still no words, what was wrong with her?
"She can't talk." I spun around to see a small girl standing there in fear. I looked back at my mother then bent down to the child. "Why?" I didn't want to hear this. My heart was beating so loud it was almost deafening.
"Her tongue was cut out years ago."
I clamped my mouth shut and I could feel my darkness rising. I stood up quickly just shaking hard.
"The conqueror should die for this!"
I couldn't believe I said that. I gripped the counter next to me and tried to control myself. I felt a smack to my arm and I looked at my mother, her eyes blazing. She motioned for me to sit and I did.
I was so upset - I felt I could jump out of my skin. She sat down with a writing tablet and started to write. She handed me the tablet.
"What do you want from me?" she wrote.
I looked her right in the eyes and said with all my heart. "I want nothing from you, I just want to know what happened to my homeland." She seemed to think about that then started to write. She wrote as fast as she could and handed me the tablet again. It said:
"Five years ago the Conqueror's army attacked us. They came upon us like Hades himself, they left nothing alive. What women that were left were raped and beaten, I was one of them. I guess I protested one too many times and one of the men cut my tongue out. Everything went dark then. I woke up with a healer and I could vaguely see a woman standing behind him. He told me a part of the Conqueror's army went out on raids without her knowledge. She got wind of what happened after Cirra and went out to deal with these men. In fact the few women who survived are all still here serving her."
I stared at the page for the longest time. As much as I tried to control it, my tears flowed down my cheek and I felt a warm hand wiping them away. I looked up to see my mother's eyes and put my arms around her and wept. I couldn't begin to imagine the pain she'd gone through and the fact that I could do nothing to prevent it. I pulled back and recovered and she went to write more.
"Who was your family?"
I explained to her the same thing I told the Conqueror. What could I say? You're my mother? She'd think I was a mad woman and have me locked up. She gave a nod without questioning my story and motioned back to the cooking pot. I knew she had to get back to work, but she promised we could 'talk' again and gave a gentle smile I knew so well, holding tight to the parchment she wrote on.
I barely made it back to my room before throwing up. I sat on my bed absorbing all I was told today. What my mother went through, what happened to my homeland. What upset me the most was how fast I turned to my dark side and was ready to kill Gabrielle. Words I promised myself I would never say again.
Maybe this is a plot by Ares? To make me kill Gabrielle, or she me? Or maybe he is true to his word this time. He didn't give Gabrielle all of my life, just bits and pieces and altered them so she wouldn't wind up like I did. She saved my mother. Is part of Gabrielle still alive in there? One thing Ares didn't count on is that his Queen would have compassion. Another thing he may not have considered was Callisto. Ares did become a bit short sighted in all his plans. Perhaps as usual there were facets he overlooked.
If Callisto was going to kill Gabrielle, I had to warn her. I had to put her on guard. I put my bracers on and walked from my chamber to find the Conqueror. I didn't have to look for very long. The long corridor, which was heavily guarded, was my first clue. A pair of crossed spears met me as I approached.
"I need to see the Conqueror," I told them. "Take me to her."
"No one sees the Conqueror. She's very busy and will see only those that SHE requests an audience from."
My desire to bloody a few noses was strong but I kept myself in check. This was Gabrielle's world and I had to play by Gabrielle's rules…for now.
"Well then would you tell the conqueror that Xena has important information that her life may be in danger? I'll wait quietly here for your return."
Wouldn't hurt to ask, I supposed? It was new for me but it always seemed to work for Gabrielle. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the guard motion to someone near the door of the Conqueror's chamber. He whispered something and I watched the guard leave.
A few moments passed and the guard reemerged. "You may enter," he nodded. The spears opened and I walked down the long stretch of stone before coming to the door. "You have five minutes."
The door opened and my first sight was Gabrielle. She sat at a huge desk writing a scroll and looking back and forth between two others. Something told me that this wasn't a recreation activity as it was in our travels. She was 'working'. As I approached, it surprised me how much older she appeared in this life. Her youthful glow was gone - replaced by the onset of crow's feet and worry lines.
The room was filled with different items I recognized from areas of the world where she and I once traveled. However, I know she collected these on her trips alone. Greek marble lined the floor. Chin silk drapes hung from the walls. Some weapons from Britannia adorned the wall as decorations. I took it all in as I approached until her voice interrupted my examination.
"They say you have news about an assassination attempt," she said without looking up. "I'm shocked that someone would want me dead," she chuckled sarcastically. She put down the quill and turned to face me. "So who is it this time? The Romans? The Persians? Perhaps someone from Greece looking to make a name for themselves by offing the warrior queen?"
I couldn't believe how blasé she was about it. Just a day in the life for her. For the first time the reality of Gabrielle's life hit me. She had the most difficult of starts like I did. But worse than me she achieved her goal for power and success. But in truth it wasn't success at all. She didn't look happy or fulfilled. In fact she had to spend her life looking over her shoulder, always being on guard. She probably couldn't associate with the people of kingdom she now controlled. She probably couldn't even go out for the simple pleasure of haggling in the marketplace. She was a captive to her fame. Ares had his warrior queen all right, but at what price to Gabrielle?
"A woman - she's competing in the morning," I answered.
"I see," Gabrielle got up and strolled around me, taking in all my features - my appearance, my demeanor, everything. "How do I know that YOU'RE not the woman I should be scared of huh?" I heard her pull a dagger from her boot behind me. "How do I know that this isn't just a roust and you're working with her to 'throw me off'?"
"You don't." I told her. "You just have to trust me."
Her hearty laugh actually made me jump.
"Trust is one of the few luxuries I can't afford," she told me. "But I must confess there is something about you. You're not the average warrior that's for sure, and you're certainly not bad on the eyes."
Was she flirting with me? My gods she is . . . perhaps I have some hope here after all. If I can't appeal to Gabrielle's good senses perhaps I could appeal to her libido. I grinned wickedly at her.
"I could say the same but I wouldn't want to offend you," I said, making sure to tread lightly here, but tread just the same. I had to keep moving to find out what made Gabrielle tick. Callisto saw Gabrielle as a demon. My mother saw her as a savior. What was the real story? Perhaps much like myself the truth would lie somewhere in between.
Gabrielle doesn't reply to my comments, she just gracefully takes her seat again. "Who is this woman you speak of?"
"Her name is Callisto. Her goal is to win and earn your confidence in order to get close to you . . . She's from Cirra."
For the first time since meeting Gabrielle I saw her become uncomfortable. She shifted slightly in her seat but quickly pushed any emotion down.
"I see," she said. "That's if she survives the competition of the first round tomorrow."
"I have no doubt she'll survive," I told the conqueror. She may not have known just what Callisto was capable of at this point. But I certainly did.
I would have continued but another woman entered the room from a side entrance. She saw me speaking with Gabrielle and automatically turned to my bard.
"I'm sorry I didn't think you were still in meetings," she said.
I watched as Gabrielle gave her a lecherous grin and waved her over. Quickly the woman shuffled over and even more quickly Gabrielle snagged her by the waist and pulled her into her lap.
"That's okay, Najara. I was just finishing up."
As I watched as my bard nuzzled into her neck, nipping her earlobe. I felt my blood boil, my stomach tied in knots and my sword hand shook at the prospect of gutting her. Perhaps even both of them. I knew I had to get out of there quickly before I did something drastic.
"Well, I just wanted you to be advised," I said briskly as I turned around. I tried to hide my disgust at their display and to make my way out quietly.
"I didn't dismiss you," I heard Gabrielle call out in an authoritative voice.
Damn it! I halted my movements and turned around again to watch the two of them together. "I meant no disrespect. I just wanted to give you some privacy, my lady," I told her.
I watched Gabrielle whisper something in Najara's ear, sending her off with a kiss and a playful swat to the backside. Najara said nothing to me. Didn't even look my way. It's as if I meant nothing. And in this world I realized I didn't. I was just another nameless warrior, not a rival for the bard's affections.
Gabrielle rose and walked over to me. "That's good," she told me. "Because if my relationship with Najara makes you uncomfortable, I would honestly have to consider eliminating you from the competition myself. Is that understood?"
I gave a nod, unable to trust my voice.
"Good," she nodded in turn, escorting me to the door before opening it. "I look forward to watching you compete tomorrow."
"Yes my lady," I replied.
Without further words I walked out and I heard the door close. I didn't even notice the guards that lined the walls as I made my way back to my room. All I could think about is the fact that Gabrielle was alone, in her room, with that woman. I didn't have long to dwell on it because I felt the hairs on my neck stand on edge and I heard a devilish chuckle I knew all to well.
"Told you she wasn't YOUR bard anymore, Xena."
Without taking a moment to look behind me, I spun around and punched Ares square in the face.
"Gee Xena, did I touch on a sore subject there?" Ares stopped rubbing his nose to smile.
"You really are one sick son of a bitch."
That just made his smile go wider. "Now that wasn't nice Xena." He was enjoying this way too much. "After all, you're the one who wanted to come." He sat back in a chair looking pleased with himself.
"Why her?" I just felt sick at the thought of Gabrielle touching that nut. "Of all the people, why that psycho?" As hard as I tried, I couldn't hide my pain.
"Hmm, why her?" he said sarcastically, while scratching his beard. "Let's see, she's smart, a very good warrior, crazy, but in a brilliant way...." He started walking around me with his hands behind his back.
"At first I thought about making Callisto her bedmate, but let's face it, she's not the sharpest sword on the rack." He chuckled as I sneered. "How many times was she stopped by a rockslide? Pitiful." Then he stopped and snapped his fingers. "Then it came to me - Najara. And one of the few warriors who can claim they kicked your ass." I had my hand clenched so tight I could feel my nails cutting into my skin.
"She came very close to ending your life, if it wasn't for that fast talking bard of yours...." He went back to the chair and threw his leg over one arm. "I would say she is the only one who really can throw you completely off." He sat there grinning. "Relax and enjoy the ride Xena, the surprises are far from over." He disappeared, laughing wickedly.
My mind was going on overload. I tried to relax and do some breathing exercises I learned in Chin, but nothing helped. Ares did think of Callisto, but did he want her to show up this way? That was one worry. Najara was another. Having those two running around made my skin crawl. Thinking of my wife making love to that loon...
Get it together Xena, I told myself. You can't fall apart now. You'll make it through like every other time. Ares was very right about Najara. She's one person who can make me very uneasy. She is also one person who out right challenged me for my bard's affection and almost won. I needed to work out some of my aggressions, so I grabbed my sword and headed towards the door, swinging it open to find my mother standing there.
Chapter 2
"Hello, this is a pleasant surprise." I said as my mother smiled and handed me a plate of food. What I really needed to do right then was go somewhere and scream, but my mother came first. I had to be cordial.
I motioned for her to come in while I set the plate on the table. She sat in the chair and I was across from her on the bed. She started to write then handed me the tablet.
"Is this a bad time?" she asked. I should have said, "This is a bad nightmare, mom, make it better," like I did when I was small. I just shook my head and handed her back the tablet.
She wrote, " I was told you didn't eat at the banquet so I brought you something to eat." I gave her a grin and thanked her.
She then wrote, "We really didn't get a chance to finish our talk, I have some time now."
I didn't know if I could bear to hear it. I just hung my head for a minute. I had so many things to ask her. Like what happened to my brothers, my father? Since I wasn't born she didn't have to kill him, so why didn't he protect them from the raid?
"May I call you Cyrene?" She didn't tell me her name, but didn't seem shocked when I spoke it. She just shrugged her shoulders as if to say, if you want.
"Cyrene, did you have a family?" I saw the pain in her eyes, but I had to know what happened. She closed her eyes tight, before opening them and starting to write.
"I had two sons. They were both killed." I had to give Ares credit. That is possibly one of the most painful things I have ever had to go through.
"I'm so sorry." I stopped to clear my throat. "What of your husband, he couldn't protect you?" I saw my mother's eyes turn icy.
"He's dead also," she wrote quickly. She was looking around the room trying to find the right words. With an exasperated look, as if she gave up she wrote, "I killed him." She handed me the tablet not looking at me. I couldn't believe it, why? I wasn't around now, why would she do that?
"Why?" I barely got out. She took the tablet from my hands.
"He killed our child." She looked right at me when she handed the tablet back. Which child, I thought. Surely he would kill one of his sons. I couldn't speak and my mother took the tablet back and wrote.
"I had a daughter and before I knew what happened, he killed her in the name of Ares, The God of War." She gave a strangled gasp and fought back the tears. I just let mine fall, crying for my mother's pain. She struggled to write more. "I named her Xena, she was eight summers old." I had to read this a few times to really let it sink in. That's how Ares got rid of me. I told her how sorry I was again and she wrote on.
"When you first came to me today, I thought you were playing a cruel joke." I shook my head really hard and told her, no. She placed her finger to my lips to quiet me and smiled. "I can feel something about you child, my thought now is maybe this is a gift."
I lost it then and there after reading it and grabbed on to her and held her tight. As much as I wanted to hold onto her forever, I needed to fix this all so we could get back to normal. When I get my bard back the first thing we will do is go home so I can hug my real mother.
"Tell me about the Conqueror." She was uneasy with that request. "It's just not normal to hear of her compassion, from what I heard, she has no soul." That earned me one irritated look and she wrote quickly with anger.
"Everyone has a soul, you just have to open your eyes and look." Now I was a scorned child and that was perfectly all right with me. She was writing once more. I couldn't help but wonder why my mother would feel so strongly for a woman who turned her into a slave?
"If it wasn't for the Conqueror, I wouldn't be here." I felt my temper flare a bit.
"You got that right." I blared back. "If there was no Conqueror your homeland and family would still be here." We glared at one another. No matter how much my mother tried to sugar coat it, the Conqueror was nothing but a murderer. That stopped me in my tracks. Who in Tartarus was I to judge, after all, this is the life I was supposed to have? That made me sicker to my stomach. I felt her tap my arm and read her next thought.
"You're wrong about her, child." The look in my mother's eyes showed that she cared deeply for her. I continued to read. "Lord Conqueror gave me my life back." I just gave her an odd look. "I have free will here and I use my will to serve her." All I keep thinking is, why? I know she sensed my confusion and wrote more, then handed it over.
"Her men were going to overthrow her back then." Mine did the same thing. I was changing and they didn't like it one bit. I read on. "They thought if they went on raids in her name it would make them more feared and the Conqueror more hated but an old farmer's wife who's here now told me her tale. Would you like to read it?"
Quickly I nodded my head. The anticipation smothered me as I waited for her to stop and return the tablet to me.
"When she was a child she was full of wonder like all children are. Loved the stars, full of adventures and mischief, dreaming of becoming a bard one day. That was until Cortese came into her life, destroyed her village of Poteidaia. She was a mouthy little cuss and the Warlord didn't appreciate it. He beat that child until he thought she was dead. She had to sit and watch as the men beat and raped her little sister Lila. At night sometimes, I can hear her scream for her sister, just this helpless cry of pain. Her uncle found them, from that day on the beast within her was unleashed. Her whole family was murdered and the child could do nothing more then watch. She was sixteen summers old. When she was healed enough, the Warrior Princess was born and nothing, not even Hades himself would get in her way... One thing the Conqueror despises is rape…"
For the first time since this all happened, some things were starting to make sense. Like the reason she showed compassion to my mother and the other women who were attacked. And why she seems so old for a person so young. I know. I've been there. Scary how when something terrible happens, a person can turn off all feelings other then the ones they need to survive. Mother grabbed the tablet from my hands, but I couldn't bring my head up to look at her. I just wanted to hold my wife so badly it ached in my chest. She finally pulled me out of my heavy thoughts with a tap to my arm. She handed me the tablet again.
"This is enough for now, you need to eat and sleep. You'll need plenty of rest for tomorrow's competitions." I gave her a small grin. We both heard a knock at my door followed by a small voice.
"Grandma?" I went to the door and let the child in. It was the same little girl who had been in the kitchen earlier. Did she say, Grandma? Did Toris or Lyceus have a child? She ran right past me and into my mother's waiting arms. This time around I could see her a little better. She was a cute little strawberry blonde with the prettiest green eyes. I wasn't sure but there was something very familiar about her. I bent down a bit and asked her what her name was.
"Hope." She smiled just like Gabrielle. Oh Gods! How can that be?!
"You have a grandchild?" I asked my mother.
My mother wrote a note to the girl and she scampered off with a nod. Then she turned to me and began to write… "Not by blood, but by love," she said.
I was willing to bet anything that child was Gabrielle's but I was sure my mother wouldn't confess. The child looked just like my bard - all the way down to the crinkle in her nose when she smiled. But how? Who? Still another mystery I'd have to unravel I was sure. If Gabrielle was as good a leader and as astute, realizing she was a target, of course she'd hide her child. Who better to hide her with than a woman who felt in debt to her and a sense of loyalty? And what better place to hide her than with the 'commoners' of the castle?
My mother rose and gave me a warm grin before leaving. So much had happened in the last day. I'd learned so much of this new world. If I wanted to learn more I knew I needed some rest in order to survive the competition tomorrow. I laid down on my pallet and closed my eyes. Somehow I'd figure a way out of Ares' new world order and things would be as they should be.
The forum was huge. It was as big as Rome's Coliseum, if not bigger. The sun beat down unmercifully. There were about fifty of us in total, and only ten would become members of the new royal guard. Many of the folks I saw around me had been warlords I'd known - none of them 'good people' one might say. I was sure 'eliminating' the competition meant death. Knowing the things most of these people were capable of helped relieve any guilt I might have felt toward the task that lay ahead.
However, I had no idea how the 'festivities' would go about being held. I heard a great cheer go up through the crowd and I turned to see Gabrielle walking to her balcony with Najara on her arm. My stomach tightened instantly at the sight of them. From behind the curtain a familiar face appeared that I hadn't seen for a long time, but knew quite well. I took a few paces forward to get a closer look. The squared shoulders, the long curly blonde hair - without a doubt it was Ephiny. How she came to be in Gabrielle's service was a new mystery but I didn't have long to dwell on it.
"Competitors," Gabrielle's Amazon Regent began, "You've come before the Forum today to test your skills; to risk your lives to serve our Conqueror." As Ephiny paused I watched Najara pick up Gabrielle's hand and plant a delicate kiss. Nausea didn't begin to describe my disgust. "You will all battle until twenty of you are left standing. At that point you will be broken down into two groups of ten. You will compete one on one based on the conqueror's preference. The ten that survive that match will battle the Conqueror herself. If you survive five minutes in the ring with her . . . You will be welcomed into Royal Guard. With that said, ready your weapons. When you see the royal banners thrown down, you may begin."
Ephiny stepped back and took a seat on the opposite side of Gabrielle and the two had a small conversation. Moments later, the banners unfurled and I heard screams and war crys around me. It was total madness. Swords, knives, maces moving all around with no real accuracy to it all. I, however, had a goal. I had to get to Callisto and take her out of the competition. I could not let her win this round. I looked through the crowd quickly and saw she was making good time through the leagues of battling competitors - taking them down with ease. I began my journey but every few feet someone got brave enough to take me on.
I don't have time for this, I thought as I shoved them away. I could dispose of them, I was sure, but that would also take more time. Let them find a new competitor to battle. I had my target. Now I had to see to hitting it.
Callisto was busy toying with Tibereus. His male overzealous pride was what got him killed. Quickly she grew tired of playing with what she called the 'little piggy,' kicked him in his groin, and then took his head off in one clean stroke. She stood admiring her bloody blade then smirked at me. We stood glaring at one another when she did that ear-piercing scream while charging at me. I felt my blood pumping through me, part of me missed this adrenaline rush of battle.
We were a blur of clashing blades, when she backhanded me and I returned the favor. I flipped and kicked her and she did a roundhouse to my jaw. We crossed blades pulled into one another and grabbed our free hands.
"My, my, Xena. If I didn't know better I would think you are trying to kill me." She sneered at me. We were both trying to break each other's hold.
"You got that right!" I said giving her a head butt, kicking her in the stomach, then to the face. She fell sideways and I knocked her sword out of her hand. I was ready to finish my job when I heard an angry "Halt!!"
The Conqueror stood, calling the match to an end and two guards stepped in front of Callisto and I. "Round one is over, warriors. Save it for the next." I watched as Gabrielle took a seat and Ephiny addressed the crowd.
"The next round will begin at noon tomorrow." The crowd applauded. Then Ephiny addressed us. "Rest up warriors, this next bout won't be as easy." The crowd clapped again while the Conqueror took her leave.
The warriors started to leave the coliseum, but their faces were voids to me except for Callisto's. She and I were still standing, just eyeing each other. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. Keeping my eyes on Callisto, I covered that hand with mine and squeezed, until I heard the bones cracking.
"I'm so tired of people touching me." I said, turning to look down at the guard who was red faced with gritted teeth. I released the much thinner hand and pushed it away. "You can speak to me without touching me." I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm myself.
"Conqueror said to save it for the next round," he said through clenched teeth. I heard Callisto laugh and walk away. My keen sense of hearing picked up, 'until the next round, Xena'. She had that right. I glared one more time at the guard and followed him back to the barracks, into the banquet area.
All of the warriors were there, taking care of their weapons for the next battle. I wondered just how or what the Conqueror was planning with second phase. Who against who? I found a chair and sat with my back against the wall. I took my sword out and began to clean my blade, keeping focus on my goal.
I had to take Callisto out before she hurt Gabrielle.
"Xena?" I looked up to see Gabrielle in a smaller form. "Would you like some water?" Hope asked with the smile I loved so much. I smiled back.
"Thank you." I said, taking the ladle from her. She said "welcome" with her mother's bounce and went to the next warrior with the water. I felt my heart aching. Could this have been Hope in my world, if only I given her a chance? No time for this now, I told myself, stay focused. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to find my center, blocking all that was around me except the sound of my heartbeat. Even in this state I could sense any type of danger and go into action if need be. Before I knew it, the guard came in announcing the second round was beginning.
We were led back out to the coliseum and the bright sun. We stood to hear what instruction the Conqueror would give, and for some reason the hairs on my neck were standing on end. The Conqueror whispered something to Ephiny and then sat while the Amazon began to speak.
"Warriors, when I call out your names you are to stand across from one another." She let the words sink into us while she read from the scroll.
"Carus/Devitocles, Gagnon/ Sadus, Tegason/Virgilius, Draco/Cycnus, Kryhus/Darius, Sphaerus/Tynus." The one line we had, turned into two, as the warriors filed in one by one. "Gothos/Xena, Mesmer/Memos, Dagnine/Callisto, Antonius/Benitar."
Dagnine vs. Callisto. Well at least some good would come out of this fight one way or another. Dagnine was a good fighter - perhaps not as good as Callisto but he was never one to 'fight fair'. He would do everything and anything to win and if he could take Callisto out of the picture all the better for me. And if Callisto did become the victor then I'm sure it would be just desserts for the likes of Dagnine, backstabbing fool that he was.
I looked over and saw my opponent Gothos trying to stare menacingly towards me. I rolled my eyes at him. He'd have been a good opponent I'm sure, but he couldn't match my skill - especially when it came to defending Gabrielle. I had to succeed in order to get her back in my world. And I knew some two dinar punk warlord wasn't going to stand in my way. I would take him out of the competition and move on to the final round, no doubt about it.
"You have your matches for tomorrow. Be ready come noon," Ephiny told us before she briskly walked off. I didn't give much consideration to Gothos as I moved away. I even turned my back to him when he tried to impress me with his sword drills. I knew he was offended and to be honest, I don't care. Come tomorrow he'd be just another dead warlord in my eyes. However I knew until that time I had many hours to fill. So I went 'home' to the kitchen again.
I saw a young girl playing. Hope. Out of all the names that Gabrielle could have chosen she still went back to that one - her hope. I saw my mother preparing the Conqueror's afternoon meal as Hope lent a hand.
"Need any help?" I asked.
My mother smiled warmly and handed Hope some potatoes with a nod in my direction. "Here ya go," the young girl said, setting them down in front of me to peel. I watched her practically skip back to my mother as she departed. She must have been 10 summers old I'd guess. Not quite a small girl but not a young lady yet either. Given her age I can only assume she was the result of Cortese's attack. The time frame would be right. I considered for a moment the option of asking my mother the girl's identity. Would she tell me? She might have felt a connection with me but that didn't mean that she'd divulge that big a secret either.
What the Tartarus? I figured. When the girl went out to fetch more water I walked over to my mother.
"That girl," I began, "She's the Conqueror's daughter." It wasn't a question and I waited for my mother's reaction. She was never very good at hiding her heart when it came to children - be it hers or others. A look of panic seemed to wash over her but she pushed it away and gave a smile instead, shaking her head no. I could tell she was lying.
"It's okay," I told her. "I'm not going to hurt her or her mother. I'm here to help actually." I confessed. "I have reason to believe the Conqueror's life may be in danger and if there's anything out there that might 'get to her' I'd like to know."
My mother didn't stop from her task until I touched her shoulder.
"Please I have to know - for both of their sakes. Is Hope Gabrielle's daughter?"
My mother looked undecided as she glanced back to the girl who was outside at the well. Sadly my mother nodded.
"One of Cortese's men?"
I didn't have to give any more information. My mother knew I was asking about Hope's paternity.
Again, another sad nod.
"Does Hope know who her true mother is?" I asked, hoping my mother would continue.
Firmly, she shook her head.
"Well don't worry. I won't say anything to her. Actually that's for the better. I think it best if the girl doesn't know. She would be a weakness to Gabri-the Conqueror."
When I use the bard's first name my mother gave me a peculiar look and rushed over to the pad of paper and started to scribble.
"Few know her Majesty's first name," she wrote.
I grinned back at my mother. "As I said, I'm a friend. I'm here to help, honestly. She doesn't even realize it yet but I'll be her salvation. So please…trust me. Hope's secret is safe with me I assure you."
A look of relief washed over my mother's face. And I felt the need to tell her just what I know.
"In case I don't make it for some reason you have to be warned of a blonde warrior by the name of Callisto. She's out to do the Conqueror harm and if she finds out about Hope…I'm sure she'll kill the child so please make sure Callisto is far from her - do you understand?"
My mother was unsure I could tell but she gave me a nod just the same. I nodded back my approval and started to walk away when she grabbed me by the arm, making me stop.
"I have to tell you something," she wrote.
I nodded and wait as she continued writing.
"I don't trust the Consort."
"Najara? Why not?" I asked.
"She seems…unbalanced."
No shit, I thought to myself. "What makes you say that?" I asked.
"I see her pray often. She prays to the Djinn. They helped in many campaigns that she and the conqueror went on but lately she seems…" My mother seemed stuck on what word to use to describe it.
"Crazy?" I offered.
My mother shook her head and picked up the quill again.
"Paranoid," she wrote with a shrug of her shoulders. I can tell that word didn't quite describe what she was trying to tell me. But in my eyes she'd told me enough. Najara could be another possible threat and that's all I needed to hear.
"Can you get me close?" I asked her. "I know it's a large request. I've seen the Conqueror once but I doubt I'll be able to get in again. I'd like to see if Najara could really spell trouble."
My mother gave me a grin. "I think you have a kind soul," she wrote. I felt my eyes tear up at the compliment.
"What can I say? I was raised by a strong, compassionate woman," I told her.
"She did a good job," she wrote back.
"Yes, she did."
Chapter 3
My mother handed me a serving tray and motioned for me to start putting food on it. She pointed upward above us and I put it together. She was going to get me inside as a servant. I'll be able to go anywhere in the Conqueror's chambers. I grinned inwardly. Ares might have thought of everything but he never considered the wild card in this equation - my mother.
As Hope returned, I watched my mother write another note that saying I'd be helping them take the afternoon meal to the Conqueror today. Hope seemed happy at the news. And within a few moments I was loading the items on a cart to take to the Conqueror.
When we reached the grand room, Gabrielle was inside speaking to some of her advisors.
"But Rome is willing to sign the agreement," he urged her.
"Look," she told him forcefully. "Either they surrender or they fight to the last man. This 'treaty' isn't worth the parchment it's written on. What's to say that Rome can't extend their borders as they see fit? Caesar could take his troops all the way to the edge of Greece with us being none the wiser. So no, if he wants to surrender it will be unconditional. We will put the Greeks in place at the specific points we've mentioned. If not, let him know he's in for a long battle and if need be I'll be on the front line to find him and I'll crucify that bastard myself!"
She turned and saw that lunch was being served.
"Thank you gentlemen, but you have my answer. Have the new treaty drawn up. I'll sign it this afternoon and you can have Caesar's advisors take it back to him tonight. Understood?"
They all nodded, knowing that she was done speaking to them. As they left, she turned to us, particularly Hope. Her harsh demeanor of moments before washed away in an instant.
"So how's the prettiest gal in Athens today?" she asked the girl. I was amazed at how fast Gabrielle could change one moment to the next and from one extreme to the other.
The young girl's face seemed to light up at the compliment from Gabrielle. "Great! Xena's giving us a hand today," she told the bard.
"I see this. A warrior and a cook - looks like she has many skills," Gabrielle responded, looking over to me. She was smiling, but I could see it was for show. Gabrielle didn't trust me and she was suspicious of my presence. She looked at the food and then to me.
"Cyrene," my bond-mate called out. My mother looked up. "I assume you made this yourself?" she said motioning to the food. My mother nodded. Gabrielle picked up her spoon and scooped up some potatoes. She sniffed it. "Smells wonderful," she complimented my mother who responded with a smile and a nod. But she lost her grin in an instant when she faced me. Quickly, she pushed the spoon in my face and ordered, "Eat it!"
I tried not to smile. My bard was good. Very good. She thought I might have tried to poison her and she was going to see if I took the bait. I captured her wrist and I used my tongue and my lips to lick the contents from the spoon. I could feel her pulse quicken under my fingertips at the gesture.
"It tastes wonderful, your majesty," I assured her with a warm grin after I finished.
Gabrielle looked unsteady. Almost as if she was going to cry, if I didn't know better. But I did know better. This Gabrielle didn't cry. She probably hadn't cried in years. Not that she wouldn't want to. I'm sure she probably did with all she'd seen and done. But like trust, tears were another luxury she couldn't afford.
Hope was oblivious to what was transpiring between us. "Do they really taste good, Xena - because I made them myself?" she asked me. Before I could answer Hope turned to Gabrielle. "I made them just the way you like, my Lady. I put in the right amount of red spice according to Grandma."
I could tell Gabrielle didn't trust herself to answer at that moment. She was about to break on the inside. Instead of replying to the girl she dipped the spoon in and tasted for herself. "They're perfect," she grinned to the girl. Gabrielle placed the spoon on the plate and knelt down to come eye to eye with Hope. "Why don't you and your Grandma head back to the kitchen now. You two should make sure you eat too… before it gets cold, okay?"
Hope gave a nod and Cyrene took the cue. Hope stopped at the door and faced Gabrielle. "But my Lady, what about Xena? Should we send her up some food too if she's staying?"
Gabrielle looked at me with a devilish grin. "Don't worry honey," she told Hope. "Me and Xena will 'share'. Right Xena?"
Now I'm the official food taster, I considered silently. "Absolutely, my Lady," I replied confidently.
That answer seemed to satisfy Hope and she and my mother left quietly. The room grew still as Gabrielle watched me.
"Found a way back in did you?" Gabrielle began. "Should I disregard this lunch altogether? I have to admit that you look more like the kind of assassin that would do the job 'hands on' rather than a poisoning."
"My lady," I began with a sigh. I felt my frustration creeping in and I tried to keep my temper in check. "I'm not here to kill you. I'm here to help you. Please believe me. I'm just a warrior who has nothing to gain through your death. But I have everything to gain by keeping you alive."
She sat down at the table with the tray and handed me a piece of her fish. I realized I'd have to eat all the portions of her meal. After I took the piece and chewed, she did the same. She seemed to relax for the first time since she looked up and saw me. I wondered just what a life like that would feel like twenty-four hours a day, Seven days a week. It had to be hell to always be on your guard, trusting no one. To think I had once dreamed of a life exactly like it.
"And just how would keeping me alive be a gain to you?" she questioned.
"Honestly?" I asked.
"No, lie to me," she smirked. "Seriously, what draws you here?"
I cleared my throat and I looked straight into her eyes, not backing down in the slightest. "My heart…because I was made to love you. I was made to serve you and I will do so in every life we share together. Be it this one or countless others. I knew the first day I saw you - you were my destiny."
At first she looked intrigued but then she began to laugh. "So you've come in on a mighty steed to whisk the Queen away to happily ever after land? Oh please. What's your motive?"
"I have no motive but to love you," I told her. "From the moment I saw you in full armor upon your mare…I felt 'connected' to you. And I know that you felt it too. I saw it in your eyes when you looked at me that first day. I see it now, in fact. It's not just lust, which is there I assure you…It goes much deeper," I added boldly. I prayed I hadn't overstepped my bounds because I'd be on that same cross I saw the day of my arrival.
Instead of looking angry she looked….scared? She darted from her seat and started to pace at the window. "I have a bond-mate," she told me. There was a quiver in her voice and I realized I had a chance. If I couldn't figure out Ares' plan, then perhaps I could win 'this' Gabrielle's affections, and I could open her heart the way she opened mine...
"It doesn't matter," I told her, stepping closer. "You may have a bond-mate. But I'm your soul-mate. I'm what's been missing your whole life, Gabrielle. The void you feel…it's me. I know this to be true. Look out there," I said coming up behind her. "You have the world at your feet. But it's not enough is it? Something still needs to be done, doesn't it?…That something you're missing is ME."
"I should have you killed for speaking to me in this manner," she said sternly.
"You could," I agreed. "But then you'd spend the rest of your life wondering if I spoke the truth today. You'll keep looking years from now for that special something that makes you feel whole. And I think you'll realize that maybe I was right. Maybe I am what you so desperately seek .. But by then it would be too late. I'd be dead and you'd still be lonely although you 'have it all'."
Gabrielle started to shake her head. Her hands began to twist in a motion I know so well. The one that said she was getting flustered and trying to concentrate so she could pick the right words. "This is crazy talk," she said, and moved away.
She was off-balance and I knew I had to make my move. My time was limited. Without further thought, I pulled her into an embrace, capturing her arms. My lips found hers and she pulled back in resistance but I stayed with her, unwilling to let her go. A few moments later, I felt her body relax and she allowed me to loosen my grip. I let my hands slip to her waist and in that moment I felt her lips returning my kiss with a hint of uncertainty. Instead of letting her have the chance to pull away, I deepened the kiss and ran my fingers through her short hair. At all times I paid attention to my hands because I was sure she was doing the same. She was too smart to get 'caught up in the moment' and forget where my hands might be. She would be ready for any attack to come if one of my hands 'slipped away' so I kept them rooted where she could feel them.
The kiss wasn't a passionate surrender - far from it. Both of us were very aware of what was going on. I knew my heart but I understood that it would raise many questions for Gabrielle. Questions that if they scared her enough could cost me my life. She might have killed me for fear that I was still a threat or that my love might be her downfall. As we pulled away both of us were breathing hard. Gently, I took my hands away and held them out for her to see.
"Look your Highness," I told her. "I mean you no harm. As I said, my only wish is to love you if you'll let me. I truly believe you are my destiny."
She didn't reply. For once my chatty bard was tongue-tied. I give her a nod of respect and I took my leave. When I closed the door, I lingered outside for a moment. I heard her let out a howl of either anger or frustration and I heard the tray of food slam against the door. I figured I should make my way back to my room to await my fate. Either she would come to me intrigued to learn more or she'd come for my head. Either way would work. I'd have her in my life or I'd be dead. It was better than living a life without her.
I realized as I was walking, considering my fate, that I hadn't paid attention to what direction I was going and I was now lost. In a castle that size it wasn't too hard. Only a momentary setback, I was sure. A patrol would be by anytime to lead my in the right direction. As long as it wasn't the chopping block, that would be okay.
As I approached down a long corridor I heard two voices talking. One of them I was sure was Callisto but the other one was so quiet at first I couldn't tell. I crept up to the corner and looked around carefully. It was Callisto all right and the person she was talking to was Najara. I pulled back again so they couldn't see me as I listened.
"I'm not sure about this," Najara said.
"Have your voices lied to you before? Haven't they always told you what was right? Listen to them now Najara. The Conqueror is far too powerful. The kingdom should be in your hands. With your leadership and skills…You would forever be named a hero in all the scrolls through the ages."
"But we have a problem. If Gabrielle dies I won't be the one to take control."
"She has an heir?" Callisto asked. "Who?"
"It's a guarded secret - a scroll contains the information. Even I don't know the location of the scroll. And very few know who the heir is - myself being only one of maybe two or three people."
"Who are the others that know this secret?" Callisto prodded.
"The regent knows I believe. As does one of the staff supervisors. And I'm sure neither will betray the Conqueror's confidence."
"Well then, guess we'll have more folks to eliminate from the picture won't we?"
"Listen to me!" Najara told her. "These are good people. All of them. They don't deserve to die because the Djinn are telling me that Gabrielle's rule will change. Gabrielle is my concern - my only concern. She is the only one who needs to be taken out of the equation. I love my bond-mate but I love my country more. And if Gabrielle will be changing her style of ruling it needs to be dealt with now and not later."
"That's what you have me for," Callisto remarked. "I'll take her out and you can rule the country as you please. The heir she has is just an 'added bonus' to the job. I'll consider it a 'freebie'. How's that? Now tell me, who's the heir?"
I had to make a decision. Would I let Najara tell her or walk around the corner and interrupt them? I heard Najara's hesitation and I made my choice.
"Oh sorry, your Highness," I said in a confused manner as I turned the corner. "I seem to have lost my way around here. Could you be kind enough to lead me to warrior's quarters?"
Najara was obviously startled but I thought she was sure I'd heard nothing. Callisto, on the other hand, eyed me with a curiosity that said I knew more than I was letting on. I didn't let it show. The lives of many people I love hung in the balance.
"I should just cut you down here Xena to save Gothos the trouble tomorrow," Callisto remarked. "You wouldn't say anything, would you, my lady?" she asked Najara.
I started to put my own curious look in my eye. "I make a wrong turn and you want me dead? If I didn't know any better I'd think the two of you might be plotting something. However, the bond-mate's respect and admiration of the Conqueror is well noted so I'm sure that's not the case." I pulled my sword from my scabbard. "So I'll take this challenge to be just that - a challenge - which I'll be happy to oblige you. But I will warn you…you won't get out alive."
Najara walked up between us. "Please put your swords away. You'll both have plenty of time to show your skill in the arena tomorrow... Xena, was it?" she asked me.
I kept my eye on Callisto a few seconds longer before I faced Najara. "Yes, your Highness. I'm Xena."
"Come with me," she said, taking me by the arm. "I'll show you the way."
I followed but not before Callisto and I exchanged an icy stare.
We took a few steps when Najara had one of her Djinn moments.
"You've suffered much, Xena but you've retained your good heart. And you have chosen to fight the darkness within you. What courage that takes." I tried hard not to roll my eyes and went right into my part of this play.
"Who told you that?" I had to pretend to be interested.
"The Djinn told me." New outfit, new world but same old wacko underneath.
"The Djinn?" My mind chose to be brutal at this point and gave me a vision of this nut's hands all over my wife. If she had hurt Gabrielle, I would change her in ways she'd never fathom.
"Yes, they're my guides through life. They're my Djinn." I smiled with her while thinking. 'And I'm the queen of Egypt.' One thing I remembered about this nut was that she didn't have a path. She followed whatever path her voices told her to. But if you tested her, said no to her, she'd blow up in your face.
"You're here on a mission?" That threw me a bit.
"Yes, I am." Think Xena. "I'm here to prove who's the best warrior and protect and serve the Conqueror, my lady." That last part was hard to get out.
"My wife is quiet incredible isn't she?" The tone in her voice was on the possessive side.
"That she is." And I didn't try to hide the affection in my voice.
"You have any family, ummm...?" she paused as if she couldn't remember my name.
The hallway seemed to have gotten a lot longer for some strange reason. "Xena." I filled in.
"Ah yes, Xena." Sigh.
"No. No family."
"Hmm, pity."
I was praying that it would all end soon when she said, "Here's the hallway back to the barracks, I'm sure you can find your way now."
"Yes, thank you so much, my lady." We exchanged polite smiles and I made my way to my room. The Najara of this world didn't know of my keen sense of hearing because I heard her whisper. "And watch your back."
The idea of Callisto working with Najara made me skin crawl, or...
"Show yourself, Ares." I called.
This was all I needed.
"I really hate when you do that, Xena." The stench of his arrival filled the room.
"And I really hate you Ares."
He acted like an arrow hit his heart. "Ohhh, ouch. Score one for the unknown, or is it former Warrior Princess?" He flopped on my bed and gave me a smirk.
I really didn't have the time for it. "What do you want now?"
He chuckled. "Always straight to the point, huh Xena?" I hated that cocky smile. "Sooo, what do you think of the new and very much improved little bard?"
"When this is all over Ares, you'll know how I feel." I sat in the chair and cleaned my sword, acting bored. Maybe he'd leave sooner and go torture something else.
"Oh, I'm so scared, but really, isn't she incredible?" He leaned on his elbows and crossed his legs at the ankle. "I mean, do you see the control she has? It's outstanding, and she thinks before she reacts."
I have to admit I was very impressed by her, but I would rather kiss a centaur's butt then tell him that. "I've got a match coming up Ares, is there a point to all this?"
"My point is Xena, she saw right through your little sex ploy. I did so many things differently with her then I did with you." I just gave him an eyebrow raise. "For instance, I let her keep the child close, but hide it so it wouldn't interfere with her duties." The more I ignored him the angrier he got, but for some reason the hair on my neck stood to attention. "Unlike with you. You know, persuading you to give your boy up."
I could hear my heart beating in my ears. He smiled again, knowing that got my attention.
"You bastard!" He laughed and disappeared. I dropped my sword to the floor and paced. I remembered right before Solon was born. Borias almost had me believing we could get away and be a family, I wanted that, then.....
'By the Gods!!' Ares put it in my mind to give him up, my lust for power overcame my urge to love my child. By the time Solon was born I did so many more things. I'd betrayed the Amazons, the Centaurs, most the people of Chin and Borias. There was no way I could keep him, and that's how Ares wanted it. I wonder how my life would have turned out if I kept him and fled with Borias.
'Come on Xena, think.' I muttered aloud. Ares was upset because I got to Gabrielle today so he did this now just to get at me. That has to be the reason, I had found a weakness and it made him sweat. Today I'd had a small glimmer of the real Gabrielle; she was still there. The down side to it all was, I had to worry about Hope now on top of everything else.
Gabrielle's scream brought me out of my musing, I grabbed my sword and flew out my door towards her chamber. I was just about there when my mother stepped into my path to halt me.
"Cyrene, wh... I have to get to the Conqueror, she's in danger." She wouldn't budge and motioned for me to follow her. Again we heard another agonizing scream and the sound of things being broken.
My heart told me to go protect my love, but my mother kept shaking her head and pulled me into a room. We went inside what must have been her own chamber and she pushed me into a seat. She finished writing something and handed it to me.
"You don't want to interrupt the Conqueror when she's dealing with past demons, child."
"Explain." I said and handed her back the tablet. I felt myself grow impatient as she wrote, wanting the story immediately.
"She's in an odd mood and had too much ale today. She does this at times, when her memories haunt her. Things in her past such as her sister, family, the attack, take her into a dark place where even the Conqueror's consort steers clear until this blows over." I knew exactly what she meant. I've been there many times in my life. The mind can be very cruel at times, usually the wrong times. Whenever I closed my eyes I had to relive my brother's death, my mother's cries...
"You never finished telling me about the Conqueror, you left off right around when her uncle found her." She nodded, and dipped the quill in fresh ink and began to write. With my hearing I could still pick up low moaning, a sort of a crying sound. It was so hard for me to not rush right in there and take her in my arms and just hold her tight to me. Mother handed me back the tablet and I noticed she had tears in her eyes.
"Her uncle Morose nursed Gabrielle back to health the best he could, but the child didn't speak a word to anyone. He thought for sure it was a hit to the head that made her mute. One day he went to check on her and she was gone."
"She went for revenge?" She nodded as I handed her back the tablet. This was very hard for my mother to write about and I wasn't sure I was ready to hear it.
"That little girl was far from healed and nowhere near a warrior, but filled with utter hate. That hate and with her father's sword took her to Cortese's camp, at least one of them. She found a small patch of raiders camping and charged them. She, if I remember right, took three down before the fourth one hit her from behind. What they did to her was beyond brutal and it lasted for days." I had to stop reading for a minute to gather back some of my composure. I took a deep breath and continued to read.
"What the men didn't know is they were camped on Amazon land. I needn't tell you what they did to those men when they were found?" No, she didn't, just being on their land is a crime and penalty is death. If one or two were lucky, they might be used for breeding before dying, but seeing them torturing a woman assured a slow painful death. I started to read again.
"Melosa, the queen, took Gabrielle in and trained her. She found a sisterhood and family, but no matter what Melosa or the others did, they couldn't take the vengeance from Gabrielle's heart. They also found out Gabrielle was pregnant, but even that didn't stop her bloodlust. While building a nation and destroying everything in their path, Ephiny helped Gabrielle deliver the child in silence. No one knew. A moon after the child's birth she discovered that some of her men were trying to overthrow her and that's when I came into her life. I agreed to look after Hope as if she were my own, to keep her safe. I owe Gabrielle at least that much for saving me. Ephiny who was and still is her best friend received a blessing from Melosa, so both went on to conquer. To this very day the Amazon's and even the Centaurs are allies to the Conqueror's nation."
I had no words, I handed her back the tablet and just... With the Centaurs and the Amazon nations allied with the Conqueror's, Gabrielle achieved all I wanted to do when I was younger and then some. Ares did create the perfect Warrior Queen. I was torn is a sick way, part of me felt jealous that she accomplished what I couldn't. Or was it awe? The other half of me was a cross between fearing for her soul and just feeling badly for her and all she went through to get it.
I felt the tablet slide back into my hands and I stared at the words.
"Are you alright, Xena?" I could almost hear my mother's voice ask that.
"Yeah, that was just hard to read." She patted my arm and wrote again.
"You'd better get some rest, little one, you've got a busy day tomorrow." Little one? She hadn't called me that since I was five.
"I'd better get some rest, thank you." I gave her a hug and wished her a goodnight, and as I closed her door I had to stop and look at the hallway leading to the Conqueror's chamber. It was quiet then; she must have cried herself out.
"I promise I'll get us out of this mess, Gabrielle." I whispered as I made my way back to my room.
Chapter 4
The sun shone bright in the arena - blindingly bright, in fact. It was difficult to watch match after match, waiting my turn. Callisto was the second to the last to compete today and like myself, she watched each match go by, occasionally looking my way. I didn't see her staring directly at me but I could feel her eyes upon me, examining me.
My eyes never rested. All afternoon I watched competitor after competitor fall. When I wasn't watching the matches, waiting for my place in line, my eyes weighed heavy on the Conqueror at her throne. Ephiny sat to her right, Najara to her left. It was as if, even in this life, Gabrielle could still sense me.
Whenever I looked at my bard, only a few seconds would pass before she would lock eyes with me. At one point I licked my lips in remembrance of our kiss and I watched a slight blush come over Gabrielle - her eyes quickly darting from mine. I noticed the reaction but I wasn't the only one. So did Najara. I knew she could see me smiling at her wife but I didn't care. The fact I didn't let her steely gaze make me flinch even once seemed to send her into a quiet rage. From across the courtyard I could see how red the fair skinned woman's face grew.
I watched as Najara tapped Gabrielle's arm and then pointed at me. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. The discussion that transpired became heated and I watched as Gabrielle threw her hands up in the air as Najara stomped away behind the royal curtains. Ephiny then leaned over and whispered something after Najara's departure that earned her a smile and a nod. They looked so much like the pair I remembered from my world - conspiring sisters who could gossip and giggle into the early morning around an Amazon campfire.
But I realized these were not the same women and somehow, some way I had to unweave the tapestry that the war god had created. The more I thought the more I realized the opposite of war was love. And if Ares could create this world then perhaps . . .
"Now that's usin' your noggin."
The voice startled me at first and I turned to face Aphrodite.
"You can fix this?" I asked her.
"Love can fix this," she answered. "Everything here is Ares' illusion. When I went to look for sweet pea and came up empty I knew Ares must have been up to something."
"And he just volunteered this information to you?" I asked skeptically.
"Oh no," Dite giggled. "But I threatened to put a spell on every animal over three feet tall that would make them 'love him deeply' if you catch my drift. He was much more forthcoming at that point."
"You can be wicked," I grinned conspiratorially.
"Love hurts," she replied with a mischievous crinkle of her nose.
I had to chuckle. My faith in the gods was minimal at best but I had to admit - when it came to Aphrodite, she was different. Self-centered and totally absorbed most of the time, certainly. But she adored my bard almost as much as I did. She went against all of Olympus to see that Gabrielle was safe when they came down to strike out against my family. She begged for Gabrielle's well-being as the rest of them plotted. Yes, Aphrodite was different. And although I would never admit it openly to her, I felt forever indebted to her. One of which I didn't mind paying.
"So how do I get 'sweet pea' as you call her, back to our world?" I asked.
"Love," Dite answered giving a solid nod. "You've won her lust - big time," Dite smirked. "But love . . . love isn't going to be easy and that's what it will take to see that this world dissolves and everything goes back to 'normal' . . . But consider this Xena - in this world you'd never have to want for anything. The world would be yours as well. No one knows of the 'dreaded Warrior Princess' in this life."
Perhaps it would be perfect but I knew that nothing is ever quite as it seems.
"That's true," she agreed, reading my thoughts again.
"But Gabrielle screams at night. She's tortured by her past - my past. Grant it, it's made her stronger that I ever imagined but it's also left her haunted . . . She's not your 'sweet pea' in this life."
Dite gave a firm nod. "Point taken," she replied. "So for you the cons outweigh the pros, huh?"
"Yes," I replied. "She doesn't deserve my life. And it's fine to say that no one knows the Warrior Princess here. But it's not necessarily true because I still do. I have my demons. I know what I'm capable of doing - even if no one else does in this world. It's not worth the trade off, Aphrodite."
"Then win her heart," the goddess told me confidently. "Win her over . . . and bring her back home to us. All the answers are within you Warrior Babe. "
Without another word, the goddess vanished. I turned back to the throne to see a sight that stopped her heart. Gabrielle was still there, Ephiny to her right. It was the sight to her left that knocked the wind out of me. It was Ares. His greasy smile sickened me as he chatted up my bard like they were old academy buddies. I watched him lean over and give her a light kiss on the cheek, which made my stomach turn. I closed my eyes and knew my time was running out. If Ares could win her over I wasn't sure if I could succeed.
The latest match had come to an opening and a close without my knowledge. Between my conversation with Aphrodite and watching Ares consort with Gabrielle I hadn't taken the time to notice that Callisto was gone. When I looked into the arena I watched her give a wicked smile to me as she stood over the dead body of Dagnine. Some things never changed in this other world and with that thought I had a new hope. If that really was the case then this Gabrielle could grow to love me as much as the one from my world.
"You're next," I heard one of the guards say as he pulled me to my feet and pushed me into the arena. The sound of the crowd was deafening but I wouldn't let it distract me. I had just one more battle to complete and then I could move on. I could get closer to Gabrielle and perhaps take Callisto out of the picture for good.
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to clear my mind, focus on my goal to gain Gabrielle back. I heard nothing until it was too late, I felt the sting of the dart grabbing my neck to find the blood.
'Son of a Bacchae!' I muttered while pulling the dart out then sniffing it. Benzodiazepine root, great just what I needed. The stuff would make my wits slower, maybe put me to sleep, but it wasn't not fatal. Unless I get stuck by a sword because of its effects.
Gothos wasted no time with his attack, now my main problem was; which one of the three I was seeing is attacking me? The middle one was able to slice my left shoulder. What is it with thugs and cutting that shoulder? I should know by now to protect that better.
I was doing my best to block each sword strike, but the kick to my stomach doubled me over. As I coiled up the beast within came out, my survival instincts kicked in.
"Don't worry lass, I'll make it quick." My body could sense the death blow and my sword arm on its own accord blocked it. I released my battle cry, pushing him out of my way.
"Fiesty one you are. I like that." Men like him have such arrogance, and I sneered as he started his attack once more. I caught him with a backhand to his face then kicked him in the stomach. I needed to finish this quickly; my vision was growing darker.
I turned my back to him trying to focus on where Gabrielle was, as my world became more dizzy. I let out a yell, twirling my sword while dropping to one knee, thrusting my blade behind me into Gothos's gut. After that everything went dark, the root taking its effect on me.
I awoke in a room, but it wasn't mine. A huge bed, fancy silk sheets with beautiful tapestry all around. It didn't take me long to understand I was in part of the Conqueror's chambers.
"I see you're awake." I looked to my right trying to focus, and met concerned green eyes.
"Water, please." The Conqueror poured some in a cup and supported me while I drink.
"How long was I out?" The cup was jerked from my lips and now the concerned eyes grew angry. I realized I was talking to Conqueror like she was my Gabrielle.
"Are you going to tell me who poisoned you, or shall we continue to play this game?" She asked, turning to set the cup on the table and pulling a chair to the bed.
"What game? I-." I tried to continue but I was halted again by her anger.
"Explain to me why you were calling out my name! No one, other then the few who are close to me, know my name, Warrior. You had better tell me the truth or I'll gut you where you lay."
Her eyes were so cold. I couldn't find my voice.
"My healer found the dart wound on your neck, but no dart nearby. Najara looked for one." I inwardly rolled my eyes while hers grew colder. Najara didn't find it. That's a shock.
"To answer your first question, I'm not sure who poisoned me but I have an idea." The same person who wants you dead, Lord Conqueror, I wanted to say but I held back. "Secondly, I heard your name spoken in error by Najara who quickly corrected herself afterward. As for why I spoke it while under the poison's effects is because you have invaded my dreams ever since I arrived here."
My last statement seemed to have thrown her off, but not for long.
"If you're going to repeat your love speech for me you can save it." I closed my eyes unable to hold back how much that hurt. I opened my eyes to see the face of...'regret'? The Conqueror seemed off-balanced then ever.
"Rest now warrior, you'll need your strength since you now serve me in my royal guard." She turned for the door.
I'm not sure if it was the drug still in my system or I just gave up by throwing caution into the wind.
"I love you, Gabrielle." The words were out before I knew I'd said them, but I meant them with all my heart. She paused and I closed my eyes once more making peace while preparing to meet Hades.
Nothing happened. The door closed and she didn't make a sound. I laid back against the bed in relief and exhaustion. Soon I fell into a deep fitful sleep. A knock brought me out of my slumber.
'What now?' I whispered. "Come in!"
Ephiny popped her head in, much to my surprise.
"How do you feel, Xena?" I stared at my now unfamilar friend of many years.
"I have my wits back, but the shoulder's a bit sore." She smiled and motioned for someone to come in. Cyrene appeared and smiled at me holding a beautiful red gown.
Ephiny spoke "If you're up to it, the Conqueror requests your presence at tonight's celebration." I would have bet dinars that Ephiny could feel the power between Gabrielle and I.
"I'm up for it, thank you."
Cyrene laid the gown across the chair and came over giving me a peck on the cheek before leaving.
"Dinner starts in a couple candle marks, I'll have a bath brought for you." Ephiny gave me a knowing smile and exited herself.
For the first time since this all had been going on, I felt a glimmer of hope.
The servants under Cyrene's supervision brought me a much needed bath with nice smelling soaps and oils. I slid my aching body into the hot water.
'Gods, this feels so good.' I moaned grabbing a bar of soap and started to scrub.
I stopped scrubbing, my hearing picked up the sounds of two women yelling. It was the Conqueror and Najara's voices.
"Why is that warrior in our chamber?" Gee, I guess her Djinn doesn't help her with jealousy.
"She's in MY chamber because she is part of my royal guard and someone has tried to poison her." I could imagine the look on Najara's face.
"There was no proof of that, Gabrielle."
"End of discussion, Najara!" There was a loud slamming of the door. I started to scrub once more, looking at my dress. Tonight just might be interesting, I chuckled. Time to seduce my wife.
As I entered the room in the red gown, my hair piled on my head with a few wisps hanging down, everything came to a momentary stop. All eyes seemed to turn to me in admiration. Even Callisto appeared to take an interest. But I knew there was only one set of eyes I was looking for in this room of strangers and 'not so strangers'.
Gabrielle was in the far corner chatting with Ephiny. Their conversation seemed to slip away and I watched Gabrielle clinch her goblet a little tighter so it didn't slip away as well. It looked like it might be very interesting indeed.
Quickly I scanned the room and I saw Najara with a not so pleased look on her face. I'd deal with her soon enough. But for the moment I made my way over to the Conqueror. To pay my respects, of course.
As I started to walk, the conversations in the room picked back up and people went on about their business. Except for Gabrielle and Ephiny; they were talking softly as I approached and I thanked the Gods for my sensitive hearing as I picked up bits of the conversation.
"God I miss Amazonia," Ephiny sighed to her leader.
"I don't think anything looked that good in Amazonia, Ephiny. No offense."
I felt myself smile as a result of Gabrielle's words, and I closed the distance even more quickly. Once before them I gave a respectful nod to both of them - Gabrielle first and then Ephiny.
"Conqueror, Regent," I said politely before giving my full attention to Gabrielle.
"I wanted to thank you personally, Milady, for seeing to my bath and this beautiful gown."
"The gown looks like it's a perfect fit," Gabrielle answered. "I had to guess your size. Few women have your stature in my court. Actually I can only think of one before you."
"Oh yes," Ephiny nodded. "Alti. Pity she was so power hungry."
"We reap what we sow," Gabrielle grinned.
With the mention of that name I wondered if I had yet another stumbling block Ares tossed in my way. "Who's Alti?" I asked politely.
"Was Alti," Ephiny corrected with a grin just as wicked as the conqueror.
"She's in Thebes now," Gabrielle replied.
"And Chin," Ephiny added.
"And a few parts in Britannia if I'm not mistaken."
The two shared a laugh and I give an uneasy smile. "I take it Alti wasn't a friend to the republic?"
"At one point she was my most trusted advisor," Gabrielle answered. "But her obsessive desire to rule my kingdom overpowered her good sense. Even her gift of prophecy couldn't foresee what I had in store for her."
"Destiny is a hard thing to fight," I added.
"If you believe in destiny perhaps," Gabrielle offered.
"So you didn't have plans of controlling the known world, my conqueror?"
"No, that was the God of War's idea," she answered honestly.
I begin to wonder if perhaps Gabrielle was a tad intoxicated. It was the lowest I had seen her guard since we had met. Perhaps it was Ephiny, too. It was obvious the two of them had a close relationship and Gabrielle seemed quite at ease in her company.
Judging by the way Ephiny looked at Gabrielle I knew if I had any allies in this world - she would be one. She was an excellent choice as a right hand - loyal, giving, dependable. I felt mildly surprised that they weren't ruling together as bondmates.
Ephiny cleared her throat. "Well I should be heading to the gates. I want to be sure to greet Solari on her arrival this evening."
"I know you two have a lot of . . . catching up to do . . . but you're invited back here of course," Gabrielle offered her Regent.
Ephiny chuckled. "Yes Milady. We will be returning here before retiring for the night. It would be impolite not to. However I can't say that it will last for more than a quick hello."
Gabrielle chuckled. She actually chuckled? Oh yes, it must be the wine.
"Take care, my friend," she told Ephiny. "I'll see you later."
Ephiny gave me a polite nod, which I returned in kind as she slipped away.
I wanted to press her for information about Ares, but decided against it. Causal conversation was best. "I assume her lover lives away," I began.
"Yes. Amazonia. She's a guard in Queen Melosa's court," Gabrielle answered.
Now that was a name I hadn't heard in years. I wonder . . . "Have you heard of an Amazon named Velaska?"
"Yes, another power hungry female. How do you know of her?"
"I knew a few Amazons in my time," I answered vaguely. "I heard she could be a real troublemaker."
"She doesn't cause trouble any longer. She's deceased. My Regent took care of that matter years ago," her matter of fact statement left more questions in my head. "Care for some wine? You're not officially on duty yet," she grinned.
"That would be wonderful, my Conqueror," I answered respectfully.
"Garcon," she called out. A young man came over with a tray of goblets. She took one and handed it to me. Carefully I took the glass, making sure to let my fingers lingered against hers for a moment.
"Thank you, Milady," I nodded before taking a sip.
"You're very welcome," she replied before looking around the room.
I realized what she was doing - she was on edge, making sure everything was in its proper place with nothing suspicious going on. I remember what that felt like, to always be on guard. It could be maddening.
"May I ask you a question, Milady?"
"Certainly - I can't guarantee an answer but you may ask."
"Are you happy with your life?"
The question seemed to throw her off, as if it was something she hadn't considered for a very long time. She took a nervous drink and looked at her sandals. It was such a showing statement. The mighty conqueror feeling small with just a simple question. She raised her hand high as she addressed me.
"Well, our people are fed for the most part. The majority can read and write from statesmen to simple farmers-."
"No disrespect, Milady. Those are all wonderful things. You've accomplished quite a bit. But what about you? Are you happy?"
Gabrielle looked into her goblet. "Is this about your declaration earlier in my bed chamber? Realize your answer could cost you your life."
"If you had it in your heart to kill me, you could. But I don't believe you do."
Gabrielle raised her head giving me a feral grin. "You don't know me."
"Again with respect, Milady, I think there are places deep inside yourself that you don't know. You've had many chances to kill me already and haven't taken them."
"Are you pushing for yet another?" Her words were firm but I kept my cool and I found myself smiling against her frown.
"No milady," I answered honestly. "I'm just trying to figure out why a woman who feels it's important that her people be fed and educated has to put up such walls against those that would love her endlessly."
"As I've said, I have a bond-mate."
"And as I've said, I love you more." The words made Gabrielle take another nervous drink. "Someday I'm sure I'll be tested in regard to my depths of love. And I will pass."
"Who are you?"
"I know you don't believe in the concept . . . but I'm your destiny. Our souls are joined and I traveled a great distance to be here."
"You speak the foolish words of poets and playwrights," she replied sarcastically.
"You speak the words of a woman who's never truly been in love," I challenged.
The blaze in her eyes became an inferno. I know if she'd had a sword on her back at that moment it would be taking residence in my gut at any moment. Before she could speak however, Najara slid up to her elbow, startling both of us.
"You look tense my dear," Najara said, pushing Gabrielle's hair behind her ear. The urge to reach out and slap Najara's hand away was strong.
"It's been a long day," Gabrielle answered with a grin for her bondmate. I could see through it. It was a grin strictly for show.
"Well, I'll give you two your privacy," I told them, nodding to both. "Thank you again, my Conqueror, for your generosity today. It's much appreciated."
Gabrielle gave me a nod and I slowly turned my back to face the room. In the other far corner I saw Callisto sitting at a small table, watching the room. I slow walked up to the table putting my palms flat on it. I leaned down to her, making sure I had her complete attention.
"Word to the wise. Don't try it tonight," I informed her. "Too many witnesses. And suggestion number two . . . when you try to kill me again. Make sure it works."
With that I struck out so quickly, she didn't see the jab coming to her nose. The blood started to gush even before her back slammed into the chair. Chatter in the room stopped again and just as before I quietly make my way through the room. Once I left the hall I could hear the party pick back up. If nothing else, I still knew how to make an entrance and an exit.
Chapter 5
The images of Najara were strong in my mind as the hallway I walked down closed in. The air just seemed rather thin and I was about ready to jump out of my skin.
"What's wrong Xena? Looks like you swallowed your Chakram the wrong way."
"What now Ares? I'm just not in the mood for your crap." I turned and found him leaning against the wall.
"Tsk, Tsk, you thought you would be dressed like this and Gabrielle would hop right on you huh?" He sauntered closer to me with his hands behind his back, poking his bottom lip out. "Even though you're tempting eye candy, right now she's in her chamber giving her bedmate the ride of her life."
I heard Najara calling out Gabrielle's name. I growled and threw a punch at him but this time he caught it.
"Not this time Xena." He smiled, ready to pop out of there.
"You've never beaten me yet Ares, remember that."
"There's always the first time Xena." He blew me a kiss and vanished, laughing.
I hate his laugh.
I slammed my fist into the wall trying hard to tame the fire that was raging in my soul. Ares' words helped my mind play tricks on me, with visions of my wife and the nutcase.
"Xena?" A small voice brought me out of my torment. I looked into those pretty green eyes that were all too familiar. "Are you alright?" Hope poked her lip out, just like her mother.
"I'm fine." I stroked her precious head. What if I had given Hope half a chance in the beginning? She was half Gabrielle's...
My guilt was too much and I pick her up holding her close to me.
"You look pretty tonight."
"Thank you Hope." I gave her one more squeeze and set her down. "Why is a young one like yourself up so late?"
She gave me a cute dimpled smile. "Grandma lets me stay up on days when I have no schooling."
"Where's your grandmother now?"
"In the kitchen, like always." I followed the skipping youngster towards the kitchen. For some reason I just felt the need for my mother even though she had no idea who I really was.
She was bending over a pot stirring it, adding any spice that was in reach. In the background I could still hear the party in full swing.
"Grandma? Xena's here to see you." Mother set the spoon aside and smiled at us both. After drying her hands she grabbed her tablet and wrote something, handing it to Hope. The child got a pout and bowed her head.
"Yes, ma'am," she said obediently, placing a kiss on my mother's cheek.
"Night Xena, I have to wash and go to bed." I had to chuckle at the seriousness of her tone.
"Night Hope." I waved as she skipped towards the sleeping area. Mother motioned for me to sit and started to write.
"I noticed you left the party early and the manner you left it in. Is everything alright?" I read her words.
"Yes, everything's fine." I assured her. "I feel a bit closed in with crowds."
She wrote some more.
"Who was that blonde you flattened?" I had to grin at the smirk she gave me.
I hung my head in thought. "That's Callisto. The one I told you about. We just had a misunderstanding I had to settle." She looked at me and I knew my mother. She wasn't buying it.
She wrote. "You know Xena, ever since you arrived here, I just have this feeling that there's something more. Call it sixth sense or mother's intuition."
The last part made my chin hit the floor. I quickly recovered but I realized the time for games was over. "I can't explain it but . . . I'm Xena. Your Xena." She grabbed the tablet back, her fingers shaking.
"By the Gods! I felt it in my heart. But how? I placed your body in the tomb myself. Why would the Gods grace me with such a gift?" Her hands were trembling and I was not sure what to say.
"We can't have this conversation right now with a party going right outside the door." All I needed was for someone to overhear. Her eyes began to water and I felt myself slipping.
"I.... Listen, Cyrene." My voice was cut off by her hugging me tightly to her, crying, making gasping sounds. I broke down. All of this. Gabrielle. My mother weeping in my arms, it was too much.
I held her close to me and whispered what was going on. Between Callisto, the Conqueror, and the nutcase, the walls were sure to have ears.
"Do you understand?" I pulled back a bit to see her face, she nodded and I wiped the tears from her face.
She stood pulling a cloth out of her apron to clear her nose. For the first time in longer then I care to remember, my mother had a glimmer in her eye when she looked at me.
"I better get back to the barracks. It'll be a busy day for us Royal Guards." She cupped my face and brought it down for a quick peck to the cheek.
Before I headed off I turned and looked at her once more. Again she was stirring the pot shaking her head in disbelief. I just prayed I didn't put her in harm's way by telling her. One more problem to worry about.
Being in the barracks meant being close to the Conqueror's chambers. Having being born with sharp hearing, I picked up angry voice streaming from the Conqueror's main bed chamber. I had to smile, and I guessed all was not well with Narjara and Gabrielle this evening. I sneaked closer to listen.
"I told you Najara, I'm not in the mood!!" Gabrielle's voice boomed out.
"Well, it can't be because of your drinking, you've preformed well before in spite of it." Najara bantered back. "Could it be that warrior slut you were eyeing tonight?"
"Get off my back." I could hear the tension in Gabrielle's voice.
"Bad enough she had to be in our guest bed...That's it isn't it? You want to bed that whore?" I heard a loud crashing sound and I could picture Gabrielle's face in rage.
"Get out of here before I break you in two." Her voice was low and cold. Next thing I heard was a door slamming.
This could either have been a blessing or a hindrance for me. Najara would be aiming for me with full force, and also put Gabrielle in harm's way even more.
I slipped more into the shadows as Najara stormed past me. She had no look of pain or sorrow, just utter anger. I followed her and to make my nightmare worse, she ended up right outside Callisto's barrack door.
'This is bad, this is really bad.' I muttered turning back, again hearing Gabrielle's voice and I drew near.
"I'm so sorry Lila." Oh Gods. The mead and fighting with the nut brought out her demons again tonight.
I stood there for a half of candle mark listening to her anguish. It tore at my heart. Once again I found myself in tears for causing my love pain.
'I'm the one who should be sorry, my bard. All I seem to do is cause you agony.'
As much as I fought it and saw my mother's words plain as day, I found myself closing in on her room. This would mean my death for sure. I stood frozen outside her chamber door trying to calm my pounding heart before making an entrance. Next thing I know the door opened and there was a sword at my throat with fiery green eyes burning through me.
"My Lord." I barely got out as she pushed the sword a bit more into me.
"My patience is wearing thin with you warrior," she hissed.
"I was on my way to my room and I heard you cry out."
She eased the sword a bit.
"Isn't it my duty to watch out for your safety?" She knew I was full of it, and I'm not sure if it was the mead or what, but she let the sword drop and walked back inside her chamber.
"You want a drink, warrior?" Why not? I considered as I felt my throat to be sure it was still intact.
"Yes, please."
"Close the door and have a seat, Xena." Making my way inside, I sat in the closest chair by the door and watched her pour us some wine.
"That was some display at the party." She handed me my glass and stayed standing in front of me. "Nice punch," she smirked. "Let me guess. She's the one who hit you with the dart?"
I swallowed the wine in one gulp. "I believe so."
She waved me over to get more wine. While I did, she took my seat. "Is this the same person you swear wants my head on a platter?" I stopped in mid pour and glanced at her.
"Seems to me she'd much rather have your death then mine." In another reality truer words were never spoken. Hades in this reality truer words were never spoken.
"She's just feeling I'm a hurdle in her quest." I gulped another glass and poured more. "Would you like more wine?"
"Hurdle you say?" she laughed and held out her glass as I poured.
"Yes but I'm not aware that she knows of my love for you, Gabrielle. However she does know I'd rip her heart out if she laid a finger on you." I raised my glass and gulped down that one too.
I could see that made her nervous because she got up and went to peer out the balcony window. I retook my seat.
"Xena?" I snapped my head up fast. She sounded just like my Gabrielle, if only for a moment - the one who started out those introspective conversations by calling out my name with a subtle softness.
"You ever wish your life to be different?" She sounded so small.
"More then you know."
She looked at me briefly. She was silent for much too long and it was making the hairs on my neck stand. "Do you really believe in soul mates?"
She gave me an odd look then turned back to peer at the stars. My heart was breaking by her silence and I hung my head. Then she went on.
"Once, a long, long time ago, all people had four legs and two heads. Then the gods threw down thunderbolts and split everyone into two. Each half then had two legs, two arms and one head. But the separation left both sides with a desperate yearning to be reunited, because they each shared the same soul. Ever since then, all people have spent their lives searching for the other half of their soul."
I dropped the glass from my hand. The bard was inside the conqueror. She turned back to me at the sound of the fallen goblet.
"Close your mouth Xena. I might be the conquering bitch but an educated one at that." She walked over for another drink, but all I could do was watch. "At one time I wanted to be a bard, but that was torn away and this life was handed me instead." She sounded disgusted, drinking more.
"You are my soul, Gabrielle." I found my voice.
"Save it." She was beyond drunk and stumbled to the bed losing what drink she had left. She sprawled, almost falling over. "They killed her, you know?" I wasn't sure who Gabrielle was talking about but she continued without prompting. "Lila was so young. I was older; should've been me, not her. There wasn't anything I could do to stop it. So how can you love that couldn't save her family?" she spat.
My first thought was of Lyceus. I couldn't stop my little brother's death. My whole village hated me and my own mother scorned that day I was born. More then anything, I hated myself. Like this Gabrielle I had many skills but I wasn't worth spit.
But this was not the time; I had to think of her. I clenched my jaw shut and walked to her on the bed. I could see that she was drunk, but she still could strike me if she felt threatened. So I knelt in front of her slowly.
"You like to play with death, don't you?" She looked me in the eyes.
I took her hand and placed in on my heart.
"Feel this? This is yours." I pushed her hand harder to my chest. "I am yours, heart, body and soul." My eyes never left hers. "I love you so much." I leaned in to kiss her. She didn't resist so I proceeded to her lips. It was a very tender kiss to let her know how fragile I thought she truly was but I didn't return it for a second.
Instead, I began to pull away. At least I tried to. Gabrielle snaked her arm out and her hand cupped the back of my head pulling me closer again. She kissed me with a great degree of passion. Much like my Gabrielle did after a battle.
It's a wonderful feeling - knowing you're alive and sharing that life with someone. But I knew now is not the time or the place. If I had allowed her to continue she'd have me undressed and by morning it could mean my death sentence, especially if Najara happened into the room at the inopportune moment.
She issued a mumbled protest as I pulled back to stand beside the bed.
"I thought you loved me," she said in a drunken slur.
"I do," I told her. "And that's why I'm leaving. You'll have little memory of tonight, if any, with as much as wine you've consumed. I want you to know the love we make together - not just bits and pieces."
"I order you back to this bed now!"
I had to make a decision. I knew I only had one in the end. "I'm sorry my Conqueror. My job is to protect you. And you're not ready for me in your bed. It could be very dangerous for you and many people in your kingdom. I will not take that risk."
I knew I had to leave that instant. If I stayed any longer she would talk me into it. She always did. Against my better judgment, my Gabrielle had managed to seduce me in the most inappropriate of places - from the small kisses we'd shared I knew this one was no different.
"Xena?" The voice was small again and it made me stop. "Tell me the truth - why are you really here?"
I grinned. "That's simple. I'm gonna help you become the bard you always knew you should be. And I'll take away your pain. Goodnight my Con- Gabrielle."
"Goodnight Xena."
Chapter 6
I sat in the banquet hall a few feet from the Conqueror's table occupied by her consort and her Regent. The morning meal was brought in to us and I could see the Amazons whispering conspiratorially just as they always did with small chuckles here and there.
Solari sat next to Ephiny and both women looked extremely happy, feeding each other from time to time. Najara for her part looked cold. Not a word between she and Gabrielle was exchanged. I listened close to try to hear the conversation between ruler and Regent, especially after Najara excused herself. Even more so when I saw Gabrielle and Ephiny both look in my direction.
"She's okay," I heard Ephiny remark.
"Okay? Just okay?" Gabrielle replied.
"Well as far as I'm concerned I already have the most beautiful woman in the known world on my arm." Solari smiled and slipped a grape into Ephiny's mouth, letting her finger linger. "Are you considering trading Consorts my queen?"
"No, I . . . I love Najara," Gabrielle answered.
"Najara is a beautiful woman - no doubt. But she doesn't have those killer blue eyes of the new protector. Najara never looked that damn good in the dress we saw last night either."
"Are you saying it's lust? What if I were in love with both of them?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"You're my Regent - advise me."
"You're the ruler of the world, Gabrielle. I think it's your call. Behead Najara or just shack up with the new warrior. It's your choice."
"Thanks friend."
Ephiny chuckled. "Ahh... now as your friend, I'd tell you to keep the bondmate but fool around on the side with tall, dark and deadly."
Gabrielle chuckled. And that answer got a playful slap from Solari who joined the conversation. "Should I be worried while I've been away?"
Gabrielle immediately answered starting to rise. "Oh no Solari. Trust me. There's not a more pussy whipped woman in this kingdom than Ephiny."
"Heyyy," Ephiny whinnied in protest as her bond-mate laughed.
"Just telling it like it is Eph'."
Gabrielle locked eyes with me and I quickly went back to eating my goose eggs. I tried at least until I felt her at my side. Quickly I stood up and bowed respectfully to her.
"My Conqueror," I nodded. "How may I be of service?"
"I need to spar. After your meal make sure to join me on the practice field."
"Yes, my Conqueror." I nodded again. As she left, I wondered silently if she'd take Ephiny's advice.
As I made my way to the practice field, the eggs I had eaten seemed like boulders in my quivering stomach. I had to wonder if the Conqueror would be impressed if I lost my breakfast on her boots.
"Hello Xena." I jumped slightly at the voice, too distracted to notice I was being followed. I turned to see Callisto leaning against the stone wall.
"Nice bruise," I taunted.
She had a great shiner on her face where my fist met it last night. I had to smile.
"Yes it is. I'll return the favor soon." She smirked "I've been watching you lately and you know what I've seen?"
I just raised an eyebrow.
"You drooling over the conqueror. How pathetic you are, or so I thought." She walked closer to me and tapped her finger to her chin. "I was wracking my brains wondering why a person from Amphipolis would go out of their way to kiss that bitch's ass, especially when she torched their whole village." She looked at me closer.
"Then is occurred to me, the reason why you want so badly in her britches is because she'll be more vulnerable to kill." She squealed and clapped. "Bravo, hitting the Conqueror right in the libido."
I got right in her face. "Let me tell you something. The Conqueror's men were responsible for razing both of our villages and the Conqueror handled those men. And if you think for an instant I'll let any harm come to her, you'll have a short life span. Got me?" I towered over the crazed blonde.
"Do you believe after the Conqueror's history, she really had no idea? If you do, you're a fool."
We were close to trading blows.
"Is there a problem here?" We jumped at her voice. We both looked and saw very cold, green eyes.
She was dressed in a white shirt with black pants. Two swords strapped to her hips. She was very impressive, though it was obvious she was not happy with either Callisto or myself.
"Do I have to make you two children stand in separate corners?" She circled us both. My eyes focused back on Callisto. You could tell by the way she was twitching she wanted to strike Gabrielle.
"No, my Lord." We said in unison.
"Good. Now isn't there some place you need to be Callisto?"
The glare Callisto gave Gabrielle was deadly. "Yes, I do Lord Conqueror," she said through clenched teeth, looking at me once more.
"Then I suggest you go." Gabrielle got in her face. I was ready for anything, but Callisto wisely bowed and turned to leave. I could still pick up her saying, "Your time is coming to an end."
I wonder if she meant mine or Gabrielle's? As I considered it, I was sure she was convinced to destroy both of us.
"Ready to spar warrior?"
I nodded letting her lead the way.
The field was set up for sparring. There were staves, chobos, and a variety of swords to choose from. I watched as she began to stretch and do a few defensive moves.
"Choose your weapon, Xena." I completed a couple stretches of my own walking towards the weapons. I grabbed a staff, throwing one towards her, and she snatched it smirking at me.
Then my chin nearly hit the dirt as she started a few staff drills. She was moving so fast, I couldn't see the damn wood. It was a blur. I was even more aware that this wasn't my Gabrielle; this was a lethal warrior.
We stood opposite from each other, until she bowed her head in signal for me to start. And start I did, not holding back in the least. She blocked each blow and kick I had to offer, then it was her turn to attack.
I was tiring, struggling to hold onto the piece of wood that was stung each time she struck it. My advantage was my height and power, she had speed with perfect center of gravity.
In a sick strange way, I found this arousing. Our movements were like a warrior's poetry, a perfect dance.
I was able to get a roundhouse kick to the side of her face and that pissed her off. When I looked into her eyes. I froze. The look she had made me shudder.
'Is this what I look like when the beast is free?' I had to wonder as she struck her staff into mine, shattering it. That threw me off balance and left my middle open to her kick. As I doubled over she brought her knee up to my face. I landed in a painful thud on my back.
She landed on top of me, snarling. I found my heart pounding, I was...scared but extremely turned on. I closed my eyes waiting for her next move, but nothing happened.
I opened them slightly, she was breathing hard. She then leaned over and gave me a kiss that melted me down to the bottom of my boots.
"If you love me as you say, warrior," she paused to catch her breath, "meet me by the southern gates tonight. I have a place to show you." She gave me one more kiss then got off of me.
As she walked away she turned. "Thanks for the best sparring I've had in ages." Then she was gone while I was still flat on my back.
'By the Gods, I'll never survive this.' My mind told me. I laid there, letting my brain catch up with my now aching body, when I heard chuckling.
Making their way towards me was Ephiny and her mate. "Sparred with staffs, huh?"
I sat up cracking my neck into place. "Yeah, how did you know." I groaned as I got up and the both laughed at me more.
"Because we all land like that after she kicks our asses with the staff." She and Solari laughed harder.
"Next time warn me, will ya?" I growled at them as me and my damaged warrior's pride limped off the field.
"Hey warrior!"
I recognized it as Ephiny's voice and turned around to face her. She and Solari close the distance between us. "I gotta say . . . You've lasted longer than anyone yet. I respect that. I think the conqueror might have met her match."
"Hopefully in more ways than one," I tell her with a slight grin before beginning my departure again.
My 'wounds' from earlier in the day were healed as I stood at the south gate with an over inquisitive guard. He was beginning to annoy me and I wondered how much longer I could manage to wait for Gabrielle's arrival.
"So where will you be going?" he asked.
"I don't know, and even if I did, being part of the royal guard, I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you."
He began to chuckle. I didn't. And soon that chuckle became a nervous cough.
He knew I was very serious. I would kill him in a heartbeat to protect Gabrielle. When he finally shut up for a moment, my mind went back to the kiss of earlier in that day, as well as the ass kicking I had gotten. I had to admit; it was quite stimulating to see Gabrielle in action like that. I can only imagine what the battle lust would feel like if we ever had to engage anyone side by side in combat. I'm sure I'd spontaneously combust from the magnitude of it.
At that moment, Gabrielle approached on horseback and reached out for me as the gates opened.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"No questions," was the short retort.
I did as I was commanded and climbed behind her.
We left the safety of the city and traveled for what seemed like candle marks out of the kingdom's light, where the only thing we saw were the shadows of a few trees and the star light in the full moon's sky.
Soon we were by a river. One I knew very well. My Gabrielle always loved to stop here and make camp when we were in the area. I was a bit surprised to see that things hadn't changed.
"It's lovely here," I told her.
She seems to avoid the comment and threw her leg over the horse's head and hopped down. "Grab the saddlebags."
I paused a moment. The sharpness of her words reminded me yet again that this was not my Gabrielle. Not wanting her to get out of sorts, I didn't dwell on it long. I pulled the saddlebags off as requested once I hopped down. She was sitting by the shore looking out at the water as I made my way over. She reached out and I handed her the bags as she moved to her feet.
I watched her reach inside and pull out a set of shackles. Those quick reflexes of hers returned and she fastened one on my hand while tossing the other one through the tree. On pure instinct I reached out and grabbed her by the throat to stop her but she used the opportunity to shackle my other wrist.
Son of a bitch.
She caught me.
And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.
She pulled away with a devilish laugh. She reached between her cleavage and pulled out a breast dagger, running it down my cheek and to my throat. I didn't move. I didn't even breathe.
"You said you loved me," she began. "And at the first opportunity you tried to strangle me?"
Oh shit. This is gonna take some explaining.
"It was a reaction. I thought you were going to try to kill me, my Conqueror."
"Although that wasn't my intention in bringing you out here . . . I just might."
"Honestly, Gabrielle." I felt the point of the knife press deeper into my throat at the use of her given name and quickly made up for it. "My Conqueror. Honest. I thought you brought me here to kill me."
"Then why come at all?"
"It wasn't until you shackled me, my Conqueror."
"Then why did you originally agree to come here?"
"You asked."
"That's it? I asked so you came?" She paused and put the knife back in her cleavage and I gave a sigh of relief but tried not to make it sound too loud. "Did you think I offered you the chance to steal away from the castle so we could spar some more?"
I saw where she was going. She wanted me to tell her why. She knew why already. I desired her beyond words. But she wanted to hear me say it.
"No, my Conqueror."
"Then tell me why."
"Because you are the sexist thing the gods ever put on this earth and I'd forfeit my life for one night with you."
"You wouldn't be the first," she said casually, taking the sword off her back and letting it fall to the ground.
"But I hope to be the last."
Gabrielle gave a chuckle. "Yes well . . . Najara hoped to be the last. Turns out she was wrong."
Her lips seized mine and she pushed me against the rough tree bark. Her tongue broke through my lips and when I tried to return the gesture she pulled back and slapped me so hard my face stung.
"I kiss you. You don't kiss me. Understand?"
I would have rubbed my cheek to ease the pain if I could have, but I couldn't reach it. My hands were suspended too high above me. I could only give a nod, which she accepted. With that she stepped back and I watched as her armor and battledress fell to the ground. She's scarred in places I didn't recognize and I silently wondered what story each scar tells. I would have like to reach out and touch each one, memorizing the feel of her body. But despite the battle riddled body, there was a hunger there. Perhaps more now than ever and she could sense it.
"What you expected?"
The question almost went unanswered in my admiration of Gabrielle.
"No, my Conqueror - far more tantalizing. If you release me-."
"You might kill me. And I want to enjoy one evening with you before I die."
She returned and in a few minutes my armor was stripped away and britches pulled to my ankles. She stayed on her knees and pulled up my skirt. She studied me closely and licked her lips and I could feel myself grow wetter in response. My legs seemed to unconsciously part.
"I wouldn't kill you."
"This from a woman who just tried to choke me to death," she chuckled as she rubbed her hands up my legs, tantalizing me even further.
"Oh gods please," I found myself whispering and pulling on the shackles.
Gabrielle chuckled again at my reaction. "Be honest. You don't really want me to let you go. You love this." I watched her rise to her full height, her fingers immediately finding my soaked center. "Oh, you really love this. Not many people have bested you Xena, and you love the feel of it don't you? I know you do because we're very much alike. No one has lasted that long on the practice field against me. And I must admit it excited me to no end. Almost as much as your excitement now."
That's it. I'm gonna die. Strung up in a tree and dripping wet. Her fingers toyed with me, brushing past the nub that desperately needed attention. I groaned my frustration.
"Are we having fun yet, Xena?"
"I want to taste you."
The words just spilled naturally from my mouth and she chuckled again. "Where's the warrior focus I've seen you display so often, um?"
"All I can focus on is your hand, my Conqueror."
"You want the Conqueror to take you, do you?"
"Gods yes, please, Gabrielle."
I was so aroused at that point I didn't care what she might think or do. I grabbed the chains of the shackles and pulled myself up. My legs snaked out and grabbed her around the waist. I tried desperately to grind my sex into her hip. At first I saw anger in her eyes but I didn't care. I wanted her. I wanted her so badly I could taste it. A moment later however, she realized I was not a threat. I made no attempt to escape from her. In fact, I wanted her closer and I watched as desire glazed over in her own eyes.
She didn't remove me. Instead her hand came up and I felt three fingers plunge inside while her thumb found the nub aching for release.
"You like it hard and fast, huh warrior?"
All I could do was grunt out my approval. She was so warm and I was sure by the look in her eye she was totally wet too.
"Come on," she whispered as she got quicker. I watched her pause for a moment to pull her drenched finger out to suck on.
"Oh gods, please, Gabrielle."
"Conqueror! YOU are my guard. I OWN you. Body and soul."
"Say it!"
"You own me. You own me. Do what you want with me."
She pulled out the breast dagger and held it to my throat again as her fingers went back to their earlier task.
"What if I wanted to kill you, huh?"
"Kill me, but let me come first."
I meant ever word. It didn't matter if I died in the end, as long as she took me over the top. I heard her chuckle.
"I believe you want it that bad."
"I want it. Please I'm begging. Don't . . . deny . . . me."
My passion overrode my ability to form words.
"Alright warrior. I'll give you what you want. I'll give it to you. Hard and fast. Hard and fast."
Gabrielle voice echoed over and over. Her breathing was strained as well, and I felt myself slipping over the edge as my release gripped me. My hips shook and I howled out in my passion. Spent, she let my legs fall to the ground and I could barely stand. My arms were sore and my hands seemed to be locked around the chains. It was difficult to move my fingers, but I managed to let go.
She pulled away, licking her fingers and my arousal was renewed. I was not nearly as spent as I first thought. Suddenly, I couldn't help myself and the words slipped past my lips.
"Gods, I love you, Gabrielle."
She looked at me with bit of indifference. "You're a decent lay."
Carelessly, she turned her back to me. My head dropped. This wasn't want I wanted. I wanted to make love to her. In truth, I wanted her to love me. I realized in that instant. All we did was fuck and I felt shallow and hollow inside. She turned back to face me. My emotions must have been written on my face. Or maybe this Gabrielle, like the old one, could tell my moods.
Casually she walked up and unlocked the shackles. "Should I lie?" I didn't answer her and she continued. "I could appease you. I could tell you I love you too. That you're everything to me. I could, if that's what you'd like, Xena."
"I don't want you to appease me, my Conqueror. I realize my place."
Maybe if I turned the tables. Maybe I could get a reaction that way.
"And what place is that?"
"I'm nothing more than a royal guard. Here to serve you in anyway you see fit. As you said, you own me body and soul . . . I realize my place."
She looked . . . saddened? It was a new emotion - one I hadn't seen from this new Gabrielle. The desire to retract my words was strong but perhaps this was the push she needed. I said nothing. But neither did she and I knew one of us should speak.
"Speaking as your guard, we should return you soon. I'm sure your consort will be wondering where you are."
I handed her the shackles before I went to retrieve her clothing and her armor. I helped dress her in silence. I then handed her the sword, which she returned to her back. Only then did I reach for my own armor. She moved to help, but I respectfully declined.
"With all due respect, my Conqueror. You should not be doing a menial task like helping your guard with their armor. Thank you for the offer, but you are above such duties."
She was speechless. Wordless, she walked away and climbed upon the horse. Once I was set, I joined her, taking my place behind her. I realized I was spreading it on a bit thick and she might not return to me, so I gave her the option.
"Remember, my Conqueror - I am always available to serve you . . . day or night."
"I'll remember Xena . . . and so should you."
"As you wish."
There was no need for further words . . . We traveled in silence for about a league when she brought her mare to a stop. We both heard it.
"Do you-"
"Yes, two men talking back in the woods," I whispered. "They sound-"
"Roman," she answered. "Let's check it out."
Chapter 7
The idea of being around Romans made my skin crawl as we got closer to the voices.
Pompey and Brutus, I knew those voices all too well.
"Hello boys," the Conqueror greeted the surprised men. A ring of ten of them stood up as Gabrielle and I dismounted. I had my sword hand ready at my side, as did Gabrielle. Both men turned and gave a Roman salute to her.
"Drop your arms, fellas. No need to hail Caesar in these woods. Besides, I'm not Roman - and I never will be."
Pompey acted as if he was going to say something but stopped himself. Finally he did manage the courage to speak. "Conqueror, what brings you out on a night like this? We were camping for the night, planning to pay you a visit at first light." Pompey said with that smug grin I despised.
Gabrielle laughed heartily making all the Romans jump at the sound. "You were going to pay me a visit where you? How sweet." The smiling expression fell in an instant. "State your business, Pompous." He lost his smile and I bit my lip. "Romans do not belong on this soil, especially uninvited ones," she growled and I could see her jaw clinch.
Pompey put a hand under his chest armor and reflexively I put my hand on my chakram prepared for anything. Even after he pulled out a scroll with a Roman seal on it, my hand continued to stay in place.
Gabrielle leaned over to grab it. "Let me guess?" She put the scroll to her head. "Caesar either wants to meet with me or no.... He has drawn out a treaty showing Rome's good intentions?"
That time I let a small snicker out.
"Whatever it is Pompous, I'm not interested. Unless this guarantees his head mounted on my main gate." She threw the scroll at Pompey's feet.
I swear you could see the veins sticking out of his neck. He was ready to implode in his anger. I had to smile.
Gabrielle mounted the horse so we could leave and I followed suit. "Give old 'divide and conquer' a message from me." She looked at Brutus. "He steps one sandal on Greece soil and I will send my legions to mop the area with Rome's blood." Her voice was so deep and deadly, it made us all swallow the lumps in our throats. Inside she was still the poetic bard but with a much different agenda.
"Yaw!!" She kneed the horse into a gallop. "Hope you're ready for a great battle, Xena," she yelled over her shoulder. I held onto her tighter.
We both stayed quiet for the rest of the ride back to the palace, heavy in thought.
My mind kept going back to when I first had a run in with Caesar. I was so naive and he used that against me. Gabrielle had handled that much better then the old Xena would have. I would've read that scroll, and probably fallen into whatever trap he had made like I did when I was young.
I found myself rubbing one of my legs in remembrance.
"Ahh..no, no. Just thinking." Her eyes moved forward once more.
"Care to share?"
Was she actually asking my opinion? Was she actually beginning a conversation?
"You're not going to trust Caesar, are you?" Gabrielle began to laugh so hard I had to steady her on the horse. I too began to chuckle. "I'll take that as a no."
Gabrielle gave a sigh. "Oh Xena. I must admit you do amuse me at times, whether intentional or not."
From what happened earlier in the woods. That was obvious. But I didn't speak the words out loud.
"For the record, no. I don't trust Caesar. There's only one reason those men are that close. They're casing us . . . But what I'd like to know is HOW did they get so close?" Gabrielle pauses a moment. "I can assure you - heads will roll and not just Roman heads."
"I hope your Regent isn't one of them."
"Why do you say that?"
"I like her." Gabrielle turned back to look at me and I could have sworn I saw a touch of jealousy in her eyes. I felt the need to explain further. "I mean I admire her as a warrior and a person. After you left from our sparing session we spoke briefly. She seems like a good person."
Gabrielle was quiet for a long moment. "She's the only one I truly trust." It came out just above a whisper and I had to admit I was relieved to learn the ax wouldn't fall on her. But I was also speechless by the fact that Gabrielle had confessed something to me. If she trusted Ephiny and I could win Ephiny's trust then . . .
All too quickly we were approaching the southern gate to find Ephiny waiting for us.
"Conqueror, there are reports of Romans close by."
We trotted up and dismounted. "I know. We had a run in with two of Caesar lackeys and a few of their cronies. They were even nice enough to send me a scroll I didn't bother to read." Gabrielle chuckled and tapped me lightly in the stomach. "You know us poor women, we're so easy to fool with empty promises." Gabrielle and her Regent laughed, as I mustered a smile.
The stable man took our horse and we all made our way into the palace. I could see Gabrielle's mind working. "Ready my legions for battle and send word to Queen Melosa. With Romans walking about, you know they will try to round up slaves. I want our sisters safe."
"Word has already been sent. Solari personally saw to it."
Gabrielle stopped and a look of true compassion crossed her face as she turned to Ephiny. "I'm sorry your visit was cut short."
"It needed to be done," Ephiny nodded. "No sorrows."
"Well, after this is over I'll have Melosa release her for a months holiday, if that's alright with you."
Ephiny looked about as shocked as I did. Gabrielle reached out and tipped up Ephiny's chin. "Be careful, Regent, or you might start catching flies."
Ephiny gave me a look of disbelief and I just shrugged. Gabrielle began to walk again and quickly Ephiny and I race to catch up.
"Send another team out to Amazonia. Be sure the Amazons inform the Centaurs in case we need them as back up. Also be certain that a message is sent to Chin to alert them. I want Lao Ma to bring a portion of her troops here as a precaution to the east. Understood?"
The mention of Lao Ma sent a shiver up my spine. If she comes, she might blow my cover. But then again perhaps I never existed in her eyes either. But I know she has the 'sight' – an ability to see things others can't. Would I be one of those people she reads? And if so would it upset the balance I'm trying so hard to maintain?
Ephiny nodded formerly. "It will be done. Word is, she was arriving this week personally to see you anyway."
"With luck perhaps she's brought black powder with her." Gabrielle then turned her attention to me. "Next we move into phase two of battle, Caesar has his troops on their way here. I'm sure of it. So make sure the outposts on all side are alert and battle ready. I want shifts to be every four candle marks to keep the men fresh."
I listened to the plans Gabrielle had given. She seemed to know how Caesar worked all too well. To my surprise, I felt jealousy brew in my soul. Borias' voice rang in my head.
"I understand your anger with her, Cyane. But Xena's not like you and me. She thinks with her will-- not her reason. You must have warriors in your camp with the same weakness."
That was the one great downfall of my youth; I leapt, and then looked. Ares was right, she did think and never underestimated a task. Gabrielle was the person I dreamed of being, back in those cold dark days.
"Are you listening, Xena?" I was brought out of my musing and stared into angry green eyes and a missing Regent.
"Yes, Gabrielle." Her eyes turned icier, but I didn't care. Right now all I was feeling was defeat.
"Alert the troops then get some rest warrior, we have a busy day tomorrow. And night. " She kissed me, but I just couldn't kiss her back. I couldn't be her toy.
For a spilt second as she pulled away, I saw regret in her eyes. Then her mask went back into place. She left me without another word.
I stood there and felt as though I had no air to left breathe. I slammed my fist into the wall feeling like a trapped animal once more. A flash appeared from behind me. 'Great, just great, this is all I need.'
"Speak fast, Ares." I turned to see his smirking face.
"She's a good fuck, eh?"
I lost it and kicked him in the face this time, and the bastard couldn't stop me. He fell backwards and I landed on him.
"Face the facts, Xena You can't win her back. Your ploy to get into her breeches blew up in your face." I loosened my grip and found our positions quickly reversed. "Come on, Xena! Even you can see she's a superior warrior. She's far better then you ever were - she thinks things through. She had those shackles in mind and what to do the second she invited you to her haunt." He smiled. "What were you thinking? Hmm? Something about making love?" He got off me, and stood up. "Can you honestly tell me her dark side didn't turn you on? Just sparring against her had you all wet. And I must admit I can relate. When she and I spar - SWEET MOTHER OF ZEUS! Face it Xena – you've lost." He laughed as he disappeared, leaving me in my numb state on the floor.
I finally made it back to my barrack, unsure of how I had even gotten there. I was too lost in my thoughts. I collapsed in my bed and wept; no longer able to hide my emotions. My mind took me back to times with my Gabrielle.
"It's over-- or is it? Xena? Do you ever? Do you get the feeling that sometimes-- nothing is really over? You know, it just-- keeps coming back around, but it's-- it's wearing a different face. It's-- it's the same underneath. Do you know what I mean?"
"Sure. I was trapped in a cycle of violence and hatred. And no matter how I tried to break free, something always pulled me back-- until you."
"Xena-- "
"No, it's true. You talk about trying to find your way, but to me, you are my way."
"How can I be your way, when I-- I'm lost, myself?"
"I'm searching for answers, too. But how we look for them doesn't matter-- as long as we look for them together-- you and me."
I just got her back after watching her fall into that forsaken pit. Then I remembered the last time Ares tried to win Gabrielle from me.
"You have to like her style-- the focus-- the intensity-- the ability to learn and adapt. She is just-- incredible. I can't believe I took her for granted for so long."
"You're just using Mavican to get to me, Ares. It won't work. Why don't you give up on me?"
"Xena-- I have given up on you. And what makes you think I was talkin' about Mavican?"
"This is about Gabrielle. You're not testing Mavican. You're after Gabrielle."
"You're not jealous? I mean, despite what Mavican thought, I have been thinking about your heir. And who better-- than one you trained?"
"You leave her out of this."
"Arrogance! There's the fire-- there's the anger you lost Xena."
"She'll never follow you."
"Well, she hasn't heard my offer yet. And, anyway-- how well do you really know her, anymore? Well, I guess we'll find out-- when she kills Mavican."
Gods, this time Ares found the perfect way to get her. I should have known he would never stop until he had her. I turned on my side and clutched my head. I saw another flash in my room, but I was too tired to bother to look.
"Ah, you poor warrior babe." Dite sat by me and put a hand on my head.
I still said nothing. A moment passed and she spoke again.
"Listen, Xena. Ares is only out to throw you off the track. He hasn't won. As long as you stay alive he knows there's always the chance you can win Gabrielle's heart. He knows that." I took a deep breath and looked at her. Sometimes Aphrodite can be the smartest God in the lot.
"We both know what you and the mean bard did tonight wasn't love. It was lust - plan and simple. Be honest. Didn't you want that to happen? To be taken by the Conqueror? She was only giving you what she thought you wanted." I closed my eyes.
"I'll admit, thinking of her battle lust was arousing to me."
"You need to show Gabby you want her heart, and not some bondage fuck. Don't get me wrong. At times a little 'yes mistress' it can be fun. But how can Gabrielle love, when she's never known it Xena?"
"I'm not sure if I'm capable of teaching love."
"Don't sell yourself short, warrior. There's a lot of love in there," she said, tapping my breastplate. "What would you give for her? What would you sacrifice? Would you risk all like she's done in times past?"
"Without question."
Dite smiled at me. "She's scared of you. You're making her feel things she has never felt before. That's making her more defensive. So take your time and use your heart. Show her the love that you have for her…Love's the key, toots - always is and always will be." She bubbled up and I couldn't help it, I smiled at this. She stood to leave and I grabbed her hand.
"Thank you." I felt better now, sorta. Something in my soul told me there was more to it then just love. Ares is not that foolish to make it that easy…but then again.
"I know Ares really bummed you out but like I said . . . He's the same old loser. He just wants to convince you that you can't win." She looked up for a second. "For the record, Gabby is pacing her room right now, but it's not the Romans that have her nerves on edge." She winked conspiratorially. "Get some rest, tall dark and deadly, and don't let big bro get you down." She gave me a peck on the cheek and flashed out. As a result I felt sleep claim me with thoughts of Gabrielle.
'I love you, my bard.'

I'm not sure how much time had passed after I woke back up. But the sound of knocking on the chamber doors pulled me from my bed. I opened the door to find Ephiny rapping on the guard's doors, making each of us rise. My sword was on my back before she came to my room.
"What's going on?"
"We're moving out," Ephiny explained. "We've got reports that Caesar has massed more troops in the North and the Conqueror doesn't want to take any chances. We attack this morning."
Ephiny turned to leave and I watched as Callisto smiled and waved at me from the end of the hallway. If every there was a chance to kill Gabrielle and get away with it, this was her chance. I gently pulled Ephiny by the arm. I didn't know if I'd won her confidence enough yet but I didn't have time to question it further.
"Don't look," I began, "but at the hallway's end —one of the other royal guards —Callisto, the blonde- I don't trust her, Ephiny. Will Gabrielle be going into the battle too?"
"Her Highness is at every major battle, Xena."
I swallowed hard. "I'm assuming she's well protected."
"That's why she has her royal guard."
"And what if some in her guard wanted to kill her?"
"As her second in command, I never leave her side – never – unless ordered by the queen herself. I would die before someone took her life."
"You're that devoted to her?"
"Aren't you?"
The old Ephiny wouldn't have to ask the question. But this Ephiny was as fiercely loyal as the one I knew, even if she had no memory of me.
"I am without a doubt, but as I said, I believe others in our company are NOT to be trusted."
"Callisto, umm?" Casually, Ephiny glanced down the hall to get a better look. I simply nodded and made an approving sound. "I'll keep my eyes open."
I could have gotten into my thoughts on Najara but at this time she wasn't an obvious threat. Stopping Callisto was my main goal aside from winning Gabrielle's love. But I realized too that I couldn't win the love of a dead woman. So I had to play things carefully.
"Thank you my Regent," I told her respectfully.
Ephiny only gave me a nod and went back to her task of assembling the guard. When we got outside I saw Gabrielle already waiting on her steed in full battle gear. I must admit she looked magnificent . . . commanding. She hopped from the horse as someone was led over to her. It was a cloaked figure and when they approached each other I could see Gabrielle's grin grow wider. Upon seeing that grin I watched the hood drop. Immediately my jaw follows.
Autolycus stopped before Gabrielle, giving her a respectful bow before taking her hand and kissing it in a very gentlemanly fashion. I was too far away to hear the exchange between them but it looked as though he'd been in Gabrielle's 'circle' for quite sometime. I could see by the way she held herself in his presence. She seemed much more 'casual'. I wanted to know this story but I didn't want to break from the growing regiment without a reason. I decided perhaps a bit of truth might do the trick.
I took several long strides over and I wasn't sure what the reaction would be as I made my way to the pair. Gabrielle looked first in my direction and when her smile didn't fade at my approach I felt a bit more comfortable. When she waved me over I felt much more at ease.
"Xena, come meet Autolycus," she announced. "Autolycus, this is the newest member of my royal guard."
"Good choice," he nodded. "I'm sure she could take down her fair share of Romans and then some." He held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
I took the offered appendage. "Likewise, but I think we've met before. That's why I came over. You looked like someone I met years ago in Thrace."
"Perhaps," he grinned politely before turning to Gabrielle as he finished his statement. "I do get around."
"Oh that he certainly does," Gabrielle chuckled. "Autolycus is one of my most trusted spies, not to mention one of the best."
"One of the best? Forgive me for correcting you your Majesty, but I AM the best."
Oh yeah. The more things change the more they stay the same, I considered with a grin. He had that cocky grin that I realized I had missed. Instead of turning brutal for the 'disobedience', to my surprise Gabrielle chuckled.
"The only thing bigger than Autolycus' ego is his . . ."
Autolycus gave a slight ahem in response to Gabrielle for letting her sentence hang. With a coy grin she finished by adding, "appetite for nut bread."
"Well, that too," he conceded, stroking his chin.
I was curious now. "So how did he come into your service, Milady?"
"He was a thief," she said bluntly, her grin still in place. "I was on a campaign in the east and every other night items kept coming up missing. A few weapons, a few sets of body armor. But when he took my nut bread that was the final straw."
Autolycus chuckled too. "But since I'm so witty and engaging, she decided to keep me around after she FINALLY managed to catch up to me."
"I will admit," the conqueror smiled. "I did find him entertaining. The men wanted to gut him but it was a waste of potential. So I made him a deal."
"That's right. I work for her Majesty. Stay loyal and she would see I wouldn't want for anything. She's kept her side of the bargain and I've kept mine. It's been what? Five years now?"
Gabrielle looked upward as if she was totaling the years. "I believe so," she nodded. "I have to admit that when I hadn't heard from you this month I was worried."
"About what? Getting caught?" He smiled. "Only one person was quick and smart enough to catch me."
Gabrielle turned to me. "Autolycus is very smooth. He's knows all the right things to say and when to say them. Speaking of which, what news do you have for me from Rome?"
"Oh, the same old, same old. Caesar thinks he's a God. He's promising people things he'll never deliver. Athens is going to fall. So on and so forth."
"The usual, huh?"
"You got it," he grinned. "But I did learn something of interest. I'm not sure what it could spell in the future."
"Caesars' right hand man - Brutus - he's running for Senate and gaining quite a bit of support. It seems to have driven a wedge between the daring duo. I'm not sure if that would be important but I do know that Brutus oversees many of Caesars' troops in the Northern battles and his last orders were to head west."
"But scouts have seen troops to the north . . . Divide and conquer," Gabrielle muttered. "This is quite interesting."
"I have a feeling that this little riff could work to the Greek advantage. Because if-."
"Caesar is counting on Brutus to stay put and wait for our troops, Brutus might get itchy to steal Caesars' thunder and rush ahead."
"Exactly." Autolycus grinned.
"Then that means that there would be no back up of Roman support," I offer. "The Romans will all mass in one area."
Gabrielle grinned as Autolycus waved his finger. "She is good," he chuckled. "Where did you find her?"
"She came to me actually," Gabrielle replied. I could tell there was something deeper behind the words as she spoke them, but she didn't elaborate.
"Well if you don't mind me saying," Autolycus addressed both of us. "With looks and brains like those she could visit my bed chamber any time she likes - day or night."
"She's off limits."
Gabrielle's voice was firm and all joking left her face. For the first time since the friendly exchange I saw Autolycus' mood shift. He wore the look I saw in others when they had contact with Gabrielle's bad side - fear mixed with respect. He could joke with her. Laugh with her. But some things were not up for discussion. Apparently I was one of those things and everyone in the circle knew it. He gave a respectful bow without making a single noise.
"Xena, would you please get the Regent immediately? I have a new idea for this battle."
With a respectful bow I made my leave to look for Ephiny. I wasn't sure what she had planned but I did know that even Caesar wouldn't see it coming.
Chapter 8
I found Ephiny in the stables making sure all the horses had the right armor and rations for battle.
"Regent?" Ephiny turned to look at me.
"The Conqueror requests your presence." She nodded towards me, then said something to the blacksmith, briefly before walking back my way.
"Xena, make sure that the smithy re-shoes that horse before we head off. Argo has a tendency to be bitchy when her shoes are bothering her." The Regent walked out and I was left there catching flies with my open mouth.
I walked over to the last stall with a growing grin. There she was. 'My' Argo.
"Hey, girl." She whinnied as if even in this world, she knew me. I buried my face in her mane and thought of home.
"I see you have good taste in horses as well, Warrior." I jumped slightly.
"I thought you had to talk with Ephiny, My Lord?"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at me as she examined my affection for her mare.
"I said what I needed to, and now I came to check on my battle horse." Argo whinnied and gave Gabrielle a little nudge. "How's my girl?" Argo nudged her again and the Conqueror chuckled, bringing out an apple she had hidden in her armor. "Never could hide anything from you." She chuckled once more and turned her attention to me.
"She's smart. How long have you had her?"
Gabrielle thought. "Around ten moons now, I only use her now for battle. She's well trained and I trust her with my life. Rest of the time she's free to roam. She's such a free spirit. But she always comes home in the end." We both gave her a pat.
After a brief silence she asked, "You ready to deal with Rome, Xena?"
My mouth went dry and I'm pretty sure I had a nice sneer on my face.
"I see you have the same love for Caesar as I do."
"I know he's an egotistically lying, crafty bastard."
She laughed loud at this and I worried. "Gabrielle, you must be really careful with him."
She eyed me. "One thing that I've learned over the years, Xena, is never take anything for granted or underestimate anyone." She sighed. "Caesar thinks my greatest flaws are my emotions. I feel things - be it anger or joy. To him, he thinks he can use this. But feelings aren't the worst thing a warrior can experience."
"What's the worst then?"
"Indifference. Because if you don't care then you have nothing to fight for."
"So how will you handle this battle?"
"Caesar wants that one great battle that will make him a part of history. But we're not the ones who will give it to him. Brutus will."
I was obviously confused and it showed on my face. Gabrielle gave a slight chuckle before continuing.
"First, we have to get his entire army here. The key to destroying Caesar is his belief in his destiny. That and Brutus' impetuous nature, trying to upstage Caesar. Brutus also believes he has a destiny. So when fates collide it can be a dreadful thing…for Rome that is."
She has an interesting take on Caesar. One I had never truly considered. I remained quiet as she went on.
"I know Caesar, and right now he's probably thinking I'm drawing him into a trap where he can flank our troops. Brutus will be the good field general and await his order. But that won't happen."
I looked at her at a loss. Would he fall for that?
"Shh Warrior. You see in past battle my troops have impersonated his. You keep your friends close, Xena, but your enemies closer. I have a fair hand in Rome although Caesar doesn't know it. When he sees troops in the valley in Roman attire . . ."
"He'll make the mistake of thinking they are his troops."
"Exactly. He'll charge in thinking Brutus is trying to upstage him again. When Brutus sees him going in full force he'll think he's being shut out of the glorious victory. That wouldn't help poor Brutus' standing in the Roman Senate."
"And he'll rush in too." I grinned.
"At which point we turn the tables. I get my men pulled back and I let the mortars do their job. Less of my men will die because we won't have to do as much hand to hand combat in this battle. And even though Caesar sees MY emotion as my downfall . . . in truth it will be his arrogance and Brutus' thirst for power that will do them in."
I considered a plan forming in my own mind. "What we have to do is make sure both Roman armies are led into the middle while making sure ours are on the outer parts to attack all."
"That'll be a hard task, but not impossible." Gabrielle agreed, but my nerves were still on overload.
"Conqueror?" Ephiny stood at the door.
We both walked to greet her, when a man carrying way too much for one person, nearly knocked us over. I was ready to take his head off when Gabrielle stopped me.
"Joxer?" The man froze, dropping his load of saddle packs and turned, falling to his knees.
"My Lord?"
She motioned for him to stand. "You ready for battle?"
He stuck his chest out proudly. "Aye, Conqueror. And a grand battle it will be." I looked him over and he seemed to be a bit more rugged looking than I was used to.
"Back to work with you then." She clasped his arm in parting.
"He's a tad slow wit wise, but he's dependable in battle." We continued walking over to Ephiny and all I could help thinking was, 'Joxer?? How is that possible?'
"Scouts say that Caesar's Army is still heading full force from the West and Brutus' forces are candle-marks ahead of his coming from the North."
"Good, good. Caesar will be in the middle first to deal with a clueless Brutus. Are our Sisters ready? What of the Centaurs?" Gabrielle was clearly in strategic mode
"Melosa sent word that the sisters are behind Caesar's forces and Tyldus is keeping an eye on Brutus', waiting for your signal. Catapults are in place with the Centaurs. The Amazons will stop them from retreating. They are in the forest, located in the trees."
"Lao Ma?"
"Advanced troops will perhaps be here in time. But she's a good 5 candle-marks behind with the majority of her soldiers with her."
"Very well then." She acknowledged the Regent and I. "Shall we go teach Caesar a lesson he won't live long enough to enjoy?" She smiled at us both. Ephiny and Gabrielle walked outside and I stood in the doorway.
"Coming, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'll be right there, I want to make sure Argo's shod properly." She gave me a smirk and walked off with the Regent. I knew in my soul that Gabrielle's knowledge of battle should have made me sick to my stomach, but I found myself in awe. I watched as she yelled orders to some of the solders.
"Conqueror? Conqueror?" A small voice called out to her. Gabrielle found the voice quickly with a smile. An adoring smile that only a mother would have for her child. Hope ran to her with a small package, Gabrielle scooped her up and kissed her while taking it.
"Put your mask back on, Gabrielle." I muttered to what I thought was to myself. This was one of many reasons I'd sent Solon away. What if I slipped like Gabrielle just did? Right then the hairs on the back of my neck tingled.
"My, my what a beautiful child." I stiffened as Callisto continued. "If I didn't know better I would say she looks an awful lot like...hmmm." She tapped her chin with her finger. "Well, you know, dear." She gave me that wild smile of hers.
"Before this battle's over, you'll be at the end of my sword," I promised.
"Oh, Xena, I swear every time you threaten me it just makes me all gooey inside." She laughed, going to her horse and leading her steed out. "Make sure you stay safe out there." She blew me a kiss and rode towards the other guards. My temper was slipping. Now Callisto knew about Hope, which meant that Najara must have told Callisto at some point. Son of a Baccache, I thought. Sure, Callisto would be with me, but Najara would be with Hope.
I had a flashback to when I felt Gabrielle had betrayed me, and Solon died. Ares knew how to play on my darkness and I did the unspeakable.
"Nice vocal! But you sure can't dance to it. Look, I feel your pain OK -- but how much longer before you start doing something about it?" Ares said.
"My son is dead, ya soul-less bastard! What can I do about that?"
"Just goes to prove what I've been telling you all along-- no good deed goes unpunished-- saving people, defending the weak, trusting someone who betrayed you." He puts a hand on my shoulder.
"This whole atonement kick you've been on lately -- it's not you. You're full of fire -- bending the world to your will -- full of rage. And revenge. Accept it; embrace it. You know what to do -- who to kill." Gods, he knew what buttons to push.
I saw myself hold her battered body above the cliff as I screamed.
I paced the stable shaking, 'think Xena think.'
I looked back out as Gabrielle gave Hope one more squeeze before shoeing her off. Was Ares going to try to pull the darkness out of Gabrielle? Could he do it and would she be able to come back?
"Hope?" I called for the little girl; she saw me and smiled. I knew Gabrielle was watching, but I had no other choice.
"Yes, Xena?" Her face was just like her mother's and I felt an ache in my chest.
"I need you to give your Grandmother a note from me please, as fast as you can. Don't let anyone see this note other then her. Please, it's important." She nodded yes and I walked to my horse and grabbed a scroll and quill from it quickly.
I sent her off with the promise again not to show anyone and to get it to Cyrene fast. I had to warn Mother someway, but I couldn't stay because I had to watch Callisto with Gabrielle. Gods, I felt like I was trapped between crossbows.
"Is the Conqueror's horse ready?" I yelled making the smithy jump.
"Yes-s, ma'am," she stuttered and walked quickly off.
I grabbed the reins to Argo and led her toward Gabrielle, who had a cold look on her face as I got closer. I tried to give her Argo's reins, but her arm came out quickly and her hand was around my throat.
"What is your fascination with the child?" Her voice was low.
"I've grown close to her Grandmother Cyrene, and wanted Hope to give her a note just in case I don't return?" I barely got the words out. Her grip dropped and she let out a battle cry and leapt on Argo's back.
"Don't worry, Xena. After all, you are the best." Her face was still like ice. "Saddle up!!" she yelled, and took the lead.
I mounted my horse and Ephiny pulled up by me. "The Conqueror wants you up front with us."
We trotted off in silence, catching up with Gabrielle and Autolycus in front.
"Remember, whoever runs into Brutus, you may beat him senseless, but don't kill him. I have plans for him. As for Caesar . . . he's mine." The person breaking the silence was not Gabrielle, but truly the Conqueror looking forward to battle. I found this rather arousing and I mentally slapped myself for that thought.
"Yeah, well, you remember to come back safe and sound. You've still got a contract of ours to fulfill," Autolycus gave her a wink, bringing his horse to a stop just shy of the gated entrance.
I expected him to join us for some reason, but I realized quickly he would not. If Autolycus were to keep his livelihood, it wouldn't do much good for the Romans to spot him chatting up the Conqueror.
I turned in my saddle to look at our forces. Behind us were my fellow Royal Guards on horseback. Callisto and I locked eyes briefly. Behind them were the wagons with the catapults, then rows of horsemen with bows; her archers - half dressed as Romans; the other as Greeks. Then behind all of this there were the foot solders and I spotted Joxer on the far right. This wasn't even the full army, but very impressive indeed. In my old days I would hate to run into this kind of force. With the Amazons and Centaurs ready on two sides, by the Gods…
We continued to work our way to the battle in silence and I sent a prayer to whoever would listen that we'd all make it safely. Well except for Callisto, I considered in afterthought. It seemed like only seconds, but long moments later we had our positions. Gabrielle gave Ephiny the order to have the 'Romans' attack. From the bushes she watched the hill above. First a few scouts appeared at the top, but then a man I knew quite well made his appearance too. Caesar was dressed in his golden armor with a telescope watching the engagement below. For her part, Gabrielle had her telescope fixed on Caesar. I watched the two of them, but the growing smile on Gabrielle's face held my fascination.
"He's falling for it." There was something feral about the grin she had, as if she was a spider watching a fly heading toward her web.
I looked back to the hill to see Caesar pointing and pushing a few of his men around. He was falling for it indeed and he didn't look very happy that Brutus was going to 'steal' his battle with Athens. I took a deep breath. It wouldn't be long now. As soon as Caesars' troops began their charge down the hill, Gabrielle's attention left him. I'm sure she had faith in Ephiny to lead that battle. Instead of focusing on him, she shifted her eyes over to the far ridge where she expected Brutus' troops to be sitting. Sure enough within a matter of moments Brutus' behavior began to mimic Caesars' from moments before.
As Brutus' men lined up at the top of the hill, I watched Gabrielle raise her hand to her own troops behind her. Once the enemy began their charge downhill into the valley I watched her signal the flaming arrows. Then the arrows went up, all of her Romans and Greeks charged up the hill toward us. Leaving a mix of Caesar and Brutus' troops below. With another wave of her hand, the catapults began to fire into the valley. The darkened sky lit up like daytime and I could hear the screams from the burning men below. War was hell without a doubt. I knew that the Roman advancement had to be stopped for the good of Greece, but as I looked over the smile that appeared on Gabrielle's face, it chilled me.
She wasn't smiling because the battle was going her way. She was enjoying watching those men die. I knew that smile. I wore it many times in my youth. Sometimes it still haunted me in my dreams, but here it played on Gabrielle's face naturally. Too naturally. And it scared me. I couldn't look anymore at her, and I went back to watching the battle unfold. I witnessed as her troops tried to escape the fireballs wrecking havoc below. One soldier caught my eyes as he tripped trying to come up the hill.
Gabrielle gave her next order to charge and I knew that the man would be trapped below. It was Joxer. As the troops marched double time in formation to the battle below, I raced ahead as fast as I could to where he had fallen. I brought my horse to a halt and somersaulted from the saddle to land near his feet. His laces had somehow become tangled in a dead, rotted tree root. Quickly, I pulled my sword and swung watching him wince below me. The blade sliced through the laces and he pulled his foot out with ease. With only seconds to spare, I pulled him up to my horse as I jumped back. Together we raced down the hill into the battle.
"You saved my life," he yelled. "I must repay you."
"Look after the Conqueror," I ordered him. "If you see that blonde woman guard get within ten feet of her, make sure you kill her."
"I don't understand," he replied.
"You don't have to understand. Just do it."
"You have my word." He nodded, although he didn't know why.
The more eyes one had on Callisto the better.
As we made our way down the hill, I watched as Ephiny, true to her word, raced through the mess, taking down Romans left and right in her attempt to get back to Gabrielle's side. Something else in my favor, I was sure. As long as Ephiny was nearby, that meant that Callisto had three of us that she had to get through. As I looked back towards where the Royal Guards fought, I could see that she wasn't focused on the battle. She was focused on Gabrielle. And she knew, just as I did, that if there was any chance in her killing the Conqueror and getting away with it, the time was now.
Chapter 9
 I heard Callisto screeching to my right, slicing through any Roman in reach. Her eyes were deadly, only looking forward towards Gabrielle. My own lack of focus got me on the receiving end of a slash on my left arm and one pissed off Conqueror. I watched as Gabrielle eased her blade out of the soldier who had been about to take me out.
"Get your mind in the battle, Xena!" she said through clenched teeth, kicking the dead man off his horse and moving to her next target.
Ephiny caught up to us as we flanked Gabrielle, galloping full out with arrows and catapults flying above. It was complete and utter chaos and I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest.
I glanced toward the top of the hill where Caesar was sneering. He waved his hand and half the hilltop was filled with his archers.
'Son of a Bacchae!' I said to myself. We're all sitting ducks. "Archers!" I screamed out loud.
That got Gabrielle's attention. She just glanced up and laughed and took down the Roman she was engaging.
I watched as she puts two fingers in her mouth and let out an ear-ringing whistle that cut through the catapults projectiles flying over our heads.
Dropping down from the trees came a group of Amazon Warriors, making quick disposal of Caesar's archers. I turned toward Caesar. He had a look I've never seen before. I imagined the same expression shown on his face at his assassination. He completely lost all composure.
"Conqueror!!!!!!!!!" he screamed and started to run toward Gabrielle, leaving his men to fend off the amazons themselves.
Time seemed to be moving eerily, slowly. My head turned to Gabrielle and I watched as she jumped off of her horse, taking a soldier's head off in the process. She was covered in blood with an ice-cold grin on her face. A look of hatred...
Ephiny was engaging Brutus on the ground. The air was thick with the smells of smoke and blood and each catapult strike made my nerves jump. I turned my attention as Pompey decided to jump off his mount, tackling me to the ground.
'This is madness, this is madness.' Went over and over in my head, my demons taunting me. Pompey had me down his blade pressing into my neck, but I was fighting my thoughts more than him. 'Why should I fight this? This world is better for Gabrielle.' My demons reasoned.
'She's succeeding where you failed. She will win against Caesar when you were too weak to.' Flashing before my eyes were the visions of seeing Gabrielle enjoying kill after kill, and after each one the light in her eyes was dimming with each lost life. Then I saw my Gabrielle, full of wonder and life. The young woman who would ask me how the stars got into the sky. The woman who tried to find the good in any person. The woman who believed it me and never once, even in the darkest time ever gave up on me. Now that person was full of hatred. A second later I there was another flash.
It begins very small,
Seems like nothing much at all.
Just a germ, just a speck, just a grain.
But the seed has been sewn,
And before you know it's grown,
It has spread through your life like a stain.
And its power will strangle your love and your joy.
And its hunger consumes-- for it lives to destroy!
"Hatred, Gabrielle, that's what we're fighting -- hatred."
'No, I'll never quit. I'll never give up.' I told my demons and I felt that beast inside me awaken. I looked Pompey right into his eyes while forcing the blade with ease from my throat.
"NOOOO!" I screamed and threw him off and flipped up. I blocked a blow to my right, then left, then a overhead strike. We locked blades and he pulled a dagger from his belt. Grabbing his wrist I pinned him in a stare, squeezing and twisting. He screamed as his wrist gave, dropping the dagger. I brought a knee up between his legs. He let another scream loose, lowering his sword enough for me to knock it down while I plunged mine into his chest.
Then I knelt down, ducking a head shot from behind, twisting enough to stick Pompey's dagger in the Roman stomach. By the time I was done, there were six dead men laid at my feet.
I looked towards Gabrielle and my chin nearly dropped. She was engaging Caesar. He might have had more power, but Gabrielle was almost as strong. To her advantage she was quicker, with more skill. She blocked a swipe at her left, kicked out and took his right knee. He backed up enough so she could drive in her blade up the hilt in his shocked body.
'By The Gods. She killed him. Gabrielle conquered Caesar.
She slowly pulled her blade out and he crumpled at her feet. She let out a great battle cry, raising her blade over head. The troops rallied with her, but then I noticed the only Roman who seemed to be alive still was Brutus. Ephiny finished hogtying him, then joined in the cheer.
I stood there in a sea of dead Romans like a statue.
"Good battle Xena." Ephiny slapped me on the back and smiled. We both looked up to the hilltop where Gabrielle was still cheering. Right then my world slowed to a halt once more as Ephiny and I both saw the flash of blonde charging from behind Gabrielle and heard a scream that would break a ear drum.
"GABRIELLEEEEEE!!!!!!" I screamed.
She stopped her cry and looked calmly at me but didn't even flinch as she turned around to face Callisto. Ephiny and I were running full out, but there was no way we could stop it. What was more frightening was that Gabrielle refused to take a defensive stance. I watched as Joxer kept his promise. He jumped out trying to protect his Conqueror and Callisto sliced right through him like he wasn't there. Gabrielle still didn't move.
"Why isn't she moving?" Ephiny asked breathlessly as we raced side by side.
"Guilt?" I whispered. Feeling guilty is probably one of the worst emotions I've felt in my life. It can make you do foolish things because you think it's for the best, that it will end any pain. In reality it causes different sets of guilt and pain and it's usually the person you love the most that pays for that mistake.
"Letting justice be served," I said aloud.
Callisto reached her target, and raised the sword that would split Gabrielle in half. Gabrielle finally drew her sword, deflecting the blow. She stood her ground as Callisto circled her until Ephiny and I arrived.
"Stand your ground, warriors." Gabrielle said calmly, holding her sword to her side.
Callisto laughed. "Oh, the good Conqueror. What happened to you? One day you just decided to be a kind ruler?" She continued to circle.
"Something like that." Gabrielle let her shoulders drop.
"And all the shattered people your soldiers left behind are now supposed to cheer you, is that it?" I remembered this conversation, one of many dealing with Callisto. A time I almost lost Gabrielle to darkness.
"From here on out all I want on my hands is Callisto's blood, Xena."
"Gabrielle, leave Callisto to me. You need time to mourn."
Truth was, I was scared, she had that look I did was Lyceus was killed.
"I have the rest of my life to mourn. I want to see her dead, Xena!" The look she gave made me shudder.
" I won't help you destroy all the ideals that you live by."
"My ideals were a lie. I thought love was the strongest power on Earth. What a fool. Love is helpless in the face of cruelty, Xena."
"Gabrielle, if you're taken over by hatred, Callisto wins."
"Xena, wake up and look around you! The little innocent Gabrielle is dead, and there's no getting her back. Just teach me how to use a sword, so, at least I stand a fighting chance. Please."
I could never say no to her.
"OK. Again. Again. Again! I'm gonna kill her. Again! Teach me. Teach me! Teach me. Again. Again! Teach me how to kill her, Xena. I'm gonna cut her open and watch her bleed. I'm gonna kill her, Xena! Teach me how to kill her!."
I felt at that moment like something was squeezing my heart, and it was the first time in my life I prayed to any God.
"If anyone's listening you know, I'm not much for praying. But I don't know what else to do. I was ready to give up once, and.. and Gabrielle came into my life. Please don't let that light that shines out of her face go out. I couldn't stand the darkness that would follow."
I was brought out of my memory by Gabrielle's voice speaking to Callisto.
"What happened to you was terrible. It was my fault and I'm sorry-."
She didn't let Gabrielle finish her sentence.
"Oh... well! That makes all the difference. And now, we can be the best of friends." She spits at Gabrielle's feet. "That's what I think of your apology." She attacked, but as Gabrielle blocked each blow, Callisto becomes more frustrated. "Fight me Conqueror! I'm not afraid to die, if that's what you're worried about. What about you, Conqueror? How would you feel to see your creation die by your hands, hmm?"
I could feel Gabrielle's will cracking, so I spoke. "Don't listen to her, Gabrielle. You can't torture yourself forever for what she's become."
Callisto gave me a sickening smile. "No, of course not. No, it's not her fault that I dream every night of my mother's screams coming from my burning home! You tell me Conqueror, do you sleep well at night?!"
Listening to Callisto recite her conversations with me to Gabrielle suddenly became too much. I felt my entire body shake and beads of sweat form on my brow. My voice was lost.
"No, I don't." Gabrielle's voice was low and soft.
"It wasn't the Conqueror's fault, you bitch." Ephiny charged but I didn't have time to stop her. Gabrielle turned to look at her friend.
"I said stand your ground!"
Callisto took advantage and swung down, slicing Gabrielle's back.
"No!" Ephiny and I both moved to go to her.
"Stand your ground or you'll both be fighting me instead!" she managed through clenched teeth. We both stopped in our tracks, as Gabrielle straightened up to face Callisto again. By this time a group of soldiers began to circle us, watching the display.
"They may have been your men, but the blood is on your hands!" Callisto's attacked again.
Each word Callisto spoke, cut more into Gabrielle then her sword ever could. I winced each time at those very same words when they were spoken to me. Gabrielle deflected another blow and spoke.
"You're right, it was my fault. I was drunk half the time and ignored the signs of the uprising in my forces. By the time I sobered up and caught on, the damage was done." Gabrielle's eyes held unshed tears.
"I don't want reasons Conqueror. I want your head!" Callisto countered as she swung. Almost on instinct Gabrielle deflected the blow. The strike wasn't powerful. There was no advance within it, simply deflection. The group listened closely as Gabrielle's voice got very small.
"We rode for days," she began as the two women continued to circle each other. "I spent hours trying to catch up to those bastards, each and every town they touched..." She choked a bit but kept her eyes on Callisto. "Each town was worse then the last one we tried to salvage. I might have a reputation of being cold hearted, but never could I allow the torture of innocents. A time long ago my family was subjected to this type of torture, and I swore, I would not allow that to happen to anyone else." All of us there were at a loss for words.
Gabrielle threw her sword down and held her arms out to the side. "If my death brings you peace, then so be it."
I eyed Callisto. "If she takes a step near you Gabrielle, I'll strike her down myself," I said.
Gabrielle didn't pay attention to my words. She only spoke to Callisto. "A very wise friend by the name of Lao Ma once told me the only way to stop violence was through love and forgiveness. I'm willing to forgive you for this sin and allow you to leave with your life. But if you step foot in my kingdom again . . . You're a dead woman."
"But she doesn't understand love and forgiveness. She won't stop until-" My words were interrupted.
"Enough of this sickening display of valor." Callisto was looking at me as her chin trembled. I was stunned. This was the first display of any emotion other than anger I'd seen her give. Gabrielle's words had weakened her for a moment. We all stood there waiting to see what would happen. I thought for sure she would regroup and attack.
"I refuse to make you a martyr, Conqueror." Much to our surprise, she threw her sword on the ground as well. "See? You made a monster with integrity. And I'm touched you find yourself so noble but I do know the truth. You're a beast! But I won't make you a hero by taking your life." She flipped onto a nearby horse and took off, tears staining her face.
We all just watched her leave, but my hearing picked up Gabrielle saying in less then a whisper. "Sometimes I really hate playing Conqueror."
Gabrielle gave a deep sigh and picked up her sword. She broke the tension by shouting orders to us. "Ephiny? Have the men get this battlefield cleaned up. Have my healers tend our wounded and bring Caesar to the dungeon and Brutus to my tent."
Ephiny and I looked at each other, confused. "Caesar?" Ephiny asked.
"I didn't kill him," Gabrielle answered. "I have plans for him. If he lives through the night that is," she says in afterthought. "Send messengers to find out how the Centaurs and Lao Ma are."
Ephiny nodded with a salute before leaving.
"Gabrielle, let me look at the wound on your back."
She raised an eyebrow at me. "You a healer too, Xena?"
I nodded.
"My, my. We have many skills."
I almost tripped when she said that. We got to her tent and she started to take her armor off. I found myself rushing over to help her. It was a reverse case of deja vu. How many times did Gabrielle do the same for me all these years?
"It's not bad," she added. "Just nicked my shoulder. Armor took the worst of it." She sounded very tired. When I removed the armor and the shirt underneath the sight before me stopped my efforts for a moment. Gabrielle was scarred badly by a whip. I realize it must have been from the attack on her village. I wanted to reach out and touch them, tell her I was sorry for all her pain but I quickly pulled myself together.
"Still going to need a few stitches," I said trying to stay focused on the current wound.
I looked around for a kit.
"Enjoy the battle, Xena? Told you Caesar wasn't much to worry about." I stayed quiet and tended to her wound. Part of me was still in shock that she won against him, and another part was in awe. Most of me was worried about how quickly Gabrielle gave into guilt.
"My town was attacked by your men also." I felt her stiffen. "But I know it wasn't your fault and you helped whoever you could. You even brought those men to justice."
"My justice, Xena." She turned her head to glance at me. "I killed every last one of them."
"I don't blame you, Gabrielle. Callisto is so blinded by her hate that it tainted her judgment." I reasoned.
"I was in her shoes at one time and I sought justice. Why should she not have that right?" she countered.
"You went after the people who hurt you, Callisto is not-."
"I was responsible for those men, Xena. They were my men!" One thing hadn't changed; she was still very stubborn in this world.
"Conqueror?" Gabrielle put her shirt back on when Ephiny walked in with a tied Brutus.
"What's the word, Regent?"
"Tyldus reports things went well. No deaths, a few injured. Melosa reports we lost three sisters. Lao Ma's advance party reports all is quiet and she should be here for the celebration tonight."
"Very good." Gabrielle nodded. "Our sisters fought nobly, so let's make sure that the after life knows it. Make sure they have royal pyres and see that a healer tends to Tyldus' men." Ephiny bows, leaving Brutus standing there.
"Now I have to decide what to do with you, Brutus." I stood there like a good royal guard and watched Gabrielle work. She was making the poor man squirm.
"Conqueror? Maybe we can come up with some type of arrangement?" He was very nervous. Gabrielle just raised an eyebrow and looked deeply into his eyes.
"What would you have to offer? Rome?" She looked rather amused.
"An alliance." He stuck his chest out, but sucked it back in at Gabrielle's laughter.
"Alliance, you say? Hmm… since you are on my land and the only Roman left standing, I find that offer rather . . . intriguing."
"There are still Roman forces under Anthony's control. I could go back and plead your side, discourage anymore Roman invasions."
Brutus was always a rather weak man.
"All right Brutus, but under one condition." He took a sigh of relief and I looked at her like she lost her mind. "You sign your name to this scroll, stating what you just said." His eyes widened. "Let's just say I had a feeling this would be your offer and took liberty in having two decree drawn up - one for Greece and one for Rome. Sign this right now, then stamp your ring's seal at the bottom."
Then her eyes made me shudder.
She set the scrolls down and held a quill out. He wasted no time in signing and dipping his ring into the wax to show his Roman seal. Gabrielle smiled while rolling up the scrolls. "Well done, and now for my part. Ephiny?" A blonde head peeked in.
With a mighty swing of Gabrielle's sword Brutus' head came clear off his body. My gasp caught in my throat as the blood covered the tent walls and the Conqueror. I sat stunned for a moment but I soon noticed that Ephiny seemed unaffected. She didn't even flinch. Walking inside, she took a position next to Brutus' slain body. "See that our new 'friend' makes it safely to Rome would you?" Gabrielle added. She swung again. This time separating Brutus hand from his body.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?" I implored.
"Dividing and Conquering, Xena." She paused and faced me with a flash of mischievous green eyes. "Literally," she chuckled looking at Brutus decapitated body. She handed me the scroll as Ephiny began to pull his corpse from the tent.
"I assume he fell for it?" the Regent smiled.
"Hook, line, and sinker."
I unrolled one of the scroll and read, then I looked up at them both. I must have looked like an idiot with my mouth hanging open. The scroll said that he had sided with Greece and turned his back on Rome to escape persecution. In other words, Gabrielle managed to label Brutus as a traitor to Rome. I was speechless.
"Is Mark Anthony still with Cleopatra?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Yep, and she's showing him a grand time on the Nile like you asked."
I watched the two of them interact. Gabrielle tossed Ephiny Brutus' hand. Ephiny too seemed the least bit phased. I, however, felt the need to vomit.
"Good. Send a messenger to Egypt with one of the scrolls along with his ring finger. Send the other scroll to Rome with his head. As for the rest of him . . . do what ever you want but get it out of here. " Gabrielle turned at me now but my mind was still reeling from what I witnessed moments before. She murdered Brutus. Not in the heat of battle but in cold blood as a way of betrayal. I forced my eyes to meet hers. "Something the matter?" she asked, sensing my discomfort.
"No, my Conqueror," I answered quickly.
"You're lying."
Should I confess or try to continue with the charade? My Gabrielle was always smart but this one was intuitive beyond belief. "I'm sorry but I just didn't expect you to do that."
"And what should I have done, Xena?"
"Kept your word."
I regretted the sentence as soon as it left my lips. She would probably take my head off next.
"Certainly," she grinned. She began to stroll through the tent as she continued. "I let him go. Then he returns to Rome. He double crosses me and returns with even more men for the next battle. As a result, more of my men die and I risk the chance of Rome overtaking Greece."
"I hadn't considered that," I confessed.
"Was it heartless? Yes. Was it underhanded? Absolutely. Will it protect this empire? Without a doubt." Gabrielle leans on the desk across from me folder her arms under her chest. "I will do what I need to ensure Greece's survival. This is war. What did you expect? Glamour? There are no good choices here, Xena. Only lesser degrees of evil."
I was so blinded by my lust for battle and survival against the horde I said the same words to her. But I also realized in an instant that I lost a part of myself that weekend. And it was Gabrielle that pulled me back from a decent into darkness. Would I have the power to do the same for her? She might have won the battle but I could see that Gabrielle was lost.
"Look Xena. Here's the plan. Only Anthony remains now. The Senate will turn on each other and Roman against Roman is much better than Greek against Roman. We just sit back and watch Rome destroy itself from inner conflict and lack of leadership. The best won battles are the ones you never have to fight yourself."
There truly is a method to her madness and more now than ever I was confused. This Gabrielle had her demons but she was an effective leader. She was doing her best to provide for her people. Should I take her away from all this? Was Ares right? Is this Gabrielle better than the other? Our enemies are slain. Her daughter is alive. Many of our friends are alive. My mother is here too. But what's the trade off? There's no Lila or Sara. There's no Virgil. Joxer's life in this world is now gone. As for Najara, she's Gabrielle's consort. Then there's Evie. She doesn't exist in this world. Neither does 'my bard'. And although she was an effective leader, Gabrielle's soul was tortured far worse than the scars that my Gabrielle had endured. I was wondering what action I should take when I heard Gabrielle speak to again, pulling me from my thoughts.
"Now that the field is being cleared and the wounded and dead tended, we might as well check a few last things and head back for the celebration."
Ephiny and I followed her back out.
"Soldiers of Greece!" Everyone there froze at the sound of her voice and listened. "You fought well today, you fought for freedom and won. Now our generations shall reap this benefit. You all should be proud." Roars of cheers went up. "And now… we shall go home to a huge feast!" More cheers as we continued to follow Gabrielle.
She went to each and every face that was there and gave them a pat of thanks for their hard work. I watched as she showed compassion to the wounded and held a dying Amazon. Then she went and studied each and every soldier she lost to make sure she never forgot their faces.
The last body she uncovered was Joxer's. There is where a bit of her mask fell and a tear slipped down her face.
"Ephiny? Make sure his pyre has honors and that his family is taken care of. Anything they want, they can have." She sniffled, and put a dinar in his hand. "Make sure Charron gives you a smooth ride, my friend."
As Gabrielle walked away I found myself unable to move. I looked at Joxer's expressionless face. I felt an inadequacy. I was unable to save him in this life as I was in the other. And I felt myself mourning all over again. As I did, I wondered how much more mourning would I do before all of this ended one way or another. I turned around to see Gabrielle getting ready to lead Argo away and I proceeded up the hill double time to join her.
It was early evening by the time we reached home and the scouts must have sounded our arrival. Torches lit the path to the very happy citizens who decorated our return with rose petals. No one said a word other then nodding occasionally at the crowd. The aroma coming from the castle made my own stomach grumble. The cooks were getting ready for the big feast. I smiled when I remembered that my mother was one of them. Joxer was now gone in this life but my mother still remained. We got our horses stabled, and I realized I was quite tired, my adrenaline wearing down.
"Conqueror?" Ephiny approached. "I think before the feast we should deal with the soldiers," she smirked.
"Ahh yes, have them relieve themselves and meet tonight for the feast. Make sure they know to bathe too." Ephiny gave the orders, much to the men's pleasure.
"Good battle, Xena," Ephiny nodded to me. I bowed my head in respect.
The voice was a foreign one to our circle but I recognized it just the same.
"Yes, my consort?" Gabrielle sighed as she turned to face Najara.
As I also turned, the nut's eyes were on me and not Gabrielle. But I refused to look away. Realizing that she couldn't win the staring contest, she turned back to Gabrielle.
"I have a bath drawn and waiting for you, love."
She walked over, giving Gabrielle a kiss that was supposed to be on the lips, but Gabrielle turned her head and the kiss hit her cheek instead. Najara wasn't happy and her stare landed back on me. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "See you tonight, ladies."
It made me sick seeing Gabrielle led off by her.
"She's a real head case, isn't she?" Ephiny asked, whispering up to me.
"Other than the fact she has little voice telling her what to do? No."
Ephiny chuckled at my equation but I'm still unable to pull my eyes away from the leaving pair.
"Will you be enjoying the bordello, Xena?"
My surprise forced me to turn and face her. "You have a bordello here?"
"Absolutely. You know how Gabrielle feels about rape, and after battle the men all go through battle lust, so this is sort of a solution. You're welcome to partake if you like." Oh Gods, what if Gabrielle has my battle lust? The thought of her with that... Well, that put any fire in my loins out.
"No, I'm rather tired and I just want to wash up."
She patted me on my back. "Then I'll see you tonight. It'll be a grand affair."
I watched her retreating form.
It felt good to have some quiet time. My nerves were shot and my soul was shaking, I was a mess inside. Right now more then anything, what was bothering me was the idea of Gabrielle with Najara. I felt more and more like I was losing this battle for my bard. I sat in my bath water and cried, crying more out of frustration then anything else. I don't know how long I sat there but the water had become cold. I ducked my head back, wetting my hair, when a knock at my door brought me out of my misery. It was one of Gabrielle's servants.
"The Conqueror wishes your presence, ma'am?" she squeaked.
"I'll be right there." I dried quickly and dressed, my heart beating fast again. I stood outside her chamber door for what seemed like an eternity.
"You going to stand out there forever, Xena, or come in?" I heard her chuckle through the door. I cracked her door open, not knowing what to expect.
"You wanted to see me?" My mind was thinking she would be raging with lust.
'Gods, what if she wants me to watch her and that…!?!'
But what I found was completely the opposite. She was standing by the window with a glass of wine looking into the evening sky, just starting to fill with stars and the setting sun. I noticed that on her table she had a mixture of scrolls scattered all around.
"Something wrong Xena?" She smiled.
"No, no. I just..." I was a babbling fool.
"You thought I would be fucking my wife senseless?"
No words. I just nodded with a guilty smirk.
"I noticed you didn't go to the bordello," she countered.
"There's nothing there I want," I answered honestly.
"After a battle the last thing I want is sex, strange as it might sound. To me, sex is a beautiful act and should not be tainted by battle."
"No disrespect, your Majesty, but I'm not sure if it was a beautiful act that took place between us in the woods the other night."
She smiled and motioned her glass to me in a toast. "As they say in Gaul, touché."
"If you agree with me, Conqueror, what would you call it?"
"You mean the other night…in the woods?"
I simply nodded.
"Lust at its finest, Xena. Not sex. Not love. Just carnal 'I want you. You want me. Let's get it on' lust. Be honest Xena. You felt it."
"It wasn't what I hoped for."
"Are you saying you didn't enjoy it?" Gabrielle chuckled.
I gave a bashful grin. "I'm not saying that."
She handed me some wine and I gulped it down. "Well, after a battle I try to find peace, some type of comfort. So I usually read some of Sappho's works or look at the stars and dream." She blushed. "I know. It's silly… especially since I'm expected to have the raging limbo with cravings for bondage but..." I interrupted her.
"Far from it, in fact, I think it's wonderful, Gabrielle." The eyes I was looking into were my bard's.
"So how do you handle the battle lust, Xena?" She sounded very small.
"Sex usually, but today I wasn't in the mood." I just wanted this subject to drop. "So what do you need of me? Not that I'm complaining."
She looked out the window. "I just wanted to see you."
You know that feeling in your heart the first time the person you love says the words? That giddy thumping? I swear if she didn't think I was totally gone, I would have back flipped through the room. She wanted to be with me and not the nutball! I set my glass down and walked to her.
"I'm glad."
She looked at me, leaning in and kissed me softly before looking back at the night sky. "You see that, Xena?" I looked up to where she was pointing. "It looks like a big dipper."
"A dipper?" I smiled at the memory, in reverse, but still sweet.
"Yeah, you know like one of those cups that you draw water out of a bucket?" We both looked back up.
"It looks, it looks like a bear to me." My voice was on the husky side.
"A bear?" She looked at me like I lost my mind.
"Yeah." I countered.
"How do you get a bear?" I was really amusing her.
I moved behind her and began to point as whispered in her ear – my breath tickling her lobe. "Look at it. Look, there's the body. See? The little ears, and tail…" She laughed softly at me.
"If you say so, Xena." We both chuckled now before a quiet settled over us and our stargazing. If I was going to teach Gabrielle the way she taught me, now had to be the time.
"You know one of the wonderful things about life Gabrielle?"
"Times like right now where two people can see the same thing but find something totally different in it. But in the end, both can be just as beautiful. Life is always our perceptions more than the actual incidents that happen."
"Is that so?"
"Explain," she says with a smile as she turned to face me.
"Well I could kiss you right now. I could make another declaration," I begin as my fingertips run her jaw line. "It would be a wonderful event. But in the end how you perceive my actions are what matter most. I could even raise another point too if I dare."
"Let's hear it."
"Well from my perspective I find it quite interesting and flattering that you're standing at your balcony sharing this beautiful sky with me instead of your consort. I'm honored and I'm hopeful. So although you deny that there's nothing more than 'Let's get it on' lust here, I have to assume it's something more, something deeper. So tell me Gabrielle, conqueror of my heart, what's your perception of me?"
She fell silent and turned to look out the window. I took time just to look at her. She was in her Royal gown and when the wind caught her hair just right, my breath was taken from me. This Gabrielle looked older and regal but with more lines around her eyes. Regardless, she was still beautiful.
"At times I think you're a crazy woman with a death wish," she grinned playfully. "At other times, someone who doesn't know what she's asking herself to get into. You saw what I'm capable of today. So I wonder why you're still here?"
"I'm yours. I follow your orders and I was summonsed here."
"I thought that's what you would say." She turned back toward the window and I knew I had to recover.
"However," I continued. "When I got my orders to join you, I rushed here as quickly as I could. I wanted to see you again despite any orders."
A long silence passed between us.
"I'm sorry if my actions with Brutus disappointed you, Xena." The confession surprised me.
"I won't lie, Gabrielle, you did shock me today." Though it was more like she scared me half to death.
"Xena, I didn't get to be the Conqueror of the known world by being kind."
"I know that. I-."
"Do you?" she interrupted me. "I have to be ruthless. Kill first, before my enemy can kill me. Too many lives depend on me, Xena." She walked from the window to the desk, pouring herself more wine.
"What about your soul?"
She stopped in mid drink. "A part of that dies each time… to where I doubt I have one any longer. But this is the life I chose." She finished that glass and started on another. "I chose to let hatred and revenge take my life and now I pay the piper with my soul."
"Gods, Gabrielle" I hung my head, trying to control my emotion.
"Save your tears or pity, Xena. A lot of times I enjoy the ruthlessness." She gulped down another glass and moved to the door. "Now we have a party to go to." She exited and I began to follow when I got that familiar sick feeling that stopped me cold.
Chapter 10
"I was wondering when you would pay me a visit next."
"I'm here for the celebration."
I turned towards a very happy War God, but said nothing. "Oh Xena, more tears? If I didn't know better, I would swear you're turning into the bard, the lowly sidekick. Even sounding like her. Tsk, Tsk, such a show of utter weakness is so unbecoming of the great Warrior Princess." He circled me and sat on the desk; I still hadn't said a word.
"Come on now, Xena, I think you know deep down Gabrielle is better off in this universe. She has such power to change the world, make it better. After all isn't that what you've both been fighting for all along?" He snapped his finger acting like he was hunting for the right word. "The greater good?" he laughed, standing behind me now.
"She's a great ruler, just and true." He was so close to me, I could feel his breath in my ear. "She's managed to take out any threat towards mankind. Caesar's the latest conquest." He wrapped his arms around my waist. "You have any idea what she's having done to him right this moment? Hmm, Xena?" I shuddered at his voice dropped. "Torture is a too kind word for it. She sure can make my blood pump." He let loose an animalistic sound and swiveled to face me.
"For the grand finale, he'll be the main attraction at the party. I think you'll enjoy what she has planned for him." I just raised my eyebrow. He crossed his arms in front of himself and looked me over. He sighed, sort of frustrated at me for not giving into his torment. "I've got a deal for you, Xena. Let's just say even now I have a small soft spot for ya."
I smirked at that. "And what would that be, Ares?"
"Since you'll never win Gabrielle, I thought you'd be a better choice as her partner then Najara. Frankly between you and me, her and her one too many voices are freaky even for me." He smiled, waiting for my reply, but it was my turn to smirk and circle him. "I thought she was a better choice for Gabrielle? Since she did kick my ass that one time."
I tapped my chin. "Since I've been in this Gods forsaken world you created, I've been doing nothing more then thinking and you're right about one thing so far."
He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Here I do sound like Gabrielle, because in the other world she was my voice of reason. Breaking through each and every torturous demon I had. She never gave up on me even though I gave her many reasons too. And I bet, in fact I know…she wept for my soul many times. I caught her doing it when she thought I wasn't around." I turned my back to him and looked out the window.
"At first I hated this feeling. I did feel weak. Being in Gabrielle's shoes now, I know she probably felt the same way." I fell silent and thought about it. How many times did my bard hear she was my weakness? I turned towards him. "You know what I've come to realize Ares? Me being able to comfort, or yes, even cry for Gabrielle's soul, means I've changed. I no longer believe I'm this unfeeling monster you helped created years ago." My hearing picked up him grinding his teeth.
"So I have to thank you for that, Ares. Which also means if I can learn a lesson in this world, so can Gabrielle. Isn't that why you made me this offer?" I gave him a huge grin.
"Gabrielle still has her soul and she just needs to have someone believe in her just like I did back then. And that thought is making you quake in your leathers, isn't it?" My stare went icy as well as my voice. This time he shuddered as I practically stalked up to him like a wild cat giving him a peck on the cheek.
"Thanks, but no thanks, Ares." I walked out the door, but not before hearing cursing and lighting bolts crashing in the room.
'Gods, that felt good.' I whispered, making my way to the gala. I froze in my tracks as I saw Gabrielle talking with Lao Ma. Memories flooded my mind.
"Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and
understand the great mystery of things, Xena
I was so blind back then; the ignorance of youth. One of a very few times in my life someone cared and I was too filled with hatred to see.
"Why would you help me?" I spat and she just smiles at me.
"I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to see into the souls of others. You don't know it yet, Xena, but you're a remarkable woman capable of greatness."
I didn't know what to feel.
That was the moment. I could've done it right there. I could've just let go and buried all my hatred forever. That was my chance and I blew it, but if I didn't follow the path I did, I would never have met Gabrielle.
"Oh… wha?" I stumbled out of my musing to an amused Conqueror and a puzzled Lao Ma.
"Are you feeling well, Warrior?"
Sigh. This was like the tenth time she'd caught me when my guard was down. "No Conqueror, you just caught me in heavy thought."
She chuckled. "Apparently so. I would like you to meet the great Lao Ma from Chin."
Seeing Lao Ma again after all these moons, I didn't know if I should laugh or cry. It's difficult seeing your first love after all those years. It's even more difficult when she has no memory of you. As usual, she said nothing at first. I knew she was looking into my soul as she looked into my eyes. I found myself giving a bow of respect, which she returned.
"Lao Ma, this is Xena," Gabrielle continued. "One of my newest guards. She's quite the warrior. She showed incredible courage and spirit today."
Lao Ma paused a moment. "It's wonderful to meet of woman of such nobility as yourself Xena. You've had some difficult journeys I feel."
"Yes I have," I told her honestly.
"But you are finding your peace slowly. That is very commendable." I watched Lao Ma turn to Gabrielle. "Now if only her Highness could be as fortunate."
"I'm as settled as I'll ever be," Gabrielle grinned.
"I think a journey east would do you well, Conqueror. Perhaps a vacation of the body would help the mind."
"I've been east, Lao Ma. You know that."
"Ah yes, but you haven't been to all the places you could reach."
Gabrielle and I both knew that Lao Ma wasn't talking about geography. Those places are deep within Gabrielle and I speculated that Lao Ma tried to show Gabrielle and failed as she did with me. However, Gabrielle was smart enough not to make the mistake I did when I left Lao Ma's side. Gabrielle was not an enemy of Lao Ma. I would have enjoyed engaging Lao Ma in conversation a bit longer. At least until the blonde psycho appeared at Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Lao Ma," Najara began. "It's wonderful to see you. It's been quite some time."
"Yes, it has." Lao Ma replied.
There's something odd about Lao Ma's appearance. It's almost as if her airy demeanor stiffened when Najara arrived. Lao Ma always did have the sight. I wondered what Lao Ma's interpretation of Najara could be. I was sure by the look of her body language at this moment it wasn't too favorable but she was masking it well.
I spotted Ephiny entering the hall with Solari on her arm. Good. The perfect escape.
"If you'll excuse me your majesty I would like to have a word with your Regent about the battle today," I announced.
"By all means," Gabrielle nodded.
I took Lao Ma's hand and offered a gentle kiss. "Pleasure to meet you," I said respectfully.
"Likewise, Xena," she answered politely.
I left them to their conversation and approached Ephiny. She wore a smile as she saw me draw near. Solari also had a grin for me. My two old friends. Alive. I had to admit that this life certainly had its advantages.
"May I have a word with you in private, my Regent? It won't be but a minute."
I hope I hadn't offended Solari, but this conversation was best left to only Ephiny's ears at the moment.
"Certainly," Solari offered. "I'll see to our drinks." Ephiny gave Solari a light peck on the cheek before she left.
"So what's on your mind, Xena?"
"The Consort, actually," I began.
"The Consort?" The surprise in her voice showed on her face as well. I found myself grinning as her smile became very sly.
"Nothing sexual, my Regent. I assure you."
"What about the Consort?"
"Before the battle I mentioned something about Callisto?"
"Which proved to be right. You fear the Consort is a threat to the Conqueror too?" Ephiny asked.
"I have no physical proof but I believe that Callisto was working with Najara."
"But why would the Consort harm the Warrior Queen?"
I shrugged. "Maybe the voices in her head are telling her to do it."
"We all have voices in our head, Xena," Ephiny countered.
"Yes, but they don't go around telling us 'the future' and we don't 'pray' to those voices. We use them as a guide between right and wrong. There's a bit of a difference between our conscience and Najara's Djinn." Ephiny didn't reply. "Tell me I'm wrong," I prodded her.
A grin slowly worked its way to Ephiny's face. "I know what you mean. It is odd. I'll give you that. But Najara has been very faithful to the Conqueror. There was much anger in Gabrielle when she first came to the Amazons. When her campaign moved east and she found Najara . . . She changed."
I was intrigued. "What do you mean she changed?"
"Gabrielle was no longer looking for a cause to fight. She was fighting for a cause. Najara began to balance her a bit. She showed her a different way."
The way. Why did that damn phrase always come back to haunt me? "And what way would that be?"
"The way of a true warrior. One that's deadly in battle but not sadistic as Gabrielle had become. Najara changed that. And don't let the royal attire fool you. She could best anyone in this room in battle with the exception of Gabrielle . . . Even you, Xena. But I have to agree that lately . . ."
"What?" I couldn't hide the urgency of my voice.
"Both of them are changing. Not just Najara, but Gabrielle too." The inquisitive look I gave Ephiny made her continue. "Najara seems edgy and 'paranoid'. Gabrielle seems more introspective."
"Yes, she seems like she spends more time in thought lately and I highly doubt that it's the affairs of state that she's concerned with. I know that she's taken you as a lover. I've said nothing to Najara nor would I. But since that time Gabrielle seems more like her old self, but blended with the new woman she has become."
I find myself getting more confused. It showed on my face and Ephiny continued.
"She was always quick to anger but lately her outbursts are more frequent again, especially since your arrival. But on the same coin, I see that she smiles more now than . . . well, ever. It's as if she's always going to extremes with no happy medium." I'm not sure what to say when Ephiny adds, "you've had an effect on her, Xena. I don't know how and I'm not sure why, but you've got a power that even the great Caesar himself could never have over her."
"And that power would be?"
"Fear. Not a fear of you but a fear of herself, it seems."
I watched as Solari finished up her conversation with Gabrielle and Lao Ma and headed towards us again. "Well, what of the Consort? What can we do?"
"I can't separate them but let me have a word with Gabrielle tonight before she's had too much wine. I'll see if there's any problems."
"I would appreciate that," I nodded respectfully.
Ephiny cocked her head and examined me carefully. "I must admit, Xena. You sound more like a Consort than a guard."
I grin. "Maybe in another life I was. Thank you, Regent Ephiny."
"My pleasure, Xena," she said, offering her forearm. "You've fought well today and proved yourself in my eyes. I'll see what I can do."
With another nod to Ephiny and one to Solari, I made my way over to the banquet. As I grabbed a plate, I began to look at the huge spread before us. Pig, fowl, vegetables from the far reaches of the known world filled the long rectangle table. As I put some food on my plate, I looked up to see my mother bringing out more loafs of bread for the guests. She gave me a warm smile that drew me over. I remembered that I had yet to disclose how I managed to be 'her' Xena. With everyone at the party, it seemed like a good time to get into the details and I made my way over.
Before joining her in the kitchen area, I turned around to see Ephiny leading Gabrielle from her circle, which included Lao Ma and Najara. It appeared that true to her word Ephiny was going to speak with Gabrielle regarding our conversation. Feeling a bit of relief, I gave a sigh and followed my mother into the kitchen.
As I walked inside, I looked around to see if anyone else was present. The cooks were quite busy with their preparations, so I took my mother by the elbow and led her to a quiet area away from the bustle.
"I owe you an explanation. It's going to be difficult to believe but this world, this 'reality', isn't real at all," I began.
She had a confused look on her face but I continued.
"Ares, the God of War, created this world. In the real world, you stopped father from killing me. I went on a rampage as a teenager and spent the next ten years of my life living in anger over a warlord who destroyed our family. I met Hercules, who showed me that I could be a noble person and then a short time later I met Gabrielle. She was a farmer's daughter who wanted to travel on adventures. Years later, she and I became lovers. When I decided to do the 'right thing' in life, Ares spent years trying to woo me back to him but I resisted. When he realized he would never have a shot at me he aimed for Gabrielle who was becoming a fine warrior in her own right. He didn't succeed with her either. So as a result, he created this place where Gabrielle rules as his queen. He gave Gabrielle 'my' life and raised her as his Conqueror."
Still my mother made no movement, but her face creased in concern.
"It's difficult to believe, I know. And I wouldn't be surprised if you thought I was crazy. Some days it feels like I'm losing my mind here, but I'm being honest."
My mother then reached into her pocket and scribbled a note. I read it as she handed it back. It only had three words. 'I believe you.'
I felt as if I might cry again upon reading the words. It felt like a weight had been lifted since I was able to share my secret with someone. Not only that though. Someone believed me. I reached out to hug my mother when we both turned to the crashing of the kitchen door.
Gabrielle stormed over with Ephiny following behind her. She pulled a dagger from her waist and backed me against the wall with it. The blade felt cold under my chin.
"My Lord, please," Ephiny begged.
"Enough!" she shouted to her Regent. Her cold eyes turned to me. "Now I realize that you have a grand attraction to me, but I have to wonder what your true intentions are by undermining my bond-mate."
This is not what I expected. I watched as Najara and Lao Ma took a place inside the kitchen door. I knew I only had one chance to get out of this alive and her name was Lao Ma.
Chapter 11
My eyes fixed on Lao Ma's and almost as if they were magnets, she walked over to stand next to Gabrielle.
"Please, my Conqueror," Lao Ma began. "Put the weapon down. Xena means you no harm."
"Everyone out of here now!" Gabrielle shouted. The kitchen cleared with the exception of my mother, Ephiny, Najara and Lao Ma. She turned around to look at her bond-mate. "I said now!"
Najara's eyes flashed, but she did as she was told. Ephiny, however didn't move and she conveyed a look of apology to me. Praise Aphrodite that Lao Ma held her ground. Now I was concerned for my mother as Gabrielle's wrath focused on her. Without warning my mother reached out slowly and took the dagger from Gabrielle's hand. She managed to form a single word – muffled but the intent clearly heard.
Gabrielle's eyes held a fury that I had yet to see in all her raging. I watched as Lao Ma reached out and gently touched Gabrielle's shoulder.
"This woman has served you greatly, Gabrielle. Do her no harm."
Gabrielle expelled a deep breath and hung her head down. "Please go," she told my mother. Immediately my mother looked to me, and I nodded letting her know I would be okay. Only then did she hand the dagger to Lao Ma before walking out to join the others.
It seemed like forever as the three of us stood in a silent circle with Ephiny observing from the outside. Gabrielle's eyes never left mine. Without a word, she walked past me and out the door.
"I'm sorry Xena. I'll talk with her," Ephiny said before following her Lady. I leaned on a nearby table hanging my head wondering how things could go so wrong so quickly.
"What we sow in this life, we reap in our future lives. This is what some call our 'karma'."
I looked towards Lao Ma.
"What?" I asked.
"You don't belong here do you?" Her voice was always very calming to me.
"No," was all I could manage as she pinned my eyes with her stare.
"You and Gabrielle... You both walk a path together, your souls are intertwined." She seemed rather intrigued.
"How…?" My voice shook; she smiled and patted my arm.
"It is the beauty of the universe, Xena. Each being has its place. Each has a meaning, each drawing on the other to complete its totality. When Gabrielle introduced us earlier, I could see her soul is complete when she is with you. As is yours with hers."
"She's my soul mate." As soon as I was able to gather my wits together, I explained everything to her. I concluded and took a weary seat on a nearby stool at the counter. Lao Ma who always moved with such grace, seemed to breeze by me and take a seat across from me.
"I see, no wonder she's been on edge since my arrival. I thought for certain her Consort was to blame - that she felt they no longer had a place together, but I see it is much deeper …" She looked at me and then stopped briefly. "You are making her feel again and that is scaring her worse then anything in her life. She hates that feeling of losing control, Xena."
"The more time goes on while I'm here, the more I feel I should have left things as they were. She was happy here until I showed up and all I've ever wanted for her is to be happy." It was feeling like being torn to pieces inside.
"You don't believe that, do you?"
I shrugged. I wasn't sure what I believed at the moment. The woman I loved more than life itself, just had a knife to my throat and I was explaining this to my greatest mentor who was long since dead. What could I believe right now?
"No one is guaranteed happiness," Lao Ma smiled with a mischievous grin I knew quite well from years ago. "Life just gives us the time and space. It is up to us to fill it with joy and meaning. Gabrielle hasn't felt these emotions since she was a child but I do believe with my very being... You're the one to give her that joy…Even if she herself doesn't realize it."
We both fell silent and I could feel Lao Ma continuing to examine me.
"When I first met Gabrielle, the Conqueror . . . she was so lost, so full of mistrust and hatred. She was too blind to see anything clearly. After a moon had passed, I managed to see that the light in her heart was still there, aching to be set free." She rose and began to stroll along, clasping her hands behind her back in reflection. She peered out the window.
"I knew she had the heart of a poet, a storyteller, and asked her one day to express it in a scroll. She jotted something down rather quickly, then she got very angry with me for asking her to do so. What she wrote was beautiful. She is Greek, you know? If she were a man, I would say she would be more popular than many of the playwrights in this day and age, but only if she used that talent . . . The request stirred something within her. Something that frightened her . . . She left Chin soon after and I didn't hear anything from her for years." Lao Ma inhaled then spoke some of Gabrielle's writings aloud. "My face is a mask I command to say nothing, shrouding the fragile feelings, hiding in my tortured soul." Lao Ma cleared her throat and turned to me. "Even to this moment I remember her words….For a glimpse in time there, lying before me, was the person without the title of Conqueror. And it frightened her until that fear turned to anger."
"Just like now?" I sounded more like a child then a woman.
"As it is now," she agreed.
"I don't know if I can do this! Be Gabrielle in this time and find the right words to express? I don't know if I'm that strong a person."
Lao Ma gave me a gentle smile. "Come now, Xena, we both know you are strong, and not just physically." I couldn't help but grin at her response. She was correct and I was starting to sell myself short. I said it often but how much did I believe it: I have many skills. My strength was one of them.
Lao Ma continued. "Besides was it always words that your Gabrielle used in her quest to get closer to you? Think very hard now, warrior, and remember this: Anyone can proclaim to love you, but it takes someone very exceptional to show it through action."
"She was a true friend who understood my past," I answered softly. "Even if she hadn't lived it herself. And she believed in my future and accepted me, just the way I am." The fear coming from my voice shocked me.
"You don't think you can be that kind of friend to her? Accept her? Believe in her? A very wise friend once said that no one can truly believe in herself unless someone else believes in her first. Be that person that believes in Gabrielle and it will set you both free."
And if I do that you'll be dead, I thought silently. And mother. And Ephiny and Solari. She glided gracefully from the kitchen and left me there to think.
"She's right, you know?" I heard a soft voice call from behind me. "She's a very wise woman for a mortal."
I turned around to see Aphrodite. "I'm not sure what I can do. I don't know where to begin."
"I heard Ares' little offer," she grinned. "He's running scared. You're closer to Gabrielle's heart than you think."
"This coming from the Goddess of Love? Can I take that as a 'given'? I mean sure I might have Gabrielle's heart, but that's if she doesn't slit my throat before then."
Aphrodite put her hands on her hips. "Sometimes you can be a real drama queen, you know that? So you thought she was gonna kill you – big deal."
"That knife at my throat was not an illusion, Aphrodite."
"No, but the reason it was there was."
"Meaning, sweet pea didn't want to kill you." The love goddess chuckled. "She wanted to scare you, to test you, to see if you would 'buckle' under the accusation that Ephiny said you made…I'm proud you didn't, because it brought you one step closer to her heart."
I rubbed my temple. It had been a long day and I had to admit I couldn't decide which was more tiring – the battle with the Romans earlier or the racking my brain was experiencing trying to figure out Gabrielle.
"You'll find the way, Xena. Think about what Lao Ma said," she instructed as she started to vanish, "Think hard."
And think I did . . . for a long time. I'm not sure how I made it back to my barrack, not sure when I fell into a fitful slumber. Visions, so many visions.
"So this is Cirra. It's beautiful." Gabrielle smiled.
"To me, it's the ugliest place on Earth."
Such guilt ravaged me then.
"I don't think you should keep punishing yourself for what happened." She always looked out for me.
"I didn't come here to punish myself. I wanna understand why."
"Why what?" She sounded confused.
"Why it happened. Why I was who I was. And how I can ever atone." Or will I ever?
"You've changed, Xena. Like this valley. Once it was a place full of death and violence. But now it's full of beauty and life. The same kind of change has happened to you."
"I wish that I could see it that way."
I tossed and turned on the pallet but the vision never let up.
"When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen." M'Lila said and then I heard Gabrielle's voice.
"Xena? I know you can hear me, wherever you are. I know you always told me to be strong. I can't be, not now. You can't leave me. I know it's not your time. I can feel it in my heart. I feel this emptiness that I've never known before, and it scares me. Xena, above all just remember your destiny. Remember it and fight. Just, fight to come back. This world needs you. I need you."
The one person who believed in me, loved me and I took the easy way out; hurting that very same person. I felt very selfish, unworthy and wanting something that I hadn't wanted in a long time. I wanted to live.
I had a memory of one conversation I had with Tara. She was a lost kid and reminded myself of me at that age.
"My father said I couldn't change, one big lost cause." I felt so badly for her.
"That is not true, you are what you do. You can re-create yourself every second of your life." I think that was the first time I noticed Gabrielle was rubbing off on me.
Then the visions take me away to the murder of Thelassa. I gave up then as well, and Gabrielle paid for that mistake along with so many others over time. Even though it turned out I didn't murder her, I still feel so much guilt for taking her innocence away.
"Xena, if you're looking for redemption, you're not gonna find it there." Right then I felt Shark Island wasn't enough punishment for me, but it gave me an odd sense of peace.
"I'm not looking for redemption any more. Gabrielle, we're always talking about your spiritual quest. You say that you need something to make you feel complete. Well, so do I."
I slowly found consciousness and Lao Ma's words came back to me. It wasn't what Gabrielle had said during all my 'battles' and private hells, it was what she had done. Anyone else might have turned away but she stood strong beside me on that Cirra hillside. Anyone else might have left me for dead but Gabrielle battled a power hungry Amazon with her friends to bring me back. Anyone else would have let me serve my life sentence for my crimes but Gabrielle disguised herself and came to the island to try to heal my soul. It wasn't really her words at all. It was the action she put behind them all. And didn't I tell her once that I was more a woman of action?
But I didn't have much time to reflect on this new knowledge. I bolted upright as sounds of Gabrielle screaming and things breaking brought me to my feet. Without worrying about the consequences, I burst into Gabrielle's bedchamber. Najara was on the floor as Gabrielle raised her sword above her head about to strike. I reacted on instinct to save Gabrielle – not her body, but her soul. I ran over and threw myself on top of Najara.
Chapter 12
Najara looked as stunned as Gabrielle, and I had to admit, at the moment I was more stunned than both of them. I wouldn't say that out loud. I realized that I did have a purpose and it had little to do with saving Najara's life. By the sway of Gabrielle's body above us I could tell she'd done even more drinking after leaving the kitchen.
"Get out of the way, Xena!" she warned.
"Don't, Gabrielle," I pleaded. "If you kill your bond-mate in a drunken rage, your soul would be lost . . . and there would be no going forward from there."
Gabrielle looked like she was going to cry, the sword shaking in her grasp. Slowly I moved away, bringing Najara to her feet with me. "Thank you," Najara whispered.
"Don't mention it," I replied but in my mind adding, 'you nutcase'. "Why don't we all get some sleep? If you would, my Conqueror, I'd like to escort you back to my barracks for the rest of the evening. Najara, please stay here. You can both discuss things tomorrow when clearer heads prevail." I paused and added the word, "Please?" Hades, it always worked on me when Gabrielle did it.
Gabrielle lowered the sword and stormed from the room. Najara and I both released a sigh. Without looking in her direction I started toward the door. "I'll bring her back in the morning, Najara. Get some rest."
"Xena," she called out. Reluctantly I stopped and turned to face her. "Thank you."
I'm not sure what possessed me but I found myself walking back to stand inches from her.
"Let me spell something out for you, Najara. I don't trust you. I don't like you. I don't think you're fit to shine Gabrielle's boots. And if I thought her killing you would play little part on her mental state, I would have let her drive through you as quick as she could. But I know better. I didn't save you tonight, so don't thank me. I came to save Gabrielle."
I started to make my way again when I heard Najara's voice call out, a bitter edge to it. "You realize, as Consort, I could challenge you in the Arena, if I so wish."
"I wouldn't put it past you and your 'Djinn' to do that. But until that day comes," I added, "Stay the hell away from me and I'll stay away from you. Deal?"
"Being a royal guard won't that be a bit difficult?" she taunted.
"I don't think your stay in this kingdom will last much longer," I answered with a cocky grin. I began to shut the door behind me, "Sleep well, Consort."
Upon closing the door, I heard Najara's frustrated wail and the sound of something else crashing behind the door. Okay, it was terrible of me, but I couldn't help but smile. Besides, playing passive for Gabrielle's affections wasn't getting me anywhere. I might as well be upfront and perhaps spur Najara into an inappropriate action that would be her undoing. Najara was just bad news and always would be in my eyes. 'She also kicked your ass', I reminded myself. But I realized that during our first encounter I underestimated her ability. I turned my back on her, which as a warrior was a critical mistake. I wouldn't be turning my back on her this time. One way or another I'd keep my eyes and ears on her as much as I could.

Now I had one huge pressing matter waiting for me in my barracks. It didn't go unnoticed by me that Gabrielle took off with her sword still in hand. Being as drunk and angry as she was, I knew I'd be in some trouble. I stopped outside my door and was shocked at the fact my hands were shaking. When I opened the door, I was more than startled to find her sitting in a chair with a glass of wine and her sword leaning on her right knee facing the door.
"Tell me, Xena." She gulped her wine then threw her glass into the wall. "Why would you care if I gut my bond-mate or not?" She stood with sword in hand and moved towards me. "It would seem more to your advantage her being out of the way." Her voice was very harsh.
"Why would you want to kill her?"
"That is none of your concern, Xena. Now I ask you again. It would seem more to your advantage her being out of the way. Am I right?" Her voice was like ice.
"And watch more of you die inside? No thanks."
She smirked at me, then took the hilt of her sword in hand, ramming it into my stomach. I didn't spend much time crumpled over, since she raised me back up with the tip of her blade at my throat.
"I'm not really sure what game you are playing with me, Xena, but I'm growing tired of you questioning me all the time. I should kill you right here." She emphasized that by making me more aware of what was sticking at my throat.
"If that brings you peace, Gabrielle, then do it." I tilted my head back more, exposing my neck. She huffed, dropping her blade down and moved back towards the table with wine.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
She sat with her wine, glaring at me. "I don't love you, Xena. Nor will I ever."
It might have been more merciful if she'd run me through with her sword.
"You see, I know nothing of love and doubt I ever will." She gulped her wine down. "So you're wasting your time."
The last sentence sounded like it came from a fragile child and not the Conqueror. She went for another glass of wine but I moved across the room and took the goblet and flask from her. "Please, Gabrielle. No more tonight."
I expected a fight – a backhand, some angry words – but nothing came. She simply sat back down in the chair, looking defeated. She looked broken, battered – the woman who just destroyed the Roman Empire.
"There was a time in my life, I felt the very same way you do. I can't take your guilt away, maybe cause there's nothing I can say that can take away that feeling you have. You wanna know that what you did in life was for all the right reasons, but with that pain in your gut and the weight on your shoulders, the best you can come up with is that it was a good day of fighting. Not just in the battlefields, but also in life. But as hard as it's been you've gotta know that it's for a reason. All this is for a reason. Otherwise, what's the point, right? I was asking myself that same question not too long ago. What I do know is that is makes a big difference if someone believes in you, gives you courage and strength. It can even teach the hardest of souls to love." I stared her right into the eyes. "I love you with all my being and I believe in you with all my heart, Gabrielle. And I can't sit back and watch you slowly destroy yourself any longer."
She was quiet for a moment, bent over slightly, staring at her boots. She inhaled deeply. I could tell she was trying to control her emotion. She lifted up her head and looked at the ceiling, fighting back her tears. I wanted nothing more than to pull her in my arms and give her comfort. I hoped I had chosen the right words, the words that Gabrielle would have used to comfort me. I wanted to add more but instead she began to speak.
"There was a great battle we had here a couple moon's ago, against the Persians."
I sat on the floor in front of her to listen.
"The blood bath raged on for days. They were relentless and I was growing tired of it all. Tired of the cold, the death… just so tired." She sniffled and took another breath.
"One night they got the element of surprise on us. I lost many good people… I remember I slipped on some lose earth, winding myself, and right in front of me was a Persian ready to sever my head from my body. As time stood still, my mind thought how easy it would have been just to let him do it. Some sorta redemption for all those I'd conquered. But the warrior part of me held strong."
"It had nothing to do with the warrior in you. That wouldn't have been redemption, Gabrielle. It would have been the easy way out of things. You never took the easy way out in your life, that's why you fought."
"You don't think my demise would make many happy? The price of my life, to pay for anyone I wronged, Xena?"
"I bet there would be certain people that would take pleasure in your death, mine too. What I'm saying is all the good things you do outweigh the bad. You can do a lot more alive to change things for the better, than being dead. It's a hard, slow and at times torturous, but in the long run, it's worth it. You will find our redemption." I knew she wasn't buying any of this.
"Tell me why you have people that serve you with such loyalty? Don't tell me it's fear either. You have many people who would fight and die by your side because they believe in your cause. Think of that soldier, Joxer, who died. He charged in to save your life – not out of fear, but out of respect." I put my hands on her knees, but she still wouldn't meet my eyes.
"Gabrielle, you were a child when evil came and took your innocence away. You conquered the world not out of anger or greed. You conquered to make sure other innocents don't have to go through what you did. Gods woman, why would my moth… Cyrene treat you like her own daughter?" I was hoping I covered that slip, but…
"Your what?"
Before I could answer, there were crashing sounds and bone chilling screams. One of those screams was all too familiar. Gabrielle and I took off towards the noises. As we got closer, I noticed it was coming from the kitchen area. When we got there it was sacked, the huge pot in the fire was overturned and mess in every direction.
"Gods! Cyrene? Hope?" Gabrielle sounded panicked. We got to their sleeping chamber and froze. The room was torn apart, and there was blood everywhere. Sitting in the corner was my mother holding a bloodied Callisto.
Chapter 13
"Mother, what happened? What did she do?" I asked while looking the two of them over. She was so distraught, with no way to communicate. Quickly, I looked around for a quill and scroll. Gabrielle began to search too, but a way to communicate with my mother wasn't what she needed at that moment.
"Hope!" Gabrielle yelled looking around the room. "Hope, answer me!"
My mother snapped her fingers to get our attention and pointed to a larger chest near the door. We both watched as Gabrielle fearfully made her way with cautious footsteps, afraid of what she would find. Once there, she lifted the lid and we heard small whimpers.
"Don't hurt me," the little voice cried. Gabrielle dropped down, scooped the child up and held her close. Upon realizing it was Gabrielle, Hope tightened her grip around Gabrielle's neck.
"Did she do this?" I moved my eyes from Gabrielle back to my mother and Callisto. My mother shook her head fiercely. I couldn't understand what happened.
"Some men came in," Hope said, her tiny voice shaking. "The blonde woman fought them."
"What men?"
"I couldn't see them," Hope answered. "Grandma hid me in the trunk. I-I-It was real loud and then real quiet. Then you shouted my name."
Callisto didn't move and appeared to be dead or close to it. Her chest hardly moved. I moved closer down to examine her. She'd taken one Tartarus of a beating.
"Xena?" Callisto barely got her eyes open.
Callisto coughed up some blood. She was bleeding from the inside and I knew there wasn't anything that I could do to stop that kind of injury.
"Had to come back," she grinned.
"Why? You were banished," I asked.
"Conqueror saved me," she said struggling with the words. "Had to come back . . . Najara wants Hope – the daughter dead. No heir . . . Save them, Xena. . .No more dead children or mothers . . ." She began to cough slightly before she slumped in my mother's arms, her eyes glazed over. Hope's cries got louder; my mother's tears were falling and I found I was crying as well…because in this world, Callisto found peace. And once more Gabrielle had succeeded where I had failed – she managed to save Callisto's soul. Running my hand over Callisto's face I closed her eyes. I turned to find Gabrielle still clutching onto Hope, her eyes closed tight in relief. When the child began to calm down a bit, Gabrielle spoke to her.
"Are you alright?"
Hope pulled back and looked at Gabrielle, totally ignoring the question.
"Are you my mama?" her tiny voice asked in disbelief. Gabrielle swallowed a few times and softly answered.
"Yes, but you can't tell anyone, sweetheart."
"But why can't I-?"
"I'll explain later." She didn't add more. Instead she turned to my mother on the floor holding Callisto. "Are you injured, Cyrene?" she asked.
My mother shook her head no. Gabrielle just gave her a nod, tightening her hold on Hope. I watched as Gabrielle carried Hope away from the slaughter. That would have to be dealt with later. Now that Najara was in her full-blown nut mode, and on the loose, things had gotten more dangerous. It might have been two men that arrived, but I knew in my very bones Najara was behind it. My poor mother was still holding Callisto, so I carefully picked the fallen woman up and made my way outside. Two guards suddenly appeared and immediately I became suspicious. Where were they when the fighting was going on, and what took them so long to get there? I rested Callisto's body gently on the floor as they came over.
"What happened?" they asked in harmony.
"You tell me," I replied.
"What do you mean?" the first guard asked.
"Why were these women and a child attacked here by two men, without your knowledge?"
They looked guiltily at each other as Gabrielle returned alone. "Well," the second guard began. "We were at our post but then Horiatius…wanted to be…alone…so we…"
He faltered while trying to describe his lovers tryst with the other guard. Apparently, Gabrielle had heard enough. She pulled her knife from her boot and spun him around. Before I realized what was happening, she stabbed him directly in the heart, killing him instantly. The blade was removed quickly and she used it to slit the other stunned man's throat. I watched as he clutched his neck, gurgling as he tumbled to the ground atop the other. Two men lay dead in the kitchen with Gabrielle breathing hard, her rage bubbling over.
I was shocked – completely shocked - at what had transpired. I also realized that if they were the ones to blame, we couldn't get any information out of them now. Gabrielle's anger had totally blinded her to that fact apparently.
"Now what do we do?" I asked her.
"What do you mean?"
"They might have been involved, and if not, you just killed two innocent men."
Gabrielle grabbed my collar, bringing us nose to nose. "If they were guilty, they're dead now. And if they weren't off fucking, this wouldn't have happened. Either way they're useless to me."
She began to make her way into my mother's quarters and I followed. "Pretty tough way to prove a point, wouldn't you say?"
She spun around on her heels and faced me. "Understand this, Xena. I don't tolerate failure. No matter how you look at it, these two 'guards' were dead men the minute they let someone lay hands on my cook and my daughter. Maybe it was their hands, maybe it wasn't - in the end it doesn't matter. They failed and they paid the price. Now be useful and fetch me a quill and scroll, so Cyrene can tell us what happened."
I found my voice muted and my feet rooted as she finished her journey into my mother's chamber. When I was able to make it in, Gabrielle and mother were picking up some of the mess so we all could sit.
"Hand her the scroll and quill, Xena." I did what I was told, then went to sit in the chair near my mother.
"Cyrene, in all the years we have known each other, you have never lied to me. Tell me how Xena is your child and why you never told me."
I wasn't ready for this. My mother looked between Gabrielle and I; then wrote. I had no idea what she was going to say and she knew she couldn't tell the truth. Gabrielle kept her eyes on my mother while ignoring my stare as the minutes passed. She finished and handed the scroll to Gabrielle, taking my hand for support.
"We just figured out the truth the other night, Lord Conqueror. You know I thought years ago Atrius killed my child, but the bastard sold her." Gabrielle read aloud, and then looked me in the eyes before continuing. "Other than her having the name I gave my daughter, the more we spent time together and talked, things started to make sense." My mother patted my hand and started to cry mouthing, 'my child' to Gabrielle.
"Ok Cyrene, enough on this topic for now." Inside I was sighing with relief, but I knew this was far from over with. I felt awful that my mother had to lie for me. Would Gabrielle believe this? Did Mother tell her everything, including carrying my young body to the family tomb?
"Tell us what happened today, who attacked you?" She handed the scroll back. This time Gabrielle was looking at me while Mother wrote, I could tell her mind was turning. Again we waited, with the sound of the quill scratching being all that was heard. When she finally handed the scroll back, Gabrielle read it out loud once more.
"I was getting some things ready for morning while Hope was telling me a story. Outside the kitchen area, I heard two men talking, maybe they thought of me as deaf instead of mute. One kept mentioning about the Conqueror's daughter. Right then my hackles rose, so I hid Hope quickly in the trunk in our room. Just got the lid closed when the door was smashed in. Two tall men with black hoods asked me where Hope was. When I couldn't answer, and they wouldn't let me near my scroll. They began to sack the place. The last place they went after was the trunk. I began to struggle. One knocked me down and was ready to run me through when I heard this scream. That's when the blonde woman showed up, wounding the one who was attacking me. I guess she wasn't aware of the other man in the room. When she turned, he shoved his sword in her gut. She just smiled at the man. Another scream, twirled her sword, which scared both those men to death, because they ran like Hades himself was after them. She then turned to me and I saw how bad the wound was. She fell into my arms muttering 'no child should have to suffer.' That's when you and Xena came in."
"Mother, did you recognize the voices of those men?" She just shook her head.
"Cyrene, I want you to stay in Xena's room until we get to the bottom of this." My mother reached for her scroll and wrote quickly then handed it back.
"Where is Hope? I'll sleep in my own bed, thank you. Also, I have to prepare the meals of the day. No one is going to scare me out of my daily life, Sprout."
Gabrielle face flushed a bit. "You haven't called me 'Sprout' in ages, Cyrene… Hope is being guarded by Ephiny and Solari in their chambers . . . Gods woman, you're so damn stubborn."
My mother stood with a grin, giving her a peck on the cheek. We stayed a candle-mark helping her clean the mess until she pushed us out the door so she could work in peace. I didn't think any of us would get sleep as dawn was approaching and a new day about to start. The entire time, Gabrielle was quiet and in heavy thought.
"Dinar for you thoughts?" She looked at her chamber door like a freightened child.
"I hate feeling scared, Xena."
I knew it was a big acknowledgment for her.
"You fear not knowing who ordered the attack?" I asked, deciding to remain factual for the moment, avoiding any emotional upheaval a heavy debate might cause her.
"I have an idea who ordered it, but I need to be sure. No, what I'm fearing right at this moment is that tiny person laying in my Regent's bed."
"Why? She seems to be a child with a good head on her shoulders. She'll understand." But after I spoke, my heart fluttered, remembering Solan.
"You don't understand, Xena. How will a tiny child understand I had to leave her to protect her from those who might hurt me?" Right then, my armor cracked.
"I do understand, more then you know." My voice shook and I was losing any signs of composure.
"More secrets you've kept from me, Xena?"
I swallowed hard, considering a starting place. "Between you trying to kill me every turn and the battle, I just haven't had the time to think about it," I shot back. This was still a sore spot for me and it was hard for me not to show anger. "I had a child when I was much younger, a son. I had to give him up when he was only a few hours old . . . To protect him from those who would hurt me by hurting him . . . It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make."
"Did you ever see him? Did he know of you?" My anger faded when I looked into her eyes. No matter how much Gabrielle was in pain, if someone else was in more, they were more important to her. This Gabrielle was no different, and her face showed such compassion.
"I saw him a couple times as he grew, but he never knew that I was his mother."
"Sometime I wish I would of done as you did. I should have sent Hope away to be safe. I was selfish wanting to at least see my baby grow."
This conversation was rather difficult, if not odd. Here I was talking with the very same person whose child killed mine. In this world Hope was as she should have been; in every aspect she had the soul of Gabrielle. It took us so long a time to work through all the pain we caused one another. I still have visions and guilt. It was easier to blame Gabrielle for everything, when some it, if not most, in hindsight was mine.
"Don't say that, Gabrielle. You did the right thing and there isn't a day that goes by that I hadn't wished I'd found a way to keep Solan close." My chin was trembling. "He died never knowing his mother, or that she loved him." I broke down and she pulled me into her arms and rocked me in her smaller frame.
"I'm so sorry, Xena." She whispered words of comfort until all my tears were shed. We heard someone clear their throat. Solari was standing at the door.
"Someone is calling for you, Conqueror."
Gabrielle caressed my face then on her tiptoes gave me a peck on the lips. Gods I love this person so.
"We'll talk more, Xena. Right now, come with me. I need all the support I can get."
It's funny how a little person can make a Conqueror weak in the knees.
We walked into the room, greeting Ephiny. In the bed we spotted a tiny body with wide-awake green eyes.
"We'll be at the empty barracks should you need us, Your Highness," Ephiny said with a bow. Gabrielle nodded to them and I watched as they left. Gabrielle's sigh was deep as she made her way over to the bed.
"How's the prettiest girl in Athens doin'? You calmed down a little?" Gabrielle asked.
"Now I know why you always call me that," Hope replied coldly. Seemed Cyrene and Gabrielle weren't the only gals in this kingdom who could be stubborn. Hope came by it honestly.
Gabrielle took a seat on the side of the bed, close to where Hope was wrapped up tight. "Well, it's true, you know?" Gabrielle grins. "You are the prettiest girl, and not just because you're my daughter."
"You never told me. Don't you love me?"
I watched as Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to keep it together for Hope's sake, maybe even her own. "Yes, I love you, Hope. That's why you never knew. If people found out who you were they would have tried to hurt you or steal you long before tonight. You have to know that is the ONLY reason why I never said anything. You've always been my 'hope' – the reason that I go on."
"I just don't understand. Why would people hurt me?"
"How do I explain this?" Gabrielle asked herself before facing Hope again. "I'm not as nice to other people as I am to you and your Grandma Cyrene. People who I've hurt would try to get even by hurting you. And I didn't want that to happen. So if I keep the secret that you're my daughter then . . . it helps keep you safe."
"So, I can't tell anyone?"
"No, sweetheart, you can't. It's too dangerous."
"But if no one knows, then why did those men come after me?"
"Because I do have people, people that are close to me, who know you're my daughter. I think they tried to harm you."
"Did Xena know?" She looked at me and I nodded.
"Yes she did, but she didn't send those mean men."
"Then who? Najara?"
This I wanted to hear.
"Honey, you don't have to worry about who it might be. Just stay close to Cyrene, Xena and Ephiny. I trust them. They'll all look out for you. And I'll find out who it is. I promise you."
"Why should I believe you? You haven't told the truth since I've known you."
It was spoken with a child's innocence and I prayed that Gabrielle 'the Conqueror' wouldn't see it as an act of defiance and become enraged. The alcohol was wearing off at this point, but I also knew that regardless, Gabrielle had an ugly temper. I held my breath. I only released it when I heard Gabrielle give a light chuckle.
"You're my daughter, alright," she grinned. "You make a good point, but consider this Hope: Haven't I always been good to you?"
Hope nodded.
"Haven't I always made sure that you had enough food, clothing and academic studies?"
Hope nodded again.
"So why wouldn't I find out who tried to hurt you and Grandma?"
Hope gave a nod once more. "That's true."
Gabrielle rose up and kissed Hope on the forehead. "So this is our secret, okay?"
"Okay, Mother," Hope grinned mischievously as Gabrielle flashed her a disapproving glare. "I never called anyone mother. I just wanted to say it once." Not only was Hope stubborn, she had her mom's sense of humor and timing too.
Gabrielle's scowl slowly turned into a grin and I watched as she tousled the hair on Hope's crown. "I'm going to leave now, sweetie, but I'll see that Regent Ephiny and Solari return here to stay the night with you, okay? Xena will keep watch over you until I get back alright?"
By her excited nod, it seemed to make Hope quite happy that she'd be in my company. "I like Xena a lot."
Gabrielle looked over to me and smiled. "Yeah, she's growing on me too, I have to admit. You do as she says, okay?"
"Yes, my Conqueror," Hope replied.
Without haste, Gabrielle left the room and I made my way over to take Gabrielle's spot on the bed.
"You know that your mom is only doing this because she cares, right, Hope?"
"Yeah I think so. I mean . . . I've heard talk. Some people have said the things she's done but I never thought it could be true. I mean, she's always so good to me and Grandma."
"Well, 'the Conqueror'," I winked conspiratorially which raised a grin form Hope. "She doesn't trust many people and she's had a difficult life. Much more difficult than ours. She's got walls."
"Yeah, the castle is huge," Hope remarked.
I tried not to chuckle at the fact that Hope missed what I meant. "Well yeah, it is a big place, but I mean in here," I said, tapping my chest. "She doesn't let many people into her heart. You and your Grandma are lucky because you both have a special place there so don't forget it."
"I think you have a special place too, Xena."
"I don't know about that." I tried my best to grin.
"It's true," Hope insisted. "She gets puppy dog eyes sometimes when she watches you. That's what Grandma calls it anyway."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
"Oh, she never does it when you're looking at her. Only when you're not . . . Are you going to be the new consort someday?"
"She has a consort," I replied as diplomatically as possible.
"Well, yeah, but you're more fun."
I couldn't hold back this time. I laughed out loud and I found myself leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "You're somethin' else, Hope . . . Why am I more fun?"
She gave a shrug. "You like me. I don't think Najara does. Did you notice how when I mentioned Najara, Mom didn't answer me?"
Add observant to Hope's list of many similarities.
"Yeah, I noticed," I answered honestly.
"Do you think it's her?"
Oh boy, now what do I say? "I think you should take your mom's advice. Stick close to the people she trusts for the time being until we get things figured out, alright?"
Hope grinned. "Xena?"
"You didn't answer me either."
"Maybe that is your answer, Hope," I grinned back.
"I should avoid Najara?"
At all costs, I thought. But I didn't want to frighten the poor child either. "I think you should and make sure you're always with your Grandma, no matter what."
I heard the door open and I darted up, my sword at the ready. I lowered my stance as I watched Gabrielle walking back in with Ephiny and Solari.
"Glad that's not an itchy trigger finger attached to a cross bow," Gabrielle grinned.
I smiled as I re-sheathed my sword. "Just wanted to be ready for anything," I told her.
"Which is why you're a royal guard," she nodded. She walked over to the bed again, giving Hope a kiss on the head. "Ephiny and Solari will stay here with you tonight. So try to get some sleep."
"What about Grandma?"
"She's in her quarters. I asked that she move elsewhere for the night, but she refused."
"Grandma is very stubborn, just like me." She giggled and we all smiled at her.
"I'll be staying in Xena's quarters."
Hope started to pout. "Why can't you stay with me?"
Ephiny looked to me and I could feel every heart in the room break at the request.
"If you stay with me it might cause people to think I have more of an interest in you than I should," Gabrielle answered. "We can't take that chance, Hope. Not with you being so young and defenseless. When you're a bit older and I have a chance to train you, then things will be different. I promise."
"Can you start now?"
"Start what?"
"Training me?"
"We'll see," Gabrielle replied. "But for now, you go to sleep and get some rest. Ephiny will bring you to me in the morning and I'll see that you get to your grandmother okay. Goodnight Hope," Gabrielle told the young girl, and gave her another kiss on the head.
As Gabrielle started to leave, I followed. She paused a moment at Ephiny's side. "Lock the door tonight and let no one in but me. Understood?"
"Yes, Your Highness," Ephiny nodded.
"You get some rest too. We'll have a busy day tomorrow."
Without comment, Ephiny nodded as we walked out. As soon as the door was closed, true to her instructions, we heard the door lock. Slowly and wordlessly, we made our way to my barracks.
As I opened my door, Gabrielle rested her hand on my arm. "Thank you for everything tonight, Xena. After the way I've treated you lately-."
"Please, no apology needed. I'm just glad everyone is safe. We'll get to the bottom of it Gabrielle."
"I hope so . . . for all our sakes."

Gabrielle and I were awakened by the shouting of someone in the hallway. They were crying and incoherent, their words coming out as jumbled sobs. We both dashed to the door and flagged down the hysterical man.
"Slow down! Slow down! What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked the man, grabbing him by the forearms, giving a light shake.
He took an unsteady breath. "The cook!"
"The cook? What about the cook?"
"She's dead."
I felt my face go as white as Gabrielle's.
Chapter 14
"The cook is dead?"
There had to be some mistake. But since Gabrielle asked the question, she didn't believe it either.
"I came down to begin the breakfast preparations. When Cyrene wasn't up, I knocked on the door – no answer." The man paused to get his breath.
"Then what?" Gabrielle asked shaking him a little harder than necessary.
"I-I-I thought she might be ill, so I went inside. She was on the floor. Her throat cut."
I didn't want to hear anymore. I raced to her quarters. He had to be wrong. He had to be mistaken. Maybe she fell and hit her head. Maybe she was just unconscious. I was barely aware that Gabrielle was following me. Once at the door I paused and took a breath, trying to steady myself for what might be on the other side. Gabrielle however didn't stop. She pushed past me and into the room. I couldn't see much except for Gabrielle's hand that shot to her mouth. Next came her cries.
"Oh dear Gods! Nooo!"
I felt frozen. Should I go in or should I stand outside? Without any further thought, I held my breath and entered. I still wasn't prepared for what I found.
Blood in a large puddle encircled my mother who lay on the floor. Silently I cursed the assistant cook for being correct. Gabrielle was now kneeling at her side examining her body, the red of my mother's blood soaking up into Gabrielle's white sleeping shift.
"Why didn't you listen to me!" Gabrielle shouted at my mother's corpse. "You should have come with us! You stupid, pig-headed woman!"
I jumped at every word in her rant. I knew Gabrielle was angered. Not so much by my mother's objections to come with us but by the fact someone had taken her life. But she had to blame someone. She had to have some outlet for her anger.
I was in shock. I couldn't cry. I told myself it wasn't real and, in truth, that was the case. None of this was real. My first instinct was Ares. Ares made this world and perhaps this was his way to get my dark side to come out and play for his amusement. Gabrielle was still in a puddle of tears on the floor as I started to look around the room. Looking for something, anything that could tie Ares to what happened. But nothing looked out of the ordinary . . . in fact . . .
"Gabrielle," I call down to her. "Look around this room."
I started to examine things closer as she came to her feet wiping her eyes. Slowly her hysteria began to subside and she was taking it all in like I was.
"It's as clean as when we left it," she said.
"Cleaner. There was no struggle here. That means…"
"Cyrene must have known her killer," Gabrielle finished for me.
That ruled out Ares. My mother mentioned him, but she had never met him face to face. With the events that transpired earlier that evening, she would have fought any man, or woman, that appeared in her room unannounced. But everything was in its place. No overturned furniture, nothing thrown toward the door in defense. Her quill and ink sat upright on the edge of her nightstand. I looked to Gabrielle and suddenly her eyes filled with concern.
She raced out of the room and I quickly followed. Within moments we arrived at Ephiny's door, pounding for her to let us in. Solari opened the door quickly.
"What's wrong?"
"Where's Hope?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's here in bed," Solari nodded behind her. "What's happening?"
Gabrielle nearly blurted it out but quickly caught herself when she saw Hope sitting up in bed wiping the sleep from her eyes. She couldn't say anything in front of the young girl. Obviously the callus conqueror still had a heart somewhere inside her chest as to spare the young girl's feelings by simply announcing it.
The cook, Gabrielle's keeper and the woman that had raised Hope, was now lying dead. She was the same woman that raised me, I remembered although she hadn't known the experience. At that moment, it hit me. She was dead. My mother was dead. I was going to lose my composure and I quickly turned away and walked a few paces down the hall. I began to cry as a sickening feeling swept over me. I couldn't hold it together. I bent over and heaved, the contents of the prior evening's meal expelling from my stomach. Solari and Gabrielle watched. Solari was now growing more unsettled.
"By the gods, what's happened?" she whispered.
Hearing Gabrielle whisper the cook was dead to Solari, came to my ears like a fog. I tried to take a couple steps to get away. I just wanted to run. Be anywhere but here with them watching me. My legs failed me, buckling, slamming my back into the wall and I slid down, letting out a wail that surprised even me. I should have known better, I should have made her come with us, and I failed my mother again. I hit my head into the wall and screamed again. I didn't care who heard or was looking.
I guess me being out of it and Gabrielle and Solari in shock, no one heard Hope walk up.
"Why you crying, Xena?" My head snapped up to see a concerned face that looked like my bard, but in a tiny form. I couldn't form any words, and the more I tried, the harder the tears came.
She came over and crawled into my lap and held me.
"Najara hurt Grandma, didn't she?"
Perceptive child. So much like her mother. Unfortunately, more perceptive than her mother since Gabrielle allowed Cyrene to be alone. I feel a twinge of anger at Gabrielle. She should have put up more of a fight, let her stay with us, anything. But I realize quickly it wouldn't have mattered. I knew Mother. And obviously, so did Gabrielle. Instead of dwelling on it or saying anything to Hope, I just nodded and pulled her closer.
"Is she dead?" The tiny voice in my arms quivered as I nodded again.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Maybe she's just pretending. Maybe she's-."
"She gone Hope," I told her. "I'm sorry but she's dead."
She pulled back from me a bit to study my watery eyes. Recognizion seems to take hold for her.
"She was your mama wasn't she Xena?"
I nodded slowly.
"I'm sorry your mama's gone. You just found her like I just found my mama. That's not fair."
"Life isn't fair sometimes," I tell her.
"You have her eyes and smile, you know? When I see you, I see Grandma." She started to sob. "Why does she have to be dead? I want my Grandma."
"Me too, little one, me too." I held her close again and rocked her. I became aware that Gabrielle and Solari were still watching. Hope turned her head and looked right at her mother.
"I don't care if anyone wants to hurt me, I want a mama. Please say you want to be my mama." That broke through Gabrielle. She dropped down on her knees and opened her arms. Hope flew out of mine and into hers. Gabrielle scooped her up and placed kisses all over her face.
"I'm so sorry, Hope, so sorry," she kept saying over and over to her baby.
I knew what I had to do; first things first. I stood, leaving Gabrielle and child, making my way back to Mother's room. If anyone was going to clean her up and ready her for the pyre, it would be me.
I picked her up and carried her into the kitchen, laying her on the table. I went outside and told the guard nothing was to disturb me until I was finished. I got rags and filled pots with water.
Starting with her face, making sure I got off all of the blood.
"Oh, Mother. This is the second time I've lost you, and both times I never got to tell you how I feel." I rinsed the rag out, telling myself this wasn't real. Still in either world, she was gone from my life.
"The dead can hear our thoughts, so I guess this is good enough time as any, huh?" I found a healer's kit my mother kept in her room for emergencies. I started to close her neck wound as I talked to her. Odd doesn't begin to cover the feeling of the sensation that went through me.
"It took a long time for us to heal our relationship. You were so angry for the loss of
Lyceus and I held so much guilt." The tears were forming again in my eyes, making my task harder. "And then later, after I realized my true place at Gabrielle's side…I spent all that time helping people, saving people, traveling village to village. And the ones that mattered most – you, Joxer, even Gabrielle's family – I couldn't save them. I wasn't there. Just like I wasn't here last night."
"I never had much time to tell you how much I loved you. I was hoping in this world, I could make you feel it since I failed in the other. After all, every kid needs their mom." I swallowed hard and wept. I missed my mother, I missed my son and I missed my old life. Gods, in all these moons, I never thought I would ever think that.
In my other world, I was fine as long as my bard was there. She is my light, the person who taught me I was still human. In this dark world I had to watch the very same people suffer, people I have grown to care about here. In this world, how long would it be before LaoMa, Ephiny and Solari were dead? Sure, Hope was in this world and existed as a normal child and not the spawn of an evil, tormenting god. But Eve never would exist so was it worth the pay off? Is watching Gabrielle drowning her sorrows in rage and alcohol worth the price? No, it's not. And I just wanted to go home. It wasn't perfect but it was right. Right for Gabrielle and right for me too. Somehow I had to get us back there. Back to Eve, back to Lila and back to Sarah and Virgil, whom I considered my niece and nephew. Not by blood but by love; just as my mother had laid claim to Hope.
I finished my task and heard the door open. I was ready to take whoever's head off, but…
Gabrielle made her way in, giving me a weak smile. She knelt down by Mother's head.
"Gods, I'm going to miss you." Suddenly I felt like I was intruding, so I tried to make my way out of the room.
"Xena, don't go?" It came as a question. As if I wouldn't stand beside Gabrielle if need be. Like I could just walk away from her of my own free will. I couldn't leave Gabrielle but I could respect her wishes to share private time with my mother. I stopped by the far table and sat giving her some space yet never leaving. She turned back to Mother.
"You were more then a cook to me, you were the mother I lost years ago. I can't remember how many times you stopped me from making mistakes because my mind was clouded with my anger." She sniffled.
"How many times did I take you for granted?" She gave a sad sigh. "I didn't tell you enough how much I love you. You took such good care of Hope and I. I'll make you proud, Mother." She stood and gave Cyrene a kiss, turning towards me. "I promise from here on out to do the right thing – for everyone my life touches."
Gabrielle called toward the door, "Guard!"
Quickly a man darted inside to stand by the door. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Is Caesar still alive?"
"I'm not sure your Highness. He's still in holding. We know you had plans for him last night that got cut short but-."
"Have him released."
"But your Highness…"
"You heard me. See to his wounds the best you can. We won't endanger our people by taking him to Rome ourselves. So be sure to hire a service to deliver him back to the Romans. I want him out of Athens by nightfall. Understood?"
The guard looked confused but nodded anyway. "Yes, Your Highness."
The guard briskly left to see to Gabrielle's commands and a guilty grin hung on her face. "Do you know what I was going to do to him last night?"
I simply shook my head, not sure if I wanted to hear but knowing I had to anyway.
"I was going to put his death on display at the victory celebration. I was going to start by cutting off his fingers. Then his limbs and finish with his head after I showed him his heart . . . When I was finished, I was going to have his remains shipped back to Rome."
I found myself tongue-tied for a response but in all honesty I wasn't surprised by the admission.
"Somehow I think Cyrene would disapprove," she said with a grim chuckle. She walked to the other side of the table, folding her arms across her chest. "Somehow I think I do now too."
I wasn't sure what to say so I decided being silent was best for the moment.
"You know," she continued, "when Cyrene gave me the brief reason on how she was your mother, it didn't add up. I was going to question this later, but Hope saw something that I'm just now seeing. Those beautiful eyes of yours and that smile are from the only person who really loved me, especially at my worst. I'm so sorry, Xena, I should have known better, I should have protected her, and now it's too late." She hung her head and I rose and walked over to her. Without asking, I wrapped my arms around her.
"It's not your fault. She was a stubborn woman and you were respecting her feelings. Neither one of us thought there would be another attack, not this soon." I didn't think the nut would have the guts to do it herself. After a few moments of just holding Gabrielle, I cleared my throat and spoke. "I have her ready for the pyre."
I looked at her strangely for the sudden outburst.
"Can you carry her body and come with me?"
Chapter 15
I nodded and lifted her weight. It was difficult to carry her as I followed Gabrielle along the hall to several flights of stairs going down towards the dungeon area. I had no idea where we were going or why. We got to the end of the stairway, and Gabrielle reached up, taking the torch on the wall, then pulling the torch mount. The wall slid open and there was another room there.
We walked for a bit until we came to another room, a huge one. Inside, there were six stone coffins; the very last one, open. The tomb was well kept from what I could see, but I was still unsure. I think Gabrielle sensed this.
"This is my family's burial chamber. When I finished conquering what I could, one of the things I had made in the castle was this. I went with some of my soldiers back home and unburied my parents and sister and brought them here. Didn't want some petty thug digging at their bones, trying to make a profit."
She motioned me over and I placed my mother, our mother, inside. I wasn't sure what to say as I watched Gabrielle playing with the stone lid. She cleared her throat and spoke in a soft voice.
"When I met Cyrene, she was in a bad way. Those soldiers who betrayed me, killing her sons…" Her eyes had more sorrow. "Your bothers." She took a deep breath.
"I loved Cyrene from the start and one of her wishes was for me to bury them here. So I did," She added as she pointed to three coffins, noting each. "Lyceus. Toris. And the last coffin here for her when it was time. I was praying it would be a long time before I had to place her here. I have to admit – there were times I hoped I never lived to see this day, wishing she'd bury me first." I walked to the last coffin, and gently placed my mother in it.
I looked over to the two beside her. One had Lyceus' name and the other was Toris'. Emotion struck me again and I couldn't hold it back. A simple "Thank you," was all I could muster.
I looked past Gabrielle to a woman standing in the doorway. An Amazon priestess came into the room to purify it and make sure my mother was blessed. Gabrielle walked up to mother and placed a dinar in her hand.
"Safe passage, Cyrene, I love you." She kissed her head.
Word must have gotten out, as a few of mother's close friends came in said their good-byes. As the last member left, Gabrielle and I spoke before we had the lid closed.
"Bye Mother. Take care of Joxer for us." I gave her a kiss. As the soldiers placed the lid on, Ephiny came in.
"Any sign of my bond-mate?" Gabrielle asked coldly. Right then my sorrow turned into anger. I wanted Najara's blood.
"No signs yet, Conqueror. It's going to be tough since she knows the ins and outs of the whole castle."
Gabrielle sighed. "Make sure every soldier is on alert. The ones who favor my Consort, kill them."
"Gabrielle?" They both turned to look at me. "When we find her, I want her. She's mine in the arena. I'm issuing a challenge for her seat as Consort if you'll have me." There would be no debate on this and my voice made that clear. Gabrielle said nothing as we left. I turned, giving my mother's resting place one last glance.
"First things first, Xena. We need to take today to mourn, then the issue of Najara will be dealt with." Gabrielle broke the silence. "Ephiny, you have your orders. If I'm needed for anything, I'll be in my chamber." Ephiny nodded and left. Gabrielle turned to me. "I would like for you to spend time with Hope and myself, but I would understand if you need to be alone."
"Umm, I need to be by myself for a couple candle marks, I'll stop by later. Besides, I think you need to be alone with Hope for a bit."
She nodded. "I know. I'm just not sure what I can say to her, Xena."
"Just listen to her, comfort her and let her know you're there. That's probably the best you can do for her right now."
Then she did something I wasn't ready for. She pulled me into her arms and held me. I buried my face in her hair and for a small moment in time, I felt like I was home.
"We'll be waiting for you." She gave me a peck on the cheek and left. As I watched her leave, I had that feeling again.
"Show yourself, Ares."
He materialized in front me, shaking his head. "Damn, Xena . . . I didn't expect this."
Was that actually remorse I saw on his face? "Oh really?" I asked in a ho-hum voice.
"Yeah, I didn't think she'd do it. I didn't think she'd kill your mother. That was cold."
"So Najara did do it?"
Ares chewed on his lip and then nodded. "Yeah . . . When I chose her for Gabrielle I figured it would really get your goat, you know?"
"Yeah I know."
"Well, I forgot she's . . . a bit nuts."
"Go figure."
"Hey! I've got a stake in this too, you know?"
"Well, why don't you explain?" I told him with a push to his chest.
"The wacko is making a mess! I liked Gabrielle the Conqueror and truth be told, Xena, I wouldn't care if you stay here and live out your life at Gabrielle's side. I have the world right now. But with that nutcase around, she's put things in motion that . . . well, things I don't like."
I grinned. "Like the fact that Gabrielle is tearing down her walls with the loss and the threat that Najara now poses. Like the fact that I'm getting closer and closer to Gabrielle's heart and buying a ticket out of this world for us? Give it up, Ares. I know love is the key. That's something you don't understand and could never understand."
Ares took a step closer to me. "Are you really going to challenge her in the arena?"
He paused. "I wish you wouldn't."
I laughed out loud. "Now there's a shock."
"Seriously, Xena. You haven't seen this woman fight."
"I've battled Najara before," I told him as I started to walk away.
"Not this Najara, you haven't."
I stopped and turned around. "Why are you telling me this?"
He gave me a grin. "Even though Gabrielle's now my Warrior Queen, keep in mind you'll always be my Warrior Princess. It's a fact – I gotta thing for ya . . . Just watch yourself out there."
"You know, I almost believe you care, Ares…Almost."
"Yeah, I know you've got good cause to doubt me," he nodded. "I don't blame you. But consider this, Xena. Whenever you needed me to do the right thing…when it came right down to the wire…didn't I try my best to do right by you? Like I said, watch yourself."
He vanished before my eyes and before I could issue a retort.
I spent the rest of the day combing the castle with no luck. I realized that, other than the fact nothing was disturbed, we had no true means to tie the events back to Najara. I knew she did it. Gabrielle knew she did it. Even Hope knew she did it. But in a land with laws like Gabrielle had, we had to prove that she did it and that was something we just weren't able to do.
I could however, challenge her hand as Consort. That was within the law and it was one way to eliminate her, even if Ares didn't want me to challenge her in the arena.
Eventually, I had to get back to Gabrielle's chambers. There was a ceremony of some sort and I had to declare before Greece that I wanted and deserved the Conqueror's hand. When I arrived at her room I was surprised to find her alone.
"Where's Hope?" I asked upon entering, expecting to find the young girl there.
Gabrielle turned and instead of her daughter, I saw a wine flask gripped in her position. She'd chosen the drink over her daughter. I knew that Gabrielle found solace with a wine glass many nights but it wasn't until looking at her, this very moment that I realized just how much.
"I let Ephiny take her," she said as she poured herself a glass, another of many I assumed by the sway of her body.
"Do you really think it's wise to be drinking at a time like this?" I asked her.
"Do you really think I care?"
My anger boiled over. I darted over and knocked the glass from Gabrielle's hand, spilling the contents all over both of us and shattering the glass in the process.
"You should care," I hissed. "Moth-…Cyrene took care of that child night and day and now you just push her off to Ephiny when you should be the one here for her?"
"You don't understand!"
"Yeah, I do," I replied, lowering my voice. "You're hooked. On the drink. And you'd rather spend your life in a blurry haze than see things for what they are. I've seen great men ruined by it. Obviously great women are susceptible too."
"Stay out of my affairs, Xena. It is not your place to tell me how to live."
"You call this living?" I said, starting to get angry again. "It's not living. It's running. Running from your past, running from your present. Did you plan on getting so drunk that you're seeing two of me right now, or was it just going to be one glass to 'calm your nerves' that ended up being ten?"
"I could have your head-."
I grabbed her by the hair and tackled her to the floor. I grabbed my breast dagger and raised it to strike her. With my other hand I covered her mouth. "I could have your head too," I told her. "So could Najara if she walked into this room right now. Anyone could. Don't you see? If you want to keep living you have to stay sharp right now."
Gabrielle glared, turning her head, forcing my hand to move away.
"Maybe I don't want to keep living," she whispered. "Maybe I wish it would all be over. No more betrayals. No more battles. No more losses. No more anything…Go ahead, Xena. Do it….Slash my throat. Stab my heart…You pick…Just end it."
I dropped the dagger and bent over, placing a searing kiss on her lips. "No," I told her after I pulled away, "I'm going to conquer you instead."
I saw the fear in her eyes. It wasn't fear of me. It was the fear that so many others had been telling me about – that fear within Gabrielle herself. I moved away slightly and tugged her into a sitting position, my lips reconnecting with her. She pushed me away but I refused to give up. This time my whole body returned and covered hers. We hit the ground with a loud thud. I continued to kiss her lips and her neck under her weak protests. She pulled me by the hair, trying to get me off of her and that's when I heard her start to cry.
"What are you afraid of?" I whispered in her ear, nearly crying myself.
"Everything!" she sobbed. She tried to move but I refused and she cried even harder.
"Why are you afraid of me?" I asked. I shook her body when she didn't answer. I knew either I would break down another wall or be on the chopping block by sundown. But I decided being passive wasn't getting me anywhere. "Tell me!" I ordered her with another shake.
"You promise too much," she answered.
Promise too much? I didn't know what it meant and a paused just a moment, but enough for Gabrielle to flip me over on my back. She snagged the dagger and swiped toward my neck but I quickly lifted my hand letting the wrist bracer take the blow. I grabbed her own wrist and twisted it nearly to the breaking point. She winced in pain but it was myself that truly ached. I didn't want to hurt her but I had to make her see.
"What's too much?" I asked. When she didn't answer I moved her wrist just a bit more. "Tell me what's too much!"
"Loving me forever," she answered. I felt the fight drain from her body and the dagger fell from her fingers. "No one will ever love me and if I'm lucky enough that they do, it certainly won't be forever…Ask Najara, if you can find her."
I let go of her wrist and instantly I received an uppercut across my jaw that snapped my head back. She stood up with a wobble as I rubbed my cheek and tried to shake it off.
"I'm not Najara," I told her, moving to a sitting position. I watched her chuckle as she stumbled toward the bed.
"No, Najara has more sense than to disrespect me the way you have tonight."
"No," I argue as I rise to my feet. "It's not about disrespect. Najara doesn't love you enough to point it out. Najara doesn't care about anything more at this point than getting your throne."
"Oh and you do?"
"I do." I nodded.
"Prove it," Gabrielle challenged.
How do I prove I'm not after her power? Instantly it comes to me and I give a small grin. "Leave with me. Tonight. We'll get a wagon and we'll take Hope. We'll go and not look back."
"You're crazy," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head. "And do what? Travel the countryside? Oh, here's an idea! We'll go from town to town helping the yokels with any little problems that might come up. We can survive on their charity. Or even better, I could get a few 'gigs' at a couple of taverns telling stories. I am a bard you know." She started to laugh again.
"It would be a better life for you. I'm sure of it," I answered sincerely. "And it sure beats the hell outta sitting here and watching you drink yourself to death. What are you afraid of, Conqueror? Finding a better way, maybe? Finding out that somewhere in your shallow heart there really is a free spirit and lover of humanity tucked inside? You say everything scares you but the truth is there's only one thing that scares you…and that's yourself. I know. I've been there."
"So what turned it all around, Xena?" she asked me flippantly. "Love?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. And a smart, young woman, brilliant beyond her years, actually."
"And where is she now?"
"She's dead," I answered, honestly. My Gabrielle was dead. "But she lead me to you," I added. "I can't explain it. And you wouldn't believe me if I told you because I remember your words. Trust isn't a luxury you can afford. But know this, Gabrielle: We are two halves of one whole and I know that together our courage could change the world."
Chapter 16
"Now that was a mouthful," I told her, surprised by my own wordiness.
She gave me another 'she's lost her mind', look. All I could do was sigh and drop my head in frustration. She walked to her desk grabbing another flask of wine.
"No!" I smacked the wine out of her hand. She released a back-hand, sending me flying backwards watching in slow motion as she jumped and landed on top of me. In my mind I thought for sure that this would be my end, but she leaned over, crushing her lips against mine.
"What are you doing?" She pulled back, raising an eyebrow.
"If you don't know, I must be doing it wrong." She tried to kiss me again, but I jerked my head away.
"What, Xena?!?" She slammed her fists on the floor by the sides of my head.
"Not like this. Not again. I can't, Gabrielle."
"Oh, come on, Xena, you know you want this. Want me." She tried again to kiss me and I pulled away once more.
"Yes, I want you, but not like this. I want your love, to make love with you. Not another fuck session."
Gabrielle sighed.
"Can you love me?" I asked. "No bondage. No…walls. Just you? The real you?"
I watched as she hung her head then rolled off of me. I had my answer.
"I didn't think so," I muttered. All I felt was utter defeat.
"I can't give you something I don't understand." We both fell silent; my heart was being ripped into pieces. "Xena?"
"Would you hold me?"
There, on the Conqueror's bedchamber floor, in the middle of the broken glass and wine I turned and held her close. The abundance of alcohol clamed her, she was out not long after I pulled her near.
"I love you." I whispered into her ear letting the night claim me too.
The nightmare of this life must be over soon.
Morning came too quickly, and a loud knock woke us both up. I felt stiff and by Gabrielle's groan, she was as well and quite hung over. We both slowly stood, and Gabrielle stumbled towards the bed. "Come in."
Ephiny popped her head in to peek at us.
"It looks like you can use this." She came in holding a skin of water and I bet it had herbs to help with her headache.
"Oh Gods, thank you." She took a long drink, making a face at the taste.
"This tastes like shit."
"You play, you pay." Ephiny pointed out, getting a growl in reply.
"Did you want something, my smart-assed friend?"
"Hope is calling for you. She didn't sleep well at all last night." Ephiny looked at me. "You look like something ran over you." She smirked.
"Gee, thanks." I walked to the full-length mirror to see the bruise on the right side of my chin from a well-placed backhand.
"Tell her we'll be right in after we get cleaned up," the body on the bed spoke.
"I'll do that." Ephiny chuckled and left.
I started for the door when the body spoke again.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"To my room for a bath and fresh clothes."
"Why don't you stay here and bathe?" It sounded like a plea more then an order.
"I don't think that is very wise. I'll see you soon." I didn't give her a chance to reply. I closed the door behind me. I just needed time to think.
By the time I was cleaned and changed, I made my way back to Gabrielle's chamber. I heard Ephiny talking with the Conqueror, and it made me stop in mid-knock.
"Are you really going to let Xena challenge Najara?"
"No, I can't chance Xena getting hurt. So, my friend, I want you to carry out my wishes." I heard a scroll being unrolled.
"Gabrielle, I can't do this. Don't ask me to do this." Ephiny sounded very alarmed.
"You have to, it's the only way. Xena's a good warrior, but Najara's better." I clenched my jaw tight.
"She deserves better then this life, she's so full of love." There was a pause. "I'm asking you as a sister, please fulfill my wishes."
"Please." Gabrielle sounded very desperate.
"Alright. So when does this happen?"
"Dawn tomorrow." I couldn't take it any longer, so I knocked.
"Come in." I looked in to find Ephiny staring at the floor and Gabrielle fighting back tears.
"It looks like someone lost their best friend. What's wrong?"
Very low Ephiny said, "She just might." I caught the words along with the fact Gabrielle was quickly covering her words up.
"We were just talking about past memories, that's all." She strained to smile.
"You're dismissed, Regent." She bowed to her Conqueror then walked past me, never looking me in the eyes. My gut was telling me something was very wrong here. Before I could question, a scream shook my soul to the bone. We both ran into her bedchamber. Hope was crying, rocking herself in comfort.
"I want Grandma!" Gabrielle scooped her up and held her tight.
"So do I little one. So do I."
I sat on the bed near them, taking in the sight of mother and child. It took some time but her tears stopped.
"Can you tell me a story, Mama?" Gabrielle and I both swallowed the lumps in our throats.
"Sure." She moved Hope to where she was cradling her.
"I have a tale to tell you about a lone Warrior tired of her ways. This Warrior was ready to give up on life when she ran into a young woman who would change her forever. I call it 'Sins Of The Past.'
If I hadn't been so enthralled in the story I would have passed out. She was telling the tale of our life. Word for word on how we met. I'm sure Ares had some role in seeing that our stories were nothing more than Gabrielle's imagination in her eyes. He was quite the bastard.
"Are you alright, Xena?" I was pulled out of my haze to see concerned green eyes and a sleeping child.
"You're a very good story teller, Gabrielle." She just looked down, kissing Hope on her head. "How did you think of a story like that?" She smiled.
"I can still dream, Xena." She reached out, taking my hand, giving it a squeeze.
We spent the day just talking. It felt like old times with my best friend, still I knew something wasn't right. By the time Hope woke up, we had a brunch in Gabrielle's garden. We played, laughed, just like a family. Nightfall came and we tucked Hope into her mother's bed.
"Night, Xena." I was beginning to love this child as though she was my own. With Gabrielle watching us, I gave Hope a quick kiss and turned to the best smile I've seen the Conqueror give yet.
"Mama?" Gabrielle gave me a peck on the cheek then kneeled beside the bed.
"Yes, Hope."
"Can you, Xena and I be a family?" She turned to look at me. I had a huge grin on my face.
"I'll see what I can do. Now you get some sleep, I'll be here soon." She gave her a kiss and hug.
"Will you really?"
The child wasn't dumb.
"Yes, little one and I'll even hold you if you want." Hope seemed to like that. She raised herself slightly to give her mother a kiss.
"Night, Mama."
"Night, baby." We waited until she was fully asleep, then we went into the other room.
"Xena…" She paused. "I wanted to thank you for giving the best day ever in my life." She then gave me the sweetest kiss. The gnawing in my stomach came back in full force, but right then I didn't care. I'm not sure what was so odd, her words or the look in her eyes.
"These past few months have been up and down for us both, but you are probably the only other person on the earth that I trust."
"Why are you saying all this? Are you coming away with me?" A girl could wish.
"No, Xena. Just remember this day when you think of me."
"Don't talk like that." I pulled her close.
"Please, forgive me." I was ready to ask why when Ephiny and a few guards barged in.
"Xena, we're here to escort you to the brig." Ephiny had a hard time meeting my eye.
I looked from her to Gabrielle.
"What's the meaning of this?" I was upset more then angry.
"It's for your own good," Gabrielle reasoned.
"What is? Locking me up like a criminal? This is the trust you spoke of?" Now I was angry.
"Please come with us, Xena." Ephiny touched my shoulder.
"Get your hand off me before I break it." I turned to glare at the Regent. Then I felt a sharp blow to my head. Before my world went black I heard Gabrielle ask for forgiveness once more.
I woke up with a blaring headache in a dark cell.
"Right back to where I started." I growled.
"She's doing this because she falling in love with you." I jumped slightly, only then noticing Aphrodite standing outside my cell. Magically she walks through the bars to stand in front of me.
"Doing what? Locking me up?"
"Saving you from a fight with Najara," she answered. "She believes Ephiny can win but…"
"But what?"
Aphrodite didn't want to say the words. I could tell. "I know she won't," she finally answered softly.
I watched as Aphrodite started to pace the cell. "Ares really messed things up Xena. We can't let Ephiny battle Najara. Any way we look at it's…it's bad."
I've seen many expressions on Aphrodite's face over the years – joy to anger, coy to insightful. But this expression…it's one I've never saw. One I never thought I could see on her. It's hopelessness.
"Find a way to get me out of here," I told her. "I'll battle Najara."
"And do what? Lose Gabby forever when Najara kills you. Okay you'd be dead and that would be bad too but…Damn it Ares!" She's angry now and I watch as she slumps down on my excuse for a bed. "You know something Xena?…I've been around for what seems like forever. Many mortals and immortals have passed in and out of my life, always wanting something from the goddess of love, always asking for something I could give them…Gabrielle never asked for a single thing. Ever. But she gave me her friendship anyway. It's ironic in a way. I don't have many friends even though I'm the goddess of love. But I had Gabby. Our Gabby. Not this booze hound, short tempered, arrogant, pig-head-."
"I get the point," I said cutting her off in her rant.
"Sorry. I'm just so totally pissed right now. Ares has done some pretty low down deeds in our time but this…Not only did he take away your bard but he took away the only true friend I ever had Xena."
"Yes he did," I told her. "Question is, are you gonna stand for it? Or are you gonna find a way to get me out of here so I can help bring her home?"
I watched as that coy grin came to her face. Next, the door of the cell opened.
"Don't forget to write." She grinned as she nodded toward the exit.
"Thanks Aphrodite," I replied honestly.
She walked over and pulled me down, giving me a soft kiss on the cheek. "Bring her home Xena. Find a way and bring her home."
"I will. I promise."
I left the cell determined. Today it ends. One way or another.
Chapter 17
My eyes have to adjust to the change in light. The brig was so dark and dank so I took a few moments to let my eyes settle into the brightness of the morning. I made my way to the arena, following the crowd that's walking down the streets to assemble there. I heard the chattering from spectators on who will win – the regent or the consort.
I entered the stands with the other spectators to see Gabrielle at her throne, looking quite regal dressed in her battle armor. Instead of Najara seated next to her, it's Ares. It reminded me of the day I battled to join her royal guard. But this time it's Ephiny who's in the practice ring warming up and not me.
Her swing is quick – much quicker than I remembered. For a moment I think she may come out of this triumphant but I remembered what Aphrodite said. She knows different. I also know that losing Ephiny might just be the end of Gabrielle and I'll never win her back. She'll draw into herself even more and I might be trapped here forever. I looked at Gabrielle when suddenly I heard the crowd give a loud boo. I leaned over the rail to see that Najara has made her way inside. Seems word of her deeds traveled quickly in this town.
She seemed unaffected by the crowd's reaction, focusing on Ephiny, as she started to warm up and get her arms and legs limber for the upcoming battle.
"You need to take a seat," I heard someone say behind me.
I turned to see a bruiser of a guard pointing me to the benches. Being sent back to the brig is the last thing I needed so quietly I complied, walking three rows back to sit down. I still had a good view and I was close enough to make my move when it's called for.
It seemed like forever as I sat and waited for the arena to fill up. Once the majority of the seats were occupied I watcedh as Gabrielle stoos up, taking a place on the speakers platform. A loud ring of applause went up and she held her hand in the air to quiet them.
"Friends and Greek countrymen. Thank you for joining us on this historical day. As many of you know my consort Najara is accused of crimes of treason against the State of Greece."
A loud 'boo' washed over the area, which made Gabrielle grin slightly. Even from this distance I could tell her lips curled.
"She challenges the throne here today…Over seeing this challenge is my champion and regent Ephiny of Amazonia."
With that a cheer went around with a few whistles and thundering applause. At least Ephiny had the crowd to her advantage. Now if only her skill could hold out long enough for me to make my move.
"As the flags fall the competition will begin. Are both contestants ready?"
"Yes my conqueror," Ephiny yells with a bow to Gabrielle. She seemed fearless and determined, unlike the woman a spotted just recently filled with self-doubt when Gabrielle made her request.
Gabrielle then turned to Najara. "And you consort?"
"Yes conqueror," she answered but without the bow. The crowd began to boo yet again for her obvious display of defiance of Gabrielle's reign.
Gabrielle raised her arm before suddenly dropping it. The flags around the arena unfurled and I watched as Ephiny and Najara head toward each other to square off. I watched the guards spread out around the guardrail. I've got the space and time I needed to make it into the arena so I made my move.
With a powerful war cry, I started to run and somersault into the arena before the guards can stop me. When my feet land, I know I have to move and move quickly. Just as I expected the crossbow bolts come flying in my direction. I weaved left and right, stopping occasionally to let the arrows pass by me before traveling onward. I glanced to Gabrielle to see her shocked expression as I made my way over to Ephiny. Both combatants saw me moving toward them and they lower their stance against each other, waiting for my arrival. From the ring Ephiny called off the guards attack.
"How did you-?" Ephiny remarked, as I get close enough.
"Doesn't matter. Get outta here Ephiny. This is my fight, not yours."
"I have my conquerors order Xena," she argued.
"Let her fight too," Najara announced. "I'm willing to take on two of the conquerors own to see justice is dealt."
"Justice? You don't know the concept Najara. You live by the voices in your head and nothing more."
"Shut up and fight," Najara saed taking a swing at me.
I jumped back just seconds before she could connect with my head and Ephiny swung. Najara moved too and backhandsed Ephiny.
Blood flies from the regent's mouth as she falls to the ground. Najara goes in for the kill but I deflect her sword. She's strong. Stronger than the Najara I battled in my world and I felt my sword being pushed closer to the regents neck.
It's slow going but Ephiny regroups quick enough to roll out from under our crossed blades. Once she was to her feet I relaxed and it's enough for Najara to drive my blade into the ground. She kicked me soundly in the chest, knocking me on my backside, the sword falling from my hand.
With me on the ground she engaged Ephiny. I'm amazed but Ephiny trades her blow for blow although it's obvious she's on the defensive. I regroup and rise to my feet again taking my blade with me as I darted over to engage Najara again.
Najara heard me approach and pulled another sword off her back. As I took my swing to slice her head off she blocked my blow while continuing to fight Ephiny head on. Damn it. Ares wasn't lying. She is good. Maybe too good. I realized that Ephiny was becoming a distraction to me and I had to get her out of the ring. I couldn't fight Najara and worry about Ephiny at the same time.
"Get out," I yelled to Ephiny again.
She ignored my warning. I realized I had to buy some time to talk to Ephiny. I reach down and grab a handful of sand. It was a dirty play I know but I didn't have time. I ran toward Najara and when she turned to face me, I threw the dirt in her eyes. She lowered her sword just for an instant but it's enough to kick her in the chest, knocking her flat on her back. I grabbed Ephiny's arm and raced away to the entrance.
"Please let me handle this," I begged again.
"Look, if I don't survive Gabrielle will need someone she trust. Someone that will help her go on. You can give her that - I know it. Please let me do this. Gabrielle will be angry you've left but she would never kill you."
"How can you be so sure?" Ephiny asked as she watched Najara move to her feet, wiping her eyes.
"Just trust me. I haven't lied to you before, have I?"
Ephiny considered it for a moment and I know I'm getting through. "Please. For Gabrielle. Leave this ring and let me handle Najara." With a deep sigh I heard Ephiny call toward the gatekeeper.
"Open the gate," she yelled. Quickly, they complied. "Ares be with you Xena," she told me, resting a hand on my shoulder.
I grin at the expression. "Are you kidding? The less Ares, the better. He's the reason for this mess."
She looked unsure of what I was talking about but I couldn't explain. I didn't have time. Najara made her way toward us.
"Go on," I nodded to her. I paused to see if she was truly leaving and felt when I watched her walk out of the arena, closing the gate behind her.
"Now I've got what I want," I growled at Najara as I charged ahead.
"You don't want me," Najara said as our blades cross again. "You want my wife. But you'll never have her."
I realized I had an opening here - someway to psych her out. "Oh no," I egged, "your wife wants me," I smirked. "Pretty convenient huh?"
Najara growled in anger and started to advance but I didn't retreat I traded her blow for blow, pushing her away. We started to circle each other. And I continued to taunt her, trying to throw her off.
"She's sexy isn't she Najara? Worth dying for? Especially those sounds she makes. Those little sighs just before climax. The way her body hums with electricity when she wraps her thighs around your shoulders. Of course it's been awhile since you've been that close to her. You've probably forgotten. Just so you know. It hasn't changed. As a matter of fact, last night I've never seen her wilder."
Najara screamed and charged but her swordplay was sloppy and I took full advantage of it, knocking the weapon from her hands. Her sudden surprise turned into anger and she tackled me before I could strike the deathblow. My sword dropped too and soon we're both rolling on the ground. She delivered a strong blow to my jaw and I tasted the acidy flavor of my blood in my mouth.
Nah ha. Not again. I'm keeping all my teeth this time.
Before she can deliver another blow, I backhanded her, sending her flying off of me, as I reached back for the sword next to me. When she rolled to a stop I straddled, her standing above her. I glanced up to see Gabrielle literally sitting on the edge of her seat, a look of regret in her eyes. I realize in that instant I can't do it. I can't kill Najara. If I did a part of Gabrielle would never trust me. Never love me.
Yes Najara was a psycho. Yes she killed my mother. Yes she wanted Gabrielle's throne.
But a part of Gabrielle still went out to her. Najara's life wasn't mine to take. Najara closed her eyes waiting for me to send her to Hades but instead I dropped the sword on the ground and walked toward where Gabrielle was seated. I listened to the crowd boo because I didn't go for the kill they wanted to see.
Gabrielle would need to make the choice. It was either Najara or I. She would have to decide who lived and who died. I took a deep breath and remembered my resolve – one way or another it ends today.
Either Gabrielle would choose me or she would let Najara kill me in the ring. Either way, as I said, it ends today.
"I love you Gabrielle."
I looked up into the stands and I smile. No worry. No fear. If I died then I died knowing that she would finally believe me. I am truly hers and not for her power or her crown but for her. I heard Najara stalking me from behind. I'm sure she has the sword now and at any moment it will be finished.
Gabrielle's eyes went wider and before I realized it she hurdled the rail, jumping into the arena. A cheer goes through the crowd this time as the conqueror herself pulls her sword from her back, pushing me out of the way. I fell to the dirt and watched as Ares screams.
I turned back to see Gabrielle bury her sword in Najara's chest. Shock washeed over Najara's face as her body slid off the blade and tumbled to the ground. Gabriele looked shaken but only for a moment as she rushes over, coming to knell beside me.
"I love you Xena," she whispered before her lips descended up on mine.
The kiss is magical, intoxicating. I closed my eyes and I felt as if I was flying, moving at breakneck speed but I don't stop the kiss. I couldn't. It felt too wonderful. When I finally opened my eyes I look at Gabrielle who seems slightly confused. As I glanced around I notice there's no arena. No Najara.
We're in a clearing, on our bedrolls alone as the whinny of a horse caught my attention. I looked to my right and saw Argo starting to drink from a nearby stream.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked. She looks down at her body. The armor is gone, replaced by the red velvet and leather garments I'd come to love. "Are we home?"
I felt myself start to grin and I couldn't help but pull her closer to me. "We're home," I told her.
Suddenly she began to cry. "I'm so sorry Xena. Everything I did to you-."
"Was an illusion," I told her. "Ares illusion. Nothing more. And in the end you made the right choice. The only choice."
She seemed to calm a bit and I looked up, the feeling of being watched overpowering me. Aphrodite was smiling at the two of us holding each other.
"Thank you," she mouthed silently. A look of sincere gratefulness was plastered to her face.
"No," I mouthed back. "Thank you."
She smiled with a crinkle of her nose and disappeared allowing us some privacy.
A flash of light and a chuckle I know all to well fills the small clearing next. And I felt Gabrielle pull back. I know the look on her face means trouble as she darted to her feet coming face to face with Ares.
He grins and shakes his head. "Damn. You two are something else," he chuckled. "I never know what to expect. I gotta admit – I like it."
Gabrielle marched over to Ares and started to poke him in the chest. "You self-centered, devious, manipulating bastard."
He wore a look of mock confusion. "Your point?" he asked sarcastically.
Gabrielle reared back and punched Ares square in the jaw, making him stumble back about two feet. At first I'm scared of what he'll do to her but when Ares started to chuckle I have to admit I'm a bit relieved.
"Cut it out," he told her. "That tickles."
"You son of a bitch," Gabrielle hissed.
"Well you got me there," Ares answered. "I am. I really am. Hera was real pain sometimes."
Gabrielle started her march again, poking him all over again. "If you EVER pull something like that again I will find me another hind's blood danger. I will bloody your body so bad even Athena in all her wisdom won't be able to figure out or distinguish which god I killed. Do you understand me?"
"Yeah. Yeah," he answered in a bored voice before looking back at me. "I'll say it again. She's gotta lot a spirit Xena." He looked down at Gabrielle, checking out her cleavage. "You've certainly got your hands full," he replied to me before clearing his throat and starting to vanish.
Gabrielle took another swing but it's too late. All she hit was the air as he disappeared before our eyes.
"Arghhh! I hate that man!"
"Well technically," I told her, "He's a God."
"True. Men have more sense than God's and my apology to all men in the world for the comparison."
I grinned and moved to my feet. I walked over and pulled her into a tight embrace. Her heart was beating fast. Her skin was flushed. "I know it was a pretty frightening experience at times," I told her. "But it wasn't all bad, was it?" I wiggled my eyebrows and she starts to blush.
"No," she admited. "Not all of it."
"And it was nice to see Ephiny again."
She had a somber look. "I know. But it wasn't nice to see that loon again." She smiled.
"But forget about her. I know of some much better things we could remember." She looked up and saw the lecherous look in my eyes. She blushed again and looked away; knowing what I was thinking.
I felt her relax as my fingers started to smooth over her hair. "You know that shackle thing out in the woods-."
"Xena!" Gabrielle blushed again.
"What?" I asked. I couldn't hide my grin.
"I was a heartless warlord at the time. I didn't care about love or commitment or trust. I was driven by sex and lust and…and shackles huh?"
"Remember Gabrielle. The God's can't give us anything we aren't already capable of," I teased her.
"Then that means you can be the submissive once in awhile?"
Okay she got me. "Well I can…I just need a little dominance now and then."
She grinned and started to follow a lazy pattern on my breastplate with her fingertips. "Hmm. Now and then. How about right now?"
"Gabrielle!" I answered in surprise. "You little vixen."
Gabrielle gave me that come hither grin that always set me on fire. "You find a tree. What will we do for shackles?"
Who am I to say no to an eager bard? "We'll think of something."

The End

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