by planet solin
Sex/Violence: Once again this is a story about the Conqueror so you better expect a little of both though, because our heroine is changing it has become relatively mild.
Other: This is the fifth instalment of a series of stories that I started on a lark and is best read as such. Hope you enjoy. For all those of you that were waiting I am sorry it took so long. I hope this effort was worth the wait.
All comments are appreciated: email@example.com.
The entourage assembled before dawn and departed the Palace grounds as the first faint rays of light cracked the morning sky. They were a force of more than two dozen strong and at the head of the two columns rode a pair of women. The tall dark haired one was dressed in black leather and armour and mounted on a white warhorse. Her smaller blond companion was dressed in an ordinary green bilge top and a short rust coloured skirt; and only loosely held the reigns to the large dark gelding of which she was in charge.
Gabrielle felt a whole mixture of feelings that morning as they prepared to leave the place and city she had come to regard as home. Their most recent tenure at the Palace had been shorter than either woman had desired but both had pressing matters to attend. For Xena it was to search for a son she had long ago given up but had never stopped caring about and for herself it was a journey to share in her sister Lila's marriage celebration.
Her stomach grumbled in protest at something and caused her to shift uneasily in her saddle. She had been nauseous that morning and unable to keep her breakfast down. She had mentioned nothing to her stoic companion assuming it was merely a reaction to the nervousness she felt at returning to her families home. Besides she knew how much her lover would worry and she didn't want to burden the Empress with any more problems.
She chanced a glance over her shoulder and smiled. In spite of her still injured leg, Eponin had insisted on accompanying them and she had brought with her a dozen Amazon's. Next to her was Zenon, the Captain of the Royal Palace Guard, a man who followed the Conqueror wherever she went. Behind him rode eleven of his best soldiers, each warrior dressed in their finest garments. In all they were a rather impressive sight.
She turned her attention once more to the road ahead as they wound their way through the wide streets of the Capital. Corinth was a long way from the small backwards village in which she had grown up but it was a place where she realized that she would have always ended up.
Gabrielle now scanned the shops and homes that lined the streets. It was still early in the morning yet already the shopkeepers were opening their doors to trade. Merchants from all over the world had set up shop in Corinth, trading wares brought in from all over the known world. It was colourful and fragrant and so different then the small town in which she had been raised.
She glanced at the people, seeing the mix of colour and race that made the city so cosmopolitan. In spite of the relaxed restrictions that Xena had put into place, the common people still viewed the Empress with some trepidation. Most now paused in their daily tasks to watch as the entourage of soldiers and Amazons snaked their way down the street towards the main city gates.
The years of living under the terror of the Conqueror's reign had schooled people to behave in a certain way and not to show their emotions, and even though changes had been made in government policy many looked at the reforms with hesitation and distrust; uncertain whether to believe that the change was permanent or real. That belief was exhibited in the blank stares on their faces as they viewed the procession and it caused some pain in her heart.
She searched the faces of those very few who were brave enough to meet her gaze. Some smiled hesitantly while others allowed their feelings of contempt to show and the bard was reminded again that the Conqueror still had many enemies in the land. It didn't matter that the realm had been quiet. There were always those who coveted the position of her tall dark haired companion and she knew in her heart that there were still those who were plotting to dethrone her lover.
A peel of laughter interrupted her morose thoughts and she spied a group of small children playing in a square at the corner of the street. The children paused in their game to watch the colourful procession and the bard smiled at the fascination and innocence on their faces. It made her heart sing with joy when her cheer was returned with genuine smiles and eager waves. It was in the children that she found a curiosity and openness that was absent from their elders. She knew that Xena's legacy of terror would take a long time to erase from the memory of the people and she was determined to do everything in her power to help improve her companion's image so that these children growing up would never know the evil warrior her lover had once been.
With that thought in mind she reached into a pouch that was attached to her saddle and withdrew a handful of individually wrapped sweets that the cooks had prepared especially for the journey, they knowing of her weakness for such treats. Without a second thought she tossed the sweets towards the children who pounced with glee on the unexpected gift.
Gabrielle laughed at the action and then fugitively cast her stoic companion a look, wondering if Xena would be upset but the Conqueror was staring forward and by the intense look on her dark features her thoughts were elsewhere. She knew that the Empress thought her to generous but after that one incident in the market so many seasons earlier the older woman said nothing, choosing instead to ignore the charity.
She looked back at the children and saw the happy smiles on their faces as they stuffed the sweets into their mouths. An unexpected feeling of loss and sadness suddenly engulfed her at the realization that she would never experience the joy of being a mother.
She had told Xena that the only thing that mattered was that they were together and that she would willingly give everything else up for that. It was true and she had meant every word but that still did not prevent her from feeling pangs of sadness over the fact that she would never bring another life into this world.
She shook her head unwilling to give into those morose thoughts, trying to remain focused on the matters at hand. She had learned a long time ago that it was useless to dwell on things that couldn't be. Besides there was no reason that once they found Solan, the Conqueror's son, that he couldn't come to live with them in the Palace. The idea of helping his mother raise the lad was appealing and an opportunity she greatly looked forward too. Already she had a million different ideas how she could bring the warrior and the boy together as a family.
Xena glanced slyly at her small partner. She was not as totally indifferent to her surroundings as the blonde bard assumed. She had seen the children and had half expected the Amazon Queen to do what she had done, and in reality she would have been more than a little disappointed if Gabrielle had rode past the children without tossing them some treat. It was a part of her companion's nature that she had come to love and appreciate.
She turned her attention back to the road. The gates of the city were looming ahead and as on every day of the week, the portal was busy with trade as people came and went. The economy of her realm was thriving and the removal of the travel restrictions had only increased the welfare of the people. There was less to grumble about but there were still some who refused to forget the past and see what was emerging in front of them.
Intense blue eyes scanned the crowds as they rode through the streets. She knew that there were people still out there plotting her demise and she could never be certain when the next attack would come and in all honesty it did not concern her. The only thing that mattered was that her partner and companion was kept safe, for the last thing she wanted was for Gabrielle to be hurt by someone trying to seek vengeance.
Today the land looked peaceful and according to Archius the realm was quiet and all seditious movements derailed by the most recent reforms that she had introduced, but she was not fooled. In spite of the peaceful scenes that greeted her sight, she could sense the undercurrent of tension that still existed. Her enemies were out there, bidding their time, waiting for the moment she would be most vulnerable. In her mind she had already begun to wonder if the plot had not already begun and that Solan's disappearance was not a part of a whole greater scheme.
She knew that Kalipus, the Centaur leader, would not betray her, but she was not certain she could trust the younger generation of Centaur's in the same way. In spite of the protection her army gave them, the half man, half equine creatures had no love for her and she would not trust one of them to reveal the truth about her son to one of her enemies. If that were the case she was not certain how she would react or whether she would be able to keep her word to the Centaur leader.
The thickness of human traffic increased as they neared the city gates as traders and visitors from beyond its borders began to filter into the city for a long day of business. There were merchants on horses and wagons, and common folks walking in sandals carrying small bags with meagre possessions. They were a diverse group of people all coming to the city for a variety of reasons, the colourful and ordinary all joining together to make up the character of the city she had chosen as the Capital of her Empire.
"Miss, miss," a crippled old woman broke from a group of people huddled at the entrance to the gates and stepped up beside the bard's horse, reaching out to touch the young woman's leg. Gabrielle immediately brought her mount to a halt and glanced down at the bent over crone seeing the tattered black dress and the moth eaten black shawl that covered a grey crown of hair. For a moment green and dark eyes met and the bard felt a shiver race down her neck
"Miss for you, to help you on your journey," the old woman held up a cloth bag. The bard was reluctant to accept the offering thinking that whatever this woman was giving her was probably more than she could afford, but not to accept would be an insult.
"Thank you," the small blonde woman took the offering with a smile and opened the bag to see that it contained a mixture of local fruit. "May the God's bless you for your kindness."
The bard said and looked down again only to see the old woman melting back into the crowds that had collected at the gates. She watched in puzzlement for a moment and then shrugged, tying the bag next to her pouch on her saddle.
"What is it?" Xena asked curiously. She had stopped alongside the bard and was looking at the smaller woman.
"The strangest thing," Gabrielle recounted the occurrence. "An old woman just gave me a bag of fruit and then disappeared before I could thank her."
"What did she look like?' the Conqueror asked, ever vigilant in her protection of the smaller woman.
"Over there," the bard pointed as she spotted the elderly woman who was slowly pushing her way through the crowds.
The Conqueror stared at the woman but saw nothing more than a old crone. It was not unusual for her companion to be offered gifts from strangers, for the bard was becoming as well known for her generosity as the Empress was known for her evil. She suspected it was just another such citizen rewarding her companion for some kindness that the bard had done and then forgotten. She said as much.
"You probably did her some favour that you have forgotten about," she dismissed the old woman intent on getting them under way. She was anxious for them to get out of the city and onto the open road. The sooner she got Gabrielle to Potedaia for her sister Lila's wedding, the sooner she could begin to coordinate the search for her son Solan. Gabrielle nodded and clicked her heels prodding the horse forward.
It was not uncommon for them to travel straight through the day as Xena was notorious for pushing
relentlessly forward forgetting about the necessities of life and though Gabrielle was usually the one to remind the woman to stop, this day she resisted. She knew that her stoic companion's mind was on her son.
Therefore the bard was especially grateful later for the kind offering of the old woman as she extracted an apple from the bag and munched on it as they rode through the countryside. She offered a piece of fruit to her companion but the warrior merely shook her head.
It was dusk when the Conqueror finally called a halt to the procession, choosing a grove of trees by a small creek not far off the road as their resting stop. The further they had gone from the Capital the emptier the road had gotten, so now the Empress deemed it was safe enough for them to camp near the main track.
Before long the camp was set and as the sun fell beyond the earth, fires were lit to cook the food that had been captured and gathered by an industrious pair of Amazon's who had been hunting game alongside the road as they travelled.
"Are you thinking about Solan?" Gabrielle said when her dour companion settled onto the ground next to the fire by which she was sitting. Xena had been quiet throughout the day, speaking only when directly addressed and the bard longed now to hear the lilting tones of her lover.
"Yes," the tall dark haired woman admitted with a sigh. Intense blue eyes scanned their immediate surroundings. There had been three fires lit with the Amazon's and soldiers sharing two and leaving them alone with the third. She was glad for she longed for the opportunity to spend some time alone with her lover.
"I'm sure he's all right," the bard said and then handed her companion a plate of meat that had been cooked. She had tried to wait while the Conqueror had gone with Zenon to set up the perimeter but her stomach had rumbled and she had been unable to prevent herself from eating her share of the meal.
"I suppose so," the Conqueror agreed snapping a piece of meat from the plate and popping it into her mouth even though she was not hungry. She knew that if she didn't eat the bard would get on her case and she had no desire to argue with the smaller woman.
If she were honest she had no idea about the boy and what he could or could not do. The regular reports that Kalipus had sent informed her that the lad was a competent hunter and able to survive on the land. She was grateful to the Centaur for giving the boy those skills.
"What does he look like?" the bard asked finally giving into her natural curiosity. She had wanted to know everything about the boy since the Empress had admitted to having the child many days earlier but she had been respective of her companions feelings, waiting until the older woman confided in her. But Xena was not one to reveal her thoughts and so now, after days of holding her tongue she could not remain silent any longer.
"I don't know," the Conqueror sighed reluctantly revealing a truth that she was embarrassed to admit.
She popped another piece of meat into her mouth. "I have never met him."
"But surely in one of the letters that Kalipus sent you he must have described him," the small blonde persisted hoping to get her companion to open up about her feelings. She knew that her stoic companion was more emotional than she allowed anyone to see.
Xena sighed. If there was one thing about the small woman, it was that she was tenacious. Most of the time she admired that quality in the blonde but today she wished that the girl would not be so focused.
"Mostly he just said that the boy was growing and was a strong lad," the Empress admitted reluctantly, "but there was one time when he mentioned that the boy had corn coloured hair and blue eyes."
"I'll bet he looks like you," Gabrielle said thoughtfully.
"I hope not," came the sincere response.
"Why?" was the startled response.
"Because it wouldn't be good for him," the Empress admitted honestly and then fell silent and the bard knew not to press the woman. She could sense that the Empress was getting uneasy talking about her son and so she let the subject drop, which came as a relief to the tall dark haired woman who kept her blue eyes pinned to the fire in front of them.
Gabrielle's stomach moved uneasily and she suspected now that something she had eaten wasn't settling well. On top of that she was unusually tired, her energy drained by the many miles they had covered that day. She glanced about their surroundings.
The Amazon's had been willing to pitch a tent for their Queen but Gabrielle had opted to sleep out in the open under the stars. She enjoyed the luxurious bed they shared back at the Palace yet there was something decidedly romantic about sharing a bedroll under the night sky with her tall lover. She had many fond memories of the previous nights they had spent on the road. She lifted her arms and stretched, not having to fake a yawn.
"I'm exhausted, I think I will turn in," the bard said moving over to where their bedding had been laid out.
"Gabrielle are you okay?" Xena was immediately alert. Her blue eyes turned from the fire to the small blonde woman who was now settling beneath the furs.
"Yeah, just tired," the blonde woman cast her partner a weary smile. "All that luxury of the palace has made me lazy."
Xena frowned not certain she believed the smaller woman. Blue eyes searched the other woman's face and noted the tired lines that were etched on the paler than usual face. Silently she chided herself for not paying more attention to her lover, for it was obvious that she had pushed her companion to hard that day.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle," the Conqueror immediately apologized. "I shouldn't have pushed us so hard. I forget sometimes that not everyone has the same constitution as myself."
"That's all right," the bard smiled as she settled into the furs. "I just need a few days to get back into the groove. It's amazing how soft I get after only a few weeks of palace living."
Xena stared at her lover allowing her heart to shine through her eyes. There were so many things that she wanted to give the bard. She wanted to pamper the small woman, to lavish her with gifts and all the comforts that she could afford. But it seemed that every time they settled back into the Palace and some semblance of a routine, something happened to call them away. Gabrielle deserved so much more than a few blankets on the hard ground.
The Empress set down the unfinished plate of food and crawled across the ground to where the bard was laying, slipping under the blankets next to the small woman. Innocent green eyes softened considerably as the tall woman settled beside her drawing her into a warm embrace.
"I love you Gabrielle," the Conqueror said with undisguised affection and the bard smiled.
"What brought this on?"
"Guilt," the Empress admitted honestly as she reached over with one hand and gently brushed her palm across an exposed cheek. She allowed her fingers to comb blond strands of hair back from the girl's brow.
"Why what have you done?" Gabrielle was concerned. She could think of nothing to bring on such an emotion in her companion.
"I get so caught up in my own concerns that I forget about everything else," the tall woman said continuing to stroke the smaller woman's cheek.
"You are definitely focused," the blonde woman's smiled and then allowed it to fade. "But that's one of the things that I admire most about you. I know that you are concerned about Solan, even if he hasn't been a part of your life. I know inside here," a small hand lifted up and rested on the Conqueror's breast, "you care very much for him."
"No buts," the bard put a finger to the other woman's lips silencing her. "I know you love me Xena, and I don't need you to tell me that all the time."
There was silence as blue eyes stared into green orbs. A tender look passed between them and the
Empress leaned down and placed a gentle kiss upon the smaller woman's lips. Though both women
would have liked to extend the passion they were only to aware that they were not alone.
"Thank you," the Conqueror whispered and then lay down next to her lover, drawing the smaller woman tightly up against her body. She knew that she would never find anyone as kind hearted or understanding as the woman she now held in her arms, and she had no intention of ever giving the woman a reason to question her love.
She glanced down at the bard who snuggled up against her tall rangy body. The green eyes were closed and the other woman's breathing was even and steady signalling the small woman was already sound asleep. A smile came to her lips as she leaned forward and placed another kiss on the other woman's brow.
She thought about the instructions she had left with Archius. By the time they returned to the Palace all but a few of the details would be arranged. She had promised to marry the bard and she would do just that when they returned from this journey. Pushing all other thoughts aside the tall, dark haired woman closed her blue eyes and dreamt of the day when she could truly call Gabrielle her own.
Another pair of blue eyes watched the couple from a distance. The owner of these orbs stared for a long moment before turning to glance at the others who had yet to turn in for the night. She had volunteered to stand the first watch and from her post near the road she could still hear the muted voices and laughter of her fellow Amazon's.
She turned her head and through the darkness she could detect the outline of the soldier with whom she had been paired. He was a rather simple minded individual and she knew that she could dispatch him with very little effort. It would be so easy for her to wait until everyone was asleep and then kill the other guard before creeping over towards the Conqueror and slitting her throat.
She was certain she could carry it off but she had made a pact with Ares, the God of War, and she was intent on keeping her end of the bargain. She had watched the old woman at the gates and then smiled when Gabrielle had dug into the offering of fruit. It would not be long before the young woman became ill and then it would be time to act.
She did not know why Ares wanted the Conqueror to go to Amphipolis. There was no significant reason but even though she did not understand she would follow his plan. He had promised her ambrosia and she was willing to sacrifice her own desires until she gained her reward. Then she would be on a playing field all her own. She was a skilled warrior and there was no reason, that once she became a God, that she would not be able to challenge Ares himself.
A cruel smile touched the corners of the blonde Amazon's lips as she imagined her life as a Goddess. There would be no stopping her and she would use her power to exact revenge on everyone who had ever caused her grief. She stifled the evil laugh that gurgled in her throat as she dwelled on all the possibilities. She only hoped she was patient enough to wait.
Xena woke before the dawn and lay for a long moment enjoying the warmth of her companion who was nestled within the circle of her arms. She sighed contentedly and wondered if there would ever be a time when they would just be able to enjoy the simple things of life without some urgent matter demanding their time and attention. She wished that just for one day she would be about to lie in bed with her companion and forget about everything but the two of them.
But there were many responsibilities attached to her position, responsibilities that she was unable to ignore. With that thought she carefully extracted herself from her sleeping companion, gently placing a kiss upon her brow before rolling away. It was still to early for the camp to start stirring but the prefect time for her to take a run and sort through her thoughts.
She stretched her lanky body and breathed deeply, inhaling several a lungful of the chilly morning air before moving off with long smooth strides that carried her away from the camp and along the dirt road.
"Urgh," Gabrielle woke with a start aware immediately that she was alone. But the thought was with her for only a few brief seconds before the turmoil in her stomach began to announce it's revolt. In the next instant she was scrambling out from under the blankets and racing towards the small cluster of bushes at the edge of the camp. She barely managed to make it before the contents of her stomach came up her throat.
She knelt for a long time coughing and gasping as the remnants of the previous evenings meal emptied from her body. Finally when there was nothing left she sat back on her heels and closed her eyes feeling completely drained. She normally had a resilient constitution and was rarely ill but when the sickness hit her it generally made her very weak. Once again she hoped it was only nervousness and not some sickness that she had contacted. The last thing she wanted now was to be sick for her sisters wedding.
She wiped her mouth and stood up, walking back across the camp to where the bedding lay, more than a little relieved that no one seemed to notice her incapacitation. Briefly she wondered where Xena had gotten too but the question was quickly answered when the Conqueror suddenly appeared, a bead of sweat decorating her brow.
"Good morning," the Empress flashed the woman a swift smile as she came to a halt next to the smaller woman. She had not been gone long and was somewhat surprised to see the bard awake. The sky was just beginning to brighten and a quick glance around the camp told her that most of their escort were still asleep. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, good morning," Gabrielle answered with a corresponding smile, hastily taking a gulp of water from their waterskin and rinsing her mouth before spitting it out. Only then did she move across the distance that separated them to place a tender kiss on her tall lover's cheek.
Xena accepted the embrace aware of the unusual paleness of her companions skin. Her blue eyes narrowed perceptively as she watched the small woman move back towards their bedding, bending down to start rolling the furs into a bundle. She opened her mouth to speak but before the words came out she heard herself being summoned. A glance over her shoulder indicated that Zenon was headed in her direction.
By the time she was finished speaking with the Captain of the Royal Guard, Gabrielle's colour had returned and the bard seemed her usual cheerful self. The Conqueror dismissed the earlier paleness as a result of the bard's unusually early waking. By the time they got under way that morning, Gabrielle was feeling much better with only a slight twinge of nausea.
The next two days were uneventful as they travelled the well used path that cut through the rugged terrain of the countryside. Up at dawn they journeyed through the day bypassing most of the villages along the way uncertain of their reception as they travelled steadily towards their destination.
"Was it Ulyess'?" Gabrielle asked thoughtfully breaking the silence of the group, her slender body rolling with the gentle sway of the horse as they moved along the trail.
"Nope," Xena answered almost methodically with a single word, briefly distracted from her thoughts.
"Hades," the bard swore under her breathe at a loss for what the answer to her question could be.
Anxious to alleviate the boredom of travel and to forget about the queasiness that persisted in her stomach, Gabrielle attempted to engage her rather stoic partner in a word game. But she was being met with a varying degree of success for she knew that her dour companion had other more serious thoughts on her mind. Besides concern over her missing son, the Conqueror was also worried about their safety and because of that they were taking the most direct route towards their destination.
The bard fell silent and the Empress turned her attention and eyes towards the sky. It was the fall season and the time of year when the weather was the most unpredictable but they had been fortunate and for the most part the weather had cooperated, remaining clear and sunny with only brief afternoon rain squalls to add a renewed freshness to the day.
She knew if they proceeded on this route they would reach Potedaia in another three days. Once there she would ensure that Gabrielle was settled before taking her leave to return to the Regional Army camp where she could coordinate a search for her son. She was happy that everything was going smoothly but as usual she needed to be certain.
She brought the column to a halt at a fork in the road. If they proceeded on the route that went directly north they would be in Potedaia in three days. To take the east route would add an extra two days to their journey but it was less dangerous and they did not have to cross the river at Norath. In spite of the good weather the river was sometimes swollen at this time of the year and if that were the case, they would waste a least another two days in travel.
She glanced at her companion and saw that Gabrielle was fanning the air around her face. It was just after midday and though the day was pleasantly warm, the bard seemed unusually flushed. She looked past her companion to Zenon.
"The weather has been good but the river at Norath is fed from the mountains and is normally high at this time of the year. I want two scouts to go forward and check that the crossing is safe," she instructed the Captain of the Royal Guard who immediately glanced back at their escort, calling out for two volunteers.
"I will go," Callisto hastily moved forward seeing this opportunity to advance her own interests.
"And I," a smaller dark haired soldier also volunteered and the blonde Amazon smiled inwardly. It had become apparent over the course of their journey that this member of the Royal Guard had developed an affection for her. Now his innocent lust would work in her favour.
Xena did not know the Amazon that stepped forward but had seen her around the Army camp and the Palace grounds. She was a quiet warrior who went about her duties without question. The soldier had been with her Royal Guard for several seasons and had proven himself a capable and brave soldier as well as a skilled horseman.
The Empress nodded and motioned to a small cluster of trees not far in the distance. She was glad that this route ran parallel to a small creek. They had travelled hard for several days and knew that it was time to give both the horses and riders a much needed break.
"We will camp here tonight and await your return on the morrow" she instructed.
The two scouts nodded, digging their heels into the flanks of their mounts and took off down the road while the rest of the party dismounted and walked towards the trees. In short order camp was set up and several Amazon's were dispatched on a hunting expedition.
"Gabrielle, would you like to go for a walk?" the Conqueror asked her small companion.
"Yes certainly," the bard responded with more enthusiasm than she felt. A form of listlessness and lethargy had taken hold of her senses over the past few days and though the idea of a walk left her exhausted she would not turn down any opportunity to be alone with her lover. There had been to few minutes over the course of the last week when they had a chance to be alone.
While Xena briefly spoke to Zenon, Gabrielle snatched up her pouch of fruit and a waterskin. They set off along the creek, carefully picking their way along the bank until they came to a shady spot where the stream widened into a small placid pond before a narrow ledge where it tumbled down several feet before carrying on it's way.
"Are you interested in taking a swim?" the Conqueror asked with a sly smile and without bothering to answer the smaller woman began to peal off her clothes. Within minutes they were splashing and playing in the chest high water. It was a long time before they returned to the bank where they sprawled out side by side.
"I needed that," Gabrielle sighed with contentment as she lay on the soft cushion of thick grass and closed her green eyes.
"Yeah," the Empress agreed rolling onto her side and allowing her blue eyes to slowly wander over her companions naked body. She could feel the gentle caress of the light breeze that was blowing and she watched in fascination as that same touch caused small goosebumps to rise upon the smooth skin of the younger woman, making the small pink nipples harden. She felt her own body stir.
"You know what I need," the older woman whispered quietly in a thick voice. A pair of green eyes popped open and a blond head turned to meet an intense blue gaze. She could see the lust and the love in those familiar orbs. It had been more than a week since they had last been intimate and she knew that was a long time for her companion.
She rolled over and reached out, running her hand up and down the curves of her companions still wet body. She loved the feel of the silky skin against her palm and the way her own body could be aroused merely by a look or a single touch.
Without another word the Conqueror leaned forward and brushed her lips against those of her lover,
savouring the sweet taste. The kiss was returned and before long the passion of their exchanges grew. Like so many times before the intensity of their love stoked the fires of their arousal and tender caresses merely preceded more urgent strokes.
Xena rolled forward pushing her companion back onto the ground as she covered the smaller woman with her own body gentling driving one of her thighs between the other woman's legs and pressing it against the heat that had built there.
Gabrielle groaned as she felt the exquisite pressure against her throbbing clit. The taller woman had the ability to manipulate her body to the point where she was sometimes no longer conscious of anything but the pleasure that she was receiving. It was like that on this day and she forgot about everything but the feel of the older woman's lips on her skin and the way the tall body slid against her own.
Xena gazed down at her lover, seeing warm green orbs filled with unfulfilled lust. A tender smile tipped her lips as she gazed into the sweet face of the woman she loved. It gave her joy to pleasure the woman and she did all she could to satisfy the young woman. Before Gabrielle she only sought pleasure, but now with the bard she only sought to give pleasure.
"Oh by the Gods Xena please I want to feel you in me," Gabrielle begged as she began to feel her body begin to shudder and shake with the first spasms of her orgasm take control of her body.
"I love you Gabrielle," the Conqueror whispered before obliging her companion plunging her fingers deep into the woman and pressing down on her clit as the small body beneath her crested.
It was a long time later before the women were lying exhausted in each other arms. After a brief rest the bard had been determined to pleasure her companion and the Empress had not denied the smaller woman her request, giving up control of her body to the only person she trusted with her entire being.
Gabrielle glanced across at her tall companion, unable to disguise the love she felt as she stared at the classical profile of the woman who had come to mean everything to her. Xena was her life and if her family never excepted her back she would still be happy. She closed her eyes and allowed her senses to drift as her mind gave in to the call of Morpheus.
It was near sundown when the two scouts arrived at the bridge that crossed over the Norath River. As the Amazon had feared the crossing was securely intact and the water levels no danger. She knew that she would have to develop a plausible explanation to divert the Conqueror from this path and towards Amphipolis. She glanced sideways at her companion and saw the unbidden look of lust in his eyes and smiled. An idea formed in her head.
"I think we should take a break before heading back," she suggested slipping out of her saddle and leading her mount to the waters edge so that it could quench it's thirst.
"The Conqueror will be expecting us back as soon as possible," the soldier disagreed, his brown eyes never leaving the form of the slender woman. He had admired her from the moment he had first set eyes upon her many days earlier at the Palace.
"She could hardly complain if we took a bath and rested before beginning the journey back," the blonde woman smiled sweetly and then stretched her arms over her head, giving the soldier a full view of her luscious body.
After that it was easy to persuade her companion to take a break before heading back with their information and once he was off the horse it was even simpler to entice him to take a swim. She merely stepped to the edge of the river and started to slip out of her leather costume. The man eagerly joined in stripping off his own armour and leathers and jumping into the water next to where she was bathing.
The blonde seductress cavorted with the man, flirting outrageously so that he would be caught completely off guard by her action. She acted playfully, waiting until she was able to position herself behind him, then when he least expected it, she jumped on his back and dunked him under the water, holding him there.
He fought valiantly as water started to invade his lungs but the force holding him down was to strong. He thrashed violently hoping to dislodge the Amazon from his back and shoulders but it was useless and his life came to a swirling end at the bottom of the river.
Callisto held the man down, holding his head under water for several extra long moments to ensure that she had achieved her objective in killing him. When she finally released her hold the lifeless body popped to the surface and then drifted lazily along with the current of the stream. She watched for a moment before swimming to the bank.
It didn't take more that a candlemark to dispose of any further evidence of the soldier as she tossed his clothing and gear into the river. After stripping the horse of its tack, which she also disposed of in the stream, she lead the animal across the bridge and then turned it loose, smacking its hind quarters and sending it off in the opposite direction from which they had come. Once that was done she sat down and lit a fire, an evil grin on her face as she stared into the dancing flames.
Xena was up early the next morning. She left Gabrielle sleeping while she went for a short run, ending her circuit by Eponin who was on watch at the perimeter of their makeshift camp. In spite of her injury the Amazon Weapon's Master refused to be treated like an invalid, insisting on taking her turn on watch along with the others. The woman's tenacious nature and stubbornness made her a favourite with the Empress.
"How goes it?" the Conqueror greeted the feather clad warrior.
"Quiet," Eponin replied straightening up and trying not to grimace when she twisted her still healing limb the wrong way. Xena stared at the look of pain that flashed over the other woman's face and though she was tempted to say something she held her tongue, turning to glance over the still sleeping camp.
"What time did the scouts return?" she inquired instead and the question brought another unexpected grimace to the Amazon's features.
"They haven't returned yet," Eponin hated to be the one to impart the news and instantly she saw the pensive frown that decorated the Empress' face. She had been forewarned to expect the scouts return during the night but when they hadn't arrived she began to worry.
Xena was silent as she mentally calculated the possibilities. From past experience she knew how long the trip took and reckoned that the pair of riders had probably reached the river around sunset. Giving ample time for a brief respite and break to water the horses and refresh themselves they should have been back candlemarks earlier. Briefly she wondered if they had run into trouble.
"Would you like me to arrange a search party?" the Amazon warrior offered.
"No," the Empress shook her head turning her eyes to scan the distant horizon. "We will wait until after breakfast. Perhaps they were delayed."
Gabrielle woke with a groan and like the previous morning she was up and out of her bedroll in a hurry reaching the nearest bush as she once again relieved her heaving stomach of its contents. She continued to retch until there was nothing more and then sat back on her heels and wondered what was wrong. She cast a glance over her shoulder seeing her tall dark haired lover by the road conversing with the Amazon on watch. She stood up slowly, her legs shaking like jelly.
"My Queen are you all right?" a soft voice inquired and Gabrielle spun around to see Solari standing not far away. She grimaced at the idea that the Amazon had witnessed her moment of weakness.
"Yes," Gabrielle flashed a weak smile. "I think something I ate last night didn't agree with me. Didn't Eponin do the cooking?"
"Yes my Queen," Solari chuckled. It was common knowledge amongst the Amazon tribe that while Eponin was an able and fierce warrior in battle, she was completely hopeless in the area of preparing food.
"Let's see that she doesn't get a hold of the food again okay," the small blonde woman continued with a smile and the other Amazon nodded. "I think I need something to settle my stomach now."
"I could fetch you some fresh berries," the warrior offered but Gabrielle shook her head.
"Thank you but I still have some fruit left in my pouch, I better eat that before it goes bad."
The Amazon nodded and then watched as the small woman strolled back to her bedroll. It was not the first time she had witnessed the bard in distress but she had hesitated to mention anything. She reminded herself to keep an eye on the Queen.
Gabrielle was relieved that she had been able to convince Solari that nothing serious was wrong. She didn't want anyone to worry about her but more than that she didn't want Xena to know. It was important that she was not perceived as being weak in the eyes of her stoic companion. She took a swig from the waterskin and rinsed her mouth before selecting an apple from the remaining fruit. She felt dizzy and put it down to the fact that she had not yet had anything to eat. She took a large bite and munched noisy as she strolled across the camp towards where her companion stood staring into the distance.
"What's up?" she said as she stepped up beside the tall warrior, squinting her eyes towards the horizon where her companion was staring.
The Empress was about to answer when her eyes caught the slightest of movement on the horizon.
She saw the cloud of dust in the distance following the form and before long the distinctive outline of the Amazon she had sent ahead to scout the route was recognizable. She searched for the soldier who had accompanied the woman but he was nowhere in sight.
"What news have you brought?" Xena greeted the Amazon stepping up to grasp the horses halter as the blonde warrior drew up to the camp.
"The bridge at Norath has been washed away," Callisto reported her lie.
"And your colleague where is he?" the Empress demanded sensing an untold story.
"We rode for a distance in both directions along the river until we found what we thought was a safe crossing," Callisto hastily related the story that she had formulated in her head on the trip back to the entourage. "He went first and was about halfway across when a log slammed into him, knocking him off the horse. I tried in vain to rescue him but both of them were carried quickly down steam. I couldn't do anything but watch them go under. I searched for several candlemarks but I could not find the body."
The Conqueror was silent as she listened to the Amazon's tale. Her first reaction to the news of the soldiers demise was a little incredulous. She glanced up at the sky and then towards the mountains in the distance. She knew the rains they had encountered would not be enough to swell the river.
The Empress remained silent as she considered the Amazon's words. She was tempted to disregard the evidence and continue the planned journey certain that she would be able to locate an appropriate crossing but then her eyes fell upon Gabrielle. While she would be willing to take a chance she would not risk the life of her lover. They would take the longer route, the one that took them by Amphipolis.
"We will follow this road until Magra and then head north towards Amphipolis. There is another crossing near the town, it will add an extra two days to our journey but hopefully that bridge will not have been washed out," she decided, not certain why she was bothered by the Amazon's account of what happened. She had no reason to disbelieve the tale for it was plausible enough. She had witnessed many good horsemen losing their lives by taking risks for which they were unprepared to handle. She turned to Eponin with instruction.
"I want to break camp immediately and get on the road," she decided.
"Yes, My Empress," the Weapon's Master nodded and hurried to do the tall woman's bidding.
"Do you wish me to scout ahead?" the blonde Amazon asked of the Conqueror.
"No," Xena decided abruptly unhappy with the unexpected delay , though realistically she decided that perhaps it was to their advantage. Anyone who sought to do them harm would certainly know of her penitent to take the most direct route to her destination. She turned to her small companion. "Come Gabrielle let's get our horses."
Within a short while they were once again on their way and Gabrielle immediately attempted to engage her stoic companion in a word game. But the Conqueror was not in the mood and after several unsuccessful tries the bard fell silent giving into the Empress' pensive mood.
Xena glanced briefly at her mute companion and sighed. Normally she didn't mind playing the games that the bard invented to entertain them, but today she had too many things on her mind. She could not dismiss the nagging doubt that penetrated her thoughts. She was tempted to send a party of soldiers to investigate but she realized that it would probably be a wasted effort.
She glanced over her shoulder and spotted the blonde Amazon bringing up the end of the column. It occurred to her that she had seldom seen the woman in the company of any of the other Amazons. Mentally she reminded herself to keep an eye on the woman. There was no reason to doubt the story she had been told, but then she had never been one to trust anything anyone said.
She turned her gaze to her solemn companion and saw that her brow was puckered into a thoughtful frown. She was not in fear for her own life but that of the bard's. Gabrielle had become more precious to her than all the riches that she possessed and she had no intention of ever allowing anything to happen to the woman. She couldn't begin to imagine life without the woman and her companionship. Besides she would need the woman's help in the coming days
Her face darkened at the thought of her son Solan. She had not been entirely honest with the bard. She had seen the child on several occasions over the years when she had passed by the Centaur lands. She had snuck close to the village and watched from a distance as the child had played with his centaur friends.
She had limited such visits though, consciously reminding herself that the reason was out of fear that the boys existence would be discovered by her enemies. But there was a deeper reason. In truth the pain of the separation was too much and the longing to take the child into her arms and hold him was too strong to bear. So she had simply pushed him from her mind and stayed as far away as possible. But now she knew it would not be possible to do that again. She knew that no matter what became of their search, Gabrielle would make sure that the boy was never forgotten.
Gabrielle glanced across at her lover and saw the intense expression on her face and knew that the Empress was deep in thought. She sighed, not entirely pleased with this new turn of events. Not only was she anxious to reach there destination, but her stomach was beginning to feel worse with each passing candlemark in spite of the fruit that she had been nibbling on constantly since they had broken camp that morning. As if on cue her stomach rumbled uneasily.
She had tried to ignore the upset but with each passing day the ache inside her belly had been growing and nothing she did seemed to alleviate the problem. She reached back into her saddle bag and withdrew another apple from the small bundle that she had been given by the kindly old woman.
She unconsciously shivered as she remembered the brief instant she had taken to look into the elderly woman's eyes. They were dark, blacker than any she had seen and though the smile on the crones face had seemed genuine there was something about the woman that had caused the hair on her head to stand on end. It had only been a brief feeling and then gone and the bard had been left thinking that her imagination was over reacting.
She brought the apple up and polished it briefly on her shirt before taking a big juicy bite out of the fruit. It was more delicious than any she had eaten and any reservations she had about the gift were quickly forgotten. Like before she savoured the sweet juices and hoped that the fruit would help settle the queasiness in her stomach.
Xena kept her gaze on the road. They were nearing the Regional Army camp and though they could divert there path and sleep in the comfort of cots that night she kept them on a steady path along the road to Amphipolis.
She rather enjoyed camping out under the night sky and having her small companion snuggle tightly against her in an attempt to ward off the chill of the evening. It reminded her of an earlier time, a time before she had all the demands of her victories placed on her shoulders. She liked being the ruler of the nation but she also missed the simpler times when she had been merely a warlord with a small army. Many nights she had stared up the at the sky and dreamed of the future.
Well those dreams been fulfilled and now she had other visions that she wanted to realize. Visions which now included her young companion. She thought of the instructions she had left with Archius and briefly she allowed herself to imagine another more wonderful dream.
Gabrielle was content to munch on her fruit, allowing her thoughts to dwell on the problem at hand, yet the uneasy feeling in her stomach only seemed to get worse with food now in her belly. On top of that she began to feel unusually warm.
"Xena?" she called after her companion who was slightly ahead of her. The Conqueror immediately pulled her horse up, turning in her saddle to look at the smaller woman who had lagged a short ways behind.
"Do you think we could take a break?"
"Why?" the older woman asked curiously glancing at the other woman.
"I'm feeling a little warm," the smaller woman asked waving a hand in front of her face.
"Certainly," the older woman nodded her head, capably masking her concern. It was warm with the sun beating down but it was the fall season and so the day was not uncomfortable. A quick glance at her companion though and she noticed a slight flush in the younger woman's cheeks. "Do you think you can manage for a bit, if I remember correctly there is a creek not far from here."
"Yeah," the blonde woman nodded her head and then continued to follow her companion. But she was worse off than she suspected and not more than a few hundred yards had passed before she could take no more.
She felt her stomach roil and the contents of her breakfast rise up in her throat. Suddenly she felt dizzy and her vision became blurry. She barely had time to pull up and slide off her mount and unto her knees before emptying the contents of her stomach onto the side of the trail. Her head pounded and it felt like all of Tartartus was in her gut.
Xena saw her companions' distress and in one swift motion was off her horse and kneeling by the smaller woman's side, holding her around the waist with one strong arm while the other hand held blond hair from the younger woman's face. A frown marred her stoic features as she hung onto the woman.
"Gabrielle, are you okay?" she asked as the younger woman finally sat back on her heels. The bard merely nodded her head, her throat burning and her stomach continuing to heave. As if by magic the older woman produced a waterskin and gratefully the girl took a long swig of the surprisingly cool contents.
"I must have caught a sickness," Gabrielle finally spoke aware that her head was still spinning. She could tell by the expression on the Conqueror's face that her lover was worried and she hastened to reassure her companion, even though her stomach continued it's protest. "I'm sure I'll be okay in a few days."
"I'm not going to wait that long," the Empress announced decisively. She would not risk the blond woman's health. "Amphipolis is the nearest village. We will head straight there. They have a healer."
"Xena I don't need a healer," the bard protested but it was a feeble admission and the frown on the
Conqueror's face deepened. She placed a hand on the brow of her small companion and was shocked by the hot skin under her touch.
"You're burning up Gabrielle," the Empress echoed her thoughts in a disturbed voice.
"I'm just a little warm," the smaller woman disagreed not liking the fact that she was feeling ill. "I'll be okay."
As if to prove her point she attempted to stand but her legs were to weak and if it hadn't been for the strong arm wrapped securely around her waist, she would have tumbled face first onto the road. Xena caught the bard the instant the girl's legs began to buckle and lifted her in one smooth motion into her arms and carried her over to where Argo was patiently awaiting her master. She could feel that the smaller woman's body was flushed with fever and burning up, the normally soft skin was now sweaty and hot to the touch.
"Is the Queen all right?" Eponin asked with concern as she rode up from the back of the column to where the Empress was now mounting her horse with the blonde woman laying limply in her arms.
"She has a fever," the Conqueror muttered unable to mask the anger she felt surging through her body. "I have to try and bring it down. There is a cold stream not far away, I am going to take her there."
Without another word the Conqueror clicked her heels against the flanks of her warhorse and headed off in a quick gallop towards a stream she remembered from her youth. Behind her followed their entourage an uneasy worry settling over the group with the exception of one. Callisto lagged behind, unable to wipe the smile that came to her face.
The small stream was where the Empress remembered and she brought the horse to it's very edge before dismounting. She waded into the clear water, feeling it's cold embrace chill the bareness of skin not covered by her leathers. Gabrielle had seemingly fallen asleep but the green eyes fluttered open as the cold water engulfed her fevered skin.
"Xena what are you doing?" she asked with a clarity that she did not feel and the Empress looked down into the precious pools of green.
"You said you were warm and so was I," Xena thought there was no reason to alarm her companion though she wasn't certain the younger woman fully understood what was going on. "I thought a cold swim would do us both good."
"Yeah," the small blond woman sighed as her feverish body began to embrace the refreshing water that swirled over her. She closed her eyes feeling incredibly tired yet also reassured because she was being held by her lover and she knew that Xena would never let anything happen to her.
"I love you," Gabrielle murmured for no reason.
"I love you too Gabrielle," the Conqueror repeated the sentiment.
Even though the water was cold, the Empress remained within it's depths, sacrificing her own comfort for the sake of her lover. She was immune to everything but the flushed cheeks of her companions face, not realizing that the others having since caught up to her were now carefully watching the proceedings. It was a while before the Conqueror felt the first shudder come from her companion.
"What love?" the Empress asked carefully clinging to her lover.
"I'm cold," the bard murmured through parched lips and as if to emphasis her plight another shudder went through the girl.
Xena reacted immediately, turning and wading back unto shore where the Amazon's had thoughtfully laid out a blanket on the ground under a nearby tree. The Conqueror set the smaller woman down dismissing the wordless offer of a cloth to wipe the dripping water off her own body. Her first and only concern was the bard and to that end she reached out and touched the girl's brow. It was still warm but without the heat that had been radiating from her before.
"Empress," Solari said stepping forward. Intense blue eyes glanced up and pinned the Amazon where she stood.
"I don't know if this means anything but this morning I found the Queen throwing up," the Amazon revealed hesitantly. "I don't think it was the first time."
"Why didn't you mention anything to me?" Xena barked irrationally and the Amazon flushed under the scrutiny.
"She seemed okay," the Amazon stammered not knowing what else to say.
"Does she look okay?" the Conqueror couldn't help snarling and the slight woman automatically backed up.
Xena immediately forgot her frustration towards the Amazon when the bard shuddered violently on the blanket. In the next instant she made a decision, picking up the corners and wrapping the smaller woman into it's bulky warm folds before lifting her up once more in her arms.
"She needs a healer," she announced even as intense blue eyes searched for her mount. She whistled and the horse, which was grazing only a few feet away, quickly trotted to her side. "I am taking her to Amphipolis."
"Is there anything you would like us to do?" Zenon wanted to know.
"Just follow," Xena advised the Captain of the Guard as she settled once more into the saddle the small ailing woman in her arms.
"Will the Queen be all right?" he dared to asked aware of the concerned expression in the Empress' face.
Xena took a look at the face of the Amazon who was sleeping in her embrace, seeing the paleness of the skin and the beads of sweat that were beginning to form again across her brow before turning to the other anxious people all waiting for her verdict. She knew by the looks on their faces that they were as concerned about Gabrielle as she was.
"I hope so," the Conqueror hissed through clenched teeth and then clicked her heels against the flanks of the horse, urging it forward.
She glanced at the young woman in her arms, seeing the delicate golden lashes that now covered those beautiful green eyes that she had grown to love. She dared not think about what her life would be like without the woman.
Xena took another deep breath, before slowly expelling the air in her lungs in an attempt to settle her own fears. She didn't dare allow herself the thought that the girl's illness might be serious. She didn't want to contemplate the idea that she might lose the younger woman. She couldn't imagine herself going back to the empty life she had led before meeting the bard.
"You have got to be okay, Gabrielle," she whispered fiercely as unshed tears moistened her eyes.
Ares looked down from his seat on Mt. Olympus extremely pleased by the events that were unfolding. He had been uncertain that he could trust the blonde Amazon to carry out his wishes but was delighted that she had, his earlier doubts replaced by admiration for the way she had carried out her assignment. Perhaps she was someone that he needed to invest more time and attention on. Pushing thoughts of the blonde woman aside he focused again on the scene that was occurring down on the mortal realm.
There were changes happening in the Immortal world of the God's and the Deities had to align themselves with the one whom they predicted would win the upcoming battle. He knew that the birth of a new and stronger Deity was on the horizon. A Deity who would be able to defeat his father Zeus and all other God's that reigned on Olympus. A Deity so strong that there would be no one powerful enough to oppose Him.
He had secretly chosen to side against his family and join the side of this new God, assured by the deal he had made with the one who was currently confined to an existence beneath the Underworld. He had made the deal in order to survive the purge that would happen once the new God took control.
A scowl formed on his dark handsome features. Dahok would have stayed in the dark morass of his environment if not for the unwarranted intervention of his sisters. If they had not interfered with his Chosen, then none of this would be happening now. They were the ones who were to be blamed for what was about to happen and therefore he felt no remorse at making his deal with their enemy.
It was a traitorous world amongst the God's and change was apart of the unending revolution of existence. A revolution he was determined to survive. He would not end up a memory, entombed in stone like the Titans, Giants who had ruled the Earth before their defeat by the God's who now ruled Olympus.
He would survive and learn from his new Master and then when the time was right he would bring his own army to fruition and defeat his new ally to take control of the mortal world. A evil laugh echoed through the dark cavernous halls of the temple in which he sat.
It was nightfall before they finally reached the outskirts of the village of Amphipolis; the quiet part of the evening when most of the townspeople were in there homes eating dinner. Though the streets were virtually empty, Xena knew that with thee arrival of their small entourage, it wouldn't be long before the square was filled with curious villagers. She dismissed those thoughts and headed straight for the healers hut.
Paulus had just sat down for his evening meal when there was a knock on the door. He was not surprised by the summons for it seemed that people were always waiting until the supper hour before coming to seek his assistance. It was a reality he had accepted along with the challenge of his profession. One he had been in for a very long time having brought many of the village citizens into the world.
He opened the door and felt his jaw drop in shock at the sight of the imposing figure standing on the threshold. Before he had a chance to speak, the Conqueror pushed passed him into the room, her intense blue eyes searching the humble dwelling for the nearest available cot. She spotted it near the fire pit and in two swift strides was across the room.
The healer watched wordlessly as the tall dark woman carefully lowered the small bundle in her arms onto the pallet and then turned to face him. For the first time he was aware that he had not moved from the door.
"You are the healer, aren't you?" The man nodded in affirmation too dumbstruck to speak. "Then start healing, my friend here is sick."
The man's first thought was to refuse this evil woman's request for his services, but seeing the girl lying motionless on the cot he changed his mind. He could not turn them away, even though he hated the Empress and held her responsible for the death of his only son. He was a healer and had sworn to use his skills to help everyone, even his enemies.
He moved swiftly across the room to bend over the still form, recognizing the blond woman immediately. It was Gabrielle the Bard, the young woman who had often come to Amphipolis to entertain the villagers. His eyes narrowed as he scanned her pale features, searching for some mark that might implicate the Conqueror as the cause of the girl's condition. But there was none. If the rumours he heard were true then the girl was the Empress' slave. He glanced contemptuously at the tall imposing woman having no fear.
"No!" Xena had no intention of leaving her companion's side. The man straightened his bent frame and for a moment weary grey eyes met ice blue orbs.
"If you want me to treat your friend you will have to leave," he said with steely resolve. "I will do nothing if you remain."
The Conqueror's eyes narrowed into dangerous pale slits. For a moment she was about to refuse, as the panther inside slowly woke from it's slumber. How dare this common man challenge me, it growled. I am Xena Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, Empress of all of Greece. I am the Conqueror.
But even as those words flitted through her mind, her eyes fell to the bard who had started moving restlessly on the bed. In what seemed like another lifetime she would have killed the healer for his insolence but now with Gabrielle's life at stake it was something else. She would not allow her pride to risk the girl's life.
"All right but if you do anything to bring her harm and I will kill your whole family and then you," with that the Conqueror turned on her heel and strolled out of the small cabin.
The man watched the woman leave not quite believing he had achieved victory. It was a small triumph and for the first time he noticed another woman standing in the shadows by the doorway. His anger welled up again for this one was dressed as a warrior with colourful feathers adorning the small string of leather clothing her body. He would have ordered her out except that he noticed the splint upon her leg and the wooden cane on which she was leaning.
"Who are you?" he demanded icily, certain that the woman was a spy for the Conqueror.
"My name is Eponin and I am Weapon's Master for my Amazon tribe," the brown haired woman said in a quiet yet proud voice that carried across the silent room. "I am not here for the Conqueror. It is my sworn duty to protect my Queen, Gabrielle."
"You think I might harm her?" He could not keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"I am sworn to protect her from anyone who might bring harm to her," the warrior woman answered. "Queen Gabrielle is in danger by her mere association with the Conqueror. There are many people who would use her to get at the Empress."
The healer knew that statement to be the truth. In the flickering light of the fire, the man saw the loyalty in the grey eyes that were staring at him. The woman was crippled by her injury yet there was something in her countenance that made him realize she would defend the Queen to the death. She might even challenge the Conqueror, he mused to himself.
"You may stay but keep out of the way," he said briskly dismissing the woman before turning his attention back on his patient. "What are her symptoms?"
"Nausea, vomiting, fever," Eponin explained.
The healer nodded intently, his first guess was that the smaller woman had caught a fever. His second guess that she was being poisoned for the symptoms were very similar. It did not surprise him to find it was the latter.
"Who prepares her meals?" he asked and the warrior frowned.
"We all share in the preparation," the Amazon stated. "She eats the same food as the rest of us."
"The same food as the Conqueror?" the man wanted to know, turning his head slightly so that he could see the expression on his companion's face.
"They often feed each other," the woman replied stoically not liking what the man was implying. "I can assure you that the Empress is not trying to poison the Queen."
The man nodded, aware that the woman truly believed what she said. He turned his attention back to his patient to continue the examination. So intent was he in his thoughts, that he jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head and gazed into a pair of serious grey eyes that were only inches from his face. He had not heard her approach which surprised him because of the cumbersome splint on her leg.
"You must understand how important Queen Gabrielle is to the Conqueror and how important it is that she not die," the Amazon said in a solemn voice.
The healer looked at the woman for a long moment. He could see that she was serious yet he was not impressed. He doubted the Conqueror cared about any one or thing.
"I had but one son," the healer replied in a even voice. "He died while serving the Conqueror's Army, so I do not fear being killed."
"It is not for you I worry but for all of Greece," Eponin said softly her eyes falling briefly to the still woman on the cot. "If Gabrielle dies there will be no one to save any of us from the Conqueror's black heart."
The man was silent as he contemplated the woman's words. He had heard rumours that the Conqueror had changed and that those changes had come as a result of the young woman now entrusted in his care. A woman who it seemed was more than a mere slave to the Empress.
"Have a seat," he motioned towards a wooden bench along one wall. "I will see to you when I am done here."
Eponin would have protested but her leg ached. They had ridden hard and fast that day and her limb hurt, the injury worsened by her own fatigue. She nodded and limped over to the bench, pleased to be able to finally rest her weary body, content with the knowledge that she could still watch over her Queen.
Xena exited the hut, expelling a huge breath that was like a puff of smoke in the chilly evening air. It was late fall and the night had brought with it colder temperatures, but she noticed none of it, her thoughts solely on the woman she had left behind in the hut.
She began to pace restlessly, unable to mask the worry she felt. She chided herself for leaving the bard alone and was about to storm into the hut when a familiar figure emerged from the surrounding shadows.
"My Conqueror," Zenon spoke, interrupting her thoughts.
"What?" the Empress barked pausing for a moment to look at the intruder. The soldier took a deep breath. He knew how worried the Conqueror was. They were all worried.
"I just wished to advise you that I have left instructions to set up camp just outside the village gates," the Captain of the Guard reported. "I have instructed the perimeter guards to be extra attentive and be aware that there may be persons willing to tempt fate and try to attack you."
"Good," Xena nodded her approval. She was aware of her unpopularity in the country. But the hatred was not more greater then in her own home village. It would not surprise her if someone did not try an attempt on her life. But she could handle that. She glanced at the closed door of the healers hut.
"I want there to be a guard with the Queen at every moment of the day and night until she is well," she turned her intense blue orbs back on the soldier. "Too many people here know of her association with me."
"The Amazon's have already volunteered their services," Zenon advised, glad that Solari and her small party of warriors had arrived at the Palace prior to their departure on this journey. He had been pleased when the Amazon's had insisted on escorting them, knowing that they could use the extra help.
"How is the Queen?"
"I don't know," Xena admitted reluctantly her eyes honing in on the door to the healers hut feeling a rising fear in her gut.
Toris was sitting at a table in the corner of the tavern, pouring over the ledgers of the Inn when the door unexpectedly burst open. Like the rest of the patrons who had chosen to eat at the Inn that evening, he glanced up, a smile automatically coming to his lips at the sight of his friend Saiderus.
"Saiderus..." Toris began but his words were cut-off by the other man.
"The Conqueror...," the younger man barely managed to sputter as he hurried across the room.
"What about the Conqueror?" the older man was immediately alert, his blue eyes narrowing.
"She's here," Saiderus continued, struggling to catch his breath. He had run from his home at the
entrance to the town. "She and her entire entourage rode into the village just moments ago."
"What is she doing here?" Toris wanted to know, automatically rolling up the scroll that he had been working on. His whole body tensed.
"I don't know but she was headed towards the healers hut," the man explained. "I saw her enter just as I arrived here. She was carrying something."
"One of her pet hounds no doubt," the older man snorted sarcastically. "I wonder why she is here, she knows that she is not welcome." It had been several seasons since the woman had last been in Amphipolis, and then she had only come in search of the bard Gabrielle. His blue eyes narrowed. "Did you see Gabrielle, the bard anywhere?"
"No," the messenger shook his head. "There was another woman with the Conqueror but she was dressed as a warrior."
Toris' attention was momentarily distracted by the appearance of his mother who came out of the kitchen. He watched as she strolled over to a couple in the middle of the room and set two steaming plates of stew down in front of them. He knew how she would feel knowing that the Empress was here. But he had no intention of telling her, deciding in that moment to go to his sister and demand she leave. He stood up, looking at his friend.
"Say nothing to anyone until I find out the purpose of her visit here."
"What about the others?" the other man asked looking up at his friend. Toris knew that already his associates would be gathering.
"Keep them here until I return," the man said and his friend nodded, watching as the tall man walked out of the Inn. He did not fear for the man, knowing that the Conqueror would do nothing to harm her brother.
Toris strolled purposefully through the darkened streets of the village, aware that news of the Conqueror's arrival had already filtered through the town. People were standing in small clusters near their houses whispering to their neighbours, all wondering what had brought the feared warrior back to her home town.
The man glanced briefly at his friends, an angry frown etching it's way across his brow. None of them wanted her here and he knew it was his duty as a member of her blood family to send her away.
He turned the corner and headed through the shadows towards the healers hut at the end of the dusty lane, his footfalls landing softly against the ground. He peered through the darkness, his blue eyes honing in on the tall figure that was pacing restlessly in front of the cabin. His back stiffened, for though he could not distinguish the features of the individual, he knew that it was his sister, the most feared person in the Empire.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded in an angry voice as he stepped out of the darkness.
Xena tensed. She had heard the approach and had been alert. Slowly she turned on her heel to face the man who matched her in height, but who was much less formidable even though he was physically larger.
"I am in no mood for your games Toris," she advised in a quiet voice that warned most people that it was ill advised to bother her.
"Games," the man snorted coming to a halt a few feet from his younger sibling. "You call what we do games, what do you call what you do?"
"Toris," the name was ground out behind clenched teeth. "I am not in the mood to argue with you or be bothered by your petty grievances. I caution you that I may not be able to control my actions at this moment so you better scurry back to where you came from before I end up hurting you."
"What right have you got...," the rest of his words were cut off as the sharp edge of a knife was suddenly pressed against his throat drawing a slight trickle of blood. The Empress had been so swift that he had not been able to react.
"I have every right to do whatever I want," the Conqueror warned in a chilling tone. "And you are pushing your fate right now. I am in no mood for your childish tantrums so leave before I show no conscience and slit your throat."
The man was abruptly released and his hand automatically went to this throat. He stared at his sister and saw that the threat was real. There was a blackness in her eyes that truly made him afraid. He swallowed compulsively and unconsciously backed up, aware that whether he lived or died depended on his next actions. Before he had known that he could push her as far as he wanted and still not have to worry about retribution, but tonight something was different.
He watched as she dismissed him by turning her back. He took a decisive step forward but felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He turned his head angrily towards this person and saw a heavily armoured soldier standing there.
"You would be wise to heed the Empress' words," Zenon uttered the advice in a quiet, solemn voice. "For there is no one here who would make the attempt to save you."
Toris hesitated. Normally, he would have paid no attention to such a caution but there was something in the other man's expression that made a thread of fear race up his spine. He turned his blue eyes back to the Conqueror who had paced up to the cabin and was staring at the closed door intently.
"Gabrielle is very ill," the soldier explained in the same hushed tone, aware that the Empress would not appreciate him discussing the matter.
Toris glanced sharply at his companion oblivious to the fact that the hand had been removed from his
"And that is a reason I should worry?"
"It is a reason for us all to fear," Zenon said, his own hazel eyes casting a discreet glance at the Conqueror before turning his attention back to the villager. "There is no telling what will happen if the Queen dies."
"I have no fear of what the Conqueror can do," Toris retorted angrily.
"Then you are a fool," Zenon retorted aware of the severity of the situation. He was as worried about the bard as was the Conqueror and the Amazon's.
"You don't know who I am," Toris scoffed.
"You are the Conqueror's brother," the soldier said without care. "But today that means nothing."
Toris was momentarily confused. If he accepted what this man was saying then he would have to accept the fact that his sister cared deeply for the small bard he had befriended so long ago. But it was a hard concept to accept. Xena had not really cared for anyone or thing since Lyceus' death. It was a novel idea and one he had never considered.
"Go back to your home and advise your fellow townsfolk's to do the same," the soldier said. "It would be suicide to try anything against the Conqueror now for she would show no mercy, not even to those who are of her own flesh and blood."
Toris glanced once more at his sister before backing away and the Captain of the Guard was relieved that the man had not been stupid. He had no desire to fight these villagers. He had experienced enough bloodshed to last him for a while. Besides he had served many years with the Empress and knew when the animal inside her was awake and he could see by the stance of her body that the creature was clawing at the latch to the cage in which she kept it. He had no doubt that it would be released if the bard were to die.
Xena forgot her brother the moment she turned her back. She had no time to deal with him and the hatred he felt towards her. She paced restlessly around in a circle her eyes glued to the doorway of the hut, anxious for news of her young lover, uncertain how long she could contain her impatience.
She slumped down onto the top step of the hut, feeling completely helpless for the first time in her life. She feared the worst yet begged that it not be so. She remembered that night so long ago in the meadow where the Goddess' Artemis and Aphrodite had promised to grant her deepest desire. She had told them she had none, yet now she wished they would offer that wish again.
Paulus did all he could, mixing the various herbs into the tea which he then spoon fed to the restless woman. But it was a thankless task for the bard would move just as he went to feed her and the contents would spill upon the blanket. He sighed in frustration.
"The Conqueror would be more than willing to help," a voice from the far corner of the room offered the suggestion. The healer turned his head to look at the Amazon, not masking the irritation he felt.
"I am quite capable of administering to this woman myself," he growled. "However if you think otherwise you could offer your services."
"It wouldn't help," Eponin shook her head gravely. She had seen many things in her tenure at the Queen's side and there were certain things that she knew. "Call the Conqueror, Gabrielle will calm down with Xena at her side."
Paulus snorted in disbelief but when after several more tries he was still unable to get any of the medicine down the small woman's throat he was willing to try anything. He turned and glared at the Amazon.
"Where would I go to find her?" He was not certain he would know where to look. There was no place in the village where the Conqueror would be welcome.
"You need only to go to your door," Eponin replied confidently. "She will be waiting outside."
The healer doubted the claim but he reluctantly did as the woman suggested. He had hoped to prove her wrong, suspecting that the Conqueror had better things to do then wait outside for the girl in his care to heal. He was barely able to hide his surprise when he opened the door and the thin shaft of light from within fell upon the Empress who was sitting on the top step just outside his door. Xena immediately jumped to her feet and stared at the healer.
"What's wrong?" she demanded her nostrils flaring, fear lacing through her body.
"I believe the young bard has been poisoned," Paulus did not lie.
Xena was stunned and angry. A blinding rage suddenly filled her being. Gabrielle was the kindest person she knew and she could think of no one who would want to harm the woman. No one but an enemy of the Conqueror. Someone who knew of the bard's importance and wanted revenge.
"You have medicines to heal her," the Empress stated angrily as she continued to absorb the information.
"Yes," a slight flush crept up the man's neck as the intense blue orbs continued to stare at him. For the first time in his life he felt an indescribable fear as he witnessed the animal in the woman's soul. "However, I have been unable to administer them to her. She has been to restless to feed."
Without waiting for the man to finish Xena brushed passed him into the hut. She strolled purposefully across the room kneeling by the cot where her lover lay. She looked down at the girl, gently combing the damp blond bangs off her forehead. The healer watched in amazement as the unconscious woman seemed to sense the touch and grow calm.
"Where is the medicine?" the Conqueror asked without looking up and the healer immediately grabbed the bowl of tea and herbs he had mixed.
Xena carefully manoeuvred herself around on the cot so that the smaller woman's head was tilted up on her lap. Only then did she reach for the bowl of herbs.
"Gabrielle, it's Xena," she said softly, brushing the side of the smaller woman's face with one hand as she brought the bowl towards the dry pink lips of her lover. "I need you to drink this. It will make you feel better."
The healer watched smugly as the blonde woman continued to lie still and unmoving.
"Gabrielle, you must drink this, please, if you don't I will lose you and you must know I can no longer live without you," the Warrior Princess repeated in a soft and coaxing voice. "There are so many things that I have yet to show you, so many things we have yet to share. Once I find Solan I will need you more than ever."
There was silence as the Empress' voice fell quiet. The healer was shocked by the words that he had heard coming from the Conqueror's lips. Perhaps more shocked then the knowledge that they seemed to have their desired affect as there was a slight gurgling sound before the small blond woman opened her lips.
For the next candlemark he watched mesmerised as the tall dark haired woman patiently fed the brew to the sickly woman who lay calmly, somehow soothed by the Empress' touch and the soft words the older woman spoke. Paulus had never thought that the Destroyer of Nations, a woman who killed so easily, could be this gentle and tender.
Even once the tea and herbs was gone the Empress refused to move from her position and the healer knew that it would be unwise to ask the tall woman to do so. He knew then that the Empress had nothing to do with the smaller woman's sickness. He turned and left the two women alone, returning to his regular chores.
Toris walked slowly back to the tavern uncertain what he would do. He knew that his associates would be awaiting his return. It would be his decision as to what they would do next. He paused outside the Inn and stared for a moment in the direction of the healers hut, remembering the look in his sisters eyes.
He had only watched her in battle once. It had been a terrifying and memorable experience and the reason that he had decided to fight against her. He had seen the essence of evil in her that day and she had glorified in that power. Tonight he had seen the barest reflection of that cruel nature. He mounted the steps and walked into the tavern knowing what he must do.
"What can we do?" Saiderus stood up and rushed eagerly to their leader's side as the tall dark haired man entered the room. They had all gathered with the thought of challenging the Conqueror.
"Go home," Toris wisely advised, knowing that he was making the right decision. "There is nothing we can do."
"But this is the perfect opportunity," another young man proclaimed jumping up from his seat near the wall. "Robinus and I scouted out the party. There are no more than two dozen escort and half of which are Amazons. We can raise at least double that number within a candlemark."
"It would be suicide," the man shook his head. "Now is not the time."
"Why not?" another man demanded challenging the tall dark haired man. "Now that the time has come have you grown fearful and unable to fight the Empress. Perhaps it is more important to you that she is your sister."
"No," the blue eyed man disputed the charge, aware that none of them had seen the animal that lived inside his sister. "I hate Xena and everything she is but we are all in much more danger than we believe. I beg you to go home and wait quietly. Do nothing and when the time is right we will act."
There was a moment of grumbling but finally the men departed the Inn leaving Toris with the feeling that somehow he had lost control of the group. He knew they were unhappy with his decision but there was nothing more he could do and he didn't know how else he could tell them about his unnatural fear. He turned from the door to see his mother staring at him from a position by the kitchen.
"Is it true, is Xena here?" Cyrene wanted to know, feeling a mixture of emotions at the news.
"Yes," the man sighed. "It seems that Gabrielle is sick."
The older woman was silent. She had always been fond of the small blond storyteller. The girl had a warmth and friendliness that had reached out to everyone with whom she came into contact. She felt a genuine sadness at the knowledge that Gabrielle was ill.
"Do you know what's wrong?"
"No," Toris shook his head, watching as a mirage of emotions flitted across his mother's face. "I did not get a change to speak with the healer. Xena and her men have the place well guarded."
Cyrene looked at her son. He was so similar to his younger sibling that sometimes it was hard to look at him without remembering the daughter that she had borne. For a long time she had felt hatred towards her only female child, yet the passing of time and the seeming appearance of the bard into both their lives had done much to change her feelings.
"And Xena, your sister, how is she?" the older woman dared to ask of her son.
"I did not think to ask," Toris replied through gritted teeth. He could see the cautious anxiety in his mothers eyes. He knew that she still cared for the Conqueror in spite of everything that had happened. She had blamed Xena for Lyceus death yet perhaps time had mellowed her feelings.
Without another word he gathered up the scrolls he had been working on and walked stiffly out of the tavern. Cyrene stared at the receding back of her only surviving son. He had been such a good boy, remaining by her side while the rest of her children had gone off to seek fortune and power. She loved him dearly but she could not help feeling a mother's devotion to her other children in spite of their faults. With a tired sigh she turned and retreated back to the kitchen.
Xena remained by the bard's side, devoting her entire attention to the small woman, not knowing when night turned to day. Her only focus was on the woman who held her life.
The healer felt strange at the tenderness he witnessed in the Conqueror. It reminded him of the child he had brought into the world so many years before. The girl who had selflessly helped her mother at the tavern and who had run through the meadows with the other village children playing games with wooden swords.
No one had ever suspected that she would grow up to be the cruel despot that now ruled the Empire and until the previous day he had believed like the rest of the village that she was ruthless and without emotion. Yet after watching her care for the bard he wondered if there was not something of the young girl still left in the Empress. Perhaps like so many things the once caring child had been buried under a hard shell. A crust which she had needed to survive the death of her brother Lyceus and the pain and harshness she had suffered since.
Under the Conqueror's watchful eye he continued to monitor the small woman's progress. The fever seemed to have diminished with the use of the herbs yet there was still something puzzling about the bard's condition. He wondered if there was something he had over looked in his examination. He was careful though to ensure that his thoughts were not transferred to the Empress.
"How is she?" Xena asked quietly, her voice made raw by the long sleepless hours she had spent at the bard's side.
"The fever has stablized," the healer sighed, feeling his own sense of weariness.
"Should it not have broken by now?" the Empress asked and Paulus knew that he was not dealing with an amateur. It was obvious that the Conqueror was aware of the medicines and there healing powers.
"Yes," the man admitted nodding his head glumly. "If there is no change by tomorrow morning, I will try a new recipe of herbs."
Xena nodded aware that her own knowledge of herbs and medicines was rudimentary. Even though the idea frightened her, she knew that she had to rely on the doctors knowledge and understanding. She hated the helpless feeling that encompassed her.
"She must live," the Conqueror breathed and then stared intently at the bard, lowering her lips to the ear closest to her face. "You have to live Gabrielle. My life is nothing without you."
The healer heard the softly spoken words and felt like he was intruding. Dutifully he left the stifling heat of the hut and stepped out into the freshness of the morning. His eyes fastened on the young woman who was strolling towards his cottage.
"I am sorry to be late," Seraphim aplogized and then hurried to explain that she had been held up by the sermons of the leader of the group that she had joined.
"It is all right," Paulus dismissed the excuse as he slumped down onto the top step of the porch. "I have no need for your services today."
The young blonde nodded her head. Her brown eyes studied the aged healer, seeing the lines of fatigue that were etched into the corners of his eyes and lips. She had seen the tent encampment at the edges of the village and now noted the two scantily clad warriors, whom she assumed were Amazons, standing on guard on each side of the door leading into the healers hut.
"Did I miss some excitement?" the girl naively asked and the healer couldn't help but laugh.
"If you call a visit by the Conqueror excitement, then yes my dear you have," Paulus said ironically.
"The Conqueror!" the girl's eyes grew large and round. "Is she sick?"
"No, I don't think any ordinary disease would ever dare attack the Empress," the healer said with a hint of ill humour. "It is her companion, a bard named Gabrielle who has come down with a sickness."
"The bard Gabrielle!" the girl echoed with widen eyes. "I was raised in Potedaia with Gabrielle."
The healer eyed his assistant thoughtfully, privately wondering if she had been raised in Potedaia, how she had come to be associated with the people with whom she travelled. It then occurred to him that the children of Potedaia seemed to have a habit of hooking up with an odd crowd.
"Come back tomorrow," Paulus said having grown tired of the conversation.
"Are you sure there isn't anything I can do?" Seraphim asked aware that she was being dismissed. The healer paused thoughtfully. It had been many hours since he had last eaten and he was certain that his unexpected guest could also use some food.
"Run over to the tavern and get a small pot of soup. Tell Cyrene it is for her daughter."
"Okay," the girl nodded and then hurried off to do his bidding, aware that she would have some gossip to share with her group when she returned to their camp in the hills.
There was no change in the bard's condition that day and the soup that Seraphim had delivered from the tavern went uneaten. Day turned to night and when Paulus retired to his bed the Conqueror was still sitting quietly at the small woman's bedside, alternately whispering encouragement and stroking the bard's brow, and at other times cradling the smaller woman's head on her lap and administered the much needed herbs.
It was dawn of the next morning when the fever finally broke and only a few candlemarks later before a pair of glassy green orbs fluttered open. The Empress could have wept with joy but she remained stoic not daring to reveal the true depth of her feelings for the other woman. She did however allow herself to lean down and kiss the smaller woman.
"Gabrielle," Xena anxiously found herself saying the other woman's name.
"Xena," the bard gave her companion a weak smile.
"How are you feeling?" the Conqueror reached out and gently combed an errand strand of damp blond hair from the girl's face.
"Like a herd of centaurs just rode all over me," Gabrielle barely managed to croak our the complaint. "What's wrong with me?
"Nothing serious," the Conqueror lied, not willing to confront the smaller woman with the truth until she was better healed. The tall woman cracked a small smile, her heart pounding violently in her chest. "The healer says that you will be all right and that you just need rest."
"Ok," the bard nodded, closing her eyes as sleep settled more comfortably over her weary body.
Xena sat for a long while at her lover's bedside and only moved when her knees began to grow numb. She stood up and looked around the room, catching the sight of the healer watching her from a bench at the far end of the room. She walked towards the door.
"You have done well and will be rewarded accordingly," she said opening the portal. The healer was unexpectedly angered by her brusque words.
"If you truly wished for her health you would leave her here and continue on your way," the man bravely suggested bringing the Conqueror to a standstill. For a long moment blue and grey eyes met in a silent exchange.
"I cannot leave her," the tall dark woman said softly. "She is like the air that I need to breath and I can no longer live without her."
Without another word the Conqueror stepped through the door, closing it quietly behind her. The healer stared at the door for a moment longer before glancing across the room to the small woman sleeping on the cot. He wondered if she would feel the same when she knew the complete truth.
Xena glanced only briefly at the two Amazon guards that had been posted at the door of the healers hut. She was only half way across the town square headed to the village gates, when Zenon stepped out of the blacksmith shop and hurried to join her.
"Who has been preparing our meals on this journey?" she asked as they continued to walk towards the makeshift camp.
"Everyone has been taking turns," the soldier dutifully replied. "Why?"
"It seems that someone has been poisoning Gabrielle," the Empress advised the man. "I want you to find the source and those responsible."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the man replied aware of the responsibility with which he had just been entrusted. He liked Gabrielle and didn't know of one person who wished her harm. "We set up a tent for you in the middle of the camp."
Though he knew that the Empress needed some sleep he was loaf to make the suggestion that she take some rest. He knew that until the perpetuator was caught none of them would find peace. He actually pitied the poor person who had attempted hurt the bard.
"Thank you," Xena nodded seeing the tent and feeling a measure of relief. She longed for the privacy that it offered and stepped inside while Zenon hurried off to begin his investigation.
She felt more exhausted then she had ever felt in her life and that included the times that she had spent days fighting in battle. There was nothing so tough as the emotional and mental strain that fear exacted on a person and she gratefully slumped onto the cot that had been set up, not bothering to remove her leathers.
She threw her arm across her head and closed her eyes but she would not find any sleep. Peace would not come until she found out who was responsible for attempting to kill her lover. The panther inside her soul was to enraged to be settled until some revenge had been exacted.
The Conqueror spent only a short while wallowing in her own guilt. She was used to doing something and in spite of the fact that she had assigned to Zenon the task of uncovering the culprit, she was too restless to find any measure of relaxation, her thoughts turning to the perplexing question of who and how her young lover had been poisoned.
She dwelt on the various scenarios and came up with no clear idea as to who might be responsible or how the bard had been administered the lethal serum for it was obvious that her lover had somehow ingested the fatal potion. Suddenly she sat up on the cot, her mind a mixture of confusing emotion as a thought occurred to her. Not more than a candlemark later she stepped out of the tent dressed in a fresh set of leathers.
Intense blue eyes scanned the surrounding area. She saw a mirage of Amazon and soldiers searching through the small load of baggage that they had brought along with them. She doubted their search would reveal any find.
"Solari, Zenon," she called to the Amazon leader and the Captain of the Royal Guard. Both immediately hurried to her side.
"Yes, My Conqueror," they said in unison.
"Has anyone else reported feeling ill?" Xena wanted to know. She could not remember anyone else being sick but she was not often privy to such matters. The two leaders looked at each other, thinking of the people under their charge.
"No one," Zenon shook his head.
"Edisa, a young Amazon was ill a few days ago," Solari reported remembering the unpleasant symptoms that had hobbled the younger Amazon a few days into their journey. "But it was only brief and she is recovered."
"She is here?" the Empress wanted to know and Solari nodded, turning to call over to a small redhead Amazon who was standing not far away. The girl immediately ran up to her leader, unable to keep her shy green eyes off the imposing Conqueror, who was much more intimating then the Queen whom she had befriended.
"Edisa?" Xena asked and the girl bobbed her head wondering if she had done anything to offend the Empress. "You were sick a few days ago, do you have any idea what might have brought on your illness, anything you may have eaten?"
The young girl was quiet as she considered the question. She glanced fugitively at the Amazon leader before focusing her attention once more on the Conqueror.
"I ate only what the others did, some rabbit and some edible root," the Amazon replied shuffling nervously on her feet. "Oh, and Queen Gabrielle gave me an hand full of dates. But they were quite bitter tasting and so I tossed most of them away."
The confession came with an embarrassed flush and the girl wondered if she would be punished for discarding a gift from the Queen. But she need not have worried because the Conqueror was already on the move, striding quickly across the ground to the Command tent. Solari and Zenon followed closely on her heels aware that something was happening.
It did not take long for Xena to find the bard's pouch among their possessions. She ripped open the small cloth bag that had contented the fruit that the old crone had given Gabrielle upon their departure from the Capital. The bag was almost empty with the exception of a few small pieces of fruit which had begun to rot.
The Conqueror took a bite out of one piece and then automatically spit it out at the odd, yet sweet taste. Her normally stoic features were an angry mask as she realized that the innocent gift had been the source of the bard's woes.
"Damn it to all Hades," she cursed violently, flinging the bag across the tent in anger. She railed at the God's and her own inability to sense danger. She should have been more alert. She should have inspected the fruit before allowing the bard the chance to eat it.
"It was in the fruit," Solari voiced the words that no one had yet dared to speak aloud. She glanced up at the Conqueror in astonishment.
"The fruit she got as a gift from a strange old crone as we were departing the capital," Xena finished with an ugly twist to her mouth.
"But what grievance could she have had against the Queen?" Zenon was equally surprised by this discovery.
"Probably none," the Empress spat out bitterly. "The old woman was either trying to hurt me or doing someone else a favour."
"I will immediately send a message back to the capital for my men to begin searching for her," the Captain said but the Conqueror shook her head.
"No, I doubt we will be able to find her," Xena had a vague idea who might be the instigator of this plot. She had sampled this type of poison only once before and that time it had been administered by herself to an enemy. The potion had been a gift from Ares.
"What do you wish us to do?" the Amazon asked quietly unnerved by the lengthening silence and the growing anger that seemed to be radiating from the Conqueror.
"Nothing," the tall woman snarled. "Fetch my horse."
Zenon hurried to do his master's bidding, having served with her long enough not to question her actions. If she wanted them to help she would tell them, until then he knew it was best to stay silent and out of the way. He could see the animal that was stirring inside her soul.
"I will be back," the Conqueror informed her escort when she mounted Argo. "Until then ensure that Gabrielle is kept safe."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the two leaders agreed and then stood in silence as the stoic warrior clicked her heels into the horses flanks and took off down the road in a cloud of dust.
There was only one thought that filled the Conqueror's head as she pushed her horse down the road towards the small clearing and pond that she used to visit as a child. It was far enough away from the village not to be disturbed and secluded enough so that no one would be hurt if a confrontation ensued. Upon reaching the edge of the placid pool of water she slipped out of her saddle and strolled to the center of the narrow meadow.
"Ares, you son of a bachccae, get down here right now!" Xena yelled at the top of her lungs. A small cloud of birds were scared from their nearby perches and took flight at the harsh disturbance to their realm. When they were gone nothing remained but silence.
"Ares, you coward," the Conqueror continued to taunt the Deity aware of how to get the God of War to respond.
"Xena, Xena, Xena," the handsome man suddenly appeared behind her and the Empress swung around to face him, the sword already in her hand ready to strike.
"So you had the guts to show up yourself," the Empress snarled. "I am almost surprised you didn't send another old crone to do your work."
"I can't imagine what you are talking about," the God of War acted completely innocent.
"You know what I am talking about," Xena hissed moving swiftly forward until her sword was pressed up against his Adam's apple. "You tried to poison Gabrielle."
"Ahhh," the Deity continued to pretend ignorance. "Your little blond tart is sick and you find the need to blame someone."
"Gabrielle was poisoned," the Empress ground out the smaller woman's name and pressed her sword a little more against the man's neck. "What favour did you grant to the old crone who gave Gabrielle that lethal fruit or was that you really in disguise?"
"Please," the God screwed up his face in distaste at the idea of changing his appearance to look like an old woman. Didn't these mortals know that he had retainers for such work? "I have no need to disguise myself."
"No, there are plenty of willing servants to do your dirty work right?" the tall woman intoned bitterly.
"Well, what can I say?" the Deity spread his arms. He was inwardly pleased that His Chosen had been intelligent enough to deduce his deception even though that meant that the bard had not been harmed. Nonetheless, his part of the bargain had been fulfilled.
"You can say that you will leave her alone," the Conqueror snarled. "Don't mess with her Ares because you will regret it."
The Empress turned away from the God and whistled for her horse. She had gotten the answer she had wanted and had issued her own threat. There was nothing more for her to do here. She jumped onto the warhorse but was unable to leave as the Deity had moved and taken hold of the creatures bridle.
"Xena, I think you have forgotten who made you," the God of War said in a soft voice.
"No Ares," Xena spat out. "That is something I will never forget. But know, in spite of that you don't own me, or have you forgotten that."
Without another word the Conqueror clicked her heels and set the horse once more in motion, forgetting about the God of War, her mind already focused on the village and her lover.
Gabrielle gingerly lifted her head off the pillow to survey her surroundings, aware of the pounding in her brain. She was lying on a cot not far from a blazing fireplace in what appeared to be a small cottage. There were few furnishings save for a table and chairs at the far end of the room and a bench on which a folded blanket lay. The only other thing she noticed were the shelves carefully built into the walls. They were fully burdened with a multitude of jars. She noticed a man standing in the shadows.
"Are you the healer?" she asked in a hoarse voice.
"Yes I am," the man's kindly demeanour asserted itself in spite of his best intentions. There was something about his patient, a sweet innocence and a charm that was captivating. He pulled up a stool next to the pallet and sat down. "My name is Paulus."
"Nice to meet you Paulus," the bard smiled weakly and would have extended her hand in greeting but felt to drained to move. She asked the next question not because she was fearful for herself but for her companion whom she knew would be worried. "Am I terribly sick?"
"You were fortunate," the healer said quietly pulling back the bed-sheets to examine the woman carefully. "With time and plenty of rest you should be fine."
There were several matters that he needed to broach yet he was cautious about doing so. In spite of what he had seen, he did not know the circumstances of the relationship between this young woman and the Empress. Though he had been surprised by the Conqueror's attitude towards the bard, he still knew of her capacity for violence and worried that when the dangerous Warrior learned the truth there would be no one who could protect the girl. He had lived too many years under her oppression to easily dismiss her true nature.
Hesitantly he glanced at the empty bench where the Amazon warrior had spent the last two nights. Only once she was reassured that the bard was going to be okay, was he able to persuade the woman to join the rest of her companions at the small encampment on the outskirts of the village. In spite of the woman's assertion he wondered if her people would really be able to protect this girl from the Destroyer of Nations.
"What was it? What made me so ill?" Gabrielle saw the man's indecision and swallowed, almost afraid to hear what he had to say.
"How well do you trust the Empress?"
"With my life," came the unwavering reply and the man could see the girl was sincere. He sighed, realizing this would be more difficult then he imagined.
"What is wrong with me?" Gabrielle repeated her earlier question.
"It appears that someone has been poisoning you," he was blunt, seeing no other way to break the news.
"No!" the bard was startled by the revelation. "But how can that be, we all share the same food and no one else has gotten ill."
"The traces are very minuet but concentrated," the healer continued. "You probably wouldn't have survived if it hadn't been for your condition, though it will be some time before you will be able to tell if there are any lasting side effects."
"Condition? Side effects?" Gabrielle was confused. She lightly shook her head having a hard time digesting the information. The healer looked at her pensively, not realizing that she didn't know.
"Surely you must have sensed that something was wrong," the man said knowing of no way to soften the blow. A thoughtful frown appeared on his brow. "Of course, you could have assumed the vomiting was a result of your illness."
"Then why was I throwing up?"
"You are pregnant."
"Pregnant!" the bard's green eyes grew large and round. "That's impossible."
"I am afraid not my child," Paulus felt sympathetic. "You are almost a full season with child."
"But you don't understand, I have never been with a man," Gabrielle protested with a hint of fear and anxiety. Her embarrassment forgotten as the seriousness of her situation took hold of her senses. She thought of everything that had recently happened and her outings with Jason. She knew that Xena would never believe that nothing had happened. Unconsciously she spoke her last thoughts out loud.
"Well, unless I am mistaken, or the Conqueror does some magic tricks that our science has not yet learned, you are definitely with child," the man replied sceptical of the woman's claim. He studied her features pensively.
"Are you in fear for your life?" he asked with genuine concern. "We can give you refuge if needed. I have friends that can help you escape from the Conqueror."
"No!" In spite of her trepidation Gabrielle was not one to run away. Besides she had done nothing wrong, though she couldn't figure out how she had gotten pregnant. She had never been with a man and though she was not an expert on such matters, she knew that being with one was a prerequisite. She turned pleading green eyes towards the healer.
"Please, I beg of you to say nothing of this to anyone," she needed time to figure out a way to break the news to her lover, but the man once again misunderstood her request.
"Your secret is safe with me," he sighed and gently picked up her hand. "But there are people who are no friends of the Empress who would gladly help you if you fear for your life."
"I appreciate your offer," Gabrielle replied her thoughts distracted by this unforseen situation.
It was almost too much to think about right now and her head started pounding so hard that it was difficult for her to hear her own thoughts. She felt a wave of nausea threaten and sensing her distress the healer quickly stood up and retreated to the table, returning immediately with a steaming bowl of herbs.
"Drink this," he instructed passing her a full mug of tea and herbs.
The Queen nodded and accepted the offering. She sat up and slowly sipped the warm liquid, feeling it burn down her throat and settle into the pit of her stomach. It had it's desired affected, immediately going too work to settle the uneasy churning inside.
"What do you wish to do?" the healer asked looking down at the small woman.
"I don't know," the bard replied honestly. "I need time to think."
"Well, I will be here if you need anything," the older man nodded his head in quiet understanding.
There must have been some sleeping potion mixed into the concoction for no sooner had she finished the medication when her eye lids began to feel heavy. She settled back down onto the pallet and was soon asleep with all thoughts of her problems momentarily forgotten.
The healer watched the small woman for a long moment, not certain what the future would bring for the bard or for himself for that matter. He did not envy the blonde woman's position. He had been witness to the Empress' wrath and feared for anyone who dared to incur it. He turned away and went back to mixing his herbs in anticipation of the next crisis.
Xena was tempted to head straight over to the healers hut once she returned to the village but her emotions were still roiling inside her body. Rather than pass the chore on to one of her soldiers she decided to tend to Argo herself, knowing that the exercise would give her the necessary time to settle her anger before she went to see the bard.
A candlemark later, her rage was once more under control. She spent a few minutes washing up and walking around the makeshift camp before taking the lonely stroll through the village gates and across the square towards the healers hut.
The Conqueror paused at the summons. She turned and watched as a woman stepped out of the lengthening shadows of a nearby building. There was a pensive expression on the face which was lined with the signs of the many years of hard work.
"How are you Xena?" the older woman asked breaking the silence that enveloped them in the empty courtyard.
"Fine," the younger woman replied, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. She was the Empress but she would always feel like a small child in the presence of her mother. "I was just on my way to see Gabrielle. She is sick." The Conqueror added unnecessarily, aware that the reason they were in the village was probably common knowledge.
"Yes I heard," Cyrene nodded, hesitantly lifting the bowl in her hands. "I was on my way to the healers. I prepared some of my soup. It always used to help you when you were ill. Maybe you can bring it to her."
"Thank you," Xena nodded accepting the gift. "I am sure Gabrielle will appreciate it." There was a slight pause as the Conqueror briefly looked down at her feet before glancing back at her mother. "I am certain she would appreciate a visit from you if you have the time. She often talks of her visits here."
"We miss her stories," the older woman said wistfully and then dared to ask the question that had gone unanswered in all the rumours she had heard. "What is wrong with her?"
Xena was silent for a long moment uncertain she wanted anyone to know the truth, feeling a wave of guilt. She looked down at her feet again, seeing the dust upon the toes of her boots. Cyrene had just about given up on getting an answer when the tall woman glanced up again.
"She was poisoned," the Conqueror admitted in a low voice.
"Who would do such a thing to that sweet woman?" The Innkeeper asked in astonishment, forgetting briefly with whom she was speaking. She heard a hiss of breath and glanced up at her daughter, realizing only then what she had said.
"Anyone who wants to get back at me," the Empress said in a hard voice. Without another word she turned away and continued on her path towards the healers hut.
Cyrene felt her heart ache. For just a brief instant she had seen the pain and hurt in her daughters eyes. She knew without a doubt what she had only suspected before, and it was something no one believed was possible for the woman who had conquered all of Greece. Xena cared. More specifically she cared for Gabrielle the bard. Slowly the Innkeeper turned and retreated to the tavern.
Xena stepped into the healers hut, not bothering to knock before entering. She paused on the threshold her eyes honing in on the small woman who was sleeping on the pallet. The sounds of her light snoring was a blessing to the tall woman.
"Come in," Paulus said with a hint of sarcasm and the Empress turned her head to look at the man who was seated in a far corner of the hut reading from a scroll on his lap.
"How is she?" the Conqueror ignored the barb noticing that the wooden bench where Eponin had slept the last two nights was empty.
"Better," the healer replied simply. "She woke earlier and was quite lucid. I gave her some more herbs and they put her back to sleep. It will be a few candlemarks before she wakes again."
"I will wait," Xena decided, glancing briefly around the room before setting the bowl of soup her mother had given her on the table. "Cyrene sent over some soup."
"Thanks," the man nodded his head before turning his attention back to the scroll he was reading.
Xena ignored the man and walked across the room to settle onto the stool that was next to the bards cot. She looked down at the sleeping woman, not able to stop herself from reaching out and combing thin strands of blonde hair from the girl's face. Gabrielle always looked so innocent in sleep, but today there was a frown upon the normally serene face. The Conqueror wondered what was worrying her friend.
"I am sorry Gabrielle," the Empress apologized quietly to her lover. "Please forgive me, I should have been more careful. I promise you that I will never allow something like this to happen again."
As if to seal her promise, the dark haired woman leaned forward and brushed her lips against the still warm brow before settling back to wait for the bard to wake. It was many candlemarks later and well into the afternoon when green eyes fluttered open once again.
"Hi sweetheart," the Conqueror whispered to the smaller woman. "How are you feeling?"
"Miserable," Gabrielle replied with a weak smile aware that her throat was dry and ached. Her eyes searched the stoic face that was bent over her. A hand automatically reached up and gently stroked strands of dark hair away from the lovely face that was etched with lines of worry. "Xena you look terrible, when was the last time you slept?"
The tall warrior smiled wearily, knowing by the small woman's comment that she was going to be all right. It would take a few more days before she was completely recovered and before they could continue their journey but the bard was going to be okay and that was all she was concerned about. Silently she sent a prayer of thanks to the Goddess' to which she had prayed. She grasp the younger woman's hand.
"I can't remember," the Empress replied not daring to lie knowing that the other woman would immediately see through the falsehood.
"You should get some sleep," Gabrielle scolded. "You look ready to drop."
"I've been up longer," the Warrior countered. There were many times in her quest to conquer Greece that she had not slept for days, but then her body had been fuelled by blood lust, such was not the case on this day.
"Xena?" the bard looked at her and the Empress hung her head waiting to be admonished.
"I was worried about you," the tall woman mumbled and a gentle smile came to the bard's lips.
"I appreciate that," Gabrielle said hoarsely, touched by the sincerity in her lover's voice. "I am better now so promise me that you will go get some sleep."
"Okay, I will leave in a little while but I would like to talk to you first," the Warrior promised.
"Okay," the bard nodded to weary to argue with her companion. She ran her tongue over her dry lips. "The healer said I was poisoned."
"Yes," the Conqueror nodded solemnly. "The fruit that the old crone handed you as we were leaving Corinth was poisoned. Did you not taste anything odd?"
"Yes," the bard admitted with an embarrassed blush, remembering that the fruit had tasted unusually sweet and bitter. "But I was hungry. I know you can go without eating for long hours and days," Gabrielle defended herself unable to meet her lovers eyes. "And I've really tried to mimic you Xena but I just need food."
"Oh sweetheart, I'm not chastising you," the Empress smiled indulgently aware of her companions voracious appetite and knowing that it only seemed to grow worse in recent weeks. She reached out and gently patted the blanket where the younger woman's abdomen lay. "I know this is an insatiable monster."
The bard blushed again, but was relieved that her lover was not angry. She knew that she should have mentioned something to the older woman aware of the constant threat against them both. She had momentarily dropped her guard and been hurt because of it.
"I promise to be more vigilant," Gabrielle promised, vaguely remembering the odd feeling she had gotten when looking into the old woman's eyes. "But the woman seemed harmless, I should have followed my instincts."
"I should have paid more attention but I was too preoccupied with my own concerns," the Conqueror sighed. "Can you forgive me for that?"
"Oh Xena, this wasn't your fault," the bard hastened to reassure the woman. "I know that people are out to get you and I know that I have to be careful. I can't expect you to look out for me all the time."
"But you were only hurt because of me."
"You don't know that," the smaller woman disagreed. The Conqueror was unable to meet the other woman's gaze, thinking back to her earlier confrontation with Ares. She realized then that she had not bothered to ask him why, assuming that she already knew the answer.
"Xena?" the soft voice cut through the stoic woman's reserve and solemn blue eyes looked up into green orbs. "Please stop blaming yourself. We both got careless. I am going to be all right and next time someone, anyone, gives me anything I will be more careful. Ok?"
"Ok," the Conqueror mumbled still not happy with herself. "You look tired, why don't you go back to sleep."
"Promise me first that you will get some sleep too."
"I will go as soon as you fall asleep," the Empress promised. Gabrielle nodded her head and because she was still exhausted she closed her eyes and quickly fell back asleep. Only then did Xena bend forward to place a tender kiss on the small woman's lips before she rose and slowly made her way to the door of the hut. She glanced at the healer who was still sitting mutely in the corner, a witness to the scene.
"If her condition changes I want to be summoned immediately."
Paulus nodded mutely and watched as the woman stepped out of the hut. He glanced at the small woman who was once again sleeping calmly on the cot, marvelling again at what he had witnessed. He turned and went about his business.
The bard woke the next dawn, feeling better yet still very weak from her experience. Paulus conducted another thorough examination of the woman assuring her that she would fully recover from her ordeal.
"And the baby?" The Queen asked quietly.
"I am afraid you won't know that until the child is born," the aged healer sighed moving across the room to the fireplace where he had a pot of porridge cooking over the fire. "I have never before had a case such as your own."
Gabrielle was not comforted by his words but had little time to dwell on her thoughts as he returned to her bedside with a bowl of steaming gruel. The bard unconsciously screwed her nose up in distaste at the sight of the unpleasant soupy meal.
"It may look disgusting," the man snorted with a hint of amusement correctly guessing her thoughts. "But I can assure you it tastes better than it looks. Besides I am not certain your stomach would be able to handle anything more substantial."
The Queen nodded and hesitantly stared at the foul looking meal. She swallowed once, summoning her courage before bringing the thick broth to her lips and swallowing a small sip of the lumpy liquid. She gasp and looked up at the healer who was now looking at her with a broad smile on his face.
"This tastes terrible," she remarked with an honesty that was a large part of her character.
"Yes," the man dismissed her complaints with a wave of his wrinkled hand. "But it is good for you."
Any further discussion on the matter was interrupted by the arrival of the Conqueror who walked in through the door and straight over to the bard to plant a kiss on the still warm brow, before glancing down at the foul smelling concoction her lover was holding.
"What is that?" she asked pointing with disgust at the bowl.
"A really good soup that Paulus has invented," the bard replied impishly. "You must have a taste, I think it could be all the rage in Corinth."
"No way," the Empress lifted her hands in self defense backing away from the bard who openly laughed at her companions disdain.
"How are you feeling this morning?"
"Much better though I am still very tired," the Queen answered and managed to take another sip of the medicinal soup that the healer had brewed. It was surprising how comforting the fluid felt in her stomach.
"How long before it will be safe for her to travel?" the Conqueror asked directing her question this time to the healer who was retreating to the far corner of the hut.
"It is my advice that she rest for several days more and then take it easy for another week," the man replied, thinking that the extra time would give the younger woman a chance to decide what she wanted to do about her situation.
"Then I will tell the others that we will be here for at least another week," Xena decided without discussion, her first concern the woman at her side.
"But what about Lila's wedding or Solan?" the bard looked at the older woman, swallowing the lump in her throat knowing that each passing day was another day in which the Conqueror's son was lost.
"There will still be plenty of time to make it to Potedaia for Lila's wedding," the tall woman assured her lover.
"And Solan?" Gabrielle implored, knowing that the situation must be eating away at the Empress.
Xena looked down at the wooden floor, noticing the deep grooves marked into the wood. She could not look at the smaller woman for a long moment, realizing that she had not thought of the boy at all in the last few days, feeling a measure of guilt about that. You are growing soft, her thoughts decided, before nothing would have made you feel guilty.
"There is still plenty of time to find Solan," she finally answered in a quiet voice. "I am sure that he is all right. Kalipus told me he is a strong and capable lad."
The bard felt a wave of sympathy for her companion and reached out to clutch the other woman's hand.
Xena stayed for several candlemarks, leaving only once the bard showed signs of tiring. She kissed the smaller woman before retreating to the encampment outside the town walls, wondering what she would do to occupy herself for the next week. She was not known for her patience.
Not long after the Empress departed, Paulus was summoned to an emergency out of the town on a local farm where a woman was about to give birth. He left his assistant Seraphim in charge sending her off to the tavern to collect a tray of food for their patient before leaving with the distraught farmer.
Gabrielle woke and lay for a long moment savouring the silence of the room. A sweeping glance told her that she was alone and with a sigh she closed her eyes again. But this time sleep did not come as thoughts of her predicament rolled through her head.
What will Xena think? Will she believe me now when I say nothing happened between Jason and myself? Will she think I lied to protect her feelings? How did this happen? These were all the questions that rolled around inside her brain, but the one that gave her most fear was the one she did not want to contemplate. Will she believe I have betrayed her like everyone else?
Tears filled green eyes and would have fallen but for the commotion that interrupted her thoughts. Hastily she wiped the dew from her face as the door opened. She watched as a young woman with short blonde hair entered bearing a tray. The Queen looked briefly at the girl an automatic smile breaking across her face as she recognized her visitor.
"Seraphim, is that you?"
The girl glanced up and the solemn expression on her young face was immediately replaced by a smile. The two women had grown up together in Potedaia but they had not seen each other since Gabrielle had gone to Corinth in search of the Conqueror.
"Gabrielle, I heard that you were ill."
"Yes, but what are you doing here?" the bard asked happy to see someone from her home town, someone with whom she had shared a childhood. If only briefly she was given a reprieve from the torment of her worries.
"I am the healer's assistant," the girl replied cheerfully as she set the tray down next to the cot and then sat down to help the other woman eat. Paulus had not said whether their patient had the strength to feed herself and she was prepared to help if necessary.
"When did you leave Potedaia?" Gabrielle allowed her natural curiosity full reign. She accepted the bowl of broth that the other woman held out and sitting up she rested the bowl in her lap.
"Soon after the Conqueror lifted the travel restrictions," Seraphim smiled watching closely as the other woman gingerly brought the spoon to her lips and sucked in the warm liquid. "I realized you had the right idea. I didn't want to get married and I knew I would have too if I stayed in Potedaia. After my parents died of the sickness I hitched a ride with the first travelling merchant caravan that came through town."
"I'm sorry to hear about your parents," the bard was sincere remembering the kindly couple that had been friends with her family. She took a spoonful of the soup. She was hungry but she wasn't certain that her stomach could handle too much right now. "Is that how you came to be here in Amphipolis?"
"Indirectly," the other woman smiled. "I travelled with the merchants for awhile doing odds and ends to pay for my keep and then left them when we got to Britannia. They were going further north and then to the land of the Norse Gods so I joined with a band of refugees that were heading back this way. When they settled not far from here I got work as the assistant to the healer. I want to learn the trade so that I might help these new friends."
"It sounds like you have been leading an exciting life."
"Not as exciting as you," the other girl exclaimed. "By the God's Gabrielle you are living with the Conqueror."
"I know," the bard tried not to smile but was unable to prevent her lips from twitching into that joyous expression.
"Aren't you afraid?"
"I suppose in the beginning I should have been," the Queen admitted thinking back over her life with the Empress. She shook her head. "I have heard all these awful things about her but I've never seen her in the way other people have described her.
"She is a fierce warrior but with me she has always only ever been the most gentle person I know," Gabrielle said. "Even when she's angry with me, she never really gets upset. There hasn't been one time since I have been with her that I have been afraid."
"You are so brave," Seraphim mused in wonderment. "But then you always were."
"So tell me more about these people that you are travelling with now," Gabrielle prodded taking another mouthful of the broth.
"They are the most wonderful people," the girl extolled. "They don't believe in the Olympian Gods. They believe in only the One God and He is a kind and gentle. One day he will enter the world and cleanse it of all evil."
The bard listened quietly. She was always fascinated by what others had learned and experienced during their travels and it seemed that her friend from Potedaia had an interesting story to tell. She knew of the One God that the Israelites worshipped and wondered if this was the same one. She was curious to learn more and said as much when her friend finally stopped speaking.
"When you are better I will take you to meet our Leader and Priest," Seraphim enthused. "His name is Khrafstar and he is the kindest and most intelligent man you can ever meet."
Gabrielle hid the smile that came unbidden to her lips. It was obvious by her friend's enthusiastic description that she had a small crush on the Priest. The bard wondered if the affection was reciprocal or if the man had to remain celibate as was the custom and practice of some Priest's in Eastern religions.
They continued to speak while the Queen of the Amazon's worked on eating the broth. By the time the bowl was finally empty she was exhausted not only from the effort that it took to eat but also from the affects of talking to her friend. Seraphim saw the other woman stifle a yawn and was immediately apologetic.
"I have exhausted you with all this talk," the girl said taking the bowl and standing up. She knew that the healer would be disappointed in her but she feared more the wrath of the Conqueror.
"Yes," Gabrielle did not disagree as she slipped down underneath the blankets again. "But please come back and visit, there is still so much that I would like to know."
"I will," Seraphim promised and hurried out of the hut. She glanced briefly at the two Amazon's who were standing guard at the front door to the hut and then hurried along to the tavern. She met the healer halfway there surprised by his quick return.
"It was a false alarm," the man snorted at the girl's question. By the time they had reached the farm both men had been surprised to see the woman out tending the garden. After a thorough examination the healer had determined it would be many days yet before the baby arrived and a somewhat harried farmer had driven him back to the village.
"So she managed to eat the whole bowl," he mused thoughtfully as he glanced at the empty dish.
"She seemed much better," the girl replied. "We talked for a while as we come from the same village of Potedaia and grew up together but she has gone back to sleep now."
The man nodded a frown burrowing its way across his aged features.
"Is there a problem Paulus?"
The healer looked at the girl. Seraphim had been helping him now for almost a full season. She had been one of the first of the group of foreigners to enter the village and interact with the townsfolk. They had all been surprised to find that she was a fellow Greek and though they were not entirely certain as to how she had come to be with these strange refugees she had worked hard and provided a bridge between them.
For some reason the man needed to talk to someone and the fact that his assistant had grown up with his patient somehow seemed to make it easier. He possessed a burden which he was uncertain how he could handle.
"Did she say how her relationship with the Conqueror was?" he asked the young woman.
"She said that the Empress was the most gentle person she knew and that she was not afraid," the girl replied truthfully and the man nodded. "Is there something wrong?"
"I am afraid there might be," he mused and then said no more before walking towards his home leaving the young girl to watch for a moment longer before taking the tray back to Cyrene and the tavern kitchen.
Xena whiled away the candlemarks by joining the Amazon's in the various competitions they had set up to hone their skills and occupy their time. It was no surprise when she defeated everyone else from her entourage in the archery test they had composed or the mock sword fight they had scripted. It was a good work out for the Conqueror and for that brief time she was able to think of something other then the bard's illness and a son that was still missing.
"What are you doing with yourself?" Gabrielle asked that evening when the Empress came to visit. The older woman was obviously restless for she shifted uncomfortably on the stool and the bard knew how difficult it was to keep the woman entertained.
"I have been playing games of skills with the Amazon's," the older woman replied.
"Ouch," the blond woman winced, just imagining what the Conqueror meant. "You didn't hurt anyone to badly did you?"
"Of course not," the Empress said indignantly but had the temerity to blush as she remembered the painful bruises that she had inflicted on the more aggressive warriors. At least she hadn't killed or seriously injured anyone.
"Xena you didn't," the Queen moaned aware that the Empress had probably inflicted more damage than just to their egos.
"I had to defend myself," the tall woman protested indignantly and the smaller woman laughed. She was aware that her Amazon's were more than unusually aggressive when duelling with the Conqueror. She didn't doubt that there wasn't one Amazon who didn't fantasize about besting the Empress in some form of competition.
The smile from the younger woman's face disappeared as she looked into the intense blue eyes of her lover. She worried about Xena, aware what enforced inactivity did to her companion. But there was something else that she worried about. They were in Amphipolis, the place of her lovers birth.
"How are you doing up here?" The blond woman lifted her hand and gently tapped it against the dark haired woman's chest. "Is it terribly hard for you being back here?"
"It brings back memories," the other woman confessed. She thought of the candlemarks she had spent visiting places that she used to haunt as a child. She had even gone to Lyceus' tomb, to remember a brother she had lost so long ago.
"Have you seen your mother?" the bard asked quietly aware that her companion was unable to meet her gaze.
"Briefly," the Empress admitted. "I ran into her in the town square a few days past."
"Was she still angry with you?"
"No," the Conqueror shook her head. She realized that her mother's attitude had been different since that day many seasons ago when she had come to Amphipolis looking for the bard. "She was quite pleasant and expressed concern for your health."
"I appreciate that," Gabrielle smiled wistfully remembering the many evenings she had spent in the older woman's company when travelling the countryside storytelling. "I miss her. She was always so much more accepting than my parents."
The Empress nodded, remembering as a child how the Innkeeper had never chided her for the things she had done. She had spent more time playing warriors with the boys from the village than she did playing dolls with the girls, but Cyrene had never tried to curb her interests or desires. More then once she remembered the Innkeeper had defended her unladylike behaviour to the other women of the town. She briefly wondered now if her mother regretted those times; regretted the discipline that she did not enforce on her wild female child. Perhaps things would have turned out differently.
"It sounds like to me if she has started to forgive you," the bard suggested quietly and the Empress nodded.
"She certainly didn't threaten to kill me like she did when Lyceus died," Xena snorted ruefully, remembering the angry words that Cyrene had vented that day she had walked into the tavern with a dead Lyceus in her arms.
She felt a twist of pain in her heart at the memory. She had blocked it out until now, the hateful words her mother had hurled at her, blaming her for her beloved brothers death. She had silently borne the rage before turning and running out of the Inn with tears steaming down her face. She had not returned until the day she had come in search of the young storyteller who had captured her heart.
"Maybe it's time to heal old wounds," Gabrielle said softly and blue orbs glanced at her intently.
"You don't know what you are asking," the taller woman whispered, thinking of how it would hurt if her mother rejected any advances for a treaty. Before she hadn't cared but since Gabrielle had been in her life, things had taken on a different feel. All the emotions she had buried with Lyceus so long ago were there, bubbling to the surface, threatening to make her feel more than she could handle.
"Perhaps not," the bard conceded thinking of her own relationship with her parents. She picked up the Conquerors hand and squeezed it gently. "But it sounds like she is ready to talk. I think she probably misses you as much as you miss her."
I don't miss her, the Conqueror wanted to protest but deep inside she knew that it was a lie. She had missed her mother's calming influence and harsh honesty. In that way Gabrielle was much like Cyrene and perhaps that was the reason she had been so ready to let the bard into her life.
She thought about the bard's words later as she headed back across the town square after leaving the healers hut. It was dark but as she passed through the village she could see the light and hear the laughter radiating from the tavern that her mother kept. She paused for a long moment staring through the darkness towards the light that spilled out of the windows.
She had never felt fear before meeting Gabrielle. Yet now everything seemed to make her heart ache with worry. She swallowed and redirected her path strolling calmly towards the tavern. I am the Conqueror and I can go wherever I want, she told herself defiantly, and if I chose to have a meal at a tavern rather then with my escort then that is my right.
It was no surprise that the boisterous room fell silent the moment she stepped through the door. Blue eyes scanned the interior of the Inn briefly seeing all the eyes of the patrons turned in her direction. She spotted an empty table near the bar and calmly strolled through the room, ignoring the whispered comments that followed in her wake.
Cyrene was standing behind the bar with Toris when the tall dark haired warrior entered. She held her breath and watched as the woman strolled through the room and took a seat. She wondered what the Empress wanted.
"I will go see what she wants," Toris spoke her thoughts out loud and she watched mutely as the boy walked out from behind the bar and approached the Empress. "What do you want Xena?"
The Conqueror glanced up at her brother who was now towering over her. To someone else his large presence would have been forbidding but the Empress was not intimidated.
"This is an Inn, is it not?" she growled holding his gaze steadily. "I wish for a meal."
"We don't serve your kind in here," the man responded unable to mask his anger.
"My kind?" A dark eye brow rose in speculation, an intense gaze pinning the man. "What is my kind?"
"Brutal and cruel barbarians," Toris breathed venting his simmering rage. "You don't belong in a place that caters to respectable folk."
Xena felt her irritation rise. She had never gotten along with her older brother, realizing from an early age that it was a result of jealousy. A jealousy borne of the knowledge that though she was a female and younger than himself, she was also stronger, and more capable of protecting the family after their father had died. Even after all this time she could remember the humiliation he had felt the first time she had bested him in a race. The fact that their younger brother Lyceus had applauded her victory and admired her for it, had only deepened his resentment and anger towards her.
The Empress slowly rose to her feet. She had only been intent on savouring the taste of a good cooked meal and perhaps some quiet time in her mother's presence. She had not come here to endure a confrontation. Before she could reply their mother interrupted the battle of wills.
"It's all right Toris," Cyrene said. She had followed the young man aware of the trouble that could erupt between the two stubborn siblings. She glanced at the tall woman. "What would you like?"
"What is the house special?"
"A lamb stew with fresh bread and baked tomatoes," the older woman answered.
"Sounds good, I will have a plate," the Conqueror decided, her eyes still on her brother. Toris was not known for his intelligence and she worried that he would do something stupid.
"It will be right out," the older woman said with a half smile hoping to break the tension between the siblings. Toris spun around to look at his mother.
"How could you?" he demanded an explanation from his parent and Cyrene sighed.
"She is and always will be my daughter and your sister," the older woman said quietly revealing more than she intended in that simple statement.
"I no longer consider her my sister," Toris scowled and spun around on his heel, retreating back behind the bar where he could keep an eye on the Conqueror.
"Thank you," Xena said softly swallowing the lump of emotion that caught in her throat. Cyrene looked at her with an sad smile.
"The food will be right out."
Without another word the woman turned and retreated to the kitchen. True to her word she returned moments later with a steaming bowl of stew and a warm plate with the tomatoes and bread. She set it down in front of the warrior along with a mug of ale.
"Please, if you have the time, can you join me for awhile?" the Conqueror asked when the older woman turned to go.
An uncertain expression crossed the woman's face as she glanced around the Inn. She saw the eyes that were watching her and knew that her actions would be ridiculed and she might be shunned by the other townsfolk for her actions, but at that moment she didn't care. In spite of the hate she felt for her daughter, she still cared deeply for the young woman she had given birth to so many seasons ago. She sat down on a bench across from the warrior.
Xena felt a measure of happiness flow through her body. Her mother had never been one to be governed by convention, a trait that she had inherited. It pleased her that the woman was willing to sit with her though it also worried her how the villagers might react.
"How have you been?" The Empress opened the conversation, idling playing with the food on her plate. She wasn't really hungry and had used the meal as more of an excuse then anything. The little bit of hunger she had felt had since completely disappeared.
"Good," Cyrene said sharing the awkwardness that her daughter felt. "How is Gabrielle recovering?"
"A few more days of bed rest and she will be back to her normal self," the Conqueror shared unable to stop the hint of smile that curved her lips at the thoughts of the bard.
"She is a very strong personality," the tavernkeeper said and her analysis brought a humorous snort from the other woman.
"That she is." The Empress agreed and an awkward silence fell over the two women.
Cyrene's dull grey eyes studied the younger woman sitting across the table from her. Her daughter had grown into a beautiful young woman, with exotic features that reminded her so much of the man that had fathered the child. Xena had always been a special child and regardless of what had happened in the past, she still kept a piece of her heart open to the girl.
She watched the famed Empress idly play with the food sitting in front of her, instinctively knowing that the woman's appearance here tonight was the girl reaching out to a family that she had been thrown out of so long ago. The anger that she had seen in the girl even months ago was noticeably absent and she silently credited the bard, certain that the blond woman was responsible for the taming of the animal inside her daughter.
"Xena," Cyrene paused until she had captured her daughters full attention, knowing it was time for her to speak openly. She swallowed wondering if she had the courage to say the words that she needed to speak, the words that might bring her daughter back to her family. "I want to apologize for what I said to you that day you brought Lyceus back to me."
The Empress remained silent stunned by her mother's unexpected apology. A weary smile slipped unconsciously onto the older woman's face as she idly played with the ends of the apron tied around her waist. It had taken a lot of thought for the innkeeper to realize how she had helped to set her daughter on her murderous path. It had been a harsh realization and she had spent many a night crying and thinking how things may have been different if she had reacted differently.
"I know that you would have changed places with Lyceus if you could have and that your motives for raising an army and defending Amphipolis had been honest," Cyrene tried to explain unable to meet her daughter's intense gaze. "I know how much you loved Lyceus and in my grief I forgot that. I was hurt and I needed to blame someone, to inflict the pain I was feeling on someone else. I am sorry that I chose you."
"It is forgotten and in the past," Xena mumbled unable to meet the older woman's gaze.
"Perhaps," Cyrene sighed. "but I can't help but blame myself for what you became."
"No," this time the Conqueror lifted her head and stared directly at the woman. "I had a choice and I chose my life. You had no part in that decision."
"If I had not blamed you for Lyceus' death..."
"If I had not raised an army Lyceus would not have died," the Empress was succinct, sweeping her hand to include everyone in the room. "It was at my insistence that we fought Cortez and it is because of me that so many of the towns people lost fathers, sons and brothers."
There was silence as the Innkeeper stared at her daughter.
"You did what you thought was right," Cyrene said quietly.
"I was a child," Xena countered bluntly, "what did I know."
"You saved the village," was the gentle reminder.
"But at what cost?" The Empress asked pointedly. "When does the price become to high?"
"I don't know," the older woman was at a loss to answer the question and she looked down at her hands which were folded together on her lap.
"After Lyceus died I thought there was nothing that was of value any more," Xena spoke so softly and Cyrene looked up to see that her daughter was staring at the plate of untouched food.
"For too many years the only thing I coveted and valued was the power and riches I could attain with that power." There was a slight pause and Xena glanced up to meet her mothers gaze. "That changed the day I met Gabrielle and I realized that sometimes the price of victory or power was to high, that life is a precious thing and too valuable to waste."
There was another pause as the dark haired woman cast a glance back towards the bar where Toris was standing and eyeing them with animosity.
"A tiger does not change its strips," the Conqueror continued. "I am what I am and nothing will change that. When faced with danger or in order to protect those I hold dear, I will not hesitate to kill. There will always be a part of me that will feel the bloodlust that has made me the Conqueror."
Cyrene understood what her daughter was saying. Regardless of the forgiveness that was extended, Xena would always carry around inside the ruthless person that had risen to conquer the nation. If any reconciliation was to be made between them it was to be understood that Xena was two people, the woman who could give her heart to a blond bard with an infectious smile and a cruel warlord who could kill someone on a whim.
The older woman nodded her head and slowly rose to her feet, knowing that she needed to absorb this information. She could not pretend that her child was any different then the person she was and in order for them to resume a relationship that realization had to be accepted.
"Mother," Xena said a word she had not spoken in almost twenty years. The Innkeeper turned to look once more at her daughter. "Even now as we sit here preparations are taking place for my marriage to Gabrielle. I know that she valued your friendship and therefore I hope for her sake you would consider travelling to the Capital to attend the celebrations and ceremony."
"I will consider the invitation," Cyrene said and then walked across the room and into the kitchen without casting even a slight glance in the direction of her son who continued to scowl in his siblings direction. Without touching her food, Xena retrieved some coins from her pouch and dropped them on the table before strolling out of the tavern.
It was easy for Callisto to slip away from the camp. She waited until the end of her guard duty before mounting her horse and riding off undetected as the first faint rays of the dawn began to crack the sky. It was mid morning before she finally reached her destination, a large and solitary temple located in a small meadow not far off the main track. It stood alone in the clearing, erected to pay homage to the God of War by dedicated followers who had since moved on.
She pushed the wooden door open and then strolled into the inner chamber. Though the place was unattended, the torches placed along the stone walls were burning, casting a shadowy glow throughout the room. She stepped to the center and stood before the marble sculpture that depicted the Deity in all his Godly glory.
"Ares!" the blonde Amazon screamed, her shrill voice echoing against the cavernous walls. "Ares!"
"Keep your voice down," the God of War growled as he appeared in a brilliant flash of light beside the statute. He glanced at the sculpture and raised his eyebrows in appreciation of the detail that the artist had given his appearance. "Nice work."
Callisto glanced from the sculpture to the Deity and then back at the stone works. "Whatever," she shrugged indifferently. She had no interest in the God of War. "I have come to collect the ambrosia."
"The job has been finished?" the Deity asked even though he knew the response.
"I led the Conqueror and bard to Amphipolis as you requested," the Amazon stated flatly.
Ares looked at the woman in front of him. She was a beautiful creature, her portions well defined and honed by the exercise she routinely engaged in to keep up her fighting skills. He reached up and stroked his beard thoughtfully. Perhaps he had underestimated her value to him.
"Are you sure there isn't something that you would like rather than the ambrosia?" He asked with a smirk.
"What could be better than ambrosia?" the blonde warrior asked, wondering if there was a gift more powerful than the right of immortal life.
"Well think about it," Ares raised his eyebrows seductively and glanced at the statute of his form. "The artist did a marvellous likeness, down to the smallest detail, if you get my drift."
It took a moment for Callisto to understand what the Deity meant. Though he was a perfect specimen of the male form she was not interested in any type of dalliance with the God of War. That could wait until she was immortal and had disposed of the Conqueror. Her lips curled into a half smile, half snarl.
"As appealing as that may be, I have other plans that need to be completed before I can turn my attentions to more pleasurable pursuits," the Amazon said.
"Whatever, your loss," the God of War shrugged his shoulders. He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a small pouch which he eyed for a moment before tossing it across to the woman. "Consider this payment for a deed well done."
Callisto grabbed the pouch out of the air. She was eager to taste the gift of eternal life but she decided to wait. She could feel the God's eyes upon her. More calmly then she felt, she tucked the pouch into the belt fastened around her waist. With the coveted prize in her possession she could be more gracious to her benefactor.
"Perhaps in the future we can collaborate on another project," she raised her sword in salute.
"Just call me when you need me," Ares replied graciously and watched as the woman nodded her head before spinning on her heel and hurrying out of the temple.
"I can't believe you did that," a shrill voice said as Discord emerged from the surrounding shadows.
"Did what?" Ares asked casually glancing at the woman who strolled up next to him. He noticed the glance she cast at the statute.
"Gave her the ambrosia," the demi-Goddess replied impatiently a little annoyed at the God of War. She had witnessed the exchange between the Deity and the mortal, and she was perturbed by the idea that the God of War was transferring his attention onto the other woman.
Ares' deep laugh filled the empty chamber, revibrating off the walls and amplifying the sound. "Do you honestly believe I would give her the ambrosia?"
"But I just saw you," Discord said her dark eyes narrowing.
"Only a fool would really think I would give an mortal the gift of immortality. Surely you can not be so naive?"
"Then what did you give her?" Discord asked. In spite of their alliance she was not at all trustful of Ares. She was certain that whatever he was plotting, he had not revealed all his plans to her.
"Exactly what I told her, payment for services rendered," Ares laughed. Without another word he disappeared in a flash of brilliant light.
Each day Gabrielle grew stronger so that by the end of the week she was anxious to rise from her bed and take a walk outside in the fresh air. Paulus was reluctant, uncertain yet how much damage had been inflicted on the bard, but he knew that he could not keep the young woman immobile forever.
"I think Miss Gabrielle would benefit from a short walk outdoors," the healer conceded grudgingly when the Conqueror arrived that morning to visit the blond woman.
"Great!" the bard was excited to finally be allowed out of her confinement.
"Are you sure she is well enough?" Xena was not as convinced and looked at the healer for confirmation.
"Yes," Paulus nodded his head. "But don't go far, as I fear she will tire quickly."
"If I do you can always carry me," Gabrielle smiled impishly making the Empress snort in mild amusement.
"And when did I become your personal pack mule?"
"The day we met, when you defended me from the those bandits," the bard replied with a brilliant smile and the Conqueror was at a loss to deny the truth.
"Come on," she said gruffly helping the younger woman to her feet and leaving a protective arm around the smaller woman's waist.
Though it was great to be on her feet again, Gabrielle quickly realized that the poisoning had rendered her weaker then she had imagined. She leaned heavily on her companion, and savoured the fresh crisp air that she sucked into her lungs the moment she stepped out of the hut and onto the porch. It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining brightly.
Xena attentively held onto her lover and guided her on a short walk around the immediate area. She did not attempt to engage her young companion in conversation aware of the bard's laboured breathing as they walked. She steered the girl back towards the hut and knowing how much the bard savoured the outdoors, settled her onto the bench on the porch.
"Are you okay?"
"I am fine," Gabrielle smiled at her companion seeing the genuine concern on her stoic partners dark features. She settled back into the bench and closed her eyes savouring the gentle caress of the fall sun on the exposed parts of her body. "It just feels wonderful to be out here again."
"Humph," Xena mumbled almost incoherently, her intense blue eyes scanning her lovers delicate features. She was pleased that the girl was recovering without problems and was anxious that they be careful so as not to cause any setbacks.
"I'm sorry Xena," the bard apologized. "I know this has upset your plans."
"No," the Conqueror shook her head vigorously. "The only important thing is that you are well before
we travel again."
"I love you."
"I love you too Gabrielle," the Conqueror said the words that were coming so naturally out of her mouth now. Words that she had never imagined hearing herself say.
The two lovers sat quietly for a long time content just to be in each others company. But Gabrielle was still easily tired and before long the Empress lifted the bard into her arms and carried her back into the healers hut, depositing her on the cot.
"Don't go," the bard implored her tall lover as the woman tucked the blankets around her.
"You need sleep," the Empress smiled indulgently as she leaned over and planted a chaste kiss on the smaller woman's brow. "I promised some of your Amazon's that I would take them hunting this afternoon. I will come see you when we get back."
"Be careful Xena."
"I always am my love."
Seraphim and the healer watched the exchange from a corner of the hut where they were crushing and mixing the various herbs that the healer used. They watched silently as the tall woman waited until the bard had fallen asleep before making her departure.
"The Conqueror truly seems to care for Gabrielle," the young woman sighed wistfully as she reminisced about the scene they had just witnessed.
"Perhaps," Paulus was still not convinced in spite of the Empress' devotion to the bard. The young aide glanced across at the old man noticing the frown upon his face.
"Is something wrong?"
The healer glanced across at the young woman. In the few months that she had served as his apprentice they had formed a strange bond where he had shared many of the townsfolk's secrets with the girl. On occasion it was necessary for her to know such things in the advent that matters arose and he was occupied elsewhere. He didn't need to share the secret he now held but the burden had been weighing heavily on his shoulders.
"I fear for the bard Gabrielle," Paulus sighed.
"Why?" Seraphim was surprised. "Do you think that the Conqueror was the one who poisoned her?"
"No," the man shook his head. "I fear what the Conqueror may do when she learns the truth."
"What truth?" the blond woman was confused yet aware that the man was holding some intriguing secret.
"Gabrielle is with child," the healer confided hearing his apprentice gasp.
"That seems to be the question in dispute," Paulus snorted. "I have come across women in similar
situations. The Amazon's keep company amongst themselves and raise children, but they usually enlist the services of local gentleman to get pregnant."
"So what is the problem?" Seraphim still did not understand the healers concern.
"Gabrielle insists that she has not been with a man," the healer sighed.
"Is that possible?" Seraphim had learned allot since she had become an apprentice but she knew there were still things that she hadn't been taught.
"No," the man snorted glancing across the room at the sleeping woman.
"You think Gabrielle was lying to you?"
"Yes," the healer nodded his grey head. "I believe she had an indiscretion that she does not want the Conqueror to know about. I fear for her safety once the Empress finds out."
Seraphim was silent as she contemplated this new revelation. She knew that what the healer told her was in confidence but she thought that perhaps her Priest might be able to offer some solutions to the situation. She mulled over the confession in her mind as they continued their work in silence.
Xena stood up in the saddle, rising the bow and drawing the string back as she aimed the arrow towards the target. A fair sized doe was standing in a small clearing in the forest, grazing on a stand of tall grass and completely ignorant of the danger. The Conqueror cleared her mind and held her breathe waiting for the exact moment the deer raised it's head. The instant it did, she released the string sending the arrow piercing through the air.
The deer stiffened for an instant and then dropped without making a move to escape. The arrow had found it's target, striking it dead with a single blow. A quiet round of cheers arose from the small hunting party.
"Good shot My Conqueror," Solari addressed the Empress who nodded in quiet satisfaction, settling back into her saddle as several of the contingent moved quickly to collect the fallen creature.
It had been a successful afternoon. They had managed to slay two fair sized deer and half a dozen pheasants. Each member of the party was eager now to get back to the camp where they could start preparing the meat for the evening meal.
Xena watched quietly as the Amazon's strapped the doe to the back of one of the pack horses they had brought along to carry their haul. For a moment her eyes strayed to the far end of the clearing where Zenon and two soldiers suddenly appeared, trailing behind them was a fine looking steed. She had noticed the wild creature grazing earlier and had sent the men to capture the animal.
"You caught the beast," the Empress greeted the Captain of the Guard.
"She gave us a bit of a chase but once we caught her, she turned as docile as a lamb," the soldier replied as he brought the creature to a halt near the Conqueror. "You might want to look at the mark behind it's right ear."
Xena looked intently at the man before sliding from her saddle and striding around to the captured animal. She pushed back the small appendage and stared at the mark that had been stamped there. It was a mount from her own stable.
"Have we lost any horses?" she asked the Captain.
"Only the animal that Varanus was riding," Zenon replied solemnly.
The Conqueror glanced up at the man before running her hand over the creature. It was in good shape with only a few minor injuries but nothing consistent with what the animal might have incurred in a life and death struggle to swim from a raging creek. She glanced at the hemp rope that had been strung around it's neck.
Zenon didn't need to say anything. He instinctively knew what the woman was thinking. They had found the animal in good health and without the tack that it should still have been carrying if the Amazon's story of their colleagues demise were true.
"I want you to immediately dispatch two soldiers to check the bridge at Norath and if conditions permit, I want them to search the waters for anything they might find."
The Captain of the Royal Guard understood what the Empress was wanting to know. He motioned towards the two soldiers who had accompanied them on this hunting exhibition, sending them on their new mission before following the rest of the party back towards Amphipolis.
The Conqueror held her own counsel during the journey back to their makeshift camp. Her mind working overtime as she wondered if this treachery was tied to the bard's poisoning.
"I want to see this Amazon Callisto," she informed the Captain as they reached the end of their journey. The man nodded, passing the captured horse over to a soldier before hurrying to carry out the Conqueror's orders. It did not come as a surprise to the Empress when the woman was no where to be found.
"Who is she?" Xena demanded to know of the two Amazon leaders who had been summoned to her quarters and then informed of their discovery. She pinned both women with a withering gaze. "Surely one of you must know something about her."
"She came to us about three summers ago," Eponin said stepping forward. She squared her shoulders and faced the enraged woman. She had seen the Conqueror angry and now felt the first stage of rage radiating from the Empress. "She said that her family had been killed and that she was alone in the world. She kept pretty much to herself. She was a good warrior and seemed loyal to the tribe."
"I want her found and then brought to me," the Empress said in an icy voice before turning and dismissing the women. "Have one of the deer that we slew taken over to the tavern."
The two Amazon's nodded before hurrying off to do the Conqueror's bidding.
Khrafstar listened patiently to the blond woman as she excitedly explained the situation. He had been reluctant to accept her into the group when she had first approached them in Britannia but since then she had proven to be a devoted follower and a willing participant in all their rituals. Her ability to mix and mingle with the local population where they had settled was proving an added bonus.
"I do not see the problem," the Priest sighed once the girl fell silent. He had come across many similar situations where young unwed women had become with child after an indiscretion with a local gentleman.
"The problem is that Gabrielle claims there is no father," Seraphim emphasized. "She told the healer that she has never been with a man."
The Priest's posture immediately straightened as what the girl was telling him suddenly took on a new significance. He wondered if it were truly time for the One God to enter the world. They had begun this journey on the assumption that they would find the woman who would bear Dahok's form, but for it to happen so quickly would truly be a miracle.
"Do you believe her story?" he wondered out loud. He knew many a girl had made the same claim but in the end they were always found to be lying.
"Yes," the blond woman was certain. "I grew up with Gabrielle in Potedaia and I have never known her to lie."
Khrafstar pondered the reality, feeling the excitement in his body begin to rise. If this were true, and Gabrielle was carrying the child in which their One God was to take form, then they needed to prepare. They had no time to waste.
"Can you bring her here to talk with me?" he asked knowing that the naive young woman would do whatever he requested.
"Not for a few days," Seraphim frowned. "She is pretty weak and guarded constantly by a pair of Amazon's."
"Then you must find a way to bring her here," Khrafstar said earnestly, pausing a minute before deciding to reveal his beliefs in the hopes that it would encourage this woman help their cause. "If this is true and Gabrielle is with child without benefit of a father, then she is the blessed one, the one chosen to carry the form in which our God will be born. It is important that she be brought here so that we can bless her and the unborn child as soon as possible."
"I will try to get her here," Seraphim promised reverently. "She is a curious sort always seeking knowledge, I am sure that I can find an excuse. In truth I have already spoken of you and she has expressed curiosity in getting to know more about our God."
"Good," the Priest clapped his hands in glee as he rose from his seat. "We will start to prepare for the ceremony and await word of when you can bring her forth to us." He turned his eyes to the sky and spread his arms in exaltation. "Soon my Master, soon you will be here with your willing servants."
With each passing candlemark Gabrielle grew stronger and when Xena came to visit she found the bard sitting on the porch outside enjoying the evening. With one glance the Conqueror could see that the bard was not as pale and her heart soared at the realization that it would only be a few more days before they would no longer need the services of the healer. She had spent too many nights alone and longed for the moment when she could once again hold the woman in her arms.
"How did the hunt go?" the Queen was curious to know how her lovers day had been.
"We were fortunate and felled two fully grown deer," the Conqueror smiled as she settled down next to the smaller woman and collected one of the small hands into her own. "How was your day?"
"Good," the bard replied. "After I woke this afternoon I took a long walk around the village with Eponin."
"You did not feel tired?" the Conqueror was concerned.
"Yes, but it is a good tired," the smaller woman replied. They fell into a comfortable silence though it was apparent to the Queen that something was troubling her tall brooding companion. "What's wrong?"
Xena took a deep breath and then spilled her guts, revealing what they had uncovered during the day. She finished off by telling the small woman that the Amazon in question was no where to be found. She knew that she could have kept the situation away from the bard yet decided against it. Gabrielle was Queen of the Amazon's and the matter directly affected her reign.
"She is familiar," the bard scrunched her nose up thoughtfully remembering the woman in question. "I remember seeing her around the army camp when we were up North. At first I thought she was a member of your Army but when we returned to Corinth she resided with the other Amazon's. I do not know why she did not return with the other warriors to Amazonia when we reached the capital. Do you think she might be a traitor?"
"I hope not," the Conqueror confided, realizing if the woman had indeed infiltrated her army then there could be many others who were also waiting, bidding their time until they were ready to strike. She didn't want to think about such possibilities now. "So when do you think the healer will allow you out of here?"
"I will ask tomorrow," the Queen replied aware that her stoic companion was changing the subject. She was content to let the issue of the mysterious woman drop for now but she would speak with the Amazon's on her own.
Callisto rode towards Amphipolis, bringing her horse to a halt near a small lake North of the village. She dared not go any closer aware that it was likely her absence had been noticed and questioned. She had taken a gamble in leaving the escort party but she considered it worthwhile for the reward that she had collected. After tethering her mount she made a small camp fire, aware that it would soon be dark. Only once a good blaze was burning did she reach for the pouch that she had received from Ares.
She juggled the small bag in her hands a twisted smile decorating her face. Nothing mattered any more, nothing except the contents of the pouch. Soon she would be able to ride into the Conquerors camp and challenge the Empress with no fears of being defeated.
A harsh evil laugh erupted from between her thin lips as she ripped the string from the pouch and brought the small jelly substance inside out into the open. Her blue eyes sparkled as she dipped her finger into the ambrosia and then brought it to her lips, sampling the sweet tasting nectar. She laughed aware that she had now joined the world of the immortal's. She was a God and there was no one who would not bow to her will.
She jumped to her feet eager to test her new status, certain that she was now invincible. She withdrew the knife from her belt and brought it down to her index finger. As an immortal she would feel no pain and any injury suffered would heal immediately. She drew the knife down on her finger flinching as the sharp steel pierced her skin drawing a faint line of blood.
She stared at the cut, watching the injury turn red and expecting any moment for it to disappear. Instead she felt an instant throbbing as the blood began to seep from the small wound. The joy on her face quickly turned to anguish and rage as she realized she had been cheated.
"Ares," she screamed like a wounded animal before casting the pouch and it's remaining contents into the fire. The shrill sound echoed through the clearing and in response a low mocking laugh echoed through the valley.
Gabrielle's recovery progressed steadily. As promised she approached the healer about moving to the encampment outside the village gates. The man was silent for a long moment as he contemplated her request. She was healthy enough to leave his immediate care but there was one issue that neither of them had spoken of since that first morning when she had woken.
"You are strong enough to leave, but I do not suggest any arduous journey's for a few more days," Paulus said, mindful of the fact that the entourage was headed for Potedaia. He paused and looked intently at the young woman. "Have you resolved what you wish to do in regards to your other health issue?"
Gabrielle was silent. She had avoided thinking of her pregnancy in the hopes that somehow the situation would resolve itself, but sadly she knew that would not be the case. She would have to deal with the child she was carrying and her lovers reaction to the news.
"If you wish to get rid of the child I have herbs that can assist the process," the healer offered in a quiet voice.
"No," the Queen immediately voiced her objection. In spite of the trouble she was certain it would cause, there was no way she would consider aborting the baby that was growing inside her body.
"Do you wish my help in getting you away from the Conqueror?" Paulus continued aware that the bard had made up her mind to keep the child.
"No," there were few certainties in her life but Gabrielle was sure of several things. She had more confidence in her lover than anyone else and she would need that belief to sustain her through this trial.
"I hope you are not making a grave mistake," the old man sighed thinking that the girl might be fooling herself into believing that the Conqueror would treat her right.
"I know you share the same opinion that most of Greece has of the Conqueror," Gabrielle quietly defended her lover. "Xena can be cruel, I will not deny the truth for I have witnessed her in battle, but she is also fair. She would never intentionally hurt those who are innocent."
"Have you forgotten about Cirra?" the man wanted to know his voice harsher than he had intended.
"No," the bard shook her head. "But I know that the young warrior who took her army rampaging across the whole of Greece is not the same woman that I gladly lie in bed with each night. People change."
"I hope you are right," the man sighed realizing that no amount of persuasion would change the young woman's mind. He turned away from the bard wondering if he had wasted his efforts in saving her, only for her to face a more horrible death at the hands of someone she proclaimed to love.
By the time Xena made it over to the healers hut that morning Gabrielle was sitting on the porch waiting. The bard had been tempted to walk back to the camp on her own but had decided to be more prudent and wait for her lover.
The Empress was ecstatic that the Queen was free from the healers presence, happy that the night would see them lying together once again. It had become a strain for her to sleep alone yet she had not entertained taking anyone else to her bed. It was strange, in the past the Conqueror had seen nothing wrong in seducing anyone yet now she longed only for the bard's company, knowing that no one else would be able to satisfy her as the Amazon Queen did.
Gabrielle's arrival in the makeshift camp was a cause for celebration and after greeting her return several Amazon's volunteered to go on a hunt in hopes of capturing an animal worthy of using for an appropriate celebration. Xena left the Queen in the company of her Amazon's while she went with Zenon to speak with the two soldiers who had returned from Norath.
"The bridge was intact and the stream was quite peaceful," the older of the two men reported to the Conqueror while his companion held out the saddle that they had uncovered in the river. "We found this at the bottom of the stream."
The Conqueror studied the bindings and straps. There were no rips or cuts to indicate that the tack had been torn from the creature that bore it. She knew then without a doubt that the soldier had probably been murdered.
"Has there been any sign of the Amazon Callisto?" she asked the Captain of the Guard.
"No," Zenon shook his head. He had warned the night watch to be on alert in the event that the woman returned to the camp. He suspected though that they would not see the Amazon again.
Xena nodded and dismissed the soldiers. She could not help wonder who was behind this plot and if Gabrielle's poisoning, Solan's disappearance and Ares' involvement where all apart of some greater plot. She felt the need to get away to think the situation over without interference.
"I am going out for a ride," she advised the bard when she found the woman resting alone in their tent. "I shall be back before dark. What will you do?"
"I think I will take a nap while you are gone," Gabrielle answered aware of the restlessness that was radiating from her lover. She knew at times like this Xena needed to be alone to resolve whatever matter was troubling her thoughts.
"Make sure if you go anywhere that you take a couple of Amazon's with you," Xena cautioned though it was unnecessary. The Amazon's took their duty as the Queen's protectors seriously, never leaving the young woman alone for even a moment.
The Empress rode hard in the vein attempt to have the wind blow every thought from her mind but it was an impossible feat and by the time she finally reined in Argo she found herself a long ways from Amphipolis near a river where she had often come to fish as a child growing up.
She slipped off the horses back and lead him to the edge of the creek allowing him to drink his fill before setting him free to roam through the surrounding meadow. In the meantime she settled onto a large boulder at the edge of the stream and stared at the dark water that was flowing swiftly downstream.
It was quiet except for the ripple of the water over the rocks in it's bed and the distant call of the few night creatures who were awaking after a long day of slumber. The sun was already on it descent towards the horizon. But the Conqueror wasn't interested in nature on this evening, her thoughts to tremulous to enjoy the surrounding beauty. She needed to uncover the plot that seemed to be slowly twisting itself around them. Unconsciously she shrugged her shoulders, as if to free herself from the invisible noose that seemed to be drawing tighter around her.
Already Gabrielle had been hurt because of the unfolding events and it bothered her that she had not been vigilant enough to foresee the problem. She needed to solve the mystery before anyone else was injured.
Seraphim waited until the Conqueror had departed before attempting to see her friend. She had been watching from the shadows of a nearby bush. If she believed completely what Khrafstar had told her then Gabrielle, her friend from Potedaia, was carrying the child which would be the body for entry into the world of their beloved Master. She walked casually across to the Command tent aware of the soldiers who were standing at the entrance. She smiled.
"I have medicine for Gabrielle from the healer," she held up the small vial that she had taken from the healers hut. She figured that she would need an excuse to get close to the other woman and knew that this would prove a valid reason to get passed the guards.
"Go ahead," one of the guards motioned for the young woman to enter the tent. The Amazon's were aware that this woman was not only an assistant to the healer but also from the same village as their Queen. They saw no danger in her presence. They knocked on the pole outside the tent and then announced the blond woman's presence.
Gabrielle wasn't in the mood to entertain anyone at this moment but she hastily ran her hand across her face, wiping the last remnants of sleep from her eyes before calling out for her visitor to enter. She was almost glad when it turned out to be Seraphim. The girl represented just a small part of the home she had left behind.
"Are you all right?" the other woman was immediately concerned by the strange look on the Queen's face.
"Yes, I just woke from a nap," the bard replied in a cheerful voice. "What has brought you here?"
"The healer thought you might like some medicine, in case you have trouble sleeping," Seraphim replied displaying the vial which she handed to the bard.
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled graciously.
"Have you a minute to talk?" the healers assistant asked cautiously.
"Yes," the Queen patted the seat next to her and waited until the other woman had sat down. "What's up?'
"I was thinking about your problem," Seraphim began thoughtfully.
"Problem?" Gabrielle answered in guarded surprise.
"Yes," Seraphim had the grace to blush. "Paulus told me about you, he is ever so worried."
"He doesn't need to be, and you can tell him that, I trust Xena," the Queen said with confidence. "Is that why you are really here, to check up on me?"
"Why would you say that?" the healer's assistance now seemed surprised.
"Well, the healer gave me a vial of sleeping potion before I left this morning," Gabrielle said quietly telling the woman her trick had been discovered.
"Oh," Seraphim blushed once again and then looked down at her hands suddenly shy. "I actually came to talk to you about your baby."
"Did Paulus send you to talk some sense into me?" the Amazon Queen wondered with amusement.
"No, Paulus does not believe you when you say you haven't been with a man but I do and I know someone else who also will believe you."
"Who?" Gabrielle asked her eyes narrowing thoughtfully.
"Khrafstar, the Priest for the One God that I told you about," Seraphim explained delicately aware that she needed to proceed cautiously. "He believes that sometimes the God's can give gifts to the mortal world in the form of a child but Khrafstar will be able to explain everything much better than I can. If you want we can go see him right now and you can ask him all the questions you have."
Gabrielle thought about it for a minute. If this Priest could explain it to her in a way that she could make Xena understand then it was worth a try. She stood up and held out her hand for the other woman to take.
"Let's go see what your Priest has to say."
Gabrielle was so eager for a way out of her situation that she ignored the uneasy feeling she got when she stepped into the camp of Khrafstar and his followers. It wasn't anything in particular that nibbled at her sub-conscious, it was just a general feeling. But she pushed any misgivings aside, accepting the open friendliness of the people without question and comforted in the presence of the two Amazon Warriors who had accompanied them, aware her unease may have come from the longer then expected walk that it took for them to get to their destination.
She was sceptical about Seraphim's claim but when meeting the Priest for the first time she came to understand how the other girl could be so enamoured with the man. Khrafstar was tall, about the same height as the Empress, with long brown hair that hung down in flowing waves over a pair of broad shoulders. He was dressed in a dark red robe that almost took on the colour of blood in the last faint rays of light in the dying day.
Though his physical appearance was impressive, it was the eyes that captured the bard, for the dark brown orbs radiated a warmth that was almost hypnotizing in their affect. She was almost certain that if she hadn't already been in love with the Empress, that she, herself might have been seriously affected by the man.
"Gabrielle," the man accepted her outstretched hand and cupped it between both the palms of his own. The greeting was familiar and warm just like the personality he exuded. "Seraphim has talked so much about you."
"I'm not sure what she could have said," the bard said shyly causing the man to smile.
"She is in awe of your bravery, as we all are, for taking on someone as hard and cold as the Conqueror."
"But Xena isn't like that," the bard protested.
"Of course not, she wouldn't seem that way to someone who loves her as much as you so obviously do," the man continued to smile taking the sting out of his words and Gabrielle found herself being mesmerized by the sound of his voice. She shook her head to clear her thoughts glancing briefly at the Amazons who were standing nearby. She did not wish for them to know her secret.
"It was a tiring walk, and I am still recovering from an illness," she smiled. "Would it be an imposition for my companions and I to get something to quench our thirst?"
"Certainly," the Priest answered graciously and motioned for one of his associates to escort the Amazon's to the camp fire a short distance away where a pot of tea was boiling. The Amazon's reluctantly left their Queen's side but only after they were assured that she was still within their protective vision. Gabrielle waited until they were gone before speaking.
"Seraphim said that you believed in a mortal having the ability to conceive a child without being physically intimate with another individual," the bard said introducing the subject that had brought her here.
"It is a primary teaching of our faith. Our God is to be resurrected in the body of a woman who is a virgin," the man said.
"But how can that be?" the bard was curious.
"The God's are all powerful and their ways are not always known to us mortals," Khrafstar explained and then glanced about the camp. For the first time Gabrielle noticed that the others were slowly filing towards the entrance of a cave around which the camp was laid out. "Perhaps you would like to see our religion first hand, we are to be meeting in a few minutes."
"Yes," the bard bobbed her head eagerly anxious to know more so that she might have a better understanding of her own position.
"Good," the man smiled and then motioned to Seraphim who was once again standing next to her friend after having disappeared for a brief moment. "Ahh, here is your drink."
Gabrielle gratefully accepted the mug of refreshment her old friend was holding and gulped it down. It was sweet tasting but it slid easily down her dry throat. It had been a long walk from Amphipolis up the hill to the camp of these people from Britianna. She handed the empty mug to her friend and then glanced back at the man who seemed to be waiting for her to finish. There was a smile on his face.
"Come," he said motioning towards the entrance of the cave before leading the way.
The place was brighter than Gabrielle expected for there were several dozen burning torches stuck into the crevices of the stone walls. The cave was a large single cavern and had room not only for the two dozen followers but also for a large stone slab table that was positioned in the middle of the cave. There was a small step naturally carved into the far wall and a deep pit with a roaring fire at it the bottom.
The place was warm and Gabrielle felt a little light headed as sweat broke out over her body. She surmised that she was not completely recovered from her poisoning, and along with the exertion from the long walk and the sudden heat of the cave was making her slightly dizzy.
"Are you all right Gabrielle?" Seraphim whispered in her ear as they stepped to one side of the cave while Khrafstar proceeded onto the small step to face his followers.
The bard nodded her head, determined not to make any sudden movement in case it caused any further debilitation to her senses. She watched as the room grew silent when the man raised his arms and began to speak.
"Welcome my friends and followers of the One God," Khrafstar began with a smile as he glanced towards Gabrielle. "Today we have a special guest, her name is Gabrielle of Potedaia and she is the reason we were led to this foreign land."
The bard was confused by his words but her thoughts had become blurry and any resistance she had was gone by the time the two men appeared at her side. They grabbed her arms and lead her without resistance to the altar. She had grown so weak so quickly that they had to help her onto the table where she lay struggling to let her mind catch up to the events that had suddenly taken hold of her. There was a sudden crack of thunder and an incredible fear seared through her heart.
"Xena," she cried as loud as she could but it came out of her mouth only as a feeble whisper. "Xenaaaaaa."
The Conqueror lifted her head in the late afternoon light, listening intently, searching for the source of who had called her name. But there was only the sound of the wind as it rippled through the leafs of the surrounding trees.
It came again and the Conqueror was immediately on her feet, instantly aware of who was calling out to her.
"Gabrielle," she called the bards name and knew in that instant that the small woman was in trouble. She whistled for Argo who was grazing nearby. With one jump the Conqueror was on the back of her trusty steed and in a full gallop towards Amphipolis.
The chanting in the cave grew, pulling Gabrielle from the drug induced spell in which she had been placed. Bleary green eyes blinked rapidly as they tried to focus on her surroundings and it took a moment for her mind to clear enough to see what was happening around her. She tried to move but couldn't lift her limbs. Through the haze she felt fear and danger. Directly above her was an opening in the cavern ceiling.
"Xena," she whimpered softly through parched lips as she watched the Priest move towards her.
Khrafstar raised his hands, lifting his arms and voice to the heavens which was quickly beginning to cloud over with ominous looking black clouds. Unnatural bolts of energy flashed across the unlit sky.
"Our Lord, Our Master, come to us, we your faithful here have the carrier, the one who has been seeded by the Gods."
Gabrielle didn't understand what was happening. The words she heard were foreign and made no sense, but she heard a clap of thunder that seemed to answer the Priest's entreaty. A shiver raced down her spine and she became truly frightened.
Xena heard the clap of thunder overhead and briefly glanced up, studying the swirling mass of clouds filling the sky. She had dealt with the Gods before and knew what she was witnessing was unnatural. A deep fear grew in the pit of her stomach. She reached the edge of the camp, dismayed to find that there were no guards posted outside the command tent. It did not surprise her that the tent was also empty.
"Where is Gabrielle?" she demanded of the first person she encountered after emerging from the vacant shelter.
"I don't know," the young Amazon stammered in fear aware of the tight grip the Conqueror had on her slender arm and the fierce look on the dark face.
"She went for a walk with her friend Seraphim," Solari said striding over towards the command tent at the first sign of commotion.
"Where did they go?" Xena demanded in a harsh voice.
"I don't know, but they headed north," the Amazon Warrior replied pointing in the direction the bard and her friend had gone. "You don't have to worry Vera and Angelius were with her."
The foreigners camp, the Conqueror surmised immediately as she stared in the direction the Amazon had pointed. Fear began to build as her feet took flight. Perhaps it was all the thoughts that had occupied her mind that afternoon, but she did not trust these strangers in her Empire, or the woman who was a friend from Potedaia. It all seemed to convenient to be a coincidence.
Solari watched as the Empress broke out into a sprint headed north. A crash of lightening bolted through the suddenly dark sky and she felt a shiver of fear race through her spine. She motioned for her Amazon Warriors to follow and Zenon ordered his own troops to do the same.
Xena found the foreigners camp with little trouble. Though it appeared that they did not welcome visitors, the strangers from Britannia had made no attempt to hide their presence. As she feared the camp was empty except for the two Amazon guards who had been assigned to protect their Queen. They were laying unmoving next to a fire.
She paused and allowed her senses full reign as her pale blue eyes swept the surrounding area. There was another thunderclap and a bolt of lightening that lit up the dark afternoon sky. It was in that instant that she spied the narrow entrance to the cave and the flickering light that was spilling out from within. There was another crack of thunder and then over the roar she could hear the steady cadence of a rising chant.
Without wasting another second she was racing towards the cave entrance, her hand automatically reaching for the sword strapped to her back. By the time she charged though the opening it was clutched firmly in her hand.
She came to an abrupt halt, the Warrior inside herself assessing the situation with one sweeping gaze. They were formed in a circle, all wearing red robes, their hands joined together and raised to the heavens. In the center on a makeshift altar lay Gabrielle.
The Destroyer saw the swirling fire that had entered the cave from a hole at the far end of the cave. She could feel it's evil as the fingers of flame reached towards her beloved. A deadly growl erupted from deep inside her gut and rolled out through her throat as she released the panther inside.
"Ayyyeeeiii," she gave her familiar cry and the chanting stopped as all eyes turned towards the entrance.
Khrafstar was momentarily shaken from his spell. His brown eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the fierce looking woman standing alone in the entrance of the cave, her sword already clutched in her hand. They were so close that they could not lose this opportunity now. It was time for their Lord and Master to enter the world.
"Get her," he screamed pointing to the Conqueror. Half a dozen of the men rushed forward to restrain the Empress while the remaining members, lead by the Priest, began to chant once again.
Xena saw the flame begin to grow once more and move steadily towards the bard. She rushed forward to meet the opposition and with several quick efficient sweeps of her hand cleared a path to the makeshift altar. There was little chance for these poorly armed followers against the Conqueror now that the panther was in full reign. They died quickly and violently at the end of her sword which left no one alive.
Those who dared to challenge her were swiftly vanquished as the others stepped back and out of her way. They had no wish to die that day and Xena glanced at them threateningly before rushing to the platform and lifting the small woman into her arms before the flames from the pit could reach the immobile woman. Seeing his last opportunity to give his Master a form and a chance to enter the world, Khrafstar reached into the folds of his robes and withdrew a dagger.
"For you my Lord," he proclaimed before rushing towards the warrior who had turned her back and was now walking with the bard in her arms towards the cave opening.
He rushed at the unprotected back but Xena had not become known as the Destroyer for no reason. She sensed the danger, feeling the shift in the air as the man hurried across the cave to strike.
She spun around to face the danger lifting one leg to knock aside the arm that was starting to plunge the knife downward. There was a crack and a whimper of pain as the knife flew out of the man's hand and across the cave clattering against the wall before falling uselessly onto the ground. There was a snarl as the Empress brought her leg back up and cracked the side of the man's head snapping it violently sideways and breaking his neck. The priest slumped dead into a heap on the ground. Without another word the Destroyer of Nations turned on her heel and strolled out of the cave. She was met at the entrance by a small group of Amazon's led by Solari. They saw the limp body in the tall woman's arms and the raging expression on her face.
"Empress?" the Amazon looked at the woman questioningly.
"I want someone to hurry and get the healer," Xena said in a cold voice. "And then I want the rest of you to go round up the remaining band of foreigners who are camped in the surroundings hills and I want them brought to me."
The soldiers and Amazon's hurried to obey the dark woman aware that the panther was out. They moved quickly as Xena carried the bard back to the camp, settling her gently onto their pallet before sitting down to await the healers arrival.
"What am I going to do with you?" she whispered softly brushing damp strands of blond hair from her forehead. "Can I not leave you alone for a moment?"
"It appears not," Paulus said dryly entering the command tent without knocking. Normally Xena would have reprimanded him for his arrogance but today she allowed the comment to pass stepping aside so that the man could examine her lover.
The Empress watched in silence as her thoughts whirled around this new development. She could not believe that Gabrielle and not her was the focus of their plan and so she sought to find someone who could explain the reason that they had almost killed the bard.
The healer sighed and lifted the blanket over the unconscious bard before reaching to pick up the small sachel he carried that contained his most often used medical instruments and herbs. He turned to face an anxious looking Conqueror, his throat suddenly going dry as he noticed the paleness of the eyes staring back at him.
"She will be all right," the man said in reassurance. "It seems she was only given a sleeping potion. One meant only to render her unconscious and nothing more."
Xena would have be relieved except for the fact that the panther was still in control. It was the creature that needed answers and so waiting only until after the healer had left did she go in search of the reasons for this new attack on her companion. She stepped out of the command tent to find her mother standing just outside the door.
"Paulus was in the tavern when the Amazon came in search of him," Cyrene explained her knowledge and presence. "I came as quickly as I could to see how Gabrielle was doing?"
Xena looked down at her mother. The expression on her face and the tone of the older woman's voice was sincere. Her mother had been a true friend of the bard and she was aware she could trust the woman to be in Gabrielle's company. Yet the panther was reluctant.
"I would do nothing to hurt her," the tavern keeper said slowly sensing the tall woman's indecision. She knew that her daughter could trust few people.
"The healers said she had been given sleeping potion," Xena spoken finally. "I would appreciate if you stayed with her until I return from handling this business."
Cyrene nodded immediately understanding what had just happened. She wanted to hug her daughter, to tell her child that she still loved her in spite of everything that had happened. She wanted to apologize, to beg forgiveness for the cruel way she had acted to set her on this violent and destructive path, but this was not the time. She nodded and ducked inside the tent.
"We found some people," the Weapon's Master informed the Conqueror and leaving the bard in her mother's care she turned and looked at the small group of person's that her entourage had rounded up. The Empress looked at the collection, her blue eyes falling on a familiar face. It was a woman whom Gabrielle had known from Potedaia.
"You," she reached out and grabbed the woman by the throat and lifted her slightly off the ground. "What were your plans for Gabrielle?"
Seraphim looked with undisguised fear at the Conqueror seeing the paleness of her eyes and the barely controlled violence on the dark features. She had witnessed the woman's fury in the cave, and had watched helpless as she had destroyed Khrafstar and many of their associates. She swallowed afraid for her own life.
"Why were you trying to kill Gabrielle?" the Empress demanded, tightening her hold on the girl's throat.
"To let our Lord and Master Dahok enter the world," the blond woman confessed in a strangled voice.
"By killing her?" the Conqueror didn't understand.
"By taking her unborn child," the girl corrected.
"What?" Xena wasn't certain that she had heard correctly and the girl whimpered as the grip on her throat tightened, being slightly squeezed under the large hand that held her there.
"Dahok was to enter the world through Gabrielle's unborn child," Seraphim explained in a whimper. "Khrafstar was to kill Gabrielle and then offer the child to Dahok giving him a form to enter the world."
A whirl of questions swirled around the Conqueror brain but there was only one thought that kept intruding on all the others. Gabrielle was with child. A child that needed to be conceived in some manner.
"Gabrielle is pregnant?" she spoke the words out loud her hand continuing to tighten around the slender neck.
"Almost a full season," the younger woman shrieked her eyes beginning to bulge out of their sockets.
"Why Gabrielle?" the Conqueror wanted to know.
"Because Dahok our God could only enter the world through the birth of a pure child," the girl whimpered in pain as she tried to explain.
The Conqueror didn't understand and she didn't care to hear any more excuses. She growled and snapped her hand closed as she gave vent to her emotions. She cast the limp body in her grip viciously aside and the girl hit the ground in a heap. The Empress did not know or care whether the girl was alive or dead.
A rage in the Conqueror broiled almost uncontrollably as she thought of the implications of what she had been told. Gabrielle was pregnant and everything that the bard told her had been a lie. She looked at the others who were watched her with a mixture of emotions, her face draining of colour. She could not believe the truth and she staggered under the implications.
Zenon and Eponin looked at each other with shock and fear. Both were at a loss of what to do or feel. They turned to their prisoners and knew that taking care of them was there first concern. A decision needed to be made.
"My Conqueror, what do you wish for us to do with the rest of these people?" Zenon gathered the courage to speak to the tall woman, hoping that she would not turn his fury on him.
"Kill them!" The decision came out in a low growl. The soldier immediately nodded and stepped back.
"They tried to kill our Queen and did kill two of our warriors," Eponin stated simply when the Captain of the Guard turned towards her. Zenon looked at the half dozen hapless prisoners they had gathered and then at the determined Weapon's Master and nodded.
Wordlessly the chained prisoners were turned over to the Amazon's who took the group away from the camp into the forest where they enacted their own revenge and justice for the lives of their two companions lost that day and the attempt on their Queen. It was done without a word spoken and they returned silently to the camp only once the bodies had all been buried.
Gabrielle woke to see Cyrene bending carefully over her. The older woman looked worried and yet she smiled when the green eyes blinked and opened.
"What happened?" the bard wanted to know.
"You were kidnapped," Cyrene said softly. "A group was about to sacrifice you."
"They wanted to kill me for my unborn child," the bard murmured remembering what she had heard.
"You're pregnant!" the older woman could not hide her shock.
"Yes," the bard nodded her head and then glanced about the room. "Where is Xena?"
"They captured some prisoners and she went to interrogate them," the older woman advised. "She wanted to know why these people would do such a thing to you."
The bard nodded and closed her eyes, feeling a great relief that the Conqueror was there to take care of her. She could be content now that Xena was there to take care of the situation. Suddenly she bolted upright on the cot, a sickly expression on her face.
"No," she cried hoarsely, terror in her eyes. "Where is she?"
"I don't know, outside I imagine," Cyrene said and then watched as the girl struggled to get out of bed. "What are you doing, you need to rest?"
"I have to talk to Xena," the bard said in a stricken voice, she looked with panic at the older woman. "She doesn't know that I am pregnant."
Gabrielle had hoped that she could break the news gently to the Conqueror and now she feared that it would be told by someone who wouldn't be able to explain. She stood up and swayed for a moment until she was able to regain her balance, and then walked as swiftly as she dared across the tent and outside, aware that the older woman was following close behind. She had hoped by some intervention that the Conqueror was still ignorant of the news but she knew otherwise the instant she stepped out of the tent and the fierce woman turned to look at her. Her heart plummeted to her feet.
Xena looked at the smaller woman now, unable to contain her anger or the thoughts of how Gabrielle had turned out to be like all the rest. The one person she had learned to believe and trust had betrayed her.
"Is it true?" the Conqueror wanted to know in a cold voice.
"Is it true!" the Empress shouted. "Are you pregnant?"
"Yes," there was nothing else to say.
Xena stared at her companion, her heart plummeting to her stomach where an ache now grew. There was a part of her heart and soul that desperately hoped that it had been some kind of misunderstanding, yet now she knew the truth. There was no denying the words that Gabrielle had spoken. Her emotions ranged from bitter disappointment to incredible pain as she recalled the conversation they had shared not so many moons earlier.
To other observers it would have appeared that the Empress was speaking without emotion but the bard knew different. The many seasons that they had lived together had taught her a lot about her companion and now she was good at reading the tall woman's various moods and speech patterns. She swallowed the lump that had caught once again in her throat.
"Xena," Gabrielle implored but was immediately cut off.
"Why did you lie to me?" it was the first thing out of her mouth as her thoughts suddenly became the spoken word. The tone was harsh and commanding.
"Lie?" Gabrielle was momentarily confused. She did not understand what the Conqueror was saying.
"When you told me that you had not gone with Jason," Xena answered impatiently, turning and taking a few angry strides away from her lover. At that moment she had needed to put distance between them.
"I didn't," Gabrielle insisted, bracing herself for the next angry outburst from her lover.
"Then whose child is it," Xena wanted to know, as she whirled around on her heel and faced the small woman once again, the flaring of her nostrils the only indication of the intensity of the feelings that were currently coursing through her body.
"I don't know," the bard replied lifting her arms in a helpless gesture.
The Conqueror stared for a long moment at the blond woman. The expression on the girl's face was
genuine and she had never known the younger woman to lie, yet if the bard was pregnant then there had to be a father.
"Don't play innocent with me," the Empress scoffed at the suggestion that her lover didn't know with whom she had slept. "I am not so naive as to think that this was some kind of miraculous conception."
"I know," Gabrielle sighed, her shoulders slumping in defeat. She thought about what Paulus had said and knew that the healer had been right. Xena wouldn't understand, yet she had hoped that the Empress would believe her. She looked up at the tall woman her heart aching as she saw the coldness in the blue eyes.
"You have to believe me Xena," she pleaded, afraid that she might lose her lover and friend. "I don't know how this happened, I have never been with anyone but you. I have never wanted to be with anyone but you."
The Conqueror stared at the girl for a long moment, her heart aching at the pitiful sight of the woman she loved pleading for her to believe her story. She wanted to say yes, she believed but the animal inside wouldn't let her. It reminded her of all the others who had betrayed her in the past. The other times people had lied and she had believed them only to realize that they were mocking her. She couldn't forget those times now.
"I don't hate you for being with child Gabrielle, for not so long ago I sought for you to experience this miracle," the Empress said in an emotionless voice that made the bard wince. "But I despise the fact that you think you must lie to me about the circumstances of your pregnancy. Are you in love with the father?"
"There is no father," the bard said in desperation, her face ravaged with emotion as tears began to gather in her emerald eyes. She had hoped that she could convince the Conqueror but it felt like her dreams of doing that were dying along with those of spending the rest of her life with the Conqueror. "You are the only person I have known."
"Then how did this happen?" the Conqueror needed some sort of explanation that she could believe.
"I don't know," Gabrielle racked her brain for some sort of explanation as she wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "All I can think about is that night several full moons ago when we were out in the meadow and were visited by Artemis and Aphrodite."
"Impossible," the Empress dismissed the suggestion with an arrogant wave of her hand even as a seed of doubt was planted in the back of her brain. "The God's have many and great powers but everyone knows that this sort of thing is beyond even them."
"Is it?" Gabrielle wanted to know, sensing that the Empress was at least giving the idea some thought. "We know that the God's are able to do many things, perhaps this is a power they have not yet shown us."
"Then why us and why now?" the Empress was sceptical, certain that the smaller woman was just trying to invent a plausible excuse for an indiscretion to which she did not wish to admit. "In the past a God has always been with a mortal to create a new life. Why should it be different now?"
"I don't know," the bard answered honestly. "Perhaps there was never a need until now."
Xena wanted to believe the smaller woman. She loved Gabrielle that much but at this moment she felt too much hurt to want to contemplate any alternative suggestions. Right now nothing that Gabrielle said would make her believe anything but that the bard was hiding the truth. She moved away needing to put distance between them afraid of the rage that was slowly building in her body. She paused and turned to look at the girl for a long moment. Gabrielle saw the hurt and the intense sadness in the tall woman's sparkling blue eyes.
"I have trusted you to be honest," the Conqueror said with a note of finality. "That was the only thing I ever really wanted from you and that is the one thing which you have now taken from me."
Without another word the Empress turned and strolled across to where Argo was standing. Zenon approached cautiously as the tall woman grabbed the horses reins and swung herself up onto the saddle. In that next moment their gazes caught.
"You will stay here and protect the Queen, until you receive further orders," the Conqueror barked on the instructions and then with a click of her heels she sent the horse into a gallop down the road.
Gabrielle stood silently watching as her stoic companion disappeared down the road, a small cloud of dust rising behind the horse and rider as they hurried towards the horizon. Her heart ached and tears moistened her green eyes. She had worried that this day would come and here it was and she felt worse than she could have imagined.
Eponin watched the scene unfold. She turned from the fading figure on horseback to the small woman left in the standing alone in the middle of the camp. She felt a surging mixture of fear, anger and frustration. Fear for how her Queen would react, anger at the Conqueror for behaving so coldly and frustration because she was unable to do anything. She hobbled across the distance.
"Give her time," the Weapon's Master tried to be cheerful. "You know how she is."
"I don't think it will make a difference this time," Gabrielle answered quietly, brushing a hand quickly over her features to wipe away the flow of tears that were streaming down her cheeks. "She thinks I have betrayed her and lied."
"Just give her time," the Warrior said weakly. The Amazon didn't know what to say. She was uncomfortable in situations where counselling was needed and today was no exception. Looking across at the small blonde woman she desperately wished that Ephiny was there. The Regent would know what to do in this situation. "I'm sure once she has had time to think about things then she will change her mind."
The bard desperately wanted to believe that to be true but unfortunately she realized that the truth was be to much for the Empress to accept. Hades, she had a hard time accepting the truth and it was happening to her. She also knew that history was against her. So many others had lied and betrayed the dour dark haired woman that the Empress found it impossible to believe that not everyone was like that.
She sighed, the weight almost to heavy on her heart to bear yet she knew that she must put on a cheerful facade. Lila was expecting her for the wedding celebrations and she would not disappoint her sister. She turned to the Captain of the Guard.
"Zenon, will you do me a favour?"
"Yes, Miss," the soldier bowed his head respectfully. In spite of the seeming split between the two women the guard knew that the Conqueror would want him to honour any requests that the small blond woman had.
"I know that the Empress wished to go off on her own, but I fear for her safety," Gabrielle wasn't certain how to make the request, aware that it might put the soldiers in an awkward position. But she had confidence that her lover would not punish the men for doing what she asked. "Could you take your men and follow, to ensure that she remains safe."
The soldier was silent for a moment as he contemplated the request. He knew that the Empress was a target but he also knew that the Conqueror was capable of protecting herself. He looked at the smaller woman and knew what he must do.
"We will see that she safely reaches her destination," the man assured her. He knew that his actions were in direct defiance of the Conqueror's orders but he too was concerned for the Empress. He knew that he might be doomed for disobeying orders but he did not have the heart to turn down the Amazon Queen's request.
"Thank you," the bard was relieved and she watched as the man abruptly turned on his heel. With several hasty shouts he had the rest of his squad mounted and ready to follow their Ruler. The Amazon's watched as the Royal Guards rode off down the road in pursuit of their Master.
"I think it's time for us to be on our way," the bard said turning to face the Weapon's Master who was still standing at her side. Within the next candlemark they too were packed and headed in the direction of Potedaia. This all happened under the watchful eyes of the tavernkeeper who returned thoughtfully to the Inn.
"Why don't you intervene?" Artemis asked of her Godly sister, disappointed at the way things were turning out.
"And spoil all the fun?" Aphrodite asked with amusement raising her eyebrows for affect.
"Whose having fun?" the Goddess of the Hunt wanted to know, seeing only her beloved Chosen alone while the one who held her heart rode away into the late evening.
"Sister, sister, sister," the Goddess of Love tried not to sound impatient. "Love is a journey and one that sometimes has to go over a few bumps. The warrior babe loves the little bard... she will be back."
"How can you be so certain?"
"Cause I can see into their hearts."
"But if we only told Xena about the baby?"
"And spoil the opportunity for her to realize just how much the bard means to her, not a chance," Aphrodite shook her blond curls and then sighed not certain that her sister would understand. "Xena isn't ever going to come to terms with the depth of her feelings for the bard until she understands just how important the little blond is to her."
"But she hurried back to save her," Artemis argued.
"Yes, but that's what she does," the Goddess of Love waved her hand. "It's easy for the Conqueror to kill people, to protect those she cares about. She uses the sword she carries for everything. But this is one thing she has to learn that she can't use the sword for. She has to accept Gabrielle and the baby on her own. She has to learn to love it with her heart and not her sword. Only then will they truly be happy as a family."
"I still think it would be easier if we just told Xena what we did," Artemis said with a pout.
"Yes but the easy path is not always the best," Aphrodite sighed again. "Believe me sister it is better to let the Empress come to her own conclusion. Besides you know how she hates it when we interfere in her life."
Artemis nodded even though she still did not believe that to be true. But Aphrodite was wiser then her in matters of the heart and so she decided to let the Goddess do her thing and hope that the plan wouldn't backfire.
It was because Xena was preoccupied with her thoughts that she failed to notice anything amiss until the bandits were upon her. The net was flung from the trees above and landed over her head and shoulders. A swift jerk brought her off the horse unto the ground and before she had time to stand up she was surrounded by a motley crew of thieves.
"No use fighting little lady, you're our prisoner now," the leader of the brigands smiled with a toothless grin as he cockily strolled up to the stranger. He guessed by the fancy dress of his prisoner that she belonged to a wealthy family. He could envision a chestful of coins for her return.
The Empress rested on her knees for a moment, her blue eyes narrowing into thin pale slits as she studied the man, assessing him with one calculated glance as she discreetly withdrew the small knife strapped to her boot. She straightened to her full height and the group took a collective step backwards. There was an arrogance and disdain on the dark haired woman's features and the men were stupid enough to think that it was a result of breeding and not the fact that the woman was the most dangerous person in the Known World.
"Do you know who I am?" the Empress asked without fear, the panther beginning to pace inside her soul.
"Does it matter?" the would be kidnapper snorted making the others in his party laughed nervously. Most of them had never encountered a victim so bold and her seeming defiance of the situation was making them uneasy.
"It does," Xena confirmed succinctly giving free reign to the animal. "You have thirty seconds to start running and I suggest you do so."
There was silence for an instant and then the men burst out in laughter at the idea that this woman, their prisoner, was telling them what to do. There was a sword lashed to her back but with the net securely around her upper body there was no way that she would be able to draw it from it's sheath. Unfortunately the men were too ignorant to see the panther, a creature that didn't need a weapon.
"Run from you," the leader of the gang laughed at the suggestion and that was the very last thing he did. The smile on his lips fading slowly as his dark eyes glanced down towards the knife that was sticking out of his chest. A slow trickle of blood was starting to dribble down the front of his vest. None of them had seen the woman move.
"Ayyyiiiee," the Conqueror yelled her famous cry and did a flip in the air, discarding the noose from her body in the process.
The remainder of the group watched in amazement as the woman somersaulted over them and landed behind their backs. When the shock finally wore off they scattered, some running towards the forest while the others turned to face their opponent, not yet aware of whom they were facing.
Xena was no longer in control. The panther was out and it didn't even bother drawing the sword from her back as it charged forward to meet the onslaught. A high kick on the chin of one bandit snapped his head back and broke his neck. A spin and a second kick sent another attacker crashing against a tree.
The Conqueror whirled to face a man who was looking at her with a saucy grin on his face. In his right hand he twirled a large sword. This man knew that now their leader was dead it was his opportunity to take over the gang. What he didn't know was that he would not live to see the end of the day.
He charged waving the sword dangerously in the woman's direction but Xena was too experienced to be frightened by the display. She neatly stepped aside from his challenge and booted him in the back sending him sprawling onto the ground, the sword careeming into the underbrush.
The Conqueror watched with an evil grin as the man picked himself up and turned to face her. There was a challenge in his features and she met it with glee.
"Come and get me," she taunted the man and he did, rushing forward, hoping to knock her flat on her back with his weight, but the Empress was too agile and skilled a fighter. She easily rebuffed his attack, stepping sideways and hooking her arm into his, she pulled him back, flipping him over onto his back and knocking the air from his lungs. Before he had a chance to move her booted foot was on his throat pressing down. He gasped and struggled to remove the limb but she was to strong. His eyes wildly appealed for her to stop but she only increased the pressure until she could hear the bones in his neck snap, leaving him gurgling for a few seconds before his whole body went limp.
The others watched in stunned horror the callous way the tall feral woman killed their comrades and they were of no mind to see Hades that day. But the panther was out and would not be denied the blood it sought. In a saner moment the Empress would have let the others go but today she was the hated and feared Destroyer of Nations, the person who lead her army into Cirra and demolished the village and killed it's people. Today she would not be satisfied until they were all dead.
With the blood pumping fiercely through her veins the Conqueror gave chase to the fleeing men. She pounced onto the first, dropping him to the ground. Before he had a chance to struggle she grabbed his head between her hands and jerked it viciously to one side breaking his neck.
She caught the next man in the forest and though he had time to draw his sword it was no protection against the animal that was stalking him. He lunged at the dark haired predator but the woman grabbed his arm and bent it backwards. The man screamed in agony as the bones in the limb snapped, causing the sword to fall from his grip.
The Conqueror caught the weapon in her grasp before it had a chance to hit the ground. She brought it up and swung it sideways so that it sliced into the skin beneath the small square of armour that protected the man's chest. Blood squirted out of the wound as the man keeled forward onto the ground.
The Empress stood silently now, her blue eyes scanning the area. There was one more attacker and she was not about to let him get away while the others died for their efforts. She waited, her ears honed to the sounds that surrounded her and suddenly a gleam entered her pale blue eyes and an evil smile slowly etched its way across her face. She could hear the man's frightened breaths as he hid behind a clump of bushes. She stalked quietly towards the hiding place.
"Come out and die like a man or I will stick you like a pig," she said in a haughty voice and then waited. The terrified man jumped from his position with his arms raised in surrender. He had no intention of fighting this crazy woman or running so that she could continue the hunt.
"I give up," he croaked in a horse voice. "I surrender."
"There is no surrender," the Conqueror sneered and whipped her arm around.
The sword came up and with one powerful stroke took the man's head off his shoulders. Blood squirted everywhere catching the Empress in the face as the headless body slumped forward to the ground at her feet. She looked dispassionately at the sweet sticky red that spilled onto the earth and lapped at her boots.
With a satisfied grunt she tossed the sword unto the ground next to the body and then turned and strolled back to the clearing where the incident had first begun. She glanced down the road and watched as a small troop of horseman came riding towards her. The Conqueror braced herself to meet the next assault, her nostrils flaring in anticipation of the continued fight.
Zenon pulled his horse to a halt a safe distance from the Empress. He had fought alongside the tall warrior often enough to recognize the signs and he knew to approach the woman with caution. He waited tensely as the Conqueror strolled towards him. He could see the anger radiating off her in waves and the soldier felt a fear like he had not in a very long time.
"I thought I commanded you to remain with Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon's," Xena snarled, the panther continuing to pace restlessly. The soldier swallowed before squaring his shoulders.
"The Queen made a special request of us," the man said solemnly. "She asked us to follow you to ensure your safety."
"So now you do what the Amazon's want and not what I tell you?" the Conqueror sneered.
"I only did as she requested because I thought that you would want us to respect her desires," the soldier said in his defense.
Xena snorted though she was slightly placated. For a very brief instant there was a sense of jubilation that the small woman, in spite of the disagreement between them, still cared enough to be concerned about her welfare. But the feeling was fleeting, replaced by the pain of betrayal and distrust that she felt towards the bard.
"This is your one chance," the Conqueror said to the Royal Guard through clenched teeth. "Disobey me again and you will suffer the consequences." She turned cold eyes on the remainder of the escort and each man realized in another time and place they would have been dead.
"Yes, My Empress," Zenon bowed his head respectfully aware of the sweat that had begun to bead across his forehead. He was a lucky man and the Conqueror's decision to spare him this afternoon only proved that. He could see the animal in her eyes and knew that it was out of it's cage and memories of other such moments flitted across his brain.
The Conqueror's nostrils flared but she held her anger in check and without another word turned and whistled for her horse. Argo emerged from the woods and with one swift motion the tall raven haired woman mounted the animal. With a click of her heels she was off again, leaving the soldiers behind.
Zenon watched as the Empress rode off down the road. He only released his breath when he was certain that she was no longer able to hear him. He turned to glance at the carnage on the ground around them and then at his equally silent comrades. Their faces were pale. They knew of the Conqueror's penitent for violence, yet the creature of destruction had been kept chained for so long that they had almost forgotten the truly dangerous and destructive nature of their Ruler.
"Follow the Conqueror," he motioned towards two frightened guardsman who hesitated a moment. "Stay well back and you will have nothing to fear from her."
The soldiers glanced at one another for an instant before nodding their heads and urging their mounts
forward. Only then did he turn to the others.
"Let's bury this lot," he instructed climbing down from his horse.
Rather than stop, Xena choose to ride straight through to her destination. It was nearly dawn by the time she reached the outskirts of the Regional Army camp and slowed Argo to a trot. She had been riding all night and her mood had grown bleaker with each mile she had covered. Her thoughts focused on the confession of her lover.
Gabrielle was pregnant and though Xena knew that she should rejoice in that event she could only feel the pain of betrayal and the seeds of distrust that filled her heart. She had thought the bard was different yet it seemed that once again she had been proven wrong.
She brought the warhorse to a halt and slipped from the saddle. She could barely make out the outline of the small forest that bordered the Army camp and she knew from experience where the guard posts were located. She decided to sneak up on the guards and test their readiness for battle. A gleam entered her pale blue eyes as she drew her sword from the sheath on her back.
"Meet me at the camp," she instructed Argo. The horse nayed quietly and she watched as the animal
disappeared into the darkness before slipping into the shadows herself.
Solan shifted uncomfortably in his position in the crook of the tree next to the guard hut, barely able to contain his anger at the loud snoring of his companion who had fallen asleep at his post. He would have climbed down and woken the hapless man but for the fact that he knew that no sooner would he return to his post in the trees then the other soldier would be asleep again. He sighed, and silently cursed the God's who had seemingly singled him out to look after the man.
Joxer, was no soldier yet he insisted on continuing the training even though the other soldiers repeatedly singled him out for mistreatment. In the beginning Solan had been unable to ignore the abuse but as time passed he had grown more callused and less inclined to intervene. Now he was more likely to turn his head when the other recruits targeted the man.
However, he had not completely lost all his compassion and when it was possible he allowed the two of them to be partnered up for various drills and duties, giving the clumsy man some respite from the abuse. Thus was why he found himself once again on guard duty, manning the forward post with the man. He shifted his position and sighed.
"Joxer," he hissed not daring too speak to loudly for fear that someone might hear. He knew that the Drill Master routinely came by to check up on them and doled out suitable punishment for any infraction. It was a miserable night, cold and damp, so he hoped that the man would be tucked tightly up in his cot.
Suddenly he noticed the dark outline of a form moving silently through the forest towards them. He tensed, his hand gripping tightly the hilt of the sword at his side. He knew it could be the Drill Master yet there were something sinister about the figure and he prepared himself for a confrontation.
Xena heard the loud snores from a long distance away and by the time she reached within striking distance, she was completely annoyed by the realization that one or both of the guards on duty were sleeping. She spotted the small guard hut and the form slumped in the corner, his chest rising and falling with each breath. She stepped into the open intent on ending this hapless man's slumber when something landed on the ground behind her.
Automatically she whirled around, defending the sword thrust of the figure, striking down with an intensity that made the aggressor stumble backwards in retreat. But the fighter was not easily discouraged and charged again swinging his sword in deadly fashion aiming to slay his opponent.
Xena laughed enjoying the bravery of this unknown soldier yet pitying his stupidity. With a series of swift moves she disarmed her smaller opponent and brought her sword up under his chin. Solan straightened his shoulders and waited for the final thrust to be made, but instead he was surprised when the edge of the weapon was withdrawn.
Normally Xena would have killed her attacker and thought nothing of the action, but she had caught a
glimpse of the soldier and realized that he was merely a boy. In spite of her reputation she had never
willingly killed a child. She slid the sword back into it's sheath.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked placing her hands on her hips and waiting for an answer.
"No," the boy stammered uncertain who he was facing and why he had not been killed.
"Then you don't know how lucky you are," the Conqueror snorted her eyes surveying the young man.
"What's going on here?" a stern voice commanded from out of the darkness and both individuals turned to see the newcomer. Solan was relieved at the appearance of the Drill Master and the Sergeant.
"That is a question I should be asking you," the Empress replied in a cold voice and the two newcomers immediately stiffened.
"My Conqueror," the Drill Master breathed before falling to his knees in a respectful stance, the other soldier mimicking his actions.
Solan swallowed the lump in his throat and turned to stare at the woman in front of him. After all these years he had finally come face to face with the one person he hated the most, the woman who had killed his family and made him an orphan.
In all his dreams he had never thought that she would be so tall and he had to crane his neck to look up. She was more formidable in appearance and her features were dark with the most mesmerizing blue eyes he had ever seen. For one of the few times in his young life he would find himself speechless as two pairs of blue eyes assessed one another.
"The protection of this camp has been seriously undermined by the incompetence of the guards which where posted to the perimeter," Xena said coldly her attention briefly diverted from the boy to the one in charge of camp security. "You were lucky it was only me and not an invading Army. If you can not protect this small Army post then how can I expect you to protect my Empire."
"They are still in the midst of their training," the man mumbled the explanation, the skin around his neck turning red.
"Then their training has been sorely lacking," the tall woman snorted and glanced at the boy who stood before her and the man still sleeping in the guard house. "Since when have we been enlisting children and incompetent fools?"
"We haven't been," the Drill Master shifted uneasily as he rose to his feet, the collar of his tunic suddenly to tight around his neck. He glanced at the two recruits in question and silently berated himself for not listening to his own instincts and getting rid of them before now.
"Then why are they here?" Xena asked pointedly.
"Since you lifted the travel restrictions, the local economies have been booming and the healthy young men are no longer inclined to sign up for the army," the Drill Master explained.
"I wasn't aware that this was a problem," the Empress said slowly. She was not deceived. She knew that the pay and benefits of being a member of her Army far exceeded any earnings they could make as an apprentice to some merchant. "None of my other Commanders have a problem fulfilling their quota for fresh troops. Why would this region be different?"
The Drill Master flushed under the intense scrutiny of the woman before him, wishing that it was the Commander and not himself in this position. He knew he could lie and hope to get out of trouble but he also knew the consequences of trying to deceive the woman. He bowed his head in shame.
"I have no excuse," the man said.
"And you are lucky that you don't," the Conqueror said lifting the man's chin with the tip of her sword which suddenly appeared in her hand. "If you ever attempt to lie to me I will not hesitate to make an example of you and your subordinates. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," the tall man nodded his head, his voice barely above a whisper and he watched as the woman
turned her attention once more to the boy.
"Where is your family?"
Solan's blue eyes met the intense gaze once more and he swallowed compulsively. The tall woman's personality was more than he imagined it would be and he wondered now how he might ever be able to kill her. Her whole manner was as if she were a God and he wondered if she might be.
"They are all dead," he finally managed to utter a hint of defiance in his voice.
"And where are those who are responsible for you?" the Conqueror could not help the frown that decorated her brow. "Do they know that you are here?"
"No," the boy shook his head unable to meet the woman's gaze.
The Conqueror sucked in her breath and looked once more at the Drill Master. She was of a mind to chastise him for his incompetence but decided instead to do it later when they were in private.
"What is their name so that they can be notified of your whereabouts?"
Solan hesitated. He had been raised by the Centaurs and he knew how much those half man, half equine creatures were disliked by the general population. If the truth got out it was likely he would be punished for his association with them.
"Tell her boy," the Drill Master directed his barely controlled anger towards the boy by giving him a cuff on the shoulder. The punch hurt but the boy remained silent until he turned to look at the tall woman who was obviously still waiting for an answer. He allowed his eyes to become icy and his stance stiffened.
"His name is Kalipus and he is the leader of the Centaurs."
Xena took an involuntary step backwards. It was like she had been delivered a physical blow and for a brief instant the mask on her face slipped revealing an emotion that she had kept buried for so long. But just as quickly the dour expression was back on her features and her face bland and without the whirling emotion that she was feeling.
"What is your name?" she demanded tersely already knowing the answer.
"Solan," the boy said defiantly.
Xena stood stone faced in front of the boy, as she considered her next response. She had never expected her search to be so easy. She had never expected to find him as a member of her own Army.
She took the time now to look at the boy who had grown from the baby she had bore thirteen summers earlier. She had been too young than to have a child and too selfish to look after someone else. Even though she had loved the child from the first moment she had held him in her arms, she had known that because of who and what she was, she could not raise him as her own.
Thus she had made a deal with Kalipus to raise the child and in return the Centaurs would be guaranteed protection from all outside sources. They had honoured both parts of their agreement and out of respect the Conqueror had kept her distance from the child. But there had been a rare occasion when she had given into the maternal urge to see the child.
Several times when her armies had moved through the area she had slipped away to the Centaur village and standing hidden in the forest she had watched the little man child play with the other centaur children in the village. She had felt strong maternal instincts towards the boy but she had pushed them down, knowing that ignorance of his birthright was the best thing she could do for him.
She allowed her blue eyes to swallow him up now. She had often wondered during many a sleepless nights what he would look like, and if he had inherited her tall dark features or if he looked more like his deceased father Borias. Now she had all the answers and studying him thoroughly for the first time she could see a little bit of both of them in the child.
"Have a messenger sent to the Centaur village," she said turning to address the Drill Master. "Tell their leader Kalipus that the boy Solan is here and now under the care of the Empress."
"Yes," the man bowed his head and motioned for his Sergeant to handle the matter. The soldier nodded and hurried off to ensure that the Conqueror's request was taken care of.
Xena turned her attention back to the boy. He was average height for his age, about the same size as her partner Gabrielle, with corn coloured hair and bright blue eyes that matched her own. He had broad shoulders and she knew that in time he would grow to be a strong young man. She decided then that she would not miss those years.
"I am tired and in need of food," she spoke abruptly directing her words to the Drill Master even though her eyes remained on the lad "My escort should be along shortly...ensure that they are also properly fed and housed. You follow me... and someone do something about that sleeping buffoon."
Without another word the Conqueror turned on her heel and strolled in the direction of the army camp. Solan remained rooted to his spot. Though the woman had motioned him to follow he was undecided, uncertain that he wanted to spend time with the person whom he was going to kill. In the end it was the shove in the back from the Drill Master that got him moving.
"You better get going," the older man growled roughly, grateful for the reprieve that he had unexpectedly received. For some reason the Conqueror was interested in the boy and he was not going to give the woman reason to get angry. He turned his attention to the sleeping soldier, disgust written across his face.
Solan followed the Empress uncertain what she wanted with him. Dawn was just cracking the sky and the camp was beginning to stir as soldiers rose to greet another morning. He was aware of the curious mixture of looks that he received and returned them defiantly.
Xena headed straight for the Commanders tent catching him still asleep in his cot and ignorant of the scene that had just taken place in his army camp. Solan watched with mixed emotions as the Conqueror went up to the pallet and unceremoniously dumped it over on its side spilling it's occupant onto the ground.
"What in Hades is going on?" the Commander sputtered as he awoke on the cold floor of his tent.
"That is a question I posed earlier," the Empress said bluntly and watched as the man on the floor looked up at her with wide and frightened eyes.
"My Conqueror," he bowed his head respectfully before scrambling to his feet, attempting to remain dignified in spite of his nakedness. He was unable to prevent the colour from flushing his cheeks as pale blue eyes glanced coldly over his body. It was obvious by the stoic expression on her face that the woman was not impressed by his physical form.
"Get dressed and meet me in my tent," she commanded and then spun on her heel and exited.
For a brief moment blue and grey eyes met and Solan could see the humiliation of the older man. He felt slightly sick, uncertain what power the tall woman had, that made grown men quake in fear. Without a word he spun around and followed the Conqueror across the main square of the camp.
The Empress proceeded him into the Command tent and he paused briefly inside wondering if he would find it as opulent as some of the soldiers had suggested. But the tent in which the Conqueror would be staying was ordinary, decorated simply with a cot, a table, a washtub and a few benches on which to sit. He stood uneasily at the door flap and watched the tall woman unsnap her armour and toss it on the floor. He had recognized the tattletale signs of blood on the metal and because he could see no wounds or injuries to the woman's body he assumed that it belonged to someone else.
Xena turned to look at the boy, her blue eyes once again searching his face, memorizing each line and curve, feeling the unexpected love that only a mother could experience. For the first time in her life she didn't know where to begin. Gabrielle would have known, the thought came unbidden to her mind, but she hastily chased any further thoughts of the bard away.
"You show signs of being a competent swordsman, who taught you?" She asked deciding to stick to a subject that was safe for her.
"Kalipus," Solan answered uneasily, wondering why the Conqueror had singled him out. "But it is different training with the Centaurs than with the army."
"It should be," the Empress nodded and looked intently at the boy. He looked strong and healthy and showed none of the signs of abuse that often fell on recruits during training. "How do you enjoy army life?"
"It suits me fine," the boy replied with as few words as he could.
"And is this the life you wish to choose for yourself?" the Conqueror wanted to know.
"For now," the boy nodded.
"Then I will show you how to survive," Xena said making a decision without giving thought to the consequences. "Go get some sleep and I will meet you out in the practice field late in the afternoon."
Solan had not expected this friendly gesture and was uncertain about the woman's motive. He had heard many things about the Conqueror but friendliness and kindness had never been included in any of those descriptions.
"Yes," the boy nodded aware that he had been dismissed. He exited the tent as confused as he was when he entered. He was half way across the camp square when he was summoned by the camp Commander who by now had been apprised of the situation by the Drill Master.
"What did the Conqueror want?" he demanded of the boy worried about his own future.
"She was most unhappy with my training and wished to continue it herself," Solan did not lie and the
Commander looked at the boy incredulous not believing a single word the lad had spoken.
"Don't lie to me," the man snapped raising his hand to slap the boys cheek. He knew now what had happened and was certain that his interview with the Conqueror would determine his fate. He was paranoid enough to think that this boy might have tried to blame him in order to survive his own punishment.
"I'm not," the boy replied steadily but the man wasn't listening.
"Why don't I believe that," the older man snorted. "Maybe a few days in the prison cell with your friend will loosen your tongue. Take him to the gallows. Once I am finished with the Conqueror I want them both flogged."
Solan tried to protest but his pleas went unheard as two burly soldiers grabbed him by the arms and escorted him to the gallows where he was thrown into a dark cell next to Joxer who was already occupying another of the cells.
Xena was almost to tired to deal with the upcoming situation. Too much was happening at once, so that she didn't know how to deal with it emotionally. She had never been faced with so much personal turmoil, not since the day Lyceus died when she shut down her emotions. But as hard as she tried today she could not dismiss the pain.
She could not understand why Gabrielle had lied to her and continued to do so. It was not in the bard's nature yet there was no other explanation for how the bard could be with child. To accept the idea that the baby was conceived by the God's without human intervention was impossible for someone as practical as herself to believe. She sighed, the pain in her heart more incredible than any she had ever before experienced.
She had been hurt when Lyceus had died yet even that pain seemed to pale in comparison to the anguish she now experienced for Gabrielle had come to be everything to her. As before she determinedly pushed the thoughts to the back of her mind relieved when a knock came on the pole outside her tent. The Commander of the Camp entered at her summons.
The Empress stared at the nervous man for a long moment in silence. She pinned him with her steely blue eyes and noticed the sweat begin to form on his brow. She realized now that she had made some mistakes in her chain of command. She had killed to many able commanders so that all that were left were men like the one that stood before her. She suddenly longed for the old days when her General's held a measure of contempt for her command.
"I am certain you have already been advised of this mornings incident," the Empress began and the man bobbed his head.
"Yes, My Conqueror, the men involved are being punished as we speak," the General replied certain that his actions would find favour with the tall woman.
"And what does that punishment entail?" Xena was curious.
"They are to be flogged and imprisoned for dereliction of duty," the man announced proudly assuming the Empress would be pleased by his decision.
"You fool," the Conqueror snapped angrily. "You punish those who are not responsible for their actions."
"But," the General sputtered astonished by the woman's unexpected tirade. He watched with fear as the tall warrior paced around the small tent.
"But nothing," the Empress growled. "It is the Drill Masters responsibly to make certain that the recruits are properly trained for the duties they perform and your duty to ensure that the Drill Master is doing his duty. Is the army here so bad that only fools and boys wish to join?"
The Commander had no response, his heart sinking into the pit of his stomach. Everything the Conqueror said was true. He knew better yet he had allowed both the boy and the fool Joxer to remain in training. He could have reassigned them but he had been desperate to fill his list of recruits. He bowed his head certain that he was about to face the very wrath he had wanted to avoid in the first place.
"You have no response for me?" the Conqueror wondered.
"No," the man replied discovering a small hidden well of courage. He looked up and met the tall woman's gaze. "I failed in my duty."
Suddenly Xena felt drained, tired of the confrontations she had been enduring in the past long weeks. She looked at the man knowing that she would probably regret her decision to keep him alive and in command. But she was tired of fighting everyone and everything in her life.
"You are fortunate that I have other matters on my mind," the Destroyer of Nations said in an icy voice. "I want you to commute their punishment. I will conduct a full inspection this afternoon. Whether you remain in command will be determined by what I find so if there is anything you need to do, you have a few candlemarks in which to do it. If I do not find everything to my satisfaction I will make you suffer their punishment. Is that clearly understood?"
The man nodded and hurried from the tent to do his own inspection to ensure that the Conqueror found no reason to meld out her punishment on him. He had no intention of feeling the tips of the whip upon his back.
It was late in the afternoon when Gabrielle and the rest of the escort party finally reached Potedaia. The bard looked around at the small farming community as they rode through the town gates. Nothing had changed in the village over the course of the many seasons she had been gone. She felt a measure of relief at being back to the place of her birth.
They rode through the square and headed to the far edges of the village where Herodatus and Hercuba lived with their youngest daughter, the small entourage making people on the street stop and stare. Gabrielle ignored the loud whispers and the pointing fingers. She knew what they were saying but she didn't care. Instinctively her shoulders straightened and she sat taller in her saddle. She was proud to be known as the Conqueror's lover and even if Xena never wanted to see her again, she would always carry the knowledge that for a while she had loved and been loved by the most wonderful woman in the world.
The party came to a halt outside the small hut that had once been her home. Before she was able to dismount her parents emerged from inside with Lila close on their heels. Herodatus stood in front of the others and watched silently as his oldest child strolled up towards them.
"What do you want?" he was blunt. He would never forgive her for taking up with a woman he hated.
"I have come to help celebrate Lila's marriage," Gabrielle said quietly.
"You weren't invited and are not welcome," the man snorted and was about to turn away when his youngest daughter stepped forward.
"I invited her. Linus and I both want her to help celebrate our marriage."
Gabrielle smiled in appreciation at her younger sister. Lila had never stood up to their father before and it was nice that she was being strong now. Herodatus looked at his youngest child, an angry retort on his lips but one glance at his wife and he refrained from speaking. Instead he grunted his discontent before stalking off towards the barn.
"Gabby," Lila waited only a short minute before closing the distance between them and enveloping her sister in a big hug. "I am so glad you came."
"Thanks Lila, I wouldn't have missed it for the world," the bard whispered in her sister's ear returning the embrace.
"Gabrielle," a quieter voice interrupted the greeting and Lila released her sister so that the bard could go to their mother. Hercuba had missed her oldest daughter probably more than she had ever imagined she would.
"I missed you mom," Gabrielle said quietly coming to a halt in front of the older woman.
"Then you should come home more often," Hercuba chided the younger woman.
"I didn't think it were possible," the bard was honest as she glanced over her shoulder towards her father who was working on the fence near the barn. "I thought you felt the same as father."
"I don't agree with some of your decisions but you are still my daughter and I will always love you in spite of what you do," Hercuba said softly and unable to stop the tears Gabrielle ran into her mothers arms and sobbed quietly.
"So tell us what you have been up to?" Lila pressed her sister later when they were sitting in the kitchen sharing a pot of herb tea.
"It's been really hectic," Gabrielle confessed before launching into a monologue of the events that had enveloped her life since her last visit to Potedaia. Lila and their mother sat quietly as the blonde woman wove her tale.
Both women could hear the love that filled the bard's voice when she spoke of the Conqueror. Though neither could understand what it was that attracted the girl to the Empress, they had grown to accept the realization that there was nothing they could do. Only Herodatus held out any hope that he could change the situation.
"How come the Empress didn't come with you?" Lila asked the obvious question when Gabrielle finally fell silent.
"We both assumed that you would not welcome her presence," Gabrielle said with a weary smile.
"It is just as well," Hercuba said finally as she rose from her chair. "I know your father isn't happy with your presence but at least he doesn't have to deal with that woman. That should make things slightly easier for him to tolerate. Where are you staying?"
"I will camp with the Amazon's," Gabrielle said.
"Nonsense, you are family, you will stay with Lila in your old room," Hercuba announced with finality.
"What about father?"
"Let me worry about your father," the older woman said and then bustled about the kitchen as she began to prepare the evening meal.
Cyrene could not shake the vision of the bard's breaking heart as she had watched Xena ride away. It was strange how it so affected her, yet she felt the overwhelming need to do something to reason with her stoic daughter. To make her see that Gabrielle was worth forgiving. In spite of her own feelings she believed the bard was telling the truth.
"You're nuts," Toris was blunt when his mother told him what she was planning. "You have no clue where to find her."
That was true enough but she knew Xena in spite of their separation. If she was right her daughter would retreat to comfortable surroundings which meant she would go to the nearest military camp. It was a place where Xena would be surrounded by familiar things, things that required no emotion. Things she could control.
"I don't know why you want do this," the man continued to argue.
"I know you don't," the older woman agreed quietly looking up at him with dull eyes. "Maybe some day when you have children of your own you will understand. Perhaps then you will truly know the importance of family."
There was so much more that Cyrene could have said, but she knew that Toris would never understand. She could not tell her son that her attempt to reunite Gabrielle and Xena was just a small penance for the way she had treated her daughter so long ago. Now that the anger had gone she could see the situation more clearly.
"Well, at least allow me to accompany you, there are bandits on the road," Toris sighed in resignation.
"No son, I need you to look after the tavern while I am gone," Cyrene said grateful at the concern that her son expressed. "Joesus, has agreed to let me to accompany his two oldest sons when they go to deliver the monthly supplies to the army camp."
Truth be told Cyrene had not formulated her plan until hearing that the two boys were about to leave on their monthly trip to the camp. It hadn't taken much persuasion on for the old man to allow her to ride with his sons. Joesus, like the rest of the village folk, knew of the special protection the tavernkeeper was accorded because of her relationship to the Conqueror.
Toris gave in without further argument knowing that he would be unable to change her mind. His mother was a smart woman and he could trust the two young men to take care of her on the journey, yet he also knew that he would worry until she returned.
Gabrielle followed her sister through the village, listening as Lila prattled on non-stop, her green eyes taking in the festive decorations she had missed the previous day when she had arrived at the village. The wedding was a town celebration and as such everyone had taken an active part in colouring the village with ribbons and banners. Pots of freshly planted flowers were placed around the main square and a dais had been set up next to the main drinking well. Early tomorrow tables would be placed outside the various homes and after the marriage ceremony the whole town would join in the celebrations, dancing and eating until well after dark.
Tears misted her eyes as she allowed herself to briefly think of how she had once imagined her own future. Xena had promised to marry her, but had yet to do so and now she doubted that they would ever celebrate a union such as the one her sister was about to celebrate.
She shook her head unwilling to allow her own despair to overwhelm her. This was Lila's moment and she would do nothing to spoil her sister's happiness. Even her mother had been firm the previous evening in dealing with their father, who had adamantly voiced his displeasure at her presence. He had grumbled about the Amazon's who had set up camp in his front yard and was only slightly placated when a party of hunters returned with a small cache of pheasants for their meal.
But she was unaccustomed to Lila's stubbornness unaware that her own strength and determination to be with the Conqueror had inspired the girl to become more like the woman she admired the most, her older sister Gabrielle. Once shy and acquiescent, Lila now made all her own decisions.
"What's wrong?" Lila asked after a long silence, aware that her sibling had not noticed that she had stopped talking.
"Nothing," Gabrielle denied bringing her thoughts to the present. She glanced around and realized they had reached the meadow by the creek. They had come out to collect some fresh fall blooms for the bouquets that were to be placed on the dais during the wedding.
"Don't give me that nothing bit," Lila announced with determination. "I know when something is wrong. I promise I won't tell mom or dad."
It was true. She could trust Lila to keep her secrets. Gabrielle was silent, wondering what her family would say if they knew the truth. She could imagine the smug satisfaction her father would be feeling and the sympathetic but knowing look that her mother would give. But she was sure that Lila would be sympathetic.
"Did something happen between the Conqueror and you?" the younger woman asked astutely.
"Yes," Gabrielle sighed and dropped to the ground. Before she could stop herself she was spilling out the story. Revealing the sad truth of what had happened and why.
"Pregnant!" Lila exclaimed in astonishment and joy. "That's wonderful Gabrielle." She had never thought that she would get to be an Aunt. She embraced her older sibling joyfully.
"Thank you," the bard couldn't help being affected by the other woman's exuberance. But she quickly sobered.
"I take it Xena wasn't as happy about the situation," Lila surmised wisely.
"As the God's of Olympus are my witnesses I have never been with a man. The only one who I have shared my body with is Xena."
"Wow, she certainly is a woman of many skills," the younger girl joked trying to lighten the mood.
"That's the point," Gabrielle sighed. "I don't know how I got pregnant. There is only one explanation and she would not except it and really it is so far fetched I don't know if I was in her place if I would either."
"Give her time Gabby," Lila said wisely. "Xena loves you. I think she just needs to be alone to realize how much she feels about you."
"I wish I could be as certain," the bard wasn't convinced.
"Mark my words," the younger girl continued optimistically. "I bet before you have a chance to leave here she will come to take you back to Corinth."
Gabrielle laughed at her sister's romantic notion. There was a time when she could have believed the same but too much had happened and she had grown to wise to know that sometimes love was not enough to keep a family together.
"I envy you," the bard admitted wistfully catching her sister by surprise.
"Because for you this is all so simple," Gabrielle sighed. "Nothing about Xena or our life is easy. We have been together nearly three summers and yet we haven't lead anything close to a normal life. No sooner do we settle into the palace then some emergency pops up and we have to leave again. We continuously have to be careful because there is always someone with a grievance attempting to settle a score. Even those who are a part of her inner court can not be trusted."
"Then perhaps this separation is for the best," the younger woman counselled. "Perhaps it's time for you to come home."
Gabrielle smiled aware that any sane person would take the other woman's advice, but she was beginning to believe that she might not be sane.
"Yeah," she agreed quietly. "The sane thing to do would be to come home but the truth of the matter is my heart would never let me do that. For all her faults Xena is a wonderful woman. There are aspects of her personality that people wouldn't believe. She is known as being violent and cruel but she can also be kind and tender, and very much a romantic."
"Then what are you going to do?" Lila wanted to know.
"After the wedding I will return to Corinth," the bard said knowing that she would try her hardest to make the Conqueror see reason. "Somehow I will convince Xena to take me back... that we can be a family, her, me and this baby."
Lila smiled, knowing how stubborn and determined her older sibling could be. She knew that if Gabrielle wanted something she would get it, and privately she didn't think that the Conqueror had an chance.
"You will have this Gabby," the younger girl whispered knowing in her heart that it was true even though her sister was filled with doubt and uncertainty.
Xena was surprised and pleased by what she found. A thorough inspection of the Army camp revealed that it was orderly, well organized and smoothly run. A request for a military combat display was insightful and showed the Conqueror that in spite of some questionable judgment on the part of the Commander, the troops were skilled and more than competent in the art of hand to hand warfare. She credited it to the Drill Masters instruction and intense training regiment.
Her personal sparring lessons with Solan showed that the boy had inherited the strength and natural ability with the sword that both his parents possessed, though she had to wonder how much could be credited to his genes and how much was the result of Kalipus' tutelage. She knew the Centaur leader was an accomplished and fierce warrior.
The boy was nimble on his feet and agile with his sword arm. He already knew more than the basic moves of a soldier though he made the same mistake as most of her opponents, attempting to use brute force instead of skill to disarm the opposition.
Solan swung his sword in the fashion that he had been taught. Though he showed a higher than normal proficiency with the weapon he found his skills sadly lacking in comparison to the tall dark woman he faced. No matter what move he tried, the Conqueror seemingly effortlessly countered it, sending him onto the ground more than once.
"Don't try to force the sword," Xena counselled as she parried another one of his attacks. She could feel the strength behind the blows but most of the strikes were made so that the majority of the force had been expended before the blow was actually struck. "Move the sword with your whole body and not just your arm."
The boy nodded and attempted to follow her instructions but it was hard for him to concentrate with his anger so near the surface. Always in the back of his mind was the promise he had made to himself that he would kill this woman if he ever had the chance. He had thought the task would be difficult to accomplish yet here he found himself sparring as part of his new daily military exercises. In spite of his desire to inflict a fatal injury to the Conqueror he found it impossible to penetrate her defenses.
"Enough for today," Xena said after she sent the boy stumbling onto his backside for the umpteenth time. She hadn't even broken a sweat but she could see that the boy was tiring. There were beads of perspiration forming across his brow. She sheathed her sword into the scabbard on her back and held out her hand to help the boy up.
For a long time Solan stared at the extended appendage and then at the dark haired woman who towered over him. For all intense purposes she was unarmed and he knew that this might be his only chance to exact revenge. He allowed her to help him to his feet and then watched as she turned her back.
Xena had not survived this long with as many enemies as she had without being able to read people. She had sensed something in the boy when they sparred, it was more than a simple exercise and he had been unable to hide his emotions. Thus when she felt the air around her move she was ready.
She swung around as the sword came down, using the leather bracer on her arm to deflect the brunt of the blow as she knocked the blade aside. In the next motion she spun out her leg and knocked his legs out from under him, the sword in his hand flipped into the air to be caught negligently by an empty hand which automatically spun it around and brought it down, the tip of the metal pressing into his throat under his chin. Glittering blue eyes stared harshly into sullen blue orbs that matched her own.
"You will have to do much better than that if you want to kill me," the Empress said her lips curling into a mock sneer. She lifted the blade and looked at the nicks in the metal. "And it will take more than this piece of crap." She tossed the sword aside and held her hand out to him.
The boy stared at the extended limb, aware that the woman could have killed him. Others had been sent to Hades for lesser infractions and he had been certain that she would have impaled him for his feeble attempt on her life. He rose to his feet with her assistance.
"Aren't you going to kill me?" he asked with a defiance that made the tall woman smirk. It was a memory of a younger self.
"I don't kill children," she snorted and turned on her heel.
"You should kill me," he challenged her back. "Because I will only try to kill you again."
"Get in back of the line," Xena laughed without amusement as she continued to walk off the practice field.
"I hate you," Solan yelled childishly and this time the woman paused to glance over her shoulder at him.
"So does most of your countrymen," she replied in a soft voice, pushing down the strange feelings of hurt that surfaced at his claim. She turned away from the boy.
"My Empress, what do you wish for me to do with the boy?" Zenon asked quietly as the Conqueror strolled passed him. He had been witness to the attempted assassination.
"Keep an eye on him," Xena said without explanation. "I want him to accompany us when we return to Corinth."
"And the punishment for attacking you?" the Captain of the Royal Guard asked barely able to mask his surprise at this unexpected revelation. He knew how complicated the Empress was but he considered the boy extremely lucky to still have his head attached to the rest of his body.
"Think of something that won't hurt him, but will make him think twice before he tries anything as foolish as that again."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the soldier nodded his head before turning his attention to the lad who was standing alone in the middle of the practice field.
Xena strolled passed the Camp Commander who looked at the Drill Master briefly before hurrying to catch up to the tall woman. He had witnessed the boy's attempt to harm the Conqueror and was fearful that she would focus the blame on him.
"I will have him punished for his insubordination," the General declared in a nervous voice.
"My Royal Guard will take care of the matter," she replied in a cold voice and paused to look at the man her intense blue eyes boring into him. "I cannot hold you responsible for what goes on in another's mind, just as I am pleased to note that my first impression of the camp and my fears have been allayed. The lad is merely a child, his thoughts obviously influenced by others. Those are the ones that you should worry about and not the children whom they press to do the dirty work."
"I will have my Lieutenants conduct a thorough investigation into the matter," the General promised.
"You do that," the Conqueror nodded and then strolled off leaving the men in her wake.
Xena was relieved to be alone in the privacy of her tent. She unclipped her armour, tossing it onto the floor before slumping onto the cot and burying her head in her hands. She had not even noticed the slight trail of blood that was on her arm just above her bracer. It wasn't the pain of her injury that hurt, but the knowledge that the boy hated her. She wondered what she had done to instil such hatred in her son.
She leaned back, resting her weary head on the pillow and closed her eyes. She was tired, both mentally and physically. In the few days that she had been in the camp she had not gotten any sleep, her thoughts allowing her no peace. She had hoped that through time she would be able to befriend the boy yet his actions showed how naive those thoughts were. She didn't know how to handle the situation.
Gabrielle would know what to do about Solan, the thought came unbidden to her mind only to be summarily dismissed. The bard wasn't around and that realization only caused another rift of pain to drive through her heart.
"Why does everything have to be so complicated?" she asked out loud to herself.
"It's only as complicated as you make it," a voice answered and in an instant Xena was on her feet staring at the older woman standing just inside the tent.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to talk to you," Cyrene said bluntly as she glanced around the barren room spotting a stool in a corner. "Do you mind if I have a seat, the ride was rather odious and I am not as young as I used to be."
"Certainly," Xena nodded and then hurried to retrieve the stool from the far wall and put it next to her mother. She waited until the woman settled onto it before speaking again. "What are you doing here?"
Cyrene looked up at her tall daughter. As always the younger woman was surrounded by a nervous energy that radiated off her in waves. A closer look at the girl's face showed the shadows under those pale blue eyes and the weary lines that were etched into the corners of those startling orbs.
"When was the last time you got any sleep?" the older woman asked ignoring the earlier question.
"I don't know," Xena shrugged impatiently. If the truth was known she hadn't gotten a proper nights rest since before Gabrielle was poisoned. Since she had left Amphipolis four days earlier she had not managed to even lay down for a few candlemarks rest. "Does it matter?"
"Certainly it does," the Innkeeper said her grey eyes staring at her daughter. "Gabrielle is pregnant she will need your help now more than ever."
"No!" the Conqueror hissed through her teeth. Anyone else would have known that the Empress wanted to drop the subject and they would have done so but Cyrene was not bound by the ordinary rules.
"No Xena, it's time for you to listen," she interrupted. The Empress was about to argue but clamped her lips shut and waited for the older woman to continue. Cyrene took a deep breath, what she had to say next would be hard for the both of them.
"I haven't been a good mother, and you have a right to be upset at me for the way I treated you, but even though I may have been angry with you, I never stopped loving you, caring about you, worrying that you were all right."
Xena was silent as she stared at the older woman. As with everyone she searched her face to try and understand why she was saying these things but she was only able to see genuine concern in the older woman's features. She sighed and slumped back onto the cot.
"Why are you here?" the Conqueror said in a weary voice feeling for a moment overwhelmed by all the things happening in her life.
"I saw what happened between Gabrielle and you...," Cyrene began but was rudely interrupted as the Empress jumped to her feet again.
"She lied to me."
"Why do you think that?" the Innkeeper asked.
"Because what she says is impossible."
"And you know this for a fact?" the older woman challenged. "Do you know without a doubt that there wasn't some divine intervention that gave Gabrielle your child?"
"My child," the Conqueror snorted in disdain.
"Those else could it be?" Cyrene asked and when no answer was forthcoming she decided to change her appeal. "Has Gabrielle ever lied to you? Has there ever been one time when she denied you the truth?"
The Innkeeper didn't know what had passed between the two women but she was certain she knew the bard and she would bet her life that Gabrielle would never lie to her daughter. The small blonde woman was the most genuine and caring woman that she had ever had the fortune to meet and she was grateful that the bard had chosen her daughter to love.
Xena remained silent. It was only three summers ago that they had met yet it seemed like the bard had been in her life forever. Gabrielle had always been honest with her regardless of what the consequences might be. Brilliant blue eyes turned to look at the older woman.
"If the child is the product of the God's intervention, then why don't they just tell me?" the Empress wanted to know.
"Perhaps to tell you the truth would defeat the purpose of the reason they are giving you this child," Cyrene sighed.
"Why can't I get a simple yes or no answer?" The Empress demanded in frustration. Everything had been going so well and she had been happy for the first time in so many years. Now it seemed that it was all an illusion.
"Sometimes the simplest answer would leave you with doubt," Cyrene replied softly. "If you look inside your heart you would know the truth and it wouldn't matter how the child inside Gabrielle was conceived."
It was the truth, and Xena knew that, but she wasn't ready to accept the truth. She wanted to hang onto her anger, because to accept anything else would mean that she had lost control; of her life and everything she believed in. The weariness invaded her body causing her to slump to the cot and bury her head in her hands.
"I don't know what to believe," the Conqueror sighed.
"Yes, you do Xena," the Innkeeper scolded the Empress. "You are just unwilling to accept the truth, because you know if you do, you would be giving yourself over to her completely, to someone else, and you have never done that with anyone have you? You have allowed others to share your bed and parts of your life but you have never allowed anyone complete access to your love, not since Lyceus."
Xena remained silent. It was a truth that she had not wanted to acknowledge. She had given herself to Gabrielle but she had still held something back, that last remaining vestige of trust that would give the bard complete control over her.
"She will hurt me," the Conqueror murmured softly.
"You must know by now that Gabrielle would never purposefully hurt you," Cyrene chided the warrior.
"Then why do I feel this way now?" The Empress demanded to know.
"Because your pride won't let you believe something which you don't understand," the Innkeeper said simply. "Sometimes Xena we just have to believe even if we don't understand. Do you not believe that Gabrielle loves you?"
"I used too," the Warrior admitted.
"And this makes you doubt the truth?"
Xena was silent as she contemplated those words of wisdom and the older woman felt a small triumphant. She could see that her words had gotten through to her stoic daughter.
"Gabrielle is who she seems," the Innkeeper said softly. "If you looked deep into your heart you would know the truth."
The Empress knew what her mother said to be true. She looked across the room and for the first time saw the weary lines that graced the older woman's face.
"When was the last time you had something to eat?"
"Sunrise," Cyrene said honestly.
"Come," the Conqueror ushered the woman out of the tent towards the meal hut. Only once she had seen that her mother had eaten and been settled in for a nap did she grab Argo and take the warhorse out for a ride. Before long she found herself in the meadow by the waterfall where Gabrielle and her had spent their first evening together, talking and getting to know one another. She sat down on that same rock and stared out into the valley below.
It would have been easy for the God's to tell her the truth yet what her mother had said was also true. Search your heart, Cyrene had said and she did that now, yet the only things she could feel was the pain and the love she felt for the bard. It was in that overwhelming conflict of emotion that she finally found her answer and for the first time since Lyceus' death she wept, giving control of her life away to another.
Gabrielle felt tears in her green eyes as she watched her younger sister stand on the dais next to the young merchant. She wept freely and cheered along with the rest of the villagers when the Mayor declared the pair husband and wife. The town erupted into a celebration which carried on late into the evening, long after the newlywed couple had retired to the local Inn for the night.
The bard retired not long afterward the couple departed. She lay in bed, in the room that she had once shared with her sister. The sounds of the ongoing festivities drifted in through the open windows as she stared up at the ceiling through the darkness that surrounded her.
She knew that with Lila's wedding over she had to make a decision on what to do next. Yet she also knew that there was only one course of action. She would return to Corinth and talk to Xena and try to make her understand the truth.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she thought about the Conqueror. She had never felt so lonely as she had since Xena had ridden out of Amphipolis that day. Her heart had felt like it had been ripped out of her chest yet she had faith in her tall dark warrior. She hoped that it was not misplaced.
The next morning the Amazon Queen found her escort a little worse for wear. Once convinced that their intentions were honourable, the villagers had embraced the small party of Warriors and if she was right in her assumption at least one and possibly two connections had been made between members of her escort and the single young men in the hamlet.
She found Eponin sitting alone on the porch where she had spent the night. The bard settled next to the Weapon's Master, casually glancing at the mug that was in the warriors hand. It was a foul looking mixture and a smile tugged at the corners of the Queen's lips as she recognized the smell as a herb tea the Amazon's regularly used to treat the effects of a hangover.
"Good morning Eponin, how are you this fine day?" she greeted the taller woman with a smirk.
"Fine, Your Highness," the Weapon's Master mumbled trying hard to ignore the insistent pounding in her head.
"Good to hear," Gabrielle allowed the smile to grace her features. "I take it you and the rest of the Amazon's enjoyed themselves last night?"
"Yes, My Queen," Eponin nodded slightly and glanced sideways at her companion. "It was nice of your sister and her husband to invite us to join them. The way the whole town celebrated, it was like being back at the Amazon village."
"Yes," the bard nodded her head and gazed out over the town which was slowly waking after a long night of partying. "If there was one good thing about the travel restrictions that used to be enforced, it was that the town became like one big family. You got to know your neighbours and everyone shared in everyone else's joys and sorrows."
The Amazon nodded. It was hard to believe that there once was a time when people were not allowed to travel freely around the country. It seemed like a lifetime ago yet it was only three short summers since the Queen had come into the Empress' life and started to change the world. She glanced at the woman seated beside her.
For all intents purposes the Queen looked like she was without a care in the world, but it was an illusion. It was only when one looked into the green eyes and saw the sadness there that they knew it was a lie. She knew the young woman was hurting even though she was going on as if nothing in the world was wrong.
"So what's the plan?" she asked, broaching a subject that nobody had dared bring up since they had departed Amphipolis.
"I guess everyone is anxious to go home," Gabrielle sighed the smile on her face disappearing.
"We go where you go," the Weapon's Master declared not wavering in her devotion to her Queen. "Have you decided what you want to do?"
"I haven't been here for a long time so I thought now that all the excitement was over I would spend some time with my family."
"And then?" the Amazon prompted her brown eyes glued to the other woman.
"Then we go back to Corinth and hope that I will be able to get close enough to the Conqueror to explain and make her see reason," Gabrielle sighed.
"Do you think that is wise?" Eponin questioned the other woman's decision.
"I don't know," the Queen said in a heavy voice. "My head says that it is crazy for me to think that Xena will listen to anything I have to say, but my heart wants to believe."
"Well, you have always trusted your heart before," the Amazon warrior said softly knowing that it was the truth. She had seen the young Queen act on her feelings and had been rewarded for her unending kindness.
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded with a half-smile. "I fear though that one of these times my heart will mislead me."
"No," Eponin shook her head vigorously and then groaned at the pounding that it stirred inside her brain. "Do not be afraid my Queen, you have the best instincts of anyone I know. Your heart led you to the Conqueror and I think it will lead you back together."
"I hope so," the bard sighed. "So what have you got planned for the Amazon's this morning?"
The Weapon's Master knew that the bard wished to change the subject and so launched into a short dialogue of how she would be sending the escort on another hunting party. Though her leg was healing, it would be many more days yet before she would be able to remove the splint and join her sisters.
By the time Xena returned to the camp, she knew what she had to do. She advised Zenon of her plans sending the man into a hurried preparation for their journey. They would be escorting her mother back to Amphipolis before continuing on to Potedaia. The Captain of the Guard was glad, for he knew that the Empress was only a shell of a person without the bard. He had no desire to see the Destroyer of Nations return.
Solan was confused by the order he received. He had thought that he would be sent back to the Centaurs but it appeared that he was supposed to accompany the Conqueror and her entourage. He was given a horse from the camp's stable and told that it was now his responsibility.
Three days later the small military entourage neared the small village of Potedaia. They had dropped Cyrene back at Amphipolis, staying only for a meal before continuing on their journey. Xena was anxious to see the small woman and didn't want to waste time. They rode hard reaching their destination late in the afternoon.
The Conqueror remembered from her previous visit where Gabrielle's parents resided. She lead the small party through the centre of the town towards where Herodatus and Hercuba lived. She hoped that the bard was still there and was relieved when she saw the small Amazon camp next to the house.
Solan remained mute throughout the trip, his sullen blue eyes observing every detail of his new commander, the Conqueror. If he were to succeed in killing her, he would have to know her vunerabilities. He didn't know why they had come to this farming community and no one had thought to explain. In the few days he had been a part of this company he had learned that the soldiers were unfailingly loyal to the Emperor. At first he thought it was the result of fear but he soon learned it was out of respect for her as a Commander. The realization left him confused.
Xena slid off her horse and passed the reigns to Zenon who would wait outside with the others. She paused for a moment and allowed her intense blue eyes to survey the outer walls of the small house in which Gabrielle's parents lived. She knew that she could offer them something more, but in the same thought she knew that the proud couple would never accept anything from her. She was well aware of their hatred. From the corner of her eye she noticed the Amazon Weapon's Master approach.
"How is she?" the Conqueror asked without preamble.
"She tries to be herself but there is something missing in her," Eponin was honest. The Empress contemplated this revelation feeling a slight hope that Gabrielle was missing her.
"Have they treated her well?"
"Yes," the Weapon's Master was honest, aware that the Conqueror would expect nothing less. "I think her father knows that he would pay dearly if he tried to do anything to harm her."
"He certainly would," the Empress nodded and realizing that she could waste no more time she squared her shoulders and marched firmly across the distance, taking the front steps in one long stride. She rapped her knuckles against the door and then waited, hoping that she would not be rejected. She had never felt more afraid of anything in her life.
"Gabrielle would you get that?" Hercuba asked turning briefly from the shelves to look at her daughter who was seated at the kitchen table watching her father fix a leather harness.
"Yes," the small blonde woman nodded and stood up to do her mother's bidding. She secretly hoped that it was only a neighbour come to visit. She was tired of fending off the young men whom her father insisted on inviting over after his daily visits to the local tavern. The man could not understand that she was only interested in the one person who held her heart so completely.
She plastered on a false smile and then opened the door her green eyes popping wide open at the sight of who was standing on the other side of the threshold. She had hoped, and dreamed that her lover would come for her, but she had almost resigned herself to the fact that the Conqueror would never be able to accept the truth. Xena was a proud woman and the last thing she had expected was for the proud woman to come for her.
"Xena what are you doing here?" Gabrielle was delighted to see her lover but surprised by the tall woman's sudden appearance.
"I have come to get you," the Conqueror said simply and saw the pained expression cross her small partner's face.
"I know we have some things to talk about," the Empress cut the other woman's words off, glancing over her slender shoulder to the older couple. Hercuba had moved across the room to stand next to her husband. She could see the man glowering in her direction and the concerned expression on the older woman's face. She glanced back down at her lover. "But first I need too talk to your parents."
Gabrielle was confused but she did not stop her lover as Xena stepped into the small house and strolled up to her father. Herodatus stood up, unwilling to allow the tall woman's presence to intimidate him.
"What is it you want?" the man asked in a stern voice not hiding his dislike.
It was an uncomfortable moment and Xena shifted uneasily on her feet. She was the most powerful person in the Empire and yet she felt like the small village girl that she had once been. She glanced nervously at the older woman before turning her attention once more to the man.
"Well what is it?" Herodatus demanded impatiently. Though he knew that his insolence could be rewarded with a swift blow from the tall woman's sword, he was not afraid. It was as if he instinctively knew that he was protected by his daughters alliance with the woman.
The Empress took a deep breath and counted to ten to allow the sudden surge of anger that filled her to subside. She was the Empress and she could easily make him pay for his insolent manner yet she knew at the same time that she would never do anything to hurt the man all to aware of her lover who was standing hesitantly at the door waiting for the scene to unfold.
"I would like to ask your permission to take Gabrielle's hand in marriage," she said in a rush, getting the words out before she changed her mind. She didn't have to ask for this man's consent but she wanted to do it right. She heard three gasps and they all measured a verying degree of surprise, hesitation and anger.
"Are you serious?" Herodatus wasn't certain he had heard the woman correctly.
"Yes," Xena nodded her dark head.
"Xena you don't have to do this," Gabrielle rushed to her tall lover's side, gently putting a hand on the other woman's forearm to get her attention. A dark head turned and blue eyes gazed into soft green orbs.
"Have you changed your mind?" the Conqueror asked quietly, her heart pounding erratically in her chest. She had never really considered the fact that Gabrielle might change her mind. But perhaps her actions had given the girl reason to reconsider her feelings.
"No," green eyes misted with tears as Gabrielle saw in the Conqueror's blue eyes all the love and hope that she had ever wanted to see from the woman.
"Then I have to do this," Xena replied in the same soft tones as she gently placed a larger hand over the girl's. She smiled faintly and then turned her attention once more to the man who was standing silently witness to the scene. There was an angry expression on his face.
"I would like your permission to marry Gabrielle," she repeated her earlier request, her voice now more confident then it had ever been, her shoulders straightening with reassurance.
"Does it make a difference what I want?" the man asked bluntly.
"Not to me," the Empress was honest, "but it does to Gabrielle."
"And if I refuse?" Herodatus asked.
"I will marry Xena anyway," Gabrielle said facing her father and not caring what kind of wrath her answer evoked. The fact that Xena still wanted her even after everything they had been through made her realize just how much the stoic woman cared. There was a long moment as the man looked at the appeal in his daughters eyes. He knew that she wanted him to give his permission but he was loath to do so.
"It's not right," he said making his feelings known once more. "Gabrielle should be joined with someone who can give her a normal life, a man who can give her children. With you her life will be nothing but turmoil and she will always be looking over her shoulder to see who might be next to try and kill her."
"I am not afraid of the danger my position as consort will put me in," the small blond bard answered her fathers misgivings. Brown eyes met green for a moment and the man saw that his daughter was sincere. He turned his attention once more on the older woman.
"If you love my daughter you would not want to put her in that position."
"I will protect her with my life," Xena stated simply, meaning every word.
"And what of children?" Herodatus wanted to know, disgust evident on his face. "Do you wish to deprive her of the joy of being a mother?"
There was silence for a moment and Xena felt a brief tug on her arm. She glanced down at her lover and for a long moment green and blue eyes met in an understanding exchange. The Conqueror knew what the girl was asked and she nodded her head, giving the woman permission to reveal the truth.
"Thank you," Gabrielle whispered to her partner before turning to face her father, including her mother this time. "Dad, Mom, you don't have to worry about that, Xena and I are going to be parents."
"How?" the man demanded to know feeling a measure of frustration as the realization that there was nothing he could say to persuade his daughter not to join with this woman. "Are you going to steal some child or adopt an abandoned orphan? That is not the same as having your own child Gabrielle."
"I know Dad," the small blonde said and then took a deep breath glad for the comforting hand that she suddenly felt on the small of her back and the lazy reassuring circles that it was making. "Xena and I are going to have our own children."
"How?" the man repeated his earlier question.
"Don't ask me how because I don't know if you would understand, I don't think we even understand how it happened but," the bard said softly glancing at her partner for one last reassuring look before revealing the secret. "Xena and I are already expecting a child."
"What?" the man was astonished by the announcement.
"Gabrielle are you saying..." her mother spoke for the first time and the bard glanced at her parent and nodded.
"Yes, mother, I'm pregnant," the small woman confirmed the truth.
"Then you should be with the father," Herodatus decided adamantly.
"She will be," Xena said succinctly placing a protective arm across her lover shoulders, her blue eyes latching onto the man's gaze. Brown eyes widened in shock as it occurred to him what the woman was implying.
"That's impossible.... you can't be...." he sputtered.
"I know it sounds unusual..." Gabrielle tried to explain.
"It's impossible!" the man retorted, not believing what they were trying to tell him.
"Perhaps normally," the Conqueror conceded in a soft voice, her blue eyes embracing her lover. "but it seems we had some help from the God's."
Gabrielle's heart nearly pounded out of her body it was beating so hard. She could not believe what she was hearing yet the truth was in the sincere look that the tall woman gave her. Xena truly believed what she was saying.
"No..." the man shook his head unable to believe what he was hearing.
"You see why it is so important that I marry Gabrielle," Xena spoke again, her piercing blue eyes pinning the man firmly in place. "I will not allow our child to be born a bastard."
"It will always be a bastard because of who you are," the man retorted before he realized what he was saying. He heard the quick intake of breath but he was captured by the gaze of intense blue eyes so that he could not turn to see who had gasp. He was aware of the flare of nostrils as the woman before him struggled to remain in control of her temper.
"You deserved to be killed for your insolence," the Conqueror said taking a half step towards the man, ready to do him physical harm, but she felt the soft touch of her lover's hand on her bare forearm and stopped. She counted to ten and reigned in her emotions. "Once again you owe your life to your daughter, for if it were not for her, you would surely be dead."
Gabrielle winced at the harshness of her companion's words. She knew that she should be afraid for her father but she was also aware that Xena would never hurt the man regardless of how badly he behaved. The Conqueror treated her family as if they were her own and they would be once they were joined.
"Father!" Gabrielle turned pleading eyes on her parent hoping for some concession from the man, hoping that he might see as Lila and her mother did how much she loved the Conqueror.
"No, Gabrielle," the man refused to back down, his brown eyes meeting the Conqueror squarely. "I refuse to give my permission for you to marry my daughter, though I doubt it will matter much what my opinion is. What you do to my child is an abomination and I want no part of it. I will not consent too continue to have her corrupted by you and though I don't suppose I will be able to do anything more than to express my feelings, know that your union will never get my blessing."
Gabrielle reacted with a pained expression at her father's words. She turned appealing green eyes towards her mother who remained silent, unwilling to go against her husband's wishes. Her heart was filled with sadness.
"So be it," Xena said abruptly. She had done her best to bridge the gap. There was only one more thing she could do for the sake of her lover. "Let it be known that I will marry your daughter even though you oppose our union." There was a slight pause. "However, I hope that you can reconsider your decision for the sake of the daughter you say you love, and because I do love her, I extend an invitation to our joining ceremony which is to take place in the capital two full moons from now."
"We will not be there," Herodatus stated simply and the Conqueror nodded her head and glanced at her companion.
"Yes," the bard agreed knowing that it was time to leave. "I just need a moment alone with my parents."
"I will be waiting outside for you." Xena nodded. Then without another word she turned and strolled out of the house and down the road to where her escort was waiting.
Gabrielle watched her lover's abrupt departure before turning to face her parents for what she felt would probably be the last time. It hurt in her heart but she knew that it was her destiny to be with Xena, to live at her side until it was time for their lives to end.
"Gabrielle...." this time her mother tried to appeal to the girl's common sense.
"No," the bard put up her hand to silence the entreaty. She looked at them with a direct gaze, her voice unwavering when she spoke. "I know you don't understand this and probably you never will, but my life is with Xena."
"How can it be?" the man wanted to know. "How can you stand to be with the butcher of Cirra?"
"I love her," was the simple answer. "Don't ask me to explain it because I can't, except to say that she is my life, the very air that I breathe and without her I could not live."
"But she hurt you," her mother protested. "I know what you say, but when you came here I could see the hurt in your eyes and I know she was the cause of that."
"Yes," the bard did not deny the truth. "Xena did hurt me but the fact that she came here today and asked for your permission to marry me spoke volumes about the way she truly feels for me."
"And how is that?" Herodatus wanted to know. In his mind his daughter would only ever be a sex slave to the hated Destroyer of Nations and when the Conqueror grew tired of taking that pleasure then she would move on too another to satisfy her appetite and their daughter would be left to fend for herself.
"We had a disagreement," Gabrielle said choosing her words carefully not willing to explain exactly what had gone on between Xena and herself. "But things are better now."
"Do you really think so?" Herodatus asked angrily.
"Yes," the bard nodded her head with absolute assurance, realizing then just what had just taken place. Her stubborn companion for whatever reason had changed her mind. She was suddenly impatient to talk to the tall woman.
"I know by her presence here today just exactly how much she really loves me. It was only reinforced by her asking for your permission to marry me. By the Gods, she is the Empress, she doesn't have to ask anyone for anything and for her to come here today and ask you knowing what your answer would be just shows me how much she cares."
"I don't believe it," Herodatus continued not to be persuaded and that notion saddened his daughter.
"I know," Gabrielle sighed. "I hope some day you might change your mind. Xena is a wonderful woman and nothing like the person you think she is."
"Did her army not destroy Cirra?"
"Did she not lay siege to all of Greece and rule it with an iron fist?" the man continued. "Is your memory so short that you have forgotten that until two summers ago it was impossible for us ordinary folks to even travel to the next village without her permission."
"No I haven't forgotten," the bard shook her head.
"Then how can you stand there and continue to defend her as if she were some misguided young woman."
"Nor is she simply the murderer that you assume her to be," the small blonde woman said. "It's more complicated than you imagine and when I first met her I was of the same opinion as you but Xena isn't like that. I can't defend her actions and what she did because I know that she did some horrible things, but I love her and I have been given the unique position of being able to see the whole person, the animal that has reigned over Greece for so long and the wonderful woman that is buried beneath, and it's that woman that I love."
"What happens when she becomes again the murderess bitch that made her the Conqueror?" Herodatus wanted to know.
"Xena will never become that person again," Gabrielle said with a confidence that came from deep in her heart. It was a confidence born of the knowledge of who her lover really was and how much the Destroyer of Nations had changed.
"How can you be sure?"
"I don't know but I am," she shrugged and allowed her hand to rest on the flat of her belly, noticing for the first time that it had begun to swell. "And with the birth of our child she will change even more. You will see."
"Umpf," Herodatus snorted in difference to his daughter's opinion. "Have you thought about the baby and what kind of life it will have to endure living with that woman?"
"I know you won't believe me but this child will be the most loved and cherished baby in the Empire and not because I am it's mother," the bard knew in her heart that to be the truth.
"I hope you are right dear," Hercuba said her heart aching as only a mother's could as she watched her daughter prepare to leave.
"I love you but I belong next to Xena," Gabrielle said finally bringing any further discussion to an end. The bard turned to leave, her heart heavy as she knew that this might be the last time she would see her family. She paused with her hand on the door, intending to make one last appeal, after all they were her parents, they were her family.
"I know that you can't give your blessing to our union but if you could see it in your hearts to put aside your differences I really would like you to come to Corinth for our joining. I want you to know your grandchild that I am carrying. I want it to know it's family and from where it came."
"We can't do that," Herodatus said slamming the door on any further contact.
"If that's the way you feel but know that you will always be welcome in our home," Gabrielle said and then with nothing left to say she turned and made a hasty departure her eyes filled with moisture.
Xena glanced up at the sight of her lover. She had begun to grow impatient waiting for the bard and had begun to worry that Gabrielle's parents were being successful in persuading her to stay with them. Not that the bard didn't have a legitimate reason not to, after the way she had treated her. The Empress knew that they had to discuss what happened at the first possible moment.
Blue eyes narrowed intently on the small blonde and her face tightened at the sight of the tear tracks on the girl's flushed cheeks. Her back stiffened and her first instinct was to march into the older couples house and demand to know what they had done to the bard but she reigned in her instincts.
"Gabrielle?" she left the rest unspoken and the bard glanced at her with a sad smile.
"It's all right," she hastened to assure the tall dark haired woman, aware of how protective the Conqueror was towards her and her feelings. "They didn't touch me. It was their words that hurt mostly."
Xena was silent not sure what to say. She knew of Gabrielle's love for her parents and it genuinely hurt her that the older couple could not see that her daughter was happy. Though they could not be happy for their child, the Empress thought they at least could accept the girl's decision without making her so miserable. She glanced at the escort who were waiting patiently for her orders to begin the journey back to the capital.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk," she said instead knowing that the others would have to wait. She needed to say her peace before they took one more step along their journey.
"Xena can it wait," the bard implored not certain she was capable of enduring another emotional scene.
"No," the Conqueror shook her head even though she was aware of her lover's feelings. "There are a few things I need to say to you, things I need you to know."
"Okay," the bard merely nodded her head and then allowed the older woman to lead her away from the escort to a pile of rocks at the corner of the family property. They settled onto the boulders flat surface and sat for a long moment in silence as Xena gathered her thoughts in order.
"After everything that happened between us perhaps I was a bit presumptuous to ask your father's permission to marry you. I am not even certain that you still want to be with me."
"No," the Conqueror held up one hand to silence the bard. She needed to say what she felt in her heart. She needed the bard to know the truth. "I want you to know everything Gabrielle. I need you to know."
"Okay," the small woman nodded and fell silent.
"When you told me that you were pregnant I was both excited and upset," the Empress confessed admitting nothing that the bard didn't already know. "More than anything I wanted you to get pregnant, to know what it was like to bear a child and to be a mother. That was the reason I tried to set you up with Jason."
"I know," the bard nodded sympathetically and the Empress took another deep breath before continuing.
"In spite of that I was nervous about you being with someone else, afraid that you might no longer find me interesting," Gabrielle was about to protest but once again the Conqueror held up her hand. "It was my own insecurities I know, yet when you told me that you hadn't been with Jason and longed only to be with me I was ecstatic. Then when you told me you were pregnant all my feelings suddenly came crashing down because I thought that you, the one and only person that I truly trusted, had lied to me."
Gabrielle remained quiet, her heart aching with sadness as she remembered the emotional scene they had shared and the devastated look on the Empress' face when she had finally revealed the true nature of her reoccurring illness.
"It wouldn't have mattered to me if you had been with Jason, but it hurt that you had lied to me," Xena continued wanting to get all her feelings out into the open. "You see I narrowly believed that there was only one way to get pregnant."
"And you think differently now?" asked holding her breathe and wondering what had made her lovely partner change her mind. Briefly she wondered if one of the God's had intervened.
"Yes," the Conqueror nodded her dark head unable to look at her companion. "When I was staying at the army camp I had plenty of time to think and I realized that never once in the entirety of our relationship have you ever lied to me, even that very first time we met when we were complete strangers you were bluntly honest.
"It was than that I realized I had no basis in which to think that you would lie to me now because you had no reason too. I had tried to set you up with Jason for this purpose and you could have just admitted to having slept with him and ended matters there. But you didn't because you hadn't slept with him nor ever taken another person to your bed."
"Then you believe that this child is yours?" Gabrielle asked tentatively, not certain the trembling of her heart wasn't going to make her sick.
"Yes," the Empress nodded her head looking at the bard for the first time in many moments. She reached across and gently picked up one of the small hands and cradled it between her own. "I don't know how it could have happened, it's a little beyond the realm of believability that I could somehow make you pregnant but I know inside my heart that the child growing inside you is a product of the both of us."
A tentative smile played hesitantly at the corner of the bard's lips and she wondered if the God's had played a visit to her tall companion and that was the reason for her change of heart. In the next thought she didn't care because all that mattered was that Xena was there and willing to accept her and the child as their own.
"I love you Xena," that was all the bard was able to say before tears started to flow freely from her eyes.
"I know and I consider that the greatest gift I will ever receive," the Empress said solemnly but it was too much for the bard who flung herself into the taller woman's arms.
Xena clung to the smaller woman holding on tightly as the girl sobbed openly, soaking the cloth of her shirt. She closed her own eyes yet was unable to prevent the tears that gathered there from escaping and rolling down her own cheeks. It was many long moments before the Conqueror gently pushed the younger woman away reaching up to tenderly wipe away the tears that still streaked the girl's face. There was a loving and tender smile on her normally dour features.
"Are you ready to go home love?"
"Yes," the bard nodded. "Let's go home."
"Ok, but first there is one important thing that I must do before we go anywhere," the Conqueror announced and then before the bard knew what the taller woman was doing Xena dropped to her knees in front of her and grasp both her small hands and held them tightly in her own.
"Shhh," the Empress chided the girl softly, her blue eyes softened with love. "I know that I have already asked you this question but because of what has happened between us lately I feel the need to ask again. If there is one thing I never want to do Gabrielle is take you or your feelings for granted." There was a pause as blue and green eyes locked on to each other.
"Gabrielle, my heart is filled with love for you," Xena continued softly. "Each morning, I rise only because I know that I will experience the eternal joy of getting to see your face and hearing your voice. Each night I go to bed filled with love because I get to hold you in my arms and to feel the touch of your hands on my body. I have never known a greater joy and I know I will never find anything better.
"It is with all these feelings that I have inside my heart that I ask you now, would you consent to join with me and be my wife: to allow me the opportunity to use the rest of my life to show you exactly how much you mean to me. In return I offer to love, and to protect you and our child as no one else would. Gabrielle, will you marry me?"
The simple answer was all that was needed and the Conqueror leaned forward and sealed the union with a gentle kiss that spoke of all the love she held in her heart for the young blond woman. It was a kiss that spoke of the beginning of something more wonderful than what they had already shared.
Xena rose once the kiss was finally broken. She could have remained on her knees in front of the bard for all eternity if it meant looking into the girl's green eyes but the practical side of her nature finally overruled. She wanted to get home to the capital so that she could honour her request and marry the bard.
"Come on," she said holding out her hand for the small woman to take but Gabrielle gently shook her head, delicately wiping the tears from her face.
"Please Xena give me a moment," the bard pleaded with a soft smile. "I don't want to face the others until I have some semblance of a normal appearance."
"Gabrielle you always look beautiful to me," the Empress protested.
"I know, but I'm more concerned about the Amazons," the bard confided with a weak smile. "If I come back looking like I have been bawling then they will think you have been beating me and well, I just don't want there to be any more misunderstandings for a while."
"I understand," Xena nodded. It warmed her to know that the Amazon's cared so much for their Queen. "I will wait with the others, take as much time as you want."
Gabrielle continued to wipe the tears from her face as she watched the tall woman stroll away. There was a sudden unexpected flash of light and then standing right in front of her was Aphrodite the Goddess of Love. It was as if the Deity was answering her silent call.
"For what?" the Goddess wanted to know.
"For convincing Xena that this baby was hers."
"I wish I could take the credit bardy poo, but no such thing," Aphrodite shook her head. "She came to that conclusion all on her own. It wouldn't have been fair to you if I had interfered."
"Then thank you for making her love me."
"Sorry, but once again I wish I could take credit but the only thing I did was make it so the both of you could meet. The rest you did all by yourselves," the blonde Deity shook her head. "What you feel and what Xena feels is real, and not a spell. The Empress truly loves you with all her heart, don't ever doubt that."
"I won't, not ever," Gabrielle whispered.
"Good, then go join your warrior babe," the Goddess smiled as the bard stood up. Gabrielle paused and looked at the Goddess.
"Will you come to our joining?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," the Goddess said and then waved her hand before fading away. "You better hurry you know how impatient tall, dark and beautiful gets."
"I know," the bard smiled at the way the deity referred to her companion.
Xena waited patiently for Gabrielle to rejoin her. Without saying a word the Amazon's had packed all their travelling gear and prepared their horses for the impending trip back to Corinth. Within a candlemark the bard had said her final farewells and the entourage was ready to depart. Gabrielle walked to her lover who had been standing by Argo as the bard had given her family a last hug.
"Are you ready to go?" the Empress asked quietly and the smaller woman nodded her head.
"Good," a brilliant smile broke across the normally stoic woman's dark features. "Let's go home and start being a family."
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded with a smile. She climbed onto the brown horse she used and waved one last time before following her lover through the village and towards their home. She chanced one last glance at the place where she had grown up and then turned her head in the direction of their destination. A smile growing on her face as she thought about the future and the beginning of her own family.
or is it???