HOME AGAIN

by Planet-solin

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and others from the show are the property of Renpic and Universal and this story is written without intention of monetary gain. Just a fun story that I wrote when I was bored at work.

Sex/Violence: Of course but itís mild on both.

Other: This is the sequel to If..this were the beginning. Any comments would be appreciated.


 

chapter 1

 

Archius glanced across the table at the blond haired woman. Her brow was furrowed in thought as she contemplated what he had just said. He smiled to himself, almost seeing the wheels turning around inside her head. She was beautiful, with an inner light that shone outwards and touched all those with whom she came into contact. She had all the qualities that any man or woman could want in a companion and he understood why the Conqueror was so enthralled. It was the same reason they all had taken her into their hearts.

In the month that they had been working together he had grown to consider her with a deep affection. She was energetic and enthusiastic and her thirst for knowledge about the inner workings of the Conquerorís government was almost overwhelming. Every evening she retired to her room with a stack of scrolls to read and every morning she would appear with an equally large stack of questions for him to answer.

"So what youíre saying, is that for any treaty to work, both parties have to be absolutely satisfied that their needs are being met," she puzzled over this.

"Or at least made to think they are being met," he corrected.

"Okay, to make sure I have this right letís try an example," Gabrielle said wanting to get this straight. "If the Empress was to make a treaty with say the Amazonís that live near Amphipolis how would she do that?"

"That will never happen, but okay letís use that as a model," Archius nodded. "She would begin by laying out her terms."

"What would she ask for?"

The small man was silent as he pondered that question. "She might demand something like passage

through the Amazon territory for her army. Itís a more direct route to the Eastern border. The trip

around the territory takes five days, going through would cut two days off that travelling time."

"And in return?"

"The Amazonís might ask for access to the hunting grounds south of their territory."

"Okay, now I get it," a light clicked on in the bardís head as she realized it wasnít much different then the bartering she did in the marketplace. "What else might the Conqueror want?"

"Letís see," the man tapped his finger against his chin and then smiled. "The mountains in the Northern part of Amazon territory are mineral rich. She would want access to mine those minerals."

"Okay, Xena can have access but she must split all the earnings and cover all costs of mining the minerals. The Amazonís want half."

"Never," Archius exclaimed incredulously. "The cost of harvesting the minerals is very expensive, at half share it would not be worth her effort."

"Then sixty-forty and the Amazonís will supply a small labour force," she conceded.

"Seventy five-twenty five and they supply a labour force," came the rejoinder.

"Seventy-thirty, and no labour force," Gabrielle said and the man smiled.

"Agreed," the aide said suddenly liking this game they were playing.

"Okay what else would she want?" the bard asked, equally enjoying this exercise.

"Well, the Amazonís would have to supply troops for her Army," Archius said.

"All right, but we will only serve in armies around the territory and no foreign service."

"Foreign service and they will provide troops to protect the Eastern border."

"We supply troops to the Eastern front and foreign service is on a voluntary basis only."

"Accepted," the man agreed. "There I think that would just about wrap it up."

"Not quite," Gabrielle interjected with a sweet smile. "There are a few things the Amazonís want for themselves."

Archius smiled and bowed his head while patiently waiting for the bard to continued. Gabrielle took a brief pause to think. She wasnít familiar with the Amazonís so she wasnít certain what would be in their best interests. She tried to think of what any normal person would want.

"The Amazonís want a cheaper price on the grain they buy from the government," she said finally.

Archius pressed his lips together thoughtfully, trying not to smile. This young woman had a definite talent for this business and with a little experience she could become a skilled negotiator. She had a sharp tongue and a quick mind.

"How much cheaper?"

"Twenty-five per cent."

"Impossible," the man snorted. "Ten per cent at most."

"Twenty per cent and we will buy in a guaranteed volume."

"How do you expect to pay for this?"

"In dry goods," Gabrielle replied trying to remember everything she had read about the Amazonís.

"What kind of goods?" Archius was sceptical.

"Leather goods, pottery and weapons," she listed off a variety of products that the Amazon Nation was known to produce.

"Fifteen per cent, and half in coin and half in dry goods."

"Done," the bard smiled pleased with herself. "How was that?"

"You have a definite talent for this sort of thing," the man admitted graciously. "I will be sure to tell the Conqueror that it is a good thing you are on our side."

"I think she already knows," the woman laughed as she started to shuffle together the parchments that were spread out on the table. "Is there anything else I should know?"

"Yes, but it would take to long to discuss," the man sighed, eyeing her critically. "Are you certain I canít persuade you to reconsider your decision to leave in the morning?"

"No," the girl shook her head. "Itís been awhile since I last saw my family. They will be wondering what I have been up too, and I just donít feel right being here without Xena."

The man nodded in understanding. There was an air of loneliness that hung about the young woman. It was hidden under the ready smile that she displayed but it was there just below the surface. He wanted to see her happy yet he hated the idea of her venturing off into the countryside. The whole notion troubled him on more then one level. Not even the knowledge that Joshua, a member of the Royal Guard, would be escorting her, eased his mind.

"A piece of advice from an old man," he said knowing that once this woman made up her mind there would be no changing it. "Donít tell them the truth."

"I wonít," she promised remembering Xenaís words of caution.

"I shall miss these sessions," the man admitted with a sigh. "Dealing with government business has never been so delightful."

"Thank you," the bard was embarrassed by the praise. "I appreciate everything you have done. I think I understand a little more what the Conqueror goes through. Iím not certain I would have the patience to deal with it on a regular basis."

"Some days she doesnít either," the man laughed. "Thatís why she has me."

"She is very fortunate," Gabrielle was honest and for a brief moment she peered at the man. "Why do you stay with her?"

"Because we are very different but also very alike," Archius confided without hesitation. "She is an anomaly of nature as I am. We were both outsiders and as often happens we found a safe haven in each other. She trusts me to take care of her Empire and I trust her to keep me safe."

"I feel that way some times," the girl confessed unable to look at the man. "Only I feel like I am taking without giving anything back."

"No," the man shook his head. "You have given her friendship and love. That is more than anyone else has ever been willing to give."

Gabrielle said nothing, water misting in her green eyes as her thoughts focused for a long moment on the absent woman. She missed Xena more than she believed possible and every day the emptiness in her heart grew. Hastily, she ran a hand across her eyes, embarrassed by the tears.

"Iíll miss you Archius," she said at last.

"Then do not stay away to long," the man smiled softly.

"I wonít," Gabrielle replied with a smile of her own noticing that Belaus had entered the room, which signalled that the evening meal was ready. She stood up and looked across the table at the man. "I intend to be back here the instant I know Xena is on her way. Nothing, not even Caesarís army could keep me away."

"Then have a good rest tonight and a safe journey my friend," the aide said.

"Itís never a good night without the Empress," she replied and then briefly her face burrowed into a pensive frown. "Why did you say earlier that Xena would never sign a peace treaty with the Amazonís?í

"She despises them for making war on the Centaurs," Archius said simply, knowing that it would be to complicated to explain without going into a lot of detail about the Conquerorís past. A past that he did not felt his right to reveal.

"I wasnít aware that the Centaurs were her allies," the bard mused with some amazement.

"They arenít," the aide sighed and the girl looked at him curiously. He shrugged his slight shoulders in response. "I donít know why but she is fiercely protective of them." He saw the look of surprise on the bardís face and then smiled indulgently. "I know many of her secrets but not them all."

Gabrielle thought about the manís words later that night as she lay alone in bed. In the past month she had learned so much about her lover yet the one thing she had learned above all else was how little she really knew about the woman. She sighed and rolled over onto her side clutching a goose feather pillow tightly in her arms and wondering where her lover was and what she was doing.

 

***********************

General Titus knocked on the tent pole before stepping through the flaps into the command post. He paused, his eyes narrowing as they swept the dim interior. It was empty except for the lone man who was leaning over a map that had been spread out on the table in the center of the room. A scowl formed on his face. He still hadnít forgiven the Empress for dragging him out into this gods forsaken wilderness.

"Whereís she got to now?" he growled angry that the Conqueror wasnít there to answer his questions.

The tall blonde man at the table looked up, straightening his lean body.

"She took a party out just before dawn," the man shrugged. "She mentioned something about doing a little reconnaissance. Is there a problem?"

"No," Titus scowled. "Reconnaissance! Hades, Loris, she is the leader of this godsdamn army and sheís out slinking around the countryside like a common soldier."

There was a long moment of silence as the blonde man studied his colleague. Loris had served with the Conqueror since the beginning when they had joined forces to battle Cortese. He was one of the few people who remained from those days and he had watched her rise from a simple village girl to warrior to warlord. He had risen in her army as her territory had increased until now where he commanded the largest of her armies in the most vulnerable and strategic part of her Empire. He probably knew her better then anyone.

"Have you ever stopped to think how it was that she came to command one of the largest armies on the continent?" he finally asked in a terse voice. He did not always agree with the Conqueror but he remained loyal. "She didnítít do it by sitting behind a desk in a command tent leagues away from the battle field. She learned it by going out there and finding out for herself what was going on."

Titus snorted. "She only does that because she doesnít trust anyone else."

"And why is that?" Loris asked sharply casting a cool glance at his colleague answering when the other man didnít speak. "Because she has been betrayed time and again by those in whom she puts faith. If it were me Iím not sure I wouldnít be the same way."

"Humpf," the other General snorted. "You are blind. She does this because she enjoys it. She is like an animal who lives for the hunt. These reconnaissance missions are merely an excuse for her to go out and slit a few more throats. Admit the truth Loris, she is a demon, possessed by Ares."

"And what if she is?" Loris countered raising his voice angrily. "Is it not better to be on the side of a demon then to be opposed to it?" There was silence as he allowed his words to sink in a moment before continuing. When he spoke again it was without the earlier display of temper. "You are her Second-in-Command, but you are still very new to this army. I have served with her from the beginning and one of the things I learned was that she will do anything to ensure that her armies are victorious and if that means she goes out and slaughters some of our enemy before the battle then I will not be one to dissuade her. The less enemy I have to oppose on the battlefield the happier I am."

Titus was silent. He knew that there was no purpose in furthering the discussion. Loris was one of the Conquerorís favourite Generals. After the death of Draco he had been given his pick of commands and had requested the Mountain Brigade and the Seventh Army.

"You serve with blind faith Loris," Titus could not contain his contempt for the man. He laughed without amusement. "You have been away from the Capital to long to know what is truly going on. Did you know that back in the Corinth she allows a young bard to lead her around like a love sick puppy?

"The girl can do anything and the Conqueror looks the other way." the General paused seeing that he had the other manís complete attention. "She is growing weak, allowing fools to convince her of what is right for the Empire. Did you know that it was the stupid little bardís idea to send the soldiers out into the fields to help the villagers? Right now Archius is busy showing the whore how the Empire runs so that she might help the Empress when she returns. If this keeps up we will end up being nothing more then a joke to our enemies."

"I had not heard any of this," Loris replied quietly his eyes narrowing.

"No, because she keeps you out here away from the Capital where you could spread much influence," Titus paused and there was a earnest look on his face. "She will not reign forever. One day she will turn her back on the wrong person and the one who is closest to her will be able to step in to fill her shoes. You are a good leader Loris, a soldiers soldier, you must understand what this stupid proclamation will do to our army."

Loris was silent as he contemplated the other manís words. Titus had spoken with a passion that he had rarely heard coming from the other man. He glanced down at the map for a moment his thoughts sorting through what had been said.

He had viewed the directive in the same manner as this General until further introspection had given him a better insight into the reasoning behind the proclamation. Now he tended to believe that the Conqueror had made a very wise decision. He glanced up and studied his colleague for a moment, aware that Titus would never understand the greater scope of things.

"I donít think you understand.."

"No it is you who doesnít understand. There will come a time to choose sides Loris," Titus said softly. "When that day comes your actions will be judged not by the people of this land but by the men you command. Think hard before pledging your blind allegiance to the Conqueror."

There was another silence and Titus turned to leave, his disgust evident on his face, but the other Generalís words halted him at the door.

"I am not a fool," Loris said, his voice deceptively casual as his grey eyes stared at his colleague. "I have seen many things in my lifetime. There is a reason I have survived in this army as long as I have and it is not because of some sentimental affectation on the Conquerorís part. I have realized my limitations and perform my duties accordingly. I donít question her or her decisions. If you or anyone are thinking of revolting I beg you to reconsider. The Empress is not a weak woman and she will be alive long after we have filled our own graves."

"I should have know you would remain faithful," Titus scowled. "Do not say I did not try to warn you but know the end is near." With that he turned on his heel and stormed out of the tent.

General Loris watched as the angry man left. He had no illusions about what was going on. He had heard the quietly whispered rumours of discontent and he knew that if he had heard them then it was certain that the Conqueror had also heard. He shook his head at the folly of the man and turned his attention back to the map of the battlefield.

 

Xena sat patiently waiting, perched in the tree, her body hidden by the heavy foliage that weighted down its branches. From her vantage point she could clearly see the trail below as it snaked through the forest. A trail which her enemy used regularly to resupply there main camp with equipment and men.

She allowed her eyes to survey the scene. She was positioned at the edge of a small clearing with a narrow stream. Further down the trail she had placed a small squad of soldiers in strategic locations in the event that anyone survived the initial ambush. If her instincts were right, and they usually were, a patrol would be along very shortly. It was as if the Gods had been listening to her thoughts.

She sensed them long before she saw them emerge from the far side of the glade. A feral smile came to her lips as she allowed the animal inside herself to come out in all its glory. Silently she unsheathed her sword, watching with narrowed eyes as a column of men and women dressed in leathers and furs converged on the clearing. She knew from instinct that they would stop here to take a short rest before continuing their journey.

She could barely contain her excitement as she counted the numbers. There were at least thirty five warriors, their skin painted with blue and white pigment. They were hauling large bundles of supplies on their backs and as she had hoped they eased their burdens onto the ground before stooping to dip handfuls of water out of the nearby stream. They chatted and laughed amongst themselves oblivious to the spectra of death that hovered over them.

She moved silently, slipping down from her ambush into the shadows of the trees, watching her prey like a panther, moving swiftly and silently in her deadly hunt. She slithered through the long grass circling her victims, allowing the animal inside her to take full control so that her victims never knew what happened. They had no chance to act before she was on them cutting a deadly swath through their numbers like an avenging angel.

Half were dead before they realized what was happening. A feral grin was plastered on her face and a cruel laugh bubbled out of her throat as she took the rest on in hand to hand combat. Despite their superior numbers they never stood a chance and almost before it began, it was over, the last one falling into the pool of blood created by the others.

She whistled and only then did her escort emerge from their hiding places. Zenon advanced slowly aware of the danger in approaching the Conqueror while the blood lust still raced through her veins. He saw the carnage and the smile that decorated her face. He saw the blood on her hands and the icy pale blue of her eyes.

"Put their heads on stakes and then position them at even intervals along the trail," she instructed in a voice so cold it made the man shiver. "Then gather up these supplies and set fire to them. I want them to know what we have done." The soldier mutely nodded and motioned his men to get to work.

 

It was dark before the Conqueror and her war party emerged from the plain. General Loris had been silently pacing the perimeter for several candlemarks, anxiously awaiting her return. He paused, staring at the woman that materialized from the inky blackness that surrounded them. Her eyes were white and her dark leathers covered in blood and gore. His throat went dry as their eyes met. An unearthly chill raced up his spine, causing him to shiver. The hair at the back of his neck stood up on end.

"Was it a good day?" he asked hoarsely.

"Yes," the Conqueror smiled but it was without amusement. "I have learned a few new things about our enemy which I wish to share with you. I want to see all my commanders in my tent in a candlemark."

"Yes," the General instinctively bowed his head and followed her with his eyes as she strolled casually back through the camp to her tent. He turned to look at the armed men who had been her escort and saw the haunted expressions that filled their eyes.

"How was it?" It was a question that he dared not ask of the Conqueror.

"Horrible," Zenon said in a quiet voice that trembled with emotion at what he had witnessed. "At first we snuck up to the main camp, taking out several sentries as we went. She said she wanted to take note of the size of their army, but once we got there she crept inside their perimeter. She left us behind but when she came back there was blood on her hands. I do not fear death, but this day I will admit to being afraid." The man paused as if to compose himself and Loris noticed that the soldiersí limbs were shaking.

"She was not content and insisted that we set up an ambush behind their lines," the soldier shook his head. "There was an armed party of perhaps three dozen warriors. She took them out all by herself and then had us put their heads on stakes along the trail before setting fire to the supplies they carried. Then we waited for a party of their warriors to come to investigate and ambushed them. There must have been almost three score and she single handedly killed most of them. I have never seen anything like it. It was like she was possessed by a demon."

General Loris silently listened. He had followed her a long time and when it came to battle she had an uncanny sense of what would happen before it actually did. Some whispered that she was Ares Chosen, he had no doubt about that, he had seen her perform in battle enough to know that she possessed an unearthly strength and fighting power. There were even some who said that she was more then a mere mortal, a demi-god like Hercules, only anointed with evil instead of goodness. Whatever the case he never wanted to be on the opposite side of her in battle.

"You did a good job," he said awkwardly, clapping the man on the shoulder as he glanced at the others, seeing the weary expressions on their faces. "Go fetch some food and have a rest. Tomorrow will come soon enough."

The soldier nodded silently and then motioned for his troops to follow, leaving the General to stand alone on the perimeter. Loris turned to take one last glance out over the battlefield that was awash in the pale glow of the full moons light. He took a deep breath and then turned aware that the Conqueror would be expecting him.

By the time he arrived at the Command tent the Conqueror had washed and changed into a fresh set of black leathers. The expression on her face was calm but he could see the coldness in her eyes. It was as if he were looking at a person without a soul. He took up a position to the left of the table, a place where he could view the whole room without being to conspicuous.

"This is what I want," the Conqueror announced once everyone was assembled. There was silence as she outlined her plan of assault, pointing to various positions on the map and assigning a certain commander a particular field of battle which best suited their abilities. She was in control of the battle but victory would depend on each of them doing their jobs. When she was done she glanced up, her pale blue eyes going around the room examining each one of her commanders for a brief moment before moving on to the next one.

"Are there any questions?" she asked inviting discussion. Silence reigned throughout the room and she straightened up, her eyes narrowing perceptively. Her voice came out as a growl. "Good then I will take that to mean you all know your assignments. That being the case I expect nothing but complete victory tomorrow," she said in a cold voice that sent shivers down the spines of all who heard her words. She was aware that all eyes were on her and she felt a surge of power at the control she exercised over this mute group. "I donít want any prisoners taken. I want their entire army destroyed and when that is done I want you to go in and destroy their camp."

"My Conqueror is that necessary?" General Titus dared to speak aware of what kind of slaughter she was asking them to perform.

"They are barbarians," she replied in an icy voice. "I want a clear message to go out to all my enemies about exactly who the Empress of Greece is. I want them to understand what will happen to them if they try to oppose me. I want to sent a message to Caesar in Rome.

"The Horde have been a thorn in my side for a very long time. I should have annihilated them the first time we met but instead I showed compassion and they turned around and gathered another army. I wonít show such weakness again," she paused, her narrow eyes staring intensely at her Second-in-Command. "I expect this order to be carried out."

"Yes, my Conqueror," the man bowed and with a casual wave of her hand she dismissed them. Without another word the group filed out of the command tent leaving her alone.

She bent her head and took another long look over the map that detailed the plain where the opposing armies would meet at dawn. She had gone over her strategy numerous times plotting an action for every reaction the enemy might have. She wanted to leave nothing to chance. Her mission that day had garnered her much information about the army she would meet on the morrow but still she did not allow herself to become over confident.

The Horde were not inventive in their battlefield tactics. Most often they made an all out frontal assault, relying on their fierce nature to overwhelm and terrify their opponents. She had seen it happen more then once. It was a simple but effective strategy that made many a battle hardened soldier turn and run. She had instructed her commanders on this tactic and warned them that it was their main task to see that the troops under their command did not flee from the battle.

In that way her reconnaissance that day had served a dual purpose. Not only had she wanted to gauge the strength and sharpness of her enemy but she had wanted to show them that she was capable of being as cruel and barbaric as them. She had hoped to instil in them the same fear they instilled in their opponents.

She sighed. It had been a long day and tomorrow would be even longer. She was confident that they would emerge victorious but what she didnít know was what kind of price her army would have to pay for that victory. Unlike most leaders, she considered every soldier under her command important. Every man who died opened another spot that would need to be filled. She could not afford to lose to many men on the field of battle, certain that Caesar would take immediate advantage of the situation. She would not be surprised if the Emperor of Rome did not already have some plan to attack her. In that way this action was more an annoyance then anything but she would use it to show the rest of the world that she was a force not to be taken lightly.

She stepped out of the tent into the night. The sentries at the door snapped to attention but she ignored their presence and allowed her eyes to stray over the camp. It was quiet and fires burned low warming the soldiers that huddled around them.

Darkness had fallen over the land, settling like a thick blanket across the earth. It was unusually quiet as if Mother Nature had warned all her creatures of the impending battle and in response they had fled to some place safe. The moon, a full round ball, cast an eerie pale shadow across the land painting everything in a ghostly light.

She took a deep breath and a feral smile played at the corners of her lips. The air was crisp and filled with the scent of burning wood and sweaty bodies, but there was an even more prevailing fragrance that waffled along with the gentle evening wind. It was the smell of fear and with each passing hour the scent would grow thicker until every soldier would be able to taste it. It was the kind of smell that seeped into her pores and flooded her senses giving her an unearthly power and strength.

She moved quietly through the camp, passing the huddled groups of soldiers who awaited the dawn. Some were sleeping soundly taking advantage of the respite before duty called. Others whispered in hushed and muted voices, expressing thoughts that might not otherwise get spoken, aware that Hades could be anxiously waiting in his chariot to take them.

She walked steadily, absorbing the atmosphere and not pausing until she came to the perimeter. The guard on duty glanced briefly at her and even in the darkness she could see and smell his fear. He was young and she guessed that this would be his first real action. The expression on his face was that of a young boy looking for someone to comfort him, to tell him he would be all right.

Other leaders might have done just that but not the Conqueror. She fixed him with a steely glare and immediately the expression was wiped off his face and his shoulders straightened. She was not there to coddle her soldiers. They had joined her army to fight and she would demand that they did their duty. Without a word, she turned and strolled passed him, stepping out onto the plain that tomorrow would be littered with broken and bloodied bodies.

She turned to look up and studied the clear sky. It was sprinkled with a million twinkling stars and she was reminded of the last time she had taken the time to study the heavenly dome. She felt an unexpected twinge in her heart.

In the last two months she had not allowed herself the luxury of thinking of Gabrielle, aware that it hurt to much to do so. Yet the girl had the uncommon ability of snuggling into her thoughts at the oddest of moments. She missed the bard, more then she had thought possible, yet she did not regret leaving her behind. The girl did not belong beside her on the battlefield where she showed the true nature of her soul. Here she belonged solely to Ares and she did not want her lover to ever see that side of her.

She sighed, briefly wondering what the bard was doing. Gabrielle had said that she was going home to visit her parents. She hoped that the girl was having a good time just as she hoped the bard had used her common sense and kept their relationship a secret. The last thing she wanted was to return to find that harm had come to the girl.

A smile softened the features of her face as for just a brief moment she gave into those feelings that the bard stirred inside her. She allowed them to caress her senses and soothe her soul as her thoughts replayed the memories of the moments they had shared. She felt her body grow warm and her heart trembled inside her chest. An unearthly cough snapped her out of her thoughts and she snapped her head around but she was alone. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves.

Thinking about of the girl did strange things to her mind. It made her unfocused at a time when she needed total concentration. Reluctantly she pushed all thoughts of the Gabrielle aside, locking them away for another time when she could afford to dwell on them.

She didnít know how long she stood there, frozen in place, her eyes staring blankly across the plain, but when she glanced up again she saw that the stars had begun to fade. It was early, just before the dawn and time to prepare for battle. Already the sounds of the camp beginning to stir drifted in the clear air. She squared her shoulders and marched back to her tent. Her body tense and alert despite the lack of sleep, the energy already pulsing like a wild fire through her veins.

She was in the command tent adjusting her leathers when Commander Loris came to advise her that the troops were ready. She sheathed her cleaned and well oiled sword and stood up, the panther inside already prowling restlessly. When she stepped outside the tent she found that Argo was saddled and waiting.

Wordlessly she mounted and her Generalís followed suit. They were now looking for her to lead and lead them she would. She clicked her heels and motioned the warhorse forward, her back straight and tall in the saddle as she rode through the lines of soldiers that had formed up, not pausing until she came to the front of the columns.

She glanced at the sky. It was the time of the dawn, just before the sun peeked over the horizon. The sky was clear without a cloud and the air was pleasant but not warm. She paused and turned her horse to stare out across the distance. On the other side of the plain her enemy was beginning to assemble and she could feel the blood in her veins start to roil in anticipation of the impending battle. It had been to long since she had felt this wonderful feeling.

On Mt. Olympus a happy Ares looked down and clapped his hands together in glee. He was proud to see that his Chosen was so excited at the prospect of battle. He had become a little worried about her, afraid that his Godly sisterís interference had changed her forever.

The Conqueror turned her head and glanced once more over the faces of her men as they waited in their ordered columns. Those who had served during her campaign to conquer Greece knew what to expect but the others, new members of her army, stood nervously, impatient to begin their baptism of fire. She saw their eagerness to get under way and a feral smile creased the corners of her lips. Today would be a good day, she could feel it in her blood.

Just as she was about to turn away she saw him again. It was the young soldier who had stood guard on the perimeter last night. He was at the front of one column and the same fearful expression decorated his face. She glanced over him now realizing that he was hardly more then a boy. The sword in his hand seemed almost to heavy for him to hold.

For a brief moment she considered sending him back to the end of the line but then he turned his head slightly and noticed that she was staring at him. Instinctively his shoulders straightened and his expression turned hard. She could see his hand tighten on the hilt of his sword. Dismissing her earlier thoughts she turned her eyes away.

She clicked her heels putting her horse once more in motion, her senses picking up on all the details of the day. She could smell the scent of sweet grass mixed with the nervous sweat of her soldiers. She could hear the silence of nature. She could feel the tension and her confidence grew with each passing moment.

She was no longer Xena of Amphipolis or the Empress of Greece. She was the Conqueror, the feared Destroyer of Nations and the men of her army could see the change. It was in the expression on her face and the tension in her muscles. She rode a little straighter in her saddle instilling confidence in all who saw her.

She came to a halt at the center of the troops where her Generals waited. She looked into their faces and saw the lines of age and experience. They would need all of that in the battle this day.

"It looks like a good day to fight," General Loris said as he glanced at the Conqueror and then up at the clear sky.

"Every day is a good day to fight," she responded in a cool voice, her blue eyes staring intently in his direction. "The question is it a good day to die?"

"No," the man shook his head and received a feral smile for his efforts.

"Good, then I will see you after the battle and we will share a glass of port," she said turning her horse to face the enemy.

Unlike other rulers such as Caesar, it was her tradition to ride out into battle, leading her army against their foe and perhaps that why they followed her with such faith. They knew that she would never take them where she herself would not go.

The Conqueror closed her eyes in a moment of reflection, thinking of all the things that were important but only one image came to mind. She tried to dismiss all thoughts of the bard, but it didnít work, not until she acknowledged that if she were to die today, she would regret not having spent more time with the young woman.

"Are you ready?" she asked drawing her sword from its sheath and holding it in the air. There was an expectant silence as thousands of eyes stared in anticipation, intently waiting for her signal to advance. She savoured the moment, feeling its power and a surge of immortal strength coursed through her body. It was a last minute gift. A gift from Ares whom she knew would be watching.

"No, prisoners," she screamed and letting out her warriors cry, dug her heels into the flanks of her horse who immediately responded. A great cry arose from behind her as the soldiers took up her battle cry and charged. From across the plain a corresponding cheer arose as the enemy surged forward to meet them.

chapter 2

 

Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably on her feet, feeling an unusual restlessness. She had been in a bad temper since waking up that morning. Normally she liked to sleep late but on this day she had stirred well before dawn, rousted from her slumber by something nibbling at her conscience. As she did every morning, she lay in bed thinking of Xena and the moments they had shared.

Those memories were usually enough to put her in a good mood for the rest of the day but today strangely they had left her uneasy. This morning, stirred by the images she remembered, she had run a hand over the places her lover had so tenderly caressed when they were together. The action had only served to make her miss the Empress even more. Quietly she wondered if Xena was okay and hastily whispered a silent prayer to the Gods to keep her lover safe.

She sighed and glanced across the yard towards the corral where Joshua and her father were grooming the horses. They were chatting amicably as they worked and at various times she could hear the deep timbre of her fatherís voice. The conversation was occasionally punctuated by laughter as the two men shared a joke. The sound caused a pang in her heart.

She knew Herodatus liked the younger man, though of course he didnít know that Joshua was a member of the Royal Guard. All he cared about was that she had arrived home with a nice young man at her side. After years of being different he finally began to think that she was beginning to behave normally. Neither he nor anyone in the family knew of the lie she was living and each day it was becoming harder to hide the truth.

"Joshua is such a fine young man," Hercuba said stepping out onto the porch next to her first born. The older woman was pleased by the idea that this man might be courting her daughter.

Gabrielle glanced at the older woman. She knew what her mother was thinking. It was the same thing they all had been thinking since she had returned home. In the month they had been there, Joshua had become a good friend but nothing more. Her affections were otherwise engaged.

"Yes, he is," she agreed, "but heís not my young man. Heís just a friend."

Hercuba said nothing though she wondered why Gabrielle was so insistent on stressing that point. She couldnít understand why her daughter was so against marriage. She didnít know until too late that she had spoke her thoughts out loud.

"Iím not against marriage," the bard protested with a frown. "I donít want to settle for just anyone. I want my partner to be someone whom I love with all my heart."

Gabrielle would have liked to tell her mother the truth. She hated being dishonest but she knew telling her parents about the person she loved was out of the question. They would never accept that she cared for the most hated person in the Known World. Yet it was becoming impossible to hide the way she felt, as the mere thought of the Empress made her expression go wistful. Instinctively she turned her gaze out towards the village, her mind drifting far beyond the nearby mountains to her lover.

She knew little of what was going on outside the region. The few travellers she had questioned were generally reluctant to discuss anything regarding the Conqueror. The little information she did manage to glean was usually accompanied by angry criticism of the Empress. She began to understand what Xena had meant when cautioning her about making their association known.

So often, she had been tempted to interrupt the hostile tirades of the locals when they chose to vent their rage against their monarch. But she had just clenched her fists and remained silent, quietly reminding herself that none of them knew Xena the way she did.

Sometimes though she could not hold her tongue, and had loudly reminded everyone of the good that had been done in the last few months. But they had all looked at her like she didnít know what she was talking about and had just carried on with their complaints. Frustrated at their narrow views she had strolled away muttering curses under her breath.

She sighed, her heart pounding with a dull ache. Logically she knew this separation shouldnít be so painful but then the situation wasnít logical. They had been together only a short time yet the Conqueror had come to mean everything to her. Never before had she been so utterly and completely in love with anyone as she was with Xena, and it mattered nothing that the other woman didnít feel the same. She would still do anything for the Empress.

Hercuba watched quietly as the expressions on her daughters face changed. She was curious to know what the girl was thinking but realized she probably would never find out. Gabrielle rarely confided in her and she would never dare pry into her daughter's thoughts.

She loved her first born but they had never been close. Gabrielle had always been filled with fanciful dreams and no amount of reasoning could change her mind. In the end they had given up trying to understand the girl and had allowed her to go in search of her dreams. At the time it had seemed the right thing to do, but now they werenít so sure. Their daughter had changed so much it was at times almost as if she were a stranger.

Hercuba sighed, turning to look at her husband. In spite of the changes, some of her little girl remained. Gabrielle hadnít yet learned that finding true love was a fantasy made up by storytellers. Reality was much different. Nowadays a girl was considered lucky if she was able to marry a man who had property. Love meant nothing if it was compared to a someone who could provide a steady income, a home and food for his family. No, true love was just a dream.

She glanced back at her daughter. With her reddish blond hair and sparkling green eyes, she had always been the loveliest girl in the village. Her warmth and innocence had been an attraction and torment for all the local lads who had come seeking her attention. Yet she had rejected every offer. Hercuba was afraid that her daughter would grow old alone and that thought made her sad.

The older woman sighed, aware that it was useless to try and talk to the girl. Gabrielle was stubborn. It was a trait she had inherited from her father Herodatus. It was a trait that inevitably caused a rift between the two.

"Do you think you will be staying for the festival?" the woman asked instead, deciding to change the topic of discussion. Gabrielle didnít spend much time in Potedaia any more. Her visits usually consisted of short stopovers on the way to some place else.

"I donít know," the younger woman was honest. She was bored and restless but she didnít want to be on the road, where a message from Xena might take weeks to catch up to them. Weeks of loneliness that could be avoided.

"It would be nice if you could," Hercuba said pleasantly with a smile. "Lila and I are having a booth with baked goodies and I know anything you put on for sale would be bought immediately by the local lads."

"Iíll see, Iím not sure," Gabrielle wasnít certain. She knew that the moment she received word of Xenaís return she would be gone.

"Okay, just let me know," the older woman said. "Will you be home for supper tonight?"

"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "They asked me to tell a few stories over at the Inn tonight. A merchant train will be in later today and I think the Innkeeper is hoping to get a few dinars out of them."

"Well, be careful," Hercuba was aware of how the townsfolk enjoyed listening to her daughter. She turned to go back into the house and Gabrielle glanced at her mother feeling a sudden pang of guilt.

"Iíve just finished a new story that Iíd like to try out," the bard said quietly and the woman turned to look at her. "It would be nice if you and dad could come."

The older woman smiled. "Weíll see."

Gabrielle knew that was the closest thing to a promise she would be able to get out of her mother. Her parents had never liked the idea of her telling stories to strangers for money. Herodatus had called it demeaning but she had never thought of it that way. She never asked for anything from her listeners and had been pleasantly surprised the first time coins had been tossed onto the stage. She had been tempted to turn the reward down but had changed her mind realizing she needed to support herself somehow.

"Bri, Bri," she turned and watched as her sister came running up the path from the village. Herodatus and Joshua had finished with their chores and were now walking towards the house.

"What is it?" she asked as the younger girl came to a halt by the porch.

"The merchant train arrived early and they have begun to set up their stalls. They have ever such nice things, come letís go look," Lila panted casting her older sister an eager look. Gabrielle smiled and nodded hopping off the porch.

"Where are you two headed?" Herodatus called out causing the girlís to stop.

"The merchant train has arrived," Lila said by way of explanation. "Bri and I were just going down to have a look."

"Just a look," the man called grumpily. "Until the harvest is brought in we have no dinars to spare for extra frills."

"Yes, father," the younger girl nodded demurely, her enthusiasm only slightly dampened. She grabbed the bardís arm and started to haul her away, afraid the man would change his mind.

"No spending any money," Herodatus called again at the girlís receding back as if afraid they had not heard him the first time. They just waved and kept going.

"Why donít I go with them," Joshua suggested. "Just to ensure that they donít do anything foolish."

"Good idea," the older man smiled at the lad, clapping him on the shoulder before watching him take off after his daughters.

The merchant train was larger then the usual caravan that stopped in the village and Gabrielle wandered idly at her sisters side laughing at the younger girlís enthusiasm as she stopped to look at everything that caught her eye. The traders had brought a wide array of wares but the selection of merchandise was small in comparison to the markets she had visited in Corinth. She glanced back at Joshua who was following discreetly behind them giving them privacy.

"Does he always follow you?" Lila asked with a giggle as she followed her older sisters gaze.

"No," Gabrielle lied. Joshua took his mission to protect her very seriously and she knew the soldier had no intention of facing an angry Conqueror if some misfortune were to befall her because of his inattention.

"Liar," Lila giggled again. "I think he must be very in love with you. He follows you around like a puppy."

Gabrielle snorted and would have made some caustic remark but the other girl had already wandered over to a merchant stall, her attention distracted by something the trader offered. She smiled to herself, it was so like her sister, who rarely spent any length of time on any one subject. She followed the younger girl over to the booth and listened.

"These oils come from distant lands where they are specially mixed to bring out the finest of scents," the merchant was saying with a gleam in his eye. He glanced briefly from Lila to her sister and started in recognition. His brown eyes growing wide and round.

"How much are they?" Lila asked and the man returned his attention back to the brown haired girl.

"Five dinars a piece," he said in a charming voice.

"Thatís frightful expensive," Lila grimaced and then held the jar out to her sister to have a sniff. It was a scent the bard recognized. It was the fragrance that Xena wore and a whole library of memories assailed her.

"Yes," she nodded thoughtfully not aware of the way the merchant was eyeing her.

"That is because this is the scent that all the famous rulers use," the merchant continued with his sales pitch. "This is a favourite of our great Empress."

"Oh," Lila said in surprise and hastily put the jar down as if suddenly realizing she had been holding something nasty.

"Whatís a matter?" Gabrielle asked seeing her sisterís expression.

"Well the Conqueror uses it," the girl said as if that were explanation enough.

"So, does that make it a bad thing?" the bard asked feeling the beginnings of a temper. She folded her arms across her chest and stared at the younger girl.

"No," Lila stammered uncertain why her sister was getting upset.

"Good," Gabrielle said firmly and then as if to prove her point she dug several dinars out of her pouch and held them out to the merchant. "I will give you three dinars for the oil."

The man considered her offer and was about to argue but the set expression on the young womanís face said that she would pay no more. He shook his head and adopted a grave expression of his own.

"It cost me more, but for you, friend of the Empress, I will accept three dinars," the man took the money and passed across the jar of scent. Gabrielle frowned and wondered why the man had made such a comment. She looked at him intently. He seemed familiar but many of the merchants looked the same. She had an uneasy feeling in her gut and hurriedly grabbed her sisterís elbow and steered her to the next booth.

"What did he mean when he called you friend of the Empress?" Lila wanted to know. There was a puzzled expression on her face.

"I donít know, I guess it was because I was willing to buy the oil knowing that it was the scent that the Empress wears," Gabrielle shrugged in an attempt to dismiss the subject. She pointed to a food stall. "Come on Iím hungry, let me treat you to a meat pastry."

Lila allowed the matter to drop, the idea of purchasing a treat occupying her thoughts. Gabrielle was relieved that she was so easily able to divert the girlís attention. She didnít want to explain to Lila what she had been able to avoid explaining to her parents.

"You know Gabrielle," Lila said later when they were on their way home. "I know itís your money but you donít wear that scent so wasnít it an awfully expensive point to make by buying it?"

"Perhaps," Gabrielle smiled, nursing a private thought. "Maybe I will give it to a friend."

She would give it to someone else. She would give it to Xena when they met again. The Conqueror liked the scent but never took the time to go out and purchase it when her jar was empty. In their short time together Gabrielle had taken it upon herself to see that the Empressí supply never ran out.

The tavern was packed that night as the Innkeeperís wishes were rewarded. The merchants hearing that a gifted bard was to perform spent some of their hard earned dinars for a meal. Gabrielle glanced around the crowded room as she mounted the small platform at the front. She recognized the faces of her family sitting primly in one corner of the tavern. She smiled and then launched into her newest tale.

She had worked hard on preparing this story. It was one that had become dear to her heart and was the tale of a young girl who had been rescued from slavers by a valiant warrior who had seemingly appeared as if by magic out of the forest. It was the story of her own rescue by the Conqueror but she cleverly disguised their identities. She was immensely pleased by the enthusiastic response when she finished. The rest of the evening went by smoothly and in the end she was rewarded by a handful of coins that were tossed onto the stage when she was done.

She went to the bar to collect a mug of cider before heading over to sit with her parents but she was waylaid by the familiar face of an old and dear friend. She smiled, happy to see him again after so much time.

"Perdicus," she smiled genuinely pleased. She placed her mug on a nearby table and embraced him tightly. "Your family said you were over in the next village. I didnít think I would have a chance to see you."

"My uncle was ill and they needed me to tend their livestock until he was well," the young man said shyly. "Iím glad he got better before you left. I should have hated to miss you."

"And I you," Gabrielle smiled and watched as the young man shifted nervously.

"Can we go outside and talk?" he asked and she immediately nodded. They had been friends since they were small children and he was good company. They left the Inn and walked over towards the stables, sitting down on a bench by the community well.

"Whatís up Perdicus?" she asked after awhile. He was fidgeting with his fingers and unable to sit still while they made idle chatter. The man took a deep breath.

"You and I have known each other for a long time," he began choosing his words carefully. "I donít think itís much of a secret as to the way I feel about you."

"Perdicus," Gabrielle suddenly knew what was coming and wanted to stop her friend but he held up his hand, intent on finishing his speech. He had waited a long time to approach her.

"No, Gabrielle please listen to me," he interrupted. "Let me get this all out before you say anything." He paused and she remained silent, so, he took another breath and continued. "I think since we were children I knew that I wanted to marry you but it wasnít until recently that I had the means in which I could properly support you as a husband should.

"My father has gifted me a parcel of land not far from the village and it is good for growing and has a small house on it. I know you have been travelling allot but you have been home for awhile now so I was thinking that perhaps you were going to stay. If that is the case then I was wondering if you would do me the honour of marrying me?"

Gabrielle was silent, her heart weeping. She liked Perdicus. She always had. But her feelings had never gone beyond what she felt for all her friends. If she had been a different person and didnít know what real love was, she could have become his wife. But that would have been a different time and place.

"Iím sorry Perdicus, but I canít marry you," she said softly not wanting to hurt this man.

"Why?" he needed to know.

"I donít love you and you deserve someone who does," came her sombre reply and there was silence for a moment as he considered her rejection. It hurt to see his heart breaking. "Iím not home because Iím ready to settle down. Iím home because I needed a place to stay for awhile. Iím sorry."

"Itís all right," he brushed aside her refusal with dignity. "I almost expected to be turned down but I needed to ask anyway. You know what they say about lost opportunities. You never know for sure until you ask. I would never have forgiven myself if I hadnít."

"I really am sorry," Gabrielleís contrition was sincere and silence reigned over them for an awkward moment as neither of them knew what to say.

"That was a very good story you told tonight," he said finally, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "I liked the part where the girl and the warrior fell in love."

"Itís a true story," Gabrielle said without thinking and her eyes strayed to where Joshua was standing on the porch of the tavern. She had seen him emerge earlier. The young man followed her gaze and misinterpreted what it meant.

"Is he the reason you turned down my proposal?" he asked and Gabrielle glanced with a startled expression at the man. "Lila told me you had brought a man home. Are you in love with him?"

Gabrielle knew she could have lied and made things seem easier for him but she needed to be honest. She had always valued his friendship.

"No," she said softly. "I am in love with a warrior but itís not Joshua. He is just a good friend who has promised my beloved to look out for me while we are apart."

Perdicus was thoughtful. "I donít understand. If your warrior loves you as you say, why are you not together? If I were him I would never allow us to be parted."

Gabrielle smiled gently, warmed by thoughts of her love. "Warriors can not take their hearts into battle. My love would not want me to be where there is danger."

"He is not only a lucky man but also wise," Perdicus seemed to understand this and sighed, rising to his feet, offering a hand to help her up. He gazed at her for a moment in the moonlight feeling the regrets of his hesitation.

"I think I must have waited to long," he said quietly. Gabrielle could have denied his assertion but she was uncertain of how she would have responded to his proposal if he had asked for her hand earlier. She had to believe that her response would have been the same. She pondered those thoughts as they walked back to the tavern.

"If you donít mind I think I will just go home," Perdicus said once they reached the steps and

Gabrielle knew that he would be unable to meet the expectant gazes of those who had watched them leave. She had seen his family and her own smile at the sight of them together.

She nodded and impulsively kissed him on the cheek. As she went to move away he grabbed her shoulders and pressed his lips firmly against hers and she realized the kiss for what it was. A desperate attempt to get her to reconsider her decision. Gently she managed to disengage herself aware that Joshua had gone very still. She knew that it wouldnít be much longer before the soldier intervened.

"Iím sorry," Perdicus was immediately apologetic and he shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and stared down at his feet, too embarrassed to look at her.

"Thatís all right," she managed a weak smile. "Good night Perdicus."

"Good night," he mumbled before shuffling off down the street. She watched as his bent form was swallowed up by the darkness. A lump caught in her throat. She sighed, and unable to go back into the tavern she slumped onto on a nearby bench.

"Are you all right Miss Gabrielle?" Joshua asked admiring the courage of the other man for acting on his feelings.

"Yes," the bard nodded. "Iíd like to be alone if you donít mind."

"Of course," he bowed respectfully. "I will be just inside the door. If you need assistance call."

She nodded and watched as he retreated back into the tavern. She sat quietly listening to the chatter and laugher that filtered out of the Inn from the open window nearby. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the bench. She was surrounded by family and friends but she felt utterly alone.

"Itís a sad sight, a man with a broken heart," a voice broke through her silent meditation.

"What did you say?" she jerked to attention, straightening up and turning her head in the direction of the sound. She saw a man standing in the shadows not far from the corner of the tavern.

"I said itís a sad sight, a man with a broken heart," the man repeated solemnly and she watched as he emerged from the darkness.

Her instincts immediately went on alert as she recognized the merchant from whom she had bought the jar of scent that afternoon. She watched as he strolled into the torch light and sat down on the end of the bench. He was a rather portly gentleman with a round face and a small beard and moustache. Even in the dim torchlight that lit the porch she could see that he had brown eyes with a permanent twinkle in their depths.

"You sound like you know what that feels like," she said with an edge to her voice. Though his tone was friendly she was leery.

"Iíve had my heart broken more then once myself."

"Heíll get over it," she replied confidently thinking of her friend. "There are lots of young women in the village who would jump at the chance to be his wife. Iím sure it wonít be long before he finds someone else."

"But what about you?" the merchant asked and she glanced at him sharply.

"I donít know what you mean?" her eyes narrowed.

"What will you do when your heart is broken?" he asked simply. "You must know that your life with the Conqueror is only temporary."

Gabrielle swallowed her throat suddenly becoming very dry. She stared at the man trying to discover how he knew so much about her. His features were familiar but she could not place him. He could see her consternation and laughed. It was not a cruel sound but one of amusement.

"Do not be afraid, I will not tell anyone of your secret," he said in a friendly voice.

"My secret?" she said slowly, pretending to be dumb. "What secret would that be?"

"That you are the Conquerors current flame," the man answered bluntly and she caught her breath.

"What do you want?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously, her whole body tensing in anticipation.

"Nothing," the man was sincere. "Why would I wish harm on someone who is perhaps my best customer?" He saw the confusion on her face and his smile widened. "I see you donít remember me, but I cannot forget such a lovely creature as yourself who comes regularly to my stall in Corinth to purchase only the finest scent for the Empress."

"But I buy my scents from a girl," she stammered slowly still confused.

"Ariela, is my niece," the man obliged her with an explanation. "She is a good one to handle bargainers and so she tends the stall for me while I am away on merchant trips but there have been times when I have been there in the back of the stall watching you. You are very kind to her and I think if it had been her this afternoon, you would have paid five dinars for the scent."

"I feel like I am cheating her when I bargain," Gabrielle admitted reluctantly thinking of the frail girl with the limp that tended the booth in Corinth.

"As do most people," the man replied gleefully and Gabrielle saw the truth behind his scheme and in spite of herself smiled.

"Now you know who I am, but who are you?" she asked feeling less threatened. Despite his knowledge she was not frightened of this man. There was something about his manner that told her he would not betray her secret.

"My name is Salmoneus," the man said holding out his hand which Gabrielle accepted. "I am truly honoured to meet a woman as brave as yourself."

"Me brave?" Gabrielle squeaked not understanding.

"Yes, anyone brave enough to stay with the Conqueror of her own free will, has my deepest respect," the man answered.

"Some have called me stupid," she responded and he laughed.

"Perhaps a little naive but not stupid," he countered and Gabrielle looked at him intently.

"You are a brave person yourself," she said and his eyebrows raised slightly over his forehead and she smiled. "You have a secret which could do me harm. I am a friend of the Conqueror. I could have you killed."

"No," the man replied smoothly. "You do not have the heart of a killer."

"Oh!" she mimicked his expression and he laughed again.

"I have watched you," he confessed. "All the merchants in the market of Corinth have and though most of them are weary, they all think the same as I. We see you as a kind hearted woman, one who likes to bargain but one who would never take advantage of anyone. All of us watch you with that boy. To most people he is but a little beggar, dirty and unkempt but you looked beyond that and you had the courage to do that in the presence of the Conqueror."

"He is just a hungry child," she replied remembering that day not so long ago when Xena had surprised her by showing up unexpectedly in the marketplace. She could not keep a smile off her face as she was reminded of how the rest of the afternoon had unfolded. She brought her thoughts back to the present. "I am myself regardless of who is around. Besides the Conqueror is not such a bad person, not when you get to know her."

"Perhaps," the merchant agreed. "But she did not look to happy that day. I assume she wasnít entirely pleased by what you did."

"She thinks I have too soft a heart," Gabrielle sighed. "She is afraid that my natural generosity will invite people to take advantage of me."

"She has reason to worry," the man nodded his head solemnly. "There are people who will take advantage of you, especially now that they know you are in the good graces of the Empress. They will try to get to her through you. I think she only wants to protect you from getting hurt."

"I know," the girl smiled. "But sometimes it gets a little much."

"Perhaps," Salmoneus was sympathetic. "But you are no longer just a simple bard. You are the Conquerorís companion. Your life has changed regardless of how much you want it to stay the same."

"I suppose," Gabrielle sighed. "I didnít exactly go into this relationship looking at all the proís and conís."

The merchant was silent for a moment as he studied the girlís profile. She was quite pretty and the glow of the pale moon illuminated her blond features giving her a mythical appearance. It was as if the moonlight not only shone on her but also out from her.

"If you donít mind an old man prying, how was it that you met the Conqueror?" he dared to ask feeling comfortable that this woman would not be angry at the question. It was a something that all the merchants in Corinth had puzzled over for months.

Gabrielle was unable to keep the smile off her face or the twinkle out of her eye as she looked at the man. "You were in the Inn tonight, were you not listening to my story about the warrior rescuing the girl from the slavers?"

The man was momentarily stunned. "It was true? That was you?" His respect for her growing immensely.

The bard didnít immediately answer as at that moment the door to the tavern opened and a group of people spilled out into the night. They watched quietly as the party disappeared into the darkness. Gabrielle knew it would not be long before her own family appeared. She glanced at the merchant the smile still fixed on her face.

"Yes, it was the most amazing thing," she said the smile slowly fading from her face. "No one knows the truth and itís not something I wish to have spread around."

"You do not have to worry, your secret is safe with me," the man promised solemnly.

"Why should I trust you?" she spoke her thoughts out loud and he laughed. It was a jovial sound with no trace of menace.

"Because I am a businessman and smart enough to know what is wise."

"But you must want something," she said in a voice that did not hold any reproach. "Everyone generally wants something in return for holding a secret?"

"I want nothing," the man replied sincerely rising to his feet. He looked down at her and smiled. "I just wish for you to know that you have a friend. If you ever have need of assistance you can call on me and my family."

"Thank you," Gabrielle stuttered not certain what to say to this stranger. It wasnít an expected offer. No one ever offered friendship to someone who knew the Conqueror. The man nodded and the door to the tavern opened to admit another group of people and he choose that moment to slip off into the darkness. She watched him go not noticing that her family had emerged from the Inn.

"There you are," Hercuba said with some relief as she spotted her daughter sitting on the bench outside the Inn. "We had been wondering where you got to."

"It was such a beautiful evening and so stuffy inside the tavern I thought to sit for a few moment under the moonlight."

"Aaah," the older woman said glancing at her husband who remained silently at her side. She glanced around the porch. "We saw you leave with Perdicus," she said in what was supposed to be a casual voice and with a sigh Gabrielle hauled herself to her feet deciding to put an end to the speculation though she had the desire to keep her family in suspense.

"Yes, I left with him," she replied patiently, "and yes he asked me to marry him but I said no." Not waiting for their reactions she strolled off the porch and started walking towards home.

"Foolish girl," Herodatus sputtered and hurried to catch up to his oldest daughter. He grabbed her elbow and spun her around. "Do you know what you did? Perdicus has inherited a good tract of land from his father and will receive more in a few years time. How could you refuse his offer?"

"I donít love him," Gabrielle stated matter of factly.

"Love!" the man spat the word as if it was a profanity. "You have such high ideals of love but will love feed you when your belly is hungry? Will love give you a warm home when you finally quit travelling around the countryside? Will love shelter you when you are old?"

"I donít know," the bard was honest, twisting her arm out of his grasp. "But I do know I wonít become someoneís wife just for food on the table and a roof over my head. I have learned that there is more to life then that and I am sorry that you have never understood that."

"I can not understand you, Gabrielle. I thought I had raised you differently," her father said in an exasperated voice. He fixed her with a hard look. "Just donít expect me to shelter you when you finally learn your dreams wonít ever come true."

With that he turned and stormed away leaving her standing alone in the middle of the street. Hercuba looked at her daughter briefly, shaking her head sadly before hurrying after her husband. Gabrielle turned to Lila who was staring at her with obvious puzzlement.

"Bri, what are you thinking, Perdicus is a good man," Lila said quietly.

"Yes, and he will make someone a good husband but I am not in love with him," was the testy reply. She was tired of defending her decision. "Besides there is someone else in my life."

"Joshua," the younger girl said quietly with a knowing nod of her head.

"No, not Joshua," Gabrielle shook her own head and took a deep breath wishing she could blurt out the truth. "I am in love with someone else and until that person doesnít want me, there will never be anyone else for me."

Without waiting for her sister to respond, she turned on her heel and walked away, thinking not for the first time that returning to Potedaia to wait out the Conquerorís absence may not have been the best idea she had ever had. She sighed and squared her shoulders determined to be strong yet wondering

if it wasnít time for her to head back to the Capital.

She didnít belong in this town any more. She had grown past her life as a simple village girl. She had seen to much of what was out in the world. Yet her decision to stick it out and remain until Xenaís return, was soon tested again.

Gabrielle accompanied Lila to the market the next morning. She didnít need anything but she would use any excuse to get away from the house. Her father was brooding and her mother was silently disapproving of her decision not to accept Perdicusí offer. Lila had been the only one who seemed to accept the decision.

They searched through the stalls, looking for something their mother wanted, when Lila bumped into a merchant whom she knew. Gabrielle stood waiting patiently while they talked and by the expression on her sisters face she knew that the girl was attracted to the young seller. She smiled, understanding why it was so desperate for Lila to come to the market and she discreetly wandered away leaving the couple to their privacy. Joshua was with the smith getting one of their horses shod, so for the first time in a long time she was alone.

"Gabrielle."

She turned at the sound of her name and glanced at the man who was leaning casually against the wall of a nearby building. It was a familiar face and glancing over to the smith to ensure that Joshua was fully occupied she sauntered over to the man.

"Calipus," she returned the greeting.

"Itís been a long time," the manís eyes nervously went around the market, his attention focusing on a pair of soldiers who had ridden into town earlier in the day, before settling back on the girl. "You havenít been around much lately."

"I have been spending time up in the Capital," Gabrielle choose her words carefully not willing to reveal to much.

"So your father was telling me," the man said. "We missed you."

"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled, but she knew what the man meant.

"We were wondering when you would be back," he continued in a quiet voice. "I was out in a nearby village and didnít get back until two days ago. I was surprised to hear you had been here for almost one full moon."

"I havenít seen my family in a while," she parried, knowing what this man wanted. It was the same thing he had wanted before. The only problem was that she didnít want to be apart of his group any more. She had changed and though she had not shifted focus on their common goal, she had a different perspective on things now.

"Aye," the man nodded. "I thought that perhaps you would have been up to the army camp to tell

your stories. But I hear you havenít left the village since coming back."

"No," she said slowly feeling uncomfortable in this manís presence. She had known him all her life but like other things she saw him in a different way.

"Then perhaps itís time you paid the General a visit," the man said craftily. "I heard that some of his men were sent to the North with the Conqueror to do battle with the Horde."

"I wouldnít know about that," she said and glanced around hoping to see some excuse for leaving. Lila was still giggling and fawning over the young merchant and Joshua was still engrossed over at the smithís.

"It would be nice to know how many were sent," the man said his eyes narrowing as he stared at her. He saw her shift uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

"I donít do that any more," she finally said fixing the man with a determined look. "With the travel restrictions lifted I didnít think you needed my help."

"We will always need your help," the man shook his head. "You are the only one with free access to the camp. We need for you to go in and get us this information. We are planning an attack on the garrison. With the previous information you gave us we know where their defenses are the weakest. Now all we need to know is their current strength."

"You canít," Gabrielle said before she could stop herself.

"Why not?" the man asked suspiciously.

"Because itís suicide," she argued. "Even if the armies numbers are depleted they will slaughter you."

"Not if we are smart," the man countered. "Thatís why we need this information. We intend to attack with enough people to ensure that the whole garrison is slaughtered."

"Then you will become just like the Conqueror," she disagreed as visions of another battle filled her head.

"No one could ever become as bad as the Conqueror," came the cool reply.

"The whole idea is foolish and I donít want any part in it," she said in a quiet but firm voice. "Even if you succeed you will lose and so will everyone that lives anywhere near the army camp. Do you think Xena will allow such civil disobedience to go unpunished?"

"That is the joy of the plan," the man said in a voice that had suddenly become passionate. "She is away in the North. By the time she gets back it will be to late for her to do anything."

"No," Gabrielle disagreed. "She would never let you get away with it. She may be in the North but she

would come after you when she gets back and she will make everyone suffer. She will destroy everything standing in her way and a lot of innocent people will pay for that. Can you justify your actions knowing the consequences?"

The man was silent as he eyed her thoughtfully. The girl was different, no longer the idealistic young thing that he had been able to talk into almost anything. She had willing agreed to help them before and he wondered what had happened to make that change.

"So you wonít be helping us then?"

"No," Gabrielle was certain. "I couldnít live with my conscience and I hope you will rethink your plans."

"If thatís your decision then there is nothing more to be said," the man straightened and glanced over her shoulder. "I trust you to keep this information private."

Gabrielle nodded, worried that she was betraying Xenaís trust, but she was more troubled by what would happen if these men attacked. The Conqueror would not tolerate civil disobedience in her Realm and it worried her that innocent people would suffer for these rebels actions. It was a fear that was justified and one she could not dismiss.

 

PART TWO

chapter 3

 

Argo moved slowly, carefully picking her way through the mounds of decaying human flesh that littered the battlefield. A top him rode the stoic Warrior, her face a cold mask, her body still mired in the carnage wrought from the recent battle.

It had been a fierce skirmish, pitting two formidable armies against each other and both sides had been badly bloodied but at the end of the day it had been her uncanny tactical skill that had allowed her to out manoeuvre a numerically superior foe and achieve complete victory.

The slaughter had been wholesale. Even now, candlemarks after the enemy had fled the battlefield her blood still pumped heatedly through her veins. It would be many more candlemarks or even days before the darkness of the animal inside her retreated back into the cage where it lived. Though still covered in blood and gore from the battle, she searched for a outlet for the fever that consumed her.

She pulled gently on the reins and Argo came to a complete stop. She turned her head to the north and listened as the sporadic and distant cries of pain and death filtered back across the battleground. She was tempted to follow those calls but reigned in that desire, aware of the victory celebration that awaited her return to the army camp.

She had been merciful once before, but not today. When the enemy had finally broken and run she had sent her army after them with instructions to destroy everything. Her soldiers had carried out that mission chasing down the defeated, destroying them and their camp so that nothing of their existence remained. She would not allow the Horde or their allies the opportunity to defy her authority again.

She glanced with a cold stare one last time at the battlefield seeing some thing that had earlier escaped her attention. She motioned her horse forward pausing as she came alongside the body of a single soldier. She peered down at the face that was already beginning to bloat. His tunic and leathers were soaked in blood where his stomach had been sliced open. It was the young soldier who had stood watch the night before.

She stared at his frozen face for a moment and then clicked her heels, and the great warhorse moved onward, following an invisible path to where the majority of her army were now resting and celebrating their victory. She rode quietly towards the camp feeling invigorated by the electricity that filled the evening air.

A sentry spotted her silhouetted figure in the fading light and called out a lone chant of victory. His solo voice was quickly joined by a loud, raucous chorus of "Hails" as the army saluted her leadership. An indescribable surge of feeling swelled up through her body as she rode slowly through the throng of cheering soldiers that gathered around her. Every one of her pores absorbed and basked in the exhalation. She was the Empress, Xena of Amphipolis, Warrior Princess, Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations. She was all powerful and at this moment she was elevated to the same Realm as the Gods on Mt. Olumpus. Ares looked down and smiled, filling her with the joy that radiated from him.

She rode her horse through the mass of cheering men. The surge of adrenalin pouring through her body heightening every one of her senses. She felt the lust of battle caress her like an intimate lover seeking a physical release. She glanced at the upraised faces. At this moment she could have any one of these adoring men. It would be so easy to reach down and lift one of them onto her horse and satisfy this desire and lust. But she rode on, stopping only once she reached the command tent.

"Hail mighty Conqueror," General Titus exalted stepping out of the mob that crowded in a circle around her. He took hold of Argoís bridle and watched as the Empress slowly dismounted. His face was flushed not only from battle but from the liberal amount of port he had already consumed in celebration. He was drunk. "We have captured some prisoners. Perhaps there is one whom can give you some entertainment."

The Conqueror saw the smirk on his face and then glanced indifferently at the prisoners that were thrust towards her, their hands and feet bound by heavy chains. There were several strong and beautiful men and women in the group and she felt the lust in her body grow stronger, the temptation was almost to great.

"Perhaps this one will satisfy your needs," Titus laughed and pulled a girl out from the group.

She was small with reddish blonde hair and hazel eyes that for a brief instant looked green. The Empress staggered backwards at the similarity this prisoner had to a certain bard she knew. In that instant she knew she would take no one to her bed this night.

Her eyes glazed over at the thought of the younger woman she had left behind. Once again she would be alone and struggle with her physical demons as she had done every night since leaving Gabrielle two months earlier. There had been too many nights alone, too many nights when she had longed for the comfort of a warm body pressed up against her own. But she needed something more then just an anonymous body to satisfy her needs. She needed the bardís special comfort.

She felt a deep anger at her inability to indulge her lust. Every time she thought of expending her physical urges, an innocent face with green eyes would float across her mind and she would be unable to continue with any rendezvous. Now she could not even allow her men an opportunity to satisfy their lust. Her eyes focused on the small group of prisoners and in particularly the girl with the blonde hair.

"She looks like a wild one," Titus momentarily forgot who he was speaking too as he tweaked the girlís right breast causing her to curse and spit angrily in his direction. "A little hell cat. Iíll bet she can give you a better ride then that little piece you keep back at the Palace."

"Probably," the Conqueror agreed with a tight smile as she looked at the General who was beyond seeing the dangerous glitter in her pale blue eyes. "Iíll bet youíd like a turn at her."

"If you donít want her I will certainly take her," the General snorted lewdly, pawing the girl again.

"Youíd probably like to have a turn at my bard too, wouldnít you?" the Conqueror continued in the same voice and the Generalís smile widened as if by some misguided notion he believed the Empress might actually be offering the girl to him. He did not comprehend the dangerous ground on which he was treading. He believed she was as consumed by battle lust as he was. "Maybe one night once we get back to the Capital we can have a real party and take turns."

"The things I would do to her," the man smiled his eyes lighting up at the idea and he looked at the Conqueror seeing for the first time the truth. He took a step back suddenly afraid of what he had said. He was unable to take his eyes off the woman in front of him.

Xena let her anger loose. With a deep, loud guttural scream that came from deep within her soul she unsheathed her sword and swung its deadly blade along the length of chain. Blood spurted from her victims dousing the soldiers nearby in crimson as the prisoners slumped to the ground. She turned on the General aware of how the other soldiers hastily backed away.

"I told you I didnít want any prisoners," she snarled whipping her sword at the man. He had only a short time to respond, narrowly deflecting her blow, but stumbling backwards as she advanced. Even though he was the larger opponent, he had no chance against her fury and very quickly she overpowered him, swinging her blade with stunning effect. With one lunge the manís own sword went flying and with the next thrust she plunged it into his belly, burying it deep inside him.

She withdrew the blade slowly as the man slumped to his knees, clutching his stomach, as he tried to prevent his intestines from spilling out onto the ground. He looked up at her in shock and disbelief. She met his gaze.

"You think I am a fool. Didnít you think I would find out that you had disregarded my orders? Didnít you think I would find out about your little plot," she hissed through her teeth. "I am not stupid. I know what is going on in my Empire. Besides no one dares insult my friend." She turned to the others who were standing in shocked silence.

"General Titus disobeyed my orders," she shouted loudly so that everyone would hear. She looked at those who were standing in shocked silence. "I will not tolerate anyone who questions me or who tries to undermine my authority." She turned away, pausing only long enough to wipe her sword on the dying Generalís tunic before putting it back in itís sheath and stepping into the privacy of her tent.

Suddenly it became desperately important for her to get back to the Capital. She needed to feel the younger woman in her arms. She needed the girl to give her back the sense of balance she seemed to have lost. More desperate was this need then anything else. The knock on the pole outside her tent momentarily dragged her from her thoughts.

"Enter," she rasped in a ragged voice.

General Loris stepped through the flap and paused allowing his eyes to grow accustomed to the dimness of the room. He watched for a moment as the Conqueror continued to peel away the blood caked armour that had shielded her in battle. He looked at the raven haired beauty standing before him, aware that she was a powerful and dangerous woman.

They had grown up together in a world very different from the one they now occupied. He had been a witness to the display outside and now he realized that he no longer knew the woman he had stood by for so many years. He saw something he had never seen before.

"What do you want Loris?" Xena was growing annoyed with his silent presence.

"I came to see if you were all right," he said delaying briefly the real purpose of his visit.

The Conqueror glanced at her blood crusted body, examining it for a moment and finding only a few minor cuts and gashes where the tips and edges of blades had gotten through her defences. She dismissed them as irrelative.

"I am fine," she shrugged and then cast a sharp glance his way. "What do you really want?"

"Why?" he asked. "Why did you kill them?"

"I told you I wanted no prisoners taken," she growled.

"They would have died at the hands of the men," he countered and for a brief instant he saw an odd expression cross her face. He would have said that it was a look of pity or sympathy but he knew she would never admit the truth if it was. Certainly he knew that turning the prisoners over to the men would have resulted in a long, tortuous and painful death. For an instant he thought he had once again seen that village girl he had once known.

"There werenít enough for every one," she shrugged indifferently. "I couldnít afford for them to fight over the spoils."

The General was momentarily startled, realizing that it had been sympathy that he had seen. For the first time he began to believe the stories he had heard from the other General. Perhaps the Conqueror was beginning to soften.

"It was a good victory today," he said aware that she would not welcome any questions of a personal nature. He had long ago learned to avoid anything that dealt with her private life.

"Yes, perhaps it will give the Romanís something to think about," she replied tossing her armour aside. "I believe Caesar has some misguided notion that our armies are growing weak. You have been keeping an eye on him?"

"Yes, I will make certain no Roman sets foot on Greek soil, unless they are invited," General Loris promised. "They have been moving armies North but so far they are going around our territory."

"Good, I would stop and tour your defences but I wish to return to the Capital as quickly as possible. I trust you have them well in hand."

"Yes," he bowed and then decided to be brave. "Was it necessary to kill Titus?"

Xena was silent for a moment and she turned to look at the man with the curly blonde hair. There

were times when the General reminded her of her dead brother Lyceus. He was a deadly warrior but he still retained his humanity.

"He insulted me," she said in a cold voice as her eyes bore into him.

"He insulted the woman who warms your bed," Loris corrected softly. "There is a difference."

"No there is not," she replied in a deadly voice.

"Then perhaps it is true what they say."

"What do they say?" she wanted to know.

"That this woman has taken control of you," he responded aware that he was treading on some dangerous ground.

"Oh?" Xena raised an eyebrow as her body tensed. "What else are they saying?"

"That she is doing a lot more then just warming your bed at night," Loris choose his words carefully. The Conqueror had never hidden her affairs but she had always been loathe to discuss the details. "They say she is influencing your policy and making you soft."

"And that worries you?"

"It concerns us all," he replied evenly. He wanted her to know what the otherís were saying. They all wanted assurances that she was still in complete control. "Itís all right to reduce taxes and I see the logic in keeping the soldiers busy, but if the Romanís perceive you to be weak....."

He did not finish his sentence for in one swift motion the Conqueror was across the room. Loris caught his breath as he was violently shoved against a support pole. He felt the cold steel of her dagger press up against his throat biting into his skin. There was a feral expression in her pale blue eyes and for the first time he knew what it must be like to look death in the face.

"We just massacred over three thousand soldiers of a Horde army," she snarled, her lips curling ferociously. "More then a hundred died by my own hand. I just killed one of my best Generalís because he insulted me. Does it look like I have grown soft?"

"No," the man stammered.

"Then who is it that perceived I have grown weak?" she asked with a growl.

"It was General Titus," he managed to gasp and felt her hand press tighter around his neck for a moment before it dropped away. He watched as she took a step backwards, returning to the far end of the tent.

"Well if I hadnít killed him before, I certainly would have killed him now," she snorted and fixed him with another cold gaze. "I wonít tolerate anyone questioning my strength as a leader. I wonít accept

anyone questioning my decisions." Loris remained silent.

"I want you to put Lieutenant Bestor in charge of the Third Army. He is a good leader and soldier and the men will follow him. I will be promoting General Rufus to take over Titusí position."

"He will be honoured," Loris bowed his head.

"I want an messenger dispatched immediately to advise the Palace of my imminent return and then I want an escort of twelve riders besides my Royal Guard selected to accompany me on my journey home. I wish to leave at the earliest possible moment. Now go."

"Yes, my Empress," he nodded and turned to leave but her voice called him back.

"You might want to let the others know I will not tolerate anyone showing disrespect to the bard Gabrielle," she said and one look at her face and he knew her words were deadly serious. He nodded and without another word stepped out of the tent.

He paused just outside the door and stood for a moment staring at the camp that was shrouded now in darkness. The good mood of the soldiers revibrated over the plain. As he looked out over the assembly he suddenly realized something that had not occurred to any of them, especially not Titus.

He glanced down at the Generalís body. It still lay where it had fallen. No one had dared to remove it until the Conqueror had ordered it taken away. A pool of blood stained the dark earth. Titus had been contemptuous of the Conqueror and her affectation, no love, for the young girl she kept but he had not seen the truth. Instead of being made weaker, that love had made the Conqueror stronger because now she had something she cared about. He knew how she had reacted upon her brother Lyceusí death and knew without a doubt that she would do whatever it took to protect this girl who had stolen her affection.

He turned his eyes and glanced up at the sky. Night had fallen like a curtain and behind it was hidden the savageness the day had brought. Tomorrow they would scour the battlefield. They would collect the discarded weapons and burn the dead and then they would move on to wait for the next battle. It was the life he had chosen and he had no regrets. He glanced down at the dead General and shook his head sadly before moving on.

Xena took only enough time to clean the blood and gore from her body and armour before joining the escort who were patiently waiting for her. It was still dark when they set out for the Capital. She knew that if they rode hard and took their meals in the saddle they would be back in Corinth by the next full moon. The thought of seeing the young bard again spurred her on as she anticipated the reunion that would follow. A smile played at the ends of her lips as she imaged the many different things she would do to her little bard.

 

*****************

"Damn you, look what youíve done," Ares cursed his sister as he watched his Chosen mount her

steed and head back to the Capital. He was disappointed by the way this woman was behaving.

"Sheís acting like a lovesick puppy."

"I think itís cute," Aphrodite laughed marvelling at the way her magic worked. "We donít often get to see a warlord in love."

"There is a reason for that," the God of War snarled. He was angry at her interference but he was more angry at his inability to control completely the one he called his own. She was stubborn and wilful and defied him at every turn yet he could not turn his back on her. The qualities that so infuriated him were also the ones that he admired. She challenged him like no other mortal.

"You know Arie babe, you brought this on yourself," Aphrodite said sweetly. "You should have left the Amazonís alone. You know how uptight Artie gets when you play with her toys."

"Humpf, but did you have to do this," Ares moaned in disgust but the Goddess of Love only laughed and disappeared in a flash of light. The God of War stared down into the pool, absently stroking his bearded chin.

"Weíll see just how much havoc I can play with those little Amazonís," he snorted when she was gone and then with a snap of his fingers he too disappeared.

 

*************

 

Gabrielle did not make her decision easily. It only came after a long debate with herself. She had pondered all sides of the argument and in the end it had come down to only one thing. She had looked up from where she had been sitting by the stables trying to write in her scrolls and she had seen Lila and her mother emerge from the house. She had watched them as they had walked over to the family garden where her father was already labouring. It had suddenly become so clear.

It wasnít just for her family that she was doing this. She knew everyone who lived in Potedaia. She had grown up with them and knew they were honest hard working people. She could not afford to risk losing them even though some would see her as a traitor.

"Joshua," she summoned her trusted companion and to his astonishment announced. "We need to make a trip to see General Rufus."

The soldier did not question her decision but merely nodded his head and then left to fetch the horses. She gave her family no explanation as to the reason for her hasty departure and allowed them to assume what they would.

"Weíll only be gone for a few days," she told them. "I want to go to Amphipolis to visit my friends."

It was a three day ride to the camp. General Rufus was surprised when the bardís presence was announced. He greeted her appearance with some speculation. He had not seen the girl in many months and his spies had reported seeing her in Corinth with the Conqueror. Relying on his instincts he gave her an audience.

"Gabrielle, itís lovely to see you again," he smiled pleasantly. He took her hands and brought them to his lips, laying a gentle kiss on each wrist. "I had begun to wonder if we would ever see you again."

"I have been busy," she replied vaguely and he nodded strolling back around his desk and sitting down.

"Have you returned to entertain us?" he asked politely aware of the man who had accompanied her into the camp and who now stood watching from the doorway. He recognized the soldier from a past visit to the Palace as belonging to the Royal Guard, even though he was not in uniform..

"Iím afraid my visit here is the result of much more serious matters," the bard began slowly choosing her words carefully. "I have learned that there is a plot to attack your army garrison."

"That is a serious matter indeed," he nodded gravely his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "If you donít mind me asking how were you able to know of this plan?"

"I overheard a man talking about it while I was in the market one day," she explained aware that she could not confess the truth. "He said that his group knew the exact layout of your camp and that it was now understaffed because a large portion of your troops had been sent up north to fight."

"Yes, indeed," he nodded his eyes remaining intently on her face. "Did they say when this attack would occur?"

"No," she shook her head. "But I fear that it will probably be before the next full moon."

There was silence as the General contemplated how he would react. He looked at the girl, not doubting her story but finding it odd that she knew so much. He doubted that someone planning to attack a garrison of the Conquerorís army would speak so publicly about the mission. He had a idea that there was more that the girl was not saying.

"Of course we will have to do something about this," he said thoughtfully gazing across at her. "You wouldnít perhaps know who these men were do you?"

Gabrielle had asked herself this question numerous times and she had agonized over her decision. She had know Calipus for most of her life and didnít want to see any harm come to him but then she thought of her family and knew that she cared more for them. She would do anything to protect them, even betray an old friend.

"I only know of one," she answered in such a quiet voice that the General had to strain to hear her words. "His name is Calipus of Potedaia. He spends most of his time moving around to the various villages in the region. The last I heard he was on his way to Antinemus."

"That is a start," the General said nodding to Lieutenant Argus who stood in a dark corner of the room. Rufus stood up and walked around his desk to stand in front of the bard. Gently he reached for her hands and gave them a gentle squeeze.

"I know this is a hard thing you have done, but know it was the right thing," he said quietly. "Now,

can I persuade you to stay and entertain the troops tonight."

"No," Gabrielle shook her head suddenly feeling very dirty even though she was convinced her decision was the right one. "I have to get back home. No one must find out I was here."

"Certainly," Rufus pretended to understand. He lifted her hands and kissed each one gently giving them another squeeze before releasing them. "You have done a great thing today and I know the Conqueror will be pleased."

Gabrielle only nodded and without another word she turned and left. Rufus followed her to the door and watched as the pair mounted their horses and rode swiftly out of the camp. He stared after them for a long time.

"What do you wish me to do?" Argus asked sidling up to his commander. Rufus smiled.

"I want you to take a party of soldiers and round up this Calipus. Iím certain with a little persuasion he will tell us who else is involved in this plot."

"You believe her then?" Argus said and Rufus turned an amused glance at his colleague.

"Of course I believe her," the General smiled almost with delight, a plan already forming in his head. "She said that these rebels knew the exact layout of the camp, so now tell me Argus how could they have known that? I have allowed no one in here but the bard. Donít you think it curious that she happened to hear this plot?"

"But if she is involved with them why would she turn traitor?" the Lieutenant was confused.

"I donít know," Rufus admitted honestly, "but perhaps this Calipus will tell us. Now go before the bard has a change of heart and warns the man."

The Lieutenant nodded and rushed out of the room. Rufus watched him for a moment but already his mind was busy at work analyzing all the possibilities. A feral smile curved the corners of his lips. If his guess proved correct then he had something on the bard, and that made him a happy man.

Gabrielle wasnít up to returning straight to Potedaia. She felt to guilty and didnít think she would be able to face her family and friends without the truth coming out. Instead they journeyed to Amphipolis where Cyrene welcomed her with open arms.

"It has been to long," the older woman said with a smile as she embraced the girl. "Where have you been?"

"Here and there," Gabrielle was vague. "I have been in Potedaia for the last month and before that I was in the Capital."

Cyrene glanced over the bardís shoulder to her son Toris who was standing behind the girl. They shared a private look. They had heard rumours from the merchants who had recently passed through the village about a bard who had been seen in the Conquerorís company. A young girl from the

Thrace region. Neither of them believed it was their friend.

"What were you doing there?" the Innkeeper asked in a deceptively casual voice.

"Visiting old friends and telling stories," the bard replied hiding the truth.

Cyrene was smart enough to recognize what Gabrielle was not saying. She eyed the girl closely and saw a weariness that did not come only from days spent on the road. There was something going on with the young woman but now was not the time to ask. She glanced briefly at the young man who had ridden into town with the bard and wondered who he was.

"How long will you be staying?" the older woman asked turning her attention back to the girl.

"A day or two if you have the room," Gabrielle replied quietly.

"We always have room for you," the Innkeeper said hooking her arm through the bardís and leading her towards the stairs that lead to the second floor. "The room at the end of the hallway is empty. There is still plenty of time for you to have a nap and if you like Iíll have the girlís heat up a bath."

"That would be wonderful," the girl smiled feeling her spirits already begin to lighten. "Iíve brought a friend."

"Donít worry dear, Iíll get Toris to look after him," Cyrene assured her. "Now go have a nap and when youíre ready just come down."

Gabrielle did as the woman suggested. It wasnít until the dinner hour when she finally made an appearance and the older woman hastily motioned her over to a table in the corner of the room. The tavern was still relatively empty though the patrons were slowly beginning to trickle in. A sad smile tickled her lips as she realized word of her arrival seemed to have been passed through the village.

Cyrene tended to several customers before returning to the bard with a mug of warm cider and a plate of lamb stew. She settled down in a chair across from the girl and fixed her with an intent look.

"You look a little troubled dear," Cyrene said cautiously. "Are you having problems at home?"

"No," Gabrielle shook her head aware that it wasnít the entire truth.

She glanced around the room, her eyes catching sight of Joshua who was sitting at a table with Toris and several other men. They appeared to be engaged in a friendly game of cards. She turned her attention back to her companion. She wanted to confide in someone but she was nervous. Other then Joshua she didnít think she had any friends left.

"I really donít want to talk about it," she sighed. "I had to do something that Iím not very proud of. I know I did the right thing but I know people arenít going to understand that. They will only think the worst."

"People generally like to find fault," the older woman agreed sadly, wondering what the girl had done but respecting her privacy she did not ask. "You know if anything happens you will always have a place here. Toris and I enjoy your company."

"Thank you," Gabrielle was genuinely appreciative but she wondered if the woman would feel the same way if she knew the truth.

Cyrene was soon called away to attend to some problem in the kitchen. But Gabrielle wasnít alone long, for Toris soon filled the chair that his mother vacated. She was glad for she needed to speak with him away from his motherís presence.

"Your friend is quite the card player," the dark haired man smiled, motioning to Joshua. "Heís taken most of us for three dinars already."

"Iíve lost a few dinars to him myself," she smiled, glancing briefly at the man before turning her attention back to her companion. She focused her eyes on the half eaten plate of stew, as the smile on her face faded. "Toris I think you should go away for awhile."

Though she had only been in contact with Calipus she had often carried messages for her friend here and she was worried that he was one of the leaders of the rebel band. She looked up to see the man staring at her curiously.

"Why?"

"I have heard rumours that General Rufus has uncovered a plot against the army. He may come looking for those involved," she said hesitantly not wanting to reveal how she had this information.

She was surprised when her companion only laughed. It was a harsh and unpleasant sound.

"I appreciate the warning but I donít have to worry," Toris said in an arrogant voice. "General Rufus will never arrest me."

"Why?" Gabrielle was clearly puzzled and she stared intently at the man.

For a moment the man considered telling her the truth but then changed his mind. He was not proud of the fact that he shared the same lineage as the Conqueror. He was not proud that he had helped start her on the path that ultimately led her to rule all of Greece. He was ashamed of the association.

"Letís just say the Conqueror wouldnít allow it," he said with a bitter twist to his voice. Gabrielle would have liked to ask more questions but she sensed the man was unhappy discussing the situation.

"Well, be careful, I wouldnít want anything to happen to you," she said quietly and the man looked at her. He thought of all the rumours they had heard. They had dismissed them, believing that Gabrielle would never allow herself to be involved with someone like the Conqueror though now he wasnít so certain. Perhaps they had been to hasty in dismissing the truth.

"How did you come to hear these rumours?" he asked his eyes narrowing intently. It was a logical

question and one that Gabrielle had prepared an answer.

"I have friends close to the army," she said casually. There was no time to further the conversation as one of the servers appeared at the table with the news that several of the patrons were requesting a story. Eagerly she accepted, jumping to her feet and rushing to the stage at the front of the tavern aware that Toris was watching her closely.

Gabrielle left two days later. Though she didnít feel any better, she was convinced that she had done everything she could to help this man, someone she considered a friend.

 

chapter 4

 

General Rufus took several dozen soldiers with him into Amphipolis. Though the village was normally off limits to the army, his spies had reported that the rebel leader Calipus was visiting the town. They rode into the main square and fanned out, his soldiers searching every house and business for the man they had come to arrest.

It didnít take long before then found him, hiding with another man under a hay stack in the stables. Both men were dragged into the center of the square where the other villagers had been herded.

Rufus could not contain his disgust when he looked at the two men who were hauled up before him. He slid of his horse and strolled arrogantly over to where they had been thrown onto the ground. He felt nothing but contempt.

"Take him away," he pointed to the rebel leader and his soldiers immediately jumped to do his biding, ignoring the screams and curses of the man as he was roughly dragged away. Instead he focused his attention on the one who remained. Toris stood up, squaring his shoulders, unafraid of the General.

"It would only be justice, if I hung you now, right here, while all your friends and family watched. You would be a fine example. It would show that no one is above the law," Rufus said harshly.

"You wouldnít dare," Toris sneered as if baiting the General to carry out his threat. Rufus took a menacing step forward, until their faces were only inches apart. He hated that he couldnít whip this man into submission. Every muscle in his body ached to beat this arrogant villager.

"I donít understand why she doesnít allow us to punish you," he snarled through clenched teeth. "She knows you hate her, yet she still insists on protecting you. Well my friend, those days will soon be over and you will be one of the first people that we come looking for, and your dear sister wonít be able to help you."

Toris said nothing, standing mutely in front of the General. He hated to be reminded that the Conqueror had guaranteed his protection. He resented the fact, as much as he resented the woman herself.

"Take this as a warning," Rufus said contemptuously and then swung both fists, slamming them into the manís face and stomach. Toris dropped to the ground and received a kick in the ribs before the General straightened his tunic and strolled back to his horse. The townsfolk watched passively as the soldiers rode away. Only then did Cyrene run to her son who was still kneeling on the ground.

 

Gabrielle had only been back in Potedaia for two days when she heard that Calipus had been arrested. She was relieved to learn that though Toris had been caught with the man he had been released without punishment. It was ironic that the news came from her own father.

"I just spoke to Michelus at the smithyís," Herodatus announced that evening at the supper table. He had just returned from working in the fields. "I stopped in there on the way home and he told me that a squad of soldiers had arrested Calipus and accused him of sedition."

Gabrielle remained silent. She thought about the young family the man had left behind and felt a touch of regret knowing that they would now be destitute. But glancing around the table as her family sat down for their evening meal, she once again reminded herself that her actions had probably saved many more lives.

"I heard say that it was someone Calipus trusted who turned them in, so I donít imagine it will be long before more are arrested," Herodatus said bitterly and the rest of the meal was strangely silent.

Gabrielle excused herself as soon as she was finished eating. She felt sick, aware that she had once again sentenced someone to die. She found a quiet place near the shed and sat down, releasing the tears that filled her eyes.

"You did the right thing," Joshua said when he finally caught up to her. He lowered himself onto the ground beside her.

"Funny, I keep telling myself that but somehow it becomes less convincing the more I think about it," Gabrielle shook her head, wiping away the tears. "I wonder though if my actions werenít just selfish."

"Gabrielle, you are the least selfish person I know," the soldier disagreed. "What you did was incredibly brave."

"Maybe you think so, but the truth is that I will forever be responsible for his death."

"No," the man shook his head. "He knew what the risks were when he formed the rebels. He knew that he would be executed if he were ever caught. You may have turned him in but he choose his own sentence a long time ago."

Gabrielle was silent. She knew what Joshua was saying was true, yet the good person she was, knew that she would always blame herself for what happened.

"I think from now on you should be more prudent. There is a good chance that he probably told others that he had spoken to you," Joshua cautioned, breaking the silence that had begun to grow. "It would be best if you didnít leave the house without me or your staff."

She nodded sadly aware that her actions had consequences. She looked at the man. The young girl inside still needed reassurance. "I did do the right thing didnít I Joshua?"

"Yes," the soldier nodded solemnly understanding the pain she was suffering. "We both know how the Conqueror would have reacted if the garrison had been attacked. Know in your heart that you did what was best, not for the Conqueror, but for your people."

"Thank you Joshua," she flashed his a weak smile. "I donít know how I would have gotten through this whole mess without you. You have been a good friend."

"I am honoured to be considered as such," he replied sincerely.

Gabrielle hated to think that someone might be after her. Xena had warned her to be careful but that had been for other reasons. No one had ever tried to hurt her on purpose and it was an odd feeling to know that someone might dislike her enough to try and do her harm. Suddenly she understood what it might be like to be in her lovers shoes and she felt a greater compassion for the woman.

It was not two days later when the attack came. They were in the market place shopping with her whole family when a man jumped out from behind a merchant stall, swinging a sword wildly in her direction. Gabrielle was prepared, as she had been since hearing of Calipusí arrest. Most of the rebel group had been rounded up but she knew there were others who had escaped. Her attacker was one of them.

She reacted instinctively, deftly turning aside the blow with her staff. She remembered everything Xena had taught, bending her knees and elbows to absorb the shock of his strikes. The man was acting on emotion and she waited for the moment when his feelings would make him careless. In the meantime, she concentrated on deflecting the sword blows as the man swung ruthlessly. The merchants and villagers in the square fled in horror.

"You betrayed us all," the man snarled thrusting with his sword at her head. "You betrayed Calipus, a friend."

"I did it to protect your family, my family and all the other innocent people who would have died," she responded to his argument, never losing focus on the deadly blade that was being thrust towards her.

"You have sentenced us all to die," the man growled using all his strength to swing the blade. The wooden stave vibrated in her hands as it deflected the deadly assault. "None of us wanted to believe it but itís true, you are her lover and that makes you worse then her."

Gabrielle said nothing concentrating instead on the force and direction of his lunges. Finally the man made a mistake and she was quick to take advantage. She moved swiftly, swinging her staff with all her strength towards the opening. There was a loud thud as wood connected with the flesh around his waist. As the manís body slumped in pain, she followed up with another blow that landed across his head. The attacker dropped to the ground in an unconscious heap.

She stepped back, her chest rising and falling heavily from the exertion. Joshua was there immediately, taking charge of the situation. He tied up the assailant before sending one of the

merchants to summon the local authorities.

"Are you okay?" he was anxious, aware that he had failed in his duty to protect her.

"Yes," she nodded hazarding a glance at the stunned faces of her family who had witnessed the entire scene.

"I will summon Rufus and he can come by and collect him," the soldier said once he was assured of her state of health. He hurried off to the tavern where he could find the local mayor.

"Do you want to tell me what that was all about?" Herodatus asked of his first born still shocked by what he had seen.

"He was part of the group that planned on attacking General Rufusí army camp," Gabrielle saw no reason to lie. "I think he was one of their leaders."

"Why would he want to kill you?" the man did not understand and the bard saw no way of explaining without telling the truth.

"Because I was the one who warned the General," she confessed and watched as the manís jaw dropped in astonishment.

"Why on earth would you do that?" Hercuba fretted, afraid that they were now mixed up in something that involved the Conqueror, a person whom she feared more then death itself.

"I heard about the plan and I knew that if it was successful it would only result in the Conqueror turning her attention here. I know that Xena would not let such an action go unpunished and because of that I feared that innocent people would die."

"So you betrayed your own people," Herodatus was aghast, not understanding how his daughter could get involved. He shook his head in disgust. "You have brought disgrace to your whole family."

Without another word he turned and stormed away with Hercuba following quickly behind. Gabrielle stared after them feeling an incredible pain in her heart that they hadnít understood. Surely they could see that it was better for only a few to die rather then many. She glanced around and saw the merchants and townsfolk staring at her with thinly veiled disgust and animosity.

A shiver raced down her spine as she looked at these people. People she had known all her life. They turned away unable to met her gaze and she knew what they were thinking. She watched with a heavy heart as the town mayor strolled towards her. She looked up at the grey haired man.

"Every one in the market heard his accusations," Kildus the town reeve said sadly. He had always liked the girl but had acknowledged like the others that her desire to be different would some day lead to trouble. "I daresay it would be best for every one if you stayed away. I know this is your home and as itís citizen we can not make you leave but know that it will be a long time before the people here forget what they saw and heard today."

"But I did it to save them all," she moaned wishing someone would understand.

"Perhaps your intentions were honourable, but people will believe you had other motives," the mayor was blunt. "There are rumours of your alliance to the Empress and regardless of the truth they will only see that part."

Gabrielle nodded mutely and turned away walking slowly towards the path that lead through the village to their house on the outskirts of the town. She kept her head down unwilling to see the looks that were thrown her away. She was barely aware of her sister walking next to her.

"Are you a spy Gabrielle?" Lila dared to ask the question that no one else would.

"What?" Gabrielle was stunned by the accusation. She turned to stare open mouthed at her sister.

The suggestion hurt. "Do you think I am a spy?"

"I donít know," the girl shook her head. "I do know that you were visiting the army camp when the Conqueror was in the region."

"How did you hear about that?" the bardís entire body tensed and she wondered if Salmoneus had lied to her.

"The same way the reeve heard the rumours. We may be out in the middle of nowhere but news still travels," the younger woman said with a hint of sarcasm. "A travelling merchant was in Amphipolis when a escort from the camp came to get you."

"Rufus was entertaining the Conqueror. He wanted me to perform for her," Gabrielle shrugged disappointed that her sister would believe otherwise. "I am a bard."

"Was it your bardly duties that took you to Corinth a full moon later?"

Gabrielle was silent. She looked at her sister intently, quietly contemplating whether she should tell the truth. Lila and her had always been close and they had shared each others secrets. She was tempted now to tell her secret but hesitated uncertain of the reaction she would receive.

"Iíve been to Corinth and Athens on numerous occasions," she replied hoping that would end the discussion but Lila proved to be more persistent than her usual self.

"Really," the younger girl pondered thoughtfully. "Then why were you being escorted by the Royal Palace Guard?"

Gabrielle was silent, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she sifted through several responses. She settled on a question of her own. "How do you know so much?"

"The same merchant that saw you in Amphipolis saw you again in Corinth," Lila revealed her source of information. "He has been sweet on me for awhile and he mentioned it when I told him you were my sister. Are you in trouble Bri?"

"No," the bard sighed and slumped onto a nearby rock. Her sister slipped onto a seat next to her. "If I tell you something can you promise to say nothing to mom or dad?"

The younger girl saw the imploring appeal in her sisters green eyes and nodded her head. She took her sisters hand and held it, wisely deciding to remain silent. She couldnít imagine what her older sibling had to say and feared the worst.

"Iím part of the Royal household," Gabrielle finally said after mulling over several explanations and rejecting them all. She worried about how Lila would accept the truth. "The Empress heard my stories and liked them. So, now I entertain her and her guests at the Palace."

"Oh, Bri, youíre a slave," Lila immediately assumed the worst. "How terrible for you...but then how is it that you are here at home?...Oh, I understand, the Conqueror is away at war....but then that means Joshua must be a soldier sent to keep an eye on you."

Gabrielle winced as her sister put the jumbled pieces together. The younger girl was immediately sympathetic to her plight and the bard could have left it at that but her guilty conscious got the better of her. Finally unable to take any more she snatched her hand away and jumped to her feet taking several paces before turning to face the younger girl. The sudden action was effective in silencing her sisters chatter.

"No," the older girl shook her head, no longer able to lie. "Joshua is a soldier, he belongs to the Royal Guard and the Conqueror is away fighting a war but I am not a slave. I am living at the Palace of my own free will."

"What are you saying?" Lila was shocked by the confession. The colour drained from her face and Gabrielle rushed across the space separating them, grasping her sisters hands between her own. She wanted the younger girl to understand.

"Weíre friends," the bard said realizing that Lila would have a hard time accepting the truth. "You know that story I told the other night at the Inn, well that was the story about Xena and me. I was on my way to Amphipolis when I was accosted by six bandits. The Conqueror suddenly appeared and most certainly saved my life. Later Rufus invited me to entertain her at his army camp and I did. For almost one full moon I told her stories and in return she gave me staff lessons so I could protect myself. Then when she returned to Corinth I followed her."

"You followed her!" Lila could not hide her shock and her eyes grew wide with astonishment.

"Yes," Gabrielle held tightly onto her sisters wrists feeling the other girl begin to pull away. She didnít want Lila to leave until she heard the whole story. "Sheís not like everyone says. Sheís warm and funny and she really cares but canít show that because sheís too busy trying to protect herself from all those trying to kill her."

"You know why that is?" Lila succeeded in pulling her hands away and she stood up taking several steps backwards as if horrified by what she was hearing. "Bri, sheís killed thousands of people, innocent women and children. Think about what happened at Cirra. How could you befriend such a monster?"

"I donít know," the bard sighed admitting the truth. "I think I hated her as much as everyone else, but then I got to know her and I donít hate her any more. I donít know how to explain it except to say that sheís not the monster everyone thinks, at least not with me she isnít."

"Maybe you havenít done anything to upset her yet," the younger girl suggested with a hint of anger and the bard knew her sister thought she had betrayed them all.

"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "Iíve done things that I know would get other people executed but she hasnít laid a hand on me that I didnít want."

There was silence as the other girl absorbed this information and then her eyes grew large with the realization of what her sister had meant. "Oh Bri!"

The bard grimaced at the despairing sound in her siblings voice. She said nothing aware it would take awhile for Lila to accept. Sadly she had to acknowledge that it was possible that her sister never would.

"How could you?" the expression on the younger girlís face tore at the bardís heart. "How can you be with a creature like that?"

"Itís easy," Gabrielle replied deciding to hold nothing back. She looked up and met her sisterís gaze. "I love her."

Lila just shook her head in disbelief. "Youíre not my sister. I donít know who you are." With that the younger woman ran off. Gabrielle was tempted to run after her but decided to wait, to give her time to adjust. She sat back down with her head bowed so that she didnít see Joshua approach.

"Is everything okay?" he asked gently having witnessed the scene between the sistersí from his position further back on the path.

At first he had been annoyed that he had been chosen for this assignment. Like the other soldiers he had wanted to follow the Empress into battle, but he had realized very quickly the importance of his assignment and the honour that had been bestowed upon him. Every one at the Palace had assumed the bard was merely a temporary diversion for a bored warrior but those closest to the pair had quickly come to realize the truth. Gabrielle was more important to Xena, Destroyer of Nations, then anyone had ever been. With that realization came the weight of responsibility which he took very seriously.

Besides that, he really liked the bard. She was warm, funny and totally selfless. He could understand what attracted the Conqueror to the girl but he couldnít understand how she could like someone like the Conqueror.

"I told her the truth," Gabrielle finally answered his question without looking up at him. Her eyes were staring down the path where Lila had disappeared. "She was pretty upset, I think I better go talk to her."

"No," Joshua gently laid his hand on her arm, a smile on his lips. "Let me go."

Gabrielle didnít know why she agreed to his request. Perhaps it was because she was already emotionally drained or perhaps it was her reluctance to engage in another argument. Maybe it was because she could trust the soldier to be gentle. Either way she watched as he sauntered off after her sister, suddenly feeling incredibly fatigued.

Joshua wasnít certain why he had made the offer. He hadnít said more than a few words to the younger girl, who seemed to be extraordinarily shy. Of course he was comparing her to her brash older sister, who he had come to admire, which was the reason he decided to try and help. Though he could tell no one his secret, it was something he cherished in himself.

He was in love with Gabrielle. If things had been different he would have made his feelings known but he had only to see the young woman look at the Empress to know that he stood no chance. Therefore, he decided if he was unable to be her lover then he would be the best friend possible. He found the younger woman by a stream.

Lila glanced up to see the soldier. Like a startled doe she jumped to her feet and glanced about her surroundings as if searching for some place to run and hide. The soldier sensed the girl was frightened of him.

"I donít mean you any harm," he held his hands up in peace. "I just want to talk to you."

"About what?" Lila did not let her guard down.

"Gabrielle," he replied and saw some of the tension leave the girlís body. Casually he sat down and gingerly Lila followed suit though she was careful to maintain a safe distance between them.

"Your sister is a very remarkable woman, did you know that," the young soldier opened the dialogue when there was nothing forthcoming from the girl. "Sheís smart and courageous and one heck of a storyteller."

"None of that matters," Lila said with a hint of disdain. "Sheís living in the Conquerorís Palace, doing all sorts of disgusting things."

"Some people might agree with you," he nodded, deciding to be honest. "I thought the same thing. I thought she must be some kind of fool but I learned differently. Did you know that she has stood up to the Conqueror on more then one occasion, telling the Empress exactly what she thinks? I donít know anyone else who is even half as brave."

Lila remained silent, curious to know more about her sisterís relationship with the Empress. Joshua smiled as he glanced covertly at the girl out the corner of his eye. She wasnít half bad to look at, he decided absently, her long brown hair looked soft to touch and those wide brown eyes reminded him of a doe. Mentally he shook his head and brought his thoughts back to the topic at hand.

"Did you know that Gabrielle was responsible for getting the Conqueror to abolish the use of travel permits and lower the taxes? Most people donít know that, just like they donít know that she was the one to suggest using the soldiers in the fields during harvest."

Lila was interested now, though she wasnít certain she could believe this man, who was after all sworn to be loyal to the Empress. She studied his face closely. He was not unhandsome with soft features and curly brown hair. He seemed like a nice enough fellow.

"How do I know youíre not just making this up?" she asked cautiously.

"You donít," he agreed with a sigh. "There is no reason for you to trust me, I am a loyal servant of the Empress and now, of your sister." He paused shaping the words in his head to convey what he needed to say. "The truth is that since Gabrielle has come to stay at the Palace the Conqueror has changed. Before she wouldnít give anyone a second chance but your sister has shown her that sometimes itís okay to use some compassion.

"Most people think that Gabrielle is just a new toy for the Conqueror to play with until something else comes along to capture her fancy but that isnít the truth. The truth is that Gabrielle is different then anyone the Empress has ever been with. She is special and just how special can be seen in the fact that I had been specifically assigned to watch and protect her. In the past the Conqueror hasnít cared enough about anyone to do that."

The man paused not certain the girl was understanding what he was saying . Slowly he stood up staring down at her for a long moment. "I know you probably wonít believe this but Gabrielle and her relationship with the Conqueror is the best thing to happen to Greece in a very long time. There is hope now where once there was none."

Without another word the soldier retreated back down the path. Lila stared after him, her mind a turmoil of emotion. She was suspicious but she knew her sister. Gabrielle had always been her hero, standing up to their father when they had disagreed. The bard had never backed down from a challenge and the Conqueror was definitely a challenge. She found her older sibling sitting on the porch in front of the house. She didnít know that Gabrielle hadnít been able to summon the courage to go inside and face their parents.

"Are you really in love with her?" Lila asked quietly still uncertain of how she should feel. She loved her sister and wanted to be happy for her. Gabrielle nodded and smiled so brilliantly that no words were needed to express the truth.

"Yes, very much."

"And she loves you?"

For a moment a cloud darkened the bardís features. "I donít know," Gabrielle was honest. She didnít know if the Conqueror felt anything more than kindness towards her. "But it doesnít matter. Iíll take what she is willing to give me."

"Is that enough?" Lila wanted to know. "What happens when she gets tired of you?"

"I try not to think of that," she sighed. "I guess I will just have to deal with that when it happens."

Lila was silent yet her heart was heavy. She loved her older sister and didnít want to see her get hurt.

"I wonít say anything to Mom and Dad."

"Thank you," Gabrielle was grateful, though her heart was still heavy. She turned to stare out towards the mountains, a wistful longing filling her heart. It had been two full moons since Xena had led her army from Corinth. Two full moons of loneliness and constant longing for a companion she loved.

She savoured that love. For a long time she had wondered if she were capable of ever being able to feel that passion. She had thought herself incapable of giving that emotion to just one person, yet she had found the most unlikely candidate and given it all and it did not matter that the one she loved did not return those feelings. She turned and glanced at her sister. Lila only wanted her happiness and for that she was grateful. No one could replace the love of her family.

.

chapter 5

 

Archius had already retired for the night when a knock on the door of his chambers rousted him from his slumber. He called for whoever it was to enter and then sat up and lit a nearby candle. He waited as a slender young man slipped into the room and hurried over to the bed.

"I am sorry to bother you sir," the man said bowing slightly and holding out a piece of parchment. "A messenger just arrived."

Archius sighed and took hold of the scroll, breaking the seal and quickly scanning its contents. A frown settled over his brow as he read the parchment. He knew this news from General Rufus would not please the Conqueror.

"Where is the messenger?"

"He waits outside for your response," the younger man said quietly eyeing his mentor thoughtfully. He had been training under Archius for the last two summers yet still was unable to tell what the man was thinking..

The older man nodded and slipped his legs over the edge of the bed. He stood up and padded over to a nearby table where he retrieved a quill and an empty sheet of parchment. He pondered his response for a long moment before beginning to write. There was another knock at the door and without being asked the younger man hurried over to answer the summons. He spoke with the person on the other side of the door, accepting another scroll before closing the door and hurrying across the room.

"My Lord," Vargas said hesitantly. Archius glanced up, not masking his annoyance at being disturbed.

"What is it?"

"Another message has arrived," the young man bowed and Archius grabbed the scroll from his hand.

His first intention was to ignore it until he had dealt with this problem but then changed his mind. Later he was glad. A smile broke across his face as he read the parchment.

"Is it good news?" Vargas asked quietly.

"Indeed it is," Archius nodded. "It seems that the Horde have been destroyed and the Conqueror is on her way home."

"But the bard..." the young man stuttered.

"Isnít here," Archius finished the manís sentence retrieving the quill. "I will need two messengers, one which is to be immediately dispatched to Potedaia to inform the bard of the Conquerorís imminent return."

"Yes, sir," Vargas nodded and then hesitated for a moment before asking. "What if the bard doesnít want to return?"

"Do not worry Vargas, Gabrielle has probably been anxiously waiting for the Conqueror," Archius said as he finished writing and then rolled up the parchment and handed it to the younger man. "The second rider is to be sent to General Rufus. It seems that General Titus met with an accident on the battlefield and will not be returning to the Palace. Rufus has been promoted."

"Yes sir," the young man nodded.

"Now hurry," the elder man waved his hand dismissively. "Knowing the Empress she will not delay her return. I want the girl back here for when she arrives."

"Yes," the younger man bowed and hurried out of the room.

Archius turned and slowly made his way back to his bed crawling once more beneath the sheets. He would be glad to see the Conqueror. A smile etched its way across his face as he thought of the bet he had made with Zenon. The Royal Guardsman had said that Titus would not disgrace himself. Being wrong would cost the soldier fifteen dinars. With that thought he blew out the candle and went back to sleep.

 

Gabrielle glanced across the table at her mother and Lila as they dropped the piece of fruit inside the dough that she had rolled out. It had been a difficult few days. Since the incident in the marketplace,

she had not dared to venture into the village and her relations with her parents were only slightly less strained. Sadly she had come to the conclusion that it was time to head back to the Capital. She had thought to wait until after the festival but knew now that her presence at the celebration would not be welcome. There was no reason for her to remain.

She opened her mouth to announce her decision when the sound of thundering hooves made her glance hastily out the nearby window. It was just in time to see a stranger on horseback come galloping into the yard. Though the man was dressed in an ordinary tunic, she recognized him as a soldier belonging to the Royal Guard. Without bothering to explain, she dropped the cooking utensils and raced out of the house, hurrying up to the weary looking traveller.

"I am looking for Gabrielle, the Bard from Potedaia," he said eyeing her closely.

"Thatís me," she replied in a squeaky voice, barely able to contain her emotions. She knew on instinct that he was here with a message from Xena.

"The Conqueror has finished her business in the North and is at this moment on her way back to Corinth," the man delivered his speech. "She requests your presence upon her return."

"You can tell her that we are on our way," Gabrielle breathed and the man nodded.

"When can I tell the Palace to expect you?" the rider wanted to know.

"We will be there within the week," Gabrielle said and the man bowed his head.

"I will advise them," the soldier saluted before wheeling his horse around and taking off back through the village.

Gabrielle could not hide her excitement. After too many months apart she would see her lover again. The joy that shone from her face quickly died at the sight of her father standing only a few feet away. She could see the anger in his stern features.

"Itís true," he sputtered. "What that man in the marketplace said about you is true. After everything your mother and I taught you. I donít understand how you could take up with such a monster." Herodatus could barely control his rage. The thought of his daughter voluntarily spending time in the company of the Conqueror was beyond comprehension.

"She is not a monster," Gabrielle tried to explain but the man wasnít ready to listen.

"No," he interrupted angrily. "I will not listen to your excuses. As long as you keep company with that horrible woman, you are not welcome in my home."

With that he stormed off, not looking back as he stomped into the house. She followed with her eyes and caught sight of her mother standing with Lila on the porch. She wanted them to understand but was just as certain that they wouldnít.

"Iím sorry," she didnít know what else to say, overwhelmed by the wounded expression in her mothers eyes.

"Why couldnít you have been honest?" Hercuba asked quietly.

"I guess because I knew how you would react," Gabrielle was truthful.

"Yes, and there is a reason for that," the older woman replied with pursed lips. "Do you remember Antonus, your fatherís younger brother? Like you he dreamed of adventure. One day someone from the Conquerorís army came to recruit soldiers and he saw an opportunity to leave, to go off to foreign places he had heard about. He eagerly signed up and left. Not even a full moon went by before we received word that he had been killed in battle."

The woman paused allowing all her emotions to show. "Your father canít forget that."

"But mother, it was his choice," Gabrielle disagreed.

"What choice does a young man who dreams of adventure and who has few prospects have?" the woman shook her head sadly. "She has lead so many men like Antonus to an early grave and people will never forgive or forget."

With that Hercuba turned and quietly retreated back into the house. There was nothing more to say and less then a candlemark later they were ready to head out onto the road back to Corinth. Her parents did not come out to say goodbye. All that was left was Lila, and Gabrielle embraced her younger sister tightly.

"Please try to make them understand."

"Iíll try," Lila promised. "But I donít think Iíll succeed."

"Thanks anyway," the bard whispered, embracing her sibling again before mounting the horse that Joshua had saddled for her use.

"Joshua, do you think we can take the road that goes through Amphipolis?"

"It will add an extra day to our journey," he reminded surprised by the request. He knew how anxious she was to see the Conqueror.

"I know, but I want to stop and check to see if my friends are okay," she replied quietly thinking of Toris and Cyrene.

"Yes, Miss Gabrielle," the soldier nodded and they set off.

They were almost out of the village when a familiar figure ran out of a nearby shop. Gabrielle reigned in her horse and watched as Perdicus made his way over to her. She had not seen him since that night she had turned down his proposal. There was a long silence as they stared at each other.

"I guess youíre pretty glad now that I didnít accept your offer of marriage," she finally broke the silence between them.

"No," he shook his head. "I know what every one is saying, but I know you Gabrielle. I know you would never purposefully hurt anyone. I believe what you did was right."

Gabrielle felt her heart tremble. She gave him a weak smile. "Donít say that to loud or you might get run out of town."

"I donít care," he replied with a crooked grin, which disappeared as he grew solemn. "I just wanted you to know that if you ever change your mind, or if things donít work out in the Capital, my offer is still open. Regardless what anybody says or thinks, I would still be honoured to be your husband."

Gabrielle was humbled by his offer but she knew that she would never accept it. If something happened that the Conqueror turned her out, she would not come back to him. He didnít deserve to be second to anyone.

"Donít wait for me Perdicus," she said hoping he would understand. He did and she saw the sadness in his brown eyes. "Take care of yourself." She clicked her heels and motioned the horse forward, knowing it would be a long time before she ever returned home.

It took them only a day and a half to reach Amphipolis. She didnít know what kind of reception to expect considering she was more then certain that they had probably heard that she had been involved in Calipusí arrest. She prepared herself for anything.

Toris was surprised to see the bard. After her last visit he had not expected to see her again. He wasnít sure how he should feel, aware that she had been the one to betray the rebels. He strolled out of the stables, intercepting her in front of the tavern.

"Why?" he asked before she had a chance to dismount from her horse.

Gabrielle was silent. Her happiness at seeing that he was all right was quickly moderated by the anger she could hear in his voice. She stared down at his upturned face seeing something oddly familiar in the angry features and the dark blue eyes.

"I did it to protect you and your family," she said quietly.

"Protect us?" he laughed without amusement. "How can someone like you protect us? Who are you to be so arrogant as to think that you could do anything for us?"

Gabrielle remained quiet, feeling the words cut deep into her soul. She could accept the disapproval from her family because they had always treated her differently but Toris and his mother had befriended her. They had accepted her the way she was.

"I wouldnít expect you to understand," she replied.

"Understand what? That you were a spy, reporting everything to the Capital while pretending to be our friend," there was scorn in his voice.

"No," Gabrielle shook her head sliding off her horse and taking a step towards him but he backed up as if she were some kind of poison. She stopped unable to hide the hurt that she felt. "Itís not like that."

"Then what is it like?" he demanded to know and Gabrielle took a deep breath.

"I am not a spy but I know that if you had carried out your attack on the army garrison Xena would have descended on the Region and destroyed all the villages around here."

"How do you know that?" he asked scornfully.

"Because I am her friend," the bard confessed and watched as the manís stared at her in disbelief.

"Friend!" the man laughed. "Xena has no friends. Do you think that she cares about anyone? Do you honestly think she really cares about you?"

"I know she still cares about you," the bold statement stopped the man cold. In one clear moment she knew who she was speaking too. "Do you think that if she didnít, Rufus wouldnít have taken you away with the other rebels? You use her like a shield but you donít accept that shield is there because she cares for you." Gabrielle paused and glanced passed the man to the woman who was standing on the steps in front of the tavern.

"You told me once not long ago how she used to help everyone out, that she was different. Well, perhaps she has changed, but I think that girl you knew still exists. That girl is there, buried deep, under so many layers of hate and distrust that her real self is hard to find, but she is still there. I see her every time I am with her." She paused to take a breath, encouraged by the fact that no one tried to interrupt. "We all get lost sometimes. The only difference between her and anyone else, is that no one has tried to help Xena find the way back."

"And you think you are the one to do that?" Toris was bemused, shaking his head. "You are so naive Gabrielle. She may be your friend today, but the first time you do something that displeases her, you will see her true nature."

"No," she disagreed adamantly. "I have tempted fate and she has done nothing to me, just like she would do nothing to you. The person you think she is, doesnít exist."

"You have deluded yourself and some day you will pay for that," he snorted before turning and walking away. Gabrielle followed him with her eyes knowing that nothing she said could convince the man. She sighed and turned away, intent on mounting her horse and riding out of this town. She had found what she had come for.

"How is she?"

Gabrielle whirled around to see Cyrene standing behind her. There was an fearful yet pensive expression in the womanís eyes. The bard looked at her intently and saw the similarities to her lover. Her heart ached. She didnít know how to answer that question.

"She is lonely," the bard didnít know what else to tell this woman.

"Then I am glad she has you as a friend," Cyrene said straightening her shoulders. Their eyes met in a long telling gaze before the older woman turned and walked back to the tavern without saying another word. Gabrielle swung up on top of her horse, clicking her heels to set it in motion. Joshua glanced covertly at his companion but said nothing.

They travelled in relative silence for the next two days. The bard had not said a word since leaving Amphipolis, which was unusual because on the trip down she hadnít stopped talking the whole time. Joshua glanced at the girl and wondered what was going on in her head.

It was amazing how this woman managed to regulate the moods of those around her. When she was happy he was happy, now that she was sad, he too felt the same grief. He had seen the joy on her face at the news of the Conquerorís return, and though he was sad that their time together was coming to an end, he was happy for her. He thought the Empress very lucky to have someone care about her as much as this young woman did. He hoped one day to find the same thing.

"There is a fork further up the road. I thought if we took the road bordering Amazon territory we could cut a day, possibly two, off our journey," he said in an attempt to make idle conversation. He hated the silence.

Gabrielle glanced up noticing their surroundings for the first time. She had been to busy sorting through her thoughts and emotions to pay much attention to their route. She knew she should be happy by the prospect of reaching the Capital earlier but any joy she felt about her reunion with the Conqueror was gone, buried under a host of guilty emotions. She didnít say anything.

"Gabrielle you canít keep beating yourself up over what you did," he said softly and she looked across at him.

"A lot of people were hurt by my betrayal," she shook her head.

"Some people were hurt but you know in your heart a lot more people would have been hurt if you hadnít done anything," he was blunt. "We both know the Conqueror would have exacted revenge. She would have spared no one."

"That still doesnít make me feel better," she shook her head.

"Thatís because you are a good person," he replied. "Besides didnít the Conqueror warn you it would be like this?"

"Yes, but I guess I always assumed my family and friends would be different," she sighed. "I thought they would understand."

Joshua remained silent. He knew first hand that people rarely understood, even those they trusted. Only a few took the time to look into the hearts of the people they met. This young woman was one of those and she had been insightful enough to see a part of the Empress that no one thought existed. Even he had been sceptical until he had witnessed the Empressí manner towards this woman. It had been a startling revelation to everyone who knew the cold Conqueror.

He was about to answer when an odd noise caught his attention. He reigned in his horse and the bard automatically pulled up alongside. They could clearly hear the distinctive clang of metal. Some where around the next bend someone was involved in a fight. He sensed danger and his first instinct was to steer clear.

"Come, we can disguise ourselves in that stand of trees," he pointed to the tree line a short distance off the road, thinking they could hide until the danger had passed.

"We canít hide. What if someone needs help?" Gabrielleís first thought was the possibility of a young family in danger from a marauding band of thieves like the ones she had encountered so many moons ago. Some one had come to rescue her once and it had changed her life, perhaps now it was time to repay the debt.

She clicked her heels and the horse sprang forward. With a mild curse her companion unsheathed his sword and went in pursuit. They galloped around the corner and into a clearing where a large group of people were engaged in battle.

Gabrielle reigned in her horse and grabbing her staff slipped onto the ground. She paused for a second to assess the situation and then choose a side without knowing the issues. All she saw was a dozen well armed men doing battle with half a dozen women in skimpy outfits made of leather and feathers.

She ran towards the nearest man, swinging her staff in a wide arc. She felt the tremor of the wood as her strike connected squarely with the manís head sending him to the ground unconscious. She admired her success for only an instant before turning her attention to the next man, aware that Joshua was now fighting at her side.

Ephiny noticed the two strangers wade into the battle. She saw the way the tiny blond woman swung her staff to bring down one of their attackers. Normally she would have resented any outside assistance but she realized that at this moment they needed all the help they could get. Princess Alandra was already dead and Queen Melosa was severely injured. The rest of them were in various states, with injuries and cuts to their bodies. It wouldnít be long before all of them were cut down.

She swung her blade dispatching the man in front of her, but she withdrew her sword to slowly from his chest and another bandit stepped in and buried his blade in her shoulder. She slumped to the ground and looked up at him as he raised his sword to deliver the fatal blow.

"Forgive me for failing, my Queen," she whispered and then closed her eyes and waited for death.

Gabrielle saw the stricken woman. She was kneeling on the ground unable to defend herself as blood poured from the wound in her shoulder. Without regard for the danger, she rushed forward swinging her staff just as the sword started to come down. Her quick action saved the woman and knocked the weapon from its deadly path. Swiftly she brought the stave back up, catching him in the lower back before bringing him down with a final strike to his head.

Ephiny opened her eyes and looked up into a pair of flashing green orbs that were set into the face of an innocent looking young woman with reddish blond hair. It was a face given more to smiling then the intense frown that now decorated its features. She opened her mouth to speak but her attention was captured by the scene that was about to unfold.

Queen Melosa was on the ground and the man with whom she had been fighting now raised his sword to inflict the fatal wound. Ephiny started to struggle to her feet but the girl moved more quickly.

Gabrielle saw what was happening and without thinking jumped between the bandit and the woman who lay defenceless on the ground. She lifted her staff to block the manís blow and felt its reverberation through the wood, but she did not lose her grip. The Conqueror attacked with stronger force.

Her resistance angered the man and he lifted his heavy sword and swung again hoping to overpower the girl who had dared to prevent him from accomplishing his mission of killing the Amazon Queen. But his fury made him careless and when he raised his blade again Gabrielle planted her feet in the way she had been taught and jabbed the butt of her staff into the manís throat.

He gasped and clutched his neck in startled agony, dropping his weapon. She used this opportunity to swing her staff again and there was a loud crack as wood connected with the side of his head, sending him to the ground. She paused to catch her breath.

"Retreat," someone called in the midst of the melee.

Their orders had been to intercept and destroy the Royal Amazon party and glancing at the ground they had accomplished their mission. Of the original six Amazonís only one was still on her feet. The others were dead or dying.

"Retreat," the same man called again and the remaining men helped their injured comrades to their feet before hobbling from the clearing. Joshua attempted to give chase but he had been exhausted by the battle and had little energy left with which to pursue the attackers.

Ephiny wobbled on her feet, struggling to stay upright even as the blood continued to seep from her wound. She was beginning to feel lightheaded and dizzy and knew it wouldnít be long before she lost consciousness. She leaned against her sword, feeling a sense of relief, as the men retreated into the nearby forest, but experience reminded her that they might regroup and renew their attack. She would not survive another assault.

Gabrielle began to breath easier, happy at the sight of the bandits dispersing. She spared them one parting glance before turning her attention to the carnage they had left behind. There were bodies scattered all around the clearing, a testament to the fierce defence the women warriors had given their enemy.

In her mind she quickly went through a checklist of things that needed to be done. The first order of business was to attend to the wounded, and in order to do that she needed to find out who was still alive. She turned her head and saw the lone woman warrior who had been left standing. She saw the blood and the gaping wound and for a moment when their eyes met she saw the dazed expression on her face.

The woman swayed, her legs beginning to buckle and Gabrielle immediately rushed to her side, catching the curly blonde haired warrior just as she was about to fall. She gently lowered her to the ground, taking care not to jar the wounded limb.

"You have a bad injury," Gabrielle said tearing a piece of cloth from the tunic of the dead man lying nearby. She pressed the linen to the bleeding wound in an attempt to staunch the flow. "You have to stay still."

The woman warrior nodded mutely and did as she was told, closing her eyes in an attempt to ignore the pain. But Gabrielle had seen the sadness in those grey eyes and she felt a wave of sympathy, sensing this womanís loss.

For a moment she studied the pale face, seeing the lines of tension etched into its smooth, tanned features. If she were to guess, she surmised that this warrior was only a few years older then herself, but there was a look of experience that made her seem much older. Impulsively she reached down and gave the warriorís hand a squeeze.

"Everything is going to be all right now," Gabrielle said with a confident smile and womanís eyes fluttered open to stare at her intently.

Ephiny wanted to dispute that fact but she was to weary to do anything. She could barely keep her eyes open, let alone argue with this girl.

"Iím just going to go over and check the others," Gabrielle said and the warrior merely nodded her head before closing her eyes again. Reluctantly the bard left the womanís side, aware that there might still be someone else alive. She found only one other person, an older woman whose breathing was very faint.

Melosa opened her eyes and stared into the prettiest green orbs she had ever seen. She watched silently as the girl carefully inspected her stomach wound. She was barely conscious but she knew she was dying. With that realization came another. There were certain important matters that needed to be settled.

She turned her head slightly taking in the surrounding carnage. Her eyes paused and filled with tears at the sight of the motionless body of her Princess. She looked over towards Ephinyís still form before turning her attention back to the stranger. She felt a sense of hopelessness at the thought that everyone else was dead.

"Who are you child?" Melosa asked needing to clear her mind of the painful truth. She had been witness to the girlís valiant and fearless defence of Ephiny and herself. It was not usual for strangers to help them out.

"My name is Gabrielle, of Potedaia," the bard flashed a smile to mask the pity she felt for this older woman. She was not a healer but she only needed to glance at this womanís wounds to see that she was dying.

"I am pleased to meet you Gabrielle, my name is Melosa and I am Queen of this Amazon tribe," the woman forced a weak smile to come to her lips. "You are a formidable warrior. I wish we could have met under better circumstances."

"Iím not a fighter," Gabrielle corrected gently. "I am a bard, I tell stories."

"But you are so good with the staff, I thought...." the womanís voice died with a spasm of coughing.

"I have a friend who taught me. She wanted me to be able to protect myself if I ever got into trouble."

The Queen saw the sudden glow that came to the girlís face when she spoke of this friend.

"She is a very wise person," the Amazon sighed. "But I do not understand why you would risk your life to come to the aid of strangers?"

"Someone once rescued me from a similar situation," Gabrielle was honest. "I just thought it was my duty to repay the favour if I could."

"You are very brave, you could have been killed," the words trailed off interrupted by a groan and Gabrielle turned and watched as one of the raiders sat up clutching his head.

She hastily searched for her staff but it was on the ground next to the warrior with the shoulder wound. She spied the sword in the grass next to them and picked it up. She knew she had to deal with the situation.

She rose to her feet and hovered for a moment over the dazed man before bringing the hilt down on his head. He jerked briefly before falling back to the ground. She immediately dropped the sword as if it repulsed her. Melosa watched with quiet speculation as the girl came back and sat down beside her.

"Why didnít you kill him, he would not have spared you?" the Queen asked curiously.

"I canít kill a defenceless man," Gabrielle replied. She had seen enough killing for one day. She could not be the one to inflict more injury on any one.

"But is it fair for him to live when he has helped to kill so many of my sisters?" the older woman asked.

"Maybe not," the bard conceded sadly. "But it is not for me to judge. That is up to the authorities. He deserves a fair trial like any one else. Besides you need to keep him alive to find out why he did this."

"Yes," the woman nodded and closed her eyes as for a moment the pain became overwhelming.

 

*************

 

"Iíll kill Ares," Artemis stormed around on Mt. Olympus when she saw that her Queen was dying. "When I get a hold of him, Iíll wring his scrawny little neck."

"I have a better idea," Aphrodite smiled coyly but the Goddess of the Hunt only scowled. She wasnít impressed with what the Goddess of Love had done so far. "Listen Artie babe this is perfect, foolproof almost."

"Thatís what you said before," Artemis sighed with exasperation, aware that the other Goddess had an annoying habit of making everything very complicated. Besides she didnít think Love would stop now until she was satisfied. "Making Ares Chosen fall in love with that little bard only pissed him off. It didnít help the Amazonís any."

"Not if that were the plan," Aphrodite giggled and Artemis looked at her through narrow eyes realizing that the other Goddess was enjoying this situation far to much. "What would Ares think if you made blondie the Queen?"

"No," the Goddess of the Hunt gasp. "Sheís not an Amazon."

"Small detail," Love itself said airily. "Hereís your big chance Artie babe. Make blondie Queen and save the Amazonís. You have to know that with her in charge the Conqueror would never attack them."

Artemis was about to argue but then paused to mull over the idea. The Goddess of Love had a good point. Besides she was impressed by the way the girl had unselfishly stepped in to help her Queen and escort. She had to admit, the bard was beginning to grow on her.

"What will make Ares stop from messing with her?" the Goddess wanted to know.

"Nothing unless you also make her your Chosen," Aphrodite smiled sweetly. "It will make Ares crazy."

The Goddess of the Hunt considered the suggestion carefully, glancing down into the reflection pool for a moment. Maybe the idea wasnít so bad. She nodded her head and listened as Aphrodite let out a divine laugh.

PART THREE

chapter 6

 

A sharp pain rousted Ephiny from her unconscious state. She kept her eyes closed, to tired and weak to move, content just to listen to the verbal exchange between her Queen and the stranger. What a gutsy kid, she thought absently and then savoured the joy she felt at the sound of her Queenís voice. She was soothed by the knowledge that Melosa was alive.

The Queen didnít know how much time she had left. Already she felt strangely. She watched the young girl who tended her wounds, trying to do something when there was nothing that could be done. She felt a strange sensation flood through her body and she closed her eyes only to see the image of a woman appear in her thoughts. It was as how she had always thought that Artemis would look.

"Artemis," she greeted the Goddess and struggled to bow.

"Melosa," the woman responded with a gentle smile as she reached out to lay a tender hand upon her Queen, stilling her restless motions. "You have served me well and soon it will be time for you to join your sisters, but before you leave the mortal world I need for you to do me one more favour."

"What is it you wish for me to do?" Melosa asked humbly.

"You must pass your Right of Caste to Gabrielle, the young woman who rushed to your defence," the Goddess said softly.

"But she is not an Amazon," the Queen protested faintly, not understanding what the Goddess was asking.

"No, but I will see that she is taught," Artemis smiled and reached out to gently touch her Queenís face. "You must do this to save your sisters, the Amazonís."

Melosa wanted to ask more questions but as suddenly as it was there the vision was gone. She opened her eyes to see a curious pair of green eyes staring at her with deep concern. She heart trembled for a moment before an incredible sense of peace settled over her body.

"Come here Gabrielle," the Queen bade.

Gabrielle nodded. Only moments ago the dying woman had been squirming and mumbling under her breath and the bard thought she was delirious but now looking into her eyes she saw that they were clear and filled with contentment.

"Am I hurting you?" she asked with genuine concern as she crawled to the womanís side.

"No," Melosa smiled and reaching out captured one of the bardís hand, holding it gently in her own.

"My Princess is dead and soon I shall join her and as Queen there are certain responsibilities that I have. One is to ensure that there is an orderly transition upon my death. In that regard Gabrielle I bestow my Right of Caste on you."

ĎNo,í the anguished protest echoed through Ephinyís head. She struggled to sit up but it was like there was an invisible hand holding her down. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. No, she cried, Melosa do not make this mistake, but the Queen heard none of her thoughts.

"Gabrielle you have shown yourself to be a friend of our Nation. You have proven yourself to be brave, kind and wise. You will be a worthy successor. Please promise me that you will take us back to the Nation so that our deaths might be celebrated in our tradition."

"Yes, I will see you get home," Gabrielle agreed, looking down at the dying woman, uncertain what had just happened yet fairly certain it was something significant. "But I know nothing about the Amazonís."

"Do not be afraid Gabrielle, my sisterís will take good care of you. They will teach you what you need to know," Melosa sighed, her body beginning to grow cold. "Promise me youíll do whatever it takes to care of the Amazonís."

"I will," Gabrielle promised aware that the woman was dying. The best of herself, the kind and gentle soul, would have agreed to anything this woman asked, even though she was uncertain of what that entailed. She wasnít worried though, certain that Xena would figure it all out.

"Thank you," Melosa said softly and then closed her eyes for the last time.

The ensuing silence told Ephiny all she needed. No, she screamed in silent anguish and then mercifully her world went black as she slipped unconscious once more.

By the time Joshua came jogging back into the clearing the lone surviving raider was tressed up and Gabrielle was kneeling on the ground attending to a blonde Amazon with a wounded shoulder. The girl glanced up unable to hide her relief.

"Sheís still alive but I donít know what to do?" the bard said with a sad appeal in her eyes.

Joshua bent to look at the fallen warrior. Her skin was pale and her breathing shallow. He did not think her long for this world but he knew the bard didnít want to hear that.

"She needs a healer."

"Where can we find one?"

"I suppose there are some in the Amazon village," he said quietly. "Their borders are only a few candlemarks ride from here."

"Then we will have to head for their territory," Gabrielle decided glancing around at the dead women that littered the ground. "I promised the Queen that we would take her and her sisters back to their village for proper burial."

Joshua looked at the younger woman. He could see that she was emotionally and physically exhausted and in no mood to be challenged. He nodded and stood up.

"I will see how many horses I can round up," he said and then trotted back off.

Night had fallen before they were able to get underway. It had taken longer then expected to take care of everything and Gabrielleís admiration for her lover grew when she thought of the logistics involved in moving an army. It had taken them almost as long to figure out what to do as to actually get it done.

Joshua managed to round up enough horses to transport them all, finding the dead raiders mounts tethered in the trees not to far away. While they left the dead bandits for the forest creatures they carefully loaded the bodies of the dead Amazonís onto the horses, while making there lone prisoner walk behind.

Gabrielle sat on her mount cradling the severely injured warrior. The soldier had offered to hold the ill woman but she had thought it better if he was free to move about. She didnít know where the rest of the bandits had gone and was worried they might return to rescue their captured friend. They travelled for a long while in silence as she pondered recent events.

"Joshua, do you know what a Right of Caste is?" she suddenly asked and the soldier shifted in his saddle to look at her.

"I think it has something to do with a inherited thing," Joshua tried to explain. "Like the Conqueror making someone her successor. Why?"

Gabrielle was thoughtful a frown burrowing itís way across her face. "One of the Amazonís was the Queen and as she was dying she passed her Right of Caste onto me. I donít know if I like what that implied."

Neither will the Conqueror, the soldier thought understanding the consequences of what had just happened. He remained quiet, unwilling to add any more worries to the young bard. He could see that she was troubled enough.

"Did you manage to find out who those men were?" she asked as an after thought and he was glad for the change of subject.

"No," Joshua lied and lapsed into silence, happy that the woman was content to do the same.

They kept up a steady pace through the night, resting only when the horses needed a break. Gabrielle fought her exhaustion, holding the injured woman securely in her arms. They both knew it was necessary to hurry.

 

Eponin glanced at the elders, impatiently waiting for their response. Another dawn had come without any sign of the Royal party. The Queen and her escort were two days overdue and she had an uneasy feeling about what that meant. She berated herself once again, questioning her decision to allow the Royal party to travel together. She knew she should have insisted on two separate groups, each with their own escort. She would never forgive herself if something happened to the Queen or the rest of the entourage.

"Listen up," Lesta finally spoke and the room full of mumbling Amazonís fell quiet and all eyes turned expectantly towards the leader of the Elders. The woman looked across the room to where the Weaponís Master stood. "We have collectively agreed that perhaps there is some cause for concern. Therefore we instruct you Eponin to put together a search party and head out at the earliest possible moment."

"Yes," the tall brown haired Amazon bowed her head respectfully and then turned to leave.

"I would suggest that you take the healer, Kastra. I hope there is no need for her services but one can never tell," the elder said and the Weaponís Master nodded and hurried out of the hut.

Eponin didnít waste time reflecting on what the Councilís decision meant. No one liked to think that the Royal party may have encountered trouble but it was a distinct possibility. Tension in the region was high and they were having problems with most of their neighbours, including the Centaurs. It didnít help that the Conquerorís army was using them for sword practice.

She shook off the terrible foreboding that had been shadowing her emotions and concentrated instead on the task at hand. As quickly as she could, she rounded up a search party and with the Head Scout in the lead, they set out to find their Queen.

 

It was just after dawn when they reached the borders of Amazon territory. Gabrielle was the first to hear the strange bird calls and whistles that echoed through the trees, though she didnít understand what they meant.

"Stop," Ephiny murmured from her delirium, her unconscious mind reacting to the familiar sounds.

Gabrielle reigned in her horse causing the whole train to stop. There was a brief silence and then more bird calls. If the bard hadnít been so tired she would have been nervous, but as it was she merely watched dispassionately as a small phalanx of women warriors, dressed in leather and feathers, descended out of the surrounding trees. She focused her attention on the lead group, noticing that they were heavily armed with swords and spears. Others had crossbows which were pointed in their direction. She noticed they were cocked and ready to fire.

"Drop your weapons," the leader of the group called out and the bard frowned, realizing everything she heard about the Amazonís must be true.

"We are not here to make war," she shouted in a hoarse voice. "Some of your people were hurt in battle. Have you a healer, this one is in bad need of attention."

"Throw down your weapons," Eponin called again ignoring the womanís words though she was aware that Ephiny was cradled in her arms on the horse. They had been near the border when they had received word from one of their scouts about an in bound party. She had felt a leap of joy at the news but her enthusiasm had quickly been dampened when she heard that it was not the expected Royal Party.

Gabrielle sighed impatiently, feeling an ache in her shoulders and a cramp in her arms. "Stupid Amazonís," she muttered loudly and then looked across at Joshua. "Throw down your sword."

"But..." he looked at her with astonishment.

"No buts, itís an order," the bard snapped with a hint of anger.

The soldier knew that he should obey the command yet he hesitated. It was his duty to protect the Conquerorís friend and though he had never fought against the Amazonís, he was aware of their reputation. Reluctantly he unsheathed his sword and tossed it on the ground, realizing there was little he could do but surrender. Before he had a chance to second guess his decision a female warrior darted in and snatched the blade from its resting place.

Before Gabrielle had a chance to protest, they were on them. Joshua was dragged from his horse and quickly tied up. She was treated only marginally better and later she reflected it was probably only because of the wounded woman she bore. However, once the woman had been handed over, she too was pulled from her horse and bound with rope.

"Whatís the meaning of this?" she shouted with indignation, her exhaustion exposing itself through a tantrum. She stamped her foot impatiently. "We try to save your friends here and this is how you reward us."

"Silence," Eponin demanded stepping up in front of the smaller woman hoping to intimidate her. "We do not know that you did not orchestrate this attack on our Queen and her escort."

"What?" Gabrielle was flabbergast at the suggestion. "We were on our way to Corinth, minding our own business, when we stumbled onto a bunch of thugs beating up on your Queen. We stop to help and this is the thanks we get."

"Yes," Eponin remained calm yet she noticed the fascinating way those green eyes flashed when the woman spoke. "You are a stranger to our land and until we can determine whether you are friend or foe we must protect ourselves."

Gabrielle sighed, impatiently blowing her bangs out of her eyes. This tall warrior was trying to intimidate her but hey, she had lived with the Conqueror, the most intimidating person in the country, and wasnít threatened by such tactics.

"Listen, as I said my friend and I were on our way to Corinth," she stared directly into the brown eyes of the warrior. "So if you just untie us we will be on our way."

"Iím sorry I canít do that," Eponin said though she had begun to admire this womanís spirit. "We will investigate the situation and if it proves that you were speaking the truth you will be free to go. It shouldnít take more than a few days."

"A few days," the bard echoed in disbelief as she thought in quiet desperation about what would happen if the Conqueror returned and she wasnít there. "We canít waste a few days, we are expected."

"Well, whoever is expecting you will have to wait," the tall Amazon said with a shrug.

"You donít understand," Gabrielle stamped her foot in frustration. "Can I at least send a message?"

"No!" this time is was Joshua who spoke and the bard looked at him with annoyance. The Amazon glanced at the man and saw his horrified expression. Instinct told her something was going on here and she became more determined then ever to keep these people prisoner until she discovered what it was.

"Letís go," the woman warrior grabbed her arm and propelled her forward so that the prisoners were walking behind the litter bearing the wounded Amazon. The horses bearing the bodies of the dead Queen and her escort led the procession.

Gabrielle stared at the advancing column, muttering angrily as tears moistened her eyes. She knew they were in trouble, worse she feared that Xena would return and think that she had been abandoned. As strong a leader as she was, the Conqueror was still very insecure. A lump caught in her throat as she wondered how such a good deed could turn out so bad.

 

General Rufus paced thoughtfully around the tent. He paused and glanced up at his Lieutenant who had just returned with news of a successful mission. The extra complication wasnít something that particularly bothered him. He could use the bardís intervention to his advantage.

"You say the Amazonís took the bard and her escort into custody?" He wanted to make certain he had a clear picture of the situation.

"Yes," Argus nodded wondering if he had made a mistake in following the orders of his Commander. He knew that they were playing a dangerous game. If the Conqueror got wind of their plan then she would certainly kill them all. There would be no reprieve.

Rufus glanced up and down at his Lieutenant. The man was still covered in dust from the long ride back to camp. He could smell the stench of the other manís sweat and though it was offensive he was not ready to release the man.

"You did a good job," he finally said with a smile. "This will work in our favour."

"How so?" the Lieutenant was curious.

"Simple, everyone knows how the Conqueror is besotted with the little girl. What will happen when she finds that the bard isnít the sweet little angel she believes her to be? What happens when she learns that Gabrielle was in fact part of the rebels that plotted to attack the garrison and when the plan was uncovered she fled to hide with the Amazonís?" There was a brief pause. "What do you think will happen Argus?"

"The Conqueror will attack the Amazonís," the Lieutenant was finally beginning to understand.

"Exactly," Rufus almost clapped his hands in glee. "She will attack the Amazonís, who will be on their guard thanks to us. Naturally, the Empress will personally go after the bard and then when she has all her attention focused on the little girl I will strike, killing her. After that it will be simple to blame the Empressí death on the Amazon Nation. Troops loyal to my cause will kill those serving with the Conqueror and we will ride together in triumph into the Capital and take over the Empire."

The plan sounded logical enough but Argus was uncomfortable. Nothing was ever as simple as it seemed where the Conqueror was concerned. He had served in her army long enough to know that anything involving the Empress was never easy. The woman had an uncanny sense of what was going on around her without really being aware of what was happening. He had seen it to often to discount her. He knew she would not fall easily.

"What of the other Generalís?" Argus asked the most logical question and Rufus laughed.

"They have no love of the Empress," he snorted. "They will not rush to her cause. They covet her position almost as much as I do, besides who will dare oppose me once I take command of the Third Army. My promotion came at a most opportune time."

"What happens if we fail?" the Lieutenant waited a long moment before asking. He received an icy stare.

"We will not fail," Rufus reminded him tersely. "Now go clean yourself up so that I might relay some instructions before I leave for the Capital. I shall delight in telling the Conqueror about her little friend."

*******************

The Conqueror rode hard the last few leagues to the Capital, her senses stirred by the desire to see the bard. She had imagined the reunion in her head a thousand times and all of them ended the same way. She would take the girl to bed and keep her there for several days. A grim expression replaced her grin. The separation had been to long, she would not let it happen again.

Archius paced nervously on the portico outside the Palace. The scouts had heralded the Conquerorís arrival and now it was left up to him to greet her with the bad news. A part of him hoped that her infatuation with the girl was over yet another part realized it wasnít. Perhaps he over estimated her desire for the blond woman but the Conquerorís message sending for the bard made the truth obvious. He dreaded the scene that was to follow.

The sound of thundering hooves filled the air and suddenly she was there, riding her magnificent mare. She stopped by the Palace steps and vaulted out of the saddle tossing the reigns to a stableboy who hurried to attend the Empressí favourite creature. She was up the steps in a few long, quick strides.

"Good evening, Archius," she nodded briefly and continued passed him. "I take it everything in the Realm is okay?"

"Yes, Empress, however I must speak with you," the aide had to hurry to keep pace with the taller woman.

"Not now Archius," the Conqueror actually cast him a brief smile. "Let business wait until tomorrow. There are other matters I wish to attend too now."

Archius paused aware that his task would be more difficult then he thought. He followed with his eyes and then shuffled slowly after. There was no need to rush to the problem.

Xena almost ran to her quarters and flung open the doors. While she had not really expected the bard to be lying in wait on the bed, she had at least hoped that Gabrielle would be sitting at the fireplace scribbling in her scrolls. But the suite was empty and the Conqueror allowed her eyes to sweep through the room again as if she had somehow missed something. The joy she felt was suddenly gone and she rushed through into the bathing area, hoping to find the girl there. But the place was empty, minus the bard and her possessions.

"Where is she?" the Empress asked in a cold voice, her eyes glowering at the man hovering in the doorway.

"I donít know Empress," Archius was honest. "When we received word of your imminent return I dispatched a messenger. He returned a week ago with word that the bard was on her way. We have heard nothing since."

"Hades," the Conqueror screamed pounding her fist into a nearby wall. The man flinched at the smacking sound of flesh against stone. From across the room he could see the boiling anger in the Empressí eyes. Xena could barely contain her rage. "What happened?"

"We donít know," Archius conceded. "We have heard nothing since."

"Has anything been done?"

"We sent a message to General Rufus requesting his help but we have heard nothing," Archius was explaining when he was suddenly interrupted.

"That is because I hurried to the Capital to inform the Empress in person," General Rufus announced striding into the room. He paused as all eyes turned to him and he made a grand show of bowing before the Conqueror.

"What news have you brought?" Archius spoke before Xena found her voice. He was suspicious of the General, a man whom he did not like.

"It is not pleasant, I am sorry to say," the man straightened up and stared directly at the Empress, ignoring the smaller man. "Not long ago it came to my attention that a plot was being hatched against the Conquerorís army. A band of rebels were gathering with the intention of attacking my garrison near Amphipolis."

He paused and glanced at the Conqueror aware of how her eyes had narrowed into small slits. He swallowed, wetting his throat aware that he had come to the point where he could continue with his plan or back out. He choose to continue on his path.

"Fortunately we were able to prevent the attack from occurring and in fact were able to round up most of the leaders. We imprisoned and interrogated them to learn the extent of the plot. Unfortunately we werenít able to gather up all the instigators."

"What has this to do with Gabrielle?" Xena asked tersely growing impatient.

"In the midst of the interrogation one of the leaders confessed that Gabrielle the Bard from Potedaia was also one of their group. He said that she had used her intimate knowledge of you to pass vital information to them. She was their spy."

Liar, Xena wanted to scream as her emotions raged out of control. She stared intently at the man and watched as he shifted nervously on his feet. She did not entirely believe his story. She didnít want to believe his story. She didnít want to acknowledge that Gabrielle had betrayed her like everyone else.

"I wish to speak with this prisoner," she said instead becoming once more the cold Conqueror everyone knew.

"Iím sorry My Empress," Rufus lowered his eyes unable to meet the womanís icy gaze. "The man was weak and though we would have saved him for your return, we were uncertain of when that would be. He died during our interrogation."

How very convenient, Archius thought coldly as he glanced from the soldier to the Empress. He could see by the expression on her face that she did not entirely believe the General. Of that he was relieved, but there was something else that caught his attention.

"You could speak with your brother, Iím sure he would tell you the truth."

"Why?" the Conquerorís eyes narrowed into thin slits.

The General glanced at the aide and raised his eyebrows speculatively. "Didnít Archius tell you? Toris was one of the rebel leaders."

There was silence and Archius glanced at the Empress. He had hoped to break the news more gently. Now he could see that the Conqueror was struggling with her own emotions, fighting not to give reign to her anger.

"What did you do to him?" the Empress wanted to know, her body tense.

"He was released, unharmed as per your directive."

There was silence as the Conqueror contemplated what she had heard. His words had confirmed what she had suspected for a long time. Torisí association with the rebels only served to confirm the extent of his hatred towards her. More troubling was the bardís association to the group.

"Empress?" the aide prompted aware that the silence had begun to lengthen. He watched as deadly pale eyes looked across at him. "Is there anything you would like me to do?"

"No, I am tired," she admitted in a calm and cool voice. She turned away from them. "I am sure I will think of something once Iíve had some rest. Leave me."

"Yes, Empress," the small man said before bowing and then backing up towards the door. He cast a hostile glance at the General who did not move.

"You want something Rufus?" there was a hint of steel in the voice as the Conqueror addressed the man. She did not bother turning around.

"I just wanted to thank you for the great honour you have bestowed on me," he said choosing his words carefully. "I have every intention of serving you with the greatest dedication and loyalty."

"Iím sure you will," she replied aware that he could not see the feral grin that decorated her lips. She waited to hear the click of the door and knew that she was finally alone.

Xena stood for a moment allowing her rage to remain in control. She berated herself for being such a fool. She should have learned her lesson already, yet she had still allowed the girl to get close. She swore it would never happen.

She took a deep breath and wandered across to the balcony, pausing to stare out over the Palace grounds and the city. It felt like her whole life was starting to disappear. With a sigh she returned to the bed chambers and began to undress.

Belaus slipped discreetly into her mastersí chambers and covertly watched as the Empress started to undo the buckles of her armour. She saw the cold expression on her face and the icy chips of blue that were her eyes. She had seen the eager anticipation that had accompanied her arrival and had cowardly hidden while the truth had been revealed. She was hesitant to speak afraid to suffer the wrath of the Conqueror if she took exception to the interference. She swallowed to dampen her throat and spoke anyway.

"Empress?"

Xena looked up and stared at the servant girl, pinning her to the spot. She was in no mood to deal with any trivial matters.

"What?" the single word came out as a growl.

Belaus took a deep breath. "I fear something tragic may have befallen Miss Gabrielle." She paused aware of how one dark eyebrow arched and pale blue eyes narrowed. "I know she would not have left you otherwise."

"You are a child, you know nothing of peopleís minds," the Empress scoffed in a cold voice.

"No, but I know of their hearts and Miss Gabrielleís heart was filled with you," the servant found the courage to continue when the Conqueror remained unconvinced. "When we were together, she spoke of nothing but you. When you left she was filled with sadness. Upon her own departure she assured us of her return. She said that not even Caesarís army would be able to stop her from returning to your side."

The girl paused again to catch her breath. "In the time she has known you, has she ever lied or made a promise she hasnít kept? I fear something or someone is keeping her away otherwise she would be here with you."

Xena stared at the girl. She wanted to believe what this servant was saying. More then anything she wanted to believe, and then suddenly it struck her that Gabrielle could be in danger. Perhaps someone had learned of their relationship and was now holding the bard hostage. The thought made her grow angry, yet she still could not dismiss General Rufusí claims.

"Call Archius," the Conqueror bade in an uneven voice. The servant girl nodded and hurried towards the door but was halted by the Empress.

"Why do you care if anything has happened to her?" Xena asked in a softer voice.

"Perhaps for the same reason you do," Belaus dared to reply, lowering her eyes. "At first I cared nothing, thinking that like the others she would be here only a short time. But the longer it became the more it became impossible to dislike her. She is kind and warm and the love in her heart reflects on all of us. She is a good person."

"Yes," Xena nodded with a crooked smile, her voice gruff to hide the emotions she felt. "She does grow on a person, its hard not to like her. Now go fetch Archius."

The girl scrambled out of the room as the Empress watched, her heart beginning to pound rapidly in her chest. She would not tolerate anyone laying a hand on her bard. If someone were keeping them apart then they would pay dearly with their own lives.

"You summoned, My Empress," Archius said after being invited into the room. He was surprised at being recalled though it was in the Conquerorís nature to be unpredictable.

"Inform my escort to be prepared to leave again at the dawn. Tonight we will rest and tomorrow we will journey to Potedaia."

"Yes, my Empress," the man nodded suppressing his desire to smile. He was pleased to know that the Conqueror had not taken the Generalís word without question. "What do you wish me to do with the General?"

"I want him to come with me," Xena replied in a cool voice. "I donít want him hanging around here to cause more trouble."

"Yes, My Empress," this time Archius did smile.

chapter 7

 

Though her imprisonment was probably better then most, Gabrielle was still miserable. Her captors, or hosts as they liked to refer to themselves, had locked her into a cool, dark cell but had provided enough blankets and candles to keep the place warm and lit. Three times a day they brought her a meal tray, sometimes it consisted of bread and stew, but most often it was a bowl of thick, bland grain cereal that when cold was hard to swallow.

No, it wasnít the way they were treating her that was the source for her misery. In the three days since they had been imprisoned, she had received no visitors. All she saw were the jail guards, who only stayed long enough to deliver her meal before scurrying away. More than once she had tried to engage them in a conversation but either they werenít interested in talking or they had been ordered not to. A smile tipped the corners of her lips. Their aloofness didnít stop them from listening at night when she told herself stories to stave off the loneliness and boredom that threatened to make her crazy.

She sighed and drew her knees into the circle of her arms. She had not seen Joshua since the morning when they had been brought into the Amazon village. Their guards had left them alone for only a moment, allowing them a brief opportunity to talk before they had been separated.

"Gabrielle, whatever you do, donít tell them of your association with the Conqueror," the soldierís words had been an urgent plea.

"Why?" she had wanted to know.

"The Empress and the Amazonís are mortal enemies," he replied glancing fugitively around the courtyard where they had been taken, afraid of being overheard. "Silence may mean our lives."

Gabrielle had nodded, though she wasnít certain she understood any of it. Now she closed her eyes as tears threatened to fall. She didnít want to hide the truth but she was very aware of the danger. Oh Xena, I wish you were here, she lamented softly to herself, not allowing herself to think of the Conqueror, aware of the heartache it caused.

 

Eponin glanced at Solari who in turn glanced at the head table where the Council of Elders sat. It was a tense time in the Nationís history. Without an acting Queen and with the maskís succession in doubt it had been left to the Elders to handle all the decisions for the Nation. The Weaponís Master knew they were waiting for her response.

"The man is definitely a soldier," she conceded thinking of the confession they had extracted from one of their prisoners. "He was attached to the garrison under the command of General Rufus. The camp is not more then two days ride from here, near the village of Amphipolis."

"He should be put to death and we should immediately send an armed party to attack the army camp," Velaska said, expressing an opinion that was popular amongst her sisterís. "I say we not waste any more time."

"Sit down Velaska!" Lesta, the Chief Elder barked rubbing her temple in an attempt to ease the tension that was building there. She turned her attention back to the tall brown haired warrior. "Did he say who had ordered the attack?"

"His troop was ordered to attack the Amazonís by their Commander," Eponin replied. "They had been instructed to look like bandits and kill as many as they could."

"This means war," Velaska shouted, starting a roar amongst the other warriors present.

"Sit down Velaska!" Lesta commanded through clenched teeth, remembering why she had never wanted to challenge for the Queenís mask. It was just to much work dealing with Amazon politics.

"What about the other two?" the Elder continued as if their conversation hadnít been interrupted.

"He did not know the man but I am certain he is also a soldier," the Weaponís Master confided her suspicion. "He has the bearing of a soldier, and his clothes and weaponís are suspiciously absent of any markings or insignia."

"A spy, planted here by the Empress herself!" Velaska interjected and both the other women glared at her before continuing with their discussion.

"And the girl?"

"A bard, I think, though we have not yet spoken with her," Eponin confessed sheepishly. The interrogation of their prisoners had been delayed because of the funeral rites and mourning rituals for their Queen and Princess. It had only been yesterday before they had been able to question their captives.

"Then perhaps it is time to talk with her and find out her story," the Elder decided with a chagrined expression. "Bring her here where we might all have a chance to hear what she has to say."

Eponin nodded and ducked out of the Council Chambers. She thought about the girl she had been sent to fetch. The young woman had been a model prisoner, suffering the solitude of her cell by telling stories to herself. This of course delighted her guards and she had been forced to settle more than one argument that had resulted between them. Privately she thought that keeping the woman locked up was a mistake but then it wasnít her decision.

She sighed. The tension in the Amazon village was almost visible. Without a Queen or a living Princess the maskís orderly succession was in doubt and open to numerous claims by any number of hopefuls. It could prove disastrous for the Nation, who might splinter apart under the pressure. The only hope lay with Ephiny who might be able to supply some answers.

The Weaponís Master gripped her staff more tightly as she thought about her friend. The warrior had lain close to death, her body ravaged by an infection from her wound, and only last night had the fever broken. The healers had all but given up hope and were now elated and casting predictions that she would awaken at any time.

"The sooner the better," Eponin muttered to herself as she trudged across the courtyard to the jail. Perhaps once the truth was known then Velaska would let up hounding everyone. The whole Nation knew of her desire to secure the Queenís mask.

She dismissed any more thoughts of her adversary and concentrated on the task at hand. She chuckled to herself as she thought of the ordeal ahead. From what she had already seen, this woman, bard or not, was bound to give the Council an even bigger headache.

 

Ephiny woke slowly, allowing the fog over her brain to dissipate. Her throat felt parched and every muscle in her body ached. There was a pounding throb in her head but still she cautiously opened one eye. She suspected she was still alive with this much pain but then it was possible Hades had taken her to Tartarus. A simple glance told her she was in the healers hut back in the Amazon village.

She closed her eye again and rested for a moment, allowing her brain to refresh her memory.

She was on her way back from Anduras, with Queen Melosa and Princess Alandra, where they had completed trade negotiations with the King. They were almost home when they were attacked by a dozen bandits. There was a fight, she was stabbed and awaiting the final blow when out of nowhere a reddish blonde haired woman jumps into the fray and saves her life. Then the stranger rushes over to protect her Queen. Finally the bandits are run off and she is on a horse being cradled gently in the womanís arms.

She paused, wondering if she had forgotten anything. Nope, she didnít think so though she would have to ask Melosa. It was then that the whole truth settled over her brain. The Queen was dead and the Right of Caste had been passed down to the stranger with the strawberry blond hair. She moaned and tears sprung from the wells behind her eyes.

"Sheís awake," Kastra exclaimed, noticing their patient was stirring. Both healers hurried over to the cot. "Shh, youíre going to be okay Ephiny, donít move, everything is okay."

"No, itís not," the Amazon warrior groaned. "Donít you see, sheís our new Queen."

"Who?" both healers asked in astonishment looking at each other before turning their attention back to their patient.

"That woman," the warrior said. "The one who saved my life. I donít know her name but she has.."

"Reddish blonde hair and flashing green eyes," Kastra finished describing the woman they had met on the trail. "She saved your life?"

"Yes and then she went to protect the Queen," Ephiny closed her eyes feeling the pain of loss.

"You said she is our new Queen?" Kastra intoned thoughtfully. They had been busy in the healers hut but not to busy to miss out on what was going on in the village.

"Yes, I think Queen Melosa must of thought everyone else was dead, so she passed the Right of Caste on to this strange woman."

"She didnít mention anything," the healer mused.

"She isnít likely to understand, sheís not an Amazon."

"No," Kastra agreed. "I think the Council better hear this. Velaska this minute is accusing her of treachery against the Amazonís."

"We must tell them," Ephiny said and then gasp when she tried to move. The healers were immediately at her side pushing her down onto the cot.

"We will tell them, you are still to weak to move. I donít know what kind of trouble this will raise," Kastra chuckled to herself as she left the healers hut and hurried across the village to where the Council was meeting.

 

Initially Gabrielle had been relieved to be given her freedom. She breathed deeply, sucking the sweet fresh air of the morning into her lungs as they walked across the open courtyard. She had been fetched by the tall warrior who had explained that she was being taken to the Council chambers where the village Elders wanted to speak with her. The scenario seemed ominous and her initial euphoria gave way to trepidation, uncertain what lay ahead.

"How is my friend?" she asked concerned over Joshuaís welfare. She was aware that it was her desire to help that had landed them in this predicament.

"He is fine," Eponin replied evenly.

"May I see him?" Gabrielle asked.

"That will be up to the Council to decide, but first they wish to ask you some questions," the warrior explained liking this woman despite not wanting to.

"Do you know what kind of questions?"

"No," the warrior was honest though she had a fairly good idea.

"You know, if everyone locked up everybody, who ever helped out, then no one would stop to help any more," the bard said. Now that she was able to talk to someone, she was unable to stop.

"I suppose not," Eponin conceded trying not to smile.

"No wonder you Amazonís have such a bad reputation," Gabrielle continued. "People might not want to beat you up all the time if you were a little nicer."

The warrior said nothing though she realized the girl probably had a point. They were overly suspicious, and self righteous, and sometimes downright ornery. Yeah, probably they could be more friendly towards their neighbours.

Gabrielle shut up only when they entered the large meeting hut where the Council of Elders were gathered. She sat down in a chair facing a long table of aging warriors. There were only a few others in the room.

"Hi, my name is Gabrielle," she smiled pleasantly startling the other women with her friendliness. Lestaís eyes narrowed. If their positions were reversed she was certain she wouldnít have such a sunny disposition.

"Itís nice to meet you Gabrielle," Lesta nodded formally. "I wish it could have been under different circumstances."

"Yes," Gabrielle agreed. "It could have been more pleasant for all of us."

"Yes," Lesta nodded and Gabrielle sensed she was the leader of this Council. "I hear you are a bard."

"I suppose your guards told you that," she replied and the older woman shook her head, looking momentarily confused.

"Actually Eponin our Weaponís Master told us," Lesta said. "I take it you were in the midst of one of your journeys when you came upon the Amazon party."

"Yes, my friend and I were on our way to Corinth when we happened upon the fight," Gabrielle nodded. "You see a friend was expecting us. Joshua didnít want to stop or get involved but I insisted and now Iím certain our friend is gonna be really ticked off."

"Iím sure your friend will understand," the Elder said slightly caught off balance by the girlís aggressive tone. Most people would have been afraid and she glanced at the Weaponís Master who was trying to hide her smile behind a raised hand.

"You donít know this friend," the bard continued. "Anyway, Iím sure you know by now that we are completely harmless."

"Actually we were hoping you could answer some questions for us."

"Sure, though I donít know what I could possibly know that might interest you, unless itís some story," Gabrielle sighed and then quietly waited though her patience was almost at an end.

"How was it that you decided to help the Amazonís?" this was one question that the Elder had been wondering from the beginning. Gabrielle shrugged.

"It looked like your people needed the help," the bard wasnít certain what had prompted her to take the Amazonís side. She had acted on instinct.

"Did you know that the men who were attacking our Sisterís were from the Conquerorís army?" Lesta asked wondering if that had motivated the intervention. She noticed the girl stiffen which made her curious. "Our Weaponís Master believes that your friend Joshua is also from the army."

"Being in the army doesnít make you a bad person," the bard defended the man. "Many men serve not out of loyalty but for the need to fill their bellies and those of their families."

"Are you his family then?"

"No," Gabrielle blushed. "We are just friends travelling together."

"And he is a member of the Conquerorís army?"

Forgive me Joshua, she pleaded but was unable to lie. "Yes."

"They are spies!" Velaska interrupted in a triumphant voice.

"We are not!" Gabrielle responded to the accusation by jumping to her feet to face the other woman, her voice almost shouting. "I was just at home in Potedaia visiting my family and he was escorting me home."

"Who are you to rate a military escort?" the Amazon warrior challenged.

"A friend," the bard replied becoming annoyed with the red haired woman. "I have made mistakes in my life and I am beginning to think that stopping to help was one of them. Now I know why nobody likes you."

Lesta bit her lower lip and tried not to smile aware that the girlís impertinence seemed to have angered the irritating warrior. She privately admired the young womanís courage. Most people would have been intimidated by the situation. Velaska stamped her foot before turning her attention to the Elders.

"I say we have talked enough. We should gather a war party and attack the military camp."

"That wouldnít be very smart," Gabrielle said without thinking. "Xena would have her whole army after you and youíd all be killed. Besides how do you know those men were from the army. I donít care what kind of monster you think she is but Xena wouldnít attack any group without provocation."

"Xena?" Velaska echoed the informal use of the Empressí name. "No one refers to the monster of Cirra as anything but the Conqueror. What are you a friend?"

"Yes," the simple word slipped out before she could close her mouth. Gabrielle realized her mistake immediately.

"They are spies," Velaska shouted and the bard was unceremoniously seized around the arms. "I say we kill them all."

Velaskaís entreaty sent the rest of the Amazonís into a corresponding cheer. Lesta looked with dismay at the uproar. She was in charge but she didnít know if she could control these warriors actions. She wondered if she wanted to. If this girl was a friend of the Conquerorís then there was cause for alarm.

She looked at the bard and saw that for the first time the girl was afraid. Her green eyes were wide and round and hazy with unshed tears. It was obvious that the child regretted stopping to help which posed a problem for the Elder. She could not dismiss the fact that the girl and her escort had come to the aid of the Royal party.

"Kill, kill!" Velaska led the warriorís chant but there was another voice that rose above the others.

"If you kill her, you would be killing our new Queen," Kastra finally broke into the medley. She had slipped into the hut in the hopes of delivering this news to the council privately, but matters had been taken out of her hands. She had to shout to be heard over the noise.

"What did you say?" Eponin shouted. She was standing nearest to the door and had heard clearly what the healer had said but believed she had misunderstood. Her astonished words caused the room to grow quiet as all eyes turned to the healer who was looking calmly at the bard who had turned her eyes away.

"I said," Kastra repeated slowly in a loud voice so there would be no mistake. "You would be killing our new Queen."

 

***********

Xena made it to Potedaia in record time. It was midmorning when they rode into town and she watched without amusement as the villagers hurried out of her way, most of them rushing to hide in their homes. If she had not been so worried about Gabrielle she would have noticed the fear these people exhibited but today her sole concern was the bard. She came to a halt outside the smithy shed turning a steely glance on the tradesman who cowered under her gaze.

"Tell me where the bard Gabrielleís family lives?" she commanded.

"At the end of the village. The house with the flowers around the porch," the man stammered and Xena nodded curtly before clicking her heels and putting the horse in motion.

Like the rest of the village the place they approached appeared deserted. She dismounted and took the steps up to the door, beating her fist against the wood. A man with greying hair answered the summons and for a moment the two eyed each other. There didnít need to be any introductions. Xena could see reflections of her lover in this manís features. She could also see the hate he held for her.

"I want to see Gabrielle," she demanded in a cool voice.

"Sheís not here," Herodatus was not intimidated by this dark and forbidding warrior who was towering above him and the Conqueror almost smiled, realizing where the bard got her arrogance.

"Where is she?" the Conqueror wanted to know glancing passed the man into the house. It was sparsely furnished and an older woman and girl were huddled together at the back of the room.

"We donít know," the man said in a tight voice. "When your messenger arrived she couldnít wait to leave to go back to you. I told her that as long as she wanted to hang around with the likes of you, she wasnít welcome under my roof any more."

Xena felt her anger surge through her body. The man was insolent and normally she would have made him pay, but he was Gabrielleís father and that was the only fact that saved him. She told him as much.

"The only reason I donít pierce you now with my sword is the fact that you are Gabrielleís father and because of her I will let you live," she paused to emphasis the words. "However, if you ever do anything to hurt her I will personally deliver the punishment."

The man visibly flinched under the cold, icy gaze that was directed at him. His whole body felt chilled and for the first time he realized how foolish he had been. He tried not to show his fear but it was clearly revealed in his eyes. She gave him a feral smile and turned to her escort.

"Bring them to the village square," she said walking back to her horse with an easy stride and vaulting onto its back with graceful fluidity. "I want the whole village rounded up."

Herodatus felt a curse coming to his lips as the soldier roughly pulled him out of the house and then signalled for the other members of his family to join them. She was a monster who had spread her evil spell over his daughter. Quietly he made a promise to himself that he would make her pay.

The Conqueror remained seated on her horse in the middle of the town square as the soldiers in her escort rounded up the villagers. She allowed her eyes to idly wander over the cowering group. She could smell their fear.

"They are all here," Zenon reported once all the villagers had been herded into the main square. She said nothing for a moment and then casually clicked her heels directing her horse to circle them as her cold, blue eyes swept the group.

"Itís come to my attention that a rebellion against my Realm was spawned in your village," she spoke in a loud clear voice that was laced with danger as she continued to pace her golden mare up and down in front of the townspeople. "Fortunately the plot was uncovered and the leaders were arrested." She paused to allow her words to sink in as she moved her horse forward. She could feel their eyes on her as she moved.

"Can anyone tell me why I shouldnít punish you all for harbouring these traitors?"

There was silence as no one dared to speak. Lila glanced nervously about, looking at the frightened faces of the other villagers. She knew then that Gabrielle had been right. The Conqueror would punish them all. She swallowed and then stepped forward.

"No," Hercuba pleaded grabbing at her younger daughters arm but the girl shrugged off the hand.

"No, mother, I have to do this," Lila whispered pleading for her parent to understand. She turned and stepped out of the group. When she looked up she saw the Empress was staring at her. A chill went up her spine as the icy blue eyes pierced to the very depths of her soul. She could not understand how her sister could be friends with such a cold person for she was frightened to the very core of her being..

"Who are you?" the Conqueror asked in a cool voice as she directed her horse over to where the girl stood. She could see the childís limbs were shaking.

"My name is Lila," the girl answered, her voice barely louder then a whisper.

"You have a reason why I should spare this village?" Xena asked bringing her horse to a halt and leaning against the saddle she looked down at the girl.

"Yes," Lila swallowed again and summoned her courage. She took a deep breath and continued in a rush afraid she might faint from the tension she felt. "It was Gabrielle who went to General Rufus and told him of the plot."

"She betrayed them?" Xena straightened in her saddle, her back stiffening.

"Only to save the rest of the villagers," the girl answered. "She said that if she didnít you would come and destroy us. She didnít want that to happen."

The Conqueror was silent. It made sense. Gabrielle would do something like that. In the short time they had been together the girl had proven that her loyalty lay not to the individual but to humanity as a whole. She glanced with narrowed eyes over the tense and silent group before settling back on the girl.

"How do you know these things?" Xena asked.

"I am her sister," Lila replied, her limbs were still shaking but some of the fear had receded. The Conqueror nodded and turned her attention to the hushed group of peasants.

"Gabrielle was right, I would have had my men destroy you and your village," the Empress announced in a loud and clear voice. "Her actions saved you all. I hope you repay her for her kindness." She paused. "Now I wish to find the bard so that I may thank her in person, does anyone know her whereabouts?"

There was silence for a moment and then a young man stepped forward and bowing his head he addressed the Conqueror. Xena looked down at the boy.

"Gabrielle and her friend left nine days ago. They took the road that lead to Amphipolis."

"Why would they go there?" The Conquerorís eyes narrowed, aware that it was not a direct path to the Capital..

"She has friends in the village," was the reply.

Xenaís nostrils flared as a surge of emotion swelled in her heart. "What is your name?"

"Perdicus," the boy answered.

"I appreciate your help Perdicus," she withdrew a pouch of coins and tossed it at him. She turned to look over the rest of the villagers who were still huddled together. She could see the confused expressions on their faces. "You have served me well today and I will not forget that. From this day forward your village will be under my protection and it will remain that way as long as my friend Gabrielle is treated with respect and you harbour no more traitors who conspire against the Empire."

There was silence and then without another word the Empress wheeled her horse around and dug her heels into its flanks. The horse took off and soon all the villagers saw was a cloud of dust, that covered the Conquerorís hasty departure. Xena rode hard in a desperate attempt to cover as much ground as quickly as she could. There was only one overriding concern in her mind and that was to find the bard.

 

 

chapter 8

 

The healerís calm announcement setting off another round of vocal protests which caused the pounding in Gabrielleís head to grow. It took Lesta a long time to finally get the room back under control. She summoned the healer forward.

"Is this true?" the Elder asked.

"Yes," Kastra confirmed. "Ephiny woke less then a candlemark ago and informed us that Queen Melosa, on her death bed, gave this young woman her Right of Caste. It appears the Queen assumed everyone else was dead."

All eyes turned to the young woman at the front. The girl blushed and looked down. Lesta was deeply troubled by the news.

"Did you accept the Right of Caste from our Queen?"

"Yes," Gabrielle sighed looking up. She was embarrassed and desperately tried to explain. "I didnít understand what she was doing but she was dying and I didnít think it would hurt anyone. It seemed to make her happy."

"Why did you not mention something to us?" the Elder wanted to know and the bard shrugged.

"I didnít think it was important."

Not important, the Elder shuddered to herself but she managed to maintain her composure. She glanced at the rest of the Council before quieting the room once again. This new revelation did indeed pose a major problem. They would have to speak with Ephiny and then consult the Amazon laws before making any kind of decision.

"We must review the matter," the Elder said in a weary voice once the room had settled down.

"Listen if this causes a problem we can make a deal. Iíll give this Right of Caste thing back and in return you let my friend and me go. That way there wonít be any more trouble," Gabrielle said hopefully and received a gentle smile in return.

"Iím sorry my dear but it doesnít work that way," Lesta liked this young woman for many different reasons. "Until we sort this out you will have to remain our guest."

"Guest, prisoner, it wonít really matter," Gabrielle exploded, finally losing patience. She looked intently at the Elder. "If Xena finds that you are holding me she will come in here and get me."

"Then we will kill her," Velaska snorted in defiance. "That will show the whole world what the Amazonís think of the Conqueror and her bitches."

Using a tactic that she had seen Xena employ, Gabrielle calmly turned and marched right up to the to the Amazon warrior. Her composure was filled with a confidence she didnít feel. She was bluffing, hoping that Xena cared enough about her.

"You will not defeat her and if you harm me, she will certainly kill you all," her voice was quiet and deadly. "She will bring her entire army in here and hunt you down until everyone is destroyed. Right now I am the only one who can save you from annihilation."

A sombre silence greeted her words as all the Amazonís in the room quietly acknowledged the truth. They were aware of what happened to their Sisters in the North. Xena had killed their fearless leader Cyane and destroyed the entire tribe. They knew she could do the same to them.

"No harm will come to you while you are in our village," Lesta promised the girl and then motioned for Eponin to take her away. "Put her in one of the unoccupied huts and post a guard so that she is not disturbed."

The Weaponís Master nodded and then gently took Gabrielleís arm and guided her out of the room. The bard rubbed her temples in an attempt to dispel the throbbing ache that had developed. The Amazon glanced down at the smaller woman feeling a moment of compassion at her plight.

"Would you like to have a bath?"

"Could I?" Gabrielle responded instantly thinking that a wash might help her disposition.

"Yes," the older woman nodded feeling pleased that she had done something to cheer this young woman.

Gabrielle didnít know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised when she led to a large hut with several huge bathing tubs. She watched as two muscular girls filled one of the tubs with water that had been heated in buckets over a fire in the corner of the hut. Once the tub was filled the girls hurried out of the room.

"Take your time," Eponin said. "I will ensure that you are not disturbed." There was a pause as the warrior glanced thoughtfully over her companion. "I suspect you might want to change out of those clothes. Unfortunately all we have to lend you is one of our own costumes."

"Iím sure it will be fine. Thank you," Gabrielle appreciated the gesture and the privacy and as soon as she was alone, she stripped off her clothes and jumped into the warm water. She sighed and lay back, intent on enjoying the luxury of a bath. Something which she hadnít had in a very long time.

 

Xena felt more uncomfortable the closer she got to Amphipolis. She had not been back to the village since Lyceusí death, after her victory over Cortese. From that day she had moved forward wanting to leave the past and itís pain behind. She felt her muscles tense aware that she would not find any friends in her home town.

As always she rode at the head of the procession into the village. It was the only way she ever travelled and today would be no different. She sat straight in her saddle unwilling to allow any one to see anything but the proud warrior and Empress that she had become. They slowed to a trot heading through the town into the main square.

People paused to stare at the unexpected sight not bothering to hide the animosity they felt. It was clearly displayed in the expressions on their faces. She could feel their hatred but it only stiffened her resolve. She did not care what these people thought. She had stopped caring a long time ago.

They rode without stoping until they reached the tavern, a place that once was so familiar. She paused to stare at it for a moment before slipping off her horse, glancing around before slowly mounting the steps.

It was the midday meal and the tavern as usual was busy and filled with commotion. Cyrene listened smugly to the noise as she worked in the kitchen preparing a meal for another guest. Business was good in spite of everything and she was happy, though she found herself thinking to often of the bard and her last visit to the Inn.

She paused and listened. Suddenly it was quiet. Too quiet. The usual noise from the tavern having faded into silence. Wiping her hands on her apron she went to investigate, uncertain of what she would find.

She stepped through in the main room and stopped short, her eyes glued to the tall raven haired figure standing in the doorway of the tavern. She was rendered speechless as she took in a sight that had once been so very familiar and now seemed so foreign. A sight she had never expected to see again.

Xena was older and larger, though her mother guessed it was the dark armour that made her look so formidable. Briefly their eyes met and she saw something that she had not expected. She thought back to what Gabrielle the bard had said.

"Leave us," the Conqueror commanded and instantly there was a rush for the door. Half eaten plates were left on the table and Cyrene watched with dismay and trepidation as the room cleared. She felt a surge of anger at her daughter.

"This is my home, you have no say here," the older woman said tightly. The Conqueror bowed her head slightly ceding to the older womanís authority but it didnít matter the room was already empty.

Xena was silent, her eyes narrowing as they studied the woman who was her mother. Cyrene looked so much as she remembered, though now her hair was grey and there were wrinkles on her face that spoke of worry and fear. The Conqueror felt a tug on her heart as she glanced around the room.

She knew how much work it took to keep and maintain the Inn. She knew how hard her mother worked and was tempted to offer the woman sanctuary away from this dismal life yet she knew in the same thought that her mother would not accept the offer. Cyrene wanted nothing from her.

"What do you want?" the older woman finally found her voice. It sounded more feeble then she had wanted so she squared her shoulders defiantly. She could not imagine what her daughter was doing here after all this time.

"I am looking for a friend," Xena said in a quiet voice. "A bard named Gabrielle. I was told that she was headed in this direction."

"She was here," Cyrene replied, masking her surprise while realizing for the first time the extent of the bardís association with her daughter. It was a startling revelation and for a brief instant she wondered if everything else the girl had said was true. "She stayed only briefly and then left again. It was perhaps seven days ago."

Xena felt her heart tremble. "Sheís spoken often of you. She told me she had a fondness for your nutbread."

"She is a good girl," the older woman said and then added. "At least she was."

Xena sucked in her breath aware the barb was directed right at her. Her posture automatically stiffened. It was amazing but even after all these years the woman was able to hurt her deeply by merely saying a few words.

"Gabrielle is still a good girl," Xena replied in a cool voice. "That is why she gets into trouble the way she does. She allows her heart to lead her actions."

"Thatís not very wise," Cyrene said quietly.

"On the contrary I think she is wiser then all of us," Xena replied and before either could say another word the door banged open and Toris rushed into the room. He ran up to his mother, his blue eyes studying her intently to make certain that she was okay.

"Sheís fine I havenít done anything to her," the Conqueror commented dryly and her older brother turned and looked at her. "Youíre looking well, what have you been doing, forming another rebel band with which to attack me?"

The man stiffened. "What do you want?"

"I only want Gabrielle," she replied softly.

"Well, sheís not here and as long as sheís with you she isnít welcome."

"Come, come brother, that sounds a little harsh for someone like you," she sniffed. "Perhaps though you are more like me then you want to admit."

"I am nothing like you," he spat angrily at the accusation but the Conqueror only smiled benignly.

"We are all the same, the only difference is that we have taken different paths," she said and then turned her eyes once more to her mother. She nodded her head and then turned on her heel and headed out the door. She vaulted onto her waiting horse and was about to turn away when a soft voice called out to her.

"They took the road that borders the Amazon territory," Cyrene said uncertain why she had run after her daughter to give her that information. Perhaps it was because like every mother she refused to give up hope on her child.

Xena merely nodded her head, unwilling to attempt to speak. She had felt again the tug on her heart and the unexpected pain that seeing her family again brought. She had not let herself think about it and now that the opportunity had come and gone it was nothing like she had ever expected.

There was silence and then without another word the Empress wheeled her horse around and dug her heels into its flanks. The horse took off and soon all the villagers saw was a cloud of dust, that covered the Conquerorís hasty departure. Xena rode hard in a desperate attempt to cover as much ground as quickly as she could. There was only one overriding concern in her mind and that was to find the bard.

"Amazonís," she snarled to herself instinctively knowing they played some part in this situation.

***********

"Yes, Xena, Amazonís," Ares chuckled in delight and then looked down at the mortal who was doing him a favour. He didnít particularly like this one, she was predictable and much less skilled then his Chosen, but in her heart she was a warrior who carried his blood lust. He would use her to foil Artemis and Aphroditeís plans and then his Chosen would be free of the influence of that annoying blond.

**************

Lesta glanced at her Sisters. They had a decision to make and their discussion with Ephiny hadnít cleared up the situation. If anything it had become more cloudy. To add a further complication their scouts had reported that the Conqueror was in the Region and headed in their general direction. It seemed that the bard hadnít been lying.

Gabrielle wasnít surprised when she was summoned to appear once again before the Amazon council. She had spent a long time in the bath and it had done wonders for her throbbing head. She had then washed her clothes and set them out, donning the costume that had been left in the hut for her.

She had lifted the skimpy outfit up and considered it for a long moment before deciding to wait until her own clothes were dry before dressing. She was alone and there was no need for her to wear anything other then the long linen that she had wrapped herself in after the bath. But a knock had come on the door and she had been told that the Elders requested her presence. To her dismay her clothes were still not dry and so she was forced to slip on the leather and feather costume that was there.

She nervously pulled on the hems of the small outfit, conscious of how much skin it exposed. She saw the glances she received from the other Amazonís as she followed Eponin across the yard to the hut where the Elders were meeting. Some of the looks expressed a blatant interest that made her feel uncomfortable.

"Our scouts have reported that the Conqueror is headed in our direction, so it seems that we have come to a stalemate," Lesta announced, admitting defeat, and Gabrielle had to forcibly stop herself from smiling. She was suddenly incredibly happy that Xena was coming after her.

"How can I help you?" she asked aware that was why they had summoned her to their presence.

"We are at an impasse. You say that if we donít let you go the Conqueror will come in here and destroy us, but yet we wonder what would prevent her from doing that if we let you go?"

"I would," Gabrielle said with conviction but the Elders doubted this girl had such sway over the Empress. "I would ask her to leave you alone. I would tell her that I was your guest and nothing more."

"This is ridiculous," Velaska snorted in protest, appealing to the logic of the Elders good sense. "We are all witness to the treachery and coldness of the Conqueror. Do you really think she would hold off her army from attacking us just because a bard asked her too?"

Lesta had to admit the truth in what the warrior was saying but something else was telling her to believe this young girl, who had only always told the truth. Gabrielle could see that they were unconvinced.

"The Conqueror was expecting me in Corinth," Gabrielle said keeping all emotion out of her voice, yet growing more confident with each word. "She is probably searching for me now. Do you want to anger her more then she already will be?" She paused for emphasis. "I donít think either of us want to see anybody get hurt."

"Then what do you suggest?"

"A compromise," the bard said, hoping that she wasnít being to overconfident. "I suggest a treaty."

"A treaty?" Velaska exploded incredulous. "The Conqueror respects no treaty."

"Yes, she does," Gabrielle refuted the claim staring pointedly at the Amazon warrior, before turning back to the Elders. "Besides she will respect this one if she knows that I will be representing the Amazon Nation."

"Impossible!" Velaska shouted outraged by the idea and once again she earned a wrathful glance from the bard. "Making her a representative of our Nation would make a mockery of all that we stand for."

"We may not agree with what has happened, but the truth of the matter is that we have no choice. Queen Melosa passed her Right of Caste on to Gabrielle and we must accept her decision," Lesta sighed. "I guess my next question would be, how do we go about proposing a treaty to the Conqueror?"

"Since letting me go seems to be out of the question, then I suggest you send my friend with a message to the Empress."

Lesta considered the request and judged it to be reasonable. They were in an impossible position. Their very existence could depend on what decision she now made. She glanced around the room at all the expectant faces waiting to know the outcome.

"All right," she nodded ceding to the request and ignoring the groans of discontent from those who were upset by the whole situation. "We will compose an appropriate message that will be delivered to the Conqueror by your friend. Eponin please collect our prisoner from his cell."

The Weaponís Master nodded and hastily ducked out of the hut. Gabrielle waited expectantly and a few minutes later the Amazon returned. She looked at the soldier as he entered the hut and though he seemed weary and ragged he was otherwise okay.

"Sorry, Joshua," she apologized grimly. "I should have listened to you. Next time Iíll know better."

"Itís all right," he could not be angry at someone who was so genuinely remorseful.

"You must speak to the Empress personally," Gabrielle said and then relayed the message that had been composed in his absence. Joshua frowned uncertain that the Conqueror would honour the girlís request. He didnít think the bard had such sway over the Empress yet he understood the gravity of the situation.

"Iíll deliver the message," he nodded and turned to leave but her voice stopped him.

"Joshua," Gabrielle called and then waited until he was looking at her once more. "Tell Xena that whatever she decides Iíll understand. I know that the whole is greater then its individual parts and... Iíll love her always, no matter what happens."

"Iíll tell her," Joshua promised, moved by her speech. Moments later he was gone, escorted from the village by a party of Amazon warriorís who were to accompany him to the border, leaving Gabrielle alone and feeling very scared.

 

It was late in the afternoon when Xena reached the border of Amazonia. She ordered her men to set up camp and then dispatched a messenger to General Rufus whom she had left at the army garrison near Amphipolis. She sensed the bard was in the territory and she was prepared to go in with a full army to get her out.

It was dusk when one of the soldiers guarding the perimeter of the camp signalled that someone was approaching. The Empress watched without expression as Joshua stumbled out of the trees. She strolled casually out to meet him, aware of hidden eyes watching her from the forest.

"My Empress, forgive me for failing my mission," Joshua fell to his knees in front of his Commander, accepting that he would probably be punished for his failure.

"Is Gabrielle okay?" Xena dismissed his apology concerned only for the small woman.

"Yes, she is being treated fairly," the man nodded but his expression did not give her any comfort. She felt a mixture of fear and relief.

"Tell me what you have to say."

Without interruption Joshua related the events that preceded this meeting and then passed along the message that the young bard had given him. The Conqueror wore the stoic mask that was almost a permanent part of her features.

Xena stood very still, uncertain how to handle the situation. In the past she would have marched her army in and destroyed the Amazonís, however, now she had Gabrielle to think about. She didnít want any harm to come to the girl. She clasped her hand on the manís shoulder and motioned him to rise. Her next words ensured the soldiersí loyalty forever.

"You did not fail. I thank you for staying by her side and being her friend. Now go get some food and some rest. When I am ready I shall need you to return to the Amazonís with my reply."

"Yes, your Majesty," the soldier bowed his head and then walked over to the centre of the camp were a fire was burning. Xena remained rooted to the spot, her pale blue eyes staring at the distant tree line, aware that someone was staring back.

She thought about what the bard had said, but Xena wondered if the young woman would really understand if she sent her army in to take over the Amazonís. If Gabrielle somehow survived, she didnít think the bard would still want to be apart of her life and suddenly it was very important that she not lose the girl. That meant there was only one decision she could make.

It was dawn when a lone soldier made his way back into Amazon territory. Eponin watched trying to ignore the awful feeling twisting inside her gut. It had been two days since they had sent the message requesting a meeting. Two tense days of waiting and watching as General Rufus and elements of his army arrived in the area.

Several times she had been tempted to send word back to the village of what was going on but she believed in the young woman and had done nothing. Now, she strongly suspected that the soldier was returning with an ultimatum.

"I need to speak with Gabrielle and your leaders," Joshua said in greeting and the Weaponís Master nodded in understanding.

She left a good portion of her warriors at the border, standing on alert for an attack and personally escorted the soldier back to the village. Gabrielle was fetched while the Amazonís quickly assembled in the Council hut.

"The Empress agrees to meet with you," he said and then glanced at the bard. "She insists that Gabrielle be present at the meeting."

"Tell the Conqueror we will meet tomorrow at midday in the clearing at the edge of the border," Lesta spoke for the whole Council. "Tell her that if she makes any attempt to snatch her friend and harm us, we will kill her woman."

"Yes," the soldier nodded and was immediately escorted back out.

"What are you going to say to the Conqueror?" Velaska asked challenging the Elder. There was silence as Lesta debated her answer.

"If I may, I think I would suggest that the Amazonís would be willing to swear allegiance to the Empress and in return for that have her swear to leave the Amazonís in peace," Gabrielle broke the silence. All eyes focused on her for a moment and she was glad she was back in her own clothes again.

The Council was quiet as they debated the matter. None of them were certain a treaty like that would ever be ratified by either side, though in principle it was appealing to the older Amazonís who had seen enough war to last the rest of their lifetimes.

"I doubt the Conqueror would go for such a treaty," Lesta admitted her reservations, voicing an overriding opinion. "She has long considered the Amazonís a thorn in her side. For many of us it will be too hard to forget or forgive what she did to our Sisters in the North."

"Then you must find something that will make the idea appealing," Gabrielle said soberly. "As for the past, perhaps she feels remorse. After all she has left you alone when she was conquered so many others."

"Iím not certain the Conqueror will accept any treaty we propose regardless of the circumstances," Lesta sighed admitting the truth. "As you say she has the resources to come in here and destroy us whenever she wants."

"Then protect yourself," the bard made a bold decision. "Make me your Queen and then if Xena destroys the Amazon Nation she will also destroy me."

"Are you so certain that will make a difference?" the older woman asked bluntly, marvelling at the young woman who was so confident in her hold over the Empress.

"No," Gabrielle was honest briefly revealing her fears. "But itís the only hope you have."

There was a loud roar among the assembled as the Elders quietly conferred amongst themselves. Finally Lesta held out her arms, and quietening everyone down, before turning to the bard. They were taking a huge risk in putting their faith in this girl but they were slowly learning that they could trust her. Besides they had no other choice.

"As this was what Melosa wanted we will anoint you Queen of the Amazonís."

"Then I challenge the mask," Velaska stepped forward making her intentions known. Though the bard was unfamiliar with Amazon law or tradition she instinctively knew that a challenge wasnít a good thing. She looked at the red haired warrior and then at the Council for explanation.

"Velaska is challenging your claim to be Queen. It is every Amazonís right to issue a challenge and it involves a fight in which either the Queen retains her mask or a new Queen is crowned," Lesta explained.

"Then I accept the challenge," Gabrielle squared her shoulders and faced the Amazon warrior. "However I suggest we put it off until this matter with the Conqueror is settled. If you kill me now nothing will stop her from destroying you."

"And what about after?" the older Amazon was suddenly worried about this new complication.

"I will ensure that the treaty is honoured."

"All right," Lesta nodded and looked at Velaska. "Is that agreeable with you?"

"It makes no matter to me when I kill her," the Amazon said with a malicious smile and a shiver raced down the bardís spine.

Gabrielle hoped that the situation would work itself out and that she would not have to face this arrogant Amazon in battle. She was not skilled and would no doubt lose any contest between them. She desperately hoped that Xena would have some other solution.

"I canít see why anyone would want to be Queen if they have to deal with this all the time," Gabrielle muttered later as Eponin escorted her back to her hut.

"Itís not always like this," the Amazon warrior defended her sisters.

Gabrielle gave her a cynical look, rolling her eyes and snorting. "Yah, right, Amazonís."

 

Xena waited in the camp until the Amazonís appeared at the edge of the forest before mounting her own horse and riding out to meet them. She had selected a small contingent of soldiers to accompany her including General Rufus and his Lieutenant Argus. She had chosen Joshua and Zenon to ride at her side.

Her eyes scanned the tree line as the warrior inside herself began to rise. You are being a fool, she chided herself. She knew that there were probably a hundred Amazon arrows pointed at her heart this very instant. But she felt no fear, only a cold calculation of the strategy her opponents would use against any attack she launched.

She reached the midpoint of the plain and reigned in the horse and waited. It was while she was mentally reviewing the various tactical options of her army that she noticed the mounted party of five Amazonís begin to move towards them. Her eyes narrowed as she searched for Gabrielleís familiar face and then with relief found it amongst the group. Her eyes became pale slits when she noticed the bard dressed in an Amazon costume.

For a moment all her doubts about the girl surfaced and threatened to consume her rational mind. Even though she knew Rufus to be a liar there were still seeds of distrust festering in her heart. She had been betrayed before and it was hard not to forget that.

General Rufus watched the Conqueror closely. He could not be more delighted by how things were turning in his favour. This little matter was allowing the Conqueror to play right into his hands. He glanced at Argus and then over his shoulder to the army that stood ready and waiting. With one signal they would attack. He would wait until the moment was right.

The Amazonís came to a halt a short distance away and on instinct Xena kneed her horse to cross the rest of the space until she came alongside the bards mount. Her eyes were intently focused on the girl as if searching for any clue that she had been abused or mistreated. Gabrielle flushed under the intense scrutiny. She felt almost naked in the Amazon costume that she had donned for this occasion.

"Whatís with the outfit?" the Conqueror spoke first and the bard flush deepened.

"Iíve sort of been made the Amazon Queen," the smaller woman admitted with embarrassment.

"Oh?" Xenaís eyebrows raised questioningly. "Do you want to tell me how that happened?"

"Itís a long story," the girl admitted shyly.

"Iíve got time," the Conqueror drawled not caring what the others thought.

Gabrielle immediately launched into the tale. It was generally the same story as Joshua had told but with more of the flowery details that came naturally to the bard. She noticed the way Xena was keenly observing her companions and their surroundings. She could feel the Conquerorís tension radiate outwards. Finally she fell silent, having ended her story.

"So what do the Amazonís want?" the Empress asked in a bored tone, looking past the bard to her companions.

"We want to propose a peace treaty," Gabrielle took a deep breath before speaking. It had taken her along time to convince them that she had to be their spokesman if the plan was to work. The Empressí eyes narrowed and her mind started to calculate what was happening. "The Amazonís will swear allegiance to you in exchange for the promise that their territory not be invaded by your armies."

"You canít be serious?" the Conqueror asked in an amused tone though there was no humour on her face. Gabrielle flinched at the coldness she saw. "Why should I sign a treaty when my army could march in here and destroy this whole nation if I so desired?"

"Because you would destroy them as a nation but not as a people," Gabrielle responded quietly. "They would forever be your enemy."

"They are already my enemy," Xena replied coldly.

"Who are now willing to forget about the past and become your friend," the bard persisted. There was silence as the Conqueror studied the smaller woman.

"Are you turning against me?"

"I would never betray you," Gabrielle replied quickly feeling a shiver race up her spine at the coldness in the womanís voice. "More then anything I want to be at your side, however, the Gods have conspired to put me in an impossible situation. I didnít ask for the Right of Caste but unwittingly I accepted it and now I feel duty bound just as you do.

"I want there to be peace between us," she paused her voice trembling and pleading for the other woman to understand. "My life changed when you rescued me and now its changed again. The one thing that hasnít changed is the way I feel about you. What I said before still goes."

Xena was silent, her heart pounding so loudly she thought it would explode. She gave away none of those feelings but only idly glanced about at the tense faces that were watching her. The Conqueror knew she could not appear weak.

"I still see no purpose in a treaty," she said her mind already working on a solution. "It has no incentive for me."

"Would you reconsider if the Amazonís agreed to provide protection for your Eastern borders. The tribes from Chin are always encroaching on your Realm," Gabrielle offered, remembering what she had learned from Archius while studying with him at the Palace. "The Amazonís would provide a sufficient number of warriors to help protect the border."

The Empress took a long time considering the offer. She was hard pressed not to smile, aware that Gabrielle was helping her out of a difficult situation. She would not have been able to agree to a mere pledge of allegiance. For a brief instant she allowed a seductive smile to play at the corners of her lips. It was a smile reserved only for the bard.

"That sounds like a good start," she glanced at the other Amazonís who nodded their approval. Gabrielle smiled.

"It seems then we have a treaty."

"No," Velaska shouted. She had been holding her tongue too long. She could no longer stomach the situation. Immediately the Conqueror was on her guard. "What about the murders of Princess Alandra and Queen Melosa? We cannot allow their deaths to remain unavenged."

"What is this that you accuse me of? I only just returned from the North. I gave no order to attack," the Conqueror was seething with barely controlled anger.

"Are you saying that your own troops would lie?" Velaska accused and motioned for her comrades to bring forward the soldier they had captured. "He confessed to being ordered to attack and kill our Queen."

The Conqueror kept a tight reign on her emotions. She glanced at Gabrielle, seeing the tears and feeling her pain. She knew only Rufus would be so bold as to order an attack of the Amazonís without her consent.

"Rufus!" she growled without turning to look at the man and then watched as the bardís eyes grew round with horror.

Instinctively she ducked but the edge of his blade caught her bicep and opened a wound as she slipped from her saddle. The General wheeled his horse around and charged back towards the lines of troops. Xena recovered her balance quickly and in one motion vaulted onto the back of her mare.

"You insolent bastard," she sneered and let out her battle cry, wheeling her horse around and charging after the General who had signalled the troops to advance. Before she had a chance to catch the traitor he was swallowed up by the advancing army.

"No!" she screamed bringing her sword down upon the charging men in an attempt to halt the advance.

"For the Queen," Velaska roared and held her sword high before charging into the fray.

"Damn," Gabrielle swore as yelling Amazonís poured out of the forest. Before anyone could stop them they engaged the enemy and a full scale battle ensued.

"No! We must stop them," the bard cried afraid that everything was ruined. Without thought she jumped down from her horse and entered the fray in a desperate attempt to separate the combatants.

It took a short while but the Conquerorís army finally began to realize they had been dubbed. General Rufus began to panic as men began to stop fighting and withdraw, aware that the Conqueror was fighting with the other side. He glanced around and noticed the bard. She was in the middle of the battle and he allowed a feral smile to cross his lips. If he could not defeat the Conqueror he would destroy what she held to be more important that anything else.

He roared and headed in a straight path together the blonde woman, swinging his sword wildly. Gabrielle was aware almost to late that the attack on her was personal. She managed to lift her staff enough to deflect the mortal wound but it wasnít enough to prevent the blade from slicing into her shoulder.

She staggered under the pain but managed to right herself in time to deflect a second blow summoning all her strength to push him off the horse. Rufus hit the ground with a curse and rolled to his feet, his sword still in hand.

"You will die," he snarled and lunged at her. Gabrielle tried to fight him off but she was weakened from the loss of blood that was pouring out of the wound in her shoulder. He swung his blade and knocked the staff from her hands before returning the swing, the tip of the blade slicing through the bare skin of her belly.

Gabrielle clutched at her stomach and staggered backwards, to shocked to register the pain. She looked up at the General in front of her with wide eyes not understanding the hate she saw in the depths of his soul. She stumbled to her knees and looking up she saw him smile as he raised his sword for the final blow.

Xena glanced over the field in time to see General Rufus attack the bard. The rage in her soul boiled over and she charged through the battle, swinging her sword in a deadly arch to clear a path before her. She reached the girlís side just in time to thrust her sword in front of the Generalís and stop the fatal blow. With all her strength she pushed him back.

"You are a coward, like all the rest, desiring to steal what you, yourself cannot earn," the Conqueror snarled, waving her sword in a deadly dance before his eyes.

"You have gone soft over a bitch who gives her loyalty to whomever is kind," he sneered with contempt and the cold gaze in the blue eyes became ice chips.

"For that you will die," she screamed and lunged.

The General was no match for the enraged Conqueror as she parried and thrust. Gabrielle sat on the ground watching the fight unaware that the battle around them was ceasing as all warriors paused to watch the outcome of this titanic struggle. She felt a sticky wetness run through her fingers and she glanced down to see that her hands were covered in blood.

Xena did not toy with her opponent. She knew his weakness and waited patiently for it to show itself and it did very quickly. He overextended a swing leaving an opening which she utilised, driving her sword forward into his side and then jumping back before he could retaliate. Rufus glanced down almost in shock at the blood that began to pour from his body. He looked up at the Conqueror with almost childlike wonderment.

"Did you really think you could defeat me?" she asked in a cold voice before lunging forward and driving the sword deep into his stomach. She withdrew the blade as he slumped to his knees and swung the sword, severing his head from his body with one powerful stroke. She stood for only an instant over his body before turning and falling to her knees beside the bard.

"You will be all right," she gently lifted the girl into her arms, cradling her tightly as she carried her away from the fighting before laying her back on the ground.

"It looks like you rescued me again. Thank you," Gabrielle said with a laboured breath.

"I should have done a better job," Xena said through clenched teeth as she carefully lifted the bardís fingers away from the wound so she could examine it. "Does it hurt?"

"Like Hades," the bard tried to smile. She could see her friendís worried expression. "Am I going to die?"

"Not if I can help it," the Conqueror said in a terse voice. She reached out and stroked the young girlís face. "Hang on."

"I love you," Gabrielle whispered needing to tell this woman the depth of her feelings.

"I know," the Empress said softly and squeezed her hand in reassure. "Donít worry I will be back."

"Xena," the bard whispered as the tall warrior made to move away.

"What my bard?" Xena could feel her heart breaking at the sight of her love in such agony. She watched as the girl fumbled with a small pouch that was strung around her neck.

"I bought this for you," she held out the tiny bag and the Conqueror stared at the gift for a long moment before taking hold of it. Her nostrils flared. Without another word the Empress turned and hurried away.

Argus ordered the army to retreat. He had seen the Conqueror defeat Rufus and thought now of only to save his own skin. The Amazon warriors did not follow, happy to have escaped the confrontation without to many losses. They watched the Conqueror rise from her position beside the wounded Queen, aware of the tense expression on her face.

"Gabrielle has been injured, she needs a healer," the Empress snarled at the Amazonís and Kastra immediately rushed to aid her fallen sister.

Xena turned to face Argus aware that she had to finish what had been started this day. The Lieutenant met her gaze, seeing blue eyes that were almost pale. A chill raced up his spine. Rufus had made them believe that the bard had made the Conqueror softer but she had actually made her stronger. He had seen the easy way she had dispatched the General and he was not prepared to die this day.

She watched as the soldier cast down his sword and knelt in front of her. She knew he was capitulating to her mastery yet she despised him for it. Any leader who was willing to lead his men to death but was unwilling to face the same debt, was no leader in her eyes. She would have liked to kill him but she saw a greater purpose in keeping him alive.

"I am turning you over to the Amazonís to be tried for the murders of their Queen and Princess," she announced stunning everyone who was listening. The Conqueror turned to the Amazonís and nodding Eponin motioned her warriors to take him prisoner. She turned and looked over to where the bard was carefully being lifted onto a litter. The lust of battle was still pounding in her veins.

"We will ensure that she recovers," Lesta said quietly drawing the Empressí attention. Xena turned to look at the older woman.

"As it will take your scribes a few days to compose a treaty, I suggest we meet again three days hence in the Amazon village at midday," the Empress said in a curt voice. "Is that acceptable?"

"Yes," Lesta nodded speaking for the Nation. She knew after witnessing the Conquerorís power in battle, that they were at her mercy. The bard had been right, the Empress would have annihilated them as she had done their sisters in the North.

The Conqueror nodded and with a glance in Gabrielleís direction turned and strolled away, stepping over the dead bodies that littered the field. Kastra saw the forlorn expression on the bardís face as she watched the Conqueror walk away. She could see the tears in her eyes.

"Xena," Gabrielle whispered hoarsely reaching out toward the woman.

"No, dear," the healer gently patted the girlís arm, understanding better then anyone the need for this separation. "She has left you in our care. She is still tense from battle and now wants only the best care for you."

Gabrielle didnít understand. She turned her eyes towards the receding back of the Conqueror overwhelmed by the feeling that she would never see the woman again. She wanted to be with the Empress but the woman had walked away without a backwards glance.

Tears clouded her green eyes as the pain of her wounds was overshadowed by the pain in her heart. She struggled to remain alert even as sleep threatened to over take her senses, afraid that she might never awaken.

"I love you," she whispered one last time before her whole world went black.

THE END

Watch for the sequel: Surrender (name title changed from the Challengers)

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