IF...THIS HAD BEEN THE BEGINNING

by Planet-solin

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and assorted cast belong to Universal and Renpic. However some characters are my own. No money has or will be made on the following piece of fiction.

VIOLENCE/SEX: Some of both. If offended by two women falling in love...stop now...otherwise enjoy this piece of fiction based on the premise that our hero became the Conqueror. Opinions welcome.

OTHER: I am a recent fan of the show and this piece was the result of a boring day at work. However once I started and being a frustrated bard myself sequels followed. Hope you like this story and would appreciate feedback. Sequels Coming Home and the Challengers..


Prologue

Aphrodite opened her eyes and moaned. She was still hung over from the previous evenings entertainment and the persistent noise that was coming from the next room wasnít doing her headache any good. She sighed and swung her long shapely legs over the edge of the bed and rose, knowing that the only way to stop the annoying disturbance was to go and find the source of the problem.

"For Gods sakes Artemis whatís wrong?" the Goddess of Love asked, leaning against the doorway that led to her sisters quarters on Mt. Olympus. She glanced casually around the rubble strewn room. She knew that for her sister to cause such destruction, something must be seriously wrong..

"Ares, that Son of Bacchae has done it again," the Goddess of the Hunt cursed their brother. Aphrodite pursed her lips tightly together realizing that the God of War must have trifled with Artemis most flavoured, the Amazons.

"What has he done?" she asked with a sigh before carefully picking her way through the debris to slide into a cushioned bench.

"That insipid loser allowed one of his Chosen to lead an army into Amazonia. Several dozen good warriors were lost before I was able to intervene."

Aphrodite sat quietly listening to her sisters tirade. Ares was getting out of hand, allowing his Chosen to run rampant across the lands and disregarding the Chosenís of the other Godís. She could understand Artemisí anger. The God of War had interfered with more than one of her unions. She tapped a slender finger to her lips thoughtfully. Perhaps it was time for a little payback.

"Do you want to get back at him?" she asked softly and the Goddess of the Hunt paused and cast a narrowed glance at her sister.

"What do you have in mind?"

"I thought we might teach Ares a lessen," the Goddess of Love smiled seductively. "Heís becoming a little to arrogant lately. Perhaps we should treat him to some of his own medicine."

Artemis stared at her sister for a moment longer and a matching smile spread across her lips. "What do you have in mind?"

"Nothing much really," Aphrodite smiled, a gleam in her eyes. "He plays with our toys, now letís play with his toys."

 

 

 

 

chapter 1

 

The Conqueror glanced idly out the window, bored by the monotone voice of the tax collector as he recited the list of monthly contributions to the Realms treasury. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and the sky was a bright, and clear blue. It was a perfect day to be out on a horse travelling one of the dusty roads that bisected her Kingdom.

Her face clouded over as her pale blue eyes wandered back over the room. Her days of wandering adventure were over and her future now lay within these ornate Palace walls, filled with the mundane task of running the Empire she had created.

She was the Destroyer of Nations but it had been a long time since she had felt the thrill of driving a sword into a manís heart after a lengthy dual. She still kept in shape, practicing her drills every day, but those sparring matches were no substitute to a fight amid a raging battle. She hadnít been a part of a life and death struggle since Draco had challenged her authority several seasonís earlier.

A wicked grin played at the corners of her lips. It had been an exciting time as she had matched wits and strength with her former General. Even now she could still taste the victory and smell the blood of his defeat on her hands.

She had easily crushed his uprising, personally slaying many of his followers with a savage barbarism that had put fear into the hearts of all her subjects. Her actions had discouraged anyone else from challenging her rule.

She sighed, unable to hide her boredom as she cast a critical gaze over the assembly of minions who had gathered to deliver their individual reports. There were no challengers in this group. No one upon which too keep a weary eye. They were all followers, individuals collected over the years from various regions she had conquered. Even her Generals cowered before her, content to abide by her laws and live off the spoils of her victories. They were competent leaders in the field but meek in her presence and she loathed them all.

In that way she admired Draco in spite of his betrayal. Her former General had stayed true to his nature and it would have greatly disappointed her if he had remained loyal. Killing him had given her a primeval joy that had sustained her spirit for a long while afterwards. But now she was growing unhappy and in need of a new challenge.

Titus glanced anxiously at the Conqueror as she shifted impatiently in her seat. As her second-in-command he had been with her long enough to sense the change of her moods. She had been growing increasingly restless and that made him nervous. She was unpredictable at the best of times but when she was in this kind of mood, not even her most trusted and loyal servants were safe.

He lowered his eyes so as not to appear to be staring. The Conqueror was very beautiful but it was a deceptive facade, for she was also very dangerous. She was often likened to a panther, sleek, dark, proud, strong and fearless. The Empire had been quiet and the panther had been sleeping since the matter involving Draco but now he had the premonition that it was beginning to stir once again.

He watched as her eyes darted around the room. A less knowledgeable person would have thought that the Conqueror had grown complacent but he knew different. Like her beauty, the casual indifference she displayed was a mask, a carefully conceived ploy to lull her opponents into a false sense of security. Those who knew her, knew always to be on their guard.

"Enough!" Xena said abruptly exploding from her chair in one swift, catlike motion, uncoiling from her casual stance.

The room collectively held their breathes as the collector dropped to his knees in a fit of panic, fearing he had done something to displease her. The Conqueror ignored the servant and focused her attention on her General.

"Titus, have my horse prepared," she said in a brisk voice as she moved across the room towards her private chambers.

"Yes," he nodded and then flashed a look at a soldier standing near the door to the throne room. The guard hastily went to do her bidding while Titus hurried after his Empress.

"I have decided to visit my Regional Commanders," she announced when they were in the privacy of her personal chambers. Already she had begun to shed her voluminous ceremonial clothing in favour of her more versatile leathers.

"Yes, My Empress," the General murmured keeping his eyes averted to the floor. "I will tell the Stable Master to prepare the carriage."

"No," Xena barked and swung around to face the military leader, uncaring that she was only partly dressed. "I donít want the carriage or any messengers sent."

"But Empress, you must take the ceremonial guard," Titus wanted her to be prudent. There were many in the Realm who would risk life and limb for an opportunity to slay the Conqueror. He knew that she would not need their help in a fight but it was the appearance that counted.

"All right," Xena conceded to common sense aware that she could easily lose them once they were on the trail. "But I want only six guards and I donít want them in palace armour. Now go fetch Archius."

"Yes," Titus bowed subserviently as he backed out of the room. Moments later there was another knock on the door.

"Enter," Xena barked and the command was immediately responded to by the appearance of a slight, partially balding man.

"You summoned me your Highness?" Archius said glancing politely at his mistress. He had been in the throne room when she had stormed out and now he could almost guess what was coming.

"I am going out to visit my Regional Commanders, is there any one in particular that I should stop and see?" the Conqueror turned and eyed her trusted adviser. Archius had been with her from the very beginning and of everyone that had entered her life before and since he was the one person she trusted. Too slight and frail to be a warrior, he had served as her aide from the days of her defence of Amphipolis from Cortese.

"Your loyal servants have reported increased unrest in the Thrace region. It is rumoured that since Rufusí little foray into Amazonia, tensions with the Amazons are running high," the small man replied. "There is also said to be an increase of illegal activity in the area."

The Empress paused to considered the manís words. Rufus had been a fool to march into Amazonia and his actions had only caused to stir their anger. She knew that the Amazonís would be no trouble to her army if she choose to throw itís entire weight against them, but she wasnít ready for them to be destroyed just yet. She still had some use for them. Right now she was more interested in the other matters. If it was important enough for Archius to mention then there was some reason for concern.

"What type of illegal activity should I be looking for?" she asked quietly, her pale blue eyes narrowing thoughtfully.

"Your loyal servants are uncertain," Archius was honest. "There are troubling rumours of sedition and news of marauding groups of bandits roaming the countryside. Somehow information about the army is being passed around the countryside so that those opposed to your rule are able to move without interference."

"And General Rufus has done nothing in regards to either of these matters?" a dark pair of eyebrows arched menacingly.

"He does only enough," the small man replied quietly.

"Then I now have a destination," the Conqueror replied in a cool voice and continued to dress, pulling on her linen shift and black leathers. "You will be in charge while I am gone."

"Yes, Empress," the man bowed.

Less then a candlemark later Xena mounted a tall golden war horse and pressed her heels into its flanks, turning the creature towards the gates of the Palace. She held her head up high aware of the eyes that followed her departure.

Titus turned from the scene and mounted the steps back into the palace. There was a frown on his features. The Conqueror had not confided in him about what her plans were and that disturbed him. He didnít like being left out of the loop but then he wondered if it wasnít for the best. He was under no illusions. The Empress was off on a hunting trip and he pitied any one unlucky enough to cross her path. He summoned his most trusted aide.

"I want you to dispatch riders to all Commanders in the Region," he instructed the Lieutenant. "Advise them that the Conqueror is on her way and she is out for blood. In particular I want General Rufus warned. I fear the Conqueror just may be headed in his direction."

"Yes, General," the soldier bowed his head and turned to go but the Commanderís voice halted his steps.

"I want you to select only the most trusted of the men," Titus said. "This knowledge is to be held in the strictest of confidence. If the Conqueror were to learn that I had forewarned my colleagues she would no doubt take vengeance on myself."

"Yes, my General," the soldier bowed again understanding the gravity of the situation.

Titus watched the soldier depart before turning on his heel and strolling to the nearest window. From the balcony of the room he could see over the walls of the Palace into the city beyond. For a brief moment he allowed himself the pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be Ruler of this Great land. It would be magnificent, he decided, but the goal was beyond his reach as long as the Conqueror continued to live. He was not strong enough to face her alone. He needed the cooperation of the other Generals and he hoped that this small favour he gave them would help to turn some of their loyalty towards him.

He turned away and glanced about the cavernous room, seeing the maps stuck on the wall with every detail neatly imprinted on the parchments. The Conqueror was much more then a formidable fighter, she was also an intelligent and shrewd woman. He could not defeat her with the sword but he thought he had the faint possibility of out smarting her. He would have to hide the plot carefully so that when the trap was finally sprung she would be caught completely unawares.

A cruel smile crept across his lips. She despised him. He could see it in her eyes every time she looked in his direction. She might admire the way he commanded his troops in the field but beyond that she had no respect for him. He was not alone though, for he knew that she had contempt for all her Generals. The only one she had really admired had been Draco and he had turned on her. He knew she had admired the dead General for that.

Well it would not be long before she realized that she had underestimated him. Draco had been to blatant with his opposition. He would not be so open. He would manoeuvre in the background until all her support dwindled away and then he would use his own sword to kill her. That thought drew a laugh from his lips.

"I will get you Xena of Amphipolis," he snorted. "I will knock you off that pedestal you have placed yourself upon. I will take your body and then I will kill you and no one will lift a hand to stop me." With that he turned and strolled out of the war room not seeing the slender figure that was hidden in the shadowed curtains along one wall.

 

*******

Gabrielle walked quietly through the forest, listening for any unusual sounds in the surrounding nature. Though it was relatively safe for her to travel through the region, she never knew when she might be confronted by a robber or a peasant who took exception to her special permit from Rufus, Commander of the Region, that allowed her to travel freely about the countryside.

Her father had been critical of her accepting the parchment bestowed by a General in the Conquerorís army. He had even gone as far as to call her a traitor but she had brushed off the stinging words, for only she and a half dozen other people knew how important her work was. She was a more then a simple bard who travelled from town to town bringing entertainment to the beleaguered citizens.

She sighed and paused to gaze at some flowers which were growing at the base of a tall tree. There brilliant colour was enhanced and fed by the narrow rays of sunshine that filtered through the leaves. Since Xena, Destroyer of Nations, had conquered all of Greece and other parts of the known World, all movement had been restricted. People wishing to travel were required to have a special permit and they were generally only obtained by giving a healthy donation to the Conquerorís bulging coffers.

She had been unable to raise the dinars needed to purchase such a coveted permit, so instead she had volunteered to entertain the General and his troops. Rufus had been so charmed by her manner and talent that he had allowed himself to be persuaded to give her a permit in exchange for her services.

Her father had not believed that she had only given the soldier an evening of storytelling in exchange for such a valuable prize. He had accused her of sleeping with the Commander and thus sullied her reputation for all the eligible men in her hometown of Potedaia.

Not that she really minded, she had no interest in marrying or settling down to the kind of life her parents shared. She had always had a streak of adventure in her soul. A passion she now indulged. She smiled as she plucked one of the wildflowers and brought it to her nose.

Yes, to the world she was a bard, a young woman gifted with the talent to tell tales which lifted people from the despair of their harsh existence and made them happy if just for a few candlemarks an evening and she didnít mind. Only a few knew that she was a brave messenger, carrying news from one town to another for those unable to travel. News and messages that were as simple as the word of a birth in one family, or as dangerous as information regarding the Conquerorís next dealings.

It had all started after one ordinary evening of storytelling in Potedaia. She had been approached by a group of men and women requesting her help. They were people she knew, friends of her family, members of the village. They were also rebels, men and women who opposed the Conquerorís rule. They had asked her a favour and later she had realized it was a test of her loyalty to Greece. They knew of her visits to the Generalís army camp and they asked her questions. She had told them everything she knew. She had no loyalty to the Conqueror or the General in spite of his generosity.

She knew that some of the information she gave them and the messages she carried brought about actions against the Empire, but she contented herself with the knowledge that she was doing it for the love of Greece. She would be happy if one of her actions helped to better the cause of the people of this land.

She sighed. It was a dangerous occupation in which she was involved but she enjoyed it and it gave her a sense of worth. A sense that she was doing something to fight against the oppressive rule of the Empress.

She took a deep breath and glanced at her surroundings. She was on her way to Amphipolis to perform in a tavern. She had been this way on numerous occasions and knew that there was a small lake nearby. The sun was reaching itís zenith and the heat of the day was beginning to grow oppressive. A late morning dip seemed like a good idea.

 

Xena sat perched on a rock at the far end of the lake. She had remembered this place from her childhood and when the heat of the morning had become to much she had slipped away from her escort, intent on enjoying a quiet, relaxing few candlemarks alone.

A smirk came to her lips. Alone, it was a funny word to use she mused, especially when she thought of herself. Though she was constantly surrounded by people and never lacked for a warm body to fill her bed when she wanted it, she was always alone.

She sighed and stretched her long muscular body out, feeling the warm rays of the sun dry the tiny droplets of water clinging to her smooth skin. It had been a long time since she had been able to let her guard down and relax without someone watching her. A long time since she had last enjoyed the simple pleasures she had taken for granted as a child. Her position made it impossible for her to trust any one let alone have any friends. Even her own family had disowned her.

She slammed the door on those thoughts. She didnít want to go back there. She didnít want to think about the events that had taken her down this path that had led her to become the feared Conqueror she now was. It hurt to much.

She closed her eyes to stem the unexpected flood of tears that moistened them. She was not a sentimental fool yet those memories, when she allowed them, punished her like nothing else and the only way she was able to keep them at bay was to hide behind the stoic mask of the fierce warlord. The only way to hang on to her sanity was to vent the rage that threatened to consume her soul. It was a rage that was beginning to build in her once more.

Her thoughts abruptly ended at the sound of rustling grass. She rolled swiftly off the rock and stared keenly in the direction of the sound. A feral grin stretched across her lips. Perhaps today was going to turn out to be more pleasant then first assumed, she thought, reaching for the sword that was leaning up against a rock next to her leathers and chakram.

Gabrielle strolled carefully through the long grass placing her bedroll and pouch down on the ground at the edge of the lake before beginning to disrobe. It was hot and already her body was anticipating the refreshing delights of the waters embrace.

She shed her clothes and then her boots before wading into the lake. She dunked her head beneath the surface and then popped out and slowly began to stroke her way to the middle of the clear, cool pool.

"Now, Gabrielle, what tales shall you tell tonight?" she mused out loud to herself in thoughtful leisure. Then without hesitation she launched into a recitation of Hercules and the Cyclops.

Xena sat back on her heels and watched as a young girl appeared out of the surrounding forest. The grip on the hilt of her sword eased as she stared with unabashed interest as the child stripped down and then walked into the water. The prevailing stillness of the forest was soon broken by the gentle splash of water and then the warm tones of a soft voice.

Fool! the Conqueror thought callously as she listened. Didnít the girl know it was dangerous to be out alone in the countryside. The child must be an idiot, she thought and then strained her ears to hear what was being said.

She had expected the girl to be babbling nonsense but instead the words were part of a story and unconsciously she stretched out and listened to the tale of the mighty hero and the Cyclops. She found herself enthralled by the timbre of the voice which spoke the words and involuntarily found herself relaxing. For a moment the rage inside her soul edged back into the deep recesses where it lived.

Suddenly the quiet atmosphere was broken by the sound of branches breaking and Xena felt a swift surge of anger towards the intruders. She had been enjoying herself and the story.

She glanced towards the edge of the forest, her senses once again on alert as six horsemen emerged from the trees. With one swift look she assessed the danger, sizing the men up with the cold calculation of a warlord. From their ill fitting and dirty clothing she knew that they were common thieves who roamed the countryside preying on helpless individuals. Their weapons were old and unkempt. She knew that she could handle them easily yet decided to wait and see how the situation unfolded.

Her eyes strayed to the woman who was now treading water in the middle of the lake. The girl sensibly stayed out in the water and even across the distance Xena could see that her eyes were wide and round though there was only a minimal amount of fear in their green depths. For an instant she was mesmerised and suddenly she saw nothing but the young woman as her heart began to pound unevenly. It was strange this reaction and for a brief moment she lost consciousness of her surroundings and thus did not hear the delighted chuckles that echoed across the sky. She would never have known their origins were from Mt. Olympus itself.

Clovis reigned in his horse as he neared the waters edge. His eyes narrowed as he spotted first the articles on the ground and then the girl paddling quietly out in the water. A cruel smile tipped the

corners of his lips. They had been riding for days without crossing paths with any travellers and the few farms they had come across had hardly been worth the effort they had used to pillage them. His men were tired and as cranky as himself and in need of some entertainment. It looked like they had just found it.

He turned his gaze back out to the girl. She was young but pretty, not that it mattered on either accounts. The mood they were in it wouldnít have mattered what she looked like. But it definitely would make it more enjoyable.

"I think weíll take a break here," he turned and said to the others a smirk on his face. "This seems like a pleasant enough place for a wash and some entertainment."

The men laughed in understanding as they dismounted, tethering their horses nearby before wandering down to the edge of the lake. They bent and picked up the pouch, dumping its contents on the ground before casually sorting through the items. There was nothing of value among the girlís possessions.

"Can I help you?" Gabrielle called breaking the silence between them, annoyed that they were pawing her stuff. Stupid, she thought to herself. Stupid question to ask when theyíre over there on dry land and you are in here with no place to run or hide.

"Perhaps we can help you," Clovis responded with a grin and the others laughed, dropping her things back on the ground. "Whatís a wee thing like you doing alone out here?"

Xena suddenly snapped out of the trance that had descended over her mind. She heard the trace of fear in the girlís voice and the infliction in the manís and knew that they were about to have some fun with the young woman. Normally she would have let them play, for it was not in her nature to get involved but the girl was helpless and the fight would not be fair. A feral smile etched itself over her features as she reached for her leathers. Today was going to turn out pleasant after all.

"Iím on my way to Amphipolis," Gabrielle replied furiously wondering how she could talk her way out of this mess. She knew she was in trouble and kept a safe distance from shore. "I am a friend of General Rufus, Commander of the Region."

It was a silly idea, she knew, but she hoped that the mention of the Generalís name and her association with the man might in some way intimidate these strangers. The men only laughed obviously unimpressed, knowing she was biding her time hoping that some unexpected rescue would stumble her way. But there would be no reprieve for they had not seen any one else in days.

"Perhaps we could accompany you and make certain no one troubles you," Clovis laughed and winked at his companions. "Iím sure the General would be pleased to know that we took care of you for him."

"I would be pleased for the company," Gabrielle replied and mentally kicked herself. She knew what these men were about and she watched as they started to shed their clothing. She glanced swiftly around, calculating the distance to the far shore. She could swim across the lake and hope to escape into the forest but it was likely they would be on their horses after her before she could reach the opposite shore. Perhaps she could occupy them until she thought of something else.

"Of course we would need some reward for that favour," Clovis continued as he began to loosen the belt that was wrapped around his tunic.

"I can tell you a story," she offered silently swimming backwards. Strangely in spite of the circumstances she felt no fear even though these men looked hungry and dangerous. "I am a bard and I travel around entertaining people."

"I bet you entertain people," the man smiled. "Come out and entertain us."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer but the corner of her eye caught sight of something moving swiftly along the tree line completely unobserved by the men. She watched fascinated as a tall, lithe, raven haired creature unfurrowed itself from the forest and moved stealthily towards the gang of thieves. She watched silently as the woman came to a halt behind the men, casually folding her arms across her chest and waiting until she was finally noticed.

"Come on missy, we need entertaining too," the men laughed.

"She said sheís a bard and I donít think her type of entertainment is what you have in mind," Xena interrupted the ribaldry, bored at waiting for them to realize her presence. The men turned as one and six pair of startled eyes glanced over her body. Clovis smiled not realizing the danger that stood before him.

"So you have a friend," he snorted in glee as his mind raced with the possibilities. The woman who stood before him was armed like a warrior but he had rarely seen a woman who could fight. He had no fear as he took several steps towards this new arrival. He would enjoy taking this woman. He spoke his thoughts out loud.

Xena allowed a grin to play across her lips as her eyes grew dark and cold. She watched as their gazes met and the man paused, suddenly not so certain of his thoughts. He checked himself, there were six of them and only one of her. He completely discounted the girl in the lake aware she had no weapons.

"Then come and take me," the Conqueror offered with a seductive smile.

The man moved without warning, rushing towards her but Xena was prepared, anticipating his actions. She deftly sidestepped his attack, laughing with cold amusement as he stumbled passed her. Seeing their leader tumble to the ground, spurred the others into action and they rushed enmass and the Conqueror released the warlord inside herself, drawing her sword in one swift motion.

The sound of steel on steel echoed through the still forest as the men thrust towards the woman warrior. Xena only laughed easily parrying and blocking their moves. She was toying with them like a cat plays with a mouse before moving in for the final kill. They were no match for her skill and she soon tired of this game. She dispatched the first man with ease, blocking his thrust before dropping to her knee and bringing her sword across his stomach. Intestines and blood spilled out onto the ground and she laughed with cold delight as she watched him fall.

Clovis knew almost immediately that he had underestimated his opponent. There was something familiar in the way this warrior moved and it nagged at his brain. He watched as his comrade dropped to the ground and at the same time he heard the thunder of horse hooves. A sideways glance told him that there were six mounted warriors heading their way. By their stiff posture he knew that they were soldiers though they wore no identifying uniforms.

"Retreat," he bellowed glancing back at the woman warrior as another of his companions dropped under the weight of the womanís sword as it impaled his chest. Suddenly he knew why the woman was familiar.

The others needed no further encouragement as they turned and raced to where their horses were tied, mounting on the run and riding hard out of the clearing into the forest. Xena was about to give chase when she noticed the mounted horsemen bearing down on her. She cursed Hades as she recognized her escort. They had finally caught up to her and spoiled her entertainment.

"Are you all right, Conq...." Zenon, the leader of the Guard escort began to ask as he reigned in his horse beside the Empress.

"Yes," Xena snarled interrupting him. The warlord was still in control and angry that her fun had been disrupted. She twirled her sword effortlessly in her hand as the blood rage began to subside.

The Palace Guard remained mounted, nervously watching as their leader paced around the clearing, pausing to wipe her sword on the tunic of one of her victims. They had been attached to the Palace long enough to know what was going on. Zenon knew that it was suicidal to approach the Conqueror now and prayed that she would not turn her anger on them. Everyone knew of what happened to the guards that had escorted her during her last tour of the countryside. It was a long moment before Xena realized that the soldiers were quietly waiting for her direction.

"It took you long enough to find me," she snarled and Zenon straightened in his saddle. He was prepared to face the brunt of her anger.

"You are a master in all things," he replied wisely subservient and was relieved to see that the Empress was appeased. He saw her gaze turn from him to the lake and for the first time he noticed the young woman, who was now hastily scrambling into her clothes.

"I will meet you at the fork in the road that leads to Rufusí camp," she said in a low voice.

"But we canít leave you Conq...." Zenon was about to disagree but his voice died as he saw the coldness return to the blue eyes staring at him.

"You interrupted me once already," she said with a sneer, glancing towards the young woman briefly before turning back to the guard. "Are you arrogant enough to try and wrestle another pleasure from me?"

Zenon glanced from the Conqueror to the young woman and then flushed. A faint sheen of sweat appeared on his brow. He would rather ride alone into battle then face the displeasure of the Empress. He bowed his head.

"I am sorry," he apologized and then nodded towards his companions and together they rode out of the clearing.

"Thank you," Gabrielle offered with undisguised relief.

Xena turned to see that the woman was now fully dressed. Earlier she had caught a brief glimpse of the slender yet muscular body with droplets of moisture running own its curvy length. It was a pleasant sight and she felt a thread of desire run through her body. Not all aspects of the warlord were gone.

"Donít you know itís dangerous out here," the Conqueror growled gruffly, surprised by the attraction she felt.

"Itís dangerous just walking through your own village at night," the girl retorted with a flash of green eyes and then unexpectedly flushed as she saw deep pools of blue staring at her with an unfathomable expression. "Iím sorry, that wasnít very nice, especially after you have just saved me

from some unknown fate. I wouldnít have gone into the lake if I had thought there would be any danger. My name is Gabrielle."

Xena glanced at the extended hand briefly, not bothering to return the introduction. "You were lucky I happened along. They would have taken their pleasure and then killed you."

Gabrielle tried not to shudder at the thought of what almost happened. She pushed it from her mind and smiled as she fastened a belt around her waist and then pulled her damp hair out from underneath her collar.

"I was lucky," she agreed. "It was fortunate you happened to be in the area."

"What are you doing here?" Xena was interested to know what brought the woman out into the wilds of the countryside.

"I have a permit from General Rufus, Commander of the Region," was the blunt response.

"Oh and how did you manage to get that?" Xenaís eyebrows went up in speculation. Perhaps this woman wasnít as innocent as she looked. Strangely she had this intense hope her suspicions werenít true.

"Iím a bard. I tell him stories," Gabrielle was honest. "About once a month I visit the army garrison and entertain him and his troops. The permit is payment."

"Interesting," the Conqueror mused quietly, her eyes narrowing for a moment as a thought cascaded through her mind. She remembered what Archius had said to her before her departure from the Palace.

"Do you have a permit and who were those men that were just here?" Gabrielle suddenly thought to ask and then watched as a lopsided grin creased the other womanís face.

"This is all the permit I need," Xena said displaying her sword purposefully not answering the second part of the question. The younger woman frowned thinking that perhaps she should be afraid, yet she felt no fear. Instead there was an interest that she had not experienced before. She was intrigued by this dark stranger.

"Thatís rather dangerous, isnít it?"

"Yes, but itís fun," the Empress drawled with a shrug and then looked down at the articles spilled out on the ground. She saw the quill and scroll and her curiosity was piqued. "Where are you headed?"

"Amphipolis," Gabrielle replied. "Iím to entertain in a tavern there. Itís run by a really nice lady named Cyrene. Perhaps you would like to join me?"

"No," the Conqueror barked, a dark cloud passing over her features at the mention of the innkeepers name. "I think I had better stay out of town, canít be to careful whose there, might just be someone I donít want to meet."

Gabrielle thought this woman was a bandit just like the men that she had run off. All be it a nicer kind of bandit then the others. Strangely that realization didnít bother her. She had come across all types of persons during her travels and had befriended many of them.

"The people of Amphipolis are really nice," she said instead without thinking, certain this was a safe subject to discuss. It had been a few days since she had any company and it was lonely on the road. She welcomed the opportunity to talk with someone now. "Everyone thinks they must be horrible people because thatís where the Conqueror was born but really they are great and the Innkeeper makes the best nutbread I have ever tasted."

"You like nutbread, yeh?" Xena commented absently as she settled on a nearby rock, memories nibbling at her consciousness. She watched as the bard bent and retrieved her meagre possessions, packing them meticulously back into the pouch.

"Yep," the girl looked up and flashed a brilliant smile before settling on the ground to lace up her boots. For a moment the warrior was frozen as pale blue eyes stared at the smaller woman. There had been something about that smile that had reached passed every one of her defenses and touched a part of her cold heart.

"Donít you?" the innocence question snapped the Conqueror back to her senses.

"Yah sure. So you just travel from place to place telling stories," the Conqueror said idly.

"Yep," came the short reply.

"You travel alone?"

"Yep."

"Isnít that rather dangerous?"

"It could be but I guess Iím fortunate," Gabrielle flashed this woman an impish grin. "I have been able to talk my way out of most things. I think people in general are good, you just have to tap into that goodness."

"A lot of people would disagree with you," Xena replied wryly eyeing her companion with amusement and suspicion. She didnít think anyone could be as naive as to believe what this girl did. "I know no one would agree with you in regards to the Conqueror."

The bard scrunched her nose thoughtfully as she finished tying her laces. "I donít think sheís as bad as everyone says."

"Oh?" dark eyebrows arched as the Empress couldnít hide her surprise. "She does some horrible things."

"Yes, but there must be a reason," Gabrielle responded after some thought. "Someone doesnít just go out conquering people for no reason."

"Some people do," Xena replied in a low voice.

"Perhaps, but usually people only do horrible things for a reason. Besides she has given us some things to appreciate."

"Oh?" the eyebrows disappeared this time behind dark bangs, her voice sarcastic. "You mean like travel permits and taxes?"

"No, I mean the peace that she had brought to Greece," Gabrielle said reasonably. "I remember a time when there were warlords attacking our village every month, destroying our crops, stealing our supplies and killing our people. Sure we have restrictions but we also have peace."

"You almost sound like you are a fan of hers?" the tall woman remarked dryly, a faint, disturbing sensation in her heart.

"No, I think a lot of what she does is bad for Greece but I try to look at the positive instead of the negative," the bard said simply.

"So, if you were able to meet the Conqueror what would you say to her?" Xena asked with seemingly casual indifference, though those who knew her, would know she was on edge. Gabrielleís brow fused into a pensive frown as she seriously contemplated the suggestion.

"Iíd tell her to get rid of the travel permits. People like to be able to move around freely, for economical and social reasons."

"But then it allows them to gather and stir up trouble," the Empress countered. "You would have more thieves and brigands running around the countryside."

"They take the risk now, knowing that they are already wanted by the law, it makes no difference to them," the girl disagreed. "The ones it hurts the most are the farmers who could sell there produce in the other villages for a better price. It would allow families separated by the law to visit together. Itís the simple things that people resent having taken away from them, they can live with the other hardships. If you take to many freedomís away, people tend to rebel."

"Are people rebelling?" the Conqueror asked trying to disguise her curiosity behind a mask of indifference.

"Not that I know about," the bard shrugged, not wanting to think about what she knew. "But itís bound to happen eventually."

"Why?"

"Because people can tolerate being unhappy for only so long before someone decides to do something."

"You mean like the Conqueror," Xena replied softly.

"Yeah, she started out by trying to help the people of her village," Gabrielle nodded with a thoughtful frown as she recalled all the stories she had been told. "But she got carried away and didnít stop until she had beaten everyone into submission."

Xena was silent, aware that the woman had made a valid point. It had been a long while since anyone had been this candid and forthright. Most of her retainers and staff told her things that they thought she wanted to hear. Of course, they knew something that this girl did not.

"What else would you say?"

"Well, I would tell her to cut back on the amount of taxes she takes, especially of the harvest. When people have full stomaches they are less likely to grumble. Instead of making people turn over two thirds of their harvest, why not only ask for one-third. Surely that is more then enough to feed her armies."

"But if the farmers want more why donít they just plant more," the Conqueror argued.

"There is only so much one man, one family, one village can do," Gabrielle pointed out. "Itís not a matter of not being able to have more, itís a matter of not having the physical resources to produce more."

"And I suppose you have an idea on how to change that?" the raven haired woman quirked an eyebrow again.

Gabrielle visibly brightened. It wasnít often that she got to discuss her ideas with an intelligent person. Most people, including her father, tended to avoid any discussion involving the Conqueror and any words spoken in a tavern had to be guarded for no one knew who was a spy.

"I would make all the soldiers help out in the fields."

"The soldiers are there for fighting," the Conqueror snorted in disbelief.

"But what do they do when there are no wars?"

"Train."

"Okay, okay, but there must be times when they donít train," Gabrielle said logically. "If they were helping the locals with the planting and harvesting it would foster a better relationship with the villagers and it would also keep the soldiers busy. Didnít someone say a lazy army was a poor army."

"I donít think so," Xena replied in a dry voice but she had begun to think what this young woman was saying made sense. Training could only take up so much time and idleness not only made for a poor army, it made for a discontented one. As for the taxes she would have to consult the collectors.

Gabrielle looked up at her companion and saw the thoughtfulness in the blue eyes. The face was an indifferent mask. The taller woman turned her head and met her gaze.

"If you met the Conqueror I donít think you would be so brave," she challenged the bard. "Besides perhaps I am one of her spies."

Gabrielle hadnít thought of that but she just shrugged. "Then I would be lucky."

"How?" the older woman was clearly startled by the comment.

"Because then you would report what I said and the Conqueror would know how I felt."

Xena laughed out loud at the logic. There was something about this girl that was beginning to grow on her. In just a few short candlemarks this young woman had made her feel a whole variety of emotions that she long thought dead.

"Youíre not scared of me at all are you?"

"Should I be?" the bard asked deciding that she liked the sound of the womanís laughter.

"Maybe," there was a slight pause. "I could kill you."

"If you had wanted to kill me you would have done something by now," the girl smiled and her stomach growled causing her to giggle. "Gosh, Iím hungry. I havenít much but would you like to share a meal?"

"Yes," the warrior nodded and watched as the bard drew out some food from her meagre cache.

Gabrielle split her food aware she would be at the Inn later that evening. She gave the taller woman a large chunk of bread and cheese and an apple. She watched her eat for a moment and then realized she knew nothing about her companion.

"Where are you from?"

"Here and there," the Conqueror replied with a shrug. "I donít really have a home or family any more."

"Iím sorry," Gabrielle sensed sadness in the other woman and was sympathetic. "Are they dead?"

"You could say the Conqueror destroyed my former life," Xena replied choosing her words carefully. "Now I just drift around, stay out of trouble and every one elseís way."

"That sounds lonely," the bard commented with a twinge of sadness.

"Perhaps, but I donít think itís much different then your life."

"Oh but it is," Gabrielle insisted and flashed another smile. "I have a sister and parents who live in Potedaia and whenever I get lonely I just wander over to see them."

"And they donít mind that you are out roaming about the countryside alone?"

"Theyíre not happy but they know there is nothing they can do to stop me," she shrugged and left the rest unsaid.

"Is there no young man who could persuade you to settle down and have little kiddies?"

The bard shook her head. "No. I donít know why but I donít think thatís supposed to be my life."

"Why do you think that?" Xena was really curious now. She had never before met anyone who fascinated her as much as this girl did.

"I donít know," the strawberry blond shook her head seemingly lost in thought for a moment but just as quickly the now familiar smile flashed across her girlish features. "But I am sure I will know why one day."

Xena finished her food and then stood up. It was time to get moving if she wanted to reach Rufusí camp before dark. Gabrielle was disappointed to see the other woman prepare to leave. She had enjoyed her company.

"Thanks for the food," the warrior said as she began to move off.

"Thanks for rescuing me," the bard replied and watched as the woman paused, turning to flash her a seductive smile that set her heart racing.

"Any time," the Conqueror waved and then kept walking.

"Maybe weíll meet again," Gabrielle called hopefully.

"Perhaps," the Empress agreed a grin spreading across her features. They would definitely meet again, of that she was certain.

Gabrielle sat for a moment trying to make some sense in what she was feeling. She turned her head but the woman was gone and it was only then she realized that she hadnít even gotten a name. Oh well, she sighed, it had helped pass the time. She glanced up towards the sky and realized that it was time for her to move along as well. She stood up a smile on her lips as she thought of the food and hospitality that awaited her.

Xena didnít venture very far. Instead she hid in the forest and watched as the bard collected her things and then resumed her journey. Uncertain why, she decided to follow, taking the reins of her mount and leading him towards Amphipolis.

Perhaps it was curiosity, she decided later. Either way she followed the bard the whole way to the town pausing in the distance aware that if she revealed herself she would be recognized. Not that it really mattered for she was not welcome there any more. She had lead to many of these peopleís sonís and husbands to their death or away from home. Even her own mother blamed her for her younger brothers death.

She slammed the door on her thoughts. It was a wasted effort to think of the past. Nothing could change what happened. She couldnít bring anyone back from the dead. She had determined her

destiny the moment she had mustered an army to defeat Cortese. There was no turning back.

She watched until the bard strolled unmolested into the village before turning around. She hopped up onto her horse and dug her heels into its flanks. She had a hard ride ahead.

 

chapter 2

 

Cyrene glanced out the kitchen window and noticed the solitary figure that came trudging through the village square. As usual there was a smile on the girlís face as she waved cheerfully to everyone she passed. A smile tipped the corners of the Innkeepers lips. For the last few days, everyone had been talking about nothing except the bardís impending visit. She, herself, was pleased to see the smaller woman, and not just for the extra dinars her visit would bring to the tavern.

No, Gabrielle was a rare find. A person who was honest, forthright and courageous. A young woman brave enough to wander about the countryside unattended. A young woman smart enough to talk her way out of almost any situation.

Perhaps, her unusual feelings towards the bard stemmed from the warmth that radiated so naturally from the girl. Perhaps it was her pendant to see goodness in everyone. The smile faded from the older womanís lips. If pressed the bard would probably say something nice about the Conqueror.

Cyrene quickly dismissed those thoughts and went out to greet the new arrival. She knew that in a small way Gabrielle was filling the hole left in her heart by the loss of her sweet son Lyceus. Perhaps she was even a substitute for her own daughter, a child she had lost a long time ago. However, it didnít matter what the reason. All that mattered was that for a precious few days she would have the bardís company.

"Tell me, what adventures have you gotten into lately," Cyrene prodded once she had the bard settled with a hot bowl of lamb stew and a mug of cider.

"Nothing much, though I did meet a very interesting woman this morning," Gabrielle replied breaking off a chunk of bread from the loaf the Innkeeper had provided. "She was the strangest person Iíve ever met. I invited her to town but she said no. I think the authorities must be after her because she was with a band of men, though she didnít look like a common criminal. She was too neat in appearance, her leathers and armour were new and clean."

"What did she look like?" Toris asked and Cyrene looked at her son as the girlís brow furrowed in thought. The older woman had hoped that the two might make a match but the bard seemed unwilling to attach herself to anyone.

"Like you," Gabrielle announced after peering at him for a long minute. "She was tall with long dark hair and the most beautiful blue eyes."

There was complete silence. Cyrene held her breathe wondering if it was possible but then dismissed the idea completely. Her daughter had not been back since she had started her rampage across Greece. Xena knew she was not welcome in Amphipolis, though rumour had it that she had visited the region on several occasions.

"Did she say who she was?" Toris finally managed to fill the silence.

"No," Gabrielle shook her head, "but she was so nice. She chased off these six thieves who happened along. I was ever so grateful."

"Oh?" Cyrene smiled with relief, realizing that it couldnít have been her daughter, and then pressed the girl for more information. The bard, always eager to tell a story, launched into a complete and detailed account of the mornings events. She was so absorbed in her tale that she failed to notice the subdued and thoughtful expressions on her companions faces.

 

********

"The troops appear sluggish," Xena commented in a harsh voice as she followed Rufus around the military compound. The Regional Commander was leading her through the camp and many of the troops were engaged in weapons drills.

"Itís been awhile since they have been tested in battle," Rufus replied in defence of his men.

"While then we will have to find them something to keep them busy," she remarked dryly remembering what the bard had suggested. The more she thought about it the more she liked the idea. It was good for several reasons, however, right now there were other matters that needed to be settled. She paused and turned an icy gaze upon the General. "What was the idea of attacking the Amazonís, I donít remember issuing such an order?"

The General stiffened. He knew he had taken a gamble in attacking the Nation of Women Warriors but believed that he had reason enough to defend his decision. "We received word that several Amazon parties were attacking surrounding villages. I felt that they needed to be taught a lesson."

Xena didnít believe his explanation but she did not call his bluff. She would save that for later when he had gotten his confidence back. She turned and surveyed the camp taking in every detail with one sharp glance.

"Rumour has it that you have a bard come in to entertain."

The General visibly relaxed, relieved that he had not suffered for taking matters into his own hands. He breathed easier at the change of subject thinking himself safe.

"Yes, Gabrielle of Potedaia," he conceded with pride. "It is a real treat for the men. It helps with morale."

"When is her next visit?"

"Not for a fortnight," the Commander answered.

"I have heard much about her," Xena continued walking. "I would be interested in hearing her talent."

"Yes, My Empress, but I am not certain where she is," Rufus was confused by the Conquerorís request. Generally such things were unimportant to her.

"She is in Amphipolis," came the cool answer. "I want you to send down a party to escort her here."

"Yes, Conqueror," Rufus nodded dumbfounded.

"Make certain your men are polite," she added her eyes straying across the square.

"Yes."

"Have you found those bandits I told you about?" she asked as they reached the tent that had been set aside for her use during her visit.

"We picked them up heading towards the mountains," Rufus replied. "They are being brought here now as we speak."

"Good," the Conqueror said coldly turning her head to glance once more around the compound before focusing back on the man at the side. The General automatically stiffened at the sight of the cold blue eyes that bore down into his soul. He felt a tremendous fear rush through his body. "Next time you think to initiate a battle without my consent I suggest that you better at least win, it doesnít look good for me to lose." There was a slight pause and when the Empress spoke again it was in a voice so low that the General almost didnít hear it. "You have made your one mistake, you have no more chances." With that she turned and strolled into the tent pushing the flap closed as she disappeared.

Rufus stared at the closed flaps for a moment before turning and signalling for his Lieutenant. He considered himself fortunate realizing he had gotten off lightly. He had gambled and won and it gave him confidence. Of course the message from General Titus warning him of her impending arrival had come just in time. He had been preparing to send a second party out to entice the Amazonís to fight.

"Yes, General?" Argus bowed his head in respect.

"The Conqueror wishes to hear the bard Gabrielle tell her stories. Send a party of riders to fetch her. I believe they will find her in Amphipolis. In fact send some of her Royal Guard."

"Yes, sir," the man nodded and hastened to do his bidding.

Rufus glanced again at the closed tent flaps and then strolled back towards his own quarters, hoping that the Conqueror would not stay long. He hated to run her errands yet he would do so, aware that it wasnít quite time for him to strike.

 

Gabrielle was enjoying her visit to Amphipolis. She had just finished delivering her last message when the six armoured horsemen bearing the Conquerorís standard rode into town. The villagers hostility was evident in the angry looks they cast at the intruders. No one from the Conquerorís army was welcome in the town and few soldiers dared to venture inside its limits. The horses came to a halt by the Inn and their leader urged his horse forward to where the girl was standing. He recognized her from that day at the lake.

"Gabrielle of Potedaia," Zenon said and the girl nodded. "We are here to escort you to General Rufusí camp."

The bard was momentarily silent. She was not expected back at the camp for at least two weeks. She had heard that the Conqueror was in the Region inspecting her armies. She thought about the woman in the forest and wondered if she had been a spy.

"You are Gabrielle of Potedaia, are you not?" Zenon asked again thinking that perhaps he had been mistaken. He cast a weary glance about the village aware of the curious gazes they were receiving from the villagers who were peeking their heads outside the doors of their homes and their shops.

"Yes," the bard finally found her voice though it sounded squeaky. "What have I done?"

"The General is entertaining a special guest. The Conqueror has graced us with her presence and he wishes for you to honour them with entertainment."

Gabrielle felt a wave of relief sweep through her body, unexpectedly happy with the knowledge that the woman by the lake had not been a spy. She looked up at the soldier and knew this was a request she would be unable to turn down, though she could not help being flattered that the General had specifically sought her talent. She was overwhelmed by the thought that she might get the opportunity to see and meet the Empress.

"It will take me all day to get there," she murmured thoughtfully.

"We are here to escort you," the soldier replied with dignity.

"Okay, I just need to go collect my things."

"We will wait here," the man bowed his head.

"What do they want?" Cyrene asked hurrying to the door when the bard stepped back into the tavern. She had heard the thunder of hooves and had watched through the tavern windows as the soldiers had spoken to the girl. She had been unable to make out what had been said and was greatly worried for her young friend.

"Commander Rufus wants me to entertain the Conqueror," Gabrielle said not quite believing the sudden turn of events.

Absolute silence greeted her admission and Cyrene glanced over the bardís shoulder to her son who had just entered the tavern. They looked at each other in quiet communication. There was just to much consequence.

"I donít think you should go," the Innkeeper said hesitantly, fearing the worse yet unwilling to reveal her beliefs.

"I have to go," Gabrielle rejected the notion, embarrassed by the idea that she was intrigued by the thought of entertaining the Conqueror.

"No, Gabrielle," Toris said grabbing her shoulders and turning her to face him. Like his mother he was afraid, yet neither of them had the courage to tell this girl the truth, worried that they were mistaken. "We can sneak you out the back."

"Why?" the bard was honestly puzzled.

"The Conqueror is a cruel person," Cyrene interjected and then glanced over her shoulder, making a private decision. "We think that woman you talked to the other day may have been a spy and this is only a trap to capture you."

"What if youíre wrong?" the girl asked.

"I hope we are," the older woman sighed. "But even if we are, I shudder to think what she might

do if she doesnít like your stories."

"Then you have nothing to worry about," the bard smiled confidentially. "Everyone likes my stories."

There was nothing they could say to dissuade the girl and later, both watched with a growing sense of dread as the bard was hoisted onto the back of the horse of one of the soldiers for the journey to the army camp. Cyrene watched as the horses departed in a cloud of fine dust. She knew of the girlís propensity to say what was on her mind, and quietly wondered if she would ever see the young bard again. Gabrielle had no such fears.

She had been to the army camp on numerous occasions yet this time she expected it to be different and was mildly disappointed that it was the same. She had come to think the Conquerorís visit would change things but there was nothing overtly unusual other then that the soldiers moved with a quicker step. Her escort handed her over to another military official who she recognized from her previous visits. Her attempts at friendliness were not returned and she sensed that every one was on edge.

Eventually she was turned over to the camp cook, an older woman whose hostile features masked a rather kind heart. She was taken to the bath house and told to wash while the older woman stood guard and when she was done, Gabrielle was escorted back to the meal tent where she was fed a huge plate of stew and bread. Though she tried to make conversation everyone seemed unwilling to talk.

After finishing her food, she was lead to a tent where her things had been placed and told to wait until her summons to the Commanderís presence. Her other visits had been much less formal and she had been allowed to wander the camp without supervision. She knew that this trip would yield no new information for her friends.

Gabrielle sat on the edge of her cot and glanced around the tent. Normally the General came out personally to greet her arrival. Today she suspected his attention was occupied elsewhere. She was uncertain how long her wait would be so she pulled her pouch over and removed a scroll. She was intent on keeping a record of this visit, certain that this would make a great story. She had barely begun to write when there was a knock on the pole outside the tent.

"The General requests your presence in the dining tent," the messenger said and then escorted her across the square to the tent that served as a mess hall. It was right next to the tent that was used as a headquarters. She was greeted at the door by the Commander and she noticed immediately the anxious expression on his face.

"Thank you for coming," Rufus was most relieved to see her. He was quite a nice man despite the ruthless reputation he had earned from the locals. He lead her up to the stage at the front of a packed room of sweating soldiers and gently kissed her hand before scurrying to the back of the room, taking a vacant chair next to a cloaked figure.

Gabrielle smiled, allowing her natural warmth to spread out to her audience and then launched into her first tale. It was a story about Aphrodite and the crowd sat wrapped in silence as they listened to the adventures of the Goddess of Love.

Xena had purposefully shielded her features though she wasnít certain why. She watched as the bard entered the room, her pale blue eyes studying the girlís soft and innocent features across the distance. She noticed the way the soldiers focused their attention on the girl and straightened in their seats. She had to admire the bardís bravery for having the courage to walk into a room filled with soldiers who probably all fantasised about taking her to their bed.

She leaned back in her chair, placing a booted foot on a rung under the table. She listened and found her weary senses caressed by the gentle cadence of the young womanís voice. It was a sensual almost seductive experience and looking at the faces of the men nearby she knew that they were as enraptured. She stared hard at the bard allowing her hood to drop, revealing a thick dark mane of hair and piercing blue eyes.

Gabrielle finished one story and then launched into the next, her eyes roaming the audience until they came to a complete standstill. She stared into pools of blue so deep and enticing that she thought she was drowning. Her voice faltered and for a brief moment in time everything was forgotten except for the sharp eyes, the angular cheekbones and the raven black hair of the woman sitting next to General Rufus.

She swallowed and quickly composed herself, continuing the story as if there had been no interruption but Xena knew a connection had been made. A tiny smirk tipped the corners of her lips.

Gabrielle tried to concentrate but was unable to keep her heart from pounding. She had been alone with the Conqueror, the most feared woman in the Known World, and had found her not only beautiful, but charming and a pleasant companion. She remembered all the comments she had made and inwardly groaned. No wonder Cyrene and Toris had been so worried. Perhaps she had been fortunate not to have had her head cut off.

She tried to ignore her predicament and launched into another tale, intent on keeping herself busy until they had had enough. She would worry about the consequences later. Right now she had an audience to entertain.

Xena watched the bard move across the stage her hands delicately fluttering through the air as she described some scene. She had heard the girlís hesitation. It had been a minor interruption. She knew she could have fun with this bard, toy with her as she enjoyed but for some reason she wasnít partial to doing that. It was odd the way she felt.

Finally Gabrielle could speak no more and was rewarded with enthusiastic applause and a handful of dinars that were tossed onto the stage. A soldier was immediately at her side, escorting her through the appreciative crowd to the table where the General and the Conqueror sat. Rufus rose at her approach and extended his hand as he motioned her to a chair across the table from them.

Xena felt an eyebrow lift as she listened to the Generalís glowing words. Heís in love with her, she decided with an amused smirk. The girl has seduced him with her words. Her thoughts abruptly halted. The girl had the same affect on her.

"Gabrielle the Bard from Potedaia," Rufus introduced the pair. "Xena of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror, Empress of Greece."

"We have already met," the bard said cheerfully sitting down to face the woman. She had decided the best approach was a friendly one. Besides it was to late to take back any of her words. "We were never formally introduced though."

Rufus glanced from one face to the next and the Conqueror saw his confusion.

"We crossed paths along the road," was the only explanation that Xena would give.

"Actually she probably saved my life," Gabrielle continued guilelessly aware of the stunned expression on the Generalís face. "Several ruffians were threatening me and she chased them off."

"It wasnít anything," the warrior shrugged, her voice gruff to hide the embarrassment she felt at the praise. It had been a long time since anyone had been appreciative for anything she had done. It felt good.

"It was something," the bard disagreed looking straight at the Conqueror, "and with your permission I would like to make up a story about it."

"You think my reputation needs some help?" the Empress asked cocking an eyebrow as she leaned further back in her chair. She was amused by the girl.

"It would help if the people heard more of your good deeds," Gabrielle replied aware that she was testing the limits of the Conqueror. She had heard stories of how cruel the Empress could be yet she was somehow unworried. "It would help you seem more human."

Before Xena could respond there was a commotion at the front of the tent and all eyes focused on a large bearded man who strolled into the room. Without pause he made his way through the crowded tables to where they were seated. He bowed his head respectfully at the Empress.

"We have returned with the prisoners," the soldier announced aware that all eyes were on him.

"Give them fifty lashes a piece and then tie them to crosses," Xena said shortly, annoyed by the interruption. With a wave of her hand she dismissed the soldier.

"What did they do?" Gabrielle could not hold her tongue, curious about what these prisoners had done.

Total silence reigned throughout the room. Eyes widened and jaws dropped in stunned surprise. No one had ever dared to question the Conqueror and lived. Fugitive eyes glanced at the Empress, waiting expectantly for her reaction. Rufus had the urge to intervene but even he knew better.

"Who?" came the quiet response.

"These prisoners?" Gabrielle could feel the tension in the air surrounding her but she did not understand it. Perhaps it was her innocence that made her unaware of the danger.

Xenaís eyes narrowed. No one had had the guts to speak to her like this since Draco and she was privately thrilled though she showed none of her emotions. This bard had more guts then anyone else she knew. This girl almost seemed fearless and perhaps that was what she found so attractive.

"They are common thieves," came the even reply and for a moment blue and green eyes met in a prolonged gaze.

"Their punishment seems to cruel for their crime," the bard spoke again without thinking and saw the blue eyes glint in response.

"What would you suggest I do with them?"

Gabrielle swallowed sensing the menace behind the stoic facade. There was an energy coming off the other woman that she could feel in every part of her body but couldnít understand. She knew she was out of her league here. She knew it was important to discipline criminals but the punishment proposed seemed so harsh.

"Let them tell their story. They might have a good reason why they turned to crime," she said finally and she could almost see the Conquerorís lips twitch in amusement.

"You want me to let them tell a story and then I suppose you would want me to give them a second chance?" Xena asked in a low rumbling voice. The sound was as intoxicating as the deep blue of intensity that was holding her in a trance. Most who knew the Empress knew to be afraid of that voice but the bard showed no such fear.

"You should at least give them a chance to explain," Gabrielle said and a slow smile etched its way across the warriors face.

"Any one can make up a good lie, however I will tell you what I will do. I will give them a second chance," Xena said and then leaned back in her chair. She glanced up at her associates who had been holding their breaths during the exchange. "Put them in the cells tonight, clean them up and feed them, and then tomorrow I will meet them in the main square. I will use my sword and they can have the weapon of their choice." She turned her gaze back to the bard. "If they win they are free to go. Does that sound fair?"

"That sounds cruel," Gabrielle blurted out and there was a crash as a chair fell backwards onto the floor. The Conqueror placed her hands on the table and leaned forward until her face was only inches from the bardís.

Green eyes stared into pale blue and for an absurd moment Gabrielle had the urge to lean her own head forward and kiss the other woman. She fought hard to control the impulse aware that any such action would probably result in instant death.

"To whom is it cruel?" the Conqueror asked in a quiet voice. "In order for them to win I must die. I am risking my own life to give these men another chance for freedom. Under the circumstances I think I am being more then generous."

Xena eased away, her face once more a stoic mask as she glanced about the room before coming to rest once more on the girl. "Rufus make sure our guest here is comfortable. I want to make certain she is well rested for tomorrow. I think by evening meal I will be ready to hear more of her stories."

With that the Empress stalked off leaving them watch her depart. It was several minutes before a low chorus of murmurs began to circulate once more through the room as the soldiers present, quietly discussed the situation.

Gabrielle lifted her fingers to her temples and rubbed at the ache that suddenly appeared. What have I done, she moaned not understanding the strange emotions that were swirling through her head. She felt a rough hand on her elbow as Rufus lifted her from the chair.

"You are lucky she didnít kill you outright," he hissed brusquely as he escorted her out of the dining tent. "Are you stupid or do you have a death wish?"

"No, why?" Gabrielle winced as the grip on her arm tightened.

"No one talks to the Conqueror that way," he continued angrily dragging her across the courtyard to her quarters. "You best mind your tongue or you might have it cut out."

With that she was shoved into the tent and left alone. She stumbled across the floor and then slumped onto the pallet suddenly very tired. At this moment she was more afraid of Rufus then of the Conqueror might do. She lay down on the cot and closed her eyes, rubbing her temples to ease the tension that had built inside her head. She thought about what the Innkeeper from Amphipolis had said but still she was not worried.

Xena pursed her lips tightly together. She watched from the shadows of a nearby tent as the General roughly manhandled the bard to her quarters. She felt an instinctive pull to intervene but forcibly stopped herself. She had allowed this girl to get away with more than anyone else already, she could not be seen to show any more favouritism.

There was a roll of thunder and she glanced up at the dark, overcast night sky. The scent of freshly fallen rain was heavy in the air. She knew she should be angry at the bard for her interference but she was strangely pleased. She drew the sword from the scabbard on her back and twirled it around in her hand.

A smile creased her face as she thought of the dual she would face in the morning. She had complete confidence that she could defeat any challenges but she could not allow herself to be arrogant. Funny things sometimes happened in sword fights. A little stumble or a slight miscalculation and even the best warrior could be defeated by a lesser fighter. She had seen it happened several times and she never forgot those lessons.

 

chapter 3

 

Gabrielle was rousted from her fitful slumber by the insistent calling of her name. It had taken her a long time to fall asleep the previous evening, kept awake by the worry that she had somehow sentenced these men to death. In the end she resolved that at least now they had a chance. Before they had none.

She opened her eyes to a pair of smooth and muscular bare thighs. She stared at them for a long moment appreciating the view before allowing her eyes to travel up the long, length of leather clad body that stood towering over her. Startled she sat up aware that a pair of intense pale blue eyes were staring intently at her.

"I thought you might like to watch the proceedings," the Conqueror said in a low throaty voice.

"Iíd rather..." Gabrielle was about to say no but she remembered what General Rufus had said the previous evening. Besides she was the one who had suggested giving the men a second chance. She supposed it was only right for her to watch the consequences of her intervention.

"Youíd rather what?"

"Nothing," she said hastily trying to smooth over her hesitation.

"No," the towering woman said firmly. "What were you about to say?"

"Iím not one who enjoys fighting," Gabrielle let out her breath unable to meet the other womanís gaze. "I donít think I could watch those men die."

"What if I am the one to die?" It was an honest question and Gabrielle glanced up with startled eyes.

"I just naturally thought..." her voice trailed away.

"That Iíd win," the Conqueror quirked an eyebrow, amused and a little proud that this girl knew of her reputation. She dropped to her hunches so their faces were level. "There are no guarantees in life except that death will eventually come. Any good fighter will tell you that sometimes victory only comes from the will of the Gods."

There was silence as they stared at each other. A faint jolt of energy passed between them and Xena recognized again the look she had seen in the girlís eyes the previous evening when she had leaned

across the table. She had meant to intimidate the girl but it hadnít worked. She had struggled with her self control not to close the space between them and kiss the bard. She had seen the same conflict in the girlís eyes.

"Come," the Conqueror said standing up. "You said you wanted to write a story about me, perhaps this will be one the people will remember forever. The Conqueror dies, killed by honourable intentions. Just think you will have been there to see it. You wouldnít want to miss that, would you?"

Gabrielle shook her head not trusting herself to speak. She didnít want to see anyone die, not even this woman whom she knew she should hate but didnít.

"Will the fight be fair?" she asked tossing off her blankets, acutely aware of the intent glance the warrior cast her as she stood up in her sleeping shift. The pale blue eyes glinted.

"I have instructed Rufus to ensure that no one interferes," was the even reply.

"Will they listen?" the bard was curious and the warrior cocked an eyebrow as a smirk creased her lips.

"I am not popular, not even among my own soldiers," Xena was honest. "Most of them would be quite happy if someone put a sword through my breast."

"Then why do they fight for you?" Gabrielle was confused.

"Every soldier wants to be in the winning army. They want to fight but they also want a full belly. They want to share in the spoils that victory brings. Many do not care under whose banner they fight as long as they get what they want. The soldiers in my army are not loyal. They are with me because I am a winner," there was a slight pause. "No one will interfere. Now hurry up, I am anxious to fight."

With that the Conqueror spun around on her heel and stalked out of the tent. Gabrielle watched for a moment and then hastily retrieved her travelling clothes. She dreaded the thought of watching the fight but she was also anxious to see the Conqueror in action.

Rufus watched grimly as the Empress emerged from the tent where the bard was staying. Instinct told him that something was up but he couldnít figure out what. His eyes narrowed as the Conqueror strolled across the courtyard where the soldiers were beginning to gather in anticipation of the upcoming fight. He could see the way she flexed her muscles in preparation for battle. There was a feral smile on her face and he knew that she would enjoy this mornings exercise. A shiver raced up his spine and he felt a moment of pity for the men she would face.

His attention was momentarily diverted by the bard as she came rushing out of her tent. Something was going on between the two women yet he wasnít quite certain what it was. The Conqueror had never allowed anyone to speak to her the way the girl had done the previous evening, not without being severely punished. Briefly he wondered if the bard was one of the Empressí spies.

He caught her eye and motioned her to join him on the platform that faced out onto the square. A circle of soldiers now ringed the courtyard as the prisoners were brought out of their jails. Gabrielle instantly recognized the four men as the ones who had approached her at the lake. She sucked in her breath, uncertain what to think as she glanced at the Conqueror who was looking at her with a smile.

"Do you see that woman there?" Xena turned her attention to the four men and motioned to Gabrielle. The bard saw their eyes widen in recognition. "She asked me to spare your lives. Unfortunately that would be unfair to all those people who are honest and fair. So at her insistence I have agreed to give you a second chance. Together you will fight me, if you win you are free to go. If you donít...."

She allowed her voice to drift, allowing them to fill in the rest. The Conqueror nodded to the Weaponís Master who tossed a variety of deadly armaments down on the ground at the prisonerís feet, while she unsheathed her sword.

Gabrielle caught her breath, enhanced by the primeval look of the Conqueror as she braced herself for battle. She watched as the men hastily snatched up the weapons and advanced. She didnít want to watch but she found herself drawn to the scene.

There was a clanging of metal as blades of steel clashed together and then groans of pain as sharp edges found bare flesh. Though outnumbered the Conqueror was in complete control, swinging her sword to deflect a blow or jumping aside to avoid a thrust. It was almost like a beautiful and intricate dance and Gabrielle knew she would have enjoyed it if it hadnít had such deadly consequences. She was mesmerised by the fluid movement of the warrior. At times her actions seemed physically impossible and more than once the bard thought it was over but the Conqueror would make some deft move and avoid being trapped.

Xena enjoyed this exercise and though she felt the sting of metal as several thrust came close, she easily handled her opponents. Finally she wearied of the battle and the next thrust that got through pierced one manís heart. The next swing sent another manís head rolling across the square. She faced the remaining two men. The blood in her veins beginning to boil, the animal in her out in the open. They attacked and she fought back gutting one man before impaling the last.

Gabrielle stared with sickening fascination at the carnage in the square. Her guts were churning even while a tiny part of her was relieved that nothing had happened to the Empress. Out of the corner of her eyes she caught sight of something that didnít seem right.

"Xena behind you," she screamed and the alert Conqueror whirled around in time to grab the arrow that was headed towards her back. In the next motion her sword was flying through the air and lodging into the chest of a man still clinging to an empty crossbow.

The Conqueror glared at the men standing in a circle around the square and they collectively took a step backwards in fear. She stalked over to the dead man and pulled out her weapon, spinning it around in her hand. Her eyes were wild and they could all see the animal in her. The animal that made her Ares Chosen.

"Iím here now, is there someone brave enough to face me or are you all cowards like this man?í she asked of the gathering. There was complete silence and even Rufus a man who had fought in many fierce battles was afraid to move least he draw her attention. "I thought not." There was another pause. "I have an announcement before you disperse. From now at the time of planting and harvest, unless otherwise engaged you will be dispatched to the nearby villages to help in the fields."

There was a shocked surprise and then a low rumble of murmurs that filtered through the camp. The Conqueror slowly turned on her heel taking in the scene with a glowering stare. Silence fell over the square.

"Anyone not agreeing with my new policy are welcome to step forward and challenge my authority," she invited again and Gabrielle glanced with baited breath at the soldiers. She knew that if the men wanted to do something they could. They far outnumbered the Conqueror and even though she was a good fighter, there was no way she would be able to defeat everyone.

"We are fighting men," someone dared to shout from the safety of the crowd.

"Who will grow lazy with no battles," the Conqueror replied icily. "You will help in the fields or you will no longer fight in my army. Rufus I wish to speak to you."

With that the Empress turned and strolled towards her quarters. Every muscles in the Generalís body tensed and Gabrielle could feel his seething anger radiate from every pore. She watched as he waved for his second-in-command to clear the bodies away before hastily hurrying after his Commander. He

knew that he was to be disciplined. There was nothing that the Conqueror despised more then an undisciplined army.

"I am disappointed in you Rufus," the Conqueror said without turning to look at her General. They were alone in her tent and though she was turned away from him, he could feel her rage. "Your men are undisciplined and arrogant." He watched stiffly as she turned to face him. He visibly flinched at the cold rage that he saw in her pale blue eyes. "Give me a reason why I would not kill you as an example to them?"

The General stood silently. He knew that there would be no reason that the Conqueror would find acceptable for the behaviour of his men, so he remained speechless. He squared his shoulders and prepared himself to die. He could not know that his refusal to make excuses was the only thing that saved his life.

"You are wise to keep your mouth shut," the Conqueror growled turning away and pouring some wine from the pitcher on a table into a nearby mug. She was still struggling to put the warlord back into the part of her soul that it occupied. She turned back to the man. "You are lucky that I am in a charitable mood, however I will not excuse any more such behaviour from your men. You are a good soldier and I am trying to think of any reason not to make you an example to the rest of your men. So I will say this only once. Find the one who questioned my authority in the square and kill him as well as anyone associated with the soldier who so cowardly tried to assassinate me. If you fail to do so then I will be forced to take action and I assure you if that happens you may no longer have an army to guide and if there is no army then there is no reason for your existence. Now get out of my sight before I change my mind and kill you anyway."

Rufus wordlessly backed out of the tent, afraid to turn his back on the woman. He paused for a moment to catch his breath realizing that he had miraculously survived. The features on his face darkened. He would have to find those responsible for the attack on the Empress and he would make an example of them for he had no doubt that she would take matters into her own hands as she promised.

Gabrielle hung unobserved around the edges of the square as the soldiers cleared the bodies away and then dispersed, returning to their regular duties. She could feel the tension in the air and it sent a shiver down her spine. She waited until Rufus came rushing out of the Empressí quarters, murmuring under his breath. He ignored her and so she was able to saunter unimpeded over to the Conquerorís tent. She knocked on the pole outside the door.

"Who is it?" Xena barked in an angry growl as she took another swig from the mug of wine. She was in no mood for any visitors. She was in a foul temper and several of the cuts that she had received in the fight had gone deeper then she had thought. All she wanted was to be alone so she could stitch up her wounds.

"Itís just me," Gabrielle announced quietly, stepping through the flap door and the Conqueror whirled around to see the bard standing tentatively just inside the tent.

"What do you want?" the question was almost a snarl.

Gabrielle winced at the tone of voice but she squared her shoulders. "I came to see if you were all right." She had seen the Empress take a couple of hits and now she allowed her eyes to run quickly over the tall warriors body, noticing the cuts on her thighs.

"Iím all right," the Conqueror barked gruffly yet it was without the same fierceness as before. Something inside her told her that she would be unable to intimidate this girl.

"Youíre hurt," the bard disagreed pointing at the cut on her thigh and the blood that was running down her leg. Xena briefly glanced at the wound. She had been showing off, wanting this girl to be amazed by her ability and strength. That was the reason she had toyed with the men as long as she had and thus the reason she had taken a few blows.

"Itís nothing," she dismissed the injury.

"Please let me stitch it for you."

Silence enveloped the pair and for a moment pale blue eyes met sea green ones. No words were passed. It had been a long time since anyone had gone out of there way to help her. Most every one she knew wanted to see her bleed. She merely shrugged and sat down on the edge of the cot.

Gabrielle moved immediately across the room to the basin on a table stand by the bed. She poured some water into the bowl from a nearby pitcher and then grabbed a linen cloth that she could use to clean the wound. She knelt in front of the Conqueror and silently began to tend to the injury. Xena swallowed finding it difficult to breathe, aware of how soft the bardís hands felt against her skin.

"Well, it looks like your story isnít going to have a happy ending," she mused dryly, needing the words to defuse her thoughts from the sensations that were rippling through her body.

"It almost did," the bard replied without thinking as she remembered the soldier with the crossbow.

"Iím sorry I couldnít oblige you," Xena said in a tight voice, masking the unexpected hurt she felt at the girlís comment. "But I would like to live a little longer yet."

"Oh my...I didnít mean it that way," Gabrielle stammered, flushed with embarrassment. "What I meant was you were almost killed by that crossbow arrow."

"Yah, I got lucky," the Conqueror murmured. She was almost ashamed to admit the truth. "Your warning saved me."

The bard averted her eyes, the colour in her face deepening. She said nothing. Could she admit the truth, she wondered. Was she brave enough to say that she was fascinated by her and didnít want their acquaintance to end just yet. No, she decided and remained silent.

"Why did you do it?" the Conqueror wondered quietly. "If the truth ever got out that you saved me, people will treat you badly."

"It doesnít matter," the bard responded in the same quiet voice. "As much as I might disagree with your policies and methods, I couldnít let you be killed in cold blooded murder."

"Then it was my lucky day," Xena murmured softly and then did something she had not done for many years. "Thank you."

Gabrielleís hands jerked unconsciously at the words of gratitude and she glanced up to look at the womanís face. There was no expression on her tanned features but she could see in the pale blue depths of her eyes that it was sincere.

"Youíre welcome," she mumbled confused by the wash of emotions that flooded through her body. She smiled unexpectedly. "Iím glad I could return the favour. Where is the needle and gut, this will need some stitches?"

Xena nodded towards a pouch on a table and the bard moved across the room, selected what she needed before returning to her knees in front of the warrior. She was careful as she stitched the wound marvelling that the woman did not flinch once as she pierced her skin with the sharp instrument. There was silence until she finished and when she finally moved away the Conqueror glanced down at the wound. The stitches were small and there would not be a scar.

Gabrielle put the needle and remainder of the gut back in the pouch and then turned to face the Conqueror. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at the tall woman thoughtfully. There was something else she needed to say.

"Thank you for making the soldiers available to the villagers."

"I donít know if anyone will appreciate the effort," the Conqueror commented wryly. "As you heard the announcement wasnít greeted very well by the troops."

"There probably will be some distrust in the beginning from both sides," the bard agreed, "but I think once every one gets used to the idea it will work out." There was a slight pause as she watched the taller woman stand up and test her leg. "Why did you do it?"

Xena shrugged. "It was a good idea that made sense. I donít need a lazy army on my hands. Besides the more the farmers can produce the more I can put in my coffers." There was another pause as pale blue eyes focused on the girl "Do you carry any kind of weapon?"

"I told you before I donít like fighting," Gabrielle replied no longer able to look at the other woman. "I have no desire to kill anyone even in self defence."

There was silence as the Empress studied the girl. She could see that she was stubborn and principled but she didnít like the idea that the bard travelled about the countryside without some means of protection. It was odd but she didnít want to analzye why she cared.

"Here. I have a weapon that is not deadly, but something you can use to defend yourself if needed," the Conqueror stood up and crossed the tent. From a corner she selected a stave and Gabrielle watched as she shifted it in her hands. The taller woman turned and held it out and the bard casually accepted the offering, immediately feeling the unfamiliar weight in her arms.

"You can have that," Xena said gruffly. "Iím not always going to be around to chase away every thief that might accost you during your travels." There was a slight pause and a hint of a smile on the dour features of the stoic woman. "When you donít need it for defending yourself it can also be used to lean on when you grow tired while walking."

Gabrielle smiled at the gesture and then chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. Perhaps it would be helpful if she knew how to protect herself. Until now she had been fortunate but she knew her good luck wouldnít last forever. "Will you teach me how to use it?"

The warrior merely nodded. "Come."

They left the tent and walked through the camp to the drilling field. Xena began the lesson by explaining how to handle and use the innocent looking staff. This instruction was followed by several exercises and after a few misses Gabrielle soon got the hang of its use. The Conqueror was surprised and pleased by the girlís dexterity and grace. It was time for noon meal when the Empress finally called a halt to the session. The bard glanced down at herself realizing she was covered in sweat and dust.

"Come I know of a quiet place where we can have a bath and an undisturbed meal," the Conqueror said interpreting the girlís thoughts. They retrieved a basket of goodies from the kitchen and a pair of linen cloths from her tent. She had no desire in dining with the rest of her sweating soldiers and it was to nice a day to take her meal alone in her quarters. Gabrielle was only to ready to agree. She had enjoyed the physical aspect of their exercise and already certain parts of her body ached.

They walked for half a candlemark before passing through a stand of trees and coming out into a small glade with a placid looking lake in the middle. There were wild flowers of all colours peeking up through the tall grass. They found a quiet spot along the bank and stripping off their clothes they dove together into the cool water. After washing off the dust they climbed out drying off before dressing and settling onto the blanket to share the basket of food. Gabrielle was pleased to see a variety of goodies that included cheese, bread and fruit.

The bard was silent, enjoying the peace of the afternoon. She chanced a sideways glance at her companion. She had never thought that in her wildest dreams she would ever get to see or meet the feared Conqueror yet here she was sitting under a small tree sharing a picnic with the woman.

A tiny smile cracked the corners of her lips as she tried to imagine what her family would say if they knew what was happening. Her parents would be horrified and even Lila, who was more open then the others would be shocked. She knew her friends in Amphipolis would have the same reaction.

"Why are you smiling?" the Warrior asked seeing the look on the girlís face as she munched on a chunk of cheese.

"I was just imagining what my friends would say if they knew I was sharing a meal with the Conqueror of Greece."

"They would probably be horrified."

"Probably," Gabrielle conceded. "Everyone sees you as this cruel blood thirsty warlord."

"I am a cruel, blood thirsty warlord," Xena replied blandly but the girl only continued to smile.

"Yes, but you are also a human being with the same emotions as the rest of us," the bard said. "Look how nice you have been to me."

Xena was silent. She couldnít explain her reaction to this woman. She didnít know why she was indulging in her impulses. Perhaps she concluded it was because she was caught at a moment of loneliness and this girl seemed a safe and amusing diversion.

"Donít be fooled," she said in reflex. "You mean nothing to me. I could kill you just as soon as sit here and have lunch with you."

Gabrielle was momentarily flustered by this response. She knew she should have been afraid but she sensed something else in the womanís words, just as she had come to determine there was something more then the stoic mask she wore on her face. The Conqueror had spoken on reflex. A reflex to protect herself.

"I donít think you could," she murmured softly denying the claim and the Warrior glanced at her sharply, startled by the earnest voice.

"I am beginning to think you are cracked in the head."

"No," the bard laughed and then continued undeterred by the reaction. "Maybe before you knew me you could have killed me, but now that you do know me and know that I am harmless, you have nothing to fear and therefore have no reason to kill me."

Xena stared at the girl. You are not harmless and you are the most feared thing to come into my life.

The words tumbled through her brain, shocking her own self, but she easily dismissed them. This girl could not fight.

Gabrielle used this silence to press her point. "Most people see you as this heartless person who rampaged through Greece destroying everything in sight."

"I did that," the Conqueror acknowledged wondering what this woman was getting at.

"Yes but you never killed any children or harmed helpless people."

"Children died because of what I did," Xena corrected softly, unwilling to let this bard believe any lies. "Helpless people were trampled beneath the hooves of my army. I am not a good person."

There was silence as Gabrielle glanced at her companion. She saw something in the Conquerorís eyes that she had not expected. There was a sadness, a remorse that no ruthless warlord could have conjured up. The truth was it only continued to stir the belief that Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Empress of Greece wasnít as bad as she liked to portray herself.

"I still donít think you are as tough as you pretend," the girl concluded and then shoved a piece of bread into her mouth.

The Conqueror was frozen, unable to move for almost a quarter of a candlemark. She had been restless, driven by some invisible force of late and this womanís words had touched on a very sensitive area of her thoughts. She had locked away all her crimes in a prison inside her head and she thought it was safely buried there but suddenly all these thoughts and feelings came rushing back to her.

Since Cortese she had been singularly characterized as a cruel warlord and in order to survive she had developed the tough as leathers attitude. She was the Conqueror and in order to remain in charge she had ruled with an iron fist burying the humanity of her personality. It annoyed her that this slip of a girl, hardly more then a child, had so accurately seen this.

She sat in the shadows watching the bard perform later that evening, remembering their afternoon conversation. She had been tempted to prove to the girl that she was wrong but she had been unable to raise a fist let alone a sword against her.

"Who are you?" she whispered staring across the crowded room at the girl.

Gabrielle unexpectedly looked up and met pale blue eyes, so intense that she thought she would be swallowed whole by their depths. Later that night as she lay in the darkness of her tent she wondered what was happening to her. She was doing and saying things without thought, she was walking on a narrow cliff in danger of tumbling over the edge, yet she couldnít help herself. She couldnít turn back.

chapter four

 

"Gabrielle are you awake," a low voice cut through the darkness, its tone already familiar to her ears.

"Yes," the bard sat up on her pallet.

"I want to show you something," the Conqueror called and nodding to herself, the bard slipped out of bed. She found the tall woman sitting on a large golden horse just outside her door. "Give me your hand."

"Iím not dressed," the bard said automatically glancing down at the thin sleeping shift she was wearing.

"It wonít matter where weíre going, there will be no one there to see you," came the laconic response. "Now, give me your hand."

Gabrielle immediately complied and felt herself lifted up onto the back of the horse. She hated horses and instinctively her arms circled the warriors waist as she hung on tightly, burying her face in the womanís back.

"Hey," Xena laughed unexpectedly. "Let me breathe."

"Sorry," Gabrielle immediately apologized loosening her grip. "I hate horses."

"Iíll take it easy," the warrior promised and then clicked her heels to get the horse moving.

They rode unmolested out of the camp, passed the soldiers on guard duty and into the night. They were unaware that they were being observed by more then the night watch. Several pairs of curious eyes followed their progress.

"What do you think sheís up too?" General Rufus mused outloud to his companion.

"I donít know, maybe sheís courting the bard," Argus replied with a cruel smirk.

"Thatís disgusting," the General replied icily. He didnít want to think of the Conqueror with the innocent girl.

"Maybe, but you know she takes both kinds as lovers," the large bearded man replied and Rufus scowled.

He wanted the bard for himself. He knew of her innocence and so had tempered his own desires, hoping his patience would be rewarded. It angered him to think of the Conqueror stealing something that he thought of as his own.

"I want you to trail them, see where they go," Rufus made the decision and then watched as Argus glanced sharply in his direction. "You are just there offering protection."

The man nodded before hurrying off to collect his horse.

Xena made sure the horse didnít go too fast along the trail, concerned for her passenger. Besides the arms wrapped around her waist were warm and strangely comforting. She didnít want to end the contact any to soon.

They followed a path through the surrounding woods and up the slope into the nearby mountains. Gabrielle peered through the darkness at her surroundings. She had never ventured this far off the roads, weary of what was lurking so far inland. She knew she should be afraid now but she felt completely secure, somehow knowing that her companion would offer all the protection she needed.

She took a deep breath, savouring the clear, crisp night air as she rested her head on her companions back. She could feel the warmth of the woman in front of her and it instilled a strange peace over her senses. She was happy, almost giddy, yet didnít have a clue as to why.

After what seemed like a long time they emerged into a clearing by a large mountain pool with a waterfall which glimmered in the brilliant moonlight. She caught her breath at the still beauty as her companion brought them to a ledge before stopping the horse.

Xena swung one leg over the horses neck before sliding to the ground. She turned to help the bard down and Gabrielle was amazed how easily the woman was able to lift her to the ground. After tethering the horse, they strolled along a narrow path up along side the waterfall until they were on a ledge. From this perch they could see out over the trees to the valley below. Gabrielle sighed involuntarily. She could make out the military camp with its bonfires.

"You canít really make it out," Xena said pointing in one direction down the valley, "but on a clear day you can see Amphipolis from here."

The bard followed her gaze and strained her eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of a torchlight or fire that would pinpoint the town. But it was to distant and she could see nothing. She slumped down onto a nearby rock and breathed deeply, savouring the night air and its familiar sounds.

"This is beautiful," the girl sighed, her eyes scanning the placid lake below and the shimmering mist of the waterfall. "How did you know about this place?"

"I found it as a child," the Conqueror reminisced. "When I was much younger my brothers and I would wander the countryside. I think we discovered every nook and cranny from here to Antienemus. We would be gone for hours and worried our mother senseless."

Gabrielle sensed a wistful note in the voice of her raven haired companion. There was a sadness about this woman that was hard to describe.

"It sounds like you had a lot of fun as a child," she said softly and watched as the Conqueror nodded her head.

"Yes," a rueful smile etched its way across the warriors lips. "Until we spent our first night out and then our mother refused to allow us to go exploring again."

Gabrielle couldnít help but wonder how someone, who had such pleasant memories of childhood could become the Destroyer of Nations. She wanted to ask but realized she might be pushing her luck. The mood around them was so peaceful she didnít want to disturb that.

"I could never go far from my village," she said instead revealing something of her own childhood. "It was to dangerous with all those marauding bands and my parents were terrified that my sister and I would get hurt."

Xena was silent. She estimated that the bard was nearly a decade younger then herself. She would have grown up amid her tremulous rampaging years. The girlís parents would have been afraid of the armies that she was leading across the land.

"Your parents were right to be worried," came the stoic reply. "Even now it is dangerous, I cannot understand how they allowed you to go off on your own."

"They donít have much choice," Gabrielle admitted quietly. "They know they canít keep me locked up and thatís the only way I would stay there."

"Was it so bad?" the Conqueror wanted to know.

"No," the bard shook her head. "They were great but I always wanted something different then what

I had there. My parents thought that would change in time and so arranged a marriage with a local man. I considered marrying him but then realized just how my life would be so instead I ran away and by the time I returned several moons later, my parents realized they couldnít dictate my life. We came to an understanding after that."

"Are you happy now?"

"Yes," Gabrielle said without thought. "Iíve gotten to meet a lot of nice people and have even been to Athens several times. Iím living the kind of life I had always dreamed about." There was a slight hesitation. "What did you dream about when you were a child?"

"Being a warrior," the Conqueror replied with a grim smile.

"Gosh, your dreams really came true," the bard acknowledged with some amazement. She didnít hesitate this time before voicing her next question. "Do you ever wish it were different?"

Xena was startled by the question. She glanced sharply at her companion but there was only an open curiosity on the girlís face. The silence lengthened between them.

"I have everything, anyone could want, why would I wish anything was different?" she finally answered with a question of her own.

"I donít know," Gabrielle shrugged, drawing her knees up and hugging them. "Sometimes we fulfil our dreams only to find out it wasnít what weíd imagined."

"Is that the way you feel?"

"No, I love what I do and I couldnít imagine doing anything different, yet the reality isnít always as glamorous as it sounds," the girl was honest. "I am on the road a lot and have a lot of adventures but sometimes it is really very lonely. Itís hard not having someone to talk too, someone who is your friend who knows whatís happened or whatís going on," the bard became daring, not completely understanding why she was so bold. "I imagine you must get pretty lonely."

"I am constantly surrounded by people," the Conqueror hastily claimed.

"But do you trust them," the bard persisted. "Are any of them your friends?"

Xena hadnít expected this direct a question. She was silent as she tried to formulate a response. Normally she would have snapped back an angry retort and punished the asker but there was something about this girlís gentle probing that didnít annoy her. Perhaps it was the bardís innocence or her total lack of pretension, but her normal reactions here were conspicuously absent.

She turned her gaze out over the darkened landscape as she reconsidered her answer. She was lonely. Wasnít that the reason for her restlessness? Wasnít that why she tolerated this small woman? It probably was, but she was not about to admit that to anyone.

"You sure talk a lot," she commented instead and Gabrielle knew this was the Conquerorís way of closing the discussion.

"Iím a bard, thatís what I do," she replied with a faint blush and her companion laughed. It was such a deep and rich sound that the bard found herself mesmerised by the echo that seemed to resonate through the darkness.

"I guess it is," Xena agreed unable to control the smile that creased her face. "So tell me a story."

Gabrielle smiled and immediately launched into one of her most favourite tales. It was a story of when she was small and she went with her parents to Amphipolis and the adventures they encountered.

Argus listened from his hiding spot in the woods. He didnít know what Rufus wanted but he was decidedly uncomfortable spying on the Conqueror. They said she was like a hawk and nothing got passed her vision or hearing. More than once she had glanced in his direction and though the shadows had hidden him, he felt she was staring right at him.

He listened to the tale for a bit and then slide back further into the forest. There was nothing he could bring to his Commander and he knew the safest thing was to retreat before being caught.

Xena knew they were being spied upon yet she had felt no danger in the hidden manís presence. She suspected that Rufus had sent one of his loyal soldiers to spy on her. She trusted him no more than any of the others under her command.

It was almost near dawn before Xena decided it was time to return to the camp. Her companion had long since fallen asleep and was resting her head against her shoulder, snoring lightly. The Conqueror smiled at the incredulous situation aware that no one would believe it possible. The smile immediately disappeared. No one would find out, she decided. Gently she stood up, lifting the bard with her. She whistled and Argo came trotting out of the darkness. Careful so as not to disturb the slumbering girl, she hoisted them both onto the tall war horse and then cradling the girl in her arms, she clicked her heels signalling the animal forward.

It was late the next morning before Gabrielle was rousted from her slumber. She lay for a moment studying her surroundings and wondering how she had gotten back to her cot. The last thing she could remember was sitting on a rock next to the Conqueror by a quiet mountain lake. With some embarrassment she realized that she must have fallen asleep, which meant that the Conqueror had brought her back here. Quietly she lay in bed, savouring the thought along with the moments she had spent in the Conquerorís company.

This will make a great story, she told herself yet knew at the same time that her interest in the tall warrior went beyond any bardic value. She had found the woman to be nothing like she imagined. In a way the woman was a chameleon and Gabrielle suspected that much of her outer fierceness was a mask. A mask forged to cover a kinder nature. A nature she had been forced to bury to survive the life she had created. Since meeting the Empress she had seen glimpses of another person lurking in the depths of those pale blue eyes. A person who was weary about showing itself in public.

There was a knock on her tent and she scrambled out of bed just as one of the soldiers, acting as a retainer for the Conqueror entered bearing a tray. He glanced at her and then at the ground as he put the basket down on the table next to the bed.

"The Empress asked that we deliver you breakfast," he mumbled backing towards the doorway. "She requests that you meet her on the training field in a candlemark."

Gabrielle nodded and the man was gone before she had a chance to thank him. She glanced at the basket and smiled. There was a good assortment of food stuffs from bread and cheese to wildberries. There was even a thick slice of nutbread. She polished off the meal in good time and then scrambled into her clothes. The Conqueror was already in the practice area by the time she arrived.

"Good morning," she greeted cheerfully and the warrior nodded.

"Morning," Xena motioned to the bard. "Take up your position."

Gabrielle was a little disconcerted at the formality of her companion and suspected it was a front for the soldiers who had gathered to watch them exercise. She forgot about it and concentrated on the practice. By the time the sun was overhead the bardís hands were raw and her arms and shoulders ached. She was relieved when the Conqueror called a halt to the session.

"You can tell me when you are tired," Xena said slightly annoyed when she noticed the bardís discomfort though she admired the girlís gritty spirit. Gabrielle flushed with embarrassment. She could not say that a part of her did not want to appear weak to this tall woman.

"Iím okay, just a little sore," she replied unwilling to admit just how much her muscles were protesting from this exercise.

"Come I have some salve that will help," the Empress said and lead the bard back through the compound to her own private quarters. "Sit on the bed," she instructed and then went to a pouch that was stored in a corner.

Gabrielle did as she was instructed, her eyes taking a glance about the room. She had been there once before but hadnít taken the time to look around. It was a simple place, standard for a field camp quarters. There were no luxuries to indicate that this woman ruled all of Greece.

"Lean your head forward," Xena motioned and then moved the girlís hair out of the way, she knelt on the bed behind the bard and then gently applied the lotion to the bare skin she found.

Gabrielle tried not to jump but there was a definite spark when the older woman gently touched her naked skin. She closed her eyes, momentarily speechless as a warmth, not entirely from the salve, spread throughout her body. She swallowed and closed her eyes.

Xena kneaded the muscles feeling the knots and understanding part of the tension she found there. She moved from the neck and shoulders down each arm and she could feel the bard go limp, the tension slowly easing out of her body.

The Conqueror took a deep breath and filled her lungs with the sweet scent of the woman in front of her. She enjoyed running her hands over the soft smooth skin and imagined what it would be like to make love to this woman. The thought sent a tingling throughout her entire body. Abruptly she finished the therapeutic massage and slipped off the bed, chiding herself for allowing herself to dream.

She glanced covertly at the bard as she straightened. It was useless to think that there could be anything between them. Gabrielle was so different. She was a lightness to her darkness. There was no chance that they could be friends much less anything else. Yet these last few days she had felt a glimmer of something she had known as a child. A glimmer of what----hope, trust, loyalty, affection. She wasnít certain for it had been a long time since she had felt anything. It was hard for her too remember what any of those were.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said in a quiet voice struggling with the strange feelings that filled her entire being. It was something unfamiliar. Something she was willing to explore further.

"Youíre welcome," the warrior said in a nonchalant voice as she strolled across the room and leaned against a table crossing her arms over her chest. She had needed to put some distance between the bard and herself, afraid of what she might do if she didnít.

"I really enjoyed lastnight," the younger woman continued aware of an invisible tension that was building quietly between them. "It was so beautiful."

"I thought you might like it," Xena shrugged indifferently, acutely aware of the way her heart began to beat just a little faster. It made her absurdly happy to know she had pleased the other woman.

"How?"

"How what?" the Conqueror was perplexed.

"How did you know I would like it?" Gabrielle wanted to know.

"The bard thing I guess," the Empress shrugged again almost caught off guard by the question. She should have known the girl would be curious. "I assumed bardís liked that kind of stuff."

"Yes, we do," the girl confirmed and then decided to be bold. She was never anything less. "I would love to see it during the day. Get a different perspective."

Xena was quiet, aware of the sudden skip of her heart as she looked across at those green eyes. She was usually immune to such things but today she found herself responding in a way she never had before.

"That can be arranged," she replied not breaking their look. Before another word could be spoken there was a knock on the door. "Enter!"

Rufus stepped through the threshold and glanced about the room. His sharp eyes were quick to noticed the details. The bard was sitting on the bed fiddling with the hem of her skirt, while the Conqueror was casually leaning against a table on the other side of the room. In spite of the distance between them, he could sense the tension. An anger stirred deep inside his gut. He did not have to use much of an imagination to understand what was going on. Despite his inner rage, he was careful to keep his face an emotionless mask.

"My Empress I need to speak with you in private. It regards the matter we discussed yesterday," he finally spoke breaking the silence that enveloped the room.

"What is it?" she asked unable to hide her impatience at being interrupted.

"We have rounded up all those involved with the attempt on your life yesterday," Rufus paused swallowing to wet his dry throat, aware that the Conqueror was barely listening to him. "What do you wish for me to do with them?"

There was silence and the room was suddenly filled with a tension that had nothing to do with the situation that the General had interrupted. The Empress felt a rage inside her begin to stir. This was not a subject she wanted to address in front of the bard yet the warlord inside her could not help but use the situation. She looked at the girl sitting so quietly on her bed.

"What do you suggest I do?" the question was posed to the bard.

Gabrielle swallowed. She knew why the Conqueror was asking. She had jumped to the defence of the thieves that had threatened her so now she suspected that the Empress was expecting her to do the same for these men. Funny thing was she didnít have that inclination. She had no desire to defend anyone who sought to hurt her new friend.

Xena was somewhat surprised by the girlís silence but did not press her. She would ask the bard why, but later when they were alone. She turned her anger on Rufus and her eyes narrowed as she caught the Generalís fugitive glance at the bard. She had a suspicion about why he had chosen this moment to bring this matter to her attention.

"Do what you normally do to soldiers who betray the Empire," she said leisurely throwing the decision back into his lap.

Rufus stiffened aware that his small plan had backfired. For him now to say something would diminish his own statute in the bardís eyes. He had hoped for the Empress to pronounce judgement so that the girl would see how cruel the woman could be. He felt a surge of anger rise up inside his stomach but he clamped a tight control over his feelings.

"Is there anything else?" the Conqueror asked with raised eyebrows.

"No," the man swallowed.

"Then handle the problem. I am busy," Xena dismissed him with a casual wave of her hand, her eyes turning back to the bard.

"But...."

"But what?" she asked harshly, fixing him with a hard look from her icy blue eyes.

"I thought you might wish to handle this matter personally, seeing it was an attempt against your person," Rufus continued in a halting voice.

"That is why I have you," she reminded patronizingly, in a deliberately cool voice as her lips curled into a menacing smile. "If you canít handle your position as Commander just tell me. Iím certain I can find someone willing to take your place."

"Yes, Iím sorry for disturbing you," Rufus nodded grimly and then hastily retreated out of the room. He paused once outside, taking a deep breath to steady his shaking nerves and to gain control of the anger that was surging through his body. He noticed Argus standing in the middle of the parade square and stalked over to the man.

"She has humiliated me for the last time," he rasped with uneven breaths. "If itís the last thing I do, I will destroy Xena, the Empress."

Gabrielle sat quietly, staring at the tall woman for a long moment. The sudden change in demeanour and presence had been startling, it was as if she had been looking at an entirely different person.

"Did you have to be so cruel?í she dared to ask instinctively sensing that the same fury would not be directed at her. Indeed when the Conqueror turned to look at her, the expression on her face had softened.

"A warlord cannot be soft on their men, if they are, the soldiers will turn on their leader."

"So you rule through fear?"

"Do not blind yourself," the Conqueror spoke softly. "There isnít one of my Generalís who wouldnít love to put a sword in my back. They all lust after my position and power. They all wish to take my place."

"Donít you think that might change if you treated them better?" Gabrielle was not shy with her questions.

"Mine is a cruel business. The people around me know, no other way. I cannot afford to be soft," Xena replied honestly. "If I am, they will think me weak and then they will challenge my authority."

"But you are stronger than all of them," the bard spoke the truth as she knew it.

"I may be strong, but I am not strong enough to fight them all," was the surprisingly honest answer. "Letís forget about such grim political problems. You wanted to see the falls by the light of the day."

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded. She sensed an undercurrent of emotion in the warriors voice but she said nothing and allowed herself only to think about the wonderful way she felt and the beautiful things she was discovering, But her nature was such that she could not entirely dismiss the subject and delicately broached the matter several days later when they were sitting in a glade filled with a multitude of colourful flowers.

"Doesnít it bother you to know everyone hates you?" the bard dared to ask. The bright sunlight was bathing the clearing and sparkling off the clear water in the stream.

"I donít think about it," was the truth. Xena shrugged. "It doesnít much matter."

"I find that hard to believe," Gabrielle shook her head not understanding. She drew her knees up into her arms.

"Itís not something that ever had been important to me," the woman shrugged. Once again it was the truth. She didnít really think about it, not since her family had rejected her. That was the last time she had allowed anyoneís opinion to affect her.

"I donít know how you do that," the younger woman sighed. "Every time I step out on stage to tell a story, I worry someone wonít like it."

"Why?" the Conqueror was curious, unfamiliar with this need to be popular.

"I donít know," Gabrielle admitted honestly. "I guess I have always had this need to make people happy."

"That just illustrates the difference between us," Xena said quietly. "You want to please everyone and I donít care to please anyone."

Gabrielle turned her head and stared at the other womanís profile for a long moment seeing the angular features and the high cheekbones. The woman was an enigma and the bard was more certain then ever that the stoic warrior was more than the cold hearted warrior she tried to project. The last few days had shown her that truth.

"What happened to those men that General Rufus arrested?" she dared to ask a question that had been plaguing her for days.

"They were dealt with in the same manner as all traitors are," was the solemn response. There was a long silence and the bard felt the other womanís eyes on her profile. She turned to met the gaze. "Why didnít you try to save their life?"

This was a question that Gabrielle had been expecting for some time. She turned her eyes away unable to look at the other woman as she carefully choose the words that would explain why she had said nothing.

"Would it have made a difference if I had pleaded for their lives?" she asked instead.

"No," the Empress was honest. "They threatened my life. I could not let that go unpunished. My soldiers needed to know what wouldnít be tolerated."

"Perhaps thatís why I didnít say anything," the bard sighed, hugging her knees more tightly. "I knew this was something that couldnít go unpunished."

Xena didnít know what to say in response to such a simple statement. It was a bluntly honest and told her that the girl understood what she needed to do to control her army. She gazed out at the lake her mind filled with a confusing mixture of emotions and thoughts.

She didnít know what took hold of her but for the next fortnight she spent most of her waking hours in the company of the young bard who never ceased to amaze or challenge her intellectually.

During the mornings they would spar together in the practice field and then afterwards the Conqueror would spend time dispensing with any business that arrived by messenger from the Capital. The afternoons were spent exploring the surrounding region.

It was an idyllic time and Xena found herself relaxing and enjoying herself more than she had ever done. Most of all she enjoyed the other womanís company. She found the girl, funny and highly intelligent with an opinion for just about everything. More then once she found herself arguing some silly point of philosophy with the girl and more then she cared to admit she had to change the subject rather then admit the girl was right.

In the evenings she would sit and watch as the bard performed for the soldiers, regaling them with tales about Hercules and the Gods. Afterwards they would take a walk, finding a place in the grass to lie down and stare up at the stars. It was something she hadnít done since she was a child.

A smile tipped her lips at the memory. As a child she used to sneak out at night dragging her brother Lyceus with her. They would wander out of the village into the fields were they would lie in the grass and gaze up at the stars and plan their futures. They had discussed so many dreams beneath those starry night skies.

Xena sighed. Gabrielle reminded her so much of her younger brother and that was how she summarized the attraction towards her. Lyceus had been honest and innocent and full of dreams. That realization made her pause.

She was alone on the practice field as she was every night after the bard retired, running through her sword drills and her thoughts. She stood for a very long time staring into the surrounding darkness as she realized the truth.

For the first time since Lyceus had died, she had found a friend, someone who accepted her for who she was. Someone whom she could trust, for if there was one thing she had learned about the bard it was that she was honest and open about everything.

The Conqueror turned her head seeing the darkness. Her own life was like the night and the bard was like the moon, a bright torch of light amid all the blackness. Lyceus had once been that light but it had gone out when he died. Now it was burning again.

Her limbs trembled. A part of her longed for that friendship yet another part remembered the pain she felt at Lyceusís death. She had been swallowed by a rage that had caused her to lead her army rampaging across Greece, destroying anything and anyone that got in her way.

Instinctively she knew that this would be different, losing the bard would be worse and she knew she would lose the younger woman. Her enemies would conspire and intrigue and use her as a pawn. Already she could sense the pensive gaze Rufusí cast in their direction. It was something that she would not tolerate or ignore.

No, she decided expelling a deep breath into the chilly night air. She could not risk the bard or herself. Emotions made her weak, clouded her judgement and she could afford neither. Her spies were reporting activity all over her Realm and she knew it was time to return to Corinth, to continue the life she had built and to forget what she might have found here.

She left the training area and summoned Rufus, rousting him from his slumber. She waited with a snarl on her face as he dressed. She did not like him. She certainly didnít trust him.

"Iím leaving for the Capital," she informed him briskly. "I need four horsemen to accompany my regular escort. I wish to leave immediately."

"Yes, Empress," the General nodded hiding his smile, masking the delight he felt at the news.

Gabrielle was completely taken by surprise at the news when Rufus told her the next morning. She couldnít believe the woman would leave without saying farewell. She was unable to mask her disappointment and the General was eager to take advantage of her distress.

"You were foolish if you expected anything more," he chided gently still feeling a sting over her obvious affection for the Conqueror. "You were her pet. She is notorious for playing with the affections of others. She bores easily. You were fortunate, her interest in you lasted longer than it does with most people."

Gabrielle didnít want to believe what this man said and deep down she didnít but the doubting side of her personality won. If she had been different then the others and for some reason she desperately wanted to be, then surely the woman would have at least said goodbye.

She suddenly felt very weary and decided it was time to go home to visit her family. She declined Rufusí offer of an escort and set off for Potedaia the next morning, hoping the journey back home would help her sort through her confusion.

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

Xena felt the change the instant she set back out on the road. The mood amongst the people and the soldiers she encountered had shifted. The looks were angrier and more insolent. There was something else besides fear in their eyes. There was a look of hatred and it unsettled her. It was the same looks as she had always received yet in the past she would have dismissed or completely ignored them but today for some reason they nibbled at her conscious. She knew it was a result of the time she had spent with the bard.

Xena knew she had taken the cowards way out by leaving without saying a word. She had hoped by putting distance between them she would be solving the problem that plagued her. But she realized to late that it wouldnít be so easy to forget the girl.

Upon reaching the Capital she was immediately beset with problems and for the next few days she had little time for anything but the concerns that had arisen in her absence. Titus was a capable battlefield leader, but like the rest of her Generalís, he had limited political abilities. Thus everything had fallen on Archius shoulders.

Though she was kept busy dealing with the various situations, thoughts of the bard were never far away. She missed the girlís lively company and her honest observations. A smile tipped the corners of her lips as she realized that Gabrielle had a definite opinion on every subject they had discussed, and grudgingly she had to accept that some of them even made pretty good sense.

However, the bard hadnít told her anything she didnít already know. Xena knew that she only retained her power through a fine balance of physical force, intimidation and mediation. She was well aware that the people of Greece would tolerate only so much before they would rebel.

That was the reasoning she used to justify the changes she made to the laws. She was unwilling to admit that the bard had influenced her thinking, yet it was true. She had come to accept that it was time to stop being a warlord and time to become a responsible governor to the people.

She often thought of the young woman wandering the roads of Greece and wistfully longed for the simple, carefree existence. The first time she had that thought she had been paralysed by the idea, but later she realized it was a result of the dissatisfaction she felt with her own life.

She tried not to think about it to often believing it was a wasted effort to think about what could have been. The friendship they shared had been a fleeting thing, destined to be only a brief interlude. Holding that thought she turned her attention to the days business.

"Gentlemen there are several matters of policy I would like you to take care of," the Empress said passing a piece of parchment across the desk to each of the men standing there. "The time away gave me a new perspective on matters and I thought a few changes could be made to the laws."

Titus and Archius both read their separate scrolls and then glanced at each other before turning their individual gazes over to their Ruler. The woman had stood up and walked over to the balcony window. She was looking out over the Palace grounds. After a moment she turned and met their stares. There was a hint of amusement on her face.

"Is there a problem?" she inquired softly.

"I do not understand," Titus spoke before the other man could say anything. He waved the piece of parchment he held.

"What part of it donít you understand?" she asked quietly her blue orbs boring into him, as she casually strolled back into the room. "I thought it was very simple. From now on, all the troops that are otherwise not engaged in military duties are to help the local farmers in their Regions with the planting and the harvests."

"I think it is the purpose that I fail to comprehend," the General admitted.

"The logic is very simple," the Conqueror explained. "The strength of our Empire is dependent on the quantity of resources we have. Food is one of our most important resources, without it we cannot exist as a nation, we cannot built a strong fighting army. Besides having the soldiers working alongside the local people will help to dispel the distrust the population has for them. Eventually as time passes, the soldiers with marry local girls and settle in the Region, thus establishing a firm foothold. I see it as a perfect idea."

"There will be many who will oppose this idea," the General shook his head.

"Then it is your job to see that they understand they have no choice," she said in a voice that warned him she would not accept opposition to the proposal. "I want the proclamation delivered to all the Regional Commanders."

"Yes, my Empress, I will see to it immediately," the General bowed and hurried from the room.

"Well Archius, do you have no opinion?" the Conqueror turned her attention on the slight man who remained in her presence.

"No, My Empress, though I wonder if some of this is too much to soon," he said quietly.

"I think perhaps it is long overdue," the Empress sighed. "By the last reports our treasury is healthy so there is no need for us to over tax the population and as for the travel restrictions the only people it is hurting is the general population. Those who wish to fight the Empire and my Rule will do so whether there is a travel restriction in place or not. Besides I think it will be a benefit to the whole economy for there will be more active trading across the land."

"It will," the man agreed and bowed his head respectfully. "I will see to it immediately. Oh, in case you have forgotten a Roman delegation will be arriving shortly. It is time to renew our mutual trade agreements."

"All right," the Empress sighed her blood stirring at the mention of her rivals with which she shared an uneasy alliance. "Make sure that they are heavily escorted while in the Capital."

"Yes, my Empress."

 

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

 

Gabrielle was in an odd mood and not even a visit home to see her family could restore her good spirits. She had decided to mention nothing about her extended visit with the Conqueror. She was restless and after a few days she moved on taking to the road once again, heading to Amphipolis to visit her friends.

"What happened?" Cyrene asked upon seeing the bard again. She had never been so relieved as when she had seen the bard come wandering into town. "We were so afraid something had happened to you. The Conqueror can be so unpredictable."

"No," the bard shook her head. "She was a perfect host."

There was a perceptible pause as one of the serving girls appeared with a hot plate of stew, some fresh bread and a mug of warm cider. She looked at her hosts for a moment, taking a deep breath before posing her question.

"Xena grew up here so you must have known her as a child," she said hesitantly eyeing her companions. "What was she like?"

"She was the same only smaller," was the tense reply.

"She couldnít have been like that," Gabrielle couldnít believe what Toris said. The woman she had gotten to know was different then what the world knew.

"No," Cyrene shook her head unable to meet the girlís eyes. "She was a friendly child eager to help out, but she was always very head strong and independent. She always wanted everything to be her way."

"What happened?" Gabrielle wanted to know. "What made her change?"

"She got a taste of blood and power," the older woman said in a distracted voice, her eyes wandering around the tavern. She stood up, a distant look on her face as she glanced at the bard. "Iím sorry to leave you but I see a customer in need."

The girl watched as the woman hurried off to the far end of the room. Instinct told her the Innkeeper was reluctant to discuss the Conqueror and she couldnít help wondering why.

"Xena used to be a fixture around the Inn," Toris supplied quietly without revealing the truth.

"Was it the bloodlust and the power?"

"It was a combination," the man sighed. "But I think what pushed her over the edge was the death of her younger brother Lyceus. She adored him and they did everything together. He used to tag after her like a puppy. After he was killed she wasnít the same. She became this angry person that nobody recognized."

" I think she is still that same little girl," Gabrielle said after a moment and her companionís eyes narrowed. "I think she just got lost in all that rage." Perhaps she just needs someone to show her the way back, the bard finished to herself. Perhaps for whatever reason I could be that person.

"Where are you going from here?" Toris asked in an attempt to change the subject and the bard sensed it was time to let the matter drop.

"I though about heading to the Capital and see whose still at the Academy," she offered.

It was only part of a lie, unwilling to admit the true motivating reason. It wasnít until much later when she was on the road to Corinth the doubts began to settle over her plans. There were so many things to consider like how to get into the Palace or if the Empress was interested in seeing her again. The tall Conqueror had not given her any reason to think she would welcome a visit. At her darkest moment she wondered whether Xena would even remember who she was.

But she was resilient and buried all those doubts beneath a mountain of hopeful expectations and began her plan of assaulting the Palace. She knew she would probably be able to gain entrance on the guise of being summoned to entertain. After that she would just have to follow her instincts.

The closer she got to the Capital, the more excited she became. Corinth was a busy city with a distinctive cosmopolitan flare. She had experienced its delights during her brief tenure at the Academy, but as diverse as it had been, she had always longed for the open roadway and the small towns and villages of Greece. That was where she felt most at home.

She felt the undercurrent the moment she stepped through the cities gates. As before people hurried about their business but now the merchants and traders eyed each stranger wearily. With the lifting of the travel restrictions, people had poured into the city. Normally this would have made everyone happy but these refugees arrived penniless and without the proper training in one of the trades. Without the ability to support themselves or their families it was putting a strain on the city and its residents.

Gabrielle wandered along the plazaís and avenues, noticing for the first time the amount of beggars that were loitering on the corners. She was touched by there plight but didnít know how she could help.

"The citizens arenít happy," Lucas explained later that evening over dinner. She had gone straight to the Academy to look up her old friends. Only Lucas remained and he had eagerly invited her out to a nearby tavern for supper. He was anxious to hear of her adventures since her departure.

"Why?"

"They have no skills or means of support," Lucas replied munching on a piece of crisp bread. "Now that the Conqueror has eased up on the amount of taxes we all have to pay, they donít want them to be risen again to support these refugees."

"Itís pretty hard living out in the country," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "People donít have much."

"Which makes me wonder all the more why you donít stay in the Capital," Lucas said. "Iím certain youíd make more money here. Youíre a great storyteller."

"Thanks but I like travelling," she shrugged. "Besides Iím sure given time, things will change. You know they are already changing."

"Ever the optimist," the man smiled. "You sure havenít changed."

Gabrielle would have disagreed but she knew her friend would not understand. Besides in spite of her travels and recent adventures she was relatively the same person who had attended the Academy with him.

"Tell me what youíve been up too," he prodded and so she did, launching into a series of stories that detailed her latest adventures. She ended the monologue by describing her meeting with the Conqueror and her plans to renew the acquaintance while visiting the city.

"Youíre crazy," the man stated flatly once he had overcome his shock about learning of her meeting with the Empress. "Sure the Conqueror has softened some of her laws, but sheís still a dangerous woman. Why just yesterday she publicly executed one of her own guards. She took her sword and cut off his head."

"Iíve seen her do the same thing," the bard acknowledged remembering the scene in the army camp. "But Iím sure she had a good reason."

"She makes up her own reasons," the man retorted cynically. "Sheís a cruel and ruthless person and I canít understand why you would want to see her."

Gabrielle did not try and explain to her friend realizing it would be a waste of breath. Lucas had always had his own opinion of matters, making up his mind about something without looking at all the options. She was in no mood to debate the matter and instead deftly changed the subject, sitting quietly while the man described his life.

Perhaps I am crazy, she thought later that night as she lay in bed in the room she had taken at the Inn. Certainly everyone else seemed to think so and she wondered if they werenít right. Yet an even bigger question was why she was so determined to befriend the most hated person in Greece. It was a question she could not answer.

The next morning she took the most direct route through the city to the Palace. She walked straight up to the guards manning the gates, determined to appear confident. She had decided her biggest obstacle would be to let the Empress know she was there.

"Iím here to entertain the Empress," she announced boldly to the one she assumed was in charge.

"Arenít we all," the man snorted as his eyes wandered leisurely up and down her body before glancing at his companions with a knowing smirk on his lips and Gabrielle immediately sensed her mistake.

"Iím a bard," she said with a flush. "I tell stories."

"Iím sure you do," the guard said with the same leering smile. "But no one told me to expect you. Besides youíre not the usual storyteller that comes."

"Well no," she thought quickly. "But If you just let the Conqueror know that Gabrielle the Bard from Potedaia is here Iím sure everything will be cleared up."

"Now why should I do that?" the man asked looking insolently at her as he hooked his thumbs into his belt.

"Because if the Conqueror finds out that I was here and that you turned me away, she will be very unhappy and if sheís unhappy you just might end up like that guard in the market square the day before yesterday."

Silence greeted her bluff and she saw the indecision in the guards eyes as they narrowed pensively. She knew he was considering her claims and his options. She could sense a fear lurking in his now tense posture and decided to press her advantage.

"I entertained the Conqueror when she was staying with Commander Rufus near Amphipolis. She invited me to entertain her here at the Palace." Gabrielle was not normally given to lying but in this case it did the trick. The honest and innocent look of her features helped tip the balance and the guard made his decision.

"Stay here," he said gruffly and then motioned to another guard. "Watch her. Iíll be right back."

Gabrielle smiled, hoping to appear natural and tried to avoid the suspicious looks the other guards were casting in her direction. She thought about their first impression and glanced down at the ground, hiding her blush. It was something she should have expected given the Conquerorís reputation.

Archius listened to the guard uncertain whether he should bother the Conqueror with this matter. Normally he would have just ordered the bard sent away but he had heard the Royal Guard speak about the young woman who had kept her company during her absence. The Conqueror was in a strange mood and had been since her return from visiting Commander Rufus.

He considered his options. It was odd for anyone, not in a delegation, to request an audience with the Empress. No one would dare display such arrogance useless they were either a complete fool or absolutely confident of their request. Against his usual judgement he decided to approach the Empress. He slipped quietly into the council room where she was discussing military matters with General Titus.

Xena glanced up from the papers on her desk as the door to her chambers opened to admit her aide. By the expression on his face she knew there was a problem. She had come to hate dealing with the petty matters of state that took up most of her time. Sometimes she thought that if she had known what was involved in running a regime she would never have conquered the damn country.

"What is it this time?" she barked before the man had a chance to speak, revealing her foul mood.

Archius flinched at the tone of her voice and hesitated, afraid now of her reaction. He always tried to anticipate her needs yet there were times when he hadnít a clue as to what she was thinking. Her moods were so unpredictable.

"There is a bard at the gates who says she has come to entertain you," he said glancing at the General who was watching him with barely concealed amusement. The two men had no liking for each other and revelled in the knowledge of when the other were about to be reprimanded.

"A bard!" the Empress exclaimed unable to hide her irritation. "You bother me with such a foolish matter."

"I am sorry Empress but she was most insistent and I feared that sending her away would displease you," Archius said hastily aware of the other manís smirk and cursing himself for not acting on his instinct. "She said she entertained you during your visit with Commander Rufus near Amphipolis. She claims you invited her here."

Xena went absolutely still, her breath caught inside her chest. There could only be one person brave enough to try and lie her way into the Palace. A slight smile tipped the creases of her lips. She did not want to believe it possible that the girl had come to Corinth. She slowly stood up and both men sensed the change in her demeanour.

"Did she give her name?"

"Gabrielle of Potedaia," the man responded eyeing her carefully.

"Yes, I know of her," Xena said quietly. "Bring her to me."

Archius nodded bowing his head to hide the smile that came to his lips as he backed out of the room. He moved swiftly through the Palace thinking about the change that had come across the Conquerorís face at the mention of the bardís name. He briefly dwelt on what that meant realizing that the rumours he heard had probably been true.

Gabrielle waited patiently, leaning on her staff and hiding her anxiety behind a sweet smile. She was more nervous then she appeared and was already thinking of a secondary approach when she noticed the guards return. She caught her breath at the intense expression on his face. She knew she could be severely punished for her lie.

"The Conqueror has agreed to see you. Follow me," he barked motioning her through the gates.

 

chapter 5

 

Gabrielle thought she might faint from relief. She had been so afraid of being turned away that she had not considered, at least not seriously, the possibility that the Conqueror would actually see her. Briefly a dark thought crossed her mind. She shook her head dismissing the disturbing images.

At the front doors of the Palace she was turned over to an officious looking gentleman who hastily escorted her through the Palace. She had no time to take in her surroundings before she was taken into a spacious room. She glanced around and noticed a large man standing next to a desk. He was dressed in a military uniform much like the one Rufus wore.

She dismissed him immediately as her eyes came to rest on the woman sitting behind the desk and her heart pounded erratically in her chest as the Conqueror slowly rose from her seat. She had only ever seen the Empress in her formidable black leathers so the picture she presented today was completely different and much less threatening.

Today the woman was dressed in a long colourful robe of blue satin with pink embroidery on the collar and sleeve cuffs. The colour contracted sharply with the features of her face and the darkness of her hair. The Warrior had always attracted attention because of her looks but today Gabrielle could only think of how beautiful the woman was.

Titus eyed the new arrival with open curiosity. His interest was piqued by the Empressí unexpected reaction to the announcement of this womanís arrival. He didnít know what to expect but he was surprised anyway. The bard was younger then he imagined, not much more then a girl, with straight strawberry blond hair and green eyes. She was pretty and that was what he imagined drew the Conquerorís interest. The woman was not immune to the beauty of either sexes. He watched intently as the Empress slowly walked around the desk and towards the girl.

Xena paused a few steps in front of the bard and slowly let her eyes wander over the girl. She was wearing the same brown skirt and rust coloured shirt she had on while at the camp near Amphipolis. She was leaning causally against the staff and a bulging pouch with a thin bedroll was slung over one round muscular shoulder. For a moment glinting green eyes met smothering blue ones.

"Leave us," she said in a low rumble that Titus barely heard. He instantly knew the direction was meant for him. He did not know the situation but he could feel the tension radiating between the two women and could only guess at its source. Silently he bowed and then hurried from the room, aware that neither of the women would miss his presence.

"You are a long way from home," Xena finally broke the silence, ensuring her voice was without emotion. A strange tingling had begun in her gut. "What brings you to the capital?"

You, Gabrielle wanted to say but lacked the courage to be that bold. For the first time she was slightly intimidated by the woman, and realizing it had nothing to do with the fact that the woman could have her killed on a whim.

"I was visiting the Academy of Bards and just thought to stop in and say hello," she responded in a weak voice surprised by the emotions she was feeling. "I thought you might like to hear some more of my stories."

A slight smile toyed with the older womanís lips. She could see that the bard was lying but instead of being angry she found herself inexplicably pleased. She raised a finely shaped eyebrow.

"You have new stories?"

"A bard always has new stories," Gabrielle replied gaining courage. "Beside I havenít finished the one about you yet."

"Aaah," the Conqueror nodded slowly as if she understood. "Have you come in hopes of finding an ending?"

"Yes," the bard replied feeling as though she was doing a strange dance with this woman. She was unable to tear her eyes away. "Perhaps I might even find the beginning of a new one."

The Conquerorís lips twitched in amusement. "Iím not sure anyone would enjoy hearing any stories about me."

"I donít know," Gabrielle smiled impishly. "This time I could have you rescue a baby instead of a bard."

"Do you think anyone would believe that?" Both eyebrows raised this time.

"The way I tell it they would," the bard replied confidently.

"You are very arrogant," Xena said softly and the look on the bardís face flickered and the Conqueror saw then how much was arrogance and how much was bravado.

"People would probably consider me foolish," the girl answered hesitantly, "but I consider myself confident. Confident enough to believe that I can make my stories interesting enough for everyone to enjoy and perhaps even believe."

"And you think I am an interesting subject?"

"Yes," Gabrielle swallowed and screwed up her courage. "You are the most interesting person I have ever met."

Xena was momentarily stunned by the response. She didnít know what to expect but this answer wasnít the one. A smile tipped the corners of her lips. She liked this brash young woman, more than she ever imagined possible. She knew that she should send this girl away but she didnít listen to the warlord inside herself. The girl had come after her and thatís all she cared about.

She reached across to a rope slung along one wall and pulled. Almost immediately a woman appeared at the door. The servant glanced discreetly at the two women and then down at the floor as the strawberry blond woman returned her gaze. Gabrielle guessed they were about the same age.

"Belaus, please show my friend to my personal guest quarters and then see that she gets whatever she desires," the Conqueror instructed the handmaiden her eyes never leaving the bard. "Unfortunately I have other duties to attend to right now but I will see you at dinner."

Gabrielle nodded and turned to follow the servant out the door.

"Gabrielle," the sound of her name rolled sweetly off the other womanís lips and the younger woman turned back to look at her. "I much prefer rescuing bards."

The younger woman flushed at the comment yet a thread of excitement ran up through her body. She knew she was getting herself involved in a dangerous situation but strangely she didnít want to untangle herself from the web that was weaving itself around her.

The room she was shown to was huge and ornately decorated with colourful throw rugs and pillows. There was a large bed along one wall and opposite it was a large fireplace with a thick fur on the floor in front of it and a wide couch to one side. There was a table and chairs in one corner and a window that opened out onto a narrow balcony which overlooked the palace courtyard.

Gabrielle had never been in a place that was so luxuriously decorated and for a moment she was overwhelmed. That feeling was only heightened when the servant led her through to an adjoining room where a large tub sat in the middle of the floor. There was a lever that automatically released water into a marble basin that was heated by a narrow conduit that ran alongside the fireplace.

"Is there anything I can get you?" the maiden asked demurely once they were back in the main room.

"No," Gabrielle flashed her a smile. Already she was thinking about the pleasure of having a nice hot bath. "My name is Gabrielle, everyone calls me that."

The girl merely nodded, showing no interest in becoming familiar with this woman. She didnít think this reddish blonde woman would be around long. None of the others had lasted very long for everyone knew the Conquerorís was easily bored.

"Is there anything you require?" the servant asked demurely instead.

"No," the bard laughed cheerfully. "I donít have much," she indicated the simple pouch and bedroll she carried. "But I am quite happy." The servant looked at the meagre belongings and then at the young woman. It occurred to her that this bard was nothing more then a simple peasant girl. She didnít know quite what to think of this new revelation.

"If you need anything just pull on the cord by the wall."

With that the girl was gone leaving the bard alone to explore her unfamiliar surroundings. She set her pouch down on the floor and then sank down onto the bed revelling in the softness. She was just a simple country girl from a small village and the riches that surrounded her were almost to much.

She tried to think of how she should feel. She knew that all these beautiful things were pillaged from Regions conquered by the Empress. She knew that she should probably reject this luxury but she couldnít help being selfish. She couldnít change the past but perhaps she could help shape the future.

It was a lofty goal she knew, but she was determined to try. From past experience she knew the Conqueror had listened to her modest proposals, even going so far as to implement some changes. Perhaps she could be instrumental in making a few more. With that thought in mind, she stripped out of her travelling wear and hurried into the bath, eagerly anticipating the feel of the warm water caressing her naked flesh.

Xena summoned Titus back into the room once the bard had left but the Conqueror found it hard to concentrate, her thoughts straying back to the young woman. She could recall every detail of her face and even now could smell her distinct scent lingering in the room. Abruptly she pushed away the scrolls in front of her and stood up ignoring the curious gaze the General cast in her direction. He was even more perplexed when she summoned the maid.

"Did my friend get comfortably settled?" the Empress asked of the servant when she appeared.

"Yes, my Empress," Belaus said quietly thinking it odd that the Conqueror had summoned her to ask such a simple question.

"Did she ask for anything?" Xena continued impatiently. It had suddenly become supremely important for her to please the younger woman.

"No, she said she had all she needed," the servant replied keeping her eyes down on the ground.

"Perhaps," an amused smile played on the tall womanís lips. She was aware of the bardís few possessions. She turned to the General. "I think we have done enough for today. Summon the Royal Escort, I believe I would like to go shopping."

Titus visibly started, astounded by this announcement. The Empress abhorred shopping and he didnít think she had ever been to the market place just outside the Palace walls. His mind quickly went back to the bard and he wondered again about the womenís relationship, thinking perhaps the girl was a spy.

Gabrielle lay in the water until it grew cold, savouring the simple pleasure of taking a hot bath. Only then did she reluctantly climb out. She was to lazy, however, to get dressed and so wrapped a large linen around her slender body before strolling back into the main bedroom.

A smile came automatically to her lips as she spied the food tray that had been delivered in her absence and hungrily she dove into the basket of goodies, pouring herself a mug of cider from the pitcher that had been left. She grabbed a scroll from her pouch and sat contentedly writing while she ate. It was only a matter of course that once her stomach was full she became sleepy. The soft bed called to her invitingly and unable to refuse she slid in between its clean sheets.

The merchants were stunned at the sight of the Empress as she wandered through the marketplace. They watched with some fear and awe as she paused at the various stalls. To their recollection they had never seen her there before and they scrambled to help her in any way they could.

Xena was quite pleased with herself. Without to much fuss she had managed to find exactly what she had been looking for. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she thought about what the bardís reaction would be to the gift.

She did not bother knocking on the door to the room where the girl was staying, merely pushing it open and walking in. With one sharp glance she took it all in, the empty food tray and the sleeping bard. A grin spread over her lips as she quietly crossed the room. Her first thought was to roust the woman but the scene that greeted her gave her pause.

Unconsciously she took a deep breath, her heart pounding unsteadily as she looked down at the slumbering bard. By Gods sheís beautiful, was her first thought. She looks so innocent, was the next and smile on her lips disappeared.

For perhaps the first time in her life she was indecisive. Logic told her to send this bard away instinctively knowing she was trouble, but another largely forgotten part of herself rejected that notion. She liked the woman and didnít want to send her away.

She considered all the arguments she had used in leaving the girl behind at the camp. Nothing had changed, the reasons were still the same, only now she knew that she would never leave the girl behind again. She would use all her resources to protect the bard against any danger.

Blue eyes raked over the slender form, desire twisting a knot in her gut at the realization that the woman was probably naked beneath the bedsheets. Her heart pounded fiercely at the image as her eyes traced the outline of the muscular body printed against the blankets.

A part of her wanted to be the demanding warlord taking callously what she needed to satisfy her most basic needs, while another part of her was a young girl longing for the friendship that was being offered. In the end it was her deeper desire that prevailed. She would do nothing to risk the fledging friendship they shared. She would satisfy her physical lust elsewhere. With that resolved she quietly put her gift on the pillow next to the bardís head.

Despite her resolve she could not stop her fingers from reaching out to caress an exposed cheek. The action caused the slumbering woman to stir and a wistful sigh escaped from between slightly parted lips. It was a sound that pierced every one of her defenses and went straight to the Conquerorís heart.

"Belaus," the servants name rumbled out of her throat and the timid woman slowly emerged from the shadows of the next room. "See that her clothes are cleaned, I bought her a new gown, make sure she wears it tonight."

"Yes, my Empress," the maiden replied but the Conqueror had already left.

Belaus emerged completely from the adjoining room her eyes on the door from which the Empress had just departed. She had been a silent witness to the mirage of emotions that had flickered across the Conquerorís normally stoic features. Her eyes strayed to the slumbering woman, a curious thought beginning to rumble around inside her brain. Quietly she retrieved the womanís discarded clothing.

*********

"Wake up!"

Gabrielle felt a hand on her shoulder and green eyes popped open. She looked up into a pair of anxious brown eyes. The expression on the girlís face displayed her displeasure. She sat up clutching the bedsheets, aware that she was still naked.

"What is it?"

"Youíre late," the servant scolded in an edgy voice. "Itís nearly supper time and you havenít begun to get ready. You canít keep the Conqueror waiting."

"Sorry," the bard apologized with a flush, searching the room for her pouch and a fresh set of clothes. She smiled sheepishly at the maid. "I seem to have misplaced all my clothes."

"The Conqueror requested that we do your laundry. She left this for you to wear," the girl handed over a wrapped bundle.

Gabrielle fumbled with the laces and then gasp as the outer wrapping opened to reveal an ornately colourful silk gown of blue with intricately sown designs of gold on the collar and cuffs. She gingerly touched the material, her heart pounding erratically at the smooth feel under her fingertips. She had never worn anything so exquisite.

"Itís beautiful," she breathed, running her palm over the smooth fabric.

"The Conqueror likes beautiful things," Belaus replied and then impulsively offered. "Would you like me to braid your hair? The Conqueror will like that."

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded. She would do anything to please her hostess.

Xena drummed her fingers impatiently on the table in the dining hall. All her guests, save one, were already seated and the servants were awaiting her signal for the meal service to commence. She felt her temper begin a slow burn. No one dared to keep her waiting.

Titus was seated next to the Conqueror and he could see the beginnings of her temper. A smile came to his lips as he thought about what would happen when the bard finally arrived. He would enjoy seeing the girl get whipped.

The Empress was in a foul mood. She had been waiting all afternoon for a chance to see the younger woman again. She was prepared to give the bard a severe tongue lashing but all her anger faded the moment the door opened and the woman in question hurried into the suddenly quiet room. All movement froze as eyes fugitively rotated from the bard to the Conqueror.

Breath, Xena commanded of herself, yet that simple action remained a struggle as her eyes captured the vision that came to a halt directly in front of her. My Gods youíre beautiful, she wanted to say, her eyes transfixed on the bard.

Gabrielle stood absolutely still, aware that every eye in the room was now focused on her. Her chest rose and fell with each breath as her heart hammered loudly in her ears, imprinting the delicate roundness of her breasts against the smooth cloth of her gown. Green eyes locked onto pale blue orbs for an interminable minute before the Conqueror let her gaze drop over the bard.

The Empressí nostrils flared and a warm fire was lit in her belly. Her choice had been perfect. The blue silk robe with the high collar with gold trim seemed made for the younger woman, who had pulled her long hair back into an elegant braid which rested down between her shoulder blades. It was simple yet exquisite.

Titus glanced sideways as the Conqueror slowly rose from her chair. Resting her hands on the table, the Empress leaned forward until her face was only inches away from the bardís. He saw the young woman tremble and smiled imagining her fear.

"You are late," the words came out in a low rumble, the stoic mask on the Conquerorís face unchanging. A shiver raced up the girlís spine.

"Iím sorry, I overslept," Gabrielle stammered, swallowing nervously and briefly afraid her unsteady limbs would give out on her. She was not afraid of the Conqueror but rather of the confusing mixture of emotions that were swirling through her body. Try as she could, she was unable to tear her eyes away from the other woman.

Xena groaned inwardly as the image of a sleeping bard filled her thoughts. She was certain now that she would be unable to get that picture out of her head. She knew that this girl could do anything and she would be unable to bring herself to mede out any punishment.

"Donít let it happen again, I hate waiting," she growled fiercely for the benefit of the others who were intently watching the scene.

The bard nervously ran a wet tongue over her lips and a feral smile came to the Empressí mouth. She leaned in closer until her breath fanned the bardís lips. Her voice was almost a whisper, but it was rich and filled with a seductive warmth.

"You look very beautiful. Now sit down before I make you the main course."

Gabrielleís eyes went very round for an instant and then a deep red washed over her features as she came to understand the meaning behind the womanís compliment. She had been intently aware of how the Conquerorís breath had felt against her mouth. It had been like a gentle kiss and unconsciously she reached up and touched her lips. The Empress smiled, aware of the effect she had on this woman. She settled back into her chair, idly signalling for the meal to begin, though her gaze still lingered on the younger woman.

Titus could barely contain his surprise. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully as the bard hurried around the table to sit in the chair to the right of the Conqueror. He had expected a different reaction from the ex-warlord. He was certain no one else would have gotten off so lightly.

"You must try a little of everything," Xena instructed her guest when the food trays were passed around. "I like to think I have the best cooks in all the world."

Gabrielle nodded, surprised that the Conqueror had noticed her hesitancy in accepting some of the delicacies offered. She had rather simple tastes and much of the fare on display was foreign to her knowledge. She motioned the servant to fill her plate. Even then she picked at the food.

"Are you not hungry?" the Conqueror asked with a frown as she continued to watch the woman out of the corner of her eye. She was having a hard time keeping her gaze off her companion, aware of how the torchlight reflected off her reddish golden hair.

"Iíve never tasted some of this stuff before," the bard admitted reluctantly and the Conqueror laughed, gingerly plucking a tiny battered fried ball off her plate.

"It can be pretty intimidating," the tall woman agreed. "Try this."

Gabrielle stared for a moment at the long tanned fingers that held up the offering to her. She made to reach out but her hands were quickly captured in a steel grip . Her heart pounded wildly at the contact as strong fingers wrapped around her slender wrists, pinning them to her lap. She looked up and saw a strange emotion flicker in the pale blue eyes. It was a challenge, a dare backed up by the slight smirk on the older womanís lips.

Gabrielle took a steadying breath and leaned forward, closing her eyes as her lips wrapped around the fingers. She bit gently into the tender morsel and was rewarded with an explosion of taste that burst inside her mouth, setting her senses tingling. Briefly she wondered if the delicious sensation was because of the food or something else.

Xenaís nostrils flared as the bardís teeth brushed against her fingertips as soft lips settled around her digits. She released the delicacy and felt a thread of pure lust race through her body as the younger woman sucked the juices from her skin before leaning back in her chair.

"How was it?" the Conqueror asked her eyes narrowing intently as she took in the bardís flushed features.

"Good," Gabrielle replied shyly feeling a heat rush through her body and the fingers curled around her wrist tightened.

The simple word inflamed every one of the Empressí senses so that she had to exert all her self control. Her body throbbed with desire, making her wet. She wanted to take this woman into her arms and plunder her right then and there. Except for the darkening of her eyes, she showed none of those emotions.

"Would you like another?" the Conqueror asked in a silky voice. There was a feral grin on her lips as she lazily reached over and plucked another delicacy from her plate.

"Yes," Gabrielle replied in a low voice.

I have this woman, Xena thought triumphantly dismissing all her earlier resolves. She had only to look into the innocent looking face to see that the womanís desire mirrored her own. Despite this knowledge she was determined not to rush. She held out the bite of food, content for the moment to feed her companion.

Titus could barely contain his surprise. The Conqueror was a sexually dynamic person and her appetite was renown but usually she saved herself for persons of greater importance. His eyes narrowed as he covertly watched the pair. He needed to know who the bard really was.

Gabrielle found it hard to control her emotions as wave after wave of heat rolled through her body. Her cheeks burned as she glanced shyly at her hostess. Any attempt to draw away only resulted in her being draw further towards something she didnít understand. She had never felt this way before. It was new and exciting, and there were moments when she thought her body would explode.

"Tell us a story," Xena prompted once the meal was finished. Only dessert remained to be served.

"Certainly," the bard eagerly agreed, glad for the chance to put a little distance between her and the Conqueror. She wasnít certain how much more she could tolerate before doing something irrational. She moved to the center of the room where everyone could see her. She had a wide repertoire to choose from but was aware that the Conqueror had heard a lot of them, so she began with a tale involving Hercules and his half brother Ares.

Xena stiffened at the mention of the God of War. She hated to be reminded of the one to whom she owed so much. Her posture relaxed as the tale continued and she found herself chuckling over the way Hercules outsmarted his sibling.

Gabrielle was pleased by the reaction she received and hastily launched into a story of Helen of Troy. She finished the evening with a story about Aphrodite and two hapless lovers.

The audience, lost in her storytelling, laughed and applauded and Gabrielle bowed deeply, appreciating their enthusiasm. She glanced covertly at the Conqueror throughout her monologue pleased by the reaction she saw for there were moments when she could detect the faintest of smiles on the womanís face.

Xena enjoyed the evening more then she would admit to anyone including herself. Her eyes had been riveted on the bard, captured by every subtle movement she made until she thought she was driving herself crazy. She was completely enthralled by the woman. Abruptly she stood up, effectively ending the evenings festivities.

"I will take dessert in my private chambers," she announced all eyes on her and then glanced at the bard. "Join me?"

It wasnít so much of an invitation as a command, either way Gabrielle merely nodded, not trusting her voice. She followed the Conqueror out of the room and down the hall to her private quarters. She had been aware of the speculative glances and snickers that followed her out of the dining hall, but she ignored it all. She realized that if she were to spend time with the Empress she would have to ignore a lot.

The Conquerorís private domain was more luxurious then anything she had ever seen. There were large ornate tapestries on the walls and thick furs covering the floor. There were soft couches with pillows and a bed larger then anything she had ever seen. She tried not to stare at her surroundings, aware the woman was watching. She turned to watch as the Empress slid gracefully onto a large couch in front of the fireplace. A negligent hand patted the cushion beside her.

For a moment Gabrielle couldnít move as her eyes went to skin exposed by the womanís action. Xena was wearing an outfit similar to her own, only it was red with short sleeves and while the embroidery around the collar and sleeves were also in gold there were small gold flowers sewn into the fabric.

There was a slit in the side of the skirt and now it exposed a great portion of the womanís thigh and leg. She had seen the Empress in less but somehow it had never been as seductive as this moment.

"Are you impressed?" Xena asked with amusement. She had seen the younger womanís expression of surprise and wonder. She had seen the girlís eyes fall upon her own body and it brought her pleasure.

"Yes," the bard stammered as she slipped onto the couch awkwardly. "I imagined something different."

Xena raised an eyebrow but refrained from saying anything immediately. There was a flurry of activity as a low table was brought over and set in front of the sofa. Next a huge platter with a mixture of sweets was set down along with a pair of goblets and a cask of wine.

The Conqueror dismissed the servants with a wave of her hand and then leaned forward to pour them a goblet of the sweet nectar. She passed the bard one cup before settling back into the corner of the couch.

"What did you imagine?" Xena finally asked. She could guess what the girl had thought but wanted to her say it. Gabrielle shrugged, more than a little embarrassed. She avoided the other womanís eyes and focused on the rich colour of the wine. Nervously she tasted its sweetness.

"Come on, tell me what you thought?" the Conqueror prodded, aware of this womanís sudden shyness.

The bard took a deep breath. "I guess I expected it to be more warrior like."

"You mean with swords hanging on the wall and spears propped in the corner," Xena said with some amusement and unable to meet her gaze the girl nodded.

"I am a woman Gabrielle," she said in a soft voice that ran like a gentle caress up her spine.

"You are a warrior," the bard replied this time looking up to meet those blue eyes.

"And I am still a woman," the Conqueror reminded, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Why are you suddenly afraid of me?"

"I am not afraid of you," the bardís denial was only half a lie. "Itís more that I am a little overwhelmed."

"By what?" the dark haired woman pressed curiously.

"By the fact that I am sitting here in the Palace with the Conqueror," the blond haired woman said.

"I was the Conqueror by the lake and at the army camp?"

"Yes, but somehow that was different," Gabrielle said innocently licking her lips with the tip of her pink tongue. "You seem different."

Xena was silent as she contemplated the woman. It was true. Beyond the Palace walls she was a different person. She was still the ex-warlord who had killed innocent people while pillaging their villages but here she was also the statesman, dealing with the petty intrigues that were naturally woven into any political situation. Here, more then out in the field, she had to be on her guard.

"I am the same person," Xena said instead, unwilling to explain her thoughts. "Sometimes my position demands that I wear different facades."

"I understand that you have to be tough in front of others," Gabrielle reasoned quietly. "Itís just hard to accept that person. I liked the one who took me up to the mountain lake in the middle of the night."

"You caught me at a vulnerable moment," Xena conceded quietly. "I had relaxed my guard."

"I would have thought this was the one place where you could relax," the bard frowned and the Conqueror smiled without amusement.

"Logically it would seem so," the Empress sighed and then bent to retrieve a sweet from the plate. She studied it carefully for a moment. "But in the battlefield you know who your enemies are, itís not so clear here."

Gabrielle watched as the Conqueror popped the treat into her mouth. She had lost her earlier nervousness and regarded her companion with a curious gaze. In the last few minutes the stoic mask covering the womanís face had eased, replaced by a more familiar persona. Someone less intimidating.

"How do you fight that?" the bard was curious. A warrior fought physical battles but what would they do with an unseen enemy.

"By not letting anyone close," was the matter of fact reply. "I donít allow myself to trust anyone."

"That sounds very lonely," the bard spoke her thoughts out loud.

"There is always a price to pay," the Conqueror shrugged indifferently. She reached over and selected another sweet before glancing back at the bard. "So Gabrielle, why did you come to see me?"

This was a question that Gabrielle had expected to be asked. She knew there were two responses she could give. She could lie or she could be honest. She choose to be true to herself.

"To help you not be so lonely."

chapter 6

 

Xena was up early the next morning. She dressed in her battle leathers and then wandered out onto the balcony. From her window she could see beyond the Palace walls into the city itself. She took a deep breath, ready for a new day, yet almost dreading its beginning.

She thought back to the previous evening. The bardís simple words had been a powerful aphrodisiac yet in spite of the temptation she had restrained her desires. They had parted, agreeing to meet this morning on the practice field. It was a meeting she was both anticipating and dreading.

She took a deep breath. She had barely slept the previous night. The tension in her body so thick that she had finally summoned one of her guards and taken him to bed. But that had almost done nothing for she had been left unsatisfied. There was only one person she wanted to feel in her arms and until that happened she didnít think anyone else would satisfy her.

Gabrielle was up earlier then usual. Her sleep had been uneasy despite the comfort of the bed, the tension in her body making her muscles ache. She relished the opportunity for a sparring lesson, even though her partner that morning was the cause of her distress.

She was out at the practice field before the Conqueror and she had the opportunity to watch the woman arrive. She stared at the Empress as she emerged from a side door and strolled purposefully across the yard. Her movements were swift and graceful and all Gabrielle could think about was how beautiful the woman was.

It was a clear day and the early morning light reflected off the black, blue of her long hair which hung loose around her tanned shoulders. She was dressed in her black leather, without the armour and it looked well oiled and shiny.

"Good morning," Xena greeted curtly. "Are you ready?"

Gabrielle nodded and then took up her stance. She tried to remember everything she had been taught. She crouched low swinging her staff and deflecting the blows that came towards her. They started off slowly but as the session progressed the sped and intensity of their strikes increased. To stubborn to admit she was tiring from the exercise she continued long after it was prudent. It was this fatigue that made her lose concentration and thus allowed Xena the opportunity to land a stinging blow to her left shoulder and back.

Gabrielle dropped to her knees, instinctively reaching with her free hand to the injured limb, biting down hard to prevent any pronouncement of pain. She didnít want her companion to know how much the blow had hurt.

"Iím sorry," Xena was immediately contrite, her remorse genuine. She hurried to the bardís side and dropped to her knees. She had been measuring her strikes so as not to overpower her young opponent. However she had not seen the bardís momentary lapse in time to check her stroke. The last thing she wanted was to inflict any type of injury on this woman.

"Itís okay," Gabrielle said bravely but the Conqueror could see the truth in the expression on her face.

"Here," Xena took charge scooting around to sit behind the younger woman. Very gently she probed the shoulder with her fingers, relieved to realize that nothing had been broken. She would have been unable to forgive herself if the injury had been more serious.

Suddenly her hands stilled as she allowed her mind to think about her last thought. It occurred to her that she had not thought about anyone elseís pain in a long time. She had never cared what anyone else might be feeling. Her mind backtracked even further and she realized with some horror that she had actually apologized to the young woman. Her eyes strayed to their surroundings and she saw the soldiers who had gathered to watch them.

"Come with me," she said with a hint of anger and the tone of voice prevented the bard from mounting any type of argument. Gabrielle slowly got to her feet and followed the Conqueror aware of the womanís sudden change of mood and wondering what had brought it about. She wondered if the Empress were angry at her for her incompetence.

Xena took the girl back to her private chambers and away from the prying eyes of the soldiers. She motioned the bard to sit on a stool, before retreating to a corner of the room where she retrieved a jar of salve from a wooden cabinet.

"Here," she tossed the bard a robe. "I need you to take your shirt off so I can apply the ointment. It will help your muscles heal faster."

Gabrielle nodded and carefully undid the laces of her shirt. She gingerly slipped the garment off her shoulders and held the robe up to hide her naked breasts. Xena deliberately kept her back to the bard giving her the privacy she needed and then moved around the stool until she was behind the girl. She gently began to apply the salve, rubbing it deep into the skin and muscles of her shoulders and back.

Gabrielle tensed at the first touch because of the pain it brought, but quickly found herself leaning back into the pressure of those strong hands. Using her injured arm to hold the robe in place she used her free hand to lift her hair away, allowing the Conqueror access to the muscles in her neck.

It was an invitation the dark haired warrior couldnít refuse and her hands began to move differently over the smooth skin. They were no longer massaging but caressing and the bard closed her eyes and breathed deeply as the beat of her heart increased.

Xena could feel the change in atmosphere and for a brief instant lost control of her actions. She lowered her mouth and gently laid a kiss on the bardís neck. Then she moved onto an ear which she gently nipped with her teeth.

Gabrielle moaned, an ache beginning to stir in the pit of her stomach. An ache that spread lower and made her warm and moist. She held her breath as the Conqueror laid another kiss on her shoulder and then turned her head so that their faces were level.

There was no protest from the bard and Xena didnít need any more of an invitation as her mouth leaned into the girlís lips. The kiss was soft and gentle, a tentative exploration between two new lovers. It was followed by a second one with deeper passion and the Conqueror dropped one hand to squeeze the soft round breast of the young woman.

Both knew where the kiss would have ended if they hadnít been interrupted, for the Empress had moved around the bard and was now kneeling in front of her, the robe had fallen away and Xena had seized the opportunity to cover the taunt nipples of her companions breasts with her lips. The knock on the door abruptly ended the passion and Xena was on her feet shielding the partially naked girl from whomever entered.

Titus blushed at the scene as he glimpsed the young woman hastily struggling to put her shirt back on. He noticed the way the Empress stood protectively in front of the girl. So itís that way, he decided thoughtfully but was smart enough to say nothing.

"Sorry for bothering you, my Empress but the delegation from Rome has arrived," he announced lowering his eyes.

"I will be right there," she replied in a cold voice. "Next time wait until I tell you to enter before doing so."

"Yes," the man flushed and hurriedly backed out the door. Here was another clue to the mystery. The Conqueror had never worried about being interrupted before.

Xena turned to look at the bard who was once again fully clothed. She ran a hand through her hair, annoyed at being interrupted. Her body rebelled but common sense prevailed. She had duties to perform. Her mood began to sour. Her body was wound tighter then before. Anyone crossing her this morning would be in peril.

"I want you sitting beside me at dinner tonight," she announced, her eyes clouding with suppressed passion as she stared down at the younger woman. Her nostrils flared. "And then afterwards we will continue this."

Gabrielle just nodded not trusting herself to speak. Her heart still wasnít beating normally and the ache in her groin hadnít been satisfied. She wondered bleakly if she would be able to wait until after dinner.

Xena nodded and then bent to plant a passionate kiss on the bardís mouth before turning on her heel and strolling out of the room. She cursed the Gods for this untimely intervention. The newly arrived delegation felt the brunt of her foul temper.

"Xena it is a pleasure to see you again," Marc Anthony extended his hand in greeting. He noticed that she was dressed in her leathers rather than her usual ceremonial robes.

"Yeah," she snorted accepting the greeting. She did not trust this man. He was a close friend to her sworn enemy Julius Caesar. "What brings you here?"

The General sensed the irritation in the Empressí voice. It was obvious that his arrival had come at an untimely moment. Normally the woman was more cordial. He hoped that the mood would not persist. He had hoped to better their own acquaintance and thus had volunteered to lead this delegation.

"Itís time to renew our trade agreements," he replied easily with a smile. "Surely you havenít forgotten?"

"No," the Conqueror shook her head and raised her eyebrows. "But there is nothing that any one of your public officials couldnít have done."

"Yes, but then I would have missed an opportunity to further our acquaintance," he smiled warmly.

Xena stared at the man. He was not unhandsome and his physical presence was something to be desired. However, she knew two things. One, that his interest in her was solely because of her past relationship with Julius Caesar and two, that she was not interested.

A General in Caesarís army, Marc Anthony coveted everything that his friend had possessed, including her body. He had already taken Cleopatra to his bed unbeknownst to Caesar and now he wanted to lie with her. Under different circumstances she might have indulged his little fantasy but today she had other interests. The bardís face floated in front of her vision. There was no discussion in her mind who would take precedence.

"Iím afraid Marc Anthony that I am otherwise occupied," she was pointed. "However, you are welcome to my hospitality until the treaties are signed."

The General was disappointed by this revelation and wondered who his opponent was. It wasnít like the Empress to turn down the type of invitation he had issued. Everyone in the known World knew of her appetite and her desire to conqueror not only the minds but the bodies of her potential enemies.

"I shall graciously accept your offer," he bowed respectfully.

"Good," the Conqueror said perfunctorily. "The sooner we get down to business the sooner we can enjoy ourselves."

Gabrielle went through the day feeling like she was floating on air. She knew from the servants that Xena would be busy all day, tied up in trade negotiations with the Romanís. She would have to wait until dinner, a grand state affair in honour of the visiting dignities, before seeing the Empress again.

She took the few dinars she possessed and headed out to the market, intent on buying scented oils and a few other personal items. She had planned on going alone but Archius, the officious gentleman she had first met on her arrival at the Palace, insisted she take an escort.

"The Empress insisted," he said when she protested. "She is most concerned with your safety."

"Iíve always looked after myself before," she didnít want to be followed around by a lumbering group of soldiers.

"Things are different now," the man insisted wondering nervously what would happen if this woman continued to refuse. "You are with the Empress now."

Gabrielle wasnít certain what he meant by that statement but she could see the genuine fear in his eyes and relented. She would ask her hostess about it later.

Four young soldiers were assigned to act as her escort and she tried to be cheerful about there presence but quickly noticed the curious glances that were cast her way by everyone they encountered. It was oddly uncomfortable the attention her party drew and she found herself unable to enjoy the shopping spree like she normally would.

"Listen.." she finally approached the man in charge of the small group.

"Joshua," the soldier replied smartly.

"Listen Joshua, do you think you and the rest of your boys could back off a little," she said trying to hide her irritation. The last straw had come when she had paused at a stall that was selling chains and necklaces. The poor merchant had made an innocent motion towards her with a necklace and the soldiers had moved menacingly towards him.

"Itís our duty to protect you," the soldier insisted.

"From what?" she asked waving her hand around at the surrounding merchants. "A bad purchase?"

Joshua tried not to smile but the girl had a valid point. No one knew that she was associated with the Conqueror and there really was no reason to be overly protective, though each of them valued their heads, which would surely be lost if something did happen to the girl.

"All right," he conceded defeat seeing the determination in her flashing green eyes. "Weíll give you a little more space, miss."

"Gabrielle," she said watching as they took a few steps backwards. "My name is Gabrielle."

She shook her head realizing that the space he meant amounted to nothing more then a few feet. Sighing in resignation she continued about her business, trying as best to ignore their presence and the looks she was receiving. Fortunately she found most of what she was looking for at a small booth in the middle of the market.

It was a colourful stall with a variety of goods from silk scarves to pleasant smelling oils and scents. She picked one up and breathed deeply wondering why it was familiar and then realizing that it was because she had smelt it on the Conqueror. She quickly added it to the list of her purchases. She selected several vials of oils and scents for herself and then laid then on the table.

The booth was run by a young girl who moved with a limp. It was because of this infliction that Gabrielle did not try to barder down the price of her purchases as she normally did. She had a soft heart for those who suffered a milady and though she would have liked to ask what had happened she did not what to pry into what could be a painful memory for the child.

"How much?" she smiled at the sweet faced girl who was bundling together her purchases.

"Five dinars," the girl replied shyly and before Gabrielle had a chance to dig the coins out of her pouch the soldier slapped a half dozen coins on the table.

"There are six," Joshua said nodding towards the money on the table. "One extra for your trouble."

"Just a minute here," Gabrielle finally found her voice. She had mutely watched until now, dumbfounded by the exchange. "I have money."

The soldier looked down at the woman mildly surprised. It was unusual for any one to complain when the Empress paid. His eyes narrowed as he looked at this young woman, really for the first time. He saw the youth and innocence and felt a stirring in his breast. She really wasnít the Conquerorís usual type of conquest.

"It is customary for the Empress to treat her guests," Joshua said diplomatically.

"You mean everyone who stays at the palace gets this same treatment?" the young woman demanded to know. The soldier flushed and shifted uneasily. He didnít quite know how to answer that question.

"The Empress was very specific in saying that it was her treat," he replied grateful he had thought of something more tactful then the truth.

Gabrielle saw that the man wasnít being entirely honest. She would have said something more but knew it was useless to rail against him. He was merely carrying out his instructions.

"All right I will speak to her later," she decided aware that their argument was drawing the attention of everyone around them. But the joy of the afternoon was gone. The soldier seemed to sense her mood change. Without knowing why he found himself liking this woman more than any of the others he had had to escort. She was difficult in a nice way, unspoiled or pretensious.

"The Empress only wants to please you," he said hastily. "Iím sure she meant no offence. She knows that most people donít have allot to spend."

"Then she shouldnít tax them so much," Gabrielle retorted unthinkingly and the guard looked momentarily shocked at her open hostility. He remained silent. He could hardly wait until he could tell his mates about the Conquerorís latest interest.

Most of the bardís fury had dissipated by the time she returned to the Palace. The last of her anger receded as she sorted through her purchases. She lifted up the vial of scent she had purchased for her new friend and sniffed at its fragrant aroma, a silly grin plastering itself onto her face as she imagined how the Conqueror would react to such a gift.

"Belaus," she called to the servant who had just entered the room. The maid glanced across at the girl. "I need you to do me a favour."

Gabrielle hastily scrambled to her feet and hurried over to the table. She pulled out a blank piece of scroll and after a moments thought wrote a few lines on the parchment. Once she was done she folded it and then hastily wrapped the vial of scented oil before handing it to the servant who was waiting patiently nearby.

"Could you deliver this to the Conquerorís room," Gabrielle paused feeling suddenly a little embarrassed by her gesture. "Could you make sure she gets it?"

"Yes, miss," the servant nodded quietly revealing none of the surprise she felt. It was her experience that most people just took from the Conqueror without thinking of giving anything back. She knew that the scented oil was a simple gift, yet the gesture was hugely significant.

 

chapter 7

 

Xena lounged on the throne barely listening to the conversation as her ministers and the Roman delegates argued over some minor point in the treaty. She knew she could have settled the disagreement with a mere word but she choose to let them continue to haggle. The exercise was really meaningless but the process allowed the Romanís to falsely believe they still had some control.

"I had forgotten how dry and boring this was," Marc Anthony leaned over and whispered. There was a coy smile on his face. He was sitting in the chair next to her. It was his job to ensure the delegation was treated fairly. Xena cast him a bemused look.

"Do you have a suggestion to change that?"

"Several actually," the man continued with his broad smile. "Itís been a long time since anyone has given me a tour of the Palace."

"I will have to remember to mention that to Archius," came the stoic reply. "Iíve heard heís a good tour guide."

The smile on her companions face wavered and Xena wanted to let a smirk cross her lips but she restrained her impulses. It was no use making things harder then they were already and besides she liked toying with this man. It was a diversion from the boring discussions.

"I was hoping that perhaps you would show me."

"I am a busy woman," she replied dryly. "I have no time to play tourist."

"Not even for an old friend?"

"I have no friends Marc Anthony," she said coolly with a twitch of bemusement. "And even if I did, I would hardly choose someone who would betray his friends. How is Cleopatra these days?"

"Ouch Xena, that hurt," the General responded with a hurt expression. He didnít want her to know exactly how deeply her comment had cut. "I donít understand why you are so cold to me. You were much warmer the last time we spoke."

"Things were different then," she replied dryly.

"And you are punishing me because of that?" he pouted realizing she was sore over Caesarís betrayal of her. "Xena, I wasnít the one who left your bed for someone else." He paused. "But if it suits you I could apologize and then you could punish me."

"Stop begging Marc Anthony," Xena was suddenly bored with the conversation. "It doesnít become you. My interests are otherwise entertained at the moment."

"That doesnít sound like the Xena I know, could it be youíve changed?"

"Do you want to see how I havenít?" she snarled and instinctively he moved away. That suited Xena fine. "Stick to business Marc Anthony, itís what you do best."

Gabrielle spent most of the afternoon in her chambers working on her scrolls. Her mood had lightened considerably by the evening when it was time to start getting ready for dinner. She ran a bath, pouring in some of the scented oil she bought, and then slipped into the warm water. She had a hundred questions she wanted to ask her hostess and quietly she lay in the water formulating them in her head. Her silence was what allowed the servants to believe they were alone in the main room, thus they didnít moderate their voices which drifted into the washroom through the open door.

"Who do you think the Empress will take to her bed tonight?í an unfamiliar voice asked of someone else. "Marc Anthony is among the Roman delegates and I hear they had a good time the last time they met."

"Only rumours," Belaus replied. "Since Caesarís betrayal the Conqueror has only contempt for the Romanís."

"But the Conqueror has been known to look past her contempt," the faceless voice responded. "I heard say that he went so far as to say he would like to bed down with her. I think Iíd wager on him, the bard will have to wait a little while longer before she gets a chance to service the Empress."

Belaus made some other comment but Gabrielle was no longer willing to listen to any more of the conversation. Humiliation burned in her cheeks as she ducked her head under the water. She hadnít considered what people would think of her intentions. Only she knew they werenít as tawdry as the servant suggested.

She waited until they were gone before climbing out of the bath. She stepped into the next room glad to see that she was alone and that her clothes for the evening had been carefully laid out on the bed. For the first time since arriving she wanted to run and hide. She was tempted just to forget the dinner and sneak out of the Palace but changed her mind. She was not a coward.

Xena was not in a good mood by the time she retreated to her private chambers to get ready for the evenings festivities. Her conversation with Marc Anthony had sorely tried her patience. She did not relish spending the rest of the long evening in his company. The only bright spot was the fact that Gabrielle would also be there to lightened the boredom. The thought of the bard brought a smile to her dour features and she wondered how the girl had occupied herself that day. She didnít have long to wonder.

"Could you prepare my bath?" Xena asked when Belaus appeared in the room. Her regular maid seemed to have momentarily disappeared.

"Certainly my Empress," the servant girl bowed and then hesitated.

"What is it?" the Conqueror asked annoyed by the girlís delay.

"The young bard asked for me to give you this," the servant said meekly holding out a small bundle.

Xena looked at the offering. "What is it?"

"I believe it is a small gift, which she purchased for you while she was out in the market this afternoon," Belaus said fugitively glancing up at her master as the tall woman finally took the small package. "Iíll prepare your bath now."

The Empress watched the servant hurry into the next room before turning her attention back to the small gift she held in her hands. A wealth of emotions rippled through her body and she took a long moment just to savour the feelings before she gingerly unfolded the piece of parchment attached to the bundle.

"Xena,

Was out shopping this afternoon and I found this. I think itís the one that you always wear

because when I smelt it, I was reminded of you. Itís just a small gift to let you know I was

thinking of you. I guess I just wish it were the evening already.

Gabrielle."

Breathe, Xena told herself as trembling fingers unravelled the cloth to reveal a vial of scented oil. She lifted the cap and smelled the fragrance. It was the scent that she used and the bard knew that after such a short time. She slumped into the nearest chair aware that her legs were about to give out. No one had bought her a gift since the tiny solstice presents her mother had given her as a child. No one had cared enough about her until now.

Her heart soared at the realization and a smile found itís way across her dour features. She stood up and walked purposefully towards the washroom where Belaus had filled the wash tub with warm water. Suddenly the evening ahead didnít seem so dreadful.

Xena noticed the bardís sober mood the moment the girl was escorted into the dining hall. The light she had seen earlier on the womanís face was gone replaced by a tentative expression. This was not the woman she had come to expect and she wondered what had happened.

She had waited to see the girl all day and her desire had only been fuelled by the bardís little surprise. More then ever she was determined to finish her business with the Romanís as quickly as possible so she could send them on their way. Her sole purpose was to clear time to spend with the young woman.

"Is everything all right?" she inquired of the bard when she sat down.

"Yes," Gabrielle tried to smile catching a glimpse of the extremely handsome man who sat to the Conquerorís left.

"Is it your shoulder?" the Empress pressed.

"No, everythingís fine," the bard continued to smile flexing her shoulder to emphasis her words. The Empress leaned back in her chair puzzled. She briefly turned her attention to her duties as host.

"Marc Anthony," she tapped the manís shoulder. "I would like you to meet Gabrielle of Potedaia. Gabrielle this is Marc Anthony, General of the Roman Army."

"Itís a pleasure to meet you Gabrielle," Marc Anthony was very gracious as he leaned forward to accept her hand and lay a kiss on her wrist.

His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. He knew immediately this woman was his competition. Only those favoured by the Conqueror sat next to her. The girl was beautiful, he had to admit, and young but there was a look of innocence on her face. It was normal for the Empress to collect beautiful things but usually she preferred experience.

"Itís a pleasure to meet such a famous General," Gabrielle responded politely eyeing the man and grudgingly conceding that he had a certain charm.

Xena watched the exchange keenly. She had heard the polite words and shrewdly guessed at their nature. The bard and the General were assessing each other like opponents before battle. They both were vying for her attention. At another time that knowledge would have pleased her immensely but today there was no competition. She had already chosen her winner.

"Gabrielle is a bard," the Conqueror said when the General finally released the other womanís hand. "She tells the most wonderful stories."

The guest arched his eyebrows in surprise. The Conqueror usually reserved herself for persons of political or strategic importance. The others she took to bed never shared her table. His curiosity was piqued.

"Perhaps then you would honour me by telling us a few tales while we eat," the man said with a pleasant smile.

"If the Empress so desires," Gabrielle said demurely lowering her eyes after glancing at the woman next to her.

"I so desire," Xena said with a seductive rumble. "But you will wait until the meal is over. The minstrels will entertain us now."

Marc Anthony had no doubt now where the bard stood in the Empressí Realm. He shrugged off the lost opportunity, though he figured if he stayed around long enough things might turn to his advantage. The Empress was known not to retain her interest in any one thing or person for any length of time. He would be patient.

Gabrielle barely tasted any of the food she ate though Xena ensured her plate was always filled. She was nervous and uncertain why. In the end she surmised it was because she was unsure of how things would be. She had heard tales from others how these state dinner some times turned into orgies. She wasnít certain she was ready for that.

She glanced covertly at the General who was keeping up a steady conversation with all those around him. Xena merely acknowledged his words with a grunt or a few curt words. She answered the few questions that were directed her way.

The meal was finally over and it was her turn to take the stage. All her fears disappeared the moment she looked up to see those pale blue eyes staring at her. There was a soft expression and an encouraging smile on her lips.

This evening she choose several of her favourites, regaling her attentive audience with a tale about another God stumbling into Mt. Olympus. She followed that with a story about Hercules and the Cyclops. She ended the session with a new tale she had been working on and had finished that very afternoon.

The appreciative audience clapped wildly and for the first time that evening Gabrielle allowed a relaxed and natural smile to spread across her face as she acknowledged the compliments, yet there was only one personís approval she longed for.

Xena stared at the bard in wonderment. She watched the smile that enveloped the girlís features and it seemed the light in the room became brighter. Not for the first time did she wonder if being with the girl was not a disservice to her. For a moment green eyes locked onto blue and the Empress smiled.

Marc Anthony glanced from the bard to the Empress. He was impressed. The girl was doing to the Empress what no on else had been able to do. This innocent bard was slowly bringing the Conqueror to her knees. He smiled wondering if the Empress knew herself what was happening. Certainly the smile on her face was more revealing then anything he had ever seen.

The festivities went on late into the evening as other musicians moved to take the stage. Empty goblets were quickly filled and Gabrielle noticed the occupants of the room slowly bow to the affects of the refreshments. She had only had a few glasses of cider with her meal and had noted with interest that the Conqueror herself had consumed little. Their guests though had no such restraint.

"Enjoy yourselves," Xena announced rising from her chair. Everyone knew that this was her way of making her departure. The servants waited expectantly to see who would win their hard earned dinars. There was a mixture of sighs and chuckles of glee when the Empress motioned the bard to proceed her.

Marc Anthony eyed the departure through a hazy fog. Lucky devil, he thought conceding defeat and then turned his eye to a comely court follower who had been watching him throughout the meal. He smiled deciding she would be a pleasant diversion.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Xena asked once they were alone in her chambers.

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded watching as her companion poured them each a glass of wine before settling on the couch by the fire. "Empress..."

"Xena," the Conqueror interrupted. "I want you to call me Xena."

"Xena," the bard swallowed, indulging the command. "This afternoon when I went out into the market Archius insisted I take an armed guard."

"It is dangerous for you to be alone," came the even response.

"Iíve managed before," was the protest.

"You are with me now," was the cool reply.

"How does that make things different?"

It was an obvious question and one Xena didnít want to answer. There were things she wanted to keep separate from the bard but this was not one she could.

"People know you are my guest," she choose her words carefully, yet she wanted the girl to feel the impact of their meaning. "Any association with me makes you a target for all those who despise me."

There was silence as the bard contemplated what was said. She understood the implications of her association with the Empress. It didnít change the way she felt. She didnít think anything would.

"This afternoon when I was shopping," Gabrielle began again addressing another concern. "Joshua wouldnít allow me to pay for any of my purchases."

"You are my guest," the Empress shrugged instinctively aware this woman didnít like any display of ownership.

"Thatís what he said."

"You didnít believe him?"

"No," the bard was honest. "It felt like you were paying me for some service."

The girl flushed unable to meet the Conquerorís gaze. Xena astutely guessed what the woman was thinking. She leaned forward and lifted the girlís chin with her finger, until their eyes met and held.

"I am," the Empress whispered and Gabrielle felt a now familiar heat rush through her body. "You have graced me with your presence and warmed me with your stories. You allow others to toss you dinars, I have given you nothing. Will you not allow me to give you anything?"

Gabrielle wasnít certain she could move let alone speak coherently. The eyes in front of her had a mesmerising effect. She couldnít have pulled away even if she had wanted to.

"I donít want payment from you, for anything," she said softly hoping the Empress would understand.

"Are you then the only one whose allowed to give gifts?" the tall woman asked softly and the bardís eyes widened at the tiny smile that was tugging on the Conquerorís lips. This small woman was a revelation to her. She had never met anyone who hadnít wanted something from her. "Will you accept gifts from me?"

"As long as they are given with the best intentions," came the quiet response.

"Always," the Conqueror replied the smile widening for a minute before fading as blue eyes continued to bore into green ones. "Why are you here?"

"To keep you from being lonely," Gabrielle answered the question the same way she had responded the previous evening.

"Why do you care?" Xena asked the question she hadnít been brave enough to voice the night before.

Gabrielle had expected this question the previous night. She heard the hint of cynicism in the voice. She understood the Conqueror approached everyone with suspicion. She shrugged her shoulders determined to be honest.

"That afternoon by the lake near Amphipolis, when you saved me from those soldiers, I felt this connection to you," she paused wondering how else she could explain it. "It was only re-enforced by the time we spent together at the camp."

"I left you there without saying goodbye," Xena smiled cryptically aware of the way the womanís gentle voice soothened and caressed her senses.

"You must have had some important business."

"There was none."

"Then you must have had a good reason," Gabrielle insisted and the Empress was unable to say anything for awhile. She couldnít believe this girl was making excuses for her behaviour.

In that instant she realized she had been defeated, conquered by a woman she barely knew. She didnít understand how it happened or why, except that everything had gone way beyond any physical pleasure she sought to gain. If she took this bard to bed, it would mean more then satisfying some physical curiosity. She didnít want to contemplate what that meant. She had felt it at the army camp and it had caused her to flee like a coward. But the girl had come after her and now she was truly in trouble.

"What if there wasnít?" Xena queried finally. "What if I just didnít want to see you again?"

"There must have been a reason for that too," Gabrielle countered with a soft smile. "And ...if you hadnít really wanted to see me you wonít have let me into the Palace yesterday."

"Yes, perhaps that was not my wisest decision," the Empress conceded and the bard was unable to hide the hurt those words caused.

Xena caught her breathe at the pain she saw and was immediately contrite. The last thing she wanted was to hurt this woman. She reached out with her free hand and gently brushed it across her cheek as if wiping away an invisible tear.

"Why donít you like me?" Gabrielle asked with a trembling voice.

"Ahh, thatís not the problem," the Conqueror replied in a weary voice. "The problem is that I like you too much Gabrielle and thatís why I think you are going to bring me a lot of trouble."

"I donít want to be the cause of any trouble," the girl replied quietly and the Empress knew she had not fully understood.

"Donít worry my bard," the Conqueror smiled indulgently and then leaned forward to brush her lips across the girlís mouth. "I donít think I will mind dealing with your kind of trouble."

With that she leaned in again and closing her eyes Gabrielle allowed her response to be instinctive. She had kissed many boys back in Potedaia but they had never been like this. She pressed her mouth against the firm lips savouring the sweet taste. Xena felt herself respond to the quiet invitation. She dropped her hand to caress the skin at the base of the bardís neck, enjoying the feel of the soft warmth beneath her hand.

Gabrielle started at the electric shock that went through her body at the Conquerorís touch. Unconsciously she pulled away, her chest rising and falling as the emotions twirled around inside her body.

"Are you all right?" the Empress asked, her body already seduced by the woman, her breathing slightly ragged.

She had been taken aback by the girlís reaction. She had thought they shared the same goal but perhaps her own desire had clouded her judgement. She was rarely wrong about these things.

She wanted this girl, more then she had ever wanted anyone else and in the past she would have just taken what she desired but this time it was different. This time it was more then lust. It was something deeper. She lifted her hand away.

"We donít have to do this," Xena surprised herself with the words. She knew then as impossible as it seemed, she was in love. She stood up and put some distance between them.

"No," Gabrielleís eyes widened. She didnít want the Conqueror to leave her.

"No, itís all right Gabrielle," Xena said her voice strained as she tried to exercise control of her emotions. "You donít have to do anything you donít want. I wonít force myself on you."

"No," the bardís voice was loud and clear as she jumped to her feet and crossed the room to where the Conqueror was standing. She grabbed the large hands and held them between her own. She had to make this woman see that truth.

"I want this," Gabrielle said, swallowing nervously, her green eyes flashing. "But I donít know what to do. Iíve never done this before with anyone..."

The last words were said in a rush and as the voice trailed away the girl looked down at her feet, a flash of embarrassment flushing her cheeks. Xena felt a warm glow spread through her body and a gentle smile broke across her lips.

Normally she had no patience for the inexperienced but this night she was uncommonly pleased, almost humbled by the girlís innocence. She delighted in the knowledge that she would be the first to introduce the bard to the carnal pleasures of the body. She reached out and tipped the womanís chin up so blue eyes met green.

"Just follow your instincts," the ex-warlord whispered and then lowered her mouth.

The kiss was soft and sweet, and after a brief moment she increased the passion of the embrace, allowing her tongue to part the bardís lips and probe its sweet depths. Gabrielle responded with a slight moan as she leaned into the taller woman, her arms instinctively winding around the womanís neck, pulling them closer together.

The Conqueror deepened the kiss winding her arms around the smaller woman and drawing her body against her own. She would take her time with his one, she decided. She would be gentle as she introduced her to the pleasure of being with another human being. She would control her own desire.

Gabrielle sighed as the kiss finally broke off. Unconsciously she ran her tongue over her lips, savouring the taste left there by her companion. She glanced up only to see that sensuous mouth closing over hers again.

Her lips parted and a shiver of excitement raced through her body as a long slick tongue darted in to probe and sample her sweet nectar. She had been kissed before but none of those kisses had ever made her legs turn to jelly.

The Conqueror felt the smaller woman sway and without breaking the kiss bent and lifted her up and carried her over to the bed. She gently lay her down on the blankets and then carefully proceeded to strip away the womanís clothing, ensuring each piece of garment was followed by a flurry of kisses that enveloped the bard into a cocoon of warmth and pleasure that she had never before experienced.

"You are so beautiful," Xena breathed, pausing in her exploration to gaze over her soon to be loversí naked body.

"Xena, please," the bard whispered hoarsely and the Conqueror smiled and lowered herself once more over the woman.

Gabrielle tried to keep a conscious thought but she quickly lost the battle, her senses drowning in a pool of desire that bubbled up to envelope her entire body. She let herself drift, carried away on a cloud of sensations that were new and exciting, as the flames inside her body ignited and took control.

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

Xena woke slowly, aware of two things. One that it wasnít quite dawn and two that an exquisite weight of naked flesh lay sprawled across her body. She opened one eye and smiled at the sight that greeted her vision.

The bard was nestled in the crook of her shoulder, a possessive arm draped across her ribs. Their legs were entwined and tangled amongst the sheets. A warm breath gently caressed the naked skin of her exposed breast. She closed her eyes and allowed herself the opportunity to savour memories of the previous evening.

Last night had been a revelation of the sweetest kind. It had been beyond anything she had previously experienced. Before sex had merely been a physical act of lust and desire without emotional feeling, and her partners were quickly discarded. It had been that way with them all but last night had been different.

At first the bard had been tentative, her touches a nervous exploration that had excited the Conqueror like never before. As the night had worn on the girl had grown more confident and demanding, eager to give and receive with equal abandon. Xena had given herself up more than once, allowing the bard complete control over her in a manner she had never allowed with any one else. The pleasure had only ended when exhaustion finally took hold of their bodies and she had contentedly gathered the younger woman into her arms and given herself up to sleep. A sleep more peaceful then she could ever remember.

She opened weary eyes and scanned the lightening sky. It was time to begin her day yet she was reluctant to ease away from the warm body. Something had happened last night. Something that made her feel different. She closed her eyes not wanting to think about it, content to savour the wondrous feelings that consumed her body.

"Mmm," the bard began to stir and Xena was instantly alert.

"Good morning," she whispered softly as green eyes popped open. She locked her arms around the smaller womanís waist and dropped a tender kiss on her brow.

"Hmm," Gabrielle murmured not certain how to describe the way she was feeling.

Last night had been incredible. Her first experience had been more perfect then she had imagined. She understood now, why she had resisted her fathers efforts to marry her off or her own indifference to the boys who had expressed their interest. She had been waiting for someone special and that person had come to her last night.

"How you doing?" the Conqueror asked. For perhaps the first time in her life Xena was uncertain. She was scared, of what she didnít know exactly. The one thing she did know was that the woman in her arms was little more then a slip of a girl but also the most important thing in her life.

"Great," Gabrielle sighed exuberantly unable to be anything but honest. Suddenly she was shy. "Was I okay?"

"You were wonderful," Xena smiled indulgently setting aside the younger womanís fears, aware that the girl was beginning to blush.

"You were kinda incredible yourself," Gabrielle admitted and the Conqueror laughed. It was a joyous sound, rich and full and it filled the whole room. She leaned forward and brushed her lips against the bardís, almost to overcome with emotion to speak.

"You are very good for my ego," she finally managed to say.

"No," the bard disagreed sombrely, gently tracing a fingertip across the Conquerors ribs. "Itís you who is very good for my ego."

The Empress saw the sincere emotion in the girls eyes and felt a strong tug on her heart. She wanted nothing more than to cradle this woman for the rest of her life.

"I forgot to thank you for the scent," Xena remembered something she hadnít yet done. "It was very thoughtful but you know you donít have to get me anything."

"I know, but I wanted to get you something," Gabrielle blushed with embarrassment. "You have been so kind to me."

"Itís you who have been kind to me," the Empress disagreed. "If there is anything I can do for you just ask."

"Can we do this again?í the bard asked shyly breaking the silence between them. Xena thought of the official duties that awaited her attention. She decided they could wait.

"Anytime you want," she replied and the girl grinned mischievously.

"Good," Gabrielle said before crawling up the Conquerorís body so she could place her lips over the other womanís.

Xena returned the embrace, giving in to all the feelings that threatened to overwhelm every part of her existence. Everything else was forgotten except the pleasure that this woman was offering.

 

 

Ares stepped back from the pool in disgust, his bellow ringing loudly through the great halls of the Palace on Mt. Olympus. He glanced about his room and waited and in a moment his shout was rewarded as Aphrodite suddenly materialized in a sparkle of light.

"What do you think you are doing?" he demanded.

"Me??" the Goddess of Love asked in surprise and innocence. "What do you think Iíve done?"

"You are playing with my Chosen," Ares barked angrily.

"Your Chosen?" the Goddess pretended ignorance. "Are you talking about that gorgeous looking mortal that you pant after like a dog in heat?"

"Watch your tongue," the God of War snarled. "I want to know what you are doing?"

"What makes you think I am doing anything?" she replied smoothly. "You know mortals do have this uncommon trait of going off and doing there own thing."

"Not Xena," Ares bellowed angrily but the Goddess of Love was unfazed by his tirade.

"Yes, Xena," Aphrodite reminded him pointedly. "Ares, she may be your Chosen, but everyone on Mt. Olympus knows you canít control her. Youíve tried and she just goes and does her own thing anyway. Face it brother, sheís her own woman and," the Goddess glanced down at the pool and smiled, "by the looks of things sheís in love. Look at them, donít they look soooooo cute together?"

"Nooooooo," the God of War howled but Aphrodite only laughed and then disappeared in a burst of light.

Artemis had been standing just outside of Ares quarters listening to the exchange. She was worried. She had agreed with the Goddess of Loveís plan only because she had been angry but in the following days as she had watched things develop she had become increasingly worried. She had seen Ares when he was mad and she certainly didnít want their interference to bring more harm down on the Amazonís. She cornered Aphrodite as soon as the Goddess of Love left their brotherís

room.

"Perhaps weíve interfered enough," she suggested but the Goddess of Love only laughed.

"Weíve only begun Artie babe," Aphrodite said with an amused twinkle. "Besides you donít think whatís happening down there is all my doing, do you?"

"Isnít it?" Artemis asked with narrowed eyes.

"Certainly not sweetheart, thatís not how I work," the blonde Goddess was amused at the astonished expression that washed over her sisters face. "I only help mortals fall in love, I donít make them fall in love. There has to be an attraction to begin with."

"So what exactly do you do then?" the Goddess of the Hunt asked curiously and Aphrodite sighed.

"I do the small details," she replied with an airy wave of her hand. "The little things that make them fall in love, like for instance our Conqueror has every intention of working in her stuffy office today but suddenly she is going to get this wonderful idea for a picnic."

"Oh!" Artemis was surprised by this revelation. She had always assumed that her sister was directly responsible for making couples fall in love. She admitted as much.

"No Artie babe," Aphrodite smiled though she was disappointed to shatter her sisters illusion. "I just bring them together. They do the falling in love all by themselves."

 

 

It was late in the morning before the Conqueror finally made an appearance in her council chambers. Archius glanced covertly at his master and saw that she was in a good mood. It almost looked like she was actually smiling. He glanced down at the parchment he was reading in an attempt to hide his own grin.

"How much money did you win last night Archius?" Xena asked by way of greeting.

"Almost one hundred dinars," the aide replied pursuing his lips together aware that somehow the Conqueror knew everything that was going on.

"I should whip you for making a profit off my love life," she replied in a bantering tone that was unfamiliar to the man.

"On the contrary my Empress," the man responded in a light tone all too aware that the woman had used the word love and not sex. "You should be pleased I had such confidence in you. There were many who bet against your pairing."

"Indeed," she mused thoughtfully and then turned serious. "She is no idle distraction and I wonít allow anyone to treat her like a whore."

"No, my Empress," Archius took the warning for what it was. He would pass the word to the rest of the Palace staff. "It was all in good fun, no harm was meant. Besides ninety of those dinars were made off the Romanís themselves. It seems they had a high opinion of Marc Anthonyís abilities to seduce you."

A smile played against the Conquerorís lips but she was not amused. Her distaste for the Romanís grew. The dislike was mutual yet still they played the political game of being friends, both aware that neither where ready yet to test each others strength on the battlefield. The price of defeat was to steep to idly play at war with each other, so instead they signed meaningless treaties of peace and trade and continued to conqueror the nations surrounding them.

"How are things going in my Realm?" she asked sidling up to her desk where a stack of parchments awaited her attention.

"Everything is presently calm," the man replied aware that the playful nature of the Conqueror had disappeared. "All Regions report things are quiet."

"Does that include the region covered by General Rufus?" she inquired glancing briefly over a parchment the man set out in front of her.

"Yes," the aide nodded. "Ever since your visit the region has had no trouble. I forgot to ask earlier but did you ever find out about those rumours of sedition?"

"Just rumours I think," Xena mused in a distracted voice. "How does the treasury look, has the cut back on taxes affected our ability to go to war if necessary?"

"No, my Empress," Archius conceded. They had argued about that point but he had been unable to sway her decision about cutting back on taxes. "We still have plenty of reserves."

"Good. How about my orders for the spare troops to help in the village fields, are they being carried out?" she asked mentally running through a list of concerns that she had.

"With varied degrees of success," the man admitted reluctantly.

"Oh?" the Empressí eyebrows shot up questioningly. "Is there some problem?"

"There are still some soldiers refusing to work in the fields and others who are only putting a half hearted effort into the duty," he repeated the complaints he had received. "But on a whole the Regional Commanders are reporting that the system is working to a degree. The civilian governors in most areas are reporting that they will be able to work more land next season with the added labour force."

"Which means more tax money will roll in," the Conqueror was pleased. "I want a letter drafted and dispatched to all Regional Commanders. I want this system enforced on all soldiers without exception."

"Yes, my Empress," the aide replied.

"Is there anything else in dire need of my attention?"

"No," the man shook his head.

"Good, then I will leave you to continue the negotiations with the Romanís. I will be taking the day off."

"Yes, my Empress," the small man nodded and watched as the Empress headed towards the door. He noticed there was a slight bounce to her step.

"Oh, also, ask the kitchen to prepare a picnic lunch, I shall be away from the Palace for most of the day," she called over her shoulder.

"Do you think it wise to leave the city while the Romanís are here?" Archius could not hide his dismay. The Conqueror paused at the door and smiled at her official.

"There will be no trouble. Most of them were up pretty late lastnight celebrating. I donít imagine many of them will be awake before midday at the earliest," she said. "And if there is any trouble tell Zenon, he will know where to find me."

The aide nodded and Xena strolled out of the room. The idea for a picnic had just suddenly entered her head. She had been intent on spending the day in her office handling the Empireís daily business but for some reason that had suddenly become ludicrous. She had just spent the most wonderful night of her life with the most beautiful woman she had ever met and she was not about to leave the girl on her own this day. It had been bad enough that she had slipped away while the young woman was still sleeping.

Xena found Gabrielle half submerged in the bath. She crept into the washroom, pausing for a moment at the doorway to stare at her lover. The girl had her head back against the edge of the tub with her arms draped along the sides. Her eyes where closed and there was such a peaceful and contented look on her face that the Conqueror hesitated to interrupt.

But the image was to much to bare and silently she stepped up to the head of the tub and bent over the girl, brushing her lips softly over the closed mouth as her hands slowly descended over the bardís shoulders, down her chest and into the water. She cupped the younger womanís breasts and kneaded them softly as her mouth continued to possess the girlís.

Gabrielle responded by instinct, her arms winding up and around the taller womanís neck, holding her in place as their mouths danced errotically against each others. Her whole body became inflamed and all she wanted was to pull the Conqueror down into the water with her and possess her. But Xena had other plans and finally with great effort broke the contact. The bard moaned, her sensitized body feeling the loss immediately. Xena smiled and moved around the tub to kneel at the side where there eyes could met.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"After what you just did, a little frustrated," Gabrielle was honest and the Conqueror laughed.

"Perhaps I have something that will help," Xena said and the girl looked at her with widening eyes that made her laugh again. "No, not that. My gods I think I may have created a monster. No, I want to take you on a picnic, so hurry up with your bath. Iíll meet you down by the stables in half a candlemark."

Gabrielle needed no more encouragement. A picnic with the Conqueror was almost as nice an idea as making love with her, and it was possible that they could still do both. She dressed in a hurry and then rushed to meet her lover who had Argo saddled and waiting by the time she arrived.

"Donít you have any business to worry about?" Gabrielle was a little suspicious as the taller woman lifted her onto Argoís back. Instead of riding behind the Conqueror she had been settled in front of the woman who wrapped one arm tightly around her waist while using the other hand to control the horses reins.

"Yes, but it can wait," Xena breathed deeply burying her face in the blond hair and savouring the womanís distinct scent. "Besides I couldnít have you think I was a complete barbarian."

"Why would I think that?" the girl was surprised.

"After last night, only the cruelest lover would leave you to spend the day on your own," the Empress said and Gabrielle was momentarily speechless, her whole body reacting to those words. So much had been said about the Conqueror but no one had ever suggested that she was a romantic. The realization made the younger womanís heart swell.

They rode through the center of the city with the Palace escort riding behind them at a respectful distance. To Gabrielle it seemed that the Conqueror was intent on showing the people of her Empire that they were together and that thought made her heart swell even more. If she was not in love with the Empress before, she certainly was now.

They left the city behind and rode up into the surrounding hills, travelling a circular path that took them up through a forest. Finally they broke through the trees and entered a small meadow that sloped gently down into the valley below. From here they could get a full view of the city and the blue sea beyond.

It was a beautiful place and Gabrielle fell in love with it the moment she saw it. They rode to the centre where a lone rock stood. They sat quietly enjoying the peace and the beauty of the green fertile valley, watching the activity below. They had lost the escort somewhere in the forest and were completely alone.

"This is incredible," Gabrielle breathed captured by the way the bright sunshine enhanced the rich colours of the tapestry of nature that surrounded them.

"Yes," Xena replied. She could feel the girl tremble in her arms.

"Thank you for bringing me here," the bard sighed.

"Donít thank me yet," the Conqueror breathed heavily, desire coursing through her body. She could feel the girlís excitement and she ached to make this experience even more memorable for the young woman.

She bent her head and gently kissed the exposed skin on the girlís neck and Gabrielle shivered in response, an involuntary moan escaping from between her parted lips. It was the only encouragement the Empress needed as she dropped the reins and captured the girlís breast with one hand while the other snaked down her waist to dip into her breeches.

Gabrielle shuddered at the intimate contact as several strong fingers reached in and caressed the hairs that covered her sex before slipping lower. She moaned and leaned back against her lover, pushing her hips in reflex against the hand that was so expertly stroking her desire. She felt herself grow moist but was powerless to control the reactions of her body.

Xena delighted in the womanís wetness. She kept her lips on the womanís neck, kissing her tenderly as her fingers slipped inside her body and she began the rhythmic stroke that would bring her lover to climax. It didnít take long before Gabrielleís hips bucked and spasms of pleasure took hold of her senses. The Conqueror fondled her companion for a long time after the sensations had receded.

"Do you do this with all your lovers?" Gabrielle asked when her voice finally lost its ragged edge. She was aware of the gentle nuzzling of the Empressí lips on her neck.

"Never," Xena replied lazily, enjoying her companions pleasure. "This is for you and you only Gabrielle."

The bard twisted around in the saddle so that she could look at her lover, aware that her action caused the comforting hand that continued to stroke her sex slip away. There was a serious and determined look on the young womanís face.

"I hope I never do anything to betray this trust you have given to me."

Xena was shocked by the statement but by the look in the bardís eyes she knew it was said in earnest. Gently she picked up the girlís hands and brought them to her lips, placing tender kisses on the knuckles.

"You wonít," the Conqueror was never more certain of this statement and then smiled, aware that the mood had grown to intense. "Are you hungry?"

"Always," Gabrielle smiled and the Conqueror chuckled before sliding off the horse.

PART SIX

chapter 8

 

For the first time in her life Gabrielle felt liberated. It was as if she was this whole new person and she had the Conqueror to thank for that. The Empress had opened her up to a part of herself that she had hidden for fear of what people would think. Now she walked around with a bounce to her step and a smile fixed permanently on her face. She had thought of herself as a happy person but she hadnít known what happy really was until now.

She had always been a friendly person but she had lacked the confidence she now felt. Her parents had made her feel that being different was bad, but now she realized it wasnít so awful. It was wonderful and her enthusiasm infected everyone who happened to be around her. Even Xena felt the affects.

"Youíre in a good mood," Marc Anthony commented one morning after a particularly gruelling negotiations session. They had taken a break for lunch.

"Is there a reason I shouldnít be?" came the light retort.

"I donít know," the Roman replied dryly. "It makes me nervous."

"Good," the Conqueror replied with a smile. "I wouldnít want to become to predictable." With that she strolled off leaving the Roman General to watch and muse about her good mood.

It was definitely not what he had come to expect from the woman and if made him anxious. Caesar had plans for Greece and everything was based on how they perceived the Conqueror would response to their challenge. Caesar boasted how he could tell what the Conqueror was thinking. Marc Anthony began to believe it was an arrogant claim.

Xena knew she had puzzled the Roman with her mood and that suited her fine. She knew her enemy thought they knew her but she was wise to their intrigue. She dismissed all thoughts of the man and turned them instead to her young friend. They had only been lovers for a short time yet the Conqueror acknowledged that the girl owned her completely.

She went looking for her now, hoping for a little distraction before having to return for the afternoon bargaining session. But the girl was nowhere to be found and she could not hide her disappointment.

"Do you know where Gabrielle is?" she inquired of Belaus who was tending to the girls room.

"I believe she has gone shopping in the market," the girl answered quietly.

The Conqueror smiled. She knew the young woman loved to shop but she also knew the girl rarely purchased anything unless it was a necessity. More than once the bard had returned from the market with a small surprise for her and now she was almost disappointed when the girl didnít buy her anything. Suddenly, she had this intense desire to be with the bard. She turned to go and had reached the door when she paused and glanced back at the servant.

"I want you to move all of Gabrielleís things into my suite," she instructed the servant making an impulsive decision. Without another word she turned and strolled out leaving the maid staring open mouthed in astonishment.

It didnít take long for the Conqueror to find who she was looking for. It wasnít the presence of the Royal Guards that captured her attention but the sight of the small strawberry blond woman who was standing in the middle of the market with a crowd of laughing and relaxed merchants gathered in a circle around her.

Xena paused to watch, aware that her lover had made friends with these peasants, in the same way she had befriended most of the Palace staff. Her natural charm and innocence was a shining beacon of light and affection. More then once the Conqueror considered herself lucky to be the recipient of the girls devotion. There were days when she didnít know what she had done to deserve the friendship and love the younger woman offered. Whatever it was she vowed she would never do anything to destroy it.

Today a merchant was showing her young lover a contraption in which a coiled cloth figure would pop out of a can when opened. The action sent peals of laughter through the crowd. Everyone was so engrossed that it took awhile for them to notice that she was there. When they did it was as if a dark cloud suddenly passed over the sun. The crowd fell silent and hastily dispersed. The bard seemed not to notice the merchants reaction or if she did she choose to ignore it.

Gabrielle was surprised but delighted to see her lover that afternoon. Most mornings they spent together sparring at the practice fields but afterwards the Empress would retreat to the throne room to handle the duties of state. It usually wasnít until the evening meal that they had another chance to speak. She set the toy down on the nearest table and hurried over to where her lover was standing.

"Xena what are you doing here?" Gabrielle could not hide her pleasure.

"Iím looking for one small blond haired bard," Xena replied easily with a tiny smile as she cast a weary glance around the market. She could see the covert looks that the merchants were directing her way. "I came to make sure you arenít spending my entire treasury."

The bard smiled aware the Empress was teasing. She hooked an arm into the taller womanís and led her across to the booth where she had been standing. She picked up the contraption that had earlier captured her attention.

"Do you know they call this zeus-in-a-box?" she asked displaying the object to her lover. Xena picked up the box and turned it over in her hands. She glanced at the bard and saw the mischievous grin that was twinkling in the beautiful green eyes. "Open it."

"Why?" the Conquerorís eyes narrowed perceptively and the girl shrugged. She did as the girl asked and watched passively as the cloth toy jumped out at her before falling to the ground. She glanced at the blond woman and saw the disconcerted expression on her face.

"Was it supposed to do something?" she asked innocently and the bard scrunched up her face before snatching the toy out of her hand.

"Doesnít anything scare you?" Gabrielle could not hide her disappointment and Xena struggled to control her mirth.

"Was it supposed to scare me?"

"Yes," the bard flashed her a look and stomped her foot in the most adorable expression of frustration that the Conqueror had ever seen. "Itís supposed to jump out when you open it and scare you."

Xena couldnít contain her laugher any longer and a broad smile broke out across her face. The other woman looked at her suspiciously, her green eyes narrowing.

"What are you laughing about?" she wanted to know.

"You," the Conqueror said. "You are so adorable when youíre angry."

"I am not," the bard stomped her foot again and tried to glower at her companion but it was a useless effort. She could never remain angry at this woman for very long, Xena only laughed again.

"I wasnít scared because I have been standing over there watching you play with this thing for the last few minutes," the Conqueror confessed and received a disgusted look from her lover but it was quickly replaced with a smile.

"Itís probably just as well," the bard sighed. "If it had scared you I shudder to think what this place would look like now. With your reflexes I think half the stalls in the marketplace would have been sliced and diced before you realized it was a joke."

"Gabrielllle!" Xena groaned. "Iím not that bad."

"Yessss, you are," the woman disagreed turning to look at the goods in the stall. "They have some of the most wonderful things here. Ariela tells me that these scarves are from the land of Chin."

"Corinth has access to many trade routes," the Conqueror responded idly glancing with disinterest over the merchandise. "Itís to be expected that we have goods from all over the world."

The girl nodded and then suddenly something occurred to her. She turned to look at her lover and gave her a thoughtful look. She knew for the Conqueror to seek her out there had to be a reason. Suddenly an uncommon fear took a grip of her gut.

"Whatís up?"

"Why?" Xena gave her a puzzled look.

"Well, itís barely midday," Gabrielle said quietly. "Arenít you supposed to be working on the negotiations with the Romanís?"

"The discussions are going good so we took a break," she shrugged as if it was nothing, her eyes scanning the surrounding marketplace. "I wasnít busy so I thought Iíd come and have lunch with you."

"Really!" the young woman could not hide her surprise and delight.

"Yah really," the Conqueror gave her a crooked smile. "So do you want to go back up to the Palace, we could eat and then if thereís time..." She left the rest unsaid but winked to make sure the bard understood her meaning.

"Xenaaa, in the middle of the day, now whose insatiable," the girl laughed and slapped her gently on the arm. "Hey, instead of going back to the Palace why donít we eat here. I know some really great food stalls."

"Oh?" a pair of dark eyebrows rose. "Is there something wrong with the food at the Palace?"

"No," the girl flushed. "Itís just that I like to come here and mingle with the locals. I listen to them talk and laugh and I hear there stories and it gives me ideas for my own tales. You could say itís a bard thing."

Xena laughed. "All right. We can eat here but if Iím poisoned I will blame you."

"Iíll taste your food for you, chicken," Gabrielle smiled and grabbing the Conquerorís arm she led the taller woman along the street until they came to a food stall. The woman behind the table smiled at her and then glanced nervously at her formidable companion.

"Good afternoon Reatha. I have been boasting about how good your food is too my friend here, so she insisted that I bring her for a taste," the bard said, smiling at the older woman who nodded with a flush of embarrassment. "Iíll have three meat sticks and four meat rolls and some of those little meat balls that you make."

"Gabrielle, donít you think thatís a little much?" the Conqueror eyed her young companion critically. "Iím not that hungry and I know you have an bottomless pit for a stomach but even thatís a bit much for you."

"Donít worry," the girl waved her off confidently "None of the food will go to waste."

Xena looked at her but said nothing accepting the food that the seller wrapped in a paper and handed to her. Gabrielle paid the woman and then motioned for her companion to follow her. They ended up at a bench by a community well near the middle of the square.

The Conqueror glanced at her surroundings aware of the curious glances they were receiving. She noticed the Palace Guards who were standing a few paces away. The expressions on their faces revealed the nervousness they felt. She didnít blame them. She was exposed and any one who wanted to take a shot at her had an open chance. She allowed her eyes to run over the marketplace again, surveying the possibilities, accessing the dangers and then dismissing them. She sat down on the bench beside the bard and slowly unwrapped the paper with the food inside.

Gabrielle glanced sideways at her companion and smothered the smile that came to her lips. She could see by the awkwardness of the Conquerorís actions that she was unfamiliar with the situation.

"You havenít done this before have you?" the bard asked with a smile and the Conqueror glanced at her with a scowl.

"Not since I was a child," Xena growled casting a look at the people who were watching. The glare on her face was enough to make them turn away. "You know this isnít good for my image."

"I think itís great for your image," the girl shook her head and took a bite out of her food. "It makes you seem more human," her words were muffled by the food in her mouth.

The Conqueror glanced at her with a scowl that became a grudging smile. She bit into her meat pie, surprised by how delightful the taste was on her palate. She ate silently listening as the bard chattered away between mouthfuls of food. She watched the girl covertly amused by the amount of food that she consumed yet by the time they were finished there was still a large quantity left over. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a small boy in a ragged tunic and dirty face eyeing them suspiciously.

"Iím full," the girl announced and wrapped up the remaining food stuffs and then glancing around she noticed the boy. With a slight wave of her hand she motioned him over. The boy shuffled slowly towards them eyeing her companion with fugitive looks. Xena watched curiously sensing this was a scripted scene.

"Come here," the bard smiled holding the extra food out. "Would you like this? It seems that we bought to much."

The boy said nothing his small brown eyes glancing nervously from the smiling face of the blond girl to the rather dour almost scowling features of her tall, dark haired companion. He stepped back and then focused his attention on the younger woman, a face he had become familiar with. Mutely he nodded and the bard nodded. The boy grabbed the offering and then beat a hasty retreat running through the market until he was out of sight.

"You shouldnít do that," the Conqueror said in a toneless voice and the girl glanced sideways at her companion, the smile fading from her face.

"He lives with his two sisters in a small hut just outside the city," Gabrielle said in a serious voice. "His mother washes laundry for a rich man in the city and learns only a few dinars a month."

"Where is their father?" Xena could see the compassion in the girlís face and it affected her.

"He was killed," Gabrielle said quietly. "He was a wood cutter and one day a tree fell on him and he died."

"The boy told you this?"

"No," the girl shook her head. "He doesnít speak. One of the merchants who has a stall in the marketplace told me his story."

"You still shouldnít do it," the Conqueror stood up suddenly feeling angry. "People will start to take advantage of your generosity."

"Perhaps," the bard agreed quietly. "There are so many who have nothing and I know I canít help them all, but if my kindness can help just one person then I will feel better."

"Donít expect me to do the same," the Conqueror said tersely and the girl shook her head.

"I donít," was the solemn reply and there was silence as the Conqueror stared down at the girl.

Gabrielle had bent her head as if unable to meet her lovers gaze. She had such a kind heart, but it was one of the things that drew the girl to her. She reached down and grabbed the girls chin and forced it up so that their eyes could meet.

"You will be the ruin of me my bard. People are going to start thinking me soft," she growled but it was without anger and the girl allowed a tentative smile to touch her lips. "Come on I think we still have time for a little something before I have to go back to work."

The bardís smile grew wide as she immediately jumped to her feet. There was a mischievous grin on her lips. "I know a way we could save even more time," the girl said and a pair of dark eyebrows arched questioningly. "Thereís a really nice tavern just around the corner."

The Conqueror shook her head. "You are going to ruin my reputation completely my bard."

Despite her words she allowed the girl to led her to the Inn where a surprised and mortified Innkeeper almost stumbled over himself to ensure that the Conqueror had the best room available. They were finally able to get rid of the man but not before Gabrielle was reduced to a giggling mass.

"I donít know why I let you do this to me," Xena shook her head numbly as if she had no control.

"Because I make your life interesting," the bard responded with another giggle. The Conqueror growled and moved swiftly, scooping the girl off her feet and dumping her on the bed. She fell on top of the young woman and pinned her wrists to the bed.

"All right, then my bard," the Empress grinned wickedly. "Show me how interesting you can make it for me."

Gabrielle giggled and then did as she was requested.

"Oh, I forgot to mention it but I had your things moved into my quarters," Xena said off handedly when they finally returned to the Palace several candlemarks later. Gabrielle stopped in mid stride and stared at the Empress. The Conqueror paused once she realized she was alone. She turned to look back at the girl.

"You had my things moved into your quarters," Gabrielle was stunned by this news.

"Yes, is there a problem?" the Conqueror asked her body tensing. She had thought the girl might welcome this change. She had never stopped to consider anything else.

"No, itís just that..." Gabrielle was momentarily at a loss for words.

"If you donít like the idea of sharing then you are welcome to return your things to the other room," Xena was inexplicably hurt by the thought that the other woman didnít want to be with her. She started to walk away but hadnít gotten more then a few steps before she felt a hand tugging on her arm. She stopped and looked down at the bard.

"I like the idea of being with you every night," the girl said quietly, "but I am afraid that you will quickly become bored with me." There was a pause as the girl dropped her eyes and her hand, unable to look into those intense blue eyes. "I donít want to return one day to find you in bed with someone else. I donít think I could handle that."

Xena felt an inexpiable pain in her heart but she acknowledged that the girl had reason to carry around such fear. In the past she had used such tactics to discard old lovers. She had betrayed them without concern. It was inevitable that the girl would learn of her reputation and in the past it would have been a reasonable concern.

"You can rest your fears Gabrielle," she said with sincerity reaching up to stroke the girlís cheek with her long fingers. "I promise you that will never happen."

chapter 9

Titus was feeling slightly irritated. He had received an important message and had been searching for the Conqueror for several candlemarks. He had stopped first at the council room where the negotiations with the Romanís were going on but she was conspicuously absent. He had gone to her private chambers only to be turned away by the Royal Guard.

He cursed Hades and returned to the main council room knowing that he would have to wait until she decided to put in an appearance. He was angry. Since the bard had moved into the Palace the Conqueror had not been acting like her old self and now she had been disappearing for candlemarks during the middle of the day. It was unacceptable behaviour for the Ruler but even while he had those thoughts he remembered his own agenda.

A cruel smile touched the edges of his lips. Perhaps this situation would work in his favour. The Conqueror was allowing herself to become preoccupied with the girl, and was therefore paying less attention to what was happening in the Empire. He could use her behaviour to his advantage. It would be evidence to the other Generalís that she was growing soft and weak.

He took a deep breath to calm his unsettled nerves. He would bide his time and be patient. He could not allow himself to get emotional. He could not afford to make any mistakes. He would let her play right into his hands.

The Conqueror finally arrived at the council chambers late in the afternoon and he waited until after the session before passing along the message. Cautiously he glanced at her face wondering what she was thinking behind that stoic mask she wore so well.

Xena was thoughtful. Remnants of the Horde, a tribe she had all but destroyed several years ago, had formed an alliance with another enemy and were now threatening the Northern borders of her Empire. There was only one way for her to response to such a challenge. She would march her army into battle against these intruders.

"Send a message to General Loris that he should continue to monitor the situation. I want regular reports," the Conqueror instructed. "Then start assembling the Third Army. Get them prepared to march within the next new moon. I want as many troops as can be made available from the surrounding Regions brought to the Capital."

"Yes, Empress," the General nodded pleased how the situation was unfolding. With the Conqueror out of the Capital it would give him a chance to go about his business without interference. He turned and headed for the door.

"Send Archius to me," she shouted absently, her eyes staring intently at his receding back.

Xena leaned back in her chair feeling the weight of the Empire upon her shoulders. The peace with their neighbours had lasted longer than she had expected. It was time to show them what they could do and to whom. She could no longer sit back idly and allow them to continue attacking her unprotected border regions.

The thought of going into battle made her body grow warm. It had been too long since she had tasted that blood lust and her inner self longed for the fear and power that fuelled her existence during a good fight. She longed for that thrill once again. If there was one regret, it was that she would be leaving the bard behind.

It had only been one full moon since they had consummated their relationship and each night had brought about a new revelation. She was known to have many skills but it was apparent that her bard had a few talents of her own.

A smile tipped the corner of her lips. She never knew what to expect from her new lover who grew more confident each day. The Conqueror knew that her enemies would be shocked to know how easily the younger woman was able to render her defenseless in the bedroom.

The smile quickly faded. It would do no good for any one to learn how important Gabrielle had become to her. It would make the young womanís life more dangerous. She would become a target for every one seeking revenge on the Empress. The last thing she wanted was for the bard to get hurt because of her. She would need to speak to the girl about that.

Her thoughts were momentarily diverted by the arrival of Archius. She watched as he humbly approached the throne, his head bowed to her majesty and authority. In this man she had found the perfect administrator and some times she wondered if Ares hadnít created him just to keep her happy.

"I have to go to the Northern Region," she announced. "I will be taking General Titus with me so, I will expect you to take care of matters with your usual efficiency while I am gone."

"Yes Empress," the man nodded, hiding his surprise. Titus had already filled him in on their plans though the General had failed to mention that he was also accompanying the Army, and privately he wondered if the man even knew. It was the Conquerorís usual style to leave the General behind to help look after affairs of state. Somehow the idea of him going with the Army was pleasing.

"There is another more important matter that I need for you to handle during my absence," Xena continued pacing behind her desk thoughtfully. He noticed that her blue eyes had grown pale. "It involves Gabrielle."

The administrator knew what her next words were going to be. He had seen it happen enough times to understand what came next. He suddenly felt sorry for the bard. She was a nice person, pleasant and friendly to all those she encountered. Unlike many of the other guests staying at the Palace she was undemanding, preferring to solve her own problems without running to the Conqueror.

It was this selfless attitude that was earning her a loyal following among the Royal retaining staff. More then once he had found her in the kitchen, munching on some snack and entertaining the staff with some story. At first he had been disapproving of her actions but later he had come to understand that it was an act of grace. The young woman carried herself with a dignity that no action could diminish. He would truly be sorry to see her go. He turned back to the Conqueror remembering that she was speaking to him.

"I will need you to look out for Gabrielle while I am gone. She has a kind nature that invites people to take advantage of her. I want you to ensure no harm comes to her. I want to see her here when I return. I donít think I have to warn you what will happen if something does happen to her."

"Yes, Empress, I will assign members of the Royal Guard to protect her," Archius nodded barely able to contain his surprise. He had resigned himself to another conclusion. He understood then, more clearly then ever, that this young woman was no passing fancy for the Empress. Her next words confirmed his thoughts.

"It might be a good idea for you to show her the inner workings of the government," Xena had been toying with this idea for a while now and had concluded this would be an appropriate time to get the bard more involved in her life. "I would like her to be more familiar with how things are run."

"Yes, My Empress," Archius bowed, genuinely looking forward to the opportunity of working with the girl. "When will you be leaving?"

"As soon as the Third Army is ready to march," there was a slight pause. "I donít want you to say anything to Gabrielle, there is no need to trouble her with this matter just yet."

"What about General Titus?" The question brought a smile to the Empressí lips.

"I think we can keep this little surprise between us for now," she replied. "Itís been a while since heís seen any military action. I think he may be growing lazy sitting here at the Palace all the time. We canít have him start to get any ideas."

"No, your Highness. I will prepare for your departure," he bowed deeply, hiding the smile that broke across his lips as he backed towards the door.

By the end of the week the first of the troops were beginning to arrive in the Capital and a makeshift camp was set up just outside the city walls. The Conqueror was kept busy with the details involved in assembling and moving the army yet she still kept her regular afternoon meetings with the bard, hoping to hide the truth from the girl for as long as possible. Yet inevitably it became impossible to keep her intentions quiet.

She was on her way through the Palace one afternoon when she ran into Marc Anthony. She sensed he had been lurking around, waiting to catch her alone. It was annoying that the trade negotiations had not yet been completed. But she had to remain polite and bide her time. Now was not the time to aggravate the Romanís.

"I heard rumours that the Horde tribe was attacking your Northern Borders," he said falling into step beside her.

"True," Xena did not have to ask where he had heard the news. There were more then enough people in her court who would sell this man any information he wanted.

"Perhaps I can offer assistance," he said graciously. "Rome has several Legions in the mountains that we could make available."

"No," she sniffed, amused by the offer. She would not make herself beholden to the Romanís. She paused looking down her nose at a man who was the same height. "I grow weary of this process. I will be honouring you with a special banquet tonight. If the trade negotiations are not finished by this afternoon then I will send a delegation to Rome on the next moon."

Marc Anthony nodded and without another word the woman turned on her heel and walked away. He knew she would not tolerate any foreign troops in the Capital during her absence. Xena smiled aware of what he was thinking, already knowing his intentions.

"Belaus do you know where Gabrielle has gone?" Xena asked the maid when she reached her rooms. She had long since learned it was a wasted effort to try and locate the bard on her own and relied instead on the Palace staff to tell her where the girl was.

"I believe she has gone for a walk outside the city gates," the handmaiden said. "She said that you would know where to find her. You took her there one day."

Xena nodded, knowing instantly where she would find the bard. She retrieved Argo from the stables and rode out of the city hurrying the horse along the trail. As she expected she found the girl sitting alone in the glade, her back leaned up against the rock, her staff laying on the ground beside her.

The Conqueror paused at the edge of the forest watching the girl for a moment before sliding off the horse. She handed the reins over to Joshua, who was waiting respectfully out of sight in the trees, before strolling through the long grass and plopping down beside her lover. Gabrielle watched as she stretched her legs out and leaned back on her elbows.

She stared at the panoramic scene below. From here she could see the army camp and the activity it generated. She took a deep breath and savoured the fresh air and the scent of sweet grass as she lay her head back and stared for a long time at the clear blue sky. She realized she would miss all this peace and the thought put a sour look on her face.

"Whatís up Xena?" the girl asked and the Conqueror glanced across at her companion.

Xena could see the hint of uncertainty in the girlís eyes and knew the bardís sensitive soul had picked up on the tension she was feeling. She didnít realize the expression on her face was more dour then usual. She could imagine what the girl was thinking. She had heard some of the rumours that were circulating through the Palace.

"Thereís trouble," the Conqueror said absently voicing only part of her thoughts. Her eyes were focused on the valley and so she didnít see the odd expression that crossed the girlís face.

"Do you want me to leave?" Gabrielle asked giving into her insecurities and blurting out her worst fear. Despite the Conquerorís assurances, she lived daily with the anxiety that the Empress would send her away.

"No, it is I who must go away," Xena glanced quickly at her companion and shook her head. She was unable to tell this woman that she never wanted her to leave. The pained expression on the bardís face made the Conquerorís heart soften. "My enemies are attacking the Northern borders of my Empire. I must go into battle."

"Can I come with?" Gabrielle asked earnestly, feeling only slightly mollified.

"No," the words were so firmly spoken that the bard knew there would be no further argument.

Xena didnít want to be separated from this young woman but neither was she ready for the bard to see the darkest part of herself. The part of Ares that only emerged during the heat of battle when blood and gore covered her sword and her body. She didnít think she would ever want this gentle spirited girl to see that side of her.

"It is not safe and we will be travelling quickly," she said instead. "There are no luxuries on a battle campaign and I am afraid my bard you have grown accustomed to luxury."

Gabrielle would have protested but she knew by the set expression on the Conquerorís face that there would be no more discussion on the matter. She stared ahead forgetting about her surroundings, not wanting to think about what this separation might do to them.

"What am I to do while you are gone?" she asked plaintively.

"Enjoy my hospitality," the Conqueror waved her arm graciously. "I have asked Archius to show you how my government works. I thought you might be curious to know."

Gabrielle couldnít believe what she was hearing. "Yes, certainly." She agreed eagerly. "It wonít be as nice as if it was you showing me."

"Well, think of it this way, when I return you can tell me everything that I am doing wrong," Xena teased and the bard reached over and gently punched the other womanís arm. "If it bores you then I am sure Archius can find something else to entertain you. I have instructed him to see to all your needs."

"But he wonít be able to do that," the girl pouted seductively. "What will he do when I need you?"

The Conqueror was momentarily speechless as a wave of heat rose up through her body. She looked at the innocent face and then growled. Her arms were desperate to reach out and embrace the girl but it was not in her nature to express such displays of affection.

"Then we will have to see about satisfying those needs before I leave," she said in a seductively low voice. "Tonight we have to dine with the Romanís who will be leaving the capital in the morning but tomorrow night I have something very special planned for us."

The last part had been an impulsive gesture for which she was immediately glad when she saw the light go on in the girlís face. Gabrielleís features brightened considerably as she thought about what the Conqueror could be plotting.

"What have you got planned?" she tried unsuccessfully to get the secret out of her lover but the Empress would say nothing.

"You have to wait and see," the Conqueror laughed, delighted by her companions response, amazed at the unexpected pleasure she felt. She bounced to her feet and held out her hand. "I have to return to the Palace, come."

"Can I ride with you?" the girl asked impishly letting the taller woman pull her to her feet.

"Only if you ride in front," the older woman smiled and the bard laughed.

The Empressí threat to terminate the negotiations did the trick and by the end of the afternoon, agreements were reached on all matters of concern. The Conqueror and the Roman General signed their names to the parchments without fanfare before retiring to the banquet room for a farewell feast.

Marc Anthony watched the entertainment that evening without interest. His mission to Corinth had been only partly successful. The trade agreements had been signed but he had been unable to lure the Conqueror into his bed. He glanced at the young blond woman who sat so confidentially at Empressí side. He was acutely aware that she had not been asked to tell any stories. Caesar would be amused to learn that a mere bard now held onto his old lovers affection.

His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. In truth he had never seen the Conqueror act in this manner. She had always held her lovers at arms length never allowing them to get to close. But he sensed it was different with this young woman. He had caught the Empress looking at the girl with unguarded expressions that were full of an emotion he had thought the Conqueror incapable of feeling.

A tiny smile came to his lips. Perhaps his trip here wasnít wasted. He had learned something more valuable and strategic then anything else, and it had nothing to do with the army the Conqueror possessed. Caesar indeed would be pleased with his final report of this mission.

Gabrielle woke early the next morning and accompanied Xena down to the harbour to see the Roman General off. She was happy to see the man leave and not because she harboured any jealousy towards the handsome Roman General who had not hidden the fact that he was interested in bedding her lover. No, it was because his presence made her tall companion tense and edgy.

"It was a pleasure to meet you Gabrielle," Marc Anthony said with a charming smile. He gallantly took the girlís hand and raised it to his lips. "I wish we had more of an opportunity to get to know each other."

"Perhaps another time," the bard replied, gently pulling her hand out of his grasp when he didnít immediately release it.

"I look forward to that," he smiled brilliantly and then turned his attention to the Empress who was watching him through narrow eyes. He shifted uneasily annoyed that she was able to make him feel uncomfortable. He bowed respectfully not attempting to repeat his earlier gesture aware that the Conqueror didnít like to be touched unless she initiated the contact.

"I thank you for your hospitality, I hope you will pay us a visit in Rome," he graciously invited and Xena gave him a bemused smile.

"Perhaps we will see each other there soon," she replied and left him to draw his own conclusions.

They stood silently and watched as the General boarded his gallery. With a salute to the sailors, the gangplank was hauled aboard and the ship slowly pulled away from the dock. The galley had barely begun to move when the Conqueror turned to her companion.

"There is some business I must attend," Xena was truly regretful that she was unable to spend more time with the girl. She knew that the army was almost ready to move out. "But I will see you tonight. Meet me at the stables a candlemark before sunset."

"Iíll be there," the bard smiled and the Conqueror turned to go but then unexpectedly turned back. In one swift motion she gathered the startled girl into her arms and kissed her passionately. Then without a word she released the younger woman and walked away, leaving the bard swaying dangerously on rubbery legs.

chapter 10

 

Xena was tired and dirty. She had spent most of the day in the camp outside the city walls. It continued to grow each day as more and more soldiers from her armies stationed around Greece arrived for the march towards the Northern borders. By the time she joined up with General Loris she would have a formidable fighting force of more then three thousand troops. If the reports she was receiving daily were true they would be meeting a force equal in size.

She stopped at the council chambers to check some last minute details before heading to her quarters. If everything went according to plan they would be moving out in two days. It did not surprise her to find both Titus and Archius in the room.

"Anything new?" she asked abruptly snatching the parchments the General held out to her. A frown settled on her face.

"It seems that the Horde attacked and destroyed an out post garrison of forty men," Titus said repeating what the message revealed.

"They will pay for their arrogance," the Conqueror said and then glanced at the General. "The troops are assembled so I have decided that tomorrow we rest and we move out the day after." There was another pause as the Empress looked passively at Archius and then back at the General. "Itís been a long time since youíve been out of the Capital, I thought that you might come with us."

"What?" the man was completely taken by surprise. He glanced at the aide. "But who will stay here to assist Archius?"

"Good question," she mused slumping into the chair behind the desk. "After great consideration I have decided that Archius needs an assistant. You know my friend Gabrielle. I think I would like her in that position."

"But thatís absurd, sheís just someone who warms your bed..." the General saw to late his error. The Conqueror was on her feet with a hand tightening around his thick throat before he knew what was happening.

"You better think carefully before you say any more," she growled. "Gabrielle is more then a bard. She is an intelligent young woman whose opinion I greatly respect. Now I suggest that you show the same regard."

"Yes, My Empress," the man gasped his face turning red as he struggled to breath. The Conqueror dropped her hand and stepped back, watching impassively as the man grabbed his throat and coughed.

"I donít ever want to hear you speak about her like that again," the Conqueror said in a cold voice that was more threat then warning. "I will be busy for the rest of the night and do not wish to be disturbed. I will see you tomorrow for our final briefing."

"Yes, My Empress," the men said in unison and watched as she strolled quickly out of the room. Archius turned to his companion and eyed him for a long moment.

"I suppose you are happy," the General looked at the smaller man, nervously rubbing his throat.

"I never like to see any one hurt," Archius replied tactfully.

"You are so cocky now, but what happens when the Conqueror puts the girl in your place?" the General sneered but the smaller man only shook his head. He was confident in himself and was not worried about being displaced.

"I donít know why you despise the bard and her influence over the Conqueror," Archius said, "but I do know it is that influence that has saved your life today. Gabrielle believes in giving people a second chance and the Conqueror has adopted that policy. But do not be fooled, the girl has not made her weaker. She will kill you if you cross her. She will kill you if you show the girl any more disrespect."

"The girl is nothing but a whore and she will be the downfall of the Empress," the General spat and then gave the other man a cruel smile. "You better hope nothing happens to the Conqueror because you will be the next person to join her in Tartarus."

With that the General stormed out of the room leaving the man alone. He smiled not frightened of the threat. The Conqueror was not fooled. She knew who to watch and who could be trusted. He would be surprised if General Titus returned from this battle campaign.

Despite her fatigue Xena was eagerly anticipating the evening. Though she was running late she treated herself to the luxury of a hot bath scenting her body with the oils that her lover liked. That evening she discarded her black leathers in favour of a soft linen tunic and leggings. Earlier she had sent Zenon to set up the camp, wanting everything to be perfect. She had not courted the bard in the traditional sense and now she was determined give the girl one night to remember before she had to leave. She knew it would be many full moons before they saw each other again. She dismissed that thought intent only on enjoying the night.

Gabrielle was sitting patiently waiting for her at the stables. The Conqueror smiled at the sight, her blue eyes growing pale as they studied the girl. She was dressed in a simple brown tunic with a hemp belt around her waist. Her blonde hair had been left to hang loose. Sheís so beautiful, the Empress thought as she strolled up to the girl.

"Are you ready to go?" she asked indulgently as the girl jumped to her feet.

Gabrielle only nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Her green eyes studied the tall woman who stood before her. She had never seen Xena dressed so casually and for a moment she seemed like a totally different person.

"You look great," the bard finally managed to say and the Conqueror allowed a smile to play with the corners of her lips.

"I am nothing compared to you," Xena said and reached out to gently stroke the bardís cheek. "You are a beautiful woman Gabrielle."

The smaller woman blushed unable to meet her lovers intense gaze for a moment. The intimate moment was broken as the stablehand choose that moment to approach. The Conqueror turned to the man grabbing the reins to the horse and dismissing him with a look.

"We wonít be needing an escort tonight Zenon," the Empress said without looking at the Royal Guard who hovered in the background. The man nodded and watched passively as the woman vaulted on to the horse.

"Come," she said simply extending her hand to the bard pulling her onto the horse behind her.

They rode out of the Palace grounds and through the city but instead of heading inland they took a route that circled the Capital and took them to the seashore. They rode in silence as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Gabrielle had her arms wrapped tightly around her lovers waist enjoying the caress of the warm evening wind as they rode.

Finally Xena urged her warhorse off the worn trail and down over a series of sand banks onto the beach beyond. The smell of the sea was strong as was the sound of the waves as they rolled onto shore. It was just as the last of the sun was disappearing that they reached their destination.

Gabrielleís heart trembled at the sight of the small camp that had been made up. There was a blazing fire with extra logs nearby to feed its warmth. There was a pot on the heated rocks with a cauldron of goodies slowly cooking. There were a pair of goblets and a full wine skin next to a log were a large bedroll and fur blanket had been placed. Her heart ached.

"You did this for me?" she whispered hardly able to find her voice. The Conqueror turned in the saddle to look at her young lover seeing the tender expression on her face.

"I wanted you to remember me while I was gone," she said simply and a pair of glimmering green eyes turned to look at her.

"I could never forget you, even if I tried," she said and then cupped her lover's face and kissed her.

"Come, letís save that for later," Xena smiled, swinging a leg over the horses neck and sliding to the ground. She reached up to help the girl down. "I believe our meal should just about be ready."

"What is it?" the bard asked eagerly gazing into the cooking pot.

"If the cooks did as I requested it is a seafood stew," the Conqueror said with a smile as she squatted by the fire and handed the girl a bowl she found nearby. "Itís made with clams."

"Oooh," the girl smiled and held out her bowl.

The evening went exactly the way Xena had planned it in her head. They sat side by side enjoying the food that she had ordered prepared, washing it down with the wine that had been left. In between they talked and laughed sharing a few carefree moments away from all responsibilities. Neither gave into their fears about the impending separation intent on enjoying this time together.

Once their bellies were full they discarded their boots and took a long walk along the beach, walking hand in hand along the edge of the water and revelling in the feel of the wet sand as it squeezed between their toes. Their voices were low and soft, as the voices of lovers usually are in moment of extreme intimacy and Xena knew that if she fell in battle she would die a happy woman.

But she was intent on not letting that happen. She savoured this time they were spending together and wanted it to last. She had no intention of dying any sooner then she had too. She wanted to stay and live to a very old age with this petite woman by her side. With that thought she lead the young woman back to the camp, gently laying her on the bedroll and making love to her until their bodies were both to exhausted to continue.

Afterwards they lay entangled in each others limbs with Gabrielleís head resting comfortably in the crook of her shoulder and the warm fur drawn up over their naked bodies. There was silence except for the quiet murmur of the sea and the crackle of the firewood as it burned. Over head a cacophony of stars twinkled conspiratorial as if apart of this secret rendezvous. The moon in all its glory cast a pale shadow over the silent land.

"Xena," Gabrielle whispered, her warm breathing fanning her lovers naked skin.

"Yes," Xena brushed her lips across the bardís brow, turning her eyes away from the beauty of the night sky to another natural beauty, that of her lover.

"I just wanted to say thank you," the bard said in a soft voice. "No one has ever done anything like this for me."

"They better not have," the Conqueror growled affectionately giving her lover a gentle squeeze.

"No, I mean it," the younger woman said earnestly. "Back in my village a lot of the boys came to court me but none of them ever did anything special to win my heart." There was a slight pause. "You already have it and yet you still do this for me."

"I try my best," she said weakly, a lump of emotion in her throat making it difficult for her to breath let alone speak. She hadnít known how else to respond to the womanís confession. "I want you to be happy Gabrielle." She reached down and cupped the girlís face lifting it up so their eyes could met. "I would move mountains if it made you happy."

"I love you," the girl said in a sleepy voice, her eyes already drowsy. Xena bent her head and brushed the girlís lips with her own.

"I know you do," she whispered in reply as the girlís eyes closed giving into the exhaustion that sated her body. She pulled the sleeping bard tighter into the circle of her arms and turned her eyes up to the starry sky. "I know you do."

 

The next day came too quickly. Gabrielle looked at the spectacle of men, horses and carts, her heart beating wildly as she surveyed the scene. She caught a glimpse of Xena, Destroyer of Nations as she rode up and down the marching columns of men, encouraging them, leading them forward.

At last the Conqueror rode back to the Palace gates where the bard waited. They had said their farewells the night before with passionate embraces but she needed to feel the woman in her arms once more.

"Ride with me out of the city," the Conqueror said extending her hand. Gabrielle immediately accepted the offering and was hoisted up in front of the Empress who clicked her heels and set the horse in motion.

"Conqueror," Gabrielle began trying not to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the army that had been raised.

"Xena," the Empress reminded gently, holding the bard against her body for one last feel of the womanís warmth.

"Xena, I know you will be gone for a long time and I canít bear to be here in the Palace without you so if itís all right I thought I would go home to visit my parents in Potedaia," the bard was hesitant. "Thatís if you donít mind?"

"You are not my prisoner Gabrielle," the Conqueror said not entirely happy with the thought of the bard wandering the countryside. "But you must promise me two things." The girl nodded eagerly willing to promise this woman anything.

"First you will take an escort with you, I do not want you to wander around the country alone." The Empress waited until the girl nodded her head before continuing. "Secondly I want you to tell everyone that you are my slave."

"What?" Gabrielle was astounded. She could not keep the trembling out of her voice. "Are you ashamed of me?"

"No," the Conqueror was serious. "I could never be ashamed of you." She sighed heavily. "If anything you should be ashamed of me."

"Never," Gabrielle immediately jumped to her defence and the Conqueror smiled and brushed her lips across the womanís brow.

"I am only concerned for your safety. I donít want anyone to treat you badly because of your association with me. So if any one asks you, promise me you will tell them you are my slave. Please do this for me."

"Okay," the bard conceded and was rewarded with a tight hug and another kiss. Tears moistened the girl's eyes and when she spoke again her voice was very serious. "Donít forget about me."

Xena glanced up to see the fear in the girlís eyes. She leaned forward and tenderly kissed her, stroking her face with her long fingers.

"I wonít," it was a solemn promise that the younger woman would hold dearly to her heart in the up coming months.

"Take care of yourself, donít get hurt," the girl said with a slight hiccup in her voice and the Conqueror smiled gently. She grasp the girls chin.

"I have every intention of coming back to you, Gabrielle," Xena said and there was silence which was only broken once they were outside the city gates.

"Joshua will see you back to the Palace," she said motioning to the soldier following a few paces behind them. "He has been instructed to be your personal guard."

The Conqueror stopped her mount and was focusing all her attention now on the bard. Turning the womanís head she laid a gentle kiss upon her lips, embracing her tightly aware of the long lonely nights ahead.

"Be here when I return," Xena whispered the command and breathlessly Gabrielle could only nod and unwilling to let go of her love she tightened her embrace. The Conqueror basked in the embrace, memorizing the feel of the girls body pressed tightly up against her. Then with one final kiss the bard was on the ground and the Conqueror was riding away, galloping towards the head of the column.

"I love you," Gabrielle called quietly, tears streaming down her face.

Xena did not trust herself to look back, leaving the girl behind was hard enough without seeing the tears that clouded those beautiful green eyes. She allowed her body to flood with tension as she became not the Empress but Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror of Greece. She lifted her head and stared forward her mind on the road ahead.

THE END

 

continued in Coming Home.............

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