Violence: This is a story about the Conqueror so you can expect a little of this stuff.
Other: This is the fourth part of an on going series which I started on a lark. In order to best understand this it is important to read If ...this had been the beginning, and Home Again and Surrender before reading this part. Comments are appreciated.
My server has changed so new address is as follows firstname.lastname@example.org Hope you enjoy the story.
Hannibal finished tying the bandage around the wounded man's arm before giving him an encouraging smile. There was nothing more that he could do, like many of the other wounded, this soldier would have to endure the pain of the injury until it healed. He stood up and stretched his aching muscles. He was getting to old for the strenuous demands of being head healer for the Conqueror's army.
He turned his head and glanced around the tent, realizing that every square inch of space was in use. The casualties had stopped coming several candlemarks earlier, allowing them a chance to catch up, but even though all the men had been attended to, there was still much too do. There were wounds to be drained, bandages to be changed and herbs to be dispensed. He was no fan of war, he had seen too much of what it did to people and knew that the cost of lives was to high for any victory achieved.
His eyes continued around the room until they settled on the blond woman who was kneeling next to the cot of a severely wounded soldier. He saw the gentle way she held the ailing man's hand and the compassionate expression on her young face.
Gabrielle, the bard from Potedaia, Amazon Queen, and consort to the Empress of Greece, had been an endless source of help and inspiration over the past many moons. She had worked tirelessly amongst the sick, helping not only the healers but the wounded as well. Not once had he heard a word of complaint coming from her mouth, and there had always been a ready smile on her face.
But perhaps the biggest gift she had given to the injured warriors were her stories. Each night she would stay late into the evening, filling the encroaching darkness with the soft cadence of her voice and soothing the soldiers worries with tales that seemed to calm their fears of Hades coming for them in their sleep. She had won over many hearts with her selfless attitude and the affection the troops displayed for her was genuine.
He moved across the room picking a path between the cots to where the girl was sitting. With the battle over the army would be returning from the field, and the Conqueror would be amongst them. He knew the bard would want to be there when the Empress arrived back in camp. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder to get her attention and felt an ache in his aged heart as weary eyes looked up.
"It's time for a break, Gabrielle," the healer said quietly. "The battle is over. There won't be any more casualties."
The blond woman stared up into the wrinkled face of the chief healer. She could see the weariness that crinkled the corners of his eyes. He looked as tired as she felt. They had worked side by side for the last few moons and it had been an exhausting task. Her green eyes surveyed the room.
"There is still much to do," she shook her head. She felt a sense of responsibility for these unfortunate souls, knowing that she would feel guilty if she left while there was still work to be done.
"Yes, but the worst is over. We will be able to handle it from here," Hannibal was insistent. "Besides I am certain the Conqueror will want to see you the instant she returns from the battlefield and even though she may deny it, I suspect she will need attention."
Gabrielle would have argued the point but she knew the man was right. She thought of her lover and knew that she wanted to be there for Xena when she returned to camp. Reluctantly she released the soldiers hand and stood up, feeling the stiffness in her sore muscles.
"Thank you Hannibal," she gave him a tired smile which he returned.
She took one last glance about the room before strolling slowly passed the litters and out of the tent into the evening. She paused to take a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh air. She closed her eyes and savoured the feel of the gentle breeze as it caressed her exposed flesh. It seemed like it had been such a long time since she had been able to enjoy the simple things that the day offered.
She glanced about the camp. It was still quiet but in the distance she could see the first of the troops beginning their return. If she knew anything about her lover she knew that Xena would be the last one off the battlefield. She turned and made her way back to the command tent, mentally aware that she had enough time for a bath before the Empress returned.
Xena marched her golden horse around the battlefield, watching without expression as the camp followers began collecting the dead and stacking them in piles to be burned. Others were retrieving weapons that had been lost during the battle. She glanced around the open field that was littered with those who Hades had chosen to take that day. Once again He had passed her by.
The fight had been a long, bloody struggle, a seemingly endless series of skirmishes that resulted in many lives lost. She looked down over her body. Any injuries she had sustained in battle were covered by the sweat and grim that had formed a thin crust over her skin. There were nicks and cuts from tips of blades that had gotten through her defenses. More then once the sharp edge of a sword had come almost to close for comfort.
She tugged on the reins and brought the large horse to a halt next to a small stack of bodies. A horde of flies were buzzing around the blood drenched corpses. Overhead a loud chorus of buzzards circled waiting for the chance to swoop down and begin the feast. She felt the bile rise up in her throat and she leaned over and gagged.
She gasp for breath, struggling to regain her sense of composure. She had never experienced this strange reaction to battle and its aftermath. She had always lived for the fire and intensity that it took to be victorious. She had defeated Caesar's disciplined Legionaries, driving them back while securing another large portion of territory for her own Empire, and though she had always accepted that sacrifices had to be made she wondered today if it was really worth the price.
She glanced up across the plain towards the low mountains in the west to which Caesar's army had fled. In the past she would have pushed her army forward until the enemy was completely annihilated but today she was reluctant to follow. Her forces had been brutally bloodied and she did not have the heart to push them further.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes in an attempt to release the last of the tension that remained in her body. She wanted the panther inside her to be completely at rest before she returned to camp where she knew Gabrielle would be waiting. A flood of warm emotion cascaded over her senses as thoughts of the younger woman filled her head.
It had been a long weary road they had travelled together and as difficult as it had been, it had been more rewarding then she had ever imagined. Surrender, Artemis had said and she had done just that and there wasn't one moment that she had regretted that decision.
She sighed. She had never known how good it felt to have someone there waiting. In the past she had taken an assortment of lovers, rarely sharing her bed with someone more than once, but on this campaign there had only been Gabrielle and she had experienced a joy that she had never before felt. She had never known how good it was to have someone love her so completely. Someone who waited anxiously for her return, someone who fussed over every scratch or bruise. It had been a novel experience and one that she knew she could no longer live without.
She opened her eyes and glanced one last time over the battlefield. It was over and she would not pursue the foe. She would gather her forces and return to the Capital. It was time for things to change and perhaps it had been inevitable from the first moment she had met Gabrielle. She no longer lusted after more power. She wanted to enjoy what she had in case it was suddenly taken away.
She had never been afraid of death. She had laughed at the idea that some day Hades would come for her. So often she had reckless tempted the Fates, sneering at Death but now she no longer carried that same fearlessness or contempt. Now it was startling clear that she wanted to live. She had a reason to think of the future. A future that stretched before her with so many possibilities. She wanted to give Gabrielle the promise of tomorrow and she couldn't do that if she were dead.
She took a deep breath, feeling the evening wind caress her heated flesh. She was glad that they would be returning to Corinth. They both needed the rest. It had been a long difficult season and the situation had only been made bearable by the constant companionship and support of her lover. It was for the bard that her weary limbs now ached. With the battle fever gone, she longed only for the soft comfort of her friends embrace.
She dug her heels into the flanks of the horse and it moved quickly forward trotting over the uneven earth, moving steadily in the direction of the camp where her army was now assembling. Once clear of the obstacles that littered the ground she pressed her knees together, urging the horse into a gallop, desperate to feel the arms of her lover wrapped around her body.
Gabrielle stood on the perimeter of the camp and watched as the surviving remnants of the Conqueror's army returned from battle. She shifted restlessly from one foot to the other, her eyes straining to see down the column of soldiers that were trudging passed. She saw the fatigue etched into the grimy lines on their faces and knew that Xena too would be exhausted.
She waited anxiously for a glimpse of the Empress, who had been in the very heart of the action. She knew that the Conqueror was okay but she would not be content until she saw the woman for herself. She hugged her waist against the evening wind which was beginning to grow chilly and continued her vigil, her heart aching for the fate of the one she loved so dearly.
Finally, at the very end of the column, sitting proudly a top Argo, she saw the possessor of her heart. The first one on the battlefield, the Conqueror was also the last one to leave. Unable to help herself, Gabrielle started walking towards her lover, only taking a few steps before breaking into a run, her heart aching with happiness and love.
Xena spotted the girl coming towards her down the road and her heart leapt at the sight. She reined in Argo and then slid from his back, opening her arms as the girl flew into her embrace. They clung to each other tightly. No words were needed to communicate the intensity of the emotions that passed between them. They were oblivious to everything except each other.
"I'm dirty," the Conqueror said at last, gently easing away from the smaller woman's warmth.
"I don't care," Gabrielle smiled, filled with a sense of wholeness now that they were together again. "Besides we could always share a bath together."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, thinking how wonderful that idea sounded. But there wasn't any time or place for such luxuries in a battlefield camp. She looked down at the girl, smiling indulgently as she threaded her fingers through long blond locks of hair.
"As appealing as that sounds, I think we both will have to settle for a dip in the cold stream like the rest of the men."
"We'll see," the bard said with an impish grin. "Are we going to walk or are you going to give me a ride?"
The Conqueror looked at the young woman, ruffling her hair affectionately before grasping her about the waist and lifting her in one smooth motion onto the horse. With a chuckle she swung up behind the girl, wrapping her arms tightly around the young woman who leaned back against her solid body.
They rode slowly towards the camp, savouring the little time they were alone together. There were too few moments like this and Xena knew she wanted more of what she had with this woman.
"Are you going after Pompeii?" Gabrielle asked even though she thought she already knew the answer. They had pursued the Roman General for the last full moon and she knew Xena's army was ready to completely vanquish the enemy.
"No," came the startling reply as the Conqueror brushed her lips over the back of the girl's head, breathing in the honey scent of her hair. "We are returning to Corinth."
"But Caesar's army is retreating, if you follow them you will be able to destroy them," the bard was astonished and she wriggled around in her seat so that she could see her lovers face.
"Yes, but I am tired of fighting," the Conqueror replied and then smiled wearily as the girl stared at her with concern.
"Where's the Conqueror and what have you done with her?"
"Nothing," Xena replied but it was a lie. The old Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations was gone, replaced by someone new, someone whose personality was still emerging. It was a startling realization but the desire to defeat and subjugate all others was dissipating. Now she only wanted an opportunity for peace and rest.
"Xena, are you all right?" the bard was genuinely concerned, a worried frown burrowing its way across her brow.
"Yes," the taller warrior nodded. She was not ready to confide the truth in anyone, so instead she gave a reasonable explanation that her companion would accept. "The troops are exhausted and I've lost many good soldiers. We all need a break to regroup and refresh ourselves."
"But Caesar will get away," Gabrielle was finding it difficult to understand.
"Yes, but I always know where to find him," the Empress said brushing her lips across her young lovers brow. "Besides I'm not certain he isn't waiting for me to follow. Too get to the next valley we will have to travel through a narrow passage in the mountains. It's a perfect place for an ambush and I've not yet seen any of the Legions from Rome in battle."
"You think he was holding them in reserve?" the bard asked thoughtfully.
"It would be the smart move," Xena replied. "He could be saving them, waiting until we are almost completely exhausted before throwing them into battle."
"But he just lost," the blond couldn't understand. "Why didn't he use them sooner?"
"Because I have the feeling that he expects me to follow his retreating army. It was something the old Conqueror would have done."
Gabrielle was not remiss in noticing the terminology that her companion used to describe herself yet she wisely reminded mute. The Conqueror was changing and for that she was pleased but she still needed to understand.
"Then you think they are waiting for you in the pass?"
"What better way to defeat a weary army," came the stoic reply. "We would have no chance against fresh troops if we were caught in the pass."
It made sense and Gabrielle knew that the Conqueror's first concern was for her army. She shook her head not really caring why the Empress halted the attack. The thought of returning to the peace and quiet of Corinth after being away so long filled her with anticipation.
General Loris was standing by his tent conferring with his Lieutenants when he caught sight of the Conqueror. He watched as the tall dark haired warrior rode towards the Command tent. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the blond woman tucked in her embrace and his thoughts harkened back to another General's words before another battle.
Titus had been right, the Conqueror was allowing her emotions to guide her actions. Yet strangely it was not a bad thing. The girl had given the Empress a compassion that she had not before held. He dismissed his men and strolled over to where the pair were dismounting from the horse. He motioned for a nearby soldier to take the golden mare.
"It was a good day," he greeted them heartily, buoyed by the victory they had achieved.
"Yes," the Empress nodded a hand resting on the bard's shoulder. "I am very pleased with everyone's performance."
"You will be even more pleased to learn that the Amazon's captured a Roman General and his escort on the battlefield," Loris motioned for someone and Eponin and several Amazon's appeared leading a armour clad soldier whose hands had been bound with cuffs and chains. There was a leash around his neck.
The Conqueror stepped up to the group of prisoners, her pale blue eyes scanning their individual faces before finally coming to rest on the man clad in the silver armour of command. She looked at him intently.
"What do they call you?" she asked, not recognizing the General.
"General Artutus," the man replied straightening his shoulders. The Conqueror glanced over the soldier again, a look of amusement on her face as she looked over his shoulder at the captured escort. Finally she turned to the Amazon's and nodded. "Good work."
Eponin squared her shoulders, filled with pride at the praise over their accomplishment. In the seasons that she had served their Queen in the Conqueror's Army, she had come to understand and appreciate the strength and power of the Empress. Xena was a brilliant Commander who inspired her troops to achieve momentous victories in spite of any disadvantages they faced. She was proud to be a part of such a military force.
"Artutus, your Army started all this so I am of a mind to have you staked out and then quartered," the Conqueror said mildly, weighting her options. "However, it was your good fortune to be captured by my allies, the Amazon's, so I will leave it up to their Queen to decide your fate."
Gabrielle was as startled as everyone else by this unexpected announcement and all eyes turned in her direction. She was momentarily flustered and looked to the Conqueror for help, but there was nothing in the other woman's expression. She could not guess as to what the Empress was up too.
"I will need time to think of a suitable punishment," she said finally, glancing uncertainly at the others. "In the meantime lock him up."
"My Conqueror?" Loris looked questioningly at the Empress.
"Do as she says!" Xena barked and the sound of her voice told them that her actions were not to be questioned any further. Eponin nodded and led the prisoners away. Gabrielle was curious to know what was going on but she waited to voice her questions, aware not to do so in front of the others.
"Was there something else Loris?" the Conqueror asked when the General remained.
"No," he shook his head glancing down at his booted feet, feeling dually chastised. "I will advise the Lieutenants to have the troops ready to move out again at the dawn."
"No," came the response and the General looked up in startled surprise. "We will halt here. I want you to post a defensive perimeter along the ridge overlooking the valley and then break open enough port so that the troops may celebrate our victory. Later you will move your headquarters into the Region."
"But the Roman's are retreating?" he gasped. For the first time since joining her army he questioned her decision.
"Yes, and we will let them run back to Rome," Xena replied coolly her back stiffening. She was unused to his doubt.
"But we would be foolish not to humiliate them," Loris argued passionately, thinking that they were throwing away a great opportunity to finish off their enemies.
"And we would be foolish to think that Caesar did not have some other plan," the Conqueror said in a cold voice. "We have not seen any of his Legions from Rome."
"They might have been sent overseas," the General offered but the Empress was already shaking her head.
"Caesar does not use his finest troop overseas, for that he uses mercenaries," she paused and turned her eyes towards the mountains. "It would not surprise me if they were not waiting for us in the mountains."
"How do you know that?" the General was curious.
"Think about it Loris. For the last full moon we have been fighting Caesar's armies in small battles. We have been pushing them back across the region and towards the mountains, but does it not strike you as unusual how quickly they retreat," she paused and looked at the man. "It wouldn't surprise me if his finest soldiers weren't there waiting for us and I will not take my men into an ambush."
"No, my Conqueror," the General agreed solemnly bowing his head subserviently. She had an uncanny sense of these things but there was a hesitation in his voice that she heard.
"Do you not trust me?" she asked softly and the man swallowed compulsively.
"I just fear we may be losing a brilliant opportunity to make our victory complete," Loris replied honestly, finding a measure of protection in the bard's presence.
"I will not risk the lives of my men," she replied and then did something totally unexpected. She offered him the chance to prove her wrong. "However to satisfy your curiosity you may send several squads of your own personal guard through the pass. If they secure it without resistance then we will proceed."
Loris looked at the woman. Her decision was without precedence. He glanced nervously at Gabrielle who had remained silent through the exchange. He could see nothing in the bard's gaze through he saw a small pensive frown at the corner of her mouth.
"All right," the General agreed and bowed before turning away.
"Loris," the Conqueror's brusque voice halted his departure and he turned to look at her. The expression on her face was feral. "This was your decision and the results of this action will be on your head."
The soldier swallowed, aware of the responsibility that she was placing on his shoulders. He had never had to live with the consequences of his actions, hiding behind the guise that everything he did was because the Conqueror had requested it. Now he would not be able to hide behind that claim. He nodded and then hurried away.
Gabrielle's eyes followed the departing man and then turned to look at her lover. Something was going on. Xena was not acting like herself. She watched through narrowed eyes as the tall warrior ducked into their tent. She followed closely behind.
Xena stepped into the canvas shelter, her fingers going to the clasps of her armour, anxious to rid herself of the soiled leathers she was wearing. She came to an abrupt halt as her eyes settled on the large barrel set in the center of the enclosed space. Unexpectedly she felt gentle fingers slap her hands away as the bard started to undo her armour.
"What is this?" the Conqueror asked gruffly, trying to hide the emotions that assaulted her senses.
"A hot bath for a weary warrior," the bard replied simply.
"Gabriellllle," the woman began to complain but the girl interrupted.
"No," the bard slapped her hands away. "I know you like to share the same tribulations as your troops, but sometimes the leader of the Army needs to be pampered."
Xena was silent. She was not used to being treated so kindly. On all her past battle campaigns she had lived as roughly as the troops and she had determined that it was only right. But now she couldn't help feeling elated at the thoughtfulness of the young woman. She turned to the girl with hope in her eyes.
"You will join me?"
"No," the bard shook her head with a sweet smile. "This is only for you."
Xena reached out and cupped the girl's face.
"You are too good for me," she said softly before leaning forward and planting a gentle kiss on the woman's soft warm mouth.
"Time enough for that later," Gabrielle said determinedly, breaking off the embrace before they both lost control. She grabbed the warrior and spun her around. "Get undressed and get into the bath before the water gets cold."
"Yes, mom," the Empress grinned and dutifully did as she was ordered, discarding her leathers and armour before climbing into the barrel.
She sighed with contentment as the heat of the water began to soak into her weary limbs. She leaned back and closed her eyes, marvelling at the joy that such a simple pleasure could instil. Already she was beginning to feel the weariness fade from her mind and body.
"Relax love," Gabrielle said in a soothing voice.
"Hmm," the Conqueror murmured as small hands lathered with scented soap began their assault on her body. She allowed the bard complete control, revelling in the gentle massage of the hands that were soaping her body and washing her hair. All to soon the wonderful pleasure was over.
"Rinse," the bard commanded and the Empress instantly obeyed. She ducked her whole body under the water. When she surfaced the girl was standing in front of her, a long fresh linen cloth in her hands.
"You know what I'd like," Xena said stepping out of the barrel and reaching out for the girl.
"I know what you'd like," the bard smiled, deftly stepping out of her grasp and wrapping the linen around the tall wet body in one smooth motion. "But before we do anything I need to make sure you are okay."
"Gabrielle, I'm fine," the taller woman huffed with a touch of exasperation.
"That's for me to decide," the smaller woman said firmly. "If you will just stand still we can finish with this and then move onto something more important."
Xena thought to make a reply but knew by the set expression on her lover's face that she would lose any further argument so she decided merely to do as the bard suggested. She stood there patiently allowing the younger woman access to her body.
Gabrielle scrutinized every inch of her lover's skin. She spotted several cuts and meticulously examined each of them to ensure that they were only scratches. It was some time later before she was completely satisfied that her companion needed nothing more then a meal and a good nights sleep. She grabbed a clean shift from their sleeping pallet and held it out.
"I thought you said..." the Conqueror reminded, her eyes narrowing.
"I know what I said," the bard said blithely, "but I am expecting the cook at any minute with your dinner."
"Gabrielllllle," the Conqueror groaned, though she did not fight the girl's attempts to put the shift over her body, enjoying the feel of the fresh cloth as it was rubbed against her tingling skin.
"Don't Gabrielllle, me," the bard replied. "We take care of the important things first."
"I thought that was one of the important things," the tall woman retorted dryly.
"Well, yeah," the girl fused with colour as she took a step back from her dangerous lover. "But in this case it will have to come second. I haven't eaten since this morning and I'm starved."
"Oh, then we better feed you quickly," the Empress teased. "I appreciate the sacrifice you made waiting until I had a bath."
"Xennnna," Gabrielle hissed playfully slapping her companion on the arm. The knock on the tent pole brought a halt to any further banter between the pair.
"Enter," the Empress barked moving to the far end of the tent.
The cook stuck her head in and Gabrielle rushed over to help her with the heavy tray she was carrying, setting it down on the table near the bed. Only once the cook had departed and the barrel of water been taken out did they finally sit down to eat.
Xena watched with amusement as the bard dug into her plate of hot stew. It never ceased to amaze her how much food the younger woman consumed. The girl was always snacking on something.
She took a spoonful from her own plate and though she had not eaten all day, she found that she had no appetite. She only nibbled at the food, dutifully taking a mouthful whenever the bard cast a glance in her direction. She knew that if she didn't finish her meal she would have to suffer through a lecture from the bard.
They had just finished eating and were lingering over a mug of port when a knock came on the pole outside their tent. The Empress was not surprised when Loris slipped into the tent at her bidding. She noticed that he had taken the time to wash and change his own armour.
"You have something to report?" she asked when he didn't immediately speak. She could not know that he was taken aback by how intimate and casual they looked.
It was a cozy scene the two women represented sitting around the table dressed in soft linen shifts and an unusual sight amid a battle camp. For the first time he realized that he had never seen the Empress in anything but her fighting leathers or ceremonial robes. It was amazing how different the beautiful woman appeared. She seemed younger and almost vulnerable. He shook his head and reminded himself of how dangerous she really was.
"Yes," the General nodded, remembering the purpose for his visit. "I wanted to inform you that I sent out two patrols of ten men each."
"You staggered their departure times?" the Conqueror asked.
"Yes," the soldier nodded. "The first patrol left half a candlemark before the second one."
"Good," the Empress nodded.
"And as requested the barrels of port were opened for the rest of the men," he continued.
"Good," she nodded again. "Allow them to have a good time, they deserve it."
"Is there anything else?"
"No, you can go," the Empress dismissed the man.
"Yes, Empress," he bowed and turned to go but Gabrielle could not allow the man to leave. She had seen the wistful look in his eyes and knew what it was like to be alone.
"General, why don't you join us?" she offered impulsively jumping to her feet and moving over to where the mugs and liquor were stored.
The General glanced hesitantly at the young woman and then over at the Conqueror. There was no expression on the Empress' face and nothing to tell him whether she was annoyed by the invitation, but then he suspected that she generally accepted anything the bard wanted.
"I don't want to disturb you," he spoke uncertainly.
"Come on," the girl smiled encouragingly, grasping his elbow and guiding him across the room to where the Empress was seated. "You're not disturbing us, besides I expect to be hearing from the Amazon's any minute now."
As if to confirm her words there was another knock on the tent pole and as she had predicted it was Eponin with her daily report for their Queen. There was a contingent of almost a hundred Amazon warriors who had joined the Conqueror's army for this campaign. They were being lead into battle by the Weapon's Master who took her orders, as requested by their Queen, directly from the Empress.
"How did we fair today?" Gabrielle asked of the Amazon, motioning for her to sit down while placing a mug of port in her hands.
"We lost five warrior's," the female warrior reported. "And ten more are being treated in the healers tent, but none were injured serious enough to keep them from going into battle again at the dawn."
"I'm sorry to hear about the dead," the Queen was sincere. It was painful for her to learn that someone had died, more so when they were Amazon's. She felt responsible for these women, aware that they were only here because she was their Queen. That was why her news brightened her spirits. "But you can tell the others that there will be no more fighting. The Conqueror has decided that we will be returning to the Capital."
The Weapon's Master glanced with startled surprise first at her Queen and then over at the Conqueror who was sitting quietly, nursing her mug of port. There was no expression on the dour face.
"But with Caesar's army in retreat..." she started to say and then remembered whose authority she was questioning.
"Yes, but the Empress isn't entirely certain that it isn't an elaborate trap," Gabrielle explained. "General Loris has sent several patrols forward to scout out the mountain pass."
Eponin nodded. She had seen the General gathering troops. She had watched their departure and wondered about their mission. She had been tempted to speak to her Queen about the matter but had decided instead to wait. Now she was glad. In the few full moons that she had served in the Conqueror's army she had come to respect the woman's military genius. It was as if the Empress had a gift for guessing her opponents intentions.
"What if it's not a trap?" the Amazon dared to ask.
"Then we will still return to Corinth," the Conqueror spoke for the first time. She had not forgotten her promise to Loris but she didn't care. She was the Empress and right now she was tired and longed to be alone with the bard. "An early snowfall is predicted and I don't want to be caught in the mountains when winter comes. The troops are tired, it has been a tough campaign, besides if it were to continue much longer I'm not certain how many more Amazon's we would have to send home because they were pregnant. Certainly if I was capable your Queen would be in the same condition."
Eponin flushed at the Conqueror's implication and buried her head in the mug of port. Gabrielle grimaced in embarrassment and General Loris took a intent interest in a piece of armour that was leaning up against the side of the tent. They all knew that the treaty agreement was working better then any of them imagined and that come next spring there would be a healthy rise in the population back at the Amazon village.
"Well, I guess I better get back to my Sister's," the Weapon's Master said hastily and she was joined in her exit by the General.
"Yes," Loris stood up suddenly feeling uncomfortable. "I should check the defensive perimeter."
"Yes, do that," Xena said with a smirk and watched as the two hurried out of the tent.
"Xena, you shouldn't do that," Gabrielle protested though it was only half hearted. She could see that her warrior was tired and she was almost as exhausted.
"Why not?" the Conqueror asked raising her eyebrows questioningly.
"Because it's not nice," the bard protested. "What will they think?"
"Nothing more then they already do," the Empress replied with a shrug, before downing the last of her port. She set the mug down and stood up, stepping around the table to where the girl was sitting. She reached down and drew the younger woman up into her arms. For a long moment their eyes met and for the first time the Conqueror saw her companion's fatigue.
"When was the last time you slept?" she asked in a firm voice and the girl blushed unable to continue the gaze.
"When?" the voice became stern.
"The same time you did," the bard finally admitted and the Empress grew angry. "They needed help in the healers hut. There was so much to do, I couldn't just leave because I was tired. The others were just as exhausted but the work still needed to be done."
The Conqueror shook her head deciding not to argue. There was no way she could admonish the girl for her selfless behaviour. Instead she bent her head and pressed her lips against the bard's soft skin revelling in the taste that assaulted her senses.
"Bedtime," she mumbled and spun the girl around by the shoulders, pointing her in the direction of the pallet where their bedrolls were spread out.
"Only if you join me," the girl pouted and the Conqueror smiled.
"Caesar's army wouldn't be able to stop me," the Empress said with a wicked grin which told the bard exactly what the Conqueror had in mind.
"Xena?' Gabrielle decided it was time to ask the question that had been troubling her for the last few candlemarks.
"What?" the Conqueror asked softly.
"Why?" the bard wanted to know and the Empress raised her eyebrows curiously. "Why did you tell everyone that it was my decision about what we do with those Roman prisoners?"
Xena didn't want to discuss this matter now, she had other things on her mind, but one look at the smaller woman's earnest expression and she knew that she wouldn't be able to avoid it.
"The Amazon's did capture them and you are their Queen. I thought it was time you start learning some of the responsibilities that go along with the Mask," the Conqueror said and watched as the bard nodded thoughtfully. "But right now there are other things to think about."
"Like what?" the bard asked innocently and the Empress raised her eyebrows.
"I think you know my bard," she smiled seductively. "It's time for us to perform the requirements of our treaty."
"Do you think you're up to the job?" Gabrielle asked impishly, enjoying the banter.
"Always," the Empress smiled seductively.
She pushed the girl gently back onto the pallet and then climbed into bed beside her, content just for a moment to stare at the young woman. She reached up and stroked the bard's face needing to feel the girl's soft skin under the palm of her hand. She leaned forward and captured the woman's lips with her own, drawing deeply on the sweet taste of her mouth. From there it was only a matter of time before their clothes were discarded and restless hands stroked and caressed bare skin.
"Gods, you're beautiful," Xena whispered reverently, rising herself up so that she could lean over the bard, allowing her eyes to feast on the slender form that was curled up next to her. She reached out and touched the soft velvety skin, delicately tracing the tip of her finger along the scar that was the only reminder of Rufus' ill fated attack. "You are perfection itself."
With that she leaned forward and laid a tender kiss on the woman's smooth abdomen, before leaning back to gaze once more at the girl's naked body. For the first time she noticed a bruise on the smaller woman's left breast and a frown puckered her brow as she gingerly reached out to trace its ugly pattern.
"What happened here?" she asked in a rough voice.
"Nothing," Gabrielle said thickly unable to meet the other woman's questioning gaze. The expression on the Empress' face darkened.
"You're lying," Xena hissed softly, gasping her chin and forcing the girl to look at her, horrible thoughts going through her head. "Did someone do this to you?"
Gabrielle swallowed. She didn't want to tell the truth but she couldn't think of a reasonable excuse that her lover would accept. She knew how protective the Conqueror was, yet she also knew how remorseful she would be. She jerked her head away but the hand was back forcing her to look back at her companion.
"Did someone do this to you?" the Empress repeated her question, knowing that if anyone had touched the bard they would die.
"It happened the last time we were together," the bard confessed reluctantly and witnessed the shock and horror that crossed the taller woman's face.
"Gods, I'm sorry Gabrielle," the Conqueror was mortified. She moved quickly away from the bed, thinking of the last time they had made love. It had been three nights earlier after a battle. She had waited until she thought the battle lust was gone before coming to the woman but obviously it had still been there. She had not been as careful as she thought.
"Xena," Gabrielle called after her lover, watching as the warrior grabbed a clean set of leathers and started to get dressed. She knew that the other woman would go away and the last thing she wanted was to be left alone. She jumped out of bed and hurried across the tent, grabbing the Conqueror's arm.
"Gabrielle," the Conqueror barked through clenched teeth. "Let me go."
"No," the bard shook her head insistently. "I don't want you to leave."
The Conqueror didn't want to leave either, but she didn't want to risk hurting the girl again. She knew that after a battle it was hard for her to keep the panther down, to keep her passion in control. There was a struggle in her soul.
"I don't want to hurt you Gabrielle," she said at last, and the blond woman could see the sadness in her lovers eyes.
"I know you don't," Gabrielle said softly turning the Empress around so that they were facing each other. She reached up and grasp the taller woman's chin forcing their eyes to meet. "You are a gentle and sweet lover, and what happened was an accident."
"No it wasn't," the Conqueror disputed the claim, shrugging out of the girl's grasp. She moved away but she did not continue dressing and Gabrielle knew then that she had achieved victory. The Conqueror ran a hand through her long thick hair. "When I return from a fight, the battle lust is so strong."
"I know," Gabrielle said softly. "I've seen it in your eyes and in your body and I know what you have been doing." She paused and swallowed her throat suddenly dry. "I know you have been waiting for it to subside before coming to me, but I'm not a clay pot Xena. I won't break if you touch me a little roughly. I can suffer a bruise or two. I guess what I am saying is that I don't want you to wait."
"Gabrielle you don't know what you are asking," the Conqueror said looking at her with a pained expression in her blue eyes. It was a look that went straight to the young girl's heart.
"Yes I do," the bard disagreed. "I also know you wouldn't do anything intentionally to hurt me. I want to know you Xena, all of you, the good and the bad, the gentle as well as the not so gentle."
"You don't know what you are asking," Xena repeated, shaking her head even as she reached out and stroked the girl's cheek, feeling the younger woman's love draw her in.
"Yes, I do," the younger woman disputed and grasped the woman's hand. "I've missed you Xena and I want you. All of you."
To prove her point she lead the taller woman back to the pallet. She paused next to a trunk and lifted the lid, reaching in and withdrawing a bright red scarf. She held it up as the older woman looked at her questioningly.
"What are you doing?" the Empress asked with a dry throat as the girl placed the scarf over her green eyes and began to tie it behind her head.
"Showing you how much I trust you," the bard replied in an even voice.
"You trust me?" it was a question and a sweet smile creased the younger woman's features.
"With all my heart," came the solemn reply.
The Conqueror knew then that she was completely defeated and she gave into this smaller woman and the desire to which she was no longer in control. She went to the bard, wrapping the girl in an embrace before lowering her onto the bed and fulfilling both their desires.
Artemis strolled into the garden outside of the Great Palace on Mount Olympus. She found her sister Aphrodite sitting next to the reflecting pool working on her nails. An affectionate smile came to her lips. Despite her idiosyncrasies she adored her somewhat flaky sibling.
"Aphrodite," the Goddess of the Hunt announced her presence by sliding on to the bench next to the Goddess of Love.
"What sis?" the blond looked up with a perky smile.
"I have not thanked you for helping my people."
"No problem," the Goddess of Love smiled. "I was just doing my job."
"But now Ares hates you."
"So what," Aphrodite shrugged carelessly. "He needs to lighten up."
"Yes," Artemis agreed and then glanced into the reflecting pool. "How is our couple doing?"
"Splendidly," the blond haired Goddess smile grew wider and then casually waved her hand. "See for yourself."
Artemis looked down on the mortal world and a smile came to her lips as she spied the pair of lovers asleep in each others arms. The evidence of their love for one another, written across the contented expressions of their faces as they slept. The situation pleased her greatly. This alliance had strengthened the Amazon Nation as a people and she had hope now that they would survive.
"I would like to do something for the Empress," the Goddess of the Hunt said and her sister looked at her thoughtfully.
"What have you in mind?"
"I would like to give her something," Artemis said as a smile slowly etched it's way across her lips. "Something that they both wish for, something that would be apart of them both but for that I will need your help."
"Ohh, I like the sound of this, tell me more," Aphrodite smiled and then bent her head towards the other Goddess to listen to the plan.
The Goddesses thought they were alone, both oblivious to the various pair of ears that belonged to the eavesdroppers who were hidden from view by the marble statutes in the courtyard. They couldn't know their little plan was being pondered by others who had aspirations of their own. Others who once hearing their plan moved quickly to enact their own little plots. There was one in particular who saw this as an opportunity to elevate their own standing on Mt. Olympus. With a snap of her fingers she retreated to the mortal plane.
"Whose there?" Ares barked not entirely pleased about being disturbed. He had retreated to one of his temples to sulk.
"Just me," the small dark haired demi-god replied emerging from the shadows.
"What do you want?" the God of War demanded not hiding his displeasure.
"Oh, nothing much," Discord smiled coyly. "I just thought you might want to know what Artemis and Aphrodite are up to back on Mt. Olympus."
"What do I care what they are doing?" the dark man scoffed, uninterested in his sisters. He was still angry at them for the way they interfered with his Chosen.
"Oh, I think you will be, once you know what they are plotting," the demi-god said sweetly strolling from the dark recesses of the temple and up the steps to the throne on which the God of War was sprawled.
The God stared at the woman, uncertain he should believe what she told him. He knew that Discord had her own agenda and her allegiance was to anyone who would further her interests. He wasn't certain that she hadn't been sent by someone on Olympus to spy on him. He trusted no one, not even his father Zeus.
"Why don't you tell me what it is they plan and then I will decide for myself?" he suggested arrogantly.
"What will I get in return?" the demi-god wanted to know.
"If what you say is true then I will reward you well," the God of War decided, flexing his muscled biceps. "If not, I will ensure that you will never bother me again."
Discord was silent as she considered his proposal, aware of the threat that hung in the air. But she was confident that her secret would be well rewarded so she told him what she had heard in the courtyard on Mt. Olympus.
The God of War listened intently. He knew what Discord revealed was the truth. It was something his Sisters would do and he knew how he would respond. An evil grin appeared on his face. Despite the Goddess' warnings, he had no intention of leaving the pair of lovers alone. He would have vengeance and then he would welcome the Conqueror back to his bosom. Perhaps he would even take her back to his bed, but first, he would make her beg.
"What are you going to do?" the minor goddess inquired curiously, seeing the smile that crossed the dark face.
"Wait and see," the God retorted as his mind focused on an individual who had caught his attention. An individual who was filled with her own hatred for the Empress. An individual who would do his bidding. A woman who could alleviate his boredom, if only until the Conqueror returned to his side.
A depraved laugh roared through the emptiness of the temple startling the priests who tended the house of worship. By the evil that permeated through the air they knew they had been blessed by a visit from their Deity.
It was early in the morning when the Conqueror stirred. She glanced down at the woman who lay nestled in her embrace, an indulgent smile tugging at her lips as she stared at the slumbering girl who was draped possessively over her body. There had once been a time when she had disliked having someone there when she woke but now she couldn't imagine being alone.
She sighed, tenderly brushing the hair away from the girl's face. So much had changed, so much was still changing and she had become powerless to stop any of it. Not that she wanted too. With Gabrielle at her side, she was somehow stronger, somehow more invincible.
Regretfully reality intruded on her musings. There was much to do and she knew that in spite of her desire, she could not stay in this warm cocoon that enfolded her. There was work to be done and despite the late night celebrations she could hear the camp beginning to stir. Reluctantly she eased her body out of bed, taking care not to wake her sleeping companion. She dressed quietly, bending and brushing her lips over the girl's brow before turning and departing.
The day was chilly. The sky grey and overcast. An unexpected shiver raced through her body as she stepped out of the tent's warmth. She paused and took a deep breath, savouring the taste of the fresh air in her lungs, happy to be alive to greet another day. Blue eyes surveyed the camp, spotting General Loris, who at that moment was entering the mess tent across the compound.
She moved forward, carefully picking her way past the sleeping bodies that littered the ground, bemused by the sight of more then one sleeping Amazon nestled in a soldiers embrace. Idly, she wondered how many more Amazon's would be heading home pregnant.
"Good morning," Loris greeted the Empress as she stepped into the mess tent and slipped into a seat opposite him. Almost immediately a member of the kitchen staff appeared baring a specially prepared tray of food. It was a heaping plate of warm cereal, bread and fruit. Xena looked at the assortment with amusement, knowing that somehow this was the bard's doing.
"Have you a list of casualties?" she asked digging into the fare, feeling unusually famished.
"Yes," the General nodded grimly and made his detailed report. The Conqueror listened with interest, mentally calculating the losses and determining her needs.
"We will have to send out our recruiters and see what we can round up," she said when he was done.
"What about signing on that group of Gauls that we encountered two moons past?" Loris asked reminding the Empress of the tribe of foreigners they had found camped in one of the valleys on the Northern reaches of the Empire. The strange tribe had volunteered their services in marching against Caesar, a sworn enemy of their people, but the Conqueror had rejected their gracious offer.
"I hate to employ mercenaries," Xena said thoughtfully, thinking of the small band of men and women to which her Commander referred. They had encountered several such groups of displaced person's on their trek. "They are not only expensive but untrustworthy. I can never be certain that their loyalty won't be swayed by someone with a few more dinars."
The General nodded, understanding the Empress' reluctance. She had once hired mercenaries to booster her forces, but they had betrayed her by going over to the enemy in the midst of battle. She had not forgotten and once the victory had been secured, she had hunted each one of them down, killing most with her own sword.
"I will issue the orders immediately," the man agreed.
"Good," the Conqueror said taking a bite out of the piece of fruit that she had selected from the plate. She glanced across at the man with a look of mild interest. "Have you heard anything from those patrols you sent out yesterday?"
"No," the General shook his head hoping that it was a good sign but worrying that it might mean the exact opposite.
"I want to be informed the moment they return," the Empress said and the man nodded, watching her for a moment.
"Have you decided what you are going to do with Artutus?"
"That's up to Gabrielle," Xena replied nonchalantly. "However, I suspect that she will decide to ransom him back to Caesar."
"Would it not be better to kill him?" Loris asked not happy that the decision was being left with the young woman. Even though he liked the girl, he was not as confident in her judgement as the Conqueror. "If we return him, he will only lead another army against us."
"I would rather it be him then someone else," the Conqueror confessed. "This man is obviously not a competent leader. Caesar will punish him for his defeat and for his capture. He will be lucky if he gets back to Rome without being killed by his own soldiers."
What the Conqueror said made sense but the General was still not convinced. He glanced at the Empress seeing someone he didn't know existed. The woman had changed and the bard's influence was showing.
"Are you certain that you don't want to pursue Caesar's Legionaries?" he asked knowing that the old Conqueror would have followed her enemy relentlessly.
"We have lost many good soldiers on this campaign," she shook her head. "We cannot continue to keep losing men at this rate and hope to defend the territory we possess. I'm not certain that this is not Caesar's intention."
Loris was silent as he considered again this strategy. They had lost many soldiers and Caesar's army had been unwilling to stand and fight in one monumental battle, preferring instead to engage in small yet bloody fights. Yet still he was a soldier, a warrior who smelled victory.
"Do not worry Loris I have not gone completely soft," she chided quietly, reading his thoughts. "Old age is merely making me more cautious. We have won a great victory this season. We have defeated the Horde and Caesar's invading forces. We have increased the size of the Empire. Now, we all need some rest before we go back into battle."
The man was silent but the woman could see by his expression that he did not entirely agree with her.
"Do not be so impatient to die. Charion's boat will come for us soon enough," the Conqueror said softly. "Enjoy the peace we have."
"It is not so simple," the General retorted.
"But it is," the Conqueror disagreed in a low voice. "All you have to do is open your heart and soon it will be filled with things more important than defeating the next army, or vanquishing another foe."
Loris stared at the woman aware that her words signified just how much she had changed. The Conqueror of old had sought death, embracing it as one would a lover. That was why she was so feared. But that trace of pure evil was missing.
He caught sight of the young woman who was responsible for this remarkable change. He watched as Gabrielle entered the mess tent and then sauntered confidently over towards them, a cheerful smile on her innocent looking face.
Curiously he watched as the girl put a gentle hand upon the Conqueror's shoulder, who glanced up at her companion and flashed the woman a look that made his heart ache. The look was returned as the bard sat down next to the Empress.
There would have been a time when such an intimate action would have sent the dark haired woman into a rage. He had seen more than one person impaled for touching the Conqueror without permission. It was still that way with the exception of the bard.
He looked across the table at the cheerful smile. He had heard from other soldiers of her selflessness in tending the sick. The bard had pitched in to help when many others would have sat back and enjoyed the luxuries that her position as the Empress' companion afforded. She was different and that was what made her so popular with not only the troops but also the people they encountered. She had the ability to charm and disarm even the harshest of the Conqueror's critics.
"Good morning," Gabrielle greeted them brightly. She wanted to kiss her partner but knew such an intimacy was out of the question, aware that in spite of the openness of their relationship, she still needed to be careful how she treated the Conqueror in public. Instead she had to content herself with resting her hand on her companions bare thigh and rubbing it gently.
"Good morning," the man smiled.
Many in the army and the Empire did not agree with this union between the two women but no one dared to speak their thoughts out loud. Personally he was of two minds, happy to see that the wild animal inside the Empress was finally being tamed yet nervous about the changes that were happening, uncertain how to react. He worried that this display of gentleness on the part of the Conqueror would only lead too trouble. He feared that there would be more people like Titus and Rufus, waiting to take advantage of the situation.
"Loris was wondering what you were going to do with Artutus," Xena commented once the girl had been served. She hid the smile that naturally came to her lips at the sight of the heaping plate of food that had been placed in front of the bard. The cooks had recognized her companions voracious appetite and though it had astounded them, they had adjusted her serving portion in accordance.
"I'm not sure. I haven't had a chance to think about it," Gabrielle admitted nibbling on a piece of bread. She looked at her lover. "I don't have to kill him do I?"
"No," Xena replied patiently. "You can do whatever you want with him, however, if I might make a suggestion, it wouldn't be good policy to simply just let him go."
The bard flushed aware that her dark haired companion knew her too well. It would be in her generous nature to just release the prisoners but she was learning that in times of war and politics, it wasn't always good to be too generous.
"What do you suggest?" she was at a loss for ideas, aware that the Empress would probably consider them all too lenient.
"Caesar has a treasury full of riches," the Conqueror shrugged. "There is no reason why he would not pay you a fortune to have one of his General's returned."
"You mean ransom him?" Gabrielle asked mildly surprised, she had expected a different sort of response from her lover.
"That or you could just lock him up in a prison," Xena shrugged. "In which case it would cost money to guard and feed him."
"But if he is ransomed won't he turn around and lead another army against you?" the bard was curious.
"Perhaps, but you must remember there may come a day when you are at his mercy," the Conqueror said wisely. "A little compassion now might be returned later."
Loris almost choked on his food. He stared at the Conqueror with complete astonishment, not believing that he had heard those words being uttered from her mouth. He had never before heard her express temperance in dealing with the enemy. In the past it was more usual for the Empress to execute all prisoners and deal with the consequences of her actions at a later date. She was not known for her benevolence. His reaction did not go unnoticed by Xena who remained silent, her attention on her young companion.
"You wouldn't be upset if we ransomed him back to Caesar?" the Amazon Queen asked looking at the Warrior's stoic face.
"I am more then just a killer Gabrielle," the Empress said casually. "I have done my share of ransoming. My treasury wasn't merely filled by the spoils of victory."
Gabrielle nodded, aware that there was still so much for her to learn about governing a people. She turned her attention back to her plate of food and remained silent while her lover and the General continued to discuss other military matters.
Ares reacted violently to the exchange he witnessed, slamming his fist down on the small table beside his throne and breaking it into a dozen pieces, his disgust evident by the scowl on his dark face. In the old days when he had been in control of the Conqueror, before the appearance of the bard, death would have been the only option to this predicament. The Conqueror, herself, would have taken the sword to kill the General and experienced pleasure in the act. Then she would have sent the body back to Caesar as a clear message of her power and disdain.
"You are growing soft, my sweetheart," he said to himself. "I cannot let that happen."
"Why not, you don't need her," a soft voice echoed through the dim light of the temple and Ares turned his head, his dark eyes narrowing as he spied the intruder. He did not know from where this person had appeared or how he had managed to enter his inner sanctum without his knowledge.
"Who are you?"
"My name is of no importance," the robed man said with a casual wave of his hand. "What is of importance is that I can help you with your predicament."
"What predicament?" the God of War growled not liking this man who appeared to be ignorant of who he was or the power that he possessed.
"You are losing power within your own circle," the man relied succinctly. "You are the God of War, the one who should be mightier than all others, yet you have been cowed by your own Godly Sister's and your father has not raised a hand to help you against them."
Ares snarled at the mention of his father. When he had gone before Zeus to plead his case the God had chided him for his childish behaviour and banished him to the mortal world for interfering with his Sister's Chosen in the beginning. The term of punishment had ended several season's earlier but his pride had not yet allowed him to return to Mt. Olympus
"What can you do?" the God of War asked his dark eyes narrowing sceptically.
"I can offer the services of my Lord and Master," the man bowed reverently, "a Deity such as yourself who is seeking assistance Himself. One who can make you more powerful then all those who oppose you. One who can make you more powerful than Zeus himself. Then you will no longer need such mortals as the Empress of Greece to do your bidding."
Ares was silent. He was still sceptical of this strangers claim but he was also curious. There were many Gods but few who shared the same strength and power as those who resided on Mt. Olympus. He felt his blood stir. It was both an exciting and terrifying feeling, one like he had ever experienced. He was anxious to know more and told this messenger as much.
The stranger smiled and bowed his head once more before telling the God of War about his Master. He could see that the Deity was interested. The God of War was ambitious and desired to sit upon the throne which Zeus now occupied. He promised that this would happen.
By the time that the stranger departed Ares had made a deal. He had entered into an agreement that would make him all powerful. Then once he defeated Zeus, he would make his sisters pay for their interference in his world.
But Ares was no fool. He knew the dangers of the plot into which he had entered. This foreign Deity was seeking entry into the world and he knew that would pose a risk to his own rule on Mt. Olympus once he inherited the throne. He had every intention of ruling over Mt. Olympus but no desire to allow anyone else the opportunity to usurp his power.
"One thing that you my new friend do not realized is that we will always need people like Xena," he said out loud and then let out a blood curtling laugh as his mind fashioned a new plan.
No one paid attention to the man who watched them through the bars of the prison cage that was positioned in the center of the army camp. His eyes narrowed as he watched the interaction going on in the mess tent, his mind working furiously. The scene was all that was needed to tell him the truth. Marc Anthony had not been lying when he had reported the bard's influence over the Conqueror.
Caesar had arrogantly dismissed the suggestion but now he saw first hand that the Senator had been right. Quietly he filed the information away in the back of his mind, his attention momentarily diverted by the appearance of a Amazon bearing breakfast. It was a simple bowl of cereal.
He stood up and waited till the very last to step up to the bars to accept the food offering. There was an odd look in the woman's blue eyes. A wild expression, like a caged animal, that was frightening in there intensity. When he reached for his bowl the blonde woman pulled it back out of his reach, a sweet smile coming to her pouting red lips.
"Be carefully what you eat," the woman cautioned in a quiet voice. "Death comes in many forms."
The man looked intently at the face. The woman was beautiful and young with sweet, innocent features, but he suspected that it was a mask for an entirely different personality. He accepted the bowl she extended towards him and then hastily returned to his corner of the cage.
He sat down on the ground, allowing his eyes to drift to the others, waiting until they were all occupied with their meals before digging his spoon into the sticky gruel, suspicious of what he had been served. He knew the Conqueror and it would not be beyond her dark humour to poison the food, therefore it was with some surprise that he felt a hard lump amongst the cereal.
Gingerly he lifted the utensil, bringing with it the blade of a dagger. It was a small crude instrument but deadly if used properly. His eyes automatically went in search of the strange woman who had presented him this offering. She was standing off to one side watching him intently with the pouting smile still upon her lips. Their eyes met for a long moment before she turned and slipped away.
He hastily shoved the unexpected gift in amongst the folds of his battle dress. He wanted to ask the
woman why she was showing him this favour but there was no chance and he had to accept that this was an offering from the Gods. Now all he had to do was await the right moment to use the weapon and redeem himself for the humiliation of his capture.
Xena ran into Eponin as they were leaving the mess tent. The Amazon Warrior looked strangely like she had indulged in a little to much port the night before. The Conqueror chuckled to herself, wondering where and with whom the Weapon's Master had ended up the previous evening. However now was not the time to ask. She waited until Gabrielle and Loris had moved ahead before pulling the Amazon aside.
"I need you to do something for me," she said and the woman warrior abruptly came to attention. "I want you to gather a small squad of Amazon's and go in search of the patrol's that General Loris dispatched yesterday. I have a great fear that they have met with ill fortune."
The Conqueror watched as the Amazon nodded her head and then trotted off to collect her warriors. She could trust the woman for Eponin had shown loyalty and courage in the seasons since the Amazon's had joined the Army.
Xena waited until the woman had disappeared before turning her mind to other matters. She retreated to her command tent with General Loris to discuss her plans for the occupation of the Region while Gabrielle went to help in the healers tent. It was near dusk when the Amazon Weapon's Master and her party returned with a prisoner.
"We captured him coming down from the mountains," Eponin explained once the Conqueror was summoned from her tent. The Warrior Princess intently glanced over the soldier who had been blindfolded by his captors. "He claims to be a messenger from Brutus, General to Caesar's army."
"What is your message?" the Empress demanded instinctively knowing what was about to come. She motioned for the Amazon's to remove the blindfold, which they did immediately, revealing a soldier who was little more than a boy.
"General Brutus requests a meeting," the messenger said, swallowing nervously as he held out a scroll which he had been carrying.
"Why?" the Conqueror's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"He has some prisoners which he wishes to exchange for those Roman soldiers you have captured," the soldier reported and everyone knew then the fate of the patrols that Loris had been sent out. There was silence as the Empress scanned the contents of the script she had been handed, a scowl forming on her face.
"Could this be a bluff?" the Conqueror turned her attention to the Amazon Weapon's Master.
"No," Eponin shook her head. "After capturing this man, several of us snuck up through the mountain pass. We saw the captured patrols tied to stakes in a camp of at least several phalanx of Roman soldiers."
"Any advantage we have now is gone," the Empress said turning to glare at General Loris for a moment before turning her attention back to the messenger. "Where does Brutus wish to meet?"
"In the valley separating our two armies," the young soldier replied. "He will be waiting for you tomorrow at dawn."
"Tell Brutus that we will meet him for an exchange," the Conqueror announced and then motioned to the Amazon's. "Escort him back to where you found him."
The female warriors nodded, returning the blindfold to his eyes before escorting him back out of the camp. The Conqueror waited until they were gone before turning to look at the General. Without a word she walked passed him, returning to the command tent. The soldier waited a moment before following.
Xena looked up when the General meekly entered the tent. She could see by his tentative movements that he was nervous, anxiously awaiting his fate, aware that she held him responsible for this situation.
"I hope you have learned something from this," was all she said in a voice so cold that he felt a chill surge through his body.
"Yes," the man agreed quietly. He expected to be relieved of his command. He had seen how other General's had been rewarded for the mistakes they had made. He did not expect anything less, hoping at least to come away with his life.
"I want you to divide up the remnants of the Army," the Conqueror motioned the soldier over to the table upon which a map of the Region lay. The man hesitated, uncertain how to react. He had not expected to remain in command. The Empress noticed his hesitation. "Is something wrong?"
"It's just that..." Loris stammered and the tall woman had immediate understanding.
"You expect me to punish you for what's happened to the patrols?" the Conqueror asked cocking an eyebrow.
"Yes," the man nodded unable to meet her gaze. For a long moment the Empress was silent. It wasn't until the General looked up again that she spoke. Hazel eyes gazed fugitively at intense pale blue orbs.
"You are a good General and an excellent Commander, and in the past that wouldn't have mattered, but I now recognize the importance of the leadership qualities you possess," the tall woman paused, her eyes narrowing. "I know you think I have grown soft, but don't be fooled. Gabrielle has made me see the value of compassion, but the beast that brought me to rule all of the Empire I possess still exists and do not doubt for a moment that I won't kill you if you ever try to cross me."
The man nodded, hoping that his trembling limbs weren't visible. He knew that he had been given a reprieve. He would not waste this second chance that he had been given. Unlike others he did not covet her Kingdom, aware of his own limitations.
"I will remain loyal to you until the end," the man promised fervently and then hesitated.
"You have something else to say?" she demanded in the same unforgiving tone of voice and the soldier swallowed summoning the last of his courage to express his thoughts.
"What you said to Queen Gabrielle in the mess tent," he paused, uncertain how to form his question. He nervously met her gaze. "Did you really mean that?"
"About showing compassion to the enemy?" the Conqueror asked and the man nodded. "Yes."
The Empress turned away and peered at the map for a long moment and the commander thought the subject was closed and so was therefore surprised by the words that came out of her mouth when she spoke again.
"Gabrielle is of a good heart," Xena said in a strange voice. "She is the Queen of the Amazon Nation and it is important that she learns a just way of ruling her people. I don't want her to think that the only way to deal with an enemy is to kill them. I don't want the leadership of her people to be tainted by the violence of my own. I want her enemies to see her as the fair and just person that she is."
Loris was startled by the woman's words, continually surprised by the emotion that filled the Conqueror's voice when she spoke of the young Queen. Even when she had been with Borias, a man who had professed to love her with all his heart, she had never been as passionate. She looked up and their eyes met again.
"Do you have any further questions?"
The man shook his head vigorously.
"Good," the Destroyer of Nations nodded her head and then turned her attention back to the matter at hand, pointing to various positions on the map. "I want you to position a small force here and here with the main body of the army to remain behind us on the hill. Everyone who can stand are to be lined up on the ridge to make it appear that our force is larger then it really is. I am not entirely certain this is not a ploy by Brutus to distract my attention while his armies attack but I want to give him a chance to see what he might face if he decides on such a course of action."
The General nodded. The thought that this prisoner exchange was a trick had also entered his mind.
"Now go start preparing the army to move out. Once we have our men back I wish to begin our return to the Capital," the Conqueror barked.
"But My Conqueror what will prevent Brutus from attacking once the main army leaves this Region?" Loris bravely asked. "If we are to believe the Amazon's then he still has a sizeable army under his control."
"Leave that to me. I will ensure that such a situation does not happen," was the harsh dismissal and the Conqueror watched through pale slits as the man hurried out of the tent. She turned in disgust and slumped down into a chair staring morosely at the empty wall.
Gabrielle entered the command tent slowly, uncertain as to what mood she would find her lover. Zenon had sought her out in the healers tent and had proceeded to fill her in with all the details of what had transpired. She knew the possible repercussions and had immediately gone in search of General Loris, not uncertain as to what condition she would find him. She had been relieved to discover that the man was all right. Only once reassured, did she then seek out her partner.
"Xena?" she spoke tentatively.
"What?" the Conqueror barked without turning around.
"It's all right," she said, not certain how to approach the other woman at this moment. She folded her hands together nervously. "The ransom isn't important. What's important is that we get the men back."
The Conqueror turned slowly to face the smaller woman. She could always trust Gabrielle to put a positive spin on any situation, that was what she respected about the woman. She was a light amongst all the darkness.
"It's not all right Gabrielle," the Empress sighed, unable to retain her anger in this woman's presence. The bard had a way of calming her angry soul, of soothing her in the most dark times. She stood up and paced restlessly around the small enclosure. "I told Loris I didn't want any further action yet I allowed him to persuade me to let two patrols go out. Two patrols of soldiers who are now being used against me."
"So you made a mistake," the young bard couldn't understand what was causing her companion to be so upset.
"That's just it Gabrielle, I made a mistake and in my position I can't afford to let that happen," the Conqueror replied tersely and suddenly the bard understood. She knew what was causing her lover so much apprehension. She moved quickly across the room, circling her arms around the other woman bringing her endless pacing to a halt.
"It's all right to make mistakes Xena, you're only human, you can't be perfect all the time," the bard cajoled the grumpy warrior and for a long moment blue eyes looked down in deep pools of green. The Empress reached out and gently ran the back of her long fingers across the smooth contours of her companions soft cheek.
"I have to be Gabrielle," the Conqueror said in a soft voice, willing the younger woman to understand. "If I'm not, then nothing, not you nor I, the Empire or anything will survive."
"No," the smaller woman shook her blond head, an intense look on her features. She reached up and cupped the taller woman's face between her hands. "You can make as many mistakes as you want Xena and you may lose your army, all your riches and even your Empire but never, and I repeat never, will we not survive."
The bard had a way of taking everything and making it nothing. Xena looked down at the smaller woman and wondered which God had blessed her by allowing her to have this woman in her life. She had done nothing to deserve this light.
"I can only do that if you promise me one thing," the Conqueror said solemnly.
"Promise me that you will never leave me," Xena said with a seriousness that could not be dismissed. She reached out and combed silky strands of blond hair behind the bard's ear. "Promise me that no matter how much darkness threatens to overtake us, you will continue to stand by my side. Make me the promise of tomorrow."
"I promise you tomorrow and every day beyond that. I will always stand beside you," Gabrielle's reassurance was heart felt, her green eyes intent. "I will never leave you, not even in death."
Xena's heart swelled with emotion, filling her entire being with peace and love. She leaned her head down and planted a tender kiss upon soft lips before enveloping the bard in a tight embrace, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman's waist and holding her as if her life depended upon it. And she knew that it did.
"What if this is just a trick to get you out into the open?" Gabrielle asked as a frightening thought chased itself across her brain.
"I have already thought of that my love," the Conqueror smiled indulgently. The bard was beginning to think like a leader and that pleased the Empress. "I will be sending contingents of soldiers out to our flanks to ensure that we will not be caught in a trap."
"Is there anything you want me to do?" the girl asked in all sincerity. There was a slight hesitation from the Warrior Princess.
"I want you to remain here with the injured. It might be necessary to evacuate the camp in a hurry and the healers will need help."
"No," the young Amazon Queen was very adamant. "I will not stay behind with the wounded. I am the Amazon Queen and it was my people who captured General Artutus and it's only right that I be there to oversee the exchange."
"Gabrielle, it could be dangerous and we may have to fight," the Empress protested but it fell on deaf ears.
"No," was the gentle but firm disagreement. "You are always saying that I need to learn how to govern my people. How can I do that if I don't learn how to negotiate with the enemy? You are always keeping me back behind the lines where it is safe, but I am the leader of a Nation of Warriors, how would I ever be able to lead them into battle if I have never even witnessed a fight?"
The Conqueror was silent, aware that the bard was right. She had been trying to teach the girl to rule yet had been denying her the opportunity to see the direct consequences of some of those decisions. But then she knew why she was keeping it away from the woman.
Gabrielle was of a good heart. She was warm and innocent, untouched by the harshness of the world in which they lived and she wanted to protect that innocence just as fiercely as she wanted to protect the girl's physical being. She reached out and ran her palm gently over the bard's smooth cheek.
"Not all leaders need rule by force," Xena said softly. "You have a strength that does not need a sword to enforce it or have you forgotten that you have conquered the mightiest warrior in the land, lain siege to the fiercest heart in the Empire with merely your presence and your words. That is a force which no sword could ever defeat."
"Your tongue can be so smooth and your words like a sliver of moonlight when you want," the bard pouted which drew a smile from her dark haired companion. "I wonder why you do not try persuasion more often."
"Ahh that is the million dinar question," the Conqueror chuckled and then the smile disappeared. "Words work on those with intelligent minds, but I am afraid that the world we live in is not yet ready merely for words. The sword is still needed to tame those who refuse to listen."
"Exactly," Gabrielle jabbed her index finger into the taller woman's chest. "Which is why I need to know how to deal with those who still wield the sword."
The Conqueror shook her head trying not to smile as she realized the bard had once again talked her around in a circle until she had said the words that the blond girl wanted to hear. She sighed and threw her hands up in defeat and a wide grin appeared on the smaller woman's face in acknowledgment of her victory.
"But I want you to stick close by my side," the Conqueror wagged a finger at her young companion a stern expression on her face. "And if trouble does erupt I want you to head back to camp as quickly as you can. No heroics, promise?"
"No heroics," the smaller woman promised with a yawn, suddenly feeling exhausted by the events of the long day. She reached for the grumpy warrior, grabbing a large hand. "Come on, it's not late, but if I know you, tomorrow will be a very early start."
The Empress allowing herself to be led towards the bed, an seductive grin appearing on her face. The bard may have won that argument but there would be a price exacted for that victory. It was early but it would be much later before the smaller woman got a chance to sleep as the Conqueror used her own persuasive talents to show the Amazon Queen that she was still in charge of certain things.
"Too defeat the Conqueror you must destroy the only thing that she now holds important," a soft voice came out of the still darkness of the night.
The man in the corner of the cage jumped at the sound and turned his head, seeing the slight outline of a woman. A warrior dressed like an Amazon. It was the woman who had served him his deadly meal.
"And what would that be?" he queried quietly unwilling to be overheard even by his own men.
"The bard Gabrielle," came the soft reply and the man could see the woman's smile through the darkness. In spite of her seeming assistance he was still suspicious.
"Why are you helping me?" he asked the question that had been upper most in his mind and watched as the smile disappeared. The sweet face he remembered from earlier was now dark, and the blue eyes hard.
"Caesar is not the only one who hates the Conqueror," came the terse reply. "The Empress has made many enemies in her own homeland. She has committed many crimes for which she has yet to pay. I only want to help you serve justice."
The man would have liked to know more but there was a noise and he turned to see a guard moving in their direction. He turned to look at the woman but there was now only empty black space where she had been. He sat back on the cold ground and crossed his arms thoughtfully.
He had watched the small blond Amazon Queen throughout the day, following her every movement. He had seen the way she moved so easily among the weary troops in camp. The soldiers were respectful which was not ordinary under the circumstances for in his own camp a woman would be treated much differently.
He had watched the two women together and sensed the bard's importance in the Conqueror's life. The strange Amazon had been right and that was why he decided that when he acted, he would move on the smaller woman. She was the key to destroying the Empress and with her out of the way there was no telling what would happen.
An evil smile crossed his handsome face. He had overheard the guards talking. The exchange was to be made tomorrow at dawn. Brutus was in charge and that was his only concern. Lately the Roman General had been questioning Caesar's tactics, showing an independence of mind that was unfamiliar.
Brutus had at one time had been unerringly loyal to Caesar, but over the course of the last few season's a rift had developed between the two powerful men. Caesar himself was not one to be trusted and the new Senate in Rome was filled with more intrigue then it had ever been.
The realization that he, himself, had been sent away from the Capital to fight in this campaign gave him cause to be bitter. But he understood Caesar's concern. He was not without his own support and there were plenty of soldiers loyal to his command which made him a threat to the Emperor. Well, tomorrow he would take revenge upon the Conqueror and when he was returned to the Roman camp he would proclaim himself once again commander of the army.
The smile on his face grew. He was not without his own ambitions and if he guessed correct, he could persuade Brutus to join him. His eyes went back to the command tent. First, he would take care of the Conqueror and then he would move on Rome himself.
It was several candlemarks before the dawn when the Conqueror carefully extracted herself from her lovers embrace and rolled out off the sleeping pallet. She stared down at the sleeping bard for a long moment before turning away to dress. She was anxious to finish this business so that they could be on their way home.
It was strange the way she was being called back to the Capital. It was as if an invisible voice were commanding her to return to the seat of her government. It was an anxious whisper demanding her presence and she was listening to its call. She glanced back at the bard, her heart filling with love at the sight of her slumbering partner. She sighed and turned to leave unaware of the green eyes that blinked opened in time to see her depart.
"You can't ever sleep in, can you?" the bleary eyed bard muttered grumpily at her absent lover as she pushed herself to get out of bed. She was determined not to let Xena go without her to the prisoner exchange. She rose up out of the warm cocoon of blankets and went in search of her clothes.
The Conqueror made the rounds of the perimeter, her pale eyes sweeping the darkness that bordered
the encampment. The fires that had been lit to warm the troops were burnt down to embers and were now just small glowing mounts scattered around on the ground. She paused and took a deep breath filling her lungs with the crisp air. She turned her head up towards the stars and gazed at the last of the night lights as they began to fade back into the sky.
"It is a beautiful night," the voice came out of the darkness and the Conqueror slowly turned her head to watch as Loris approached out of the night. The General was uncertain that his interruption of her solitude would be welcome.
"Yes," came the solemn reply and there was silence as they stood quietly.
"Everyone is in place as you wished and I have taken the liberty of selecting a small company of men to escort us today," he said again breaking the silence, as he shifted from one foot to the next. "I have them getting the horses ready as we speak."
"Good," the Conqueror nodded not looking at the man. "Make certain that the prisoners are securely bound. I don't want any further incidents."
The soldier knew to what she was referring and was grateful that the darkness hid the blush that crept up across his skin. He glanced down at the ground and shuffled his feet nervously.
"I'm sorry," he apologized and this time the Conqueror turned to look at him. "If I had not insisted on a different course then we wouldn't be going through this now."
"It's not your fault that I listened to you," she countered in a dry cool voice. "A mistake was made, what we must do now is find out what advantage we can make of it. Find Eponin the Amazon Weapon's Master and send her to me, I need to speak with her before we depart."
The General nodded and then retreated into the night. A short while later the Amazon Warrior appeared. The Conqueror nodded a brief greeting. She had come to trust this warrior more than anyone who served in her army.
"I need you to accompany us today and I need you to do me a favour," the Empress said and then issued several instructions which the Amazon readily agreed to follow.
"Your wish is my command," the Amazon bowed her head.
"Gabrielle insists that she accompany me this morning and I will not deny her wish," the Conqueror said in a cool voice. "However, I am not certain how events might unfold, and I may be too occupied to ensure that she is safe. If fighting breaks out or if something happens to me, I want you to make sure that she is taken out of harms way and to a safe place. Your first and only concern is to make certain that Gabrielle is kept alive. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes," the Weapon's Master nodded filled with pride at what the Conqueror was entrusting to her, aware of how important the bard was to the Empress. But the request was not necessary and she said as much. "Gabrielle is my Queen and I will do whatever is necessary to protect her. You need not worry she will be safe."
"Good," the Empress was satisfied, knowing that this woman would honour her words. "Come it is time for us to depart."
The Amazon nodded and followed her commander back across the encampment where the horses, now saddled, were waiting. A smile tipped the corners of the Conqueror's lips as she noticed a rather sleepy looking bard leaning against Argo. She saw that the young woman was dressed in her Amazon costume.
"There is no need for you to come with us," the Empress said quietly as she stepped up to the smaller woman. Gabrielle smiled wearily.
"Have you forgotten our agreement?" the blond woman asked arching her eyebrows.
"No," the Empress shook her head wishing that she could think of some way to keep her lover here in camp. She had a bad feeling about this day but she would not argue the point again. "Make sure you stick close to me. I want you near me just in case something happens."
Gabrielle nodded and then allowed herself to be boosted up onto the mount that had been prepared for her use. Xena patted the younger woman's bare thigh affectionately before moving around to her own mount. She vaulted onto Argo's back and then pressed her heels into the horses flanks turning the creature to where the prisoners had been gathered. She paused in front of the General though her pale blue eyes scanned the whole group pausing briefly on one man with blond hair before settling back on the man wearing the armour of command.
"You better hope my men are in as good condition as you or your army will be made to pay," she said and then without waiting for a response the Conqueror wheeled her horse around and led the procession out of the camp.
It was nearing dawn when their party arrived at the middle of the valley where the Roman General was already waiting with a small contingent of soldiers. Further back was a larger group and her sharp eyes could detect the uniforms of her captured soldiers. She raised a hand to halt her caravan motioning her horse forward to meet her enemy. Gabrielle followed her partner.
"Brutus," the Conqueror greeted the man with a brief nod as their horses came to a halt in front of each other.
"Xena," the Roman General nodded his head in respect, his brown eyes turning in the direction of her companion. "I thought we were to meet alone."
"This is Gabrielle of Potedaia, Queen of the Amazon's and my ally," the Conqueror made the introductions and the man bowed his head.
"We had heard that the Amazon's were now your ally just as we had heard that a new Queen had taken control. We had not heard that she was so beautiful. I am charmed to meet such a lovely woman," the General said politely hiding his surprise.
He had heard the tales that Marc Anthony had told upon his last trip to see the Conqueror. Like Caesar he had not believed half of them but it appeared that it was true. The woman fit the Senators description perfectly though Marc Anthony had failed to mention that the bard was the Amazon Queen. Perhaps the Senator had not been wrong, perhaps the Conqueror did have a glaring weakness.
"Thank you," Gabrielle blushed under the compliment and she cast an embarrassed glance at her lover wondering what Xena was thinking. Of course she could read nothing in her companions stoic features.
"So Brutus what is it you want?" the Conqueror was anxious to get this meeting over with. The General smiled benignly.
"I wish the return of my soldiers and their commander," the man replied his eyes moving passed the Conqueror to the group of prisoners held hostage. "I had actually been preparing to send an emissary to ransom their return when my troops captured your forward patrols. I was surprised how easily they were taken prisoner. Could it be you are slipping Xena?"
"I hardly think so Brutus," the Empress cast the man a feral grin. "Those patrols were merely sent to confirm my suspicions. It is Caesar who has grown predictable. I knew that he would have you withdraw purposefully into the mountains in an attempt to draw my army into a trap. I suspected all along that you had held Rome's finest legions back from battle."
Brutus stiffened in his seat and for a moment their eyes met across the distance. He shook his head aware that the rumours that the Conqueror was growing weak were certainly not true. He had witnessed it in battle yet he returned her smile.
"What makes you think I won't yet throw them into battle?" the Roman General replied. "Your patrols were exhausted as no doubt are the rest of your troops after all did you not so recently battle the Horde. You would be easy pickings for Rome's finest."
"You could try," the Conqueror agreed idly leaning casually forward in her saddle, "but let me give you a small tip Brutus and only because I like you. I have not grown stupid. You think I would engage my whole army knowing that you had held your finest in reserve. In any of the battles have you seen anything of my Third Army?"
Brutus silently acknowledging the woman's words. They had fought but the army they had confronted carried the standard of the 5th Army. Every General in the Roman army knew that the Conqueror had her finest troops assigned to the 3rd Army. He bowed his head graciously.
"Then perhaps I shall concede defeat and settle for an exchange of prisoners," Brutus said aware that he had truly met his match. "May I suggest an even up trade, soldier for soldier."
"Now that would be fair but I do have someone more valuable in my possession," the Conqueror turned and motioned Zenon to bring forward the captured General. Brutus stared intently at the chained man who bowed his head briefly. The action did not go unnoticed by the Empress who allowed a smile to tickle the corners of her lips.
"All right," the General conceded. "I will pay you one hundred gold coins."
"Is he worth so little to Caesar?" the Conqueror asked with amusement.
"He will be once he returns to Rome," Brutus said dryly and the Empress laughed.
"It will have to be Queen Gabrielle's decision, for it was her troops who captured the General," the Conqueror turned to the young bard. "Well, My Queen, what do you have to say on this matter?"
Brutus watched the interaction between the two women closely, his sharp ears not immune to the endearment that the Empress had spoken. He could feel the vibrations between the two. He watched as the younger woman looked to the Conqueror for a long moment before turning her attention back to him.
"The Amazon's will accept nothing less then two hundred and fifty gold coins and only than because I suspect if we request any more you will not take him back," Gabrielle said finally and privately Xena smiled.
"You are as preceptive and wise as you are beautiful," Brutus smiled and bowed his head. "Caesar will reward you two hundred and fifty gold coins for the return of his General."
"Good," the Empress nodded and then motioned her escort forward. "We will trade one for one until all have been exchanged. We will release one at the same time you do and then wait until they join their respective camps before releasing the next man. Is that acceptable?"
Brutus nodded and the exchange began it's long tedious process with the leaders of both armies watching mutely as the soldiers traipsed passed. At last there was but one prisoner to be returned and as he stepped forward the Conqueror casually unsheathed her sword and moved her horse over to prevent the man from going any further. There was silence as all eyes, including those of the blond haired prisoner turned to the Empress. Carefully she lifted the sword to a position under his neck and turned a feral grin towards Brutus.
"For this one you will have to open Caesar's treasury," the Conqueror said idly and then glanced down at the man who was looking up at her. "That was an ingenues idea to dress your aide up as a General, but did you really think I wouldn't remember you Pompeii?"
The man smiled and shrugged. "It was worth a try Xena."
The Conqueror snorted and turned her attention back to Brutus.
"You probably thought you were going to get a bargain at two hundred and fifty gold coins," the Empress looked at the Roman General in charge.
"As Pompeii said it was worth a try," the man conceded and the Empress saw that he was not happy at the way the situation was turning against him.
"What would you say that Pompeii, Caesar's most favourite General, is worth?"
With their attention momentarily diverted Pompeii choose to take matters into his own hands. Slowly he inched his way close to the Amazon Queen a plan forming in his head. The chains around his wrists had been removed and he slipped them now into the folds of his clothing, one hand wrapping around the dagger.
He waited until the Conqueror looked away, moving in one swift motion towards the blond woman, dragging her from the horse and wrapping his arm around her shoulders with the sharp edge of the blade pressed dangerously against her neck.
"I think you will now pay money to me," Pompeii laughed as he backed away from the Empress towards his own army.
In one smooth motion the Conqueror slipped from the saddle and moved towards the man. Her eyes were intent on Gabrielle and her heart contracted painfully at the sight of the bard's large green eyes now filled with undisguised fear. The panther rose out of its cage and the Empress was aware that in this matter she had no control over the creature.
"You harm one hair on her head and not only will you die but every one in the Roman Empire will live to regret that you had ever been born," she responded tersely.
Brutus watched mutely. One look at the Conqueror and he knew that she would make good on her threat. Their instructions had been to defeat the Empress in Greece. Caesar would certainly have both their heads if they did anything that made the Conqueror march her own troops into the Roman territory.
Their scheme had not worked. The Conqueror had seen through their plans to trap her armies in the mountain pass. She had correctly guessed their battle strategy. He remembered what the Empress had said.
They had battled only one of the Conqueror's marginal armies and lost. His troops were weary from the long battle and he had no desire to risk another defeat. If Rome's finest Legions were beaten by the Conqueror's Third Army which he suspected she had also held in reserve, then the whole of the Roman Empire would be at risk to fall.
He turned in the saddle and motioned one of his soldiers forward hoping his conciliatory offer would diffuse the situation. He kept one eye on Pompeii and the other on the Conqueror as his soldier brought forward a treasure chest of valuables which he put down on the ground and opened for the Empress to see.
"I want no further bloodshed. Here is payment for Pompeii," he shouted the offer in an attempt to resolve the situation aware that the Conqueror would do anything to avenge the woman's death. It was there in the blackness of her eyes and on her face. He had no desired to die that morning.
"We will not give this whore of Greece anything," Pompeii snorted scornfully disputing his colleagues claim.
"It is me you hate, so I offer myself in exchange for my friend," Xena said tossing her sword onto the ground. "Are you man enough to accept my challenge?"
Pompeii was indecisive. He knew that his defeat and capture would be reported to Caesar in Rome. He had nothing to lose and if he managed to kill the Conqueror he would be hailed the hero and would be the toast of Rome. He knew a victory here, over the Empress, would result in him gaining much favour from those Senators who despised Caesar. Abruptly he released the Queen pushing her onto the ground. Xena moved swiftly catching her beloved bard before she hit the ground, careful to keep her blue eyes on the man.
"Are you okay?" she asked, glancing hastily over her lover and Gabrielle nodded her head, her hand automatically reaching for her neck. Gently the Conqueror pushed the bard behind her as she stepped forward to meet the challenge of the Roman General.
"I will kill you Xena," Pompeii boasted waving the dagger in front of her ignoring the pale slits of blue that were turned in his direction. A saner man would have realized his mistake but the General knew that he had nothing to lose in this challenge.
"You will only try," came the cold response as the Roman lunged towards the woman.
Xena deftly stepped sideways grabbing the extended arm and twisting it roughly behind his back before flipping him onto the ground. She stepped aside allowing her opponent the opportunity to get back on his feet. She watched silently as the Roman dusted off his tunic.
"You are pretty good," Pompeii conceded and then brought his hands forward revealing the sword he had picked up off the ground. "Isn't it ironic Xena that you will die by your own sword?"
"Don't be so arrogant Pompeii. I am not dead yet," came the cold taunting reply and there was a loud scream as the Roman rushed towards her.
Once again the Conqueror's quick reflexes kicked into action as she ducked under the swords sharp blade and kicked out her foot knocking the Roman off balance. In another smooth motion she was back on her feet, her hands wrapped around his sword arm, twisting it in the opposite direction. The Roman released his hold on the blade and stumbled back onto the ground while the Conqueror grabbed the falling weapon and twirled it effortlessly in her hand before bringing it down towards the downed soldier.
"Xena, please, no more killing." Gabrielle woke from her stupor and raced from her spot to grab the Conqueror's hand.
Xena looked down at the small hands that the bard had placed over her own and then looked into her lovers eyes. There was an appeal in the green orbs. Slowly she nodded her head and returned the sword to the sheath on her back. The Conqueror turned to her escort and motioned for them to collect the chest of gems and coins.
"Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon claims this for saving your life, now go home to Caesar you lap dogs," she looked towards Brutus for any dissent but the General only bowed his head in confirmation. Xena turned away but saw something in her lovers eyes.
She moved on instinct drawing her sword from her sheath in one smooth motion as she spun around on her heel, driving the weapon forward into the attacking General. Pompeii gasped as the sharp edge of the blade pierced his skin. He looked at her with wide eyes as he slumped to his knees. Slowly the Conqueror removed the sword from the Roman and watched as he fell face first on to the ground. She looked up at the remaining Roman General aware that he had made no attempt to intervene.
"Take this garbage back to Caesar. Take your whole army back to Rome and tell Caesar that if he tries anything like this again I will turn my ambitions on Rome and I won't stop until I see him fighting lions in the colosseum," she barked at the General who nodded, motioning his soldiers to retrieve Pompeii's body before turning his horse back towards the mountains where the remainder of his army awaited his return.
The Conqueror watched tensely, waiting until the rest of the Roman soldiers had retreated before she turned and scooped Gabrielle into her arms, lifting her onto Argo's back before vaulting up behind her, wrapping the bard in a tight embrace, aware that she had come close to losing the woman for a second time.
"It is time for us to go home," she whispered softly leaning over to place a gentle kiss on the girls brow. Gabrielle silently nodded in agreement only to happy to be heading home.
"Xena?" the bard asked suddenly as something occurred to her.
"What?" the Conqueror asked nuzzling the blonde's hair with her lips.
"I didn't know you had another army," Gabrielle said and heard the soft chuckle come from her dark companion.
"I don't," was the reply.
"But you told Brutus..." the bard paused and twisted around in her seat so that she could see her lovers face. "You were bluffing weren't you?"
Xena merely smiled seductively and leaned forward to kiss her companions lips. "It never hurts to let them think what they want."
Gabrielle shook her head and snuggled deeper into her lovers embrace.
The group sat in a silent circle at the entrance of the temple, waiting patiently for the appearance of their leader, the Priest who had entered the great edifice they had built. He had gone to speak with their God. The One God who was Mightier than all the other Deities that reigned over the Known World.
Khafstar had been gone for many candlemarks now. The moon had risen and set since he had entered the temple to pray. The sky had grown cloudy with wicked looking clouds swirling overhead. But the storm had quickly passed as they continued to wait. They knew that sometimes it took many days for their Lord and Master to answer their prayers.
The sun was high in the sky of the second day of their vigil when once more the day turned black. A mass of swirling black clouds suddenly appeared and hovered ominously over the temple. Like the previous day's storm, frightening bolts of charged energy radiated from the sky. It was a frightening display yet the group remained in spite of their fear, aware that they were protected by their Master.
As quickly as the clouds had appeared they were gone, leaving the earth bathed once more in the brilliant summer sunshine under a clear blue sky. And still they waited for their leader to appear.
Finally the doors to the temple opened and they rose in unison, their eyes now focused on the tall man who stepped out to greet them. He was adorned in the same red robes as the rest of the followers wore. He paused at the top of the stone steps and silently surveyed those gathered. They were the only true believers.
"Our Lord, the One God has spoken," the Priest Khafstar finally spoke, breaking the eery silence that had descended over the group. His brown eyes seemed to glow. "He has told me that we will find no relief against the foreign armies that are invading our shores. He has found us instead a home to the South in a land that is peaceful."
"But what about the Chosen?" someone from the gathering asked.
"He has told me that it is there, in this new land that we will find the one. The Chosen who is to bear a child of the Gods. A form which will be the house for his spirit and allow his rebirth into the world,"
the Priest repeated the instructions that he had received.
"How will we know who that woman is?" another voice asked rising above the murmurs that filled the air.
"A messenger will be sent," the Leader said assuring the anxious followers. "Our Lord and Master will send us a sign."
"But what of our homes?" a woman in the small crowd wanted to know.
"We will find new places to live," the Priest smiled gently. "We will not suffer in this new land as we have been suffering under the dark hand of the foreign oppressors from Rome who have invaded our shores. My Lord assures me that we will find peace. Now we must prepare for the journey for it is a long trip and there is no time to waste."
The Priest remained rooted to his spot as the others scattered in various directions, heading to their individual homes to prepare for the long trek. They would be leaving this land for a place foreign and unfamiliar but their God would make sure that it would be a safe place for them to worship and live.
Though messengers were immediately dispatched advising Archius and the rest of the Palace staff of the Conqueror's imminent return, it was several more days before the preparations for departure were complete. There were all sorts of logistics to consider and Gabrielle marvelled at the ability of her lover to remember even the slightest of details.
While the bard helped Hannibal with the injured, Xena worked with General Loris to deploy the troops remaining in the Region into strategic positions to guard the new territory. Though her scouts and spies had reported that the Roman Army was retreating, the Conqueror wasn't entirely certain they wouldn't yet try something.
Only when she was completely satisfied that the area was secure did the Conqueror announce it was time to leave. Once all the tents were packed and the injured loaded into the available wagons did the Army begin the long march towards home.
After the busy days of fighting the bard looked forward to the relatively quiet days of travelling ahead of them, though she was aware that there was always much too do. She turned her head and glanced about the scenery, seeing what they had missed on the hurried march towards the battle with the Roman's.
In spite of the cooling weather of the approaching fall season, the grass was still green and the sky was a deep blue with the sun shining brightly, warming their bare skin. They were travelling out of the mountainous region along a trail that ran through the middle of the country. It was a tough march over rough terrain but it was the shortest route back to the Capital.
They travelled until late in the day, stopping for the evening only when the sun was low in the sky. While Xena helped in organizing the camp, the bard went in search of the healer, offering her assistance in caring for the wounded. It wasn't until much later, well after night fall, that the two women finally had a chance to be together again.
"How are you doing?" the Conqueror asked noticing the weary expression on the smaller woman's face as the girl sat down on the log near where the command tent had been pitched.
"Tired," the bard admitted flashing the older woman a brief smile as she settled beside her lover in front of the fire that had been built. "I never realized how much work everything was."
"Very few people do," Xena agreed in a quiet voice as she reached out and gently stroked the smaller woman's hair. "However, we will soon be back at the Capital and there will be others to take care of things."
"I'm not complaining," Gabrielle protested afraid her companion had misinterpreted her thoughts.
"I know you're not," the warrior smiled in reassurance. She knew the bard well enough to know where the mood was coming from. "Have you had something to eat?"
"I had something with Hannibal when I was helping him settle the wounded for the night," the girl replied. Actually, it had only been a stale biscuit that she had found at the bottom of her pouch.
"Then I guess you don't want this apple," the Empress said casually producing a big red fruit from a pouch on the ground next to her feet. She stifled the chuckle that came to her lips as her companion gazed at it with hungry eyes.
"I didn't say I couldn't use a dessert," Gabrielle snapped playfully snatching the juicy morsel from the older woman's hand. The Conqueror couldn't hide her smile. She delighted in making the younger woman happy, even if it meant giving up the only bit of food she had scrounged from the mess wagon earlier. Suddenly the bard stopped chewing and stared at her through narrow eyes.
"Xena, have you had something to eat?" Gabrielle knew of her lover's habit of skipping meals and she had often wondered how the woman could survive and function on the meagre rations she did consume.
"I wasn't hungry," the Conqueror didn't lie. She had no appetite.
"Xena," the girl groaned feeling guilty now that she was probably eating the only food the Empress had obtained all day. "You should have eaten this."
"I'm not hungry Gabrielle," Xena said pointedly. The girl stared at her lover for a long time and then sighed. She didn't understand.
"I don't know how you do it, how can you go all day without eating?"
"You have to train yourself to ignore the hunger," came the honest reply as blue orbs focused on the flickering orange flames of the fire in front of them. "There is no time to stop in the middle of a battle to eat, so you learn to do without."
The bard realized she had the answer. She could see the exhausted lines under the taller woman's eyes. She held out the apple and gave the older woman one of her appealing smiles.
"Why don't we share this?"
The Conqueror could have refused but she knew it would make her lover happy so she leaned sideways and took a bite out of the offering. Gabrielle smiled before resting her head contentedly against the warriors padded shoulder as they shared the meagre feast.
"I think you will be happy to get back to the Palace," Xena said breaking the peaceful silence that had enveloped them.
"Yes," the bard sighed, not denying the truth.
"You miss the shopping don't you, my love?"
"Yes," the girl smiled sheepishly, "but I miss so much more. I miss Archius."
"So do I," the Conqueror admitted.
"What sweetheart?" Words, endearment's that once seemed so foreign to the stoic Warrior now seemed to naturally fall from her lips.
"When we get back to Corinth, can we spend some time alone together?"
That was perhaps the one thing that the bard missed the most. At the Palace there were others to take care of the smaller matters of life, leaving them time to be alone. During this long campaign they had precious little time together, their every waking moment occupied with the army and the injured.
"Yes," the Empress promised placing an arm across her companion's slender shoulders. "I promise you, once I have dispensed with all the important matters of state, we will have plenty of time alone together."
"Good," the bard was immensely pleased. "I missed having you all to myself."
"You don't like sharing, do you?"
"No... most of the time I'm okay with that," Gabrielle confessed with a smile, "but I would like to have you alone once and awhile without having to worry that we will be interrupted."
Xena felt an incredible wave of love flood over her weary senses. It was a feeling she had never thought she would ever experience. But she did and it was all because of the woman who sat by her side. She could give this woman anything she wanted but all Gabrielle ever asked for was the simplest of things. The bard did not seek to own material possessions as others did, often sacrificing her own needs for the sakes of others.
The Empress drew in a sharp painful breath. She was the most powerful woman in the known world and had infinite wealth but the one thing she knew the woman wanted the most she was unable to give and that left a pain in her heart. She opened her mouth to speak but before she had a chance to respond their moment of solitude was interrupted by the arrival of Zenon.
"Empress," the soldier bowed and the woman nodded in acknowledgment, not removing her arm from around the smaller woman.
"What have you to report?"
"The scouts you dispatched earlier have returned with news that all is quiet in the surrounding countryside," the Head of the Royal Escort informed the Empress. "I have deployed guards at regular distances throughout the perimeter."
"Good," Xena was pleased, assured that the commander had done an adequate job. The man nodded and backed away only to have Eponin approach with her own report to their Queen. The Amazon's Weapon's Master was followed by Hannibal the healer.
"Come on," the Conqueror implored jumping to her feet and dragging the smaller woman with her. "Let's get out of here before the cook comes requesting directions for tomorrows menu."
The bard giggled, and was about to argue that she was to tired for a walk, but the smile was quickly wiped from her lips at the sight of the rotunda cook heading in their general direction. She kept her mouth shut and followed without complaint, feeling her hand securely tucked in the larger one.
They strolled swiftly across the camp and out passed the perimeter guards into the surrounding darkness. There was silence except for the chirp of the crickets and the steady swish of the tall grass as they walked through the meadow out into the open countryside, leaving behind the camp and it's organized chaos.
They both savoured the peace that surrounded them, coming to a halt only once they reached a narrow stream that wound it's way through the open field. They lay down on the grassy slope by the lone tree that inhabited its bank, both content to listen to the gentle ripple of the water as it streamed over the rocks in its bed.
Xena stared up at the night, her eyes mesmerised by the brilliant display of flickering lights in the Northern sky. Like banners of celebration, ribbons of light fluttered across the blackness. It was a beautiful sight and it reminded her of the many nights when, as a child, she had snuck out of Amphipolis to go lay in the open fields and stare up at the heavens.
It was odd. For so many years she had lusted after power, seeing it as her destiny to rule the World. Yet lately that desire and the overwhelming need to subjugate others, was beginning to subside, leaving something else in it's place. More and more in her dreams she began to long for the simple things life had to offer.
She heard a wistful sigh and turned her head, glancing sideways at her young companion. The bard was lying on her back with her head pillowed by her hands. There was a dreamy, almost rapturous expression on her young face.
"Gabrielle?" the Conqueror asked knowing her partner would understand the unspoken question.
"I'm fine," the bard turned to give her lover a smile. "I was just thinking about all the time I spent travelling on the road. There were so many nights like this."
"Do you miss it?" the Warrior asked. She had never questioned the girl if she had ever missed her old life. She had never thought to ask.
"Sometimes," the girl was honest. "Don't get me wrong, I love being with you and life in the Palace but sometimes I miss this. Sleeping under the stars with no worries or pressing business pushing us to the next destination."
The Empress was momentarily silent as she too vaguely remembered a time when her own life had been different. She had been a carefree young girl then, living in a small village, and spending her time traipsing around the countryside, fishing and hunting. But all that freedom had ended with Cortez and her brother Lyceus' death.
In one tragic moment she had grown from an innocent girl to a warrior and everything she had enjoyed had been lost with the death of that innocence. But now with the bard's help she was finding it again, and she marvelled at the experience.
She turned her eyes back to the sky, content to enjoy the light show the God's were surely putting on for their entertainment, and savouring the knowledge that she was surrounded by the love of her companion. For awhile she could forget about the responsibilities that weighted so heavily on her shoulders.
Most of the camp would have long since retired. The long march that day having exhausted even the most experienced soldier who was used to such hardship. Tomorrow, they would leave behind the main body of their force and speed towards their ultimate destination. Already she was forming numerous plans about what they would do when they got back to Corinth.
Just as she was having those thoughts she heard a rustle, like when the wind moves through the trees. But there was no wind and the leaves on the solitary tree at their resting stop remained still. The Conqueror was on her feet in one swift catlike motion with her sword clutched tightly in her hands, her blue orbs peering into the blackness that surrounded them.
"Xena?" the bard sat up, startled by her companion's sudden movement.
"Shh," the Empress hissed, her head turning slowly, her ears cocked to any sound.
"There is no reason to be afraid," a voice came out of the darkness. The Conqueror whirled on her heel to face the intruder as Gabrielle jumped to her feet, her staff clutched tightly in her hands.
"Oww, they are so tense," a second voice giggled.
There in the darkness were two shimmering forms. One was a russet haired woman in brown animal hides with a bow, and beside her was a angel like looking woman with long blond curly hair, dressed in silky white robes.
"What are you doing here?" the Conqueror asked her hand on the sword hilt tightening as the Goddess' moved closer.
"We are here with a gift for you, Empress," Artemis said and suddenly a bowl of fruit was in the blond Goddess' hands. "You have treated my most favoured well and now it is my turn to reward you."
"I don't want any reward," Xena said tightly, suspicious of anything that came from the Gods.
"You were right, she is rather uptight," the blonde Goddess giggled and then turned a brilliant smile on the dour warrior. "Loosen up warrior babe."
The term only brought a snarl to the Conqueror's lips. Gabrielle watched with fascination the exchange. Unlike the Empress she had no suspicions about the God's. The only one she feared was the nasty looking God of War.
"Hi, my name is Gabrielle," she stepped out from behind the Conqueror and extended her hand in introduction.
"We know who you are my Queen," the russet haired woman smiled favourably upon the smaller woman whom she had grown to like immeasurably. At first she had doubts about the young woman but the girl had proven herself on more then one occasion. "You know who I am but I don't know if you have met my sister Aphrodite."
"The Goddess of Love," the bard finished, her eyes widening in surprise. The blonde Goddess was even more beautiful then she had imagined.
"You got that right bardy poo," the slender God smiled.
"What do you want?" the Conqueror repeated an earlier question and Artemis turned her attention back to the stoic warrior.
"We are giving you a gift," the Goddess of the Hunt said. "Fruit from Mt. Olympus, the nectar of the Gods and with it comes the fulfilment of your greatest wishes and dreams."
"I have no wishes or dreams," the Empress scoffed.
"Nonsense, everyone does," Aphrodite disputed with a gleeful wave of her hand. "We see it even if you don't."
The blonde Goddess moved forward and gently reached out to touch both women. Out of instinct the bard automatically grabbed the Warrior's free hand. A jolt of energy passed between them sending a wave of incredible feeling through the two mortal bodies. It was so strong that it knocked them back a step. It took a long moment for the women to recover and by then the Goddess of Love had stepped back to stand once more beside her sister.
"Eat of the fruit," Artemis motioned to the bowl resting on the ground at their feet. "And fear nothing for we are here to help and guide you."
There was a flash of light and the two mortal women were alone once again in the darkness. There was silence for a moment before the bard bent and picked up the basket, her green eyes intently studying it's contents.
"It would be a shame to waste such good looking fruit," the girl commented quietly as the Conqueror glanced down at her. It was odd but Xena felt an incredible hunger. She reached for a large apple and turned it over in her hand for a moment studying it intently aware that her companion had already selected another odd looking fruit.
"Ohh, this is good," Gabrielle murmured taking a good sized bite out of the fruit. The Conqueror saw the juice leave a trail down the smaller woman's chin and automatically she leaned over and lapped up the liquid with her tongue, savouring the salty taste of her companions skin mixed with the sweet juice as it mingled in her mouth. It tasted unlike anything she had ever experienced.
"Come on Xena try it," the bard encouraged and reluctantly the Conqueror obliged her smaller companion. She was still suspicious but the fruit was good and unexpectedly the hunger in her belly rumbled.
They sat down on the bank and ate in silence until all the contents of the wicker bowl was gone. The two women looked at each other in surprise and then laughed with amusement.
"Must have been hungrier then I realized," the Empress admitted with some embarrassment and the bard laughed again. It was a rich sound that echoed in the silence that surrounded them. It was an intoxicating sound and the Empress immediately felt her senses begin to roil. She felt more alive then she had ever been, every one of her nerves on high alert and sensitive to everything around them. In particular the bard.
She could smell the woman, feel her aura and a sudden desire to feel and taste the girl welled up inside her being. It was a feeling that was returned for she could see the look of desire in the green eyes that were turned in her direction.
"Xena, do you think Aphrodite put something in that fruit?" the girl asked as the warrior moved over and then gently pushed her to the ground.
"Probably," the Conqueror conceded but at this moment she didn't care. She was intent only on one thing and that was making love to the woman who was lying there beneath her. Xena sensed that they were not alone but she felt no immediate danger and so focused all her attention on her young lover.
The sounds of passion drifted across the meadow as a pair of blue eyes watched intently from a safe distance. The expression on the innocent looking face was anything but sweet. It was a mixture of evil amusement.
The leather and armour clad woman had followed the pair of lover's from camp. She had witnessed the visit of the God's and watched now as the two women expressed their love for one another. She watched them as a hawk watched it's prey all the while thinking and plotting her revenge.
She had witnessed Pompeii's sorry attempt to defeat the Conqueror. She had told him to go after the bard and he would have won if he had only listened to her, but he had allowed his own weak mind to dictate his actions. As a result he had died. Well, she wouldn't be so emotional. She had a plan of revenge against the Conqueror and she would not be swayed from her objective. She would bide her time and then act.
She watched for a moment longer and then heard voices in the distance. A turn of her head and she saw that a small party of Amazon's were heading in her general direction. She knew that she could not be found to be spying on the Empress or the Amazon Queen, for there would be too many questions for her to answer. Quietly, she slipped further into the darkness slinking back towards the camp, aware that her secret was still safe. A low and evil laugh echoed through the night.
General Barcaus glanced at the motley group of civilians who were lined up outside his command tent waiting for the opportunity to sign on to the Conqueror's army. Most of the men were strong and healthy, however some were too young and others had no place in the military, but the scroll he had received from the Empress was clear. Recruits were needed and it was his duty to supply an appropriate number from his region.
He watched as the Drill Master paced slowly along the column of men and boys, his mind mentally calculating the worthiness of each individual. They could all be useful, he decided, if not as soldiers then in some other capacity in his camp. He saw the aged soldier pause in front of one particularly odd looking individual who was dressed in an unmatching collection of worn leathers with a peculiar pointed hat on his head.
"What do they call you?" the Drill Master barked in a commanding voice and the gawky man straightened his shoulders.
"Joxer the Mighty," came the sincere reply and the battle hardened soldier lifted an amused brow.
"Mighty at what?" the Drill Master asked scornfully.
"I am a great warrior," the man boasted proudly drawing a chorus of amused laughter from the others in the square including the Drill Master.
"You look like a piece of Centaur's turd. Where did you come from?"
"Corinth," the skinny man replied some of his earlier confidence fading.
"You have come a long way to join the Conqueror's army," came the acid comment.
"I tried to join in the Capital but all the positions were filled," the man nodded his head firmly, making him look like an awkward bird.
For a moment the General Barcaus reconsidered his decision to accept this man's enlistment. The Conqueror's army was accepting all recruits but it was obvious that the man was not soldier material. However, he needed to fill his quota and this man would help that cause. They would train him and if he died in his first battle that would be Hades decision. He watched as the Drill Master moved on to the next one in line.
Here was a lanky youth with blond hair that hung to his shoulders. He was young in years, perhaps not more then thirteen summers, but he had a strong build and the Drill Master looked eagerly towards the opportunity of training the lad. If nourished right, the boy could grow into a fine soldier.
"What is your name?" he bade the youth.
"Solan," came the pert reply.
"And where do you come from?" the trainer asked aware that for some reason his features seemed familiar.
"I am an orphan," the boy replied. "My parents were both killed so I decided to join the army to fight the enemies of this great Empire."
Solan lapsed into silence. He could not say that he wanted to be a soldier so that he might some day get close to the Empress in order to avenge the family that she had destroyed. Because of the Conqueror, he had never known his mother or his father.
"Good," the Drill Master nodded, pleased with the response. "Be diligent and train hard and you will have the chance to serve the Empress."
With that he continued down the line of recruits stopping at each one to access their potential, circling back to the front only once he was finished. He glanced momentarily at the General Barcaus before focusing his attention once more on the group.
"You are now the property of the Empress," the Drill Master stated in a loud voice. "You will do as she asks whenever and whatever she asks of you. For the next several full moons, you will train and work hard to prove that you belong. If you do not we will send you home and your failure will be recorded for all to see. Now follow the guardsmen, he will show you to your new quarters."
With that the new recruits picked up their meagre belongings and followed a tall heavy set man through the army camp. General Barcaus watched them leave, aware that the Drill Master had his work cut out for him. When he had been gifted this position upon General Rufus' demise he had been nervous, worried about his performance and unwilling to end up like his predecessor. In the ensuing months he had grown more confident. Now he wanted to prove to the Empress that she had made the right choice in selecting him and he would do that by turning these civilians into a decent militia.
Gabrielle woke slowly, savouring the feeling of the strong arms wrapped around her waist and the warm body that was curled up against her back. She lay contentedly within her lover's embrace enjoying the solemn few moments of peace and privacy after the long hard days of travel that had brought them back to the Capital.
She heard the soft song of a bird perched just outside the open window and listened for a moment to it's tuneful melody. It was a beautiful sound in the still of the morning and a welcome fanfare after the months of waking up in a camp to the noise of an army in motion.
Carefully, she rolled over to face her companion, surprised that her action didn't awaken her lover. She stared at the face that had become so familiar, taking the opportunity to study the complex woman and noticing the small lines etched into the corners of the sleeping woman's face. They were the only tattletale signs of the tremendous amount of stress her lover carried every day.
Until their trip north Gabrielle had only seen glimpses of the enormous amount of responsibility that her lover held as the Empress, yet it wasn't until now, with time to reflect, that she was able to grasp the complete magnitude of the task. It was almost overwhelming and her admiration for her companion grew.
But she was smart enough to know that the responsibility weighted heavily on the Conqueror and if it was possible she understood the necessity to be cruel. She recognized the reason the Empress was harsh and in that she had a greater understanding of the woman to whom she had fallen so hopelessly in love with.
Her heart began to pound in her chest. She loved this woman like she would love no one else and she would follow Xena to the end of life, however the Gods saw fit to end it. She was on her path and it was a journey that she felt would last for all eternity. A trip on which she had willingly embarked and one for which she would never have any regrets about whatever the future brought.
A tender smile tipped the corners of her lips as a plan formed in her head. The Empress had given her so much and she wanted to give some of it back. Carefully, she slipped from the taller woman's grasp and out of bed, quietly scrambling around the room collecting the small articles that she would need. The smile on her face growing as she tried to imagine what her companions reaction would be.
Xena woke slowly to the delicious tickling sensation of a feather gently caressing the bare skin of her exposed breasts. A blue eye popped open and fastened on the bard who was propped up with one elbow. There was a twitch of a grin on the young face and a sparkle of mischief in the emerald eyes. The offending feather was being twirled innocently in a free hand.
"You're up early," the Conqueror said dryly, aware of her partners penchant for sleeping late.
"I went to bed early," the girl reminded impishly once again running the feather over an exposed breast. The Conqueror felt her body react. The nipple hardened as a shiver raced down her spine.
They had gotten back to the Palace late the previous evening but the bard had already been asleep for several candlemarks. Her slender body nestled comfortably in the arms of the Empress. Xena smiled at the recollection. Though her muscles had cramped supporting the younger woman she had never experienced a more enjoyable ride in all her life.
"Are you feeling frisky my sweet?" the Conqueror asked raising an eyebrow as the girl continued to trace the feather over the other breast.
"A little," the bard admitted shyly and the Empress laughed reaching out and drawing the smaller woman on top of her. Their naked bodies rubbed together in the most delicious manner. Though they had been together for almost a full calender of season's the girl was still embarrassed by her sexual desires. Xena hoped her lover never lost that innocence.
"Then let me love you," the Empress said in a husky voice as she reached up to cup her lovers face, tenderly brushing golden strands of hair behind small ears.
"Xena.." Gabrielle said in a hesitant voice.
"What love?" the Conqueror prodded with a gentle kiss.
"Do you think we could try something different?" the girl asked averting her eyes. The dark haired woman smiled at the blush that flooded the other woman's features.
"We can try anything you want," the Conqueror promised reaching up and planting another kiss on the girl's lips. "What did you have in mind?"
What Gabrielle wanted came as a pleasant surprise to the warrior and though the girl had never been timid with their lovemaking she had seemed reluctant to experiment. That was not the case this morning and the Empress experienced for the first time the complete extent of the younger woman's desires. The whole experience left her more satisfied then she had ever believed possible.
"Where on earth did you learn that?" Xena wanted to know when they had finally settled exhausted into each others arms. The bard glanced up lazily and the Conqueror could see the girl was fighting off the weariness that their passion had brought.
"I borrowed some scrolls from the Amazons," Gabrielle confessed sheepishly. "I hadn't the courage until now to try any of it."
"Well, I'm certainly glad you did," Xena drawled affectionately giving the small woman a tight squeeze. "Anytime you want to try something new just go right ahead."
"Thank you," the girl mumbled her lids falling over her eyes as she drifted off to sleep.
Xena lay quietly watching her lover sleep. The last thing she wanted to do was to leave this warm bed but there was business to take care of. She had been away from the Capital for a long time and needed now to catch up on what had happened in her absence. Reluctantly she extracted herself from the limbs that had wound themselves around her and with a tender kiss she left the bard sleeping.
Before long she was strolling through the Palace halls invigorated by the lovemaking they had shared. She was in a good mood. A smile played its way across her lips as she thought about the younger woman. Gabrielle had been more playful then usual and the Empress was certain it was due to the fact that the bard was happy to be home. Though the girl never complained she knew the bard enjoyed her luxuries.
"Good morning Archius," she called to the man upon entering the throne room.
"Good morning Empress," the small man returned the greeting taking note that the Conqueror looked in a particularly good spirits. "It's nice to have you back."
"It's nice to be back," she replied and allowed a grin to touch her lips. "Gabrielle is particularly pleased. She hasn't had much chance to do any shopping these past few seasons so I think the first thing on her agenda this morning is to go too the market."
"The merchants will be pleased," the man replied with a smile. "I believe they truly missed her presence and not only for the coin that she puts in their pockets."
"Yes," the Empress was unusually pleased at the respect that her young lover got from the common people. The smile disappeared as she walked around the table and sat down on the throne. "Now Archius, tell me what had been going on in my absence?"
For the next several candlemarks the two went over the business of the Empire and Xena issued instructions on how to deal with matters that had been left until her return. She glanced with interest over the parchments the man handed her reading thoroughly the accounts that her Generals had given of the activities in their individual Regions.
"I sent instructions for recruiters to be dispatched into every region, has that been done?"
"Yes, My Conqueror," Archius nodded.
"And what success have we had?" the Conqueror was curious to know the results. She knew the contempt the people of the land held for her yet there were those who willing served in her army, eager for a full stomach and coin in their pocket.
"Better then expected," the man was blunt. "Every region has reported an increase in volunteers. Your success against the Horde and the Roman's has filled your countrymen with pride."
"Let's hope it continues," the Empress sighed and leaned back in her chair. She glanced across at the man. "Are there any other matters of which we have not yet spoken?"
"No, My Empress," Archius shook his head. "The Realm is quiet and for now everyone seems content. Your plan for the troops to help in the fields is working better then expected and every region is reporting increased productivity. The Regional Commanders also report that the local population has begun to look at them more favourable and there have even been several marriages."
"Good," Xena nodded pleased with the news. She had not expected these things to work so well. A grin came to her lips. "Our treaty with the Amazon's appears to be working quite well."
"Yes," Archius agreed unable to prevent the smile that came to his lips. "A contingent of miners is beginning work in the mountains and the Regent Ephiny has reported three Amazon's are almost ready to give birth."
"Good," Xena said pleased with the news. "Now let's start clearing away this business."
While the Conqueror was busy getting back to work on government affairs the bard was only just beginning to stir from her extended nap. She stretched lazily feeling quite happy about the way things had turned out that morning. She hadn't known how the Conqueror would respond to her request and had been more then pleased when the older woman had eagerly embraced her ideas.
She slowly rolled over and out of bed, padding quietly across the huge room into the adjoining bath. She pulled the rope and watched as the warm water poured into the large washing tub. She spilled some scented oil into the bath before climbing into the water leaning back and savouring the first real soak she had in the last several seasons.
She closed her eyes and mentally planned out her afternoon. She knew that Xena would be busy for the rest of the day catching up on business and so did not expect to see the Empress until nightfall. Rather then wait for her lover she decided to take a trip out to the market. There were things that they needed, personal supplies that they had run out of during their long absence from the Capital.
It was only as she was preparing to dress that she noticed the note and small bag of coins that Xena had left that morning on a table by the bed. She smiled as she read the short message and realized that the other woman really did know her.
I will be busy all day with affairs of state. I know you are dying to find out how your friends in the market are doing so I left you some coins and hope that you have a good day. I will see you tonight at dinner.
PS Remember to take Jason with you and don't forget your staff.
Gabrielle would have loved to go out on her own but she knew better then to defy her lover. Xena was tolerant in many things but her protection was one thing that the Conqueror took seriously all the time. Though the Empire appeared peaceful there was no guarantee that there wasn't someone out there seeking revenge.
She folded the note and tucked it into the bodice of her top, sending a message to Jason only once she was ready to leave the Palace. The soldier smiled at the sight of the young woman standing at the foot of the steps leading up into the Palace. He could see by the expression on her face that she was anxious to be on her way.
"Good morning Jason," she called out the friendly greeting, her eyes glancing at the two foot soldiers that accompanied him.
"Good morning, Miss Gabrielle," the soldier smiled and then bowed. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," the bard's smile grew wider if that was possible. "It was nice to be back in a real bed again."
"Yes, everyone was grateful to be home again," the man agreed. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting."
"There is no rush," the girl said and then glanced at his companions the smile on her face wavering slightly. "Do you think it necessary for us to have so much company?"
"But surely you are capable of protecting me," the bard worried about bringing to much attention too herself.
"They are not here for reasons of protection Miss," the soldier said solemnly.
"Oh?" the girl raised her eyebrows in a manner that mimicked her lover and the soldier continued in the same solemn voice.
"Yes, I feared to go alone, uncertain that I would be able to carry all your purchases," the soldier bowed unable to hide the smile on his lips. Gabrielle laughed and then playfully slapped him on the shoulder.
"You are a card," she chuckled. "Come on let's shop."
With that they strolled across the Palace courtyard and out the gate into the city unaware that the whole exchange had been observed by the Conqueror who was standing on the balcony overhead.
Xena didn't know why she had felt the sudden urge to go out onto the balcony and only realized when she had noticed the bard standing on the Palace steps what had called her outside. She had been about too call to her young lover when the soldier had appeared and instead she had closed her mouth and listened to the conversation. She had smiled at the bard's playful attitude yet something had also made her sad. She returned to the throne room and slumped into a chair, a frown burrowing it's way across her forehead.
She loved Gabrielle. There was no question of that in her mind just as she had no doubt of the bard's affection for herself yet she wondered if given the chance the girl might be interested in exploring other relationships. She knew that the young woman had never been with a man and for a moment she felt a pang of guilt about that situation.
While the bard was with her no man would dare approach and in her mind Xena knew that the girl would never voice her opinions on the matter. She instinctively knew that the girl must be curious, for she was an inquisitive sort by nature. Suddenly the happiness she felt since the morning was gone replaced by a cold empty feeling.
Gabrielle was a beautiful woman, a kind and compassionate individual who deserved every happiness. She deserved to experience everything that life had to offer and yet by her association to the Conqueror it would be impossible for the woman to do that.
Briefly her thoughts returned to that night in the meadow when they had been visited by Artemis and Aphrodite. She had told them she had no dreams, yet there was one wish that had been running around inside her head. She had not been joking when she had told Loris and Eponin that she had a desire to make Gabrielle pregnant. It was an idea that she was certain the bard would favour, yet it was a difficult subject to approach.
She mulled over the possibilities, an idea forming in her head. Perhaps there was a way for the bard to experience everything life had to offer. Xena returned to work, puzzling over how she could fix matters so that her lover would miss nothing.
Gabrielle was surprised by the greetings she received from the merchants and common folk as she walked through the market. Many called out or waved their welcome and she returned the gestures most often pausing to exchange pleasantries and asking after the families of those sellers she knew by person. She had just finished speaking to one particular woman when an all to familiar voice called out to her.
"It has been a long time since you have graced our presence," a man said and Gabrielle turned around a wide smile beaming across her face.
"Salmoneous," the bard was happy to see the merchant and surprised the man by embracing him. "Affairs of state and Caesar's meddling have kept us away far to long, but now we are back."
"That is good news," the merchant replied gleefully, genuinely pleased by the news. "The merchants of the marketplace have missed you."
"Now you flatter me," Gabrielle blushed.
"It is not flattery but the truth," the man shook his head. "Come I must show you some of the new scents I have gathered on my recent travels."
Gabrielle nodded and fell into step beside the man while her escort lagged close behind their arms already burdened with the purchases she had made. She greeted Ariela warmly and chatted a few moments with the girl while the man collected together the scents he had told her about.
The bard sniffed each vial finding some more pleasant then the others. There was one in particular that she found pleasing and wondered if her tall, dark and dangerous companion would like it as well. She decided there was only one way to find out.
"I'll take this one," she passed the vial of scent back to the man, "and some of the Conqueror's usual scent just in case."
"That is a good choice," Salmoneous smiled broadly collecting together the purchases to be wrapped. Suddenly he stopped a gleam coming to his eyes. "I almost forgot. I was in Egypt recently and found the most unique and extraordinary trinket. I thought of you immediately. I will just fetch it from the back room of my shop. I did not put it on display because I wanted you to be the first to see it."
Gabrielle was pleased that the man had thought of her and she paid the girl while the merchant hurried from the market stall to his shop a few streets over. It was while she was chatting to the girl that she noticed another familiar face. She turned her head to see that the man was staring intently at her. She recognized him as the seller to which her sister Lila was sweet.
"I'll be right back," she told Ariela and then moved across the street. "I'm sorry but I have forgotten your name."
"Linus," the man replied shyly unable to met her gaze.
"Linus.. yes, now I remember," Gabrielle nodded her head. "You are friends with my sister Lila."
"Yes," the man nodded having the courage now to meet the smaller woman's eyes.
"Have you been to Potedaia lately?" she asked curious to know how her family was faring. Though they had parted on bad terms she could not stop caring for her family.
"I just came from there."
"And did you have a chance to see my sister?" Gabrielle asked and the man nodded his head.
"She is well. Your mother was sick awhile past and though she has recovered she is still weak," the man paused and then reached over to a saddlebag at the back of his stall. Gabrielle watched as he withdrew a scroll and held it out to her. "Your sister asked if I might deliver this to you."
"Thank you," the bard gave the man a trembling smile as she accepted the parchment. Unable to wait she broke the seal and hastily scanned the contents, laughing out loud at her sisters descriptions of what had been going on since her departure from the village. She even noted a short description about the Conqueror's visit and their fathers reaction.
But that was old news and she hurried on through the parchment determined to read the scroll again when she had more time. Her sister had saved the best news for last and the bard smiled broadly and looked up at the man who was standing watching her, nervously moving from one foot to the other.
"Congratulations," she held out her hand and the man smiled for the first time, accepting her best wishes. "When do you plan to marry?"
"Before the next full moon," the merchant replied with a blush. "Your father wanted us to wait until next years harvest is done but Lila would have none of it. I fancy she wants to be settled as soon as possible."
"And what will you be doing then?" the bard was curious, thinking how good it would be for her younger sibling to travel about the countryside with her new husband.
"I will be settling in Potedaia," the man confessed quietly and Gabrielle could sense a sadness in his voice
"You will open a merchants shop there?"
"No," the man shook his head. "Your father insisted that I tend the fields with him if I want to marry Lila. He has no sons so it is only expected that I take over the land in preparation for later."
Gabrielle knew what the man was saying and her heart wept. She guessed that the man did not want to be a farmer. He was a merchant, accustomed to travelling about the countryside, meeting new people and selling his wares. The change would be difficult and she only hoped that the love Lila and he shared was strong enough to compensate.
"I'm sorry," she consoled him. "Perhaps when he sees that you are no farmer he will change his mind."
"No, I do not mind," Linus shook his head. "I would do anything to have Lila. It is a small sacrifice to make."
Gabrielle smiled pleased to see that the man was genuinely in love with her sister. She knew that Lila was in good hands with this man and she would have envied her sister if she didn't already have the same type of relationship with the Conqueror. It was thoughts of the Empress that brought her back to the present.
"I shall be pleased to call you brother-in-law," she said and the man smiled gratefully. "When do you leave again?"
"In ten days," the man replied.
"Good, I will have a scroll for you to take back to my sister."
The man nodded and Gabrielle turned and retreated back to the stall where Salmoneous waited. He had seen her talking to the younger merchant and now saw the frown that was on her face. He didn't like to see anything but a smile upon the young woman's features.
"Has Linus said something to distress you?" the older rotund trader asked in a fatherly voice that caused the bard to smile.
"No, his news was nothing but good," she sighed the smile fading again. "He is to marry my sister at the next full moon."
"Then that is excellent news," the man exalted.
"For my sister but I fear they will have a hard life," Gabrielle voiced her thoughts. "My father insists that he become a farmer."
"Then that is even better news," Salmoneous continued clapping his hands in glee and the small woman looked at him with a puzzled expression. He smiled. "Linus is a good merchant trader. I shall be happy to see him gone for it can only improve my business."
Gabrielle shook her head with disgust but she could not remain angry with the man. She gave him a hard stare trying to imitate her lover but failed miserably. The man chuckled and she threw her hands up in defeat.
"What was it you wanted to show me?" she finally asked and the man produced a lovely little ornament carved from an exquisite piece of jade. It had been polished and oiled until the colours had shone a brilliant shade. "It's beautiful."
"Yes," the trader smiled broadly watching as she turned the object over in her hands, her fingers caressing the stone tenderly. Briefly he envied the Conqueror knowing that this woman caressed her in the same loving fashion.
"It was said to be created for a Prince of Egypt," the man related the history behind the object. "An unfortunate fellow who fell out of favour with one of the Pharohs. As a punishment he was forced to get rid of his most treasured possessions."
The bard eyed the trader critically wondering if he was trying to make her part with more of the Conqueror's treasury. Salmoneous was looking at her with an innocent expression and she had to smile.
"How much is this small treasure to cost me?" she asked and the man named his price to which he received a raised eyebrow. She carefully set the ornament down, dearly wanting the object as a gift for the Empress. She named her own price and added as an afterthought. "And I will pay no more."
"I cannot let it go for that," Salmoneous shook his head regretfully and the bard smiled.
"Then I will not be able to buy it," she sighed sadly, genuinely remorseful. "But it was nice to see you again Ariela and Salmoneous. We will see each other again soon."
With that she turned and started to walk away signalling for Jason and the other soldiers to follow. She had not taken more then two steps before the merchant called her name. Salmoneous had purchased this treasure for the bard and he was determined that only she was to have the object. He normally did not like losing on a business deal but figured that he had more then made up for it by her refusal to bargain with Ariela.
"All right, all right," he sighed throwing his hands up in defeat. He named a more reasonable price but the bard shook her head aware that it was still far too expensive. "I can not do any better."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle shook her head. She loved the little piece of jade with its intricately carved design but she would feel guilty spending so much money on herself especially when there were so many more unfortunate people. She thought of one of them now and instinctively turned her head searching for the familiar face.
"Are you looking for something?" the merchant asked upset that he had not be able to persuade the woman to buy the trinket. He tucked it away for the future.
"Yes, there used to be a little boy who hung out in the marketplace, I think his name was Arron," Gabrielle said looking at the trader who nodded his head solemnly.
"Yes, he now works for Vargas on the docks, helping to unload his merchant vessels," Salmoneous replied not meeting the girls eyes.
"But he is so small," the bard protested thinking of the tiny child and the hard work it was that he would be asked to perform.
"Vargas accused him of stealing food from one of his stalls. Rather than send him to prison he offered to put him to work. The local magistrate agreed."
Gabrielle said nothing. She knew that Vargas was a powerful trader in the city and he had close ties to the Empress. The merchant had often been a guest at the Palace for dinner. She had never liked the man and she was certain that Xena didn't either. She sighed her day suddenly not as bright and after stopping to purchase some ink and scrolls she returned to the Palace.
"Did the Conqueror leave a message as to when dinner would be served tonight?" she asked of the Belaus upon returning to her suite.
"The Empress asked me to inform you that dinner would be served in your quarters tonight," the woman smiled warmly. "She requested that you dress for the occasion."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled understanding what that meant. It had been such a long time since the two of them had been alone together and she quite liked the idea that Xena wanted to have dinner alone with her tonight.
She hurriedly unpacked her purchases setting aside those gifts that she had bought for her lover and then went about getting ready for the evening which was nearly upon them. While she was in the bath, the servants came in and set up a table in the sitting room of their quarters with pillows and scented candles in front of the lit fireplace.
Gabrielle chose the gown from Chin that Xena had given to her as a gift. It was made of pure silk and was light blue with gold embroidery trim on the high collar and sleeves. She braided her hair into a thick French braid that fell down the center of her back. She left her feet bare.
She sat down on her knees in front of the fireplace on one of the pillows that had been laid out next to the table and stared at the crackling flames. She felt the warmth of the fire and delighted in the way it caressed her skin. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she failed to notice the arrival of her lover.
Xena quietly entered the room, her eyes drawn immediately to the bard sitting in front of the hearth. Her heart ached at the sight of the younger woman sitting so peacefully enjoying the beauty of the fire. She glanced about the room and saw that the servants had followed her instructions to the letter which pleased her immensely, though she suspected it was more out of respect for the bard then for her own wishes.
She crept silently across the room and tenderly placed a kiss at the top of her companions head before kneeling behind the smaller woman and circling her body with her arms while laying her head on the younger woman's shoulder.
"I love you," she whispered softly brushing the girl's ear with her lips. Gabrielle trembled closing her eyes and feeling every part of her body go limp with desire. She leaned back against the taller woman savouring the closeness they shared. Xena kissed her once more and then moved around to sit beside her lover so that her back was to the fire and their faces turned to each other.
"I didn't hear you come in," Gabrielle breathed intoxicated with the scent of her lover, her eyes filled with the love she felt towards this woman.
"I wanted to surprise you," the Empress said reaching up to brush the back of her fingers against the girl's soft cheek. "You look beautiful."
"So do you," the bard replied resting her hand on the other woman's thigh and massaging it gently. Xena was dressed in a costume similar to her own only it was of a darker blue. Her long dark hair hung loose and Gabrielle had a hard time breathing when she looked at the other woman. "I didn't see you come in to change."
"I dressed in another room," the Empress explained softly, a gentle smile on her lips, her fingers continuing to caress the girl's cheek. "It was all part of the surprise."
"I'm glad," the girl smiled and then leaned forward to capture her lovers lips in a simple but passionate embrace. Desire welled up between the two and the Conqueror knew that if she didn't slow things down they wouldn't get to eat the dinner that the cooks had prepared especially for them that night.
"Let's eat first," Xena whispered tenderly reaching passed the girl and selecting a tiny morsel of food from the plates that had been left and fed it to her friend. Gabrielle accepted the bite sucking on the woman's fingers after snapping up the food, remembering the first time that the Conqueror had fed her this way.
"Did you have a good day?" Xena asked her companion as she poured them a cup of wine from which they each took a sip.
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded and then proceeded to explain in detail the shopping expedition. For the moment she decided not to mention the jade carving that Salmoneous had tried to sell her. "I ran into Linus a travelling merchant. He had just recently returned from Potedaia and he had a scroll from Lila."
"And is she well?" Xena asked politely.
"Yes," the bard nodded. "Linus and Lila are to marry at the next full moon and she wants me to be there."
"You should be there," the Empress confirmed. "She is your family."
"I won't go without you," Gabrielle sensed a slight withdrawal from her companion and regretted bringing up the subject.
"Gabrielle, I am not welcome in your father's home," the Conqueror said patiently.
"Neither am I," the girl reminded quietly.
"Maybe not, but I think that you will be more welcome if you went alone."
"No," the bard shook her head. "I want to see Lila marry but if you don't accompany me then I won't go."
The Conqueror saw the determined look on her companion's face. She knew the bard and could tell that the girl was not bluffing, but she also knew of the smaller woman's affectation for her only sister. She did not want to deny the woman the opportunity to see her family again.
"We will see," was the non-committal response. "Now tell me more about your afternoon?"
Xena smiled indulgently and listened to her companion as she detailed more events of her day. In between she managed to feed the girl small portions of the food that had been prepared. After a while the bard's voice grew sad and then fell silent. She looked at her young lover and saw that her chin had dropped. Gently she reached out and lifted the bard's chin with her fingers.
"What is it now?" she asked patiently. She could see that something was bothering her love.
"Do you remember that day you unexpectedly showed up in the market and we had lunch together?"
"Yeesss," the Conqueror said slowly, thinking back to that day which was almost a year ago. "Why?"
"Do you remember that little boy, the one I gave the left over food too?"
"Yes," Xena nodded, though her memory was vague. She combed a errant strand of blond hair behind her lovers ear. "I got upset at you for giving it to him."
The bard nodded. "I found out today that Vargas accused him of stealing and rather then send him to prison put him to work on the docks unloading ships."
"According to the laws, he is allowed to do that," the Conqueror said gently running the back of her fingers over the girl's cheek.
"I know, but I still think it's cruel," Gabrielle sighed. "He was so small and even when he begged he was so polite. I wouldn't put it past Vargas to have made up the whole thing."
Xena wouldn't have disagreed with her lover for she was aware of Vargas' treachery. In spite of her feelings she said nothing. She listened as the bard sorted through her thoughts. She had wanted to protect the young woman from the harsh realities of life but it seemed that she would be unable to.
She leaned over and threw more logs onto the fire and then stood up, walking over to the windows and throwing them open before turning back to her companion. Gabrielle looked up at the dark woman mesmerised by the way the light from the fire flickered across her features. She looked alternatively dangerous and alluring and her heart hammered hard against her chest. She didn't think it possible to love someone as much as she loved the Empress.
"Come, let's dance," the Conqueror held out her hand.
"Xena there's no music," Gabrielle laughed but it was a token protest as she allowed the other woman to help her onto her feet.
"What do you mean there's no music?" the Empress quirked her eyebrows and as if by magic the room was suddenly filled with the soft, soothing sounds of flutes and drums.
"How did you do that?" the bard laughed, her heart brimming with emotion.
"I have many skills," Xena smiled seductively and then drew the smaller woman into her arms.
Gabrielle surrendered to her partner, basking in the warmth of her companions arms as they wrapped themselves around her body. She snuggled against the taller woman resting her head on the gentle slopes of her breasts. She thought that life couldn't get better than this.
Xena revelled in the comfort she felt as her companion leaned into her. She bent her head and buried her face in the soft strands of blond hair, savouring the scent of honey and lilacs that was so much her companion. She reached down and lifted the smaller woman's head and then lowered her mouth to capture the sweetness of her lips.
The kiss was followed by a second one and before Gabrielle realized where they were, she was lying on the bed naked with the Conqueror leaning over her body. For a moment their eyes met and no words were needed to express the way they felt about each other. The love and passion they shared was all there in that one look.
Gabrielle reached up and cupped her lovers face, caressing her cheeks briefly with the pads of her thumbs before pulling the dark head down to where their lips could meet. The kiss was the first of many similar embraces as the Conqueror slid her body over the smaller woman and devoted her entire self to pleasing the girl. The bard revelled in the undivided attention savouring each caress and basking in the tenderness that her lover displayed.
It was late into the night when the two women finally settled, exhausted in each others arms. Xena cradled her precious gift, revelling in the warmth of the woman nestled against her body. She was happier then she ever remembered being.
"Mmm," the bard mumbled, her head nestling in the crook of her companions shoulder.
"I thought it would be nice if we went on a picnic tomorrow," the Conqueror said thoughtfully stroking her lovers hair.
"Really?" one green eye popped open.
"Yeah, I thought we could go up to our favourite place and spend some time alone," the Empress said in a gruff voice that caused a smile to tickle the bards lips.
"Don't you have important business to take care of?"
"Nothing is more important then you," was the quiet reply and the tears welled up in the green eyes.
"I love you Xena," came the heart felt reply.
"I know," the Conqueror whispered giving her companion a tight squeeze.
The Drill Master was barely able to keep his anger in check as he watched the skinny recruit stumble into the man ahead of him, knocking them both off stride and disrupting the entire cadence of the group. The new squad had not yet managed to successfully complete a full set of simple marching drills without the gawky looking man screwing up.
"Enough," the aged soldier barked giving in to his frustration. It was dusk and in a few minutes the last of the sunlight would fade. They had been repeating this drill throughout the day without success and the limits of his patience had been tested.
"You," he pointed directly to the lanky man.
"Me?" Joxer asked innocently glancing at the others before turning his attention back to the Drill Master.
"Yes, you," the old soldier growled, his face red with anger. "I refuse to allow you to make me miss another meal. However, I don't care how hungry you become. You will stay here marching back and forth until I tell you to stop, and your comrades will help see that you get it right. Only then will any of you be allowed to eat."
There was a quiet rumble of discontent from the group, hungry and dirty from the long day of drilling. They cast disparaging glances in the direction of the reason that they would not be allowed to take a break. Joxer returned their scowls with a sheepish look.
"I will be gone about a candlemark," the Drill Master said loudly. "When I return I hope you will have learned what I have not yet been able to teach you."
With that the veteran soldier turned and headed off towards the mess tent, leaving the new recruits on their own. Immediately the group began to circle the hapless soldier, who sensed the menace and danger in their stance.
"Listen guys..." he began holding his hands up defensively.
"No you listen, you ugly bird," one of the larger recruits named Kayro snarled towering over the smaller man. "I won't miss another meal because of you."
"But..." Joxer wanted to apologize but he wasn't given the opportunity before a fist slammed into the side of his head knocking him unto the ground. The punch was followed by a solid kick to the ribs.
"Now get up and march," Kayro barked.
Joxer slowly struggled to his feet, feeling pain where he had been struck. He wanted to get it right, he wanted to be a proud looking soldier, like the ones he saw in Corinth, but somehow his feet just wouldn't do what his head was trying to tell him.
"March!" the order was shouted in his ear and automatically he moved, yet he only got a few steps before his feet tangled up again, causing him to stumble back to the ground. A small cloud of dust rose from where he landed. His fall was rewarded by another swift kick from his tormentor.
"Stop!" a young voice interrupted the assault and the blond haired boy rushed to place himself between the fallen man and the others.
"Get out of the way boy or you will receive the same beating," Kayro instructed but the lad remained firm.
"No," Solan refused defiantly, straightening up to his full height yet still coming up short.
"All right then so be it, you were warned," the other man said raising his fist to strike the boy but unexpectedly his wrist was caught in a firm grip.
"Enough," the Drill Master shouted having observed the altercation from a short distance away and intervening only when he deemed it necessary. He didn't mind that the gawky man was beaten but he saw no reason for the boy to suffer for his intervention. He had wanted Joxer to learn a lessen but it would not be at the boy's expense.
"Your compassion is admirable," the old soldier growled releasing the recruits hand and stepping over to the boy. He stared at the child for a moment before turning his attention to the other recruits. "Go get something to eat."
Without a word the others turned and hurried towards the mess tent, leaving the three alone in the falling darkness. Solan waited patiently for the results of his intervention, aware that he would be made to suffer some punishment. The Drill Master looked at the boy, seeing something vaguely familiar in his features. He shook his head dismissing those thoughts.
"Because you seem too care so much I will put you in charge of this buffoon," he commanded pointing at the man who was still on the ground. "I want you to stay here, as long as it takes and keep drilling him until he gets it right. Only then will the both of you be allowed to take a break."
"Yes, sir," the boy nodded and watched as the Drill Master walked off. He turned and looked down at the man on the ground. "Come on, get up."
Solan held out his hand to help the other man to his feet. He was not pleased that he would probably end up spending the whole night with this stranger, but in good conscious he could not let the other recruits beat him.
"My name's Joxer," the gawky man smiled sheepishly hoping that he could find a friend in this hostile environment.
"Solan," the boy sighed. "Now come on, let's start with your right foot."
The moon was high in the sky before Joxer finally got the cadence right. It was late and both recruit's knew that it was only a few candlemarks from dawn, when the drill master would roust them from
their slumber and make them go through the whole process again.
"I appreciate this," Joxer had tried to get the boy to talk during their long hours together, but the child had remained mostly quiet, speaking only when instructions needed to be issued.
"Well, I couldn't stand to see you get hurt," Solan admitted honestly as they trudged towards their sleeping quarters, which amounted to a bedroll under a tree at the corner of the camp. Kalipus, his Centaur father, had taught him about being just and compassionate. "Tomorrow, just remember to think while we're marching."
"I promise I will," Joxer agreed feeling happy that he had accomplished this feat and though he was hungry he eagerly looked forward to showing off the next morning. "Where are you from?"
"The country north of Amphipolis," the boy answered after a momentarily hesitation. He wasn't in the mood to talk but he had grown lonely in the last few weeks, missing his Centaur family and friends, and this man seemed innocent enough.
"What made you decide to join the Conqueror's Army?" the older man asked as he settled beneath the thin blankets.
"All my family are dead," the boy said with a careless shrug before laying down on his own blankets. "Go to sleep, it will be dawn soon."
Joxer took the subtle hint, though he felt a little wistful, wishing that he could make friends with the young lad. He looked across at the boy who had prevented him from getting a beating and wondered what had possessed the kid to intervene. He couldn't figure out the answer and with a sigh he closed his eyes and immediately fell asleep.
By the time Archius arrived in the throne room the next morning the Empress was already busy at work. He entered the room quietly gazing covertly at the woman sitting behind the desk. There was a pensive expression on her face as she concentrated on the parchment in her hand.
There was no reason for concern. News from all corners of the Empire was good and in spite of the lengthy battle campaigns they had fought, the treasury was full. The Empire was prospering and even opponents of the Empress had grown silent. He could understand no reason for her preoccupation.
As if sensing his presence she glanced up and lay the scroll down on the table. There was an absent look in her eyes, as if her thoughts were far away.
"The guard that escorts Gabrielle to the market, what do you know of him or his family?" she asked unexpectedly.
"Jason is a good man. His family owns a small farm to the east of the Capital," the aide replied without hesitation. His senses went on alert knowing that there was a good reason for the Conqueror to ask about the man. He wondered if it had to do with yesterday. "You can trust him with Miss Gabrielle."
"Yes, I know that," the Conqueror replied with a hint of irritation. He is in love with her, she could have added but kept those thoughts to herself. "Does this soldier have a girl with whom he visits?"
"Not that I know about, service to the Palace does not leave much time for personal matters," Archius said and then his eyes grew large as a thought suddenly occurred to him. "You do not have to worry Empress he would never dare think of attempting to court Miss Gabrielle."
"Do you think he would do it if I asked him too?" Xena wondered out loud and the man's jaw dropped in stunned silence. She cast the man a bemused look. "You are shocked?"
"The suggestion is somewhat surprising," the man scrambled to find the right words to explain his feelings.
"Perhaps," the tall warrior agreed with a sigh. "Gabrielle is a beautiful young woman. She was innocent of all physical pleasure until I took her to my bed. I thought perhaps she would like to gain a wider experience. I know she trusts this man."
"Have you spoken to the Queen about this?" Archius asked sharply and the Conqueror eyed the man,
aware he had never before spoken to her in that tone of voice.
"I know what she will say," the Conqueror said abruptly, pushing her chair away from the table and rising to her feet. The aide watched intently as the tall woman began to pace impatiently around the room. He knew from experience that something was troubling the Empress. "She will proclaim her undying devotion to me."
"Does that knowledge upset you?" the man asked, his eyes tracking the tall woman as she moved around the room.
"No," the Empress sighed heavily.
"Then what is the problem my Conqueror?" he prodded when she didn't continue, uncertain what to think. Xena looked at the small man deciding to change the subject.
"This scroll arrived by messenger not more then three candlemarks ago," she said motioning to the parchment on the table. "It seems that Cleopatra is on her way to visit Caesar in Rome and she wishes to stop for a visit."
The man was silent as he collected the parchment and read, his eyes narrowing as he glanced from the scroll to the Conqueror. There was no expression on her face to reveal what she was thinking. He knew of the Empress' history with the Queen of Egypt. It was only slightly less tumultuous then the one she shared with Caesar.
Archius had a bad feeling about this visit. To his knowledge the Queen of Egypt was only slightly less devious and manipulative then the Conqueror. He had watched the two powerful women together once and it had been a seductive and intriguing combination. They had parted without finishing business between them and he wondered if there was any residue emotion left from when they had been together.
"What do you think she wants?" he dared to ask.
"She says she just wishes to renew old acquaintances," the Empress drawled in a quiet voice.
"Do you believe that?" he asked cautiously knowing to tread lightly when discussing her personal affairs and wondering if this visit had anything to do with the Conqueror's sudden interest in broadening the Amazon Queen carnal knowledge.
"I am suspicious," the Empress conceded with a feral smile playing at the corners of her lips. "She is still seducing Caesar even as she beds Marc Anthony. One never knows what is going on in her head."
"What are you going to do?" the man wanted to know.
"I will welcome her like I would any old friend," the Empress smiled benignly but the man noticed it didn't reach her eyes. She sighed. She didn't need any more distractions. There were other matters of importance on which she wished to concentrate.
Abruptly the smile disappeared as her thoughts turned back to another situation. Silently she mulled over her decision before returning to her desk. She picked up a quill and a blank piece of parchment, hastily scribbling something across the empty page.
"I was to go on a picnic with Gabrielle this afternoon," she said absently. "I need you to take a message to her that I will be unable to join her. Then I want you to summon Jason here for a private audience."
Archius nodded, wanting to tell the Empress that she was making a grave mistake, but astutely he remained silent. He waited for the woman to finish with the note, knowing that once she made a decision there was no changing it. He accepted the message before hurrying along to the Conqueror's suite where the bard was patiently waiting for her lover to make an appearance.
Gabrielle had woken early that morning and after a leisurely bath, had wandered down to the kitchen
to pack their lunch basket. She knew she could have left it up to the servants but she liked to make certain all the Conqueror's favourite treats were included. It also gave her an opportunity to trade gossip with the cooks and even try out a few of her new stories on them.
After returning to their suite she changed into a new soft linen shift she had purchased for this occasion and because there was still plenty of time before her lover was to make an appearance she sat down at her desk and began writing in her journal.
The knock on the door to their quarters cut into her train of thought and she called for the visitor to enter. One look at the small man and Gabrielle knew what was coming. She knew that Xena had a lot of work to catch up on and had almost expected her lover to cancel their date but still she was unable to mask the disappointment she felt. She read the note the aide handed her.
Something unexpected has come up and so I am unable to join you for our picnic, however, as it is a beautiful day I want you to enjoy it. Take Jason. Miss you. See you tonight.
P.S. If the weather holds we'll go out tomorrow.
"Tell the Empress I will see her tonight," the bard said taking consolation in the thought that their plans were only slightly delayed. The man nodded before making his departure.
Gabrielle watched Archius leave. It was a beautiful day and it was a shame to miss out on the sunshine. She hurried over to the section of the Palace grounds where the Amazon's were quartered and found the Weapon's Master making the last preparations for their departure. At the next dawn they would be returning to the Amazon village and a small contingent with Solari in charge would be returning in their place.
Eponin was not about to turn down an invitation from her Queen and not just because Gabrielle was the Queen. She genuinely liked the bard and enjoyed every moment she spent in the girl's company. These last season's they had spent together had given her a greater respect for the younger woman and the power she held over the Conqueror.
"I will prepare the horses," the Amazon said and then hesitated glancing across at a young red headed woman standing a short distance away. Gabrielle astutely guessed what was going on in her mind.
"You can bring a friend along if you like," the bard whispered and the older woman blushed, causing Gabrielle to laugh with a delighted chuckle. "Meet us in the courtyard in half a candlemark."
Before she finally got away, a half dozen more Amazon's had joined the party. Gabrielle left the Amazon's and debated briefly whether she should go and see Xena before heading out. There was also the matter of getting extra food packed. In the end she decided to look after the food, reasoning that the Empress was probably busy and not likely to appreciate any interruptions.
Jason nervously entered the throne room, uncertain why he had been summoned into the presence of the Conqueror. He had been very careful in his interactions with the Queen, aware that his life would be in default if he allowed anything to happen to the young woman. He moved to stand in front of the table where the dark haired Empress was seated, waiting quietly for her to look up.
He swallowed fearfully when intense pale eyes glanced up and pinned him to the spot. This was the Destroyer of Nations whom he was now facing and he was terrified. He watched as Xena causally leaned back in her chair, her blue orbs never leaving his face.
"Relax," she barked dryly, aware that the man was filled with fear. "I didn't summon you here to kill you... at least not yet."
The young man's brown eyes grew large at the thought but he remained at attention and Xena frowned, wondering if she was making a mistake by entrusting her most prized possession to this man's care. She reluctantly dismissed her misgivings, aware that she would always find an excuse to argue with her decision. She rose and strolled around the desk until she was directly in front of the soldier.
"How do you feel about Gabrielle?" she asked bluntly. The man's eyes grew twice as round.
"She is a kind person and very devoted to you," Jason managed to stutter, afraid that the dangerous woman before him had discovered his secret love for the Amazon Queen.
"I didn't ask you to tell me something I already know," Xena barked with a hint of irritation. She didn't enjoy this conversation and wanted to conclude it as quickly as possible. "I want to know how you feel about her."
"I...I..." the soldier mumbled unable to meet the intense gaze that was staring in his direction.
"You are in love with her," the Conqueror finished for the man, growing impatient waiting for his response. Jason glanced fugitively up at the Empress, fearing his fate, knowing that his life was lost.
"Am I wrong?" she dared him to deny the truth.
"No," he whispered hoarsely knowing it was useless to lie.
"Good," the Conqueror said briskly before turning on her heel and strolling across the room to the window and therefore missing the soldiers startled expression. "I have a request for you," the Empress continued before she lost the little courage she possessed. "I wish for Gabrielle to get pregnant and as I am unable to perform that task myself, I have need of someone who can."
The soldier was afraid to move, dazed by what he was hearing and wondering if this was not some cruel joke that the Empress was playing. He watched as she turned to look at him again, and saw that it was no game.
"I know Gabrielle enjoys your company and because of your feelings for her, I trust you to be kind and gentle with her," the Conqueror's voice took on a threatening edge. "If not you will be made to pay." There was another pause. "Do you have any questions?"
Jason didn't know what to say as a cavalcade of emotions raced through his brain. He didn't know what to think or feel. The idea of being with the Amazon Queen was both exciting and terrifying. What the Conqueror was requesting carried a heavy responsibility, one he wasn't certain he was capable of bearing.
"Afterwards..." he was uncertain how to form his question.
"You will be taken care of," Xena said in the same voice she always used when conducting business. "However the child will stay here and be raised by Gabrielle and myself. Do you have a problem with that?"
"No," the soldier responded instantly thinking with pride how his seed might one day inherit the Empire.
"Good," the Conqueror said briskly trying not to think about what she was asking this man to do. "Then all you need to do is to seduce the Queen and I have already set the plan in motion. By the time you return to your quarters you will have a message waiting for you from the Queen with instructions about going on a picnic. You will accept as is your duty."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the soldier bowed his head, willing his body not to tremble.
"Good, you are now dismissed," Xena abruptly waved her hand, feeling slightly sick over the business that she had just conducted. Jason nodded and hurriedly backed towards the door but the Conqueror was not finished. When his hand touched the door knob she spoke again.
"No one is to know about this, especially not the Queen," she instructed in a quiet voice. "Gabrielle is not to know that I have arranged this."
The man nodded, wishing for the first time that he had been given another assignment. Anything other then what the Conqueror had requested of him looked good, even serving under General Loris in the newly acquired northlands seemed a better option. He said nothing before departing and hurrying back to his quarters where as the Conqueror suggested a message to accompany the Queen was waiting.
A half candlemark later the party was ready to set out and Jason experienced a mixture of relief and chagrin at the realization that they were being accompanied by a group of Amazon's. He wondered if they had been sent along by the Conqueror to ensure that he performed her request. The idea made him sweat and a swift glance over his shoulder told him that the Empress was watching their departure from the balcony that overlooked the Palace courtyard.
Xena turned away from the scene and therefore did not see the half dozen Amazon's who had been invited by their Queen to join her on this picnic. She also missed the wistful glance Gabrielle cast over her shoulder at the Palace. She only knew the incredible ache that consumed her heart.
She slumped onto the throne and stared resentfully at the parchments and scrolls scattered across the work table. The scene looked barren, an image of her life before the bard had entered it. It was a life she was terrified of returning too, for it was empty, void of any emotion save indifference. The door opened and hastily she ran the back of her hand across her eyes, wiping away the tears that had gathered there.
Archius glanced across the room at the dark haired mistress. If he had not known the Empress so well he would have assumed she was crying when he first entered the room. Certainly her quick reaction had indicated that was the case but he knew better. The Conqueror did not give in to such weaknesses, though he did wonder.
"Is everything okay my Conqueror?" he asked hesitantly moving over to the table.
"Everything is fine," came the cool response as the Conqueror moved briskly to her feet. "Come we have plenty of business too attend to."
The man nodded and watched as the woman sat down at another table and picked up a parchment, studying it intently. Another man would have been fooled but he was not. He knew the Conqueror was thinking of the bard and probably regretting her decision. He said nothing though, quietly moving across the room to await her instructions.
Despite the longing to be with her lover, Gabrielle was determined to have a good time. Rather then heading up into the surrounding hills they stuck to the coast, finding a quiet spot along the shore that had a wide sandy beach which was protected from the winds by a series of boulders that jutted into the sea. The bard knew it wasn't far from where she had spent a romantic evening with the Empress. She reflected on her lover as she sat in the sand and watched as the others played in the surf.
Xena had been increasingly attentive since the defeat of Caesar's army and the death of Pompeii. The whole trip back from the Northern Region the Conqueror had insisted they ride together and at night when camp had been set the Empress had insisted on taking a walk, away from the others.
Their strolls had usually ended up with them laying on their backs, staring up at the night sky and talking. Many times it had resulted with them making love to the symphony of the night that surrounded them. It had been wonderful and the bard treasured those memories aware that any day it could all end.
For a moment her thoughts darkened. Given what had already passed between them, it was unusual for Xena to miss a date, and Gabrielle knew that it must be really important. She dreaded the thought that something would come up to take them away from their home.
A smile broke across her face at the thought. Home. She didn't knew when it had changed or when she had stopped thinking of it as the Palace. But somewhere along the line it had changed. Suddenly it wasn't just a place that she was visiting but the place she lived. More then her parents house or even Potedaia, this was the place she belonged.
"What's the joke?" Jason asked trotting over and dropping down onto the sand next to the bard. Gabrielle looked at the young man who had just come from wading in the water with the Amazon's.
"Nothing," the girl was to embarrassed to admit her thoughts.
"You were thinking of the Conqueror," the man guessed astutely and the smile on his companions face grew.
"I didn't think it was so obvious," Gabrielle sighed, closing her eyes and turning her face to the sun, feeling it's gentle rays caress her skin. "I so wish she was here, but I guess I should have expected as much. We have been away from the Capital for so long there must be allot for her to catch up on."
"Yes," Jason nodded absently his eyes focused on the group of Amazon's who were engaging in a competition to see who could catch a fish. For the last few candlemarks he had been thinking of different ways to approach the Queen but had been unsuccessful so far. He decided to keep the conversation on neutral ground. "No doubt she wishes to prepare for the arrival of Cleopatra."
"Who?" the bard was startled. This was the first she had heard anything about a visit from any foreign dignitary.
"The Queen of Egypt," the soldier continued unaware that the bard's mood was shifting. "They had business together a few summers ago. They were quite close once upon a time"
"I suppose if she is coming for a visit the Empress needs to make preparations," Gabrielle said feeling unexpectedly jealous.
"Yes," the soldier nodded and then moved his hand so that it rested on the small woman's delicate fingers. With tiny movements he caressed the smooth skin.
Gabrielle looked at the strong, callused hand for a long moment before glancing up into the face of the soldier whom had become her friend. Or so she had thought, because the expression on his face now was anything but friendly. She shifted uncomfortably, removing her hand and tucking it primly on her lap.
"Gabrielle...," Jason stammered feeling slightly flustered. He was intensely aware of the way she had removed her hand from his touch. "I was wondering..."
"What Jason?" the bard prompted, not entirely certain she wanted to hear what he had to say. The soldier had been acting strange all day and his obvious attempt now to touch her was unsettling.
"I was wondering if you found me attractive?" the soldier said in a rush, relieved that he was finally able to speak in a coherent sentence.
Gabrielle was at a loss of what to say. His question was unexpected to say the least and her mind worked furiously to figure out how to answer the question without offending the man. She swallowed and concentrated on the Amazon's in the water.
"Of course you are attractive and I'm sure some girl will realize that soon and become interested in you."
"What about you? Do you find me interesting?" Jason persisted. Gabrielle knew then that she had to end right now whatever the man was attempting to do.
"Jason, you are a nice man, and I am flattered that you might be interested in me, but my heart belongs to Xena. I thought you understood that." The bard tried to be gentle.
"But haven't you ever been interested in finding out what it would be like to be with a man?" the soldier flushed over his words.
"No," Gabrielle said softly and sincerely, trying not to be annoyed by his words. How does he know I have never been with a man? she wondered. She dismissed those thoughts and concentrated on what needed to be said. "I don't know if you or anyone could understand this, but I love the Conqueror and as long as I am with her, I have no thoughts of being with anyone else. I belong to her completely." She hastily scrambled to her feet, intent on chasing away the dark thoughts that had entered her head. "Come on let's see if the Amazon's will let us join in their games."
Without waiting to see if the man was going to follow she ran down the sand and jumped into the water splashing the Amazon's and scaring away any fish that might be near by. They scowled at their Queen who laughed and kicked her feet sending another shower of water over them. What ensued was an all out water fight that only ended when everyone in the party was completely soaked. Jason gallantly built a fire and the group sat around it trying to warm their chilly bodies as they dug into the food that Gabrielle had packed.
What followed was a boisterous meal with a lot of teasing and an animated discussion about who would win the annual Amazon Warrior contest that year. The bard listened quietly absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the company. She was even able to forget about the Conqueror though the dark haired woman was never far from her thoughts.
Xena was in a morose mood that only seemed to grow worse as the day progressed. She had been looking forward to spending a peaceful time back in the Capital but it seemed that she was not allowed to find peace anywhere in her Empire. She thought of Cleopatra and the time they had spent together.
The Egyptian had been young and impressionable and easy prey for someone as experienced as herself. To say that she had used the Queen of Egypt would be to put it mildly yet still she had felt a kinship with the woman, a growing alliance with her. However their budding relationship had been quashed by the unexpected arrival of Caesar in Alexandria.
To this day she didn't know where they would have ended up if not for that interruption. But Caesar had taken over from where she had left off and according to her spies, the Queen of Egypt was no longer the naive Ruler that she had first seduced.
She sighed and stood up, pacing restlessly around the throne room. It wasn't that she was curious about the woman now, God, Gabrielle gave her everything she needed and more, yet she would be lying to herself to say she wasn't at least a little bit interested in why after all these summers the Egyptian had decided to renew their acquaintance.
"Is everything all right My Empress?" Archius asked when he stepped into the throne room and saw the Conqueror pacing like a wild cat in circles around the floor.
"I was just thinking about Cleopatra," Xena admitted and then abruptly cut off her train of thought leaving the man to wonder about what she was thinking about the Queen. The Empress paused to look at him. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, your Highness. The cook just wanted to let you know that your dinner is ready and she would like to know where you would like it served."
The Empress looked puzzled for a moment and then turned her head to look out the window. The sun had set and it was growing dark. She turned her attention back to the small man.
"I will eat wherever Gabrielle is," she announced and then watched as the man shifted nervously on his feet. A pair of blue eyes narrowed. "What's wrong Archius?"
"Miss Gabrielle has not yet returned," the man said hastily and then took a step backwards as if afraid of being hit.
"What!" the Conqueror was stunned and a wave of jealousy washed over her. She allowed her anger a brief moment to rage and then reined it back under control realizing that she had set this scenario in motion. She turned away, closing her eyes and taking several deep breaths to steady her pounding heart.
She had wanted Gabrielle to go with the soldier, hoping that something would happen between the pair. She wanted the bard to experience the joy of child-bearing, yet even as she had formed those thoughts, she had wanted to believe that the bard would refuse any overtures that came from the young man. She had not realized how terrible the thought of the soldier and her lover together would make her feel.
"Empress are you okay?" Archius dared to ask.
"Yes," came the cool response as she struggled to compose herself. "Tell the cook I will take my meal in my quarters."
"Yes," the man bowed and then glanced suspiciously at his mistress. "Do you want me to send Zenon to see where the bard is?"
"No," Xena shook her head and then without another word strolled towards the door pausing only briefly to shout over her shoulder. "Have a full bottle of port sent to my quarters."
Archius nodded and then hurried to do her bidding. The party returned to the Palace much later then expected as a series of mishaps had befallen the overzealous group. The clam hunt had been uneventful which had led the Amazon's to challenge each other in more dangerous pursues, one of which was to climb to the top of the largest boulder that littered the shore. Needless to say the slippery surface resulted in more then one Amazon's injuring herself. A very grumpy Eponin being the worst case with a broken leg which Gabrielle calmly reset, having watched Hannibal the healer do so on numerous occasions.
On top of that Jason had persisted in remaining very close, in spite of her discouragements, so by the time she got the Amazon's settled in their quarters and everything straightened out it was past midnight and she was in a very grumpy mood. She crept into the bedroom surprised to see that the Conqueror was in bed. A half empty bottle of port on the stand by the bed did not go unnoticed. She washed and changed into a sleeping shift before crawling carefully into bed.
Xena stirred, aroused from her drunken slumber by the sudden warmth of another body as it slipped under the blankets. She could smell the familiar scent of her lover mixed with the fresh scent of the sea. She rolled over and automatically wrapped her arms around the little woman, her jealousy momentarily forgotten, replaced by the delightful feel of the bard lying next to her.
"Did you have a good day?" Xena mumbled and looking into her deep blue eyes Gabrielle could see the glazed look. Her lover smelled of port and briefly she was puzzled. Xena rarely indulged in drink and never until she was incapacitated.
"Yes," the bard murmured brushing dark bangs off her lovers brow. "We all had a wonderful time."
"Mm," the Conqueror said and then the blue eyes dropped closed and Gabrielle smiled before leaning forward and placing a gentle kiss on her lovers mouth.
In spite of her drunken stupor Xena was up early the next morning. She lay for a long time staring at the smaller woman nestled so comfortable in her arms. There was a smile on the sleeping face and she wondered what type of dream the bard was having. A wave of love swept through her and she leaned down and tenderly placed a kiss on the girl's brow before carefully disengaging herself and climbing out of bed.
After the night she had, Archius was surprised to see the Conqueror in the throne room by the time he arrived that morning. There was an odd look on her face and he wondered what was going on in her head. He had expected her to be more angry about the bard's absence then she had been, but then she never seemed to rail at the girl as she did others.
"How are you this morning?" the aide asked cautiously in an attempt to gauge the woman's mood.
"Fine," the Conqueror replied with a wave of her hand, dismissing the nagging ache in her head. She knew that it was a result of the port she had consumed the previous evening.
"And Miss Gabrielle...?" he didn't know how to ask the question that bounced around his head.
"She is fine, Archius," the Warrior said with a scowl, pushing her chair back and rising to her feet. She stomped across the room to the balcony. "I didn't hurt her."
"I never meant to imply," the small man stuttered, a deep red colour flooding his features.
"I know what you meant," the Conqueror interrupted and then let out a deep sigh. "Hades, there was a time when you had a right to think the worst... but it is different... Gabrielle is different."
Archius felt a measure of relief. He was ashamed to admit that he had considered the worst. Now he realized that he was seeing a part of the Conqueror that he did not think existed. Xena looked at the man for a moment before turning back to gaze over the courtyard.
"I want you to personally take a message to the bard, explain that some important business has come up and I won't be able to accompany her this afternoon. Tell her I want her to enjoy the day anyway. Tell her to take Jason."
"Are you certain My Conqueror?" Archius could not help asking and he watched as the tall woman slowly turned on her heel to stare at him.
"What's on your mind Archius?" came the cool response as blue eyes narrowed.
The small man swallowed wondering whether he had the courage to speak his peace. It was no secret how he admired the bard and he thought now that it was only an excuse. They had all wondered when the Conqueror would grow bored with the girl and as time passed they had begun to believe that the Empress was human and that the bard was in her life to stay. But obviously they had been mistaken. He took a deep breath and decided to be brave.
"If you want to get the bard away for awhile why don't you send her to the Amazon's?"
"Why would I want to send Gabrielle away?" the Conqueror asked perturbed by his tone of voice.
"The Egyptians are to stop for a visit before the next moon," Archius said quietly. "Everyone knows of your history with Cleopatra."
Xena felt her spine stiffen and her nostrils flare. Her temper was close to getting out of control and she struggled to remain calm. Her blue eyes narrowed into pale slits and the only thing that saved this man was that the Conqueror knew he was speaking out of loyalty for the bard.
"I have no interest in Cleopatra, what we shared was business," the Empress said in a cold voice.
"Then why do you want to be rid of Miss Gabrielle?" the man wanted to know.
"I don't," the Conqueror replied tersely and swung around strolling towards the balcony and looking out. Her voice softened. "The last thing I want is for Gabrielle to leave. I love the bard. She has become more important to me than anything else. She has restored my soul. I want only the best for her."
"Then why are you attempting to hook her up with Jason?" the aide did not understand.
"Every day I worry that she will grow tired of me, curious about what she is missing by being my companion," Xena explained laying her soul bare and for the first time Archius understood the twisted logic of his mistress.
"And you think by allowing her a chance to experiment she will stay content with you?" the man asked the next logical question.
"If one knows what's out there they are less likely to be curious," the Empress said in a low voice finding it difficult to mask her emotions.
"You have forgotten one thing," the man reminded in a solemn voice breaking the short silence that followed her statement. "Have you considered what you will do if she wishes to embrace another life?"
"I will let her go," the Conqueror said evenly, knowing that it would be the most difficult thing she would ever have to do.
Gabrielle was not happy to have their second picnic blown off and she was beginning to suspect that there was something wrong. She eyed the aide suspiciously and saw the way he avoided looking into her face. It was then that she knew there was something he didn't want to say.
"What's going on Archius?" she demanded.
"Nothing Miss Gabrielle."
"Is someone invading our borders?"
"No," the man shook his head knowing that the woman would not be satisfied until she had a reasonable explanation. "The Queen of Egypt is planning to visit the Capital and the Empress is busy preparing for her stay."
"Ohh," Gabrielle wasn't sure she liked that answer. A wave of jealousy washed over her as she crossed her arms.
"The Conqueror was most insistent you take Jason and go out for a ride," he continued.
"All right," the bard was angry with her lover. "Tell Xena I will see her tonight."
The man nodded and bowed before backing out of the room aware that the bard was nearly as angry as the Conqueror was indifferent. Women, he shook his head in disgust as he wandered back to the throne room.
Gabrielle wasn't in the mood to spend another day with Jason. After what had gone on the previous afternoon she had no intention of putting herself through another long day like that. She suspected that the Palace Guard had been advised to be on stand-by to escort her that afternoon and she thought to put him at ease. She found the man in the stables preparing the horses.
"Where will it be today Miss Gabrielle?" he asked upon spotting her enter the stables.
"No place," she smiled politely, keeping a safe distance from the soldier who appeared as equally awkward as she was. "I won't need your services so you are free to do what you want."
"Are you sure?" the man seemed surprised yet obviously relieved.
"Yes, I don't feel like doing anything today, in fact I thought that I would spend the day entertaining Eponin. I'm certain she isn't in the best of moods and probably could use some cheering up."
"If you are sure," the soldier hesitated. "Then if you don't mind I'd like to go visit my family. I haven't seen them in several full moons. It's only two candlemarks from here, I can be back by dinner."
"No, spend the night. I'm sure you will have lots to catch up with your family," Gabrielle said relieved that she could get rid of the man. The soldier seemed grateful. "I'll stay around the Palace. Come on let me walk you to the gate."
The man nodded glad that he would have the opportunity to visit with his family. Perhaps they could advise him on a way to get out of his current predicament without offending the Empress and losing his life. It was very apparent that there was no way he would be able to bed Queen Gabrielle without confiding the truth and he was reluctant to go against the Empress' wishes and do that.
As promised Gabrielle saw the soldier off, walking with him to the gates of the Palace, before strolling over to the Amazon quarters to entertain Eponin, who because of her injuries had not left with the other Amazon's that morning. She found the somewhat grumpy Weapon's Master still confined to her bed.
"My Queen," the warrior was surprised to see the blond woman. "I thought you would be with the Conqueror."
"State business takes precedence," she replied lightly dropping her slender frame on a nearby stool and letting her eyes wander around the empty room. It seemed so quiet now with the other Amazon's gone. She looked down at the brown haired warrior. "Do you think Ephiny will be upset that you aren't with the returning Amazon's?"
"She will think I have grown soft from Palace luxury," the Weapon's Master snorted.
"Well, I think when I tell her what you were trying to do she will understand," the bard said with a wave of her hand and the Amazon stared at her with narrow eyes.
"What are you going to tell her?" Eponin was suspicious.
"The truth," Gabrielle couldn't resist the urge to tease her friend. "In an attempt to impress the young Amazon Ardis, you tried climbing up an impossibly slippery and dangerous rock in the ocean."
"You can't tell her that!" the older woman was horrified.
"Why not?" the bard was curious. "Are you afraid of destroying your reputation? Really Eponin if you hadn't fallen into the water you could have been killed. That wouldn't have done anything to impress anybody."
"I know," the Amazon grumbled with embarrassment.
"Next time you want to impress someone, why don't you just ask them out," Gabrielle suggested.
"It's easy for you to say that," the warrior said grumpily. "You don't have to worry about being rejected."
"Ohh?" the bard wasn't certain what the other woman meant.
"Yes, my Queen, there isn't one Amazon who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to go out with you," the older woman said and chuckled as a red stain crept over the younger woman's face. She finally took pity on her Queen. "But you don't have to worry none of them would dare ask. They know your heart belongs to the Conqueror."
"Is it so obvious?" Gabrielle asked welcoming the opportunity to discuss a subject that was so close to her heart.
"Yes," the warrior nodded the smile still on her face. "How did you two meet?"
"Have I never told you that story?" the bard was surprised when the Amazon shook her head and immediately she launched into a detailed recitation of their meeting and subsequent courtship.
"The God's certainly must have been watching over you," Eponin said when the Queen finished the tale. She was astounded by the courage their Queen had shown in speaking so bluntly to the Conqueror. But in hindsight it was just another example of her strength of character.
"Yes," the bard nodded. "It seems that they have an interest in us." Her stomach growled causing both of them to laugh. "Why don't I run down to the kitchen and pick us up some lunch?"
The Amazon nodded and watched as the small blond woman bounced out of the barracks and headed off across the courtyard towards the Palace and the kitchens. She smiled pleased that she would have the company of the Queen during her convalesce.
Xena was finding it hard to concentrate, her mind wandering back to the bard. She was undeniably jealous even though she had contrived to put the two together. She tossed another parchment across the desk unable to get the image out of her head.
She had happened onto the balcony at the moment that the soldier and Gabrielle had walked out of the stables together and unlike the day before they were leading only one horse. A wave of jealousy had assailed her as she watched them walking towards the Palace gate. Unnerved by the sight of them together she had turned away from the window unable to punish herself any more. However that did not stop the thoughts from filling her head. Unlike the previous day she was unable to control her emotions.
"I have not seen her this way since the bard moved in," Belaus commented to the bald man as she rushed to fulfil another one of the Empress' demands.
"No," Archius solemnly agreed, aware of the reason behind the behaviour.
Xena continued to storm around the throne room until Archius was able to persuade her to go out and do some sword practice. The Empress nodded aware that it might help relieve some of the anger she felt. She did not spare the soldiers from her wrath only stopping short of doing them permanent physical harm. However the exercise did nothing to relieve the fear that lived so close to her heart.
It was a fear that caused her blood to coarse hotly through her veins. It was the same fear that made her return to the Palace and order several bottles of port from the kitchen. Aware of the Conquerors mood, the servants hurried to do the warrior's bidding. By the time Gabrielle wandered back into the Palace for dinner, the whole place was in an uproar.
"Oh, there you are?" Archius greeted her with obvious relief when he saw her walking down the Palace hallway towards the throne room. She could see the distraught look on his face.
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle was only just barely able to push down the panic that threatened to overcome her. Her thoughts immediately went to the Empress.
"The Conqueror, she had been in the most particular mood," the small man said.
"Why?" she wanted to know, wondering if there was something in the water that was making everyone act weird.
Archius hesitated, wondering if he should confess the truth. His pause caused the bard's green eyes to narrow and her suspicions to soar. She crossed her arms defensively as she waited for the man to speak.
"What's going on Archius, why is Xena so upset?" there was a firm note to her voice that the man could not ignore. He swallowed.
"I believe it is because you were alone with Jason all day yesterday and today," the aide said glancing nervously at the woman. Gabrielle was puzzled.
"I don't understand," the bard was clearly confused. "She wanted me to go with him, not that I did. I had Eponin and another half dozen Amazon's with me."
"But you were so late getting back," now it was the aides turn to be confused.
"You know the Amazon's," Gabrielle sighed. "They got into a competition and one thing led to another and Eponin ended up breaking her leg. It took us a while to set it and bring her back. The other Amazon's left this morning for Amazonia so I thought to keep her company because the healer advised her not to travel for at least a full moon." She paused and fixed the man with an intense look. "Now do you want to tell me what's going on?"
"I believe the Conqueror thinks you are missing out on life," the man admitted sheepishly feeling himself blush and unable to meet her eyes. "She thought you might be curious to know what it would like to be with a man. She thinks that being with her is not allowing you the opportunity to experience everything life has to offer."
"Oh Gods," the bard sighed in exasperation as suddenly everything from Xena's mood to Jason's actions became clear. "Where is she?"
"In your quarters, a little more drunk then I've seen her in awhile," the man said glad that he didn't have to hide the truth any more. "Do you want me to go with you?"
"No, I'll be okay," Gabrielle said. "Thank you Archius. I wish I knew where she comes up with these harebrained ideas sometimes."
"It's her love for you Miss Gabrielle," the small man said solemnly. "You mean more to her then life itself and I know she lives in fear that one day you will decide that she is not worthy of your love. She is afraid that you will walk out of her life never to return."
"That's not going to happen Archius," the bard said in a soft voice. "The Conqueror owns my heart. She fills it to overflowing so that there is no room for anyone else. She is my life."
"Then you should convince her of that," the bald man said and the girl nodded.
"I thought I had," the small woman muttered quietly to herself and then raised her voice so the man could hear. "I'll see you tomorrow Archius and I apologize for anything Xena did."
"There is no need to apologize," the man was honest. "Since you have joined us here life has been quite wonderful. The Empress has changed and because of you our life has changed. For that we thank you."
Gabrielle smiled and wished the man goodnight before turning her attention to her errant lover. It shocked her to realize that Xena had purposefully contrived to put Jason and her together. As brave and fierce as the Conqueror was, she was still very must a insecure little girl sometimes.
She found the Conqueror in their quarters. Though it wasn't late the Empress was quite drunk and obviously in a playful mood. The bard wandered into their rooms and paused to look at the woman who was slumped on one of the couches in front of the fireplace. It was hard not to smile at the sight of the woman, who seemed anything but the fierce Destroyer of Nations at this moment. It touched Gabrielle's heart that the woman was so vulnerable.
"Gabrielle," Xena's eyes brightened at the sight of the bard. She struggled to her feet almost stumbling over the bear skin rug and ending up face first in the hearth. But Gabrielle could see what was about to happen and was there at her side catching her before she could fall.
"Good save," the Conqueror said grinning lopsidedly at her lover as she looked down at the blond woman. She glanced at the fire and then back at her companion. "That could have hurt."
"Yeah," the bard nodded her head. "Come on Xena I think it's bedtime."
"Yeah," the Conqueror bobbed her head as a lusty gleam entered her glazed blue eyes. She winked. "Bedtime."
"I don't think you are in any shape to do anything," Gabrielle sighed gently prodding the woman across the room towards the bed.
"Nah, I'm in fine shape," the Empress disagreed and then toppled onto the bed when the smaller woman released her. For a long moment Gabrielle stood there, hands on hips looking down at her lover. In spite of everything she could not help feeling an incredible wave of love for her companion.
"You big dumb warrior, what am I going to do with you?" she asked of herself before her words were cut off by a loud snore from her companion. Shaking her head she carefully went about removing her lovers boots before tucking the blankets around her companion and blowing out the candles.
"Aagh," Xena groaned in obvious pain the next morning when she woke. She struggled to open her eyes but the light was to bright and she quickly shut them again aware of the pounding ache in her head. She swallowed to ease the dryness of her throat and realized that her tongue tasted like fur.
"Gods," she moaned and struggled up into a sitting position. Shielding her eyes with one hand she took a look around the room. She was in her quarters which was a good thing, but she was alone in bed which was a bad thing. Ignoring the throbbing pain in her head she rolled out of bed and staggered into the adjoining room.
Grabbing a bucket from the shelf on the wall, she filled it with cold water and then unceremoniously spilled it over her head. It's freshness was a shock to her system but it worked and her brain began to function properly. A second bucket followed the first and slowly the effects of the previous evenings drinking disappeared.
She peeled off her damp and soiled clothes and spilled several more buckets of water over her body, washing herself clean. Only when she felt almost completely recovered did she wander back into the bedroom. She dressed quickly, feeling ashamed of her behaviour even though she couldn't remember everything that happened. Briefly she wondered where Gabrielle was and angry thoughts once again filled her head.
They vanished the moment she stepped into the front room and spotted the bard lying on the rug in front of the fire with a thin blanket wrapped around her body. A wave of shame flooded her features as the last remnants of the evening filtered through her brain.
"Damnit to Hades," she cursed herself and then fled the room before the bard could awaken and see her.
"Xena," Gabrielle called, waking at the sound of the door to their quarters banging shut. A pair of green eyes popped open and she scrambled to her feet. A check of the bedroom told her that the Conqueror was already gone.
"You're not getting away from me that easily," the bard said with determination, tapping her foot angrily against the floor.
She strolled purposefully into the washroom taking a long bath to appease her anger. Afterwards she went down to the kitchen and ordered a picnic lunch prepared. Then she summoned Zenon and requested that Argo be saddled. Only once everything had been prepared did she stroll over to the throne room. She stomped into the room without knocking catching both the Empress and Archius by surprise.
"Archius could you please wait outside," it was the Amazon Queen who was speaking now. The man nodded and without looking at the Empress hurried out of the room. Gabrielle watched him leave before turning her full attention on the Conqueror. She crossed her arms.
"You promised me a picnic and I have come to collect it," she stated firmly.
"Gabrielle I'm busy," Xena tried to protest but the bard cut her off short.
"Don't you want to be with me any more?" It was a blunt question and one that demanded a straight forward answer.
"Of course I do, but ...." the Empress tried to explain but her voice trailed away.
"But what? Is there someone else?"
"No, never," Xena was horrified by the suggestion. She would never hurt the woman in that way.
"Then what's the reason? Archius already told me that there is no pressing business," Gabrielle prodded mercilessly. The Empress shifted nervously but said nothing and the bard sighed. "Xena I think we have to talk. Now!"
The Conqueror looked up at her love and knew that she was defeated. She mutely nodded and stood up. Gabrielle grabbed her hand and lead her out of the room and through the Palace.
"Where are we going?" Xena asked once they stepped out of the Palace. She spotted Argo waiting at the bottom of the stairs leading into the courtyard.
"We are going for our picnic," came the determined response and the Empress watched as the smaller woman took the reins from the soldier and hopped up onto the saddle. Xena had no excuse but to follow, climbing up behind her lover and gripping her hips to hang on. With a click of her heels they were off riding across the courtyard and out of the Palace grounds.
Gabrielle had mused long and hard over where she would take her lover and decided in the end that the place that was most special was the spot on the beach where they had shared a date that evening so long ago. It was a night she remembered well because they were new lovers.
Xena remained quiet aware that her bard was in an angry mood. Frantically she racked her brain for an explanation that the other woman would accept. Sadly she had the distinctive feeling that no matter what she said the bard would know that it was a lie. By the time they reached their destination she realized that she had to tell the truth. It didn't go unnoticed that the girl had taken them back to the place where they had spent such a romantic night.
"Sit," Gabrielle commanded once she had rolled out a blanket on the sand. The Empress obeyed without question and sat down watching while the other woman unpacked the horse before tethering him in a patch of grass over a small rise. Only then did the small woman sit down beside her.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle wanted to know. She had made sure to take care of everything so that there would be no distractions. She looked at the Conqueror who turned her head away. The bard sighed aware that her companion wasn't going to make this easy. "Xena, Archius told me that you wanted me to go out with Jason."
"Archius opens his mouth to much," the Empress growled.
"I'm glad someone does," came the sarcastic retort. "If it were left up to you I would never know anything. Now tell what's this all about?"
There was a long silence as the Conqueror contemplated her words. She would have remained silent but she knew that the bard would not let her get away with it. She could have lied but she decided to be honest.
"The other day I saw you with Jason. You were on your way to the marketplace and you sounded like you were having so much fun with him," Xena said softly so that it was almost hard for the bard to hear the words. "I realized that as long as you were with me you would miss out on so much. I want you to have everything Gabrielle. You are a bard and should experience everything that life has to offer. Being with me you are losing that opportunity."
"But I'm not," the girl disagreed. "Since we have been together I have experienced so much more then I ever imagined. Gods, Xena I'm the Queen of the Amazon's. I've met the Gods, Artemis and Ares, and Aphrodite, and I've bartered with the greatest General in the Roman Army. Just living with you every day is an experience. When I think about how boring my life was before meeting you, I shudder to think where I would be now."
"Gabrielle, for Gods sakes you were a courier for a rebel organization that was fighting against me," the Conqueror growled. "You weren't leading a boring life."
"But I was," the bard shook her head and paused, she stared intently at her lovers profile. "Besides if I hadn't met you I would have missed out on the most important experience of my life. I would have missed knowing what it was like to love someone so completely, so wholly that nothing else is important. I would have missed finding and knowing my soulmate."
Xena was momentarily rendered speechless. The bard had a way with words that grabbed her heart and squeezed until she felt pain. But it was a pleasurable pain and one that she learned she could not live without.
"Still...," she tried to find the right words unable to met the other woman's gaze. "There are other things."
"What's more important then love?" Gabrielle wanted to know and then she had a sudden insight into what her companion was referring, remembering what Archius had told her. "Are you talking about sex?"
"Yes," the Conqueror said gruffly. "I know you were a virgin when we became lovers and I thought that you might want to know what it's like to be with different people. I thought you might be curious about what it would be like to be with a man."
"As a bard I am curious about everything," the blond woman agreed solemnly aware that they had broached a sensitive subject. She choose her words carefully. "Is it better then what we share?"
"It could be," the Empress was honest. "You might enjoy it more."
"Did you enjoy it?" Gabrielle asked quietly and held her breath.
"Yes," the Conqueror didn't lie.
"Then why are you with me?" This time Xena did turn to look at her companion.
"Because I love you," came the solemn reply and Gabrielle could see by the look in her lovers eyes that she was speaking the truth.
"And I love you," the girl replied in an equally solemn voice.
"But you don't know anything else," the Conqueror protested.
"Xena, love isn't about sex, they are two different things. Sex is a natural extension of love, an expression of the feelings you share. I love you Xena and that's why I want to be with you. I can't just be with someone out of curiosity," the girl said quietly. "If you want the truth I don't think about being with anyone but you. Maybe that's weird."
"No," Xena breathed overwhelmed by the love she felt for the other woman. She reached out and stroked the blond woman's cheek, savouring the feel of the skin beneath her fingers. "I have been with others but it's never been as good as now with you and I know it's because of the way I feel.
"Hades, I lust after you every moment of the day. I go through the day waiting until the evening when I can hold you in my arms again. When you're next to me only then do I feel complete. But what about children, don't you want any?"
"In every relationship some sacrifices have to be made," Gabrielle said with a deep breath. "If not getting the chance to be a mother is the price I pay for being with you then it is one I willingly pay."
"Are you sure?" Xena wanted to know.
"I have never been more certain of anything in my life," the bard replied fervently.
"Have I made a fool of myself?"
"No, I think it's sweet," Gabrielle smiled, happily leaning into the woman's touch. She allowed all her love to flow outward and encompass her companion. "It makes me happy to know that you care, that you are willing to sacrifice so much for me. But please, never question the fact that you are the first and only one in my heart and I only want you to know my body."
"If that changes will you tell me?" the Conqueror asked solemnly.
"It won't but if it does I promise to tell you," the bard said and then eyed her companion critically. "Can I safely assume that this subject is now closed?"
"Yeah," came the solemn response.
"And I'm not going to have to deal with this centaur crap again?"
"Good," the bard smiled widely and then leaned over and placed her lips over those of her companions.
Just as the Conqueror was about to lose control of her passion the bard broke the kiss. With an impish grin on her face, she jumped up, pealing off her clothes as she raced down the beach and dove into the water.
Xena watched, a seductive smile coming to her lips as she scrambled to her feet, discarding her own clothes before following her companion into the water. She surfaced and caught sight of her lover and with several powerful strokes she was next to the girl.
"I love you," Gabrielle sighed and leaned across the distance to kiss the Empress who smiled seductively.
Before the girl could swim away two strong bands of steel encircled her waist and drew her up tightly against her lovers naked body. She shivered as their eyes met, but it wasn't from the chill of the water. She wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck and drew her lips in for a passionate kiss.
Slowly they sank beneath the water, their lips never losing contact as they reached the floor of the sea. Only when their lungs were about to burst did the Conqueror push them up towards the surface.
Gabrielle gasped for breath as her head broke through to the surface, yet she did not release her hold on her companion. She had not lied to her lover. She was not curious, completely satisfied with the physical relationship they shared. She didn't think it could ever be better with anyone, woman or man.
They spent the rest of the day frolicking in the water and when it became to much for the Conqueror she scooped the bard into her arms and carried her across the beach to the blanket where she laid the small woman down and then proceeded to warm her lovers body by making passionate love.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and allowed her body to respond to the natural fever that the Empress stoked in her. The Conqueror only had to touch her to make her body burn with lust. She moaned with pleasure as the dark haired woman touched her in all the sensitive places, appeasing the desire that coursed through her body. She called out her lovers name when she finally came, wanting nothing more then to hold on to this moment for eternity.
Xena lay down beside her companion and gently stroked her damp bangs off her brow. She leaned forward and kissed the bard never quite getting enough of the girl and finding every excuse to touch the other woman. Gabrielle smiled and turned her head so that she could kiss those long fingers which so expertly manipulated her body.
"Xena?" the bard murmured as the Conqueror drew her into her arms.
"What?" the other woman asked laying a gentle kiss on her brow.
"Did you have a relationship with Cleopatra?" it was a question that Xena didn't want to answer.
"Yes," the Empress nodded solemnly. "But it was a long time before I met you."
"For what?" Xena was slightly confused.
"For being honest," the bard murmured burying her face in her lovers shoulder and slipping off to sleep without another thought and the Empress tightened her embrace feeling the moisture pool in her eyes.
Cleopatra's barge was a magnificent vessel with a wide hull and large, multicoloured sails. It was accompanied by a dozen lesser ships upon which the Egyptian Queen's personal guard rode along with commerce and trade for the Roman Empire.
Gabrielle rode down to the wharf with Xena to greet their distinguished visitor. She had chosen to wear the ceremonial garments of the Amazon nation to the reception. If she was honest, she had donned the outfit to remind her lover what awaited her that night.
Xena leaned casually in her saddle, her eyes straying absently around the docks where commerce and trade commenced as usual, the traders oblivious to the Royal personage now being escorted to there shores. Briefly the blue eyes came to rest on her blond haired companion and an amused smiled touched the corners of her lips.
The bard was dressed regally in her Amazon costume which left little to the imagination. In spite of her reassurances, Gabrielle was more than a little jealous of her past history with the Egyptian Queen.
Xena shook her head. She enjoyed the attention though it was completely unnecessary. The bard owned her like no one had or would. The blond, green eyed woman was the possessor of her heart and soul and the only time she gave it up would be if Gabrielle gave it away. The Conqueror was no more interested in being with the Egyptian Queen then she was with any one else. But it didn't hurt her ego to have the bard think otherwise.
She resettled her eyes on the long boat that was being rowed into shore. Her sharp orbs could detect even from this distance the classical features of the woman who ruled Egypt. Some called her beautiful, others said she was mystical. Certainly the Roman's were wild about her exotic features. Features which had once attracted the Empress who now thought the woman rather ordinary looking.
They slipped from their saddles as the boat docked and waited expectantly as bare chested retainers lifted the platform upon which the Queen was seated, rising it up onto the dock. Only when the medium sized Egyptian slipped out from behind the gauze curtain did the Conqueror step forward.
"Xena," the Egyptian woman greeted the Empress in a seductive voice, an alluring smile on her lips. She held out a slender hand which the Conqueror took in greeting.
"Cleopatra," Xena nodded her head gracefully and then turned and motioned for Gabrielle to step forward. "Let me introduce my companion, Gabrielle, Bard of Potedaia and Queen of the Amazons."
"It is a pleasure to meet you," the raven haired woman inclined her head, managing to mask her surprise. Her dark eyes narrowing as they scanned the blond woman, taking in the skimpy attire and the possessive way the Greek Empress had introduced her.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Gabrielle returned the greeting bowing her head briefly aware that the woman had made no further gesture of introduction.
She had seen the arrogant look she had received followed by the casual dismissal that signified she was of no importance. The idea made her bristle but she kept her emotions under wrap, aware that the Empress would not appreciate a scene and she was not about to give the other woman any advantage.
"To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?" the Conqueror spoke not missing the slight the Egyptian Queen had given her lover. For now she pushed down her reaction intent on remaining civil.
Cleopatra was on her way to Rome and she wanted to learn as much as possible about the visit.
"It has been such a long time Xena," the Queen smiled seductively. "I was wondering how you were?"
"Fine," the Empress replied coyly. "Unfortunately, I can't say the same for your lover Caesar."
The other dark haired woman tensed. It was a slight movement only perceptible to the most astute observer.
"Oh, Xena, surely you can't still be mad at me from stealing him away from you," the Egyptian recovered neatly, raising her eyebrows with a faint smile on her lips. "After what happened in Alexandria I didn't think you cared about him."
"I don't," Xena replied dryly, "and it wasn't what happened in Alexandria that changed my mind. Alexandria was merely a temporary diversion. I never liked Caesar."
"You are so cold my friend," Cleopatra continued to smile with that seductive amusement. "It's too bad you haven't found anyone to warm that heart of yours. Perhaps it was a good thing I stopped by."
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the blatant invitation and her green eyes turned dark as jealousy reared its ugly head. She would no longer be ignored.
"I'm afraid there is no longer any room in Xena's bed for anyone," she stepped forward her nostrils flaring.
The Egyptian took an automatic step back, unaccustomed to anyone confronting her in this manner. Her dark eyes flew to look at the Conqueror who was smiling benignly with amusement. The Empress raised an eyebrow. It was obvious that the Queen of Egypt had expected her to reprimand the smaller woman and Cleopatra was unnerved that it did not happen.
"I'm afraid she's right," Xena said with a shrug and then the smile was gone replaced by a dour look. "Though we have no business it would be remiss of me not to invite you to a celebration. You are welcome to my home as a feast will be arranged in your honour."
"I accept and to show my warm regards please accept these token gifts of Egypt's affectation for you," the Egyptian bowed her head formally having recovered from the verbal exchange. She turned and motioned for her retainers whose arms were ladened with gifts..
"You are welcome to my hospitably until you leave. Come," Xena held out her hand for the bard and lead her back to the horses not waiting for their guest to return to her chair. She vaulted on board Argo and then lifted the bard unto the horse behind her before leading the entourage back through the city.
"You were a little brazen there my bard," the Empress said only loud enough for her lover to hear.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle flushed burrowing her face into her lovers back as her arms wound their way around the leather clad waist. She knew that she had beseeched some point of political protocol.
"You realize you must be punished for your insolence," the Conqueror continued and it took a moment for Gabrielle to realize the Empress was teasing. She felt the other woman's hand fall to her bare thigh and begin a gentle massage which was immediately rewarded by a tingling of her skin.
"What is the punishment?" she inquired coyly.
"You may think of something and then I will decide if it is suitable."
"I think you will, my Empress," Gabrielle chuckled feeling a little bit better about herself yet she was unable to remain happy as the next few days she watched the Egyptians invade the Palace. Mostly she was able to keep out of their way but one afternoon she was unable to avoid them. She was walking with Archius down a hallway when she heard someone calling out to them.
"Serving wench," a haughty voice called and both individuals turned to see a rather dour looking woman dressed in white robes with dark hair standing not far away. Neither had witnessed her approach. Archius and Gabrielle looked at each other and then at the older woman who was peering at them with angry impatience. "Come here."
It became obvious to them that the woman was motioning to Gabrielle who after hesitating a moment did as she was bade. It was clear that the older woman was annoyed. She motioned to several handmaidens who had been hanging back and who were toting several large sacks.
"Yes," the bard remained polite but uncertain.
"There is a banquet tonight and we need our laundry done," the older Egyptian woman said in a strident voice, summoning the handmaidens forward. The three younger women, servants to the Egyptian Queen, dropped the heavy sacks at the bards feet.
"Does this belong to Cleopatra?" Gabrielle wanted to know looking at the soiled garments without expression.
"Of course not, only the most trusted of her handmaidens are allowed to tend her garments," the Egyptian snorted impatiently. "These clothes belong to my staff and myself. We will need them in our quarters in plenty of time for the banquet tonight. I will hold you personally responsible if they are not taken care of."
With that the woman turned and motioning to her escort, hurried off down the corridor towards the wing of the Palace that had been turned over to the Egyptians. Gabrielle watched silently as the woman disappeared.
"I will take care of this matter," Archius hurried up to the smaller woman's side, appalled by the way the bard had been treated. He glanced hastily at his companion, fearful of the Conquerors reaction if word of this incident got back to her.
Gabrielle was dressed rather simply in her usual green top and brown skirt. She did not look like an Amazon Queen, but then she had never put on airs. He understood how the bard could have been mistaken for a commoner.
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled tightly in appreciation, aware that she had been slighted by their visitors. "I think I will go to the market. There must be something I need to buy."
Archius watched as the young woman turned and hurried back in the direction of the rooms she shared with the Conqueror. He felt a surge of anger rush through his body but he bided his time summoning the first Palace servant he could find and directing them to take care of their guests laundry.
His first instinct had been to keep this from the Conqueror but as the day wore on he changed his mind, his own anger stirring over the treatment of the bard. He was determined to approach the Conqueror about the Egyptians affront to the woman but before he had a chance he was waylaid by anxious servants who were pressed to assist the visiting delegation. From then until much later he was kept busy, scurrying about the Palace responding to the various exotic requests that were coming from the Egyptians.
"You are not looking very happy my friend," the Conqueror mused when the man finally joined her in the throne room.
"Please do not think me arrogant My Empress but the Egyptians are bad guests," the man said diplomatically.
The Empress frowned and leaned back in her chair twirling a quill around in her fingers. The last few day had been a nightmare for everyone in the Palace but there was nothing she could do, contented with the knowledge that the Egyptians would be leaving the day after tomorrow. Certainly it had disrupted her companion who was more tense then she had ever seen the bard.
"They will be gone soon," the Empress replied with a wave of her hand.
"It will not be soon enough," the aide said out loud.
Probably not, the Conqueror sighed. "Where is Gabrielle? I have not seen her all day."
"She has gone to the marketplace," to hide, the man wanted to add but didn't. "She could not stand to be here in the Palace with them."
Xena wanted to chuckle but it was a serious matter indeed if her bard could not even stand being around their guests. Gabrielle was the most outgoing and friendly person she knew. A frown settled over her brow as she remembered the morning their visitors had arrived.
"They have not been treating her badly have they?" she asked sharply and the small man cast his eyes away from his master. "Archius?"
"It was not the Queen herself but several of her retainers," the man admitted reluctantly. "They seemed to think she was merely a servant of the Palace and commanded her to do their laundry."
Archius heard the sharp intake of breath and the scrape of the chair as the Conqueror rose to her feet. When he dared to look at the woman's face he could see anger written across her features.
"I'm certain it was a mistake," the man said hastily imagining the ensuing scene. "Queen Gabrielle does not put on airs and her ordinary attire does give her a humble appearance."
"I am surprised at you Archius," the Empress said in a cold voice. "I thought you liked Gabrielle and yet I hear you defending the Egyptians"
"I am not defending them," the man hastily corrected her assumption, thinking of his own feelings on the situation. "I merely wish to avoid an ugly confrontation."
Xena was silent as she contemplated the man's words. He was right, as angry as that realization made her feel. She sat back down promising herself that she would make it up to the bard as soon as the Egyptians were gone.
"Have our spies learned anything of interest?" she asked instead.
"No," the aide shook his head regretfully. "Although one of the Queen's maidens did mention that Cleopatra had heard certain rumours and had been curious to learn the truth for herself."
"What type of rumours?" the Empress was interested now.
Archius was momentarily silent, uncertain how much he should say. In the end he decided to be completely honest. He took a deep breath and gathered his courage.
"The Roman emissaries to Egypt have been telling the Queen that you have grown soft, weakened by your infatuation for a simple commoner. Apparently Caesar is hoping to make a diplomatic alliance with Cleopatra whereby they might both attack your borders simultaneously."
"Interesting," the Conqueror mused thoughtfully her pale eyes narrowing as they focused on the other man. "I hope the Egyptians have been given complete details of exactly how weak I have grown."
"Yes, my Empress," the man smiled knowingly. "They have been well advised that you destroyed the Horde and that Pompeii died by your own hand in the most cruel fashion. Needless to say they were impressed."
"Good," the Conqueror was satisfied and it alleviated some of the anger she felt. She rose to her feet. "If anyone needs me I have gone to the market. I believe I have neglected my bard far to much lately."
"Yes, My Empress," the man bowed. However before the Empress had a chance to leave the throne room there was a loud knock on the door. She called for the visitor to enter and then watched as a senior member of the Egyptian delegation stepped into the room. The dark skinned man bowed reverently.
"Yes," Xena bade him to speak with a negligible wave of her hand.
"Empress of Greece," the foreign man said in a stiff voice. "I have been sent by my Queen Cleopatra with a message asking if you might stop by her quarters for an informal meeting."
The Conqueror was silent as she contemplated the request. It was definitely an invitation. One that in another time and place she would have taken without hesitation. But she knew the game that the Queen of Egypt was playing and she was determined not to be a puppet. She had questions for the Egyptian but she would ask them in a more formal setting.
"Tell Cleopatra that I appreciate the invitation but I have other matters of greater importance to which I must attend," the Empress turned to Archius. "Please summon the Palace Guard. I wish to go join Gabrielle."
The small man bowed formally, barely able to hide the smile that threatened to break out across his face. He chanced a sly glance at the emissary and noted that though there was no expression on the dark skinned man's face, there was a perceptive appearance that he was annoyed by the obvious slight by the Conqueror.
"I will relay your message," the Egyptian replied formally and bowed before backing out of the room.
Archius summoned the Palace Guards and then watched as the Conqueror went in search of the bard. She had barely entered the busy market when she spied the trader Vargas. She harkened back to something Gabrielle said and then changed course strolling over to where the man was supervising several of his workers. The man turned in time to notice her approach.
"Empress, this is an honour," he bowed deeply his leathery face obscured by the long greying hair that framed his narrow face and brown beady eyes.
"Yes," she said dismissively. She did not like the man but she knew that she needed to be polite to some degree aware that he had contacts in foreign lands and was able to access goods that she would otherwise not be able to attain. "It has come to my attention that you have in your service a small boy. You accused him of thievery and instead of sending him to the cells you pressed him into service."
"I do only what the law of the land allows," the man bowed again his eyes narrowing.
"Yes," the Conqueror nodded briefly. "But I have found favour with the boy, and I wish to put him in service at the Palace."
"If that is your wish my Empress but I will feel the loss of his performance," Vargas said slowly his mind already thinking what he could extract for this favour. The Conqueror saw his thoughts and stepped up in front of him, using her hand to raise his face so that their eyes could meet.
"I owe you nothing," she growled fiercely baring her teeth. The arrogance that he had shown earlier was instantly gone replaced by fear. The trader had heard that the Conqueror had been tamed and that the bard now ruled the Palace, but he could see that there was no truth in the statement.
"No...your Empress," he agreed swallowing profusely and his hand went immediately to his throat when the tall woman finally released him.
"However, as compensation, I extend to you an invitation to join me at a banquet tonight in honour of my guests from Egypt," she said in a bored voice and the man immediately bowed.
"I am honoured and your invitation is more than enough compensation," he said hastily and the dark warrior smiled.
"Good," she said wishing to leave his company. "I want the boy...his name is..." she looked to Zenon.
"Arron," the Palace Guard supplied.
"Arron.." the Conqueror said. "Have him sent to the Palace immediately."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the trader bowed graciously and covertly watched as the Empress walked away.
Though it would seem that he had received the better part of the deal he was uncertain. An invitation to a banquet which featured the Egyptians was indeed a prize but he was a suspicious man. He could not find any reason why the Conqueror would find any importance in a mere beggar boy. He made a mental note to confer with his private spies.
Xena knew what the man was thinking. She had dealt enough with the trader to know his suspicions and she knew that he would be suspicious of her request. She snorted and then dismissed the man. Let him wonder, she thought callously. No one need know she had done the deed as a favour for the bard.
She continued through the marketplace her sharp blue eyes scanning the crowds as she searched for the one familiar face that meant everything to her. She was just about to pass a stall when a rather rotund man hurried out and grabbed her hand, kissing it as he knelt at her feet.
"What?" her first reaction was to strike the man for his insolence in touching her but something inside herself stopped that action.
"I am sorry for being so forward my Conqueror," Salmoneous said keeping his head bowed, aware that he was taking a risk. However, he hoped that his friendship with the bard would prevent him from serving time in prison or being killed. "My name is Salmoneous and I am a friend of the Bard from Potedaia."
"Gabrielle?" the Conqueror was immediately intrigued as she stared down at this man, who was rather pear shaped. It occurred to her again how the bard was always collecting friends who seemed a little odd. "Stand up."
The man did as he was commanded and then waited while the sharp blue eyes scanned his features very thoroughly.
"You said you are a friend of Gabrielle's," she prompted and the man graciously hastened to explain, a wide smile creasing his face.
"Yes, over the course of the last few summer's she has frequented my stall," he motioned his hand towards an elaborate booth behind him, where a rather pretty young girl was standing watching with wide and frightened eyes. Ariela could not believe the arrogance of her Uncle.
"Yes," the Conqueror said growing weary of the conversation. "Perhaps you have seen her today. I have come in search of her?"
"She was here earlier," the man said with a shy grin that was only on his face for a brief instant and unnoticed by the Empress. "She was looking at a trinket that I purchased in Egypt. I think in her heart she wished to buy it."
"I'm certain that if Gabrielle wanted to buy something she would have done so," Xena replied bored with the conversation, her eyes darting around the marketplace as they continued to search for her lover and companion. She was certain she knew what this man was about.
"Yes, but she deemed it too expensive," the trader said, and then glanced slyly at the taller woman. "I think she wished to purchase it as a gift for you."
This last comment caught the Conqueror's attention and she was silent for a moment as she studied the rotund man who stood in front of her. She was still certain she knew what he was about but decided to play his game for a moment.
"This trinket, what is it?" she asked taking his bait.
"A commission especially made for a Prince of Egypt, who was only forced to give it up at the request of one of the Pharohs. It is a very rare ornament."
Xena watched as the man hurried around the end of his stall and retrieved something from a bag under one of the tables. She was curious now and watched as he unwrapped something from a thick cloth wrapping. The trader held it out to her and she accepted the offering.
The carving was cool to the touch and smooth, it's jade and black colour a perfect mixture of darkness and light. There was something that caught her attention and she knew immediately that the bard would love this ornament. She did not doubt the traders assertion.
"How much do you want for this?" she asked and the seller named a price that was exorbitant. Xena knew then why the bard had refused to purchase the piece. Gabrielle loved to shop but she was wise in those matters and the cost of this item would be more then the bard would be willing to spend on anything.
"Zenon, pay the man," she ordered her guard who immediately dug into his purse to retrieve the needed coin. Salmoneous could not believe his luck. He had expected the Conqueror to barter as her smaller companion did, and was surprised that she was content to pay the price that he named.
"Let me wrap it," he offered hurriedly.
"No, it's quite all right," Xena dismissed the offer and handed it back to her guard for safe keeping. Zenon wrapped a cloth around the item and then placed it in the pouch that he carried for this express purpose. She stared for a moment at the seller.
"Gabrielle better like this or I will be back," the Empress said in a voice that made the seller tremble if only slightly, even though he was completely confident that the bard would be ecstatic over the gift.
"I assure you that she will be very pleased," the man said and bowed deeply. Without another word the Conqueror turned and continued on her way, no longer interested in anything but finding her companion.
She rounded a corner that lead into the central market square and came to an abrupt halt, her blue eyes narrowing as they honed instantly on her quarry. Gabrielle was sitting on a bench by a fountain in the center of the square, surrounded by a half dozen children and just as many adults. By her posture, the Conqueror could tell that she was telling them some tale of adventure.
She paused to listen enjoying the quiet cadence of the younger woman's voice, aware that none of them were aware of her presence. She waited till the girl was finished and then cleared her throat. All eyes turned in her direction and as if on cue the children jumped to their feet and scattered. The smile on the bard's face turned to a frown.
"What?" the Conqueror asked spreading her arms in an innocent gesture. But she knew she didn't have to do anything. Her reputation was enough to send people running. She ignored the girl's frown and slipped onto the bench beside the young woman, her eyes searching the surroundings.
"Where is Jason?" she asked sharply noticing that the Royal Guard was noticeably absent.
"Back at the Palace," Gabrielle replied suddenly aware she was in for a scolding.
"Why didn't he come with you?" the Empress demanded, unable to hide her anger over the fact that her beloved was alone without protection. She had trusted the guard and he had failed her.
"I slipped out without him knowing," the bard said hastily not wanting the soldier to suffer for her action.
"Gabrielle, how many times have I told you not to do that," Xena fought a losing battle with her emotions. The very idea of the girl out alone in public made her incredibly tense. "And where's your staff?"
Gabrielle said nothing in her defence. She merely bowed her head and willingly suffered the Conqueror's wrath. She stared down at her hands folded on her lap and waited for her lover too explode. It never came. Before Xena began she remembered what Archius had told her back at the Palace. She thought of the reason she had come out into the market in the first place. Her anger receded.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
The bard glanced up startled by the soft tones of her lover. She had expected a different reaction. She had braced herself for something else.
"What do you mean?" the bard was slightly confused.
"Archius told me what happened," Xena said and watched as the girl looked down at her hands.
"I'm sorry Xena, I just don't like the Egyptians," the girl finally spoke. "They are so arrogant and it always seems they are looking down their nose at me."
"Sweetheart, everyone has to look down at you," the Conqueror teased and then saw by the hurtful expression on her lover's face that it was the wrong thing to say. "Oh, my bard, that is their way. They look down upon everyone, even me."
"Yeah, but they'd never ask you to do their laundry," the bard retorted and astutely the Empress guessed that there was something deeper in the bard's distress.
"No, but it is not like you to take offence," the Empress agreed. It was one of the things that most endeared the Conqueror to her young companion. The woman was more forgiving then anyone she knew. Hardly a bad word ever crossed the small woman's lips. "What's wrong Gabrielle, I know it just can't be the Egyptians?"
"No," the bard finally confessed, her shoulders slumping. "I have been thinking about my family. Linus is leaving for Potedaia soon and in a short while Lila and he will be married."
Xena cursed her memory. She had forgotten that the bard had told her that her younger sister was to marry in the new season. With everything that had been happening in the last while their earlier conversation had slipped her mind. She knew how important family was to the younger woman.
"You miss them don't you?"
The bard merely nodded her head. "When we were younger, just children at play, we used to talk about when we finally got married. Lila used to tell me the type of dress she wanted and how she wanted the celebration to go."
"What about you?"
"I had dreams," Gabrielle admitted honestly, with a soft smile. She reached over and grasp her companion's hand. "I realize I will never have a wedding celebration, so I guess that's why missing Lila's is making me feel so sad."
Xena took a deep breath. She harkened back to an earlier conversation many moons ago when they were in the Amazon village. She had promised to wed the bard and yet matters of the Empire had interceded. She glanced up and around the marketplace. There was no reason for her not to honour that promise now. She could not give the girl a family but she could give her a union ceremony.
"The Egyptians will be leaving the day after tomorrow and it has been awhile since we visited the Thrace region," she said not mentioning the idea that was forming in her brain. "I think it would be a perfect opportunity to go there and check up on the new General of my Regional Army. And being in the area I don't see any reason why we can't stopover in Potedaia."
"Really?" the bard visibly brightened at the prospect.
"Yes," the Empress nodded and was rewarded by an exuberant embrace from her partner as the smaller woman joyously flung her arms around her neck and then proceeded to lavish her with a series of kisses all over her face.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Gabrielle said gaily and Xena couldn't help but laugh, feeling slightly embarrassed by the uninhibited affection that the smaller woman heaped upon her, and the attention they were drawing. Gently she disengaged the smaller woman's arms from around her neck.
"You can thank me properly tonight," the Conqueror said, rising to her feet. "But right now, I suggest we return to the Palace and begin preparations for the banquet tonight."
Archius knocked on the door to the throne room before entering. He had been summoned by the Conqueror who at this moment was awaiting his arrival. He strolled across the room towards where she was standing staring out the window that overlooked the courtyard and the city beyond. He saw that she was already dressed in her ceremonial robes.
"My Emperor, what is it you wish of me?" the aide asked breaking the silence of the room. The Conqueror turned and faced the small man.
"I just wish to know if you have heard anything more of the purpose of Cleopatra's visit."
"No, My Conqueror, it seems that the sole reason for this visit was Cleopatra's desire to see you," Archius paused uncertain if he should reveal everything he had learned. His hesitation was instantly picked up by the Empress.
"Do not hide anything from me my friend," the tall dark haired woman said in a low voice that was not threatening but firm.
"It seems that the Queen of Egypt still carries some affectation towards you and was hoping to rekindle your affair," the man revealed what he had learned from an intimate retainer in the Egyptians court. Xena was quiet as she contemplated his admission.
"I hope you let it be known that my attentions and affectations are otherwise engaged," the Conqueror said in a quiet voice.
"Yes, My Conqueror," the man nodded and bowed his head.
"Good, now on to more important matters," the Empress said abruptly changing the subject. "Gabrielle and I will be undertaking a journey the day after tomorrow. Her sister is too marry and she wishes to attend the ceremony. I will need you to handle matters in my absence."
"Yes, My Empress, is there anything special you wish for me to do?" he inquired.
"No, just handle things with your usual efficiency," the Conqueror flashed a brief smile and then remembered something from earlier in the day. "Vargas the trader will be attending the banquet tonight. He will be bringing with him a small boy, about eight summers old, who will now be my servant. His name is Arron and I want you to put him to work in the stables. Give him light duty and ensure that he is fed properly and given a good bed. Also see that his family is informed of his new situation."
"Yes," Archius nodded uncertain what prompted the Conqueror to do business with the trader Vargas, a man whom she neither trusted or liked.
"Good, I must go now as I am sure Gabrielle is awaiting me," the Empress moved to the door but then paused to turn and look at the small man. "There is one last thing I wish for you to do. A long time ago I promised to officially make Gabrielle my consort yet so much has happened. While we are away I want you to plan a ceremony of dignity, a celebration for all the people of Greece, where I will publicly announce to the world the true state of my feelings for her. Can you do that for me?"
"It would be my honor," the man agreed feeling pride at the request.
"Thank you my friend," Xena said and then turned and strolled towards the door, certain that her companion was waiting her arrival.
The Empress found Gabrielle already in the banquet hall which was filled to capacity. The small woman smiled in reflex at the tall raven haired warrior when she entered the room and settled into her place of honour. The only one left to arrive were the guests of honour, the Queen of Egyptian and her personal escort.
A frown settled on the bard's lips. It was like the foreign monarch to be late, for in the few days that she had been in residence Gabrielle had noticed a decidedly melodramatic air about the dark woman and a pendant for making grand entrances.
She chanced a glance sideways at her companion. There was a dour look on the taller woman's face and it went with the impatient air that clung to her like a second skin. She knew of her partner's distaste for tardiness. A smile came unbidden to her lips as she remembered her first state dinner.
"Why are you smiling?" Xena asked returning her gaze.
"I am just remembering the first state dinner that I attended."
"You were late." The Conqueror could clearly remember every moment of that evening.
"Yes," the bard nodded. "You were quite angry."
"Yes," the raven haired woman nodded thinking about the way the girl had trembled standing before her. "I'm sorry, I never meant to frighten you."
"Oh I wasn't scared," the blond woman disputed the claim and the older woman looked at her through narrowed eyes.
"You were trembling!"
"Yes, but not from fear," Gabrielle confessed with a slight blush. "I was trembling because all I wanted to do was lean forward and kiss you."
"Why didn't you?" Xena wanted to know thinking how she had experienced the same notion.
"Because I wasn't certain how you would react," the girl confessed. "I think I wanted to kiss you from the very first moment we met by the lake."
The Conqueror was taken aback by the revelation yet strangely pleased to acknowledge that they had shared the same feelings from the very beginning. Yet in spite of that it had taken the courage of this woman to bring them together.
"Thank you," she said solemnly lifting the bard's hand to her lips.
"For having more courage than I possess," Xena said simply. "For following your heart when I was afraid to trust mine."
Gabrielle didn't know how to respond and was saved from doing so by the unexpected arrival of their guests. At that moment the doors to the banquet hall were flung open and a gauze covered escort stepped into the room preceding the tall dark woman who now ruled Egypt. Green eyes narrowed as they scanned the willowy figure which moved with elegant grace down the corridor towards the table at the front of the hall.
In spite of the brief conversation they had just shared Gabrielle couldn't help but glance at her companion wondering if the Conqueror felt any emotion at seeing the woman like this, for the Queen was undeniably beautiful.
Xena stared without emotion at the dark haired woman who was gliding up the aisle towards her. Her pale blue eyes narrowed. Cleopatra was definitely beautiful yet it was strange but she felt none of the lust or attraction that she had the first time she had seen the woman move like this towards her so many summers ago in Egypt.
She knew why and instinctively she gave the bard's hand a gentle squeeze to reassure the smaller woman and reaffirm her affectation. It amazed her that she could feel only ambivalence towards those who had once been so close, her feelings for the woman at her side superseding any emotion she had ever felt for anyone else.
Gabrielle felt a surge of relief at the tender clasp of her lover's hand and she returned it. For a brief instance the Conqueror turned to look at her and blue and green eyes met in affirmation of the love they held for each other.
Brown eyes narrowed as they looked towards the head table where the Empress of Greece sat. The Queen of Egypt took in the scene and saw the overpowering glance that passed between the two women already seated. The Conqueror had never looked at her in that way, not even during their greatest moments of passion. She felt a pang of jealousy towards the small blond woman who sat next to the Conqueror.
Her stopover in Greece had not been without purpose and in the few seconds it took for her to walk across the room to join the Conqueror at the head table, her questions had all been answered. When Xena had left Alexandria there had been some unfinished business between them. Business that she had hoped to complete with this visit but she saw now that it was already over. Anything that had once been between them was gone.
She glided to her seat, her face masking any emotion she felt, yet she was determined to try to utilize her feminine skills and see if she could stir up some contention between the two Greeks.
"I hope you are finding your accommodations comfortable," Xena said politely when the younger ruler slipped into the vacant seat to her right.
"Yes," Cleopatra nodded demurely and watched as the Conqueror idly motioned for the servants to begin delivering the food. "I think I should be a little annoyed with you."
"Ohh?" this comment clearly surprised the Empress.
"Yes, you rejected my invitation for conversation," the Egyptian smiled sweetly.
"I had more pressing matters," Xena replied casually, though her senses were on alert. She knew the Queen to be clever and cunning.
"So my emissary said," Cleopatra spoke in a voice so soft that the Conqueror had to lean towards her to hear. The Queen of Egypt took the opportunity to touch the Empress, resting her hand on the taller woman's bare arm and casually giving it an intimate massage.
The action caught Xena off guard and her immediate reaction was to pull away. It was an instinctive response that made her guest flinch and the smile on her face wavered. The Empress of Greece had never before rejected her advances.
"You used to like it when I touched you," Cleopatra said coyly in a loud enough voice that the Empress' companion would hear.
"I used to like a lot of things," Xena answered dryly. "But times change."
"Yes, they do," the Egyptian Queen agreed and then glanced past her host to look at the bard who was watching the exchange with curiosity. "Did you know Xena and I were lovers?"
Gabrielle was surprised by the open way the other woman spoke of her past relationship. Her first instinct was to react in a jealous manner but she glanced at her lover and knew the truth. Xena had a lot of former lovers and she would have to accept that fact. There was nothing she could do to change the past, and all that mattered was the present, and that was here and now, and in her heart she knew the truth. She looked at her lover before turning her attention back to the Egyptian.
"Yes, I did," the bard answered with a polite smile. "Xena told me all about it."
The Conqueror had been holding her breathe, her anger rising and threatening to explode. Now she was glad that she had waited to vent her emotion, pleased by the answer the bard had given and proud of the woman she loved. Instinctively she reached over and grasp the girl's hand, bringing it up to her lips where she laid a tender kiss upon the small knuckles. Only then did she turn to look at the other woman.
"I have always considered you a wise and gracious woman," Xena said in a cool voice that served as a warning to the other woman. "Be wise now and act like a gracious guest. Do not say anything more that you will regret. I will not tolerate any more interference towards my companion, your escorts have done enough to bring disgrace upon your household."
"I apologize to Gabrielle. I did not know where things stood with you," Cleopatra bowed her head slightly. Xena knew that was a lie but she allowed the admission to pass knowing that her companion would not want her to pursue the matter. "As for my staff I know of no interference that they may have brought to your companion."
"Then your maiden did not advise you of how she requested Queen Gabrielle to do her laundry," Xena pointedly gazed at the older woman who was standing directly behind the Queen of Egypt's chair. The escort bowed her head and Cleopatra felt a wave of humiliation flood her senses.
"Is this true Alti?" she inquired of the woman who tended to her personal needs.
"My pardon, my Queen, it was an honest mistake, I did not know who she was," the escort humbly apologized to her mistress.
"Leave me," Cleopatra ordered the older woman with a wave of her hand. "Wait for me in my chambers."
Alti bowed her head in silent shame. She could only imagine the fate that awaited her. She knew that her Queen would not be pleased by being embarrassed and therefore she would face punishment. Gabrielle felt an uncommon sympathy for the older woman and decided to intervene on her behalf.
"It was an honest mistake," the bard spoke. "No harm was done."
"It is kind of you to be sympathetic," Cleopatra replied coolly. "But the Egyptian people and I have a standard that my maiden compromised. I will consider your words when it comes time for me to decide her fate. You may go now Alti."
The servant cast the Amazon Queen a resentful look before hurrying out of the room without another word. If she was lucky the Queen would be lenient but the visit had done nothing but sour Cleopatra's mood and she feared the worst.
"Music," Xena called wanting to end the tension of the moment and immediately the musicians jumped to do her bidding.
It was late into the evening before the Egyptian delegation finally retired and two days later when they left the Palace, returning to their barges to continue on their journey to Rome. While Xena accompanied her guests to the docks that morning, Gabrielle went off too the market to deliver a scroll to Linus for her sister Lila.
"It has been a most curious visit Xena," Cleopatra said when they arrived at the pier where her boats were waiting. "You have changed."
"If we don't change we become predictable," the Conqueror replied in a bored voice.
"Yes, I suppose that is true," the other woman conceded and then gazed thoughtfully at the taller woman. "It's to bad Xena, we could have been great together. You and me side by side in front of what could have been the greatest army the world would ever have known."
"It would never have happened," the Empress of Greece said bluntly. "I don't share power with anyone."
"No, I don't suppose you do," the Egyptian Queen conceded realizing that she was no match for this woman. "Is there any message I can pass along to Caesar for you?"
"You can tell him that I am not weak," Xena said quietly. "I defeated his Army in the Mountains and am not afraid to march on Rome itself if provoked."
"I see you are still as defiant as ever," Cleopatra remarked. "That part of your character has not changed."
"Do not be deceived, there are other parts that still remain the same," the Empress continued in the same soft yet deadly voice. Though she no longer held any affection for this woman she thought it only fair to warn her. "Be careful whose bed you chose to lie in. The woman who went from a simple village girl to Empress of Greece still exists and if her Empire is threatened it won't matter what our past relationship was if you align yourself with the wrong people."
The Queen of Egypt merely bowed her head aware that the Conqueror was giving her fair warning. It was as if Xena knew everything that was going on, but that idea was impossible. She had come here in the hopes of making an alliance with the Empress before going to Rome. But it had become obvious from the first moment she had set foot on Greek soil that the Conqueror was not interested. It had been unsettling and now she knew what she had to do to affirm her own future.
"Take care Xena," the Queen bade her old friend before stepping into the long boat that would ferry her out to the barge that waited in the harbour.
"And you," the tall woman replied. "Enjoy your visit to Rome and give my regards to Marc Anthony when you see him."
Xena watched as the small vessel pulled away from shore before turning and making her way to the marketplace, intent on finding her lover. As usual the girl was sitting by the fountain regaling a small and youthful audience with tales of their exploits. She listened until the woman was finished before making her approach.
"Are the Egyptians gone?" Gabrielle asked to open the conversation when the Empress sat down on the bench beside her.
"Yes, they are gone," Xena sighed relieved that they would have the Palace to themselves again. She felt the bulge in the pouch attached to her waist. She had every intention of giving the bard the trinket she had purchased days earlier. "I was very proud of the way you behaved."
Gabrielle shrugged, embarrassed by the praise. Xena was always very liberal in her approval yet she still had not gotten used to it. She flushed and bowed her head, and heard the light chuckle from her companion who loved the way she looked when she was embarrassed. She was about to open her mouth to speak when a commotion caught her attention. She looked up to see a Centaur fighting his way through a crowd of citizens, many of whom were throwing vegetables and fruits as well as taunts at the hapless creature.
Without a word Xena released her companion and jumped to her feet, rushing across the square towards the beleaguered creature who was looking increasingly frightened by the abuse he was receiving.
"Enough," the Conqueror's steely voice carried over the crowd. There was a pause as everyone turned to watch the Empress stride up to the creature. "Anyone throwing another date at this Centaur will be throwing it at the Empire and subject to the same punishment."
The unruly crowd, immediately got the message, slinking away from the glowering stance of the Warrior. They had all heard rumours that she was changing but none had yet seen evidence of that claim and thus did not want to provoke the Conqueror's wrath. Xena watched as the people dispersed before turning her attention to the Centaur.
"Why are you here?" she demanded in a slightly less harsh voice. The Centaurs never ventured into crowded cities, aware of the hatred and mistrust the general population had for these half human, half equine creatures.
"I have business with the Conqueror," the Centaur replied and the Empress' eyes narrowed.
"What business do you have with the Conqueror?" the dark haired woman demanded as the creature looked down at the menacing woman. He could feel the fury radiate off her person.
"It is for the Conqueror's eyes only," came the serious reply.
"I am the Conqueror you ass," Xena was fast losing her patience. She felt a gentle hand upon her back and glanced at the small woman who was looking up at the creature.
"Truly, this is the Empress," Gabrielle said with a charming smile. "I am the bard Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon's."
The man looked at the two women and then realized the truth. Kalipus had described both the Empress and Queen of the Amazon's. These two women fit those descriptions. He bowed his head solicitously.
"Please forgive my ignorance," he said. "My name is Phantes and I come with a message from Kalipus."
The Centaur held out the scroll that was clutched in the palm of his hand. Xena accepted the paper, tearing open the seal and quickly scanning the contents. The expression on her face darkened. Gabrielle could feel her partner tense.
"Xena, is everything all right?" she asked, running her hand in circles around the other woman's back.
"No," the Conqueror hissed through clenched teeth and then glanced up at the Centaur. "Tell Kalipus that I will deal with the matter and if anything changes send word."
"Yes," Phantes bowed his head. The Empress motioned to her personal guard.
"See that this Centaur is escorted safely out of the city," it was the Conqueror who was in control. "Come Gabrielle, it's time too return to the Palace."
"What is it?" the young Amazon Queen asked having to run to keep up with her companion. The Conqueror stopped abruptly and turned to the smaller woman.
"You wished too attend your sisters wedding?" the question was brisk and in a tone the Empress rarely used with her companion.
"Yes," Gabrielle stammered coming to a halt.
"All right," the Conqueror nodded her mind working furiously. "The Egyptians are gone, so we can leave as soon as I settle matters with Archius. We will be travelling with a small contingent of Palace Guards."
"How long will we be gone?" Gabrielle wanted to know. Suddenly everything was happening so fast.
"I don't know," the Empress was honest, her attitude softening as she realized that the bard was not to blame for this new situation. She reached out and grasped the smaller woman's shoulders. "A situation has developed that needs my attention."
"Have our borders been attacked?"
"Does it involve something dangerous?"
"I hope not," the Conqueror sighed and then appealed to the woman's generous nature. "Trust me Gabrielle."
"Okay," the bard nodded, though she was slightly hurt by the fact that her lover would not confide the truth to her.
Cleopatra stood at the stern of her vessel and watched as the Greek coast line slowly faded in the distance. She could not shake the feeling of sadness that filled her being. She had hoped to re-acquaint herself with the Empress yet knew that it was to late. The Conqueror had found someone else to fill the role that she had so desired.
"It was fated not to be," a low voice spoke from behind her and a tall dark haired man dressed in the robes of a Roman nobleman stepped up to stand next to her. Cleopatra glanced sideways at Marc Anthony who turned his head slightly so that he could see her face. She was a beautiful and exotic woman.
"How do you know what is fated?" the Queen of the Nile asked in a silky voice.
"Because, like Caesar, I know my destiny," the man said arrogantly, turning his gaze back out to the sea. "I am fated to take my place in history," there was a slight pause as the man turned and looked at her again. "And you can be apart of that history by standing at my side."
Cleopatra was silent as she studied the nobleman. She had known him only slightly less longer than she had known Caesar and in spite of all the rumours that circulated in the Known World, they were not yet lovers, though Marc Anthony had tried on numerous occasions to take her to his bed. But she had saved herself for only one, Xena, Empress of Greece, and her dalliance with Julius Caesar had only been attempt to make the Conqueror jealous. However, the plan had failed. The Empress had lost interest in her and now she was no longer interested in the Emperor of Rome.
"And what is your place in history to be?" the Queen asked coyly deciding then that she would allow this man into her bed. He might be the diversion she needed until she reached Rome.
"I will one day be Emperor of the Roman Empire," the man proclaimed boldly and a pair of dark eye lashes raised in amusement.
"Are you plotting to kill Caesar?" she dared to ask and received a sly smile.
"I have no intention of killing my friend," the nobleman replied casually, turning his gaze back to the sea and the foreign land which now had become a haze on the horizon. "Others will do that favour for me. That is if Caesar doesn't kill himself first."
"I wasn't aware that Julius was suicidal," the Queen commented dryly.
"He's not, at least not in the conventional sense," Marc Anthony replied blithely. "However, his continued fascination with the Conqueror will surely end in his own demise. He is fool enough to believe that he can break the woman."
"And you do not believe that?" Cleopatra was curious about the man's ideas.
"Oh, his determination to defeat the woman is strong enough for him to do that," the nobleman responded, "but it is the hatred that he has for her that will ultimately do him in. Already the Senate in Rome is grumbling about the money that he has spent in trying to defeat the Conqueror. His popularity with the people is being eroded by his singlemindedness and egotism."
"Interesting," the Queen of Egypt murmured. This was all news to her and she wondered why her own spies in the Roman court had not apprised her of this new developing situation. She looked covertly at her companion. Perhaps it was indeed time for her to switch allegiances. She lifted her hand and held it out to the man. "Perhaps we should retire to my suite to discuss this situation at further length."
Marc Anthony's nostrils flared, aware that this was the invitation that he had been awaiting for many long summers.
"Certainly," he bowed regally and took her hand before turning and escorting them towards the stairs that would take them into the lower galley and her quarters.
Xena did not look at the scroll again until she was alone in the throne room, having dismissed her retainers. This was something she was not yet even ready to share with Gabrielle, though she knew the bard would understand and share her worry.
The message was brief but to the point, just like Kalipus the leader of the Centaur tribe. Her son, who had reached his thirteenth summer was missing and the Centaur's had not been able to locate the boy.
The Conqueror closed her eyes and settled unto the throne, her mind racing back to a time when she was still a girl, too young to know better and still without the bitterness that consumed her after Borias' betrayal.
Unwittingly she had become pregnant by the warlord, a man who for a time had been her mentor. She had still been young when they had taken up. It was just after her victory over Cortez, when she had naively thought that she could rule the world. He had shown her that there was still much to learn and she had eagerly accepted his tutelage, becoming his lover. But they had never been friends and the more she learned the more she realized that she didn't need him.
Unfortunately a child had resulted from the union. A child that for a brief moment had given her hope, but Borias had turned traitor, splitting their armies and making war against her. It was only after he had been killed that she realized a child had no place in her life, aware that it would be hunted by every one who sought to take revenge upon her.
There had only been one place to leave the child. One place where no one would go and in return for accepting the responsibility of raising the child she had guaranteed the Centaur's her protection. From all the reports she had received, the boy had thrived under Kalipus guidance. But now he was gone.
She turned her head and glanced around the room. There was no reason now why he could not be apart of her life. There was still danger but he was older and able now to distinguish friend from foe. Besides, she had Gabrielle, someone with whom she could share the responsibility of a child. She knew that bard would embrace the opportunity just as she embraced everything in life.
She stood up and walked to the balcony and looked out over the parade grounds to the city beyond. Perhaps this was a good thing. Everything was changing in her life, perhaps it was time to re-embrace some of her past. She heard the door to the throne room open and close. Without looking she knew who was there. There was only one person with the courage to defy her. It was almost as if she knew that the woman would come.
"Xena?" the soft, familiar voice called to her. She did not turn around waiting for the bard to join her.
She felt the comforting hand upon the small of her back. "Are you all right?"
"No," the Conqueror admitted with a sigh realizing she could trust this woman not be betray her. Gabrielle was unlike anyone else in her life. She took a deep breath and looked at the other woman. "I have a son and he is missing."
For a moment Gabrielle thought her partner was joking but the seriousness of the statement was seen in the expression on the Empress' face. She glanced out at the courtyard trying to think of what to say. This was the last thing she had expected.
"That was what the message from the Centaur was," she said slowly.
"Yes," Xena confirmed. "When Solan was born I knew that he would be in danger. His very association with me would make him a target for all my enemies, so I made a pact with Kalipus, their leader, to raise my son so that he could have a safe life. Apparently, he ran away and they have been unable to find him."
"Then we will," Gabrielle said confidentially and the Empress looked down at the smaller woman.
"It does not bother you that I have a child?" Xena asked and the girl shook her head.
"I think it's wonderful," the bard was sincere. "And I would love to meet him. How old is he?"
"He would be thirteen summers now," the Empress said with a hesitant smile.
"Almost a young man," Gabrielle commented.
"Yes," the Conqueror nodded. "I don't know what he will think of me being his mother. Telling him t
he truth is not a prospect that I am looking forward to."
Gabrielle almost laughed out loud. It was strange but she had never imagined her companion, the most feared Warrior in all the Known World to be afraid of anything, yet here the woman was admitting to one of her greatest worries.
"Everything will be okay," the bard assured her companion, circling her arms around the taller woman's slender waist and hugging her tightly. "We will find him and then we will bring him home and we will become one big family."
Xena hoped it would be true. She turned in her companions arms and then stared down at the woman, feeling a wave of love fill her for the woman who stood there, so willing to face everything in her life without complaint. She knew someone only did that when they were truly in love.
"What?" the bard looked up and for a long moment green and blue eyes met.
"I want to make you a promise," the Conqueror said softly gently taking the smaller woman's hands in her own. "I want you to know that from this moment on everything I do will be with the thought of you in mind. Every accomplishment I seek in the future will be with the knowledge that you will be standing at my side. I don't ever want to lose you. I want you always to be here with me. I want to give you the promise of tomorrow and everyday beyond that."
"I will be," Gabrielle assured the woman with a deep breath. She leaned into her companion and buried her face in her chest as the large arms around her body tightened, holding her securely in their embrace. Suddenly tomorrow never seemed so bright.
Ares paced impatiently around his temple. He did not enjoy waiting on anyone, especially those who were inferior to him. The sound of the door to his temple being opened made him pause and turn towards the intruders. They were like night and day in appearance, one tall and blonde with wild blue eyes and the other short and dark with doe like eyes.
"I found her," Discord said with an overly sweet voice. It had taken all her Godly powers to convince this mortal woman to accompany her to the Temple of Ares.
"Good, good, good," Ares chapped his hands in glee and bounded down the steps that lead to his throne and towards the stranger. He came to an abrupt halt as the tip of a sword was pressed up into the skin beneath his chin. The woman had moved with lightening speed, withdrawing the weapon from the strap on her back to protect herself.
"Don't come any closer," the blonde warrior warned with a sneer and Ares laughed before arrogantly slapping the sword away.
"Oh you are sweet," he chuckled with glee turning his attention briefly to the demi-god who was viewing the whole scene with little amusement. She had wanted the God of War to herself but it seemed he was attracted to another mortal warrior.
"Discord, I would like to introduce you to Callisto," Ares said promptly making the introductions.
"Charmed," Discord said with false sweetness. "So why do you want her?"
"Because she will help me win Xena back," the God of War said waving his hands in the air.
"Never," the blonde warrior hissed and swung her sword at the God but he easily caught it with his left hand. He shook a finger at her with a smile on his face.
"No, no, no," he chided softly. "You can save your anger for the Conqueror, me, you will not harm."
"I don't understand," Discord interrupted.
"No, you don't," Ares said turning on his heel and bounding back up the step to plop on his throne. He turned to Callisto and smiled. "Our mortal friend here despises the Conqueror because she overran her village and destroyed everything and everyone in it, except for you and two others am I right? The Empress killed your family didn't she Callisto. She killed your mother and father and sister at Cirra."
"Yes and for that I will kill her."
"You could try," the God of War smile grew wider. "You have tried but up until now without success. That could change however, if we join forces."
"Why would I join forces with you?" Callisto asked with a sneer. "You love the Conqueror, she is your Chosen, everyone knows that."
"Yes," the God nodded not denying the truth. "However, I could offer you something that you don't have now."
"What could you offer me?"
"Ambrosia," Ares replied, the simple word making the dark haired woman's eyes bulge in distress. It was unheard of for a God to offer a mortal the opportunity of immortality. She was about to protest but changed her mind, aware that Ares probably had another plan up his sleeve.
Callisto was silent for a moment. Her main desire was to kill Xena, Empress of Greece, but the chance to become immortal was enticing. As a God she could torment the Conqueror for eternity. It was definitely an idea to consider.
"What's your plan?" she asked guardedly not certain she could trust the God.
"Simple," Ares was elated believing he had gained another mortal to his fold. "I want you to continue to pose as a Amazon warrior, remain close to the Empress and the irritating blonde who has gained her affectation. Discord is going to pose as an old woman and give the bard poisoned apples and it will be your job to ensure that the bard eats them. Then you must ensure that they seek treatment of a healer in Amphipolis."
"And how am I supposed to do that?" the blonde warrior sneered.
"You're an intelligent girl, you'll think of something," the God of War replied waving his arm airily. "Unless you don't think you are up to the challenge, in which case I could find someone else."
Callisto snarled, not convinced that she wasn't being used for a greater plan. "That's all I have to do for the ambrosia?"
"Simple as that," Ares shrugged. "With the Queen of the Amazon's gone Xena will go back to her Warrior persona and you will get your ambrosia. As a God you can torment the Conqueror all you want as long as you don't kill her. I shall enjoy Xena facing such a competent adversary as yourself."
Callisto nodded. "Okay. The Amazon's have been given word that the Conqueror and her consort are to be embarking on a journey in the next day."
"Yes, they are going to visit Gabrielle's family," Ares waved his hand in dismissal. "Her sister is marrying some merchant. You will accompany them."
Callisto nodded and then without another word turned and strolled out of the temple not bothering to look back. Discord's narrowed eyes followed the woman until she was gone and then turned back to the God of War.
"Are you crazy?" she asked uncaring who she was facing. "Zeus will have your head if you give ambrosia to a mortal."
"I have no intention of giving ambrosia to any mortal," Ares snorted contemptuously and Discord smiled.
"So then what is the real plan?" the demi-god asked.
"That is for me to know," the God of War smiled evilly. "Until then you will do as I say."
He laughed and the evil sound echoed in the cavernous temple, sending chills up the spines of the local priests who were tending the gardens outside. They knew that there master was in residence and that he was working his magic.
or is it..... stay tuned for Family the next instalment of the adventures of the Conqueror and her Bard.