SURRENDER

by Planet-solin

 

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Cyrene, Argo etc. belong to other guys and my use of them are only for fun. No monetary gain was made for this story.

Sex/Violence: Definitely. If offended by two women in love then stop now. Remember this is along the lines of what might have happened if Xena had conquered all of Greece. It wouldnít have been pretty.

Other: I started out by calling this story The Challengers but by the end it needed to be changed. In order to best enjoy this story you should read the two prequels, If....this were the beginning, and Home Again. Comments welcome, planet-solin@england.com


 

The Conqueror paced restlessly around the perimeter of the camp, her eyes trained across the open field towards the trees that marked the start of Amazon territory. It was late and the only ones awake, were the guards posted on watch. She couldnít sleep, her body filled with such pent up energy that she could barely remain still for more than a few moments.

She had tried everything she could to exhaust herself. She had sparred late into the evening with the Royal Palace guards and then taken a long solitary run through the forest, but still the blood roiled through her veins. Finally she stopped fighting the inevitable and turned her thoughts to the bard.

Since allowing the Amazonís to take Gabrielle back to their village she had been plagued with doubts over the decision. The young woman had needed attention, more attention then she had been able to give with a rebellious army on her hands. Yet when everything had finally been settled, and the instigators punished, she had been left with nothing but time to worry and fear. Worry about whether the girl was okay and fear that the Amazonís might now use her lover as a pawn.

She halted her pacing as an indescribable pain clutched at her heart. In retrospect her actions may have served only to put the girl in more danger, and if that happened she would never be able to forgive herself.

"Hades," she cursed, feeling the anger begin to rise up inside her body and wishing for some lasting release.

"I can help you," Ares said appearing in the darkness. The Conqueror turned to look at the God. "I can make you forget about everything. I can make you sleep like a baby."

Xena knew what he was offering and she could feel the unappeased desire roil through her body. She

examined the God of War. He was as attractive as any man she had seen and the last time they had been together she had been completely sated. Her entire physical being cried out for the same satisfaction, but instead of accepting his invitation she stepped back.

"Iím not interested," she said, her nostrils flaring. The God laughed.

"Xena, youíre always interested," Ares was not impressed by her rejection but he kept the smile on his face. "The only thing that ever interests you more is a good sword fight and....," he paused glancing at their surroundings. "I donít see anyone waiting here to attack you."

"Forget it Ares, I said I wasnít interested," she snarled.

"Of course you are, I can see that youíre almost ready to jump out of your skin," he sniffed, reaching out to stroke the side of her face with his long fingers. This time she did not step away. He smiled feeling the pulse of her blood as it surged through her veins. "Come on Xena, how long has it been since youíve really been satisfied?"

The Conqueror stood motionless, caught under his seductive spell. His fingers left a trail of fire on her skin, sending a warm flush through her body which was craving to be touched.

"No," she said in a harsh voice, stepping back, her eyes narrowing. "I will not let you seduce me Ares."

"Why not?" he asked through clenched teeth. "Are you afraid that you will see what you are missing?"

"No, I wonít hurt Gabrielle," the Conqueror snarled and the God of Warís eyes narrowed.

"You think being with me will hurt the bard," Ares laughed. "Gods Xena, when did you become so noble? Youíve had plenty of lovers before and never worried about taking a little action on the side."

"This is different," she said suddenly feeling incredibly weary. She was tired of fighting.

"How?" he wanted to know. "How is she different then the others?"

"She means more to me than any of them," Xena finally admitted the truth. Ares looked at her with a mixture of amusement and pity.

"Xena, Xena, Xena," his voice was sweet and patronizing. "Are you trying to tell me you are in love? Surely you canít be so blind. Have you forgotten Caesar, or Lao Ma or Mílila? You were in love with them but they all ended up turning you away. Once the little bard sees the real you, she will run away too. You must know that."

Xena didnít, but she expected it, wasnít that why she had left the girl behind when she had gone to fight the Horde. She hadnít wanted Gabrielle to see the dark side of her personality. The dark side that had made her Empress and Ruler of Greece. The God of War allowed his hand to drop so that it lightly rested on her breast. He could feel her response and it made him smile.

"In your heart you know the truth Xena. Iím the only one whose stuck by you," Ares said gently rubbing his thumb over the hardened nipple that pebbled her leathers. "Iím the only one who will accept all of you."

"No," she sneered. She knew how the Gods enjoyed manipulating mortals. She reached up and swept his hand away ignoring the blood pounding in her ears. Her pale eyes narrowed. "Gabrielle isnít like them."

"Tsk, tsk," the God of War sniffed. He enjoyed this verbal game that had developed between them. "Oh Xena, canít you see whatís real. Artemis had Aphrodite put a spell on you. They are just using you to get back at me. So you see, this little infatuation you have with that little blond, isnít real."

The Conqueror felt the animal inside her stir. The thought of the Gods using her for fun gave rise to her anger, yet she kept her feelings in check, reigning in the panther and staying in control.

"Ares, you will say anything to get your way," she gave him a feral smile. "I know you would not allow the other Gods to toy with me. I know you donít like sharing me with anyone."

"Oh Xena, you think you know everything," Ares said arrogantly. Her resistance made him angry but he only continued to smile, shrugging indifferently. "Suit yourself but just donít call me when the little girl betrays you, because I wonít come."

With a flash of light he was gone leaving her standing alone in the darkness. She took a deep breath and released some of the tension that filled her body. Everything he said had merit yet she wanted to ignore it. She didnít want to believe that the wonderful way the bard made her feel wasnít real. She enjoyed and needed it too much. But yet so much now made sense.

She turned and fixed her eyes on Amazonia for a long moment, giving in to her doubts. She had spoken to Argus before the Amazonís had taken him away. The story he told about the rebels and their leaders had confirmed something she had been trying to ignore. Gabrielle had not been one of their leaders but the bard had been close enough to the group to be included in their plans.

She took a deep breath. She didnít want to think about what that meant, it hurt to much. To acknowledge the truth would be to accept that Ares was right. She didnít want to think that Gabrielle would betray her, but the God of War had never lied to her.

"Donít let his words make you doubt," a voice said and the Conqueror swung around unsheathing her sword in one smooth motion.

Her pale blue eyes zeroed in on a woman, standing only a few feet away. She was tall with long, thick rust coloured hair. Her slender body was dressed in brown leathers that were decorated with feathers. In one hand was a hunters bow though it was without an arrow. Still the warrior did not let her guard down.

"What did you say?"

"I said donít let him make you doubt. Gabrielle would never knowingly betray you," the woman replied patiently. She never enjoyed dealing with mortals, for only a few of them were clever enough to truly understand the Gods. "Her heart is to pure for such deception."

"Who are you?" the Conqueror asked and the woman smiled serenely.

"They call me Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt," the entity said radiating an unearthly light that confirmed her Immortal status.

"What do you want with me?" Xena wanted to know. She had no use for the Gods, not even Ares who had gifted her with some of his strength.

"I want nothing from you. You are Ares' Chosen," Artemis said. "However, you are involved with someone whom I have come to favour."

"Gabrielle," the Conqueror hissed with sudden perception.

"Yes," the Goddess acknowledged nodding her head and causing the air around her to shimmer. "She really wasnít in my plans but she showed herself to be a friend to my people and now I find myself rather attached to her."

"Tell me about it," the Empress muttered in agreement and the Goddess smiled briefly before growing serious once more.

"I donít want to see anything happen to her."

"If you have been watching, you will have seen Gabrielle has a pendant for getting into trouble all on her own," Xena sniffed and then eyed the Goddess through pale slits. When she spoke again there was an edge to her voice. "But thatís not what concerns you is it. You think I might harm her?"

"Behind that stoic mask you wear, you are a deeply emotional woman who has killed more than one person during a rage," Artemis was blunt. "You are all powerful and physically you could destroy anyone."

"I would never raise a hand to her," the Conqueror said in a cold voice.

"I am talking about more than physical pain," the Goddess sighed. "Injuries to the body heal. I am more concerned about what you could do to her heart."

The Conqueror was silent and unconsciously her guard relaxed, her sword hand dropping to her side.

"I would never do anything to hurt Gabrielle."

"Perhaps not intentionally. I have watched you and seen that you have been honourable and that will be rewarded, but you must know that she looks for your approval in everything she does. If she were to know your thoughts she would be irrevocably hurt."

"But the evidence..."

"The evidence can be twisted by those who wish to lessen their own guilt," Artemis said. "Do not look to the past, think of the present and the future. Since you have been together has she done anything to suggest that she was lying to you?"

The Conqueror was quiet as she digested those thoughts. It was true. Gabrielle had been honest since the very first moment they met. The girl had never tried to hide anything.

"Gabrielle is in love with you," the Goddess reminded.

"I know," Xena nodded. "But it is only a spell."

"There is no spell," Artemis shook her head. "What you feel, what Gabrielle feels, is real. The only thing Aphrodite did was contrive for you to meet. The rest you have done yourself."

"Then why are you concerned?" the Conqueror asked.

"Because I can see the doubt that Ares has planted in your mind," Artemis said. "Your love takes you further away from him. It makes you more compassionate and stronger because you are no longer alone."

"You still havenít told me why you care?"

"Because in Gabrielle I see so much of what can be," the Goddess replied. "Since she has been with you, she had changed. She is becoming stronger, more confident. She is learning so much from you. These are all things that will help the Amazon Nation remain strong."

"What do you want me to do?" the dark warrior was curious.

"I want you to pledge yourself to her," Artemis replied. "Claim what is already yours. Forget about what has been and treat her as an equal."

"And if I donít?" Xena asked leery of anything the Gods wanted.

"Then you will still have her but you will not experience the complete joy that comes only with surrender."

"I surrender to no one," the Conqueror said heatedly.

"Then you will experience more sadness than joy," Artemis sighed sadly. "Do not be so hasty in rejecting my solution. Look to whom you are surrendering. Gabrielle is not Ares, nor is she Caesar, or Lao Ma or even Mílila. She is more then all of them. Her heart is pure, her intentions above reproach.

"How many people would defend someone they didnít know just because she believed in their goodness?" the Goddess asked, slowly starting to fade away. "Remember she believed in you long before she knew you."

Xena watched impassively as the Goddess disappeared, her words still echoing through the air around her. Slowly her turned, re-sheathing her sword and staring once more towards Amazonia.

Surrender! she snorted. She had heard the word often in battle when an enemy had finally admitted defeat. She had never spoken that pledge, not since she had first taken up the sword to defend her village against Cortese. It was a word she had banished from her vocabulary as victory after victory was conceded to her army. She had not conquered all of Greece just to surrender to a bard. A young woman barely out of her childhood.

She felt a surge of anger at the thought but almost as quickly it died, as the truth pierced her heart with the sharpness of a sword. As much as she wanted to deny it, to fight the inevitable, the fact was that she had already capitulated to the girl. She had conceded defeat to an enemy she had never faced. She had been conquered without a battle.

She sighed. Funny, it didnít seem so bad. She certainly didnít feel any different. There was no iron weight holding her down, in fact the truth almost made her feel lighter, as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Perhaps this surrendering thing wasnít so bad. She smiled and turned her head up to the sky, closing her eyes to the darkness and letting the light of the truth shine through. But something tickled her brain and reality stirred once more.

As long as Gabrielle remained by her side, the bard would always be a target for those who most wanted to hurt her. That had been proven by Rufus who had done his best to try and destroy the girl, knowing how much that would destroy her.

Yet at the same time she knew she would never give up the woman, not without a fight. She would do anything for the girl, even make peace with the Amazonís, a nation she had once sworn to destroy. It was ironic how things worked in the cycle of life. Friends became foes and foes became friends.

She opened her eyes and saw that night was slowly giving way to the day. In the pre-dawn light she could see the Amazon border guards watching her camp from their perches in the trees. Despite the fact that a peace treaty was to be signed between them, both sides were nervous, not completely certain they could trust each other. The Conqueror snorted. She wasnít certain it would work, but for the bardís sake she would try.

Joshua approached the Empress with caution, making enough noise so that she would not be surprised. He knew she had not taken any rest that night. She had dealt with the mess General Rufus had created and then exiled herself to a lonely vigil at the edge of the camp. He had caught her glancing towards the Amazon territory and he knew she was thinking of the bard. Though she wore the same dour mask, he knew the separation was hurting her. He cleared his throat.

"Empress," he said breaking the silence. "I have brought you a hot cup of tea. Itís chilly out this morning and I thought you might like something warm."

"Yes," Xena nodded abruptly, appreciating the gesture. She took the mug he held out. The hot liquid felt good on her throat and she realized she was more weary then she thought. She turned her eyes back to the plain.

"Iím sure she is all right," the soldier dared to say, no longer as frightened of this woman as he once had been. Gabrielle had made the Conqueror seem more accessible, more human. "Iíve heard their healers are quite good and with her being their Queen Iím certain they will take extra special care of her."

"They better or they will have me to deal with," Xena muttered and then glanced at her companion.

With one brief look she could see what the young man was trying to hide. He was in love with Gabrielle and the Empress wondered how many more there were like him. Certainly in the brief time she had been at the Palace the girl had gathered a loyal following amongst the servants.

Normally that realization would have stoked the fires of jealousy inside her. Xena had never wanted her lovers to be more popular then herself, yet for the first time she didnít mind. On the contrary she took pleasure in the fact that people cared so much for her companion.

"Thank you Joshua, you have been a good friend to Gabrielle," the Conqueror said surprising the young man who was so flustered by the praise that he was momentarily rendered speechless. He was saved from making any response by the thundering sound of horses approaching.

They turned to see a party of six horsemen, bearing the Empressí standard, heading towards them. The Conqueror spotted Archius amongst the group of soldiers. She shoved the mug back at her companion and strolled purposefully across the camp to greet them.

"I had not expected you to arrive so quickly," she said as the man dismounted from his horse and straightened his cloak and tunic.

"Your message said it was a most urgent matter," Archius replied bowing formally.

"Yes," the Conqueror nodded. "Did you bring everything I requested?"

"All the scrolls relating to this matter are here," the small man turned and retrieved a pouch from his horse.

"Good," the Empress accepted the offering. "Escort me to my tent."

Archius nodded and hurried after the woman. The message he had received had been vague in detail yet some of his questions had been answered by the sight that greeted them as they neared the camp.

More than a dozen crosses had been erected along the side of the roadway with a man tied to each. Most were already dead from the beatings they had received but there were a few who stubbornly clung to life. He had heard their feeble whimpers in passing.

He glanced around the camp. He could feel the tension and the fear. He noticed the fugitive and frightened glances the soldiers cast in the Conquerorís direction. His shrewd eyes took in the absence of General Rufus and it didnít take him long to fit all the pieces together. He looked up at the Empress seeing the tension in her features.

"Is everything all right?" he inquired casually.

"Weíve had a few minor problems, but they have been taken care of," the Conqueror answered his question in a cool voice. "I will be appointing a new General to lead the Regional Army."

Archius needed to hear no more. Her words confirmed his suspicions. He was not surprised by the news, and though he was curious to learn more he would not dare ask the Conqueror. He would get the details from Zenon.

"How is everything in my Empire?" the Empress asked needing to distance herself from the subject for awhile.

"Good," Archius replied, struggling to keep up with her long smooth strides. "However, just prior to my departure. I received disturbing news from General Loris. It seems they captured a Roman patrol inside our borders."

"Oh?" both eyebrows raised curiously.

"Yes, apparently they got lost when they accidentally became separated from their main army."

"Does Loris believe that?" the Conqueror was thoughtful.

"Their explanation is plausible, considering that Caesar has been moving his armies North along the borders," the smaller man replied. "Our sources tell us that he has grand plans of conquering both Gaul and Britannia. General Loris believes he is trying to gloat you into action."

"Why? I have no fondness for either the Gauls or the Celts," the Empress shrugged indifferently, though her analytical mind was working out all the possibilities.

"I think his plan is to draw you out of Greece. He may be of the mind that you would follow him and try to prevent his plans for extending the Roman Empire."

"Perhaps," the Conqueror conceded the possibility and then gave her companion a feral grin. "If I did not know Caesar so well I might consider the idea, but I am not stupid. I know the moment my armies leave port for Britannia, he will attempt to turn his remaining forces on Greece. Besides he can have the north, I have no interest in those barren lands."

Archius smiled. He could almost tell what the Conqueror was thinking. While Caesar occupied himself in the north, she would concentrate on getting a firmer foothold in the lands around the Mediterranean, which were richer and more productive.

"The General wishes to know what you would like done with the prisoners?"

"Send a message that he should continue to hold them while I consider the matter. Letís see what kind of response Caesar comes up with," she paused. "Where is the Third Army?í

"They are still in the Northern region," the man replied.

"Good keep them there, but have them change their standard to mark them as the 5th Army and then have them return to Lorisí Command," the Empress said looking at the small man. "In the meantime there is a problem with the Amazonís that needs to be dealt with. Though a general agreement towards peace has already been reached, there are still several matters to be negotiated."

"Peace!" Archius was so startled he almost tripped over his own feet. "But I thought you intended suppressing them with your armies."

"Circumstances have changed," the Empress spoke of the matter as if it was of little consequence. "The Amazons now possess something I have no wish to destroy."

"But surely you could just go in and take it," Archius said, confused by this sudden change in policy.

"I could but its not so simple," the Conqueror sighed, thinking of how when the bard become involved in anything it always became complicated. "The situation is much to delicate for that, which is why I will be handling the negotiations myself. Iím sorry for making you come all the way out here for nothing."

"Itís all right, your Highness," the man was taken aback by the apology. He peered up at the woman. She was different somehow, less aloof. He took a deep breath and then asked a question that had been weighing heavily on his mind. "The bard, Miss Gabrielle, have you found her?"

"Yes, she is with the Amazonís," the Conqueror replied in a voice that was filled with a sweet kind of sadness.

"Then what General Rufus said was true?" the man didnít want to believe it possible.

"No," Xena assuaged his fear, a weary smile on her lips. "It seems that through a series of circumstances she has been made their Queen. Itís a long story and one Iím sure she will delight in telling you some day."

"Then she is coming back?" the man dared to ask and the tall woman fixed him with a steady gaze.

"I will not return to Corinth until she is able to come with me," the answer was firm and left him in no doubt towards how she felt. "Now make sure you take some food and rest. I want to read these scrolls and when I am done I will send for you."

"Yes, my Empress," the man bowed and watched as the woman ducked into the tent.

He waited only a moment before turning and hurrying off in search of Zenon, with the hopes that the soldier might provide some insight into what had happened. The Conquerorís revelation had been a shock yet he understood now why the Empress was signing a treaty that she would never before have considered. The situation had certainly become more interesting.

chapter two

Ephiny stared at the girl lying on the pallet next to her. Long reddish blond hair was pulled back to reveal a soft, almost childlike face. The woman was younger then she first thought with a look of innocence that only age would be able to erase. But the Amazon knew physical age meant nothing. This girl had shown courage and wisdom beyond her years. Even the healers were enamoured with the woman, whispering that Queen Melosaís decision had been inspired by the Gods.

She had been amused by the gossip but the more time she had to think about the matter the less strange it seemed. The Gods sometimes acted beyond the Realm of mortal understanding.

Gabrielle groaned, summoned from her fitful slumber by an invisible force. She grudgingly opened one eye, closing it quickly when a stream of bright light pierced her visual senses. Her head ached and her entire body felt like a lead weight. There was a stinging pain in her shoulder and a fire burning across her belly. She moaned, wishing the pain would go away.

"Are you all right?" Ephiny asked with concern. "Do you want me to call the healers? Iím sure they can give you something for the pain."

"No!" a pair of green eyes popped open as the face scrunched up into a disgusted frown. "That stuff they gave me tasted like fur off a centaurs butt."

"It worked didnít it?" the Amazon reminded pointedly.

"Yeah, but Iím certain Iíll be tasting it for the next month. Itís almost as bad as that cereal you eat," Gabrielle shuddered melodramatically and Ephiny struggled not to smile. The bard cautiously turned her head to find a lovely pair of grey eyes, topped by a mop of curly blond hair, staring at her. "How long have I been out?"

"Three days," another voice supplied the answer and Gabrielle glanced towards the foot of her cot where an older woman stood. There was a gentle smile on the healers face as she moved around the bed and sat down on a nearby stool. "Your wound wasnít as serious as we first feared but it was bad enough that we worried you would become fevered and rip out the stitches. We gave you a potion to make you sleep."

"Three days!" Gabrielle was astounded by the truth. Her thoughts flew to Xena. "The Conqueror has she been here?"

"No," Kastra shook her head watching as a dejected look crossed the young girlís face. Without knowing why she hastened to defend the Empressí absence, remembering a little of what Eponin had said the last time she had visited the village. "She has been busy dealing with her army but she left word that if your condition were to become critical we were to send for her. I am certain she will be here in the next day or two to begin negotiations on the peace treaty."

"Oh," the bard said but she could not hide the sadness she felt.

"She was very worried about you, her only concern was that you receive the best care as soon as possible," the healer realized that the girl needed reassurance.

Kastra had seen the look of utter devotion that the Conqueror had bestowed on the girl prior to turning her over to the Amazonís. She had seen the pain it had caused the Empress and knew without a doubt the depth of feeling the Ruler of Greece had towards this young woman. It had been a revelation to learn that their most feared enemy was as human as the rest of them.

"Thank you, the medicine youíre giving me for my injuries must be making me a little crazy," Gabrielle smiled weakly trying to hide her insecurities, remembering that she was only one person in a whole nation that Xena had to govern. She had to accept that her beloved could not drop everything to sit at her bedside.

"Speaking of your injuries, how are you feeling?"

"Sore," the girl sighed. "I feel like the whole nation of centaurs rode over me."

"Thatís normal," the healer smiled. "I checked your wounds earlier this morning and they are healing fine though it will still be a few days before it will be safe for you to get out of bed."

"A few days," Gabrielle lamented.

"Unfortunately it will take that long to ensure that the stitches are setting, I realize it is difficult to stay put that long," Kastra cast a perturbed glance at the woman lying on the next cot before turning back to the bard. "But it is a necessity. Your saddlebags and personal items are at the foot of the cot. If you want anything you need only ask."

"Actually, I would like something to read," Gabrielle said thoughtfully, aware that she could put this forced confinement to good use. "You donít happen to have any available scrolls on Amazon laws and traditions, do you?"

"Certainly," the healer was delighted by this request. She stood up. "Iíll have one of my assistants go right now and fetch them for you."

"Thank you," the bard barely managed to say before the older woman hurried off.

"You know Amazon laws and traditions arenít a very interesting read," the warrior in the next cot commented when they were alone and Gabrielle turned her attention back to the woman who had been silently watching the exchange.

"Itís better then nothing," the bard sighed. "Besides I canít just lay here for three more days, it will make me nuts."

"I know this whole forced rest thing sucks," the Amazon agreed marvelling at the pretty green eyes that were staring at her. "The names Ephiny."

"Itís nice to finally meet you Ephiny," the bard smiled and the green eyes flashed. "Iím Gabrielle."

"Hi, Gabrielle," the Amazon smiled and then grew sombre. "I havenít had a chance yet to thank you for saving my life. If you hadnít come along I would be dead."

"I wish I could have done more to help your friends," the girl brushed aside the appreciation, embarrassed by the gratitude.

"You did more then most," Ephiny disagreed and eyed her curiously. "Whyíd you do it?"

A wistful smile crossed the bards lips as she remembered a day not so very long ago. "Someone saved me once and it changed my life forever. I wanted to repay the favour and it just so happened that you were there."

"Iím sorry itís brought you so much trouble," the other woman was sincere.

"Donít worry about it," Gabrielle said cheerfully. "Iíve learned that every action brings some kind of consequence and its up to each of us to determine whether its good or bad. No one plans for these things to happen they just do, but if you have enough faith they will all work out in the end."

Ephiny marvelled at the girlís optimism. It was a pleasing change from the usual pessimism that hung over the village. Curiously she found herself liking the girl. She had a charm that shone out like a beacon. She was beginning to understand why everyone was impressed.

"Everyone has been saying that you are a bard," the Amazon said cautiously wandering if it were true.

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded.

"Then perhaps this will make a good story," Ephiny suggested.

"Hopefully, something good has to come out of this mess," the bard smiled and looked at the other woman. "Would you like to hear a story?"

All it took was for the woman to nod her head and Gabrielle was off, launching into a tale of a hapless village girl and her soldier lover. It seemed like such a long time since she had used her talent and it felt good, not just to be telling stories again, but to have her mind diverted from the pains that consumed her body and her heart.

Lesta was pleased by Kastraís report that the girl was finally awake. The whole council breathed a collective sigh of relief. They had all been living with the same fear, worried about what the Conqueror would do if the young woman succumbed to her wounds. Now that the girl was awake and recovering without complications they could turn their thoughts to the matter of the peace treaty.

The Elders debated long into the night before coming to a consensus. They had negotiated treaties before but none of them were this important. They knew that they were in no position to make any demands yet they had to make it clear to the Conqueror that they were to be treated as allies and not as a conquered nation. Thus the lengthy discussion.

It had been Lestaís idea to consult with the bard Gabrielle and that had brought about considerable

opposition from those who were still adverse to the concept of the young woman being their new Queen. She knew that some of the more militant Elders sided with Velaska. They had been reared in the strictest of Amazon tradition and were offended by the realization that Melosa had bestowed her Right of Caste on an outsider. A woman barely out of childhood with no or little experience. A woman whose loyalties were tied to the Conqueror.

Nonetheless she had persisted, reminding them that the girl had thus far acted with more common sense then devotion. Finally, late into the night they had all agreed. She would speak with the woman in the hopes of gaining some insight into how far they could push the Conqueror. To that end she made her way across the compound towards the healers hut.

She glanced about the village noticing that all the Amazonís were walking around with some type of weapon on their person. Eponin had put the tribe on a state of warlike readiness before heading back to the border that morning. The Weaponís Master had often been accused of being overly cautious but on this occasion no one seemed to mind.

She sighed. The whole situation was almost to heavy a burden to bear. She had looked forward to her golden years as peaceful ones, where she would sit on the Elders council and dispense wisdom to the ruling Queen. She had never imagined that she would be chosen to act as Regent.

She arrived at the healers hut and slipped in unannounced, pausing at the door for a moment to scan the dim interior. The place was empty with the exception of the two patients who were lying next to each other on the far side of the hut. She noticed the friendly way they were talking and it gave her pleasure. She motioned to Kastra who understood the silent communication.

"Come Ephiny," the healer moved over to the Amazonís bed and helped her to her feet. "I think itís time you and I took a walk."

The unexpected action took both the Amazon and the bard by surprise and Ephiny was about to protest when she noticed Lesta standing by the doorway. She understood immediately why she was being given a brief moment of freedom.

Gabrielle was not as clear and was disappointed that her only source of distraction was being led away. The healer had promised to get her some scrolls to read but until now nothing had been delivered. She stared morosely at her surroundings realizing only then that she was not alone.

"Good morning my Queen," Lesta greeted the woman pleasantly, moving across the hut to sit down on the stool by the bardís bed.

"Good morning, and please call me Gabrielle," the young woman replied. She was embarrassed about being called Queen.

"That would be bad protocol," the Elder responded. She knew how the girl disliked the fact that she was their leader. "Kastra says that your wounds are healing nicely."

"Yes, though she says it will be a few days before she will let me up," the blond woman replied and the older woman could hear a note of hesitation in the girlís voice.

"You sound a little scared my Queen. Are you afraid of me?" Lesta asked even as the revelation came to her.

"Itís nothing personal but every time you come around itís with news I donít want to hear," Gabrielle was honest and the other woman laughed.

"Yes, I suppose thatís true enough," the smile faded as the older woman looked intently down at the girl. "Fortunately this time I am here for a different reason. This situation with the impending peace treaty has put us in an awkward position and we were hoping you could help us out."

"How could I help you?" the girl wondered. She was more then a little suspicious.

"You have a knowledge of the Conqueror that could help us..."

"I will not betray her," the bard interrupted. "I know I am your Queen but she is my friend and I will tell you nothing that could hurt her."

"We have no intention of hurting her," Lesta assured the girl, startled by the fierce defence of the Empress. "What we need from you is an idea of what we should be asking from the Conqueror in regards to this treaty. We want to make this process as simple as possible. Treaty negotiations can go on for a very long period and my Sisterís and I worry that we might extend the Conquerorís patience."

"Oh!" this revelation momentarily stunned the bard. She had not considered that they would come to her for advice. She remembered the Conquerorís impatience with the Romanís. "Yeah, Xena gets a little pissed off when things go to slowly."

"Exactly, and itís our intention to keep her in the best possible mood. We found that we have our greatest success when those on the opposite side of the bargaining table are in a good mood." Lesta confided. "Anyway, there are certain concessions we would like to demand."

"You canít demand anything," Gabrielle stated very clearly. "You have to remember she is in control."

"But we canít just surrender, the whole Nation would not stand for it," the Elder shook her head.

"Then you have to offer something that is appealing to her," the bard said with a ghost of a smile as she remembered the negotiating exercise Archius and her had performed the day before she had left the Capital. "For one thing you could offer to supply warriors for her army. Every Commander likes the idea of more troops."

"Iím not sure how many Amazonís would be willing to serve under the Conquerorís standard," Lesta was not encouraging.

"Perhaps not, but they have to remember this is for the good of the whole Nation," the girl reminded. "You are going to have to give concession to get anything, besides the Empress is a Hades of a Commander. They might like being on a winning side for a change."

"Okay," Lesta ignored the last comment because she knew that the Amazonís had been losing to many battles lately. "What else?"

"You could open up your borders to her army. Allow it passage through Amazon territory whenever it heads East," Gabrielle suggested remembering something else that Archius had mentioned. "Right now it takes five days to go around your territory, with the short cut it would only take three days."

"Impossible," the Elder objected doubting that the bard knew what she was saying. "It is forbidden for any men to enter Amazon territory. My Sisters would not tolerate such a concession."

"At first glance it might seem terrible but think of the side benefits for the Nation," Gabrielle said.

"What side benefits?" the older woman wondered suspiciously.

"You could trade with the soldiers," the girl continued. "You know leathers and crafts, things like that. Then of course there is the other benefits to having men around."

"What other benefits?" the older woman asked and Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

"Arenít you are always looking to increase your population. Just imagine the possibilities of having an army of available soldiers," the bard left the rest unsaid and for a moment the Elder was to shocked to say anything. She had presumed that this young woman was naive but it was obvious that the girl was more worldly then she appeared.

"Well, that is always a possibility," Lesta agreed once she recovered her composure. She could only imagine what the reaction would be from the other Elders when she mentioned this little bit of information. Though she wasnít to certain the rest of the Amazon Nation wouldnít consider it a good trade off.

"Then there is the situation with the Centaurs," Gabrielle continued when the woman said nothing more. "I donít know why but I do know that she isnít pleased about the constant conflict that exists between the Amazonís and the Centaurs. I think she might appreciate a truce between your two Nations."

Lesta looked at the girl, not knowing what to say. The Amazonís and Centaurs had been at war with each other for as long as she could remember. So long in fact that she doubted if anyone could remember what had started it. She eyed the girl critically.

"You really think that would make her happy?"

"I donít know if that would make her happy, but I know that it might be something to consider," the bard shrugged and then winced, having momentarily forgotten about the wound in her shoulder.

Lesta was thoughtful for a moment. She looked at the girl. "All we have talked about is concessions. The Amazonís need something in return."

"What do you want?"

"We have always coveted the grazing land to the South. It is an empty tract of land with a deep forest that stretches to the Sea. We are always in need of more hunting lands."

"That doesnít sound to unreasonable," the bard conceded. "What about the mountains? I think I heard some place that they are rich in minerals."

"Indeed they are but the Amazons donít have the resources to mine them," the Elder replied.

"Then make a deal whereby the Conqueror gets access to mine the minerals and you share the wealth."

Lesta nodded thoughtfully. That was an idea worth considering. It would benefit not only the Conqueror, which would appeal to the woman, but also the Amazonís who could use the extra cash that it would bring into their meagre coffers.

"Is there any other little pieces of information that we could use?" the Elder asked aware that the girl had already given her a wealth of useful tidbitís.

"Well, I know the Conqueror is always in need of a consistent supply of good quality weapons, and leather armour, while the Amazonís are always in need of grain for the cereal you love to eat," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "Why donít you make a deal to supply the Conquerorís army with weaponís, and supplies and ask for the grain in return?"

"That is a very good suggestion," the Elder was impressed. She eyed the girl thoughtfully. "I would almost think this had been all planned out before hand."

Gabrielle blushed. "Aah no, I was just using my common sense. The only negotiating I do is with the merchants in the marketplace," she said hastily.

"I pity them," the Elder commented dryly, almost glad that she wasnít negotiating against this woman. "Is there anything we might watch out for?"

"No, just donít piss her off. She may be doing this treaty for me, but she will feel pressured. You push her to hard and it wonít matter what I think. She has the power and the capabilities to storm in here and take whatever she wants."

Lesta knew that the girlís words were meant as a warning. It was a warning that she would take seriously. She left the healers hut with a lot to think about. The Council of Elders was not scheduled to meet until later that afternoon which gave her time to prepare her arguments.

 

It was evening before the Conqueror was finished pouring over the scrolls that Archius had brought from the Capital. When she was done she sent one of her personal guards to fetch the man, spending the time until he arrived by pacing restlessly around her tent.

"You summoned my Conqueror," Archius said ducking into the command tent after being told to enter.

"Have a seat," the Empress motioned to a chair by the table. "Would you like some port?"

"No thank you," the aide declined the invitation aware that whenever the Conqueror offered a refreshment it meant that they had a long night of discussion ahead of them. He watched intently as she poured herself a cup and took a swallow. Wisely he waited for her to speak.

"I have been thinking about this treaty with the Amazonís," Xena said after wetting her throat.

"Yes, Empress," the man prompted when the woman fell silent. The Conqueror glanced up and then nodded.

"What do they have that we could use the most?"

Archius smiled as an earlier negotiations with another woman came to mind.

"How about access to the mountains in the western part of their region?" he suggested aware the Empress was waiting for him to speak. "It has long been rumoured to contain valuable mineral resources. They do not have the capabilities to mine the raw material on their own, thatís why it has been left untouched."

"Yes, and with the wealth that those mines could bring in I could raise an even larger army, though I donít particularly enjoy employing mercenaries," Xena nodded and looked at the man with a bemused smile. "Caesar wouldnít dare think of challenging me then. What else can we get from these people?"

Archius replied with a corresponding smile. If there was one thing that he enjoyed more then anything it was the negotiating of a treaty and though he was disappointed that the Empress would be handling this matter on her own, he was pleased that she had turned to him for advice.

It was well after dark before the Conqueror was satisfied that she would be able to go to the Amazons and come back with enough to keep her happy. She knew that she could force the Amazonís to submit to all her demands but for the first time she didnít want to do that. Perhaps she could gain everything she wanted without raising a sword. It was a novel idea.

"Thank you Archius," she said escorting him out of the tent and realizing only then how late it was. "I donít expect I will see you again until this matter is completely resolved. I will be leaving for the Amazon village early in the morning so have a safe trip back to the Capital and I hope to see you there soon."

"Yes, my Conqueror," the man nodded and strolled off leaving the woman alone.

Xena glanced about the quiet camp. There were only a few fires burning and the troops that had remained at her command were now sleeping. She glanced up at the night sky and smiled, realizing that tomorrow she would be seeing the bard again. It was a pleasant thought that kept her company for the remainder of the night.

 

Solari stared anxiously across the plain. They had been watching the small army camp with a mixture of fear and trepidation. There was a lot of activity with men and horses coming and going. They had even spotted the Conqueror on several occasions. She looked at her fellow warriorís all of whom wore the same anxious expression.

She shifted uneasily, turning her attention once more across the field. Eponin had stationed warriors all along the border but it was a small force in comparison to one that the Conqueror could muster. They watched and waited with the knowledge that if the Empress decided to attack, there would be little they could do to stop her.

She sighed. Like many of the others she was hesitant to believe that the Empress would so easily consider a treaty, especially with the contentious history that existed between them. She worried that it could be an elaborate trap.

A familiar bird call echoed through the forest. She returned it and then watched as the Weaponís Master swung through the trees and up onto a nearby perch. Eponin glided with practiced ease onto a sturdy branch next to her friend.

"Did you have a good sleep?" Solari bade her friend in greeting. The older Amazon had arrived at the border late the previous evening and after checking the guards she had been convinced to take a rest. It had been the first real nightís sleep the woman had gotten in the last few days.

"Slept like a baby," the Amazon nodded. "How is everything?"

"Quiet," Solari made her report and Eponinís face puckered into a contemplative frown. Nothing was making sense, yet it was all real. "There have been small parties of riders entering and leaving the camp but other then that everything has been calm."

"And the Conqueror?"

"Two nights previous the watch reported that she was on the perimeter all night pacing, but at the dawn she retreated to her tent and was only seen once after that," the dark haired Amazon replied. "Do you think this is a trap?"

"My warrior instincts tell me to be careful," the woman replied with a sigh. "There is no logical reason for the Conqueror to make peace with us."

"Then you donít believe she needs our help against the Mongols in the East?" the Scout asked her mentor, a woman who had seen so much more in her lifetime.

"A Commander always welcomes more warriors to protect her borders," was the honest response. "But I canít help thinking there is another motive behind her actions."

"Then you think she really is doing this for our new Queen?" Solari asked observing the pained expression that crossed the other womanís face.

"Have you forgotten who weíre talking about here?" the Weaponís Master looked at her incredulously.

"Well, maybe its not so dumb," Solari defended herself. "Look at the way she carried the Queen from the battlefield. There were some who said they could see a real passion in her eyes."

"Their imaginationís were working overtime," Eponin sniffed. "Hades when did you become such a romantic? Just the idea that the Conqueror could care about someone else is ludicrous."

"I donít know," the scout shook her head with a teasing smile. "There were many who thought the same thing about you, until Melani came along."

"That was a long time ago," the older woman grumbled as a deep blush coloured her face. She didnít like being reminded of the younger woman who had for a time turned her world upset down. She looked away and the Head Scout chuckled, thinking that it felt good to laugh. They had done too little of that recently.

"Itís all right," Solari said laying a gentle hand on her friends arm. "You know anything is possible. The guards who were stationed outside her hut say our new Queen is an awfully sweet woman. Iím sure if she decides to stay with us she will have a whole host of suitors."

Of which I would be one, Eponin thought to herself keeping her steady gaze away from her friend. She didnít need to let the other Amazon know how she felt. The young bard had a way of getting behind a personís defenses without them knowing it. Her thoughts came to a complete standstill. Perhaps that was the way it had happened with the Conqueror. Suddenly the idea didnít seem so ridiculous.

"Are you all right?" Solari asked seeing the strange expression on her friends face.

"Yeah, why?" Eponin asked in a casual voice trying not to be embarrassed by her thoughts.

"You looked kinda strange there for a moment," the Scout leader replied.

"Just thinking," the Weaponís Master mumbled and then stood up, relieved to have a diversion from this conversation. She pointed out across the plain in the direction of the Empressí encampment. There were six riders heading towards them. "Send the signal down the line to be ready. Letís go see what our new friend wants."

 

 

chapter three

 

Xenaís hawk like eyes took in everything with one sweeping glance as they rode into the heart of Amazon territory. The huts of the village were built in a circular pattern with the Royal residence, the common dining and bathing huts positioned at the center. It was a defensive set up and she admired the strategy behind the planning.

Her eyes narrowed at the appearance of the armed warriors stationed at various points of the village. It appeared that the Amazonís werenít entirely convinced of her sincerity. She allowed a smile to toy with her lips. She realized that they might just get along after all.

"Halt," Eponin raised her hand to stop the procession before turning to look at the Conqueror who was leaning casually in her saddle. The woman appeared relaxed but there was something about her

manner that suggested she was anything but sedate. "Our warriors will take care of your horses."

"No," the Empress shook her head a feral smile coming to her lips as she gracefully swung a leg over Argoís neck and dismounted. "One of my own men will watch the horses. Just show him where the stables are."

Eponin hesitated. Men normally werenít allowed in Amazon territory and certainly not in the village. She glanced across at Lesta who had emerged from the Council hut just in time to hear the exchange. The Elder stared at their tall visitor for a moment before turning her attention back to the Weaponís Master.

"The trust has to begin some place," the woman said. "Allow her people to tend to their own mounts."

"All right, go with Carmela," Eponin motioned to a young slender dark haired Amazon who was in charge of the stables. "You will each be assigned an Amazon to escort you around the village. Do not try to get away from them because if you are caught on your own, we cannot guarantee your safety."

"Of course," the Empress inclined her head accepting the terms of their visit before handing Joshua the reins to her horse. They stood silently as the soldiers moved off with the horses.

"If you would just follow me," Eponin said motioning towards the Council hut.

"If itís all right with you, I would first like to see how my friend is doing," the Conqueror said. The sentence was phrased as a question but everyone knew it was no request. There was little doubt that the Conqueror would go see the bard whether the Amazonís wanted her too or not.

Eponin hesitated again. She had assigned herself to watch the Empress and was certain she could

put up a worthy challenge if the Conqueror decided to try something. But she wasnít happy with the idea of the woman wandering around the village, even with an escort. Once again she looked to Lesta for advice.

"Of course," the Elder nodded in quiet understanding. "You must be worried about your friend. Eponin will escort you to the healers hut. When you are ready we can start the negotiations."

The Conqueror nodded and turned pale blue eyes on the Amazon in front of her. Eponin swallowed. She could feel the tension and power radiate off the dark haired Empress. It was both seductive and frightening.

"Come this way," she said in a barely audible voice.

They walked through the compound towards the healers hut and Xena felt as if every eye in the village was watching her, which it probably was. She kept her senses alert not uncertain that they wouldnít take advantage of the situation. For a moment her eyes fastened on those of a tall, red headed warrior.

Velaska. She remembered the Amazonís name. The hair on the back of her neck rose and she knew this woman would be trouble. She narrowed her eyes until they were pale slits, allowing the animal inside her to show. The Amazon was the first to look away and the Conqueror smiled with feral satisfaction. She reigned the panther back inside its cage.

Ephiny was so engrossed in the story the girl was telling that she didnít hear the door to the healers hut open. But she saw the bardís eyes grow large and round as a brilliant smile spread across her whole face. The girlís features seemed to light up with such adoration that the Amazon had to turn to see what was the inspiration for such devotion. She almost fell off her cot when she saw the Conqueror standing only a few feet away.

Her eyes flew frantically to Eponin who was standing just behind the famed Empress, but the warrior seemed fascinated by the interaction between the two strangers to their village. She looked at the tall raven haired Conqueror, astonished at the brief look of tenderness she saw in the womanís eyes as she knelt at the bardís bedside.

"Xena!" Gabrielle shrieked. She had never felt so happy to see someone.

"How are you feeling?" the Conqueror asked gruffly, having a hard time keeping a goofy smile of her face. She could not believe the joy that filled her heart at the sight of the bard. It took all her self control not to gather the girl up into her arms in a fierce embrace.

"Okay," the bard said with a crooked grin and the Conquerorís eyebrows rose inquisitively.

"Okay?"

"All right, if you want the truth I feel like Hades," the girl confessed with a blush and that drew the tiniest of smiles from the Empress. Xena reached out and tenderly stroked the bardís forehead, relieved to find that it was only slightly warm.

"Let me see what theyíve done," she said lifting up the thin cotton blanket and reaching for the linen bandages that covered her torso.

"Xena!" the bard squeaked with embarrassment aware that the healers had stripped her naked. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder she brushed her loverís hands away. The Conqueror paused to eye her critically.

"Iím okay, you donít have to fuss," Gabrielle silently revelled in this attention but she was aware they werenít alone and she was shy about showing her body off.

"I like fussing," the Empress said quietly flashing the bard a look of love that made her breath catch in her throat. "Indulge me."

The request came as a low rumble out of the Conquerorís chest and Gabrielle was helpless against the emotions it aroused. She glanced fugitively at their companions and then turned back to her lover, aware they were the main focus of attention.

"Iím naked," she whispered with embarrassment.

"Iíve seen you naked before," the Conqueror replied with a touch of amusement.

"Yes, but they havenít," she rolled her eyes and immediately Xena understood her lover's reluctance. She turned her head and cast an intimidating glance at the women who had been intently watching them.

"Could we get some privacy here," she said in a commanding voice that sent a wave of colour through the eavesdropping Amazons.

"Aah yes, certainly," Kastra was slightly flustered, she looked at the other Amazonís in the hut. "Eponin why donít we take Ephiny out for a walk."

"I canít leave her alone," the Amazon warrior protested and the Empress cast her a wry glance.

"I can assure you I wonít do anything with Gabrielle," the Conqueror said dryly sending a wave of colour to the other womanís face.

"Iím sure you wonít," Kastra hastily agreed before helping Ephiny to her feet. But the other Amazon refused to move which caused the Conqueror to grow slightly irritated. Sensing the beginning of trouble the healer gave the Amazon warrior a hardy push out the door.

"Iíll be right outside, so donít try anything," Eponin growled before the door was slammed shut. The Conqueror nodded with approval and then turned back to the bard.

"Satisfied?" she asked with a wink.

"No," the girl was honest. "You scared the centaurís poop out of them."

"Good," Xena smiled. "Now let me see."

Gabrielle removed her hand allowing her lover access. Xena gently removed the linen bandages that were loosely wrapped around the wounds. There was only a small amount of blood seepage and nothing to indicate any type of infection. The healers had made the stitches small so as to eliminate any major scarring. She carefully redressed the wounds.

"Are you satisfied?" the bard asked.

"For now," the Conqueror said growled. Assured now that her sweet love was going to be all right the Empress became her stern self. "I only showed you how to use the staff for protection. I never meant for you to be a warrior. What in Hades were you thinking running into the midst of the battle?"

"I donít know," Gabrielle stammered her heart feeling heavy. She was startled by this sudden turn in her lover. "I was just trying to help. Everybody was fighting."

"Yes, I know you were, but you almost got yourself killed," Xena allowed some of her pent up frustration to show. She wasnít really angry at the girl, but the last few days had been more stressful then usual. "You just have to control that kind heart of yours."

Gabrielle looked away, her eyes filling with tears. "Iím sorry."

"Oh Hades," the Empress cursed as a single tear rolled down the bardís cheek. Tenderly she reached out and wiped it away, continuing to stroke the girlís soft skin with her long fingers.

"Please donít be angry with me," the bard begged in a tired voice that gripped the warriors heart and squeezed it tightly.

"I could never be angry with you Gabrielle," Xena sighed deeply, her own eyes darkening with emotion. "I just donít want anything to happen to you. Promise me, next time youíll stay back where itís safe."

"Xena..." the bard started to protest but the Conqueror gently put a finger over her lips to silence her words.

"No," the Empress was quite firm. "Now that they know who you are, they will come after you and as much as I enjoy rescuing bards, there will come a day when I wonít be there. I donít want someone making a reputation over you."

Gabrielle nodded. She understood what the Conqueror was saying. She could still clearly see the look on Rufusí face as he had attacked. Even now it sent chills down her spine, besides she was in no mood to argue anymore. All she wanted to do was bask in the happiness of being in Xenaís presence again. She savoured the feel of the warriors hand on her cheek as she continued to stroke her skin.

She reached over and laced her fingers through the ones on the Empressí free hand.

"Are you here for the negotiations?" she asked.

"Yes," Xena nodded feeling the urge to sweep this woman into her arms yet denying herself that pleasure, uncertain whether she would be able to release the girl without doing something foolish.

"You wonít be to tough on them will you?" Gabrielle wondered, her green eyes glued to the face of the dark haired woman who was bent over her.

"I have to look after my interests," the Conqueror reminded the bard.

"They can be a good ally to you," came the typical response and the Empress had to fight the smile that was threatening to overtake her features. When she spoke her tone was grave.

"There is some bad blood between us," the Conqueror was honest. "Iím not certain it can be forgotten or forgiven."

"If it hasnít then why would they agree to negotiate?" it was a relevant question.

"They might be doing it more out of fear then anything Gabrielle," Xena admitted truthfully. "They know that I could bring my army in and destroy them."

"They can help you Xena," Gabrielle insisted. "Theyíre not bad, maybe just a little cranky sometimes.

I think it probably has to do with all those hormones cycling at once."

The Conqueror almost laughed out loud at the observation but she only allowed a small smile to tickle the corners of her lips. She took a deep breath and stood up finding it more difficult then she imagined to leave. She held the bardís hand, stroking it affectionately, but she had wasted enough time. There were matters that needed to be taken care of.

"Get some sleep, I will stop back later," she said glancing at the doorway to the hut, seeing the outline of an impatient warrior waiting for her.

"Donít forget," Gabrielle whispered.

"I wonít," Xena promised and then bent to place a passionate kiss on the bardís lips before turning and strolling out of the hut to where the Amazon was waiting. She gave the woman a glowering look. "Take me to your leaders."

Eponin bobbed her head mutely before escorting the Conqueror back across the courtyard to the Council hut where the Elders were waiting. She marvelled at the startling change in the Empressí personality and began to wonder if what she had witnessed in the healers hut had really actually happened.

She had been outside but the two women had not lowered their voices and she had been able to hear everything. It had been enlightening and she thought again about the bardís ability to reach out to people.

"I hope you were satisfied by your friends progress?" Lesta said rising from her chair when the Conqueror stepped through the door into the Council hut.

"Yes, thank you for tending to her wounds," Xena nodded briskly and glanced about the room. It was dim and stuffy and she suddenly had the urge to be any place else but here. Rather then stifling the restlessness she felt, the visit with the bard had only served to increase her discontent. She knew then that she would not be all right until they were together and alone.

"She is our Queen," the Elder reminded the Conqueror in a regal voice. "We could do nothing less."

The Empress didnít like being reminded of the fact that Gabrielle was now the Queen of this Amazon tribe. It made her feel angry and helpless all at the same time. Reigning in her emotions she stalked across the room to an empty chair near the center of the table and sat down. She glanced at the Elders as she folded her arms arrogantly across her chest.

"What kind of terms do you propose, so that I donít bring in my army and destroy you?" she asked and settled back in her chair.

Lesta was momentarily taken aback by this direct approach and then realized that the Conqueror was not one to play silly political games. She glanced at her colleagues and then sat down glancing briefly at the scroll in front of her. It was a parchment filled with their ideas on what the treaty should contain. Most of them had been derived from her talk with the bard.

"We have taken the liberty of drawing up an informal agreement," the Elder said quietly glancing anxiously at the stern face that was staring unblinkingly at her. "It outlines some things that the Amazon Nation would like."

The Conqueror watched unemotionally as the Elder passed a sheet of parchment across the table. She picked it up and scanned its contents indifferently. She was almost surprised for the Amazonís appeared to have looked at the situation in a realistic manner. The conditions and demands were not unreasonable but the Empress knew that she was in control.

A curious thought nibbled at her brain as she thought about her discussion with Archius the previous evening. One glance at this parchment and it was like the Amazonís had been listening in on their conversation. She set the paper down, unwilling to make the situation appear to simple least they think her weak.

"These terms look reasonable," she conceded out loud, then gave them a dour look. "But why should I accept them?"

The Conqueror leaned further back in her chair, content to listen while these women outlined their position. She already knew what she would give them, but it was always good to let them think they had won their concessions. As the day dragged on she found her thoughts drifting to the bard.

She had found it difficult to control the urge to reach out and scoop the girl into her arms. It wasnít the passion that she was looking for any more. It was merely the physical contact, the need to have her close. It was a novel experience, one that she had never had with any of her lovers. It was strange. She had never wanted any one to touch her unless it was during sex, but with Gabrielle she wanted to feel her always, even if it was just the touch of her hand on her arm. She took a deep breath.

Her relationship with the girl had made her stronger, but yet at the same time more vulnerable. She knew that if anything happened to Gabrielle, she would be pitched into a blackness she had never seen. It would be a darkness from which there would be no return. The anger she had felt at Lyceus death would be nothing in comparison and she was more determined then ever to make sure nothing happened.

It was late in the afternoon when the negotiations were finally completed. Xena had conceded nothing more then she had planned and she could see that the Amazonís were happy with the results. In the end she had gained the most. Now she had a whole army of Amazonís under her command. An army who were fully trained and who would patrol her Eastern borders without costing her a penny.

"There is one question I have in regards to this small clause attached to this term," the Conqueror

motioned at the item they had discussed at greater length then the rest. "In return for allowing my army a more direct route to the Eastern border, I shall allow the Amazonís a special benefit as requested. What is this special benefit?"

Lesta was silent for a long moment. She glanced at the other Elders. She had almost been surprised when her Sisterís had thought the bardís idea a necessity to include in the treaty. She looked at the

Conqueror now, feeling slightly embarrassed despite her years and experience.

"As you know the Amazonís generally donít allow any men in our territory," the Amazon tried to explain as delicately as possible. "Thatís proves to be a huge problem considering we like to build our population."

"You want my army to service your women?" Xena couldnít believe what she was hearing. She laughed harshly and the Elder flushed.

"Queen Gabrielle thought it would be a good idea," Lesta defended the clause and the expression on the Conquerorís face became amused.

"Well, then if your Queen thinks itís a good idea then it must be a good idea," she said with a nod of her head and then had another uncanny thought that perhaps there was a collusion going on with these negotiations. She stood up ending any further discussion. "There is one subject that has not yet been broached which is of utmost importance to the both of us."

The Elders looked up at their visitor and then at each other.

"What would that be?" Lesta dared to ask. She desperately searched her mind to think of anything they had forgotten.

"The question of Gabrielle," the Conqueror said slowly, "your Queen."

"That is an Amazon problem," the Elder spoke without thinking and watched as the expression on their guestís face tightened.

"On the contrary," the Conqueror reminded them in a terse voice. "Gabrielle is part of my household and she will be returning to the Capital with me when I leave."

"Thatís impossible," Lesta exclaimed. "She is our Queen. She needs to remain with us so that she can learn the ways of the Amazonís and lead us."

"I wonít leave her here," Xena said bluntly.

"Then we do have a problem," Lesta agreed solemnly and the Conqueror nodded.

"One that I suggest you put your greatest efforts into solving," Xena replied in a cool voice. "As I said, I have no intention of leaving Gabrielle behind and if that means killing anyone who tries to stand in my way I will do it."

"We understand," the Elder nodded and then escorted the tall visitor to the door. "It will take our scribes a few days to write out the agreement. You are welcome to enjoy the Amazon hospitality in the meantime. We usually celebrate any treaty signing with an official ceremony and feast. I hope you will join us."

"I will consider your invitation," the Conqueror bowed her head respectfully. "In the meantime I suggest you think hard on the situation. If you cannot resolve it I will take matters into my own hands."

Lesta nodded, unconsciously shivering at the icy tone of the other womanís voice. The Elder had little doubt that the Conqueror would follow through with her threat. She looked over the tall raven haired woman. She was a formidable creature in her black leathers and armour and there was a definite menace that surrounded her.

"Will you stay and join us for evening meal?" Lesta invited when the Conqueror made to leave.

"No, I have matters to attend back at my camp," Xena politely declined. In spite of the formal agreement they had just reached, she still did not trust the Amazonís and wanted to be back in her camp before darkness fell.

"I would like to see my friend again before I leave," she said and the Elder nodded.

Xena was intent on saying goodbye to the bard, but the girl was sleeping so peacefully she hadnít the heart to wake her. Instead she just sat for a few minutes, staring at the girl, allowing her pale blue eyes to trace and memorize every detail. A brief smile coming to her lips at the sight of the stack of scrolls that were scattered on the cot.

Gently she reached out and brushed her fingers lightly across the girlís smooth cheek, giving in to her desire to touch the bard. Her whole body craved the contact that had been missing from her life for too long. It was a desire that only Gabrielle could satisfy. She bent her head and lightly brushed her lips over the bardís and a pair of green eyes, soft with sleep, popped open.

"Xena, youíre here. It was such a long time that I thought you had left without stopping to see me," Gabrielle sighed with contentment as her eyes fluttered closed and then open again, not afraid to voice her insecurities..

"I promised you Iíd visit before leaving," the Conqueror said with a tenderness reserved solely for the girl. "I will never break my promises to you Gabrielle. I am just now on my way back to camp."

"Take me with," the bard begged quietly, tears filling her eyes. She didnít want to be left behind again. "Donít leave me."

"I wonít leave you," Xena promised, somehow knowing this would be the only one she ever kept. "But you are still to ill to travel. You need a few more days of rest and healing."

"Iíll heal faster if Iím with you," the girl insisted with a stubborn pout.

"No my bard," the Empress smiled indulgently. "If you came with me, weíd probably end up doing something that would tear out some of your stitches. Then it would just take all that much longer for you to heal."

"Oh, Xena, why do you have to be so practical all the time," Gabrielle moaned.

"Because everything would fall apart if I wasnít," the Empress replied gently stroking the girlís cheek.

"I missed you," the girl said not concealing her emotions and green eyes met blue. "Every day you were gone I prayed to the Gods that you were safe and every night I lay in bed longing to feel you beside me. I missed the way you held me, the way you touched me, just the way you looked at me."

The Conqueror was silent. The bard was never reluctant to express her thoughts or feelings and that was one of her most endearing qualities. She lacked those same qualities. She wanted to say the words but couldnít. In her mind it would be giving the bard far to much power. She bent her head until her lips were right next to the bardís ear.

"Hurry up and get better and then we can make up for lost time and Iíll show you what youíve really been missing," the Conqueror whispered, her warm breath caressing the bardís skin.

Gabrielle wasnít able to control the blush that crept up her neck and over her face. The Empress gave a throaty laugh and then uncaring who witnessed the scene, kissed the younger woman in a way that claimed the girl as her own. The bard was still reeling with emotion long after the Conqueror had left.

Ephiny had pretended to be sleeping aware the exchange between the two women had been highly personal. She had been shocked by the intensity of emotion in both womenís voices. She hadnít believed it possible that a woman so cold and heartless as the Conqueror could sound so sincere and tender.

Her thoughts dwelt for a moment on the tall dark haired warrior. A flood of desire washed over her body at the images that filled her senses. The Conqueror, in spite of her cold veneer, was beautiful. It was a beauty that radiated off the woman. It was a seductive beauty that spoke of strength, power and a passion that would last all night.

The Amazon rolled over and stared at the girl. Gabrielleís eyes were closed but the expression on her face was anything but peaceful. The Empressí reputation and sexual prowess were legendary and she wondered how this innocent looking girl was able to handle that faucet of the Conquerorís life. If any of the stories were true then certainly it would take more than this child to satisfy the powerful womanís appetite.

Ephiny would have been surprised to know their thoughts were running along the same lines for Gabrielle was dwelling on Xenaís last words. The idea that the Empress wanted to be with her in the physical sense was thrilling yet, solemnly she acknowledged the truth. It was a realization she had come to accept, regardless of the pain it brought.

From the beginning she had accepted the fact that she would never be the only one in the Empressí life. She knew of the Conquerorís reputation. Everyone said Xena had an appreciation for beauty and took what she wanted, when she wanted it. The Empress satisfied her desires for sex the same way she satisfied her craving for food.

Gabrielle was no fool. The Conqueror would take other lovers. Xena was a dynamic woman with an Empire of temptation. As it had been with Marc Anthony, they would offer themselves to her for pleasure. Her only hope was that none of those lovers would replace her in the Empressí affection.

Despite that brave thought, the bard was filled with an intense pain at the idea of the Conqueror sharing her bed with anyone else. In her heart she wanted to be the only one who sought and gave pleasure to the Empress. Not only did she want to be first in the Conquerorís heart and bed, she wanted to be the only one.

"Youíre in love with her," Ephiny broke the silence. It was a statement yet also a question, born of watching the twitching expressions crossing the bardís features.

"Yes," Gabrielle admitted without embarrassment, confirming a truth that had suddenly become to heavy to bear on her own.

"Why?" was the next question and the bard glanced at her with a raised eyebrow and the Amazon flushed thinking about how it sounded. "Sorry I...that wasnít a very tactful question."

"No," Gabrielle laughed and then sobered. "Itís something that a lot of people wonder about."

"So whatís the answer?" Ephiny prodded after a hesitant moment.

"There are so many reasons," the girl sighed. "Itís something I canít really explain. There was this connection from the first moment we met. You could call it love at first sight but it was more then that. It was like I found a missing piece of myself. She makes me feel whole."

"Does she love you?" the Amazon dared to ask feeling a strange kinship with this woman.

"She would never allow herself to care that much," Gabrielle sadly shook her head, acknowledging the truth. "But thatís not the point of loving someone, itís only a benefit. When you give love you shouldnít expect anything in return."

"How do you live with that?" Ephiny wasnít certain what to think of this young woman.

"I remind myself why we are together," the girl choose her words carefully not quite able to dismiss giving in to her insecurities. "She likes that I am honest and not afraid of her. I entertain and amuse her. I think I challenge her in a way nobody else dares too. I make her happy, and right now that is enough for me."

The Amazon didnít know what to say. She had thought this girl was blind but obviously her vision was clear. She lived in a dream world but she was definitely grounded by reality.

"Arenít you afraid of her?" the wounded warrior was curious.

"No," the girl shook her head. "Perhaps I should be, everyone else is, but I have this feeling that she will never hurt me. Maybe its a false confidence, but there have been times already when I have tested her patience and she hasnít done anything. Maybe I just havenít done anything big enough to upset her."

Ephiny watched as the girl shrugged. She didnít have an answer, for she didnít know the Conqueror. Privately she marvelled at this simple yet complex girl woman. She thought about their most

prominent problem. One that was preoccupying the thoughts of all her Sisters.

"As Queen itís your duty to rule the Amazon Nation," the older woman said quietly wondering if the girl had given the situation any thought.

"I canít, not if it means I have to be separated from Xena," the voice was very decisive. "Nothing is worth having, if you have to give up being with those you love. Besides Iím no Amazon and I know nothing about ruling a nation."

"We would teach you," Ephiny replied.

"It would be a waste to teach someone who doesnít want to learn," the girl sighed. "Velaska wants to challenge for the mask, perhaps I should just conceded defeat."

"No!" the word exploded from the Amazonís throat. There was a stricken look on the warriors face. "You canít do that. Velaska just wants to go to war. She would only end up destroying the Nation."

Gabrielle studied the Amazon for a long moment. "Then we will have to figure something out. I wonít stay here, not once Xena leaves."

PART TWO

chapter four

 

The Conqueror returned to the camp and was surprised to find that Archius had not yet departed for the Capital. The man had been brave enough to come out and greet her arrival and she wondered if she should discipline him for failing to follow her instructions.

"I had not expected to see you still here," she said with an edge to her voice. "Is there a good reason why you have disobeyed me?"

Archius knew he was taking a chance by disobeying her orders, yet he believed that once he had explained, the Conqueror would understand. The soldiers nearby glanced away nervously, fearful of what punishment this manís insubordination would bring.

"I was preparing to leave and then I realized there was one situation that we hadnít sorted out," the small man said taking a deep breath. "I thought perhaps that you might need some help in figuring out how to bring the bard home."

"You think I need help?" the Conqueror asked without expression.

"No," the man replied diplomatically, "but the Amazonís are sometimes difficult to deal with."

"Oh?" the Empress asked raising her eyebrows, clearly amused by his response. "What do you know about the Amazonís?"

To her knowledge the small man did not entertain women. He had other tastes and more then once she had protected him from the troops of her army. Perhaps that was why he had remained so loyal to her.

"My sister was an Amazon," the man said quietly, unable to met her gaze.

Xena was silent as she pondered the situation. Normally she had confidence that she would be able to find a solution to any problem, however on this occasion her insecurities were filling her with doubts. It seemed whenever Gabrielle was involved she questioned her judgement. Though she would never ask for it, she welcomed any assistance.

"You are lucky I am in a generous mood," she said, sliding off her horse and handing the reins to a soldier waiting nearby.

"Yes," he nodded bowing his head. He knew luck had nothing to do with her decision. The Conqueror was in love, whether she admitted to it or not, and she wanted to be absolutely certain about everything she did where the girl was concerned. "The bard, Gabrielle, is she well?"

"Yes, she is better then I expected. Fortunately her wounds were not to deep and thankfully there is no infection," the Empress said, her face growing tense. "Rufus nearly killed her."

"Then it is fortunate that you were there," the man said solemnly, realizing that the Conquerorís timely intervention had not only saved the bard but probably many more lives. He had little doubt that if the General had succeeded in killing the girl then the Empress would have gone mad with rage.

"Have you heard any more from General Loris?" the Conqueror asked abruptly changing the subject. She did not want to dwell on what could have been, the images it invoked in her head were to disturbing.

"No," the man shook his head.

"That is a good thing," the woman nodded and then turned to enter her tent. "Keep me posted if anything comes in."

"Yes," Archius agreed and then hastily continued before the Conqueror disappeared inside the tent.

"The negotiations, how did they go?"

The tall woman paused, letting the flap drop back into place. She turned and looked down at the small man, and after a moment he shifted uncomfortably under the intense scrutiny. There was an odd expression on her face. One he could not interpret.

"Surprisingly well," she said quietly. "It was almost as if the whole thing had already been worked out."

"Thatís good news," the man bowed his head so as to hide the pleased smile that tugged at his lips.

"It is," she agreed. "Now do you want to tell me why I think Gabrielle and you had something to do

with that?"

"I am sorry my Empress, if this displeases you," the small man quickly lost his amusement, afraid that the Conqueror would see no humour in the situation. "Just prior to her departure from the Palace the bard and myself engaged in a mock treaty negotiations. By some fate Miss Gabrielle chose for the exercise a treaty between the Amazonís and yourself. Neither of us for a moment believed it would ever happen."

"So you already knew what the Amazonís would ask for?" the Empress said quietly.

"I knew what you would want and Gabrielle only guessed at what they might want," the man replied and there was silence. When there was no response forthcoming the man chanced a look at the Conquerorís face and was surprised by the amused look on her features.

"Then I must thank you both for saving me allot of trouble," she was honest. "I had wondered how the Amazonís would know what I would concede to them. It is obvious that they had a chat with Gabrielle before they negotiated."

"Please do not fault her, if any one is to blame it is I," Archius said hastily in case the Empress was upset.

"I am not angry Archius," Xena actually smiled then. "I am most appreciative. Now I must watch out for the both of you otherwise I am certain you will bargain my power away from me."

"That is one thing you need not fear," the man allowed himself a smile. "Miss Gabrielle is very protective of your interests."

"Perhaps," the Conqueror was noncommittal on that point, though the idea made a flood of warmth flow through her body. She turned a critical eye on her aide. "I can not let your disobedience go unpunished. Perhaps, I shall get you to service the first batch of Amazonís they send us."

"I do not understand," the small man said with a perplexed expression.

"That was obviously one term that Gabrielle and you didnít discuss. Iíll let her explain it to you later," the Conqueror said with a wicked smile. "Itís been a long day and weíre both tired, we will meet tomorrow after breakfast."

With that the Empress turned and disappeared inside her tent and Archius allowed himself a moment to feel relieved before he turned and walked back to his own temporary quarters. He dwelt on the womanís last comment and instinctively knew it was something he wouldnít like.

Contrary to what she said the Conqueror did not try to rest. Until this matter was resolved she would not find any sleep. Instead she once again immersed herself in the scrolls that Archius had brought from Corinth.

She didnít know much about Amazon law or tradition. She hadnít needed to know much. Yet now it was important that she was familiar with every faucet of their existence. She ignored everything including the food that was brought to her tent, focusing her entire attention on the documents in her hands.

It was late into the night before she finally put the scrolls down and lay back on her bedroll. The material she had read gave her an idea yet she was uncertain is she was capable of following it through. She rolled over onto her side and felt an uncomfortable lump in the pocket of her leathers. She reached down and dug out the offending object staring at it for a long time. She was ashamed to acknowledge that she had forgotten about it until now.

She clutched the small vial of oil in her hand. It was such a small thing. A simple gift, yet even surrounded by turmoil and filled with pain the bard had remembered to give it to her. In spite of everything that had been going on, the girl had thought of her.

Surrender, Artemis had said, and feel more joy than you have ever imagined. She felt it and it was wonderful, yet Xena was not stupid. She knew that with this joy there would come pain. A pain so intense she doubted if she would ever heal.

She rolled over onto her back and stared up at the canvas ceiling, her fist clenching tightly around the small vial of scent. The girl had become everything to her. Artemis had said surrender and thatís what she had done and now there were so many possibilities.

If she allowed it to happen, Gabrielle could be the path for her to go home again. Her brief visit to Amphipolis had shown her that there was still a chance to recapture some of what she had thought lost. She had returned to a world she had thought was impossible to re-enter. A world that was now beckoning to her.

She closed her eyes and the images of the girl that were firmly planted in her brain floated across her mind. Her heart contracted painfully and for the first time she wondered if she wasnít being selfish. She loved the woman, more than she imagined she could ever love anyone, yet she wondered if that was fair. Their being together put Gabrielle in danger and as she had told the girl, she wouldnít always be there to protect her.

She sighed. The Amazonís could be the solution to her predicament. It would be so simple for her to just turn away and ride back to Corinth. Simple but not easy and she wondered if she was strong enough to let the girl go. Yet there was the possibility that she would have no other choice. It was while she was still mulling over this thought that a knock came on the pole outside her tent.

"Enter," she called in a strained voice as she swung her legs over the edge of the cot and sat up. She watched as Archius slipped into the shelter. "Is there a problem?"

"No, your Majesty, you requested that we meet after breakfast," the man replied and saw the mild look of surprise and consternation on the Empressí face.

Xena had been so deep in thought that she had not realized when night had passed back into day. She suddenly felt very lost and alone. She looked across at the aide knowing she needed something she did not have. She needed a friend.

"You have been up all night," Archius said astutely, his sharp mind putting the pieces together. A swift glance had shown him the unravelled scrolls and the unused bedroll. There was even an untouched plate of food from the previous evening meal sitting on a nearby table.

"Yes," the Conqueror did not try to hide the truth. She stood up and began to pace restlessly around the cramped shelter, running a nervous hand through her thick dark hair. "This situation is beyond me. Perhaps I should just settle the matter by going in and conquering them."

"Then why donít you?" the man wanted to know.

"For the same Godsbedamned reason that I am signing a peace treaty," the Empress said with a scowl. She paused and stared intently at her companion. Her blue eyes dark. "Be honest with me Archius, am I being a fool?"

"A person who seeks peace is no fool," he responded diplomatically.

"But I am seeking this for reason of the heart and not of the mind. That can not be a smart course of action," she replied.

"Perhaps it may not seem that way to you now," the man said softly. "But you are not blind, your reasons may be of the heart but sentiment has not clouded your judgement. You still see everything very clearly."

"Before it was so easy, I never used to second guess my decisions."

"That is because you did not care," the small man spoke the truth. "The best decisions are not always the easiest, just like the things most worthy are sometimes those hardest earned. Your reign as Empress of Greece, does it not give you more pleasure because of all the hardships that you faced to gain that glory?"

Xena was silent. The man was making sense but she wasnít sure she wanted to listen to it let alone accept what he was saying. She turned away and stared for a moment at the scrolls scattered across the camp table.

"Amazon law allows for a Regent to be named to handle the affairs of the tribe in the Queenís absence," she said relating what she had learned in her long evening of study. "If Gabrielle so chooses, and with the permission of the Council of Elders, she can elect someone to replace her as Ruler of the tribe."

"It has been done," Archius nodded. "In my Sisters tribe the Queen would often be away on trade missions and in her absence she named a Regent to reign. It is the perfect solution."

"Provided that all parties agree," Xena sniffed glancing at her companion.

"You think the Amazonís will not agree?" the man asked.

"It is not the Amazonís that I am thinking of," came the blunt answer.

"You think Miss Gabrielle would want to stay and rule the Amazonís?" the suggestion caught Archius by surprise.

"It would be a temptation hard to resist," came the solemn response. "Most people would find it hard to turn down a life where they are waited on hand and foot."

"Not Miss Gabrielle," the aide shook his head vigorously. "She will not stay."

"Perhaps it might not be her first choice, but I think we both know the bard well enough to know that

she would sacrifice her own desires to help others," the Conqueror said with a hint of cynicism. "It has been obvious to me that the death of their Queen has divided the tribe. It is in need of a strong unifying leader."

"You think Miss Gabrielle is that?" Archius was startled to hear the Conqueror speak in this way.

"She could be," Xena sighed, remembering what Artemis had said that night not long ago. A weary smile tipped the corners of her lips. "She is a formidable force. Without even trying she has conquered us all. Think of it Archius, she has managed to defeat the most feared warrior in the land without even raising a hand, let alone a sword. To me that speaks volumes."

Archius considered her words and silently he had to agree. Without even trying the girl had ingratiated herself into everyoneís life so that they were dedicated to her without exception. He glanced across at the Empress, realizing that if it had been any one else the Conqueror would not have been so gracious.

"All that you say is true, however, I think you have forgotten the most important fact," he paused, choosing his words carefully and the Conqueror looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Gabrielle does not lust after power the way most of us do."

"No, but she has a kind heart," the Empress reminded him. "The Amazonís are clever. They may just appeal to her sense of service. If she believes they need her then she will feel duty bound to remain."

"You think they will try to convince her?" Archius asked frowning.

"I would if I was them," came the quiet reply.

"Then you must do what you have to, to make sure that it doesnít," the man said quietly and tall woman nodded her head.

 

Indeed back at the Amazon village the campaign was already under way. After much discussion it was decided that Lesta approach the bard. The Elder stopped by the healers hut, standing for a long moment in the doorway watching their guest who had not yet noticed her presence. The older woman stared at the girl who was avidly pouring over some scrolls that the healers had provided. It pleased her to see that they were about Amazon government.

She silently studied the girl, realizing for the first time that she was really little more than a child. But physical age meant nothing and she was ready to admit that Queen Melosa had seen in a few moments what it had taken them almost a full moon to discover. This young woman had a courage and wisdom beyond her years. She had an appetite for knowledge and a love of life and optimism that inspired them all. Even under the stress of what had happened in the last few days she had retained her dignity and humour.

"Good morning Queen Gabrielle," she finally broke the silence as she stepped up to the cot on which the girl lay and sat down on a nearby bench.

"Hi," the bard returned the greeting cheerfully.

"Kastra tells me you are healing very quickly," Lesta said glancing at the bandages on the girlís shoulder. "They tell me only a day or two more in bed and you will be able to get up."

"It wonít come quick enough," Gabrielle smiled not hiding her desire to be up and about.

"What are you reading?" the Elder motioned to the script in her hands.

"A scroll on Amazon laws," the bard replied honestly. "I thought that I better know some of this stuff now that I am your Queen."

"There is no hurry," Lesta smiled gently, pleased by her enthusiasm. "We do not expect you to know everything right away. I expect most of us donít learn half of it in our lifetimes."

"Maybe," Gabrielle conceded. "But I think this is a different circumstance. I should know more than most."

Lesta was silent as she contemplated what the girl said. It was nice to see that the bard was taking her responsibilities seriously.

"Does this mean that you are entertaining the idea of staying and ruling the tribe?" she posed the question and Gabrielle turned her eyes away.

"No," she could not lie though she had been tempted to lead this woman on. "I have always believed that each personís life has some purpose and itís their responsibility to fulfil that purpose."

"What do you believe your purpose is?" Lesta asked hesitantly seeing the green eyes turn intent.

"To stand at the side of the Conqueror," Gabrielle said without hesitation. "I know it might be hard for you or anyone else to understand but in the last few full moons I have come to realize that my mission is to be apart of the Conquerorís life."

"Could you not be mistaken?" Lesta wondered sceptically. "Perhaps your journey with the Conqueror was only to lead you here."

"The Amazons are only one part of a much larger nation," came the sober response. "My allegiance is to the people of Greece and I can serve them best by helping the Conqueror."

"You really think you can make a difference?" the Elder was leery of this girlís claim.

"Yes," Gabrielle said without hesitation. "It may sound arrogant but I strongly believe it was the will of the Gods that allowed us to meet. We share a connection that I feel every time we are together. I will not give that up even though it sounds selfish."

Lesta was momentarily silent. She could see the resolve in the girlís eyes. She knew there would be no dissuading this woman. The confident tone of her voice told the woman that the girl firmly believed in what she said.

"You are so passionate in your belief yet your intense interest in our culture would suggest something else," she said finally and Gabrielle smiled sheepishly.

"My interest is for purely selfish reasons," the bard admitted with a flush. "We are in an odd situation and I want to figure out a solution. Iím certain Xena has come up with something but I would prefer something peaceful."

"You are referring to the challenge by Velaska," Lesta guessed wisely.

"No, I wasnít," Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "I havenít even been thinking about that. But now that you mention it I must warn you that if the Conqueror knew about the challenge she would really be upset. She would not allow me to fight."

"You are certain of that," the Elder remarked with a hint of amusement.

"I am," the bard nodded seriously. "She would take this challenge personally, as if it were meant for her, so I donít want her to know about it."

Lesta said nothing, not certain this girlís decision was wise. There were other options but she was not of the mind to share them just yet. She wasnít even certain that she wanted the bard to know they were available. The thought of getting the Conqueror involved even scared her. She stood up choosing that moment to take her leave.

"Well, I just stopped by to see how you were doing," she smiled. "As for the rest I am sure we will figure something out."

Gabrielle stared at the womanís retreating back, her brow shaping into a frown. The Amazonís departure had been almost to hasty. It was as if their discussion had suddenly become uncomfortable. She thought about that for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders dismissing the idea. With a smile she turned her attention back to the scrolls on her lap aware that she was beginning to get as suspicious as her lover.

Lesta stepped out of the healers hut and glanced about the compound, a frown marring her features. Her eyes came to rest on Ephiny who was sitting in the sunshine on a bench outside a nearby hut. She knew she had no hope in changing the bardís mind but that didnít mean someone else wouldnít fare better. Their forced confinement had allowed the Amazon warrior and the bard to establish a tentative relationship. The warrior would be their best chance of getting a positive response.

Ephiny took a deep breath, savouring the crisp morning air and basking in the heat of the sun as it caressed her skin. Kastra had released her from the healers hut the previous day but only on the condition that she take it easy for the next few days. She had made the promise but even now she considered breaking it. She could see the forest just beyond the village and like a silent lover it called out to her.

With a sigh she turned her attention to the goings on in the village. Her eyes roamed around the compound coming to rest on the tall lithe frame of the Chief Elder. It took a moment for her brain to register the fact that the woman was walking in her direction. She straightened in her seat. By the expression on the older womanís face she had an instinctive feeling that she wasnít going to like what was coming.

"Itís nice to see that you are almost completely healed," Lesta said in greeting, sitting down on the bench beside the younger woman.

"Yes, in a few days I plan on taking off into the forest for a hunting trip," Ephiny admitted her intentions.

"I hope you will wait until after the treaty is signed," the Elder said.

"If that is your wish," the warrior nodded feeling strangely about the idea.

"I think it would please the Queen if you were there. She has developed a fondness for you," Lesta said conversationally.

"It is mutual," the warrior replied in an even voice wondering what the Elder was getting at.

"Perhaps, you could even invite our new Queen to join you," the older woman suggested, receiving an intent gaze from her companion.

"Perhaps," the younger woman was noncommittal. There was a lengthy and slightly awkward silence before the Elder spoke again.

"Have you had a chance to look at the Treaty?"

"No, but Eponin told me what was in the contents," Ephiny said. "It sounds like a pretty good deal."

"Yes, we got more then we thought possible and Gabrielle was responsible for that," the Elder agreed. "She told us what the Conqueror was looking for and what she would be willing to give up. The truth is, Gabrielle would be a great asset to our Nation."

"She doesnít want to stay," the Amazon warrior said bluntly understanding what Lesta was trying to do.

"How do you know?"

"I have already talked to her," the younger woman was honest. "She is completely devoted to the

Empress and when itís time for the Conqueror to leave she will leave with her. I donít think any of us will be able to stop her."

"But we must, she is our Queen," Lesta shook her head not wanting to accept the truth. "Her close relationship with the Empress could only continue to benefit us."

"How long do you think that relationship will last if they are separated?" Ephiny posed an obvious question. "Do you honestly think it will remain the same? Do you think the Conqueror will look favourably on us if she knows that we are the cause for that separation?"

Lesta was silent knowing that what the warrior said was true. They were under no illusions. The Conqueror had signed the peace treaty only because of the bard. Ephiny looked at the Elder aware there was one solution that no one had yet mentioned.

"She could name a Regent."

"I have heard it being done in other tribes but I am not certain our Sisters would agree," the older woman acknowledged that she had thought of the option.

"No, it would be the ideal solution," the warrior disagreed. "It would be a response to the traditionalists who do not like the situation. She would be our Queen but a true Amazon would be the daily Ruler."

"Yes, but Iím not sure that it will really matter what she decides," Lesta sighed wearily.

"Why?í Ephiny asked suspiciously and watched as a pained expression crossed the older womanís face.

"Velaska has issued a challenge for the Queenís mask," the Elder admitted reluctantly. "Gabrielle accepted the challenge on the condition that it be postponed until after the treaty has been signed."

"Thatís suicide," the warrior uttered in panic. "If the bard is killed then the Conqueror will destroy us all."

"I presumed the same notion but the girl thinks otherwise," Lesta shook her head. "Whatever the case she does not want the Conqueror to know."

"I would think not," the younger woman snorted, shaking her own head in disbelief. She did not think any situation could get more complicated.

"We must come up with some solution."

"I will declare myself the Queenís champion," Ephiny decided. "She saved my life and now itís my turn to repay the favour."

"You would never be able to defeat Velaska," the Elder was horrified by the other womanís decision to sacrifice herself, yet also a little relieved. She could see the value in not letting the bard do the actual fighting. Certainly it would protect the Amazonís from the Conquerorís wrath.

"Neither will the bard," the young warrior reminded pointedly. "At least I will have a better chance."

"Yes, but I have a feeling that Gabrielle will not allow you to stand for her," Lesta shook her head. "No, there has to be another solution, we have to figure out something."

Ephiny could see the worry burrowed on the other womanís face. The same fear plagued her. She had come to like the girl and feared now for her future. She thought briefly of the Conqueror and feared for them all if this challenge were to go forward.

 

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

Ares glanced down into the reflecting pool, his handsome face marred by the scowl that seemed to be permanently embedded on his features. His pride had been bruised at the Conquerorís refusal to join once more with him. He looked at the two women now, physically separated yet joined as one like two halves of a whole.

He waved his hand over the pool and another scene came into view. It was the face of another woman, someone not as strong or intelligent as his Chosen but someone He could use, certain that she would follow his wishes. It was time for him to utilise her resources.

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

Velaska watched from her perch outside the meal hut as Lesta stood up and walked away from the other warrior. She felt a surge of anger course through her body. She was not happy with the situation and was finding it difficult to tolerate. The only thing that kept her rational was the knowledge that each day the new Queen was growing stronger, which meant that each day she was getting closer to securing the Mask for herself.

She laughed quietly. Once she had obtained the Mask she would be able to rule with impunity. There would be few who would issue a challenge and those who did, would do so out of old loyalties. She was the best warrior in the village and knew that she was capable of defeating everyone else.

She ran the sharpening stone along the edge of the blade of her sword, feeling a thrill at the sound of metal on steel. It was almost as great a thrill as driving her weapon into the flesh of an enemy and for a moment she indulged her fantasies of thrusting the sword into the belly of the bard and then the Conqueror.

 

chapter five

Artemis and Aphrodite viewed the situation with trepidation. Neither of them were happy with the way things were turning out, though it was for different reasons. Both were together on the matter that they had to make certain that Ares did not interfere any further.

"What can we do?" Artemis asked turning to look at her Godly sister who was thoughtfully tapping a slender finger to her lips.

"We have to bring them together," the Goddess of Love said. "We have to get the Conqueror to be with Gabrielle in the village. They have been apart to long."

"How?" the Goddess of the Hunt asked, wondering how they would get the Empress to put herself in such a vulnerable position.

"Leave it to me," Aphrodite said with a smile and a giggle as she looked into the reflecting pool, seeing the Conqueror. She waved her hand and waited for the results of her intervention.

 

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

Xena was driven by the uneasy feeling in her gut and in spite her best intentions, she could not stay away. She needed to speak with the bard, to ensure herself of the womanís well being. Even while she convinced herself that was the reason, she knew it was really because she was afraid that the Amazonís would somehow convince her lover to remain with them. Knowing the girlís kind heart, it was not an unrealistic fear. Once she made her decision she summoned Archius.

"I am going to the Amazon village tomorrow," she informed him. "I want to make sure Gabrielle is all right."

The small man knew that was not the real reason but it was not up to him to question the Conqueror.

She had been increasingly restless since their last conversation and he knew that she had some plan in mind.

"When can I expect you back?" the small man asked.

"I donít know," she was honest. "The treaty signing is scheduled for two days from tomorrow but I wonít leave until I have Gabrielle with me. I would like you to return to the Capital. I have written out some instructions I want you to follow," she paused. "This time I will not tolerate disobedience."

The man heard the subtle threat in her voice and nodded, accepting the small pouch of scrolls that she held out. He looked at the tall woman seeing a energy radiating from her that he had never witnessed before.

"Do you know what you are going to do?"

"Yes," Xena nodded not revealing her plan which was simple enough. She would give Gabrielle every reason not to stay. She cast him a weak smile. "If necessary and all else fails I will forcibly take her out," she paused. "If any important messages arrive in my absence have them sent to me."

"I will, my Empress," the man bowed respectfully. "Good luck."

It was dawn the next morning when she set off for the Amazon village. She knew that she wasnít expected and so needed some excuse. The idea for a picnic had come to mind. It was an unlikely reason but she was grabbing at what she could. She had the camp cook throw together a basket of foods and delicacies that the bard enjoyed, along with several wine skins.

Solari intercepted the Conqueror at the border. She was surprised by the other womanís appearance and personally escorted her back to the village. Xena waited in her saddle while the Chief Elder was summoned. Lesta grew worried when informed of the Conquerorís arrival. They had not expected the Empress for two days.

"This is an unexpected privilege," the Elder said hesitantly as the tall dark haired woman swung herself down from the horse.

"I found myself free for the day and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to visit Gabrielle," the Conqueror said and then added as an afterthought. "That is if no one objects?"

"Certainly not," Lesta smiled, hiding her nervousness. She motioned to Eponin who trotted up to them. The warrior had been working out on the practice fields when one of the younger Amazonís had alerted her to the Empressí presence. "Eponin can escort you."

"I think I can find my own way," Xena said and the Amazonís nodded their heads.

"Certainly, your horse will be in the stables when you are ready to leave," Lesta said, motioning for one of her warriorís to tend to the warhorse. She watched as the Empress turned on her heel and strolled nonchalantly towards the healers hut.

"Something is wrong," Eponin spoke her thoughts out loud.

"Yes," the Elder nodded her head in silent communication, her brown eyes following the tall womanís progress. "I am as suspicious of her appearance as you are. I suggest you keep everyone on alert. I donít want to be caught off guard. The Conqueror is up to something, I just donít know what it is though."

The Weaponís Master nodded and then trotted off after her quarry.

Gabrielle was reading through a scroll when the door to the healers hut opened. Out of curiosity she glanced up expecting to see another Amazon but she dropped the scroll in her hands when she recognized the Conqueror.

"Xena, what are you doing here?" she could not hide her shock and pleasure.

"I couldnít stay away," came the wry reply as the tall woman glanced over her and then at the healer who was staring at her in surprise. "Besides I had nothing better to do and I thought you might be bored."

"Really?" Gabrielle couldnít believe the truth. She wanted to believe that Xena had come for her but the insecure part of herself couldnít accept that it might be true.

"Yes, really," Xena smiled gently and sat down on the bench next to the girlís cot. She idly picked up one of the scrolls lying on the bed and glanced at its contents. She raised her eyebrows questioningly. "Amazon laws and traditions?"

"I am their Queen, I figure I better know something about them," Gabrielle was honest.

"Are you learning anything interesting?"

"No," the bard smiled and then glancing about lowered her voice to a whisper. "I thought it would be interesting but most of itís rather boring. Itís given me a headache mostly. They have rules and laws for the silliest things. It kind of gives me a better appreciation for your cut and dry no nonsense type of government."

Xena laughed aware that the sound drew the attention of the others in the hut. She didnít care. "Itís

nice to know that I am appreciated for something." She glanced at the healer and then at her lover.

"Would you like to get out of here for awhile?"

"Really?" Gabrielleís eyes grew round.

"Yeah, I thought we could go for a picnic," the Conqueror shrugged nonchalantly. "There must be a quiet glade around here some place."

"I donít know if the healers will let me out," the bard sighed.

"Leave everything to me," Xena winked and then stood up walking over to where the chief healer was working.

Eponin sat down on the bench next to her friend Ephiny. Though she was supposed to follow the Empress, she had the strong suspicion that the Conqueror would be awhile in the healers hut. Besides from her position she had an unobstructed view of the hut. She cast a brief glance at her companion.

"I wonder what sheís up too," the Weaponís Master commented casually and her friend eyed her with amusement.

"I should think itís pretty obvious," Ephiny replied.

"What is?" Eponin looked at her companion with a baffled expression.

"She is probably concerned that Gabrielle is thinking of staying with us," came the nonchalant reply.

"Impossible," the older warrior snorted in disbelief.

"Why?" was the logical question and for a moment the Weaponís Master struggled for a reasonable answer. When she could find nothing she responded the only way she could.

"Because itís a ridiculous notion that the Conqueror would care about anyone so much."

"I donít know," Ephiny shrugged her shoulders. "None of us really knows the Conqueror. Who knows what goes on in her head or her heart for that matter. It wouldnít surprise me at all if she wasnít worried that we would try and persuade the girl to stay."

Eponin was silent as she tried to give this thought a serious consideration. She shook her head after awhile unable to believe it possible. She glanced at the healers hut trying to ignore the fact that the

Conqueror had shown undue concern over the bard. She looked at the smaller woman beside her.

"Do you really think so?"

"Itís not an unimaginable possibility," Ephiny said. "The truth is Lesta asked me to speak with the girl to see if I could persuade her to stay."

"What did you tell her?" the older Amazon was surprised by this truth.

"I said no," the blond warrior was honest. "Putting pressure on the girl would only make matters worse. Gabrielle doesnít want to stay and I donít think we should try and persuade her. What kind of Queen would she be if her thoughts were always elsewhere?"

"She really is in love with the Empress then?"

Ephiny raised her eyebrows in amusement. "You make it sound so incredible."

"Well it is," the Weaponís Master defended herself.

"Yes, I guess it is," the blond Amazon sighed. "Donít ask me why I canít figure it out and I donít think she completely understands it herself but she believes her place is with the Conqueror and I donít think itís our position to try and dissuade her."

"I still donít get it," Eponin shook her head confused.

"I know you donít," Ephiny smiled indulgently at her friend. "But someday you will."

The Weaponís Master was about to make a comment when she spotted the Conqueror emerge from the healers hut, their Queen nestled in her arms. She jumped to her feet, her hand automatically going to the dagger that was fastened to her waist as she trotted full speed towards the pair.

"Where do you think youíre going?" she barked when she caught up to the couple. Xena paused and turned a critical eye upon the Amazon.

"I am going to get my horse and then I am going to take Gabrielle out for a picnic," came the low growl.

"No," the Amazon shook her head and then watched mutely as the Conquerorís whole body stiffened. She could feel the tension radiate off the taller woman.

"Noooooo," the Empress repeated the word slowly. "Why would I not be allowed to do that?"

"Because Gabrielle is not fit enough to leave the healers hut," the Weaponís Master said the first thing that came into her head. She planted her feet firmly in front of the Conqueror, crossing her arms defiantly.

"The healer thought it would be a good idea," Xena replied, her eyes staring intently at the other woman, aware that if she hadnít had Gabrielle in her arms she would have challenged this Amazon to a fight.

"Now guys we can settle this peacefully," Gabrielle said feeling the tension radiating between the two warriors as Xena lowered her to her feet.

Ephiny could see the confrontation coming and hurried to the Council hut were she knew the Elders were meeting. She rushed into the room receiving a host of censored looks from the women who were disturbed.

"Lesta, you must come quickly, there is a problem with the Conqueror," the blond Amazon sputtered out of breath.

The Elder immediately jumped to her feet and hurried out the door. She had half expected there to be trouble but she had not thought it would happen this quickly. She rushed across the village square to where the Weaponís Master and the Empress were standing face to face, with the poor bard sandwiched in between.

"Whatís going on here?" Lesta demanded as she strolled up to the group, aware that the scene had caught the curiosity of every Amazon in sight.

"The Conqueror is attempting to run off with our Queen," Eponin claimed and the Conqueror gave her a benign look.

"I was merely attempting to cheer up my friend," Xena said glancing at the Elder. "Gabrielle enjoys picnics and the healer had no problem with releasing her for the afternoon."

"Really, itís all right she wasnít trying to kidnap me or anything," Gabrielle confirmed appealing to the Elders common sense. "I do enjoy picnicís and the healer did say it was okay."

Lesta glanced at the Conqueror and knew without a doubt that Kastra would not have had the courage to deny the Empress any request. She looked now at the tall, dark haired Ruler seeing something in the pale blue eyes that were so guarded.

"Such a fuss over something so trivial," the Elder said with a smile. "I am certain you will be careful with our Queen."

"What?" Eponin could not believe what she was hearing. She glanced at the Elder and then at the Conqueror who raised her eyebrows smugly before scooping the young blond woman back into her arms.

"We will be back in the afternoon," Xena said glancing at the Elder. "I would appreciate if we were given our privacy."

Gabrielle could see the uncertainty in the Elders expression and hastened to intervene. She didnít want the situation to erupt again, fairly certain that her loverís patience had been over extended by this brief confrontation. She could feel the warriorís tension radiating from her body.

"You donít have to worry about my safety, Xena will protect me with her life," she said diplomatically defusing the situation with her carefully chosen words. "I give you my promise that we will be back before evening meal."

Lesta looked at the bard who was securely held in the Conquerorís arms. It was a picture that she had never thought to see and she glimpsed briefly at what it was that existed between these two

women. She glanced over the crowd that had gathered to watch.

"Certainly, have a good day," the Elder nodded. She trusted the girlís promise. Eponinís jaw dropped in disbelief yet she waited until the couple had stepped into the stables before voicing her protest.

"What do you think youíre doing?" the Weaponís Master shrieked. "Arenít you afraid that she will steal the Queen?"

"No," Lesta shook her head suddenly understanding something that she had not seen before. She turned to look at the warrior. "Gabrielle would not allow herself to be taken away, besides who are we to point fingers. Who brought the girl here against her will in the first place? She may be the Queen but she is also a woman."

"Well, I am not as trusting as you. I am going to follow them just to make certain," Eponin announced, making the decision vocal.

"No," the Elder said firmly. "You and all the other Amazonís will leave them alone."

"Do you actually trust the Conqueror?" the Weaponís Master asked in angry disbelief.

"No, but I trust Gabrielle and I have no wish for blood to be spilled over this matter," she eyed the warrior critically. "I do not want to be disobeyed."

The warrior nodded her head glumly and satisfied the Elder turned and retreated back to the Council Hut aware that she had made the only decision possible. She did not care that most of the tribe would not agree with her. Until they had a new Ruling Queen it was her decision to make.

Eponin glared at the Elderís receding back for a moment before slinking away, grumbling under her breath. Ephiny followed more slowly knowing that her friend would need someone to vent her frustration against. None of them saw the smirking red headed Amazon warrior who had stood back from the curious crowd that had gathered.

Velaska smiled to herself. She had no qualms about disregarding the Elders orders. She would soon be the Queen and the one to make the rules. Then she would be the one to determine who did what. She glanced at her friends and with a slight motion of her head they moved off towards the edge of the forest and out of the village.

As Xena predicted they were able to locate a quiet spot along side the river not far from the Amazon village. It was a secluded glade with long, sweet smelling grass and a wide array of colourful wild flowers.

She laid out a blanket under a tree near the edge of the stream and then carried the bard over and gently set her down. She knelt in front of the woman, trapped by those innocent green eyes, and unable to prevent herself, she reached out and cupped the girlís face. She leaned forward and kissed the bard passionately, extending the embrace for a long time before finally pulling away.

"You know we probably arenít alone," Gabrielle said breathlessly and the Conqueror smiled gently stroking the younger womanís cheek.

"Probably not," Xena said. She had expected that the Amazonís to send a few scouts after them regardless of what she had requested. "I want them to know you belong to me."

"You are so bad," the bard flushed but was privately thrilled. "However, as much as I enjoy kissing you, Iím starved and you did promise me a picnic."

"Always thinking of the important stuff," the Conqueror laughed and jumping to her feet strolled back

to where Argo was grazing. She retrieved the basket from the saddle and then loped back to where the bard was sitting, flopping down beside her on the blanket.

"What did you bring me?" Gabrielle asked eagerly digging into the basket and pulling out a variety of

foodstuffs. There was everything from figs and dates to cheese and nutbread.

"Take it easy girl," the Conqueror laughed at her companionís zealous attention to the goodies. She eyed the smaller woman curiously. "Havenít they been feeding you?"

Gabrielle stopped munching for a moment. Her hands full of food. She cast the Empress a disdainful glance. "Have you ever tasted any of their food?"

"Is it bad?" the Conqueror asked innocently.

"Itís absolutely horrible, it has no taste and the grain cereal they serve for breakfast tastes like paste."

"Oh, and I suppose you could do a better job cooking?"

"Actually, I could," Gabrielle nodded arrogantly, stuffing a fig into her mouth and chewing loudly. "Of course you wouldnít know that but once we get back to the Palace I will cook you up a feast like youíve never before tasted."

"That sounds a little scary," the Conqueror said dryly and the bard scrunched her nose and made a face. In response Xena snatched a grape from her companionís fist and popped it into her mouth. "Where did you learn to cook?"

"At home," Gabrielle replied. "My mom was quite adamant about teaching my sister and me. She thought it was a necessary skill to capture a husband. Little did she know."

The Conqueror leaned back on one elbow and stretched her legs out, watching as the girl bit into another fig. She plucked another grape from its vine, staring at it for a long moment before popping it into her mouth.

"I take it youíre parents werenít terribly impressed when they learned of your association with me," Xena said after moment.

Gabrielle stopped eating and turned her head to stare at her lover. Xenaís head was turned away and she couldnít see the expression on the older womanís face. She chewed on the fruit in her mouth and swallowed.

"How do you know that?" she asked softly.

"When I didnít find you back at the Palace, I came looking for you. Naturally the first place I stopped was Potedaia."

"Were they awfully rude?" Gabrielle wondered anxiously trying not to imagine what it must have been like.

"Itís nothing worse then I expected," Xena shrugged and then looked at the girl and smiled. "At least now I know who you inherited your arrogance from."

"Ouch," the bard grimaced, thinking of her father and the way he always tried to bully everyone. "You didnít hurt him to badly did you?"

"No, Gabrielle, he is your father and regardless of how much I might dislike him I would never harm him," the Conqueror paused, giving the girl a wicked grin. "That doesnít mean though that I didnít put a little scare into him. I donít expect to get an invitation to dinner anytime soon."

Gabrielle looked at her lover and then lightly punched her in the arm. The Conqueror mimicked a grimace but then grinned. The smile on her own face died.

"Is that why you donít let anyone harm Toris or Cyrene, because they are your family?"

The Empress took a deep breath looking at the smaller woman intently. "How did you know?"

"I guessed," came the solemn reply. "Actually its not hard to tell if you really look. Toris looks a lot like you only with different parts."

"Oh and where did you get to see those parts?" the Conqueror asked with amused curiosity, her eyebrows raising inquiringly.

Gabrielle blushed at the implication of her lovers words. "I didnít. I mean... you know what I mean."

"Yes, sweetheart, I do," Xena conceded softly leaning forward to brush her lips against the blond womanís. "Hmm, that tastes good."

The bard blushed again aware of the way her body was beginning to grow warm. She decided that the only way to keep her thoughts away from those forbidden zones was to remain serious.

"When I told you about them why didnít you say they were your family?" she asked quietly trying to gauge what was going on in her lover's mind.

Xena shrugged absently. "I guess I didnít think it was important, besides itís not like we are family any more. I think my mother hates me even more then your father does."

"I donít believe that," Gabrielle disagreed. "I donít think a mother ever stops caring for their children."

"No, perhaps not but I doubt she could ever forgive me," Xena shook her head. "She blames me for my brothers death and the one thing that a parent canít forget are the children theyíve lost or the people who killed them."

"You didnít kill Lyceus," Gabrielle disputed the claim, her heart aching for this woman.

"I led him to his death and to my mother there is no difference then if I had stabbed him with my own sword," the tall woman sighed. "She doesnít understand that if I could change places with him I would in a minute."

"No," the bard shook her head, grabbing her lovers hand and squeezing it tightly. "Iím glad youíre not dead. Iím glad you are here and the person I know."

Xena looked up at the woman her heart churning inside her chest. She reached up and stroked the girlís face. The bardís skin felt like velvet under the palm of her hand. Their eyes locked in an intense embrace.

"Gods, where were you ten years ago?" she wanted to know, a wistful note to her voice.

"I was out of nappies but still playing in the dirt," the girl remarked with a gentle smile wanting to ease the intensity of her lover's expression.

Xena laughed feeling a wave of relief roll through her body. She could not believe the way this girl could make her feel. She reached up wrapping her hand around the girlís neck and drawing her head down so that their lips could touch. She kissed the bard passionately hoping to translate her emotions

in that intimate touch. Both women were breathing hard when the embrace finally broke.

"Did you really meet my dad?" Gabrielle asked when they began to eat again.

"Yep, and your mother and your sister," Xena nodded taking a bit out of the apple she had selected from the basket. "Lila has a bit of spunk in her."

"Oh?" the bard could not hide her surprise thinking of her shy sister. "What did she do?"

"When I asked the townsfolk why I shouldnít destroy the village because of the rebels, she stepped forward and told me that you had been the one to turn the men in."

"Oh!" Gabrielle was suddenly shy and uncomfortable. She stared at the fruit in her hand as the Conqueror continued. "Then this boy stepped out and told me which direction you went. I think he has a crush on you."

"Who was it?" the bard mumbled in a solemn voice relieved that they had not dwelled on the last subject for very long.

"A kid with curly blond hair," the Empress shrugged. "Do you know him?"

"Perdicus."

"Thatís right, Perdicus."

"He asked me to marry him."

"Oh?" this time it was Xena who raised her eyebrows and the bard blushed.

"He has been sweet on me since we were kids. He finally got up the nerve to propose. He was waiting until he thought he could afford me."

"Well, you are an expensive woman to keep," the Conqueror drawled in a teasing voice, glancing at the food basket. "Why it costs me a fortune just to keep you fed, the poor man doesnít know how lucky he is."

"Xennaaa," Gabrielle moaned punching her companion lightly in the arm and then watched as the smile on the dark haired woman disappeared.

"What did you tell him?"

"What do you think!" the bard was perturbed by the question.

"Maybe you should have considered it," the Empress replied in a serious voice. "Your life would probably be a whole lot less complicated being with him."

"But it would also probably be a whole lot more boring," the girl shook her head. She did not have any doubts. "Iím not in love with him and I wouldnít be happy."

"You sound very certain about that."

"I am," the girl confirmed. "We only live once Xena and I donít want to spend my days thinking what if. We have such a short time before Hades or some other God takes us to the next life. I donít want to spend it being unhappy."

Xena was touched by the simple speech and finding no words to say she gently picked up the younger womanís hand and brushed her lips against the knuckles.

"Are you happy Gabrielle?"

"My whole life feels complete when I am with you."

"Even knowing that your family disapproves and that because of our association you will always be in danger. Is it really what you want? Is it really worth it to you?"

"Yes," the blond said without hesitation. "Thatís what love is all about. It doesnít mean your world is going to be perfect, it just means you will have something to carry you through the rough times. It makes everything seem so much easier."

Xena was about to disagree but she kept her mouth closed and dwelt for a moment on the girlís words. Since Gabrielle had come into her life it had gotten much more complicated but strangely she didnít mind. Moments like now, made all the trouble seem worthwhile. Like so many others it was a strange and novel experience for the former warlord.

She reached over and combed the girlís bangs off her brow, finding it hard to keep her hands away from the woman. She stared at the bard, thinking of everything that she wanted to know but knew that she would never ask. She would listen to the Goddess of the Hunt, and forget about the past and strive for a new future.

"So, Queen Gabrielle, how do you propose we solve this matter with the Amazonís?"

"I could name a Regent," Gabrielle said remembering what she had seen in one of the scrolls. "I was reading that I can name someone to replace me while I am absent from the tribe. Generally the absences arenít for a lengthy duration but Iím sure we could change that."

"Doesnít the Amazon Council have to agree?" the Conqueror asked.

"I donít think that will be a problem," the bard said with a shrug.

"You sound mighty confident about that?"

"I am," the girl said smugly. "Either they let me name a Regent or they have no Queen."

Xena was quiet as she considered the girls words. "Do you have any idea who you would want to be Regent?"

"I think Ephiny, the Amazon I saved. If I hadnít been there and if the Queen had known that she was still alive she would have been given the Right of Caste," Gabrielle said.

"If you hadnít been there she would be dead," the Conqueror corrected bluntly, cradling her lovers hand. She stared at the slender fingers, studying them intently and comparing them to her own. "You know Gabrielle you donít have to give it up."

"What are you saying?" the girl was startled by the suggestion and a little anxious. Her hand tensed in spite of the gentle stroking it was receiving.

"I mean you could stay and be Queen," Xena said. "Donít sell yourself short Gabrielle, you are intelligent, you would be a good leader."

"Do you want me to stay?" Gabrielle asked feeling her world begin to crumble. The Conqueror looked up and saw the fear and anxiety in the green orbs that were staring at her. The bard was unable to hide her feelings.

"No," Xena shook her head, a pained expression etching her features as she looked up at her lover. "But this isnít about what I want. This is about what you want."

"I want to be with you," the girl said in a trembling voice. "I thought you knew that."

"I do but I never want you to feel like Iíve kept you from achieving anything," the Empress replied

reaching up and brushing the girlís cheeks with her long fingers, savouring the feel of her skin. "Its been my greatest pleasure to know you. All that I want is for you to be happy."

"I am Xena," the girl insisted earnestly. "When we are apart I feel like I am only half a person. When we are together I feel complete. I am strong only because I feel the power of your support and I donít mean the physical kind, I mean the emotional kind."

Xena stared at the bard thinking how eloquent the girl was. She leaned forward, drawing the woman down onto the blanket and cradling her tenderly in her arms as their lips met in a series of passionate embraces.

"I know we shouldnít but do you think we could.....you know?"

The Conqueror raised her eyebrows which disappeared under the dark bangs that covered her forehead. "We are being watched."

"Maybe, theyíll turn away," the bard suggested hopefully, her body craving to be touched in places that only the Conqueror knew about.

"Sweetheart, they would take one look at your naked body and the last thing they would do is turn away," Xena replied with a drawl, a seductive smile teasing the corners of her lips.

"Oh!" the girl blushed a deep red and Xena laughed heartily, jumping to her feet and reaching down to help the girl up.

"As much as Iíd like to take you up on that offer, Iím afraid itís not healthy for you," Xena said in a sexy voice. "When I take you again my bard I want you to be whole because it is going to be a long, long night."

"Oh!" the girlís blush deepened and the Conqueror laughed again feeling incredibly happy. She didnít think she had ever felt this good before. She leaned forward drawing the girl into her arms and kissing her passionately once again, even though she knew it would only end up frustrating both of them.

"I think itís time to cool off," Xena said when they broke apart. She scooped the girl into her arms and carried her to the stream, placing her on a rock near the waters edge. She sat down beside the bard and together they slipped off their boots and dangled their feet in the cool water.

Gabrielle sighed with relief, feeling some of her own tension begin to dissipate. She looped an arm around her loverís waist and leaned her head contentedly against the taller womanís shoulder. She was never really happy unless she was in the Empressí company.

"Those were some pretty interesting suggestions you gave the Amazonís for the treaty negotiations," Xena broke the silence after a long while. She enjoyed the peaceful quiet as much as the younger woman did.

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked shyly glancing up at her companion, not certain to what the other woman was referring.

"Archius told me about your little exercise back in the Palace," the Conqueror said hiding the smile that came to her lips.

"Youíre not angry are you?" the bard was suddenly worried.

"No," the Empress confessed "In fact I would like to thank you for saving me a lot of trouble. Iím not certain how patient I could have been with these women."

"Archius did mention that you werenít a big fan of them," the girl said quietly. She hadnít been advised of what the outcome of the negotiations had been and was curious. "What all did you agree on?"

"Pretty much everything you and Archius discussed," Xena replied and then outlined the basic terms of the treaty. "They even agreed to send a delegation to the centaurís with a letter from me requesting a peace treaty."

"Oh!" the bard was surprised that they had taken all her suggestions to heart. She glanced at her companion. "I could figure out why the other things were important to you, but why do you care if there is peace between the Amazonís and the centaurís?"

"Didnít Archius tell you?" the Conqueror asked in a quiet and distant voice and Gabrielle glanced at her friend seeing the far off look in her eyes.

"He didnít know or at least thatís what he told me," she confessed.

"No, he doesnít know," the taller woman sighed and looked down at the girl with a faint smile that did not reach her eyes. She reached out with her free hand and stroked the girlís cheek, her heart filled with love for this young woman. "Some day I will tell you but now is not the time."

Gabrielle accepted that answer aware that it would do no good to prod her companion. She had learned that no amount of badgering would make the Empress admit the truth. The woman would tell her when she was ready.

"Xena?"

"Hmm."

"Were the terms really okay?"

"Yes," the Empress nodded and then smiled teasingly. "I particularly liked the concession I had to give in return for being able to take my armies through Amazon territory. I wonder though, who in my Army gets to service the Amazon Queen."

Gabrielle blushed. She hadnít realized that the Amazonís would take her suggestion seriously. She was unable to meet the Conquerorís eyes feeling embarrassed.

"You havenít answered my question," Xena prodded her companion aware of the flush of colour on the girlís face. "That was one term that hadnít been worked out."

"Well, the Amazon Queen is an important person," the bard said forgetting her embarrassment and getting into the spirit of things. "It would have to be a very important member of the Army."

"A General?" the Conqueror asked with a smirk.

"No, it would have to be someone much more important then that," the girl shook her head. "I think it would only be fair if the Empress herself looked after the Queen." The bard glanced up at her companion. "What do you think?"

"I think I like that idea very much," Xena smiled and as if to prove her point she bent her head and kissed the bard soundly on the lips.

Though she had promised herself that she would do nothing that might affect the bardís recovery, she found it impossible to control all her actions. She slipped off the rock and stood up to her knees in the water in front of the girl. She cupped the small face in between her hands, her pale blue eyes staring intently into her lovers young features for a long moment before capturing her lips with her own.

Gabrielle responded instinctively, wrapping her legs around the tall womenís waist and drawing her up against her warmth. She winced at the pain the action caused and though she tried to hide it, the Conqueror was sensitive to everything.

"No," Xena shook her head, her breathing ragged with passion. She rested her hand on the girlís heaving chest feeling the steady and strong beat of the heart.

"Nooo," the bard groaned in response her whole body raging with desire and frustration. It had been so long and she wanted this so badly. She leaned her head forward and rested it on her lovers chest.

They stood like that for a long while, contenting themselves with the feel of each other in their arms.

"Come, I think itís time I got you back to the village before they send out a search party," the Conqueror said in a low rumbling voice as she lifted the girl into her arms and carried her to the bank before setting her back down on her feet.

Gabrielle watched as the Empress collected the picnic supplies and blanket, packing them back on Argoís saddle. It had been such a wonderful afternoon and she hated the idea of spoiling it but there was something that she had to tell her lover. Something that she felt was still between them.

Something she wanted out in the open so that nothing could hide behind it.

"Xena," she said hesitantly.

"What?" the Conqueror asked walking over to where the girl was sitting.

"If you knew I was the one that betrayed the rebels why didnít you say anything?" the bard asked

"It didnít seem important," the Empress said simply in a tight voice uncertain where this conversation was going.

"But you must have realized that I was a part of the group."

Xena sighed. She hadnít wanted to talk about this. Artemis had said to forget the past and that was what she had intended on doing, but she hadnít counted on the bard bringing up the subject and wanting to discuss it.

"That was in the past. Itís over and done with. We donít have to talk about this."

"No, but I do," the girl said in a soft voice and the Conqueror glanced down at her. There was an earnest expression on the girlís face. "Itís important to me that you know and understand the truth."

"Okay," the Empress sighed in defeat and leaned back against a nearby rock, folding her arms across her chest and waiting patiently for the girl to speak. "What do you want to tell me Gabrielle?í

"I want you to know how much I love you and that I would never betray you," the bard paused, her voice heavy with emotion. She turned her eyes away from the other woman afraid to see something she might not like in that intense blue gaze. "Everything I did was before I knew you. Everything I thought, changed when I met you. Like everyone else I was living under the same misconception as to what kind of person you were."

"I am that monster Gabrielle," Xena shook her head quietly. "Not more than a full moon ago my army massacred a whole Nation of Horde tribesmen."

"But you are so much more then that," Gabrielle shook her head in disagreement. "I can see a goodness in you that people donít think exists. I see a goodness that even you donít want to acknowledge out of fear that it will bring you pain or make you weak. You can be a good person, whether you believe that or not. Someone who makes such passionate love as you do is not all a monster."

Xena eyed her companion silently for a long moment, unable to ignore the trembling that stirred her heart. With a handful of mere words this girl could bring her to her knees and she did so time and time again. But the defeat was so sweet and wonderful that she did not mind.

"So, what exactly did you do for the rebels?" the Conqueror asked with a hoarse voice, struggling to maintain control of her emotions.

"I used my relationship with General Rufus to spy on the army camp. He never suspected anything and with the permit he gave me I was able to carry secret messages between various villages," the bard replied unable to look at her lover.

"He was a fool," Xena snorted, thinking of the man who had tried to kill this small woman.

"He was fooled," the girl corrected sadly for the first time understanding the reason for the manís hatred. "I think my betrayal must of hurt him, perhaps thatís why he tried to kill me."

"No," the Empress objected. "His ego was bruised, as any Generalís would be if they were out foxed by a young woman barely more than a child. He tried to kill you because he knew that would hurt me."

Gabrielle was silent. It was true. She had shamed Rufus by her actions but his anger and frustration was directed at the Conqueror. She had only been a way for him to strike back at someone who he knew he could not defeat.

"Were you carrying any messages that day we met?" Xena broke the silence gently prodding the bard out of her morose thoughts.

"Yes," she nodded, shaking her head to dispel the thoughts that were clouding her mind. "I had one for your brother."

"Werenít you afraid of being caught?" the Conqueror mused, feeling admiration for her courageous young friend.

"I didnít know who you were," the girl reminded.

"I was still a stranger," the taller woman pointed out.

"A beautiful one."

"Some of the most beautiful creatures are also the most deadly," the Conqueror said softly.

"Yes," the smaller woman conceded, "but I just knew that I could trust you."

"I donít know what I am going to do with you," Xena sighed. With a shake of her head she straightened, moving across the space that separated them.

"Does that mean you forgive me?" the bard asked hesitantly with wide eyes as the tall woman gathered her into her arms and combed long strands of blond hair behind her ears.

"There is nothing to forgive. What you did is a part of the past. I donít want us to discuss this matter again. For me it never happened."

"Can you forgive me that easily?" the bard was uncertain and the Conqueror smiled tenderly.

"You are the only one I could forgive," was the honest reply as the tall woman lowered her head and captured the girlís lips.

Gabrielle had no time to think about those words before she got caught up in the kiss. She had just about lost complete conscious sense when she was abruptly shoved to one side. She opened her eyes to see Xena standing in front of her holding an arrow in each hand.

"Stay here," the Conqueror hissed angrily, cursing the Amazonís as she took off in the direction from where the arrows had come.

Gabrielle followed her lover to the edge of the tree line staring into the forest where Xena had disappeared. Suddenly something dropped out of the trees and grabbed her arm, swinging her around, and she found herself staring into the face of a red headed Amazon.

"You put on a pretty nice show, My Queen," Velaska said with a smirk. Gabrielle flushed with embarrassment realizing that this woman had watched her with the Conqueror. She wrapped her arms around her waist to prevent herself from shivering. "I am thinking that at the Challenge I wonít kill you. I might just make you my bitch. That might be nice."

"I would kill myself rather then be with you," the bard said and the woman laughed hysterically.

Xena could see her attackers in front of her and felt the panther begin to stir but abruptly she stopped running, her senses on full alert. Suddenly, she wasnít certain that she had been the intended victim of this attack. She had sensed an undercurrent of tension in the village. It was the type of undercurrent that was found in a place that had inner turmoil. She thought of Gabrielle alone in the glade and turning on her heel raced back to her lover.

"I wonder, is the Conqueror really so good?" the Amazon snarled reaching out to put a hand suggestively on the bardís bare forearm. "Maybe if you spent time with me you might forget about her."

"Get your hands off her," Xena growled suddenly appearing out of the forest. There was a deadly look in her eyes that even frightened Gabrielle. The Amazon warrior unconsciously stepped back giving in briefly to her own fear of the animal that was stalking towards them.

"Maybe youíd like me to touch you instead," Velaska said with a smirk and reached towards the Empress who had stepped in between them.

Her hand was snatched out of the air and held in a vice like grip around the wrist making her wince as she slumped to her knees. The Amazon cried in pain as the Conqueror tightened her hold, twisting the arm in the most horrible way so that Gabrielle was afraid it would snap.

"Xena," the bard stepped forward and placed a hand on her lover's arm. For a moment the Conqueror glanced down at the blond woman. Gabrielle could see the fire in the blue eyes and she was truly frightened for this Amazon. "Xena, please."

The soft pleading voice went straight to the center of the Conquerorís heart and she scowled pushing down the raging animal that was threatening to break free of itís cage. She turned a steely gaze at the woman on the ground, ignoring her natural instincts to kill this woman. Instead she would heed her companionís quiet plea.

"Understand one thing, no one touches me and no one touches Gabrielle unless she asks them too," the Conqueror said in a cold voice, her eyes narrowing into pale slits. "Now get out of here before I forget that I just signed a treaty with your people."

She released the warrior and watched with catlike eyes as the woman scrambled to her feet and slinked back into the trees. Ignoring the pain Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her lover and hugged her tightly. Xena turned in the embrace, returning the hug, as she stroked and kissed the top of the bardís blond head.

The attack left Xena more shaken then she would admit. She cradled the bard in her arms as they rode back towards the village, her pale eyes scanning the surroundings, alert for any other attacks that might be brought. For her lovers sake she kept her anger in check but she knew that the incident would not go unreported.

She returned Gabrielle to the healers hut staying until the bard was comfortably settled before going in search of the Amazon Elders. Lesta knew something was wrong the moment she caught a glimpse of the Conquerorís dour face as she stalked unannounced into the Council hut.

"You have a problem with some of your Amazonís," Xena said in a cold voice, tossing the arrows she had caught onto the ground in front of the Elder. "They attacked while I was out with your Queen. Tell me now why I shouldnít forget about signing this treaty?"

Lesta swallowed, aware that she had never faced anyone so frightening and she had to summon all her courage to stand in front of this tall furious woman without allowing her limbs to shake.

"Whatever was done, was without our knowledge," Lesta said, instinctively knowing who was behind this attack.. "I will ensure you that we get to the bottom of this matter."

"Under the circumstances I would not feel comfortable leaving my friend here alone," the Conqueror said in a tense voice. "Earlier you invited me to stay. Perhaps I was to hasty in turning down that offer. I would like to reconsider your invitation now."

Lesta looked intently at the taller woman, not certain that she could trust this woman. Instinct told her to be cautious but having issued the invitation it was impossible for her to rescind it. She glanced at the warriors who had gathered around them. She saw that they were waiting for her to speak. She bowed her head graciously.

"Of course, we welcome you to the village," she said and then looked for Eponin who was standing not far away. "You are already familiar with our Weaponís Master. I will assign her to escort you." She turned to another one of the Amazonís. "Prepare one of the guest huts and see that all the Empressí needs are met."

The Amazon bowed respectfully and then hurried to do her bidding.

"I want Gabrielle moved in with me," the Empress said in a cool voice.

"She is well protected in the healers hut, but if you are still worried about her safety I will assign several guards to watch over her," the Elder tried to assure the angry woman.

"That thought does not comfort me," the Conqueror shook her head. "I prefer to have her with me."

The Elder felt the pressure of what the Conqueror wanted. In her mind she had an idea who was behind this attack and wasnít entirely uncertain that the intended victim wasnít their Queen. She sighed mutely nodding her head, acceding to the womanís demand.

"Good," the Conqueror said and then stalked away. Eponin was about to hurry after her but Lesta grabbed her arm, forestalling her departure.

"Send someone else to watch over her," the Elder instructed. "I want you to find out what happened and then I want you to find out who was responsible for putting the Queen and the whole Amazon Nation in jeopardy."

"I think I can start by speaking with Velaska," Eponin nodded and then motioned to Solari who had remained in the village after escorting the Conqueror there morning.

PART THREE

chapter six

 

Xena was in a foul mood. After speaking with the Amazon Elder she went to tend Argo, hoping to vent some of the anger she felt before facing the bard again. She brushed down the horse, her mind furiously going through what had happened and wondering what she had missed.

Gabrielle was almost asleep when the healer came and announced that she was to be moved into a private hut. She immediately protested, for the long day had left her exhausted and all she wanted now was to rest.

"Canít it wait until tomorrow?" she complained, realizing that the incident in the forest had frightened her more then she wanted to admit. "Iím really tired and all I want to do is sleep."

Kastra looked at the girl aware that she was obviously not informed as to what was going on in the village.

"The Conqueror has decided to remain as our guest and she requested your company," the healer said and found that her words had immediate results.

"Xenaís staying?" Gabrielle was surprised. The Conqueror hadnít mentioned anything of this to her during the afternoon. She immediately began struggling to get out of bed and only the cautious words of the healer made her be careful.

The hut they were assigned was the Queenís official residence. It contained a large bed with a second smaller cot set up in one corner. It also had a neatly carved table and chair set, a long bench covered in soft cushions, a fireplace and itís own private wash facilities. Gabrielle ignored everything but the bed which she eagerly sought out, climbing under the blankets.

It was a long time before Xena felt calm enough to return to her lover. The small dark haired warrior who had escorted her from the border that morning, now led her through the village to a hut near the center. She recognized it as the Royal residence. A pair of tall, slender Amazon warriors were stationed by the entrance. She glared at them briefly before stepping into the hut.

She paused inside the doorway, her eyes quickly sweeping around the room, surveying every angle and recess like a warlord searching for treasure. She found it, laying on the bed in the middle of the room. The girl turned her head.

"Xena," she murmured softly.

The Conqueror closed the door quietly, placing the saddlebags on the table before crossing over to the pallet and kneeling on the ground so that their faces were level.

"How are you doing?" she noticed a slight flush to the girlís features and worried that they had overdone it that afternoon.

"Just a little tired," the bard admitted truthfully. She gave her lover a weak smile. "Iím not used to all the excitement."

"You can sleep now," Xena said. "I will be right here if you need anything."

"Xena," the bard said quietly.

"What?"

"Is everything okay?í there was a pensive expression on the girlís face.

"It is now," the warrior replied tenderly brushing the blondeís bangs off of her forehead.

"Xena..."

"Shhh," the Conqueror whispered softly. "Weíll talk about this later, sleep now."

"Okay," the girl sighed closing her eyes before letting them flutter open again. "Xena."

"What sweetheart?" the warrior asked patiently

"I enjoyed today, thank you," the girl said simply.

"Anytime love," the Empress felt a lump of emotion catch in her throat and unable to prevent herself, she leaned forward and brushed her lips across the girlís warm brow. "Now go to sleep."

The girl mumbled something in response and within minutes she was asleep, her soft snoring the only sound that could be heard in the quiet room. Only then did Xena take her eyes off her lover. She cast a severe glance around the room, noticing the positioning of everything from the window to the narrow cot nearby. The warlord inside her was calculating a variety of ways she could protect the bard if someone chose to mount another attack.

It was late into the night before Xena finally extinguished the candles in the hut and lay down next to her young lover. She curled her body around the sleeping woman, savouring the warmth that was coming off the girl. She could only sleep now that she had rigged small traps around the hut to prevent anyone from trying to attack them while they slept. She lay up against the bard, draping her arm over the slender waist and fitting her body tightly next to the girlís before closing her eyes.

Gabrielle woke in the night and felt the warmth of her lover snuggled up against her back. She carefully twisted around so that she was facing the woman she loved. It was so rare that she ever caught the Conqueror asleep that she took the time to study the sleeping face.

Xena looked so peaceful. The dour expression and the tiny lines that crinkled the corners of her eyes were gone. She looked so much younger and more vulnerable then when she was awake. A warmth and contentment settled over the bardís heart as she reached out and lightly traced the tips of her fingers over the womanís classical features. She knew that this was where she belonged. It was as simple as that.

Here inside this womanís arms, she was at home and she would never choose any place else. Not her home in Potedaia or the chance to Rule a Nation of Amazonís. With this thought she closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep. When she woke again she was alone and unconsciously a soft moan escaped from between her lips.

Xena glanced up. She was sitting by the table where she had been cleaning and sharpening her sword. She watched as the bard slowly woke to a new day. The sight of the younger woman stirring in those first few moments before full consciousness took over, caused a twisting pain in her chest. It was a sight that she embraced in her memory.

"Hey sleepyhead," she called softly, sliding the sword back into itís sheath and moving across the room to sit on the edge of the bed.

"Good morning," the girl smiled sleepily, opening her eyes.

"How you feeling?" the Conqueror asked brushing her hand against the bardís forehead, still worried that their excursion the previous afternoon had affected the girlís health.

"Fine," Gabrielle replied and smiled. "Last night was nice."

"Yes," the Conqueror nodded gruffly, feeling an overwhelming rush of emotion fill her heart. She stood up. "Iíll ask one of the guards to fetch you something from the kitchen."

The bard unconsciously scrunched her nose at the idea. "Is there anything leftover from the picnic?"

"Yes," the Conqueror nodded her head and moved across the hut to where her saddlebags and the picnic basket were stored. She pulled out the remainder of their lunch and brought it over to the bard who struggled up into a sitting position.

"Join me," Gabrielle said patting the spot next to her and the Empress willingly obeyed, settling onto the bed next to the girl. There was a lengthy silence as they ate.

"Xena."

"Hmm," the Empress murmured picking a few grapes off a vine and passing them across to the girl who popped them into her mouth and started chewing.

"Why do you think they attacked us yesterday?"

It was a question that the Conqueror had been expecting. She was silent for a moment as she considered the answer. It was a question she had asked herself the previous night while the bard slept. It would have been simple for her to give the expected answer but she was curious as to know what her companion thought.

"Why do you think they attacked us?" she turned the question back at the girl and for an instant the bardís face burrowed into a frown.

"I donít know," Gabrielle finally sighed. She had a few hunches but she was afraid to give voice to them. She knew her companion was unpopular and the target of many plots of assassination but in this case she wasnít certain that the Empress was the intended victim. "I was thinking that I should talk to the Elders."

"About what?" the Conqueror was curious, plucking a fig from her friendís lap, aware that the younger woman had not really answered the question.

"I have to tell them what I have decided," the young woman said.

Xena was silent as she continued to pick at the various pieces of fruit aware that the room had suddenly grown tense.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" she asked quietly, hoping it was yet afraid that the girl might still change her mind.

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded her head decisively as she glanced at her companion. "I donít want to stay and rule the Amazonís. They deserve someone who was born and raised here."

Xena studied the face of her lover for a few moments before nodding her head solemnly and carefully rising off the bed and onto her feet. Her companion had made her decision and she would do nothing to make her reconsider.

"Iíll get the one of the guards to summon the Council Elder."

Lesta was not really surprised when the Amazon guard came to her hut with a message that their Queen requested her presence. She had been pondering an excuse to go over and talk to the girl about Velaska. She rubbed her temples, commiserating over the problems which just seemed to keep piling up.

She knocked on the door to the Royal hut and was curtly invited inside. She stepped through the portal into the room, her eyes automatically going to the bard who was sitting up in bed. The Conqueror was lounging casually in a chair by the window, her sword perched against the wall nearby.

"Good morning, my Queen, I hope you had a good night," she bowed her head.

"Good morning and yes, I had a wonderful night," Gabrielle replied cheerfully and motioned to a chair next to the bed. "Have a seat, there are some things that we need to discuss."

The Elder did as she was requested, her nervous eyes straying over to the Conqueror whose idle posture was a mere mask for the tension that was radiating from her taut body. She turned back to the girl and waited for her to speak.

"I have been studying the Amazon scrolls," the bard began glancing across at the Empress to booster her courage. "There is a law that states the Queen can name a Regent to rule in her place."

"Yes," Lesta nodded. "But it is hardly done and only in circumstances where the Queen will be absent from the tribe for a short term. Iím not certain that the tribe would accept leadership under a Regent."

"I disagree," the young woman shook her head. "I am an outsider, and the extent of my knowledge of your society is the little that I have read. It would be better if the Amazon nation were led by someone born and raised here."

Lesta looked at the woman. She saw the set expression on the girlís face and knew that no amount of discussion would make the woman change her mind. In a way she was relieved for she knew a majority of the tribe would agree with the decision.

"Perhaps you are right though Iím not sure who the Council would consider a good candidate for the position," the Elder conceded with a sigh, her mind already dwelling on the problems that would follow.

"I think I may know someone," Gabrielle said cautiously and the older woman glanced across at the girl. "Ephiny."

"Why?" the suggestion did not really surprise the Amazon but she was curious to know the girlís reason for picking the warrior.

"Because I am certain that if your Queen Melosa had been aware that she was still alive that day, she would have given Ephiny the Right of Caste. Really it belongs to her."

"Thatís true enough but she is a warrior and Iím not certain she will accept it," the Elder shook her head with a frown. "She is not the most patient of people."

"Sometimes the most impatient make the best rulers," the young woman commented casting a brief glance towards the Conqueror who snorted quietly at the implication. "I have watched her and I think the Nation would accept her as their new Queen."

"She is popular with most members of the tribe," Lesta conceded, seriously considering the idea. "Queen Melosa once suggested that she had allot of possibilities, but she may not accept the Mask."

"She will accept," Gabrielle said confidently and the Elder peered at her intently for a long moment wondering if there was something this woman knew that she didnít.

She cast a sly glance at the Empress who had remained silent through this whole exchange. There was nothing on the warrior's face to indicate what she was thinking. It was the same stoic mask that she always wore. Lesta turned her attention back to the bard.

"I will approach her with your suggestion," the Elder agreed, acceding to the younger womanís wishes.

"No," the bard was not about to pass off her responsibilities on to anyone else. "I think I might have a better chance at persuading her."

Lesta looked at the determined expression on the girlís face and knew then that the young Amazon warrior would have no chance at turning down this request. The bard would persuade the warrior and then it would be up to the Elders to train her the right way.

"Are you certain that this is what you want?" the woman dared to ask one last time.

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded. "For most of my life I have relied on my gut instinct to guide me. It has never failed me. I belong some place else."

"You have no doubts?" the Elder marvelled at the confidence that this woman displayed. It was as if she was absolutely certain of where she belonged in life. That was rare in someone so young.

"No," the bard shook her head without hesitation her green eyes briefly seeking out the intense pale blue orbs that were staring at her from across the room.

"Then I will send for her," the older woman said and stood up to leave but the interview was not over.

"What have you done about the incident yesterday?" the Conqueror spoke for the first time. The older Amazon looked slightly uncomfortable.

"I have our best warrior looking into the matter," was the quiet response.

"Why are you hesitating? We all know who was involved," Xena chided the older woman as she rose slowly from her seat, like a panther uncoiling itself from a restless slumber. "If they had been a member of my army I would have dealt with the matter by now."

"Yes," the Elder nodded stiffly. "You probably would have had them drawn and quartered or put up on a cross, but that is not how we do things here in the Amazon Nation."

"No, you allow perspective assassins to run free," the Conqueror snarled. "Perhaps you secretly wished that one of those arrows had met there mark, it certainly would have solved one of your problems. What would you have done if one of those arrows had killed your Queen?"

"We would have dealt with the matter," came the cool reply.

"And if I had been killed?"

There was silence and the Elder looked into the cold blue eyes that had become dangerous slits of pale. "It has become very clear to us that it is impossible to kill you."

"Certainly it will take more then a few disgruntled Amazonís," Xena snorted and without another word stormed out the door, leaving both women staring after her.

"The Amazonís responsible can not go unpunished," the bard commented softly not entirely disagreeing with the Conqueror.

"It is a difficult situation," Lesta sighed helplessly.

"Why?" Gabrielle wanted to know and then remembered something she had forgotten. "Is it because of the challenge issued against me?"

"Yes," the other woman confessed solemnly. "There are many in the tribe who would side with Velaska. We cannot punish her. If we did, she would claim it was to prevent her from challenging for the Mask."

"But we were the victims," the bard shook her head in a slight fit of temper. "She and her friends attacked us."

"Yes," the other woman agreed. "But you are both outsiders and Velaska, as difficult as she may be, is still a Sister. The tribe is divided over the matter and many are still undecided about the treaty and the question of you being Queen. Unless this situation is handled delicately, there could be much more trouble."

"Trouble that could be avoided by doing nothing," the bard finished for the Amazon in a tense voice.

"Yes," the Elder was honest.

"Why is everyone so afraid of Velaska?" Gabrielle wondered out loud and the Elder stared at her intently.

"Because she is the type of warrior who will do anything to secure her goal," the older woman admitted with a heavy sigh.

"Then we have to make sure that doesnít happen," Gabrielle said quietly.

The Amazon looked down at the girl. "Are you still certain that you do not wish to inform the Conqueror of Velaskaís challenge?"

"Yes," the bard was very sure. "After what happened yesterday I shudder to think of her reaction. She might blame not only the warrior but all the Amazonís and then we really would have trouble. Donít worry I will think of something else."

The Elder wasnít certain whether to trust the girl but if Gabrielle believed she could find a solution then she had to believe the same.

"I will send Ephiny to see you," Lesta said and then strolled out of the hut.

Xena walked around the village scowling at every Amazon who turned an eye in her direction. She was beginning to wonder why she hadnít settled the whole matter the previous afternoon when she had the Amazon in her grip. It would have been so easy to kill the woman, yet she had released the woman in spite of knowing that she was responsible. She didnít even want to think about why she had done that, because she knew of course. Gabrielle wouldnít have wanted her too yet inside she knew if the bard hadnít been there then the red headed Amazon would have been dead.

She ground her teeth together. She hated these women and felt a restless itch to snatch the bard and ride out of the village. She didnít want to get involved with these people yet she had been irrevocably drawn into their politics.

She found her way to the stables where she tried to absolve her feelings by brushing Argo. It did little to distract her thoughts and emotions and she was still upset by the time she found her way back to the Royal hut where Gabrielle waited. She paced angrily around the room uncertain that she could let matters rest. She turned and saw that the bard was watching her closely.

"You could have been nicer," the girl said softly but the Conqueror only glared.

"Only when they start treating us better," came the sharp retort and Gabrielle sensed that her lover was still tense. The Conqueror had been in a foul temper since the incident in the forest. She met the womanís gaze and then patted a spot on the bed.

"Come here," she said and then tacked on in her most pleading voice. "Please."

Xena grumbled something but did as the smaller woman requested. She was finding it nearly impossible to refuse this woman on any level and most of the time found herself unwilling to even try. She shook her head fighting to remind herself of what was happening around them.

"What?" she asked in a pouting voice as she sat down on the bed next to her lover. Gabrielle picked up one of her large hands and folded it between her own.

"Xena Iím not certain why these Amazonís attacked us," the bard said in a quiet voice. "There are some bad Amazonís but there are good ones too. You just have to give them a chance."

Xena said nothing but realized she would do whatever this woman asked.

"All right," she mumbled.

"Thank you," the bard said and leaned over to kiss the dark haired womanís cheek.

"But if they try anything again I canít promise you I wonít take matters into my own hands," the Conqueror said grumpily.

"If they try anything else I will not try and stop you," the girl promised solemnly and was thankful when she saw that her lover was slightly mollified.

There was a knock on the door and Gabrielle automatically bid the person to enter. As she suspected it was Ephiny. They watched as the Amazon tentatively stepped into the hut, her eyes naturally falling onto the bed. The blond Amazon stared at the two women and then watched as the Conqueror unfolded her body and stood up.

"Sit," Xena commanded before moving over to the chair near the window. Gabrielle winced at the sound of her voice.

"Please," the bard smiled and the Amazon obeyed.

"You wished to speak with me, my Queen?"

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded. "I have been reading the scrolls in regards to Amazon traditions and laws, and I came upon a section that mentions that a Queen has the right to name a Regent to rule in her absence."

"Yes," Ephiny nodded remembering her own schooling in the laws. "It is an obscure tradition and not used very often. Usually the Princess is requested to look after the tribe in the Queenís absence, but generally that only extends for brief periods of time."

"Well, I am about to change that," the girl announced with a smile and somehow the Amazon was not surprised. "I have made no secret of the fact that I have no wish to rule the Amazonís so naming a Regent would prove to be a perfect solution to the problem."

"It would be a solution, but who would you name?" Ephiny was curious. "You havenít been with us long enough to get to know anyone well enough to trust someone to be Regent."

"But I have," Gabrielle disagreed and looked intently at the other woman.

"Oh no," the Amazon shook her head, her eyes growing wide at the realization of whom she meant. "Iím a warrior, not a politician."

"Some warriorís I know are very good rulers," Gabrielle remarked with a sly smile as she glanced at the Conqueror who only rolled her eyes in response. The bard returned her attention to the Amazon.

"I have been watching you. You are popular with the other members of the tribe and I think a little wiser then most."

"Iím a warrior," the Amazon insisted. She had never seriously considered wearing the Queenís mask.

She had always been happy with the tribes leadership.

"And Iím a bard," Gabrielle reminded gently. "Do you think I am any better equipped to run a tribe then you? Hades Iím not even a Amazon, so you are already one step ahead of me."

"I donít know," Ephiny was honest. The whole idea was a little overwhelming.

"Think about it Ephiny," the bard requested. "I know that you would be a good Regent and I would have confidence in leaving the Queenís mask in your hands. If you ran into trouble you would know where to find me and I wouldnít be the only one to help. I know that Xena would also help."

The Amazon cast a quick glance towards the Conqueror but could see nothing in the dour expression that masked her thoughts and feelings. Not for the first time she wondered what was going on inside the womanís head.

"There are others more qualified," the warrior was uncertain.

"Perhaps," Gabrielle agreed. "But Iím not asking anyone else. There is no one here who I trust more then you."

"Why?" the blond Amazon wanted to know. They were still very much strangers.

"You forget I saw you in the forest that day when I came to your rescue," the bard reminded her with a gentle smile. "You were more concerned for your Queen then you were for your own safety. If I remember correctly you were praying for her to forgive your failure when I stepped in."

"Yes," Ephiny nodded her throat suddenly clouded with emotion.

"Someone who shows such loyalty and devotion, is someone who I could fearlessly put my trust in. It is someone who I could feel confident in turning the Amazon Nation over too."

Ephiny was silent. She knew then what her decision would be. She was unable to refuse this young womanís request. She glanced cautiously at the Conqueror and saw that the tall warrior was staring at the girl with an odd expression. Privately she wondered if it was the same for the Empress.

Was she as powerless to say no to this woman as the rest of them seemed to be?

"I will think about it," she finally answered. "Have you spoken to the Elders?"

"This is my decision," Gabrielle said. "In a way the Mask really belongs to you anyway. If I hadnít been tending the Queen when she died you would have been given the Right."

"I would have been dead," the Amazon repeated echoing the Conquerorís own words and Gabrielle could almost see the smug look on the dark haired womanís face.

"Either way I think she would have liked you to have it," the girl replied. "But I want you to be aware that accepting the Mask will also have some consequences. I presume you heard what happened yesterday."

"Yes, Eponin is looking for those responsible even as we speak," the blond Amazon answered. The news had travelled quickly through the village. "It was most fortunate that nothing happened."

"I have my friend to thank for that," the bard said quietly glancing tenderly at the Conqueror who returned the steady gaze. "However, if you accept the Mask, whoever is responsible might turn their hatred on you. There is a good chance that you could also become a target. I want you to be able to live with that."

"Anyone who becomes Queen is a target," Ephiny replied solemnly.

"Perhaps, but my association with the Conqueror only intensifies that," Gabrielle said and then paused, "and because you are my choice, some might also see you as a part of that association."

"I am not afraid," the Amazon announced straightening her shoulders. "It is a honour for you to think of me and I will give this request my deepest consideration."

"That is all I ask," the bard smiled softly.

Ephiny left the Royal hut burdened with the thoughts that the bard had put in her head. She had never really thought about being the Queen. She didnít think she had the necessary skills or wisdom that was needed. She went straight to the Elders hut and sought out Lesta.

"Gabrielle asked me to be Regent," Ephiny confessed to the older woman once they were alone.

"That was a wise choice," Lesta didnít seem surprised by her announcement.

"She told you she was going to do that didnít she?"

"She mentioned it," the Elder confirmed. "I told her you were a fine choice. Queen Melosa had a high opinion of you. If anyone were to be Regent I couldnít think of a better choice myself."

"But Iím not sure I can handle the job," the warrior confessed and the other woman smiled.

"You wouldnít be alone Ephiny. You would have the help of the whole Council. You have a lot of friends in the village and that is important."

Ephiny was silent for a moment uncertain if she could handle the job or even if she wanted it. There was so much responsibility in assuming leadership of the tribe. More responsibility then she had ever had.

"But this is all talk," the Elder said with a sigh. "As you know Velaska has challenged Gabrielle for the Mask. The matter of Regent may become a mute point."

"The Conqueror should be told," Ephiny did not agree with this secret.

"Yes, but silence is our Queenís decision," Lesta shook her head staring intently at the younger woman. "For some reason she does not want the Empress to know and I think we should abide by her decision."

Ephiny glanced at the Elder knowing that it was wrong. If their places had been reversed and she was in the Conquerorís shoes then she would want to know. The Empress deserved to know even if everyone else thought that it should be kept a secret.

 

 

chapter seven

In spite of her brave words Gabrielle wasnít certain how she was going to defend the Queenís Mask, though she had accepted the importance of it. She sat outside the hut and watched the Amazonís hurry about making preparations for the next dayís celebration. It was supposed to be a happy time yet she couldnít feel the cheerfulness for which she was known.

She glanced at her lover who was sitting only a short distance away. Xena had not left her side,

following her every move like a shadow. Even now supposedly relaxing in the sunshine outside their hut she could feel the tension radiate off the warrior. The Empress was restless, barely able to stay seated for any length of time.

She sighed, wondering, not for the first time, if Xena wouldnít be better off if she stayed with the Amazonís. Yet at the same time as she had those thoughts she knew that she would only leave when the Conqueror told her to go. Still the matter had to be resolved and she knew there was only one way to do that.

"You got something on your mind?" the Conqueror asked interrupting her thoughts. She had been watching the bard from the corner of her eye and had witnessed the pensive frown that marred the girlís delicate features.

"I was thinking you should go for a ride," Gabrielle said not revealing her thoughts.

"Iím not leaving you alone," Xena said abruptly even though the thought of taking Argo out for a run sounded very appealing. "Itís not safe."

"It will never be safe," the bard sighed. "If it makes you feel any better I will promise not to move from this spot and I will get a whole squad of Amazonís to stand around me for protection."

The hint of sarcasm was not lost on the stoic warrior and she made her feelings known by scowling at the younger woman who only shook her head.

"Without lying to me, tell me that you wouldnít love to go for a ride," the girl dared and because she couldnít lie, the Empress remained silent. "Come on Xena, I will be okay for the short time youíre gone. Iíll ask Ephiny to sit with me. You trust her."

The Conqueror grumbled but the idea of getting out of the village for a few short candlemarks and the opportunity to clear her head was very appealing. She looked across at the bard and saw the entreaty in those large green eyes.

"All right," she muttered. "But only if you promise to stay right here."

"I swear," Gabrielle crossed her finger over her heart and then turned to a nearby Amazon. "Could you see if Ephiny is available to sit with me awhile?"

The blond Amazon warrior didnít dare think of turning down the Queenís request. It wasnít that she thought it was a command to keep the girl company but it was becoming more like an honour to be associated with the bard.

"I hope I didnít get you away from anything important," Gabrielle said after the Conqueror was gone and they were alone.

"No," Ephiny shook her head.

"Iím glad," the bard sighed. "Xena needed to get out of here for a while and I think the only one she trusts to look after me is you."

Ephiny felt a surge of pride at that knowledge. The Amazonís had come to recognize how important the girl was to the Empress and there in was the reason they worried now about the up coming challenge.

"Have you thought about my request?" Gabrielle asked when the silence between them began to lengthen.

"Yes," the Amazon nodded. "I would be honoured to accept your Right, but it may mean nothing, if Velaska defeats you in the Challenge."

"Does nobody think I have a chance?" the girl asked with a smile that did not reach her eyes.

"You have said it yourself, you are a bard. Velaska is a warrior. She knows many ways to kill and has done so," the Amazon was blunt, her voice grave. "You should tell the Conqueror, she is the only one who would have a good chance at defeating Velaska. She could Champion you. I know that she would do that for you."

"Yes," the bard agreed softly, knowing that her fierce lover would take up the challenge, yet at the same time she shook her head. "But there is nothing that she can do. I have read your laws and the only one who can act for me as my Champion is another Amazon."

"Then allow me to Champion you," Ephiny declared boldly.

"No," Gabrielle was quite certain. "As honoured as I am to have you put yourself in danger like that, I will not have you sacrifice yourself for me."

"You are so certain I would lose," the Amazon retorted with a hint of sarcasm.

"No, but I donít want to risk that chance," the girl said quietly. "I could not live with myself if you were to take my place and then die."

"It would be better for all the Amazonís if I were to die instead of you," the warrior corrected. "If you were to be killed in the Challenge then the Conqueror would hold all the Amazonís responsible."

"Then we better not tell her about it."

"But how do you intend to keep it from her?" Ephiny wanted to know.

"I donít know exactly," this was one point that the bard hadnít worked out yet. "I suppose I will tell her that I have changed my mind and decided to stay with the Amazonís for awhile."

"And if you die in the Challenge, how do we explain that to her?"

"You merely tell her I was killed in an accident," the bard reasoned and the other woman looked at her incredulously.

"Do you honestly think she will believe that?"

"You will have to make it convincing," the girl shrugged.

Ephiny stared at the blond woman for a long moment. She could tell that the girl was fooling herself. There wouldnít be a story good enough to hide the truth from the Conqueror.

"If my opinion counts for anything I think you are making a mistake," Ephiny said bluntly as green eyes looked across at her. "The Conqueror deserves to know."

"No," the bard was firm in her reply and silence fell between them. Suddenly Gabrielle felt incredibly weary. She looked at her new friend. "I hope you donít mind but all this talk has worn me out."

"Itís because youíre not completely healed," Ephiny understood the girlís need for rest. "I will wait out here until the Empress returns."

"Thank you," Gabrielle was grateful.

The Amazon watched the girl rise and disappear into the Royal hut. She could understand the womanís weariness, for the whole situation was a heavy burden to bear. She leaned back against the hut and turned her face towards the sun.

 

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

On Mt. Olympus Ares could hear the bardís thoughts and he clapped his hands in glee. He would use this opportunity to his advantage. With a wave of his hand and a flash of light he disappeared only to re-emerge in the mortal realm.

 

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

Gabrielle lay down on the bed inside the hut yet when she closed her eyes she was unable to sleep. She tossed restlessly, her thoughts not allowing her peace. She felt a slight breeze and turning her head she was startled to peer into the dark eyes of a bearded stranger. She sat up in bed feeling an instant of panic as she recognized who he was.

"Ares!" she blurted out his name.

"You know me," he was pleased by the recognition. He had thought he would have to go through the whole boring task of introducing himself.

"I have seen your likeness in your temples," she replied and he smiled.

"I must reward my worshippers for that," he preened and then fixed her with an intense gaze. "You do know that The Conqueror is my Chosen?"

"No," she was honest. She had heard rumours but had never given them much thought.

"Well, she is and you are making the right decision by not telling her about the Challenge," he said allowing his eyes to wander over the girl. The Conqueror had good taste he had to admit. "You must not let the Empress fight in that Challenge."

"Why?" the bard wanted to know.

"It is forbidden for me to interfere so I cannot share the reason with you," he shook his head sadly, "but know that it is for her welfare. You must tell her that you have to stay at the village as the Amazonís have asked you to remain for a transitional period. You must convince her to leave without you. It could mean the difference between life and death."

The God of War was gone before Gabrielle could ask any more questions and she was left to stare through empty space with the ominous warning bouncing around her head. There was one thing she knew with certainty. If the Gods were interested in the situation enough to make an appearance then the matter must be very important indeed.

She sat for a long time pondering what she must do. Xena was Ares Chosen and he would be most concerned about her welfare. For that matter, if it came between making a decision between her life and that of her lovers she would sacrifice herself without hesitation.

She thought about the God of War. He had said that she was doing the right thing by not telling the Conqueror about the Challenge so she had to believe that was true. Somehow that knowledge did nothing to alleviate the sadness she felt. With all chance of sleep gone, she climbed out of bed and stepped back out of the hut, rejoining her friend.

"Are you okay?" Ephiny asked perplexed by the bardís sudden appearance. She had expected the girl to sleep the rest of the afternoon away.

"Yes," she nodded giving the other woman a weak smile. "I found I couldnít sleep."

The Amazon thought to question the girl but she saw the paleness of the womanís skin and decided against prodding her any further. They sat in silence waiting for the Conqueror to return.

 

Xena was grateful that she had let the younger woman convince her to get out of the village for a while. The place was stifling and she knew that any minute her patience would dissolve allowing her temper to reign. It was something that she did not want to happen, aware of how it would reflect on her young partner.

She guided Argo along a narrow trail through the forest, turning the warhorse loose once they reached the open space of a meadow. She felt the wind comb its brisk fingers through her hair, and caress her bare skin, and for a moment she gave herself up to the wonderful feeling. They moved as one invincible creature, hurdling across the plain, slowing down only once they neared the forest again. She lead the powerful animal to a nearby stream, sliding out of the saddle while the horse quenched its thirst.

"I never thought Iíd live to see this day," a male voice interrupted the quiet that surrounded them. The Conqueror turned to see the God of War sitting on a nearby boulder.

"What do you want Ares?" Xena was not in the mood for a visit from the man.

"I want to find out whatís happening to you Xena," the God said. "I want to know why you are letting that girl boss you around?"

The Conqueror remained silent. She was determined not to get into a debate with this God. Ares only knew about war so he could not understand. She hadnít understood until Gabrielle had come into her life.

"I thought you werenít going to bother with me any more," she said with a hint of sarcasm. "After all Iím such a disappointment to you."

"I was going to leave you to suffer the consequences but the compassionate part in me couldnít just sit by and watch you get hurt," the God of War explained.

"Ares, you donít care about anyone but yourself," Xena snorted and the God pretended to be hurt by the comment.

"Now you are being cruel," the entity shook his head. "You know I care about you. You are the only one I care about."

"Then why donít you just leave me alone?" she wanted to know.

"Itís because I care," he replied. "Xena, you think you know what you are doing but the truth is you are only setting yourself up for a big fall. Gabrielle is the Queen of the Amazonís, doesnít it bother you that she hasnít ordered those women who attacked you to be punished? She can do that yet she choses not to."

Xena remained silent aware of what Ares was trying to do. He was trying to make her doubt the bard and she was determined for him not to succeed.

"Think about it Xena, you have all this faith in her yet she will disappoint you just like all the others," the God prodded aware that he had planted a seed of insecurity in her mind. "Right now she is sitting back at the Amazon village discussing with her new friend how she can avoid returning to the Capital with you."

"Gabrielle does not want to stay with the Amazonís," Xena was angry that she had allowed herself to be drawn into this debate.

"I know she has told you that, but maybe there are some things she hasnít told you," he said stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Think about it Xena, put yourself in her place, would you give up the opportunity to Rule a Nation?"

"Gabrielle isnít me," she retorted.

"Perhaps in the beginning she wasnít, but more and more each day you influence her, your thoughts and actions," he paused to let those words sink in. "I wouldnít be surprised if she didnít have a change of heart."

"Gabrielle is not like that," Xena shook her head.

"You will see," the man said and before she could argue he was gone.

She shook her head, clearing it of all thought as she remounted Argo and turned him back towards the village. Ares unexpected visit and his words had put an unexplained fear in her gut. It wasnít that she believed the God of War, she had more faith in Gabrielle then that, yet when the bard was involved nothing was ever as simple as it seemed.

By the time Xena returned from her ride, Gabrielleís mind had been made up. She looked at the face of her beloved and knew that she could not wait, afraid that if she put this scene off any longer she would lose her courage.

"We have to talk," Gabrielle said, standing up and taking her lovers hand as the Conqueror approached from the stables. What she had to say to the tall dark haired woman needed to be said away from the prying eyes of the Amazonís.

Xena glanced suspiciously at the blond Amazon who remained seated and who now could not meet her gaze. Automatically her defenseís went up. The Conqueror looked down at the smaller woman as she was led into the hut, an intense fear gripping her heart. Instinctively she knew that the bard had been keeping something from her, and in spite of the girlís fearless declarations she worried that something would separate them. Ares words surfaced in her head.

"Xena," she began but got no further as the Conqueror captured her in a tight embrace hoping that this action would forestall the bad news she feared was coming.

Gabrielle moulded her body against her companion, savouring the taste of the other womanís lips and the feel of her hands on her hips as they melted into each other. She wanted to enjoy this one last time before she said goodbye. It was a struggle but after a long moment she managed to break free.

"Xena we have to talk," she tried again, hoping her voice sounded firm. Xena looked at the smaller woman. "We have to talk about us."

"We will," the Conqueror said reaching up to stroke her lovers face with tenderness. "After the treaty is signed, we have all the time in the world. We can even stop at some private places I know on the way back to the Capital."

"I canít go with you," Gabrielle blurted out, struggling not to cry, "at least not right away."

There was a disturbing silence and the Conquerorís hand fell away from the bardís face. She took a step backwards, her heart hardening against the pain that threatened to engulf her senses. The expression on her face was dour. All her worst fears seemed to be coming true. She thought of Ares words, which now echoed loud and clear in her head.

"Why?" the Empress wanted to know in a cool voice.

"There are certain matters I need to take care of," Gabrielle was purposefully illusive. "Ephiny has agreed to be Regent but there are certain Rights and passages that have to be followed and then I need to stay for a transitional period to help her settle in to the position."

It was a poor excuse and under any questioning it wouldnít have stood up but the Conqueror didnít seem inclined to press her for more details. Gabrielle was unaware that Ares had visited her beloved and had set them both up for this moment.

"How long will that take?" Xena demanded, her eyes narrowing into pale slits. She had read nothing about this in any of the scrolls she had researched. She knew this was just an excuse. "How long before you make it to the Capital?"

"I donít know," the bard said quietly unable to look at the woman afraid what she might reveal with her eyes. There was a long silence as Xena refused to believe what she was hearing.

"Before you said that you didnít want to stay," she tried to remain calm. "What changed your mind?"

"You did," Gabrielle replied in a weak voice, her throat suddenly dry. "I thought about what you said and I realized this was an opportunity that I didnít want to miss."

The Conqueror didnít want to believe the girl. She wanted to call her a liar yet the word stuck in her throat. She stared at the bent head, aware that the bard could not look up at her.

"Look at me Gabrielle," the Empress commanded. "Look at me and tell me that you want to stay."

It took every ounce of strength that she possessed to lift her head and return the Conquerorís gaze without breaking down. She only managed it by thinking that she was doing it to save her lovers life. The God of War had told her as much.

"I want to stay with the Amazonís," she said in an unwavering voice.

"All right," the Empress said in a cold voice, hardening herself to the pain that filled every inch of her being. "You have made your decision. I will leave you to your Amazonís."

"Xena," Gabrielle looked across at the angry woman. "What about the treaty?"

"I will not break it," the tall dark warrior said in a harsh voice. "For now it serves my purposes to keep it. I will be back tomorrow to sign it as agreed."

Without another word the Conqueror turned and stalked out the door, the expression on her face cold and uncompromising. She headed straight to where Argo was stabled, ignoring the curious stares of the Amazonís as she tossed on the saddle she had only just removed a few moments ago. She needed to get away. She needed time to think about what she could do. Wondering what had happened in the few candlemarks that she had been gone. She vaulted onto its back with one easy motion.

 

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

Ares intervention did not go unnoticed. Up on Mt. Olympus his Godly sisters were watching with intense interest to ensure that nothing else went wrong. They watched the Conqueror storm out of the hut. They saw the bard settle onto the bed in a crying heap. With a wave of her hand Artemis directed one of her own people to intervene.

 

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

 

Ephiny had to move fast. She had been waiting outside the Queenís hut aware of what Gabrielle was intending to do. Though she had promised not to interfere she could not let her new friend make such a huge mistake. Not telling the Conqueror about the Challenge would put not only the bard but the whole Nation in jeopardy, for the Empress would one day learn the truth. She arrived at the stables just as the raven haired woman was leaving.

"Donít go," the blond Amazon reached out and put her hand on the Conquerorís leg. She felt the woman stiffen.

"Donít ever touch me," the Conqueror spat viciously and the Amazon withdrew her hand as if she had been bitten. "Nobody touches me."

"Except Gabrielle," Ephiny chanced.

"Not any more," Xena said harshly and turned her head, her heart stinging with the pain. "She is no longer interested, she prefers to stay with you and the rest of your damn Amazonís."

"No, she doesnít," Ephiny hotly contested the claim, not understanding how her new friend could live with someone so hot tempered and volatile. "Gabrielle wants to touch you, just like she wants to go with you but she canít."

"Why should I listen to you?" the taller woman scowled.

"Donít listen to me, listen to your heart," the blond Amazon said. There was a long silence as the two women stared at each other. The smaller woman suddenly found the courage she had been lacking.

"Ask yourself why Gabrielle would suddenly want to stay when before all she could think about was being with you? Ask yourself what could be making her stay? Ask yourself what she hasnít told you?"

"What hasnít she told me?" the Conqueror demanded to know. Intuitively she had felt the bard was keeping a secret and now she felt a surge of hope as emotion tightened her throat.

"Someone has challenged her for the Queenís Mask," the Amazon confessed revealing the secret that the bard had wanted to hide.

"Velaska!" Xena hissed immediately knowing who would be the one to challenge her lover.

"Yes," Ephiny nodded. "She canít leave until the matter is settled."

"Gabrielle is not a warrior, she will die," the Conqueror stated the bold truth. As quickly as she had mounted the horse she was on the ground. She knew with certainty that the other Amazon would kill her partner. "I will champion her."

"You canít, you are not an Amazon," the blond warrior said. "Why do you think she kept this to herself? She knew how you would react."

"There must be another way," the Conqueror hissed.

"The only other way is if you swear fealty to her."

Xena hesitated, knowing what this Amazon was saying. Surrender, Artemisí words echoed through her head. Know real happiness or lose that chance forever. Xena glanced at the Amazon before brushing passed her and stalking across the village and into the Council hut where the Elders were meeting. She walked straight up to the older Amazon.

"You didnít tell me a challenge had been issued against Gabrielle," the Conqueror accused, glowering at the woman. Lesta looked at the intimidating warrior.

"It was not your concern, it is Amazon business."

"Let me make something clear," the Empress said in a terse voice. "If you hadnít already figured it out, anything having to do with Gabrielle is my business, Amazonís or not."

"You can not interfere."

"I canít?" the Conqueror snorted in cold amusement. "Do you honestly think I would stand by and watch as you offer up Gabrielle as some sort of sacrificial lamb?"

"It is our tradition," Lesta said.

"To Hades with your traditions, I will not let Gabrielle be murdered," the tall woman said with icy resolve and for a moment there was silence. "I will fight in her place."

"Thatís impossible," the Amazon shook her head. She knew the danger that Gabrielle faced and wished it could be otherwise, but she was committed to following the laws and traditions as they were written. There could be no exceptions.

"Oh?" the Conqueror raised her eyebrows. "Do your laws not allow for the Queen to have a Champion?"

"Yes but she must be an Amazon, or the Queenís consort," Lesta replied and Ephiny choose that moment to step forward. She had been hovering in the background listening to the tense exchange. She made her decision in that instant despite the bardís earlier refusal.

"I have offered to Champion my Queen," she said stepping up to the Elder. "She saved my life, now itís time for me to repay that honour."

"No one but I will champion Gabrielle," the Conqueror said in an icy voice, her blue eyes pale slits and the Amazonís knew what she was saying. The bard was her possession and only she would defend the girl.

"To be the Queenís Champion you must swear to be her loyal subject, you must swear fealty to her."

Surrender! The word once again echoed through the Conquerorís mind. She looked at the Amazon faces knowing they expected her to walk away, they knew the Empress bowed to no one.

"When is this Challenge supposed to happen?" she asked in a terse voice.

"Tomorrow after the treaty signing," Lesta said. "Velaska agreed to wait until then."

The Empress nodded. "I will be here for the treaty signing. Make certain nothing happens to Gabrielle until then."

Without another word she turned on her heel and stalked out of the hut. The Amazonís followed uncertain what the Empress was planning but knowing that there was something about to happen. They watched as she mounted her golden horse and rode swiftly out of the village.

"What do you think?" Ephiny asked the Elder.

"I donít know," Lesta sighed unable to hide her worry. The older Amazon had half hoped that some miracle would occur but she knew now that it was to much to ask. The Empress would not bow before anyone. The Conqueror would simply let the woman she loved die. It was a sad thought but one that could not be dismissed.

Xena rode all the way back to the camp where her army waited. She had needed to get away, afraid that she would have been unable to control her actions. Surrender, the Goddessí voice echoed in her head as she paced restlessly around her command tent.

"I canít," she argued out loud to herself.

"Why?" a soft voice questioned and the Conqueror whirled around to see Artemis standing by the doorway.

"I will be perceived to be weak," the Empress responded tersely.

"You are wrong," the Goddess shook her head. "Only the strongest are able to sacrifice all for those they love. You love Gabrielle yet you are afraid."

"I am afraid that one day she will look at me and see someone she doesnít like," Xena ground out between clenched teeth.

"No, Gabrielle sees who you are," Artemis disagreed and then paused so that her next words had more effect. "But perhaps itís not Gabrielle of whom you are afraid. Perhaps you are afraid of yourself. Are you afraid to see who you are?"

"I know who I am," the Empress retorted angrily.

"No," the Goddess did not accept that answer. "You have created this person to hide your real self from the world. You have been hiding since that day that Lyceus died, because that person feels pain. The Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations feels nothing.. The Conqueror controls everything around her but Xena canít. Xena of Amphipolis is human. You want to be in control, and you canít if you give in to these feelings. Itís not Gabrielle of whom you are afraid, it is yourself."

It was the truth. Xena slumped onto the pallet and stared across the room at the Goddess. She wanted to curse the day she met the bard but she couldnít. The small woman had brought her back into contact with the girl she had once been, a person a part of her still wanted to be.

"You can be everything you are," Artemis said as if reading her thoughts. "You can be that girl from Amphipolis again and not have to give up being the Conqueror. These parts of yourself can live together. You donít have to be afraid of that."

"Gabrielle doesnít want me to help," the Conqueror sighed in defeat. "If she did she would have told me about the Challenge."

"No," the Goddess disagreed. "It is her love for you that prevents her from telling you. She is afraid that you might lose and therefore die."

"But at least I would have a chance," the Empress scoffed at the suggestion. "She is no warrior."

"No but she loves you so much that she would rather die then risk losing you."

Xena sat for a long time staring into empty space after the Goddess had gone. She felt more exhausted then she had ever been. Yet the weariness brought with it a new strength born of a revelation delivered by a God.

She did not trust the Gods, yet if they believed that she could be this one person with these many parts then it was possible. But she knew she had to have Gabrielle at her side to do that. She knew then what she had to do.

chapter eight

Gabrielle did not find peace that night, finally crying herself to sleep. She wanted to be with Xena but knew that the Fates had contrived to keep them apart. It was as if destiny was taking them in different directions.

She knew that Xena loved her. The Conqueror had never said those words, but her actions had spoken the truth. The Empress was a proud woman who would bow before no one. It was that pride that she loved and therefore she could not fault the Conqueror for leaving.

Even though the treaty ceremony was not scheduled until noon she rose early the next morning.. Her heart ached at the realization that this would probably be the last time she saw the woman she loved. She wished it could be different yet the situation could not be changed.

She didnít feel hungry and so skipped breakfast preferring instead to take a long hot bath before dressing. There was no debate about what she wore that day. She was representing the Amazon Nation and therefore it was only appropriate that she appeared in costume. She struggled into the outfit feeling self conscious at the amount of bare skin it exposed.

She was ready by the time Ephiny came to fetch her. The Amazon warrior stood for a long moment staring at the smaller woman. The bard was dressed in the Queenís costume and she looked beautiful. The warrior had to shift her eyes away before she was caught staring.

"Everyone is ready to begin with the ceremony," the Amazon said.

"Is the Conqueror here?" the bard asked.

"Her party just arrived," Ephiny said and Gabrielle nodded, feeling a sense of gloom settle over her heart. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She would not go out like a coward.

Xena was perched a top Argo. Joshua and Zenon, as well as three other members of her Royal Palace Guard, had accompanied her that morning. She was waiting for Gabrielle to make her appearance, her eyes automatically drawn to the bard the instant the girl stepped out of the Royal Hut.

For a long moment Xena stared at the younger woman appreciating the view that the Amazon costume afforded, happy to know that the girl was all hers. Pale eyes narrowed as they followed the young woman who walked stiffly towards the podium that had been erected, to where the Elders and other tribal officials now waited.

Gabrielle felt her heart hammering inside her chest as her eyes came to rest on her lover. Briefly her steps faltered and she wondered if she would be able to make it through this ceremony. As if sensing her distress Xena slipped off her mount and stalked quickly over to the girl, grabbing her arm for support. The bard looked up and for a moment their eyes met.

"You look very beautiful Gabrielle," the Empress said in a tight voice. The bard blushed wondering if she would ever grow comfortable with her lovers compliments.

"Thank you," she mumbled, unable to say any more afraid that she might start crying. The Empress guessed her predicament.

"Why didnít you tell me about the Challenge?" the Conqueror demanded quietly towering over the blond woman who meekly looked away.

"Because there is nothing you can do," the bard said quietly. "This is my destiny."

"You are wrong," the Empress disagreed. Your destiny is to stand beside me, the thought ran through her head but she said instead. "We make our own destinies."

"Xena..." she began but the warrior hushed her before she could complete her sentence.

"No, later," the Conqueror said decisively placing a finger over the bardís soft lips. "Itís not going to end today. I am not going to let anyone defeat us. We are going to grow old together."

Gabrielle felt her heart swell painfully inside her chest. She looked at her lover and believed her words. She moved swiftly and the Empress barely had enough time to open her arms before the girl was wrapped around her. She returned the hug not caring what anyone thought.

"I love you Xena," the bard said in a emotional whisper and the Conqueror dropped a gentle kiss on the bardís blond crown. "I donít want to stay here."

"I know and I wonít leave you," the Empress confirmed the truth. "Are you ready? They are waiting for us."

Gabrielle nodded and then stepped out of her lover's embrace. They walked hand in hand across the short distance to the platform, mounting the steps together. The girl smiled briefly at the Elders who were gathered there. On a table in the middle of the platform was the treaty laid out and ready for all parties to sign.

"Today is a great day in the history of our Nation," Lesta began the formal ceremonies with a speech to the Amazonís that were gathered to witness the transaction. "Today we sign a formal treaty of peace with the Conqueror, Empress of Greece, Xena of Amphipolis."

Xena barely listened to the womanís words, her eyes roaming over the crowd of women who surrounded the platform. She had begun to recognize some of the faces but the one she sought was that of a red headed warrior with green eyes.

Velaska was standing at the back of the crowd with a barely concealed expression of contempt on her face. She was observing the formalities with little interest and even across the distance the Conqueror could see the womanís muscles twitch with tension and anger. It was the same way her own body reacted before battle. For the first time she recognized Ares hand in the warrior.

A surge of anger pierced her body at the realization that the God of War may have had a part in this whole situation. She knew from personal experience that the other Gods were watching and so it was not unreasonable to assume that they had also interfered. A well of hatred for the Immortals rose up inside her, so that she had to struggle to keep herself under control. However, it did serve to make her more determined then ever to control their destinies.

The Amazon Elder finished with her speech and turned to the Conqueror. Xena merely shook her head. She was not prepared to give any speeches. When it was time she accepted the proffered quill and dipped it into the ink well before scribbling her name across the parchment. She acknowledged it by pressing her seal into the hot wax that had been dropped on the scroll.

Gabrielle took the quill from her lover and with a shaking hand scratched her name across the parchment, formally signing the agreement on behalf of the Amazonís. She was a storyteller but today she was a statesman.

Lesta waited until all the parchments had been inked before stepping forward. She picked up the agreement and held it up for all to see. A cheer arose from the crowd, but there was one section that did not greet this formality with elation. Velaska waited until the cheering died down before stepping forward, pushing her way to the front of the crowd. It was time for her to take the Mask.

"That is a fine piece of parchment," she said in a voice that carried over the assemblage. There was a sardonic smile on her face as she glanced over her peers and then at the Empress. She was confident she would soon be ruler of this Land. "But it means nothing. As your new Queen my first act will be to tear that scroll apart."

"Your Majesty," she turned her attention to Gabrielle and snarled the title with disdain. "You accepted my challenge for the Queenís Mask and I agreed to wait until the treaty was ratified. I have been patient, now I request that you honour my challenge."

Xena glanced down at her lover and in the silence of the moment a hundred small messages passed between them. Foremost among them all was the love that they felt for each other.

"The Queen is allowed to have a Champion," the Conqueror spoke in a loud voice addressing the Amazon nation that watched in anxious silence. "I am her Champion."

"Good try Conqueror but you are not a Amazon, and therefore not allowed to Champion the Queen,"

Velaska sneered already confident of a clear victory.

Surrender! Xena turned and stared at the bard. She knew this was something that she had to do, or she would face losing the woman forever. To her that was an unacceptable solution. She dropped to one knee taking her lovers hand in her own and for a long moment green and blue eyes met. Gone were the harsh lines of the Conqueror, replaced by the look of a woman in love.

"I, Xena of Amphipolis, Empress of Greece, pledge my allegiance and swear fealty to Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons."

There was utter silence as everyone was to stunned to move. The Amazonís had expected the Conqueror to do something, but they had expected her to do it with her sword and not her mouth.

"No," Gabrielle finally spoke. She would rather die than risk Xenaís life. "I canít let you do this. Not for me."

"If not for you then for who?" Xena asked with a gentle smile as she reached up to tenderly stroke her lovers cheek.. "Gabrielle do you not yet understand. You have become my life, my very existence. I would move heaven and earth to be with you. I wonít let anyone take you away."

There was silence and Gabrielle felt the tears that stung her eyes suddenly roll down her cheeks. She couldnít hold them back giving into the feelings of love that filled her heart. This proud woman had gotten down on her knees, humbling herself for all to see because she cared.

Gabrielle had not expected the Conqueror to make such a move in public. A stunned audience watched as the young Queen helped the Empress to her feet. This was a story that no one would believe. The Conqueror brought to her knees without a weapon.

"Will you join with me, and become my consort?" the Empress asked, her heart hammering the wall of her chest. Her stomach churned and her throat felt constricted.

"Yes, I would be honoured to join with you." Gabrielle nodded and unable to control her actions, she wrapped her arms around the other woman and kissed her passionately. The pact was sealed with an intense look and then the Conqueror looked at the Elders for confirmation. Any more intimacies with the smaller woman would have to wait.

"How very tender!" Velaska laughed sarcastically at the scene. Xena stepped swiftly in front of her lover and eyed the Amazon warrior coolly.

"Do you have a problem with something?" the Conqueror asked coldly, allowing the animal inside her to rise out of its cage.

"I have no problem with anything," the Amazon laughed in a low voice. "I think itís so sweet. To bad you wonít have a chance to enjoy your happiness."

"The Conqueror has just proposed to the Queen, requesting to become her Consort, as well she has sworn fealty to the Queen and according to Amazon law is therefore able to act on her behalf," the Elder paused uncertain how her announcement would be greeted. There was silence from the crowd so she turned to the Conqueror. "Xena of Amphipolis you have fulfilled all the requirements needed to Champion the Queen."

Xenaís nostrils flared as she nodded her head tersely. The Elder turned to the red headed Amazon who had been momentarily caught off guard by the events that had unfolded before her.

"Do you accept the Conqueror as the Queenís Champion?"

All eyes now turned to the challenger. There was a long silence as the Amazon warrior contemplated this new revelation. She was arrogant enough to believe that she could defeat the Conqueror. A smirk inched its way across her face.

"I relish the opportunity to be known as the one who killed the Destroyer of Nations," she snorted defiantly eyeing the Empress contemptuously, a twisted smiled curving her thin lips. "Enough talking, my patience is exhausted. I will fight the Queenís Champion and when I win Conqueror, know that I will take your precious bard to my bed and enjoy every minute of ravaging her body."

The crowd of Amazonís parted as the Conqueror jumped down from the platform to face this discontented warrior. Her manner was calm and controlled, like a jungle cat assessing its prey. Any keen observer would have noticed the subtle tension in the Empressí body or the way her muscles rippled when she moved.

"I told you before, you will never lay a hand upon your Queen," Xena replied with a smile though her eyes held a deadly intent, the animal inside herself rising up to the challenge. "I hope Amazon you have prayed to your God because today you will take a ride on Charons boat."

Velaska laughed and made the first lunge which the Conqueror easily sidestepped without drawing her sword. The Amazon flushed, embarrassed by the simple way this hated woman treated her. There was contempt and loathing on her face.

"Today you will die," the Amazon sneered.

"No," the Conqueror shook her head with amusement, unsheathing her sword and twirling it effortlessly with one strong hand. "You have never faced anyone like me before. You are a simple warrior. I am the Destroyer of Nations. You would not even be a corporal in my army."

"Die," Velaska screamed, angered by the insult. She charged the Conqueror allowing her rage to dictate her actions.

Gabrielle watched, her heart in her mouth. She knew with certainty that had Xena not stepped in she would have met Hades this morning. Velaska would have easily defeated her but the Amazon was no match for the Conqueror who made her seem like a very ordinary soldier. The bard felt sympathy for the woman who had so foolishly thought she could defeat the Empress.

The Amazon thrust again and this time Xena engaged her with her sword. There was the clanging of metal as the blades met, but the deadly dance did not last long. The Conqueror had little patience for the ignorant or the foolish. There were more important matters to be dealt with then petty jealousies. The Empress swung her blade with several mighty strokes that knocked the Amazon back on her heels. Another series of strokes and the challengerís weapon went flying out of her hand. Instead of admitting defeat however, the obstinate Amazon drew a dagger from her waistband.

Gabrielle closed her eyes unable to watch the woman rush to a certain death. A hush had fallen over the crowd of watchers and she waited to hear the final blow but instead there was a collective gasp and she opened her eyes to see the Conqueror standing with an outstretched hand in front of her, long fingers wrapped around a dagger just inches from her head. She glanced with wide eyes up at the Empress and saw only ice chips in return. She did not recognize the person inside the body she knew.

Xena had almost guessed too late the Amazonís intentions, but there had been the briefest flash in her opponents eyes to alert her to the danger. She had used all her strength to leap onto the platform and grab the knife in mid air, knowing that if she failed the young woman who held her heart would be dead.

She ignored the pain the knife made in her hand. She didnít think about the blood that was dripping from the wounds in her fingers. She thought of only one thing and her eyes now focused on the Amazon who was watching her with astonishment and fear. She dropped the knife and jumped back into the arena. The Amazon seemed almost paralyzed but the trance broke in time for her to dive for the sword lying in the dirt nearby.

But Velaska was not swift enough to protect herself from an enraged Conqueror who lunged forward through her feeble defenses. There was an audible hiss of breath as the tip of the sword pierced and severed naked flesh. The Amazon whimpered as the blade was twisted to inflict more pain and then a heavy sigh as the Conqueror withdrew her sword.

Xena watched as the Amazon slumped to the ground. She felt no guilt at killing. She only felt pity for those foolish enough to think they could defeat her. She turned to scan the faces of those watching aware that they had taken notice of the way she had defended the Queen and she was pleased.

The assembly of Amazonís was silent, overwhelmed by the fierce way the Conqueror had protected their new Queen. They knew of Velaskaís prowess with a sword yet they had seen how easily the Conqueror had taken her life. All knew that there would be no more challengers to the Mask as long as the Empress remained the Queenís Champion.

Gabrielle tore off a strip from the cloth that was draped over the table and moved slowly down the steps towards the Conqueror. Instinct told her to move cautiously in approaching the Empress. She could see the heaving of the tall womanís chest even though Xena had barely raised an effort to defeat her opponent

"Xena," she whispered quietly and the Conqueror turned to look at the smaller woman. Gabrielle moved in closer, motioning with her head to the bleeding hand. Xena transferred the sword to her other hand and watched as the bard tenderly wrapped a cloth around the bleeding wounds of her fingers. Their eyes met.

"I love you," the bard said in a thick voice and suddenly the darkness in the tall womanís eyes began to recede. The animal hurrying back to its cage.

Xena dropped the sword completely and reached out to the blond woman, pulling her into her arms and burying her face in the girlís blond hair, breathing deeply the scent and savouring the love she felt flowing from this woman. In this moment she knew her life was forever changed. Gabrielle had seen the dark side and stayed.

"I love you," she whispered only loud enough for the bard to hear and in return the girl tightened her embrace squeezing her hard around the waist.

 

The party continued late into the night as the Amazonís celebrated the treaty. Xena sat on the platform leaning back against a support pole watching the festivities. She allowed her eyes to roam slowly over the gathering, seeing the lithe gyrating forms of the Amazon dancers as they circled the bonfire that had been lit in front of the podium. They were moving to the pulsating beat of the drums that were pounding and she felt her own senses begin to move in rhythm.

She turned to look at her lover who was resting against her shoulder. Gabrielle was talking to Ephiny and Lesta, as she had been throughout the meal and into the evening. She had listened to snippets of their conversation but none of it interested her so she had contented herself by leaning back, savouring her port and watching the festivities unfold.

But candlemarks had past and the full moon was high in the sky. It was late and she was tired, besides the pulsating music was doing things to her body. She felt the warmth of her companion where their bodies touched and she savoured the feeling. Gabrielle had never been more than a step away from her throughout the entire evening and most often they had been physically touching in some manner.

She longed now for a more intimate touch and gently she reached up and fingered the strands of reddish blond hair that lay on her partners back. The tender caress caught the bardís attention and she turned to look at her companion, a question in her eyes.

"You ready to go to bed soon?" Xena asked reaching up to brush blond hair off of the girlís face.

"Yes," Gabrielle nodded. She was tired but it was a good kind of feeling. Besides after the long day she was eager to be alone with her lover. "Just let me say goodnight to the others."

Xena nodded and slowly uncoiled her body, rising to her feet. The others on the platform watched as she reached down to help their Queen up. The pair was oblivious to the envious glances they were receiving from the others, unaware of the attractive couple they made as they walked hand in hand across the compound.

Xena waited until they were in the privacy of the Royal hut before swinging her partner around and pulling the girl into her arms. Their lips met in a passionate embrace from which there was no return. The Conqueror bent and scooped the smaller woman into her arms and carried her to the bed.

It was dawn before they finally collapsed, exhausted into each others arms. Xena cradled her lover feeling happier and more contented then she had believed possible. Gently she stroked the girlís hair from her face.

"Yah, Gods, I missed this so much," Gabrielle breathed once her voice was less ragged. She snuggled deeper into her lovers embrace savouring the feel of the Conquerorís naked skin pressed up against her own.

"I was beginning to wonder if this would ever happen again," the Conqueror admitted more content then she could remember being in a very long while. For a brief while everything else was forgotten, the Amazonís, the challenge, everything except the wonderful feeling of being alone with the woman she loved.

"Come on Xena, it always happens for you," the bard joked gently pressing her lips against her lover's neck. She felt the sudden change. The tension that had been absent for a long while was suddenly then again stiffening her lovers body.

"What do you mean?" the Empress was confused.

"Well, you know..." the bard shrugged, unable to look at her lover. "I donít like it but I understand that you have other lovers."

"Gabrielle, I havenít been with anyone since the last time we were together in Corinth," the Empress said in a tight voice, releasing her hold on the smaller woman and rolling over to sit on the edge of the bed.

"I just thought...," Gabrielle didnít know what to say.

"I know what you thought," Xena sighed aware of her reputation.

"Why?" the bard sat up wanting to know and the Conqueror glanced over her shoulder at the girl. There was a sad smile on her lips.

"You," was the simple answer. "Every time I thought of taking someone to my bed I thought of you and I just couldnít do it. Just ask Archius I have been rather miserable to live with recently."

Gabrielle was stunned by this confession. She felt an overwhelming surge of love fill her. She leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her love and squeezing her tightly, as she laid a series of kisses on her partners shoulders and neck.

"I love you Xena," Gabrielle said, continuing to shower her with kisses. "Every time I thought of sharing you it nearly killed me. I donít want to share you with anyone man or woman."

Xena twisted her body grabbing the bardís hands so that the assault would stop. For a long time green and blue eyes stared into each other. For the first time Gabrielle understood the depth of feeling that this tall dark haired woman felt towards her. It was overwhelming and filled her entire being. Xena had said all the right words before but only now did she see that she meant every one.

She leaned forward and gently kissed her lover, and Xena responded matching the bardís passion with her own.

"While we are together there will never be anyone else," Xena promised solemnly. "I donít want to ever do anything that might cause us ever to part. I donít want to lose you."

"You wonít," Gabrielle smiled through watery eyes. "Now come lie down."

It was much later when Xena finally left their bed. She leaned over the still sleeping bard and laid a tender kiss upon her brow before slipping into a simple tunic and a pair of boots. She stepped out of the hut, pausing only briefly to glance at the two Amazon guards stationed outside the hut door. With a curt nod she took off jogging, cutting through the village and out along a path that ran through the forest towards the stream. It was the same path that she had lead Argo on the day before. She did not stop running until she came to a halt by the water.

She stood for a moment, breathing deeply and savouring the fresh scent of the early morning. She could smell the sweet grass and the fresh aroma of the water as it bubbled and gurgled itís way downstream. It was the smell of life and she enjoyed every breath.

"Ares," she called out in a loud voice breaking the silence that surrounded her. "I know you are here so come out."

"You called," the God of War appeared in a brilliant flash of light. There was a seductive smile on his face. "I knew you wouldnít be able to do without me."

"Oh, I can do without you," Xena snorted without amusement.

"Then why did you call?" he was curious.

"Because I wanted to give you this message personally," the Conqueror said without emotion. "I want to tell you not to interfere in my life again. You do anything to harm Gabrielle and I will do something so terrible that it will bring all the forces of Mt. Olympus down on your head."

"Donít threaten me Xena, I am a God," Ares sneered, his face red with rage.

"I donít care who you are. Just leave us alone," she said never feeling braver or stronger then she did at that moment. Without another word she turned on her heel and started walking away.

"You canít talk to me this way, I am a God," he yelled. "We arenít done Xena, not by a longshot."

The Conqueror stopped listening and kept walking aware of what awaited her back in the Amazon village. The mere thought of the bard made her break out into a jog.

 

It was almost noon before Gabrielle struggled to open a weary eye. She stretched her lazy muscles, aware that she was alone. She turned her head and caught sight of her lover sitting by the table. She took a moment to stare at the raven haired beauty, her muscular body cloaked now by a linen shift. Her heart pounded loudly in her chest and she wondered if it would ever be different. She hoped not.

She lay quietly, content to watch the other woman as she recalled the events that had followed Velaskaís death. The Amazonís body had been removed and the celebrations had proceeded. The gala feast and bonfire had stretched late into the night. Finally the Conqueror had taken her back to the Royal hut and to bed where the woman had reminded her of all the reasonís she loved her. In her heart she knew there would never be anyone else.

She climbed out of bed and walked across the room. Xena glanced up and smiled softly unable to hide the emotion she felt for this young woman. She had given herself completely to the bard and it had been easier then she thought. In return she had been given so much more then she had ever expected from anyone. All the riches she had won were nothing in comparison to this.

"How do you feel?" Gabrielle asked gently fingering the bandages on the taller womanís hand.

"The wounds will take a while to heal," Xena said lazily, her eyes still shrouded by the love making they had shared. She flexed her digits. "Itís a little stiff but once the stitches are out I will be able to exercise them back into shape."

"I havenít thanked you for saving my life," the bard said quietly as their eyes met.

"It was an honour," the Empress replied with a slight flush. She reached up and gently brushed the hair away from the bardís face with her free hand. "I hope I will always be there to protect you."

She reached around the bardís neck and brought the girlís head down. Their lips met in a lingering kiss that spoke of love and passion and a future. There was silence when they finally broke apart. They had not spoken yet of the commitments made on the platform. Both had been reluctant to spoil the reunion they shared. Gabrielle felt it was finally time to speak. She withdrew a little from her companion.

"What you said yesterday," the bard was suddenly tongue tied. "You asked if I would join with you.

Were you serious?"

Xena took a moment to formulate her answer. She knew words were very important to the younger woman. She pulled the small woman down into her lap, circling her waist with her arms. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

"I have never knelt before anyone," Xena said quietly. "I swore I never would, yet I would kneel before you anytime. I was serious Gabrielle. Once we return to the Capital I would like to have a formal ceremony, a celebration for all the Nation to see. I want them to know where my heart belongs."

"Are you sure?" Gabrielle asked in wonderment. "I mean you donít have to, knowing you love me is enough."

"I will not let you settle for anything less," the Conqueror shook her head giving her a gentle kiss.

"Now that everything is settled I thought we could leave tomorrow morning. Where would you like to go?"

"I thought we were going back to the Capital?í the blond asked twisting in her lovers arms.

"We are," the Empress assured her giving the girl a peck on the cheek. She liked the warm weight that was settled against her body. She drew a deep breath savouring the scent of her lover. "But it might be awhile before weíre back in the region and I thought there might be some place you want to visit before we leave the area."

A pensive frown burrowed its way across the girlís face as she thought about that question. Her eyes suddenly grew wide as a smile came to her lips, she twisted around to face her lover again.

"Can we stop at the lake where we first met?" she asked with an impish grin and the Conqueror eyed her with amusement, raising an eyebrow.

"Feeling sentimental?"

"A little," the bard confessed with a blush. "I just want to see it again and the water falls by the army camp," the girl suddenly became excited. "Can we go see them again?"

"Yes, yes, yes," the Empress laughed giving the girl a seductive smile not unpleased by the idea of getting the bard back to that special place and thinking of how even more special they could make it.

She was just about to say something more when there was a knock on the hut door. They called for the visitor to enter and watched as a Amazon warrior stepped into the hut.

"I am sorry to bother you my Queen but this message came for the Conqueror," the warrior said handing over a scroll.

"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled politely and watched as the Amazon hastily retreated from the hut. She glanced at her lover who had broken the seal on the scroll and was scanning its contents with an intense look.

"Is it bad news?" the bard asked.

"Caesarís army under the Command of Pompeii has attacked our northern borders," she replied.

"Oh!" the girl said quietly, afraid that this news meant another lengthy separation. She opened her mouth to speak but the Conqueror gently put a finger over her lips.

"No, not this time," the tall dark haired woman said quietly. "This time you come with me."

The bard beamed, happy with the knowledge that she would not be left behind.

"I guess we wonít have a chance to stop at the waterfall then?"

"I am sorry," the Conqueror apologized. "I am needed."

"I know," Gabrielle sighed wistfully. "It doesnít matter so much, because this time I will be with you."

 

the end

 

Is this the end for our girls???? I donít think so...after all XWP is going into the sixth season which means there is a whole summer of re-runs which will allow my imagination to soar. watch for sequel A Promise of Tomorrow

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