TRIAL OF THE DESTROYER

Part One

© 2000 by C.J. Wells

 

Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Palaemon, Glaphyra, Borias and those lovely Amazons, Melosa, Ephiny, Velasca and Cyane belong to those rather fortunate individuals affectionately known as The Powers That Be at Studios USA, Ren Pics and whatnots. The only thing Iím gaining from using them here is the personal satisfaction of toying with the characters in my own image. I would like to give continuing inspirational credit to Day who wrote Remuneration (Part 1) and another talented bard, Catherine Wilson, who wrote the wonderful piece, Conqueror. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.- 43 B.C.) was a real Roman guy. Mithradates VI (120 B.C. Ė 63 B.C.) was a real King of ancient Pontus (part of what is now modern Turkey). All other characters named are mine.

Credits: Because this is a continuing saga, it is highly recommended that you read all of the preceding stories of this series starting with The Embrace and Freedom, as this will make absolutely no sense otherwise. Furthermore, reading them will give me a really big smiley happy face. This Part One is, in its entirety, taken from the Conquerorís Log.

Character Warning: The Xena and Gabrielle depicted in this story are not the characters TPTB misguided in the Fifth Season. Here, Xena is still the stoic ass kicker. Her language and actions are still consistent with that of the famed Warrior Princess. Gabrielle is still the peace-loving Bard and Poet. Oh, and they still act like they totally dig each other.

Women in Love & Still More Lesbian Sex Warning: Can I have a Hallelujah and A-men on that! If I canít, I understand that Pat Robertsonís latest prose is available at closedmindedbooks.com.

Violence Warning: More fighting, more carnage, but nothing graphic.

Use of the "F" Word Warning: Well, "Blame Canada" didnít win the Oscar, ya know.

To my beta readers, Sue and Mary, thank you much!

Comments & Feedback: Want it, need it, love itÖ


 

Until that fateful night that Gabrielle and I made love for the first time, I was terrified of her hands. That irrational fear started the first day I met her. I was riding toward the Corinthian acropolis with my Imperial Guard Chief Commander Palaemon when I saw her. She was being auctioned on a platform with six other female body slaves. Her innocent beauty and diminutive stature stood out from the others and immediately drew my attention, so I stopped Argo and listened as the auctioneer ranted to the potential buyers about how skilled and essential the women would be to the "above-average male-only" household. Palaemon kept clearing his throat. We had a very important military strategy meeting with my Imperial Guard officers and my Corinthian and Athenian commanders to attend to that afternoon and we were already running terribly late.

"Excuse me, Conqueror, the meeting?" Palaemon inquired.

"They can wait. Itís not like theyíre starting without me."

At that point, I dismounted my horse. I heard Palaemon sigh deeply. I already had eight body slaves, both male and female, at my disposal at that time. Iím sure he was thinking that I needed another one like I needed a crack in my skull, but I just had to get close to her. I stepped up to the platform and, pretending to act like I didnít favor any particular one, walked up and down the row of slaves surveying what they had to offer. Of course the auctioneer was ecstatic. Iím the Conqueror, the single wealthiest person in the known world. He couldnít barter with me, that he knew, but I would still pay him more than even my most wealthy and prestigious citizens would for what he had to offer.

I walked up to the first one and asked her some obscure question. She was petrified, so her response was a pathetic grunt. The second girl was hardly any better. When I came up to Gabrielle, I asked her to tell me her name. "Gabrielle, my Lady," she responded. She had such a sweet voice. I then asked her if she could have any wish in the world, what would it be? Of course, I suspected her to say some silliness, like she wished her freedom or to service only me the rest of her life, but as she looked directly into my eyes, her answer floored me.

"I would wish to be able to read, my Lady."

As the auctioneer was peppering me with apologies for Gabrielleís insolence, I looked back into those marvelous green eyes and felt a strange pinch in my heart that I know now must have been Cupid himself striking me with his arrow. I tried to ignore that strange sensation and moved on to the next slave, but after asking a question of the seventh and final slave, I gave the auctioneer a thousand dinars, over four times the asking price, and directed his overseer to take Gabrielle to my indentured chambermaid Mia and have her prepare Gabrielle for her initial service to me.

When I returned to my bedchamber that evening, I summoned Mia to present my new purchase to me. Gabrielle had been stripped of her slave rags and cleaned. She was wearing a simple brown tunic when Mia brought her in and walked her over to the rug that would serve as her reporting spot. Mia then promptly left the chamber. I walked over to Gabrielle and took off her tunic. I took off her britches and began running my hands all over her beautiful cream-colored naked body. She was nervous, I could tell, but not startled by my actions. Her previous owner had obviously trained her well as a body slave. As I ran my fingers through her lush golden hair, I began to explain to her what was expected of her in my service. I told her that she was now one of my nine personal body slaves and that she would be required to fuck me and any one or all of the others at my command.

I then grabbed her by her hand. It was both the best thing and the worse mistake I had ever made in my life up to that point. When I took her hand in mine, she cupped her fingers around my hand and held it comfortably. Our clasped hands were a perfect fit. Her hand was small, and so soft and beautiful, and holding mine caused my stomach to feel very funny, as if tiny birds were fluttering around inside. In addition to my stomach, my heart started mysteriously beating faster and moisture instantly surfaced on the palm she held. I didnít know what was happening to me. I looked down at our clasped hands for a single moment and then walked her over to the bed. I told her to lie down, but I wasnít ready to let go of her hand yet, so I hesitated. I think I actually squeezed it for a single moment before I let it go. I took off my chiton and lay on top of her. Now the ever-so familiar sensations of lust kicked in. My sweat started to bead and my center started to throb and saturate. But when I felt both of those soft, beautiful hands touch my forearms in a tender caress, I became very frightened at the way they made my skin burn and my stomach and my heart feel, so I grabbed them and raised her arms up above her head and held her wrists. I told her that she was never to touch me with her hands unless I say so. She obeyed my demand that night and kept her hands off of me as I had her.

Gabrielle infected me forever that night.

The next day, I had my other eight body slaves sold and turned their quarters into a storage room. I moved Gabrielle into her permanent bedchamber down the corridor from me. I even had a basket of fresh fruit delivered to her new lodging. Everyone in the palace thought I had gone completely insane. I was convinced I had succumbed to total madness as well. Then, a week later, after I inflicted the first beating on Gabrielle, I ordered Demitrius to teach her how to read and write.

For the next five years, for the hundreds, perhaps even a thousand times Gabrielle and I had sex, she was never allowed to caress my body with her hands. Even in those phenomenal evenings leading up to that fateful night seven months ago, when we embraced each other night after night, years of conditioning prevented Gabrielle from doing any more than shyly touching my back. Until that special night, I never felt the sensation of those hands caressing my breasts, my thighs, my back or my ass. That ridiculous requirement of mine was an enormous burden on our pleasure and on my soul, but it was also a huge contrast from the night of our return from the Amazon village, when I lay on my back in my bed as Princess Gabrielle of the Thessalian Amazons straddled my midriff and ran her soft, tanned and beautiful hands all over my shoulders, my breasts, my belly and my face. Then she leaned down over me and stroked my lips with her luscious tongue in a provocative plea for me to return the honor. Then, obeying the numerous unspoken wishes of my Princess, she had me wonderfully.

"I love you, Gabrielle," I said the following morning, blissfully exhausted.

"I love you too, Xena," she replied. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Well, every morning in the village after the morning meal, I would practice with my staff," she said. "Would you mind if I head over to the palace courtyard and practice?"

I smiled and ran my finger down her cute little nose. "But Gabrielle," I responded with a mischievous smile. "You havenít had your morning meal yet, and Iím sure living amongst the Amazons didnít affect your voracious appetite."

"Funny, Xena." She pinched my nose.

"Sure, go practice," I said in defeat. "Iíll make sure Mia has a full course meal awaiting my lovely Amazon Princess upon her return from her morning ritual."

"Why thank you, my Lady," Gabrielle said as she playfully cupped both of my breasts in her hands and bit both of my nipples before hauling herself off of the bed.

She threw on a tunic and sandals and grabbed her Amazon staff, which was propped up next to my chamber door. Before scurrying out of the door, she opened her tunic to uncover and reveal her right breast and then she winked at me. "Tease!" I yelled as she slipped out of the chamber.

When I was comfortable that she was gone, I summoned Mia.

"What did you do with those things?" I asked my chambermaid as she approached me.

"I placed them in a small barrel and hid them in your storage room, my Lady."

"Fine."

When we had arrived at the palace the previous afternoon, I had insisted that Gabrielle resettle in her own bedchamber first. There was a reason for that. I had originally planned to abduct her. Thus, before meeting Field Sergeant Bahri for the trip to Amazon territory, I had prepared my chamber for her imprisonment. I had placed wrists and ankle shackles on the bed and had neck shackles chained to all four walls. My planned abduction included a planned punishment. Only Mia knew of my insidious scheme, but I was concerned that somehow Palaemon would find out, so when I returned, I frantically removed them and instructed Mia to hide the items of confinement rather than return them to the dungeons where she obtained them. Then I just sat up on my bed and felt a deep sense of self-loathing for what I had plotted to do to my beloved. Why does she do this to me? I asked myself. How can she bring out the sweetness of my soul one moment and the bitter demons of it the next?

When Gabrielle entered my bedchamber that first night of our return, she found me sitting on my bed with my arms wrapped around myself, rocking and desperately fighting tears.

"Whatís wrong, Xena?" she asked as she ran over to me and took me into a loving embrace.

"IÖ I just want you here with me," I quietly responded. "I missed you terribly."

"Lay down, my Empress," she said. "Iíll take care of you."

And thatís when those hands of hers once again began to make up for five years of lost time.

As I mused over my actions that following morning, I decided to go watch Gabrielle practice. I had never seen her use her staff, but I knew I was in for something wonderful. Gabrielle is highly intelligent and Iím not being biased. When Demitrius began teaching her how to read and write five years ago, I had assumed that she wouldnít be able to recite a scroll without error for at least one full year. But Gabrielle surprised us all, and within a season, not only was she reading but she was also composing her own fables and poems. And once she conquered reading in her native Greek tongue, my adorable little body slave began teaching herself the native language of the Romans. While many in my employ can speak their language, I think itís safe to say that Gabrielle is the only individual in the palace, besides myself and the native Roman Demitrius, who can both read and speak Latin.

Palaemonís second-in-command, Commander Aerol was leading a century drill in the courtyard. With that many Guardsmen in the courtyard, I suspected Gabrielle was told to practice elsewhere. When I interrupted his drill, Aerol immediately informed me that he told Gabrielle to practice in my palace gardens. When I got there, I watched her without her knowing for almost a half candlemark. Gabrielle was a sight to behold. I didnít know what to expect, but I have to admit that I didnít expect such grace, such precision, as she twirled her staff by her side, around her body and over her head. It was a beautiful dance of an Amazon Princess, my Amazon Princess. And the beauty of the gardens only enhanced the perfection of my woman and her dance.

I walked up to her and smiled.

"That wasÖ uh, wonderful, Gabrielle," I said. "You areÖ are very goodÖ no, magnificent, with your staff. My azaleas are smiling." Whatís wrong with my tongue today?

"Thank you, Xena," she replied. "You canít begin to imagine how many times Iíd wished you could see me practice when I was in the Amazon village."

"I assume your Amazon trainers taught you how to defend yourself against an opponent?" I inquired.

"Yes."

I drew my sword. "May I?"

Gabrielle went into a defensive stance. I brought my sword down at her left hip. She halted my blow correctly by blocking the sword just above the handle where I would less likely be successful in breaking her staff. I parried her right. She blocked again. I then made a movement as though I would attempt a second strike at her right, but instead went for her center. She was almost late in anticipating the movement, but was able to block me before I could impale her. I wouldnít have, of course, but I hoped she was thinking that an indifferent opponent would have come close to killing her with that strike. When I again struck at her left, and as she was blocking me, I swiped my left leg under her and tripped her. Both of her feet were off the ground and she went down hard.

Gabrielle let out a grunt when she hit the ground.

"By the gods, Gabrielle, Iím sorry!" I said as I immediately kneeled down to pick her up. "Are you hurt? Shall I take you to the infirmary?"

"Iím not a ceramic vase, Xena," she replied, smiling. "You didnít break me."

I hoisted her to her feet and began wiping the dirt off of her back and arms. I saw blood on her elbows. "Maybe not, but I see a few cracks in your handle," I replied in jest, but then got serious again. "Iím taking you to the infirmary."

"Iím fine, Xena," she said. "So, what do you think? Iím pretty pathetic, huh?"

"NO!" I implored. "I am so impressed, Gabrielle. You held yourself very well against me."

"Yea, right," she replied. "You had me flat on my ass after only four blocks."

"Gabrielle, probably a third of my Greek armies wouldnít have lived to see my fourth strike. The Amazons have trained you excellently, as I expected them to do. Amazons are amongst the worldís greatest fighters," I informed her.

"Well, but youíre biased, Xena. You were being easy on me."

"No, I wasnít, Gabrielle," I said. "I wouldnít have run you through on that third strike, but I didnít wane on the velocity of my blows." I kissed her forehead. "Now, let me take you to the infirmary to get those elbows bandaged."

* * * *

Our first morning home together was wonderful. Gabrielle may have acquired some strong fighting skills, but sheís first and foremost a bard. After our morning meal, I insisted that she read to me from some of her scroll entries during her weeks with the Amazons. Gabrielleís presence and voice relaxes me, and I couldnít think of a better thing to do, on the hot day that that particular day was, than to settle in the palace gardens and listen to my love read.

Of course, Iím the Conqueror of the Known World, so times reserved for relaxation are, unfortunately, all too brief.

"My Liege, may we interrupt?" It was Guard Captain Archillius, who led the Imperial Guardsmen that secured my palace gates, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Dedri.

"What is it, Captain?" I inquired.

"We have a situation," he said. Those simple words usually meant yet another failed attempt by an assassin or some other dissenter who was trying to penetrate the palace grounds to get to me.

"Very well," I said and then turned to Gabrielle. "Iím sorry. I need to see about this."

"Thatís okay, Xena," she said. "Iíll find something to do."

I kissed her soft lips and departed with my officers. Gabrielle had indeed changed, I mused as I accompanied my men to the palace dungeons. I suspected that she wasnít going to simply wander to the library and read or write. Gabrielle had tasted freedom and the rugged outdoor life of an Amazon. The sun was bright, the day was hot and too much activity outside of the palace grounds awaited my imaginative bard.

* * * *

In the middle of our first night home together, Gabrielleís scream of anguish awakened me. She was having a vicious nightmare and I shook her fiercely to bring her out of her painful slumber. As she woke, she swung her arms and nearly struck my face. She was sweating profusely.

"Gabrielle, itís okay," I said as I took her frightened form in my arms. I began rocking her and stroking her hair. "Itís okay," I repeated.

She lay quiet for a few moments. In spite of all of my brutality in the past, Gabrielle wasnít one to have nightmares. She usually dealt with her existence of my tyranny by talking or crying in her sleep, so this outburst came as a shock to me.

She looked up at me. "I had a nightmare, Xena," she said.

"I know, honey," I replied. "You want to tell me about it?"

"I donít remember it, Xena," she said. "I never remember them."

"When did you start having nightmares, Gabrielle?" I said.

"Itís so strange, Xena," she replied. "They started after I went to live with the Amazons."

"Did something bad happen to you while you were there, Gabrielle?"

"No, not at all, Xena. Thatís whatís so strange. My time there was, for the most part, incredible. I donít get it." She started crying.

My embraced tightened. "Iím here, my love, Iím here." I hated that this was the best I could do for her. When she drifted back off to sleep, I lay there staring at the ceiling, wondering what demon brought this invasion into Gabrielleís soul.

For the next week, Gabrielle and I spent much time getting reacquainted. She attended most of my military and state meetings with me, we ate and exercised together, and she insisted that I act as her opponent when she practiced with her staff. I was feeling more and more guilt as the number of cuts and bruises increased on her body, but she refused to relent in her determination when we sparred.

Every night we made passionate love. Living with the Amazons must have given Gabrielle the realization that she had a huge resource of un-siphoned energy, for most nights we went at it for candlemarks, and it was bliss! It wasnít just the lovemaking. Just being close to her, holding her in my arms, hearing her voice and smelling her sweet scent were enormous treats as well. I anticipated the evenings with her like a child on Winter Solstice Eve, and to say the least, our shared desires were spectacular.

Sadly, though, the nightmares continued.

A week after our return to Corinth, I was scheduled to officiate another public judgment. Palaemon came to me with six sentencing scrolls as Gabrielle and I were finishing our morning meal. After he left, but before I could even look at them, Gabrielle spoke up.

"Xena," she started. "Not everyone who commits a crime in the Realm faces you, correct?"

With the aftermath of our three-month separation from the last public judgment clearly on my mind, I immediately became apprehensive. "No," I replied. "Why?" I asked, conscious of the menacing tone of my voice as I spoke.

"So, who determines who faces you, Xena?" she asked without a hint that she was intimidated by me. "Is it Commander Palaemon?"

"No, I do."

"So, they have to have done some pretty terrible things, right?" Gabrielle said, her tone as casual as if we were discussing a lamb recipe.

"Yea, Gabrielle. Where is this going?"

"Well, Queen Melosa trained me as a jurist. I was just curious to see what types of sentences certain crimes warrant in the Realm, Xena. Thatís all."

"I can answer that for you," I said as I tried desperately to contain my anger. "Crucifixion."

"Did these six malfeasants commit the same act?" she inquired.

"No."

"Then why do they receive the same condemnation?" Gabrielle asked as she nonchalantly dipped a piece of bread in tzatziki and stuck it in her mouth.

"Because I say so!" Her continued relaxed demeanor was infuriating me.

"Can I read them, Xena?" she asked. "Can I see what crimes deserve crucifixion?"

"What, little Ďjuristí, do you think you could do better?"

"Iím just curious."

I threw the rolled parchments at Gabrielle and got up from our meal table. She hardly flinched as they flew in her direction. I didnít understand why I was so angry, but I suspected that, in addition to Gabrielleís instant curiosity toward my public judgments, it was her continued calmness. Strange, but inwardly, I was both delighted and infuriated that she was no longer frightened of me. She picked up the scrolls that had lightly tumbled to the floor and gently placed them by her food plate. She then resumed her eating. I started pacing.

"Okay, Princess Gabrielle of the Amazons," I finally spoke up after a few moments of tormented brooding. "Why donít you take those judgments and write what YOU think these people should get."

In an instant, Gabrielle was on her feet with the six scrolls in tow, coming toward me. She grabbed me in a tight embrace for only a moment, and then planted a fierce, but loving kiss on my lips.

"Thank you, Xena!" she shouted in her glee as she lovingly cupped my cheek in her empty hand. "You wonít be disappointed." She turned and scurried out of the chamber.

Did she totally expect me to suggest that? I thought as I wondered if the Amazons had created an oracle out of Gabrielle.

I didnít see Gabrielle until just before the scheduled public judgments were to begin. I had dressed in one of my regal chitons for the occasion and, as usual, rode by chariot over to the agora with Palaemon. When I arrived and stepped up onto the dais, Gabrielle approached my scribe, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and handed him the six scrolls. She was dressed in a beautiful white chiton I had never seen before. The garment accentuated her lovely curved, bronzed and toned body perfectly. She also wore a sparkling pearl necklace. The winds were gusting that day and her short, blond hair blew in the breeze majestically. Her beauty was ethereal. It didnít matter that I was still quite upset with her. It seems as though every moment of our lives together I fall more and more in love with her.

Cicero looked up at me for direction. I simply nodded my approval at this change of protocol. He then summoned the Guardsmen to bring out the first prisoner.

"Charkas of Corinth, for betraying the Realm by embezzling from the Imperial vaults, and for the conversion of over eighty thousand dinars of the Realm, the penalty isÖ isÖ"

Cicero looked closely at the scroll and, with the most perturbed expression I had ever seen on his face, looked at me in question. I sighed deeply and waived my hand for him to continue. He raised his eyebrows in amazement, I suspected, and looked back down at the scroll.

"The punishment is ten years hard labor as the indentured servant of Docia of Sicyon, the largest swine rancher in the Peloponnese. The wage you would have been paid by Docia for your labors will be paid to the Realm as restitution." Cicero looked at me again, totally astonished. I again waived my hand for him to continue.

"Do you, uhÖ have you anything to say?"

That little weasel of a thief Charkas broke out in tears. "By holy Hera, queen of the gods, thank you! Bless you, Conqueror!" Charkas had, at one time, been one of my most reliant Imperial accountants. He squandered my money with which I entrusted him on gambling, wine and women, but mostly gambling. As he was hauled away, I had a bitter taste in my mouth over the fact that his miserable life was being spared.

Two more Guards brought out the second prisoner. "Dzhura of Corinth, for betraying the Realm by murdering your husband, the Imperial Guardsman Chiparus of Mycenae, the penalty isÖ" Cicero paused again and looked at me even more astonished. His glances were really starting to irritate me.

"Will you go on," I whispered.

"The penalty is four years confinement at the womenís prison colony on the island of Lesbos. Is there anything you wish to say?"

The woman said nothing. She simply looked at me and bowed her head in a gesture of sincere thanks, I suspected.

"Have you any children?" I asked the prisoner. She nodded. "Three children, my Lady." I gestured to the Guardsmen to take her away.

The remaining four condemned received some form of imprisonment or indentured servitude for their crimes, and none of them in my palace dungeons, I noticed. Even the failed assassin from the week before received a sentence of five years labor to an Athenian orphanage. None of Gabrielleís Ďjudgmentsí called for death. The last prisoner brought before me had admitted to raping and murdering three young girls, and even with that, Gabrielle called for life imprisonment at the treacherous Dome Of Trojans prison colony on the island of Syros.

No one would die on the cross that day.

I retreated to my chariot and went directly back to my bedchamber to wait for Gabrielle. Palaemon looked at me during the entire ride but said nothing. He saw it in my face. Palaemon knew on this occasion that if he made any of his typical snide remarks, he would really be tempting his fate.

When Gabrielle entered my chamber, I immediately grabbed her tightly by her forearms and contemplated shaking the Tartarus out of her.

"A pig farmer!?! "You turned that bastard Charkas over to a fucking pig farmer!?!"

Gabrielle reached up and grabbed my forearms gently. She was still calm. "I read each dossier, Xena," she said. "Charkas spent all of the money he stole."

"I know that!" I exclaimed. "My money! On gambling and whores!"

"Crucifying him wasnít going to bring that money back, Xena," she continued. "Docia is very prosperous and can afford to pay a worker eighty thousand dinars in ten years. This way, Docia gets a committed worker and the Realm receives its restitution."

"Yea, but whereís the fucking punishment, Gabrielle?" I inquired.

Gabrielle smiled. "Well, Xena, if you were skilled as an accountant, would you want to work on a pig farm, without pay, for ten years?"

I calmed down and released Gabrielle. By the gods, she is so special. "Why spare the rapist, Gabrielle?" I asked.

"Heís not spared, Xena," she responded. "Heís only 22. Heíll likely suffer at the hands of the other prisoners in that colony for what he did and heíll suffer for years to come. Itíll give him something to think about. Then, Xena, heíll die in that den of Hades when the Fates come to claim him."

"And Dzhura, Gabrielle, she killed one of my most skilled Guardsmen."

Gabrielle explained. "According to her account and from the testament of the arresting Militiaman, Guard Corporal Chiparus had been beating her and her children for many years. She had enough, Xena, and stabbed him with his own dagger after a brutal beating. That woman didnít deserve to die. She was already living in Tartarus with that man."

"It wasnít self defense, Gabrielle. He wasnít hitting her anymore when she stabbed him."

"I know. And she needs to be punished for taking a manís life, but not by her own death. I gave her only four years so that she can hopefully come back here and resume her role as a mother to her children."

Gabrielle smiled at me again and I was powerless to do anything but smile back. "Itís interesting that you should choose Lesbos as the place for her confinement," I said as I grabbed Gabrielle around her waist. "Sheíll probably end up like us, you know."

Gabrielle looked confused. "What do you mean?"

I then lifted her up by her waist and carried her over to the bed where I gently deposited her. Laying her back prone, I lay on top of her and began kissing her passionately. Breaking the kiss, I looked into startled, but desire-filled green eyes. "Welcome to the island of Lesbos, Princess Gabrielle."

The following morning, Palaemon reported to me that Lieutenant Velasca absconded from her command at Pharsalus.

"What have you heard?" I inquired.

"I received word this morning, my Liege," he began. "I understand that, last week, you ordered Commander Rhamos to dispatch two intelligence operatives to act as reassigned soldiers to her battalion."

"Yes, I had Guard Corporal Bahri deliver the orders to Rhamos," I said. "They were posing as low-ranking hoplites."

"Well, Conqueror, Velasca was apparently suspicious from the onset and she had one of her own soldiers spy on the two operatives. She caught one of them sending word back to Rhamos of some silly plan of hers to poison the water supply of the Amazon tribe in the region. Obviously, the message got through to Rhamos, but Velasca murdered both of the operatives. The word we have is that she headed north with a band of loyal soldiers from her battalion."

"I trust that Commander Rhamos is at Pharsalus now, Palaemon," I said.

"Yes, my Liege."

"How many soldiers from her battalion followed her?"

"Only about twenty, my Liege," Palaemon said. "She wasnít a very popular officer amongst the troops."

"And I bet the defectors were mostly female as well, correct Commander?"

"Why, yes, I do believe so." He paused. "Do you have any ideas as to what her next move will be, Conqueror?"

"Oh, yes, Commander," I replied.

I kissed Gabrielle and exited the bath. Putting on a robe, I instructed Palaemon to assemble a detachment of Imperial Guard and prepare horses and chariots for a trip to Thrace. It was only after Palaemon exited the bedchamber that Gabrielle exited the bath.

"Looks like Iím going on a trip, Gabrielle," I said.

"Looks like weíre going on a trip, Xena," she said as she began drying off.

"No, youíre staying here."

"No, Iím going with you."

"I wonít let you, Gabrielle," I said. "This is going to be dangerous. Velasca has always been wicked, but sheís very clever as well, and now sheís pissed at me. Having you around will only distract me, and Iím not chancing that sheís given any opportunity to harm you in some way."

"I wonít let that happen, Xena," Gabrielle said, defiantly. "And I know you wonít let that happen either."

"Well, I said Ďnoí, Gabrielle," I declared. "This doesnít concern you, so donít argue with me."

"Well, I said Iím going, Xena! This woman is an enemy to my Amazon Sisters, so her contempt for them does concern me," she exclaimed, then added softly, "Anyway, IÖ I canít stand another separation from you."

I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing would come out. I couldnít stand another separation from her either, and knowing that, I relented to her insistence. I stood quietly and watched as Gabrielle dressed and began packing some of her belongings for travel. Most of her clothing and personal items were in my bedchamber now. Her bedchamber basically served only as a personal library for her ever-growing scroll collection. I joined her in preparing my clothing and weapons for travel.

"Your freedom has certainly changed you, Princess Gabrielle," I finally said as I completed my packing.

"My freedom has changed you as well, Xena the Conqueror," Gabrielle responded.

"Yes, Gabrielle, it has."

* * * *

My military entourage left Corinth at the noon candlemark. I was joined by Commander Palaemon and his second, Commander Aerol, one century of Imperial Guardsmen, and at Gabrielleís request, Field Sergeant Bahri. Gabrielle had also suggested that a small detachment of Amazon guards from her village be allowed to accompany us on the mission once we reach Thessaly. At first thought, I didnít believe that to be a good idea, but upon considering it, I began to map out a strategic plan where the Amazon volunteers might fit in nicely.

When Bahri joined us, the first thing Gabrielle and I both noticed was the prominent bruise under her left eye. She told us that one of her old Guard "buddies" cornered her on her way back to her barracks two evenings before and had attempted to molest her. She said she kicked him in his groin and stabbed him in his thigh with her field dagger after he struck her. As my concerned Gabrielle fielded more questions, we both learned that life as a woman had not been easy for Bahri. Many of the men with whom she associated during her years as a "man" were now seeking revenge for some silly "wounded pride" they felt they suffered. They were taunting her with names and threatening to assault her. Apparently some of her other former friends simply wanted to fuck her. Bahri had been doing a fair amount of fighting off my men since the revelation of her true gender. She certainly didnít deserve this madness. Because she was Gabrielleís good friend, and I rather liked the strange little Egyptian as well, I immediately sent word to Captain Archillius and my other Imperial Guard officers to order my men to cease the physical and verbal assaults against Bahri, or else face my wrath personally.

We reached the Thessalian battalion fort a candlemark after nightfall. Gabrielle had requested to go the Amazon village to inform them of this development and to recruit Amazon warriors to participate in our operation. I insisted that Bahri and a group of female Imperial Guardsmen from the century accompany her. Gabrielle had been riding on a chariot up to that point, but for her ride to the Amazon village, she rode with Bahri on her stallion, Ru. While she was gone, I met with Commander Rhamos, who had assumed temporary command of the fort.

"Evening, my Liege," he said as he bowed in formal greeting. Rhamos was one of my oldest and most capable commanders. He was burly man with wild, wavy black hair, dark eyes and a thick gray-specked beard and mustache. He had been a part of my military inner circle back in the days when I was the Warrior Princess, pirating seas, looting lands and fighting Romans. A Spartan warlord, he was initially an adversary, but I was impressed with his fighting skill and wanted him among my growing army. However, my attempts at sensuous seduction in order to cloud his mind and defeat his own army didnít work with him. When I ascertained that he was a sodomite, I sent one of my prettiest young foot soldiers to seduce him instead. The young lad captivated Rhamos and when I felt he was distracted enough, I infiltrated his stronghold, captured most of his men and gave him a choice; join me or die. He chose to join me and has been under my command ever since.

"Evening Commander Rhamos," I responded. "Any updates since your last word?"

"Yes, actually, Conqueror," he replied. "Old Mithradates sent a message claiming that a crazed hydra was stirring up the Amazons near his retirement palace in Thrace."

"As I predicted," I responded.

"My Liege?" Rhamos was perturbed.

"Commander Rhamos, you do have women within the battalion who did not run off with Velasca, true?"

"Yes, Conqueror, quite a few," he responded. "Two of them are MY best fighters who were reassigned here last year. They are very loyal to the Realm; Sergeant Viera of Thermopylae and Sergeant Favrie from Gaul."

"Excellent," I said. "Theyíll join us."

"By your will, Conqueror," Rhamos stated as he bowed.

Rhamos continued to look at me questioningly, but I departed the command hut without explanation. With Palaemon and Aerol in tow I instructed Aerol to take a detachment of Imperial Guardsmen from our century and ride north. They were to go to Commander Glaphyraís command post in Thrace and they were to do it immediately.

"When you get there, Aerol," I instructed. "Tell her that Iím coming and tell her to prepare her troops for war against the Amazons."

"By your will, my Liege."

After Aerol departed, Palaemon looked at me most perturbed. "I donít understand, my Liege," he said. "I thought you had made some sort of peace with the Amazons."

I looked at my Imperial Guard commander. "Here, yes, Palaemon," I said. "The Amazons of Thessaly, like their southern Sisters in Sparta, the island Lesbians of eastern Greece, the Anatolians of the middle east and the desert Amazons of Phoenicia and Mesopotamia are all settled and well organized tribes of the Amazon Nation. But, years ago, before I met you, the Amazons of Gaul and northern Thrace fell under the evil spell of a demon shamaness, and their leaders were murdered and their resources plundered."

Palaemon continued to look at me questioningly.

"And I was responsible for it all, Palaemon," I added.

I walked away from Palaemon. I didnít want him to see the anguish of my growing guilt, a guilt I had not allowed myself to experience before. And yet, I had a greater burden to bear. Gabrielle would need to know why I was planning to attack Amazons, and the anticipation of my confessions to her agonized me.

Gabrielle returned the following candlemark with her entourage and five women from her tribe. She was now riding her own horse, Chulytis, the Quarter stallion given to her by her tribe. Three of the Amazons were the women who had accompanied me to the fort to face Velasca a week before; Ephiny, Chloe and the Amazon that Bahri fancied, Charicleia. The other two, Ouri and Tania, were natives of Thrace who had joined the Thessalian tribe after I destroyed their home tribe. It was immediately apparent that the Amazon Ephiny lead the tribal guard, and I admit, it was a keen strategy on her part to recruit exiled Thracian Amazons to join in on our mission. They were both established guards, but Ouri was also a skilled healer and Tania was a spiritual leader. Although their inclusion would fit into my plan perfectly as well, I was also nervous as to how much they may have told Gabrielle about my past indiscretions. I was uneasy about revealing to Gabrielle this grisly dark part of my past with the Amazons, but I didnít want her to hear it from someone else either.

After Gabrielleís formal introductions of her Amazons to my commanders and me, I gently took her by her arm and asked her to come with me to the command hut. There were two sleeping quarters behind the hut, and I had designated one for Gabrielle and me upon our arrival at the fort.

When we were relaxed and settled in our night lodging, Gabrielle began casually talking about Bahri and Charicleiaís mutual affections when I decided to interrupt her.

"Gabrielle," I asked. "How much did Queen Melosa or the others tell you about my history with the Amazons?"

"Not much, Xena," she responded. "I suspect that you have a history, given the medicines you use. Theyíre just like the medicines the Amazons use, right?"

"Yea, well, but thereís much more to it than that," I said. "Thereís something you need to know, Gabrielle. Tomorrow, we will be heading to Thrace to fight Amazons."

"Why?" Gabrielle inquired with a shocked expression.

"In order to answer that, you need to know my history with the Amazon Nation, Gabrielle," I replied. "It isnít a pretty one."

Gabrielle leaned back in the chair on which she sat and folded her arms. I had her full attention.

I began. "Early in my quest to conquer the Known World, about two years before the Gauntlet, I met the tribe of northern Amazons. They were essentially two tribes split by regions, Gaul and Thrace, but they had one Queen. Her name was Cyane.

"I had acquired a sizeable army by that time and I was overpowering every village and city-state in the region, but I had a policy, Gabrielle. I refused to pointlessly murder children and women, and that included these Amazon women who were armed and worthy opponents. So, I attempted to recruit the two tribes into my growing force. I always employed women fighters and, as I said, Amazons are among the best. Queen Cyane was very intelligent and insightful, and she was the consummate diplomat, but she countered my offer with one of her own. She invited me to become an Amazon."

"By the gods, Xena." Gabrielle grabbed my hand in hers. I looked away.

"Please, Gabrielle, let me continue. For two weeks, I courted the idea. The Queen and I had become close friends, not lovers, but I gained a remarkable level of respect for her. Well, remarkable for me. In turn, she taught me some fighting skills that I had never seen. Her healer Sisters introduced me to some incredible healing remedies, and I even became sexually involved with the lead tribal guard, a woman named Azita, although I was also fucking my warlord partner, a Sarmatian nomad named Borias, at the same time.

"But while I was experiencing life as an Amazon, I was also secretly courting an exiled shamaness from the tribe. No one knew, not Azita, not Queen Cyane, not even Borias. She saw into my future and told me that I was going to become the Destroyer of Nations. She said that destiny would only be achieved if I defeated the Amazons. She claimed that she could use their blood to strengthen her power and make my fate possible. She had demonstrated to me that she had the powers of an oracle, so I believed her. My lust for power was strong, Gabrielle. It was stronger than any loyalty to friendship or even any desire for passion or love. But when Borias refused to help me fight them fairly on the battlefield, I decided to ambush and slaughter the leaders of the two tribes. I killed them, Gabrielle. I killed all of the strongest women of the two tribes, including my lover Azita, including Queen Cyane.

"The tribes were in shambles after that. Most of the Amazons who fought my army afterward either died or became enslaved. Others retreated to the obscurity of the steppes. My army picked through their villages like locusts on a wheat field. Borias and I fell out after that and I took my army and headed south into Macedonia. By the time I approached Thessaly, word had spread to the remaining tribes of my decimation of the northern tribes. Many of the surviving Amazons joined Queen Melosaís tribe here. This time, anticipating my attack, Iím sure they thought they would be ready for me."

Gabrielle had removed her hand from mine and was staring blankly at the door to our sleeping hut as I continued.

"When we were in a dayís ride of the Amazon lands here, Velasca rode into my camp. Years before, marauders had attacked Velascaís native village, but Melosa and the Amazons came in and rescued her. Velasca was about 13 at the time, and Melosa, who was probably no more than 20 herself, had taken Velasca on as though she was Melosaís own child. But when Melosa named her younger sister as her right of caste instead of Velasca, Velasca became angry and challenged Melosa. They fought, and although it was a duel to the death, Melosa decided to spare Velasca after she defeated her. Velasca was exiled from the tribe as punishment instead. She joined me to exact her revenge. She was all rage, but an efficient fighter and, well sheÖ IÖ I fucked her, so it worked out quite well."

At this point, Gabrielle got up and began pacing. I had not utilized the best choice of words to describe my sexual relationship with Velasca, I know, but I wanted her to hear it all in all of its brutal accuracy. She needed to have the clearest picture in order to accept and understand what we were about to do in Thrace.

"Velasca had given me a layout of the Amazon village as it was then," I continued. "She told me who the best fighters were and where their armory was located. We were still engaged in battles in Larissa and Crannon, but those villages were easily defeated by my troops. After I took Pharsalus, I anticipated my attack of the Amazons. But then something happened, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle, who had been leaning against a table with her back to me, turned to face me.

"Queen Melosa rode into my camp the night before the morning we were to attack. She was alone and unarmed, which of course bordered on suicidal. But she had an offer for me. If I chose not to fight her tribe, she would send word to the other remaining tribes of the Nation not to attack me. It was a preposterous and brilliant proposal at the same time. In my colossal arrogance, I had no doubt that I would easily defeat her Amazons, as well as the Spartans, Lesbians, Anatolians and the desert Amazons of Phoenicia and Mesopotamia. But I remembered that the shamaness said that I only needed to defeat the northern steppe Amazons, which I did, so there was no reason for me to spill anymore Amazon blood unnecessarily. Despite who I am, Gabrielle, Iíve never delighted in killing women just to do it. Of course, Velasca was pissed, but I made it up to her by giving her the command post at Pharsalus when I claimed Corinth three years later. I thought it would give her a sense of superiority over Melosa, being my highest-ranking officer in the region, but apparently not. Velasca has and will always covet the title of Queen of the Amazons.

"So you see, Gabrielle, Velasca has absconded north to galvanize the remaining disenfranchised Gaul and Thracian Amazons. Sheís building an army of Amazons and I fear the other tribes are in danger."

"You donít think my Queen can defeat that lunatic, Xena?"

"Of course Melosa would wipe the ground with Velasca, Gabrielle," I said confidently. "But I donít plan on allowing Velasca and her Ďtribeí the opportunity to start a fight on my Thessalian land and endanger unarmed villagers in this region. This is your tribe, Gabrielle. I love you, and for you, Iím going to end this thing up there."

"Do you plan to kill Velasca, Xena?"

"Yes, I do."

Gabrielle looked down. "Now you know the other reason I didnít want you to come, Gabrielle," I said.

She looked at me again. "Is there any way to defeat her without killing her, Xena?"

"Probably, but sheís been a major pain in the ass, and I prefer to kill her."

"I see." And with that, Gabrielle quietly left the hut. I wanted desperately to go after her, but I had my own private musings to do. Why should I spare Velasca? If the roles were reversed, Velasca wouldnít think twice about running me through. But then I thought about Gabrielle, and I thought about how truly fortunate I was to have a woman who was willing to try so hard to see through my evil shell. She was a gift from the gods, and everyday it seemed, I tried so hard to throw that gift away. As I pondered on, I decided to go after her.

She was sitting beside a campfire in the central courtyard of the fort with a group of Amazons and soldiers. Bahri, Charicleia and Ephiny were among the people with whom she sat. I walked up to her and asked her to return with me to our hut. She did, and when we got there, I took her in my arms.

"Letís see how this plays out, Gabrielle," I said. "If I can avoid it, Iíll spare Velasca."

She looked up at me with her beautiful tear-soaked green eyes. "Thank you, Xena."

That night, Gabrielle and I made the most intensely passionate love. I was lying on my back as she was kneeling over me. After tenderly kissing, sucking and caressing my breasts, she rose up and straddled herself between my legs where her sex was able to connect with mine. Sweetly, seductively, she began rubbing my sex with hers. She did this very slowly as I bent my legs and she wrapped her arms around my thighs. She began massaging the muscles on my thighs as her slow rhythm continued. I could feel the soft, erect nub of her sex touching my equally erect nub. It was so intense, so incredibly deep that I felt as though I was blending with her. As we continued to rub our throbbing, saturated nubs together, she began saying little endearing things like, "Xena, you are so beautiful," "Your body is so incredible, Xena," "This feels so good, Xena," "You feel so good, Xena." All I could say was a repeated and almost excitedly incoherent, "I love you, Gabrielle," "I love you, Gabrielle," as I ran my hands along her soft but firm hips and her beautiful breasts. The release I experienced that night seemed to go on for many moments and I gripped Gabrielleís hips tightly and pressed her sex onto mine as she found her release at the same time.

Moments later, as we lay in a wondrous embrace, Gabrielle spoke.

"Xena, what ever happened to your lover, Borias?"

"He was later murdered by one of my men," I responded.

"And what about that shamaness, the one who told you to kill the northern Amazons?"

I began stroking Gabrielleís hair. "She remained in Thrace, but like Velasca, she was angry at me for not going to war with Queen Melosaís tribe, although for very different reasons. Velasca wanted to rule the Amazons. The shamaness wanted them massacred. She sent an assassin to kill me after I conquered Athens, and when he failed, I journeyed back to Thrace, hunted her down and murdered her."

Gabrielle looked at me. "Itís who I am, Gabrielle," I said.

"No Xena," she responded. "Itís who you were." She brought her lips to mine and bestowed upon me a kiss of her belief in me, her love for me, and her commitment to me.

* * * *

I decided to remain awake that night. If Gabrielle started having a nightmare, I wanted to awaken her from it before the memory of it escaped her. I felt that if she could start remembering her nightmares, she could begin to confront the demons causing them. As I watched her sleep, I began gently caressing her arms, shoulders and face. I was reminded of the all of those times in the past when I did that out of necessity because it was the only way I would allow myself to touch her lovingly. I want to simultaneously laugh and cry at my stark idiocy for what I denied us both. "I love you so much, Gabrielle." I whispered as I lightly kissed her lips. A few moments later, she began to shake and convulse. The nightmare was starting. I grabbed her shoulders and strongly shook her. When she woke, her forearms flew up and knocked away my arms. She started crying.

"Iím here, Gabrielle," I said. "Iím here."

She grabbed me in a tight embrace. "Do you remember the dream, Gabrielle?" I asked.

She nodded in my shoulder. "Yes, Xena, a little," she responded. "I remember running through a dark forest. Something is chasing me. Itís wearing animal skins."

"Was it me, Gabrielle?" I cringed at the thought that her contented life with the Amazons would conjure up the darkest elements of her life with me.

"No, Xena," Gabrielle replied. "It wasnít you. It was taller, but slender, andÖ and there was blood dripping from its head," she said, sighing. "It had on strange jewelry and wore something strange on its head. It had bones and, I think, a skull on it. It brandished a knife. The knife was curved, I believe, and it had blood on it as well. I was running from it, Xena, and it was catching up to me."

Gabrielle looked at me. "I donít know what this means, Xena?" she said.

I kissed her forehead as I continued to embrace her. "Try to get back to sleep, Gabrielle," I said. "Iím here."

Within moments, Gabrielle was peacefully asleep. I on the other hand, remained awake, contemplating a battle, an angry ex-Amazon, and the vengeance of a dead shamaness.

* * * *

My entourage departed the battalion fort early the next morning en route to Thrace. Our initial destination, the command post of my Thracian leader, Commander Glaphyra, was a full dayís ride from Pharsalus. We rode all day, stopping only to rest the horses and to eat. I was grateful for the fact that the weather was cooling down the further north we rode. By the time we reached Commander Glaphyraís post north of Salonica, a brisk wind had stirred, drying off much of the sticky sweat we all had accumulated in our ride.

The southern Thrace command post was not an enclosed fort, but rather a series of small lodges in a vertical row of six and a horizontal row of eight. A short walking distance away was a beautiful cavern where earthen spring waters, naturally heated by some force under the ground, provided a soothing place of bathing for Glaphyra and her troops. In addition to being one of the cleanest and nicest-smelling leaders of one of my armies, Commander Glaphyra had also become the most respected individual in the region. She had acquired great power under my command over the years, but unlike most of my male military leaders, she never really let it go to her head. Her respect was earned not through fear, but through savvy diplomacy with the various warlords and clan leaders that pranced around my territories there. Sheíd drink with them, settle their petty disputes with one another for them, engage in games of chance with them, and occasionally take one as a lover, but she would never let them forget who their bosses were: she over them and I over her.

"Welcome, Conqueror," she said as Gabrielle and I dismounted our horses and approached her. "I want to thank you for that unique little gift you sent. Itís been much fun."

"Hello, Commander Glaphyra," I responded as I took her forearm in greeting and squeezed it tightly to divert her attention away the topic of the phallus I sent her almost eight months before. "This is Gabrielle."

"Hello," Gabrielle said to Glaphyra.

"Well, hello there," Glaphyra responded a little too enthusiastically for my liking. "With all due respect, my Liege, I must say that your little concubine looks ever so much prettier up close."

"Sheís not my concubine," I said. "Gabrielle is free."

Glaphyra smiled her theatrical smile. "By the gods, Conqueror, this is a development. Will I also hear the bells of consortium in your future, hmmm?"

"Jest later, Commander." I said seriously, but the bemused look on my face escaped neither Glaphyra nor Gabrielle. "Whatís the latest word?"

"Pardon my insolence, my Liege," Glaphyra responded as she also teasingly looked upon Gabrielle and smiled. Gabrielle smiled back. I balled my fists as the greenness of my envy began invading my blood. Glaphyra continued. "Our dear sweet Velasca has stirred up quite a mess on the lower steppes. She and her charges have seized an abandoned Cimmerian fort. I estimate that there are about 150 warriors there. They have raided every village and ranch within a half-dayís ride of the fort. The only one spared was old man Mithradates. I donít know why."

"Interesting," I said.

"Also, three days ago, my advance scouts found two dead bodies along the banks of the Danube. They were soldiers of the Realm, my Liege."

"Both male, I presume, Glaphyra?" I asked, already knowing the answer.

"Why yes, my Liege," she responded.

"What does this mean, Xena?" Gabrielle spoke up with genuine concern in her voice. Glaphyra looked at me with amazement. No one in the Realm calls me Xena, no one except Gabrielle. Oh, and my mother. I forced myself not to react to it.

"They were the male defectors from Pharsalus, Gabrielle," I responded in as formal a tone I could muster. "Velasca only needed them to mate with some of the women of her newly formed tribe. They served their purpose and she had them killed. Likely did it herself." I returned my attention to the stunned Glaphyra. "So Commander, it seems that we may be doing battle with women, some of whom will be future mothers."

"I certainly hope not, Conqueror," she responded.

"Well, weíll make camp here at your post, Commander, and set out at first light."

"By your will, Conqueror."

As Gabrielle and I turned to depart, I could hear Glaphyra quietly singing a tune to herself: "I smell the sweetness of love and hear the bells of consortium for our dear sweet Conqueror - - la de da de dum - - la de da de dumÖ"

Had Gabrielle not been present, Glaphyra may have been shocked to find my chakram in flight, heading for her chest. I reminded myself to be sure to tell Glaphyra to thank Gabrielle for saving her life.

* * * *

I ordered Palaemon, Aerol and the Imperial Guard century to set up makeshift cots within the barrack lodges of Glaphyraís post. The female Guardsmen and the two Thessalian soldiers, Viera and Favrie, bunked down with Glaphyraís female troops. For the five Amazons, some of Glaphyraís male troops eagerly assisted them in setting up a separate tent for them to lodge and participate in their evening spiritual rituals in privacy. Barhi and two of the women of my Imperial Guard asked the Amazons if they could join them. I guess Glaphyra was correct about one thing; the "sweetness of love" she smelled was definitely infecting some of the men as well as the women of my troops.

Glaphyra offered her own command lodge as sleep accommodations for Gabrielle and me, but I refused the offer. Despite the fact that we were going into battle the next morning, there was something I had to do with my Gabrielle. We mounted our horses and rode west for a full candlemark. There, located in a center of a small pine forest was a tiny lake, heated with the same essence of the earth as the cavern baths. This was one of only three bodies of outdoor water like this, to my knowledge, in the entire would. I had discovered it, obviously, when I was living among the Amazons those many years ago.

Iíve never been one for romance, but I always told myself that if I were to ever allow my "slave" Gabrielle to accompany me on my travels, I vowed that the journey would include one of these hot lakes. Over the years in my most private musings, I would imagine myself taking her to this particular one and telling her to forget she was my body slave for a night. I would imagine swimming with her naked and then laying her down on the soft sand on the banks of the lake and covering her glistening body with the wild ferns that grow in the area. I would imagine standing over her and just marveling at the sight of her beauty. But my Conquerorís imagination was ever so limited. I never knew what I would do with her after that. Climbing on top of her and fucking her just didnít seem right. Thus the imagery would end there, with Gabrielle lying on sand, covered in foliage.

"Where are we going, Xena?" Gabrielle asked as we began riding.

"Itís a surprise."

Gabrielle didnít utter another word, but when I looked over at her I saw a smiling face full of anticipation.

When we dismounted our horses, I took her hand in mine and once again felt those birds in my stomach flapping their wings as they desperately tried to find their way out. After all of these years, she still causes those damned birds, I chuckled to myself in thought.

Night had fallen over the lake and the shine of the moon brought out the prominence of the steam from the waterís heated temperatures. I looked down at Gabrielle, whose eyes were glazed in amazement.

"This is beautiful, Xena," she said after a long sigh. "Absolutely beautiful." She clutched my hand tighter. The birds in my belly were going wild.

I started thinking about a wet, naked body and ferns. "Um, Gabrielle," I croaked. "Why donít you, uh, take off your clothesÖ with meÖ to swim. The water is very warm. Can you swim?"

"Oh, yes, Xena." My father taught my sister and I when we were small." She looked down and began undressing. "My Amazon Sisters taught me a few things as well."

"Iíll be right back," I said as I pointed toward a tree to indicate that I intended on relieving myself. Instead I ducked past a few trees and started pulling ferns from the ground. When I was satisfied with my collection, I hid them behind the last tree located next to the clearing of the lake beach. I felt like a mischievous rascal. Then, as fast as I could, I undressed, ran and took a leaping dive into the warm, inviting water. Gabrielle watched me as I ran past her and I heard the sound of her clapping hands as I hit the water.

When I came up, she was standing there naked, still clapping her hands and bobbing up and down exuberantly.

"Woohoo! Xena! That was a beautiful dive!" And with that said, my lovely Gabrielle ran in and flopped her body into the water. She came up shouting her enthusiasm: "This is so great!" The position of the trees around the lake trapped Gabrielleís voice and caused it to majestically echo.

I watched for a few wondrous moments as Gabrielle splashed around like an amused child. Then I swam over to her and grabbed her waist from behind and planted kisses on the back of her neck. She squirmed out of my embrace, faced me and playfully splashed water on me.

"Canít catch me!" she said as she started swimming away.

I donít think Iíd ever seen Gabrielle so cheery. "You little spitfire!" I shouted as I began stroking to catch up to her. When I was in range, she ducked under the steamy water. Just as I was about to duck under behind her, she came up behind me and splashed my back. When I turned around, she splashed my face.

"Ha!" she yelled in delight as she took off swimming away again.

Impressive, Gabrielle, I thought. "Game over, girl!" I said. I ducked down deep under the water and using the moonlight as my illumination, looked up and watched as Gabrielleís form swam, then stopped and, I assumed, looked around for me. I could here her muffled voice calling out my name. When I was convinced in my mind that she was thoroughly concerned for my whereabouts, I swam up within a breath of her and splashed her hard over and over with both hands.

"Okay! I quit! I quit!" she yelled through the overpowering splashes. I stopped and looked at her stunned face.

"By the gods, Xena. You came out of nowhere," Gabrielle said as she wiped her eyes.

"Well, I had to make you sweat for a moment there before my attack, Gabrielle."

"It worked," she said as she ran her hand through her short blond hair. My desire for her began to erupt in my body.

"Come here," I said. She threw her arms around my shoulders and brought her lips to mine. My arms went around her waist and our legs paddled to keep us afloat in the deep water as we shared a wonderfully, long kiss.

Gabrielle broke it off. "My legs are getting tired, Xena."

"Letís go to shore then," I responded. "I donít want you collapsing from exhaustionÖ yet."

We swam to shore and I asked Gabrielle to remain where she was standing. I dashed over to Argo where I pulled out a blanket. I then went to retrieve the ferns. I laid out the blanket next to where Gabrielle was standing.

"Lay down," I said, and when she did, I started gently placing the ferns, one by one, on various parts of her body.

"What are you doing, Xena?" Gabrielle inquired of me.

"ShhÖ" I responded. When every collected fern was resting on Gabrielleís body, I stood up and looked down at her. "You are a such a vision, Gabrielle. Iíve wanted to do this so long. IÖ I love you so much."

Gabrielle extended her arm in invitation and, taking her hand, I knelt down beside her. "Love me," she said. I kissed her lips and then I began taking each fern into my mouth, one by one, and picking them off of her body. When I reached her lower legs, I brought her right foot to my mouth and began kissing her toes. I kissed up her right leg, across her hips and down her left leg to her foot. Then, coming to that warm and welcoming place between her legs, I scooped her thighs onto the sides of my shoulders and took her wet, inviting sex into my mouth. Her lovely hands played with my hair as my tongue stroked her sweet center. As I made love to her, my hands wandered upward, caressing her firm breasts. She grabbed my right hand and planted a tender kiss in my palm. She then grabbed my left hand and ran her tongue around the palm before kissing it as well. Then Gabrielle held my hands in hers.

When I finished making love to Gabrielle, Gabrielle made love to me.

Afterwards, we rested in each otherís arms. The moon had moved on, but the stars were still shining down on us. Gabrielle was lying to my side, and casually running her fingers around my breasts as I played with her hair.

"Can I ask you something, Xena?" she started.

"Sure."

She looked up at me. In the light of the night sky, her green eyes were like emeralds. "Have you thought of a plan to deal with the Amazons here without attacking them, knowing that some may be with child?"

"I have a plan, Gabrielle," I responded. "I always have a plan."

Gabrielle sighed and looked down and then back up at me. "Can I ask you something else?"

"Of course."

She sighed again. "Xena, whyÖ why did youÖ did you beat me and take me in front of my parents?"

Iíd always tried to anticipate a question from Gabrielle. We had opened up so much to each other over the last few months. But this question came at me like a fireball shot from a catapult. I released her.

"Because Iím an evil bitch, Gabrielle," I answered as my eyes focused on the shining stars. Gabrielle lightly grabbed the side of my face, drawing my gaze back to her eyes.

"Why, Xena?" she asked again. "I want to know why. Tell me. Why did you do it?"

I struggled to put the words together correctly. "I wanted to shame you, Gabrielle."

"Why?"

"BecauseÖ just because."

"No, Xena, why?"

"I knew you loved them. I knew you loved only them. I was jealousÖ and I wanted you to hate me."

"Why?"

As hard as I tried, I couldnít hold back the tears any longer. "Because thatís what I wanted."

Gabrielle leaned over me and took my shoulders in her hands. "No, Xena," she said while gently shaking me. "Please tell me why!"

Her touch, those beautiful hands that held my soul prisoner all of those years, enraged me in their contact with me. I grabbed her by her shoulders and forced her prone. I saw fear in her eyes as I straddled her hips and sharply cupped the sides of her face in my hands. "You want to fucking know why? Iíll tell you. I wanted you to hate me, Gabrielle. I wanted to know that you hated me so that I could stop loving you." I cried as I closed my fingers into her hair. "I was afraidÖ afraid of these feelings, so I hurt you to make you hate me. I hated that I was in love with you. I hated you for causing me to fall in love with you and I also hated that you didnít love me back. I hated everyone you loved and everyone who loved you. I so wanted you to hate me, but you never showed me any hate all those years, even when I beat you, even when I shamed you. Damn you! You never showed hate. So I fellÖ I fell deeperÖ in love."

I released Gabrielleís head and leaned up, still kneeling with my bottom gently resting on her soft curls. She lay there, staring at me.

"Why didnít you just tell me you loved me, Xena?" she asked as tears flowed a steady stream down the sides of her lovely face. "All of those years, why were you so afraid?"

I took her hands in mine. "It was your hands Gabrielle, and your voice, and your face, and your spirit. They all overwhelmed me. Iím not supposed to love, you see. Iím the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations, the Conqueror of the Known World, and I kill. Thatís what I do. Then you came along and showed me things in my heart I wasnít meant to see, meant to feel." I sat there for moments and then, releasing my grip on her hands, I wiped my face with my palms. "How can you love someone like me?" I finally said in a whisper.

"Itís Xena that I love," Gabrielle said.

I leaned back down and grabbed her in a tight embrace. We held each other for many moments, crying tears of past pain and present resolve.

* * * *

I woke before dawn the following morning. I looked around and saw a thick layer of dew covering everything, including our entwined naked bodies. The air was chilled and Gabrielle was shivering slightly in her sleep. We needed to get back to the Thracian command post, so I gently shook Gabrielle to awaken her.

Letís bathe, Gabrielle," I said. "We need to get back."

Gabrielle rubbed her puffy eyes. "Okay, Xena."

I walked over to a snoozing Argo and grabbed cleaning soaps and a towel out of my saddlebag. Moments later, as Gabrielle and I bathed in the refreshingly hot lake water, I reached over and ran my fingers down her cheek.

"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" I asked.

"Yes Xena, I am," she replied. "Are you?"

"Yes Gabrielle, Iím all right."

When we returned to the post, Glaphyra and Palaemon were already awake, dressed and awaiting our departure to the captured Cimmerian fort. I ordered my two commanders into the command lodge, along with the five Amazons, Bahri and Gabrielle.

"Okay, this is the plan," I started. "Two centuries, Palaemonís and Glaphyraís, will accompany us. I want every ranking female centurion and hoplite under your command to be in your century, Glaphyra. If these Amazons follow tradition, they wonít attack other women without provocation."

"How can you be sure, Conqueror?" Palaemon inquired. "These are not ordinary Amazons, from what you describe."

I felt the cold eyes of the Amazon Ephiny bore into me, and because I needed her loyalty and support to accomplish my mission, I decided to defer to her advice. "I think the Thessalian Amazon guard Ephiny can explain things further, correct Amazon?"

Ephiny was actually shocked at my deference. "Uh, yea, sure, Conqueror," she said before turning her attention to the group. "Velasca needs for her Ďtribeí to respect her. They wonít respect any Amazon leader, especially a self-imposed one, who orders the slaughter of fellow Amazons. I suspect that Velascaís plans are to ride into our Thessalian tribal village under some guise of peace, but once my Sisters take the defensive, because itís Velasca, sheíll have her excuse at that moment to launch her attack with her new Ďtribe.í Itís pathetic, but Iím sure these Amazons donít know that that hydra was personally responsible for the deaths of over twenty Thessalian Amazons over the last seven years."

"So, there is no dissention over the individual tribes?" Palaemon inquired.

"Not yet, Commander," Ephiny responded. "When your Conqueror destroyed the northern tribes, many of our Sisters came to us and the remaining tribes. I never knew Queen Cyane personally, but I hear she was truly a great leader, a legend."

"Yes, she was," I said in unison with the Amazon Tania. Everyone looked at me, including Tania.

Tania spoke up. "I believe the Amazons who remained here did so because they love this land. Ouri and I love our Sisters here, but we canít know what poison Velascaís been feeding them. The thought that they are being deceived by that demon boils my blood, but realistically, we must anticipate everything." She turned to me. "I have hated you for ten years, Xena the Conqueror. The only reason Iím here is because I trust my Sister, Princess Gabrielle. She believes in you, and we believe in her, so we trust you and your troops will do the right thing by all of us."

"I plan on it," I said before turning my attention to the table we surrounded and the map resting on it. "If you all look upon this map, you will see Mithradatesí retirement palace here and the Cimmerian fort over here. Itís a distance of about five hundred paces. The Cimmerians were a nomadic people of this region, so they were not experts on building long-term structures. This fort probably lacks any underground access or proper aboveground escape routes. I bet the walls arenít even that high. In my opinion, it would be much easier for us to penetrate the fort in battle than coerce them out."

"I donít see how thatís easier, Conqueror!" Ephiny implored in a raised voice.

"You watch your tone, Amazon!" Glaphyra spoke up.

"You go to Tartarus, traitor to women!" Ephiny drew her dagger.

"Iíll show you Tartarus, bitch!" Glaphyra drew her sword.

"ENOUGH!" I shouted. "You two can fight, fuck or kill each other later, but now youíre wasting MY time."

Gabrielle grabbed my arm. "Please, Xena," she said in a soft, yet stern tone. "Explain why itís better to penetrate the fort."

I cupped her hand and smiled at her before returning my attention to the others. I looked around at the people in the room. Everyone seemed to have an agenda. Ephiny, her two Thessalian Amazons and I wanted to defeat Velasca. My commanders were eager to once again show each other and me just how competent in battle they were. Tania and Ouri wanted to reunite with their Sisters and save their tribe. Even Gabrielle had an agenda. She wanted to be with me and prevent unnecessary bloodshed. The only person who didnít have any agenda was Bahri, since the only reason she was in Thrace at all was because Gabrielle requested it.

"Field Sergeant Bahri," I said to the stunned Egyptian. "Explain why itís better to penetrate the fort."

Bahriís big brown eyes locked onto mine in question. I raised my eyebrow. "Go ahead."

"Well," she began. "If we all surround the fort and start yelling obscenities at the crazy woman, sheíll just have her archers or stone-throwers or whatnots attack us from behind the fort walls. We wonít be able to do much to them because, well, the walls are there."

Gabrielle and I looked at each other and smiled in a silent communication. Bahriís such a cute little nut bread, I thought as I assumed Gabrielle was thinking the same thing.

"But, if say, our Liege were to stand outside of the south wall entrance with, say, a century of troops and distract the old harlot, you know, calling her names and belittling her and such, the second century could climb the north wall and penetrate there. Once the second century starts the invasion, crazy old Velascaís bound to turn her back to charge the invading troops. That leaves the south wall basically unprotected by any leadership and then the Conqueror and the remaining troops can just slip right in."

"Very good, Field Sergeant Bahri," I said. She bowed.

"Not everyone will abandon that south wall. There will be mass casualties this way!" Ephiny spoke up.

"Not if we position our troops intelligently, Ephiny," I responded.

"What do you mean, Xena?" Gabrielle inquired.

"You see, while Iím out there by the south entrance Ďcalling names and belittlingí, my female troops, you Amazons included, will be the north wall invaders. The two Thessalian sergeants, Viera and Favrie will be able to identify which women are their former fellow Thessalian battalion soldiers. As to the real Amazons, if these northern Amazons follow the code of the Nation, and I trust even Velasca cannot take that away from them, theyíll hesitate to fight fellow Amazons to the death, if you communicate with them. The advantage of engaging in battle with women is that weíre better communicators. Talk with them, even as you fight. Try to reach them. You can try to find out whom Velasca appointed as her second. Itíll be important for you to establish that youíre there to rescue the tribe from Velasca, not from me." Xena turned to Glaphyra. "And Commander, know this. Theyíre Amazons. Theyíre willing to fight while pregnant and theyíre willing to fight to the death. I donít want any casualties among them by your troops." Glaphyra bowed.

I returned my attention to the group. "In the meantime, Iíll have a few tricks up my gauntlets and Iíll deal with Velasca personally."

"I donít know," Ephiny said. "Why shouldnít my Sisters and I assume youíll just reunite with your Ďbuddyí and slaughter our Sister tribe?"

I folded my arms and looked into the contemptible eyes of the Amazon guard. "Well, frankly, Ephiny, Iíd much rather slaughter Velasca."

Ephiny nodded her compliance. "Fine," I said. "Letís ride."

* * * *

When we were in sight of the fort, I ordered Commander Aerol to take command of the Imperial Guard century and have them flank half of the troops in the front and half in the rear of the fort, but out of sight of fortís occupants. I ordered Commanders Palaemon and Glaphyra to accompany the men of the Thracian century to the front of the fort with me. Glaphyra was angered by my decision.

"I thought Iíd be commanding the invading troops," she said. "I am a woman too, Conqueror."

"So you are," I responded. "But I need you with me. Velascaís not stupid. If she sees me out here without my highest-ranking Thracian commander, sheís bound to suspect something. Sheís going to be anticipating everything as well. Why feed into her suspicion with your absence?"

Glaphyra conceded. "You know best, my Liege."

As we approached the fort, I motioned for Gabrielle to ride over to the side of the trail with me.

"I want you to ride with Aerol and the Imperial Guard century," I said in pleading.

"No, Xena," she responded without hesitation. "Iím an Amazon. I ride and fight with my Sisters."

"My deserter troops behind that wall have had years of battle experience and I know the Amazons are skilled as well. I donít want you to get hurt, Gabrielle."

"Iíll be all right, Xena. My Sisters have trained me well. And you havenít been half bad either, my lover." Gabrielle smiled.

I grabbed her hand and kissed it. "Be careful, Gabrielle. I love you." I whispered as I tapped Argoís sides in command for her to gallop back to the front of troops.

Once we reached the fort, Palaemon and Glaphyra dismounted their horses and lined the century in phalanx formation. A group of hoplites took all of the horses, including Argo, back into the woods. I was standing in the center, with Palaemon to my right and Glaphyra to my left. Gabrielle, Bahri, the Amazons and my women troops had already separated from us and were positioning themselves just beyond the line of sight at the north wall.

"VELASCA! YOU SORRY BITCH!" I yelled in the direction of the fort entrance. "SHOW YOURSELF, IF YOU DARE!"

Glaphyra looked at me strangely. "Just a little name calling and belittling," I whispered with a crooked smile.

Velasca appeared with approximately twenty women flanked on both sides of her. They stood the entire length of the fort high wall.

"Destroyer," she replied. "Glad you could make it to our partyÖ ARCHERS!"

Each woman flanking the wall raised bows with arrows pointed directly at us. "Shields!" I yelled. We each knelt on one knee, picked up shields that each of us had placed on the ground, and covered ourselves. The first round of arrows managed to only strike two of my men. "Oh, Velasca, you can do better than that!" I yelled. She signaled to the women to fire a second round of arrows at us. No one was hit that time. "This is getting boring, Velasca!" I said afterwards. "I canít believe the talent of my Thessalian warriors was wasted on such a pathetic leader!"

"Youíre trying to taunt me out of here, Destroyer, but it wonít work!" Velasca responded.

"Aw, too badÖ AEROL!" At the moment I summoned Palaemonís second, a fifty-man detachment from the Imperial Guard century emerged from the brush, most of them bearing bows and arrows, the rest bearing torches. The arrows had been dipped in flammable oil and lighted by the torchbearers. "NOW!" I shouted. They raised the bows and fired the arrows from a distance that would just clear over the south wall. It was meant not to kill, only to further distract the women on the wall, because at the very moment Gabrielle and the women watching the north wall saw the flaming arrows, they were to begin their ascent up the north wall.

"NOW!" I shouted a second time as the torchbearers ignited more arrows and the detachment archers fired them over the south wall. As the trajectory of the arrows began their downward slope, I heard the battle cries of Amazons and the sound of clanging swords. It was time to advance.

"Alalalalalalalala!" I shouted as I ran toward the wall with Palaemon, Glaphyra and the Thracian century in tow. As Aerol and the secondary detachment continued to fire ignited arrows, Palaemon, Glaphyra, several of the centurions and myself threw ropes with hooks on the ends over the wall. With the ropes hooked in place, we scaled the walls and left the ropes for others of the century to follow. Aerol and the detachment remained outside of the fort.

Once over the wall, I immediately began experiencing an inner conflict. The Conqueror in me wanted to seek out Velasca and plunge my sword in her miserable body. The woman Xena that I am wanted to find my Gabrielle and protect her from any harm.

The flaming arrows left a billow of smoke, which made visibility difficult. I carefully sliced my sword across any enemy that came in my path, delivering only non-lethal blows to lower extremities, as I navigated my surroundings. And then I saw her. She was taking on a much larger woman brandishing a thick double-edged sword. One wrong move and that sword could break her staff in two and render her helpless. "Gabrielle!" I shouted as I ran toward my love. Jumping out to nowhere, it seemed, and blocking my path to Gabrielle was Velasca.

"Oh no, Destroyer," she said. "We have unfinished business."

"Bitch," I said as I raised my sword to attack. We fought for moments in silence, the noise of our clanging swords and our angry grunts being the only noise we made. Velasca was excellent with the sword, better than any Roman or Persian and more precise than most of my Greek troops.

As we fought, I glanced momentarily at Gabrielle. Velasca noticed it quickly. "Worried about your little blond whore, Destroyer?" she said. "Youíve been worrying about her a lot lately."

"You donít know what youíre fucking talking about, bitch," I responded as I parried at Velascaís left.

"Oh, but I do, Destroyer of Nations. Tell me, have your little blond whoreís nightmares gotten any worse?"

I froze for a single moment as I looked deep into her eyes and realized that it wasnít Velasca talking to me anymore.

"Iíve waited a long time for this, Xena," she said.

"I bet you have." I allowed my mind to lose my body to pure bloodlust. I knew I had assured Gabrielle that I would try to spare Velasca, but this Velasca had to die. As we fought harder and harder, I didnít even notice that the battle around us was dying down and that a growing number of eyes were upon us. We both fought like women possessed, as we were women possessed. I immediately took the offensive, striking Velascaís sword as she backed up blocking each blow. I continued to strike until I had her pinned against a wagon, then I kicked her sword out of her right hand and brought my sword to her neck.

"So, do you kill me now?" Velasca asked in a whisper as she took on a shrill voice that was not her own. "Iíll be sure to send warm greetings from you to Borias in the underworld."

Before I could respond, I heard a voice yelling, "Xena, donít kill her!" It was Gabrielle. At that moment of my distraction, Velasca brought her knee sharply up to my chest. I went down on my knees in pain. As she raised her sword to run me through, I pulled out my boot dagger and plunged it in her heart.

"Yea, you be sure to do that," I said as I watched the life of Velascaís eyes slowly dim out. I stood and gripped her arm as her body went limp and dropped to the ground. The warm blood from her chest covered my hand and my weapon.

I looked up and saw that my troops and the Thessalian Amazons had detained all of the surviving Amazons and deserters. There appeared to be only a few casualties from both sides.

"The Destroyer killed our queen!" shouted a woman. "Death to the Destroyer!"

"NO!" came the combined voices of Gabrielle, Ephiny, Ouri and Tania.

"Velasca wasnít a queen, she was the sworn enemy of all Amazons!" the Amazon Charicleia chimed in.

"No, our only enemy is Xena the Conqueror!" said another woman. At that moment, many of the women, the Thessalian Amazons, the northern Amazons, my troops, even Glaphyra began arguing with each other. A few people even resumed fighting.

In the midst of the chaos, a startlingly powerful voice rang out. "QUIET!"

Everyoneís eyes locked onto the small but determined Amazon Princess. "I am Princess Gabrielle of the Thessalian Amazons, and in the absence of my Sister, Queen Melosa, I am the reigning voice here."

"Youíre not anything but the Conquerorís little whore!" said another women.

At that moment I went for my chakram. This bitch is about to die, I thought as I raised it to throw, but Gabrielleís voice stopped me.

"Shut up!" she said back at the woman with a tone of fury I had never heard from my love before. Turning to the Thessalian battalion sergeants, Gabrielle said, "Viera, Favrie, who among these women are Velascaís companion deserters?"

Both sergeants stepped forward. They began pointing out the sixteen surviving deserters, including the bitch that I was prepared to eviscerate. I stepped up beside Gabrielle.

"Which one of you is Velascaís second?" I said. No one responded. "Fine, then youíll all be punished as her seconds." I turned to Palaemon and Glaphyra. "Commanders, take these women back to the command post to await transport back to Corinth. Theyíll discover soon enough that their dead allies here are the lucky ones."

That threat frightened one of the deserters. "Conqueror!" she yelled. "It is Daidja of Pheres, my Liege!" she said as she pointed to the woman Iíd hoped in my evil heart it would be. "She is Velascaís second."

"Excellent," I said as I walked up to the traitor named Daidja. "For betraying the Realm and pissing me off, I promise you, your death will be very slow and very painful." At that moment, Gabrielle grabbed my upper arm.

"Wait, Xena," she said. Turning her attention to the Amazons, Gabrielle began, "My Sisters of the northern tribes, we came here, Ephiny, Chloe, Charicleia and your own Sisters, Ouri and Tania, to help these troops rescue you from your greatest threat since the Destroyer of Nations disenfranchised you ten years ago. Yes, Xena the Conqueror destroyed your tribe, but she led us here today and made it possible for us to defeat your true enemy. Velasca was not our Sister. She was a lieutenant of the Realm, a traitor to the Realm and a traitor to this Nation. She was personally responsible for the murders of many of your Thessalian Sisters, including the Amazon Princess whose right of caste I bear. Velascaís only desire was to corrupt this tribe and divide and destroy the Amazons by creating a Nation in her own twisted image. But despite all of that, she did do one thing that was good. She reunited you here. You have among you powerful women warriors. You can rebuild this tribe here, in this fort, and rejoin our Nation. My Sisters Tania and Ouri would like to rejoin this tribe, to live among you and grow with you. They are wise and compassionate Sisters and they have a great deal of love for you all."

I was so proud of Gabrielle at that moment. She demonstrated to me and to all of the people in the compound that she was truly a great speaker and a great leader. But I also felt a sadness in the fact that she bore first witness to the long lasting carnage of my actions all those many years ago.

Turning to the traitors, Gabrielle said, "I have a proposal. Those of you who came here with Velasca, I want to offer you a choice. You may face the public judgments in Corinth for your crimes against the Realm, or you may face Amazon Justice in Thessaly for your crimes against the Amazon Nation. Which will it be?"

What in Tartarus is she doing? I immediately thought. "Are you out of your mind, Gabrielle? Iím not going to let the Amazons try these traitors."

Gabrielle turned to me with a strong look of conviction. "I believe itís what our great Queen Cyane would have wanted," she said to me.

The silence of everyone in the fort that followed was so intense that the chirping of birds and insects became almost deafening. How could I defy that logic? Gabrielle turned back to look upon the traitors. "Well, what will it be?"

"Trial by the Amazons," said Daidja.

"Very well," Gabrielle said. "Since men have no place in Amazon Justice, and on behalf of the Realm, I propose that Commander Glaphyra and the women of her troops are placed in charge of the prisoners until we depart Thrace. From Thessaly, the ranking woman Imperial Guardsman, Field Sergeant Bahri will take over, with Sergeants Viera and Favrie and the women of the Imperial Guard acting directly under her command. Of course, my Amazon Sister guards and I will coordinate matters with the ranking officers of the Realm." Gabrielle turned back to me. "By your will, Conqueror?" she asked.

"By my will, Princess."

While Gabrielle and I stared at each other in wonder of what had just taken place, Ephiny spoke up. "We encourage any of our Sisters of this northern tribe to journey with us back to Thessaly in order to take part in the Justice process as either advocates for, or witnesses against these deserters."

* * * *

For the ride back to Thessaly, the traitors were placed in shackles and loaded onto a designated prisoner chariot. Commander Glaphyra oversaw the effort and wasted no time in gloating to Palaemon the fact that he had been rendered useless in this operation. Palaemon took it all in stride, opting to turn his attention to Bahri, his old tavern-hopping buddy, petting her short curly hair and lightly punching her arm in that "male" bonding fashion as he congratulated her for having been given a responsibility usually reserved only for commissioned officers.

I decided to allow everyone the opportunity to rest at the Thracian command post for the remainder of the day and set out for Thessaly the following morning. The battle had been rather short, but there were injuries and casualties, and both the troops and the Amazons wanted to pay homage to their respective lost comrades. As night approached and the last body was buried or committed to the flames, the troops and the Amazons broke down into several groups in order to revel in or reflect on the day. Glaphyra once again offered her command lodge as a sleeping accommodation for Gabrielle and me. I think she wanted to resume something, possibly carnal, with Ephiny. This time I accepted, but I wasnít sure if Gabrielle would be joining me. She had spent much of the day honoring the few fallen northern Amazons with her Sisters. When I retired into the lodge, I spent long moments brooding over the events of the last few days. Of course, I thought a great deal about Gabrielle. In so many ways she was like the Amazons of this land. She was strong, resourceful and intelligent, and like them, had been stripped of those magnificent qualities by my tyranny. From the first moment of contact on that slave auction platform, I saw that power, and it drew me and captivated me. But like the Sisters of Queen Cyane, I hobbled her for years.

As I sat on the edge of Glaphyraís bed buried in my private, dark musings, Gabrielle entered the lodge.

"Hi, Xena," she said in that lovely, familiar soft voice.

"Hi, Gabrielle," I responded.

"May I join you?"

At the request, I nodded as she sat down next to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I returned the embrace. Gabrielle and I were exhausted, and we spent the remainder of the evening curled up in each otherís arms, as Morpheus was a most welcome presence to us that night.

Over thirty of the northern Amazons elected to join our entourage back to Thessaly. Gabrielle and I rode at the head, with Palaemon and Aerol directly behind us and the surviving Imperial Guard centurions behind them. Further back were all of the Amazons, plus Bahri, Viera, Favrie, the female Guardsmen and the prisoners. When we returned to the battalion fort after nightfall, the three sergeants and the two lovesick female Imperial Guardsmen requested to go to the Amazon village to testify at trial. I granted their request after briefing Commander Rhamos of the drastic changes in protocol.

Palaemon, Aerol and the Imperial Guardsmen rode back to Corinth as I decided to accompany Gabrielle to the Amazon village to observe the trial. It was very late when Gabrielle and I retired to that familiar high bed that was the location of the first time I had ever made love to a beautiful Amazon Princess.

As Gabrielle lay on top of my body, she began caressing my breasts with those beautiful, soft hands of hers. I gently grabbed the back of her head and brought her lips to mine. The subsequent kisses and touches we shared faded away, for the time being, the demons of guilt in my heart.

At one point, as our passions were swelling, Gabrielle stopped in the middle of it and looked at me with a strangely muddled expression on her face. "Xena," she said. "Why did the Amazons spare the old man Mithradates? Was it because he was once a king?"

I chuckled. "Oh, no, Gabrielle," I responded. "As you know, men donít go through the change like we women do. Mithradates has been designated a breeder to the tribe. Heís to father the next generation of Amazons, and heís perfect for the role. Not too old to, shall we say, extend his courtesy, but far too old to desire any paternal role in the lives of the infants."

"What about male infants, Xena?"

"Oh, Gabrielle, the Amazons figured out generations ago how the breeding method in men increases the likelihood of a female child. Rest assured, my Princess, Mithradates will be fathering girls."

"HmmÖ" she mumbled. "Lucky man."

"Fatigue kills most old men," I said. "I bet old King Mithradates dies with a BIG smile on his face."

Gabrielle laughed.

THE END

[You are cordially invited to read my next installment,

Trial of the Destroyer, Part Two,

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