The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess™©® and all others associated with the television series of the same name are owned by Renaissance Pictures and Studios USA.This is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended. 

Sexual Content:Oh yeah.It's in there <G>.  We've got graphic heterosexual as well as lesbian couplings.Okay, it's probably okay to say 'sex' in the sexual disclaimer.  We won't be nearly so modest later.  So cover up your eyes, kiddies and grannies.  Actually, if you're under 18, move on.  But grannies are welcome to pull up a chair and enjoy.  This story is intended for an adult audience only.

Violence:Yes, this is a Conqueror story so there is violence.  Some of it is graphic. Callisto is also not very nice to a little boy in this story.She doesn't hurt him physically, but she says some pretty mean things to him.

Videotape:We just slipped this one in to see if you were paying attention.  But hey, don't we wish<G>?

Language:Lots of foul language in this one folks.Be warned.

Drugs/Alcohol:And we're not talking about all the beer TN and Advocate consumed while writing this tale. Heck, we're not even talking about all the beer TN and Advocate drank while reading each other's work on this story. To be clear, there is alcohol consumption in the story.

Acknowledgements:To Zoinks, who gave TN the original idea - a big thank you.To our beta readers, Barbara Davies and Chris - your assistance was invaluable!  And, of course, we had a blast working together. But we won't bore you with our mutual admiration.  

Comments/Feedback to: TN and Advocate


Soul Searching


By T.Novan & Advocate

With Zoinks

Chapter One: A Date With Destiny

She pulled the hood of the cloak over her head and mounted the snorting horse, her well-oiled saddle creaking slightly as she settled into the seat and adjusted her swords.  Muscled thighs gripped the beast's sides, and a swift kick sent him into an all out gallop as she rode away from the stronghold in total darkness.  

Riding all night, she made it to a small village just as the sun began peeking over the horizon. Merchants were preparing to open shops and the realm's soldiers were in the middle of their sunrise shift change. Not a single soul paid her any mind as she rode towards what she assumed was this insignificant town's only inn.  Actually, it looked like more of a tavern than an inn. But small village taverns usually rented a few rooms, serving double duty as the town's inn.

The tall woman dismounted from the gelding with a muffled groan, dropping a copper coin into the hand of a small boy who offered to cool and stable the lathered beast.He smiled at her as she untied her saddlebags and draped them over a broad shoulder.

It had been a long time since she had seen a child smile, and she reached down and patted the boy's shoulder before silently turning towards the inn.

Stepping inside, the cloaked woman was struck by the silence.   The chairs were still stacked on the tables and the place seemed empty.  "Hello?" she called into the darkened room, the lingering scent of mead invading her senses.

A round, dark-skinned woman stepped out from the back room.Working her way around the bar, she wiped her hands on a damp dishcloth. "Can I help you?"

"I need a room."


The stranger didn't even give the woman time to finish; she simply tossed a gold coin on the countertop. It landed heads up and she winced a bit under her hood, realizing for the first time in ten autumns what a mistake these coins were.They made the concealment of her identity almost impossible.  Nothing I can do about it now.Drawing her eyes from the shiny coin, she refocused on the innkeeper. "With a bath and a meal.That should cover it for at least a week.When it runs out, let me know."

The plump woman took the coin and after discreetly examining it, tucked it in the worn leather pouch at her side.  "Last room on the left down the hall.  Best room in the house.  Do you want that bath now?"

"Thank you.  Yes."Pulling her hood more tightly around her face, she brushed by the innkeeper in search of her room.

The room was comfortable.  Not by any means what she was accustomed to, but comfortable nonetheless.A clean, quilt-covered bed dominated the small space. Next to the stone fireplace stood a neatly dusted table and two chairs. And nestled in the corner was the large wooden tub. Xena tossed her saddlebags to the bed, then removed the double sword rig from her hips and threw it down as well.  She lowered the hood, spilling out raven tresses that were damp from her hard night's ride. The cloak found its way to the bed, too.

Xena moved to the window and watched interestedly as the little village officially came to life.  Merchants, soldiers, and townsfolk milled around quietly in the crisp morning air as they went about their business.  Pale blue eyes carefully took in the Conqueror's soldiers, who stood on nearly every corner.  For the most part, the men left the villagers to their business.Occasionally, however, a soldier would stop a merchant and root through their goods.  Some took items; others let the merchants go unmolested, leaving their wares in their carts and baskets.

A soft knocking at the door returned her attention to her room.Xena put the cloak back on and settled the hood over her head.  "Come."

The door opened, and a petite, blonde woman carrying two large buckets of steaming water entered the room.  She took a moment to regard the hooded figure that stood in the early morning shadows. "Water for your bath," she said simply as the figure nodded.The blonde put one bucket down and poured the other into the tub.  Then she lifted the second bucket.  "This will take some time to prepare properly," she said softly."Could I bring you some tea when I return?"

"Yes," Xena answered quietly, never emerging from the shadows.

The blonde woman started at the sound of the stranger's voice. It was her first indication that the figure was female.  Her gaze drifted to the swords on the bed. For some reason they made her think 'male'.  It wasn't often that a female warrior came through the village.  "What's your name?"

"I don't want to wait for that bath."  Xena looked at the water, deliberately not answering the question."It's already growing cold."

The inn worker nodded, allowing the warrior her privacy.She smiled at the cloaked figure and left the room.

Xena decided to leave the cloak on until her bath was filled, but took the time to remove her belt, which held multiple pouches containing money and personal items.  Taking a seat, she laid the belt on the table and began sorting through the pouches.Even in her haste to escape the confines of the stronghold, she was sure she had everything she needed.Plenty of money and the few personal items that she wanted to keep near.  Satisfied with the contents of the pouches, she closed them and waited.

She didn't have long to wait.  The blonde returned with the boy who had taken her horse when she had arrived.  The woman carried more water; the boy had his small hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea that smelled faintly of cloves.  The lad set it down on the table and smiled at Xena again. 

Xena crouched down in front of the freckled child. "What's your name, boy?"

"Jarrod," he responded with a grin, his green eyes twinkling as they caught the morning sunlight.

"How old are you, Jarrod?"

"Eight."  His nose wrinkled with his grin and Xena found herself hard pressed not to answer with a grin of her own

"Well, Jarrod, how would you like to earn a gold piece?"

His eyes went as round as twin full moons and he turned to the woman filling the tub.  "Mama?"

The woman stopped all movement, and resigned eyes fixed themselves on the wall for several long seconds. A nearly soundless sigh escaped pink lips.Turning to the hooded figure, the boy's mother drew in a deep breath.  She would do what was necessary to survive.  She always had.  But she would not allow Jarrod to be harmed.  "What do you want him to do?"

"Just tend to my horse while I'm here.  Make sure he's fed and brushed everyday, maybe take him for a walk in the morning and afternoon.  Nothing a big boy like him can't handle."  She brushed his tangled bangs back from his forehead.

"All right," the woman said, pouring the second bucket into the tub."Jarrod, make sure you do the job properly.If you disappoint our guest, there won't be any money at all for you.  Understand?"

"Yes, Mama.  I promise."He smiled again and excitedly ran out of the room, visions of what he would buy with an entire gold piece already dancing in his head.


"Two more buckets should do it.  I'll be right back."

As she turned to go, Xena stood up, and took one of the empty buckets from the woman's grasp. "Let me give you a hand."

"That's not really..."

"I know.  I want to," the warrior insisted quietly.

She followed the young inn worker to the boiler room, where they drew the hot water from a large tank that resembled an oak wine cask.Grabbing the second bucket, Xena filled them, making rather short work of the arduous process. 

Xena picked up both buckets and gestured toward the door with her chin."Shall we?"

A surprised nod and small smile was her answer.

"What's your name?"  Xena reentered her room, hoping the shorter woman wouldn't remember her own avoidance of that same question posed only moments before.


"And Jarrod is your son?" she asked conversationally.The boy had already made that fact abundantly clear.Strong arms dumped the buckets into the tub, sending billowing clouds of steam high into the air.


"And his father?"

Gabrielle hesitated for only a second.  Perhaps if the warrior got to know her... just a bit before ... she would be kinder to her and Jarrod.  Gabrielle couldn't see any reason to withhold the truth."Dead.  Killed even before Jarrod was born."  She picked up the empty buckets and dropped one inside the other.

"Was he a resistance fighter?"  Xena dipped her fingers into the steaming water, testing its temperature.

"No.He was a soldier in Our Lord Conqueror's army.  He died taking Rome.I was told that his throat was cut by Caesar himself, before the Conqueror killed Caesar."

"I'm sorry," Xena said, not looking up from the water.

"So am I.Perdicus - that was my husband's name - was a good man.It's a shame Jarrod will never know his father."

Xena stood and dried her hand on her cloak.

Falling into a role she knew quite well, Gabrielle moved forward to turn back Xena's hood and reveal the face that lay beneath it.

Xena was amazed at this small woman's forwardness, but, inexplicably, she didn't move as sure hands first slid back her hood, then removed the cloak completely, tossing it onto the bed.

"You're very young to have a child Jarrod's age," Xena commented in a strained voice, attempting what she hoped was a normal conversation as Gabrielle knelt and began unlacing her boots.  Why was the woman doing this? And more importantly, why was she allowing it?  "You couldn't have been married long."

A small smile touched Gabrielle's face, her hands working by rote."I'm not quite as young as I look.And I was only married a week.Then he left to serve. He was killed six moons later.Jarrod came along about three moons after that." The shorter woman yanked free a stubborn knot that was caked with dirt.  "My mother says Jarrod was a gift to me from the Fates.  Something to remember his father by."

"Did you love him?" Xena knew the words were falling from her own lips, and yet, they seemed to be coming from someone else entirely.Still, she mentally sighed, she was curious to hear the answer.  Xena dropped to the edge of the tub as Gabrielle wrestled with the other snug boot.

The blonde shrugged, correctly assuming the warrior's question was about Perdicus and not Jarrod. "It was an arranged marriage.He was a good man.  I... I could have learned to love him."  I'm just glad I didn't have to.  With a final tug, she removed the boot and tossed it into the corner alongside its mate.Next she removed Xena's woolen foot coverings and started a pile of clothes. 

Gabrielle stood and pulled the tall woman to her feet, undoing the hook at the waist of Xena's trousers.  She pulled her tunic free of a wide leather belt and began unfastening the hooks of the tunic.  Just another soldier.  No matter that it's a woman. Do what you must and be done with it!

"Your hands are very adept at removing a soldier's clothing, Gabrielle." Xena allowed her body to respond to its growing desire, as Gabrielle's hands continued their motion.

Gabrielle undid another hook, speaking without looking up. "I do what I must to survive and take care of my son."

"Why?"  Xena captured Gabrielle's hands, stroking soft skin and rough calluses with the tips of her thumbs.Letting go of one, she gently grasped Gabrielle's chin and tilted her head, forcing eye contact as she asked again, "Why?"

Their eyes locked, and Gabrielle fought back the tears that suddenly threatened to spill.  Awkwardly, she cleared her throat.  No one had ever made her say the words before and they felt foreign and bitter in her mouth, increasing her shame, though she refused to drop her gaze.

"Because, like the Conqueror, her soldiers are cruel and most of the time heartless," she lashed out, noticing Xena's nearly imperceptible flinch."Sometimes I find one who seems kind, and if I make myself available to him, the others leave me alone. No beatings. No forcing themselves on me.  I do what I must.  Sometimes, I find one who will protect us while he's stationed here." She was finding it harder to continue to meet the serious blue eyes boring into hers.But she did.  "A little peace, no matter how it's gained and even if only for a few days, is better than none at all.  When you offered Jarrod a gold piece for taking care of your horse, I knew what you wanted."

The warrior felt a pang deep in her chest that was part sympathy, part rage. "I'm not here to rape or buy you, Gabrielle," she ground out."I wanted the boy to take care of my horse.Nothing more."

"A gold piece for taking care of your horse?" Gabrielle laughed without a trace of humor. "Surely you expected me to..."

"No.No, I didn't and I still don't.I'm going to pay the boy for taking care of my horse.  I didn't offer to pay him so his mother would share my bed."

"But I thought..."

"You thought wrong, Gabrielle!"  Xena blurted, the words coming far more harshly than she intended. She took an uncertain breath, not knowing how to breach the uneasy silence that suddenly filled the room.  "Now go, so I can have my bath and get some sleep," she grumbled."I traveled all night, and I'm tired."

Gabrielle's heart began to pound in her chest and she took a small step backwards.  "I'm sorry.I didn't mean to offend you."

"I'm not offended. You were doing what, apparently, you thought you had to do. But you don't.  Not this time." Not with me.  Xena's jaw clenched.

Gabrielle nodded her understanding and picked up the buckets.She started for the door, then paused and looked over her shoulder. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Xena answered, undoing the last buttons of her tunic."Gabrielle?"


"Will you and Jarrod share an evening meal with me?"

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, red-blonde hair falling over one shoulder.  "We'd like that.Thank you."She left the room quietly, closing the heavy wooden door behind her.

Xena finished undressing and sank into the tub.She closed her eyes as the hot water began to relax her muscles.  Gabrielle's words continued to ring in her ears, 'Sometimes I find one who seems kind, and if I make myself available to him, the others leave me alone. No beatings. No forcing themselves on me.  I do what I must.  Sometimes, I find one who will protect us while he's stationed here.'Picking up a washcloth, she considered the woman who had tried to seduce her in return for her protection from the Conqueror's soldiers.Feeling slightly ill, Xena pushed the unpleasant thoughts away.

Finally clean, she pushed her swords and saddlebags to the floor and gracelessly fell into bed, nuzzling the sweet smelling quilt. It had been many seasons since she had traveled all night without rest. Her weary body tumbled easily into a deep, dreamless sleep.


"WHAT DO YOU MEAN SHE'S GONE?!" Callisto screamed at the Captain of the Guard.  "The Conqueror of the Known World does not just disappear without a trace!"

"I...I...I..." the middle-aged man stammered, as he tried to figure out what had happened to his ruler.  "General Callisto, my best men are looking for her at this very moment..." He gulped as he finished his sentence.  Hades' own wrath couldn't match that of the livid woman before him.

Impossibly, dead, brown eyes turned even colder. "Too bad for you, you won't be here to know whether they're successful or not."She turned to the second guard."Congratulations, you've just been promoted.Kill him," she ordered in a bored tone.

Callisto stormed out of the Conqueror's empty bedchamber and down to the parade ground.An entire legion of soldiers was double-timing it to the practice field early this morning, the thudding of their boots echoing throughout the entire stronghold.

Whispers that something important had taken place during last night were exchanged in the barracks, after the men were rousted from their slumber by their General's shrill cackle. 

But not a single soldier suspected just how big it really was.


Xena stretched.  She awoke, one pale eye opening and peering at the unfamiliar surroundings.She was wrapped tightly in the quilt and the fireplace was alive with a small, crackling blaze.  The table was set for a meal, but she was alone in the room. She sat up quickly, running her hands through disheveled, dark hair.DAMN! How could I be so careless?  By the Gods, that was stupid!To go to sleep in an unsecured room!  Stalking across the room, she noticed a pale green, homespun robe had been draped over a chair.

Throwing the robe on, she furiously knotted its belt and made her way to the window.  She closed her eyes and drew a calming breath.  Her weapons were in a pile next to the bed, exactly, where she'd left them.Relax, Xena, relax.No one knows you're here.You're just another faceless traveler.

A knock at the door caused her to grab her sword. Her nerves were rattled, and she cursed herself for being so easily shaken. Warily, she pulled the door open and was surprised to find Jarrod holding a tray laden with a bottle of wine and two mugs of spiced cider.

"Mama said I should bring these up."  He grinned at her.

Xena exhaled slowly and hid her sword behind her back, stepping aside to make sure the boy had enough room to enter.

Carefully balancing the tray, Jarrod brought it into the room and set it on the table.  "I took your horse out for a walk today, and I made sure he had a good brushing after."

"I'm sure you did a fine job with him, Jarrod.He loves to be spoiled." Xena perched on the bed and asked with forced casualness, "Can you tell me who has been in my room today?"

"Just Mama." The boy snuck a drink of cider while Xena looked on indulgently."She came back to see if you needed more hot water, but she said you had already gone to bed.   Since then, she's just come in one time, to make a fire for you and to set the table for the evening meal.She told me to tell you that she made sure the door was locked from the outside."

"Where is your mother?" she asked, moving to the door to examine it and make certain it could, indeed, be locked from the outside.

"She's getting our meal together.  She said she would be up in half a candlemark."

"Okay.  Listen, Tiger," Xena intoned affectionately. "I need to get dressed for our meal.So you go give your Mama a hand, and let her know that I'm awake and VERY hungry."

"Yes, ma'am."

With a slight smile, she shooed the curious boy out of her room and began dressing.It was an unusual feeling, not being surrounded by people.  She was the Conqueror of the Known World, and her life normally consisted of guards and servants, soldiers and slaves. These were men and women whose very lives were dedicated to pleasing her.  But they couldn't care less about her true happiness- except as it related to them retaining their skins.

It was a world of her own making.  And she didn't like it.

Even though there were still many seasons before she would reach her fortieth winter, the battles that shaped her world had all been fought long ago. With deadly skill, the Conqueror had conquered everything in her path.There was simply nothing left. She no longer even held Ares' interest, except in matters that were decidedly unmilitary.Xena sneered in disgust.She had fulfilled her destiny, and now she was utterly and completely bored. 

Her generals handled everything now, allowing her to relax and bask in the glory that was her realm.  Glory.  She had more glory than she could stomach. Somehow she had thought it would be different.Ares had made her believe the thrill would never end and the seductive quality of his promises chased a shiver down her spine as she remembered them. 

Well, it had ended.  A very long time ago.And she found that doing the conquering was a lot more fun than being the Conqueror.

The once proud and mighty warrior was now reduced to passing judgment on pathetic fools who dared to challenge her power.She always wondered what possessed them to be so stupid.With an almost frightening ease, she had crushed the world's finest armies under the heel of her boot. What made a few insignificant peasants think they could challenge her?

And then there was the loneliness that flooded her soul, even amidst an almost constant crowd.  All the spoils of the world didn't seem enough to fill the hollow void that seemed to deepen with each passing season.  At times it threatened to engulf her completely.

Shaking the morose thoughts from her head, Xena found her clothes at the foot of her bed.  They had been cleaned and folded and placed on the trunk.  She picked up her tunic and ran her hand over the slightly rough fabric, inhaling its fresh scent, and wondering idly why Gabrielle continued to be so kind to her, even after she had made it clear that she didn't expect the young woman to offer herself sexually. 

Years of rule had made one thing abundantly clear to the Conqueror.No one did something for nothing.  There was always a price.

The warrior frowned.  She wasn't wondering so much what the price would be... but rather, would she be able to stop herself from paying it. Dressing quickly, she put her weapons away before Gabrielle and her son returned to the room.


Callisto paced back and forth in the Conqueror's war chamber.She was not a happy woman.A complete search of the area had only identified two things missing: the Conqueror's horse and the Conqueror herself."Send out search parties!" she had ordered her captains, as they shuffled back and forth, trying their level best not to further upset the enraged woman.  "I want her found!"

The men bowed to their general and backed out of the room, glad to have escaped with their lives. Fuming, Callisto poured a cup of wine and drained it in one long swallow. "Damn you, Xena!  Where in the name of Tartarus have you gone?"You can't hide from me, my sweet!  No matter what you might think.


Xena reclined back in her chair, dropping her napkin in her lap. She sipped her wine and watched Gabrielle with her son.  How long had it been since she had seen a picture like this?A mother caring for a child.She smiled as she set her cup on the table. "The meal was very good, Gabrielle.  You're an excellent cook."

"Thank you."  Gabrielle pulled her son from his chair onto her lap.  "Jarrod, I want you to go get ready for bed.I'll be down shortly."  She stroked his hair, kissing him on the temple as she held him close to her.

The boy pulled away, slightly embarrassed by the motherly display.He wasn't a baby!"Do I...?"

"Yes, you have to."

After a slight huff, the boy smiled good-naturedly and allowed Gabrielle to hug him and place a soft kiss on his cheek."Yes, Mama." He turned to the tall woman. "Good night."

"Good night, Jarrod. Sleep well."

Jarrod left the room, closing the door gently behind him.Gabrielle smiled as she put own her napkin on the table and sipped her wine.

"You find something amusing?" the tall woman asked, still reclining back in her chair.

"Umm-hmm."  The blonde nodded, gathering her courage.





"And what have I done to deserve such a sweet smile?" Xena leaned on the table, holding her wine cup between her hands.

Please let this be the right thing to do.Or Jarrod will find himself without either parent."You don't seem to be the monster that everyone makes you out to be."

Xena's heart rate picked up.  "You know?"

"Of course, I know.  I'm a peasant.I'm not stupid," Gabrielle snapped, forgetting the caution she had reminded herself about only seconds before.

The Conqueror arched a slender eyebrow, settling back in her seat. "No... no you're not stupid.  When did you know?"

"The moment I pushed back the hood on your cloak."The moment I had the chance to change Jarrod and my lives for good.

"So that's why you've been so kind?"  It was an accusation.  Gabrielle was still seeking favor and protection from her Lord Conqueror.

"No, it's not.  I've been kind to you because you haven't done anything to me to deserve less."  Gabrielle felt a surprising truth in those words though she had intended them as mere flattery.

The Conqueror cocked her head to the side.  "You're not afraid of me, are you?"

"No," she lied.  "Why should I be?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe because I am the ruler of the Known World and I take great pleasure in crushing peasants like you just to prove a point."Xena sipped her wine and studied Gabrielle over the rim of her cup.  The young woman was lying to her face.

"No, you don't."  At least I hope you don't.  Not tonight.

"Don't what?  Rule the world or enjoy crushing peasants?"

"Enjoy crushing peasants.  If you did, you would be at your palace doing just that.Not here, hiding in a village full of them."

Xena snorted at the woman's impudence, but found herself wanting to continue the banter. "What makes you think I'm hiding?"

"Oh, I don't know." Gabrielle lifted the wine bottle and poured more into the Conqueror's cup, then refilled her own.  "You came into the village all alone, with a cloak drawn over your head.Some might say that looks an awful lot like hiding."

Xena chuckled and stood up, crossing to the window.She stared at the stars as she drew a deep breath.   "What if I am hiding, Gabrielle?" she said, her voice a bare whisper.

Gabrielle rose and joined the woman at the window."Then the question would be why?"

Xena closed her eyes briefly, before her gaze shifted to meet Gabrielle's."Because I'm so tired."


Callisto led the patrol that had headed north in search of the Conqueror.She had an odd feeling that was where she would find Xena.  The General had a splitting headache, and the pain was accentuating her natural propensity towards homicide.On the spot, she decided the very next imbecile to speak to her would forfeit his miserable life.

A soldier rode up alongside her.  "General..."

The dagger entered his chest so quickly he didn't actually have time to feel it.  With wide eyes, he looked down at the reddening stain on his tunic and back at the laughing woman.His mouth moved but no words came out.

Callisto kicked her horse into motion, not turning back to see him slide to the ground in a lifeless heap.

"Somebody move that off the road." She tossed her blade over her shoulder. "And clean my knife!"


"What should I call you?"  Gabrielle asked, gathering the dishes from the evening meal."Highness? Lord? Conqueror?"

Xena moved to the table and stilled the woman's hands by taking them in her own.

Gabrielle looked up into a dark, angular face, whose planes were accented by the orange glow of the firelight.  Sky-blue eyes could just barely be seen.

"Xena," the Conqueror whispered.  "Could you call me Xena?  It's been a long time since anyone has called me that."At least to my face.

"Xena."  Gabrielle smiled as the name tumbled from her lips.  The evening was going better than she had dare hope.

"Beautiful," the darker woman replied, running her fingertips down the smaller woman's cheek.

Gabrielle nodded.  "Yes, you have a very beautiful name.  It suits you more than Highness or Lord."

"Not my name."  Xena paused."You."

Green eyes dropped as a flush rose over Gabrielle's cheeks.Xena tilted her head back up with gentle fingers. "You are a very beautiful woman, Gabrielle."

"Thank you."

The tall woman drew a deep breath, smiling engagingly as she stepped back."Umm...so tell me, Gabrielle, is there anywhere around here to go fishing?"

"Fishing?"  She laughed at the unexpected question.  "You want to go fishing?"

"Yeah.I thought it might be nice.Maybe you and Jarrod would like to join me?We could take a picnic and..." She paused as she sat on the bed.  "If there's any place around here, that is."

"Actually, there's a nice pond not too far from here."Utterly charmed despite herself, Gabrielle agreed readily."We'd like that very much."She continued stacking the dishes on the tray as her pale brows creased in thought.  "But you can't go out like that."

Xena looked down and examined her body, sweeping her hand down its length. "Like what?It's not like I have a lot of choice."

"Well, if you go out like that, your identity won't be secret for much longer."And I need time.  Gabrielle raised an eyebrow of her own.  "After all, your face is on every coin in circulation."

"Hmm...yeah, I know," Xena groaned, knowing the sudden heat she felt in her cheeks meant she was blushing.  "Would you believe me if I said that wasn't my idea?"

"It really doesn't matter now, does it?"

"No." Xena shook her head. "I guess it really doesn't."

An idea took shape in Gabrielle's mind.  "Hang on; I'll be right back."

Gabrielle gathered up the dishes and quickly exited the room, leaving Xena on the bed, staring at her hands.  The Conqueror stood and crossed to the window again; even with the chilly evening breeze she was continuously drawn to the fresh air and open view.She watched as a soldier made a grab for a young girl as she walked by.  The girl screamed and struggled as the soldier pulled her into a fierce hug, roughly pawing at her.

"Leave her alone!"  Xena shouted from the window, stepping out on the balcony.

The soldier squinted in the darkness. "And just who is going to make me?" he taunted, yanking the girl's head back and biting her hard on the neck, drawing blood.

Xena placed her hands on the rails of the balcony and vaulted over the side, grunting as her feet hit the ground with startling force and kicked up a cloud of fine dust. She crossed the street purposefully, making a tight fist as she did.   This pig would dare question her? "I said let her go!"

The man shoved the girl away and drew his sword."As I said before..."

Xena moved forward and drew back her fist, punching hard, her arm recoiling at after the solid connection with his jaw.The grizzled soldier staggered backwards, but remained on his feet.He twirled his sword as his tongue snaked out to taste the metallic tang of blood."That was a mistake, bitch!"He spat into his hand, staring at the crimson substance pooled there.

"Somehow, I doubt it," Xena growled, ducking his sword and grabbing him by the throat with one hand.  With her other hand, she grabbed his wrist and slammed it on her knee, causing his blade to clatter to the dirt.  With a mighty jerk, she drew him close to her face; out of the corner of her eye she saw the soldier's young victim disappear into the darkness."Do you know me?"

His eyes widened as he fought for the breath she was slowly crushing from his body.  "Yes... yes, Lord..."

"Since when do my soldiers rape, and, even more foolishly, disobey me?" she asked calmly, her hand tightening around the soldier's sweat-slicked throat.

"Lord..." he gasped, his eyes rolling back in his head as the life began to drain from his body.


Xena turned to see Gabrielle running from the tavern.

"Don't," she pleaded softly as she approached, laying a gentle hand on Xena's arm. "Please, Xena, don't." Gabrielle leveled an icy stare at the soldier."Though the Gods know he deserves it, there's been enough death here." Moonlight reflected off mossy green eyes, showing the Conqueror something she had never seen before.

Fury and mercy.  Together.

Xena's hand loosened its grip on the man's throat, and he crumpled to the ground.  Not quite finished, she bent over, lifting him up by the shirt, and drawing him close once more. "Leave the girls alone, and don't mention to anyone that you've seen me.Do you understand?"

The soldier gave a weak nod before the Conqueror roughly let him loose.She turned back to the younger woman."Let's go."  As they headed back to the tavern, Xena took Gabrielle's hand and wrapped it around her own arm.  "That was a very dangerous thing to do, Gabrielle."

"I didn't think so."

"I could have hurt you."

"You'd never hurt me." 

Xena stopped dead in her tracks. Gently grabbing Gabrielle's shoulders, she turned the younger woman towards her. "What makes you say that?"

Gabrielle shrugged helplessly.  She didn't have a reason that made sense."Call it intuition."

"Gabrielle," Xena warned seriously, "I have killed people for far less than what you just did out there."  Whatever game this girl was playing was a very dangerous one.

"Then why didn't you kill me?" Gabrielle continued towards the tavern, leaving a stunned Xena behind her.

Still rooted to the ground, the Conqueror smiled as she shook her head."I don't know.I should have, you know," she laughed weakly as she called after Gabrielle who was almost inside.

"I'll keep that in mind, " Gabrielle replied, as the most feared woman in the world followed her through the door.


Callisto paced back and forth in front of the campfire.Her soldiers sat some distance away, watching the raging woman.  They were mostly silent, only a few of them daring to murmur a word or two when it was needed.

Abruptly, Callisto turned and moved away from the fire. She approached her troops, walking slowly and looking them over one by one.She stopped in front of a sturdy young guard.He was a good-looking man, whose only defect was a scar that ran along the left side of his face."What's your name, soldier?"  Not that it matters.

The man jumped to his feet, coming to attention as he did."Palaemon, General Callisto."

"Palaemon?" Dark eyes hungrily swept over him in frank evaluation.He was stocky but not overweight with a thick neck and sturdy limbs.  His complexion was fair and his eyes appeared light, though she couldn't determine their exact color was in the faint light.  He'll do.  "Come with me, Palaemon," she purred.  "Your General requires your services."

She took the man by the hand and led him away.His colleagues snickered as they disappeared into the tent, knowing exactly what kind of services the General required.They also wondered if Palaemon would fare better than the last three soldiers who had 'served' the General.


Gabrielle held the tunic up to Xena's shoulders. "Hmm... A bit broad there, aren't you?"

"Gabrielle, this is insane."  She shuffled back and forth while the young woman tossed the shirt over her arm, then held up a pair of trousers to the Conqueror's waist.

"Would you hold still, please?  How am I supposed to make this work if you keep fidgeting about?"

"Okay, let's assume for a moment, just to humor you, that this is going to work.What about this?"She pulled a lock of her long dark hair from her shoulders and held it out for contemplation.  "Hmm?"  She quirked a dark brow.

"Oh, well, we'll tie that back.  A lot of men wear their hair tied back.  I find it rather attractive."

Xena raised an eyebrow.

"Surely you must have some in your army..."

"No.All the men in my army are required to keep their hair cropped short and their facial hair neatly trimmed."


Xena pointed a long finger toward her own chest."Me?"  She laughed at the idea.  "Oh, you have no idea."Her chuckles continued as she reached to the table for a cup of mead.  As she sipped, she considered the late hour. "Gods, Gabrielle, aren't you tired?You must have been up at dawn."

"Just before, actually."  The smaller woman tried to stifle a yawn.Now that someone mentioned it, she was feeling a little tired.

Xena took the clothes, placing them on the table."It can wait until later.  Go now and get some rest."

"I'm fine..."

Xena turned Gabrielle away from the clothes, holding her by the waist."I said it could wait.Go to bed."

Gabrielle sighed heavily, allowing her shoulders to slump."Okay," she agreed softly."I could use the rest."

"Yes, I'm sure you could."  Xena leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. "Now go."

Gabrielle headed for the door.  As she laid her hand on the knob, she turned back to the Conqueror, still not quite believing it was the Ruler of the Known World who was sending her to bed like a sleepy child.  "Good night, Xena."

"Good night, Gabrielle.  See you tomorrow."

Xena watched the young woman go as she drained her cup.A pressure seemed to lift from her chest.Somehow, she didn't feel quite so alone any more.


The well-trained army broke camp quickly and quietly.Callisto sat atop her horse, watching as her troops' gear was packed and the solidiers prepared to move.She actually smiled when she saw him.He had indeed served her well the night before, several times, in fact.  And in several ways.  "Palaemon!Come here."

The beefy man looked up from his job of rolling up a tent, and ran over to his general.  "Yes, General Callisto?"

"Mount up and ride with me today."

"Yes, General." Running for his horse, he mounted the beast by jumping onto it from its hindquarters.  His compatriots graced him with low whistles and appreciative looks.Palaemon had served his General well enough to not only survive the night, but to gain her favor.

The young solider wiped the smile from his face as he pulled up next to his General. Mindful of his position, he kept his own horse two paces back.

"Tell me, Palaemon, where is it you think our Lord Conqueror has gone?"

Palaemon swallowed hard.  He drew a deep breath, wondering if it would be his last.It was quite deadly to disappoint Callisto."I wouldn't pretend to know, General."

"The soldiers don't have any speculations you would care to share with me?"

"No, General.  The men would never try to guess what Our Lord Conqueror might be thinking."

Callisto let out a hearty laugh as she continued down the road with Palaemon at her side.


Xena lay on her bed wide-awake, thoughts whirling through her head. Most of them centered on a certain blonde with the greenest eyes she'd ever seen.It had been a long time, too long, since she had a friend.  Someone who wasn't intimidated by her, who would say what they truly felt.But could Gabrielle truly be trusted?Xena's heart cried out to her, 'Yes'.But her gut hissed, 'No'. 

Dark brows drew together.  Hearts lie and deceive, leaving you for a fool.It was always wisest to trust your gut.Wasn't it?

Getting up out of bed, Xena walked to the window, wishing she were outside, closer to the stars.  As had become her habit, she peered down on this sleepy little village, deeply inhaling the scent of woodsmoke and wet leaves.A light rain had fallen while she slept. But the clouds had disappeared quickly and now she gazing up into a clear, twinkling sky. She couldn't help but hope she had finally found someone with whom she could share her thoughts and feelings. Her heart was almost certain.  Now if the rest of her would only agree.


Looking in the mirror, she had to admit that she didn't look like Xena the Conqueror, but Xenan the fisherman.  With her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail and the clothes Gabrielle had provided, the young blonde's plan seemed to have a chance of success.

Gabrielle finished applying a light mask of ash to Xena's face, which made her look as if she needed a shave.  It also made Xena sneeze, spraying Gabrielle with a fine mist.

"Sorry."  Xena grinned at Gabrielle, who dusted the ash from her hands.

"No problem. I'm a mother." She studied her handy work. "Well, what do you think?"

"I think we're going fishing."  Xena knelt down in front of the boy who sat wide-eyed on a chair at the table. "Jarrod, you do understand why your Mother and I are doing this, right?Hiding my face like this?"

"Yes, Ma'am.  Mama says you need some rest and this is the only way you're gonna get it."

"That's right, Tiger." Xena glanced back at Gabrielle who smiled at her.  "I need to rest and I can't think of a better way to do it than to spend the day fishing with you.Jarrod, have you ever been fishing without any poles, spears or nets?"

Two green eyes looked at her in amazement. "No, Ma'am! Everybody knows ya have to have those."  He laughed and jumped out of his seat.  "I have my dad's fishing stuff downstairs.  We can get worms down at the pond."

Standing up, Xena put her hand on Jarrod's shoulders and steered him toward the door.  "Let's go!"Gods, she was nearly as excited as the boy.

As they left the inn, Jarrod ran ahead of them, looking back every so often to make sure they weren't too far behind.  Xena reached out for Gabrielle's hand, and was pleasantly surprised when the young woman didn't pull away but instead gave a slight squeeze.Xena couldn't suppress her smile.

"May I ask you something?"  Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen, but kept a hold of the larger hand.

"Sure.  But I may choose not to answer."

Gabrielle nodded. "That's fair."  They walked a few more paces, before Gabrielle stopped and looked up at her companion.  "Why are you hiding?  You're the Conqueror.Couldn't you simply ride away in broad daylight?"

Xena thought for a moment. "A simple question, a difficult answer.I choose not to answer."

"Okay. Then why our village? You can go anywhere, stay anywhere.Why here?"

"Because it's the first place my horse wanted to stop," Xena answered with a smirk.

Gabrielle's gaze dropped to her boots and she swallowed."I'm glad you did."

"What? Run away or stop here?"

"Both."  Even with her head tilted downward, Xena caught a glimpse of the most charming smile she had ever seen."Come on, Conqueror, let's go fishing."


Xena couldn't decide what was more inviting, the sight in front of her (the pond), or the sight beside her (Gabrielle).

The water was the most incredible shade of blue. The sun sparkled off the surface like the stars that twinkle at night.  Not even the jewels in her treasury glittered like this pond.

And the countryside!  It was truly breathtaking.  To the left of the pond, sloped gentle, rolling hills covered in brightly colored autumn flowers and leaves.  To the right sat a small grove of fruit trees.  Apple trees, if she wasn't mistaken.

But even amidst Gaia's beauty, Xena's tactical nature won out.The trees would provide a perfect site for an ambush.And those rolling hills...An army could ride over the ridge and you wouldn't see them until too late. After Caesar, she had learned to expect the unexpected.

The Conqueror frowned, wondering what it would be like to see only trees and hills.

Jarrod called to his mother, breaking Xena out of her melancholy memories."C'mon! Hurry up, you two!"

Gabrielle let go of Xena's hand, and ran to catch up with her son.Xena could see her whispering something to the lad.  Nodding, Jarrod broke into a run to the pond's edge.

When Xena met up with Gabrielle, she lifted an eyebrow and gave the shorter woman a 'What was that all about?' look.

Gabrielle just smiled.  Retaking Xena's hand, both women continued their stroll.


It wasn't even noon yet, and the sun was already making Callisto aggravated. Damn her to Tartarus. "Where are you? Are you injured?  Why did you just run off?"  Pulling her horse to a stop, she wiped the thin sheen of sweat from her brow.She was cranky.She was hot.  And she was a bitch to begin with.  This was not a good combination.

"Is everything okay, General?"  Palaemon asked as he pulled his horse even with Callisto's.

"No. No, everything is not all right," she said in an almost sing song voice that grew in volume with each word.  "No, everything is NOT all right!  And unless I get some answers," she shrieked, "heads are going to roll!"

Even in the saddle, Palaemon could feel his legs go weak.  His face paled.

Callisto looked back at her army.  "Palaemon dear, be a good boy and make camp for lunch.I want three of my best scouts to report to me.Now!"

Before she could dismount, three of Callisto's best scouts were kneeling in front of her  and trying not to tremble.They awaited her command.

"I want each of you to ride ahead.  You!"  she pointed to a young man no more than seventeen seasons old, "Follow this road.You," she pointed to a tall redheaded man easily twenty years her senior, "go north. And you," she pointed to her favorite scout, "go east. You have until the moon is high to report back to me.Find Xena!  Don't go near her, don't do anything. Just find her!If you fail to come back when the moon is high, you die!   If you come back with no information, you die!   If you don't come back at all, I'll find you and rip your heart out of your chest and eat it for lunch!Understand?"

Three sweating scouts nodded.



Gabrielle couldn't believe her eyes.  But it was true.  The Conqueror was thigh deep in pond water, next to young Jarrod, giving the boy a fishing lesson.Xena crouched down low, as if listening to some unheard voice.  Then, in a lightning fast movement, she caught a fish with her bare hands.  Gabrielle's son's laughter seemed to echo all around. If only she could make Xena grow to truly care for her and Jarrod. 

Her contemplation was rudely interrupted when a flying fish hit her squarely in the face, then fell into her lap, flopping against her thighs and soaking her skirt.

"Sorry," Xena called out.  "Is that enough fish?"

Wiping fish scales off her face and hiding the fish behind her back, Gabrielle rose and walked to the edge of the pond.  "Yeah, I think ten fish are enough for two adults and a child."

Jarrod completely missed the sarcasm.  Xena did not.

"I can get us more," the Conqueror replied with a wide grin."I tend to eat a lot."

"So do I," Gabrielle laughed, throwing her hidden fish at Xena.The fish hit Xena in the chest and fell to the water while Xena just looked at Gabrielle in amazement.

For a second, Gabrielle's heart was in her throat.Gods, what had she done? Then Jarrod began laughing hysterically, and his mother was unable to keep from following suit.

"Oh, you find that funny?"  Xena trudged out of the water and grabbed Gabrielle before she could even respond.  "Maybe you would like to join us and your little fishy friend?"  With that, Xena threw Gabrielle into the pond.

Jarrod was still laughing when Xena returned to the water, picked him up and threw him into the center of the pond as well.

The Conqueror couldn't help but laugh as two sets of identically confused, and totally unamused, green eyes stared back at her."Still think it's funny?"

Everyone broke out laughing.

Xena helped them out of the pond, and three very wet and hungry bodies made for the picnic basket.

After a lunch of cheese, bread, fruit and several grilled fish that Gabrielle expertly prepared, the Conqueror stretched out on the soft, fragrant grass and did something she had never done in public, unprotected.She closed her eyes.  Xena felt at peace here, like she was a young girl again.Soft footsteps too sturdy to be Jarrod's told her Gabrielle was walking towards her, but trying to be quiet. A tiny flash of panic rose in Xena's chest, but she held it at bay, forcing herself not to open her eyes. It was foolish and dangerous. And she did it anyway.  

Gabrielle stopped alongside Xena and then made her decision.There was no going back now.Not if there was the slightest chance...."Here, Xena, lift up your head."Gabrielle said softly as she sat down, hoping she wouldn't startle the Conqueror.  She guided the dark head towards her lap.

Not finding it in herself to resist, the warrior smiled."Thank you, Gabrielle.  All this is just so perfect.  This place, the fishing... you," she admitted, her words beginning to trail off.

Gabrielle smiled wistfully and stroked Xena's thick hair.It was softer than she expected, falling between her fingers like strands of silk.  She could see that Xena was close to falling into a deep sleep.The blonde continued to stroke long hair, starting to hum a simple song her mother sang to her when she was a child.A few moments more and Xena relaxed in her arms, her body going limp. 

Jarrod approached noisily and Gabrielle silently gestured towards the apple grove with her free hand. Nodding, the boy went off to play.


Cyrus could smell the orchard long before he saw it.He could cut through the grove, guiding his mare around the trees, the horsing hooves squashing ripe, fallen fruit. He could be in the next town in a half a candlemark.  And if the Gods were smiling on him, he would at least hear a rumor about Xena.  If not, he would make one up.He liked his heart in his chest, where it belonged. Callisto could learn to eat lamb like everyone else!

Pushing oily, curly hair off of his forward, he pulled back on the reins and took in the scene before him.  Near the edge of a pond was a pair of lovers, a tall large man with his head on a fair-haired woman's lap.  The man sat up and seemed to be scanning the tree line.

Spinning his horse around, Cyrus ducked back farther into the trees.He didn't move or breathe for what seemed like a very long time.  Then it hit him.That was no man.By all the Gods on Olympus, that was the Conqueror!Callisto would sing his praises this day!"Xena," he said quietly. He squinted, focusing hard.  "Yes, it's you!"He waited a few breaths longer until he saw the Conqueror lay back down.  Quietly, he guided the horse out of the orchard, then kicked it into a gallop.

He never saw the young boy that was hiding in the trees.


Xena sat straight up.  Something wasn't right.  She could feel it.

Gabrielle jumped.  She had assumed Xena was asleep.  "What's wrong?" she asked concerned.

"Thought I heard something in the trees.  I must be getting jumpy." Xena laughed softly and shook her head.

Gabrielle pulled Xena back to her lap.  "I'm sure it's just nerves.  Jarrod is off playing, he's probably climbing in those trees."She leaned over, placing a gentle kiss on Xena's forehead.  "You're safe here."  Gabrielle brushed Xena's hair back and traced a small scar above her left eyebrow.

Xena eyes fluttered closed in pure reflex, and a soft sigh escaped her lips.

Gabrielle continued to stroke Xena's hair and face.A tentative finger traced Xena's cheekbone then went on to lush lips.  Gabrielle was surprised when white teeth captured her finger.  She let out a soft whimper when crimson lips kissed the curious finger then gave it a teasing lick.

Jarrod, yelling for his mother and running full speed at the women, interrupted the moment.  Both Xena and Gabrielle were on their feet in an instant. The boy ran flew right into his mother's arms.He was out of breath and nearly hysterical.

"Mother!  A man in the grove!" He turned to his newfound friend. "Saw you... he... he... saw you, Xena!"

Xena crouched down and took the boy's chin in her hand. "Jarrod, what man?Slow down, Tiger.Tell me what you saw."

Gabrielle gazed into the grove and laid a comforting hand on her son's shoulder.  Jarrod began to cry."He was in your army.I heard him say your name."Panic filled eyes turned to his mother, then to Xena, then back again.  "She's going to leave us, mother!  I know it!" he cried into his mother's blouse.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to comfort the boy, but when she saw the way Xena was looking at him, she stopped.  Jarrod cared about Xena.  Maybe the warrior needed to know that.

Xena glanced at Gabrielle.  And what she saw in Gabrielle's eyes broke her heart.Xena lowered her gaze and spoke softly."Gabrielle, let's get back to town."

"NO!"  Jarrod yelled, throwing himself into Xena's arms. 

The Conqueror blinked.

"You can't leave us!Please, Xena, don't go!" No one ever stayed.Why did the grownups he liked always leave so quickly?

"Shh, Tiger.It's okay."  Xena rubbed his back until his sobs lessened."We'll figure something out."


"Yeah, I promise.  Come on, help me and your mother gather up our stuff."

Xena looked out across the pond at its peaceful shimmering water.Maybe someday.  With their supplies gathered, the Conqueror scooped Jarrod into her arms and carried the boy all the way back to town. Gabrielle followed quietly behind, lost in thought.

By the time they had arrived at the inn, Jarrod had fallen asleep in Xena's arms.She followed Gabrielle into his room, laying him gently on his bed.  Reaching down, she removed his boots and tucked him under the covers.Pensively, she stared down at the boy for a long moment before dropping a soft kiss on his forehead. "Sleep well, Tiger."Straightening, she turned to find Gabrielle leaning against the doorframe, watching her with serious eyes."I should go." 

"Why?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"Because I'm guessing that my general, Callisto, is looking for me.I should go meet up with her before she rides into this village and destroys it."

Gabrielle's face grew cold.  This wasn't how things were supposed to turn out!"Is the Conqueror conquered by her own troops?Doesn't Callisto serve you?"

Xena scowled as she ushered Gabrielle out of Jarrod's room, closing the door softly behind her.  "Gabrielle, I need to go back and regain control of Callisto and my army.If I stay here, she will destroy anything and everything looking for me.  And," she paused as she ran a gentle finger down the blonde's cheek, "that includes anyone who she thinks is keeping me from her."

"You're lovers?"  Gabrielle asked hesitantly, not at all sure that she really wanted to know the answer.

 Xena snorted, "Only in her mind.She does seem to think that she has some right to me.  It's my own damn fault, really." Gabrielle wasn't the only one who had made difficult choices over the years.

Gabrielle waited as Xena struggled with how much to tell her.

 "I'm well aware of her attraction to me, and I've exploited it whenever it suited my purposes.She's an insane bitch.  But a highly effective, insane bitch.  And I knew that when I put her in a position of power and trust."

The smaller woman nodded her understanding. Callisto and Xena were lovers... when it suited Xena needs.  Gabrielle had an intimate, and unhappy, understanding of those sorts 'business relationships'.  "What if I gave you a reason to stay?"


Before Xena could say another word, the smaller woman leaned forward, and pressed her soft lips against the Conqueror's. 

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and deepened the kiss.They explored each other with hot tongues; bodies burning as passions rose.  Gabrielle's hands wandered over the tall woman's strong body hungrily, as Xena's embrace tightened and the kiss grew more fevered.When Xena heard Gabrielle moan she broke the kiss.Breathless, she leaned against the wall, holding onto Gabrielle.  "By the Gods... I... I"

"Stay," she coaxed, depositing soft kisses on Xena's neck. "Please stay. There is something between us, and you know it.  We both felt it here," Gabrielle laid Xena's palm against her chest as her own hand came to rest on Xena's, "the moment that hood came down."

Xena's eyes closed in confusion. "I didn't know if I was imagining things," she whispered. "I've been alone for so long."

"You don't need to be alone anymore, Xena.  I can offer you companionship.  A family."

"I don't deserve a family, Gabrielle."

"Why, because you rule the world?" The incredulity in Gabrielle's voice was unmistakable.  "If that's your excuse, I'm not buying it.  If it wasn't you, it would have been someone else."

"I've done horrible things..."

"So have I.  I've done things that keep me awake at night, all in the name of making my life easier.In the name of protecting my son."

"Yes," Xena leaned back and looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes, "and you had to do those things because of me."

"No.It was because of your soldiers.You weren't here.You can't control what you don't even know about!"

"I know about it now."

"Yes, and you can do something about it now, if you stay here.Running back to your palace and hiding isn't the answer, Xena!  Besides, you promised Jarrod.Do you really want to break that promise?" Gabrielle was growing desperate.  It wasn't wrong to want a better life!  A life that Xena could provide.  And Jarrod genuinely cared for the woman.

"No." A dark head shook.   "I don't."  Xena straightened and took a deep breath.  "All right. Callisto won't be here until morning.  That gives us a little time."

"How much time?"

The warrior smiled reassuringly.  "Enough.  I'll have to go out and take command of the troops stationed here."

"That shouldn't take long, should it?"

"Nol."  Xena raised a questioning brow.  "What are you thinking, Gabrielle?"

"Come with me."  The blonde took Xena by the hand and led her toward her own bedchamber.

"Gabrielle, I don't think..." Xena tried to protest as Gabrielle pulled her into the room and closed the door.

"That's right.  Don't think.Feel," she purred, pulling Xena's tunic free from her trousers. "Open up to me, Xena."

"I... I..." Xena gave up when she felt small but sure hands travel under her tunic, caressing her back.  She pulled the blonde into her arms and kissed her again."Gabrielle, if this happens, there is no going back for either one us," she whispered against moist, parted lips. "You become mine."Do you understand I won't give you up, Gabrielle?No matter what your motives.

"I beg to differ with you, oh mighty Conqueror.When this happens...  and it will happen," she paused as she unfastened the hooks on the tunic."You become mine."

Dark brows shot skyward, and Xena couldn't keep the sexy grin from her face."Is that so?You want to conquer the Conqueror, Gabrielle?"


The army had just made camp and the men were milling about, beginning their evening preparations.  The lookout man yelled to Callisto, "Rider approaching, General!Looks like one of the scouts!"

Callisto's lips curled into an emotionless smile."Ready or not, Xena. Here I come."

Cyrus rode his horse hard and fast into camp.  When he spotted Callisto he jumped from his mare, running to his General and dropping down on one knee.

"Speak to me," Callisto almost purred, pressing her fingers together happily.

"Yes, General," he panted.  "I found..."

His words were still hanging in the air when she grabbed him by the throat. "Where?!"   In a softer, seductive tone she whispered into his ear, "Tell me where the Conqueror is, Cyrus."

Terrified eyes looked everywhere but directly into hers."General Callisto, she is less than half a day's ride from here.  Near a town called Poteidaia.I saw her and a young woman by a..."

"WHAT?!" the psychotic blonde screeched. "With a woman?!Who was she?"  The veins in Callisto's neck bulged and Cyrus could see her pulse quicken.Her grip tightened around his throat.

"Just ... some... some village woman," the man tried to choke out.He was getting light headed. "I asked about her in town... And... she's a widow who works at the inn.She has a son."

"So," Callisto intoned in her sing song voice, "Xena has found herself a little whore for the night."  She tightened her grip on Cyrus' neck even more.

"Please... General... can't breath."  Cyrus' face was beyond red.  It was violet.

Callisto released her hold from Cyrus' throat.For one brief instant, the scout thought he might live to see tomorrow.  He thought wrong.Callisto grabbed him by the head with both hands, then snapped his neck as if it were a twig.The man jerked once then fell lifeless to the ground.

Callisto stepped over the dead body.  "I just hate bad news," she said to no one in particular.

"Palaemon! Palaemon, darling, I want to break camp at first light. Now, go tell the troops and then come back to my tent.I feel like playing tonight." She brought the tip of her finger to her lips.  "I have some... excess energy to burn."

Palaemon nodded once and left to find the company commander.

Callisto laughed and headed back toward her tent.Tonight she would have fun.

Tomorrow she would have the Conqueror.


Xena watched as Gabrielle lay back on the bed.In the soft candlelight the young woman's body was practically glowing.  "By the Gods, you are so beautiful."  Xena found herself mesmerized as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed.

"C'mere.  Let me love you, Xena.I can give you comfort."She drew herself up to the tall woman and placed her hands on Xena's shoulders pulling her down to lie on the bed."Let me give you what you need.What you want."

The most powerful woman in the world found herself captured, heart, soul, and finally body, when Gabrielle drew her into a kiss unlike any other she had ever experienced.  This kiss was filled with tenderness and a sweet longing.

"Gabrielle... I..."

"Shhh... Come to bed."  She pulled Xena closer, slowly running her small hands over the muscular back.Her lips found a spot on a tanned neck, which earned her a deep moan.

"Gods..." Xena groaned, giving herself to the smaller woman next to her.

"The Gods have nothing to do with this," Gabrielle whispered as she drew a sensitive earlobe into her mouth.  "This," she continued, "is just us.  Let's try to love, Xena."

"I... I don't know how to love."  Tears filled the Conqueror's eyes as she made the admission.She wanted to give this lovely young woman the chance to stop. 

"Yes, you do.  I can feel it."She took one of Xena's hands and placed it above her breast, over her heart.  "I feel it here, Xena.  You can and you do.  Just let yourself feel it too."

Xena lowered her head and captured Gabrielle in a soft sweet kiss.She rolled the blonde onto her back.Her hands traveled tentatively over the body beneath her.  She marveled at how right it felt to be loving, not just taking.

They made love.  Slow. Tender. Sweet love.Bodies became one as souls searched for and found each other.  Passions rose and crested.  And cries rang out from pinnacles reached, over and over again, through the night. 


Xena smiled as her eyes blinked open and she felt Gabrielle still with her, lying half on the bed and half on her.  She ran her fingers through soft blonde hair, kissing a brow."Gabrielle, wake up."

The response was a shaking of the head against her shoulder and a grumble.Xena's smile broadened, although her heart ached.  Ached with a feeling that had to be love for this young woman and her son.If Gabrielle would stay with her, then her life really might be worth living again.  And for that... she would do anything.

"Well, my sweet."  She placed another kiss on the forehead at her lips.  "I have to get up."

"Why?"  Gabrielle's grip on Xena tightened.

"Callisto.  She'll be here soon. I need to be up and ready to meet her when she arrives."

"Ah, I get it... work," Gabrielle teased half-heartedly, kissing her shoulder pillow and feeling a sickening surge of guilt settle in her belly.

What had started as a simple plan to gain the Conqueror's affection, and thus a better life for herself and Jarrod, had ended with her feeling that she had prostituted far more than her body. With the soldiers in her past, it had been merely sex and never at her own instigation.With Xena, the seduction had gone beyond sexual.She had made a bid for the Conqueror's heart with her own.  And though she couldn't fathom how or why, she knew deep in her soul she had been successful.  

"Go back to sleep, Gabrielle." Xena kissed her again."I'll be back soon."


Callisto awoke well before dawn.  She had business to attend to.  Dark eyes watched as Palaemon slept peacefully by her side. Idiot!  Does he think I care at all for him? I should just kill him now before he gets any foolish notions.  But he's still useful to me.


Getting up slowly from her bed, Callisto put on her armor and ventured outside.The full moon was still hanging high in the night sky.  It bathed the camp in a blue shadows, and she could see the few soldiers who were on night watch clearly.   She went to her horse, stroked its velvety nose and gave it a gentle scratch behind the ears."Want to go for a ride with Mommy?Hmm?" 

She mounted the animal and rode off towards a small village called Poteidaia.

It was still before dawn when Callisto arrived at the outskirts of the village.  Sliding off her horse, she tethered it to a nearby shrub. "Mommy won't be long," she assured, patting the panting beast. "We'll have company on our way back." Grabbing her cloak, she covered herself up and made the rest of her journey on foot.

Her first stop was the stables.  Just as she thought - the missing horse.Oh, Xena. What made you think you could ever hide from me? How wrong you are!

With a spring in her step, Callisto went in search of her bait.

A half-candle mark later, she was leaving the tavern with a medium-sized, wiggling bundle.  She wove through the shadows, easily evading the sleeping town guards, on the way back to her mount.She slung her bundle onto her horse's back then leapt on to her horse.  With a swift kick to its side, Callisto sent the animal galloping back to the camp.  


They stared at each other for a long moment and then he turned away, looking up at the stars."It has to be done."

"I'm not disagreeing with you.I'm just not ready yet," she chuckled coldy. "There are still things to be settled before we can proceed.

He shook his head."Xena's has gotten too powerful.This needs to end, and the power of this land needs to be returned to those of us who deserve it."

"I assure you, it will.Xena will meet her untimely demise.We just have to proceed carefully.A direct attack won't work." She cocked her head to the side."And I would know."

"Well, it's not like we haven't done this sort of thing before."  He sighed, his gaze tracking a shooting star.  "Let's just get it over with.  I trust that you're planning on making it look like an accident?"

"Most definitely.I don't want to deal with the opposition of her loyal troops.An accident will simply end it all."

"If you fail..."

"I won't!" Her anger began to spill out and she bit her tongue to stop from saying more.  " I'll see to it that it's done properly, myself."

He smiled.  "Good."


Still in the hazy state between sleep and wakefulness, Gabrielle smiled, enjoying the slightly rough feeling of tangled sheets against her naked body, and the warmth of the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window.She could still smell the Conqueror on her bedding and skin.  Her smile broadened as she deeply inhaled the musky/sweet scent. But as her body nudged its way toward full alertness, the smile slid from her face.  Gods, she was playing with fire by seducing the Destroyer of Nations! Although, truth be told, she herself felt utterly seduced.One look, one touch from Xena left her breathless.

Rubbing her eyes, she slowly got up and began to dress, considering what was to come this day.  Tightness in her chest made it difficult to breathe, and she realized it was fear.She was afraid of being left behind, afraid of not being able to provide for her son.  Gabrielle was just tired of being afraid.

She knew that if she could convince Xena to be a part of her life, she and Jarrod would never be taken care of.  She had thought it would be a small sacrifice on her part to spend the rest of her life with the Conqueror in exchange for peace and protection.Now she wasn't so sure.Penetrating eyes had bored into her very soul last night as they made love.  Calling to her.  Needing her. Asking more than she was ready to give, and still she responded.

Gabrielle bit her lip.  Under her parent's pressure, she had married Perdicus without loving him first.Hoping that would grow in time.Was this really so different?There was no reason she couldn't learn to love Xena.And even if she didn't, the woman already felt at least some affection for her son.  That much was clear.  The rest might come with time.


An uneasy feeling told Gabrielle to check on the boy, who would almost certainly still be sleeping.  Like his mother, Jarrod wasn't easy to rouse in the mornings.With each step closer to the boy's room, the feeling that something was wrong intensified, tying Gabrielle's already nervous stomach into knots.By the time she was standing outside his door, she was in a full-fledged panic.She flung the door open, wild eyes searched the room.

Jarrod's bed was in complete disarray.  His window hung wide open.  And his boots were still on the chair where Xena had left them.

A yellowed piece of parchment was lying on the room's small table.Tears  stung her eyes as she reached for the note with shaking fingers.She wiped them away with an angry hand.

Xena, my love,

How convenient of you to be so careless.If you want to see the boy again, stop all this foolishness and come back with me.  If you decide to stay too long...Well, accidents do happen.Hope your stay here in Poteidaia was a pleasant one.


"Oh, Gods, no! Please. No."  It was a dream.  It had to be. Gabrielle didn't even realize she was screaming before darkness claimed her.


Xena had just reached the bottom step of the inn when she heard the scream; she knew it was Gabrielle's.  The Conqueror ran up the steps two at a time. She checked the bedroom.  Gabrielle wasn't there.

Running to Jarrod's room, Xena knelt down and picked Gabrielle up.She gently placed the smaller woman on the bed, then reached for a pitcher of water on the nightstand.Out of the corner of her eyes, she caught a piece of parchment on the floor. She scooped it up and began to read.

"Hades!"  Damn Callisto to Tartarus. If she has hurt that boy, I swear I'll kill her myself! 

Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open to see Xena staring intently at her.

"Gabrielle?  Are you okay?"

"She has my son, Xena."  Gabrielle's tears began again.  "Callisto kidnapped my son!" she cried miserably.

"I know, I know.  I read the note.I'm going back right now. You'll have Jarrod back very, very soon."   Xena tried to smile, but couldn't.  She had to blink several times to keep her own tears in check.

Gabrielle sat up and stared hard at the wall.She let out a defeated sigh and wiped away her tears with the back of her hands.  "So, either way I lose.I either lose my son or you."The blonde stood and ran a shaky hand through her hair, her tears still dotting the wooden floor at her feet."Of course, I'll lose," she laughed harshly."I always do.I shouldn't have, for even one foolish moment, dared to hope that you would really stay here with us.  I mean, you're Xena, Destroyer of Na..."

Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the arm, forcing her to look at her."Gabrielle, I have no choice!Don't you see that?  Callisto will kill him."

Gabrielle jerked her arm away.  She was mad, and hurt and confusion was ruling her actions."Get out!" she screamed, lashing out like a wounded animal.  "Go!Crawl back like a whipped dog to Callisto, O great and mighty Conqueror."  She was sobbing now and could barely get the words out. "Ju... just leave m... me alone!"

Xena could feel her temper start to rise.  Her hands shook with the urge to strike back, but they remained frozen at her sides.  Gabrielle was right.Why was she so willing to go back?Was she a coward?Was this the easy out?  What had she become?  Xena made her decision right then, calling on something in her very core that had been lying quiet...  waiting... but by no means dead. 

The transformation was immediate.


"What?!"  Gabrielle spat the word out. Then she stopped.  The look on Xena's face was one she'd only read about in stories.It was commanding and feral.And the young woman felt a wave of fear crash over her.Gods.  Gabrielle thought she had seen her this week, but she was wrong.  This was the Xena of legends. 

The Conqueror.

Xena stood up straight and held her head high. Her lip curled just a bit, as fire raced through her veins. Oh yes.  This was the feeling she'd been missing.Her nostrils flared as her nerve endings came to life.Her entire body tingled.It had been so long. 

"Gabrielle." Xena voice was a low, dangerous growl.Blue eyes flashed. "You're right.I am the Conqueror!  I have defeated whole nations.  I bow before no one!"

Gabrielle's heart began to pound and she raised her hands, though she knew it wouldn't do any good if Xena decided to strike her.She had pushed the Conqueror too far and now she would pay.She began backing away, looking for a way to escape.

With a hard smile, Xena's gaze dropped from Gabrielle and focused out the window.  "I will get Jarrod back."And I WILL have my freedom!"When this day is over, my General will be back on her leash or dead at my feet."  Turning back to Gabrielle, Xena drew a deep calming breath, and her eyes softened as if by magic, allowing Gabrielle a quick glance behind the rage and fire. "And I will have you at my side.  You and Jarrod will return to the palace with me."

Gabrielle's mouth dropped open as she stared at Xena.She tried to respond but couldn't. Another sob welled up in chest and she threw herself into Xena's strong arms, releasing her frustration and fear in total safety.


Jarrod sat tied and gagged to a post in the middle of a tent.The tent was about as big as his room and filled with supplies.  He was terrified, but was doing his best to be brave, like all the stories he had heard about his father.

Callisto pushed open the tent flap, marched right up to the lad, and crouched down.

"Hello, little boy.  Don't worry, I won't hurt you.  Yet."She smiled a most wicked smile and grabbed his chin."Don't be stupid!Do as I say and you'll be fine. The rest depends on Our Lord Conqueror."  Laughing, Callisto rose and headed for the tent flap.  Looking behind her one last time, she stared hard at the boy.She noticed that he didn't look away.He met her gaze and never wavered.She liked that. 

Too bad she'd have to kill him.


Xena mounted her horse.  The gelding danced excitedly, sensing the dark energy bleeding from his mistress.  Xena was dressed for battle, wearing the clothes she hadn't donned since the night she arrived in Poteidaia. This time she was riding without the obscurity of the cloak that had hidden her features.  She looked down at Gabrielle.  "I promise.You will get Jarrod back." Or the earth will run red.

Gabrielle nodded.  Xena's demeanor was all strength and raw power.  And despite a fear so intense it threatened to send her to the bushes heaving, Xena made her believe.  She simply had no choice.  "And you?  Will you be coming back?"

"Most definitely.  I will be back for you."  Xena leaned over, kissing the blonde lightly on the lips.

A member of the Conqueror's army who had been sent ahead to scout for Callisto approached his leader cautiously.  Dropping his gaze to his boots, he patiently waited for the Lord Conqueror to complete her business with the woman from the tavern.

Xena caressed Gabrielle's face, then straightened in the saddle.Her officer gave her a brisk salute."Report!"

"General Callisto is riding this way, Lord Conqueror.She has a full complement of troops.And a small boy."

"Jarrod." Gabrielle's hand gripped Xena's pant leg.

Xena nodded.  "I'll go meet her.You," she looked to her officer, "stay here and make sure nothing happens to Gabrielle or this village.If anything happens, you won't live long enough to regret your failure."

He nodded his understanding.  "As you wish, Lord Conqueror."

Xena turned in the saddle, reaching down to pat Gabrielle's hand."It'll be all right.Go gather your personal things, Gabrielle.I'll be back soon."  With that, she spurred her mount, starting down the road to meet Callisto and her own troops.


Callisto held the boy in front of her.  His hands were tied to the horn of her saddle.She had considered gagging him as well, but decided against it when she realized that he hadn't uttered a word since she had taken him.

"So, little man..." she whispered in his ear as they rode on,"are you mute?  Maybe you're just scared speechless.  I have that effect on people.  It's one of the many reasons Xena keeps me around."

The boy continued to stare straight ahead.

"Is your Mommy the whore that our Lord Conqueror is using for her pleasure?"She laughed, feeling his small body stiffen at her question.  "I'll take that as a 'yes'."  She lowered her head again.  "You know, Xena doesn't know how to love anyone.So if your little mind is full of foolish thoughts about how she cares for you or your slut mother, you may as well put them out of your head right now."  She gave the body part in question a sharp smack to drive her point home.Her smile widened when she heard a tiny whimper."Oh, please don't tell me that you thought someone like Our Lord Conqueror could possibly care for a peasant woman and her worthless, sniveling son."

A jerk from the small form in front of her.

"She merely used your mother's body. She took her to her bed, and fucked the whore."

Jarrod let the tears flow down his cheeks and bit his lip to keep from saying anything.  He knew the meaning of the words. He had grown up around soldiers.  And had heard them many times before.  He also knew that his mother had spent time with some of them, but he never heard any of the soldiers call his Mama a whore.Xena certainly didn't think of his mother that way!If she had, she would never have played with him.And they wouldn't have gone on a picnic like a family.  Why, Xena had even taught him to fish without a pole!  People didn't do that for whore's sons. 

Callisto pulled back on the reins.  She grinned when she saw the Conqueror riding toward her."Ah, and there she is, little man.Returning to the fold just as I knew she would.See that?She doesn't have your mama with her.Left her behind for the next soldier to bed."

Jarrod let loose with his only word since he had been taken captive."Xena!"


Xena perked up immediately when she heard Jarrod's strangled cry.She heeled the gelding faster, until she was less than an arm's length from Callisto.  "Let the boy go," she commanded, holding out her hand for Jarrod.

"My Lord, welcome home."

Steel blue eyes turned to ice.  "Callisto, perhaps you didn't hear what I commanded. Let the boy go."

"My Lord," Callisto looked at Jarrod, "what does he matter to the Conqueror of the Known World?"

"I gave you an order." Xena pressed her thighs into her mount's sides.Keeping him steady. "Obey it or die."

A blade was at the boy's throat in a heartbeat."My Lord?"

Waves of anger rolled off Xena like water, crashing into her general.Callisto felt a trickle of sweat slid down her chest.  Staring into frighteningly cold eyes, realization began to dawn.  She had misjudged Xena.  Badly. 

"Callisto, let me assure you that if you harm a single hair on his head," Xena's calm voice belied the banked fires of rage ablaze within her,"your body will hit the ground before his does.So for the very..." she took a deep breath, "very last time.  LET. HIM. GO!"

The blonde flinched at the sudden change of volume, but miraculously kept from slicing Jarrod's tender throat.  She knew down to the soles of her boots that Xena was not bluffing and that her attempt to force things with the Conqueror had backfired terribly. Removing her knife from Jarrod's neck, she cut the bonds that held the boy to her saddle.

Xena reached out again.  Jarrod lurched for her and she pulled him into the safety of her arms, feeling the chill on his skin.  She gave him a kiss on the forehead, holding his sobbing, trembling body close to hers and pressing her face into dark-blonde hair that smelled like his mother's.  "Shhh...I've got you.Everything is okay now."She ran her fingers down the boy, looking for injuries.

Xena stared at her general, debating her next course of action.Had anyone else taken Jarrod, their life would already be forfeit.  But to kill Callisto would be a tremendous loss to her military.  The general was universally feared and unequaled in her viciousness.  Unfortunately, that was true on and off the battlefield.   "I am going back to return him to his mother." Xena stuck her finger right in Callisto's face."You will make camp here and wait for me to return.I swear to you that if you do anything other than that, I'll kill you myself.  Without a second's hesitation.  Don't squander this extraordinary chance, Callisto.Do you understand?"

Callisto nodded, barely resisting the urge to lean forward and bite off Xena's finger.  "Yes, My Lord." You weak, pussy-whipped bitch!

"And have my tent set up for me by the time I return."

"When will that be, My Lord?"  When your little whore is finished 'thanking' you for the return of her miserable brat?

"Do not question me!  Just have the tent ready."

White teeth ground together as Callisto subserviently said,"Yes, My Lord."

Xena took a deep breath, resting her lips on top of the boy's head. She consciously softened her voice.  Jarrod had already been frightened enough."You ready to go home, Tiger?"

She felt him nod against her chest as he tried to get his body closer to hers.He forced himself to stop crying."I tried to be brave," he whimpered, somehow tightening his grip.

"You were very brave."  She hugged him close."A brave soldier, just like your father was with me in Rome."

He looked up at her, immediately interested."Do you remember him?"

"Oh, yes.  I do.He was a very brave man and a good soldier"

"Will you tell me about him?"

"Of course, Jarrod."  Xena had wondered about her own father many times, and was glad she could provide the lad with some notion of his heritage.  Besides, perhaps it would take his mind off of what had just happened."What would you want to know?"


Gabrielle paced back and forth.  By the Gods, how long does it...?The thought was still spinning in her mind when the door opened and Xena walked in with Jarrod wrapped around her, holding onto her for dear life. Gabrielle moved slowly at first, then rushedthem, wrapping herself up in Xena's strong embrace with her son.

"Thank you!" Gabrielle sobbed, kissing Xena soundly and checking the boy over for injuries.

"I told you I would bring him back.  I've never lied to you, Gabrielle.  And I never will.  Are you ready?"

Gabrielle pulled Jarrod from Xena's arms and lowered him to the ground.The guilt that she had felt that morning came rushing back.  If the Conqueror was going to strike out at her, she didn't want Jarrod to see it."Honey, go to your room and rest.I know you must be tired. I'll be right there."

Jarrod looked to Xena, who smiled softly and nodded."Do as your mother says, lad.I'll be in to see you soon."

"Okay." Jarrod bounded out of the room with an exuberance that only a child could possess after the day's events.

Gabrielle tracked the boy's movements up the stairs.She waited until she heard the closing of his bedroom door before she began to speak.  "Xena," she whispered, her glistening eyes conveying true regret."I can't go with you."

Xena's heart stopped, but she remained calm. "Why not?"She cocked her head a bit."I told you if last night happened, you would be mine."


"Apparently, you didn't understand, Gabrielle.The moment you shared your bed with me, you became mine."Just as I am yours.  I will never willingly let you go. It's too soon to feel this way about you.It doesn't make any sense.  But I don't care!  "Now collect your personal things and come with me."  Xena's voice was deep and even.

"Xena, I don't love you."  I am so sorry.

The tall woman forced a smile.  "I know that," she said flatly.  "I am the Conqueror.  A monster..."

Gabrielle laid her hand on a Xena's forearm."Gods, Xena, it's not like that.I do care..."

"Gather your things, Gabrielle.  Jarrod already knows to pack."

The younger woman swallowed.  This was no request.  It was an order.  Part of Gabrielle instantly wanted to rebel, while another part was eager to try and make a life with this woman.  Regardless, all of her understood it was folly to deny the Conqueror. At least about this.

For Gabrielle, the wheels of fate had already begun to turn. And despite herself, it appeared that she would continue on the path of her own making. "Yes, My Lord."


Gabrielle was lost deep in thought as she packed a small bag.She could do this.  She could be with this woman.  She and Jarrod would be safe and well taken care of.Gabrielle didn't believe for a moment that Xena would hurt the boy, no matter what might come to pass between them.

"Mama?"  His voice was small behind her.

"Yes, son."  She tried to brighten her face before turning to face him.  "What is it?"

"Xena loves you."

Her head dropped a bit; she drew a deep breath, holding her hand out to her son.  "Jarrod, Xena hasn't known me long enough to really love me."

"She told me she loves you."  He took her hand, watching her curiously as she absorbed his words.

She sat down next to her son on the bed.  "What did she say about you?  Did she say she loved you, too?"

"Yeah."  He nodded happily.

Gabrielle smiled at the boy's barely contained joy."Then that's more than enough for me.What else did she say?"

"I told him..." Xena pushed off the doorframe, entering the room then kneeling down next to them.  She cupped Gabrielle's face in her hand.  "I told him that I would always keep you safe and do my best to make you happy."  She took Jarrod's hand, giving it a little tug.  "Hey, Tiger, can you give your Mama and me a moment alone?"

He rolled his eyes.  "Sure, Xena.I have more some things in my room I need to get."

Xena chuckled as she watched him charge out.She turned back to Gabrielle.  Reaching out, she brushed away the few tears that were tracking their way down Gabrielle's cheeks.  "I know you don't love me, Gabrielle.  But you might learn to if you give yourself the chance.  You said you were willing to learn to love your husband.Can you do the same for me?"

Gabrielle nodded, feeling a definite pull toward this powerful woman.Things seemed so much clearer when she was in Xena's presence.  And while her lingering doubts didn't completely disappear, they eased considerably.

"Good.  And even if you never truly love me.  I do believe we are well on our way to being friends." Xena grinned wistfully. "And the Gods know, I need at least one."

"What will you have me do, Xena?  When we get back to the palace, what will I do?"

"What do you want to do?"

"Want to do?" Pale brows furrowed. "I... I... I've never thought about that," she admitted.  "No one has ever asked me before." Perdicus certainly didn't.

"Well, now they have."  The Conqueror stood, offering a strong hand and heartfelt smile to Gabrielle."C'mon."


Callisto ran her fingers down her face, scratching her neck.Her nervous twitch was becoming more apparent with each passing moment.  Like two bitches in a stand off, Xena had simply stared her down.And now she was forced to endure seeing the Conqueror with the brat and her whore.

The General watched from across the camp as Xena took the woman and the boy into her tent.  Callisto waited, and paced, and waited some more.  Finally, Xena emerged and began walking toward her.She pulled herself together, standing up to face the Conqueror.  "My Lord," she offered quietly.Tired of the little slut and her whelp already?

"Understand this right now, Callisto.  I don't know what kind of sick and demented little fantasies you might have about us.  And I don't want to know.But that woman and her son are coming back to the palace with me, and they have my full protection.If you do anything to hurt either one of them, directly or indirectly I will personally be the one to drive the stakes through your flesh when I put you on a cross."

"Yes, My Lord."  Bite me!

"Her name is Gabrielle and the boy's name is Jarrod.If and when you have any dealings with them, that is how you will address them."  Xena started to leave, turning away. Then she stopped and turned back to Callisto with an evil little smirk.  "Actually, you will refer to Jarrod as 'Your Highness'."

"My Lord?"  What?!She was horrified at the suggestion.Not more than four marks ago she was holding the little urchin captive.  I should have slit his throat and taken my chances with Xena then and there.

"Who knows.  If things go well between his mother and I, I may make him my heir.  That would make him a prince.  You will address him as Your Highness."

She drew a deep, disgusted breath.  "Yes, My Lord."


Xena returned to her tent.  Ducking beneath the flaps, she squinted as her eyes adjusted to the dim candlelight.  Gabrielle was tucking Jarrod into a bed of soft furs she had created for him in the corner.It has been a long and frustrating day, and the lad was truly exhausted.  Gabrielle's smooth, alto voice was spinning out a bedtime story for the tired boy when Xena's entrance stopped her.  Pushing herself up off her knees, Gabrielle stood, looking at the Conqueror.

Xena's mouth shaped into a crooked grin.  "Finish his story, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle glanced down at Jarrod, who was whispering something. She bent closer then shook her head and smiled.  "He's asking for you."

Tossing her cloak down on a chair, Xena made her way over to the corner and settled down onto the black bear skins with Jarrod."What's up, Tiger?"

"Are we really going to live with you in the palace?"

A dark head nodded and a smile twitched at her lips. The boy's eyes radiated excitement and wonder and she instantly saw a flash of his mother."You sure are."

"Do I still have to go to school?"

Xena laughed.  Gods, he was simply precious.  "Yes. You will still have to attend lessons."

"I was afraid of that," Jarrod said petulantly, an enormous yawn interrupting his speech.

"But right now, you need to get to sleep.  We have a long day of traveling ahead of us tomorrow and we'll be leaving at first light."

"Yes, Xena.  Good night."To her surprise, Jarrod popped up from his bed to wrap his arms around her neck and plant a wet kiss on her cheek."I'm glad you came to our village," he whispered in her ear.

"So am I," she whispered back, feeling Gabrielle's fingers tenderly wipe the spot on her cheek that still wet from his kiss."Now go to sleep."

"Yes, Ma'am."  Xena tucked him back down into the furs to the sound of Gabrielle's muffled chuckles, knowing she must not appear very Conquerorish at the moment.

 "Do you want to finish his story, Gabrielle?"  Xena found herself hoping the answer would be 'yes'.  The sound of Gabrielle's voice was calming and smooth.It slid down deep inside her, warming her from within like a sweet, mulled wine. 

"No, he's had enough story for tonight."  Gabrielle kissed a round, rosy cheek.  "I love you, Jarrod."

"I love you too, Mama."

After leaving Jarrod tucked safely into the furs, Xena spun in a circle, considering the tent.  She found a length of rope and strung it from one side to the other.Then she proceeded to drape several blankets over the cord, dividing the tent in half.  With a slight tilt of her head, she silently motioned Gabrielle to 'their' side of the tent.  "It's not what you think, Gabrielle." Well, mostly."I merely prefer my privacy."

"Of course."  And how do I fit into your 'privacy'?She nodded.  "Are you hungry?  I can prepare you something."

"I'm starved, but you don't need to cook."  Xena stepped to the flaps of the tent and pulled them back.

A young man instantly appeared.  Quickly looking in, he bowed his head.  "Yes, My Lord?"

"Bring two meals and a skin of wine.  Sweet wine."

"Yes, My Lord."  The sound of footsteps grew more and more faint and Xena let the flaps fall back into place.She began tugging at the buckles of her armor.

"Let me help," Gabrielle offered, taking the buckle in her hands before Xena could answer.

"You don't have to.  You're not a slave, Gabrielle."

One question answered. "I want to," she insisted.The metal felt cool on the outside, but was warm wherever it touched Xena's skin. Gabrielle's hands stopped for a moment when she realized her fingertips had begin to wander beyond the buckles. With a slight shake of the head, she proceeded to undo all the buckles and keep her hands in check. 

Xena smiled as she shrugged out of her armor, taking care to lower it quietly to the cloth covered floor.  "Can't wait to get home and get a good hot bath," the warrior offered conversationally, well aware of the animal attraction flowing between her and Gabrielle.

"Can't you get one here?"

"Not the way I like them."  Xena dropped down to the pallet, beginning to work the laces of her boots. "I like it hot." She grinned at the instant blush that extended to very tips of Gabrielle's ears.  "And the water always cools too much by the time I get to it."

Gabrielle knelt down, taking the boot laces into her own hands. "Xena?"


"Could I be a teacher?"  The first knot came loose and Gabrielle continued onto the next.


"When we get to the palace.  Could I be a teacher?"

Xena reclined back on the pallet.  She placed her hands behind her head, crossing her long legs at the ankles and wiggling her freed toes.  She seemed to be considering the question."Is that what you want to do?"

"It makes sense." Gabrielle shrugged a bit.  She looked down at Xena laying on the bed, and wondered if she was supposed to join her there or go sleep with Jarrod.

Xena gave her the answer with a slight pat to the bed."It certainly does. But we'll worry about it when we get home.Come to bed."

Home?  "What about the food?"

"It's my tent, Gabrielle.  We're allowed to eat in bed."

Gabrielle laughed softly and began removing her own clothes.She felt no shame in her nakedness as she moved to her bag, taking out a sleeping shift.

"Oh no, now we can't have that."  Xena got up quickly and moved to a chest that sat in the corner.She opened the lid, pulling out a sleeping gown of shimmering, black silk.  "Here, wear this.  It's mine, and will be a little big, but it'll do until we get home and I can have some made for you."  Appreciative eyes swept over Gabrielle when she let go of the rough spun shift, allowing it to fall to the floor. 

Gabrielle held her arms up and Xena stepped forward to slide the smooth fabric over her head, tugging free thick red-gold tresses from the nightgown's collar.  Long fingers settled the fabric on Gabrielle's shoulders, then gently traced their way to her waist.  The material that fell thigh high on Xena, dropped just below Gabrielle's knees.

Gabrielle sucked in a breath at the unexpected, intimate touch.Swallowing hard, she willed her racing pulse to slow and asked, "Xena, how is it that you have all these things here?Callisto couldn't have known when or where she'd find you."

"My troops are required to carry equipment and supplies for my comfort at all times.  Whether I'm with them or not.  You never know when I might show up."  She grinned and wiggled her brows.

"This is true." Gabrielle nodded.  "You do show up in the most unexpected places."

The Conqueror wrapped the small woman in her arms."Yes, I do.  And I'm very glad of that."  She looked for permission in soft green eyes and found it.Lowering her head, she began a series of small, soft, tender kisses.  She felt Gabrielle's arms go around her neck and small hands tangle in her hair, crushing their lips together as the kiss deepened and hot, seeking tongues slid together.

Gabrielle pulled away, breathing heavily and licking her lips.Her face creased into a genuine smile."We," she swallowed hard."We should stop, before we can't stop."


Gabrielle tilted her head toward the divider that separated them from Jarrod.  "Please, Xena," she said on an uneven breath.  "Not while he's with us."

"Ah, right."  Xena nodded, barely able to hear Gabrielle's words over the pounding of her pulse.

Gabrielle took in a several deep lungfuls of air, resting her forehead against Xena's shoulder.  "Thank you."She closed her eyes.

"For?" Xena's own eyes own fluttered closed in contentment.

"Loving him."  I can feel that you really do. My son is a very lucky little boy.

Xena shrugged one shoulder.  "He's easy to love."

Gabrielle gave a small grunt of agreement, her motion shifting the smooth fabric on Xena's shoulder.

"But, Gabrielle, I love you both."  You don't believe me yet.But soon you will.

"How?" she asked quietly.  Why?

"I don't know.  Can't explain it.Don't want to.I just know that I do."

There was a certainty in Xena's voice that robbed Gabrielle of speech for long moments. "Still, thank you," she finally said, confused and comforted all at once.

"I don't know what kind of a replacement I'll be for his father.But there will be a lot of good, strong male role models for him at the palace."  I will personally see to that.

Gabrielle was about to respond when there was a low whistle outside the tent.

"Ah, our food has arrived."  Xena anxiously moved to the door, pulling the flaps back.She needed something to nibble on besides Gabrielle.Otherwise, there would be no stopping her.Two slaves brought in a table and two cleverly designed chairs that folded open and closed.Two more slaves carried in steaming plates of food and the wine that had been requested. 

To his horror, a slave bumped into Gabrielle.He lowered his head immediately and took a large step back.  "I'm sorry, My Lady."

Gabrielle glanced at Xena whose brow quirked.The Conqueror was waiting to see how she would handle this."It's all right.Accidents happen."  Gabrielle waited a beat before adding what she knew was expected."Please take care that it doesn't happen again."

"Yes, My Lady.  Thank you."The slave bowed all the way out of the tent.

Xena let the flaps fall back into place.  "Well done, Gabrielle." She smiled at the use of the word 'please' that had so naturally slipped out along with Gabrielle's gentle command."I wouldn't have expected less from you."Xena gestured at the table; the bed was far too tempting a place to take Gabrielle at this moment."Let's eat."


Xena reclined back in her chair, sipping wine and staring at Gabrielle as she continued to eat.  "Should I have more brought in?"  She hid her grin behind her cup.

The blonde shook her head.  "No, Xena, I'm fine, thank you.  It's just nice to eat something I didn't cook myself.And this food was excellent!"  Gabrielle took a deep swallow of the sweet wine, finding it completely delicious.  She had never tasted anything quite like it before.  "This," she lifted her heavy pewter cup, "is also very good."

"Only the best for the Conqueror."  Xena winked suggestively.

Gabrielle blushed a bit when the meaning of the statement hit home."Thank you.  But I'm not sure I'm the best..."

"I am."

Gabrielle met Xena's deep blue gaze.  "Well, then that's all that matters."

"Very true."  The Conqueror nodded, refilling both cups.  "Gabrielle, when we get back to the palace, things will be different."She took a deep breath holding it for just a second."More," she paused again, searching for the right term, "difficult."

The tall woman watched the information sink into Gabrielle, who weighed her words before speaking.  "Jarrod and I will be in the palace of The Destroyer of Nations.I wouldn't expect things to be easy."Or simple.

Xena chuckled.  "Good." She didn't much care for this next part.  But it was necessary.  "In public, you will address me as 'My Lord'.Make sure Jarrod understands that, as well."

Gabrielle nodded.

"The rest you will be taught by one of my advisors.I'll assign one each to you and Jarrod.They will instruct you how to function properly in my court."

"We'll both work very hard to make you happy."

"You won't have to." Xena reached out and grasped Gabrielle's hand."You already make me happy.I... I... I'd just rather I not have to discipline you in front of my people."  Would I really do that?She knew that she would, and the thought made her slightly nauseous.  She pushed aside her wine, letting go of the slender hand.  Suddenly, it didn't feel right to touch Gabrielle.

"I think I would prefer that as well." Gabrielle curled her empty fingers into a fist, immediately missing her companion's warm touch. "I've heard stories about your methods of discipline," she broached warily, looking into her cup.

"They're all true, Gabrielle.  I am a fair but firm ruler.  In one area, especially, I show no mercy.I will not hesitate to put down any signs of insurrection.Even when it seems harsh or cruel."

"How do you think people will react to you bringing Jarrod and me back?"

"I don't care!  It's not their place to question me.  No one has that right," she growled.  "Anyone who does..."

"...is punished."

Xena's shoulder's dropped just a bit.  "Yes." Gods if she isn't frightened of me, she soon will be.  And who could blame her?  "They don't question me.I am Ares' chosen.I didn't conqueror the world by accident.I conquered it by fighting for it.I keep it by never letting anyone get in my way.  I do whatever I must."

"I understand.  Jarrod and I won't give you any problems.  I promise."

A hint of desperation in Gabrielle's voice made Xena realize she was, indeed, scaring the young woman.  She didn't correct the situation right away.A little fear was healthy and Xena hoped it would spare her from having to make difficult choices in the future.But even so, she couldn't find it within herself to allow the feeling to linger in the air too long.  She smiled what she hoped was a reassuring smile.Everything will be fine, love.  You'll see.She offered her hand back to Gabrielle, who, to her surprise, took it without hesitation.  "Bedtime for us too, don't you think?"

"Absolutely. Let me look in on Jarrod."  When she moved towards her son's bed, Gabrielle wasn't surprised to feel the Conqueror's warm, unmistakable presence at her back.

Xena took the time to put another blanket on the sleeping child and press a gentle kiss to his forehead.  The Conqueror's concern for Jarrod came from somewhere deep inside the tall woman.  And each tender gesture, although seemingly natural on Xena's part, was still a bit disconcerting for Gabrielle to watch.  A bond between the two had grown at a startling rate.  And it wasn't just Xena.  Jarrod was completely taken with the powerful woman.And I'm not too far behind him, Gabrielle admitted wryly.  Soon, she told herself.Soon she would unravel the enigma that was Xena.Even if only a little bit everyday.  

Gabrielle was first in bed.  She lay there in the large pallet, watching Xena get ready.She couldn't help the small smile that crossed her lips at the sight of the dark-haired beauty getting dressed for bed.She, most certainly, had a magnificent body.The kind of body Gabrielle could come to crave.  Green eyes darkened slightly as Xena moved toward the bed and climbed in alongside her.

When Xena pulled Gabrielle into a warm embrace, the younger woman felt an indescribable surge of desire, affection, and peace all rolled into one.For a few panicky seconds, she allowed confusion to control her, her body growing stiff.  But finally, after several moments where Xena's deep, even breaths gently brushed the top of her head, and long powerful arms held her securely, she decided it was foolish to fight a feeling that came as naturally as her own heartbeat.With an inaudible sigh of relief, Gabrielle snuggled closer and her eyes slid closed. 


Gabrielle was up before sunrise.  Xena continued to sleep, snoring softly.The Conqueror was tucked down in the blankets, her dark hair falling over her face.  Gabrielle was quick to get up and put on an extra robe to ward off the morning chill.She lit a small lamp, then padded over to check Jarrod, who was still sleeping quite peacefully.

The blonde shook her head as she began stoking the fire that she knew would warm the tent before Xena and Jarrod awoke.  She had been amazed when Xena had gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to light the stove.  The Conqueror had made some comment about it being too cold for Jarrod, then proceeded to get up and start the fire.  When she returned to bed, there had indeed been a chill on her skin.

Gabrielle had been more than happy to warm the larger body with her own. She stroked the cool, muscular flesh until it was all they both could do to behave, and not make love in the middle of the night.With great care, they had made sure to readjust sleeping gowns that had been opened and pushed up in an effort to be warm and get closer.Some part of Gabrielle, a big part, was attracted to Xena in a way so primal it almost frightened her.She found herself anxious to get her companion alone, within the privacy of the palace walls.

Knowing that Xena would no doubt be rising soon, she wanted to have at least hot tea, if not the morning meal, prepared for her.She found the Conqueror's cloak and draped it over her shoulders.  Taking a deep breath, she stepped out into the camp.  Men and women were starting to rise and were quietly milling about.It didn't take the Gabrielle long to find the cook tent.  Hanging sides of deer and other manner of small game and birds clearly told her she had found the right area. Stepping inside the tent, Gabrielle found the cook and a few slaves beginning the preparation of the morning meal.

"Good morning, My Lady."  The cook gave the blonde a wide berth and a weak smile."What can I do for you this morning?"

"I came for some tea and for something to prepare for Our Lord Conqueror's early meal."

He lifted his brow at her.  "Are you cooking for Our Lord Conqueror now?"

"No.I simply wanted to offer her something warm when she wakes.  It's rather chilly in her," she paused taking a deep breath, "our," she corrected with a lifted brow of her own, "tent."

The cook nodded, then began gathering a few items and placing them in a cloth sack.  "As you wish, My Lady."

"Why does everyone keep calling me that?  I'm just a woman from..."

"You share Our Lord Conqueror's tent." He appraised her from head to toe before continuing, "And I'm sure her bed."

Gabrielle bristled at the implication that she was nothing more than Xena's bed warmer.  But she remained silent on the issue.  What could she really say?It was the Conqueror's bed that she had slept in last night.  Gabrielle smirked to herself.  And she had done her best to warm her.

"Our Lord favors you and we must show her, and therefore you, the proper respect.If we don't, the punishment will be harsh."  He handed her the sack. "And well deserved."

"Thank you. What's your name?"

"Clorick, My Lady."

"Thank you, Clorick." Gabrielle smiled sweetly."I'll mention your kindness to Our Lord."

This time the smile he gave her was genuine."Thank you, My Lady.  Enjoy your breakfast."

As Gabrielle made her way back across camp, Callisto watched her every movement through the misty, early morning shadows.She was hoping Xena would tire quickly of her little diversion.But something was telling her that wasn't going to happen.  She sighed.  It appeared as though she would simply have to force the issue.

Just as Gabrielle entered the tent, Xena rolled over with a groan, rubbing her eyes.  "Someone who actually gets up before I do?"  She chuckled, pushing herself up on her elbows.

"Most of the time." Gabrielle nodded, placing a kettle on the stove."Some mornings I've been known to oversleep, but working at the inn conditioned me, albeit mostly against my will, to rise early." She laughed at herself.

"An excellent habit for the woman who shares my life."

Not my 'bed'.My 'life'.  Gabrielle gazed at the Conqueror affectionately. 

Xena swung her legs over the edge of the bed, pulling a blanket over her shoulders.  "Why is it so damn cold in here?"

"Probably because it's cold outside," she teased, preparing the tealeaves for brewing.

"Oh, aren't you just a laugh a moment," Xena chuckled, getting up and pulling the small woman into her arms.  She wrapped them both in the blanket, then began an earnest exploration of Gabrielle's neck with her lips.

"Oh, Xena..." Gods.  "Be good."

"I'm very good," she mumbled against a warm neck.

"Your nose is cold." Gabrielle laughed but didn't pull away.

"It means I'm healthy," Xena offered with a nip and quiet little bark.

Unable to stop herself, the smaller woman ran her hands over the strong body in front of her and began kissing her in earnest."You certainly are."


They stopped, turning their heads to find Jarrod standing, rubbing sleepy eyes.Xena released Gabrielle and took a seat at the table.  She opened the blanket invitingly. Jarrod looked at his mother, who nodded.He trotted across the room then climbed into the warmth and protection of the Conqueror's arms and blanket.She wrapped him up, holding him close while Gabrielle continued preparing the tea. 

Gabrielle glanced occasionally to see Xena and the boy talking quietly.Jarrod was giggling and nodding in agreement to whatever Xena had said.

She handed a mug of tea to Xena, then brushed her fingers through Jarrod's hair."Do you want tea and oatmeal this morning?"

"Yes, please."  He nodded from his position with his head resting on Xena's shoulder.

"Well then, while I prepare it, why don't you go get dressed and allow Xena to drink her tea before it gets cold."

Jarrod was reluctant to give up his spot in the Conqueror's arms, but he knew it was not a request on his mother's part.  It was an order.  "Yes, Mama."He climbed down, moving back to his makeshift bed.

Gabrielle took her own tea and a seat at the table next to Xena."So what were you two giggling about?"

"Your son was giggling.  I do not giggle."

Gabrielle took a sip of her tea, trying not to smile."I'll remember that.  So what was my son giggling about?"

"Well, I told him we would go find him his own soldier in a little bit."

"His own soldier?"  This got the Conqueror a raised brow.

"Bodyguard," Xena whispered.

"Oh."  Gabrielle's heart rose into her throat.  She had made her son a target.  Gods, she'd known Xena for less than a week and he'd already been kidnapped.This was supposed to be safe.

Xena reached out and took her hand.  "He will be protected, Gabrielle.  I promise you.  I won't let anything happen to him."  Never again, love.  I swear it.

"I know.  I believe you."I'll try to believe you.  She took a swallow of the sweet beverage then ventured a glance up at the eyes that never seemed to leave her for long. "Xena, why Jarrod and me?I mean you most certainly..."

"He reminds me of someone," she said quietly, suddenly finding the contents of her mug exceptionally interesting.

Gabrielle cocked her head in question, hoping that the tall woman would continue.

"My son," Xena whispered, her voice losing volume with every word. "Solan."

"I didn't know you had a son."

"I don't anymore.  He was killed during the Centaur uprising."

Gabrielle's eyes closed. "Gods, Xena."

Xena nodded.  "So, Jarrod...Well, let's just say that he fills a spot in my heart that has been cold and empty for a long time."Just the way you do. "The palace could use a child's laughter, Gabrielle" And yours.


Xena took Jarrod by the hand as they stepped out into the camp.Her soldiers were breaking camp and packing for travel.  They all stopped as she approached them, stiffening into a salute and making way for her.

"Tell me if you see someone who you want to talk to," she told the boy as they moved among the men.

Jarrod's eyes darted wildly from man to man, taking in their armor and horses and swords.  He was captivated as he watched the camp disappear before his eyes.  "Is this what my father did?"

"These were some of the things, yes.  He was a good fighter though, and he traveled at the front of my army."

A muscular young man with a scar on his face caught Jarrod's eye.He pointed.  "Him, My Lord?" 

Xena was pleased that he remembered to use her title.Good, lad.She looked over to the soldier and smiled."Excellent choice, Jarrod.Palaemon!"

The man saw the Conqueror and sprinted over."My Lord."  He saluted, then bowed his head.

"At ease.  Palaemon, this is Jarrod."

The man extended his arm to the boy.  "Jarrod, it is a pleasure to meet you."

The boy smiled as he took the thick arm in a warrior handshake.

Xena shook her head approvingly, knowing what the gesture would mean to a boy of his age.  Well done, soldier.  "Palaemon, Jarrod and his mother will be joining us in the capital.They will be moving back to the palace with me.The boy requires," Xena searched a moment for the right words, "a friend and a teacher.A mentor, if you will.  Would you like the job?"

"It would be my pleasure to serve you in any way possible, My Lord," he answered immediately.  It wasn't exactly the assignment he had hoped for, but certainly being put in such a position of trust, by the Conqueror herself, was good for his career.

"You will also be responsible for his safety," Xena informed him, all traces of her former good humor gone.  "Do you understand?"

Palaemon nodded.  "Oh, yes, My Lord," he intoned gravely.  "I most certainly do."

"Good.  Good." Xena relaxed a bit, although her demeanor remained unchanged."It would be a very bad thing if anything happens to him, Palaemon.  I am very fond of him and his mother.  Because of your position, you may call him Jarrod or 'Highness'.  Everyone else is to refer to him as 'Your Highness'."

Palaemon was surprised, but didn't show it. "I understand completely, My Lord."

"Excellent." Xena finally allowed her lips to curve into a small smile."I'll leave you two to get acquainted.He will ride back with you." She motioned toward Jarrod.  "You'll ride with me.When you see General Callisto, tell her I won't be ready to move out for about three candle marks.In the meantime, she should continue to break camp.When that's done, she is to do drills with the men in the next valley.  I want quiet here for the next couple of marks."She cocked a brow and tilted her head in the direction of her tent.  "I have business to attend to and I don't want to be disturbed."

"As you wish, My Lord."  Palaemon almost reached down to take the boy's hand.Then he remembered how he had felt at that age, and clasped the boy's shoulder instead.  "Would you like a tour of the camp, Jarrod?"

Xena nodded her approval. 


Wasting no time, the warrior returned to her tent.When the flaps fell into place she took the time to use the ties to close them together.  Xena turned to Gabrielle with a lecherous grin.

"Where's Jarrod?"

"He's with his new friend.  One of my soldiers.  A fine young man named Palaemon."

"Is he safe?"  That was a stupid question. "I'm sorry, I..."

"It's all right."  Damn you, Callisto.  "He is very safe.  You can trust me, Gabrielle."

"I know."  Do you realize how hard that is?

Xena slowly approached the blonde, allowing her cloak to drop to the floor."You know, since I got up last night to start the fire and came back to bed, there have been two fires burning in this tent."

"Is that a fact?"  Gabrielle grinned as the Conqueror slowly moved toward her, circling her as though she was hungry and Gabrielle was prey.

"It is.  And you did such a fine job of dealing with the one in the stove this morning, I thought you might like to try this one."  Xena spread her arms, offering her body for inspection.

"One of my new jobs.  To stoke fires?"

"Yes.Or better yet, just to keep it burning."  She swooped down on Gabrielle, pulling the smiling woman into her arms."I've shared my bed with many people, Gabrielle.Both men and women, but none of them have ever made me feel the way you do.  None of them have ever been invited back.You are the only one I desire, Gabrielle.I want no one else in my bed."

"Another job?"

Xena hesitated for a moment, swallowing hard.   There was a serious edge to the teasing question. "I'd rather it not be like that," she said quietly. 

"Do I have the right to tell you no, if for some reason I don't want to or can't?"

"Of course!" she snapped.  "I told you before I didn't want to rape you.I'm not a complete beast!" Xena moved to pull away, but Gabrielle held her firm.

"I had to ask."

Xena's jaw clenched but she grudgingly nodded.It was a fair question. Taking a deep breath, she did her best to be honest.  "Gabrielle, there may be times when it is best not to be around me.  After a battle I..."

"It's all right." Though she knew she should, Gabrielle didn't fear the Conqueror's battle lust. She smiled, caressing the Conqueror's cheek. "I can live with this arrangement, Xena."  I was prepared to live with far worse."I just wanted to make sure I wasn't the Conqueror's whore."

Xena snorted.  "Whores I can have at the snap of my fingers.  I need a companion.  Someone I trust."

"You can trust me."

"I know," Xena whispered, mimicking Gabrielle's words from only moments before.She ducked her head and capturing the soft lips.  The kiss was passionate and continued even as she scooped up the smaller woman and carried her to the bed.

Xena gently lowered her precious bundle.  Strong hands slowly began removing Gabrielle's clothes while a warm mouth danced lightly over her skin, setting it on fire.Gabrielle moaned as she felt Xena's body come to rest over her.She tangled her hands in long dark hair, her body reacting fiercely to the knowing touch."Gods..." she groaned.

Xena shook her head.  "Just us.Remember?" she murmured, sliding down, offering a lick and a nip to a perfect pink nipple, and causing it to tighten against her tongue.

"Ohhh yeah," Gabrielle agreed, her hands beginning work on Xena's leathers.

Very soon they were giving and taking.  Touching and caressing, writhing and moaning in unison. No one had ever touched the Conqueror like this before.  Before this woman, sex was merely a method of release.A simple way to rid herself of pent up frustrations, energy, and stress. 

Now, it was for the purpose of finding peace and contentment, for allowing her to feel real love and the firestorm of desire.While she knew Gabrielle didn't love her back yet, it was obvious that she at least cared for her.  It was a step in the right direction.  And if the Gods were willing, love would soon follow.

Xena felt her body respond to the loving caresses.It amazed her that she could still feel these things, passion and desire.  She allowed herself to revel in the wonderful sensations, holding nothing back.Gabrielle's lips teased her neck and shoulders as her hands mapped and explored the body above her.She moaned loudly when Gabrielle's tongue found a particularly sensitive spot.

Xena was a bit shocked when she found herself so weak that the blonde managed to push her onto her back then climb on top of her.She simply closed her eyes, the urge to take control almost melting away under Gabrielle's relentless touch.Almost.  Her hands gripped the bed sheets when Gabrielle began a slow, torturous kissing marathon down her body.  "Gods, Gabrielle," she ground out through gritted teeth."Get on with it!"

Gabrielle chuckled a bit, but did as she was asked.Her hands traveled down, caressing and stroking.The body under her rose to meet her, its breathing ragged and harsh.  Groans became primal grunts when stroking became thrusting.  Gabrielle felt hands grasp her shoulders, massaging, fighting the urge to push her lower.  She sensed Xena's strong desire and the throbbing at her center intensified, moving her lower of her own accord.

Xena's back tightened and arched.  She drew in a quick but deep breath that she couldn't even begin to exhale as a powerful orgasm ripped through her body.Lights of all colors burst behind tightly clamped eyelids.Finally, her sweat soaked body collapsed onto the bed with a languid moan.  She fumbled until she found what she wanted and pulled Gabrielle into her arms.She held her to her heaving chest, kissing her deeply and tasting herself on those warm moist lips and inside that hot, wet mouth.

When she could speak again she whispered simply, "Thank you."

Gabrielle remained silent but burrowed deeper into the Conqueror's embrace.

Xena grinned to herself, feeling the heart pressed to hers fluttering wildly and the soft lips against her chest curling into a smile.It was enough. 

For now. 

Chapter Two: Simple Truths

Xena reached out and tousled Jarrod's hair, as the boy and Palaemon rode next to her and Gabrielle.The boy rode in front of the soldier, and his mother rode snuggled behind the Conqueror, gripping her armor with what Xena half-teasingly considered deadly intent. Gabrielle did not appear to enjoy horses.Jarrod, on the other hand, was having a delightful time. Palaemon even allowed the boy to hold the horse's reins while his own hands rested on his thighs.

"Did Palaemon give you a nice tour of the camp?"

"Very nice, My Lord."Jarrod grinned at the tall woman."And he let me look at his sword, too."

"He did?"Xena glanced at the young man, who grinned back with a little shrug."And I suppose now you want one of your own?"

"Someday it would be nice.Especially if I'm going to fight in your army like my father and Palaemon."

Xena felt Gabrielle stiffen, but the boy's mother held her tongue."We have lots of time for that, Jarrod.Besides, at your age there are far more important lessons to be learned. Mathematics for instance."She laughed when he dropped his head and groaned."Yes, I felt the same way, but anyone who is going to reside in my court must have a proper education." She raised a challenging eyebrow."Any problem with that, Tiger?"

"No, My Lord."

"Good.  Good.I'm sure you will be a fine student."

"I'm sure His Highness will, My Lord.He asks a lot of questions," Palaemon offered with a slight laugh.

"I'll just bet he does." Xena chuckled then sobered."I'm guessing you spoke with Callisto?"

"As you commanded, My Lord," Palaemon answered.

"Good.  How was her attitude today?"

"My Lord, the General is always..." he paused trying desperately to find the right word.


"I would never say anything like that about your second in command, My Lord."

"No, but I would.Let's see what else I can come up with."Xena looked into the trees while she considered her words."Obstinate.Devious.Nefarious.Cynical.Cruel. A one of a kind bi..." She was about to go on, when she felt Gabrielle give her a little nudge."Yes?"

"Eventually, Jarrod will know the meaning of those words.Does he need to learn them all now?"

"Ahh... but Gabrielle, if you're going to deal with Callisto, you need to know all kinds of words," the Conqueror insisted with a grin, urging her horse to a faster pace.


Gabrielle was amazed how quickly Xena's troops set up camp that evening.Their late departure had made it necessary for them to stop for another night.Gabrielle and Jarrod sat together under a tree, watching Xena command her troops.

She was indeed a magnificent sight to behold.She rode through the camp making sure it was coming together to her liking.   She had ordered a small private tent set up near her own for Palaemon and Jarrod.

Gabrielle actually liked the eager soldier chosen to look after her son.He had already taken two breaks from his duties to make sure they were both all right and not in need of anything.

Once Xena's tent had been raised and everything placed inside, Gabrielle decided to try and find something to do in there.She didn't like the fact that she wasn't assisting in any way.She entered the tent, quickly dismissing the slaves, telling them that she would see to the Conqueror's comfort in the tent from now on.They bowed and made their respectful exits.


"Yes, Jarrod?"Gabrielle stood in the center of the tent, deciding to start with making the bed.

"Should I take my bedding furs over to my tent?"

She turned to her son, who had a huge, happy smile on his face."Yes, I suppose that will be all right.But you stay out of the way.  Don't go anywhere else and don't get into anything that doesn't concern you.That would most certainly upset Xena."

"Yes, Ma'am."Jarrod rolled up the first of the furs to be moved and half carried, half dragged it from the tent.

The blonde laughed a little, shaking her head slightly as she watched him go.  By the time he returned for another fur, she had the bed made and was carefully placing the table off to the side.

"Xena said she will be sparring with her troops for the next two marks," he told her as he rolled another fur."She said you should have someone prepare a hot bath for her and to get the water as hot as possible."

Gabrielle sighed."Okay, that means I'll need to figure out what she uses for a tub."

He laughed a little.

"All right, my little rat!"She scooped him up in her arms, tickling him."What's so funny?"

"Mama!"  he yelped, twisting in her arms, giggling madly as he squirmed.

"Tell me!Tell me what's so funny."


"Me?Why am I so funny?"She stopped tickling him and just held him.He was getting so big.Gabrielle wondered how many more years like this she had left with her son, vowing to cherish each and every moment.

At a time when most boys were pulling away from their mothers, Gabrielle and Jarrod truly enjoyed spending time together, neither one making apologies for a bond they each seemed to draw both strength and comfort from.   But as deep as that ran, Gabrielle knew it wouldn't last forever. Especially with Jarrod being exposed to strong men like Palaemon, who would help guide the boy into manhood.

And Xena.Gabrielle mentally rolled her eyes.She was an influence all her own....

Jarrod wrapped his legs around her waist."Uff," she playfully groaned under his weight.

"You don't have to figure out what Xena uses for a tub.You just need to tell someone to bring one to the tent."

"How'd you get so smart?"

"Palaemon told me.Xena keeps servants and slaves to do the hard work.You don't have to do the hard work anymore, Mama.You have people to do it for you now."

"You're right, I do.I guess I'll have to start thinking a little differently, now won't I?"She rested her forehead against his.

"Uh huh."He nodded."You should be thinking like the Conqueror's consort."

She pulled back from her son."Where did you hear that word?"

"Palaemon told me.He said that if I was to be considered a Prince then you must be the Conqueror's consort."

"My, my, aren't you just full of information, Little Prince.Don't let that go to your head, by the way.Conqueror or not, I'm still your mother and I still reserve the right to tan your backside if I need to."But a wink took the sting out of her words.

"Oh yes, ma'am.I know that."

"Good."  She put him down."Now finish moving your things over to your tent."She gave him a little swat on his backside to send him on his way.

Gabrielle stepped outside.Immediately her eyes were drawn to the area where Xena was sparring.  She was fighting four men at the same time, while others stood around waiting for their chance to join the fray.Xena wasn't holding back.Men were dropping to the grounds with real wounds.Granted, the wounds didn't appear to be life threatening, but they were wounds, nonetheless.Each man got up from the ground, and was tended to right away.When one finished, at least two more took his place.

Gabrielle watched the sparring match until she felt a hand on her arm."My Lady, is there something you desire?"

She found herself addressing a small, elderly woman with kind eyes.The woman was fairly well dressed for a slave.  Gabrielle decided this woman must be considered a servant.Slaves wore collars and she woman didn't have one."Yes, thank you.I require a hot bath to be prepared for Our Lord Conqueror."

The woman glanced over to the Conqueror sparring."Yes, My Lady."A falling soldier covered the Conqueror in mud."I would say a very hot bath."

"Agreed," Gabrielle laughed."See to it, please."

"Of course, My Lady."


Xena entered her tent.She smiled at the food on the table and the hot, steaming bath that waited for her.She was also pleased to find Gabrielle dressed in a long, green dressing gown.The sleeves and the hem had been taken in so the garment didn't hang on her.

"Well done, Gabrielle.Where's Jarrod?"

"He asked to eat with Palaemon and the other soldiers tonight.Is that all right?"

Xena took a deep breath, dropping her sword and scabbard on the chest at the side of the tent."For tonight, and since you already told him he could, it will be fine, but from now on I prefer my family with me during the evening meal."

"Yes, Xena."She approached the tall woman, trying not to show her surprise at the use of the word 'family'.  "May I help you out of your armor?"


The Conqueror stood still while Gabrielle unbuckled and removed her armor and then began unlacing her leathers.Before long, Xena found herself immersed in the tub of hot water, enjoying it immensely.

"How did you manage to keep it so hot, Gabrielle?"

"I kept it covered until I heard you coming."She poured a cup of wine, then handed it down to the darker woman.

Xena took the cup, drinking deeply from it."Join me?"She gestured, indicating in the bath.

Gabrielle nodded, untying the gown and allowing it to drop to the floor.Xena quirked a brow when she took in the sight of the nude woman."No sleeping shift?"

The blonde slipped into the tub across from the Conqueror."You were sparring, fighting.I thought you might have certain desires that you would want attended to.  I assumed a shift would be a waste of your time."She offered her explanation while she lathered a rag.She gave the Conqueror a sly little grin."Was I wrong?"

"No." And you know it.The tall woman smiled back. "Not in the least."

"Somehow, I didn't think I would be."She motioned for Xena to move closer, which she did.As she began running the rag over the Conqueror's dirty skin, she dropped several soft kisses on Xena's lips and chin."I've actually been looking forward to this," Gabrielle admitted.

"Hmm, I can tell."The Conqueror nodded as she spoke; her eyes were closed as she savored Gabrielle's kisses and tender touch.

The rapping on the post outside the flap of the tent truly annoyed the tall woman.  She whirled around in the tub, blocking Gabrielle from view."Come!"

Callisto entered, stopping dead in her tracks at the sight before her."My Lord..."

"Callisto, this had better be very important."The tone of Xena's voice and icy look in her eyes left no doubt as to her sincerity.

"Umm, we've caught a thief.Stealing weapons and food."

"And you disturbed my bath for that?What do you normally do when you catch a thief?

"Execute him."

"Then do it!"

"As you wish, Lord Conqueror."

"Callisto.I think this was a very feeble attempt on you part to find out what was going on in my quarters, so let me make everything quite clear for you.Gabrielle and I are going to finish bathing, have our evening meal, and go to bed, where we will make love long into the night."The Conqueror stood up, leaning against the rim of the tub, staring at the skinny woman before her while the water dripped from her own body."Any further details you'd like to have?Or would you like to leave now, before I decide to leave my bath and beat you half way around this camp for disturbing me?"

Callisto bowed and backed out of the tent, her blood boiling.

Xena settled back into the water.Resting against Gabrielle, she closed her eyes again."Would you please continue?That felt really good."


"Mama, look!"Jarrod pointed excitedly at the palace as they rode over the ridge.Its tall towers could be seen rising above the huge stone walls that protected the stronghold.

"I see."  Gabrielle tried to sound unimpressed from her position behind Xena.But she knew she had failed when she heard the Conqueror chuckle a bit."What?" She gave a playful slap to the firm stomach that she had her arms wrapped around.

"Nothing."Xena clicked her tongue, moving her horse into a trot.

Palaemon was quick to keep up with the Conqueror while holding onto his little charge.  The boy laughed, gripping the saddle horn tighter.As they gained on the Conqueror and Gabrielle, the dark woman glanced over her shoulder.  With a grin, she squinted down at Jarrod. "You wanna race me, Tiger?"


"Xena!" Gabrielle yelped, as both horses broke for the gates of the stronghold.She tightened her hold on the leather clad waist, deciding immediately that, if the Conqueror and her son were going to start playing these little games, she was going to ask for, and get, her own horse when they traveled.A slow, short horse.Preferably a nag that barely moved at all.

Gabrielle watched as best she could, deciding to close her eyes and just hang on when she saw the gates coming closer and closer.She hoped they would open the gates before both horses crashed into them headfirst.

Her relief was palpable when the gates were indeed pulled open in the nick of time.  Xena pulled back hard, reining in her huffing gelding and letting him prance around the main square in an effort to cool down.


Gabrielle carefully eyed the people inside the palace grounds.They either bowed or saluted when Xena walked by.She strode at least three paces behind the Conqueror, mindful of her position while in public with her.

"Welcome home, My Lord."A tall, thin man in rich, blue robes approached, lowering his head in a respectful manner.

"Thank you, Malaius.What news is there for me to tend to?"

"We have received confirmation from all of your satraps.They will be arriving for the annual meeting and festival, all before the next full moon."

The Conqueror drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly."Who will be representing Rome this time?"

"Why, Brutus, of course, My Lord."

"So Brutus hasn't lost his head yet?I was sure Mark Antony would have killed him by now."

Malaius allowed a tiny smile to cross his thin lips."Actually, My Lord.It is rumored that Mark Antony has found solace in the arms of Egypt."

Gabrielle watched as Xena tossed her head back, laughing loudly."Haven't we all?Cleopatra has charms that can't be denied.Why do you think I allowed her to keep Egypt?" She cringed when she realized that Gabrielle had heard everything she just said, but couldn't suck the words back in.So she ignored them."Send word to Rome and Egypt that I won't tolerate any bickering when they arrive.Especially if Queen Cleopatra intends to bring Antony with her."

"As you command, My Lord.Are there any instructions for Chin or the Amazon nation."

"No. Empress Lao Ma and Queen Melosa are always properly respectful when they arrive."

"What of Britannia, My Lord?"

"Ah, yes, Queen Boadicea.She can be quite the troublemaker when she chooses to be.Send word that her army will camp outside the walls of the palace.  Her soldiers are wild and untamed, and always manage to fight among themselves and drink too much while they're here.I won't tolerate that type of behavior within the palace walls.Let them kill each other out there." Xena pointed beyond the gates. "I wouldn't want to taint my boots with the blood of a Briton."Xena took another deep breath, releasing it slowly."Anything else?"

"Only that you have court later today."

Blue eyes rolled.Gods."How many?"

"Eight, My Lord."

She chuckled."It's been a slow week.What are the charges?"

"Mostly theft.But there is one case of assault and one charge of murder."


"Yes, My Lord."

Xena sighed, nodding her head."All right.In the meantime, Malaius, Gabrielle requires an advisor to prepare her in the ways of court, and a seamstress to see about a proper wardrobe for her and her son.

The tall man finally looked past the Conqueror to the younger woman behind her."As you command, My Lord.Shall I escort her to the servants' quarters?"

Turning back, Xena held a beckoning hand out to Gabrielle.She spoke as much for the green-eyed beauty as her servant. "No, Malaius.She is not a servant.She is my..." the brunette cocked her head, trying to find a word that fit."Well, until I decide on a title for her, let's just say she is my companion and that she is to be taken to my personal apartment.Words coming from her mouth have the same power as those that fall from my own lips. Understood?"

"Yes, My Lord.Of course."Malaius bowed, bestowing an envious smile on the somewhat awestruck blonde."Right this way, My Lady."He gestured down the corridor with a pointy chin.

Gabrielle looked at Xena.She was hesitant to be away from the Conqueror's side in this strange place.A dark brow arched in response to her unasked question.

But Gabrielle steeled herself, taking a calming breath.She smiled at Xena and spoke softly. "Have a good day, My Lord."

The Conqueror nodded once, her lips mirroring Gabrielle's. "Thank you, Gabrielle.  Same to you."


The Conqueror strode across the parade ground.As she made her way, she looked up and drew in a deep breath, noticing for the first time in seasons what a magnificent blue the sky was.And how sweet and crisp the autumn air tasted in the back of her throat.The shadows that had fallen over the palace in recent times felt as though they where melting away.

Suddenly she shivered."What do you want?" she asked, without breaking her stride.

"My, my you're arrogant," the God of War stated, making his appearance right next to her and falling into step. And Zeus knows I love that!

"If I am, it's your fault.You made me," Xena said flatly, still not looking at the charismatic God.

"So I did." He chuckled and stroked his beard. "You are one of my finest creations."

"Cut the crap Ares.I am your finest creation.I rule the world in your name."With my will.Xena made a sharp turn to the left, causing the war God to overstep and have to backtrack a bit.

"And you do a damn fine job of it, too."

"Thanks.  Now what do you want?"

"I want you to tell me about this little blonde that has caught your eye."

"You're a God.Figure it out for yourself."

"Do you intend to keep her around, or is she a plaything?"

"Why does it matter?" Don't you have better things to do that bother me?

"Because you belong to me." And despite what you may think, Xena, my time with you is always well spent.

Xena stopped and turn slowly to face Ares. "I belong to you?I think not," she sneered."You shaped who I am Ares.But I'm not your pet or your possession."

"You are mine, Xena." Ares crossed his muscular arms over his chest.Using his height to his advantage, he cocked his head to the side and leveled a dark stare at his Chosen."Who do you think gave you the power to accomplish all that you have?"

"Ares, you trained me.And with that training I gathered armies.And I made something out of them." Blue eyes flashed. "Never once did you turn a battle in my favor!Never once did you use your powers to assist me!Everything I did, I did on my own." Her voice dropped to a low growl."I have never belonged to you.And I never will."

"Xena, Xena, Xena," Ares stopped walking and shook his head.His fingers twitched against the hilt of his sword.

Xena's gaze never left his, but she didn't miss the movement that caused her own hand to travel slowly to her blade.

Ares opened his arms wide. "Play with your new toy as long as you like," he encouraged benevolently."As long as it's not too long." His grin flashed from smug to cold in an instant."Don't get any ideas about keeping her around."

Xena's sword was drawn and at his throat before he could blink."Don't interfere with Gabrielle and me, Ares.Or I swear you'll regret it," she whispered, her face only inches from his, close enough for her to get an intoxicating whiff of the supple leather covering his broad chest.

He glanced down at the tip of the sword, distracted by her proximity. He pushed the blade away, doing his best to produce a cocky smirk."And exactly how will I regret it?"

The Conqueror lowered her sword and leaned in just a bit closer, until their lips were only a hairsbreadth apart.Her mouth shaped a sultry grin and she watched his eyes darken with arousal.

Ares licked his lips, his tongue almost... almost touching her....He doubled over when she landed a firm fist in the center of his gut.  "I'll figure something out," Xena growled, before walking away, leaving Ares gasping for air.

He watched her powerful gait and the smooth, rolling motion of her hips as she walked, thankful that she hadn't directed her aim a little lower."I do love that woman."


Gabrielle listened intently to the advisor. She nodded occasionally when the short, balding man would look to her.

"Wouldn't it..." Gabrielle began, even as she looked around the room at the numerous scrolls.These must be her archives."Wouldn't it just be easier if there was some way for me to read all of this information?"She graced the man with a smile."I mean, you could talk for weeks and barely scrape the surface of what I need to learn."

"Do you read?" the advisor asked doubtfully, his tone indicating he wouldn't believe her if she said she did.

"I read and write.Thank you very much.In two different languages."Gods be damned! The blonde always hated it when she was treated like an ignorant fool because of her social status.

"And you learned these skills where?"

Gabrielle advanced on the man; standing face to face with him, she placed her hands defiantly on her hips."Well, since I'm Greek I assume that I learned that from my parents.I learned Latin from the Roman soldiers who joined Our Lord Conqueror's army after their defeat in Rome.Many of them were exiled to the further regions. But I'm sure you knew that already."

The laughter from the door was unmistakable.It belonged to the Conqueror.Two angryfaces turned toward the chuckling woman.Quickly smothering her mirth, Xena marched into the room."She has a valid point, doesn't she, Gragous."

The man dropped his gaze to his shoes."Yes, My Lord."

"So, since it's apparent that Gabrielle is better educated than most of the people in the palace, perhaps even you, do you think you can give her a reasonable answer to her question without being condescending?"It wasn't a question.

"Yes, My Lord."The man raised his eyes to look to Gabrielle."The rules of the palace and the court have never been recorded, My Lady."

"Well, why not?"The blonde woman arched a brow at the man who looked at the Conqueror for an answer."

"Yeah, why not?"Xena scowled a bit just to make the man shake.

"Umm...I...You have never requested it, My Lord."

"I thought that I had you so I wouldn't have to see to every detail myself," she reminded the perspiring man.

Gragous paled, and Gabrielle fought hard not to laugh.

"Well... well... I... I..."

"Fine," Xena interrupted his blithering. "Let's remedy my," she arched a menacing eyebrow, "oversight right now, shall we?I order you to record all the rules of the palace and the court for the archives, Gragous."

"Yes, My Lord. I'll set the scribes to it right away."

"No, you don't understand."Grabbing the lapel of his jacket, she drew closer to him, growling in his face, "I want you to do it.Then I want you to present them to Gabrielle for her approval."  Xena uncurled her fists, allowing Gragous to stumble back a step and smoothe his rumpled jacket. The Conqueror extended a hand to Gabrielle.

"Yes, My Lord."He watched as the pair walked arm in arm toward the door.

Xena stopped, glanced at Gabrielle, then turned to the advisor."And, Gragous?"

"Yes, My Lord."

"Do it in Greek and Latin."


Jarrod ran across the courtyard towards the Conqueror and his mother at breakneck speed.A huge smile broke across Xena's face when she saw the boy charging across the cobblestones.  As soon as he had taken his final step towards her, she scooped him into her arms.He laughed even harder when, without a word, she settled him on her shoulder, his legs dangling down her front of her.Despite being short for his age, Jarrod felt like the tallest person on the world, perched atop a broad shoulder of the Conqueror.

Gabrielle studied them affectionately, shaking her head in amazement.Gods, Xena, do you know how appealing that is?How it makes me feel to see you treat him like that.

The people in the courtyard stood slack-jawed at the sight before them.

"How has your day been, Tiger?"

"Wonderful, My Lord!" the boy giggled. "Palaemon gave me my own pony today and showed me how to care for it.We're going riding together every morning."He stopped and took a deep breath, looking back and forth between Xena and his mother.He wasn't sure who he should be asking.Unable to decide, he blurted out to both of them, "If that's all right with you."

Xena patted his leg."Of course it's all right!You..." she stopped mid-sentence, realizing what she had done.

Gabrielle smiled indulgently.The Conqueror wasn't used to waiting for someone else to give permission. With an almost imperceptible nod, Gabrielle told Xena it was all right for her to continue. 

Xena blew out a relieved breath."You will need to learn to ride, lad." She gave his leg a pat."Have you been given a tutor yet?"

"No, My Lord.Palaemon hasn't found one that he likes."

The tall woman snorted, glancing to Gabrielle."Seems my young guard has taken his duties very seriously."

"So it would seem, My Lord.I am grateful."

"Well now, shall we have a meal before I have to attend court this afternoon?"The Conqueror stared at Gabrielle. More pointedly, she stared at her stomach and gave the body part in question a little pat.Speaking to it alone, she asked, "Are you hungry?"

Twinkling green eyes rolled in mock annoyance."I hadn't thought about it until now, but yes, I could be persuaded to have a little something.If you insist," she teased.

"And what about you, Tiger?"

"I'm starved.Getting to know the palace has made me very hungry."His tone was so serious, Xena laughed again.

"I'll just bet it has."


Gabrielle gazed into the polished metal at her reflection.She seemed pleased with her appearance.The Conqueror's clothiers were, indeed, very talented and had fashioned three new gowns for her in just over a few marks.They assured her that her new wardrobe, along with Jarrod's, would be ready in a few short days.

"Do you think Our Lord Conqueror will be pleased, My Lady?" the aged seamstress inquired, all the time continuing to make minor adjustments to the garment.

Gabrielle lifted her arm to give the woman better access to her waist."I think she will be very pleased.I know I am. You are indeed very talented, Morgaine."

"Thank you, My Lady. It is a pleasure to make garments for a woman as beautiful as yourself."  Ancient eyes danced with merriment."It's easy to see why Our Lord Conqueror has taken a shine to you.Eyes as green as spring grass and hair as golden as the sun.My Lord has needed a breath of freshness and light in her life for a long time."

The blonde blushed and smiled, not only at the sweet compliments, but at the ease with which the older woman spoke about Xena.There was a current of genuine affection in her words that Gabrielle hadn't heard from another soul since she arrived at the palace."How long have you served Our Lord?"

"Oh, for more winters than I care to remember, My Lady.I have been with the Conqueror for a very long time.I'll warrant she was few seasons younger than you are now, when I came under her employ.My own hand stitches all of the Conqueror's formal attire.My husband makes her armor and weapons."

"Then you knew her when..." Gabrielle began awkwardly.

Before she could finish her sentence, the older woman nodded."Yes.I have seen the Conqueror at her absolute worst."She smiled up at the young woman."But I pray that is all in the past, child.And that I will be seeing her at her absolute best from now on."

Gabrielle frowned."Why are people making so much out of my mere presence?I'm simply a woman from a small village..."

"Forgive me, My Lady, but I believe everything happens for a reason.There was a reason that Our Lord found you.There is a reason that you two have been brought together, child.In time you will see that.You will both see that.

"Do you have the gift of prophecy?" Gabrielle leaned closer; oracles had always fascinated her.

The old woman laughed. Climbing to her feet, she began tending to the garments that lay on the workbench."Hardly, My Lady. I have merely lived a long life and seen many things."Gray eyes regarded Gabrielle seriously."And never, since I have been in service to Our Lord, have I ever been asked to make clothes for anyone but her."

Gabrielle's hand slid down the fabric one more time as she considered the seamstress' words.She had never felt anything quite like the cool cloth beneath her fingertips. "What is this?"

"Oh that, My Lady, is the finest silk from Chin.It just arrived this morning as part of the tribute paid by Empress Lao Ma for the annual meeting."

"Shouldn't Our Lord have had the first clothes from the tribute?"

The woman chuckled."Our Lord's wardrobe is so large now she has robes and tunics that she hasn't yet touched.In fact, most of the time she insists on wearing her favorites and ignoring the rest.I'm sure she'll be pleased that your wardrobe will differ from hers.  I'll see to it that they are complementary."Like the two of you.No, no mistake about it. She cocked her head to the side, and scratched a deep crease in her cheek. "I may be mistaken.But," she grinned broadly, "I don't think so."

The blonde settled on a bench next to the seamstress."Can you tell me something about Our Lord's past if I promise that I shall hold your answer in the strictest confidence?" Gabrielle asked carefully, knowing just how bold her request was.

The older woman thought carefully for a moment before softly answering, "If I know the answer, My Lady, you shall know it as well."

"What do you know of Solan?"

"Only rumors, My Lady.It was, one time, rumored that Our Lord had a son by that name.It was right before I came into service."

"I see."  Gabrielle worried her lower lip."Is there anyone here who would know?"

"The only person who would know for certain is Our Lord," the seamstress said gravely.

Gabrielle nodded."Yes, she has already mentioned him to me."

"Then you are fortunate, indeed.It is forbidden to mention that particular rumor in the Conqueror's presence.Those who have been unfortunate enough to do so, didn't live long enough to regret their stupid action."

"Thank you for your candor then."

The seamstress nodded and quickly moved on to a more appropriate topic. She folded the other two garments."My Lady, the gown you are wearing now is for daywear.There is a robe here for eveningwear and then a sleeping gown.I will have others ready for you tomorrow, and your entire wardrobe will be complete in a few days.My best assistant is taking care of your son's needs.But is there anything special that you think he will require?"

Gabrielle picked up the clothes, impressed by their quality and fine craftsmanship.  "No.I trust your judgment.You have been in service to Our Lord much longer than I."

"My Lady, that is where your thinking is wrong.You and Jarrod may be the only people in the stronghold not in the service of another."The seamstress brought a gnarled hand up and fingered a lock of thick, fair hair, garnering Gabrielle's undivided attention.  "Even Our Lord Conqueror is in service to the God of War."

"Ares," Gabrielle said under her breath, a chill running down her spine at the thought of the dark, powerful God.It was hard for her to imagine anyone with enough strength of body and will to truly have a hold over Xena.And yet, if anyone could, Ares seemed a fitting candidate.



Gabrielle held Jarrod's hand as they made their way across the palace grounds.She wanted some private time with her son.  Somehow, even in the leanest of times when she had worked from dawn to darkness, Gabrielle had managed to find some special time each day to reserve for Jarrod alone.Certainly, now that they resided with Xena, this task would be easier.

One thing she missed already, however, was the pond near the apple orchard.It was their special place. And had only been shared with one other.Ever.

"We need to find a new spot for our story time."She smiled down at her son, giving his hand a little tug."I know you've been exploring today.Have you found anywhere that you might like to go?"

"The gardens?"

Green eyes flickered around the grounds."There are gardens here?"

"Yes, Mama.Right through that arch." He pointed a small finger."Palaemon showed them to me today."

"You really like him, don't you, son?"

"Oh yes, Mama." His face scrunched into a happy grin."He's so much fun and he doesn't treat me like a child."

The blonde could only raise her eyebrows and chuckle.It seemed she had instilled in her son the same desire not to be underestimated, whether it be because of age or social station. As she watched him now, in his spanking new clothes, she knew she would never have to worry about that again.

Jarrod led his mother into the Conqueror's gardens. Trees, shrubs, and a multitude of flowers surrounded statues and fountains, which were fed by artesian wells.Gabrielle stared with wide eyes at trees and plants, the likes of which she had never seen.She was certain they had come from far off, exotic places Xena had traveled.Low wooden benches with ivy-covered sides lined the winding footpaths.

Finally pulling her gaze from her surroundings, Gabrielle focused on her son."So, Your Highness," she teased him by using his new title.And the boy did, at least, have the good grace to blush."Are you too big for a story from your Mama?"

He tugged on her hand, leading her to a spot under a tall tree, covertly glancing around to confirm that they were alone."No, Ma'am."

Gabrielle caught his quick examination and smiled wistfully. They settled down together under the tree, breathing in the sweet smell of fall flowers and wet wood.Half expecting to be rebuked, the blonde offered Jarrod a spot on her lap.But to her delight, he immediately snuggled down as the story began.

From the battlement, a pair of amused, hazel eyes watched his little charge.He remembered a simpler time, when the comfort of his own mother's lap and a story were all he needed to make his life complete.Turning, he allowed the family its privacy.

From a watchtower, a pair of decidedly unamused, hard brown eyes took in the touching scene with nothing but disgust for the bitch and her little brat.Xena had the choice of all the women of the world, and this is what she picked?What could this whore give to the Conqueror that she couldn't?

From a balcony, a pair of contented, sky blue eyes softened, as the owner's heart melted once again at the sight of this simple village woman and her son.  They were together.She knew that with a rock solid certainty that grounded her even as it allowed her spirit to soar.

And from the darkest recesses, hidden by many shadows, a pair of black eyes watched, trying to decide the best way to utilize this new twist in the Conqueror's life.


After the evening meal, Jarrod was sent off to spend some time getting to know his new tutor.Palaemon had finally settled on one of the palace scribes that he thought would make a fine teacher for his young charge.After a brief meeting with the Conqueror and Gabrielle for final approval, where the soldier gave all the details of the scribe's education and abilities, they allowed the boy to go have the first meeting.With Gabrielle reminding her son to be properly respectful to his instructor.

Xena leaned against the wall after sending them on their way, watching for a few moments as Gabrielle began gathering dishes from their table.The Conqueror smiled and quietly sauntered up behind the young woman, whispering in her ear, "What do you think you're doing?"

The dish in her hand clattered to the table, when she went weak in the knees at the feel of warm breath on her neck.She had to actually steady herself against the table when fingers brushed the hair back from her neck and lips found their way to bare skin.

"I ask again.What are you doing?"

"I...I forget..." Gabrielle murmured, closing her eyes as a shiver ran down her spine.

"Good.  Because, Gabrielle, I don't ever want to see you clearing another table.You have an entire palace of servants to do that for you now.I'll call Callisto up here to do it for you if you like."

The blonde laughed out loud, then caught herself."Xena, I think General Callisto would rather throw herself on her sword."  And wouldn't I love to see that happen, Gabrielle privately seethed.She didn't care how militarily useful Callisto was.That bitch had kidnapped her son.


"Well now," the Conqueror turned the blonde in her arms, "should I decide I no longer require her services, I'll keep that in mind." Xena leaned forward and ducked her head, ever so slowly inching her face toward Gabrielle's soft lips.

Green eyes fluttered shut again, and Gabrielle swallowed hard.She nodded her response to Xena, drawing in a deep breath through flaring nostrils.The warrior's warmth was seeping through the tunics between them, heating Gabrielle's skin as though it was near a flame.The smaller woman ran her hands along strong, sinewy muscled arms; threading her fingers together tightly behind Xena's neck, she raised herself up on tipped toes... and waited.

"Would you like to take a walk with me, Gabrielle?Perhaps the gardens?"She smiled at the woman, watching her closely, running a thumb tenderly over her lips."You may as well say yes, because I have no intention of kissing you."

Gabrielle's eyes snapped open."What? I...I...wasn't expecting you to..."

The Conqueror threw her head back, laughing hard."Oh yes, you were."

"I was not."The young woman pulled away from the Conqueror; it was a playful action and it was taken as such by the tall woman.

"Oh, you do indignant very well, Gabrielle," Xena teased.She held out an inviting hand."Come.Walk with me."


Palaemon remained on his back, with just a hint of a smile on his face.She might be a crazy bitch, and she might be the second most terrifying person in the known world, but she was also damned good in the sack.

Callisto returned to the bed with two cups of wine.She placed his on the table next to the bed, then straddled his waist.  His eyes wandered over her naked form.  He wanted to smile, but knew better.

"So tell me, Palaemon."She tipped her cup spilling a drop of the sweet wine on his chest."Does your time with me make you happy?"

"General, I live to serve." He shivered slightly as the cool liquid tickled his skin."I hope my time with you pleases you."

Callisto laughed, then leaned over and licked the wine from his chest, rolling her tongue over his skin."You should be a diplomat."

He placed tentative hands on her back, stroking the skin gently.

"But you're not a diplomat, are you, Palaemon?"

"No, General."

"Right now you're not even a soldier."She gave a slightly painful bite to his left nipple."You're a glorified baby sitter."

The young man knew there was no right answer.But he certainly felt like more than a baby sitter to the young man. And the Conqueror herself had given him charge of the lad. But to argue with this woman might very well mean that Jarrod would be without his guidance in the morning.

"Tell me about him, Palaemon.Tell me about the young 'Prince'," she hissed into his ear, raking her nails down his chest and stomach.

"He is very bright," he ground out, finding it hard to follow the thread of the conversation with Callisto's naked body pressed tightly against his. "He's very eager. And Our Lord is extremely fond of him."He hoped that would help save both his and Jarrod's skin.

"Hmm...yes...she...is..." Callisto growled.With a slight shift of her body, she thrust her hips down sharply and began taking her frustrations at the Conqueror out on the strong body beneath her. Not that the strong, young body beneath her was complaining.

Palaemon closed his eyes and stifled a groan.


Xena watched Gabrielle stroll just ahead of her in the garden."You're quiet tonight, Gabrielle.What's wrong?"

"Nothing really." She turned, offering her hand to the Conqueror, which was immediately accepted."It occurred to me that everything happened so quickly I didn't really have time to send word to my mother and sister.They must be worried sick."

Xena chuckled although she didn't really mean to.She had visions of this poor girl's mother fainting dead away when the rumor reached her that her daughter and grandson had been carried off by the Conqueror."Well we can remedy that quickly enough.Compose a letter to your family and I'll dispatch a messenger with it as soon as you're finished writing it."

"Thank you."Gabrielle nodded but continued looking at her feet as they strolled through the gardens.

"Is there something more, Gabrielle?"Xena wrapped her arm around the small waist.The blonde wasted no time in melding into the tall body next to her.  "Well, is there?" She gave her a little shake, letting her know she was serious.

"No, Xena, there's not."

The Conqueror stopped and turned Gabrielle to face her."You don't lie very well.Tell me what's wrong."

Gabrielle debated with herself before sighing. "It's just that my mother depended on some of my wages from the inn to help make ends meet."

Xena mentally blew out a relieved breath.This was exceedingly easy to fix."I see.  How much did you contribute?"

Gabrielle found herself reluctant to answer. How could the Conqueror understand what such a paltry amount could mean to her family?But the intent eyes boring into hers would not be denied. "Whatever I could afford.Maybe four or five dinars a week.Mostly just copper."

"So, if I were to order an allowance of, say, ten gold per month to your mother and sister, that would keep them in good food and shelter?"

Gods!  That was a fortune compared to what Gabrielle had been able to contribute. Even during the inn's busiest season.  "I didn't mean to make it sound like..." The words rushed forward."I was just worried..." She felt fingers gently fall on her lips, silencing her.

Xena sighed. "Just nod if ten gold a month are enough."

A smile crossed the digit covered lips and she nodded.

"Very well.You will tell your mother that it is my tribute to her for bringing such a beautiful and intelligent woman into the world."The tall woman leaned forward and whispered sincerely,"You're adorable when you blush."


Xena couldn't help but smile as Gabrielle dealt with the servants who tried to prepare the bathing chamber.The Conqueror sat in a chair, watching Gabrielle, her amused features hidden behind her hand.

Seemingly the blonde had no qualms about the servants preparing a hot bath for the Conqueror, but she was decidedly against having the young, scantily dressed handmaidens attending to Xena during the bath itself.

"I'll tend to her.You are dismissed."Gabrielle all but pushed the two young women out the door.

"Yes, My Lady."After exchanging confused looks, the women bowed then backed out of Xena's private chambers.

Gabrielle wanted to slam the door, but somehow managed to close it quietly before heading for the bathing chamber, grumbling all the way.Xena was sure she heard something to the effect of 'Not while I'm around' and 'Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.'

The Conqueror cleared her throat and, doing her best to regain her regal composure, headed for the bathing chamber.Gabrielle poured softly scented oils into the hot water, mixing them in with her hand.

"So, do you intend to undress me too?" the Conqueror teased a bit, taking a seat next to the tub and propping up her booted foot right next to Gabrielle."That was part of their job."But not the best part, she thought roguishly.

The smaller woman shifted slightly to peer at Xena out of the corner of one eye."You put your boots on by yourself in the morning.You can't take them off by yourself at night?"

Xena laughed.Her new companion was losing her fear and becoming more forthright.While a part of her bristled... a bigger part cheered.Gabrielle has to be comfortable if she's ever to grow to love me."At night I'm tired.It's hard being the Conqueror," Xena joked, wiggling her booted foot.

Gabrielle relented, but not before gracing Xena with a full fledged scowl. Taking the booted foot in question into her lap, she began working on the laces.She was angry and it confused her.Gabrielle knew her behavior was inappropriate but couldn't seem to stop herself.I sound like some nagging harpy.Those are only Xena's normal attendants. Unwilling to consider her feelings further, she allowed her temper to flare anew.

"Yes, I imagine it's terribly difficult getting through the day with everyone constantly bowing, scrambling out of your way, and stammering, 'Good morning, My Lord', 'How are you today, My Lord?'" Gabrielle nearly broke the laces with a sharp tug. She continued speaking as if oblivious to Xena's presence.

"And I'll bet you break into a terrible sweat while listening to your advisors informing you of the goings-on in court.It's probably all you can do to lift your hand to your mouth to sip your wine." Gabrielle twisted the leather. "Why must these boots fit so tight?" she grunted.  The first boot finally worked free; she pulled the second into her lap. 

Xena actually had to shift and steady herself with both hands to keep from losing her balance."My, my, aren't we grumpy?"she continued to torment.You sound like a jealous lover.Are you Gabrielle?  Are you jealous?Or are you still just pretending?

Once the second boot was removed, Xena stood and began working the hooks on her tunic.

"Oh, allow me, My Lord," Gabrielle continued with the banter, her voice losing its edge.  "Wouldn't want you to strain anything."Gabrielle made the mistake of looking up into playful pale eyes that looked more gray than blue in the firelight.Her frustration began to melt away.

"No, we wouldn't now, would we?"A dark brow arched."Especially since I have plans for you later."

"Is that a fact?"Gabrielle muttered softly, unable to remain grouchy in the face of such a lovely expanse of warm, bare skin.She allowed her hand to slide up Xena's back, digging her fingers deeply into the muscles that lay just beneath the silky surface."What kind of plans?"

Xena let loose a sexy chuckle that tickled Gabrielle's eardrums and caused goosebumps to erupt across her arms and chest. "Let's just say..." Xena smiled wickedly, "we're both going to be glad that the walls of the palace are very thick."


Gabrielle stretched in the big bed, arching her back in an almost a feline manner.  This was by far the most fantastic, most luxurious thing she had ever slept in. She wondered briefly if the silk sheets they slept on had come from Chin.She grinned helplessly, completely unable to fight the feeling coursing through her body like a potent liquor.It was a combination of total contentment, from being warm and safe, and the absolutely delightful feeling of being truly satiated.

Xena was a wonderful lover.She took Gabrielle to places that she had never been to before and touched her in ways that she hadn't imagined were possible.The blonde rolled over, gazing at the bright sunrise and listening to the deep, even breathing of the Conqueror, who still slumbered beside her.

Gentle fingers reached out, brushing back a lock of dark hair for an unobstructed view of the woman face.She's so beautiful.So peaceful in sleep.Xena fussed a bit, twitching under Gabrielle's tender touches.A small smile crossed the younger woman's lips as she snuggled closer to her companion.Without waking, Xena immediately took Gabrielle into her arms, and, with a fuzzy murmur, dropped a soft kiss on her forehead.

Gabrielle continued to watch Xena sleep for several moments, studying long, thick lashes and smooth, tanned skin.When every fine hair, every faint crease and line, had finally come under Gabrielle's intense scrutiny, her own eyelids fluttered closed and she inhaled deeply.  Letting it out slowly, she realized with a start that she wasn't feeling gratitude or obligation.It was something different.Something new.A little tingling in her stomach almost made her queasy.But it was a good kind of queasy, she decided.

Xena groaned and shifted.Gabrielle smiled; kissing the shoulder her head rested on.She recognized the, 'I'm waking up' groan."Morning," she whispered, hoping to wake the tall woman gently.

Strong arms tightened around her."Good morning."Xena allowed the correction to slip past her lips before licking them and humming into a morning stretch."Sleep well?" she inquired without opening her eyes.

"Like a baby."Gabrielle snuggled even closer."Your relaxation techniques are truly astounding.And you?"

"I haven't sleep this well in so long, I had genuinely forgotten what it's like.  I really don't want to get up."

Gabrielle sighed."But duty calls, does it not?"

Xena sigh mirrored her lover's."Yes, I'm afraid it does.There are a lot of preparations to be made before the satraps arrive."She rolled over to face Gabrielle."Speaking of which," she took a deep breath, "please don't take this the wrong way, but there will be several formal occasions while they're here..."

Gabrielle stiffened just a bit, waiting for the part where Xena would say that she and Jarrod should stay in the private apartment.Hidden out of sight.

"So," Xena continued quickly, sensing the blonde's unease, "I think we need to have a few 'rehearsal' dinners just to make sure that you and Jarrod have been properly trained in the ways of court.He's going to have a lot to learn before everyone arrives, and I think it'll be easier if we teach him together."

That Xena wanted her and Jarrod to participate in this important State function wasn't lost on Gabrielle. "I promise, we'll make you proud."She placed a tender kiss on Xena's nose.Before her lips left the tip of that nose, her soul and perhaps her heart called for her to move her lips lower. Allowing the smile she'd been fighting back free rein, she lowered her mouth for a proper good morning kiss.


For the first time in several days, Xena managed to find a break in the preparations for the Annual Meeting, and she was anxious to find Gabrielle and spend some time with her.The time they'd shared recently consisted of little more than tucking Jarrod into bed, then falling gracelessly into bed themselves.

She crossed the courtyard with a purposeful stride, her boots scattering the dried autumn leaves that covered the ground.She was intent on finding Gabrielle and hopefully Jarrod.Looking up into the sky to gauge the time of day, she knew that if she were very lucky she would find them in the garden.

Xena found Jarrod first.He was seated on a bench at the edge of the training grounds, watching Palaemon spar.His brow was furrowed as if in deep thought, and his normally bright smile was notably absent.She approached slowly and took a seat next to him, crossing her long legs and watching the soldiers spar as she spoke. "Something wrong, Tiger?"

"No, My Lord." He sighed.

"Hmmm...you don't sound very convincing.Are you sure there's nothing wrong?"

"It's nothing, My Lord."

She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder."Jarrod, you don't fib very well." Just like your mother."Now tell me what's wrong.Has Palaemon done something wrong?"

"Oh, no, My Lord!He's my best friend."His head dropped a bit and his shoulders slouched forward.

"Is this a bad thing?"

"No, Ma'am."

"Then what is it?Tell me," she repeated.

"Well, I tried to make some new friends.Palaemon thought I should have other kids my own age to play with."

Xena nodded. "And?"

"They were afraid to play with me," he admitted quietly.

Xena's brows came together.Jarrod was an exceptionally mild-mannered boy.Why would children fear him? "Do you know why?"

"I guess, since my Mama and I live with you, that scares them a little bit."

Ahh... This she understood.Everyone feared her and until very recently she had felt utterly and completely alone.

"I'm sorry, Jarrod."

The boy shrugged and did his best not to look miserable.Kicking a pebble with the toe of his boot, he earnestly said, "It's not your fault."

"Yes, it is." She squeezed his shoulder encouragingly. "Let's go find your mother and see if we can find a way to remedy this, shall we?"

His mood brightened immediately, his mossy green eyes twinkling."Really?"

Xena recognized saw Gabrielle in the boy's face and smiled wistfully.   "Yes, really.I've discovered that having at least one true friend is the most important thing in the world."

"Who's your friend, My Lord?"

"Well, you see, I'm lucky Jarrod.I have two friends."


"You and your mother, of course."She stood, offering her hand to the boy."Let's go find her.I'm sure she'll have the answer to this."She whistled to Palaemon, and, with a nod of her chin, indicated she would be taking Jarrod with her.


Gabrielle rubbed her hands together and cleared her throat nervously.She smoothed the fabric of her new gown again.  She was a little unsure of this garment.Xena had ordered it specifically made with a low cut bosom and a slit up the side that ran clear to the blonde's hip.This gown was definitely designed to show off what Xena called 'some of your best assets'.  Gabrielle wasn't sure she was comfortable showing off this many assets.

Morgaine chuckled softly."My Lady, if you don't wish your leg to become a pin cushion, you'll hold still."

"Of course, I'm sorry.It's just that I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable in this dress."

"Are you unhappy with the work, My Lady?Is there anything I can do..."

"Oh, no, Morgaine, that's not what I meant at all." Gabrielle laid her hand on the seamstress' arm. "Your work, as always, is excellent.It's not you.It's me.  This dress just isn't me.It's uh...well...it's..."

"Sexy."  The aged woman laughed.

The blonde blushed."Yes, it is. Very sexy."

"It's you."

"I've never thought of myself that way.I'm... a... a little unnerved by it," she admitted.

"You'll do just fine, My Lady.Our Lord is very happy with your quick adjustment and the way you are settling in here."

"Oh?"  Gabrielle smiled."And you would have this information how?"She understood very well that the castle staff knew all the latest gossip. It was just a matter of getting them to share.

Morgaine laughed softly."From Our Lord's own lips, My Lady.I fitted her for her new tunic yesterday.You're all she spoke of."

Gabrielle felt that queasy feeling again.She cleared her throat and tilted her head slightly, feeling like a young girl with her first crush."Umm... what else did she say?"she asked, never quite making eye contact with the aged seamstress.

Morgaine held back her smile and tugged on the hem of the new gown."I don't know if I should share the confidences of Our Lord."

"Morgaine!"Gabrielle practically stamped her foot in frustration causing the older woman to chuckle.

"Yes, My Lady?" she asked knowingly.

"Oooo... just never mind."The blonde was actually pouting now.

The seamstress laughed, the bold, hearty sound filling the small room.She hadn't seen a bottom lip poked that far out in more seasons than she could count. "You love her," she stated flatly, getting up and adjusting the neckline on the gown.

"Do I?"  The question was soft and directed at herself as much as Morgaine. Do I even know what that is? "I've never been in love before.I've done lots of things I'm not very proud of..."

"So has Our Lord."The aged woman moved behind the blonde.She pulled her hair up, twisting it a bit, placing a pin in it to hold it off her neck.

Gabrielle watched her reflection in the mirror.She saw the change that occurred with the gown and the simple act of rearranging her hair.In her eyes, she went from a simple peasant to someone strong, proud and beautiful.Someone quite capable of being at Xena's side.

To the seamstress, Gabrielle had been those things all along."But the one thing she has done that she's very proud of," Morgaine whispered, smoothing the back of Gabrielle's hair with wrinkled hands, "is bringing you and Jarrod here."

The old woman grasped Gabrielle's shoulders and gently turned her until they were eye to eye. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but paused when she saw that Morgaine wasn't finished."She believes that you don't love her.She confessed that to me.But, child, the woman, not Our Lord, not the Conqueror, not the Destroyer of Nations, loves you.  Xena's heart is vulnerable for the first time in her life.You might not love the Conqueror, but you love Xena."Don't fight what is so obviously fated, child.You are far stronger together than apart.And you will need every bit of that strength.


"I think that is perfectly wonderful idea, Gabrielle."Xena nodded her agreement, sipping from her tea mug.She lifted a brow at Jarrod."What do you think, Tiger?"

"It would be great fun!"The boy nodded enthusiastically while eating a fresh pastry."Maybe then I could make some friends."

"Well, then, it's settled.We'll see about having a carnival of some type for the children during the annual meeting.  Something that everyone in the palace can enjoy."Xena looked at Gabrielle with a mischievous grin."Would you like to try and organize it?Surely you have some experience.Your village probably had festivals, didn't it?"

"From time to time. I'm sure I can come up with something that will keep the children happy.Can I gather a small staff to help me?"

"Anything you need, Mama Bear."

"Mama Bear?"Gabrielle smiled at the endearment."Where did that come from?"

Xena shrugged a bit."Seems to fit.  You have a protective streak a league wide and, I'll bet, claws that reach from here to Rome.You remind me of a Mama Bear."

Jarrod sipped his milk, looking back and forth between his Mama and Xena.He wondered why they were staring at each other with those very silly grins on their faces.Grown ups could be just plain weird sometimes.


They made their way into the banquet hall.All of the stand-ins for the satraps were already there and seated.This was a rehearsal dinner to help Gabrielle feel more at ease with the events that would be taking place when the real meetings began.

Xena stood before the doors of the banquet hall, which at the moment were closed.She closed her eyes and rolled her head in small circles.Gabrielle flinched a bit, listening to the cracking and popping taking place next to her.

The Conqueror squared her shoulders then gave a slight nod.The doors were opened, and she took her first step into the great hall, with Gabrielle at her side and Jarrod and Palaemon several paces behind them. All of the participants stood immediately, paying their respects silently as they entered.They walked toward the table side by side until they reached the end, then Xena went left and Gabrielle went right.They slowly walked the entire length of the table.

Gabrielle took her place at Xena's left. She remained standing until Xena filed in at her side and at the head of the table.

Taking a deep breath through her nose and exhaling slowly, the Conqueror let a slight smile cross her lips. "Good evening."

Everyone answered in unison, "Good evening, My Lord."

"Before we begin this evening's festivities, I would like to introduce to you Gabrielle, formerly of Poteidaia.I am pleased to say that she will be remaining here at the Capital.She is now a member of the royal court and is to be treated with the respect that position brings.Is that understood?"Xena had talked to Gabrielle earlier and thought it would be best to save Jarrod's introduction for a later date and spare the boy's nerves.

"Yes, My Lord."Everyone at the table except for one gave the answer.A certain general who had been placed some four seats away from the Conqueror was not a happy woman.

Gabrielle gave each face a nod and a smile."Good evening to you all."

"Good evening, My Lady."This time two people at the table didn't respond.Callisto continued to glare, while a young Captain, who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Rome, raised a brow when he got a good look at the woman who was now taking her seat.


The meal was a pleasant enough experience.The conversation was casual, and the food was some of the best Gabrielle had ever eaten.She remained relatively quiet for most of the evening, preferring to listen to Xena talk to those present.Since these were not the royal guests that would be arriving over the course of the next few days, the conversation was centered on the palace and the happenings of the court.

Gabrielle had figured out very quickly, she could learn a lot just by sitting and listening.And on this night she had gotten an earful.Some of it she was delighted to know, like the fact that the Conqueror's favorite color was deep green.Other things made her stomach churn. But she managed to maintain a smile, even after finding out that several days ago Xena had found a man guilty of murder and ordered him crucified.

"Shall we," the Conqueror began, even as a servant leaned over to refill the silver goblet at her hand, "adjourn to the gallery?"

Everyone waited, of course, until the Conqueror rose, then they followed suit.She did, however, pause and allow them to enter the gallery before her.She turned, offering her hand to Gabrielle."Always keep your enemies in front of you," she whispered."That was Caesar's mistake.He let me get behind him."

Gabrielle was about to ask Xena why she would bother to invite her enemies to dinner, when she saw the decorations of the gallery.She bit back a smile, realizing that 'gallery' was a polite term for throne room.Placed regally on a small but exquisitely crafted platform was Xena's throne.The rest of the room was filled with rich tapestries, and small statues and carvings from all over Xena's realm.  Weaponry of all kinds adorned the walls, but was placed well out of reach.There were also plush couches and chairs for guests to lounge upon. Some were covered in supple leather, others in a deep purple velvet.

Once again, a large staff waited patiently for the guests to settle before springing into action, keeping goblets filled and attending to the desires of everyone in the room.Instead of heading for the throne, the Conqueror took a seat on a nearby lounge chair, inviting Gabrielle to join her with a soft pat of her hand.

The blonde leaned in, whispering into Xena's ear, "Actually, would it be all right if I said goodnight to Jarrod?He can barely keep his eyes open." The boy was waiting in the doorway with Palaemon at his side. Jarrod had done exceptionally well that evening, filling his mother with pride.But now it was his bedtime. "Then I'd like to move around a bit and speak with everyone."

The Conqueror smiled, enjoying Gabrielle's warm, wine-scented breath on her ear and cheek."Of course." She fought the urge to nuzzle the neck so close to hers.

"Thank you."

"But don't blame me if there are young women around my chair when you get back,"  Xena teased, lifting a plump fig to her lips.

"You're the Conqueror." Gabrielle nearly brought her hands to her hips, but fought the impulse."Tell them to buzz off."Or I will.Don't tempt me, Xena!

Every head in the room turned at the hearty outburst of laughter.Many of them had seen the Conqueror with this woman over the course of the last few weeks. But they still were still having a hard time reconciling the laughing woman with the Destroyer of Nations whom they had known for so long.


"Our Lord does choose attractive concubines, doesn't she?"Callisto appraised quietly, directing her words to the young Captain seated next to her.

"Concubine?" A puzzled looked crossed his pockmarked face. He reached up, and stroked his close cropped beard, unable to keep his eyes from roaming over Gabrielle's lithe form. "But Our Lord said..."

Callisto stopped him with a curt gesture."Yes, well, she wasn't about to come down and say, 'this is the whore I'm fucking,' now was she?"

The man nearly choked on his wine."Yes, but General, why would she allow a common whore to dine with her?"

Callisto shrugged and did her best to look sincere."Why does Our Lord do anything?It amused her to watch the wench."A coy smile teased her lips."Besides, you know I'm telling you the truth, don't you?" I can tell that you want her by the look on your disgusting face, pig. No... make that 'sacrificial' pig.  "You know her."

The Captain's eyes never left the blonde as he sipped from his cup.He nodded slowly then licked the wine from his lips, remembering his short but exceedingly pleasant stay in a little village called Poteidaia."I thought it was her, but I wasn't sure," he lied.She looked better fed, healthier maybe, but it was most definitely the same woman."It was about two winters ago."

"Same whore.Different clothes. But I'll bet they come off just as easily."

He raised both eyebrows.Lowering his glass to the table, he felt himself growing hard at the prospect. "Hmm, wonder if Our Lord is as free with her as she has been with the others?"

"She's a whore," Callisto said flatly, as if that was an answer in and of itself.  "Our Lord knows the uses of such a woman.Has she ever denied her finest officers?" she flattered, firmly commanding her eyes not to roll.

"Never."  The young man grinned and shifted in his chair with a barely audible groan.He was suddenly finding it very difficult to get comfortable."If I remember correctly, she is very good."

"You should go say hello," the General prodded.It was all she could do to keep from laughing. "I need to have a word with Our Lord."


She shivered before turning around, instinctively knowing that the breath on her neck, and the hands on her shoulders, did not belong to Xena.

"Gabrielle, how have you been?"His voice was low and raspy, his face unmistakable.

A wave of nausea crashed over her.She brought her hand to her stomach.Oh Gods."I'm fine." Not now.Not here.   "How have you been since your transfer?"

"Very well." He smiled charmingly."I received a promotion since the last time I saw you."

Her gaze drifted to his rank insignia."I see that.Congratulations," she offered quickly, cursing the fates and their sick sense of humor.  "Excuse me, won't you?"She tried to move past the Captain, but he stepped in front of her, blocking her path.

"Wait a moment.Not so fast," he cooed gently.Thick fingers reached out and touched the very edges of her hair, even as she tried to escape his grasp."Tell me, Gabrielle, do you still service common soldiers and junior officers?" His eyes raked over her proprietarily."Are you as sweet as I remember, girl?" His mind flashed to a passion filled night where afterwards the woman had refused his dinars, instead exacting a promise that the soldiers under his command would stay far away from her and her small son."Or has Our Lord ruined you for the rest of us?"

"Please..." Gabrielle could feel her skin crawling and stomach churning as her head swam with memories of her own. "I'm not...I'm not..." She clamped her mouth shut, unable to continue as she tried desperately to keep from throwing up.

The Captain took her by the arm."Why don't I make my excuses to Our Lord?Then we will go back to my quarters and..."

"No!"  She pushed him back.Realizing the rise in her voice, she quickly lowered it again."It's not like that anymore.I don't..."

"Of course you do," he laughed cruelly. "Why should it change?You may not require my services now, but I have other things to offer."His hand came to rest on his groin where he lewdly adjusted himself.Then he raised his fingers a few inches and jingled his money pouch.  He leaned close to Gabrielle's face and she turned away from the overpowering scent of garlic and port. "Maybe you just need to be reminded of how it feels to have a real man inside you?" he growled, his own words further exciting him."You called out my name before, remember?"

Repulsed, Gabrielle craned her head farther away.

He scowled at her arrogant evasion, and his voice took on a harder edge."Or is it that I'm no longer good enough for you?You may be the Conqueror's whore, but you're still a whore."

"No!" I'm not!"It was never like that, and you know it." She remembered this soldier with particular distaste. He had spent the better part of an evening staring at her over his mug of port before she finally made it clear that she wasn't interested in any 'social' engagements.In a cruel bid to change her mind, he sent two soldiers to the inn one evening to 'assist her' in rethinking her position. After that, he had visited the inn several times during his short stay in Poteidaia so that Gabrielle could 'thank' him for his valuable protection.

Hot tears slipped down Gabrielle's face, but they were born of anger more than fear.  Anger at him, and anger at herself.  "I did what I had to do to keep from being raped and beaten," she ground out, flinching as his hands tightened around her wrists."I did these things to save my own life."

"Well now, it seems that you've hit the jackpot this time then, doesn't it?Since Our Lord has taken you as a concubine..."

"She," the Conqueror's voice roared,"IS NOT A CONCUBINE!"

The Destroyer of Nations grabbed the Captain by one shoulder and spun him around. Her eyes were icy with rage and the Captain nearly swallowed his tongue."She is a Lady in my court, and you will apologize or be gutted where you stand!"  Wrapping her hand around his throat, she forced him to face her terrified lover, who was desperately wiping tears from her face."Do it!Apologize!"

"I'm...so...sorry," he managed to stammer before he was brutally jerked backwards.

He sailed through the air, crashing back first into a small oak table, demolishing it, and scattering splinters and platters of pheasant and goose to the floor.He had barely made it to his feet before the Conqueror began raining kicks and punches down on him.Mere instinct took over as he raised his arms; holding a serving tray, he used it to block the strike.

Everyone found themselves ducking for cover when the violence exploded, seeking shelter wherever they could.The Conqueror and Captain moved around the room hurling crystal decanters and priceless statues as easily as epithets while they exchanged vicious blows.As an officer of the Realm, the Captain had been trained in hand-to-hand combat by the Conqueror herself.And his skill showed as he fought off a fair number of Xena's strikes, managing a few powerful hits himself. There were certain advantages to being taught by a legend.

A well-placed kick sent the man careening into a chair, shattering it.Tearing away a splintered hunk of wood, he shakily rose to his feet and, with a mighty yell, charged the Conqueror.He swung for her head but Xena ducked, the whizzing plank barely skimming the top of her inky hair. His second attempt was less coordinated, and she sidestepped it easily, luring her pray nearer and nearer to her throne.

Finally, he went for her knees, and she jumped straight into the air, causing the blur of wood to pass beneath her.Booted feet landed on the plank with a mighty thud, pinning the Captain's hands to the ground with his own weapon.Her eyes never left his, and in a lightening fast move she reached behind her throne. Pulling out a long, gleaming sword, she raised it high above her head.

With a roar and a blazing down stroke, it was over.Hot crimson blood sprayed Xena's face and neck, drowning her in dripping red.

Callisto looked down as the Captain's head came to rest at her feet."Idiot," she mumbled.Taking her last bit of pheasant, she tossed the greasy bone on the man's body and drained her goblet of red wine.


The Conqueror dropped the sword. "Somebody clean that up!" she barked. Taking a deep
breath, she tried in vain to calm her racing heart and the rage singing in her blood.Wild eyes darted around the room, desperate to land on Gabrielle. Finally, she saw the woman in an alcove, hiding among the shadows with tears coursing down her cheeks.

Taking a shaky step, Xena crossed the room slowly. She stopped an arm's length from Gabrielle and consciously softened her voice. "Are you all right?"

Gabrielle was completely still as she took in the blood covered sight before her.Dragging her gaze upward she looked Xena in the eyes and shook her head.

Xena caught a faint sound of whimpering and stepped forward, wrapping her arms around the sobbing woman, forgetting about the blood drenching her clothes and skin. "Shh... it's all right. I've got you." She held her tight, kissing the top of her head. "I've got you, Gabrielle."Please believe me, Gabrielle.

The rising noise level in the room began to irritate Xena.She glared over her shoulder and told the watching crowd, "Everyone out."  

Within seconds they were alone. The Conqueror was torn between her own needs and Gabrielle's.Her body still tingled from the fight, every nerve ending alive and pulsing.  She tried, however, to be tender and gentle with the woman in her arms.

"I'm so sorry!" Gabrielle sobbed. "I should have known. I don't belong here. I shouldn't be at your side."

"Shh... You stop that right now. You're here because I want you here," Xena soothed, running her hand down Gabrielle's back. "You're here because you want to be." Gabrielle flinched and Xena swore that her own heart had stopped beating.She swallowed hard several times before she was able to ask, "You do want to be here, don't you?"

Gabrielle looked up into eyes that were the deepest of blues and at a face speckled in scarlet blood. "I... I... I..."

An overwhelming ache split the Conqueror's chest, but she gave a quick nod, releasing the blonde woman. "Of course you don't. I took you from your home." Her tone was flat and harsh."I brought you here and you got a good look at the monster I really am." Despite herself, hot tears pooled in her eyes and she blinked them away. Gods, what was I thinking?I'm sorry, Gabrielle.Xena set her jaw."I'll have someone escort you home as soon as you're ready to leave."

The Destroyer of Nations turned on her heels and left the gallery.

Standing well back in the shadows so she wouldn't be seen, Callisto reveled in her victory, suppressing a gleeful cackle with her palm clamped firmly over her mouth.

Dark eyes followed Xena's movements as she disappeared into the halls of the Castle, then turned to the fair-haired woman who stood completely motionless as Xena walked away.


"Oooo, do I sense a little trouble in the Elysian Fields?" the God of War smirked.  He stood with his arms across his chest, leaning against the cool stone walls of Xena's bedchamber.

Xena stared into the water in her wash basin as it swirled red with the blood of that young captain."Not now, Ares.  I'm not in the mood."Her voice was bored, but Ares could hear the thrumming beat of her blood song as though it were his very own.

"Not in the mood?Oh, please!" He opened his arms wide and raised challenging eyebrows."I can smell the battle lust in the air."He winked cockily, then made a show of sniffing."Nothing like the smell of wet leather and blood in the fall.You were dynamic out there, Xena!"   He had to give the warrior her due. "You do remember how to take a man's head off."

Xena whirled around, placing a small dagger at his crotch."Yeah, want me to make it two for two?"

Ares stepped back, knowing from the look in her eyes that she just might try it.  Even a God didn't like to have his manhood threatened.Some types of pain were universal.

Ares chuckled at the conflicting feelings radiating from his finest warrior."Xena, did you really think that part of you was gone?"That little blonde must be one hell of a lay.   "Your dark side is so strong.It's a force of nature. You won't be tamed," he whispered condescendingly.

Blue eyes fluttered closed at the sound of Ares' low, rhythmic voice. Its seductive darkness wrapped around her heart and called to her spirit.She promptly ignored it. Xena used a rough cloth to dry her face, neck, and arms, careful to remove the last traces of blood from her body.She would need a bath, but right now she just wanted to curl up into a ball.She didn't want to think about the fact that the best thing in her life was no doubt over, because of the monster that lived inside her.No it's not the monster.It's my lack of control over the monster.

"You're right," she quietly admitted to Ares and herself."I wish..." She stopped mid-sentence and shook her head in frustration, throwing the cloth onto the table and padding angrily further into her bedchamber.She began stripping off the bloodstained tunic."You make one smart ass remark about bedding me, and I swear I'll make it two for two," she warned the handsome God, even as she peeled off her snug fitting leather trousers, leaving her naked before him.

He snapped his fingers, producing a cup of rich, fragrant wine, and drained in one long swallow, watching every move she made as she slipped into a clean, fresh smelling robe."Can I tell you how beautiful you are?"

"No," she growled.

"Okay, I won't."

Finally snapping under the strain of her impending loss, Xena's turned on the God and hissed, "Get out!Let me enjoy my misery in peace and silence, you bastard! You got what you wanted.Gabrielle is leaving me.Now you leave me alone, too!"


Gabrielle didn't know where else to go.Nervously shifting from one foot to the other, she lifted her hand several times to knock before she got the courage to actually go through with it.Finally gathering her wits, she rapped on the door, praying to the Gods that she would be welcome.

Morgaine pulled the door open to find the blonde trying to clear her face of its obvious distress."Child, what's happened?Come in." Without hesitation, she grabbed the younger woman by the hand and tugged her inside the dark room, stopping quickly to light a candle.

Shaking, Gabrielle entered the seamstress' quarters."I'm sorry it's so late.I need... I need..." Her gaze darted wildly around the room.

"What you need is some tea," Morgaine supplied in a calm voice that immediately called to mind Gabrielle's own grandmother. "Come, sit down. Tell me what's happened."

"Who's out there, old woman?" a grouchy male voice called from a back room.

"It's Lady Gabrielle, you old fool," she groused."Go back to sleep."

Gabrielle started for the door.  "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."

"Nonsense, child." The aged woman took her by the hand again"Sit.  Let me fix you some tea. He's not upset." She tilted her chin back toward the room."He's just naturally grumpy and cantankerous.That's what happens when you live for such a long time."She took a moment to look at the young woman, doing her best not to appear shocked at the blood staining the front of Gabrielle's garment."I'll find you a change of clothes."

Gabrielle sat at the table trying to calm her heart and clear her head.She didn't know how much time had passed when she felt a little nudge against her shoulder and was presented with a clean tunic.

"Thank you," she said softly, but made no move to put it on.

"She did something barbaric tonight, didn't she?" the seamstress asked as she prepared the tea.She frightened you. But not so badly that you're running away.

"Yes.No.I ... I'm not sure."  Gabrielle laughed a bit hysterically; knowing full well there was nothing funny about what had happened this evening.   She wiped her eyes to clear them of sparkling tears."Xena killed a man."She stopped and frowned for a moment before continuing, "But he was fighting her and I think... I think she thought she was defending my honor.Or at least hers."Gabrielle turned watery eyes on the old seamstress."Is that really that barbaric?"

Morgaine shrugged noncommittally but offered a kind smile. "That's a question you have to ask yourself, child.  What I think really isn't important."  She sat two steaming mugs of tea on the table and slowly eased herself into a padded wooden chair across from her guest."But the real question is, can you love her anyway?"Search your soul for the truth, Gabrielle.  The answer is there for you, if you'll only go looking.

Gabrielle wrapped her hands around the warm ceramic mug, staring at the murky liquid as the light scent of mint filled the air."Can I love her anyway?"She brought the mug to her lips and blew gently, sending a wafting cloud of steam billowing upward."You presume too much, Morgaine."

Morgaine grumbled but her kind eyes twinkled.This one was every bit as stubborn as the Conqueror herself.Serves Xena right."Sounds like she had reason to fight," she finally offered after a long but comfortable silence.

The pale head nodded. "She did, I think." But Gods! "And she didn't." Gabrielle shrugged one shoulder and took another drink, starting to feel a bit more like herself as the comforting liquid slid down her throat."It was a stupid fight.He um... he said some things..."

"About you?"

"Mmm..." Gabrielle agreed unhappily. "But... well, it's not like the things he said weren't at least partially true." She drew in a ragged breath, and her eyes misted over again.

"Why don't you change, child?" Morgaine patted her hand gently and poked at the clean tunic."I'll get us some cookies to go with our tea and talk."It looked as though they would be there a while.


Xena sat by the fire trying to drown her sorrows, and more primal urges, with the strongest wine in her cellar.

She winced as the potent liquid burned a fiery path down her gullet, settling heavily in her belly.She clamped her eyes tightly shut.Gods!It had happened.Just like she knew it would. One look at that man with Gabrielle, touching her, calling her a whore, and her anger had exploded, robbing her of all reason and moderation.  Her self control had lasted for all of ten seconds before the beast inside her burst free and snuffed out that Gods be damned Captain's life as though he was a worthless bug.Which, of course, he was.

She hated the way that it had happened.She hated that Gabrielle had seen it. She hated that she wasn't the least bit sorry the bastard was dead. And most of all, she hated what her actions had cost her.

A knocking outside her chamber reluctantly roused her to her feet.The wine rushed to her head, and Xena staggered for a step or two as she padded to the door where a young servant was waiting. "What?!"

"Forgive me, My Lord." The girl immediately bowed her head. "You called for someone to remove some soiled garments?"

"Yes, yes, of course." Xena stepped out of the girl's way."Do it and get out!"

"Yes, My Lord."The servant scampered in and began collecting the bloodstained clothing and anything else that appeared to be dirty.

Xena leaned back against the door, closing it with her weight.Before the girl was even finished, someone else began knocking.

"Who do I have to kill to be alone?!"Xena yelled, yanking the door open.Her jaw dropped when she saw Gabrielle."I... I... I..." Her mouth worked but nothing intelligible came out.

"Xena, can we talk?" the blonde woman asked quietly.

The Conqueror nodded furiously and cleared her throat. "Y... yeah." Oh Gods! She wants to talk. She's leaving me right now.She's not even waiting until morning! "Come in, please."

Gabrielle stepped inside.She scowled when she saw the young woman, her temper flaring anew.Storming across the room, she grabbed the servant by the arm and escorted her to the door.  "Out!"She shoved the young woman through the door, slamming with all her might.When she turned to the taller woman, she wasn't talking to the Destroyer of Nations. She was talking to her lover. And any sense of fear or restraint or decorum melted away like ice in the springtime.

"Okay, let's get a few things straight!" Gabrielle marched over to the wide-eyed warrior. "I love you!I don't understand it..." She began poking Xena in the chest and the older woman began backing up."I don't want to understand it.I just want to do it. And I intend to do it for a long time."She was on a roll and showed no signs of stopping. "I intend to love you with everything I am.But if I'm gonna stay here with you..." she continued to back the speechless Conqueror, "we have to come to a understanding right now!These are my chambers too and I don't want any woman under the age of sixty in here!"

Xena felt the bed pressing against the back of her legs and tried to figure out where else she could go.She was stunned by what she was hearing.  Her head was spinning from the wine and Gabrielle's close presence, and she had no clue as to how to reply.  Before she had the chance, Gabrielle pushed her firmly back onto the feather-filled mattress. The blonde straddled her waist and stared down at her with flashing green eyes."I mean it, Xena!There will be no more half-naked young women tending to you, unless that half-naked woman is me!You got it?"

Xena blinked stupidly but managed to nod. She knew her mouth was hanging open, but was powerless to stop it.

"Good."Gabrielle took a deep breath, her first since beginning her tirade.Her voice dropped to a whisper and Xena could see the anger and frustration behind her eyes shift to something else.Tucking a strand of fair hair behind her ear, she looked Xena directly in the eyes.  In for a dinar... "The question is, do you want to share your life with a woman that some people consider nothing more than a common whore?"

Xena immediately nodded again. She began to dispute the use of the word when Gabrielle stopped her with a finger against her lips.

"Good.And do you promise to at least try not to kill every stupid bastard who makes that assumption?"

A third nod.

"Good." A beautiful smile spread across Gabrielle's face and she removed her fingers from Xena's soft lips. "Now that we have an understanding, is there anything you would like to add?"

Xena's smile mirrored Gabrielle's.  There was really only one thing she could say."I love you, too." 

They sealed their declarations with a kiss.

Chapter Three: Intertwined

The God of War took her by the wrist and pushed her towards his bed.She wasn't who he really wanted, but she didn't disappoint either.And whenever he called, she was eager.Ares wasn't sure whether he liked that or despised it. "That didn't go quite as you planned, did it?" he asked sarcastically, unbuckling his belt and allowing his heavy sword to clatter to the floor.

"How was I suppose to know the little blonde bitch would simply decide to accept Xena's dark side?" Gods, how she had been surprised when Ares had showed her what was supposed to be Gabrielle leaving the Conqueror.She clenched her jaw in frustration.

"Callisto, I am not amused!" Ares stripped off his vest, throwing it into the corner of the room.Next, his gauntlets sailed through the air, knocking over a small statue of himself.He frowned.

"And I'm happy about it?" she growled back, freeing her breasts from her tunic and flinging it alongside his vest.

"The last thing I need is for her to fall in love."He sucked an upper front tooth."It changes mortals. Makes them weak." The dark God stood at the edge of the bed, arms crossed over his muscular, bare chest, while Callisto knelt before him, working the hooks on his trousers. With a sharp tug, she pulled him closer.He complied with an annoyed grunt, taking a small step forward.

"That wouldn't exactly be my favorite thing to happen, now would it?" she reminded him tartly, pushing her hands down inside his supple leather pants and sliding them over his muscled hips.  The leather was cool to the touch, his skin red-hot.She looked down and smiled as he kicked his trousers away. Deep brown eyes focused on the area between his legs. "That, however, is one of my very favorite things," she purred, licking her lips to moisten them.

She ran her hands under his arms and over his nipples, causing him to jerk slightly as she gave one a hard pinch. Her touch drifted down the well-defined lines of his stomach and through the coarse black hair just below his waist.She leaned forward, running her tongue along the path her fingers had just taken as her hands began to trace lower still.

His body unconsciously shifted closer to hers.

With a snap of his fingers, his chamber was suddenly filled with the sounds of passionate lovemaking."Listen to them!"

Moans and soft cries of pleasure assaulted their ears, and Callisto flinched then imitated the sound of someone retching. She fought hard to swallow her building rage.And being so close to Ares wasn't helping.Black waves of raw power tinged with violence and blood cascaded from him, feeding the flames within her. She should be in the Conqueror's bed.It should be her mouth tasting and teasing. She would have Xena... eventually.

Finally, brown eyes rolled. "Listen to them?" Callisto reached down, taking him firmly in her hands, enjoying his hiss at her touch."I've had to put up with seeing those disgusting, fawning looks and those gaggy, 'oh so sweet', stolen kisses."She hated the worthless whore and her brat with a pulsing fury that she could barely contain!Gods, she was getting hot!

He groaned, smiling as she began to stroke."Oh yeah?Since when does Xena invite you into her bedchamber to let you watch her fuck someone?"He placed his hands on her hips and her skirt simply disappeared, leaving her naked and kneeling before him on the bed.

The sounds of Xena and Gabrielle making love continued to echo through the chamber, changing in tempo from fast and furious to languid and breathless.Ares considered shutting out the sounds, but looking down at the naked woman in his bed, he decided he liked having the noise in the background.  It excited him.He breathed in the raw sensuality around him, allowing it to seep deep into his blood.In his mind, he saw his Chosen in all her dark glory, releasing her battle lust, taking the little blonde, and causing each cry and every moan.

Ares slid onto the bed with Callisto, rolling on top of her."Spread 'em." he commanded bluntly.

She laughed, digging short but effective nails into his ass as she settled back into black silk sheets and opened herself to him."It makes you hot, doesn't it?" she panted as the tip of his rock hard cock pressed against her.

"Look who's talking," he growled, feeling her wet heat against the tender skin of his erection."They excite you, too.You can feel their energy, can't you?"

"Sick, isn't it?"She wrapped her legs around his waist, pulling him in.

"Very," he grunted, leaning into her and making a slow, easy entrance.His eyes slid shut, savoring the feeling of liquid fire, even as he heard the unmistakable groan of the Conqueror."Oh yeah..." he hissed loudly as they settled around each other.

"Oh yeah," Callisto dragged her nails up his back, "that feels good?Or, oh yeah, I like listening to Xena get fucked by the annoying little blonde."

"Both," he admitted, beginning a slow, sensual rhythm of his own.


Xena's body tingled all over from every touch of Gabrielle's talented hands.Tender kisses had turned passionate, and the pent up adrenaline from Xena's fight with the hapless Captain came roaring back to life with a vengeance.

Gabrielle did nothing to discourage it.

Quite to the contrary, in fact. The young woman teased Xena, drawing her out further, pushing her emotions to the limit and driving her arousal to new heights.Gabrielle took every ounce of Xena's feral, dark energy, power, and drive and made it work in her favor.

In both their favors.

She willingly gave herself over to her lover, who did things to her body that made her cry out under the weight of her own arousal and the seductive power of her partner's force of will. They propelled each other to the brink again and again, holding nothing back as the Conqueror embraced the beast within herself. Xena let it seep into her passion, infusing their lovemaking. Gabrielle found herself so turned on that she gave her partner a run for her dinars in the lust department.

"Oh, by the Gods, Gabrielle!" Xena groaned, as she felt her entire body possessed by the younger woman.The climax was nearly painful in its pleasure. And when she finally crashed, a million bright stars invaded her vision and stole the breath from her lungs.

When finally she came back to herself, she found Gabrielle's moist, nude body completely draped over hers.Xena turned her head, reaching around and sweeping aside thick, fair hair, damp with sweat."You trying to kill me?" she teased hoarsely, nibbling on the ear at her lips and wondering at the woman in her arms.

Gabrielle didn't even try to lift her head to reply. She spoke directly into the skin of her human pillow.  Xena merely chuckled at the mumbled words and wrapped her arms tightly around Gabrielle, determined not to let go.

"I love you," the warrior whispered.For this woman she would be brave enough to voice her desires... and her fears."I'm glad you decided to stay.I... I was certain my soul would shrivel up and die when I thought about you leaving me." Impossibly, she pulled Gabrielle closer."I don't ever want to lose you or Jarrod." I can't. I won't.

Gabrielle kissed the salty, slick skin beneath her lips and raised her head. She pushed sweat-soaked bangs back from her forehead with the back of her hand and peered down into deep blue eyes that glittered like jewels in the candlelight."You won't.I promise you that, Xena," she whispered softly.Her fingers moved of their own accord and began a gentle tracing of dark eyebrows.  "I've done many things I'm not proud of, but loving you and being a part of your life is something I can be proud of."  Their gazes locked.And I intend to do whatever is required to make you proud of me.


"Sit up straight."Gabrielle prodded her son with a gentle poke. They were in the Conqueror's opulent, formal dining room, amidst a flurry of servants who were removing the silver to be polished, and taking down the tapestries to be aired, and a million other jobs that needed doing.All yesterday.

"Yes, Ma'am."Jarrod adjusted himself in the chair, but he couldn't find a comfortable position. "Mama?"

"Yes?"Gabrielle stepped aside as several muscled slaves carried in the longest table the young woman had ever seen.She tried not to stare.

"The chair is too low."Jarrod wiggled his bottom, scooting back and forth. "Or... or the table is too high," he complained in a frustrated voice.

Xena leaned back in her own tall, leather-covered chair and studied the boy with a critical eye. "He's right, Gabrielle.He needs a special chair if he's going to sit at the table with us."Rising to her feet, Xena called over Malaius.

Stopping in the middle of a tirade, the nervous advisor left the artisan he was talking with mid-instruction to scuttle over to Xena.He bowed so deeply Gabrielle swore his forehead grazed the ground."Yes, My Lord?"

"Malaius, we have a little problem here.Prince Jarrod requires a chair more suited to a lad of his age so that he may be seated properly at the court dining table." Xena took great care to project that she was disappointed in the chair not the boy."Find someone who can take care of this immediately.I want a new chair in three days' time."

"Yes, My Lord." Malaius turned to Jarrod."I'm sorry, Your Highness.We'll find a craftsman right away." He stood in front of the boy expectantly.

Xena and Gabrielle both waited like nervous parents to see how Jarrod would respond.

"Thank you, Malaius."Jarrod gave a slight nod to the advisor, holding his breath until the man left the room.

All three of them exhaled at the same time.Gabrielle smiled at her son, running a hand through dark-blond hair that wanted trimming."Well done, Jarrod."

"Thank you, Mama."

"Yes, well done, son."The words left Xena's lips before she could stop them.They just felt so natural.And the smile that Jarrod graced her with was more valuable to her than all the gold in her realm.Much more.

"Thank you, My Lord!" The boy was beaming.

"Close your mouth, Gabrielle," Xena teased, playfully sticking her finger into the younger woman's agape mouth and causing Gabrielle to gag and sputter."You're catching flies."

"Very funny, My Lord," she grumbled back.But her smile rivaled her son's.

Xena laughed lightly then cocked her head to the side, considering the exchange that had taken place.She needed to find a proper title for Gabrielle before the satraps arrived for the meeting, and she didn't have long.  Queen Melosa of the Amazons would be arriving in the next few days.


Jarrod was sound asleep against Xena, his arms draped over her broad shoulders, his face pressed into the crook of her neck.His face was a picture of youthful contentment.It had been a long day, and his lessons in court etiquette had gone very well.

Gabrielle smiled as she watched Xena shift the boy's weight just a bit as they walked toward their private apartment. She tangled her fingers with Xena's free hand."Do you think he's going to be all right?" she worried aloud.

"He's going to be just fine.  He's a very bright little guy.You've done a remarkable job of raising him by yourself, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle's heart sped up as she contemplated her next words.But it is the right thing for all of us.  I know it is. "Well, now I won't have to raise him alone."She gave the hand in hers a little tug.

Xena sucked in a breath, suddenly more frightened than on the morning of her greatest battle, but at the same time more hopeful than she knew she had a right to be. "No, no you won't.I'll do my best by him, Gabrielle."It was a solemn pledge.

"I know you will."My heart told me so.

They continued down the hall, lightening the mood with more trivial conversation.A flash of black leather and silver armor told Xena that Callisto had entered a room a little further down the hall in front of them.

Xena stood outside the door of the room, waiting for her general to come out.Losing her patience rapidly, she shifted Jarrod's weight more to one side, using her free hand to fling open the door, slamming it hard against the thick stone wall. "Callisto," Xena's voice took on a dangerous edge, "what are you doing in the war room?" She lifted an inquiring brow."You know the rules!"

"Of course, My Lord." Callisto begrudgingly bowed her head.The gesture was becoming more and more difficult. Her fists were clenched so tightly that tiny rivulets of hot blood soaked her palms where her nails dug in."I was only preparing the maps for the meeting. For the territory negotiations."

"I was going to assist you with that in a day or two."

"Yes, but you've been...," she paused, her dark eyes boring holes into Gabrielle and the snoring brat in Xena's arms, "busy."

"Very well," the Conquered replied hesitantly."I take it everything is now prepared?"

"It is."Callisto's gaze darted back and forth between the Conqueror and Gabrielle.She noticed a new bearing in the way Gabrielle held herself.And she didn't like it.It was too proud, too powerful.If the worthless whore thought she had some power she might make the terrible mistake of trying to use it.Oh, no, her mind purred.That won't do at all.

"You're dismissed."

The fact that Xena had to let go of the blonde's hand to wave her away was not lost on Callisto. "Yes, My Lord."

Gabrielle shivered.When General Callisto brushed passed her, it felt as though someone had walked across her grave.But Xena's warm touch drew her mind away from the disturbing, kidnapping bitch. "Xena?"


"That room?What is it?"

"My war room."It was left unspoken that it was a shrine to Ares as well.

Gabrielle looked puzzled."And your generals are forbidden entrance?"

"They shouldn't really be in there, at least without me.But on rare occasions when they must, I am to be notified first.Preparing the maps for the meeting is a good reason for her to be in there," Xena conceded."Although I still should have been notified. Everyone else is forbidden entrance."

"Too bad," Gabrielle muttered.  She wouldn't mind seeing Xena unleash a little of the Conqueror on the skinny bitch.

Mindful of her sleeping bundle, Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as they continued down the hall.


Xena pulled the boy's boots from his feet, then she started working the hooks loose on his clothes.Suddenly her hands stilled and she looked up at Gabrielle, who stood watching her with Jarrod's sleep shirt in her hands.

"Uh, maybe you should do this, Gabrielle." Xena smiled wryly."He might not be comfortable if he finds out that I did it."

The blonde laughed."He'd probably be more comfortable with you doing it than me at this point."She handed the sleep shirt to Xena."I'm starting to get a lot more of those 'looks' that a boy gives his mother when he's afraid she's about to embarrass him."

"You mean the one where he kind of rolls his eyes?"Xena mimicked the look of adolescent annoyance perfectly, even copying the twisting motion Jarrod and Gabrielle tended to make with their hands when frustrated or nervous.

Gabrielle burst out laughing, clamping her palm over her mouth so she wouldn't wake Jarrod."Oh, Gods.That's the one."She paused to compose herself, and green eyes that still danced with laughter gazed affectionately at the boy.But somehow she still saw the baby."He growing up so fast." She sighed. "I can't believe he's almost nine."

"When is his birthday?"

"Mid winter."

"We'll have to do something very special for him." Xena's mind was already spinning with ideas.She'd missed all of Solon's birthdays.She wouldn't make the same mistake with Jarrod.

"He's going to love being with you."I love being with you.Gabrielle moved behind Xena, rubbing her shoulders and watching her son sleep.She looked around the richly decorated room.A small, well-tended fireplace had defeated the autumn chill and Jarrod lay sleeping in a soft, beautifully crafted bed."How could he not?He has everything he needs now."

Xena completed changing the boy into his sleep shirt, then stood and pulled Gabrielle into her arms."These are only material things." She tenderly kissed Gabrielle on the mouth."He had everything he needed the day he was born, and was blessed with you as his mother.


With the expected arrival of Queen Melosa sometime during tomorrow, the Conqueror and her staff had spent most of the night in the war room poring over territorial maps.Land allotment would be the main area of negotiation with the often-tempestuous Amazon nation, and Xena wanted to be fully prepared. The solid night of tedious work had come after a full day of personally running her troops through a series of taxing drills.

Gabrielle had suggested that she take a greater role in her army's training, something she had left primarily to her generals in the past five or six seasons, as a way to combat the oppressive boredom she'd felt before they met.As usual, she found her companion's idea insightful and highly effective.  Her muscles burned from the vigorous day's workout. But it was a satisfying kind of burn. She wanted no surprises come the annual meeting, and was pleased to determine that her men, and, she begrudgingly admitted, she herself, were in fine form.

The warrior fell into bed exhausted. Her body felt like a sack of wet sand as she sank into the fresh sheets and soft mattress with an audible groan.She barely had time to strip off her clothes, and give a slumbering Gabrielle a kiss on the cheek, before she was sound asleep.

Sleepy green eyes drifted open when Gabrielle felt Xena settle onto the mattress alongside her, a contented smile barely curling her lips.She snuggled closer, breathing in the scent of leather and sweet woodsmoke that always seemed to cling to her companion's body, no matter what she was wearing. She listened idly, waiting for the inevitable as Xena's breaths lengthened and deepened, eventually shifting into the soft snores that were a testament to her utter exhaustion.

Gabrielle was amazed at how quickly she had learned so many of her lover's habits. Having left her parents' home as Perdicus' bride at the tender age of fifteen summers, and then been promptly widowed, she had never had the occasion to become accustomed to living with another adult.It was easier than she expected.Unlike at the inn and it's tavern, which was always crawling with strangers, a small staff that respected their Lord's penchant for privacy tended to the Conqueror's private apartments.She liked that, and eagerly soaked up the precious moments where she was left totally to her own devices.It was a type of freedom she'd never expected, but truly enjoyed.

Drowsily, she spent the next few moments musing over a few of her warrior's habits that she had developed a particular fondness for. She chuckled softly, knowing that she'd have no chance at going back to sleep if she didn't put those thoughts right out of her head.

Her contentment grew when Xena rolled over, and ran one hand up her nightshirt, resting it on the soft, sensitive skin of her belly.The Conqueror pulled her close, throwing an arm over her waist and snuggling her face against the back of Gabrielle's head, dark and light hair mixing across her pillow.Moist puffs of warm air caressed Gabrielle's ear and cheek. She sighed and her eyes fluttered closed. "Mmm."Warm and safe was good.Love was even better.And as Morpheus lured her back into the whispery shadows of his realm, Gabrielle considered that for the first time in her life... she was truly happy.


It seemed as though she had barely shut her eyes when Gabrielle bolted upright, hearing muted shouts and cries somewhere in the distance.She took just a second to shake her head and free her mind of its morning cobwebs.

Xena groaned, her tired body responding much slower than her bedmate's to the still faint noise.

The blonde climbed quickly from the bed.Pulling on her robe, she dashed to the balcony door and threw open the heavy iron gates and door that led to one of her favorite spots in the palace, immediately spotting the cause of the furore.Jagged flames were piercing the pre-dawn sky, filling the courtyard with a dark, acrid smoke.The wind shifted and her eyes stung and watered from the combination of the cold autumn breeze and pungent smoke.She squeezed them tightly shut as tears streaked her face. It's still across the courtyard.It's okay.It's okay.It's not too late. Gabrielle willed her heart to slow its furious pounding.  Jarrod is safe for the time being.  But she knew just how quickly a fire could spread.

"Xena!" she yelled, running to the trunk at the foot of the bed to retrieve some clothing. As she rifled through the wooden box, her eyes darted to her lover who was still fighting Morpheus' grasp.Zeus!Must you work until you literally drop? "Xena, wake up!" When Xena only groaned again and buried her face deeper into her feather pillow, Gabrielle tore the blankets from the bed and tugged hard on a socked foot, earning a shocked yelp."Xena!  There's a fire!"

Disoriented, the Conqueror sprang to her feet, automatically reaching for the sword propped alongside the bed. 

Gabrielle covered Xena's outstretched hand with her own. "No, love.You don't need that," she said calmly, seeing the wild look in dazed blue eyes.  "There's a fire.Smell."

It took a moment for the words to register before Xena let out a vehement string of curses. She marched through the open gates to the balcony and peered outside.Turning back to Gabrielle, she opened her mouth to speak only to be hit in the face with a pair of trousers and a tunic."Thanks," she muttered as she tugged on her clothing then boots.Within moments, they had secured Jarrod and both women were on their way down to the courtyard.


Candlemarks later and the fire had been defeated, but not before it had managed to lay waste to a building containing surplus army uniforms and one of the soldiers' barracks.A thick, dark smoke still hung in the air, coloring the palace walls a dirty, charcoal black.Xena stood in the middle of the yard, the whites of her tired eyes standing out vividly against her soot-stained face. Her hair, clothes, and boots were soaked with sweat and the icy water they'd used to control and finally extinguish the flames.She was truly miserable and spared a brief thought toward her bed, a mug of hot spiced cider, and Gabrielle's gentle presence.

Spinning in a circle, she surveyed the mess, knowing it couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time, but conscious of the fact that she had still been very lucky.Gabrielle and Jarrod were safe, and the palace itself remained fully intact.She bent over, picking up and fingering a piece of singed purple cloth that had blown across the yard.

Her reign as Conqueror was called 'gory' by some. But fire and disease claimed far more Greek citizens every year than the bloodiest of her campaigns.She vowed to speak with her officers about increasing the night fireguard and implementing some drills to help with response times in the future.

Gabrielle regarded her weary lover, taking in Xena's intent expression and the firm set of her strong jaw, as the Conqueror puzzled out ways to keep this from happening again.The late morning air was crisp and now that the fire was out, and the frantic activity had ceased, a chill was creeping over the courtyard and settling into wet, dirty clothes and bodies.

She looked around briefly and realized there was no one free to fetch Xena's cloak so she went for it herself.  Gabrielle also wanted to check on Jarrod, who had been sent back to bed when it was clear the palace was out of danger. The boy had developed an unnerving curiosity for anything to do with Xena and had taken to exploring the palace on his own.

Xena had lost track of Gabrielle's presence more than two candlemarks ago. She trusted that the woman was smart enough to stay out of danger, but worried about her nonetheless.She was just about to go looking for her when several men and woman came running toward her. Noticing that she appeared free, Xena's advisors and officers descended upon her all at once, and she soon forgot about anything other than making sure everything was being tended to properly.

From a watchtower, a young soldier cupped his hands around his mouth and belloweddown, "Riders approaching!"

"Hades!" Xena cursed, pushing her way through the crowd surrounding her and heading for the watchtower.  Taking the steps two at a time, she climbed the tall, winding staircase quickly. She was out of breath by the time she reached the top.The guard pointed in the direction of the riders and Xena nodded."Amazons," she coughed. "Probably the scouting party.That means Melosa isn't more than a day and a half behind them." She pounded the cold stone wall with her fist. "Damn!" Suddenly, she began hacking, expelling a bitter, black, soot-filled mucus from her lungs.

When the worst had passed, she drew in a deep breath and dashed back down to the courtyard.A low ranking officer approached her but didn't come too near as he recognized the angry set to her shoulders. When the Conqueror was in a bad mood people tended to lose their heads.Literally.He thought briefly about waiting, but reluctantly forged ahead."My Lord?"

"What?" she growled, tuning to face him.

"There've been injuries from the fire.May we send the wounded to the healer?"

"Of course," she answered incredulously.Gods, what are these people waiting for? She craned her neck looking for any member of her staff that she could trust to see the order through to completion."Malaius."

The frazzled advisor hurried over.  "Yes, My Lord."

"We have injured, make sure that my personal healer is summoned immediately to care for them. Also, we have an Amazon scouting party on the way in, make sure they're properly greeted and taken care of.Queen Melosa won't be far behind."

Malaius gulped loudly, his prominent Adam's apple bobbing up down the length of his skinny neck."Yes, My Lord. I'll take care of it at once, My Lord.There will be no..."


He gulped again. "Yes, My Lord?"

"Just do it!"


The Amazon scouts made their way across the courtyard, escorted by several well-dressed palace guards.  About a dozen advisors and officers stood around the Conqueror, receiving orders and seeking her guidance.

Malaius never spoke; he simply gestured with his chin to indicate that they were about to have guests. Xena took a deep breath and turned.

"My Lord." Regent Terreis, Melosa's sister, dipped her head respectfully."Greetings from the Amazon Nation and Queen Melosa. Thank you for receiving us. Our Queen will arrive by nightfall tomorrow."Cool eyes lifted and took in the Conqueror's disheveled appearance and the disarray around her."I trust we haven't arrived at a bad time?"

Xena stiffened, not missing the thread of sarcasm that ran through the words.The Amazons were always too arrogant for their own damn good."Welcome, Princess Terreis, I..." she began to greet formally. But her words were cut short by Callisto's abrupt arrival.

"Forgive me, My Lord." Callisto bowed deeply, discreetly glancing at the newly arrived envoy.

Xena wondered why her general had such a bright smile on her face.On Callisto, happiness looked positively ghoulish.Gods, she must have killed someone this morning. "What is it?" the Conqueror snarled.Now was not the time for petty interruptions. "I am busy, General Callisto," she reminded between clenched teeth.By the Gods, this had better be important!

"I take it no one was authorized to enter the war room this morning?"

Xena frowned."Of course not!"

"Then, My Lord, I've caught an unauthorized member of the court trespassing."

Xena face went cold. "Was anything disturbed?"

Callisto began to look slightly distressed. "No, My Lord. I don't believe so."

"And for this you interrupted me? Punish them and be done with it." She turned back toward Terreis."I..." But once again she was interrupted. 

"You do realize this is a member of court, Lord Conqueror?" Callisto asked in a voice just loud enough for everyone to hear.

Bitch! Xena's mind hissed, knowing she had been put on the spot in front of the Amazons and her own people. "Is there something wrong with your ears, Callisto?I said punish them!Five lashes!"

The Amazons began murmuring among themselves, impressed but not surprised at the strict manner in which the Conqueror ran her household.Xena's discipline was legendary.

"As you wish, My Lord." Callisto's smile widened to an almost unnatural extent. She looked like the cat that had caught the canary... and then devoured it whole.

"Wait!" Xena held her hand up. "Bring the idiot out here and do it!" She turned to the prideful Amazonian representatives, looking Terreis dead in the eyes."I want everyone to see what happens when my orders are foolishly disregarded."

"Yes, My Lord!" Callisto nearly orgasmed on the spot.  With a furious motion of her hand, she called over two guards.

Between them, stood a very angry Gabrielle. Draped over her arm was Xena's cloak. Her eyes met the Conqueror's and Xena's stomach dropped.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said in disbelief.Hadn't she just explained that it was forbidden to enter the war room?"You can't be the one..."

"I'm afraid so, My Lord." Gabrielle's gaze dropped to her boots.She'd heard every word that Callisto had said, and the Conqueror's reply.There was no way out of this now.If Xena was to save face in front of the Amazons and her own court she had to be punished.

"Why?" Xena couldn't bear to think that Gabrielle had betrayed her.A spy? No.Impossible.She loves me! And I trust her.But somewhere deep inside, a mocking voice whispered to her, taunting her with the possibility that she had been wrong about Gabrielle's feelings.

The younger woman extended her arm and held up the large purple-and-black cloak. "I went for your cloak, My Lord. As I passed the war room, I saw that the door was open and your cloak was draped over a chair."

Xena breathed a sigh of relief, clearly reading the sincerity and sorrow in her soft eyes.She had been chilled.And only Gabrielle would care enough to seek out her cloak without her having to ask.Hades!Excusing Gabrielle's behavior because they were lovers would make her look weak and indecisive. Word would surely travel to Queen Melosa and then the other attendees.The Amazons respected absolute power.And Xena had always ruled absolutely. But still, this was Gabrielle."Well, then..."

"No, My Lord." Gabrielle shook her head, her eyes darting from the Amazons to Xena. "I respect your rule.And I realize that I must be punished."

Xena swallowed hard, very conscious that the Amazons and her own advisors and officers were hanging on every word.  She stared deeply into Gabrielle's eyes for a long moment, conveying that she would spare Gabrielle this, and knowing just as surely that Gabrielle would never ask her to.

She could give the lashing herself.But then no matter how badly Gabrielle was beaten, there would be those who would whisper the Conqueror had gone easy on her lover.And Gabrielle's sacrifice would be rendered hollow.Finally, Xena took a deep breath and nodded toward Callisto, her chest clenching painfully."So be it," she said, her voice quivering just a hair.

Gabrielle smiled reassuringly, praying she hadn't spoken foolishly, and that she could, indeed, take her punishment without shaming Xena or herself. Five lashes were by no means lethal.  But it wasn't a lenient punishment either.The whip could easily scar.And if administered incorrectly or in an especially vicious manner, it could literally tear muscle from bone.

Callisto retrieved a long, coiled whip from a guard and unfurled it with a loud snap. The Conqueror spun around to face her. Then she looked at the crowd surrounding her. To Tartarus with what anyone thinks!She was about to call the whole thing off when she felt a hand on her arm.

"My Lord."Gabrielle handed her the cloak, her fingers softly grazing Xena's arm then dropping to her hand for a quick squeeze before letting go. Gabrielle took a deep breath and stepped toward Callisto, not giving Xena a chance to change her mind. Their eyes met.

The General's delight was clear, but the power in the green eyes that met and held hers was equally undeniable. Gabrielle's gaze never shifted as she worked the hooks on her tunic. It fell open and she lowered it, baring her shoulders and mid-back, holding it in place in front to keep her breasts covered and some dignity intact.

The crowd formed a circle, leaving the general, the accused and the Conqueror in what appeared to be a silent showdown of power. Slowly, Gabrielle turned and her eyes met and locked with Xena's.

After a long moment, the Conqueror gave the quiet command, her attention riveted on the proud woman in front of her. "Commence. I'll count."

Callisto was determined she would hear this whore cry out in pain. She had to listen to her in the throes of passion, now she would hear her scream in agony. The General drew her hand back and landed the first blow.

Xena tried not to flinch as the lash tore through her soul."One."

Gabrielle gritted her teeth and her eyes widened.  Gods!

Callisto drew her hand back again. The second blow came so hard Gabrielle was actually forced forward a step, but she recovered quickly, regaining her footing without making a sound. Angry, scarlet welts sprang out on smooth skin, shaping a perfect 'X'. She wished she had something to brace herself against.Three more.I can handle three more, she mentally chanted.

"Two." Xena's voice was strained, and her mouth was clenched so tightly the muscles in her jaw twitched under the strain.

You little, Bitch! You will scream this time. Callisto drew her hand back a third time. The whip cracked loudly, fracturing the silent courtyard.The blow was so vicious that it cut a bloody swath across pale skin stretching from Gabrielle's left shoulder to the lower portion of her ribcage. She staggered forward again, her eyes tightly screwed shut, but she still somehow managed not to cry out.She took a steadying breath and then another, tears streaking her cheeks.

Xena's heart threatened to explode from her chest.  She gazed at Gabrielle through a hazy film of tears, not caring who saw her and refusing to look away. She felt every lash as though she was giving and receiving it. Every drop of hot blood that splattered to the ground as though it was pouring from her own heart."Three!"

As expected, the final two blows were even harsher than their predecessors. Those who had never witnessed a lashing before were amazed that so much damage could be done so quickly. Had the Conqueror herself not counted them off, no one would have believed Gabrielle received only five.  Including Xena.

Callisto stood panting and enraged. She was not nearly satisfied. The long leather whip hung loosely in her fist.

Crimson lines of blood pooled along the edge of Gabrielle's tunic as they snaked their way down the backs of her legs and onto the gray stones.Through it all, the blonde had never made a sound.

"My Lord." Gabrielle's voice was tight and small. Her lip was stained where she had bitten it and she swallowed against the metallic taste of blood.This time she didn't bow her head as she spoke."Please forgive my indiscretion."She felt slightly dizzy but a strong hand steadied her.

The Conqueror nodded and sniffed conspicuously. Reaching out, she gently pulled Gabrielle's tunic over her shoulders and slowly refastening the hooks. She swallowed hard past the solid lump in her throat.  "Return to our chambers, Gabrielle.  I'll send the healer and join you as soon as I can."

"Yes, My Lord."

"Help her!" Xena barked into the crowd.Palaemon, who had been watching in shocked silence, immediately stepped forward and carefully took Gabrielle's arm.

"Can you walk, My Lady?" he asked softly so that only Xena and Gabrielle would hear.

Gabrielle nodded weakly.It felt as though someone had poured Greek fire down her back and across her shoulders.She thought she might be sick."Hurry."

When Gabrielle and Palaemon disappeared into the Palace, the Conqueror stepped forward and took the whip from Callisto.Her voice was a hard whisper and her eyes glittered like the purest shards of ice. "She's stronger and far, far more of a woman than you will ever be."Her hand itched for her dagger and her spirit begged for her to plunge it in Callisto's chest and watch her life's blood drain away.But now was not the time."You are dismissed, General," she growled."Stay well out of my sight or...." Xena didn't finish the threat. She didn't have to.

Without a word, Callisto bowed and left.

Xena rolled up the whip, not bothering to clean off the blood. She furiously tapped it against her leg.  She closed her eyes as her head swam. Dear, Gods, what have I done?My order.My General.My pride.My fault!

Terreis stepped forward. "That was a very brave woman." She thought for a moment before continuing. "Her actions were worthy of an Amazon." It was the highest compliment she could have paid Gabrielle, and Xena knew it."Who is she?"

Xena's gaze traveled to the balcony of their apartment as she wrapped her cloak around broad shoulders, squaring them as she did so. "The woman who will be my Queen."If she'll have me.

She headed for the palace in a dead run.


Xena hesitated outside the door of the apartment for just a moment, praying to any God who would listen that Gabrielle would forgive her. With a shaky breath, she entered, tossing her cloak onto a chair and making her way across the bedchamber.Gabrielle was spread across the bed on her stomach.One of the healer's best assistants, who Palaemon had found on the way to the Conqueror's apartment, was carefully washing her bloodied and bruised back with a damp cloth, clearly causing the young woman a lot of pain.

"Leave us," the Conqueror ordered quietly.She moved to the bed, kneeling next to it as the healer made a hasty exit, taking Palaemon with him.Xena extended a tentative hand, swallowing hard, letting the tips of her fingers run softly through Gabrielle's hair."I'm so sorry."  Her voice cracked, a single tear sliding down her cheek."If I had known it was you..."

The blonde turned her head to face her lover."Xena, love, you did what you had to do.Don't regret it now.Please."

Don't regret it? I'll fall on my sword before I'll allow you to be harmed by my order again!"But..."

"No buts, no regrets."She closed her eyes and licked her lips.  "However, it really hurts," she admitted."Could you stop staring at me like I'm a hermaphrodite and put some of that salve on my back?" She lifted a shaky hand toward the table next to the bed, where a small jar had been placed. "The healer said it would help the pain."

"Oh, of course."Xena carefully took a seat on the bed, finally getting a good look at Gabrielle's back.Fresh tears spilled on the torn skin and her stomach roiled.One of the gashes was lined with several inches of fine stitches that had been quickly administered to stop the bleeding. Callisto, if there is one scar on this beautiful flesh, I'll have your head.  "Gabrielle, I swear by my sword that nothing like this will ever happen to you again.I'll take the punishment myself if I must."

"You'll do nothing of the sort, Xena.You'll only do what is required to rule your realm.Even if that means ordering something distasteful. I refuse to be seen as the person that makes you weak or gives you an Achilles' heel."

Gabrielle was adamant, and Xena was more certain than ever that this woman should rule at her side.Always.

"I intend to make sure you remain the same strong and powerful leader you have always been.I'll do whatever is required to make sure that happens. Even if I have to take a lashing every morning of my life."Gabrielle gave Xena a tiny smile."Well, that may be stretching it a bit.But you know what I mean."

Xena couldn't help but chuckle.  Leave it to Gabrielle to try and make a joke out of this."I'm not just saying this for you, Gabrielle."Her eyes filled with unshed tears. "Of all the things I've done, of all I've endured, I've never hurt so much as I did today."

"I know." Gabrielle nodded, then moaned softly as she felt the salve being applied to her back."I saw it in your eyes, Xena.You took every blow right along with me.Why do you think I was able to stay on my feet and not give that bitch of a general her satisfaction?"

"Forgive me," she begged softly, grabbing Gabrielle's hand and desperately brushing her lips against her knuckles.

Gabrielle pulled her hand from Xena's mouth and wiped away her lover's tears.Who would believe the Destroyer of Nation was openly weeping over a few lashes?"There's nothing to forgive.This was my own doing.Not yours." Her fingers traced quivering lips."I love you, Xena," she promised.

Xena kissed the fingers at her mouth and felt a relief so profound it hurt."I love you too, Mama Bear."


Callisto watched from the balcony of her own quarters as Xena dashed out of the courtyard.She knew where the Conqueror was headed."Yes, go tend to the little whore. Otherwise she won't be able to service you tonight," she sneered, taking a long drink of strong wine."Damn her!"When she was finished, she blindly threw the goblet behind her.

"Hey, watch it!" came an indignant voice.

Callisto closed her eyes in frustration.Wonderful.Just what I need right now.

"Who are you cussing?Xena or the annoying little blonde?" Ares chuckled from behind her.

She turned on the God of War.  "Both," she offered tartly, echoing his admission from when he had bedded her a few days before.She pushed past him, grabbing a new goblet and refilling it."What do I have to do to break that bitch?"

Ares shrugged."Toss her down a volcano?"

"Don't tempt me."In another fit of rage she threw the decanter across the room, smashing it into the far wall and spraying the room with shards of flying crystal.

"Aren't those expensive?" he teased mercilessly.

"Damn them!"Fiery brown eyes bored into the handsome God."And damn you!"

He pointed at himself, lifting a brow.

"Gods, you're smug."

Ares only shrugged again and smiled charmingly.

"'Let's set her up so Xena will have to punish her', you said.'The strain will tear them apart,' you said."Callisto finished her wine and pushed her nose right up to his. "You're an idiot!You have no idea what it's going to take to break them up!"

Ares decided to ignore her accusation and insolence.Besides, she was a better lay when she was good and pissed off.And if he stuck around long enough, he was certain she'd have kittens right here in her bedchamber."Who knew they'd both be so stubborn about this whole thing?"

"You should have known!" She poked his firm chest. "You are a God!Or is your Godhood like every other man's, located firmly in your pants?A legend in your own mind!"

"Ouch."He rolled his eyes and made a small hissing noise like a cat, before snapping his fingers and materializing his own goblet of wine."Okay, so I was off the mark about the little slut.Sue me.I thought she'd go screaming into the night the moment she saw Xena separate that captain's head from his shoulders." He smiled wickedly.This... he could totally understand.He just never expected it."Who knew that ultimately she'd get so turned on by Xena's darkness that the Conqueror would be calling to the Gods in four different languages," he paused before adding insult to injury. "Five different times."

Callisto threw her hands in the air."Don't remind me!"


Given Gabrielle's injuries, the Conqueror invited the Amazon envoy to a private meal in their apartment.Gabrielle arranged for Jarrod not only to eat with Palaemon but also to spend the night in the soldier's barracks with him.  For Jarrod, it was the most exciting night of his young life.For his mother, it was a way she could have an extra day to heal before trying to deal with her son.She had asked that the incident not be mentioned to him.She knew that no matter how much he loved Xena, he wouldn't understand what had happened.Or the reasons why.

Gabrielle stared unseeing at the far wall, reflecting back to a time about a month before Xena came into their lives, when a soldier had struck her because she refused his drunken advances.  His blow wasn't that bad, it had only split her lip, but the real bruising hadn't become visible until the next day. When Jarrod saw it, the boy burst into tears, crying for two marks, and promising his mother that he'd start to work so she could get a job somewhere other than the tavern, so she wouldn't have to be hurt anymore.

That was why he had offered to take Xena's horse when she arrived.The boy was trying so hard to be the 'man of the house' and take care of his mother.When Perdicus had used that phrase, she'd bristled, not quite sure why.When Jarrod had said it, proud tears filled her eyes.  Just as they did today.

Xena noticed the odd expression on Gabrielle's face and knelt next to her, gently brushing the tears away with her thumbs."The salve isn't helping? Let me go cancel the meal. To Tartarus with protocol, those damn Amazons can eat alone."

"Oh, no, Xena." The blonde captured Xena's hand and gently stroked the callused palm, feeling a thin scar. "I was just thinking of Jarrod. He's such a sweet and special boy."

Xena nodded. "Just like his mother." Shame filled her again when she thought of what she'd done."Gabrielle, I promise that no one, save you, will ever lay a hand on the lad.Ever.  I'll never touch him in anger.If you feel that type of punishment is what he deserves, only you will administer it.No one will hurt my son," she vowed.Including me.

Gabrielle smiled warmly. "Our son."

"Our son," Xena echoed with a matching smile and nod.

The blonde drew a deep breath and cleared her throat."Now, My Lord.  We have guests to prepare for."


With the meal completed, Xena and Gabrielle settled on a couch in front of the roaring fireplace.They had both bathed, with Xena taking great care to carefully clean and dry Gabrielle's wounds.Now, Gabrielle lay on her stomach with her head in Xena's lap, fair hair spilling over strong thighs, while Xena applied more salve to her back.  With each flinch, Xena's heart twisted and she mumbled a short, heartfelt apology.

"Please stop doing that."Gabrielle made a face as she rolled onto her side to so that she could look into Xena's eyes as she spoke."I won't have you beating yourself up over this.Have you ever second guessed an order you've given before?"

Xena's brow creased.To do that in battle was to lose the moment and most likely the day."No."  She shook her head.But I should have, Gabrielle.At least this time.You paid the price for my pride.

"Then don't do it now.I'll heal.It may take me a few weeks to get over it entirely, but I will heal." She patted Xena's legs."Remind me to have Morgaine make you a second cloak we can leave here for emergencies." A loud hiss escaped her lips as she tried to sit up.

Xena chastised her with a stern look and easily pulled her to a sitting position."I swear to you, Gabrielle. I don't remember leaving my cloak in the war room."

"Xena, you were so tired last night you probably don't remember coming to bed.How could you possibly remember where you left your cloak?"The younger woman leaned forward, allowing Xena to place a soft cloth and then a shirt over her shoulders.

Xena sighed. "You're right, but you said the war room door was open. It should never be left open."In fact, it's always locked.Only a few officers have a set of keys.I think I need to have a conversation with my favorite General that she won't soon forget.

Gabrielle's thinking perfectly tracked her partner's. "Are you suggesting that I was set up?" She raised a slender eyebrow in question and Xena raised her own in answer."But how could someone have known I'd go to fetch your cloak?  I didn't tell a soul." She was about to dismiss her partner's paranoia with a shrug, but her back still felt as though it was on fire, so she wisely decided to skip it.Instead, she cocked her head to the side thoughtfully, truly considering her own question."Someone would have had to read my mind."

Xena could only nod grimly.


Xena left Gabrielle slumbering in their bed and made her way to the treasury vault.The shorter woman had been extremely agitated before finally falling asleep.And Xena cursed herself for worrying her. Gabrielle was used to adversity, to be sure.But she wasn't used to the idea that someone might actually be conspiring against her, setting a trap.Before leaving their bedchamber Xena had made one final promise to her sleeping lover.She would keep her safe.Or die trying.

The two guards that were lounging at the treasury door immediately snapped to attention when the Conqueror approached.She forced a smile despite the fact that a small part of her wanted to thrash them.But she was in far too hopeful a mood to spoil it by being upset that they had been less than professional when she had first laid eyes on them.

"Good evening, My Lord," the elder of the two stammered. The Conqueror hadn't been down here in moons.

"Good evening, Sergeant." Pulling a key out of her tunic pocket, she inserted it into one of the thick lock's keyholes.She turned it twice then removed it, slipping it back into her pocket.Tilting her head, she looked pointedly at the door, but neither guard moved."Let me in," she finally said, gesturing at the twin lock that required the guard's key.As an afterthought she added, "Please."She would try to use that word a bit more often when not in the field.Gabrielle always said it when dealing with the servants and staff, and everyone adored her, nearly tripping over themselves to do her bidding.Well, all except one, she amended.

With slightly shaky hands, the guard inserted his key and cranked the complex lock.The door to the vault itself was short but massive.It was nearly a foot thick, its solid oak timbers striped with bands of iron."Is there a problem, My Lord?"

"Only if she says no," Xena intoned seriously as she liberated one of the guards' flickering torches. Ducking her head, she stepped through the doorway and into the inky darkness, closing the door firmly behind her.

When the heavy slab clicked shut and was locked from the inside, the guards looked at each other and offered mirroring shrugs.


Xena moved silently along the narrow passageway, whose entrance was hidden in the corner of the vault. This was the most secure place in the palace. It was only fitting that it should house her greatest treasures, even those long since buried and cruelly lost to the Fates.

Xena settled down next to the small tomb, running her hand over the smooth, cool marble and brushing away the dried remains of flowers she'd sneaked in moons before.When she held the crisp petals in her hand, crushing them to dust, their sweet aroma came to life one last time."Hello, son."She took a long, deep breath and held it nervously for several seconds."I'm about to do something very scary and completely wonderful and I wanted to share it with you first."

She stood, moving slowly around the crypt, lighting several other torches ending with one perched handily above Solon's sarcophagus."I know you know what's happened to me lately." When you think of the dead, they can hear your thoughts, her memory whispered, as her mother's solemn voice tickled her consciousness.

"I've met someone." Xena sighed wistfully."I'm sure you'd like her.And her boy, Jarrod, he's about your age.I like to think you two would have bonded like true brothers.And I care for him like a son."Though it makes my feelings for you no less special.Xena wasn't quite sure why she couldn't bring herself to say the words out loud. She knew they were meant for Solon and that he had heard them just the same. 

She turned back to the tomb.  "I'm going to go back up there and screw up my courage and ask her to join with me.The woman... well, the mother you never knew, she would have been too proud to beg.But tonight I will if I have to." She chuckled humorlessly."Maybe I finally figured out what's really important.I'm only sorry it took me so long."Gods help me if she says no.

She smiled a bittersweet smile, absently running her hands over the top of the tomb again."I wish you could be here. My mistakes cost us both so much.  And I will never, ever forgive myself for that. But the Gods know I pray that you've forgiven me. And that you now know only peace."She cleared her throat."I think Gabrielle will try to keep me from making more mistakes. At least the really bad ones.  It's going to be a daunting task.  But I'm sure she's up to it."

Xena chewed on her lip for a moment and forced herself to say the words out loud. "I just wanted you to know that, just because I'm taking a new family, it doesn't mean I love you less.  It just means that I finally know how to love again."

She pulled a slightly crushed rose from inside her tunic and laid it on the tomb in the same spot she always did. Leaning over, she placed a soft kiss on the cold stone, allowing her lips to linger."I love you, Solan," she whispered."Wish me luck."


"I can do this.I can do this.I can do this..." Xena had discovered a new mantra.Lao Ma would be proud.

She approached the bed slowly, not having the heart to wake her sleeping lover a second sooner than necessary.  In the glowing candlelight, Gabrielle looked so innocent, so young.It was hard to believe that she had lived the life she had, and that she had a boy Jarrod's age.

Xena settled down on the bed next to her, brushing blonde hair back gently.Gods, she's beautiful.Twenty-three summers, my ass.  She looks like a teenager. Xena's eyes were drawn to the bandages circling a lightly muscled back made strong from years of hard work.What do I think I'm doing?

She saw a flash in the candlelight and sucked in a quick breath as the tip of a dagger pressed firmly into the tender skin of her throat."Gabrielle, don't!"

Gabrielle pulled her hand back, dropping the blade and sending it clattered to the floor. Heedless of her injured back and painfully stretching stitches, she threw her arms around Xena's neck."Gods, Xena. I... I'm sorry!" Her voice was colored with confusion and she was nearly in a panic.

Xena let out a relieved breath.  "Shh... Don't be sorry for protecting yourself," she soothed, feeling a tiny bit of the worry she felt for her lover work its way free with the knowledge that Gabrielle could obviously take care of herself.But mostly she was grateful that blonde had caught herself before slitting her throat.That would have made what Xena was about to do truly impossible.

"I'm sorry.I'm so sorry!"Gabrielle's pulse was pounding wildly as she buried her face in Xena's shoulder.  All she remembered was waking to the sight of a shadow crossing the room and perching next to her on the bed.She had reacted without thought, and the magnitude of what had almost happened was more than she could bear.

"It's okay, love. Calm down." Xena reached up and flicked away the tiny drop of blood that had beaded in the hollow of her throat, not wanting Gabrielle to see it.She was already upset enough. And for the second time that evening Xena cursed herself for worrying her lover.  

Xena also realized that she had been wholly unprepared for that dagger.Had Gabrielle wanted her dead, she would be paying Charon's toll and cursing her stupidity right now.Xena hadn't understood, until this very moment, just how deeply she trusted this woman.  The joyous realization that she was still capable of such a simple human emotion made her want to draw Gabrielle into a crushing embrace.But she fought the urge, knowing it would be painful for the shorter woman.

After a few moments of murmured words and gentle, reassuring touches, Xena managed to get Gabrielle calmed down. She offered her a smile, trying to focus her mind on what she was about to do.  Assuming she wouldn't pass out first, that is. She searched her brain desperately, but the carefully planned words had vanished.Zeus!I'm a moron!

"Ah... Gabrielle..." Xena stammered, jumping to her feet and pacing the room like a nervous, expectant father. 

When she began talking to herself, Gabrielle's eyes widened.Uh oh.What's happened now? It's the middle of the night, for Zeus' sake!

After a moment Xena knelt alongside the blonde, whose expression was now a cross between amusement, worry, and confusion.

"There's something I want to ask you.I... " Xena's voice faltered and she cleared her throat again. "Umm... well... I... ah..." Gods, if she says no, I'll die.I know it!Suddenly her mouth was very dry.She needed a drink.That was it!  "I'll be right back." She retreated to the small table in the corner of the room, laden with several full decanters of rich wine and aged liquors.

Gabrielle remained silent, squinting to see Xena through the shadows.Then she noticed that Xena's hands were shaking, and the wine was sloshing over the sides of the goblet.She couldn't stand her lover's distress for another second. "Xena, what is it?  What's wrong?!"

When the warrior had gulped down the last swallow of the sweet wine, she opened her mouth to speak, earning raised, expectant eyebrows from Gabrielle.But before uttering a word, her mouth snapped closed with an audible click, and she began vigorously shaking her head 'no' as she poured herself another glass.She finished it in one long swallow, sending pale brows even higher.

"Nothing is wrong," Xena finally lied unconvincingly. "I just... Aww, Hades' helmet.You see, I know that to be... I mean to be a good and happy... And I want so much for you to...And... I..."

A tentative but still slightly worried smile worked its way across Gabrielle's face as she wondered what could render a woman who inspired thousands of men to follow her into battle with her impassioned, rousing words speechless.

Xena finally just drew a deep breath and spread her arms wide open in a gesture of defeat.She turned to face Gabrielle. "Will you marry me?" she blurted out helplessly.Her mouthed formed a worried 'O' when she remembered something important.Something she'd forgotten!Her palms flew up to forestall Gabrielle's answer."Wait!"She fell to her knees, and for the first time in her life bowed her head.  "Will you marry me, please?"

Now it was Gabrielle's turn to be speechless.


Xena and Gabrielle probably would have enjoyed the sunrise, which splashed violet and crimson streaks that melted into a rich gold across the crisp morning sky, had they taken the time to look at anything but each other.They stood facing each other, holding hands in the garden.Gabrielle laughed softly when she noticed Xena's teeth were chattering.She stretched up on tipped toes and whispered, "Cold or scared, My Lord?"

"Both," Xena admitted.

"I'm not going for your cloak," the blonde teased.

Xena laughed in spite of herself, watching Gabrielle's breath leave her body in wispy puffs of smoke on this chilly, and to Xena, absolutely perfect, autumn morning."Where is that priest?I'd hate to have to kill him."

Gabrielle's hands dropped to her hips.

Xena feigned a round-eyed innocent look.Well, as innocent as she could muster."Kidding.Mostly," she grumbled under her breath.

Gabrielle grasped Xena's hand again, frowning at the chill in the long slender fingers. "Relax.You only sent a request for him a few moments ago."

"What will Jarrod say?"

"About what?"

"Our joining, of course!"

Gabrielle laughed."He's one of your biggest supporters.I don't think he'll mind.Although he might wonder what took us so long. He's nearly as impatient as you are."


Gabrielle admired the new bracelet and ring that adorned her wrist and finger.A fine, metal chain connected them.She smiled when she saw Xena adjusting her matching set as well."I've never seen anything quite like it."

"You do like them, don't you?  If not..."

"Xena, they're beautiful." Gabrielle fingered the polished silver bracelet and delicately woven chain that led to a thick, gold band."What are they called again?"

"For us, they're called joining bracelets.My ring matches your bracelet as your ring matches my bracelet, and they are joined together by the chain to symbolize that we will always be together... even when circumstances force us apart." She gave Gabrielle a sheepish grin."Umm... by some they're called slave bracelets."

"Well, as long as everyone knows who I'm indentured to, I couldn't care less what they call them."She stretched up a bit, placing a tender kiss on her spouse's lips.

Xena took a deep satisfying lungfull of the morning air."Well now, Your Majesty.I suggest that we get some sleep before Queen Melosa arrives tonight."

Gabrielle's head tilted just slightly, sending a thick shock of hair over one shoulder."What did you just call me?"

Xena fussed with her wife's cloak, closing it tightly to ward off the chill."Your Majesty?"

"Why would you call me that?"

Xena laughed hard, wrapping her arm gently around the small waist and steering them in the direction of the palace."Why do you think?  You're my Queen.You will rule at my side."

Gabrielle's hand covered her mouth in astonishment."Oh, Xena, I hadn't thought of that!All I could think about was that we would always be together and..."

"Does it bother you?" Xena's lips pulled down in a puzzled frown.

Gabrielle quickly shook her head as mossy green eyes danced with mischief."Can I make Callisto call me 'Your Majesty' or 'Your Highness'?"

"She'd better," Xena growled.

"She'll cut out her own tongue first," Gabrielle laughed.And the least that I can do is loan her a dull knife.

"She'd better not." Xena smirked as her mind segued to her mentor."Ares would be so disappointed."The Conqueror guided them around a small fruit tree and onto the pathway to the palace.

"Why would Ares care?"

"Because he beds her on a regular basis."

"And you know this exactly how?"  Gabrielle stopped walking and looked Xena square in the eye.

Oooo... she's nearly as possessive as I am.I'm going to love being married to her."I have many skills." Xena smirked again when a light blush covered Gabrielle's cheeks and neck.Gods, she's delicious."I know who is sleeping with whom in my palace. Very little gets by me."

"Is that why you think I was set up yesterday morning?"

Xena nodded and now that Ares had been mentioned, she knew how.Her eyes closed in anger."Damn him."I warned you, Ares.

Gabrielle scratched her cheek.  It didn't make any sense.She was no threat to a God.And she would willingly die for his Chosen.Why should he want her harmed?

"I'm not sure how they managed it, but I'll bet every gold dinar in my vaults that Callisto and Ares were behind it."Xena kicked a pebble with the toe of her boot.

"Why?" Gabrielle repeated out loud. "What have I done to them?"

Xena pulled the blonde into her arms."You got what they both wanted.Me.Ares wants my heart and my future. Callisto wants my body and my sword.But I willingly surrendered all those things to you as you stroked my hair in a sweet-smelling apple orchard outside of tiny Poteidaia.I'm afraid, my love, they have great cause to dislike you."She gave Gabrielle a little kiss on the tip of her nose.

"And your soul?" She turned earnest eyes on her partner."Who has that?"Say the words, Xena.I want to know that I have yours as you have mine.

"Somehow, I get the feeling you've always held my spirit, Gabrielle."Xena shrugged one shoulder as they resumed their trek, unaware that her wife was flushing with the sweetest of pleasures.  "It just took me a lifetime to find you."


Leaving orders that they shouldn't be disturbed for anything expect Jarrod or the arrival of Queen Melosa, the newly joined couple climbed the steps to their chambers.Once inside, they bathed again, with Xena carefully washing and tending to the wounds on Gabrielle's back.

"Do they feel any better at all?"

"Actually they do." Gabrielle nodded, anxious to ease Xena's distress. "I think the salve really is helping." Xena sighed guiltily and Gabrielle was sure it was going to take her warrior a long time to get over what had happened.

Xena's emotional scars from the lashing appeared to be more serious than the ones on her back. The young women wondered if there was something else compounding her partner's guilt and worry.Gabrielle's heart ached to remedy her lover's pain.She vowed to spend the rest of her life trying."I'm still stiff and sore, but the stinging pain is nearly gone." She patted Xena's hand."It's more annoying than anything else."

A skeptical eyebrow arched."Mmm... Hmm... Annoying is it?" She frowned.  "I don't want you to strain yourself and to risk the stitches tearing loose."

Gabrielle settled back gently against Xena's chest, running her hands up and down the long legs she sat between.  "Can I just stay here until it heals then?"

"We'll look like prunes," Xena snorted, allowing her fingertips to massage the queen's tense upper neck.

"Not a very regal look, huh?"  The blonde hummed, enjoying the warm bath and the massage. She looked at her own hands, which were starting to look a tad shriveled.

"Nope.It could be down right embarrassing in some circles."Xena brought her head forward, whispering in Gabrielle's ear."So after this wretched meeting with my satraps ends, where would you like to go for our joining trip?"

Gabrielle gasped at the breath that tickled her ear and sent a warm jolt between her legs. "Joining trip?" she repeated faintly.

"Yeah... the trip that most newly married couples take.Didn't you and Perdicus have one?"

"Please."Gabrielle rolled her eyes."I moved from my parents' house to Perdicus' house, then right to one of the tavern's rental rooms after he was killed and I had to start working."

"Why did you have to move to the inn?"

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder, wishing she had kept her mouth shut.Damn. She doesn't need this right now.This is a time to look forward, not backwards!   "It's not important now," she murmured, searching her mind for another topic. "It's ancient history."

Xena felt a sinking sensation in her gut and got the distinct impression that somehow, from across Greece, she had done something that hurt Gabrielle. "Tell me."

"Xena, please."

"Tell me!" she demanded, retreating from behind her wife, not stopping until her back slid against the marble on the other side of the tub.

"Fine!It was taxes."

Xena's forehead wrinkled."What?"

Gabrielle sighed and let the hand she was using to reach out for Xena drop into the tub with a loud splash."I couldn't pay the taxes.Your collector seized the house and sold it.My parents had already rented out my room to a farm hand, so I had no place to go.That's when I began working at the tavern. The owner owned the inn as well and I got room, board, and tips."

Anger sparked in pale blue eyes. Xena squeezed every drop of water from the sponge she had picked up on her way across the tub."Your husband died serving with me in Rome, and in gratitude my tax collector took your house?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Oh, Gods," Xena groaned, unable to look Gabrielle in the eye.What did you always say to your advisors, Xena?The tax collector is a ruler's right hand.Well, my right hand threw the love of life my out on the streets. Damn me to the lowest level of Tartarus!"The widows of my men shouldn't be put out of their homes!" How can I be expected to maintain a steady supply of soldiers when my civil servants behave this way?"How old was Jarrod when this happened?"

She admitted quietly,"I hadn't given birth to him yet.He didn't come for another few weeks."

"So I had the pregnant widow of a fallen soldier put out on the streets?"

Gabrielle's gazes dropped to cooling water. "Yes.But your tax collector-"

"Don't make excuses for me, Gabrielle," Xena said flatly."It's my responsibility to know what my government is doing in my name."

Gabrielle raised her eyes."You're right.But I don't expect you can keep track of every dinar collected...  and exactly how it was collected.  You do rule most of the world, Xena."

"Greece is our home!"

"And Greece is a prosperous nation.Despite its occasionally," her lips twitched, "overzealous tax collectors."

It was Xena's turn to roll her eyes at her lover's understatement."Gods, are there any fairy tales told to children where I'm not the evil monster who lays waste to the land and eats the beautiful princess?"

Gabrielle smothered a grin, moving through the water until she was back in Xena's arms.This time facing her."There are lots of stories where you eat the princess, My Lord."Her eyes twinkled and she wriggled fair eyebrows."They're just not the sort suitable for children."

A burst of laughter escaped Xena's throat and she kissed her partner soundly. You're either really in love with me or totally nuts. "I'm so sorry about your house, Gabrielle."A pause."I need to do better."

"I know," Gabrielle agreed softly, taking the sting from the words."We'll work on it together."She grinned a bit, looking once again at her joining bracelet."Besides, I didn't come out of it too badly.  I did get a palace in the deal."

Xena's shoulders shook with silent laughter.She's nuts.


Gabrielle had to admit her spouse amused her.Xena was positively a nervous wreck. Almost as bad as when she had proposed.The new Queen just shook her head as she watched Xena's long legs bounce at the knee as they waited.

"Please relax." Gabrielle squeezed the broad shoulder comfortingly. "He's going to love this."

"Gods, I hope so." Xena began tapping her fingers against the arm of the chair in which she sat.

There was a soft knock at the door.Gabrielle moved to open it, allowing Jarrod and Palaemon to enter.Jarrod was wearing a rich blue tunic and dusty boots.His hair was adorably disheveled, and his cheeks were rosy from some exertion.He was beaming.

Gabrielle knelt down and pulled her son into a long, heartfelt hug.She winced when small arms wrapped around her back, but managed not to make a sound.Gabrielle could feel his excited smile and rapid heartbeat against her and she wondered at his boundless energy and enthusiasm. "Hello. How has your day been, son?"

The Conqueror's eyes softened at the sight of the mother and son embracing. She felt an unexpected stab of pain for her own loss and for the years she'd lived without anything close to the love she felt in this room.

"Oh, Mama, it's been wonderful!  Palaemon and I have been helping clean up the fire."

Xena chuckled.Only a spirited little boy would find cleaning up mess from a fire a fun thing to do.  She looked up to the guard."Palaemon, you're dismissed.We'll put him to bed before we come down for the reception."

"As you wish, My Lord." He bowed his head and winked at Jarrod, who was standing loosely in his mother's arms and still smiling over their day together. "I'll go change into my formal uniform."

"Good man.Also..." Xena rose to her feet and pulled a folded piece of parchment from her pocket. "Go to the Major of the Guard and tell him to issue you your new Captain's rank."

"My Lord?" The young man nearly fell over as he took the parchment, looking at the paper as though it was a diamond in his hand.

Xena smothered her grin, schooling her face to its usual stoicism."It's your commission, Palaemon.Try not to pass out before you get to enjoy it."

"My Lord?" he questioned again.  It normally took years to receive such an honor. And then only if you were very lucky.

Xena shrugged."It seems to me that the man caring for and mentoring my son should have no less."She gave him a firm pat on the back, wondering if his feet would actually touch the ground as he descended the palace steps.Gods, it had been years since she had seen a soldier's pride and excitement painted on his face like this."I'll see you down there, Captain."

"Yes, My Lord." He saluted briskly, then blinked when Xena offered him a warrior handshake. "Thank you, My Lord!" he said again, pumping her arm.

"Try not to bust the threads on your uniform puffing up your chest, Palaemon!" she called after him as the newly minted officer practically ran from the apartment.

Gabrielle stood and turned adoring eyes on her lover. "That was nice, Xena."

Xena blushed and studied her boots bashfully."It was for purely military reasons, Gabrielle," she insisted.

"Uh huh."Laughing as Xena's deepening flush, Gabrielle decided to have mercy on her wife and change the subject.

"Son," Gabrielle ran her fingers through Jarrod's newly cut but windblown hair, bringing it back to some order.  "Xena and I have something to tell you."

He looked back and forth between them and then threw his arms around his mother's neck."Yes!When did you do it?"

Gabrielle drew back as she let out a surprised breath. "When did I do what?"

"Join with Xena, of course."

The women's eyes met in surprise and they exchanged bewildered shrugs."This morning."

"Are you all right with this, Jarrod?"Xena kneeled down to his level, wanting to pull him into the type of hug he'd shared with Gabrielle, but suddenly too nervous.

"Oh yes, Xena!" Without hesitation, the boy wrapped his arms around her neck and gave her a strong hug."I love you!"

The Conqueror let out a relieved breath as her heart began beating again. "I love you too, Tiger."

"This is great!"He released Xena and hugged his mother again, peering up at her with concerned eyes. "Umm, now what do I call you?"

Gabrielle smiled."What you've always called me - Mama.Joining with Xena could never change that, son."

He looked back to Xena for confirmation."Is that all right?"

"Hey!" Xena jerked a thumb towards a slightly indignant Gabrielle. "What she said.""But in public, you address her as 'Your Majesty'.Your Mama is the Queen now.We both have to show her the respect she deserves."

He nodded."Gotcha."A puzzled look crossed his face, and the women waited patiently for the lad to ask what was so clearly on the tip of his tongue."Xena?"


"Well, what should I call you?"

Twin eyebrows lifted and Xena pursed her lips.That was a good question."What would you like to call me?"

Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena's waist and waited curiously for her son's reply.

"Well, no matter what, I would call you 'My Lord' in public.Just like now." His brow was still creased and his words came as though he was thinking out loud.

Both Xena and Gabrielle nodded approvingly.

"I could call you Xena like I do now.... When we're alone, I mean."

"You could," Xena replied carefully.

Hopeful eyes looked up from beneath pale lashes."Or I could call you 'Mother'?"

Xena's body jerked a tiny bit and Gabrielle uncurled her arm from Xena's waist and softly rubbed her hand on her lover's back. "I... I..."

Gabrielle smiled at her son, remaining silent while Xena composed herself.She knew what the answer would be. But this was Xena's moment.And she would let her enjoy it without interruption.

Xena swallowed, feeling a lump form in her throat."That would be fine, lad," she finally said, her voice cracking.She looked at Gabrielle questioningly.   The younger woman's smile spoke for itself."'Mother' would be just fine."

Gabrielle leaned in and kissed Xena's shoulder, ignoring the frequent sniffs made by her partner.


They each took a hand and led Jarrod to his adjoining chambers.

"So does this mean I'll have a little brother or sister by Solstice?"

Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other with wide eyes before they burst out laughing."Oh boy," they muttered simultaneously.


Gabrielle marveled when the wall slid away.She gave Xena a little sideways glance."And how many of these passages are there in the palace?"

"The entire palace is riddled with them.We'll spend a day and I'll show you the most direct routes from point alpha to point beta."

Gabrielle clapped her hands together. "So that's how you do it!"

"Do what?" Xena used her torch to guide the way down the narrow, winding tunnel, burning away cobwebs as she walked.In the distance she could hear the skittering of tiny paws.

"It's rumored that you have special powers that allow you to mysteriously appear." Gabrielle ducked a low hanging, singed, spider web, deciding to walk behind Xena so she could clear the way."Now I get it. You cheat."

Xena grinned. "It's only cheating if I get caught."

"In case you're wondering, wife..." Gabrielle gave the bottom in front of her a firm pinch. "That reasoning does not apply to bed partners."

"I knew there was something different about commoners' marriages," Xena shot back, yelping over another pinch.

Xena made sure the wall was back in place before showing Gabrielle to a pair of chairs hidden behind a thick velvet curtain. On the other side of the curtain a reception could be heard, where Xena's most trusted officers and advisors, regents, and royalty of all the nations under her dominion were awaiting her appearance.

The Conqueror seated herself in her tall throne, which was covered in soft black leather and the deepest purple velvet her decorators could find.She nearly disappeared into the chair, her clothing matching the colors completely.

Gabrielle sat in an equally regal, though slightly shorter chair that Malaius had painstaking tracked down.

The poor man had nearly succumbed from sheer exhaustion after looking at nearly every chair in the palace. He wondered why his Lord Conqueror had suddenly become obsessed with chairs, but decided that his head liked the comfy spot on his shoulders. So he didn't ask.

Xena watched with an amused smile as Gabrielle settled into her temporary throne.The blonde took a deep breath, pulling herself upright and leaning forward a bit.Xena knew it was because of the tenderness in her back and frowned. But she had to admit that the ramrod straight position of the queen's back and the square set of her shoulders gave her a powerful aura of authority.Unconsciously, Xena leaned forward, mirroring Gabrielle's posture.

"Ready, My Queen?" the Conqueror questioned with a sly smile.

Gabrielle blushed at the use of the honorific.This was going to take some getting used to."Yes, My Lord. I'm ready."

With the push of a pedal at her foot, Xena caused the curtains to retract, revealing them to the dignitaries and gathered crowd.

Gabrielle watched as Xena's features hardened and she carefully inspected each and every face in turn.  Some she saw every day, others only once a year.All eyes had, of course, turned to them and the room had grown deathly quite as the occupants waited for their Lord Conqueror to speak.

The moment was charged.

Xena made them wait.It was a power play.A game the Conqueror played well and had obviously never lost.  Finally, when it appeared as though Xena had grown bored with surveying her audience, she rose from her throne with a deadly grace. The crowd held their breaths. She took the time to smooth the rich purple silk tunic she wore over loose fitting black trousers. Her high leather boots gleamed in the torchlight.Turning slightly at the waist, but staring straight ahead, she offered her hand back to Gabrielle.

The blonde kept the smile that was itching to burst free from grabbing hold of her lips.But just barely.Taking a deep breath, her expression shifted and hardened, rivaling Xena's.  She placed her hand in the Conqueror's, allowing the warm, solid grasp to ground her and give her courage.With a slight tug, she was brought to her feet.

"Welcome," Xena finally stated in a deep, rich voice that threatened to send Gabrielle and most of the men and women in the audience swooning.

"My Lord," every single voice in the room intoned at the same time.

Gabrielle watched interestedly as some bowed at the waist, some lowered their heads, and others merely lowered their eyes respectfully. But none failed to offer tribute. As it should be, she thought.

"Before anything else takes place this evening," Xena continued, squeezing the slender hand in hers."I would like to introduce you to someone very important in my life and, from now on, very important in your lives."She paused offering a very small smile to the crowd.She allowed the smile to grow, transforming her face and extending to twinkling eyes when she turned to her partner."May I present, Her Royal Majesty, Queen Gabrielle." Gasps rang out."We were joined early this morning."

Xena took two backward, then guided Gabrielle forward, placing her in a position of prominence before the crowd. The new queen allowed all those gathered a moment to pick their jaws up off the floor.I hope some of them have an extra pair of trousers handy, she mused wryly.

"Good evening, Your Majesty."  One voice rang out. And Gabrielle saw that it belonged to Palaemon.She graced the scarred soldier with a genuine smile that showed off sparkling teeth, and a tilt of her head, as the others in the room finally got over the shock and added their voices to the chorus.

The Queen took great delight in finding and making eye contact with General Callisto.The look she offered the general could only be described as predatory.I hope you enjoyed your little show yesterday morning, bitch. Because it'll be the last one you give involving me or my family.That is, unless I'm on the other end of the whip.

Gabrielle gave a sarcastic wink in Callisto's direction before turning her full attention to Xena and the other guests as she felt herself being guided down the steps and into the crowd.Xena pulled her closer and, taking the cue, she wrapped her hand around Xena's strong arm as they strolled through the parting bodies.She offered nods and soft acknowledgments to those who spoke to her as she passed by, glad that at least tonight, she wouldn't be expected to do much more.

Palaemon regarded the royal couple from his position by the wall, his shiny Captain's bars sparkling in the candlelight.He had never seen his Lord Conqueror look more proud or regal than she did this evening.She looks like she could conquer the world, he silently considered, then chuckled at the ridiculous thought.But even without his promotion, he could honestly say it was a pleasure to serve the Lord Conqueror.And seeing the newly joined couple tonight, the reason why was crystal clear.


The Conqueror led Gabrielle to the far end of the room, where Queen Melosa was doing her best to ignore Brutus.

Xena turned first to Melosa. "Welcome and good evening.I'm glad to see that you arrived safely.I know you'll forgive me for not being available to see you until now.I had some other matters to attend to... as a woman in your position would clearly understand."

Melosa nodded begrudgingly."Indeed, Lord Conqueror.I am aware of the fire." She gave Gabrielle an appraising look, starting with her shoes and working her way up from there.Their eyes met briefly and Melosa quirked a small smile."The news of your joining was delightful, and the Amazons most certainly understand that other matters required your attention.Especially with such a lovely bondmate."

Gabrielle smiled and her face grew warm.She felt Xena's arm tense and gave it a gentle squeeze, reminding her partner that she was right at her side and didn't intend going anywhere.

"Your Majesty," Melosa continued, receiving an icy stare from Xena that caused her to bow her head just a bit as she addressed Gabrielle."I trust you're feeling better?Regent Terreis told me of your tribute to Our Lord Conqueror's supremacy."

Gabrielle bristled at the reference to her lashing, but decided that Melosa's concern, at least on its face, seemed genuine. "I'm fine, Your Majesty.Thank you for asking."

Xena stiffened, determined for Melosa not to see her lingering guilt over the event. Her gaze swung to Brutus."Brutus, welcome.  What news is there from Rome?"

"Thank you, Lord Conqueror." He bowed at the waist, his eyes never leaving Xena's. He had been there when Caesar made that fatal mistake. "Rome is prosperous and has sentgreat tribute to you and your lovely new Queen."

Gods, what a suck up!"Good.You can tell me all about it when the formal meetings begin tomorrow."She was already bored with the Roman. Xena squared her shoulders and addressed the entire room."The palace cooks have prepared for us a tremendous banquet, and we should adjourn to the dining room to enjoy it."

As they made their way to the dining room, Gabrielle whispered, "Somehow, I thought Brutus would be taller.He reminds me of the little peg-legged fellow who used to shovel stalls at the stables in Poteidaia."

It wasn't the first time Xena roared with laughter that night, and it wouldn't be the last.


After the meal, the entire entourage returned to the gallery.Gabrielle still found the term misleading. Xena did indeed have a way of making things sound more or less threatening than they really were.Which one she chose depended wholly on her agenda.

Gabrielle was enjoying herself altogether too much as she lay by her lover's side on the large chaise next to their thrones and fed her spouse fresh berries and other treats.After one particularly wonderful oral exchange, involving a very ripe, juicy strawberry, she glanced up to find that Callisto's face was the color of a pomegranate.The General's hands were shaking so violently that wine was spilling over the edge of her cup and onto her boots.Gabrielle smiled wickedly and dipped another berry in honey, placing it between Xena's lips with her own, and licking away any errant moisture with a warm tongue.

"You are truly evil."Xena whispered in her ear afterwards, trying to ignore the dull ache that had settled languidly between her legs."Tormenting my general like that."

"No, my love. Truly evil would be eating from some other part of your body and letting her see it.This is just being mean." She pursed her lips speculatively."And yes, I'm enjoying it immensely."

"Oh, I have no doubt of that, My Queen," Xena purred, placing a gentle kiss on Gabrielle's earlobe before sucking it into her mouth.This, while the tips of her fingers gently grazed the flesh of her spouse's neck and jaw.If this play didn't end soon, Callisto and the other guests were, indeed, going to get a surprise."Enjoy showing your claws, Mama Bear."

Gabrielle nodded, savoring the soft lips nibbling at her ear and neck."I have a feeling, My Lord, that before this is over, your general will get an up close and personal examination of my claws."Especially, if she keeps staring at you like that.Not that I can blame her.

"I'd pay to see that," Xena chuckled, pulling away slightly and taking a long drink from her wine to calm her racing pulse.Don't worry, love.Callisto will get what's coming to her.One way or the other.

"For you, My Lord, the show will be free."Gabrielle smirked and bit down on a nut-filled date, humming in pleasure."I wouldn't even consider doing it without letting you enjoy it."


"It can't be done!" came the drunken yell from somewhere in the crowd.

Xena's head snapped around, ending a rather intense kiss from the Queen.The reception had been going on for several marks, and most of the attendees were feeling a happy buzz if not outright drunk.She, of course, was feeling happy herself, but that was mostly due to a lack of oxygen and the exhilarating company of her beautiful new bride.

"Oh, but it can!" Eponin, an Amazonian weapons expert, who accompanied Melosa as a bodyguard when she traveled, waved a dagger in the air."I'll bet you ten silver I can do it in one throw."

The noise in the room increased two-fold as pouches and purses were searched and coins clattered onto tables all around the room.Xena reluctantly moved to her feet, offering her hand to Gabrielle."C'mon, let's go see what the Amazons are getting all cocky about now."

The Queen giggled as she joined the Conqueror.

"What's so funny?"Xena arched a brow, loving the sound from her wife and thinking it made her appear to be the biggest leach in the realm, being married to such a sweet innocent thing.

"Never thought of Amazons and cocky being used in the same breath."

The tall woman shook her head and groaned lightly. Was I thinking innocent?But she wasn't able to keep from cracking a smile. Gabrielle was by no means drunk, but she did seem much more relaxed than she was earlier.


 "Anyone ever tell you that you're just a little bit of a smart ass?" she whispered.

Gabrielle stroked her spouse's cheek, dragging her fingertips down the tender skin of Xena's throat and leaning forward to absorb the heady scent of leather and red wine.She let her fingertips rest on Xena's collarbone, smiling at the jump in the Conqueror's pulse point."No, but coming from you, I'll take it as a great compliment."

The crowd parted for the royal couple as they slowly made their way across the room, trading whispers."So, let's see what's happening." Before I take you right here and now, Gabrielle.You do like to play with fire, don't you?  The Conqueror stood up very straight, allowing her to tower over almost everyone in the room.Alert eyes scanned in all directions.

Gabrielle took a moment to study her beautiful spouse, and was suddenly overcome with a nearly overwhelming desire to take her back to their apartment and make love to her in ways that would make Aphrodite blush.Slightly shocked by her own hunger, she shook her head, putting away the decidedly naughty, but undeniably delicious thoughts. Unconsciously, she licked her lips.

"What is the bet?" Xena asked, moving a step away from Gabrielle who was eyeing her in a way that was fast melting her resolve to remain at the reception.

Brutus laughed, lifting his cup toward the Amazons."The 'ladies' are bragging of their knife-throwing abilities."

Xena arched a brow. Do you know who you're talking to, fool?   She didn't exactly consider herself a lady, but she was sure as Hades a woman!"And you doubt their word?Not terribly bright of you, Brutus.But you are Roman, I guess we shouldn't expect much."

The crowd, all except for Brutus and his envoy, laughed.Gabrielle watched closely as Brutus sneered, but held his tongue.

"So... what is the bet?" Xena prodded again.

"I can put out the flame on a candle with the throw of a small dagger from ten paces," Eponin stated before realizing she had left off something very important. "My Lord," she added, hoping it didn't sound like the afterthought it was.

Xena and the rest of the group turned when Gabrielle's slight chuckle at Eponin's faux pas was heard, even though it wasn't meant to be.Gabrielle smiled sweetly and shrugged.

"Your Majesty." Eponin moved forward, offering the Conqueror's Queen the knife."By your good humor, I assume you believe you can do better?"

Blue eyes flashed and Xena stepped forward but was stopped from speaking by the sound of her Queen's voice.

 "Could be." The humor drained from Gabrielle's face.

Murmurs pulsed through the crowd as Gabrielle reached out and took Eponin's dagger, twirling it between her fingers in an amazing display of apparent proficiency.

Dark eyebrows rose, and Xena made a mental note to question her spouse about her skills, which the young woman apparently kept well hidden.At least most of the time.

"I can do it at twelve paces," Gabrielle said softly, but boldly.

The Amazon snorted. "No one can do it in twelve.Even our own Lord Conqueror failed to do it in eleven during the last meeting." She eyed Xena warily."No disrespect intended, My Lord."

"None taken. You merely speak the truth. Though you should always do it nicely when speaking to my wife!"When the Amazon looked properly fearful, the Conqueror turned towards Gabrielle and gave her a mild look of warning."But she's right, My Queen.Even I failed at eleven."

Gabrielle met the look head on. "I can do it in twelve, My Lord."

The Conqueror recognized honest determination when she saw it. This was no drunken boast on the Queen's part.

"And what would you like to bet, My Queen?" Xena crossed her arms against her chest expectantly.

The blonde stepped away from Eponin, motioning Xena closer. The tall woman joined her spouse and Gabrielle whispered, "Xena, do you trust me?"

The Conqueror drew back a bit.  What in Hades kind of question is that? Of course she trusted Gabrielle!But now she had to acknowledge that total trust in front of the people that she had commanded for most of her adult life."Of course."

"Totally trust me?" she asked again, tossing the dagger in the air and catching it smoothly, hoping that it would ease the doubt she could see written on Xena's face. Believe in me, Xena.I won't disappoint you.

Xena grinned crookedly."What are you thinking, O evil one?"

Gabrielle shook her head slightly.  "Just answer the question.Do you totally trust me?"


Gabrielle turned back to the crowd."I'll put the candle out from a distance of at least two paces from the best throw.If I fail, the person who has the best throw gets two marks with our Lord Conqueror..." she paused and grinned mischievously, "in the privacy of a bed chamber." Even believing in her heart that she wouldn't fail, something in Gabrielle kept her from offering their bedchamber.

A strong hand patted Xena's back as she choked on the wine she had just swallowed.Gabrielle leaned in and whispered once again, "Relax, I didn't say you had to do anything, just that they got two hours with you.  You can talk them to death in two hours.I don't share, Xena."Not you.Not ever.

"Very funny." Xena rolled her eyes. "You'd better win this little bet, Your Majesty.Or I might do more than talking. Just to teach you a lesson."  Xena's grin took the threat out of the words and the blonde winked.

"And if you win," Eponin piped up, "what do you get?"

"Hmm," Gabrielle settled the point of the dagger against her chin.Zeus, that's sharp. "If I win, anyone who takes part in the challenge has to switch places for just one day with a member of the palace staff."  Her smile broadened."And I get to choose where and when you serve."

"Done!" the Amazon agreed easily. 

A long line started forming behind Eponin. Gods!Gabrielle's jaw sagged slightly.All these people want to go to bed with my wife!

Xena just shook her head.What have you gotten me into, Gabrielle?Picking up an unused candle that sat next to the burning one on a table, she lit it and handed it to Brutus.Giving him a half-pat, half-punch in the chest she growled,"Be a good man and hold this, won't you?"

It was an offer he couldn't refuse. Though the Gods know he wanted to.


Palaemon carefully recorded and judged each throw.So far, the Amazon weapons master had come the closest but still failed to extinguish the candle.

The young captain watched as droplets of sweat started to form on Brutus' forehead.No doubt the Roman emissary found this an abruptly sobering experience.The candle had burned down significantly, and its flame was flickering from the constant trembling of the Roman's hand.When he saw who the next contestant was, he dropped his head and shook it from side to side, groaning loudly.

"You'd better stop shaking, Brutus.I'd hate to miss and have my dagger end up right between your beady eyes," Callisto said sweetly. She had requested another pace off the distance, a task Xena herself was handling.This would put the general eleven paces back.The Queen would have to hit the mark by at least thirteen.

As Callisto prepared her first throw, Xena leaned over and whispered to her wife."Please tell me you can do it from thirteen.I do not want to be in a bedchamber with that crazy hag."  She refrained from some saying 'again', locking those memories far away where she kept the thoughts of all her other 'heinous' acts.

"Trust me." The Queen rubbed her spouse's twitching hand."The day you spend two marks in a bedchamber alone with that skinny bitch, you'll be walking over my dead body to get there." Green eyes glinted with determination. "But I do intend to enjoy watching her empty a few chamber pots."

Xena snorted, choking at the mental image."That's priceless."

"Yeah, I know.All the dinars in the world couldn't buy me the joy I'm gonna get from that."

Xena elbowed her queen. "I'm glad you're on my side." Both Xena and Gabrielle flinched when Callisto's throw bested Eponin's by half an inch.But the flame still flickered.

Another candle was lit.And Palaemon held it while Brutus took his turn to throw.Despite the numerous glasses of wine he'd consumed, his aim was good.But the distance was too much, and he missed by several inches.The captain squared his shoulders as the Conqueror paced off thirteen strides and handed Gabrielle the dagger, which she took in her right hand.She grabbed Gabrielle's wrist for a split second."What do you think you're doing?You're left handed."

"What does it look like I'm doing?" she said exasperatedly. "My left arm is sore and tired and I might tear my stitches."

"Oh, great Zeus!"Xena hissed, looking at Callisto from the corner of her eye. She was grinning from ear to ear."I'm gonna have to kill her if you lose."

"Then I win either way, huh?  Gotta love that."Gabrielle smirked, stepping up to the line.

Palaemon took a deep breath as he watched the Queen line up her throw with an unsteady hand.How much wine has she had? he wondered grimly. Then he turned his head to the left so that no one could accuse him of blowing out the candle on her behalf.When he heard the solid thump he swallowed, realizing he was still alive.He smiled tentatively and turned back towards the candle. A small puff of dark smoke spiraled upward the room filled with piteous groans.


Gabrielle tugged on Xena's hand, laughing all the way as they entered their apartment. Green eyes flecked with gold danced merrily. "The look on your face was one I'll never forget!"

"I was the bait in your little trap.Forgive me for being a tad tense," Xena defended, barely through the door of their bedchamber before she began working the hooks on her tunic.She wanted to ask Gabrielle where she learned that, but at the last moment decided she didn't really want to know how Gabrielle had acquired the skill of an assassin.She feared it involved a patron of the tavern and an exchange of favors that made her too ill to contemplate.Her heart simply couldn't take the retelling of a story like that.Not on what was still her wedding day.

The Queen slid up to her spouse and began working the tunic from her shoulders."Have you ever been bait before?" she asked seriously, not looking up from her task and sighing as each hook gave way to silky soft skin.Her mouth watered.

"Not intentionally."Gabrielle had been teasing the Conqueror all night.Her basically chaste touch, as she slowly worked loosened Xena's clothing, sent a shiver down Xena's spine, re-igniting what had become an almost painful ache between her legs.Gods.I'm completely in lust with my own wife.The feeling was positively decadent, and pale eyes fluttered closed when warm lips attached themselves to her chest.So much for chaste. "Hmm Gabrielle, ah... your back..."

"Who says I have to be on my back?" She roughly pushed Xena's tunic farther open, availing herself of the silky skin she was craving like a drunkard craves wine.

"Great Zeus," the Conqueror moaned, when sharp teeth nipped at her neck. Gabrielle was no stranger to seduction. 

The younger woman's inhibitions had been stripped away by the libations celebrating her victory.Gabrielle was in no mood to deny her hungers.  And tonight... she hungered for her wife."As a matter of fact, who says we have to do this in a bed?Where's your sense of adventure, Lord Conqueror?"The question was asked just as Xena's silk tunic hit the floor. "I actually have a few fantasies about the throne room, if you must know."

"Oh yeah?" Xena sighed as determined hands massaged her back then moved to her breasts.She wondered how long she was going to be able to remain on her feet."But... but we'll have to make do up here I'm afraid." She took a deep breath and held it as warm lips and a hot tongue insistently caressed the underside of her breast. "Umm...the...the staff is cleaning and preparing it for the meetings... to... tomorrow."

"I think we can improvise quite nicely."Gabrielle pushed Xena back, guiding her into a sturdy chair next to the glowing fireplace.She knelt down in front of her spouse and smiled coyly."Shall I remove your boots, My Lord?"

"Of course, but umm," Xena sat up a little, throwing a long leg over the arm of the chair,"why don't you get more comfortable first?"

Gabrielle's gaze traveled down the Conqueror's firm body.She licked her lips slowly, first the top, then the bottom.

Xena thought she might pass out as her mouth went impossibly dry and her pulse began to pound in her ears.

The Queen wore an evil look as she moved to the table and poured two cups of that sweet wine she was so fond of.Before bringing them back to Xena, she took the time to open her tunic. She wasn't wearing an undershirt and the silk felt so good against her bare skin, despite the bandages.

"Don't you think we've had enough to drink, Gabrielle?" Xena teased easily.She was nowhere near her limit, and her bride didn't appear to be feeling any ill affects whatsoever.

Gabrielle shook her head with exaggerated slowness, still facing away from the Conqueror."No, My Lord. I want it," she said simply."And tonight I'm going to have everything I want." Gabrielle loosened her tunic further, rubbing her palms up her own stomach, and allowing them to disappear behind the folds of her shirt. Gabrielle moaned softly at the feeling of her cool hands on hot flesh.

All the air in Xena's lungs was expelled in a long breath at the sight of her wife.She nearly bolted from her chair and took Gabrielle where she stood.But she was enjoying this way too much to spoil her lover's plans.The sight of her spouse touching herself, still dressed but allowing just a hint of flesh to peek through, was incredibly tantalizing.

The Queen smiled at the long drawn out groan that left the Conqueror's chest. Turning, she straightened so that her tunic fell open just a bit more."See something you like, My Lord?"

"Oh yeah!"She nodded eagerly, realizing just how much she sounded like Ares when he was on the prowl for more than a good fight.Xena immediately dismissed the unpleasant thought.

Gabrielle handed Xena both cups, taking a deep swallow from each to make sure they weren't so full that they would spill.Then she took a step back.First she removed her shoes and gave them a little kick to get them out of her way.Then she removed her trousers, leaving her totally naked under the tunic, which remained open, serving its purpose of driving Xena to distraction.The blonde laughed when she saw her spouse drain one cup and then most of the other, setting the goblets on the floor.

"My, my." Gabrielle straddled Xena's lap, noting her warrior's uneven breathing.She felt completely free to play, to explore a more seductive element of her personality with an honesty she'd never had the opportunity to enjoy before.She was mildly surprised, not that her actions affected her partner, but at the copious, warm wetness between her own legs."I thought you'd had enough... wine." She laid her arms gently over broad shoulders and her voice dropped to a sexy purr when she asked quietly,"Cold, My Lord?"She allowed a hand to drop and graze an erect nipple that begged to be caressed.

Xena was gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. She shook her head frantically when she realized Gabrielle expected an answer.

The Queen leaned her body into Xena, rubbing their torsos together, and biting her lip at the thrilling sensation."Touch me, Xena," she moaned in her wife's ear before taking the lobe into her mouth and nibbling the flesh.

Two hot, sweaty hands flew off the chair and found their way under Gabrielle's tunic, running up and down silky thighs."Gabrielle...oh Gods..." She felt the blonde begin to grind against her abdomen, leaving a trail of glistening moistness on her very warm skin."Oh yeah..." She closed her eyes, let her head drop back as her hands landed on her wife's hips, forcing their bodies closer together.

The Queen, excited by the moans and humming coming from deep within Xena's chest, allowed her hands to roam all over the body in front of her, while her mouth explored every inch of exposed skin including Xena's lips.Her hands travel down to the front of Xena's trousers and she tugged on them to loosen the hooks."Off!" she demanded."Off, now!"

The Conqueror managed to push her feet out of her boots while Gabrielle kissed her with passion born of total lust.Together they wrestled her out of her pants, with Gabrielle refusing to move from her position above Xena.When the tall woman raised her hips to work her trousers over them, it forced her body hard and fast into her Queen's, nearly causing the smaller woman to climax.But Gabrielle pulled away slightly. Digging her fingers into Xena's shoulder, she commanded herself with a firm, "No!"

"No?" Xena panted, suddenly concerned and beginning to cease all movement.

"Yes to you..." Gabrielle ground out."No to...climax... not yet...not ready..."

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's lower back pulling her back down and laying her head between two perfect breasts.She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and moaned hard and loud as her hips pushed hard against Gabrielle's center.

The blonde was fighting desperately for the control she'd had only moments before.She leaned over and picked up the partially full goblet of dark red wine.Taking a small sip, she pressed the cool pewter rim to Xena's lips.

The Conqueror accepted a deep swallow, but Gabrielle continued to pour until the wine drizzled from the corner of Xena's mouth, splashing onto her chest.

Xena gasped as the cool liquid blazed a thin wet trail between her breasts, getting lost in the coarse, dark hair between her legs.

Without thought, Gabrielle's tongue followed the path of the sweet wine as she crawled down her lover's body, enjoying it almost as much as the taste of Xena's skin and the devastatingly erotic music of the wife's constant moans.When she reached the apex of Xena's legs her tongue swirled through the coarse hair, causing Xena to cry out.

Xena grasped Gabrielle by the biceps, pulling her back into her arms and staring wantonly into her dilated green eyes. She needed Gabrielle in her lap, pressed tightly against her so she could feel her Queen's heartbeat against her own chest, not kneeling before her.

Gabrielle's fingers raked through Xena's hair, short nails scratching her scalp, sending jolts of white-hot heat through her entire body.Xena ground herself into the woman above her, using the long, lightly muscled arms, she pushed Gabrielle's tunic from her shoulders, letting drop quietly to the floor.

"Xena... unn... I..." She couldn't go on.Her eyes were unfocused then squeezed tightly shut as her breathing broke into short pants. Gabrielle could do no more than grasp Xena tighter, picking up the pace as she thrust into her.

"Ohhh yeah..." Xena grunted.The ability to form coherent words was nearly beyond her.Her movements were hard and fast, matching Gabrielle's."Come with me, love." Her head fell back as she sucked in a shuddering breath.

The Conqueror's body went rigid when her climax began, she bucked hard into the body above her, taking her Queen into the abyss with her.

"Oh, Xe..." The small woman began to tremble, grateful for the strong arms that held her as she rode out the enormous wave of pleasure, treasuring every jolt, every touch, every whispered or moaned word.This was Elysia, her heart cried.

This was love.

"WAKE UP, YOU UNGRATEFUL BITCH!"Ares' voice exploded in Xena's brain, propelling her out of a sound sleep and bringing her to her feet, the blankets flying from her body in a great cloud and landing in a tangled heap on the floor.Her sword found its way into her hand instantly.

"Bitch!" he seethed again.With a quick wave of his hand, the blade was torn from her grip and sent careening across the darkened room, impaling itself in the solid stone wall.With wild, dark eyes, he advanced on her, drawing back his hand and striking her in the face with brutal force.

Blood stung the back of her throat as she was sent sprawling to the floor, her knees landing painfully against the smooth stone as she scrambled to make sense of what was happening.Gagging on the acrid taste, she didn't take the time to wipe her mouth before whirling around confusedly, trying to locate her assailant in the flickering shadows.

She didn't have to wait long before a fuming, dark God stood before her, pulsing with rage.A stab of fear lanced through her at the look on his face, and yet she was comforted that it was he and not some other. Then her fear faded and she glared at the intruder.

Xena reached for her robe to cover her nakedness, noticing that Gabrielle still slumbered in their bed, seemingly unaware of what was happening."What have you done to her?" the warrior demanded.She examined her lover closely, but the youthful face showed no real signs of distress. A tiny frown marred Gabrielle's lips and her eyes moved back and forth rhythmically behind closed lids... their owner apparently held captive in the throes of an intense dream.

"Never mind about her!This is between us!"

Xena didn't have time to put on the robe in her hands before it burst into flames, stinging her fingers and palms and singeing the fine hairs covering her arms.With a curse, she flung the burning cloth to the ground and it immediately vanished, leaving only the faint odor of burnt cloth behind.

"You don't deserve clothing." Ares ground out impatiently. "You don't deserve any of this!"He waved his hands wildly and the flames of the room's candles flared to life, then lengthened... better illuminating the bedchamber and its occupants."You betrayed me, Xena!"

"I've done no such thing!" she yelled back at him, her normal assuredness returning with a vengeance. "I've served you well." She wiped her bleeding mouth with the back of her hand, then licked the blood clean.

Ares' eyes darkened further.

"I've claimed the world in your name, God of War.I've killed thousands for the glory of Greece.For your glory!I - Have - Never - Betrayed - You!" She took a step closer to him, whispering against his parted lips, "I've just never spread my legs for you."Xena paused, watching the God's nostrils flare in a combination of fury and arousal, his eyelids fluttering shut. "And I never will."

Ares sneered and drew away, pointing at Gabrielle with an accusing finger.  "That is betraying me!"

Xena immediately inserted herself between Gabrielle and Ares.

Unimpressed by the movement, Ares simply marched around the Conqueror. "You screwed me, Xena," he insisted, shaking his head. "You just didn't bother to kiss me first!"

A weary look crossed her face."Ares, what in Tartarus has she done to you that you hate her so much?This petty jealously is beneath you."Okay, it's not, you bastard. Crossing to a table she poured some wine on a soft cloth napkin and held it to her throbbing lip, wincing as the alcohol stung the abused flesh."Gods, I've bedded half the known world when it served our purposes. You've never cared before."

"Bedding and marrying are two different things," he claimed needlessly. "You married her, Xena!Committed yourself to being with her for the rest of your lives!"

"I love her," she said simply as if that explained everything.And to her it did.

Ares let out a disgusted breath and stroked his beard.His dark eyes rolled. "Love makes mortals weak."

"Not this mortal!" The Conqueror angrily tossed the napkin into the glowing orange embers of the fire. "If anything her love has made me stronger.It's made me want to fight to keep what I have.For Gabrielle and Jarrod." And Gods willing, future members of my family.

Ares looked confused and Xena threw her hands in the air as she sought to explain. "I was ready to walk away, Ares!Ready to give up!I was bored and lonely and disgusted with this life." She arched an eyebrow."And you.I needed more." There was still no glimmer of understanding in face, so she continued, her own expression softening unconsciously at the thought of her lover.   "She gives me more."She is more.

"She makes you weak!My Chosen cannot be weak. I won't allow it!"

"Great Zeus!Haven't you been paying attention?She's not trying to change me.She's not trying to take me away from this.She is becoming a part of it."

Ares shot the Conqueror a skeptical look, but wasn't quite able to disguise his interest.What manner of woman does it take to bewitch The Destroyer of Nations?

"Did you see the lashing she took?" Pride for Gabrielle's strength and honor warred with Xena's disgust at her own role in the punishment. "Look at her!" she demanded, pointing at the bandaged woman sleeping so soundly on her stomach.  "Her back is striped with welts and cuts from the whip.She took five lashes by Callisto's hand, and never made a Gods be damned sound."

Ares' brow creased as he regarded the small woman who appeared to be barely more than a teenager."Not even a little whimper?" he said mockingly. Even the most hardened warriors cried out when lashed.And he knew Callisto well enough to know the demented blonde wouldn't go easy on Xena's queen.

"Not a sound," the Conqueror replied flatly.

Ares looked deeply into her eyes and realized with a sickening clarity that Xena was telling the truth, and that he'd been played for a fool.Damn!"Callisto said..."

"Well, there's your problem, you soulless bastard."She advanced on him."Since when does the God of War rely on his current lay for important information?"She cannot be trusted, Ares.Don't be a fool.

"Xena, I..."

"Get out, Ares." Her voice took on an edge of warning, her own anger starting to boil over. "Get out of here and leave me alone, or I swear by Zeus on Olympus I'll take my family and I'll walk away from this, leaving you to watch the mightiest empire on earth, built in your name, crumble to dust."

"You wouldn't!"

"Try me." She ran her hands up his soft leather vest, digging her fingers into the raven-colored hide and making twin fists. "Stay well away from Gabrielle and Jarrod.My allegiance to you and this empire has already cost me a son.I won't lose anyone else." Not and keep my sanity.  "If one fair hair on their heads is disturbed... I'll dedicate every single day until Hades takes me to searching for the hind's blood so I can cut your worthless throat."

Her eyes glittered with barely suppressed rage and this close he could feel the pull between them as though her hands were everywhere, caressing his skin... drawing him into her.He knew she felt it too and groaned softly when she drew in a ragged breath. They were united by their very natures.Kindred in their sensual darkness and fury.

Ignoring the fire that had erupted in her belly at the God's close proximity and the waves of anger radiating from both of them, she reminded, "Have you ever known me to fail when I set my mind to something?"

Ares didn't answer; instead he pulled her into a rough kiss, devouring her mouth, tasting her blood, aching for her.

Xena's body wanted to respond to the primal pull, but her heart quickly snuffed out the urge.She bit his lower lip hard, his blood mixing bitterly with hers as she pushed him away with a stiff arm.

Ares smirked and licked his stained lips... enjoying the mingling of her most basic essence with his."No, my Chosen.You always keep your promises." Without another word, the God of War simply disappeared.

Xena dropped into a chair."Hades," she hissed, wiping off her mouth disgustedly with a shaking hand. But her frown faded when she realized what she had been doing in this very chair not two marks ago, the scent of lovemaking still lingering lightly around her. No wonder Ares was so aroused.  To his Godly senses, the heady aroma must have been overpowering.

The warrior stood, and retrieved the blankets from the floor. Crawling back into bed next to the warm body of her wife, she rearranged the coverings gently over Gabrielle's back.

"Xena?" Sleeping eyes tried to focus."Are you...?"

"Shh, love, go back to sleep."

"You're okay?"

A nod.

"I had the strangest dreamed about you," Gabrielle mumbled, her eyes already closing as she slipped back into Morpheus' arms.


Xena strolled across the courtyard with Melosa, Brutus, and the newly arrived satraps, Boadicea and Lao Ma.  Cleopatra would no doubt arrive later in the day, but, for now, the Conqueror had her hands full with these four.  They bickered like little children, and she was hard-pressed to even appear attentive during their minor squabbles.

From across the courtyard, the sound of actual children laughing and playing caught her ear.She stopped and turned towards the sound, knowing full well who would be standing right in the center of the group.Xena's gaze landed on the figure and she smiled a smile that transformed her entire face with its warmth.Gabrielle...

The satraps actually stopped talking and stared, mystified, as The Destroyer of Nations was transformed into something as pedestrian as a woman in love. The smile on Xena's face would not, could not be hidden.Her pride in her mate was just too powerful.It was the most human they'd ever seen her. And it was disconcerting.They exchanged sideways glances that were confused and wary.

Xena crossed her arms, just watching, not realizing that her forward motion had stopped along with the visiting dignitaries' conversation. Gabrielle was laughing and playing some sort of game of tag with a dozen or so miniature people who scrambled wildly around her feet.Every so often, one would stop right in the middle of the game to give the Queen a hug or quick kiss on the cheek.Then they would scamper off again, crowing and laughing, once again caught up their game.They adore her.Just like I do.

Gabrielle's thick hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, though a wisp of bangs fell across her forehead. She wore a loose-fitting white blouse under a muddy-brown vest that contrasted nicely with her pale hair. Tight, russet-brown pants hugged her hips and muscular legs and disappeared into knee-high, shiny dark boots. Securely tucked into the tops of the boots were two small, but razor-sharp daggers.  What a woman!

Xena looked on as one of her camp cooks and several members of the kitchen staff set up tables and prepared what looked like it was going to be a small feast for the children.Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she should eat something as well.She wanted to join her Queen and son, but was resigned to the fact that she would be trapped in meetings with her own 'children' for the better part of a day.  

"You allow such things from your Queen and your son?"Lao Ma asked, stepping up next to Xena.Her question wasn't condescending.The Asian woman was honestly curious about the strange ways of this foreign, and sometimes incomprehensible, court. Such frivolity was looked down upon in Chin and would never be permitted.The thought of that filled her with melancholy.

"And why shouldn't I?"Xena turned soft eyes on Lao Ma, smiling wistfully. "Wasn't it you that taught me not to try and rein in a free spirit? That if I did, I would only regret it and that it would die?"

The Empress nodded, remembering the many things she and the Conqueror had shared.She tried not to frown, knowing it was unbecoming and unwise to show emotion in the company of potential enemies."I always wondered if you were really listening."

"I was listening, Lao Ma.I just needed to find a spirit with the power to soar with my own."

"And you have found it in this woman?" the older woman asked interestedly.

"I have." Xena looked back to Gabrielle. " Look at her, and tell me she is not the other half of my soul."

The Empress regarded the young woman who was rumored to be nothing more than a peasant but had somehow captured the Conqueror's heart. "She is the light in the darkness." Lao Ma turned and looked directly into sky-blue eyes."But sometimes... the light can be just as dangerous as the dark."

Xena nodded, lost in thought for a moment, before addressing the group. "Shall we go to the war room and begin our meetings?The Queen and I have court later today, and I would like to get a few items off our agenda first."

As they walked, the Conqueror took Lao Ma's elbow and whispered, "You might consider letting Ming Tien come out and play with the other children.The boy broods too much."

The Empress nodded.She had never heard her son laugh as she had the children playing with the Queen.To do so would be very nice, she decided. "I will suggest it to him.But the Green Dragon make his own decisions in these matters."

"The boy broods too much," Xena muttered again. With a final glance back at Gabrielle and the children, the Conqueror resigned herself to her own fate and headed inside.


Gabrielle took her seat next to Xena in the courtyard.This was her first appearance at Xena's side during a proceeding like this, and she was more than a little nervous.But her unease was somewhat mollified by the fact that she intended sitting quietly as her spouse passed judgement on the Realm's prisoners.

The blonde had heard hushed rumors since she was a girl about Xena's brand of justice. She was anxious to see how the Conqueror conducted the proceedings, and if she was as harsh and heartless as she'd heard people whisper.   

She shifted in her seat, adjusting her back, which was sore and stiff after her day with the children.But the play had been well worth it.Jarrod had made a few new friends. And he already seemed excited about the prospect of playing with the boys and girls again.

Gabrielle had learned a lot about the different classes of people living behind the palace walls since her arrival at the Capitol.To her dismay, she had discovered that most of Xena's advisors and even the high-ranking servants were snobs.It wasn't their children that were playing with her and Jarrod in the courtyard.Their children would only be sent out to play with Jarrod when Xena was present.And their children could be used to gain the Conqueror's favor.That she had allowed Xena's affection for Jarrod to work to her own benefit early in their relationship, much in the same manipulative manner, sickened her.Though she freely admitted that in her heart, she wasn't the least bit sorry.And that worried her, too.

But the merchants and lower servants were more than happy to see their children playing happily, regardless of whether Xena herself was present or whether they could gain favor by their actions.Hopefully, eventually, she would be able to convince more of the parents to allow their children to join them without it becoming a royal butt-kissing contest.

"How are you feeling?" Xena leaned over from her chair, taking Gabrielle's hand and placing a tender kiss on the back of it.

"I'm fine, the stitches are itching and pulling a bit, but..." She gave Xena's hand a squeeze."I'm fine."Then she chuckled.


"You're so worried about a few cuts and bruises, I'd hate to see how you'd be if I could get pregnant."

Xena shook her head."No you wouldn't. You'd love to be spoiled like an old woman's cat."

The Queen wanted to laugh but knew better, given what was about to take place.

"Lao Ma has given me some lotion for your back that should help the healing process."

"I look forward to getting a 'complete' rub down later, My Lord."

Xena lowered her voice, pressing her lips to Gabrielle's ear. "I married a sex maniac." She pulled back and crooked an eyebrow, daring the shorter woman to deny it.

"You're complaining?" Gabrielle questioned, her chin resting innocently on the back of her hand as she batted her long, fair lashes at the Conqueror.

Hades, no!"Maybe," Xena lied.She wanted to say more, but was stopped by her senior advisor calling court to order.She gave Gabrielle a look that said 'later' and shifted her chair a respectable distance from her partner's.

After two marks of watching Xena conduct court, Gabrielle decided that, for the most part, Xena's adjudication and sentencing of criminals was fair and the punishment seemed to fit the crime.Not all, but most of the lore that pervaded Greek culture about standing before the Conqueror appeared not to be true.Xena didn't summarily execute the people brought before her.She listened not only to the accuser but allowed the accused to speak and plead their case.

On the other hand, some of the accused looked half-starved and as though the guards had beaten them.Gabrielle suspected poverty had driven many of these men and women to desperate actions.Murderers and rapists were executed as a matter of course.And although Xena was free to decree any punishment she saw fit, Gabrielle could tell by the look in her eyes that imprisonment or banishment had never been seriously been considered. And, if the Conqueror felt the accused was challenging her authority or posed a security risk to her Realm, she ordered death by crucifixion without a second thought.Her version of mercy was to order their legs broken first. One pathetic soul, who had been found guilty of counterfeiting the Realm's coinage, wet himself upon learning of his gruesome fate.

But it was during the last case that Gabrielle's interest was truly piqued.Three soldiers brought forth a man in chains and a dirty hood.  They forced him to his knees and roughly tore the bag from his head, exposing a neatly trimmed head of dark hair.  He looked up at Xena, brown eyes widening to almost a comical degree, before he swallowed hard and mumbled, "Oh, great. Juuuuuust great." He shook his head sadly, reaching up with a chained hand to stroke his perfect mustache."Never trust a nobleman's daughter."

Xena leaned forward in her chair, resting her chin on her fist."Well, well, look who we have here."She stood, taking each step toward the prisoner so slowly that he had time to contemplate what was coming.

His face turned as white as a sheet.

"Did you really think you could elude me forever?"

She took a position behind him, grabbing his dark hair.Leaning over, she hissed in his ear, "Steal from me, King of Thieves, and lose your life."Xena held her hand out and a guard immediately placed the cold metal hilt of a long dagger in her palm.    

"Wait," the prisoner squeaked. "Lord Conqueror, er... don't I get a trial?"

"All right," Xena growled, loosening her grip on his hair ever so slightly."Did you steal what you're accused of stealing, Autolycus?"

"Of course not!" he said unconvincingly, mustering as much indignation as was possible considering he was the best known thief in Greece.

"Liar!" She yanked his head up, exposing his perspiring neck."I find you guilty as charged."

"Big shock there."

The blade made its way to his throat.Xena gripped it tightly, and held her breath.

Autolycus squeezed his eyes shut, saying a quick prayer that was possibly the most sincere of his colorful life.

"My Lord?"

Blazing eyes looked up at the Queen, and Xena raised a questioning brow as she white-knuckled the dagger.  "Yes, Your Majesty?"

Gabrielle rose from her chair and joined her spouse.The man looked at her with pleading eyes, sweat pouring from his forehead.

"My Lord, you know I would never question you. And your final decision on any matter is absolute, but might I offer a suggestion?"

"Of course." Xena pressed her knife more firmly against the man's throat when he began to wiggle under her grasp.

"It would be a shame to kill him, My Lord."

Autolycus began nodding wildly.  Well, as wildly as he could with a knife pressed to his jugular.

Gabrielle eyed Autolycus."The King of Thieves is wrongly..." this last word emphasized with a glare at the condemned man, "thought of as a legend among the people.He has," she rolled her eyes, "once or twice been known to spread some of his ill-gotten gains among the poor. Kill him, and he simply becomes a martyr."

Xena thought about that for a moment.She really did want to cut the smug bastard's throat, but was surprised to find she was also truly interested in what Gabrielle had to say.A quick sideways glance told her that everyone around her was waiting nervously to see what she would do, how she would handle this interruption.She had ordered an advisor's tongue cut out several seasons ago when the hapless man publicly questioned her judgement in a burglary trial.But did the idiots think she would actually harm her wife?The one you ordered lashed only days ago, her mind guiltily supplied. "You have another suggestion, Your Majesty?"

Gabrielle let out a slow breath, glad beyond measure that she hadn't overstepped her bounds. "Cut off his thumbs and sentence him to life imprisonment here in the palace.He won't be able to steal, but he'll still be able to work and serve you, My Lord."

Xena's brow arched and she allowed a small smile to cross her lips. She pulled his head back again."You hear that Autolycus?Your Queen just saved your worthless hide and has kept me from having to worry about getting bloodstains off my very nice boots.I think you should thank her."She shoved him forward, propelling him into the dirt at Gabrielle's feet.

He slowly raised his head, bestowing his most rakish smile on the pretty young woman and hoping to get a peek up her dress.Now that he wasn't going to die, he felt a lot more like his old self.He would miss his thumbs.But not as much as he would have missed his life."Thank you, Your Majesty."

Gabrielle knelt down and took his right hand in hers."This time it's your thumbs, Autolycus." She gave the body part in question a slight tug to let him know she was deadly serious. "If I hear of you stealing from Our Lord again, I'll personally seek you out and cut off both your hands.Don't make me sorry.But more importantly, don't make the Lord Conqueror look foolish for sparing you.Do you understand me?"

Autolycus winked roguishly. "Yes, Your lovely... Uff!" He landed on his face when Xena kicked him squarely in his back.

Xena cocked her head to the side.  "Perhaps General Callisto can help you with that eye tic you appear to have?Hmm?I hear she can do wonders with a red-hot poker."

Autolycus blanched and corrected himself immediately."I mean, Your Majesty."

Gabrielle bit back a chuckle.  She had, at last, met someone whose ego rivaled her lover's."I'm glad we've found a compromise."She stood, looking at Xena, who gave her a favorable nod and a smile laced with affection.


"My Queen," Xena kissed a bit of exposed neck, before taking her place at the table in their private dining room for the evening meal,"has a bit of a wicked streak."

"Really?" Gabrielle poured two mugs of tea without so much as raising a brow in Xena's direction."I hadn't noticed."She smiled, passing one of the mugs.

"Umm-hmm.Ordering Autolycus' thumbs cut off.That was a very interesting decision.I'm ashamed I didn't think of it myself."

"Well, it just seemed to me that a live example was better than a dead martyr."She sipped her tea, giving her spouse a look over the rim.

"Also, not a bad game of good sovereign, bad sovereign.Saving his worthless life will make you more popular among the people.Very clever, my dear."

The door between their apartment and Jarrod's room opened and the boy bounded in.He scrambled to the table, offering first a kiss to his Mama, then to his Mother."I'm sorry I'm late."

"And why, Tiger, are you late?" Xena asked, suddenly irritable.She would not abide tardiness or excuses.And the boy had best accept that from the very start.

Gabrielle looked at Xena who had visibly stiffened.

"My pony threw a shoe, and Palaemon said it was very important to see that it was taken care of right away.I'm very sorry Mother. I'll do better next time." The boy's gaze dropped to his shoes. "I promise to do my best not to be late again."

Gabrielle remained silent.But it was hard, trusting your son's fate to someone else's hands.The blonde woman knew and accepted the risks of loving the Conqueror. But that didn't stop her heart from starting to pound.

"Next time you'll send word if you're going to be late?"

The boy nodded frantically.Like Gabrielle, he read the anger behind cool blue eyes.

"Well then, I think we can let it go this time." She smiled a little, trying to ease her family's minds.She felt a stab of guilt as they immediately relaxed. Damn, Xena.He's a boy, not one of your soldiers. Control your temper.He apologized. 

 "Palaemon was right," the Conqueror continued, patting her lover's knee reassuringly. Then she turned her head and bestowed her wife with a devastatingly sexy grin. "You have to take care of your mount."

Gabrielle choked on her tea, spraying the table.

"Mama, are you all right?"

She nodded, catching most of the cough in her napkin and offering Xena an evil smile.The Conqueror laughed and Jarrod took his seat next to her.

"So Jarrod," Gabrielle prepared a plate for the boy and placed it in front of him."How were your lessons today?"It was his first day with someone other than Palaemon as his tutor.

The lad's face turned crimson.  "Umm..." He took a small piece of sweetbread and played with it before sputtering, "It... um... good... it was fine."  Then he crammed the entire piece into his mouth, knowing his Mama didn't approve of him talking with his mouth full.

Xena smirked at a confused looking Gabrielle and, as soon as she saw Jarrod swallow and reach for his water, she asked. "Tell us about your tutor?Do you like her?"

If Jarrod were capable of a real glare, Xena would have received the very first one.As it was, he only managed a supremely annoyed look."Yes, Mother, very much.She's umm... very nice."

"She teaches you important things, I take it?"Xena had to bite back the grin.

Gabrielle raised both eyebrows.  She?Nobody mentioned that!

"Of course." He nodded, trying to decide what to eat next. "Today we studied..." His mind suddenly went blank under the scrutiny of Xena's knowing eyes."Errr... mathematics."I think.

The Conqueror nodded seriously. "I can see you're paying attention to the important things.And can you tell me what color her eyes are?"

"Blue," the boy answered instantly, before realizing he'd been tricked.He groaned as his face flushed a brighter red and he hid his eyes behind his hands.

Gabrielle sat in stunned silence while Xena roared with laughter.She continued to laugh heartily until she was interrupted by a knock on the door.

Moodily, Gabrielle refused to answer it, so Xena ambled over to the source of noise, now laughing at her shocked bride.

Malaius stood on the other side of the door, wringing his hands."Forgive this interruption of your meal, My Lord, but we have a situation."


The Conqueror and the Queen both adjusted their cloaks as they made their way to the courtyard.A stiff breeze was blowing, stirring the torches used to light the courtyard, and the leaves around their feet, as they padded along.

"Get your hands off me, Greek Bitch!"The strong male voice, speaking Latin, rumbled on the evening air."Where in the name of Pluto is Our Lord Conqueror?"

"Who is that?"Gabrielle tugged on Xena's cloak as they approached, wincing as a string of expletives carried throughout the mostly quiet courtyard.She hadn't heard that much cursing since she left the tavern.

"I'm betting good dinars: Mark Antony.He's so arrogant, the prig refuses to speak Greek.Latin only.He's the most arrogant, annoying, frustrating..."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Not another one."Sounds like he fits in just perfectly around here.You should order his transfer from Rome to serve at your side."

Dark brows drew together as Xena gave Gabrielle's offhand remark a moment's thought."Interesting," she mumbled. "Antony!"Xena called, holding her hand high in the air."I'm here!What has you so disturbed, that your filthy mouth has interrupted my evening meal with my Queen and my son?"

"This crazy bitch you allow to run loose!"An accusing hand flailed toward an uncharacteristically quiet General Callisto. "You should put her on a short chain."

"I've considered it."Xena gave Callisto a warning glare."Especially lately, but with everything that is going on, my court is under a great deal of stress.What did my general do to offend you?"

Or is it just that she's breathing - period?I personally find that terribly offensive, Gabrielle thought acidly.

The handsome Roman jerked a square chin towards a large, enclosed carriage drawn by six white horses."Queen Cleopatra and her son are slumbering in the gharry.And this crazy bitch wants to search it as though Queen Cleopatra were some common traveler!"

Callisto stuck out an impudent tongue.Antony's eyes flicked her way, but by the time they settled on the skinny, leather-clad general's face, a sickeningly sweet smile was all they found.

Xena sighed.Maybe I should kill the bitch now and get it over with.Sure, it would look bad... having to murder my highest military commander.  But they'd get over it!

Gabrielle stepped forward, laying a light hand on Xena's arm and speaking in Latin."My Lord, if it pleases you, feel free to speak with General Mark Antony.I'll see to Queen Cleopatra and her son."Gabrielle offered the tall man a nod of greeting.

The Roman squared his shoulders, examining Gabrielle from head to toe with a critical eye.He bowed deeply, gently taking her hand in his and placing a light kiss on her knuckles. "Thank you..." his words trailed off meaningfully. Who was this woman who had been whispering so intimately with the Conqueror moments ago?

Gabrielle ignored his silent request for her title."You are most welcome, General Antony.My Lord tells me you are a great asset to her empire.It would be my delight to assist you."

I said he was an ass not an asset, Gabrielle.Xena smirked, before turning on Callisto.She moved to the general and grabbed her roughly by the arm."Are you trying to start a war?" she hissed quietly.

"Of course not, My Lord," Callisto defended in that sing-song voice that Xena had come to loathe."I was merely doing my job."

"Since when does your job include rousting a royal guest in the court!"

Callisto pulled free, glaring at Xena."My job involves your safety.And the arrival of your satraps..."

"I am so Gods be damned tired of your excuses."Xena was shaking with barely contained fury as images of a Callisto holding a bloody whip flashed through her mind.Her temper finally snapped.An angry hand flew out, backhanding Callisto in the nose.The loud popping of cartilage and bone, and the light spray of bright red blood, left no doubt that she had broken it.

"My Lord..." Antony began in surprise, preparing to interpose himself between Callisto and the Conqueror. He reached for his blade with one hand and grasped Xena's shoulder with the other.

Xena eyes darted sideways at the Roman, and Callisto used the opportunity to spring forward, shrieking, her fist drawn back, her dark eyes insane with rage.

But Xena never felt the blow, seeing only a flash of Gabrielle's cloak as the smaller woman propelled herself into the General, sending them both to the ground in a tangled heap of arms and legs.Callisto immediately rolled Gabrielle onto her back, causing the Queen to howl in pain as her stitches rubbed roughly against her cloak on the wet, leaf-strewn soil.But Gabrielle allowed Callisto's momentum to carry them into another spin, this time landing with her on top.She swung wildly at the General's shocked face, landing a vicious blow with her left hand.Her wedding band and the chain connecting her ring and bracelet cut across thin pale skin, leaving a bloody trail their wake.

Antony winced."Now that's going to scar."

Xena pulled her mate off Callisto before her General could grab one of the many weapons Xena knew she had hidden on her body.

"Never touch my family again!" Gabrielle spat, her entire body trembling.

Antony's jaw sagged as he stared at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle fought against Xena's grasp... only settling down when her mate whispered in her ear, "Easy, Mama Bear.  Let the guards have her now.You've made your point."

Blood dripped from Callisto's misshapen nose and the long gash that began just below one eye, ending at her snarling lips. Still on the ground, on her back, she reached for a knife in the waist of her tunic; pulling the knife and preparing to throw it, she screamed out in pain when Xena's boot ground her fingers into her own blade.

The Conqueror's hand fell to her sword."Give me a reason to end this now." Her voice was deadly calm."Please." She pressed her foot down harder, a crimson stain blossoming on the side of her boot.

Callisto's lips twitched with the effort it took not to speak.

Xena smiled coldly."You are relieved of duty.Permanently.Guards!" she bellowed needlessly.Two men carrying torches were already in a dead run towards them, having seen their Queen go down in the distance. "Take Callisto to the dungeon where she will await punishment."

"What?!" the General shrieked.

The guard looked from his former commander to Xena. "The dungeon... with the other prisoners of the Realm, My Lord?"

Xena thought for a moment. If she housed Callisto there, the General be dead before she could order her crucified.  And that simply wouldn't do. "No.  Put her on house arrest in her apartment. I want three guards at her door.If she tries to leave her room for any reason..." Xena's eyes pinned Callisto's. "Kill her on the spot."


"How's your back?" Xena asked, as the women excused themselves from Antony's presence, having dispatched Malaius to make certain that Cleopatra got settled into her rooms.

"It's been better," Gabrielle answered tightly.She twisted her shoulder, trying to ease some of the pain. "I'm sorry, Xena."

"For what?"

The younger woman smirked. "Well, not for knocking Callisto upside the head, that's for sure." Gabrielle exhaled wearily. "I'm sorry that she's acting this way because of me.I know she was being difficult with Antony out of spite. To make you look bad."

"Gabrielle." Xena pulled her partner to a stop and cupped her chin with a gentle hand. "Callisto was always a spiteful bitch.You're not to blame for that.And she hates Romans.That's why she was giving Antony a hard time."

Gabrielle nodded, accepting Xena's explanation as they began walking again."You were right.Antony is a pompous ass," Gabrielle agreed, once they had returned to their apartment.

"Told you."Xena turned her head from side to side, her neck giving a loud pop in each direction.Then she tossed down her cloak and offered her hand to Gabrielle. "Let's check on Jarrod."

After making sure their son was tucked in and sound asleep they returned to their bedchamber.Xena fell back on the bed, arms spread wide, her feet on the floor."I want to go fishing," she whined.

Gabrielle lay down next to her frustrated partner, comparing her bruised knuckles with Xena's."Then after all this is over, why don't we go back to a certain apple orchard near a pond, and you can do that."

"What about our joining trip?"

"That could be our joining trip."  The Queen grinned."I can introduce you to your mother in law."

Xena threw her arm over her eyes. "I thought you were trying to relieve my stress."

"Oh, I know many, many ways to relieve your stress, My Lord."


"Don't they ever stop?!"Ares yelled, closing the portal to the Conqueror's bedroom with the furious motion of his hand."They're as bad as Dad," he mumbled, kicking a rug out of his way as he crossed Callisto's quarters.

She lifted her head, sneering at the God."She needs to die." Callisto wiped the remaining blood from her chin.

"Which one?"

"Like I care at this point."

"Okay," Ares put up his hands in a calming gesture."I know you're mad," you loony bitch.  "But we can't hurt either of them."

She came up from the table with a dagger in her hand."Give me one good reason why!" Callisto demanded.

He sighed.Sometimes mortals were so tiring. He simply moved to the woman and laid his hands on her face, healing it of the cuts and bruises, but allowing the scar from Gabrielle's blow to remain.Never hurts to have a little humility.Except for Xena and I of course...."If I lose Xena, the answer is obvious.I lose everything.  My followers.  My power.And if Xena loses the annoying little blonde, she walks, and I lose everything again.So hands off!"

Callisto pushed her fingers between the opening of his black leather vest, letting her nails scratch through the coarse hair. "Ares, you could make me your chosen.I would let the world run red with blood... for you."

Ares gave Callisto a sarcastic look that screamed, 'You wish!'"Umm... Callie, darling, I agree that what you do is inspiring... in its own special ghoulish kind of way. But if you kill everyone, the point in ruling the world would be... what, exactly?" Besides, considering you were just bested by a short serving wench with a big attitude... Your stock just went way down.

He glanced at the General's battered face. I might just see what Xena sees in her new bed warmer.I'll bet she's a hellcat between the sheets, too.

Unable to curb his curiosity and natural tendency towards voyeurism, Ares allowed the sounds of Xena and Gabrielle's love-making to enter his head once again.He listened with growing arousal as his Chosen begged the blonde to touch her.To take her. "Oh yeah... Do it!" he groaned.What I wouldn't give for a place in that bed.

Callisto was too wrapped up in her own anger and hatred to notice the odd but undeniably captivated look on Ares' face.

"She embarrassed me, Ares!Xena challenged me in front of Roman slime."

With a snap of his fingers, the sounds disappeared.Later.And knowing them, I won't have to wait long."No," he corrected rudely, taking a seat on her foot of her bed, his skin tingling from his latest auditory experience. "She fired you in front of Roman slime.Had she challenged you, you'd be talking to my uncle not me."Ares crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes, striking the pose of someone on their funeral pyre.

"You arrogant bastard!"

He laughed, resting his weight on his palms as he leaned back casually.

Callisto launched herself at the God, pushing him back on the bed and straddling his hips as quick hands reached for the belt of his pants."She's out of control, Ares.We need to stop her."

"And this is stopping her? Not that I mind," he added quickly, moaning as she practically tore his trousers from his body, lifting the leather over the hard bulge in his pants.

"No. But once I get done here, I intend to bring her down."She glanced up with hopeful eyes.Assuming I can get out of this room."She slowly lowered her body down his, bringing her head between his thighs.

"Done."After all, it was bad form not to reward someone as loyal as Callisto.He thrust his hips up to meet her mouth, his mind somewhere else.


Gabrielle entered the palace jail, gagging as the heavy doors clanked closed behind her.The lighting was poor, and she cast long shadows as she hurried through the corridor.The air was cold and heavy, smelling strongly of smoke, blood, and urine. Gods, Xena.She covered her mouth with her hand. She could only imagine what the dungeon must be like if the jail was in this sorry state.

Since court had been held the day before, the cells were empty... all except one.The enormous jailer, who looked as though he himself hadn't seen the light of day in several seasons, walked with her but kept a respectful three paces behind her.The toothless man made her uneasy, and she was hard-pressed not to look over her shoulder every few paces.She was unaccustomed to having someone trailing behind her like a loyal but annoying hound. And she now understood why Xena never presented her back to her enemies.

Gabrielle shivered visibly and increased her pace.She had been warned, in a very quiet manner by Xena, that some of the servants, the ones who didn't have direct contact with her in the palace, considered her to be a traitor of the common people.The news made her chest ache, and every shadow become sinister and foreboding.

She took a deep breath, ridding her mind of irrational fears... At least for the moment.   Gabrielle had made her decision and found her heart and soul in the process.Nothing was more important than that... whatever the risk.

The Queen stopped outside his cell.She regarded him seriously, her eyes traveling to two bloodstained bandages.Gabrielle felt slightly queasy, knowing that he'd been maimed at her suggestion.But he's still alive, she reminded herself.

He slowly looked up and lifted a wrapped hand."Good morning, Your Majesty.Come to collect the evidence for a pair of earrings?  Or maybe Our Lord wants an early morning snack."

Gabrielle didn't take the bait.  She motioned the guard to unlock the cell door, then gave a soft, but firm command."Leave us."

"But, Your Majesty, if Our Lord..."

She turned on the burly guard.  "Who would know Our Lord better, her wife or a palace prison guard?"

For a moment he remained nonplussed, but eventually, reluctantly, he bowed and opened the cell."As you wish, Your Majesty.I'll be in the outer chamber if you need me."

"Ah, don't worry about her," the thief yelled."She's got a crush." Autolycus shrugged self-deprecatingly and tried to stroke his mustache dashingly, but the effect was mostly lost when he couldn't separate his fingers in the bandages."I don't mind indulging the kid."

The jailer took a menacing step forward, but Gabrielle held up a hand.He spat on the ground at the thief's feet."I'll see you later."

"Don't bother.I can still smell you from way out there."

Gabrielle just shook her head.  "You are amazing," she remarked, stepping into the cell and taking a seat alongside him.

"That's what that nobleman's daughter said."He still managed a smile.

"Before or after she turned you in?" the Queen asked, taking the small bag off her shoulder and placing it in her lap.

"Yeah, well," he tried to scratch his throat, cursing when he couldn't do it."I knew my luck was bound to run out sooner or later."

"Oh, I don't know." She took his right hand in hers and began removing the hastily applied, filthy bandage.  "Your head is still attached to the rest of your body.I'd say your luck is holding firm."

He watched as she unwrapped his hand, grimacing at the discolored stump covered with stitches where his thumb used to be.Taking a deep breath, he nodded."I guess so."

She removed a jar and applied a salve to the wound, carefully inspecting it for infection."Looks like they used a hot knife for this." The burnt flesh was dark and shriveled. "Did they?"

"Yes, actually they did."

"Small blessing."

"Very small," he snorted, sighing at the cool feeling of the salve.

"For a man who should be picking pockets in Tartarus at this very moment, you sure complain a lot.If you're not happy with this arrangement, I sure I can convince My Lord to change it for you."

"No!" he corrected quickly. "But you've got to understand.I am a thief, after all.Cutting off my thumbs was almost like cutting off my..." They both looked at his crotch, then back at each other.

She bit her lower lip.


Removing a clean roll of bandages from the bag, Gabrielle carefully rewrapped his hand. "Well, fortunately for you, I'm not done with you yet."

"Reeeeally?"He smirked smugly and cocked a brow, his mood brightening instantly."You naughty girl!  What did you have in mind, Your Majesty?"

Gabrielle gave the bandage a painful tug."Keep that up, and Our Lord will remove your eyes and tongue next.And I won't try to stop her."

"That would be bad."

"Yes, it would.Because I require the use of both of them."

"Now you're talking Queenie...er...Your Majesty."


"You can't do this!"Antony roared, rushing into the small private council room where Xena was having a meeting with her senior advisors.She was on her feet immediately, meeting the Roman before he was half way across the room.

"How dare you try to tell me what I can and cannot do." She drew her blade menacingly and marched across the room, the heels of her boots clicking on the hardwood floors.

He waved a piece of parchment in the air.Affixed to the bottom, and pressed into a heavy blob of purple wax, was the royal seal."This!What is this?"

"Your transfer," Xena informed coolly, knowing she wasn't really answering his question.What took you so long, Antony? I expected you several candlemarks ago.

"I cannot serve in Greece!"

The temperature in the room dropped several degrees. "Of course you can. You will serve whereever I tell you to serve."She reached out, grabbing him and drawing him close to her."I rule here, Antony!I am Your Lord Conqueror.You couldn't defeat me in Rome and you can't defeat me in Greece."

Xena pushed him away roughly, causing him to rock on his heels as he tried to regain his balance. "You will serve in Greece because I say you will serve in Greece.If you don't like it, feel free to throw yourself on your sword." Xena waved a dismissive hand in the air. "But take yourself outside first, don't ruin my rug."


"... is ultimately subject to my rule.She keeps her kingdom, as do the other satraps, because I cannot be everywhere at once.But don't for a moment forget that it is a part of my Realm. The fact that you want to remain in the company of your lover is not a valid military reason to keep you in Egypt or Rome."And I need your abilities here, General.

The Roman's square jaw worked silently; his face turned brick red as a vein in his forehead pulsed in time with his pounding heartbeat.His relationship with Queen Cleopatra was well known.But no one had ever been bold enough to speak of it so openly. He wanted to press his case. But one look into icy blue eyes told him it would cost him his life. The Conqueror's patience appeared to be bottoming out and he'd seen men lose their lives for far less.

The Conqueror called two guards to her side with nothing more than a significant look. "Escort Mark Antony out of the room." Huh.He's not nearly as upset as I thought he'd be.

"Yes, My Lord."The guard snapped off a salute before motioning to the door with his hand.

"And Antony," Xena continued, sheathing her sword and calling over her shoulder as she padded back to the map-covered table, "make an appointment next time."

Antony's arrogant nature refused to allow him to remain silent. "This isn't over, Lord Conqueror!" the Roman sneered, knowing full well that he was pushing his luck. He had personally seen men run through for less.

Xena unrolled a map of the Aegean Sea, never turning back to the man across the room. She shrugged as the door to the room clicked shut. "It never is."

The Conqueror stared at the scattered pieces of parchment, not really seeing them.She took a deep breath, one hand scratching the other as she considered the table and the men before her."You know what?"

"My Lord?"Malaius questioned.

"I've had enough of this endless paperwork.I haven't seen my wife and son since our morning meal." Gods help me, but I miss them and it's making me even shorter tempered than normal."I trust you can finish without me?"

"Of course, My Lord.The scrolls will be in your study for approval and signature by sundown."

"Good."She gave a small nod and trained her eyes on Malaius, offering an uncomfortable, "Thank you."

Xena held in her laughter as she escaped into the hall... sure she heard every jaw in the room drop as soon as her back was turned.


Jarrod sat on the top rail of the corral fence.Palaemon leaned against the outside of the rough wooden post.Smiles creased both their faces.The source of their amusement was their Queen and her 'groomsman', who was attempting to deal with the Queen's new horse.

"Hopeless," Jarrod muttered quietly, shaking his head."Mama has never in her life ridden a horse by herself.She hates them."

"I think Her Majesty will be just fine... given time." Palaemon dipped his head and brushed short bangs from his forehead."Of course, things will move a lot faster once she actually gets on the horse."

Jarrod laughed, not hampered by his mother's preference for walking.

Xena's brows came together when she joined them at the fence. "How long have they been at it?"

Palaemon looked up into the mostly clear autumn sky."I'd say a little over two marks, My Lord."

"And she hasn't managed to actually get on the horse yet?"

Palaemon looked down at his boots before meeting Xena's gaze, his expression sober. "No, My Lord.Every time she approaches it, she suddenly... um... well... she changes her mind and goes back to just walking around the ring with it."

"He means she chickens out," Jarrod supplied helpfully, rescuing Palaemon from having to spell it out.

Xena shook her head.Gods."And the no good thief?"

Palaemon snorted, then regained his military bearing. But he couldn't stop the small grin that had sprouted on his lips."I think he hates horses more than Her Majesty. I'm certain he's rethinking your offer of execution at this very moment."

"Hades in a hand basket," Xena groaned, climbing over the fence and striding across the corral, kicking aside mounds of wet leaves as she walked. She looked at Gabrielle and then the thief, who both suddenly wore sheepish, embarrassed expressions."You," she pointed to Autolycus, "go sit with them."She jerked her thumb at her son and his mentor, wiggling it cruelly when she saw Autolycus staring at her opposable digit with narrowed eyes.Using powerful thighs, she vaulted into the saddle and offered a hand to her mate, settling the smaller woman into the saddle in front of her and straightening her cloak.

"This is nice."Gabrielle snuggled gently back into Xena's warm embrace with a contented sigh.She knew Xena wouldn't be pleased with her lack of progress.But it wasn't like the time with her new horse had been wholly unproductive.She'd named the beast, after all!Of course, she'd had to change it when Autolycus informed her that Arabella was a bad name for a gelding.So now, they sat perched atop 'Cinnamon'.Food associations were always pleasing to the young woman.Besides, he was brown and she wasn't feeling terrible creative.

"Uh huh."The Conqueror grinned, pressing her lips into soft, fair hair. "Don't get too comfortable, My Queen. You're driving." She placed the reins in suddenly trembling hands and waited for the explosion.

"Xena, I can't!"She fought the urge to drop the leather straps as the horse shook his head. He snorted irritably, sending puffs of smoke breath disappearing into the crisp air. "I don't want a horse."

"That's not important, Gabrielle.  You need one."

"But I..."

"It wouldn't look right for you to be walking along with the slaves when we travel.   And I refuse to build you one of those giant sarcophagus-like things that Cleopatra travels in."

Both women shivered involuntarily at the distasteful thought of being enclosed in a solid box, without even a window.

"You can do this, Mama Bear," Xena promised in a low, reassuring voice. She leaned back a bit, giving Gabrielle plenty of room in the saddle.  "Press your thighs into his sides.I know you know how to do that."

"Very funny," Gabrielle mumbled, but she did as her lover asked.

"Use the force of your legs and gentle tugs on the reins to tell him to go.That's it... not quite so tentatively... Good."

Gabrielle nodded.She was concentrating far too hard to actually speak out loud.But after Cinnamon took a few experimental steps at his mistress' command, she managed to find her voice. "Okay.I'm okay. I'm okay."

"Who are you trying to convince?"

"Quiet!" Gabrielle snapped, feeling the solidly constructed body behind begin to shake with silent laughter.

The horse made a sudden movement and Gabrielle gasped, fear rising in her belly.Xena laid warm hands over Gabrielle's, and with a firm tug, brought the horse under complete control. "Xena, I'm okay as long as he only wants to walk." I think.  "But what if he decided he wants to trot?"She gulped loudly.  "Or run."

"Well, then, my love, one of two things will happen."A long pause.

Gabrielle finally broke under the strain waiting for Xena to finish."What?!"

Xena chuckled again."You'll control him or fall off."

Gabrielle winced.Somehow she knew Xena was going to say that.  "It's not the falling I mind, My Lord.  It's the sudden stop."


"She's out of her mind!"Brutus crumpled up the large sheet of parchment and threw it across the table.It skittered across the gleaming surface until it silently fell off the far end. He sat with the other satraps, who were all intently reading the Conqueror's newest proclamation. "Rome will not abide by this!"

"I don't understand this order at all."Lao Ma reread the last paragraph several times."She has fine soldiers here in Greece.Why should she require more?"

Boadicea violently pushed her chair out from under her. Hefting it high above her head, she smashed it against the wall with a mighty roar as the other satraps looked on in disbelief, several of them drawing their weapons.With jerky, angry movements she tore a splintered leg from the chair and poked it into the red-hot coals that filled the conference room's hearth.When her stick was blazing, she placed her copy of the parchment in the center of the massive wooden table, and crudely spat on it, cursing in a language that no one present had ever heard before. 

When the tall redhead ran out of curse words, she set the parchment aflame, sneering as it burned."I will not leave my twenty best guards here.And I certainly won't send another two-hundred by the spring!" She spat again, causing Brutus and Lao Mao to exchange disgusted, pained looks."I won't allow conscription of Albion's finest soldiers so that they may serve Greece alone.To die with Grecian dogs!"

Boadicea looked like she was gearing up to spit again, but Cleopatra interrupted. "She..." Cleopatra crossed her short, slender legs.Her finger softly traced the parchment lying in her lap."... has already ordered Mark Antony transferred to Greece. She is quite serious about this."

"Then we have to stop her."Melosa knew the words were treasonous the moment they left her lips, but she wasn't willing to send her best Amazon warriors to the capital either. The security of her tribe was at stake. Though she was glad that the Conqueror had only asked for thirty of her finest warriors in the spring - and not two hundred as she had with the other satraps.

"Then it would seem that we need to work together in this."Brutus paced, joining Melosa in her thinking.He longed to go back to Rome where women didn't dominate politics.Even he was progressive enough to believe that they might occasionally earn their spot in the gladiator's ring.  But they should never rule! He cursed all Greek men and their apparent, inherent weakness. "Separately we are no match for The Conqueror."

"But together we could be."Boadicea crossed her arms, watching each face.

They all knew that what they were considering could cost them much more than their lives if they failed. But to succeed would free them from the Conqueror's rule forever... leaving them to rule their domains as they saw fit.

The room was silent for a long moment.Lao Ma finally stood, taking her copy of the proclamation in her hand, she slowly tore it into two pieces.Forgive me, Xena. "Chin will join with any of you who wish to challenge The Conqueror in this matter."

Cleopatra tapped a long nail against the table."Egypt will join an alliance as well. But Xena cannot be defeated through might alone.We all know this to be true." Several terse nods affirmed her words. To defeat the Conqueror, we'll need to approach this in a far more..." She paused, taking a deep breath."Surreptitious manner."

Each head in turn nodded slowly in agreement.The alliance had been made.


Xena hissed sympathetically, watching Gabrielle limp into their bathing chamber."It'll get easier."

Gabrielle groaned in reply."I feel like I was on that beast for days."

"Beast?" Xena snorted. "Gabrielle, that young gelding had to be one of the most mild-mannered horses I've ever seen. Gods, I thought he fell asleep there for a while!"

"Xena, I feel like I've been dragged behind the damn thing."

"Well, My Queen, I suggest that we have a hot bath drawn for you." She patted her spouse's back lovingly. "After that I'll give you a nice massage."

"Every spot on my body hurts," Gabrielle whimpered again, slowly peeling off her clothes.Gods, I smell like a horse. She found the mixture of sweat, leather, and horseflesh an oddly tantalizing odor on Xena.Gabrielle wrinkled her nose.She just stank.

"I'll be happy to rub every spot on your lovely body, but first you need to soak in a very hot tub."Xena left the room to call for the servant to prepare the Queen's bath. "It'll relax your muscles."While Gabrielle was incredibly fit, Xena knew that riding made you sore in places... well, that normally didn't get sore.

"Tell 'em to keep it hot.I may sleep in it," Gabrielle called, peering down at her feet, and pondering exactly how she could get her boots off without having to move her legs.

Xena smiled fondly at her wife from the doorway.She slowly walked over to the pitiful young woman and knelt down. She had worked her for two more marks, but by the time they were through, Gabrielle could find her seat and trot the horse around the ring all on her own.She wasn't exactly happy about it.But she could do it.

With nimble fingers, Xena began working the laces of Gabrielle's boots."Now you know how I feel at the end of a long day of training... And why I have bath attendants."

"And the reason that they're breasts have to stand out to here..." Gabrielle cupped her hands out in front of her chest, indicating an enormous breast size, "is?"

To her dismay, the Conqueror found herself blushing. "As Conqueror, I reserve the right to remain silent."

"Uh huh.That's what I thought."She stroked the dark hair in front of her, grateful for Xena's exaggerated care. "Maybe there is something to the idea of having bath attendants after all."

"Sure, you say that now."Xena laughed, picking at knot in the laces. "Didn't seem like it was such a good idea when I was sore and needed my boots taken off."

She gave Xena a playful shove with her foot."Maybe I'll hand pick a few attendants for the bath.I'll get myself some nice young lady... or man," she added happily."And I'll find a very large, heavyset, toothless, bad-breathed, half-bald, old crone just for you."

Xena frowned at the thought of an attendant washing Gabrielle's nude body.Her partner's words had derailed her mind completely, causing her to miss the rest of the taunt. "You, My Queen, are only allowed male attendants that I personally will turn into eunuchs before they get close to you."

"Gods, Xena," she purred sexily. "How did you know I was into eunuchs?"The spark of jealously she saw in her partner's eyes flattered Gabrielle.  But it would be cruel, not to mention stupid, to take things any further.  

The Conqueror fell back into the middle of the cool stone floor, laughing so hard that her sides began to ache.  In fact, at that very moment, Xena realized that she had laughed more in the past few months with Gabrielle than she had in all the seasons since she was a child combined. She silently thanked the Fates that she had ridden toward Poteidaia in her quest to escape the confines of her loneliness and boredom. She shuddered, thinking of where she would be today had she headed her gelding in the opposite direction.

Gabrielle was puzzled by the sudden look of melancholy that stole over Xena's face. Playing some more would help, she decided."C'mon now! Get up."The command was given from the edge of the tub. "Snap, snap.Stop laying down on the job.I have another boot that needs to be removed.If you want to be my attendant and my body slave you're going to have to do better than this," she teased, fully aware that her devotion to Xena was written all over her face.

Xena rose to her knees and bowed her head deeply, pressing the crown of her head into Gabrielle's chest and feeling strong arms wrap around her."Forgive me, Your Majesty."

It was then that the attendants entered the room to prepare the bath.They stood in shocked silence in the doorway, amazed to see their Lord Conqueror on her knees with her head bowed before the small blonde.

Gabrielle noticed them first.  "You should see what I can make her do when I'm totally naked."


Jarrod stood gaping at the group of children he'd been playing with."It's not true! Take it back!"

"It is true," a chubby, red-haired boy who was slightly older than Jarrod defended. "My brother is the healer who put the stitches in her back. He told me himself!"

Jarrod advanced, wanting to strike out, his mounting anger and frustration warring with his upbringing.He balled both hands into fists. "You lie!  Our Lord Conqueror wouldn't hurt Mama!  They love each other."

The other children laughed at him, and he became more confused."What?!They got married.  My Mama is your Queen now!" he shouted, backing up a pace.

A tall, twelve-winters-old boy with deep set, hazel eyes spoke up cruelly. "My mother says that your Mama is a peasant whore that the Conqueror keeps merely as a body slave."

"Your mother knows nothing!"  Jarrod gestured wildly, looking around for someone who would back him up. Several boys and one girl, who had managed to convince them to allow her to tag along in her play, studied their shoes, wanting to side with Jarrod but not wanting to anger the largest, oldest boy, who seldom would play with the younger kids. "You're all very wrong!Our Lord Conqueror loves my mother.You don't know what you're talking about."

Hazel eyes flashed in challenge. "Yeah... that's why the Lord Conqueror beat your mother in the courtyard like a common prisoner.I heard she gave her ten lashes..."

"Not true!" Tears stung Jarrod's eyes and he brushed them away with a balled up fist, running at full speed toward the royal apartments.He would tell Xena and she would set this lie straight!


"Take your robe off and sit up, Gabrielle."Xena warmed the oil in her hands."Lao Ma assures me this will help your back heal properly."

The Queen removed her robe and sat up in the bed offering her back to Xena's strong warm hands. Gods, it's amazing how gentle they can be when she wants them to."Oh, that's nice."She purred, letting her head drop.

"Well, I'm glad you're pleased, Your Majesty. Though you really should be punished after what you said to those servants."

The door to their bedchamber burst open, and Jarrod flew into the bedchamber just in time to hear Xena's last words. He stopped a few feet from his mother, looking at her striped back with wide, terrified eyes and breathing hard."Don't you touch her! Don't hurt her ever again!"

Both women turned. Gabrielle quickly reached for a sheet to cover her naked body.

"It's true!" he sobbed, as the pain of what had happened hit home. Tears blurred his vision."You...you beat her?How could you?You said you loved her!" He was shaking and slowly backing out of the room."You said you loved me!You lied!You lied!I hate you, Xena!"

Before either woman could offer a response, he bolted.

"Oh, Zeus!" Xena was on her feet hastily, though the pain in chest nearly convinced her that her heart had stopped beating all together.We need to bolt that Gods be damned door!  Frantically gathering her clothes, she pulled them on, noting out of the corner of her eye that Gabrielle was doing the same thing.

"Tell Palaemon what happened," Xena ordered curtly.

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the stark look of pain that cut across Xena's face. Gods, Xena. Her chest tightened painfully. "It won't be easy but I'll..."  

"What, Gabrielle?" She angrily tugged on her second boot."What can you say to him?He was absolutely right!"

"We've been down this road before!"Gods, if I'd have understood how this would hurt her... and now him, I would have just let her pardon me. Now is not the time to argue this, Xena.But you'll both get past this.And eventually you'll forgive yourself.

"There are lots of places for the boy to hide in the palace, but hopefully he'll go to someone he trusts.I'm going to look for him and see if I can catch him before he gets away from us."

Gabrielle nodded, and the women headed down the hall... in opposite directions.


Xena heard the palace come to life as more and more people were enlisted to search for Jarrod.It had been nearly two marks and there was no sign of the boy. The courtyard, usually cloaked in darkness by this hour, was alight with dozens of soldiers' torches as they hunted for the prince. Voices of all type and station called her son's name, and for a moment, a terrified mother was grateful that no matter how much people may detest her, they didn't want any harm to come to her child.But the person who does your children the most harm is you, Xena.  

Tear welled in her eyes, but she pushed them aside quickly along with thoughts of Solon and her maternal failures. Her gaze moved upward as she scanned the tall building.Would you go up into the old watchtower, lad?It's so dark and gloomy. Is that how you feel right now?Or are you still filled with fire and fury?

The watchtower had been deserted for many, many winters.It was never used during the Conqueror's reign, having been a creation of the Stronghold's former occupants. It was too big to bother destroying, so the palace simply grew around it.It was dark and deserted.The perfect place for a boy to hide.Her torch flickered in the heavy draught, and she spared a quick thought toward the cloak that she'd left behind in her haste.The door should have been locked, but when she reached out and turned the old wooden handle - it opened.

The smells of wet, musty rock and rotting wood assaulted her; the sound of trickling water echoed in the distance. With slow steps, her eyes scanning every corner, peering deeply into every shadow, she climbed the winding, circular staircase that disappeared into inky darkness.There was no railing and the stone steps were extremely steep and uneven, their centers sloping and cracked after many years of use and many more years of neglect.Even Xena's well-muscled thighs felt the strain as she continued to ascend.God's this is more like climbing a twisting ladder than stairs.

"Jarrod! C'mon son! Come home.  I'm worried.Your Mama is half out of her mind." She was tempted to say that they would explain everything.To say that things would be all right.But that was a lie and she knew it.And although she was certain that, when it was her time and Celesta came for her, she would burn in the pits of Tartarus, something inside her wouldn't allow her to compound her sins by lying to Jarrod.She continued to call out to the boy, moving higher and higher, dread flooding her senses.

At the top of the tower Xena searched every room very carefully, trying to recall if there were any hidden passages.She spent a few moments running her fingers over the damp stone walls, just in case there was something she had forgotten about.Though unlikely, it was possible.She was merely mortal, after all."Come on, son." Her words echoed eerily in the silence."Talk to me!"

Her torch began smoking heavily and she knew that she only had a few moments before it would burn out completely and she'd be plunged into total blackness.Xena stood at the top of the staircase, glancing through the night one more time. She finally decided to go back down and start anew.In the distance, she could hear thunder.It was unusual this time of year, but not unheard of.  A flash of brilliant white poured through the slender archers' windows at the top of the tower, streaking the walls and illuminating years of cobwebs.  

"Of all the nights for Zeus to have a tantrum..." she muttered as she started down the stairs, almost stopping when a strange sensation chased up and down her spine.

Xena's foot had just touched down on the third step when she felt a firm pressure in the small of her back, unexpectedly propelling her forward.Her grip on the torch loosened and it flew out of her hand, tumbling ahead of her as she dropped like a stone, not touching the steps for several long seconds as she hurled face-first just above them.Then the stairs turned and she crashed into the wall, her shoulder smashing against the cool, slick stones with an agonizing crunch.But the momentum kept her from stopping.

The stairs twisted again and the side of her head slammed into a step or the wall - she couldn't be sure which because it was all happening in complete darkness, having passed her dropped torch a few seconds ago as she fell.She was dizzy and disoriented, trying desperately to slow her descent with scraping fingers and hands, but the walls were slippery from leaking water and the thin layer of moss that covered them in patches.

Xena's fingers broke with a series of sickening snaps as she reached out blindly, trying to brace herself. Her head made contact with the wall again. A bright light invaded her vision, and a bolt of pain exploded through her skull, throwing her into an oppressive fog.Head over heels she tumbled, blood filling her mouth, its metallic smell reaching her nose. The air was forced from her lungs by a violent blow against her back.

More cracking sounds. She wasn't sure if it was her bones or the corners of the steps that seemed to crumble under the weight and impact of her falling body. These sounds quickly gave way to a loud and simple ringing in her ears, but the feeling of her shoulder dislocating and her knee slamming into a step temporarily pulled her from her daze, the intense pain causing her to cry out as her battered and broken body plunged farther on.

When she finally stopped, she had only a brief moment before the darkness claimed her, and her last thought was that she hadn't found the boy and how could she explain that to Gabrielle.


Several marks had passed and Gabrielle had not only lost track of Jarrod but of Xena as well.A double panic washed over her, increasing her breathing and pulse.She moved quickly across the courtyard, pulling her cloak tighter around her neck.The wind had picked up and howled plaintively. A cold, misty rain that slicked the already damp ground joined it.Streaks of lightning flared across the night's sky, and a truly eerie feeling settled over the Stronghold.

"I found him!"

Gabrielle whirled around at the sound of Palaemon's voice and launched herself into a full run toward the stables.

She skidded inside the stable door just as Palaemon was lifting the boy out of a storage box.Gabrielle rushed to her son, who was shaking and weeping, and pulled him into her arms, collapsing onto a pile of sweet, fresh smelling hay at her feet.Her tears mixed with his as she rocked him gently.

Palaemon lingered at the doorway for a moment then ducked outside to allow mother and son the privacy they deserved.

She stroked his hair and then, like the breaking of a dam, the words suddenly poured from him. "I'm sorry I left her there with... y...you.  I should have protected you," he wept guiltily."I... I... I'm sorry she hurt you!We should... shouldn't have come here."

"Jarrod," she tried to soothe.  "Xena didn't hurt me, sweetheart.  At least not the way you think she did.  It was Callisto who gave me the lashes."She didn't feel the need to lay the responsibility on anyone but the skinny, blonde bitch.Xena had only done what she had to do.As Gabrielle held the trembling boy in her arms, she wondered if she might find the strength and courage to drive the spikes into Callisto herself once Xena passed judgment."Shh... just relax."

Jarrod tightened his grip on his mother, who refused to flinch or make a sound when small hands grazed her tender stitches.Her muscles protested at her current position.But she didn't move.

After a moment, his ragged sobs began to taper off, shifting into mewing, broken whimpers.

"Xena loves us, Jarrod," she finally began again, her voice soft and steady. "She would never knowingly hurt either of us. Not unless there was no other choice."

"But... but..." he hiccuped and cried at the same time.

Gentle fingertips brushed his tear-stained cheeks."I know it looks bad, honey.I know what you saw scared you. But I'm really okay.Xena would have spared me the lashing.But I insisted that I should get it."

Jarrod stiffened and prepared to express his doubts when Gabrielle shushed him, having felt his sharp intake of breath.

"Xena has taken very good care of me, son.I know you don't understand why she had to allow me to be whipped.But you need to know that it was my choice to accept the punishment, even when I knew that's not what Xena wanted.I've always taught you to accept responsibility for your actions, haven't I?"

He nodded weakly against her chest.

"Well, this time I got to put my dinars where my mouth is. This was one of those complicated, grownup kind of situations where there were no good answers, so we just had to pick from the best of the worst." She looked down at his face, wishing Palaemon had left a torch inside the stables."Do you understand?"

"I... I think so."

"I'm going to be fine. No one will ever hurt me again."

She held her son for a long time, rocking and soothing him as Palaemon stood guard just outside the door.


Autolycus wondered if his hands would always ache in the cold from now on.They got you good, King of Thieves, but if this is how your career had to end... I guess there are worse places to end up than in the service of the Queen of the Realm.She did suggest that Xena have my thumbs cut off... but other than that she's been a real sweety.And what a great ass! his libido chimed in appreciatively.   While he was only ever a part-time thief, he was, admittedly, a full-time lover of women.


Now he just hoped he could find the missing boy.He hadn't known her long, but even after the short time he had spent with the Queen in his jail cell and with that blasted horse, he could tell the loss of her son would be devastating.He himself was an orphan; having been raised by the Sisters of Hestia in Athens... something he would never admit to another living soul.

It was excruciatingly painful, but he managed to grasp the torch in both his hands as he continued searching.  He approached the door of the old watchtower, deciding that it was going to be better to be inside very shortly.  A fine mist had already coated his cloak, but a full-blown storm was threatening.He pushed the door but found it blocked.Ah, did you crawl in there and go to sleep, little man?Throwing his shoulder into it, he leaned forward and was able to shove the door open enough to slip inside.

"Zeus' bolts!" he yelled when he saw the crumpled, bloody, still body on the floor.He knelt, lowering the torch, casting its golden glow over the body."Xena..."

He turned to leave, and then he turned back. Then he turned to leave again, and then he turned back again, mumbling to himself, "This looks bad, Autolycus." He winced and shook his head. "Oh, soooooo bad.Wait... I know!  I could..." He tried to snap his fingers to emphasize his great idea, but couldn't."Hera's girdle!"I should try and escape.The Stronghold is in chaos looking for the boy. When news of this gets out, things will only get worse. It'd be the perfect time to sneak out.  His eyes traveled to the helpless woman at his feet."Oh Hades! Why couldn't she have been an ugly, smelly man?" he whined loudly.

Laying the torch aside, he managed to lift the broken woman in his arms, cradling her."You're a big girl, aren't you?"he choked out, his face reddening under the strain.Using the toe of his boot, he swung the creaking door open with his foot."Now don't you be dead... or dying on me, My Lordship.Or that little Queen of yours might decide to kill the messenger.And I've already had enough things cut off my body, thank you very much."



Gabrielle sat on the edge of Jarrod's bed, watching her son sleep.She had gotten him home and calmed down and he was tucked safely under a warm quilt.She had dispatched Palaemon to find Xena and call off the search.

When the door opened, she expected to look up and find the Conqueror.She didn't expect to see Palaemon standing there with tears glistening in his eyes."Your Majesty, there's been an accident..." he said softly.

Gabrielle's chest seized sharply and her mouth went dry. "What?"She slowly got to her feet; feeling weak and dizzy, she took a deep breath. 

"Our Lord..."

Her stomach dropped and she unconsciously raised her hand to it. "Is she dead?"

"No!" Palaemon shook his head wildly, looking younger than she remembered."But you need to come right now."He opened the door, ushering in the servant he had brought to watch over Jarrod.

"We can take Jarrod..."

The beefy young man took her by the shoulders."Your Majesty," he swallowed hard, wanting to make her understand how important speed was, but wanting to do it without scaring the life out of her. "Gabrielle..." Her name sounded funny rolling off his lips for the first time, but he pressed on quickly. "Jarrod is sleeping and he shouldn't see Our Lord... well, like this.Please let's hurry. I... We might not have much time."

With those words, Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly, her face turning ashen.When she reopened them, she grabbed Palaemon by the sleeve and began tugging him to the door."Where is she?"

"In the healer's room."

Without waiting, Gabrielle turned on her heels, running through the palace in her stocking feet.

Palaemon grabbed her boots, which sat near the doorway, and looked back at the servant who had taken a seat next to Jarrod's bed."Make sure no harm comes to him or I'll make you regret the day you were born."

"Yes, Captain Palaemon.His Highness will be fine."

Next it was the sound of his pounding footsteps that faded into the night.


When they led her to the healers quarter's, Gabrielle was horrified to find Autolycus sitting on the floor in the outside chamber, leaning against the wall, head in his hands, his clothing covered in blood.

"Good Gods, Autolycus, are you...?"

He stood, giving her a solemn stare."It's not mine, Your Majesty."

Oh Xena.She brushed past the thief, moving towards the sound of muffled voices.

"Then cut it off her!" the healer ordered. "Just get her out of it.Gods, I've never seen her this bad before."

"Xena?" Gabrielle's questioning cry carried well into the room and the voices went respectfully silent, though the healer and his assistants continued working as quickly as they could.

The crowd around the bed parted slowly, allowing the Queen to approach the Conqueror. Gabrielle took a step forward; her eyes landing on her mate.She gasped, and the blood drained from her face.Before she could even try to stop herself, she was dropping to her knees.A basin was thrust into her shaking hands and she promptly threw up, continuing to heave until her stomach was empty and her cheeks were streaked with hot tears.

The healers had already gone back to work on Xena, trying to stop the blood, which seemed to be coming from several places.They continued to assess the massive damage in hushed voices.

A warm hand gripped her shoulder. "Your Majesty?" Gabrielle turned to find a young woman with a steaming cup of tea in her hand."Your Majesty, please drink this.It will calm your nerves. Our Lord needs you to be strong."

"She..." Gabrielle swallowed, gagging on the sharp, acid flavor of bile."She's alive, looking like that?" she said to herself, shaking her head in disbelief.Xena looked as though a chariot had hit her.And then backed up and hit her again. Several more times.

The healer's assistant stated the obvious."Yes, Your Majesty.Though by what miracle, we're not sure."

Gabrielle gripped the mug carefully, drinking down the hot liquid in one long swallow, and washing the foul taste from her mouth."Thank you."

Long, slender strings of catgut were carefully held closer to the many candles and threaded through sharp bone needles.Two men began stitching shut the Conqueror's wounds. One healer concentrated on her head, while the other worked on the twisted fingers and wrist of her right hand.Several bones protruded through her skin, and Gabrielle had to sit down at the sound of the pained moans her unconscious wife made as they sewed her flesh and began setting her bones.Gods, even if she survives - which she has to - she'll never be able to hold her sword again.

Xena's personal healer washed his hands several times during the course of treating her, the blood on his hands causing the needle to slip between even his practiced fingers.

The Queen gripped the arms of her chair tightly, wanting to rush over herself and treat Xena. But Xena was in the best care possible. Her shoulder and knee were popped into place, her shoulder requiring two healers to do the job properly.

Gabrielle schooled herself in patience, cursing occasionally, and squeezing her eyelids tightly shut to keep more tears from spilling over. Don't you even think about dying, Xena!But one look at her lover's ravaged body filled her with an icy doubt that anyone, even someone as strong willed as Xena, could survive injuries like this. She was terrified she was about to see her die right before her eyes, and she fought hard to quell her rising panic and nausea.Stay with me.  I need you.We both need you.

Clean sheets were placed on her bed and great care was taken to not overly jostle the patient, but everyone in the room jumped when Xena let out an unexpected, loud groan.   The healer washed his stained hands one last time and gave the Queen his most hopeful smile.Which still wasn't very hopeful."I've done all that I can."He took a deep breath, smiling weakly when Gabrielle sprang from her chair and perched next to Xena on the bed... now that his work was through.   "The rest is up to Our Lord and the Gods.  Let's hope they are on very good terms."

"What...?" Gabrielle looked at Xena helplessly. An idea sparked her head as she considered his words.Ares could heal his Chosen if he wanted to!  She eyed Xena thoughtfully knowing that that was the absolute last thing Xena would want.Favors from the gods always carried a price.Everyone knew that.I won't go to him now, Xena.Not while there's a chance you'll recover on your own.Please don't make me have to change my mind.

"She's badly broken, My Queen.Our Lord Conqueror has multiple broken bones and fractures, including her skull.Her right hand..." He shook his head deciding what not to say, what they both already knew.Even if it healed well, it would never be serviceable again. "Several ribs are crushed, and possibly several vertebrae. It's also likely she's bleeding somewhere inside her abdomen."

"Is that all?!" Gabrielle ground out between clenched teeth.

The healer's eyes went round and he moved discreetly toward the door... "I'm sorry, My..."

Gabrielle covered her eyes with trembling hands. "No. I'm sorry.I shouldn't have said that.You're doing your best.I know that.  But are you sure you can't...?" She looked up at him.

"I've done all I can," he repeated patiently.

Gabrielle quietly thanked him, waiting until her left her alone with Xena before giving her wife a thorough examination of her own. She pulled three candles onto the nightstand next to Xena's bed.Even in their soft, muted glow, Gabrielle could tell Xena's face was pale and drawn.She moaned in pain, murmuring softly, her eyes working furiously behind closed lids.Gabrielle leaned in close, nearly pressing her ear to bruised lips, but could only manage to make out the words 'sorry' and 'Jarrod'.

She gently tugged down the soft blanket covering her naked lover, sickened at the sight. "By the Gods."She clamped her hand over her mouth and reached for a basin at the foot.They must have left that for me, she thought humorlessly, managing not to be sick again.

The entire left side of Xena's head and face was bandaged, but an angry purple bruise peeked out from beneath the bandage, extending from her cheek to her collarbone.Her right arm was splinted from just above her elbow down to her fingertips and rested in a linen sling that was wrapped snuggly against her ribs, which were also wrapped. Both legs were splinted, one from thigh to foot, the other from knee to foot.Gabrielle counted at least a dozen stitched wounds that she could see, not sure how many were hiding beneath Xena's many bandages.

The blonde leaned over and placed a very, very gentle kiss on bruised lips."I love you."Several tears splashed on Xena's cheeks and Gabrielle wiped them away in much the same manner she'd done with Jarrod earlier that evening. She wanted to touch her, but was terrified to do so for fear of harming her further.She stared down her, praying that Xena would wake up so she could look into those beautiful blue eyes.The last time she'd seen them, they were filled with unshed tears.

The healer's assistant, who brought her the tea, explained to Gabrielle what little she knew about what had happened to the Conqueror.This was the worst of all possible times for Xena to be injured.Her mind refused to except any other possibility than that Xena was temporarily out of commission. The satraps might use this as an opportune moment to usurp power.Not to mention what things Callisto might try to get away with.  

Gabrielle leaned over again, her breath brushing Xena's cheek. "I'm going to do my best here, but I don't want this job on a permanent basis.You need to get your butt back here."She placed another, tender, lingering kiss on Xena's mouth, her heart breaking at her partner's lack of response."I mean it, Xena.Don't make me come get you.I won't be happy. And you know how I hold a grudge."

She gave Xena's cheek a final soft kiss and tucked the blanket snugly around her before leaving the room.

Palaemon turned, surprised to see the woman emerging so quickly.

"Palaemon, seal the gates.No one leaves the palace grounds.Double the guards.Find Malaius for me and prepare for a very difficult next few days."

"Yes, Your Majesty."He bowed, feeling better than he had since this entire mess started.

"Palaemon." She grasped his arm gently, smoothing the sleeve she'd been so rough with earlier.She lowered her voice so that her words would be for his ears alone. "Post two guards at the Conqueror's door, on the inside of the chamber, out of sight."

"Your Majesty?"

"I'll explain later. And Palaemon, I'd be pleased, if when we were alone, you'd call me Gabrielle..." she gave him a small grin, "again."

His natural inclination was to balk and apologize for his slip earlier, but instead he smiled, his face flushing a bit. "Yes, Your... I mean, Gabrielle."Before he could embarrass himself further, he trotted from the room to carry out her orders.

She turned to the healer who was busy addressing an assistant."If there are any changes, notify me immediately.I'll be tending to court business in Our Lord's stead, but when she awakes..."

"I'll send someone right away, Your Majesty.If she..." He stopped when he could clearly see the woman bristle at his words."When she wakes, Your Majesty."

She nodded and pulled open the door to the larger, outer room that served as a waiting room.Autolycus was on his feet the moment she entered.

 "Show me," Gabrielle said firmly.

"Show you?Show you what?"

"Show me where you found her."

"Look, I don't think..."

"Don't think, Autolycus!" She poked him firmly in the chest. "For once, just do what I tell you, because I am your Queen.And I've got an important job here that isn't made easier by you being difficult." Her patience was at an end. "Don't make me call over a guard to finish what Xena started in the courtyard!Any further questions, comments or complaints?"

He gulped.She looks like a pussycat, but she's really a little tiger. "Nope, not a one."Autolycus gestured to the door with his hand.  "Shall we?"


As they made their way across the courtyard, Palaemon and several soldiers fell into place next to the Queen and the thief, their strides matching her short but quick steps, their cloaks billowing out behind them from a strong gust of frigid wind.

"Your Majesty, your orders have been carried out.The palace and the grounds are secure."

"And what of our guests, Palaemon?" Gabrielle asked without turning her head. Her eyes were firmly trained on the looming tower in the corner of the Stronghold.

"They are curious, Your Majesty. But all have agreed to wait until morning for a briefing."

"How damned kind of them."Her lips curled into a sneer as they drew closer to the old watchtower entrance. She pushed open the door and held out her hand."Someone give me a torch."Two torches were immediately thrust near her hand. Despite the seriousness of the situation, she nearly laughed.Last season, she couldn't keep the patrons in the tavern from putting their dirty boots on the table. This being Queen thing was very interesting.

Selecting Autolycus' torch because she knew he was having difficulty maintaining his grip, she slowly stepped through the entrance."Autolycus, come with me.Palaemon, you stay here."

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Oh, sure... Take the maimed thief up into the spooky, dangerous tower, and leave behind the perfectly healthy soldier to wait at the door.Now that's nice."

Gabrielle reached back, taking a painful grip on an ear and tugging it to her lips. "Look, you found her. And I know your sneaky, rotten mind must be good for something, so you're going to help me figure out what happened to her.And you're going be very, very quiet about anything we find."

His eyebrows shot skyward and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper."Do you think something's up?I figured she just fell." His eyes flicked to the cracked, wet stairs.

"I don't know what to think.  I know that the woman I love is lying in the healer's quarters." Please don't let her be dying, she prayed fervently.   "We need to find out if this was an accident or not.Xena has some enemies."

Autolycus snorted, "Really?" and received a smack in the belly for his trouble.

"Either way, I won't have the satraps finding out and taking advantage of the situation. If this was something more than an accident, she won't be safe until we find out what happened."

"And if there is 'something more', the person who hurt her will be...?" He let his question hang in the air.

Gabrielle's face grew hard and she unconsciously tightened her grip on his ear. "Let's just say they won't find the same kindness in my heart you did." She let go of the ear, patting his sore appendage in apology and beginning and an earnest exploration of the tower."Where did you find her?"

"Right here at the bottom.She was blocking the door.I had to give it a good shove to get in."

She lowered the torch and knelt down.A thick pool of blood covered the floor, its scent making her gag just as it had in the healer's room.   "She'd been here for awhile."

"How do you know?"

"The blood. If you had found her right after, there wouldn't be so much of it."I think. Gabrielle had grown up in a sheep-herding community. She was well acquainted with the butchering techniques and the slaughterhouse, and tried to put what little knowledge she had from that to good use. She straightened and stepped over the pool, then slowly began climbing the steps. "Don't step in that."

"Don't worry. I wasn't planning on it." He shivered and hopped over the crimson puddle,following her up the steps.

After a moment or two of climbing Gabrielle remarked, "She tried to stop her fall."

He raised a disbelieving brow.  "And exactly what tells you this?  I mean come on..."

"Look at the scratch marks in the dirt and moss on the steps and walls. There are finger marks there..." She held the torch next to the wall and pointed."And there. I think she tried to stop herself."

 They continued upward, huffing as they climbed the steep stairs.  Gabrielle tried not to think about what it must have felt like to be crashing against the unyielding stones.She examined the bloodstains on the walls with a professional detachment she would have thought beyond herself under any other circumstance.But failure was not an option.Not in this. She had to remain focused or else she'd simply fall apart, and she knew it.

With each step, Gabrielle could tell that Xena's attempts to stop herself had increased.Meaning: the farther she fell, the less ability she had to stop herself.Yeah.That would make sense.It doesn't help very much.But it makes perfect sense.

They entered the top of the tower.  Gabrielle carefully studied the floor, following her spouse's easily identifiable boot prints, clearly outlined on the dirty floor.She held the torch close to the ground, her face nearly pressed against the dirt- and dust-covered stone. She could see almost every footprint clearly, though there were a few faint marks that she couldn't identify one way or the other.She followed them around the room and back to the steps, carefully studying them with the flickering torch and squinting eyes.She moved down the first three steps, retraced her steps, studied the prints a bit longer, and then stood up.She turned to Autolycus who was examining the walls.

"What are you doing?"

"Looking for a secret passage," he replied absently, his eyes darting from crack to crack.

"What makes you think there are any passages?"

"I'll make you a deal, Your Majesty.I won't tell you how to be a queen, if you don't tell me how to be a thief.There are always secret passages. No self-respecting dictator would be without them."He sighed."But I don't see any up here."

"Then we have two problems."


"We need to figure out who pushed Xena down these steps..."


"Uh huh."The Queen nodded.

"What makes you think she was pushed?"

"Her footsteps.She was making her way back down.When she got to about the third step, someone pushed her."

"These steps are covered with moss, how do you know she didn't slip?"

"Simple.If she had slipped, her feet would have gone out from under her, forcing her back, and her heel forward. This would have left a narrow rut and pushed the moss forward.But the forward motion of her foot has left a wide smear, pushing the moss backward.And her foot left this step." She pointed down to the third step from the top. "Now her footprints coming up show her stepping on each step, but there's a big gap going down..."

"From the time she was pushed until she hit the stairs for the first time," the thief finished, clearly impressed.Had Gabrielle ever considered a life of crime?He wasn't averse to working with a partner. Especially a young, lovely blonde one who could charm the pants off...

"Exactly, and there are no footprints going down, only up. Down are the signs of trying to stop the fall."  Wow.That actually makes sense.Again.

Autolycus rubbed the back of his neck with his padded hand. "So what's the second problem?"

"Whoever pushed her, didn't leave any footprints at all..."

Chapter Five: No Price Too Great

Gabrielle and Autolycus emerged from the tower, readjusting their cloaks as they stepped into the night's breeze.They took a deep breath of the clean air, glad to be out of the dank, dismal tower. Streaks of white lightning colored the sky, and gusting winds tossed the treetops and scattered wet leaves across the yard.The air was heavy with rain, but it still only fell in a drizzle.

Palaemon snapped to attention at the first sight of Gabrielle. "Your Majesty?"

"Put a guard on this door," she ordered over her shoulder, walking past the men."No one is to go in there for any reason."

"Yes, Your Majesty."He motioned to the two guards who had been waiting with him outside the watchtower door to stay put.Then he rushed to catch up with the Queen and the thief who were already starting to make their way across the large, sloping courtyard.

"Where in Tartarus is Malaius?" Gabrielle growled, tucking a blowing strand of damp, disheveled hair behind her ear as she walked.Palaemon had sent for him hours ago, and she knew that if she was going to keep this whole nasty situation from turning into more of a nightmare than it already was... she would need the worrisome, pesky advisor's help.

Palaemon shook his head, falling in on Gabrielle's right and matching his longer strides to her shorter, quicker ones. "I don't know, Your Majesty.But with your permission I'll go fetch him myself."

"Please do.I need to speak with him.But right now, me and Autolycus are going to pay Callisto a little visit."

Palaemon's stride slowed at the mention of the General's name.

"What is it?"Gabrielle stopped and looked up into the Captain's face, a bolt of lightning illuminating his round features, thick neck, and guilty eyes.

"Nothing," he lied quickly, regretting his 'personal' association with the demented blonde General."But, Your Majesty, perhaps you'd like me to accompany you?Callisto can be... dangerous."

Gabrielle smiled wryly. "Ya' think?"

The soldier could see there would be no changing the Queen's mind and he found himself strangely comforted that at least the thief would be accompanying her. "As you wish, Your Majesty."Palaemon broke off from them; skirting between the short hedges that lined the cobblestone walkway, he headed in the direction of the advisor's quarters.

"Umm...Your Majesty..." Autolycus started as he practically had to run to catch up with Gabrielle, who was cutting across the lawn to shorten her trip to Callisto's apartment.

"Gods, Autolycus, call me Gabrielle so you don't sprain your tongue on the title."

Autolycus shrugged, not having any problem with dropping the formalities.He really was never a formal kind of a guy to begin with.

"Gabrielle, I'm not exactly one of the General's favorite people..."

"You mean there's someone she actually likes?"Now that's a scary thought."Well, don't worry, Autolycus, I'm sure she hates me more than she hates you... so let's both go just to torture her.She may have had something to do with what happened to Xena, and it's time to put your criminal mind to work."

"You say that like it's a bad thing." He feigned insult.

Ducking inside the Palace's west wing, Gabrielle turned down her hood and shook the water from her cloak.She turned to the thief and grabbed the edges of his cloak, giving it a good shake."I need your help to solve this.I'll see to it you're given a complete pardon." Gabrielle's hands dropped to his and she gently fingered the moist bandages."I know I can't fix what I had done to you, Autolycus, but I really didn't want to see you executed either.I hoped that this was the lesser of two evils for you.I actually owe you a great deal."

The thief's brows came together in question."You? Owe me?"

She gave Autolycus a fond smile and nodded."I can see you don't remember me, but I certainly remember you. About five winters ago, you came through my village.You stopped at the tavern and inn where I was working.  My son was very ill.I had done everything for him I could, but he wasn't getting any better.I begged the healer, who had come in for a drink, to go back and see Jarrod or at least give me some medicinal herbs.But he refused when I couldn't pay his fee."

Autolycus scowled.This wasn't going to be one of those embarrassing stories where he did something... ridiculously unthieflike, was it?He hated those.

"I burst into tears and ran from the room," she admitted, only slightly embarrassed. "I didn't even finish serving you your meal.Later that evening, when my son was finally sleeping a bit more comfortably and the tavern had closed, I was clearing the tables I'd ignored to sit with Jarrod..."

Her smile broadened as Autolycus suddenly found something extremely interesting on the toe of his boot.She could tell he remembered what he had done."You... ah... you left behind enough money at your table so that I could pay the healer's fee. In fact, your 'tip' was the exact amount the healer had demanded.And four times the price of your meal. You saved my son's life, Autolycus."

"Awww... Gabrielle," he started to deny the good deed, but the young woman would have none of it.

"I tried to do the same for you."She shook her head."I couldn't let you get off completely, because of the nature of the charges, and I knew Xena would never go for it. Besides, it was the best plan I could come up with in less than thirty seconds. I figured you would learn how to adapt, and in time you could go back to being The King of Thieves."

"Hard to do, imprisoned in the palace."

"Why do you think I made you my groomsman?Xena won't deny me anything, and after a spring or two I was going to try and get you pardoned.I assumed that, by then, you would be healed and capable of taking care of yourself.Until then, I was prepared to do it."

The thief bowed his head when her saw hers drop."Thank you, Gabrielle."

Her gaze lifted and she unexpectedly stretched up to place a kiss on his cheek."No, thank you.  It seems our paths always cross when my family is in crisis, Autolycus.There must be a reason for that.I can never repay you for what you did for Jarrod.My very life wouldn't be enough.But I need your help again. I'll see to it you're rewarded and pardoned."That's yours whether you agree to help me now or not.

"Will you let me break into the palace vault to collect my reward?"  He gave his Queen his most roguish grin and wiggled his brows.

"Sure.We'll call it a security test." Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and took him by the arm. "C'mon, let's go see what my favorite prisoner is up to."


Palaemon beat on the door for a full minute.Even a busybody like Malaius should be asleep in his room at this hour.Something was very wrong.Palaemon rounded up two guards and ordered them to break in the door.

He stood back while the guards took the door down using a sturdy ram.With an impatient hand, he knocked away the splintered remains and stepped inside.

The sight before him knocked the breath from his chest."Oh my Gods."

He rushed to the man, grabbing him around the skinny legs and lifting, trying to take some weight off his crookedly bent neck and the noose tied tightly around it."Cut him down!"  The body in his arms felt damp and, by the stench, Palaemon knew he had wet himself.He had seen many men hanged under Callisto's orders and knew that soiling oneself was a common occurrence as the body stopped fighting its fate and its muscles went slack.

A slash of a sharp blade, and the weight in Palaemon's arms increased and Malaius' limp form fell atop his.There was no doubt that the advisor had already passed over to the other side.Palaemon said a quick prayer... wondering if Malaius would now be nervously following on Hades' heels with a quill in hand, barking out orders to his underlings.

"Everyone out!" he commanded, gently lying the body down on a long wooden table covered with maps and documents."Keep a guard on this door.No one but myself or the Queen gets in. He reached up, grabbed both guards by their chest armor, and pulled their faces close to his."Don't breathe a word of this to anyone, and get something to cover the doorway."

"Yes, Captain," they chorused.

Palaemon scrubbed his face with his hands as the guards left the room.Gods, at this rate he was going to have to wake up some more soldiers to act as guards.It had already been a long and exhausting night and it didn't look as if it was going to get any better.


"Let me in."Gabrielle gave the guards a tired smile as she stood outside Callisto's apartment. "Please."

The younger of the two spoke up first. "You Majesty, Our Lord..."

"Our Lord isn't here," Gabrielle cut him off. "Now let me in."

"But... But..." he stammered.

The thief threw a casual arm around the lad's shoulders."Look, genius.That is Our Queen." He motioned to Gabrielle with a flick of his gaze and lowered his voice as though he was telling the pudgy sentry a secret. "She is not someone you want to make angry."Without warning, he thrust a bandage-covered hand in the guard's face, watching as the young man's animated gray eyes went round as saucers. "She did that to me for sneezing in her general direction yesterday.Can't imagine what she'll want to lop off you for refusing to open the door."

The blood drained from the young man's face as he continued to stare at the bandaged hand. Deciding against Autolycus' fate, he began fumbling for the keys, finally managing to unlock the door.

Autolycus gave the boy a pat on the chest with his other maimed hand.He grinned when already wide eyes bugged out further."She always does things in pairs, you know.You don't have a pair of anything you'd like cut off, do you?"

The guard shook his head wildly, his hands dropping down to cover his groin.

"Good man," Autolycus praised."Rubies are valuable, but nothing is worth more than the family jewels."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, wondering how the man managed to keep his ribald sense of humor.As they stepped through the door, she whispered, "You are evil!He's barely old enough to be up so late... and now he's going to be terrified of me."

"Aww, that's okay.You have a reputation to build up if you're gonna be married to the Conqueror.Not everyone is allowed to know you're a pussy cat."



They entered the apartment, which was well appointed but appeared to be empty.Gabrielle's anger began to escalate as she moved around the room."Oh, that bitch had better be in her room, sleeping!" she roared, tearing into what she assumed was Callisto's bedchamber. "Or not asleep, for all I care, but she had better be in her room!"Marching over to the large bed, Gabrielle tore off the covers... even though the bed was completely empty.

"Even Callisto isn't that skinny," Autolycus mused.


The Queen stormed back to the front door. She yanked it open with so much force it slammed against the wall and Autolycus had to stop it from flying back and hitting her.He grimaced when it made solid contact with his hand.

"Where is she?!" the blonde woman demanded of the guards, this time focusing on the older one.

"Your Majesty?"

"Callisto! Where is Callisto?!"

"She should be inside, Your Majesty. She hasn't gone anywhere." 

The Queen got very close to the guard and grabbed him in a very sensitive spot, causing the young guard at his side to run into Autolycus in an attempt to escape the Queen's wrath.He knew what was about to happen!

"Then explain to me," Gabrielle ground out, her face an angry scarlet, "how that crazy bitch got out of that room?"

"I...I...I..." the guard blabbered helplessly, trying to ignore the increasing pressure and pain between his legs. A sweat broke out across his forehead.

The chubby guard being restrained by Autolycus groaned right along with his companion.

Autolycus winced.Now that's gotta hurt.  

"You are an idiot!" Gabrielle shoved the guard away, fearing she was about to do him irreparable harm.She took several deep breaths, trying to calm her shaking body and her raging heart."She has escaped. If not right out from under your noses..." Gabrielle paused and looked at Autolycus, realization dawning."Then by magic." Her voice was barely a whisper.

Autolycus looked confused.

"Ares," the Queen murmured by way of clarification.

"As in God of War?Big guy?  Black outfit?Long sword?"Three sets of eyes fixed on Autolycus, who made a face."Boy, that last part just didn't come out right."

Gabrielle patted his chest in understanding, her mind awhirl with possibilities. "Start a search of the grounds just in case she's still here," she ordered the guards, who were anxious to redeem themselves and escape the scary little Queen's presence. "But send one guard back here and do the search quietly.  Don't wake the entire palace."

The guard who could still walk without assistance gave his buddy a hand, and they stumbled off to begin searching.

"Oh, and sorry about the grabbing thing," Gabrielle called after them. She rubbed her eyes, then her throbbing temples."You ever have one of those days, Autolycus?"

He gave her a bored look and lifted both hands.

"Good point.Forget I asked."She sighed, trying to figure out what to do next.She desperately wanted to go back and check on Xena, but now wasn't the time to leave anything undone.She couldn't afford to make a mistake. Before Gabrielle could gather her scattered thoughts, she heard rapid footsteps pounding up the stairs at the end of the hall.This can't be good.


Palaemon huffed to a stop in front of her. Bending at the waist, he put his hands on his knees as he caught his breath."Your Majesty," he began...

Nope, not good at all.


Gabrielle pulled her eyes away from the advisor's stiffening body.  "What else could possibly go wrong tonight?"She glanced at Autolycus who had his mouth open, ready to speak."Don't.Just don't."

Palaemon carefully examined the room. "All the windows are secured, Your Majesty.The only thing that I've found is this."He offered her a note he had found on the table near the body.

Gabrielle took the note, reading it carefully."It's a suicide note."

"That's a no brainer.The man is lying here with a noose around his neck," the thief piped up.

The Queen quirked a brow."Don't tell me no one ever put a noose around your neck.I find that hard to believe."

"Well, you know how it is," he murmured offhandedly, giving a small shrug. Autolycus picked up the blanket that Palaemon had retrieved from Malaius' bed and draped it over the body. "So why do you think he did it?"

Green eyes turned back to the note."He said that he had been offered a position in another court if he would assist in the betrayal of Our Lord Conqueror. Apparently he accepted, but the burden of what he had done became to much to bear and he decided this was the only way out."

"Which court?"

"Doesn't say."She chewed her bottom lip. "You know this doesn't make sense."

Autolycus straightened, yawning loudly."Makes sense to me.I'd much rather croak myself than let tall, dark and dangerous get her hands..." He stopped and corrected himself, grinning all the while. "I mean, I'd rather do it myself than have Our Lord do it for me."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Okay, I'll buy that. But if your guilt was so overwhelming that you felt it necessary to kill yourself, wouldn't you spill the beans on the person who made you the offer?"

"Guilt?"Autolycus drew out the word, taking his time to consider what was obviously a foreign concept to his mind.

Gabrielle lifted her hands in the air then let them fall to her sides.  She turned to Palaemon. "Why make the ultimate sacrifice and not leave the evidence that would take your conspirators to Tartarus with you?"

"Is this even related to the Conqueror's fall? Did he push Our Lord down the steps?" Palaemon found it highly unlikely that the wiry advisor would ever confront the Conqueror personally.Too much could go wrong. He didn't seem the sort who would get his hands dirty with physical violence. "What exactly does 'betrayal' mean?Trying to kill her, selling government secrets, embezzlement? What?"The Captain rubbed his jaw, tossing out question after question as he paced the length of the room.

Gabrielle grunted with frustration."I don't know and I'm too tired to consider it further tonight.  Keep a guard on this room. I'm going to see Xena.I'll be back in a bit."

The men nodded and moved out of the room behind their Queen.Autolycus was headed for a nice soft pallet.  Gabrielle had freed him from the dungeon and given him a small room of his own located just off the stables.It was warm and smelled like horses and hay, and Autolycus liked it much, much better than his former quarters.

The Captain turned towards Jarrod's room to triple check that the guard Gabrielle had ordered placed outside his door earlier was awake and alert. Only then would he retire for the evening himself. Where are you, Callisto? he asked himself as he quickened his pace.


Gabrielle dismissed the guards in Xena's room, telling them to wait in the outer chamber.She managed to pull a small cot next to Xena's bed. Sitting down on the edge, she noticed her lover shivering."You're cold?" Gentle fingers grazed a sallow cheek. "It is a little chilly in here, isn't it? Okay... blankets..." Gabrielle rooted around in the room's cabinets until she found a couple of warm, but well-worn blankets. Tomorrow she'd bring over the quilt from their bed and some clean, woolen foot-coverings so Xena's toes wouldn't get cold.She knew how her spouse hated that.  

Settling down on the cot once again, she set the smaller of the two blankets next to her, and placed the other blanket over Xena, tucking the corners under the mattress and smoothing the surface under Xena's chin. Tears sprang to her eyes and she let them spill over, too tired to fight them any longer. She was glad the older woman was still unconscious and being spared most of what she was sure would be unbearable pain. But still... she would have given anything for those blue eyes to flutter open.The fact that Xena hadn't regained consciousness, even for a moment, scared her more than she wanted to think about.

She placed a gentle kiss on the discolored jaw, wiping off the tears that splashed onto her wife's face.Then she stretched out onto her side, rolling over in her cot so that she could watch the rise and fall of Xena's chest. "I'm gonna lie here for while.  My entire body hurts.I know. I know. I shouldn't complain." She was silent for a moment before asking, "Who did this to you, Xena?" A burning anger welled up within her, draining her of what little energy she had left.

Fighting to keep impossibly heavy eyelids from closing for too long, Gabrielle watched Xena breathe.Her forehead creased with worry.The movements were gradually becoming more and more labored. The watery, gurgling sounds shot a bolt of panic right through her and she laid her head against Xena's chest, not putting any real weight on it.Gabrielle could hear what sounded like congestion, though she doubted pneumonia would set in so quickly.It must be blood, she surmised darkly.

Before her father had died, he developed what her mother called 'a death rattle'. It wasn't long after that that Hades took him.This is her death rattle!"You need to fight," Gabrielle whispered desperately. "I mean it Xena, don't you dare leave me!"

As gently as she could, she took Xena's broken hand in hers, idly stroking uncharacteristically cool fingertips, which poked out from behind the splint and bandages. More tears blurred Gabrielle's vision, and she closed her eyes to clear them, pressing a cool palm against her puffy, swollen lids.


"Damn!"She sat up with a start.I didn't mean to do that!The blanket she'd placed on the cot next to her was snugly around her waist and she realized that the healer must have done it when he'd come in to check on his patient.Stretching, she ran a hand through her hair, using the opportunity to carefully examine Xena in the light of day.

The tears came again.Not only wasn't Xena getting better, she looked even worse.Her skin, which appeared pale last night, had turned an ashen-blue hue that made her look more dead than alive. And her entire body shook with the effort it took to pull in one shallow breath.Gods, she dying.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and whispered, "Good morning.How did you sleep?" She kept her tone light, dropping several soft kisses on Xena's closed eyelids and eyebrow, her cheeks and chin.

There was, of course, no reply.

"I love you, Xena.You need to hold on."

A soft tapping on the door brought Gabrielle to her feet.It was the healer.He looked tired, his thin lips drawn in a grim line, the fringe of silver hair that wreathed his mostly-bald head messy and in need of washing.   He flicked a glance at Xena, who looked about the same as she did an hour ago when he'd come to check on her.There was nothing more he could do, and he suspected the Lord Conqueror wouldn't survive the morning."My Queen," he began hesitantly, wishing he were somewhere else.

"I know." Her eyes followed his, before closing briefly. "You can save your words of solace. Just send for Jarrod, please."

The healer nodded.

"Wait," she called him back."Does... Does she have any other family?" It seemed odd to be asking a stranger something so basic and personal. But Xena was always extremely closed-mouthed about her kin, simply saying that except for her and Jarrod - there was no one alive who considered the Conqueror part of their family.

"I believe her mother still lives, Your Majesty. But I... I'm not even certain of that."

Xena coughed weakly then sucked in a ragged, gasping breath.

Gabrielle peered at her helplessly, needing to do something.Anything. She fidgeted with the blankets, fluffing them up at Xena's chest in an attempt to lighten even their negligible weight and assist lover's breathing.

The healer was still standing in the doorway, looking like a nervous dog that now had to answer to another master, silently awaiting his next command.

"Send for Jarrod," she repeated."I'll find out about Xena's kin later."

"Of course, Your Majesty.I'll see to that myself." The man bowed and shut the door quietly behind him, grateful that he had been given a task he could easily accomplish.

Gabrielle was about to get up and find a cloth so that she could wash Xena's face and arms, when she saw pale lips twitch in an effort to say something.She leaned in close, listening with all her might and holding her breath."What?What is it, love?"Say something. Say you're going to be all right!

"Gab..." A pause."Jar...rod..." The word escaped at the end of a raspy, wheezing breath. Gabrielle studied Xena's face closely, her eyes tracing every fine line, the dark eyebrows and the fine, downy-soft hair covering her cheeks.She was still unconscious, perhaps dreaming. Gabrielle hoped so. 

She answered, "I'm here," doubting that Xena could hear her but unable to remain silent. The young woman cupped Xena's cheek and kissed her on the side of the mouth, speaking softly."And Jarrod's on his way, Xena. I should have told you before.He's just fine. Everything is okay.I... I explained things to him.But I know he'll want to talk with you as soon as you wake..."

Gabrielle's stopped, her heart seizing in her chest. An unexpected sob burst forth, grabbing hold of her, choking off her words."Gods," she whispered miserably, slumping back onto the small cot.She adjusted herself so that she was as close to Xena as humanly possible and still not on the bed with her. She couldn't bear the thought of causing her more pain.

The young woman felt as if she couldn't breathe herself.An enormous weight sat on her chest, stifling her every breath, rendering each heartbeat laborious and painful.  She began crying again, even as she berated herself.I cannot fall apart. I just can't. Not yet.


Jarrod sat alone in the dining chamber.He looked up at the servant who placed his meal in front of him.  "Where is everyone?"

The servant remained tight-lipped, patently ignoring the boy as he poured him a tall class of rich milk and set it on the table with care.

Jarrod knew something was wrong.He hadn't seen his mama all morning. They always ate together with Xena.  Every morning. What had he done last night?!How had things gotten so out of control? He was so angry he couldn't think straight. All he knew was that he had to get away from her, no matter what. And now, now he had ruined everything.

The boy dug his spoon into his bowl, swirling it through the thick porridge as he considered Xena and tried to reconcile the woman she was to him with the Conqueror people whispered about. That was the woman who allowed his mother to be whipped like a dirty mule who had disobeyed his master.He concentrated hard, seeing events replayed in his mind.

Riding on her shoulders and feeling 10 feet tall.

Watching her and Mama on top of Cinnamon. And noticing how many times they made each other laugh, despite his mama's obvious fear and Xena's natural impatience.

Fishing in their pond.

Falling asleep against her shoulder.More than once.

Sneaking him into the kitchen one night, far after his bedtime, because she'd heard a rumor that the cook was preparing a palace specialty. Then discussing foreign policy and the best way to raise an army over almond cookies and milk.

Showing him the little trick that allowed her to unsheathe her blade faster than he'd ever seen another, and then promising she'd help him convince his mama that he was old enough to begin lessons with his own sword.   

Then his mind flashed to his mother's bruised face and the nights at the inn when he'd caught her crying, though she pretended not to be.She doesn't do that anymore, he admitted to himself.

He pushed his bowl away, tapping his toes nervously against the floor. What about those whip marks across his Mama's back? He couldn't just pretend that he hadn't seen them.He wasn't a baby that could be tricked!Even if Callisto had done the whipping, Xena could have stopped it.She's the Conqueror!She's the boss of the whole world!

His brow creased.Mama said she didn't want Xena to stop the lashing. That Xena would have, but really couldn't, because of the 'situation', whatever that means.Xena had been tending the wounds last night, trying to help his mama, he suddenly realized, his mind carefully replaying the scene that had sent him fleeing from the palace.

Gods, he had said awful things! And at that moment he meant every one of them.But he knew now that he was wrong.

Jarrod truly didn't understand what had happened between Xena, his mama, and Callisto, at least not all of it. But his mama had never lied to him. He scrunched up his freckled face unhappily, contemplating just how much trouble he was in.

"Your Highness?"

Jarrod turned to see Xena's personal healer and his tutor, Nyssa, standing behind him.

"Jarrod," Nyssa greeted softly.

She was seven or eight seasons younger than his mother and had reddish-brown hair the color of cedar. She was slim and somewhere between his mothers in height. Her skin was milky white and smooth, and she always smelled of flowers. Jarrod looked up into her eyes and got lost in their mesmerizing beauty.

"Jarrod?" she repeated, noticing the boy seemed to drift away for a moment.

"Uhh... Yes," he replied, slightly tongue-tied, his face flushing.

She knelt next to his seat and the table, taking his smaller hand in hers. "The Queen sent the healer for you.You need to go to the palace infirmary right away." Nyssa had met up with the healer in the hall on the way to the dining room. He was looking for Jarrod.

"Why?" the boy asked worriedly.

Two sets of eyes turned to the healer, who had refused to tell Nyssa what had happened. She only knew that is was of grave importance that he find the boy immediately.

"I... I..." the man faltered, unsure of how much the Queen would want him to divulge."Her Majesty will explain everything to you herself, Your Highness," he finally said uncomfortably."We should go now."

Jarrod gulped down his milk and jumped out of his chair, wiping his mouth with the sleeve.He quickly ran past the healer, who was already marching across the dining room.

"His lessons for the day?" Nyssa called out, just as they reached the door.

"I don't know about that," the man answered irritably, straightening his tunic with one hand."I'll send word later."With a little push, he propelled Jarrod out the door in front of him.


Gabrielle stood at the open window, allowing the fresh morning air to seep into the small room. She had a few moments to think about what she had to do next before Jarrod arrived.But she found her decision remarkable simple.Even knowing what it would likely cost her, it was a price that she was more than willing to pay.

She turned back to the Conqueror and smiled weakly, taking in her battered state for the hundredth time since yesterday. But no tears came.  She was all cried out.Now it was time to act.Gabrielle moved to the head of the bed and raked her fingers through thick dark hair.

"There's only one thing left to try, Xena," she said softly."I don't like it one bit.And you're going to hate it." Gabrielle licked her lips before she let the next words leave them. "But I have to try."There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you. Even this.

There was a light knocking on the door, then it opened and the healer tentatively poked his head in. "Your Majesty, I have His Highness with me."

"I'll be right out." Don't you dare bring him in here until I can tell him what's happened!

Gabrielle bent over and gently cupped the bruised cheeks in her hands. "I love you, Xena." She straightened, but let her fingers linger on Xena's face just for a moment."Please hang on."


Gabrielle collapsed under the weight of her son, falling to the floor and holding him as he cried.

"You're okay!" He tightened his arm around her in a painful hug. "I thought that maybe... maybe..."

"Of course, I'm okay. Didn't the healer...?" That cowardly bastard!Gabrielle pinned the older man with enraged eyes.

The contrite healer looked away, prudently deciding to busy himself with the guards who had reentered Xena's room as soon as Gabrielle walked out.

Green eyes peered over Gabrielle's shoulder, trying to see into the room behind her. "Mama?Mama, where's Xena?"

Gabrielle felt queasy.I need to eat something before I pass out and I'm no use to them at all. "Jarrod, there's been an accident. Xena's been hurt."

"Bad?" A guilty look settled on the boy's face.

"Yeah, it's pretty bad."

"Is she gonna be okay?"

Gabrielle glanced around the room, fighting the tears she had sworn were all cried out, gasping for the air her brain needed to form the words.Finally, watery eyes landed on her son."I don't know. It's really bad."


She waited.

"She's in there, right?" Jarrod glanced over her shoulder again.

A nod.

"Good." He put his arms around her neck. "Because I need to tell her I'm sorry and that I love her.Don't worry.She'll be okay. You'll see."

Gabrielle smiled weakly, wanting to believe him with all her heart. "I think she'd like it if you went in and sat with her.Talked to her a little." Her tone went very serious. "I have to go and take care of something very important, Jarrod.Can you watch her while I'm gone?She... she shouldn't be alone.I'll send Palaemon or your tutor to join you."

Unaccountably, the boy blushed.

Gabrielle was confused for a moment before she grinned knowingly and ruffled his hair.She'd forgotten about his crush.Perhaps Palaemon would be a better choice today."I need to go.But before you go inside, well... um... you need to understand that she's been badly hurt and doesn't look very good, okay? Are you ready for that, Jarrod?"

He visibly squared his shoulders. "Yes, Ma'am.I'm ready."


Using keys she'd taken from Malaius' room, she unlocked the door to the war room and stormed inside."Ares, show yourself!" she demanded, slamming the door behind her.

Gabrielle waited.When no answer came, she walked over to a pedestal where a large ceramic bust of the handsome God was perched.She placed her index finger squarely in the center of his forehead and gave a firm push, sending it toppling to the floor with a loud crash.

The next thing her gaze landed on was a 2 x 2 foot oil painting. It was of Ares on a large black stallion, charging down a steep hill. His black cloak and hair flew out behind him, an entire army at his heels as he led them into battle.Gabrielle yanked the painting from the wall and punched her fist right through it, aiming for his head.Using her knee, she cracked the frame in two.And then she repeated the process until the frame was reduced to kindling-sized pieces of wood, which she flung into the hearth.

"I can break things all day long, you bastard!"She kicked a black porcelain vase across the floor, flashing a satisfied smile when it slammed against the wall and shattered into a million tiny pieces. "Show yourself!"

"Damn," he chuckled, suddenly appearing behind her.She whirled around and he snatched up a silver urn from the table next to him before she could destroy it.He really liked that one."You've got a little fire in there, don't you?" He pointed to her belly.Ahh...at last we meet, Gabrielle.

"I've got a whole inferno at the moment, you son of a..."

Large palms shot upward in a forestalling gesture. "Whoa.I get the idea." Ares jerked his thumb towards the picture of him that was now in tatters. "Now was that nice?" He looked at her with insincere, puppy dog eyes and sniffed as though he was on the verge of tears. He tsked her mockingly. "You don't even know me."

Prick!"Did you have anything to do with Xena getting hurt?" she demanded, ignoring his sarcasm.She marched up to him, her boots pounding on the floor, until they were nose-to-nose. Green eyes fixed solidly on murky brown.

"Hurt Xena?I would never hurt Xena." Then he winced, catching himself in a teensy weensy lie."Oh, you mean that little busted lip?" Damn that lyre-lovin' fool, Morpheus! Gabrielle was supposed to be asleep for that. "We have a complicated... relationship. She..."

"Busted lip?" the blonde interrupted, looking at him as though he was stupid. Or crazy.Or both. "Half the bones in her body are broken!She is lying in the healer's chambers dying!She's your Chosen, for Gods' sake.This can't be news!" What kind of loser God are you?!

His face remained aloof, but his blood began to boil. This must have happened last night while he was busy playing with that glorious battle in northwestern Greece, an area so remote that Xena didn't want to spend the resources required to patrol it.The Conquerorpretty much left its few inhabitants to their own devices, and it was one of his favorite playgrounds for testing out potential warriors."Didn't your mother teach you that it's not nice to call people losers," he smirked, suppressing his mounting anger and feigning only marginal interest in Xena's wellbeing as he fiddled with the urn, buffing off the dust with his wrist gauntlet.

"It's not nice to read minds either," Gabrielle shot back irritably.  Read minds... Her eyes went unfocused as she thought. The cloak!Someone would have had to read my mind to know I was looking for it. Xena had mentioned she thought that Ares might be involved.Gabrielle hadn't really believed her.But now... "It was you, wasn't it?Why?" Her face scrunched up in confusion.

"Figured that out, did ya?"Now he was impressed.He knew Xena would puzzle it out eventually, but he didn't think the blonde had it in her.Ares placed the urn he was holding back on its stand."It was no big deal." He shrugged.At least to me.

"You just wanted to see if Xena would punish me?" She cocked an eyebrow. "And more importantly... would I stay with her if she did?"

His silence spoke for itself, and he could see that Gabrielle knew that she was right. This one is too damn smart for her own good. Oh, Xena, very nice choice. I should have known it wasn't just that hot little body you were after.But he couldn't keep his gaze from roaming over the item in question. Smart and sexy. My Chosen is a lucky woman.

"Your plan didn't work," Gabrielle said flatly.

He shrugged, conceding nothing.

"But that doesn't matter now." She waved a dismissive hand and gave him a hard, reproachful look. "I want you to help Xena.Help your Chosen!"

His dark eyes flashed and he grabbed her by the shoulders."I've had just about enough of your demands, blondie." He leaned in, taking in the scent of her and wondering why Xena found it so intoxicating. His interest was piqued. "You know that favors from the Gods aren't free. What price are you willing to pay for my help?"

She closed her eyes against his dark energy, feeling the pull toward him deep in the pit of her stomach. "Anything." Her eyes blinked open. Everything.

His nostrils flared at the implication. Are you really, Gabrielle? "Your heart? Your soul? Your body?"

"I can't give you what I don't have, Ares. My heart and soul are Xena's."

"So you're offering me your body?" he concluded smugly, releasing her shoulders and turning his back to her."Not interested. You're going to have to do better than that."

Gabrielle clenched her fists and silently stamped her foot in frustration. "It's all I have, Ares!"She ground her teeth together. This isn't working!


Her conclusion as to why was simple.She wanted something from him and that gave him all the power. It was time to take some of that power and make it her own. Smoothly changing tactics, her voice dropped an octave. "My body is good enough for your Chosen. In fact, she enjoys it immensely." Gabrielle could see his ears pick up at her sultry tone

"Oh yeah..." he groaned, smiling appreciatively at the instant picture that formed in his mind."You two give new meaning to the word hot."It was out before he could stop it and he grimaced.

"Excuse me?" She stomped around in front of him."And you would know this how?"

He looked everywhere but her."Well, umm I ... umm..."

Gabrielle knew this was her chance.He was curious about her and Xena... together.Maybe even curious about her... the peasant who captured the Conqueror's heart.He may be a God, but he thinks like a man.

She took a step closer, not stopping until she could feel his body heat against the cloth of her tunic and trousers.Small hands found their way to his broad chest, and she slipped them between the folds of his leather vest, running them along the hot skin. "You were watching us?" She innocently looked up at him from behind long, pale lashes.

"No!" He chanced a glance down into eyes that were vivid in their color and intensity.So green."I... um... I occasionally listen in on what Xena is up to." Ares tried his best to appear nonchalant."Lately she's been..." He cocked his head to the side, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. "...occupied."

She didn't have time for subtlety.But she doubted he'd mind."Lately, Ares, Xena's been taking me to bed every chance she gets and fucking me senseless."

He swallowed hard, nodding slightly. He loved the raw words falling from such sweet looking lips."Yeah, I know."

"You know what else?" she purred, her fingers drifting through the dark hair on his chest.


"She begs me, Ares.Your Chosen begs me to allow her to touch me. And for my touch in return."

"I know," he repeated, remembering the exact sound of Xena crying out in ecstasy. His mind was assaulted with Gabrielle's pants and groans and Xena's velvet voice.

Gabrielle began untying the laces of his vest, exposing more of his muscular chest. Her voice was soft but wholly unapologetic and crystal clear.  "I give myself to her without reservation... completely.I worship her body."

His eyes darkened at her words, and it took considerable effort to hold them open as soft lips grazed his throat and a hot, wet tongue worked its way up his jugular.He groaned, placing his hand on her hips and pulling her closer.

"Then, after she takes me in so many different ways it makes my head spin, she begs me to take her and do the same."She ran a newly filed nail across his nipple and down his stomach, slowly circling his navel.

He sucked in a deep breath, holding it as her hand wandered just a bit lower. He felt himself responding to her warm breath on his body, her touch, her voice.

"And I do," Gabrielle whispered hotly against his thick neck.  "I take Xena and..." Her hand finally slid all the way between his legs, coming to rest over the growing bulge in his pants. "...lick, and kiss, and..." she paused, feeling the bulge harden. She squeezed gently but firmly, "...suck her all over."C'mon Ares, I know you want me... want what's hers.Take me. Make the deal!

The God moaned softly, his eyes rolling back in pleasure.He tried to focus on anything other than the intense throbbing ache between his legs.But it was impossible. This was a mere mortal, a common peasant woman to boot.She didn't have Callisto's blood lust, and she certainly didn't have Xena's wonderful dark fire.  Yet there was a raw, sensual determination that seemed to seep from her very pores.He knew she was seducing him. And it aroused him to the core.

Gabrielle had a pull all her own.

"So tell me, God of War..." she moved against him, sliding her other hand under the soft leather of his snug fitting pants, allowing her fingers to drift idly over a muscled buttock."Are you willing to deal if I'm willing to pay the price?"

Ares drew in a deep breath."I can have you here and now?"

She nodded, trying not to think about what she was doing.

"I simply agree to help my Chosen and you'll sleep with me?"

"No." She licked her lips before capturing his in a devouring kiss, plunging her tongue deep into his mouth.The hand covering his erection drifted up and began sliding into his pants.  "We won't sleep at all."

He growled, his hips shifting towards her of their own accord. Ares lifted his hand to her full breast, cupping it, enjoying its weight in his palm.  The dark God wanted more... so he took it.In the blink of an eye, her tunic was gone and he was caressing creamy, warm skin that felt like cool silk against his hot fingertips. Her nipple hardened in his hand, straining against his callused palm.

Gabrielle gasped despite herself, and he suddenly had to have her... to be inside her... to feel her fire from within and taste it for himself.

Ares threaded one hand into her fair hair and jerked her head backwards so that he could look directly into her eyes. "She'll never forgive you, Gabrielle."

His words pierced her heart, hitting her like a physical blow.  Her throat closed for several painful seconds but all the while she stared unflinchingly into his eyes, a truth passing between them."I know," she whispered.


Gabrielle knelt by Xena's side, dropping a tender kiss on her cheek. She pushed back dark bangs in an almost maternal fashion as she checked for fever.Xena was no longer struggling to breathe. Instead, she was taking tiny, shallow breaths.Her body jerked with each one and they were spaced out by what seemed like endless seconds.Just when Gabrielle would begin to panic, believing Xena wouldn't draw in another one, she would suck in a tiny bit of air, and the gut-wrenching process would repeat itself.Thank the Gods, I'm in time.She won't last much longer. "I'm back, sweetheart.And everything is going to be okay."

She had sent Jarrod and Palaemon down to the courtyard for some fresh air and now sat alone with the Conqueror.Waiting. Gabrielle looked up when Ares suddenly materialized at the foot of the bed. "Well?" she prodded impatiently. "What took you so long?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." The God gestured at her while giving Xena the once over. His jaw set in anger."That was some 'fall'." Ares drew out the last word disgustedly, making it clear he didn't think that Xena had been the victim of her own clumsiness. He knelt down on the side of the bed, opposite Gabrielle.Raising one hand, he gently brushed the side of Xena's face with the back of his knuckles.

Gabrielle bit her lip, fighting the urge to knock his hand away.

He appeared to think for a moment as the blonde waited in tense silence. "Okay, here's the deal," Ares said finally."We both know that Xena didn't take a header off the stairs on her own.She's many things, but a klutz isn't one of them.

Gabrielle agreed guardedly.What are you up to, Ares?

"So someone needs to find out who tried to kill wifiepoo. And one of those someones is you.The other is Xena."

"And she can't do that if she's dead," Gabrielle prodded, her gaze drawn to Xena's still chest."Hurry!"

"Right," he continued undeterred. "So I'm going to do a little body switch so she can be free to find out who's threatening her realm.  She gets this..." He gestured to his own body arrogantly."And I'll lie here and take a three day nap."

"You lying bastard!" Gabrielle sprang to her feet. "Our deal..."

He waggled his finger at her. "Ah, ah, ah... You only asked me to help her. I'm going to do that.While I'm in her body she won't die. And while she's in mine, she'll have the opportunity to save her own life. Sadly, she won't have use of my powers... those are attached to my spirit not my body.But the rest is hers to fully enjoy."He gave Gabrielle a rakish grin."Play nice with it."

"By the Gods!" Gabrielle shouted angrily."I can't believe you!You knew what I meant!"

"Be that as it may..." He scratched his jaw speculatively. "If I simply healed her... well, let's just say, I think she'll be more motivated to find out who's behind this if she knows that I won't heal her unless she's successful. If she can't figure it out, then she doesn't deserve to be my Chosen..." Ares puffed up proudly. "Or benefit from Godly powers."

Gabrielle glared at him. "Are you testing her or me?"

He arched a cocky eyebrow, impressed yet again. "Both," he admitted with a small grin. Oh yeah.Smart and sexy.I could get verrrrrry used to her. "My Chosen's mate cannot be a liability or it will eventually get Xena killed. This is your chance to help her, Gabrielle.Show me that you're worthy of a life by the Destroyer of Nations' side. Catch whoever is threatening the Realm, and therefore me... and I'll heal Xena." Ares looked down at Xena, his eyes widening slighting."Gotta go," he muttered quickly.

Before Gabrielle could respond, there was a blinding flash of light that left her disoriented and slightly dizzy.   When the room stopped spinning, she focused on Xena, who appeared to asleep but breathing much easier.Ares was lying on the floor - out cold.

Reluctantly, she moved from Xena's body and down to Ares' side. "Xena?" She gave a
light slap to his cheek. "Xena, are you in there?"

The God of War groaned and his eyes fluttered open.

Gabrielle laid her palms on both sides of his face, turning it back and forth as she examined it closely as though he was a horse at market."Xena?"

"Uh huh." Xena nodded slowly, holding her throbbing head in his hands.

Gabrielle's jaw sagged and she fell back slightly.  "Oh boy."


"You've got to be kidding!" Xena boomed, getting her first good look at her reflection. Then she turned to the bed where her own body lay. "He's in there?"

"I think so," Gabrielle said, her head still spinning.

Xena leaned over her own face and growled, "Don't you touch anything!"Then she turned her attention to her Queen. "What is going on?!"

Gabrielle just shook her head, unable to speak as a flood of emotion overwhelmed her. Tears pricked her eyes, sparkling in the sunlight streaming through the room's window.

"Hey," Xena's said in a concerned voice, immediately stopping her tirade. She gently grabbed Gabrielle's forearms, running her thumbs lightly over the smooth fabric of her tunic. Her hands circled Gabrielle. "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle launched herself at Xena, wrapping her in a crushing embrace. "You were dying... and... and... and..."

Xena ran a soothing hand down red-gold locks, returning her wife's embrace."S'okay," she cooed softly, too confused to offer much more.

Gabrielle soaked in the warmth of Xena's hug, cherishing its familiar security and love even though the body offering it wasn't her spouse's. Several dozen heartbeats later and Gabrielle pulled away, sheepishly wiping her eyes. "I'm sorry," she sniffed. "That's only about the millionth time I've done that since last night."

Xena tugged Gabrielle over to a chair that stood in the corner of the room, settling her on her lap. "You're not too heavy," she cut off the familiar protest that was poised on Gabrielle's lips. Xena patted Ares' ample thighs as proof."Now talk."

Gabrielle leaned back, getting comfortable on Ares' knees. Gods, where to begin? With a little nod she decided on, of all places, the beginning. "Xena, do you remember going into the old watchtower last night?"


"Do you remember falling?"

The Conqueror scowled. As if she could forget what that felt like. She had thought nothing would be worse than being crucified.  She was so wrong. "Yes.But I didn't fall."

"You were pushed," Gabrielle supplied, never so unhappy to be right about something in her life.

"Exactly." Twin eyebrows rose. "How did you know?"

Gabrielle blinked, staring at Ares' lips as Xena talked. The speech pattern, facial expressions, and questions were definitely Xena's.But they were coming out of Ares' mouth, said in his deeper, masculine tone of voice.  Disconcerted, she shook her head and continued, "Well, I put the pieces together as best I could, and it led me to the conclusion that you'd been 'helped' on your way back down the tower. But I have no idea who did it.Did you see anything?"

"Nothing." Xena turned her head from side to side, stretching her neck.Hmm... maybe I'll get mine cut. This feels nice. She ran her fingers through her hair, checking its length.

"Don't even think about it, Lord Conqueror," Gabrielle said, giving the lock that grazed Xena's collar a sharp tug.

"Anyway, I turned to leave and felt someone push me in the back, then I was falling ass over heels." She decided to spare Gabrielle a blow by blow description of her excruciating trip down the stairs. Xena shivered involuntarily. "The next thing I remember, except for hearing a few random words from you and Jarrod..." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand gratefully and got a warm smile in reply. "... is waking up on the floor in this." She gestured at her new body with her hand. "How did I get here?"

Gabrielle stared at the wall with unseeing eyes.  Later, Xena.I'll explain it all to you later. Once I know you're safe for good. She prayed Xena would accept her abbreviated explanation of events."Ares agreed to swap bodies with you so we could figure out who tried to kill you. We've got three days... From right now, I guess. If we can do it, Ares will heal you.If we can't..." she trailed off, unwilling to say the words.

"He lets me die?"

Gabrielle nodded miserably. "That would seem to be his plan at the moment."Slimy welching bastard.

"Why would he do this, Gabrielle? I'm not exactly his favorite mortal these days." Xena could still remember the white-hot rage in his eyes from their last meeting.

The young woman chewed her lip guiltily, choosing her words carefully and trying not to panic. "You're his Chosen," she said as if that were enough.

"And?" Xena snorted, unable to count all the times some tragedy had befallen her while and Ares was nowhere to be found.Something wasn't right.

"And we don't have time to worry about Ares' motives!" Gabrielle pushed herself off Xena's lap, clearly upset. "We only have three days." When she stood, a wave of dizziness assailed her. "Whoa..."

Xena shot to her feet and wrapped her hand around Gabrielle's elbow, guiding her back to the chair. "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "It's nothing. I just haven't eaten... and I've been under just a little stress," she teased faintly.

Xena studied her lover carefully, knowing there was more to Gabrielle's story, but willing to let it go for the moment. "I'm sorry I worried you." She smiled reassuringly and pulled her into another hug. "It's okay. We'll figure this out." She gently lifted Gabrielle's face to meet her eyes. "I will never willingly leave you, Gabrielle.Hades is going to have to take me kicking and screaming."

Xena quickly leaned in for a kiss, which quickly became turned passionate, the high running emotions from the last day spilling over into their actions. When it was over Xena blinked then glanced down. Well, this was something new.

Gabrielle giggled.

Shifting a little, Xena asked, "What's so funny?"

"Your mustache tickles." Gabrielle could see her lover was squirming uncomfortably. It was Ares' flesh and blood, but when she looked deeply into those dark eyes, it was Xena she saw looking back at her. Some of the unyielding tension and sorrow that had been weighing on her heart melted away. "What's wrong with you?"

"I umm...well, I un..." Xena made a vague gesture.

The Queen looked down and bit back a smirk. "Oh my." Pale brows lifted. "Bet that feels different."

"Not as much as you might think," Xena shot back, only mildly embarrassed at her current, and very noticeable, state of arousal.

Gabrielle kissed her cheek sympathetically. "Unfortunately, we don't have time for that right now, so get rid of it. You need to be able to walk."

"Get rid of it?" Xena said incredulously. "How in Tartarus am I suppose to get rid of it?"

Gabrielle leaned in and whispered, "Callisto."

"Oh yeah." Xena's head bobbed."That did it. Let's go."


The guards weren't surprised to see their Queen returning to Malaius' room.They were, however, shocked to see a tall, raven-haired, leather-clad man, who was immediately recognizable because of the many statues that were scattered around the palace, strolling alongside her.It was Ares himself.Not only did the Lord Conqueror have the power to converse with the Gods, but their Queen could call them to her side.

The guards immediately snapped to attention as the duo approached, they gazes riveted straight ahead, chests out, chins held high.Gabrielle started into the room, only to hesitate when Xena stopped right in front of one of the guards and leveled her best icy stare."Boo!" she yelled. 

The guard wet himself.

"Carry on," Xena said calmly, managing to hold in the laughter until she was safely in the room with Gabrielle.

"That was just mean."

"There's just something about this body that makes me feel... I dunno... wicked." Xena's gaze darted around the room.

"I'm sure there is."Gabrielle's smile bordered on an outright leer as she regarded the Conqueror.Ares' body somehow looked different with her in it. Those were some thighs, and, oh, that ass, all muscled and everything.We so do not have time for me to stand around and ogle her...him...oh boy. She felt a pang of guilt over the day's events, but no regret. How could she regret what she'd done? Xena was alive and that was all that mattered. Gabrielle would survive it... Although she was having a hard time convincing her heart.


Xena headed to Malaius' body, which was still laid out on his table. The noose that had been round his neck rested on top of his chest.She examined it briefly.It was the type of rope commonly used by her army for erecting tents... or for a million other mundane purposes. It was available in at least a dozen markets in the capital.

The Conqueror pulled back the thin sheet that covered Malaius' body, inspecting his pasty, stiff form with an attention to detail.She caught the faint whiff of urine and was grateful that his room was very cool, the fireplace clearly having been cold for quite some time.She wished briefly that Ares' wore something under his vest.Guess Gods don't get chilly.

Gabrielle was waiting anxiously."Well, what do you think?" she finally asked.

Xena shrugged one shoulder. "Yup, he's dead."Never thought I'd see the fidgety man so calm.Still, the toad could write a mean proclamation. She replaced the sheet.

"So that's how you keep your powerful hold on the land, is it?  Your amazing ability to state the obvious?" the blonde snapped, passing her spouse the suicide note with an irritated hand.

Xena quirked a brow as she snatched the parchment from Gabrielle.  "No need to be grouchy, Gabrielle.  Things aren't exactly working out for me at the moment either."

"I'm sorry, Xena." Gods, what's wrong with me?Gabrielle rubbed her eyes tiredly and began eating an apple from a bowl of fruit on the table next to the advisor.

Dark brows came together as Xena read the note.She looked at Malaius and then back to the note, the creases in her forehead deepening."This is a fake." Xena tossed the bogus note down alongside the corpse. "This isn't Malaius' handwriting."

"You're sure?" Gabrielle peered around Xena's shoulder, taking an apple seed from her mouth and tossing it on the ground.

"He's been writing my policies for more winters than I can count.I know his handwriting.And this isn't it."

"So he was murdered." Gabrielle began to pace the room. She tapped her jaw with the piece of ripe fruit, thinking out loud. "This is part of a cover up. The person who tried to kill you murdered Malaius so she could pin it on him."

"Apparently."Xena did a double take at Gabrielle's wording."She?"

"Could Callisto have hefted Malaius' body herself or would she need help? He doesn't look very heavy." Gabrielle stopped her pacing and tilted her head toward the rafters. The rope that held up the advisor was still hanging there, swaying gently in the breeze whenever someone walked by.

"Looks can be deceiving. She's strong, for such a skinny bacchae.  But you're forgetting she's under arrest."

Gabrielle's eyes widened."Oh Gods, Xena.Did I forget to mention that she's escaped?"


Gabrielle flashed her mate a small, apologetic smile."She's escaped."

"Hades!I'm not even going to ask how that happened!"

"The guards at her door swore she never left her apartment."

Their eyes locked and in unison they said,"Ares."

Gabrielle nodded, wishing she'd thought to ask him about that earlier."My thoughts exactly."

"Too bad we can't question him about it now." Xena frowned.  "I guess it would be a silly question to ask who else around here wants me dead, wouldn't it?"

The blonde let out an unhappy breath and patted Xena on the arm. "I think so, honey."

"Still, it's a shame to lose a man as loyal as Malaius." The Conqueror made a mental note to give the advisor a soldier's funeral pyre and see if he had any family to whom she could offer an honorarium.It was the least she could do. Her mind shifted gears. "Where are the satraps?"

"Right now they're waiting for me in the meeting room you assigned them."

"Ah... good.You go down there and see them.I'll be along shortly and make a very Godlike entrance."Xena crossed her arms over her chest and smiled, perfectly mimicking the God's smug demeanor.

"Umm, Xena.You might not want to let this God thing go to your head.  Ares has his powers..."

"Yes, love, but I know how to cheat, remember?It's a magic act, Gabrielle.It only requires a little distraction to be effective, and you're my distraction."

"I can do that.I can be a distraction."

"Tell me something I don't know."She smiled at her spouse and cupped Gabrielle's cheeks."Tell them I'm badly hurt.You know it wasn't an accident and you're going to get to the bottom of it.And say if you can't get to the bottom of it you'll have them all executed as potential security threats to the Realm.

Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Can I do that?"

"You're the Queen, Gabrielle.You'll rule in my stead or take over completely if I don't fully recover.

"But you will," the blonde added quickly, her nervousness popping through.

"I will," Xena reassured.

"And when the satraps jump up to cut my throat...?"

Xena spread her arms wide."Enter the God of War!"

"Don't be late.I'm not nearly as much fun without my head."

Xena scratched her cheek, feeling a growth of whiskers under her fingers.She allowed her hand to roam over the face she was currently attached to. "This is very weird.  I want my body back, Gabrielle."

"We'll get it, sweetheart." She took Xena's hand in her own. "You're not going to get out of that joining trip you promised me."





Gabrielle met Autolycus in the hallway."Not a word."She warned him. "I don't have time to deal with you too."

He held up a hand that was now encased in a specially crafted black glove.Gabrielle looked him over and realized that Morgaine had outdone herself in preparing him to look like a royal advisor."I take it you have another plan, Your Majesty?"

"I do." They turned the corner of the hallway and shuffled down a short flight of stone steps.

"Does it involve him?"


The thief nodded and sighed.

Gabrielle could feel the embers of anger igniting in her belly. "Autolycus, Xena is dying.She will be dead in a few marks.I don't have time to argue with you or try to explain myself.I need to take control of the Realm and I need to do it in such a way that Ares will help me."

"Of course, My Queen."

Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks and turned to the thief.  Her voice was pleading."Autolycus."

"It's all right, Gabrielle."

She nodded and they began walking again. "Or we could let Brutus take over.You know what they do to thieves in Rome?"

Autolycus covered his ears and shook his head. "I'm sure I have no desire to know."

"Not unless you enjoy 'hanging around'."

The guards came to attention; the senior of the pair reached out to forestall his Queen, hoping to have a moment for a quiet word.The man who spoke was middle-aged, his uniform worn but clean and obviously well cared for. He had a sturdy build and mild green eyes that conveyed honesty.

Gabrielle had seen Xena confer with him many times. She assumed he was one of Xena's most trusted palace guards.

"Your Majesty, the court guests are being rather condescending this morning. One of them spat at me," he admitted somewhat embarrassedly.

"Someone needs to talk to Boadicea about that vulgar little habit."  Gabrielle vowed on the spot never to visit Britannia. "This is news?"

"Yes, Your Majesty, I know, but shall we say that it's worse than normal this morning.I fear they are going to do something..." he paused, allowing his hand to travel to the hilt of his sword, "stupid."

"I believe at least one of them already has."

"It's true then?" he asked cautiously.

Gabrielle nodded, not sure exactly what rumors had raced through the barracks since yesterday. "She's been hurt, yes."

"Gods help her then."

That earned the soldier a genuine smile."Thank you. I pray that they will." That he will.

"Be careful, Your Majesty.The people are very fond of you.If something were to happen to you, it could spark a conflict."

Gabrielle nodded."Thank you..." she waited for him to supply his name.

"Gilles, My Queen." His eyes twinkled faintly. "I believe you know my mother."

Gabrielle grinned again.Of course! "Morgaine." I knew he looked familiar.

Gilles nodded and stepped back, taking his place alongside the door.

Gabrielle drew a deep, calming breath.She turned to Autolycus who was looking over the door. And more pointedly, its lock."You're not casing my home, are you Autolycus." Her voice held a hint of both warning and amusement.

"Of course not," he said, only mildly offended.


"As ready as any eight-fingered thief can be under these circumstances."

The guards pulled the doors open, and the Queen and Autolycus entered the room.Gabrielle looked directly towards the table, where the satraps were gathered, enjoying a morning meal.

Here goes nothing. "Well," Gabrielle stated firmly, stepping forward to the head of the table, Autolycus flanking her left. "I'm glad to see you all still seem to have your appetites.Murder seems to have put me right off mine."

"She's dead?"Brutus looked up.

Her eyes flickered to his and then moved around the table. No one looked terribly surprised. Then again, this was the Conqueror's court, and murder was not entirely uncommon. They all already know about Xena.

"Please, let's not play games with each other today.I simply don't have time for it.Xena lives, but Malaius, Our Lord's top advisor, has been murdered." She hoped they couldn't hear her stomach, which was growling in response the smell of ham steaks, warm flat bread, fresh olives and fruit.

"Really?"Boadicea questioned without looking up from her meal. She stabbed a thick piece of meat onto her fork."I heard the jittery man committed suicide."

Her words were greeted by chuckles from several satraps who had visited the palace enough times to become familiar with the wiry advisor.

"You shouldn't listen to rumors," Gabrielle chastised coolly."It's been verified that the note he left was a fake.Someone tried to thrust the blame for the cowardly attempt on Xena's life onto poor Malaius."

Gabrielle slowly circled the table, drawing every pair of eyes to her own.

"How is Our Lord Conqueror this morning?"Lao Ma asked quietly.The Asian woman seemed to be the only one who showed anything that could remotely be called concern. Though Gabrielle couldn't tell whether the concern was personal or political.

"Dying.The healer believes she will not survive the day."

Several satraps shared uneasy glances.

"And so what becomes of the Realm?"Cleopatra inquired, sparing a smile at Antony, who sipped his tea while appraising Gabrielle from head to toe.

"What becomes of our lands?"Melosa added her voice to the choir.

A bright flash of light temporally blinded everyone in the room and a cloud of dark smoke added to the confusion. Ares stepped from the cloud, his thumbs hooked on his belt loops.He swaggered up to the Queen, who was doing her best not to smile. "That," Xena boomed in a deep baritone, "is a decision for the Queen of the Realm to make. Upon Xena's passing, she, a natural born Greek, will take her place as my Chosen and ruler of the Realm."

Antony and Brutus foolishly reached for their blades, but Ares had his drawn before either of them could come close to clearing their scabbards.  "I'd rather not have to kill you before Gabrielle has the answers to her questions." His dark eyes turned deadly cold.  "But I will."

"We're suspects in the attempt on the Conqueror's life?"Brutus swung around to look at Gabrielle.

The Queen was about to answer when Ares casually took a seat at the table, resting his booted feet on it with a loud thump and snapping his fingers for a slave to bring him something to drink.Gabrielle blinked, unsure for just a split second whether she was staring at her wife or Ares.

Xena smiled crookedly at her bride and Gabrielle immediately expelled a relieved breath.

Taking a sip of his wine, Ares began speaking to the satraps. "Of course you're suspects. Weren't you the ones who had decided to form an alliance against the Conqueror?And wasn't it Cleopatra who suggested that everything needed to be handled in a 'surreptitious' manner?"Ares leaned forward, stabbing a fruit with a small dagger that seemed to magically appear in his hand. He brought the peach to his mouth, taking a large bite and glowering at the Egyptian Queen."Well?"

Gabrielle's eyes flashed as she stalked over to Cleopatra's side. Leaning over, she hissed,"Treason is punishable by death without trial, you back-stabbing Bacchae." She grasped Cleopatra's chin with a firm hand, forcing eye contact. "Seems to me that being pushed from behind down a long, dark flight of stone steps by an unknown assailant, your body tumbling, crashing into every surface, being crushed so badly that it bleeds from within until there's nothing that can be done to stop it... would be considered a surreptitious act." She jerked Cleopatra's chin roughly, her temper flaring."Wouldn't you agree?"

"I know nothing of this, Your Majesty."Cleopatra defended, looking a little ill at the description she had been given of Xena's 'accident'. She jerked her chin away. In Egypt Gabrielle would forfeit her life for touching her in such a way.

"Would you like to see her?" the blonde persisted, hoping to goad Cleopatra into some sort of admission or get her to point the finger at someone else. "I know you have shared intimacies with our Lord Conqueror, and would remember what her beautiful body looked like." Gabrielle wasn't at all sure of the statement when it spilled out of her mouth, but one look into Cleopatra's eyes told her she was right. "Would you like to see it now?Bruised and battered nearly beyond recognition, so weak she can't open her eyes, so damaged she can barely draw in a breathe."

Cleopatra flinched, bringing a napkin to her lips.

Gabrielle turned to Lao Ma, pushing away a chair that stood between them."What?No offer of a magic elixir or ointment to save Xena's life?No eastern spells to mend her wounded body and tame her raging spirit?Or would you see her dead as well?"

Lao Mao looked away.

Antony moved slowly toward Ares, assessing him carefully and paying little attention to the Queen's rant now that she appeared to be finished with his lover.He detested female histrionics."Queen Cleopatra is a natural born Greek as well," he needlessly informed Ares, quirking a challenging brow.

Xena crossed her legs at the ankles. "True, but she's not married to Xena, now is she?"

"No, but she is a Queen, not some..."

The 'God' jumped to her feet. Grabbing the Roman by the throat with one hand, she slammed him against the nearest wall with a mighty thud. Her face twisted with rage and she lifted him nearly two feet off the ground, his armor scraping against the stone, her biceps bulging under the strain.  "Say it!" she roared, her face inches from his. "Give me a reason to send you to your Gods!"

"Lord Ares..." Antony choked, pulling at the strong hand cutting off his air.

"Lord Ares," Gabrielle said softly, appearing at Xena's side.  "If you kill him now, I won't get the pleasure of watching him suffer when I order him slowly cut into small pieces."

The Roman's eyes grew widened, rolling sideways to look at the Queen. Xena's grip lessened. "You wouldn't?" Antony gurgled.

"Oh yes, she would," Autolycus offered, displaying his hands for the umpteenth time."And she likes me.  I figure she'll start with your feet for this and work her way up.And her butcher's good. He uses a hot, dull knife, so you don't bleed to death, but you feel every excruciating moment of it."

"Lord Ares, please allow me to deal with this." Gabrielle placed a hand on a well-muscled arm, stroking the skin tenderly."Guards!"The blonde made and held eye contact with Mark Antony.She waved a bored hand at the Roman General."Take him to the dungeon."

Gilles and two other guards rushed forward; relieving Antony of his weapons they led the struggling, cursing man away.The remaining satraps looked at each other in stunned silence, all holding their tongue lest they meet the same fate.

Gabrielle drew a deep breath and cleared her throat."You have three marks to tell me who tried to kill Our Lord Conqueror.If no one comes forward, I'll send up some body part of Antony's as a reminder that my patience is limited."She leaned over towards the Egyptian.Oh Xena. We're going have a talk about this one.  "Any requests?"

"And I thought Xena was a bitch," Boadicea mumbled, though not unhappily.Antony was a bastard and she privately hoped the Queen would start with his heart.

The blonde woman turned quickly."Oh, you haven't seen anything yet.If you force me, I'll execute each and every one of you just to make sure I get the right one.Then I won't have to worry about it."

She moved around to the head of the table and laid her palms on its cool wooden surface. "Consider yourself under house arrest by order of the Realm.For those of you with troops waiting outside the gates," she paused and looked pointed at Boadicea and Melosa, "you will compose a note informing them that you are currently indisposed and will not be returning to them for at least three days.And that they are to continue to camp, peaceably, outside the gates until you send further word."

Wordlessly, Autolycus retrieved a stack of parchment, several quills, and a bottle of black ink that were sitting on a table against the wall for the satraps' use.He tossed them on the center of the table, moving quickly to right the inkbottle that had tipped over.

Melosa quietly grabbed a small piece of parchment and began composing a short note.

Boadicea crossed her arms in front of her, refusing to move.

Gabrielle's temper snapped.Bumping around a watching 'Ares', she unsheathed his sword from his belt and, before Boadicea could blink, pressed the blade firmly against the satrap's breast.

Xena forced herself not to react to her sword being wrenched away. Gods, Gabrielle, some warning next time please!

Gabrielle sneered, then spat directly into the tall redhead's face, the razor sharp blade against the Briton's chest preventing her from retaliating. Boadicea glared at the Queen with hate-filled eyes and a tiny bit of grudging admiration.

"That's not very nice, is it?"


"IS IT!?" Gabrielle demanded, pressing forward with the heavy sword until a small red stain blossomed on the front of Boadicea's shirt.

"No," the large woman ground out between clenched teeth, slowly reaching forward and dragging a napkin from the table. She wiped her cheek. "It's not."

"Then see that you don't do it again." Gabrielle leaned forward slightly, and in a stage whisper said slowly, as though speaking to a half-wit, "Show disrespect for Our Lord Conqueror by spitting on one of her guards again, and die." She cocked her head to the side. "Understand?"

Boadicea hesitated for only a second, feeling a drop of hot blood snake its way from her breast down her belly. "Understood, Your Majesty."  


"By the Gods, that was magnificent, Gabrielle!" Xena enthused loudly.She was far too full of pent-up energy to sit, so she prowled around their bedchamber anxiously.Xena threw another log on the crackling fire.Immediately bored, she tossed in two more. After a moment of restless motion, she stopped in front of Gabrielle and dropped to her knees.Spreading her arms wide open, she exclaimed,"Will you marry me?!"

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her wife's antics.Gods, she's got as much energy as Jarrod. "Been there.Done that.Although your proposal time is getting a lot shorter," she teased back half-heartedly.

She pushed her plate away with slightly trembling hands, realizing with a sickening clarity that she was so immersed in her role, had Boadicea challenged her back in the conference room, she would have run her through with Ares' sword.I've got to get a hold of myself.I'm losing it.

Xena took note of the plate of food that had barely been touched, despite the fact that it contained several of the Queen's favorites. "Do I need to hand feed you?" she asked softly, truly meaning it."I will if you want me to."

Gabrielle shook her head and offered a very, very tired smile."I'm just..."

"Exhausted."Xena stood up and scooped Gabrielle out of the chair with ease. "You, my darling Queen, are going to bed."

Gabrielle wanted to protest, but she just couldn't seem to find the energy to put up much of a fight. "We don't have time for this."Oh, that was convincing.She snuggled close to her partner, laying her head on the smooth leather vest and closing her eyes as Xena padded for bed.

"Oh, yes we do.We can't go three days without food and rest, Gabrielle."Xena gently placed her partner on the bed. She undid Gabrielle's belt and carefully slid it from around her waist, then removed her boots. "Just a short nap, if nothing else, for a mark or two."

"How do you do this everyday, Xe?" she mumbled. "Too tiring. Too hard."

"I know.Just rest now."

The fair-haired woman tried to nod, but the softness of their bed and pillows combined with the warm, familiar, soft scent of her lover that clung to their quilt sucked her into Morpheus' realm.She was asleep even before Xena could finish with her second boot.

Xena looked into the exhausted face of her spouse, pulling a blanket over her, then giving her a tender kiss on the lips."Pleasant dreams, my Queen.You've done very well."

The Conqueror sat on the floor next to the bed, watching Gabrielle sleep and, for several long moments, giving serious consideration to crawling under the covers just to be closer to her companion.But Gabrielle needed sleep more than she needed snuggle-time right now.Brown eyes swept over Gabrielle's face, focusing in on soft, parted lips. Later, Xena told herself with a heartfelt sigh.  With a frown, Xena shifted her legs, becoming more aware of her new body's reaction to being this close to Gabrielle.Outraged eyes focused on her groin."What is it with you?" she growled.Men!

Xena stood, albeit slightly uncomfortably.She gave herself moment before she bothered to try and walk. Closing the door the their bedchamber, she scratched her face again, deciding she really didn't like the feel of all these whiskers. Besides, hadn't Gabrielle said they tickled?She poured a bowl of water and found some scented soap to lather her face with.Then she found a very sharp dagger and a reflective surface that gave her a pretty good view of his face.As she put the blade to his skin she smirked, "First time I've had you in a spot to cut your throat and I can't do it.Sometimes life just isn't fair."

A short time later, Xena had learned two very important lessons about shaving: parchment would stop the bleeding, and cologne stung like Tartarus when applied to a freshly groomed face.This, in turn, made for a grumpy person.From this point forward, all her men would be required to shave right before a significant battle.They'd smell good and they'd be pissed.

She stared at his reflection, wondering what she could do to him next. His full beard had been shaved into a neat goatee, leaving his cheeks bare and smooth.She had a moment of pity for the God, and herself, when she thought of how prickly Gabrielle would find his naked upper lip after a few hours, so she decided to leave the mustache. But using a pair of scissors she trimmed it short as well.

Xena had always disliked those long lamb-chop sideburns some men were so fond of.So Ares now sported only a new modest pair.He had a haircut that got shorter and shorter the more she tried to even it out. And, with a shrug, she finally gave up on that completely; she simply snipped away until it wasn't more than a couple of inches long in any one spot.Hmm... Maybe a nice tattoo?

A knocking at her door interrupted her musings.Laying down her knife, she called out, "Come in."Xena waved her visitor in as though it was the most natural thing in the world to do.For her it was.

For the captain it was something entirely different. "Lord Ares..." he stammered, nearly tripping over his own feet as he entered.

Xena fought hard not to roll her eyes at the Captain's awe.  "Palaemon." 

"Yo.. You know my name, Lord Ares?"

I can't believe I'm going to say this."Well, I am a God!"

"Of course, Lord Ares.My apologies.I've come to give the Queen a report of what I found during my investigation of the tower."

"The Queen is resting. However, you can report to me."

"In that case, Lord Ares," he removed a small pouch from his belt,  "will you give her this and tell her that I found it in the old watchtower?"

Xena took the pouch."I will.Where will you be?"

"I think I'll go sit with Our Lord Conqueror for a bit, before Jarrod's lessons end for the day."

"Good man, Palaemon. I'm sure the Lord Conqueror would be very honored to know that she has such loyal troops."

The beefy soldier's voice went serious."The honor is mine, Lord Ares."

Xena nodded. "I'll make sure to let the Queen know where you are."

"Thank you, Lord Ares."Palaemon bowed respectfully, then withdrew.

Xena closed the door then opened the bag, dumping the contents into her hand.Her eyes widened. "Oh no." Her hand made a fist around the small object.


Nyssa could tell Jarrod's attention were not on his lessons."Do you want to talk about it?" she asked, running her fingers through his hair.

He looked at her, then dropped his eyes bashfully, shaking his head. But the tears that dropped onto the table told another story.

"I know it's hard," she offered quietly, her eyes conveying her sympathy. She poured him a glass of fresh, tart, apple juice and handed him a damp cloth for his face. "I know this is a lot for a young man to handle all at once."

"I didn't mean it," Jarrod blurted out, wiping his face.

"Mean what?" She settled back into the chair next to him and took his hands in hers.

"All the mean things I said to Xena.I told her I hated her.That I didn't love her anymore."He sniffed and took a drink of his juice."But I do love her.I was wrong, and now I may not get to tell her I'm sorry."

The young tutor studied him closely. She considered his words, but found herself at a loss as to how to comfort the boy.Nyssa was saved from the attempt when the door opened and Ares stepped into the room.

"I need to speak with the boy.Alone," the God commanded gently.

"Yes, Lord Ares, right away," Nyssa all but fled from the room.

Jarrod got up from his chair and backed away from the tall God until he hit the wall.Then he slid down it and cringed, making himself as small as possible. Ares was here to get him! To punish him for hurting his Chosen!He covered his head with his arms, peeking out between his trembling, slender elbows at the God, who still seemed distracted by the hasty retreat of his tutor.

When Xena turned to face Jarrod, it took a moment for her to remember who the lad was seeing.Her heart hurt for the boy, and whatever maternal cells remained in her body all called for her to go to him and give him a hug.But she didn't. Knowing that Ares wouldn't.Nothing like seeing your bright, freckled-face son cowering before you like you were some demon to make you feel like Centaur crap.  "It's all right, Jarrod.I'm not here to hurt you."

"I'm sorry!" he insisted from his spot on the floor."I didn't mean it!I didn't mean to hurt Xena."

Xena settled down on her knees, a few feet in front of the boy, afraid if she got any closer she'd frighten him further."How did you hurt Xena, Jarrod?"

Jarrod shook his head wildly, not wanting to answer.You already know, or else you wouldn't have come to punish me.

Jarrod was panting so hard she feared he would get sick. Tears welled in Xena's eyes and she willed them away."I'm not here to hurt you.I swear.I just came to find out what happened.Whatever it is... I'm certain that it was an accident and that Xena would forgive you."

"No! It wasn't an accident!"

"Oh Gods," Xena mumbled, growing more and more upset herself.Had her own son tried to kill her?  She would have sworn the gentle boy didn't have it in him. But if he had, it was because he thought Gabrielle needed protection, and Xena would never fault him for that. "You'd better tell me everything then, Jarrod.So we can start to work things out."

"The things I said were hateful.I... I wanted...I was so mad I wanted to hurt her."

"And," Xena prodded.

Jarrod sniffed again."And I ran out of the room and hid, and when people called for me I didn't answer."

"That's all?"Please let that be all.

Jarrod nodded miserably, his crying beginning to taper off now that he'd admitted what he'd done and it appeared that Ares really wasn't here to do something horrible to him.

Inside, Xena breathed a sigh of relief, wanting so badly to believe the boy.Outside, the God of War maintained a carefully masked demeanor.Xena reached for the pouch Palaemon had given her and dumped it upside down in her palm.A small, shiny medallion tumbled out"Jarrod, do you know what this is?"

His hand went to his neck."Xena gave it to me.I musta lost it last night."

"You did, lad.It was found near where Xena got hurt."Xena handed the boy the medallion."Now I'm gonna ask you a hard question, Jarrod.And don't bother trying to lie to me because I'll know.Did you push Xena's down the steps?Even accidentally?"

He uncurled himself, turning shocked, panicky eyes on the God.  He dug his heels into the floor trying to move sideways and away from Ares. "No, Sir!I swear!I'd never hurt Xena that way.I swear!"

"Easy. Easy.I believe you." Xena couldn't help herself.She reached out for the frightened boy and pulled him to her, wrapping him in long, muscled arms."I believe you."


The Conqueror returned to their apartment to find that Gabrielle had awoken, cleaned the rest of her dinner plate, and apparently decided to take a bath.She could hear her spouse in the bathing chamber, splashing around in their tub and humming.

Xena smiled. What a difference a little rest and food can make. She removed her sword rig then the gauntlets, vest, boots, and woolen foot coverings, leaving her clad only in her  leather trousers.She gave her current body a quick glance."Me and Gabrielle in the bath with this body could be a lot of fun.Less chance of my drowning."

She chuckled to herself and moved into the bathing chamber, which was illuminated by a half a dozen large candles and smelled of honey-scented soap.  Xena took a long hard look at Gabrielle, whose back was to her and hadn't heard her come in.

Gabrielle's hair was pulled up off her shoulders in a loose knot, though a few strands had managed to escape and were clinging wetly to her slender neck. Both arms were lifted high in the air, one washing the other with a soft sponge, the soapy water trailing down the lightly muscled flesh. A gentle cloud of steam surrounded her, rendering her complexion a light rosy color.

The Conqueror's mouth went dry at the luscious sight, her body responding strongly to her beautiful mate's. Xena groaned and Gabrielle turned at the sound, looking up from her bath.

"Xena." The word turned breathless when Gabrielle took a good look at what was slowly, confidently walking towards her.Knowing that her own wife currently inhabited that body made her want Xena in ways that weren't possible before.Dear Gods, just take me now. Green eyes narrowed as she considered the thought and a heat rose to her cheeks.

Xena watched Gabrielle's gaze shift into one of total lust, knowing it was one that she, herself, mirrored."Should I be worried that you're looking at me that way?" the Conqueror asked semi-seriously, not sure how much of that look was for her and how much for the body she was now occupying.

The Queen sloshed forward through the warm water, stopping at the tub's rim. "You have absolutely nothing to worry about, Xena."She grasped the edge of the tub with wet hands and pushed herself up, standing, allowing Xena to get a good look at her through the moist air. Water cascaded down her body in rivulets, and she slowly licked her lips, inviting her lover closer. A slow burn ignited in her center at the desperately aroused look on Xena's face.

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and ducked her head for a heated, bruising kiss. There was no prelude to the clashing of hungry tongues and the roaming of anxious, seeking hands. They simply began to devour each other.Soft breasts slid up then pressed against Xena chest, hard nipples raking across sensitive skin.Xena groaned at the sensation and pulled Gabrielle closer, deepening the kiss. She ran her hands up her Queen's slick bare back.And stopped cold. Abruptly, Xena pulled away, leaving Gabrielle stunned and completely aroused.

 The blonde felt herself being turned around."Xena, what in-"

"Your back?" Xena ran her hands over the glistening, flawless skin, examining it in with round eyes. "It's completely healed," she said incredulously. "How?"

Xena gaze flicked to Gabrielle in question, and the younger woman felt her stomach drop. The blood drained from Gabrielle's face and for a moment she didn't know what to say. "Umm... well..." Oh Gods.Oh, Gods, Xena, please understand."Ares..."

Xena's face and voice went cold at the sound of the God's name, and she stepped away, leaving Gabrielle standing naked and feeling suddenly exposed."What does he have to do with this?"

Gabrielle's heart sank further.A swallow. "Xena, he healed my back."

Dark brows grew together in growing confusion. "Why would her do that?Last I heard he was furious at me for joining with you. And now he's healing you?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes as a knot formed in her stomach.She couldn't avoid telling her now.She licked her lips then slowly opened her eyes, staring unflinchingly at her lover. "You were dying.I did what I had to do to save your life, Xena."

Xena's jaw sagged slightly, disbelief coloring her face even as the realization of Gabrielle's words slammed home."No," she said softly. "No. No!" She shook her head as she said the words."I am not hearing this. I'm not!"

Gabrielle's pulse began to pound."I... I struck a deal with him. There was nothing left for me to..."

"NO! DON'T YOU TELL ME THAT!"Xena bent at the waist as if in pain. Closing her eyes, she covered her ears with her hands, pressing them tightly against her head.

"Xena." Gabrielle reached out, only to have her hand knocked away.Her heart twisted in her chest and she sucked in a pained breath. "Xena, please, let me explain," she begged, tears forming in her eyes.

"What deal?"The look on Gabrielle's face was answer enough, but morbidly, as if to draw out her own anguish, she wanted to hear Gabrielle say the words. "What kind of deal did you make with the God of War?!"Her hands shot out and grasped Gabrielle's upper arms.

Unable to look her in the eye, Gabrielle dropped her gaze, feeling chilled and sick and angry at all once. I can't lose her. I can't.Ares' words mocked her. 'She'll never forgive you, Gabrielle.'  

"Answer me!" Xena roared, unknowingly tightening her grasp.

Flashing green eyes jerked upward. "Stop it!You're hurting me!"

Xena yanked her hands back as though she'd been burned, taking several long steps backwards. Gabrielle scrambled out of the tub, following her step-for-step, water dripping from her legs as she crossed the cold, stone floor. She refused to allow Xena to move further out of reach, afraid if she did, she'd never get her back. "He was going to let you die!I offered him the only thing I had.I had no choice!"

Xena stopped retreating. "NO!" Her eyes sparked with rage and she could feel the blood pumping wildly in her veins.The urge to strike out was nearly unstoppable and her hands shaped into solid, twin fists that she rooted to her sides. She began to perspire under the strain. "You should have let me die.I would rather Hades take me than have you give yourself to him!"

"Don't you tell me that!" the younger woman raged back, repeating her lover's words. "Don't you dare stand here and say that I was supposed to idly stand by while you died before my eyes.My pride is not worth your life!" Gabrielle tore her robe from a chair that stood next to her. Slipping into it, she quickly tied the belt, her jerky movements causing her hair to tumble free from its loose knot.  Her pale skin was flushed red from the hot bath water, adrenaline, and an unreasoning fear that coursed through her. "I couldn't, Xena." Hot tears spilled over her cheeks. "That's too much to ask!"

"What?" Xena sneered. "It's too much to expect my Queen not to whore..."


Xena's words were halted by a vicious slap to her face. The noise echoed in the bathing chamber, its shocking sound only intruded upon by the panting breaths of both women.The Conqueror's hand moved to the reddening spot instinctively, feeling the heat from the blow to her bruised skin.

"By the Gods," Gabrielle muttered, more to herself than Xena. A fresh wave of tears streaked her cheeks and throat, disappearing behind the damp silk robe that clung to her. "I...   I didn't mean to..." She stared at her trembling hand, which stung from the force of the slap, as though it had acted without her consent.

Inexplicably, the blow seemed to pull Xena from the heat of the moment, focusing her mind on something other than her own sense of anger, betrayal, and mostly guilt. This was, she decided, ultimately her fault. Had she not been so careless in the Old Watchtower, none of this would have happened. Some of the anger behind the dark eyes melted, only to be replaced with a look of raw pain and anguish that made Gabrielle feel ill.The shorter woman wrapped her arms around her stomach, hugging herself.

Xena reached for her partner, this time consciously gentling her hands and her voice.

Gabrielle leaned into the touch, part of her fearing Xena would strike her back, another part welcoming it.

The Conqueror's jaw worked for a moment before any sound managed to escape. "But don't you see, Gabrielle?I ... I didn't, I don't...want that for you.  I wanted to take you away from a life where you had to sell yourself to survive. Not bring you to it!"

"I know," Gabrielle whispered miserably, turning away from her partner's face and the burgeoning mark on Xena's cheek.She blinked rapidly, trying in vain to clear her vision. "But I needed to help you.I just couldn't..." she tried to explain, glancing up, meeting eyes as teary as her own."I just couldn't do nothing. I love you, Xena."

Xena nodded reluctantly, admitting to herself that she'd have done no less had their positions been reversed, but hating it just the same.  She drew in a deep breath, exhaling it very slowly. "So Ares welched after you slept with him?" You bastard!I'll kill you for that.

"No. Not exactly." Gabrielle ran a hand through her damp hair. "It was going to happen, Xe.The deal had been struck.Your life for my body.But before ... well, before things could get very far, Autolycus and Morgaine showed up and interrupted us."

"So you never...?"

Gabrielle shook her head vigorously and sniffed."No."

Xena smiled weakly. "You might have mentioned that before, Gabrielle."

"You didn't give me a chance."

"I know," Xena signed. "But then why did he do this ridiculous body switch if you hadn't fulfilled your part of the deal?I don't understand."

Gabrielle rubbed her eyes frustratedly, fearing Xena would take this news even worse than that which she'd already told her. She almost lied. A big part of her wanted to. But this close to Xena, even seeing the pain and sorrow written across the unfamiliar features, she found herself unable to do anything but tell her the truth, knowing it would hurt her again, but powerless to stop it.

Xena stiffened, sensing Gabrielle's hesitation.

"He did the body switch instead of healing you outright because he caught me in some sort of semantics loophole." She chewed her lip for a moment before plunging forward. "He's only agreeing to help you at all because I swore to fulfill my part of the deal later.I still owe him, Xena."

"Like Hades you do!" the Conqueror roared.

"Xena, I promised. Gods!Why can't you see that, in the long run, my deal with Ares doesn't matter?  You alive is what matters!If I renege, you die!"

Xena whirled around, looking for something to hit, or break, or someone to fight.When nothing was immediately handy, she stomped toward the bathing chamber door, yelling in outrage.Then she focused inwards, directing her anger toward Ares, and applying her intellect to the problem. "He will never touch you again," she said after so long that Gabrielle feared she had stopped talking to her altogether.  "Not like that."

"But Xena..."

"You need to trust me, Gabrielle."

"I trust you," came the immediate answer. Relief flooded through her and she let out a quaking breath. Xena had a plan.She could feel it.They would get through this together.

"Do you remember what you told me at the reception for the satraps?"

Gabrielle looked at Xena blankly, her mind unable to wrap itself around the apparent non-sequitur.

"You said that you don't share," Xena reminded her fervently, marching back to the younger woman and cupping her chin. She ran her thumb along her Gabrielle's jaw line. "I will never share you. And I love you, too."

Gabrielle felt her heart clench, her relief at hearing those words so great that, for a moment, she felt light-headed.

Xena's voice dropped to a low growl and her eyes darkened, pupils dilating in residual anger, arousal, and fear.She pulled Gabrielle to her, drawing in a deep breath of her honey-scented skin and feeling the smaller woman's sharp intake of air.  The cool silk of the robe brushed against her chest and she spoke the words directly from her heart. "I love you, Gabrielle.Not him.You - Are - Mine!"

Gabrielle nodded. Their lips were a hairsbreadth apart, and she should feel Xena's heart pounding wildly beneath her breast and her warm breath caressing her lips. She needed to taste those lips, show Xena how much she loved her and permanently wash away any lingering doubts.She had to make her understand that no matter what had happened, or what may come to pass in the future, she was hers.  Gabrielle surged forward, crushing her mouth against Xena's and kissing her deeply. "I am yours," she vowed seriously, finally breaking away after several incredibly intense moments. She ran her hands up thick, muscled arms, laying them to rest on broad, slightly heaving shoulders.

Xena wrapped Gabrielle in a tight embrace, towering over her she leaned forward and pressed her forehead to Gabrielle's. Looking down, she searched dark green eyes for the truth she knew she'd find there. Her voice was low and husky and shot straight through her lover. "Do you like this body, Gabrielle?  Do you want me?"

"Yes, I like that body.But I love yours." Her nostrils flared. "And Gods, yes, I want you."It was an honest admission and one made without thought or hesitation. Ares was an attractive man, who had an undeniably beautiful body.But Xena was a stunning woman, whose allure struck a chord so basic to Gabrielle's being, stirred something so deep and primal within her, that she couldn't even begin to explain it.It simply was.And the fact that she was crazy in love with the woman didn't hurt either. There was never a contest between Xena and Ares.Her partner knew that.She could see it in eyes the wrong color, and in the small, slightly crooked grin working its way across Ares' face.

Xena smiled tentatively, allowing the bad feelings and fear to bleed away."This body is all I happen to have at the moment."

"Then we'll have to make do, won't we?"

Xena stared at her spouse for a long moment, then swept her into her arms, storming toward the bedchamber."You're mine," she repeated, passing in and out of the mid-day shadows on her way to their bed.Gabrielle didn't rebel or fight against her.Instead, she felt her arms slide around her neck, hot kisses working their way up the side of her throat, stopping at her ear.

"No one else's. I promise."The Queen took Xena's earlobe into her mouth and sucked it hungrily, giving it a couple of tiny bites in the process. "I love you."

Hot breath tickled the Conqueror's ear and Xena's squeezed Gabrielle to her chest, burying her nose in sweet-smelling, red-gold hair as she took her last few steps. Her partner returned the heartfelt hug that promised everything would be okay.

Xena carefully laid her bundle on the bed.Standing over her, she reached down and opened the damp robe, brushing aside the dark blue cloth with her fingertips."You are truly beautiful."

Gabrielle grinned. "Xena, I really don't want to talk anymore." She looked up at her with a sweet, youthful face that conveyed anything but innocence and cocked her head. "Do you?"

A heat flooded Xena's groin, intensifying what was already a dull ache that throbbed with every beat of her heart. "No," she answered seriously. "I don't." The Conqueror's body tingled with anticipation and the simple knowledge that Gabrielle wanted this as much as she did.

Gabrielle sat up a little and ran her hands around a firm, well-defined stomach.Stopping at the small of Xena's back, she gently guided her closer. "I want to make love with you, Xena.And don't try to tell me you can't."She chuckled affectionately and pointed."You really do think with that thing, don't you?"

Xena shook her head. "I swear it has a mind of its own."Then she watched transfixed as Gabrielle reached out and tugged down her trousers, exposing heated flesh to cool air.

"Too many clothes." Her hands trailed down Xena's legs, taking her pants with them. Once they were kicked away, and Xena stood naked and breathing heavily before her, she took her by the hand and gave a sharp yank, pulling Xena down on top of her and right between her legs.The Conqueror held herself off the body of her Queen on strong, but shaking arms. She ducked her head and kissed Gabrielle's collarbone, them moved up and captured waiting lips.

Xena groaned with unbridled desire, and Gabrielle's felt her own wetness increase.Her lips moved to a warm, recently shaven cheek and she gently brushed her lips against it.  "Nice," she murmured into the smooth skin, using her fingers to gently scratch against the short whiskers nearby.

Xena let out a long sigh. Gabrielle. "I'm kinda light headed." She licked dry lips finally admitting, "Gods this is different."

"I knew it had to be."

Her arms began to weaken, and she began lowering her weight onto her partner. "Oh yeah..." Her head dropped with the sudden contact of her aroused flesh against the baby-soft skin of Gabrielle's inner thighs. When her lover moved her hips forward, she felt her heart begin to pound as though it were coming out of her chest, and heard Gabrielle's hiss.Suddenly, she couldn't breath and she gasped for air.

Gabrielle slid her hips away. Arching up, she whispered, "Easy, love. Easy."

Xena could feel the smile against her ear and an incredible heat radiating from the woman below her.

"We don't want to waste this, now do we?" A small kiss and lick.

"No way," the Conqueror growled.  

Gabrielle slowly moved back, bringing Xena with her, and rolling her onto her back.She ran one hand down the strong body beneath, passing over a broad chest, hard stomach, navel, and coarse, dark hairs, until they found each other and became one again.The Queen groaned at the satisfying fullness, and a wicked smile played on her lips.  Settling herself, she reached over and pried Xena's white-knuckled grip from the covers, lifting the Conqueror's arms above her head, and dragging her own hands back down long arms.

Their mouths were barely touching and Xena's tongue snaked out, tasting soft lips and warm saliva. Gabrielle's tongue swirled around hers as their breath mingled, and the younger woman initiated an excruciatingly slow, torturous rhythm with her hips.She was immediately awarded with a very deep, carnal groan from her spouse.

Gabrielle could feel Xena shift her position slightly, bending her legs at the knee and sliding powerful thighs alongside Gabrielle's, giving the Conqueror the ability to join Gabrielle's rhythm with a slow, sensual thrusting action of her own.Large hands moved to languidly moving hips, increasing their tempo."Mmm... so good," the blonde grunted, as their sweat-slicked bodies slid together.

Xena's eyes rolled back at the exquisite sensation of moving in and out of her wife, throbbing inside her, being surrounded by her physically and emotionally, and merging with her as though they were one.She soaked in Gabrielle's breathy moans of pleasure, feeling her contracting around her, grasping her from within. "Gods..." She couldn't control what was happening and her body arched hard into the Queen, legs trembling, muscles tightening. Xena squeezed her eyes tightly shut, moaning loudly, hearing Gabrielle's whimpers when her lover plunged down hard to meet her final upward thrust. Xena stiffened for a second before drowning in the hot flood of her release.

They pushed into each other one last time, Gabrielle's center contracting as she groaned in pleasure, swept away by her body's response to her lover's and the feeling of Xena pulsing inside her. She dug her nails into the strong shoulders and arched, tilting her head backwards."Xena... yes..." she ground out haltingly, riding the waves of pleasure coursing through her body.

Gabrielle limply fell forward, panting as she melted in Xena.

The warrior took a deep shuddering breath, wrapping Gabrielle up securely in her arms   "I love you."

"I love you too, Xe," the Queen mumbled dreamily, still floating along and unwilling to shorten her journey. When she finally had the energy to move, Gabrielle peppered her spouse's jaw and neck with soft, tiny kisses.

They moved slowly, bodies tingling still with passion spent, until Gabrielle was at Xena's side with her head resting on a broad shoulder.  "I thought it would last longer," Xena wondered aloud. But she took it in her stride, totally blaming Ares' body for its lack of discipline.

Gabrielle giggled. "By the Gods, Xena, do you hear me complaining?"She didn't wait for an answer.Sighing happily, she snuggled closer.Green eyes blinked as Gabrielle took the time to really examine her partner's current head. "Xena?"


"Why does it look like a dog chewed on Ares' head?" She gave a little tug to the messy, short, and highly uneven hair.

"Because he's a bonehead?"

"Oh Gods," Gabrielle groaned and chuckled at the same time.  "I'm so not ready for a Conqueror with a sense of humor."

The body below hers shook with silent laughter."I'll make sure it doesn't happen again."

"Good," she teased."See that it doesn't."

They were both teetering on the edge of a contented sleep when there was a pounding on the apartment door.Xena cursed loudly, pulling Gabrielle from her delightful fog."I am going to kill whoever is out there."

Gabrielle scowled, not wanting to let go of Xena. "Not if I do it first."

Chapter Six: Between Love and War

Xena got to her feet, albeit very reluctantly. Wrapping a sheet around her waist, she left the bedchamber to get the door.Gabrielle mumbled some choice words about timing and privacy and began hunting for her robe, which she found tangled with Xena's trousers at the foot of the bed.Sliding one arm into the garment, then the other, she pulled it around herself and knotted the belt, freeing her hair with one hand. Snagging Ares' pants, she trailed after Xena to see what crises had befallen the realm now.

Palaemon's eyes went wide when the Queen entered and it became quite clear in his mind what he'd interrupted. He looked back and forth between Gabrielle and Ares, hoping ridiculously that somehow he was misinterpreting the situation.Stepping in mid-conversation, the Queen laid her palm on the small of Ares' back, moving it in slow, comforting circles. The gesture was unconscious and intimate and Palaemon stared for a moment before snapping out of his daze. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, I was just informing..."

Xena put up a hand to stop him.  "Palaemon, just go back to the dungeon and make sure the prisoner is well secured.The Queen and I will be down shortly."

"As you wish, Lord Ares."The Captain bowed begrudgingly and left the room, his former good mood having evaporated.

When the door clicked closed Xena turned around and grinned."Guess who they just arrested?"

"Please don't tell me it was Autolycus."I don't have anything left to cut off!Well, that he's willing to have cut off.

Xena shook her head, laughing softly."Not yet, Gabrielle.Though that wouldn't surprise me. No one reforms overnight."

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows at the light tone of Xena's voice.Perhaps her favorite thief had unwittingly earned some points with the Conqueror by interrupting her and Ares earlier that day. She herself had by turns been upset, angry and finally grateful."Well?Who then?"

"Your favorite nut cake and mine."

"Yes!" Gabrielle pumped a victorious fist.

"My thoughts exactly."

"Where did they find the traitorous bitch?"

"She was caught in the healer's chamber, trying to kill me... eh... Ares... eh..." Xena scratched her head.

"Bacchae!" Gabrielle spat vehemently.But never mind, let's just get dressed and get down there."She practically ran back into the bedchamber to get dressed.Gods, let this all almost be over.Please.

"So much for afterglow," Xena grumbled, following her spouse. You've reached the end of your road, Callisto.


Xena and Gabrielle parted company when Autolycus met them outside the dungeon and requested, in a slightly demanding tone, complete with reproachful glance at Ares, that he needed to speak with the Queen.

The Conqueror laughed to herself as Autolycus gently took Gabrielle by the arm and led her away."I thought you were a more popular God, Ares. Seems everyone knows what a bastard you are."

Xena opened the door to the dungeon and nearly gagged at the foul stench.Darkness pervaded her senses and she squinted, peering through the dim torchlight. She had to remind herself that Gods probably didn't puke.

The guard bolted from his chair, staggering slightly at his apparent dizziness from rising so quickly."Lord Ar... Ares!"

Xena affected an arrogant pose typical of the God of War as she looked down at the portly man."You were expecting Cupid?"

"No, Lord Ares, but..."

She waved a dismissive hand.  "Take me to Callisto."

"Yes, Lord Ares."

The jailer lead Xena further into the dungeon, far deeper than she'd gone in several seasons. The man hung his smoking torch on a hook that protruded from the damp, stone wall. Spitting on both hands, he planted his feet and used massive forearms and biceps to grasp the handle of the heavy door and pull, throwing his shoulders and back into the movement.The thick, wooden slab scraped slowly against the stones of the floor as it opened with a loud creak.

The odor that rushed out nearly knocked the Conqueror off her feet, her stomach roiling.She shook it off.Doing her best to breathe solely through her mouth, she stepped inside.This is where they kept the worst of the worst.It was silent and dark as death itself. Which was fitting, Xena decided, seeing as these prisoners would find themselves crucified within a few short days. Her gaze flickered across the condemned men and women. I guess I wouldn't feel much like conversing with my cellmates in here either. No wonder they never cry for mercy before being nailed to the cross.They're too happy to be free from this hideous stench!

"Last cell on the right, Lord Ares.We put her in there alone, to keep the other prisoners from killing her."

Xena grunted her acknowledgment and stuck out a waiting hand.

The guard immediately retrieved his torch and thrust it into the Conqueror's grasp.

"Leave me."

"Yes, Lord Ares." He smiled a rotten-toothed grin laced with contempt before disappearing.

"I love you too," Xena muttered to the jailer as she took long strides towards the end of the foul corridor.  Looking through the bars, she found Callisto huddled in the corner, sitting on the cold floor, hugging her knees. She had been stripped of her armor and leathers and was wearing a dirty, shapeless tunic that would be recycled upon her death. "Get up, you crazy bitch!"  Xena commanded. Pictures of Callisto with a bloody whip in her hand flooded her mind, dredging up a dark rage unsuited for a meeting where she was supposed to be Ares.She bit the inside of her cheek, forcing herself to concentrate on the tasteless task at hand.

"Ares!"The former general rushed forward to the bars of her cell, relief clearly written across her face."Get me out of here!"

Xena chuckled humorlessly. "Why would I want to do that? Especially considering your most current pastime seems to be trying to assassinate my Chosen."

Callisto tried to look contrite, but couldn't quite manage it. "I know you told me not to touch either one of them. But..."

"But nothing!" Ares said that? "Shoving her down the steps was bad enough..."

Callisto's forehead creased.  "You know very well I didn't do that. I was just trying to give the pathetic assassin a little help. Come on, Ares," she prodded. "If we were free of Xena then we'd be free of the annoying little blonde too, and I could rule the Realm!"She drew the very tip of her finger into her mouth and gave Ares her best seductive smile.

Xena's stomach lurched.When Callisto reached through the bars to caress her face it was all she could do to keep from backing way.Her nostrils flared in disgust andGeneral smiled coyly, taking it as evidence of arousal.  

"You shaved," Callisto purred, lightly stroking the skin."I like it." Brown eyes drifted to Ares' hair, then widened. She paused. "Umm... love the hair, too. It's... um... interesting."

Xena captured her hand, giving it a painful squeeze."I don't care whether you like it or not. And don't pretend like you didn't push Xena down the Old Watchtower steps!"

Callisto drew back from him, studying his face with a critical eye."Did you get hit in the head or something? You know that wasn't me.If I'd gotten that close, she'd be dead, not just dying.Oh well, I can always hope she'll survive and end up a pitiful cripple."

Never!  "She would fall on her sword first." A slight tremor shook Xena's voice.Gods, I hadn't even thought about that. Her eyes closed briefly as the thought of being a lifetime burden to her mate brought the acrid taste of bile to her throat."About that night..."

 A smile curled Callisto's lips she remembered the battle that Ares had taken her to that night."Oh, it was delicious! All that beautiful blood and carnage. Don't tell me you've already forgotten that I was your guest." Her look turned sultry. "Especially considering what we did after."

Xena cleared her throat."Of course not!" Hades! She puffed up her chest and flashed back her own sexy grin. "I wanted to hear you say it."She shrugged one shoulder. "You know how I am."

Callisto continued to eye him with a hint of wariness."Of course I do. I know you very well, Ares."

"So who is the assassin you're trying to help?" Xena asked with forced casualness.

The general threw her hands in the air. "Like I know.But whoever it was got close enough to touch her and didn't cut her throat... the idiot."She took a step backwards when the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees. Ares was running out of patience and she felt the first gnawing of panic deep in her guts.Would he actually leave her here to be crucified? "C'mon, Ares. Get me out of here.Let me finish what I started, so you and I can rule the world the way it was meant to be ruled!"

Before Xena could answer, Palaemon and three other guards entered the door at the far end of the corridor.  With long poles, they pushed opened the slender, barred windows near the top of the high ceiling.A blast of cool, fresh air flooded the dungeon and the prisoners groaned and covered their eyes at the bright light. Scented candles were spread out down the cellblock and bundles of aromatic herbs were scattered across the floor.

"Palaemon, what in Tartarus is going on?"Xena barked.

"The Queen is on her way in," he paused, giving the God what could only be described as a disgusted look, "Lord Ares."

I get the smelly dungeon and when Gabrielle comes in they air the place out and sprinkle herbs around like it's Solstice!"What in Hades name is going on here?!" she roared indignantly.

"Ares," Callisto grabbed him by the vest, "get me out of here and I'll..."

"You'll what?!" Gabrielle stormed into the dungeon."You'll come for someone in my family again? Perhaps my child or my dying wife?Or maybe even me?"She raised her left hand, comparing her joining bracelet to the long cut on Callisto's face. "I wonder if I could give you a matching set."

"You little bitch!"Callisto let go of Ares as her arms flew out between the bars.

"Now is that any way to speak to your Queen?" Gabrielle smiled, taking a tiny step backwards and putting just enough distance between herself and the cell that the tips of Callisto's fingers could barely graze her tunic.

"You're not my Queen.  I'll cut my own throat before I ever bow before you."


Xena heard the crack in her wife's voice and knew that her recent yelling escapade, meant to intimidate the satraps, had taken its toll on her voice. She turned to a guard. "Bring Queen Gabrielle and me each a cup of water."

The guard nodded, leaving to do the God's bidding.

"Guess what, Callisto?"Gabrielle took the time to wrap an arm around Ares' trim waist."You're not going to get the chance to hurt anyone I love ever, ever again.Isn't that right, Ares?"

Xena grinned happily. "That's right, my Queen."She lowered her head, catching her spouse in a tender but passionate kiss.

Palaemon looked on in surprise as Callisto howled in fury. Raging eyes glanced back and forth between the dark God and the young Queen.

Gabrielle released Xena's lips, taking great care to gently stroke Xena's face and tug on her bottom lip with her teeth before pulling away.Xena loved that and she knew it would earn her an audible whimper.Which, of course, it did. She moved a step closer to Callisto and licked her own lips very slowly, giving the former General a bright smile and saucy wink.

Callisto's looked on in horror as Ares gazed at Gabrielle adoringly.It was a look she'd never seen on his face before and one she was certain he was entirely incapable of. "You're not Ares!" she accused, shaking a finger at Xena.

The tall God pointed at himself innocently."Oh?Who am I?Zeus perhaps? Or Aphrodite?"She smirked, cocking a brow in a gesture so like Xena that, despite it's improbability, Callisto knew exactly who she was looking at.

"Xena?!"She began to cackle hysterically."Oh, this is wonderful!" She clapped her hands together. "I don't know how, or why, but..."

Gabrielle let loose a steely laugh."My, my, my," she clucked with mock sadness."It seems this dark, scary dungeon has done something to your already demented brain. Palaemon?"

"Yes, Your Majesty?" He stepped forward from his place along the wall.

"I was going to order her crucified." Gabrielle hesitated, apparently thinking the situation over. "But it's obvious that she is not in her right mind. It would be wrong to put her to death." Her eyes took on a predatory glint. "Move her to the Capital Asylum instead.And make sure she's confined with the criminally insane. I wouldn't want her to lack for company."

"As you wish, Your Majesty."

Callisto retreated to the back of her cell, shrieking, cursing, and mumbling something about spells and tricks, further cementing in everyone's minds that she was utterly insane.

The jailer sent to fetch the water returned, and passed the Queen a cup. Gabrielle smiled her thanks and took a long satisfying drink, enjoying the cool liquid that slid down her throat almost as much as she was enjoying Callisto's tantrum

Next, the jailer handed a cup to Ares .

The God took a healthy swallow of the foulest liquid Xena had ever tasted.It exploded out of her mouth and she began choking.Gabrielle patted her back. "What is this?" Xenahacked out, wiping her tongue with her fingers, wishing she had sleeves.

The jailer squared his shoulders. "Water drawn from the tank, Lord Ares."

Xena threw the cup down the corridor, sending it clanking to the very end. "The tank the prisoners wash their clothes in once a month?!"

"This is the water the prisoners drink," he informed Ares coolly, steeling himself for a swift and severe punishment.

Xena sneered and took a menacing step towards the huge man, who suddenly had the other guards and Palaemon at his sides to help him if necessary.

"No, Ares," Gabrielle interrupted, hoping to keep her spouse from attacking the guard. She pressed her own cup to Xena's lips, allowing her a taste of her cool, clean water."You're dismissed, guards. Thank you."She shot Palaemon a warning look, and he quickly gathered the jailer and guards, pushing them towards the door before Ares'  temper completely snapped.

When they were well out of earshot, and Palaemon had retaken his unobtrusive spot along the wall, Gabrielle slid her hand under Ares' vest just to taunt Callisto. "This body is so delightful," she cooed for the General's benefit, only barely remembering not to add 'Xena' to the end of her sentence. "Let's go put it to good use again, shall we?"

Xena nibbled on the Queen's neck, momentarily forgetting everything except the soft silky, warm skin beneath her lips. "In so many ways, and for so long you'll beg me to stop."

"Never," she promised sincerely. After several moments of probing kisses and roaming hands, Gabrielle pulled away and blew Callisto a little kiss.She took Xena's hand and began walking down the cellblock, well aware of her partner's slightly ragged breathing and flushed skin. Gabrielle looked over her shoulder."Enjoy your new digs. You'll be there for the rest of your natural life." She smiled coldly, enjoying the moment to the fullest."Or until the other prisoners grow as tired of you as we are."

Callisto dropped to her knees, screaming.


Gabrielle laughed wickedly as she and Xena made their way down the stone corridor that led back to the palace.  Xena was nearly bursting with pride. Gabrielle truly was a mate worthy of ruling the Realm at her side.Her lover's throaty, satisfied laugh made Xena proud and completely horny.She glanced down to Ares' groin."I'm glad you at least had the good taste to behave in the dungeon."

"What?" the blonde asked, giving Xena a bump with her hip, only barely having heard the words.Though she was certain it was terribly wrong of her, she felt as though she was walking on clouds. She had been particularly amused when Callisto told her if she wanted it all, she'd have to fuck Palaemon too.The poor captain had nearly fainted on the spot. And the Queen and Conqueror had immediately agreed to bump Palaemon's pay to hazardous duty status and find him a mate so that he wouldn't be so nearly so desperate next time.

"I didn't say anything," Xena protested lamely.She frowned, hating having to burst Gabrielle's happy bubble, but not wanting to put it off any longer than necessary."Gabrielle?"


"Callisto wasn't the one who pushed me down the stairs."

Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, her good mood scattered to the winds. "What?!But she tried to kill you.They caught her! She..."

"Yes, love, she did." Xena grasped Gabrielle's hands. "She tried to kill me today.It seems that she was with Ares the night I was pushed down the stairs."

Gabrielle pressed her palms against closed eyes, dangerously close to bursting into tears."Gods," she sighed miserably. "This was supposed to be over."I was sure Callisto was the one!

Xena pulled the smaller woman into a hug, kissing the crown of her head. "I wish it was."

"We're back at square one."

The Conqueror shook her head."Absolutely not, we've ruled out Callisto.  We also know that Malauis' suicide was a ruse, and that he was murdered by my assassin."

"'Would be' assassin, Conqueror," Gabrielle immediately corrected, daring Xena to say differently.

"Right." Xena tucked a pale strand of hair behind Gabrielle's ear."'Would be'. Anyway, hopefully, at this very moment, one of the satraps is buckling under the pressure of your wonderfully delivered threats."

Gabrielle let out a frustrated breath, kissing Xena on the collarbone before she pulled away and they resumed their trek."You're right.  We're not back at square one.We're on square one and a half."

"Gabrielle."Her name was drawn out.

"S'okay, Xena.I won't give up."

Xena grinned affectionately.  "I know.So where to now?We really can't do anything else until we give the satraps more time to mull over Antony's," her lips quirked into a sly smile, "tragic fate."

"Now we go to visit your body," Gabrielle said decisively as they rounded a corner, several guards snapping to attention as they passed. "I miss it and I want to make sure it's all right."

Xena grimaced. "Do we have to?"  The thought of seeing herself lying there like that made her kind of queasy and angry at the same time.

"I really need to, Xena. But I can go alone, if you'd rather."Please don't take me up on that.I need you there with me, convincing me that you're whole and that you're right here with me.

"Not a chance."

Gabrielle gave the hand she was holding a sympathetic squeeze, before trying to lighten the mood.The faint smell of roasting pork and fresh bread let them know that on the other side of the wall to the left of them was the palace's massive kitchens.Their stomachs growled in unison.Xena shook her head and the shorter woman chuckledwryly. "Oh... I almost forgot.You wanna know what I heard today while you were talking with Callisto?"

"Probably not." Xena smiled despite herself. "But go ahead anyway."

Gabrielle grinned back. "Rumor around the palace is that people are furious with Ares for being such a cad as to seduce their grieving queen." She stopped for a dramatic pause, draping her arm over her eyes and sighing, "who is, of course, so distraught over her dying mate she's unable to fend off his roguish advances..."

Xena rolled her eyes."Puuuuleeeez."

Gabrielle threw her head back in laughter, bringing it forward and nodding."Yup, Ares is just an old dog as far as the palace staff and your soldiers are concerned.I'm practically a widow in mourning and you're taking terrible liberties with me."

"Remind me to tell Palaemon who was on top."

"Don't you dare!"She slapped the firm bicep.  "They all think I was carved from a honeycomb, even the ones who weren't sure about me before are on my side now."

"Well, I agree with the staff. Ares is a bastard. And you are sweet as honey but have a Tartarus of a sting."

Xena sidestepped a second swat decidedly lacking in real sting. "Ouch! You know, the way you've got everybody around here wrapped around your little finger," Including me, she silently added, "and the way you've spun a tale for the satraps, makes me think that you should have been an actress or maybe even a bard."

Gabrielle snorted. "Get real, Xena. A bard?I've had enough of smelly taverns and groping soldiers to last me a lifetime."Her eyes rolled sideways, fastening on her tall, dark partner, who, despite looking very different, still felt very much like home to Gabrielle. "Well..." she amended."Most soldiers."


Grimacing, Autolycus held the small, bloody pouch, as far from his body as he could. A guard pulled the conference room door open and the thief marched in, tossing the sack onto the table with an unceremonious, tiny thump."From Our Queen..." He glanced at Cleopatra."Hope you weren't fond of the right one."

The Egyptian monarch stood on shaky legs. She reached for the bag only to have her hand caught by Melosa.  "Allow me, Your Majesty." Melosa's lips turned down in distaste... for Cleopatra. "I prefer to look at the contents before you puke all over it."

Cleopatra bit back a nasty retort but nodded, leaving the gruesome duty of peeking inside the sack to the Amazon.Melosa opened the bag."It's an ear."

"Human?"Brutus asked.

"No, elephant."She stared at the open-mouthed Roman."Of course it's human, imbecile!"The Amazon passed the bag to Boadicea, who was obviously wholly unsatisfied with the discovery.She had anticipated an eyeball or at the very least a nice scrotum.This was downright disappointing.With a nod, she concurred with Melosa's identification of the body part and passed the bag to Lao Ma.

Autolycus snagged a toothpick from a bowl on the table and gnawed on the end speculatively.   "Antony must not have been listening to the Queen when she said you had three marks to tell her who made the attempt on Our Lord's life.I hope for his sake someone is listening this time."He tapped the toothpick on his chin before flicking it away."Of course, if you're not, I'm sure either one of you or Antony will see the light in the next round."He began walking away. Stopping in the doorway and not turning around, he shrugged. "Then again, maybe he won't."


Even though Gabrielle knew Xena was standing behind her, safe and sound, seeing her wife's battered body lying helpless in bed made her heart ache and a solid lump rise to her throat.  "I never hurt for him the way I hurt for you," she whispered to Xena's body, her fingers gently combing through long, dark hair."And I knew him my whole life."


Gabrielle felt Xena moved behind her, placing large hands on her shoulders, kneading them comfortingly. She reached up and grasped one of Xena's hands and was quiet for so long Xena didn't think she was going to answer. "I was just thinking about Perdicus," she said finally."When he was killed...   I was sad because was my friend.But when I saw you... like...like this..." She looked down at Xena's body and tears sprang into her eyes so quickly she didn't have time to stop them. "I... I wanted to die." She swallowed hard.   "I couldn't imagine my life without you in it. I don't want to imagine a life without you."

"I'll find out who did this to me.  To us." The Conqueror cupped Gabrielle's chin, lifting until wet eyes looked into hers."Or I'll die trying." She winked.

Gabrielle tugged her chin away grumpily but a tiny laugh still escaped. "That is so not funny, Xena."

Xena felt an odd sensation in her belly.Oh great."I didn't mean to really upset you, Gabrielle.I..." The rest of what she was about to say was interrupted when the door to the room opened and Nyssa and Jarrod stepped into the room.

 "I'm sorry." The girl looked at Ares nervously. "We should have knocked.I didn't think anyone would be here but the guards.  They're not outside and... and... and..."

Gabrielle and Xena waited patiently for the tutor to stop rambling.It was obvious that she was uneasy in the presence of the handsome God. "Excuse me, Your Majesty.Jarrod asked to see Our Lord Conqueror.I... I... thought it would be all right. But... but..."

"Relax, Nyssa." Gabrielle smiled gently, unable to stand another second of the painfully awkward babble.  "Now is a fine time.Is Jarrod finished with his lessons for the day?"

The tutor nodded.

"Then your work day is done.Have a nice evening, Nyssa." Gabrielle smothered a laugh when the girl glanced over her shoulder on her way out of the room, her gaze landing squarely on Ares, who smiled and wiggled his fingers into a wave, causing Nyssa to run smack dab into the closed door.

"Gods... I ... I," Nyssa began to stammer, her hands moving to her reddening cheeks."I didn't..."  

"It's all right, Nyssa."Gabrielle stood up and opened the door for the girl."Ares," she warned in a low voice, feeling Xena gear up to tease the flustered girl further. The Queen turned around and silently mouthed 'Be nice!' to her laughing mate before ushering Nyssa out.

"Good... b.. bye then." The tutor darted away. Gabrielle shook her head and shut the door behind her.When she turned around again, she put her hands on her hips and gave Xena a look that meant she was in deep trouble.

The Conqueror smiled, holding up both palms face up in a gesture of complete innocence. When Gabrielle continued to glare, she grunted unhappily. "Gods, Gabrielle, I do have a reputation to uphold, you know," she whined.

Jarrod looked slightly confused, but quickly focused on the silent patient.

The Queen smiled, extending her hand to her son and effectively ignoring the troublemaker standing across the room, and stepped towards Xena's bed.She pulled him close and whispered in his ear."Tell her you love her, son.I know she'll hear you."

Jarrod looked doubtful, but his Mama coaxed him with a small shooing motion.The boy leaned over the bed, careful not to touch Xena.   He gave her a soft kiss on the cheek."I love you, Mother.Please come back to us soon."

Xena moved behind Gabrielle, pressing her lips to her wife's ear so that only she could hear the words. "She will, son. She loves you both too much to do anything else."


The three of them sat together at the dining room table in the Conqueror's apartment, with Jarrod peeking at Ares from the corner of his eyes.Palaemon had explained that since Xena was Ares' Chosen, the God of War was here to help Gabrielle prevent the satraps from seizing control of the Realm while Xena was injured. But what the boy couldn't figure out was why Ares was always so close to his Mama.Why his eyes would flicker at others suspiciously, but when they landed on her they would soften and look all lovey-dovey.And even more bizarre - his Mama was doing the same thing!Only she and Xena should look at each other that way!  They were married.

Xena, sensing Jarrod's displeasure, remained mostly quiet throughout supper, watching the boy push his food around with his fork.

Gabrielle set her napkin on the table, frowning as she looked at her son's mostly untouched plate.Something was wrong.Jarrod usually was well into his second helping of everything by now. "Jarrod, sweetheart, you need to finish your dinner."She gestured to the food with her chin.

"Yes, Mama." He picked up his fork and began cutting a piece of roasted lamb.But the meat never made it to his mouth.

"Something wrong, Jarrod?"Xena asked, wondering if the boy would speak his mind.

"No, Sir."

"You're lying." The words were spoken firmly.

Jarrod's eyes widened.He had forgotten who he was talking to."I'm sorry, Sir.It's just... just..."

"Speak up, boy."

Startled eyes focused on the God.  "Ares, what are you...?"

Xena silenced her mate with a look.

Jarrod dropped his fork with a clatter, and his intense green eyes lifted to meet Ares' stare.

He was angry, Xena realized with a start.Although the lad was doing his best to hide it, his thin lipped smile and set jaw gave him away.

"I miss Xena.I want her to get better and come home so we can be a family again."

Xena lifted her cup, hiding her grin behind the wide rim."What else?"Come on, Jarrod.There's more.It doesn't take a God to see that.

Jarrod looked at his Mama then at Ares, his brows coming together."Will you be sleeping on the couch tonight?"

Gabrielle nearly spit her wine across the table but managed to hold it in with the help of her hand.Where does he come up with these things?

"Do you think that's where I should sleep?"Xena leaned forward, pushing away her plate of dry, overcooked lamb, and tasteless, mushy vegetables.Damn those spiteful servants and their petty revenge!

Jarrod nodded."Yes."

"Why?!" Xena demanded in a deep, booming voice that caused Gabrielle to jump.

The eight-year-old sprang to his feet. His knee hit the edge of the table and Gabrielle reached out just in time to grab his cup before it tipped over, spilling his milk. "She is not available!" He pointed to his mother."It's just not right!Xena's not dead yet!And I don't care if you are a God!"

"Jarrod!" Gabrielle's jaw dropped.  Her mind spun as she realized Jarrod didn't want Ares taking Xena's place in her bed and their lives.Gods, who told him he could grow up?!"Sit." She scolded her son with an intonation to her voice that had forever meant he was pushing his luck.

Glumly, he sank back into his seat, his eyes trained firmly on the table.His lower lip poked out and he shoved his hands into his pockets, grumbling under his breath.

Next, the Queen pinned her wife with a withering glare and tilted her head toward Jarrod, urging Xena to do something.

Xena looked back sheepishly, knowing she'd intentionally provoked the outburst."Okay," she mouthed silently to her Queen. She laid her palms on the table and pushed herself to her feet."You're absolutely right, lad. She's not available.And my place in on the couch."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped further. That's not what I meant! Oh, you'd better not be serious, Conqueror.


Xena nodded solemnly.

"Thank you," the boy said quietly.  Regaining most of his normally bright disposition almost immediately, he pulled over his plate and began digging into the food, humming around a large bite full of warm, spiced squash and juicy, roasted lamb.He would tell Palaemon and Autolycus about his success tomorrow.


Gabrielle tucked Jarrod in and told him an about an evil but stupid Cyclops who captured a young village girl but was outsmarted by her wily ways.When the story was over, they remained together, snuggled safely in his bed, speaking in low, hushed tones as Gabrielle did her best to reassure him that Ares' presence wasn't a threat to their family.Rather, that he was there to help. A few sniffles and more than a few hugs accompanied Jarrod's apology for his behavior at dinner.

Xena sat on a low, padded, leather sofa in front of the warm hearth, half-listening to their conversation, but unable to pick out more than an occasional 'I'm scared' or 'I miss her too'.  She poked at the fire with a long metal rod, adjusting the logs and stoking the glowing embers, comforted by the familiar smell of hickory and the knowledge that the people she loved most were close by.Xena was amused by Jarrod's boyish jealously and well-grounded sense of propriety.And she was proud of him.Proud of his vigorous protest in the face of a God.And glad that someone couldn't just waltz into her home and slide into her spot in her family's heart.Not without a fight.

She sniffed the bitter wine in her cup, tossing its contents into the fire.There was a loud hiss as the red liquid splashed against the glowing logs and the flame burst higher.She still couldn't believe the cook and serving woman had dared give her food and drink unfit for her worst enemy.And I thought I was hated before!her mind growled. Then her brain seized up as she realized with startling clarity that her people feared The Conqueror more than Ares himself.They would have never challenged her in this way.Her conscience nudged her and she admitted to herself that, despite how she felt about Ares, she'd done far, far worse than seduce a queen while her mate lay dying.

Xena stood and stretched, scowling as she tugged at the leather chaffing her thighs. Gods might not sweat, but Conqueror's pretending to be Gods most certainly did.Ares was never seen out of his black leathers, so she was left with little choice but to have this set cleaned.She moved to the bedchamber, quickly removed his clothes, and wrapped herself in a fine linen sheet.She gathered up the heavy leather garments and padded barefoot to the front door of the apartment.The cool, stone floor felt nice on the bottom of warm feet.When she pulled open the door, she motioned for one of the two guards that were posted at the end of the corridor.

The man hustled forward, his armor clanking, his long spear swaying from side to side as he headed over. Gilles had told him, before going on duty, that the Queen might have company this evening, and he wrinkled his nose at the God who was taking advantage of their Queen in her hour of need.The bastard."Yes, Lord Ares?"

"Send these to be cleaned," Xena ordered flatly, shoving the dark leather bundle against the guard's chest.

The soldier fumbled with the clothing for a second, keeping a woolen stocking from falling by capturing it with the edge of his spear. "Lord Ares?"

Xena exhaled tiredly. "Need I repeat myself? Have these cleaned. Oh..." She disappeared for a moment, then plopped her boots onto the pile in the guards hands. "And my boots shined."

A second guard joined the first at the Conqueror's door to see if there was a problem."I'll send these to be cleaned, Lord Ares," the first guard said.

"And make sure they're back first thing in the morning."

"You bet I will," he mumbled.


"Of course, Lord Ares."He retreated down the hall, kicking along the stocking that had managed to fall despite his half-hearted efforts to the contrary. Xena looked at the other guard who was still standing before her. "Problem?" she inquired with an arched brow.

"No, Lord Ares.No problem with me," the man replied dutifully, though it was obvious that he didn't believe a word of what he was saying.

Although she wanted to slam the door, she didn't for fear of rousing a sleeping Jarrod.Controlling her temper, she clicked it closed quietly and stalked back to the hearth, warming her hands in front of the flames."Yes, Lord Ares.No, Lord Ares..." she grumbled sarcastically."Arrogant pieces of Centaur crap." She turned at the sound of Gabrielle's chuckle behind her. "And just what do you think is so funny?"

Xena's voice was grumpy, and Gabrielle knew her patience had been stretched to the limits.She was quite sure that, had she not intervened on multiple occasions today, several of the palace staff would be cooling their heels in the dungeon right now, or worse."Kind of the pot calling the kettle black isn't it, My Lord?" The shorter woman bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

"Oh, very funny."Xena readjusted the sheet draped over her body."It's entirely different."

"Is it?"Gabrielle quirked a brow, her eyes roaming over Xena's attire. "You look good in that.Bet you'd look good in one of those fancy Roman numbers, too."

"Uh huh.But I'd look even better out of it."Xena wriggled her eyebrows several times.

The Queen moved forward and ran the back of her hand over Xena's prickly cheek."You need a shave."

"Well, there's four words I never thought I'd hear from a woman."

Gabrielle smiled.This was odd."Do you have any particular four you're fond of?"

"Make love to me?"

"Hear those often from women, do you?" Gabrielle teased, knowing that most of Xena's court and enemies alike would give their eyeteeth to bed the tall beauty.

"Not anymore, wife."Xena drew out the last word playfully, grinning when Gabrielle scrunched up her face and a pink tongue made an appearance.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, lacing her fingers together. "Uh huh. And how about Cleopatra?"

Brown eyes widened.Zeus!Where did that come from?"Hmm... yeah, well...that was a special case."

"Special case, my foot!"Gabrielle dropped he hands from Xena's neck. Turning on her heels, she marched out of the living room without so much as a backward glance, her smile going unseen.

Xena stood dumbfounded.Huh? She can't be mad at me?I didn't do anything! "Uhhh, just in case you're wondering, Gabrielle, I'm not real fond of those four words either."The Conqueror crossed muscular forearms. Xena tilted her head and peered through the open bedroom door, catching glimpses of Gabrielle passing in and out of the bedchamber's shadows.It was when she got hit in the face and chest with the Queen's tunic and underclothes that she grinned broadly.



"Make love to me."


Xena stood by the side of the bed, the sheet long forgotten.Panting, she took a deep swallow of good, sweet wine, which, thankfully, Gabrielle had ordered, making sure that the servants knew it would be for her and not Ares. Xena watched transfixed as Gabrielle's sweat-slicked body moved slowly in the bed.She licked her lips and absently set her cup down on the bedside table, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, her eyes never leaving her wife.

The Conqueror had lost track of how long they'd been making love and playing. But by the Gods, did she love it!  This time around, Xena wasn't a total novice in Ares' body and she didn't let things get away from her as they had before.It took more concentration than normal, she discovered, but once she understood that her new body tended to charge full speed ahead, regardless of intentions, she was able to control herself better and have Gabrielle in exactly the ways she wanted.  The ways they both wanted.

It had been a very long time since she'd been with someone who could keep up with her sexually, and even then, it had never, ever been like this.She hadn't been capable of understanding what a difference love made in all things until that early autumn morning when she rode into Poteidaia and changed her life forever.It was freedom in its most raw and wonderful form, and she drank it in greedily.

Gabrielle looked up at her spouse with heavy-lidded eyes and smiled, white teeth glinting in the muted candlelight.Her hands were slowly, erotically gliding down her torso. And Xena's gaze followed them inch by inch, burning a path down her lithe, slightly muscular body.Gabrielle writhed against silk sheets that felt cool against her heated flesh.Her lips were slightly parted, and she hummed softly in sensual delight, her body still tingling from their last encounter. Just as her hands slid down onto upper thighs and began roaming through reddish-blonde curls, they detoured, playfully tugging up the sheet, denying her extremely aroused partner a view of exactly what she was doing.

"Oh no!" Xena growled, grabbing for the sheet.Gabrielle laughed and snatched it way, the slippery edge sliding between Xena's fingertips."

"Is this what you want, Lord Conqueror?" she asked innocently, sounding every bit like a Poteidaian farm girl, but looking at Xena with lust-filled eyes that would make Aphrodite blush.She slid the crimson sheets back just enough to reveal a smooth thigh and the edge of a hand buried in glistening curls.

Xena closed her eyes and dropped her head forward, her chest expanding with the enormous gulp of air she'd swallowed.She let it out very slowly, her erection growing painfully ridged. She was literally beginning to shake under the weight of her mounting arousal. "Yes, Gabrielle," she said between clenched teeth. "You know it is."

Gabrielle drew her fingertips along her center, moaning softly and feeling no shame in her pleasure or the pleasure her mate was receiving watching her in this way.

Xena's eyes flashed in pique. "Up!" she demanded.She needed Gabrielle now. When the younger woman didn't move quickly enough for her tastes, she leaned forward and, with a powerful hand, tore the sheet from the bed, allowing it to fall where it may once Gabrielle was fully exposed before her.Hungry eyes devoured this glorious gift.

The blonde sat up and moved to her hands and knees, slowly making her way across the bed to her lover, her movements taking on a feline-like quality. "How do you want me, Xena?" she asked in a husky voice far more subservient than normal.

A drop of perspiration rolled down the Conqueror's chest, before evaporating against impossibly hot skin, her desire multiplying with every passing second.   "That's good," Xena groaned, spinning her index finger in a small circle and motioning for Gabrielle to turn around.

The smaller woman easily complied. Thick, fair hair fell forward pooling on the sheets as she looked over her shoulder, giving her hips a little roll."Like this?" She presented herself fully."Is this how you want me?"

"Oh yeah."The Conqueror's gaze swept over her wife's beautiful body. Gabrielle stretched sensually and Xena's grin turned predatory."So beautiful."Xena skimmed her hand along the damp skin of Gabrielle's thigh, feeling soft, downy hair beneath her fingertips.Her palm moved over a firm, round buttock, then slowly slid up the length of her spine, rubbing and massaging as she went. Without warning, she grabbed Gabrielle's hips, and firmly yanked the panting woman toward her.

Xena leaned over her spouse's back, fitting her much larger body tightly against Gabrielle's, their moist skin sliding together.She threaded her hand though her messy hair and pulled back, sending Gabrielle's chin upward.

Gabrielle's senses were reeling.  She could feel her mate's more aggressive side pushing itself to the forefront, and she welcomed it, enjoying the rush of fire that pumped through her veins whenever she was taken by The Destroyer of Nations.Or the one doing the taking.Hot breath tickled her ear and she shivered at the low, husked words that tore through her.

"You're mine," Xena growled, tightening her grip in damp, pale hair.She moved the hair aside, bushing her lips against the smooth skin between Gabrielle's shoulder blades.Her hand snaked around and under the body, whose heart was beating so furiously she could feel its pounding rhythm through Gabrielle's back, against her own chest.

Gabrielle's stomach trembled and jerked in the wake of her fingers, which moved forward, finally coming to rest on a full breast.Xena squeezed, sighing at the feeling of skin so soft she wondered if it would melt in her hand.She gently grasped the warm weight.

Gabrielle whimpered, screwing her eyes tightly shut.Gods, Xena.She fought hard not to come on the spot.She wasn't near ready, though her body was screaming otherwise. When Xena took her taut nipple between a long finger and thumb and firmly rolled it, a hot trickle of moisture burned a path down the length of Gabrielle's inner thigh. "Yes," she moaned breathlessly, shifting back and trying to make the contact she so desperately wanted, offered herself to her mate completely.

Xena knew what they both wanted, but she was determined to control it.And control it she did, by ruthlessly holding Gabrielle's hips solidly in place, despite her own body's nearly insatiable need to bring her closer."This time you beg me," she husked, giving the ear near her lips a tug with sharp teeth.The Conqueror took what was hers, capturing Gabrielle's mouth in a rough kiss, which was immediately returned.

Not to be outdone, when Xena pulled away Gabrielle surged sideways, nipping Xena's throat with enough force to draw a small drop of blood.

The Conqueror gasped, and a deep, almost sinister chuckle worked its way up from her chest. "I always knew you had Bacchae tendencies, Gabrielle."Her neck burned where she had just been bitten, sweat mingling with a tiny speck of blood. The combination of arousal with just the slightest twinge of pain brought her to new heights of passion.Raising a hand, she wiped the tiny droplet away with her finger, licking it clean.Ares' blood, she foggily realized.

How different this was from when she had bitten Ares' lip only days before.She felt the power of his blood even then, but the sensation was laced with revulsion.Now, however, with Gabrielle's ragged breathing punctuating the silent night air, and their sweat-slicked bodies that smelt of sex so close, she found an act startlingly similar was as intoxicating as any wine she'd ever indulged in.It was rivaled only by the essence of her wife's passion, which she had tasted many times this night.

Her heart pounded wildly with love and admiration for this young woman who welcomed her occasional darker moments in their lovemaking with open arms, letting her express herself fully, without shame or censure. She had been delighted to discover Gabrielle gave every bit as good as she got, releasing her own darker desires in a safe haven that provided them both with unparalleled pleasure. And yet, this same gentle woman made Xena feel safe enough to crawl into her arms and cry like a child if needed, knowing that nothing that happened, be it tender or rough, needy or generous, would ever leave the privacy of this chamber.

"Down." The Conqueror placed a firm hand between Gabrielle's shoulder blades, forcing her head down to the soft feather mattress.Xena's hand traveled back to the blonde curls, feeling the warm, wet desire flooding from her spouse.She took a deep breath, bringing more of the heady scent to flaring nostrils."Do you want me in you, Gabrielle?I want you so badly it hurts."

"Yes." She could only gasp and nod as she felt Xena's hand slide between her legs, stroking slippery, hot flesh with a slow tenderness at odds with her commanding voice.

Xena positioned herself and leaned over her spouse again, asking a question whose answer was already apparent."Do you want me to take you now, Gabrielle?"

"Gods yes!"

"Beg me! Beg me to take you." Xena brought her hips forward just a hair, closing her eyes at the feeling of liquid heat against the her erection.Surrounding her."Beg me!"

Gabrielle was nearly beyond words, her own heartbeat pounding so loudly in her ears she barely heard Xena.  She pushed backwards again, but was rooted in place by strong hands.Gabrielle swallowed convulsively. "Xena, please..." she implored shamelessly."Do it!Fuck me!"

"Oh yes!"The Conqueror thrust into her mate, immediately feeling Gabrielle tighten around her, their bodies and souls merging into one.

The Queen groaned loudly with pleasure when she felt her hips being raised to meet Xena's "Ahhh... yessss..." she hissed in pure delight as the Conqueror took her. Gabrielle's belly clenched and the muscles at her center rhythmically tensed and released over and over again in response to the passion that filled her.

This round of lovemaking was truly primal and satiated a need deep within both hearts. Releasing Gabrielle's hips, Xena fell forward with her, repositioning and rolling her until Gabrielle lay on top of her, salty wet skin touching along the length of their bodies, soft breasts pressing into her hard chest. Xena thrust upward, and their eyes locked as they convulsed in unison, passion finally claiming them as they both lost themselves in a sea of emotion where lust and love collided. Gabrielle cried out hoarsely and Xena's deep, satisfied moans mingled with her voice. They soared, then slowly made their way back to earth.



"Hmmm." It was a very contented sigh.Arms and legs were tangled together, but both women were too spent to bother trying to move as bodies cooled and racing hearts slowed.

The Conqueror chuckled as her mate sighed again and nuzzled her naked chest.Like a cat that had just received a good scratching, Gabrielle was happily dozing in and out of a hazy fog of pleasure.

"What's so funny?" Puffs of hot air were tickling the fair-haired woman's head, scattering damp bangs across her forehead.



"You," Xena repeated, recalling a conversation very much like this one, many weeks ago, during their first meal together.The thought made her smile."You seem very happy."

"I am."Spoken from the heart.

Xena's hands gently stroked the smooth skin on Gabrielle's shoulders, drawing a lazy path across her back.  "Good.I never want to see you unhappy again, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle tightened her hold on her mate, snuggling closer and feeling her lip quiver slightly as she spoke.  "As long as we're together, I won't be." We're running out of time.

"We'll always be together." Eventually.Xena closed her eyes, cuddling the smaller woman.

"We've only got two days left, Xe," Gabrielle whispered, her frustration mounting with every word.

The Conqueror nodded, feeling the sudden tension thrumming through her partner."I know, Mama Bear.But we're a lot closer to finding out who did this than we were before.We'll get there."We have to. She sighed."I hate to say this, but the more I think about it, the more I don't think the satraps are involved."

"How can you say that?" Gabrielle pushed up a bit so she could look at Xena's face. "It has to be one of them."

"No, Gabrielle. The warriors among them wouldn't have tried to take me out that way. And the rest." She quirked an eyebrow."Well... 'Antony's' ear should have been more than convincing enough for them to rat each other out."

Green eyes went round. "Rat?"

"Mmm... Many nasty, beady-eyed, little rats.They're all co-conspirators. They've formed an alliance against me..."

Gabrielle wrinkled her forehead. "How can you be sure?"

"The conference room I put them in has ears."Xena chuckled at the surprised look on her wife's face."Other than Antony's, that is."

"Ears?" Gabrielle knocked lightly on Xena's broad chest with the fist. "More please. Explain."

"Behind the walls are hidden passages where people take down notes of what's said in between the satraps.Then they leave the notes for me to collect and read later. The notes indicate they formed an alliance to keep me from conscripting their best warriors.But things could have gone farther than that outside the conference room.There's no way to be certain unless one of them confesses.But we do know for certain they were joining forces against me."

Gabrielle smiled appreciatively at the Conqueror's sneaky ways.She made a mental note never, ever to underestimate her partner. "Ooo, that's clever."

"I know.Almost as clever as trading a condemned prisoner his life for his ear, my dear."

"Yeah, well, it's not as though I had any spare body parts lying around." The Queen shrugged. "I still think since it wasn't Callisto, then one of the satraps is our next strongest suspect."

The Conqueror blew out an unhappy breath, acknowledging in her own mind that Gabrielle was right."I suppose." She tugged on a small pink ear near her chin."What part of 'Antony' are they going to get tomorrow?"

Gabrielle made a face and thought for a moment."I'm thinking his tongue."

"Hmm, be careful, Gabrielle. Cleopatra might be able to identify that."Xena chuckled until she got a hard elbow to the ribs. "Uuuf..." She groaned playfully and stole a tender kiss. "Time for me to go."

"Go?"Gabrielle's body unconsciously wormed its way closer to her bedmate.

"Back on the couch." The Conqueror refused to pout, although she felt like a child being denied its favorite toy.


"I told the boy I would," she reminded firmly.

Gabrielle sighed resignedly, not at all pleased with the notion of sleeping alone."So you did." She gave her partner a sharp pinch in the belly. "That was stupid!"

"Hey," Xena laughed."It's not like I wanted to.But we don't want Jarrod thinking..."

A blonde eyebrow lifted. "That I'm sharing my bed with The God of War?"

Xena frowned and looked down at the God's body. "I don't much like that idea either."

"I know," Gabrielle agreed gently.  "I know this has been hard.I mean... we've had great fun with Ares' body.  But I... I really miss yours, Xe.  We..." The younger woman made a vague gesture with her hand, unable to get across what she was thinking.

"Fit together better," Xena hazarded, her eyes twinkling softly.As interesting as this little experiment had been, she was thinking the same thing.

"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled affectionately, patting Xena's chest."C'mon, let me go and get you some extra blankets.It's cold tonight."

Xena moved as though she was going to get up, but instead, bolted sideways, flipping Gabrielle's back onto the soft mattress, and using her body weight to pin her down. She grinned mischievously at the astonished eyes blinking up at her."It's not cold in here, Gabrielle." Her voice was a husky purr and her lips started at Gabrielle's forehead where they slowly, gently, kissed their way down to her throat.Xena laved her Adam's apple with the tip of her tongue then tenderly sucked at the fluttering pulse point.

Gabrielle gasped and green eyes slid shut in pure reflex. There was nothing she loved more than the feeling of being rooted firmly in place by her lover's body and those talented lips worshipping every inch of available skin.She wrapped her arms around strong shoulders, running her hands down Xena's back. "Gods, Xena, are you a wrestler in your spare time?"She spread her legs, allowing Xena's to settle more comfortably between them, shuddering at the feeling of naked, warm skin sliding against hers.

"No." Her kisses moved back up to Gabrielle's ear."I just have many, many skills."

Gabrielle could only nod as barely banked arousal flared back to life.

Xena did make it to the couch that night... just before dawn.


Gabrielle's nose wrinkled as she looked down as Xena's feet again."I think it's your boots."

"I just had them cleaned and shined!"

The blonde woman shook her head.  "I'm telling you, Xena, that smell is coming from your boots."

Xena bent down and took a strong whiff."Hades!I'm going to kill those servants!"

She was totally serious, Gabrielle realized, and she patted her arm comfortingly. "Please don't kill the servants." She wanted to smile at her ridiculous request, but one look in angry eyes convinced her otherwise.Even this relatively mild form of disobedience was completely foreign to the Conqueror.

"What do you suggest I do?My boots won't fit on these feet. And it's not as though I can use Ares' godly powers to conjure up another pair!"

"True," Gabrielle admitted, scratching her chin. "But will killing the servants get you a useable pair of boots?"

"Depends on the size of their feet."


"Fine. Fine" she groused petulantly.

"C'mon, we'll go see if Morgaine can help us out.Or you'll have to walk down wind of me all day."

"I don't believe this," Xena grumbled as they made their way into the corridor outside their apartment."The palace staff aren't slaves!They're paid workers. I can't believe they're acting this way!"

Gabrielle took Xena's hand and threaded their fingers tightly together as she descended several steps that led toward the servants and workers' wing of the palace. "You, my dear Conqueror, should be pleased they're acting this way. Not only does it show great loyalty to me, but to you as well.They're upset with Ares for trying to come between us."

The Conqueror glanced down miserably."But did they have to shrink my shorts too?"


Morgaine grew quiet when Gabrielle finished explaining what she needed.It wasn't that she hadn't heard the words. Rather, she was simply too distracted by the presence before her to do much more than half listen. Ancient eyes studied the dark God from head to toe.

"Can you help us?" Gabrielle inquired, her gaze darting between Xena and Morgaine.

The aged seamstress tilted her head in the direction of her Queen's alto voice, though her eyes never left Ares.  "Of course, Your Majesty.Just one moment."The woman slipped into a back room with a grace and speed at odds with her growing years.

A shiver chased its way down Xena's spine as Morgaine turned to leave.

"Hey?" Gabrielle turned to fully face her spouse, concerned by Xena's pensive, almost confused look. "What's wrong?"

"I... I don't know."Xena's eyes were riveted on the doorway where Morgaine had disappeared. She shrugged one muscular shoulder, trying to grab hold of the odd, fleeting sensation that had coursed through her. "Huh. I just got funny feeling, that's all."

"Well, she was staring at you pretty intently." Gabrielle had wondered about that herself.But then again, it wasn't everyday a God stood in your kitchen, asking for help."That's bound to make anyone feel a little funny," she surmised sympathetically.Please don't let Morgaine be out to make Ares miserable, too.I can't stop Xena from killing everyone!

"Maybe." But the Conqueror was unconvinced. She'd known Morgaine since the earliest days of her reign. When the woman was merely old and not a fossil. But something wasn't right today.  Maybe she was afraid.Ares' body alone carried a formidable presence, no matter who was walking around inside it.


"She's a kind woman, Xena.Don't be angry with her." There was a tinge of pleading to Gabrielle's voice and eyes.She liked Morgaine, considering her a friend in a grandmotherly sort of way.Had it not been for the old woman's patient ear, and words of encouragement, she might never have found the courage to admit to herself that she had fallen in love with the Conqueror and that she could, and would, accept all that that meant.

Xena shook herself from her thoughts and gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I won't, love." Wanting to erase the worried look on Gabrielle's face, she lifted her stocking-covered foot and made a show of wiggling her toes. They'd had to get rid of the boots.The odor was too much to bear.It was a cross between manure and some other hideous fragrance that couldn't quite be identified, but that definitely spoke of something rank and spoiled.

Morgaine emerged from the back room with a new pair of shiny, black leather boots."I made these some time ago for my husband. But the old fool never bothers to wear them.He loves his old ones so much that he insists on patching the holes."With outstretched arms, she offered them to Ares. "I think these might just do the trick."

When Xena didn't take the boots, Gabrielle covertly nudged her with her elbow.  

"Uh...thank you," Xena stammered, taking the boots.The Conqueror lifted her foot and Gabrielle wrapped a steadying arm around her waist as she slipped one on, then the other.Xena hummed appreciatively, eyeing the rich, supple leather and stroking it with her fingertips. "They fit like a glove."

Morgaine smiled. "Somehow I knew they would."She turned to Gabrielle."Is there anything else, Your Majesty?"

"No." Gabrielle grinned. "Thank you, Morgaine." Oh yeah, almost forgot. "By the way, I met your son today."

"Did you now?" she said with obvious pride. "Gilles is a good boy."

Gabrielle laughed softly.Gilles was easily ten years older than her father would have been if he were alive.  I guess we never see our own babies as grown ups."He has your eyes."

The old woman blushed and clucked at Gabrielle for embarrassing her.She pulled the young women into an unexpected, fierce hug, whispering sympathetically in her ear, "I'm sorry about the Lord Conqueror, child."

Gabrielle blinked, surprised by the intensity of the embrace and the emotion she could feel thrumming through Morgaine.But she returned it wholeheartedly.Morgaine smelled of mint tea and honey, and she found her ample arms warm soothing, as though nothing could harm her while she was there.They possessed a deep well of strength that Gabrielle instinctively drew from. "So am I." Her voice cracked slightly and she buried her face in the soft shoulder.

"You'll get through this.Don't give up."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Never," she promised solemnly.

Xena silently studied the intimate exchange with great interest.When Morgaine pulled away from Gabrielle, the Conqueror released the breath she'd been unconsciously holding. When it looked as though their conversation was over, she pushed away from the heavy, wooden table she'd been leaning against and slowly moved toward her wife.


 The seamstress gave her queen a sympathetic smile and rubbed her hands up and down the arms of Gabrielle's bright green tunic in a motherly fashion.

A small smile curved Gabrielle's lips."Thank you again," she said with a hint of startlement.She felt more at peace than she had since this whole mess began. "For everything."

"You're welcome," Morgaine intoned earnestly. "Anything for you or the Realm, My Queen."She bowed her silvered head dutifully when Ares brushed by her and gently took Gabrielle by the arm. Looking up, she could clearly see the bond between them, the sparkling tether of the Fates' threads that linked one soul to another.She watched as the couple disappeared, their footsteps falling in unison, heads already tilted towards one another in quiet conversation.

When they left, Morgaine flopped down on a slightly rickety chair with a loud thump, wincing as her old bones made contact with the wood."Ares!What have you done?"Her thoughts shifted back to the young Queen. Hang on, Gabrielle.Not much longer now.


Autolycus gingerly handed Gabrielle a small box, wiping his hands on his trousers the second it left his fingertips.She started to open it but he laid a hand on hers."Don't go there."He grimaced.  "It's not pretty."

She drew a deep breath, clutching the box."I'll take your word for it."

"Are they gathered in the council room?"Xena asked impatiently.

"You mean you don't know, Lord Ares?" the thief challenged sarcastically, raising an impudent eyebrow.

Xena's hand went to her sword, thick fingers tapping its hilt nervously.Cold eyes fastened on Autolycus' smug face.Someone is going to push me too far today!"I asked you a perfectly simple question, you worthless..."

"'Simple' seems to be the only kind you know," Autolycus shot back, albeit under his breath.

"What was that?!"

Ares' face reddened, and he began advancing on the man. Gabrielle watched in horror as Autolycus picked the worst possible moment in his cowardly life to grow a spine and stand his ground. The blonde threw herself between the men, hearing the loud 'shiiiing' of metal as Xena's sword flew free of its scabbard."ALL RIGHT, ENOUGH!" Gabrielle roared, laying a forestalling hand on Ares' broad chest, feeling his pounding heartbeat.She held him back with a stiff arm, shooting Autolycus a supremely annoyed look."Please! All of this is hard enough without you two bickering."

Gabrielle's gaze swung back to her wife."Because of the 'rules' you've set forth, I have to figure out who injured your Chosen, and I need his help to do it."She studied Xena intently, and when she was reasonably certain Xena wouldn't lop his head off, Gabrielle whirled around to the thief and pointed at him."And I don't need you..."

"I know, Your Majesty," Autolycus blushed slightly."I'm... well... I suppose..."

"You're sorry?"Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, while Xena rested her chin on her shoulder.

The Conqueror graced Autolycus with the biggest if-it-weren't-for-her-you'd-be-dead look she could muster, knowing her proximity to Gabrielle was irritating him even more.

Autolycus' jaw clenched, and he stroked his mustache, seriously considering doing something even more stupid than he already had.

"Well?" Gabrielle prompted angrily. "Ares," she suddenly growled, dragging out the name menacingly.She could only imagine the look her mate was giving Autolycus behind her back.Green eyes rolled. Hades!I already have one eight-year-old!

"I'm sorry," the thief finally apologized with mock sincerity."I should have realized there were conditions that I wasn't aware of." Then his voice grew serious and his eyes pinned Gabrielle's. "You and Our Lord have my total loyalty."

Xena quirked an only mildly impressed brow while Gabrielle turned to her and smiled."Thank you, Autolycus," she gloated.

As the trio approached the conference room doors, Autolycus peeled off leaving Xena and Gabrielle to their visit with the satraps.The couple heard the dignitaries grumbling before they saw them.

"Have you noticed how odd Ares has been acting?"Brutus inquired. His words were met with a chorus of murmurs.

"Our little Queen must be quite a hellcat between the sheets to have captivated not only Our Lord, but the God of War as well," Cleopatra laughed, but even without seeing her face Xena could read the envy.

Gabrielle chuckled."Here comes the slut."She drew in a deep breath before bursting into the room, forcing Ares to lengthen his stride to keep pace with her regal gait.She didn't wait for anything else to be said.  "There you go." Setting the small wooden box on the edge of the table, she gave it a little push, noting that all eyes watched it slide into the center of the large, polished, wooden slab. "The next piece of the Antony puzzle.Too bad for you I don't really care for puzzles. Or your games!"

The blonde's voice was devoid of any warmth, and her icy gaze bore into each satrap in turn. "I've just ordered the crosses built.There won't be a third warning.Next time," she pointed at Boadicea, "I come for you. You're the first to be nailed to a cross.  I start at sun-up tomorrow and take another every hour until my problem solves itself."

"And we don't stop with you," Ares sneered, his eyes glittering with barely controlled rage."Next, we lay waste to your lands. And I will show no mercy!" A large fist slammed into the table and everyone in the room, including Gabrielle and Autolycus jumped.

After a dramatic pause, Gabrielle offered her hand to Ares, who brought it to his lips, giving it a gentle kiss. Gods. Good one Xena. "Guard!" Gabrielle shouted, pleased that Gilles was in the room with his sword drawn before she'd even finished saying the word.She pointed to the hearth. "Extinguish the fire.Remove those." Her finger gestured toward a table holding several decanters of wine."And there is to be no food or drink of any kind delivered to these prisoners until you hear differently." She eyed the man. "From me personally."

He bowed his head, a tiny smile edging its way onto his lips."Yes, My Queen."He looked up at the satraps and grinned broadly."My pleasure!"

Gabrielle turned back to the speechless group. "Enjoy your day," she said blandly. Tossing her hair over one shoulder, she marched out of the room.


"You are one mean bitch."Xena chuckled."Gods, I love you!"

Gabrielle laughed with her partner as she wrapped her hand around Xena's muscular forearm, leaning towards her a little as they strolled across the courtyard.She gave a bittersweet smile before sighing ruefully. "I didn't know I had it in me." Her mouth pulled into a frown."No, that's a lie.I knew I had it in me.I just don't like the fact that I do."

"Gabrielle," Xena sighed."It was necessary in this instance.My Queen, you've got nothing to be ashamed of."

"Mmm... Maybe." The shorter woman rubbing her fingers over Xena's pink, chilled skin."You need a cloak," she said firmly, her breath sending a cloud of fog around her face.


"Don't bother." Gabrielle held up a hand."I don't care whether Ares wears one. He's starting today. You're cold."

Xena opened her mouth to argue, then let it click shut.She was cold.  "You're right.We'll pick one up next time we're back in our apartment."

Gabrielle nodded.She would have preferred they went to fetch one now... But Xena didn't respond well to 'henpecked', and her lover's patience was already dangerously close to snapping.   She snuggled closer, hoping to share a little body heat as they trudged through the thick carpet of wet leaves, kicking up the lush, earthy scent of moist soil.They went up a small hill and made their way onto one of several stone paths that crisscrossed the enormous courtyard.

Xena abruptly stopped walking, jerking Gabrielle off balance for a moment. "Whoa."

Dark eyes fixed themselves on the tall, foreboding structure. "I need to go back in there."

Gabrielle swallowed hard, easily recalling the pungent odor of blood that lingered at thebottom of the Old Watchtower steps.Xena's blood.She let go of Xena, wrapping her arms around her stomach as she pushed away a sudden bout of queasiness. "All right.Let's go."


"Don't even say it.I'm not letting you go back in there alone.  Even if it is daylight."

Seeing the determined glint in Gabrielle's eyes, Xena nodded reluctantly.As they made their way to the tower, the warrior focused her mind, trying to recapture the mood and events of that night.The memories were so vivid it was as though they were burned behind her eyes for all time. She let herself relive them again, hoping to recall something important.Something she'd overlooked.There was fear for Jarrod, the disillusion written across his freckled face as she tumbled from her pedestal with a momentous crash.Her own shame. Guilt.Anger.The horror of seeing herself through Jarrod's eyes at that very moment.And knowing in her heart she was far scarier than his childish mind could truly conceive of.

Pushing the door open, they entered the cold, rank building.Someone was upstairs.They could hear the faint echo of footsteps.Xena drew her heavy, razor-sharp sword just as Gabrielle plucked her daggers from her boots, and they began a quiet climb up the stairs.

Once at the top, Xena silently rushed around the corner, prepared to do battle. A dark-haired man was on the floor on his hands and knees.He appeared to be searching for something.Xena pressed the point of her blade to the base of his skull. "Lose something?"

"Ahhh... Lord Ares?"The man held his head perfectly still, recognizing the voice. Oh boy."Please don't."

Gabrielle's heard Xena's words and ran the last few steps.Her pulse was pounding from the vigorous climb and a light coating of perspiration covered her face and neck.Her heart threatened to stop when she saw Xena and... Autolycus?"What in the name of Hades?!"

"Looks like the criminal returns to the scene of the crime," Xena growled, stamping on Autolycus' back with her booted foot and sending him sprawling onto his belly.

"I was looking for another passage!" he mumbled against the wet stones, spitting out a mouthful of dirt and slimy moss.

"We know there aren't any passages up here!"Gabrielle stormed past Xena around to the thief's head.Grabbing a handful of his hair, she pressed one of her daggers to his throat.  "You tried to kill Xena?"

"No!There is a passage, Gabrielle!Look!"He pounded the floor, weakly."If there's not, I'll stand here quietly and not make another protest while Ares lops my head off, but please look first. Please."

"Get up!"Xena and Gabrielle shouted at the same time.

Once the thief was out of their way, they examined the floor.Xena's hands worked around the floor until her fingertips found a groove.Gabrielle followed up by digging the dirt out of the groove until it was clear.Xena then took the tip of her sword and pried the trapdoor open.They leaned over, looking down into a long, pitch-black shaft.

"Well I'll be damned."Xena scratched her cheek with the point of the sword.

Autolycus dropped to his knees, relief flooding through him."See." He pointed at the stones. "I know what this was used for.See that arrangement of pulleys, levers and ropes?" He picked his torch up off the floor and held it into the shaft. "Soldiers use this to send up weapons and supplies in times of battle."

Gabrielle and Xena just stared.

"Hey!" he snorted indignantly.  "I'm a thief.Not stupid."

Gabrielle peered into the darkness. "So someone could have entered from the bottom.Used the system to bring themselves up to the platform, shoved Xena, and made their escape, never leaving a footprint because they were standing on the retractable floor."

"Right!" the thief piped up.

"Maybe," Xena said, still not completely convinced."Close the floor."

"Killjoy."Autolycus hoisted himself up and carefully closed the trapdoor.  Xena looked back and forth again, taking three steps down. "Autolycus stand on top of the retractable floor."

He moved into position, testing his weight on it with one foot before stepping completely on top.

Xena turned her back."Shove me, without taking a step forward."

Autolycus looked at the distance between them.He raised his hand, then let it fall."I can't reach you."

Gabrielle looked at the floor.  "So they couldn't have used this?  It means nothing?" She scanned the floor, desperately hoping they'd missed something.A sinking sensation filled her and she felt the first stirrings of panic that had been just below the surface for the last two days.They had to be missing something!Gentle fingers on her chin drew her from her thoughts and she glanced up into soft, concerned eyes.

"Not nothing," Xena disagreed.  "I think we just need to start looking beyond the obvious."She regarded her partner seriously. "Gab?"

"I'm okay," Gabrielle insisted, her voice breaking.She blinked away unexpected tears and, the next thing she knew, her vision was blocked by a tall dark figure and she was pulled into strong arms.

Xena gently guided her forward, out of Autolycus' torch light and into the shadows that offered them as much privacy as they could get under the circumstances.She wrapped her arms tightly around Gabrielle.  

"I'm sorry, Xena.I... I..."

"Shhh... I know."Xena knew something was going to give soon... While Gabrielle was by no means a wallflower, she wasn't used to ordering crosses to be built for execution, or delivering body parts to foreign dignitaries either.

After several silent moments, Autolycus cleared his throat and tilted his head toward the steps.He, for one, was more than anxious to leave this nasty place, but, given the Conqueror's initial reaction to him being here, he didn't think it was a wise move to up and disappear.

Xena looked down at Gabrielle.  "Ready?" She wiped tear-stained cheeks with cool fingertips.

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the tender touch and nodded. "Ready."

Xena moved forward in front of Autolycus and began to descend the steps.She stopped on the third step, looking down at the path her body had fallen.There was just one thing she wanted to test."Put your hand in the small of my back, Gabrielle."


"Do it, Gabrielle."

The blonde took a step forward.  She briskly rubbed her hands together to warm them, even though she'd be touching Ares' vest not his skin, then hesitantly placed her hand on Xena's back.


She moved her hand lower until it rested right in the middle of the small of Xena's back"There?"

"Yeah," Xena said quietly.She closed her eyes and focused hard, remembering every sensation from the night of the fall."A little pressure."


Xena could hear the fear in her voice.But this was important."Please, Gabrielle..."

The Queen let out an explosive breath.This reenactment was doing nothing for her already frazzled nerves and slightly queasy stomach.

"Okay."Xena sighed, reaching around to take Gabrielle's hand."Let's get out of here and look around outside."We know how they didn't get in, we need to figure out how they did get in."

The trio made their way back down the winding steps.Xena's pulse pounded as she recalled the excruciating fall. She heard her own cries and the sound of snapping bones and tearing flesh.At the bottom she stopped and knelt down, running her fingers over a patch of dried blood.She straightened and wiped her fingers on the wet, mossy walls. "Let's go."

Outside they all took a deep breath of the cool afternoon air, squinting as their eyes adjusted to the brilliant blue sky and bright sunlight.Xena turned to Gabrielle and nodded toward the tower."When all this is over remind me to have this torn down."

"No problem."She wouldn't be going back in there again.Ever.  

They were about to make their way around the outside of the tower when Palaemonrode into the courtyard with Jarrod's black pony in tow.The trio stopped.Gabrielle eyed the young captain, blocking the sun with her hand.  "Riding lesson today, Palaemon?"

"Yes, Your Majesty.I hope that's all right.I thought it would be best to try and keep His Highnesses' schedule the same or at least as normal as possible."

She gave the beefy man a pat on the leg."Of course it is.  I'm grateful for the attention that you and Nyssa have been able to give him.We'll stop by the ring later to see him."

"Of course, Your Majesty.Should I bring Cinnamon out and have him saddled?"He smiled good naturedly, even offering Gabrielle a ghost of a wink.

His answer was a sharp poke in the thigh and Gabrielle's sticking out the tip of a pink tongue.But she was glad for his attempt at humor and that, at last, he wasn't treating her with so much formality that they'd never get to be friends."I think it's safe to assume my riding lessons can be forgotten for the moment."

"You'll be wanting to wait for the Conqueror to personally offer her assistance then?"He wasn't joking, and it showed in the resolute set of his jaw and unwavering look in deep hazel eyes.

It was belief pure and simple, and Gabrielle couldn't stop the smile that shaped her lips anymore than she could stop the sun from shining.She needed to hear it put that plainly. That simply.And as strange as it sounded, she needed to hear it from someone other than Xena. She knew her mate would say nearly anything to spare her pain, and she loved her dearly for it.Although it sometimes meant she got a slightly colored version of events.

And even Morgaine's words had been directed toward Gabrielle and how she felt. Settling her with the knowledge that no matter what happened, she would muddle through it.She would survive.But Palaemon's voice was full of hope for Xena. And that's what she wanted to hear. His unyielding confidence bolstered her own.

"Very well, Your Majesty."He returned his Queen's smile and kicked his mare into aslow canter, the clippity-clop of hooves on stone fading into the wind as he headed towards the stables and a waiting Jarrod.


Xena, Autolycus, and Gabrielle had been looking around the outside of the Old Watchtower for anything out of the ordinary when a shrill alarm rang out."Aww, Hades!" Xena scrubbed Ares' short hair with both hands.

"What's going on!?"Gabrielle could hear shouts and the low rumble of pounding boots that sounded like rolling thunder.Soldiers poured into the courtyard, settling to positions along the wall and toward the front gates.Green eyes widened at the moving, chaotic mass that resembled ants pulsing on their hill.

"Someone is launching an attack on the palace."

"Oh, of course!"Autolycus threw his hands in the air."I'm going to get killed here one way or the other, aren't I?"

"Probably," Xena said in a bored tone.

"Jarrod!" An unreasoning fear transformed Gabrielle's features. "Jarrod is riding with Palaemon."Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm as the blonde tried to bolt toward the stables.

She grabbed the thief with her other hand and gave his arm a hard shake."Take Gabrielle and get her to safety."

"But..." The Queen started to protest only to be simultaneous pushed by Xena and pulled by Autolycus.Xena grabbed a nearby horse and roughly pushed the man from the saddle. Mounting it with a powerful leap she galloped forward toward the stables.

Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled along for all of ten paces before she dug in her heels and began to fight.  "Get you hands off me, Autolycus!  I need to get my son."

"Ares will get him, Gabrielle!  You need to be..."

The clamor of the courtyard increased to a dull roar and she shouted over the ensuing mayhem,"I need to be with my son!"With a hard yank, she wrenched her wrists free, darting for the stables at a full run as she dodged the frantically moving soldiers, carts heavy with arrows and vats of Greek fire, snorting horses that danced nervously in the bedlam.

"Damn, damn, damn!"The thief tried to follow but lost her in the crowd of dark purple and black uniforms that continued to flood into the courtyard.


Xena's eyes darted around wildly as she watched the invaders push her men back at the gate.She drew her sword, still moving at full gallop for the last place she knew her son was supposed to be.Xena jumped from the stallion, slapping it on the rump and sending it back towards the gate.There was a body between her and the door she needed to go through.She roughly grabbed it by the arm and whirled it around, blade held high, poised to deliver a fatal blow.

"Nyssa? Are you out of your mind!?" the Conqueror hissed. A shiver chased down her spine and she lowered the sword with a shaky hand.

"Lord Ares... I... I just left the boy for his riding lesson.I was going back for him!"

Xena dragged the startled woman behind her into the stables, a shower of arrows impaling themselves against the tall wooden door just as Xena pulled it closed.They found Palaemon sitting on a bale of hay with his sword in one hand and his other arm wrapped tightly around Jarrod.  The boys had his face pressed against Palaemon's chest and his hands covering his ears.

Xena practically ripped him from the soldier's arms, and gave him a quick kiss on the temple murmuring,"Thanks the Gods you're all right, son." 

He looked up at the God as though Ares' had lost his mind butXena just thrust him into Nyssa's arms."Get back behind those bales and stay here until the all clear sounds!"

"Yes, Lord Ares."Nyssa took her charge and ran for the back of the stables.

Xena looked at Palaemon."I want two squadrons of soldiers protecting this structure.Kill anyone who comes near it!" she barked as they briskly headed back into the courtyard. Suddenly she stopped and pinned Palaemon with dark, menacing eyes."No one comes near my son!"

The words were a dangerous growl and the fair-haired Captain fought the urge to step backwards in retreat.Confusion colored his face. "Your...?"

Xena cursed her loose tongue but didn't have time to offer much of an explanation."My Chosen's son is like my own.Now move!"She slapped him hard on the back, and he bolted into action faster than the stallion she'd dismounted only a moment before.

Palaemon rushed forward and intercepted a group of twenty or so men and women who were dressed in full armor and double timing it toward the eastern most battlement.He pointed to various strategic locations around the stable and riding ring.The soldiers sprinted into place, several climbing to the roof with bow and quivers strapped to their backs.

Xena could hear it before she see it."Incoming!" she boomed.A loud whistle of rocks coated with Greek fire cut through the air, smashing against the building alongside the stable. Thick black sludge coated the walls and began smoking, sending an acrid odor through the air.But the recent rain kept the building from bursting into flames and the boiling liquid only smoldered against the wet surface.

She ran for the steps leading up to the top of the battlement and bounded onto a slim walkway that circled the upper edge of the entire stronghold.Xena really didn't need to see, but she wanted to be sure.She wanted to know who was insane enough to attack the stronghold.Their life was already forfeit, and she salivated at the thought of driving her blade into their heart and twisting it slowly.

The Conqueror wasn't surprised to see Britons storming her walls.Most were cut down before they even reached the massive stone barriers, the dead lying in heaps at the foot of the wall.But from her bird's eye position she could see that several platoons of soldiers had broken through her defenses and were snaking into the palace grounds from two different locations.She glanced around looking for the Amazons, knowing that if they joined with the Britons her losses would be heavy.There was never a question that she would ultimately prevail.It was just a matter of what the death toll would be. "Damn!"

She twisted her body and turned just in time to capture the arrow that was directed at her chest.She gave it a quick examination.Not Amazon.Good.Though Boadicea might want company on the cross next to hers."That's one point in your favor, Melosa."She turned and dashed down the battlement steps, taking them three at a time.A large group of soldiers stood in the center of the courtyard receiving last second instructions from their shouting officers.

The lines parted as Ares strode right into the center of the mass, jumping up on a cart that had been overturned in the confusion.Another arrow whizzed by and was effortlessly plucked out of the sky before it could find its way to Palaemon's throat.

Xena's face was the picture of wild fury and she allowed the fire racing through her veins to seep into her voice and mannerisms.  She was wrath itself."We're going to go out there and we are going to cut down every last soldier!Our enemies.Enemies of the Realm!"The soldiers cheered and stamped their feet, the fog from the heaving chests mixing with the black, smoky tendrils from the Greek fire.

Ares raised his arm high above his head, muscles standing out in vivid relief against flushed skin as he hefted his long blade."KILL THEM ALL!" he roared, and the troops roared back, drumming their approval on their shields with their swords and pounding the ground with spears."No warrior lifting a weapon against the Realm, Your Lord Conqueror in her time of need, Your Queen in her time of mourning or against the GOD OF WAR is to be left alive!"

More savage howls pierced the air.  The roar was deafening and it made the Conqueror's blood boil. She drew in a deep breath, her nostrils flaring and pulse pounding at the heady scent of smoke and blood, sweat and soil.It was a heady mix and every bit as intoxicating as the sensuous aroma of her wife's passion-slicked skin.It elicited the same primal thrill in Xena, setting her ablaze from within.Nothing else compared to it.She closed her eyes briefly, relishing the feeling.Nothing else ever could.A feral, dark energy pervaded her very essence as she ran through the troops, vaulting into the saddle of her gelding that Palaemon had retrieved from the stables.

She shifted in her seat, pressing muscular thighs tightly against the beast, who responded to her untamed aura more than her body language itself."Open the gates!"


The battle lasted well into the early evening.The end, however, had been written well before the first arrow sailed through the sky or the first drop of blood soaked the soil.

The gates were reopened and a victorious Conqueror rode back into the stronghold with her troops behind her.  It made no difference to her that they thought they were following Ares into battle.She had led them and she had won. Splattered blood covered her chest and arms and dripped in a slow coagulating stream from the blade that hung loosely at her side.

When she had charged out the gate several hours earlier, it was clear that the Amazons had decided to align themselves with Greece.And their sharp arrows struck down the Britons from behind as Xena assaulted them from the front.Not a single invading soldier was left standing by the day's end.

Xena dismounted her horse and moved toward a makeshift first aid station.Her eyes swept over the dead and wounded, but her heart was pulling her towards the stables and refused to be ignored. She found Palaemon first.The captain had sustained a nasty wound to his left arm.He looked pale, dirty and tired, but he was still on his feet, assisting the more seriously injured soldiers.

"Palaemon!Go to Xena's healer and have that looked at," she ordered, inwardly breathing a huge sigh of relief.He'd stayed to guard the stables.If he were alive, then so was Jarrod.She knew the officer would have given his life before allowing anyone through the stable doors.

"Yes, Lord Ares.But," he swallowed hard,"with your permission, my men are hurt and I need to stay with them for now.The Conqueror always said...."

Ares nodded.She would have done no less herself.Palaemon was not destined to remain a Captain for long."Enough said.  Just make sure to get a field dressing on it." Her voice grew serious."And soon."

"Yes, Lord Ares."

Xena sheathed her blade with a scowl.The ground was littered with bodies.More Britons had made it into the stronghold than she'd thought."And Jarrod?"

"Nyssa is taking him back to the royal apartment right now, Lord Ares.The lad's frightened but unharmed."

"Thank you."She turned on her heels, offering small waves to the men who greeted her with, "Lord Ares!"Despite the carnage around them, most were in good spirits.It's amazing what staying alive will do for your mood, she thought wryly. Xena was tempted to order food and spirits brought out to the men but feared that if she did the ordering, she would finish what Boadicea started.

Her gaze traveled to a small walkway between the stables and the next building over, and time ground to a halt.  An agonizing cry from a small, kneeling form reached her ears, seeping into her consciousness in slow motion."Mama, nooooo!"Her heart threatened to pound out of her chest before she could take her first steps.

Gods no!Don't you do this to me!Not now that I've figured it all out. With every strike and parry during the battle, her mind had puzzled out the mystery of her murder attempt.At several points she disengaged from her body completely, cutting a bloody swath through the enemy troops while working to identify her assassin.

Xena's boots felt as though they were full of lead as she navigated the sea of wounded men and crying horses.  Then, as though breaking free from some unknown force, she took off in a full charge.Rocks and twigs crunched loudly under her feet as she tore along the short path to the stables.

She turned a corner, her arms out from her side to balance her as she did, and her world began to crash down around her ears.Jarrod's body was thrown across his mother's prone form, an arrow protruding from her chest.  The left side.Her heart.

Bile rose in her throat and she choked back tears.Several more long strides and she was at their side, dropping to her knees. She heard Palaemon's low curse in the distance and the thudding of his heavy footsteps but didn't turn her head to look. Gabrielle.You were supposed to stay with Autolycus!

Xena gently pulled Jarrod into her arms, but her eyes were locked on Gabrielle's ashen face. With a trembling hand she reached out and ran her fingers through reddish-blonde hair, across a cold, windburned cheek, and down a slender throat where she searched for a heartbeat.


Panic welled within her, squeezing her chest until she could barely breath.She tried again. This time more desperately.  

Still nothing.

Xena's own heart stopped, and she probed deeper with her fingertips, her gaze dropping to her lover's still chest. C'mon, Mama Bear!I know you're still in there!

The boy looked up into the God's face."You can make her better! Help her!"He tugged on Ares' vest, mindless of the sticky blood that now covered them both.

"I can't," Xena admitted brokenly, nearly passing out from relief when she felt a weak, thready pulse."Hang on, Gabrielle."Teary eyes swung toward Nyssa who emerged from the shadows where she had been silently watching.Xena gently removed Jarrod from her lap and settled him next to her.Then she carefully wrapped Gabrielle's soft cloak around her shoulders as she scooped her up into strong arms."I'll come get you if you make me, Gabrielle." She kissed her closed eyelids then her lips. "I swear I will."

Palaemon drew up alongside the small group. He groaned softly at the sight of the young Queen and her blood-soaked tunic, and pulled Jarrod against his hip with his good arm.

Xena stood directly in front of the young tutor, eyes flashing."Come with me, Nyssa.I know the truth now!" she spat, marching up and leaning forward until their faces were only inches apart."And you're going to fix this!" When the tutor remained silent, Xena prodded threateningly, "Aren't you?!"  

It was not a question.

Nyssa's pale eyes studied Xena for a long moment before she made her decision and bowed her head."I'll do what I can."

"Or I'll cut you into so many pieces they'll be picking you up for days!" Xena roared, her fear momentarily overtaking her.  

Jarrod clung tightly to Palaemon, tears streaking his smooth cheeks.The boy sniffed loudly and Xena's head jerked in his direction.He was petrified and she was making it worse. The Conqueror consciously softened her voice."Son, this is all going to get very confusing for you but I need you to trust me.Okay?"

"Okay," he cried reaching up for his Mama's limp hand and tangling his fingers with hers."I can't lose her too."His stared off toward the courtyard and whispered, "That would leave nobody.First my Papa, then Xena, now my Mama..." Jarrod choked on a sob and Palaemon snuggled the boy tighter against him, at a loss as to what he could say. He looked up at the God who felt every bit as helpless as her world spun out of control.

"Come on, son.We're going to save your mother."


Palaemon had taken great care to clear their path, with only a few soldiers seeing them as they entered the palace.For now the Realm was in certain danger.With both Xena and Gabrielle unable to rule, it was ripe for challenge from within. The Conqueror, with Jarrod, Nyssa, and Palaemon all trailing behind her, had carried her Queen back to the healer's rooms, where her own body lay sleeping.She had carefully settled Gabrielle down on the cot next to Xena's.After hesitantly moving away, she barked an order to the guards who were posted around her body.

"Yes, Lord Ares!"Three guards left to fetch the old seamstress and bring her to the God.

Xena looked on as the men strolled leisurely down the hall.She plucked a knife from her belt and sent it sailing at them.It whizzed between their heads, grazing one man's ear before impaling itself in a wooden door just beyond them.   Startled eyes looked back at the dark God."Hurry!" Xena bellowed, sending the guards scurrying down the corridor in a panic.

The Captain wondered why Ares had sent for the aged seamstress.He looked over at his Lord's fallen body and then at the Queen's.If Morgaine had anything to do with this tragedy he would see to it that her death was quick and clean in deference to her age... but she'd still be paying Charon's toll.

Jarrod watched as Ares dressed his Mama's wound, leaving the arrow in her body, and tenderly ran his fingers through her hair.Part of him hated him for it. And the boy found himself with an almost unstoppable urge to lash out.To scream and fight.But even as he did his best to suppress those feelings, he found himself glued to Ares' ministrations.Xena touched his mother in that very same way when she'd gotten a cold not long after arriving at the palace.He cocked his head to the side and regarded the God carefully.

After a moment of serious contemplation, the boy looked at Nyssa, who still held his small hand."I need to be with my mothers now."He gently tugged his hand away and knelt between the two beds, facing the God who still peered at his Mama.He tapped Ares on the knee, absently noting that the leather of his trousers was softer and cooler than he thought it would be.

Ares blinked, then their eyes locked and a slow, almost timid smile worked its way across Jarrod's face.  "I'm not afraid," the boy whispered softly.

"Good," Xena answered quietly.

"I know you'll make it better... Mother."

Xena closed her eyes tightly, trying not to burst into frustrated tears. She didn't bother disputing his claim. "I'm going to try, son."

"I know."He reached out and took Ares' large, callused hand in his.  He squeezed it in a comforting gesture so reminiscent of his mother that the hot tears spilled over onto Ares' cheeks before he could stop them."I love you."

Glistening brown eyes fixed themselves on Jarrod's soft green."I love you too."Before any more could be said, the guards interrupted by bringing a fussing Morgaine into the room.Xena wiped her face with the back of her hands and sprang to her feet, pushing the men out of the room and closing the door behind them. She stood facing the carved oak slab for several seconds, composing herself, before she spun around and leveled a hard glare at the seamstress.She crossed thick arms over her chest. "Who are you and what have you done with Morgaine?"

"A better question is..." Morgaine straightened, her aged frame seeming to become younger and stronger with each word. "Why has the God of War swapped bodies with his Chosen?"

"He had his reasons," Xena ground out."That's all you need to know."

"Then so do I," she replied stubbornly.

Getting nowhere fast and too impatient to wait, Xena turned to Nyssa next and pointed an angry finger."Who are you?"

"Nyssa, Lord Ares.Tutor to..."

"Enough of your half truths and lies!" Xena stomped forward and Palaemon found himself wanting to step between Ares and the lovely young tutor.But his survival instinct kicked in, and he remained where he was, hoping she wasn't about to run her through.Xena drew a deep breath, reining in her temper.She decided to give Nyssa one last opportunity to come clean before she wrung her skinny neck. "I want you to tell me which God or Goddess you're both working for.And why you tried to kill me."

Morgaine spoke up, correctly sensing impending bloodshed."I never tried to kill you, Xena.You should know better than that."

"I don't know anything anymore!"

Morgaine smiled knowingly."Of course you do."

"But..." Xena's words trailed off and her mouth remained open as she watched in amazement as the old woman's appearance began to shift and transform right before her eyes.Silver hair lengthened and curled, turning to a golden blonde.Drooping breasts lifted, enlarged, and were reshaped.Deep lines in creased ancient cheeks disappeared, leaving behind smooth flawless skin.A pink see-through nightie, matching wonder bra, and pink high heels adorned with a fluffy tuft of pink feathers on the toe replaced Morgaine's modest beige tunic.

"By the Gods!" Palaemon exclaimed.

Xena blinked. "Aphrodite?"

The Goddess flashed a brilliant smile. "Like, in the flesh, Warrior Babe.And I'm obviously not the killing type." She wrinkled her nose as if smelling something dreadful. "That is just so... so... unlovelike, you know?"

Xena's mind had a hard time wrapping around what she was seeing.She had suspected some minion of the Gods or a pitiful, annoying, lesser-type God or Goddess like Discord or Strife.But not a Goddess herself."How did you come to be here?This palace is dedicated to Ares.Major Gods aren't allowed to interfere..."

Aphrodite stamped her foot petulantly to interrupt the Conqueror.She hated it when mortals went on a rant."No, but we are allowed to be near and protect our own Chosen."She grinned again and adjusted her bodice, glad to be back in her own perky breasts. "That's all what I'm doing, tall, dark and sexy." She gave Xena a little wink.

Xena was truly confused now. Her brows drew together and she scratched her bristly cheek, frowning."Your Chosen lives behind the walls of my palace?" The warrior searched her mind for anyone sappy enough for Aphrodite to hook up with.There were some gossipy fishwives who worked in the kitchens and were forever trying to fix up the single soldiers with the ugly scouring women.It had to be one of them.

The Goddess giggled as she read the Conqueror's mind."Oh babe, you are so wrong.Not that I don't have fun with them.Who doesn't love to dish?" she pointed out. "But true love is a serious matter and I wouldn't favor just any mortal with the honor of being my Chosen.She would have to be loyal.Capable of the most tender emotions. Pretty but not stuck on herself." She tapped her cheek, then began counting off on her fingers. "Kind, but not a wuss. Know how to accessorize in all seasons. And...

 "Get to the point," Xena interrupted, rolling her eyes.

Aphrodite's gaze narrowed."How she stands someone as grumpy as you, I'll never know.Duh, Conqueror, My Chosen is your wife and soul mate."She tilted her head toward the cot where Gabrielle lay.


"You only have one soul mate, Xena.And one wife." Her expression suddenly clouded. "At least I hope for your sake you only have one wife.If not... lose her quick." She jerked a thumb toward Gabrielle. "Miss I-could-take-out-a-flea-at-twenty-paces-with-my-knife has a jealous streak a mile wide."

Xena's eyes widened. "If she's your Chosen, you can heal her!"

"I can."

"Do it!What are you waiting for?" she yelled frustratedly, glancing back at Gabrielle. She couldn't have much time left.  

Aphrodite didn't say a word, apparently waiting for something that still hadn't been said.

"You want me to beg?" Xena asked desperately."Is that it?" She fell to her knees. "Fine. I'll give you anything you want. I'll do anything you want."

Aphrodite arched a critical eyebrow. "Anything?"

"By the Gods!Anything!"

"Would you give all this up, Xena?" Aphrodite made a broad gesture."Would you walk away from this?From the wealth and the power?Would you take your wife and son back to a small village and run an inn for the rest of your days?Never again knowing the glory of battle or the thrill of conquest." She regarded the warrior closely, not bothering to ask for her life.She knew Xena would offer that in a heartbeat.No.She wanted more for her Chosen than a hero.She wanted a true partner willing to make a sacrifice worthy of an epic love.

"Yes."There was not a single second of hesitation.If the Goddess would heal Gabrielle, she would do all those things and more.Of course, Ares would probably see her dead first.But she would worry about him later."My life. My kingdom. My sword.My Soul.Anything," she pledged solemnly, her eyes radiating her sincerity."Just bring her back safe and sound."

Aphrodite nodded, clearly impressed."Oh, Conqueror. Now that's the love groove I was going for." She held up a finger. "Back in a flash."


Aphrodite entered Morpheus' realm.  She looked around at the furnishings and gloomy atmosphere."Ewww," she exclaimed. "Like, this place totally sucks."Shaking her head, she marched over to her brother who was lying back with his arms crossed behind his head on a bed of soft, black silk pillows, viewing Xena's dreams as if they were a continuously showing play for an audience of one.  The Goddess peeked into the portal and smiled."They are so fab together!I so totally rock!"

"Ohhh yeah!"Ares chuckled lecherously, too interested in the hot and heavy scene playing out before him to really notice who he was talking to. This dream was a particular favorite and after seeing if a half dozen times consecutively he wanted the blonde more than ever.

Aphrodite turned away from the portal and perched delicately on Ares' bed. "Bro, you are such a pig.The part that's coming up is private!"Of course, she only knew that because she happened to choose that moment to check in on Gabrielle.But that was an accident!

His head snapped sideways and he flashed his sister an irritated smile. "Me?"He pointed to himself, affecting a hurt, innocent expression. "Is it my fault she dreams about it? And I mean dreams!" he groaned and bit his lip, his eye caught by the events in the portal once again. He and Aphrodite tilted their heads in unison as they watched the woman tangle into a particularly interesting position.

Aphrodite chuckled appreciatively and nodded her head."Good one, ladies."

Ares brows knitted and he laced his fingers together over his belly as he watched. "You'd think they'd black out doing that for too long."

The Goddess ignored her brother's comment, finally getting to the point."Why did you trade bodies with Xena?"

He shrugged."The blonde and I made a deal."


"I help Xena and she makes me a very, very happy God," he said matter-of-factly, although he was quite pleased with himself.She was going to be fantastic he just knew it.

"You are like..." Aphrodite waved her hands in the air."Totally sick!"

"I thought it was pretty good plan myself."Ares sighed and snapped his fingers, shutting down the portal."I can watch that again later.When I'm alone."He raised a significant eyebrow."What are you doing here, by the way?Don't you have some poor soldier's life to ruin by hooking him up with an incessantly nagging wife?"

"Later.Right now I'm trying to get My Chosen back together with Your Chosen."

"Excuse me!" Ares rose from the bed and shook his head wildly. "You're not telling me what I think you're telling me." He scowled. "Are you?"

Aphrodite blew on her knuckles and polished them against her sheer nightie."Hear it and weep, bro."

"Are you nuts?The Chosen of the God of War and the Chosen of the Goddess of Love? Together? Ohhhhhh." His face brightened. "I know... I know...  they got married and all, but this is just a lust thing.They'll get sick of each other pretty soon, right?"

"Like, haven't you been paying attention?They're fated.  This goes beyond us."

"Those Fate bitches!" he roared.  Was it necessary for them to continuously thwart his plans?Was it even fair?  No!

"You've been so busy enjoying Xena's dreams you haven't even popped in to see what they've been doing to your body, have you?" She waggled a chastising finger, loving the startled look on Ares' face.

"Huh?What do you mean 'doing' to my body?Do you mean...?"He thrust his hips forward and lifted his eyebrows up and down.

"Oooo, I was thinking more along the lines that Gab didn't like that scratchy beard so Xena got rid of most of it."

"She what?!"His hands instinctively went to his cheeks.

"Yeah," the Goddess laughed cruelly, "and most of the hair too."

His eyes widened and he looked down.

"On your head, Ares."

"Oh yeah.I knew that," he lied."But that doesn't change the fact that I'm going to kill her!"

Aphrodite smacked his leg and he winced, rubbing the reddening mark. "No, you won't!Your Chosen is all wrapped up in My Chosen and, unlike you, I actually do right by my people.

"Hey!" he yelled indignantly.

"So you're going to go back there and..."

"Kick what's left of her ass!"  And with that the dark God was gone.

Aphrodite blew an errant blonde curl from her forehead. "Men!"She snapped her fingers and disappeared.

Chapter Seven: In Like A Lamb, Out Like A Lion

Ares looked around the room, waiting as patiently as possible for Aphrodite to return so that she could remove the spell that kept everyone motionless.He had reclaimed his body, so he was free to move around. And since Aphrodite was the one who cast the spell, only she could remove it. He tapped his foot impatiently, wondering what was keeping the ditzy Goddess.

Ares reached up and scratched his head. Brown eyes widened as he frantically ran his fingers through his black, crookedly cut locks."Xena!What have you done?"

He drew his blade and turned his head from side to side, speculatively studying his face and head in the shiny blade. He gave it a moment's consideration before he shrugged, deciding he kind of liked the new goatee.He frowned. The hair, however, was unacceptable. With a snap of his fingers it evened up. It was still short, but at least it didn't look like he'd been attacked by a dull knife.Besides, he grinned, if the little blonde liked it, he could live with it for a bit longer. Ares glanced over at Gabrielle and winced at the arrow buried deep in her chest."That's gonna leave a mark."

"No, it's not."Aphrodite popped into existence next to her brother."Just like Xena's little tumble down the steps isn't going to leave any marks either, because we're going to heal them."She knelt down beside Gabrielle's head.With a steady hand, she touched the arrow, causing it to disappear.  Then she laid her palm on the woman's forehead.She glared, snapping her fingers and pointing to a spot on the floor by Xena's head."They're soulmates and to heal their spirit they need both of us." When Ares looked wholly unimpressed, she added, "Don't make me come get you. Like, there are things I could do to all your big nasty warriors which would make you cry."

Ares dropped to his knees with a snort and placed his hand on Xena's forehead.He rolled his eyes dramatically, secretly more than a little unhappy with his sister's threat. "Okay, let's get this over with."

Aphrodite extended her hand to Ares."Sure, like nooooow you're in a big rush."

"You just want to hold my hand."

"I'm worried about you," she snapped, as she reluctantly took his hand."You need professional help."

"What about them?" Ares' glanced at Nyssa, Jarrod and Palaemon who were still frozen in time.

The Goddess shrugged. "They'll keep."

Both deities closed their eyes and bowed their heads, projecting a warm flood of healing energy into the bodies of their Chosen.Gabrielle moaned first, moving her head just slightly as she sucked in a deep breath.

Xena's eyes moved rhythmically beneath closed eyelids, and her body began to stir.When blue eyes suddenly popped open, she immediately tried to sit up, getting dizzy in the process. "Whoa."

"That's my girl."Ares grinned, standing up and offering the Conqueror a hand, perversely pleased that she was roused before his sister's Chosen."C'mon, Warrior Princess, vacation is over, back on your feet."

Xena blinked, slightly confused. She hadn't been called 'Warrior Princess' since she was a teenager and raising her first army.Her eyes quickly focused and confusion shifted to annoyance. Knowing the dark turn her life had taken soon after she received that battlefield title only made the nickname a reminder of days that Xena would just as soon forget. "Vacation, my ass!" she growled, smacking his outstretched hand away and hoisting herself up onto very unsteady feet.

Angrily, she ripped bandages from her body, getting caught up in a tangle of gauze.By the time she was finished tearing the strips of cloth from her body, she was left completely naked in the cool, late autumn air.Ares smirked appreciatively and in response Xena snatched a blanket from the bed, wrapping it around her body. "Gods, I hate you," she grumbled.

Blue eyes quickly scanned the room for... "Gabrielle?" She scrambled over her bed and scooped her lover into her arms, hugging her tightly.Releasing her slightly, she stroked Gabrielle's cheek, nearly crying at its healthy warmth and light pink color."C'mon, Mama Bear." Her voice was a fervent whisper as she rubbed the downy cheek a little more vigorously. "Open your eyes!"

Gabrielle took another shuddering breath, exhaling with a deep moan, her eyes fluttering open."Xena..."

"Yeah, sweetheart.It's me."She pulled Gabrielle into another fierce embrace and was rewarded with weak arms wrapping around and squeezing her, their strength increasing with every passing second.She brushed her lips across Gabrielle's temple, feeling a scattering of warm, salty tears splash against her bare shoulder.

Aphrodite and Ares watched the embrace.Xena and Gabrielle seemed oblivious to their presence... just as it should be during reunions of the heart.Aphrodite sniffed and dabbed her eyes. "I am like... sooooo totally awesome!"

Ares could only grunt.

She nudged her brother."You see it, don't you?" Aphrodite gestured quickly between Xena and Gabrielle.   "The Fates' thread binding their souls?"

Ares crossed his arms and defiantly said, "Maybe."

Now it was Aphrodite's turn to snort."Even the Conqueror needs someone to love... who truly loves her back."

Ares tried to scowl, but it came off looking more like a pout."Love makes you weak."

"Get real, bro!" she scoffed.  "Try telling that to the dead Britons inside and outside the palace walls.She didn't seem weak when she was out there chopping them down for raising a hand against the Realm."

Ares' mouth dropped open."I missed that...?!"

"While you were watching Xena and Gabrielle porn," she finished, her tone chastising but still amused."And it was tooooootally gross. Arrows and fire and gore..."

The God of War bit his lip and whimpered, imagining Xena in her dark, bloody, glory, embracing the part of her that was his... and, despite the annoying little blonde, always would be.

"I personally think her love for Gabrielle and Jarrod gives her two more reasons to stay the bad ass warrior you want her to be.She's got something to fight for."

Ares just shook his head. "Women," he mumbled."I'll never understand them."

"True," Aphrodite agreed flippantly. "But at least you're smart enough to realize that sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.That's why Xena rules the world."

"SO!"Ares boomed, breaking up the lovefest.He couldn't handle another second of his sister's gloating and made mental note to make sure that one of her temples was right in the path of a pillaging army during the next battle he oversaw. "Did you figure it out, Xena?"

Xena kissed Gabrielle again before turning to face the tall God."Yeah, we figured it out."She got to her feet. Looking around the room she realized that no one was moving except for the four of them."Fix them." She pointed at Jarrod, Nyssa and Palaemon.

Gabrielle's grip on Xena tightened when saw her son standing like a statue. Her pulse jumped."Is he...?"

"He's fine," Xena assured. She pinned Ares with a sharp look."I'm not explaining a Gods be damned thing until Jarrod and Palaemon are cared for and I can confront those traitorous satraps as well. So you'll just have to wait for your explanation."


The door burst open and everyone in the room jumped, their eyes growing wide with surprise and fear as Xena strode in, shoulders squared, chin up, long ebony hair flowing over her shoulders, bouncing lightly with each purposeful step. Gabrielle was hot on her heels, her face showing every bit as much determination as her partner's. Next came the God of War, glad to be back in his own body where he could swagger to his heart's content. Several seconds after him, a woman in a see-through pink nightie strolled in. Aphrodite was barely through the doorway when two guards bustled in behind her. They were flanking a grim-looking, chestnut-haired, young woman whose eyes remained downcast as she walked. While she wasn't shackled, it was clear that she was in the custody of the guards.

"I have good news and bad news." Xena walked up to Brutus and snatched the chair out from under his butt, sending him crashing to the floor with a mighty thud. She glared at Lao Ma, who was sitting at the head of the table. The Asian woman wordlessly rose to her feet, obediently moving a seat down, and allowing Xena to kick away the empty seat and slam down the chair that was in her hands. She straddled it, continuing to study the satraps. The Conqueror had to admit they were a miserable looking bunch. Dark circles ringed their eyes, and their hair looked oily and unkempt. Gabrielle had done a good job keeping them off balance.

"The good news is I'm back." She let a slow feral grin spread across her face. "The bad news is... I'm back."

"Impossible!" Brutus declared. "You should be dead!"

"Rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated," she offered drolly. Deciding that she liked to pace as she spoke, Xena rose to her feet. "And I'm pissed." She tapped her chin academically, her voice icy but calm. "You see... I resent it when people try to kill me and form alliances against me."

Lao Mao gasped.

Xena stared at the older woman, anger warring with disappointment. Of all the satraps, Lao Mao was the closest thing to a true ally that she had. She shook her head sadly. "You of all people, Lao Mao, should have realized that such plans couldn't be kept from me for long."

The Asian woman ducked her head in acknowledgment, neither refuting nor admitting to the deceit.

Xena turned back to her larger audience. "You should allknow that about me!" She sucked in a deep breath and reached up to rub throbbing temples. "Where to start?" Then she felt a small, warm hand press against the small of her back and begin a gentle rubbing motion. Xena fought hard not to close her eyes at the sensation and greedily absorbed the wordless comfort that somehow still managed to speak volumes. Gods, I love you too, Gabrielle.

Clearing her throat slightly, and setting aside the sudden and unexpected welling of emotion brought on by her lover's touch, Xena said, "Well, let's start with what I know for certain. I know that none of you traitorous fools were stupid enough to try and kill me. At least not by yourselves."

"Then Antony...?" Cleopatra questioned in alarm.

"Is fine..." Gabrielle interrupted then grinned wickedly, adding, "mostly..." It sucks to wonder and worry about your lover, doesn't it, you back-stabbing bitch. Serves you right...

Xena stepped aside as several servants brought in food and wine, placing it on the table. She was pleased to see that none of the satraps had the bad sense to reach for it. Xena could see their gazes were fixed on the steaming plates. Aromatic vegetables were piled atop seasoned meat, and the gentle fragrance of fresh flat bread instantly filled the room.Several stomachs growled in response.Oh yeah. They're hungry.

Ares led Gabrielle to a seat, and a plate was fixed for her by a servant, along with a tall glass of sweet red wine. She dug in eagerly, her eyes rolling back with hedonistic pleasure as she devoured the first meal she'd been free to truly enjoy in days.

Even Ares popped a small, rare slice of venison in his mouth, nodding his appreciation at its bold, gamy flavor. He poured a cup of dark wine and quirked a brow in the direction of his Chosen, holding up his cup in question.

"Please," Xena intoned hospitably. "Now where was I? Oh yes. The fool who tried to kill me." She moved towards Nyssa, smoothly taking the wine from Ares just as his lips grazed the rim of the cool, pewter cup. She laughed inwardly at his suddenly grumpy expression and took a deep swallow, savoring the taste. She regarded Nyssa carefully, finding it difficult to view her as the deadly scorpion she knew she was.

Nyssa lowered her eyes in shame. One look at Xena and Gabrielle and she knew she had been wrong about the Conqueror. She'd been horribly used.She had been told her actions would be saving the Realm, saving the Queen and her young son from an abusive tyrant who had to be stopped. Gods.Nyssa shuddered thinking about what almost happened... what did happen.

"You were the one who tried to kill me."It wasn't a question."But you don't work for any mortal in this room do you?"

"No, Lord Conqueror." Nyssa shook her head and her shoulders slumped forward in defeat. "My allegiance was not to anyone in this room."

Gabrielle gasped.Standing, she pushed back her chair and took a threatening step towards the young tutor. "By the Gods! I trusted you with our son! You little harpy!"

"I... I... Bu... " Nyssa stuttered, surprised by the Queen's sudden venom and not knowing what she could say in her own defense. She'd been tricked, to be sure, but that excuse wouldn't save her now. "I never hurt the boy! I swear it." Her eyes begged Gabrielle to believe her.

"You hurt him by trying to kill his mother!" A crimson flush rose to her cheeks and she couldn't understand why Xena hadn't lopped off the girl's head yet. She wanted to hate her, but the girl looked so pitiful and confused that she found herself having difficulty. She turned confused eyes on her wife. "How did you know?"

"It was during the battle that I first started making sense of it all." Gabrielle looked a little doubtful, so Xena added, "You'd be surprised at what pops into my head during a good life-or-death struggle.I realized that when I'm around Nyssa I get very close to that same creepy feeling I get when Ares shows up."

"Creepy?" Ares shouted indignantly.

Xena ignored him and continued to address Gabrielle. "It's not exactly the same but it was close enough to get me thinking.That was the feeling I got when someone pushed me... and that's what was missing when we recreated the scene."

Gabrielle's eyes widened with realization.She backed up and bonelessly dropped into her chair. Palaemon had interviewed the prospective tutors, and the first time that Xena had seen Nyssa face-to-face was when she was in Ares' body.


Xena tapped her chin as she spoke.  "When I had you put your hand on my back in the Old Watchtower to recreate that night... I knew something was different.I just wasn't sure what it was.But after seeing Nyssa a couple of other times, the feeling made sense.And it fit with one of the other big pieces of the puzzle.  The one that was the most confusing"

"The footprints!" Gabrielle blurted.

"Exactly.Any mortal would have left them.So that leaves immortals. But other Gods can't directly touch me."  Xena looked expectantly at Ares, who began to fume.

Ares' face twisted with rage. "But nothing would prevent them from passing on a few powers to help a mortal get the job done!That might be enough for the Conqueror to get her little," he made a face, "'creepy' vibe.  Parlor tricks are all they could really be. But levitation is always a handy one."

"Totally no way!"Aphrodite looked shocked.

Ares threw his hands up in disgust."It's cheating...I know... I know... And Dad would never approve... but um... well, it can be done," he finished in a rush, deciding it wasn't necessary to mention the fact that he'd done it several times himself in the past.

The tutor scowled unbecomingly. 

"So Nyssa's allegiance is to a Godly being." Xena retook control of the conversation.

Though she was sure Nyssa was nothing more than a pawn for the Gods, she didn't trust herself to stand too close to the girl without cracking her skull, so she took a few steps backwards. Xena leaned against the edge of the table where the satraps sat, crossing her booted feet at the ankles. "What I haven't figured out yet is 'which' God or Goddess sent you. And why they would want me dead."

Boadicea sniggered loudly, wondering who wouldn't want the Conqueror dead.

Gabrielle jaw worked silently as she eyed the tall redhead, her face set in granite. She was sorely tempted to have her crucified this very minute... instead of later today as she and Xena had discussed on the way to the conference room.

"I think I can help you there, Warrior Babe." Aphrodite stepped forward, taking Xena's cup just as it touched the Conqueror's parted lips. She took a delicate sip, humming in her approval before handing it back with a wink. "Rumor on Mount Olympus is that like... some of the grumpier Gods aren't too happy with big brother over there."

Aphrodite turned to her bother, ready to give him his due, but hating that she would undoubtedly increase the already enormous size of his swollen head. "They seem to think you have too much power."

"Tough!" he snorted, filling his cup to the brim. "This is nothing more than a typical case of Ares envy."

Xena choked on her wine.She opened her mouth to speak but Gabrielle jumped up and clamped her hand over Xena's lips. "I know it's easy... but just don't."

"If any of them had the brains to make Xena their Chosen they'd have the power now." Ares chuckled. "Too bad for them she's mine."

"I beg to differ," Gabrielle inserted, throwing a withering glare at the God. "She's mine." The preciously enunciated, possessive words were bit out slowly, increasing their impact.

Aphrodite squealed with delight. "You go, Gabrielle!"

"Listen, Queenie..." Ares sneered, marching up to the blonde and planting his fists on the table as he leaned forward, pushing his face right up into hers. "I don't care what..."

"Can you two discuss my ownership later please," Xena whispered loudly, jerking her head toward the avidly watching satraps.

Ares and Gabrielle were immediately contrite and their gazes dropped to their boots. This was not the place or time for this little discussion and they both knew it. "Of course," they said in unison, causing Xena and Aphrodite's eyebrows to shoot skyward.

The Queen and God looked at one another in surprise, each face painted with mutual disgust. They both took a large step away from one another.

Aphrodite began again. "Aaaaaanyhoowwww, that's why somebody tried to off the Conqueror here. She's Ares' Chosen, and while your," she pointed at Ares', "temples are thriving and followers are increasing because of her, theirs are falling into ruin. And what are Gods or Goddess without followers?"A taunting grin curled the Goddess' lips. "Seems that once again, behind every great man is a woman."

Ares rolled his eyes.

"And behind that woman is where you need to be if you're going to bury a knife in her back... or push her down two hundred feet of stairs, isn't that right, Nyssa?" Xena questioned sarcastically, pushing away from the table and back towards the tutor. "I can narrow down who you don't work for. You don't work for Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades. They'd never let you get away with the sloppy job you did. You'd already be dead."

Nyssa's attitude turned belligerent, fear and immaturity overriding good sense. "If it weren't for that meddlesome thief, Autolycus, you would have succumbed to your injuries. Celesta was surely on her way."

Xena looked totally unimpressed by the knowledge. She'd stoodup Celesta on several occasions in the past, and fully intended to do it a few more times before Hades claimed her for good and she was separated from Gabrielle. "You're not working for Artemis either."

"How do you know that?" Nyssa lifted her chin.

"Because when Boadicea's troops attacked the palace, Melosa's troops fought with Greece. Had Artemis had a hand in the attempt, she would have allied the Amazon forces with the Britons."

"And..." Gabrielle jumped in, easily continuing with her wife's line of reasoning. "Malaius' suicide note said that he had been offered a position in a competing court if he would only betray Xena." Green eyes swung toward Melosa. "Queen Melosa, how many men do you have serving Amazon royalty?"

The dark-haired Amazon snorted. "None that serve in a capacity Malaius would have been well-suited for."

Xena burst out laughing, despite the tense situation. She shook her head to rid it of the mildly hysterical image of Malaius as an Amazon stud.

"What has become of my remaining troops?" Boadicea finally found the courage to inquire. She'd seen most of the battle from the conference room window and already knew that her losses would be heavy.

"What remaining troops?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "You sent them on a suicide mission! Every last man or woman who fought on your behalf is dead," she ground out, nearly choking on the bitter taste of the words. Her eyes filled with unshed tears for the inexcusable waste of human life, and for the carnage she'd witnessed, not having truly understood its horrible extent until she asked Xena where she was keeping the prisoners. Her question had been greeted with a long, pensive silence, before her wife simply said there were no prisoners.The thought made Gabrielle physically ill.

The blonde woman's gaze bore into Boadicea."While you're languishing on a cross... I hope you think of all the lives cut short by your stupidity. Of all the families you destroyed."The building pressure of keeping her anger at Nyssa and Boadicea under control became too much, and the volume of her voice rose to almost a painful level. "Our Lord Conqueror and the God of War stand here before you and you believe you have remaining troops?!" She laughed harshly, without a trace of humor. "By the Gods, woman, you are arrogant!"

Ares watched Gabrielle with growing desire, captivated by the flame burning brightly behind glassy green eyes. Oh yes, Xena... so very nice... so much more than she appears.I can't wait to collect on your wife's debt.

The Conqueror moved to Gabrielle's side and gently cupped her chin with one hand. The shorter woman's first impulse was to jerk her chin away in anger, her body rebelling against the soothing touch so at odds with how she felt.But with great effort she didn't. Instead, she leaned into the long, tapered fingers that felt cool against her flushed cheeks.

Xena bent down, whispering softly into the younger woman's ear, "Easy, My Queen. We'll settle our debt with Britannia all in good time." The Conqueror straightened, but slid her hand up slightly, letting her palm linger on her bride's pink cheek.

Gabrielle's eyes fastened on the brilliant blue that she'd so missed over the past few days.She let out a slightly ragged breath and stilled her shaking hands.Then Xena smiled a full, always rare smile that was for her alone, and, quite without permission, Gabrielle felt her own tentative grin forming in response.The room, and the satraps, and even the Gods faded away, and for a good long moment there was only each other.Gabrielle gave a quick nod.She was all right.

With a soundless sigh, the Conqueror returned her attention to Nyssa. "My guess is you are an underling to either Hera or Athena. And your attempt on my life was made at their order."

Nyssa was about to reply when a soldier entered the room.He looked around the room nervously before approaching the Conqueror and handing her a note.

Xena took a moment to read it.  Her eyes fluttered closed.When she opened them again, she leveled a glare at Nyssa."Come with me.  This is your chance to redeem yourself and to keep me from turning you over to Ares."

The Conqueror extended her hand to Gabrielle."C'mon.A friend needs our help."She turned back to the group. "I'm not done with you yet.  Don't get comfortable." She motioned toward the food."But please feel free to enjoy your last meal."On the way out the room, she couldn't help but notice the satraps seemed to have suddenly lost their appetites.


They entered the infirmary.Healers and assistants were tending to wounded soldiers, and the smell of medical herbs and poultices hung heavily in the air.Xena and Gabrielle moved into a back room where a single bed had been placed.Ares and Aphrodite popped into existence right behind them with Nyssa in tow.

Palaemon stood near the window; his arm had been treated and was in a sling, which was bound tightly to his mid-section. He stepped forward, bowing to the Lord Conqueror and her Queen."We just found him. His body was tossed behind some bushes on the west wall of the stable not far from where you were..." He stopped not wanting to discuss Gabrielle's non-existent wound."He almost made it to you."

The Queen turned to the bed to find Autolycus.The thief had been badly beaten.His face was bruised and bloodied, and a thick bandage covered his left eye and that entire side of his face.Unbidden, tears sprang to her eyes as she took a seat next to her friend, with Xena standing close behind her. She ran her fingers through his thick hair."Autolycus?"

He slowly licked dry lips and cracked open one eye, peering at her fuzzily.A tiny, relieved smile tried to find its way to his lips."Gabrielle...You're okay? I saw you and I tried to follow but..."

"Shhh..." she cooed softly, her fingertips grazing crisp white linen bandages and then cool skin."I'm good."She smiled a gentle, sympathetically smile."You don't look so good though."

He barked out a tiny laugh."Umm... I'm thinking no."Weakly, he reached out and grasped her hand."About that pardon.I think I'd rather stay here.You and the Conqueror... Always in so much trouble... You need someone to look out for you."

Ares was about to speak up that his Chosen didn't need a two-bit thief looking out for her, when Aphrodite silenced him with a look.

Xena stepped around Gabrielle and kneeled by the dark-haired man's bedside."You'll stay, Autolycus, but you'll stay as a free man and a security advisor to the Realm."

His look of startlement was evident even under the pile of wrappings covering most of his face. "Thank you, My Lord."He shifted his head slowly towards Gabrielle."I lost my eye."

Gabrielle bent down and brushed her lips softly against the spot on his cheek that looked appeared to be the least bruised."I figured." The bandage over his eye looked heavy with blood. "I'm so sorry," she whispered brokenly.

"Made them keep it, though, in case you need it for something."He grinned.

The Queen smiled and wiped the corner of her eyes, an unexpected laugh escaping her throat."Before this is over, I'll be known as Gabrielle, Cannibal of Poteidaia."

The thief coughed."Nahhh... I think something along the lines of 'Defender of the Realm' would be much nicer."He coughed again, wincing at the obvious pain the movement caused his ribs. His eye slid closed under the effects of the herbs."'Course there'll be those that'll just call you bitch," he mumbled just before sleep claimed him.

The Queen nodded, watching her friend enter Morpheus' Realm. "Rest well."She pulled the blanket over him, fussing a little with the edges and tucking them under the thin straw-filled mattress.When she stood, her eyes found the healer."Make sure he lacks for nothing.He is to be treated as if he were my flesh and blood. The moment he's well enough, I want him taken to the private chambers where Our Lord was treated so we can be close by."

Xena grunted her approval of the idea.

"Yes, My Queen."The healer bowed his head.

"My Queen?"Xena touched Gabrielle's arm lightly."Would you like Nyssa to help him?"She glared at the woman."I'm sure she'll do what she can.Since it may be the only thing that could save her miserable life."

"No." Gabrielle shook her head wildly. "She tried to kill you. I don't want her near anyone I care about.  As a matter of fact, I want her as far away from my sight as soon as possible."

"And she will be, but first I want to know which God she was working for."Xena turned to Nyssa."It was Athena, wasn't it?"

Nyssa's gaze dropped, confirming Xena's suspicion.The Conqueror just nodded.

"Why Athena?"Gabrielle questioned.

Aphrodite stepped forward, wrapping her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder."See, the problem is, all of the temples that tall, dark and erotic here had built were for Ares.Xena has pretty much let the others fall into disrepair or let them be converted for my Bro.Petty jealousy is an ugly thing, and it causes a lot of problems.I should know this better than anyone."She rolled her eyes in disgust."Athena's a little more aggressive than the others... Even Hera has a certain respect for her children's Chosen.Most of my siblings don't feel the same way."

"You don't seem to be bothered by Ares' prominence," Xena said pointedly, crossing her arms.

Aphrodite grinned broadly.She marched up to Xena and pinched her cheek much in the manner of an adoring aunt."Ooooo.... You are so suspicious.No wonder big brother has got such a thing for you.He secretly loves that," she confided.  

Xena pulled away grumpily, rubbing her cheek.

"Temples are nice, babe.Don't get me wrong. But my power comes from here."She placed her hand over Gabrielle's heart."No matter what happens to my temples... I'll always have that." She took the time and gazed deeply into Gabrielle's eyes, stroking the Queen's cheek with a finger in an intimate gesture."Even you believed that."The Goddess cupped Gabrielle's cheek tenderly."All the time you were scratching away in your little village, despite the life you were forced to lead, you always held out hope for real love.In your heart... you believed." She winked. "And whether you know it or not, that's a direct prayer from you to me.


"You're wondering why I choose you," she read her mind matter of factly."That's the reason, Little One."Aphrodite leaned forward placing a gentle, chaste kiss on the Queen's lips.

Twin sets of dark eyebrows shot up as Ares and Xena watched the intimate scene unfold before them. Xena was tempted to knock Aphrodite into next week for that little stunt. But somehow she knew that interfering with a Goddess and her Chosen would be a very bad thing. It's a... she drew in a deep breath, ...complicated relationship.And Aphrodite's obvious affection for her wife was more of a blessing than anything else.  The Goddess had chosen well, and Gabrielle would be better off for it.

When the tender kiss was over, Gabrielle blinked.Now that was something she wasn't expecting.

Aphrodite turned to Nyssa."So, under the command of Athena, you waited until Xena was vulnerable and you popped up behind her while she was in the Old Watchtower and gave her a helping hand down the steps..."

"Then," Gabrielle spat, her emotions ping-ponging from one extreme to the other.Gods, she needed a vacation."You went to Malaius' quarters and faked his suicide.You believed we would think he was the one who tried to kill Xena and the investigation would be over."

"No!I wouldn't do that!I mean... I helped by writing the suicide note.But he really did kill himself."Nyssa began to sob."Athena approached me about killing Malaius, but I refused.He was a good man. Not evil like..." her voice trailed off.

"Athena has no power here!She couldn't have done it.Who else?" Xena demanded.

"She enlisted the Furies, who owed her a favor.It didn't take them more than five minutes with Malaius before they'd convinced him that demons were after him and suicide was the only way out. I... I wrote the note at Athena's insistence to help cover my tracks for what I'd done to Our Lord Conqueror.  We never expected you to look so closely.I didn't realize anyone loved her enough to dig that deeply into her death.I swear... I..." Her sobs intensified."Athena tricked me... I actually believed it would come as a great relief to everyone involved when she was dead."

"You were WRONG!"Gabrielle charged the young woman but was stopped just before she reached her when Xena caught her around the waist.

"Don't, Mama Bear." She brought her spouse into a warm embrace."She works for the Gods, and we don't know what little tricks she can do.She may be able to hurt you."Her eyes warmed. "And we've been hurt enough.  We'll let 'our' Gods deal with her now.  We're together.We solved the mystery.Now all that's left for us to do is deal with the satraps and get on with our life.Together."

Ares raised his hand, waggling his finger."Ah, ah, ah.  There's one liiiitle detail that Gabrielle and I have to settle up on first." He stroked his goatee and leered openly at the young blonde.

Xena pushed her spouse behind her with one arm and drew her sword."Try it!Try and touch her and I'll find a way to kill you, I swear I will!"

Ares blinked. "You told her?!"

"Of course she told me!" The Conqueror pointed the tip of the blade towards Ares."I am her wife!"

"Xena," Gabrielle swallowed hard.  "I did make a deal."

 "Yeah." Ares crossed his muscular bare arms. "And bargains made with the Gods are binding."

"So they are," Xena agreed, suddenly amiable as an idea solidified in her mind. "And Gabrielle fulfilled her end of the deal," the Conqueror informed him smugly, sliding her sword back into its scabbard.

"Huh?"Ares shook his head."No, she didn't." Crudely he thrust his hips forward several times in rapid succession causing Aphrodite and Gabrielle to groan in disgust. "That was the subject of our agreement, Xena!"

"And, umm," Xena licked her lips in smug satisfaction."She did.Several times."Xena took a step forward, placed her arm over Ares' shoulders and patted him squarely on the chest."And it was wonderful." She smiled with mock sympathy. "Too bad you weren't home at the time."

"Oh no!" he complained loudly. "No way!It doesn't work that way Xena!"

"Uh... Bro..." Aphrodite moved forward."I think you should know that Xena and I have a deal too.And if you make good on yours," she gave him a pouty face, "I'll make good on mine.And while their love is strong enough to survive your nasty little deal, you'll never survive if I call in my marker from your Chosen."

Ares' face turned bright red, and his body literally shook with frustration. Releasing an explosive breath, he stalked over to Gabrielle, rolling his eyes when Xena reached for her sword.  "So..." He wiggled his eyebrows, puffing up his chest proudly."How was I?" he asked eagerly.

Gabrielle looked him over from head to toe in an appraising motion that caused him to square his shoulders despite himself.She lifted a single pale brow and said seriously, "YOU were adequate." The Queen jerked a thumb at the Conqueror and smiled saucily."SHE, on the other hand, was spectacular."

Ares' hands balled into fists.  "I hate women!"His yell could be heard for several seconds after he disappeared.

"Only because we're smarter than you," Aphrodite called after him, as she took Nyssa by the hand."I'll take care of her.Later, Babes."With a happy wave, the Goddess and Nyssa disappeared.


Xena decided to let the satraps stew in their own juices for another day.She had far more important things to attend to.After making sure Autolycus and Palaemon were being well cared for, she and Gabrielle headed directly for their apartment, where Palaemon had taken Jarrod before he'd received word about Autolycus.

They opened the heavy wooden door to find Jarrod playing with a wooden puzzle box Palaemon had fashioned for him.The fireplace had been lit and the room was toasty warm and smelled of hickory. His back was against the couch and he sat on a braided rug, idly fingering the puzzle but not really playing with it.

"Hey, Tiger."Xena knelt down and opened her arms.

His head shot up and he scrambled to his feet, throwing himself into Xena's arms with so much force that she nearly fell backwards.But years of riding and sword drills allowed for strong thighs to compensate for his momentum, and she recovered with barely more than a hobble, pulling the boy into a tight, heartfelt hug.Xena felt a tap on her shoulder and without looking over her shoulder, she spread one arm out wide, allowing Gabrielle to be enfolded in the loving embrace.

The Conqueror actually felt weak at the knees as she let it soak in that this nightmare was finally over. Never in all her life, even after the worst battles of her life, had Xena felt so much relief as she did at this very moment.

They made their evening meal more like a picnic, on the floor in front of the fireplace.Xena and Jarrod wrestled and played, while Gabrielle did her level best to keep them from making a mess. But she joined in often enough herself, and by the evening's end they were all in considerably better spirits.

Jarrod barely managed to get his clothes changed, climb into bed, and mumble a sleepy good night to his mothers before he was sound asleep.Gabrielle added an extra blanket to his bed while Xena checked the fire in his room.

Xena pulled the door to his room closed after guiding Gabrielle out.

"Well, Xena, you certainly wore him out."

"Part of my plan." The Conqueror scooped up her Queen in her arms.Zeus!This was a lot easier in Ares' body.  "You're next."

"Gonna wrestle me to exhaustion, are you?" Gabrielle inquired impishly, already hunting for the warm skin under Xena's tunic.

"You can call it that if you want."Xena caught her spouse's lips in a passionate kiss, which lasted without interruption for the duration of her slow walk to their bedchamber.

The blonde opened her eyes slowly when she felt herself placed in the lower center of the large bed, her legs dangling over its foot.She signed happily."By the Gods, Xena. You're trying to kill me," Gabrielle managed to pant, when the Conqueror's lips finally left hers and she was able to draw in a badly needed breath.She allowed her arms to fall limply to her sides."But what a way to go."

"I can only think of a couple of ways I'd like better.In fact... let's discuss those." Xena laughed as she smiled down at her lovely wife and began removing her own clothes."Woman, why are you still dressed?" She affected a mock stern look."Don't make me cut you out of your clothes."

"Like you'd take the time to cut when tearing is so much faster," Gabrielle chuckled, even as she pulled her tunic from her own shoulders. A shift of light and shadows and she was distracted to the point where her hands froze in place as she watched Xena's tunic drop limply to the floor.She licked her lips, trying not to blink."Oh yeah, that's muuuuch better."

The Queen had apparently taken a little too much time appreciating her partner's body, because the next thing she knew her boots where being yanked from her feet.The left one came free quite easily, ending up against the far wall with a solid thud.But the right one was so stubborn that Xena spun around and pulled Gabrielle's leg between her own, as she wrestled with the stiff leather, cursing the entire time. The shorter woman burst into helpless laughter.Her entire body shook, making Xena's job that much harder.  

"A little help here please!"  Xena said with a hint of exasperation.  "Quit curling your toes."She stopped and stared at Gabrielle's impudent foot then laughed when she realized she was being played with. "God! You'll be the death of me!" She shook her head ruefully.Ever notice that we're always wrestling with our boots?Shoes only from now on."

"I can help," the younger woman giggled, placing her bare foot on Xena's backside and pushing."Come on, Xena, you can Conquer the world, but you can't get a boot off your wife."

"If it doesn't," she gave a yank, "come," another yank, "soon. I'll just have to cut your foot off." Xena's gaze flickered around the room. "Now where did I leave my sword?" Suddenly the Conqueror felt herself stumbling forward as the boot came free.She crashed to the floor face first, sprawled on her belly like a drunk. Getting quickly to her feet, Xena spun around with an outraged look on her face.

One look into those wide blue eyes and Gabrielle burst into another round of helpless laughter, wrapping her arms around herself and shaking the bed.   "Gods, I needed this." She beamed at her partner."Thank you.I love you, Xena."

"Yeah... well..." Much to the Conqueror's dismay she found herself blushing without knowing why.

"Well, whaddya know." Gabrielle wiggled her freed toes happily.With great effort she managed to uncurl one arm from around her stomach and wipe away the laughter-induced tears. A large body, backlit by the glowing embers of their fireplace, rose up and launched itself onto the bed, and the next thing she knew, her entire body was being jostled as six feet of overly playful Conqueror landed next to her on the center of the bed.

She wasted no time in climbing on top of The Conqueror.Sitting up very straight and looking down, her hands roamed lightly, slowly over bronzed skin, eliciting gooseflesh and short moans of pleasure."Oooo, you like that, do ya?"The Queen leaned over and placed the tiniest of kisses on the Conqueror's lips before pulling back just slightly, their breath still mingling. 

Gabrielle remained in that position, dangerously close to the soft crimson lips that were calling to her. She knew she was playing a dangerous game and it could get her bitten.But instead she was graced with a bright smile.My, my.Someone's learning that they don't have to be in control every second.

Xena ran her hands up and down Gabrielle's back. "You feel good," she said earnestly."I can't tell you how good it feels to touch you with my own hands."

"It feels good to be touched by your hands, Xena."Unable to stop herself, the blonde leaned forward and brushed tender kiss against Xena's lips, while her hands snaked between them and found firm, lush breasts.Kneading gently, she watched intently as Xena's eyelids fluttered shut, a slow sexy grin crawling across her face.

A low rumble of satisfaction worked its way from Xena's chest.

Gabrielle's eyes darkened with desire as she took in the sight of the Conqueror writhing beneath her and let the sounds of Xena's deliciously contented moans seep deep inside her. "Feel different?" she asked curiously.

Xena nodded."Much."


"Better." She squirmed under Gabrielle's inquisitive hands and fingers. "More feeling... more power... more love... more everything."Xena lifted her head a little to share several of her own tender kisses."Everything is perfect now."

Once.Twice.Three times. Their lips melted together... slowly.When they parted for the last time, Gabrielle sighed happily and turned her head, placing her mouth next to Xena's ear where she began to nibble."It's very, very close to perfect, Xe."

The Conqueror rolled over gently so they were both on their sides, facing each other.She let her hand trail down the soft skin from Gabrielle's shoulder to her waist. She tugged on her trousers."Could be a lot closer."A grin pulled at her lips."I mean, here I am, all naked and vulnerable." She offered what she hoped was a vulnerable face, then winked. "And ready to play." Long fingers reached out and tugged affectionately on a lock on pale hair.

There was just something about the way Xena said 'vulnerable' that Gabrielle found amusing.If there was one person in this world who wasn't vulnerable, it was her mate."Play, huh?Hmm, I'll bet we could have lots of fun."

"I'll take some of that bet."  Xena gave Gabrielle's tummy a little pinch."And anything else you're willing to give me."

"For you, my love, I'll give you the world."The Queen moved from the bed and finished undressing while Xena moved into the middle, tucking several pillows behind her to prop herself up against the headboard.Gabrielle returned to the bed, straddling her wife. "Tell me... where should I start playing?"Her smile was mischievous and her mossy green eyes twinkled in the firelight.

Xena pretended to consider the question."Well, I've always found north to south a fun way to go."

"This is true," the Queen agreed, running a solitary fingertip from north to south. "But," the same finger traveled from one erect nipple to the other."East to west could be nice too."

Xena groaned softly and bit her lip at the sensation."It is." Her voice had dropped an octave and the effect on her wife was instantaneous.

Gabrielle's nostrils flared as she sucked in a deep breath. A low burn started at her center,slowly creeping outward.

"You can touch me anywhere you like, Gabrielle."Eyes that looked more silver than blue in the muted, glowing light fastened on the pale-haired woman's face.Never breaking her gaze, she rubbed her hands up and down Gabrielle's thighs, leaving goosebumps in the wake of her tender, arousing touch."As long as you don't stop."

Without another word, Gabrielle ducked her head, running her tongue from points east to west, her hands roaming freely over warm flesh.She massaging everywhere she could reach as her mouth worshipped hypersensitive skin.Gabrielle hummed with pleasure, her own ache making itself known, as her tongue tenderly wrapped around her mate's nipple and she began to suckle in earnest. She could feel her lover's strong pulse beneath her lips as she tasted sweet skin, inhaling the scent of honey soap with a hint of wood smoke, clean sweat, and taller woman's own unique aroma with a quiet satisfaction.She savored Xena's unhurried, knowing touch in return.

The connection they had shared while Xena was in Ares' body was about pleasure, sex and power.Tonight was about desire, love and understanding.Each form of expression had a place in this bedchamber, and, using a primal link between them that extended far beyond the five senses, each had the knowledge and commitment to be what the other needed... when the other needed it. One look, or touch, or a few murmured words of heartfelt love or blinding passion and the stage was set, often before their lips had even met for the first time.

The Conqueror sat up slowly; reaching behind Gabrielle's thighs, she pulled her tighter to her, spreading the legs straddling her just a bit farther.They were face to face now, breasts and stomachs touching, skin moving gently as ribs expanding and breaths were exhaled. Eyes slid shut and their mouths came together in a kiss that was playful and teasing at first, but slowly mounted in intensity. Xena gently sucked Gabrielle's lower lip into her mouth, running her tongue lightly over the delicate, wet skin and skimming across white teeth.  

The young Queen's response was affectionate and fierce at the same time, speaking of the unbridled passion and endless love she felt for her partner.Small hands threaded through thick hair as her grip took hold and she hungrily deepened the kiss.

A happy growl escaped Xena's throat, and she wrapped long arms tighter around the blonde, one crossing over her back, pulling her close and tight, the other finding the soft nape of Gabrielle's neck, holding her firmly into the kiss.

It was Gabrielle who began moving her hips against her partner's hard stomach.She wrapped her legs around Xena so tightly she actually had to back off a bit when she felt her flinch."Sorry..." she panted, without missing a stroke in her slow grind.

Xena nodded absently as she kissed her way around to Gabrielle's neck and ear.Coaxing her head to the side with the slight pressure of one hand, Xena licked and nipped the tender skin of her throat, enjoying its salty tang, and the flutter of movement that accompanied every heartbeat."So good..." the Conqueror murmured, sweeping aside red-gold hair and nibbling her way up to a perfectly shaped ear.

"Oh yeah..." the Queen moaned, feeling the wonderful sensations take root within her body.Her lover was in no rush, and she relaxed under her touch even as her excitement slowly mounted. They were going to make love and it was going to take a long time.

Using the strength in her stomach and back, Xena slowly leaned back and twisted until Gabrielle was lying under her.  She tried to lift herself from her mate's body, but Gabrielle refused to relinquish her hold, keeping her legs firmly wrapped around Xena's waist.

"No," she protested breathlessly.  "Stay."

Her name was drawn out in a low, throaty voice that Xena used to show her mock annoyance. "Gabriellllle..."

"Yes, Xena?"The smaller woman gave her legs a little tug, drawing Xena closer."Did you want something?" Her suggestive words were said in a sultry tone, butGabrielle's face was the picture of youthful innocence.It was designed solely to spark her partner's desire and good humor. And it did.

Xena chuckled.Gods, she plays me like a lyre sometimes.  "If you release me from the thighs of doom, I'll make it worth your while," she teased, swooping down and giving a quick, playful lick to a taut nipple that was attached to a very aroused wife. "I promise."

Slowly Gabrielle released her spouse.It wasn't that she didn't trust Xena to make good on her word.She did.Gabrielle simply couldn't help herself.She placed her hands on broad shoulders and made a breathless, one-word request that burned through Xena's veins and settled between her legs like liquid fire. "Down."

Xena wanted to nod, but she found herself so focused on loving Gabrielle that the gesture got lost amidst a sea of other things she found much more important. With extreme care and thoroughness, she began giving her Queen the royal treatment she knew in her heart that she deserved; paying homage to her body with lips, teeth, tongue, fingers and hands, Gabrielle's soft whimpers and moans of pleasure urging her on.

The blonde felt Xena tap the inside of her thighs and she shifted, allowing her mate to settle between her legs.All the air in Gabrielle's lungs was expelled when she let out an unexpected hiss as she felt Xena nip the tender skin of her inner thigh, then lick the spot she had just bitten. Her hips thrust forward of their own volition, her breath short and quick."Xena... stop teasing."

There was no verbal response, just a slow shaking of a dark head as her tongue traced a path up one slightly trembling thigh. Her lips would stop every couple of inches, offering small kisses and sucking gently.Xena took in a deep breath as her lips grazed across glistening, golden curls, and then began traveling down the other thigh, repeating the erotic torture.

"Xena!"Gabrielle's muscles were twitching from the pressure building inside her."Not nice..." she rasped in frustration.The slight tremor of her lover's laughter caused green eyes to turn to slits. "Not funny..." she insisted once again. Reaching down, she threaded one hand into ebony locks and placed it on the side of Xena's face, guiding the older woman to exactly where she needed her most.

Having run out of patience herself, the Conqueror happily settled there. Her mouth was already watering when she extended her tongue and proceeded to languidly lick up one side then down the other of the passion-swollen folds.The Queen moaned long and loud, her entire body convulsing at the first sensual, almost delicate touch.She had to consciously relax her grip on her partner's hair or risk taking it out by the roots.Gabrielle forced heavy-lidded eyes to open as she glanced down, only to have another wave of white hot pleasure sweep over her, Xena's gentle touch taking her higher than she thought possible.   "Gods!"

Xena felt her partner's impending climax, she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's shaking legs, holding her hips firmly in place as she continued her slow, methodical movement, wanting nothing more than to bring her wife ultimate pleasure.Her own desires intensified as Gabrielle responded to her every touch with abandon. Xena shifted slightly, her own slicked thighs sliding together.

Gabrielle's cries of passion touched her very soul and she moaned softly into the hot, wet flesh.She heard her name called out in a strangled, throaty voice, and looked up to see passion incarnate.Gabrielle's back was arched, throwing firm, succulent breasts into prominence and accentuating her well-defined abdomen as its muscles bunched and released with each labored breath.Her head was thrown back with pale, slightly damp hair spilling over her shoulders. Eyes dilated with desire were visible for just a flash before rolling back and disappearing beneath lids screwed tightly shut.  Full lips were slightly parted and flawless; glistening skin glowed as firelight danced across it.

Xena's eyes were riveted to the ravishing sight, but she never moved from her position, never slowed or speeded up her maddening caresses.

Gabrielle was immediate propelled into another powerful climax.Her body quaked andher chest heaved as she gasped for air, but Xena continued through her whimpers and finally near screams as she came yet again.Finally, whimpering, she begged her lover to stop, gently tugged the determined dark head from its task.

Slowly, teasingly, kissing every possible spot of skin between where she was and that tempting, tasty mouth, Xena worked her way up, her hands leading the way as they slid along Gabriele's belly then between her breasts and over her shoulders.She smiled down into the face of her best friend, who was lying there, arm thrown over her eyes, a contented smile peeking out from beneath her bicep. "Oh, you look happy," Xena murmured against a flushed, moist cheek.

"I am happy." Her voice was slightly raspy but undeniably blissful. "I am very happy."She smiled, and lowered her arm, never opening her eyes.  "I'm happy about five times over." A deep growl escaped her chest."Oh yeah... It should be illegal to be this happy."

"Hmm," Xena kissed her wife.  "Glad to be of assistance."

"Oh, sweetheart..." The Queen's arms wrapped around the Conqueror pulling her down on top of her own body.  "You have no idea."She kissed her partner's ear."No idea, but I'll be happy to try and help you grasp the concept."

"I think I'd like that.You know they say warriors... even conquerors benefit from guidance from time to time."

Gabrielle pushed on her spouse's shoulders, flipping her onto her back and once again straddling Xena's hips.  She gave an evil grin as she ran her hands through Xena's long hair."Gods, Xena." She licked her lips, tasting herself. "You are so damn sexy.  Thinking about you too long in the middle of the day is bad for me."

A dark brow rose."Really?"

Gabrielle nodded."Absolutely.Because I want to find you and take you out of what meeting you're in or what training your giving," she ducked her head to her partner's ear, pressing her lips lightly against the sensitive organ, "and take you somewhere and just do things to your body that..."

"Gods!"Xena's eyes snapped shut at the sexy, mildly raunchy, fantastic words."This is one the advantages of being married to Aphrodite's Chosen, I think.Your voice does wonderful things to me."She opened her eyes and seriously regarded her partner.  "It was the sound of your voice, you know."

Xena rubbed Gabrielle's thighs, which were on either side of her waist, with a firm circular motion.She was content to spend time talking and reconnecting.Even though they hadn't been apart, some part of her missed this intimacy with this woman.  When she was in Ares' body, they had never even considered taking time to be with each other like this.It wouldn't have been the same, and if they'd been interested in trying, there simply hadn't been the time.Now, however, they had all the time in the world.And she wasn't going to waste a single second of it.

"What did you say?"Gabrielle reached for a small bottle of scented oil.She poured the fragrant liquid into the palm of her hand and warmed it before applying it to Xena's skin, alternating between soft touches and a deeper muscle massage.

"Hmmm? Oh, that's nice."The Conqueror hummed, bringing her hands up behind her head and interlacing her fingers.She crossed her legs at the ankles and just lay there ready to enjoy the massage.

"I asked you a question."Gabrielle teased, giving Xena's nipple a tweak and eliciting a high pitched squeak in response."Try not to get too distracted."Uh huh. Like you could have done that, Gabrielle. Fat chance.

"Oh yeah, right." Xena was able to recall through her haze of pleasure."It was the sound of..." she paused, "a little lower if you don't...oh yeah, right there, that's nice. It was the sound of your voice... I think... that I first fell in love with." Sable brows furrowed in sudden concentration."In fact, the moment you spoke to me, I felt like I had been struck squarely in the chest by Cupid's arrow."

The Queen gave her a long luxurious rub from shoulders to stomach, using her thumbs and fingers to pay special attention to round breasts and tender nipples.She smiled when she felt Xena arch into her warm palms."Well, who knows, maybe you were."She raised a fair eyebrow."You know... that could be part of this whole Chosen thing," she wondered aloud, pouring another pool of oil into her cupped hand.  "I don't think the fact that you were brought to me was an accident, Xena.I never did.Even before I knew about Aphrodite."

"Me?Brought to you?"

"Sure.You ... brought to me... like a Solstice gift... only taller." She laughed at Xena's puzzled look."You did come to me, you know."

Xena hadn't really considered the whole thing since it had happened.But now that she thought about it, and especially in light of the events of the past few days, it all made sense.She had thought she was crazy to fall in love so quickly.But she couldn't stop herself.Not that I really tried, she admitted privately.

In the early autumn, she'd had the unexpected and unstoppable urge to flee the Stronghold.To start riding and not stop. But what if it wasn't that she was running away from something, but towards it?Towards her.

Xena had teasingly told Gabrielle it was the first place her horse wanted to stop, but the truth of the matter was, it was the first place she wanted to stop.Something there called to her, and now, as she looked up into warm eyes full of love and devotion and trust, her missing word nearly broke from the happy ache.Here was the other half of her soul she unknowingly had gone searching for.A brilliant smile creased her cheeks and brought sparkling, unshed tears to her eyes.The search is over.

Xena let out a satisfied exhale as her lover crawled down her body, leaving a path of blazing kisses as she went.The Conqueror relaxed and entrusted everything she had to this young woman.

Her mind, heart, body, and soul.

Gabrielle had given her back the life that being Ares' Chosen had taken from her. She drifted in a state of total bliss when the sensual jolt shot brought her careening back into the moment, her body lifting itself up off the bed as Gabrielle's name was rent from her chest. Pleasure and love washed over her, and after several long moments she fell bonelessly back onto the feather-filled mattress and sheets which felt nearly cold against her superheated skin. She gasped for air, hearing only her blood racing in her ears and the sounds of her own ragged pants. Gabrielle was in her, on her, around her, and with her in every way. Her scent, her touch, her taste... and finally the sound of the younger woman's contented sigh and soft words of love. Her Queen was simply everywhere.

While she tried to catch her breath, Gabrielle settled alongside her on the bed, opening her arms to her lover. Xena responded without hesitation, fingertips tenderly pushing back wet bangs and lips grazing the newly exposed skin.Blue eyes slid closed and Xena felt the soft quilt being pulled around their joined bodies as high as her waist.There were no more words as they both tumbled helplessly into slumber.  This was the one place in the Known World that The Conqueror, The Destroyer of Nations, felt safe.


Gabrielle rolled over when the door to the bedchamber opened.She pulled the sheet up over her body.She was still groggy and it took a moment before she realized it was a servant that had disturbed her sleep and that Xena was gone from the bed.

"Excuse me, Your Majesty.I thought you'd be up and about by now..." the old woman stammered and began backing out.

"No... please, it's okay," she yawned, waving the matronly servant back in.She rubbed her sleepy eyes as she continued. "Do you know where Our Lord Conqueror has snuck off to this morning?"

"No, Your Majesty.But I believe she left you a note."Bending down and picking up some of the Conqueror's clothing, the white-haired woman gestured a pointy chin to the blood-red rose and scrap of parchment that sat on the nightstand next to the bed.

Gabrielle tried to maintain some kind of Queenlike bearing as she pulled the sheet over her body and scampered across the bed to read Xena's note and sniff the fragrant flower.Wonder where in the world she found a rose this time of year?A carefree smiled tugged at her lips.Like I care.  The note was definitely written by her mate's hand.Gabrielle read the words, a pink blush making itself first visible on her cheeks.Biting her lip, then deciding to deny herself nothing, she read the note again.... several times.Oh Xena, her heart sighed.

The washerwoman laughed, clucking slightly at the Queen's smitten appearance.

To Gabrielle's only slight dismay, the blush began creeping over her entire body.She took a deep breath and flipped over on her back, smiling as she pressed the delicate petals to her nostrils and deeply inhaled the spicy-sweet fragrance. Her giddy feeling bubbled over and she giggled in delight.


"Ahh... to be young and in love," the old woman mumbled tolerantly as she closed the bedchamber door behind her.She had half a mind to hunt down that randy blacksmith who'd been eyeing her for the past three moons.

After wallowing in bed for a while longer, the memories of the previous night's activities maintaining the flush on Gabrielle's skin, she rose from the bed and shrugged into her robe as she headed for the living room. She checked Jarrod's room, to find his bed unmade and empty.We're going to have a little talk about this, Jarrod.  The boy was very fast becoming accustomed to having someone waiting on him hand and foot. Not that it was a hard thing to fall into.It isn't, she admitted somewhat ruefully.   But she didn't want him forgetting what it was like to work from sunrise past sunset, falling into bed with a sore body but a determined spirit.He was Xena's heir, and someday, when he ruled Greece, he would know and understand how her people really lived.Gabrielle would make sure of it.

The blonde woman couldn't believe she had been left to sleep in and rest.Why, the last time that had happened.... She stopped dead in her tracks and blinked.Was never!  And what surprised her even more was that she hadn't woken when Xena left.That had never happened either.But then again it had been a very tiring three days.

After calling for a bath to be drawn, she settled down for a little of the morning meal that had been left for her.She could tell by the table that Xena and Jarrod had eaten together.Gods, they were messy people when left to their own devices.  She shook her head as she leaned back in her chair and propped her feet up on Xena's chair, spreading thick, white cheese on a roll.


Xena escorted Jarrod to see Palaemon in the infirmary.The soldier was delighted to see his little charge and greeted him with a warm, one-armed hug, ruffling his dark blond hair for good measure.Xena glanced over at the pallet that held the thief, clearly surprised to still see him there.

"How is he?He should have been moved to my private healer's chambers by now." Her voice held a note of anger.

"He's badly beaten, My Lord.  The healer says he'll live but didn't want to move him until he could be sure Autolycus wasn't bleeding inside."

She nodded.The healer was being careful.She approved of that, and wouldn't run him through for disobeying the Queen, after all."And how are you, Palaemon?"

The beefy soldier smiled proudly.  "I'm fine, My Lord.I promise you I'll be back to duty status in a few days."

"You take you're time to rest and heal.I have plans for you and I need you in top form."

"Plans, My Lord?"

"I need a second-in-command, Palaemon," she said casually, trying not to laugh when the fair-haired man's hazel eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

"Buu...bu..." he stammered.

Mercifully, she broke in."You're not ready yet.But you will be.I'd like you to continue on as Jarrod's mentor for at least the next few seasons.  At least until he's twelve or thirteen.  During that time," she gave his back a strong pat, and he did his best not to wince at the painful jolt that sent through his arm, "I'll be mentoring you but will make certain you'll have more than enough time to work with the lad." A dark eyebrow lifted and she couldn't resist the tease.She was in far too good a mood this wonderful morning to pass it up. "Can I assume, by your open-mouthed stare, that you're at least tentatively interested in being my second in command?"

"Buu...bu," he stammered again, despite his best efforts.

Xena laughed and that uncharacteristic action made Palaemon's eyes go even wider."I'll take that as a yes.Good man."She extended her arm and they exchanged a brisk but decidedly warm warrior's handshake."Thank you, Commander," she said with a wink.  Xena turned to her son who was giggling at Palaemon's shocked face.She rolled her eyes."C'mon, Jarrod.  We need to let Palaemon rest."And check his trousers.

The boy was reluctant to leave his friend's side.

"Actually, My Lord," Palaemon held up his good hand,"I wouldn't mind if he stayed with me.I'll actually be leaving here in a bit and would like to have his company today."

Xena looked at the pair.They had bonded like brothers and she could see that neither was eager to be apart from the other."That'll be fine, Commander.Bring him back to the residence when you need to rest."

"Yes, My Lord."

The Conqueror turned to leave, but Palaemon stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm.She turned around to find his eyes suddenly intense and his expression serious.

"I... I um... I just wanted to thank you, My Lord.And let you know that if I had to choose between taking over the command position now or spending the next few seasons teaching His Highness, I would have turned down your offer."

Xena cocked her head slightly to the side, a knowing smile slowly forming."I know, Palaemon.And that's why you're perfect for the job."


Gabrielle met Xena in the hall as she was walking toward the conference room that held the satraps.The Queen was dressed in an outfit that complemented Xena's own and showed her as a woman deservedly taking her position at Xena's side - as a ruler.  

Sky blue eyes went round as saucers when Xena got a look at her partner.She gestured to the leather pants that where laced up the side and showed a rather impressive view of royal skin."Those are, uhhhh, interesting." Gods, am I actually drooling?!

I love it when she drools... for me.Gabrielle pushed her lover into a darkened corner. Pressing her against the cool, stone wall, she leaned into her until they were touching all along their lengths."I'm taking advantage of this unexpectedly warm day, Xe.You," she gave Xena's collarbone a little kiss, "don't," another tiny kiss, "approve?" This kiss was followed up with a slight nip.

"I didn't say that," Xena growled, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle and kissing her for all she was worth.

A long time later, with Gabrielle still fiddling with her hastily fastened clothing, they strolled into the conference as if nothing had happened.Xena and Gabrielle wrinkled their noses, realizing their 'guests' had been held in the room for several days.And they were more than just a little ripe.

Xena crossed the room and threw open the small window before turning back to the satraps. "You will all be taken, under guard, back to your quarters.You will bathe." She paused, hearing her mate grumble, 'Praise Hestia!' and had to clear her throat to disguise the chuckle that burst forth when her eyes fastened on Gabrielle's 'innocent' face. Lifting her chin, she added, "You will change into proper attire and be brought to the gallery where we will deal with this coup you tried to effect against the Realm." Her voice was calm and flat, devoid of any emotion.

The satraps felt dread swell within them.They had all seen her rage but had learned to fear the calm before the storm even more. Xena snapped her fingers and suddenly the room was full of guards.She issued the orders and watched with a great deal of satisfaction as each of them was led away.

"Xena?"Gabrielle moved to her partner.


"What are you going to do with them?You're not going to kill all of them are you?"Although she wasn't at all certain that wasn't exactly what they deserved.

"Not all at once."Xena rubbed her cheek, giving serious thought to her plan. "I'm going to let them do each other in."


Gabrielle stood before Morgaine, arms extended straight out to the sides as she was being fitted for a dress.  The seamstress smiled."You're going to have to tell her soon, child.  She's bound to notice.I can't keep letting your clothes out forever."

The Queen's eyes widened."How did you know?I just came back from the healer this morning."Her eyes narrowed and she studied the creased face carefully."Aphrodite?"

"Oh no, My Queen, it's me.While I was happy to allow the Goddess to use these tired old bones to bring you and Our Lord together, I haven't been visited by her since."The woman tugged on the sleeves of the Queen's new gown, then tossed a scattering of pins into a flat woven basket."And let me tell you, my boy, Gilles, is more than grateful that Cupid hasn't been back."The old woman chuckled."He was sore for days after that naughty God found the local brothel and went hog wild."

Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand, but her shoulders still shook as she laughed.

"Hush," Morgaine scolded, but began laughing as well.

"I'm glad to have you both back." Gabrielle smiled affectionately at the woman she'd come to think of as a grandmother or second mother."How did you know?" she asked a little insecurely.Gods, I'm barely showing.

"I know the look."She slipped the gown from Gabrielle's body and handed her the brown tunic she had worn previously."Your trousers are tighter too."

"Wonderful." Gabrielle pulled her tunic on.

Morgaine frowned at Gabrielle's less than thrilled expression."Are you all right, My Queen?"

The blonde woman patted Morgaine's hand, idly noting its softness and the blue, ropy veins that lined the back. "I'm fine," she assured."It's just... just... I don't know how Xena..."

"Ahhh..." Realization broke out across the ancient face."This is the product of a rather unique experience, I understand," she probed gently, having a good idea what had happened after she and Autolycus sat gossiping one evening over a tray of warm cookies.

Gabrielle nodded miserably and her voice dropped to a whisper. "I can't lose her. I can't.But I could never..."

"Shhhh..." Morgaine squeezed the young woman's shoulders in a gesture that promised everything would be okay.

Gabrielle absorbed the wordless comfort, relieved that at least one person knew what she'd been suspecting for the past couple of moons."Thank you for tea and the fitting.Although I don't think I'll be wearing this gown anytime soon." She made a show of tugging on the waist of her snug pants."I need to get going.Today is Jarrod's birthday and..."

"Oh yes, speaking of which."  The old woman handed her a package.  "This is for Jarrod."

The Queen's smile made a reappearance. "Thank you."

Gabrielle tucked the small package under her arm and left the seamstress' quarters.She ran her hand over her stomach.So much had happen in the time since the attempt on Xena's life.  She had prayed things would start getting back to normal... even though she still wasn't quite sure what 'normal' was in the palace.But this...  This could change everything.Her fingertips brushed her belly once again and she smiled hopefully.Even with the potential for trouble with her mate, Gabrielle couldn't bring herself to think of a new life as anything other than a blessing.

As she made her way back to the royal apartment, she recalled the Conqueror's unique brand of justice when it came to the people who had betrayed her.

Boadicea had, indeed, been put on the cross.It took the stubborn bitch four days to die. And Gabrielle hadn't shed a tear on her behalf.

Then Brutus had been told he would return to Britannia with her body, to rule in her stead.Xena, Palaemon, and several other officers still had a pool going on how long it would take before he was assassinated by a pissed off Briton.Boadicea was a bitch of the highest order, but a respected, if not beloved, ruler on her own soil.Brutus, the pompous, was dead. He just didn't know it yet.

Cleopatra and Antony were reunited... for all of fifteen minutes before Xena explained that Antony was being sent back to Rome to take over from Brutus.Xena had sent a young and notoriously ambitious officer named Octavius back with him.Antony had smiled down at her from atop his horse as he departed the Stronghold, arrogantly proclaiming that the Conqueror was smart and wholly right in sparing him. The Conqueror had nodded silently, but Gabrielle had seen the glint in her partner's eyes that told her there was a plan afoot.She wasn't sure what was up, but suspected Antony would not be of this world for very long and that Pluto was already making room for one more traitor.

Cleopatra was sent back to Egypt with orders to stay away from Antony and Rome.Xena made sure the woman understood that she would know if her order was disobeyed and that the Queen would pay with her life if it happened.  As soon as Cleopatra was out of Greece, one of Xena's spies informed her that the Egyptian was already conversing with Antony by messenger and that they were planning to rendezvous. Xena's package arrived in Alexandria the same week that Cleopatra did.It was Gabrielle's measured opinion that the snake that bit her got the short end of the bargain.

Lao Ma had been sent back to Chin with a very firm warning from Xena that she would not tolerate further insurrection.As Gabrielle watched them, she wondered for just a moment if her jealousy had been directed towards the wrong satrap.They shared a bond that was plain to her eyes.Then her gaze drifted to her joining bracelet and she realized it really didn't matter.She was the one who owned the Conqueror's heart and she always would.

Melosa was allowed to return to her village and her people.Her request for more land had been denied and her sister Terries had been conscripted into the Conqueror's troops at the palace.Just as a precautionary measure, Xena had assured with a smirk.

Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by her arrival at the apartment.With a start, she realized she'd been thinking so hard she had paid no attention whatsoever to where she was going.Lucky I didn't end up in the dungeons.  She sucked in a nervous breath as she slowly padded into her chambers, the butterflies dancing in her belly making her slightly nauseous.Morgaine was right; she had to tell Xena soon.Now that she'd gone to see the healer, the palace gossip mill would begin to grind.

The Queen placed the package for Jarrod on the table alongside several other gifts.She had made it clear that Jarrod would only accept gifts from people he knew.It was already hard enough for the boy to adjust without exposing him to the royal butt kissing such occasions would undoubtedly spur.It appeared that no one was home, so Gabrielle grabbed her cloak from a hook by the door and settled it around her shoulders, fastening it at the neck. She pulled back the heavy gates and then the doors to the balcony and stepped out into the cold winter air.Her eyes were drawn to the corner of the courtyard, where Autolycus and Palaemon chased around with the dozen or so children that were celebrating Jarrod's birthday with him.

She felt a pang in her chest when she saw her lover standing by awkwardly.Even from this distance she could see by Xena's pose that the tall woman wanted to join in but wasn't sure how.Then the Conqueror was hit on the head with a snowball thrown by Autolycus.Gabrielle laughed as the man lifted his hands, making sure Xena knew exactly who did it.She couldn't hear what he was saying. But Gabrielle was sure he was bragging about having no thumbs and only one eye and still being able to hit his target.

Having been directly challenged, Xena shrugged off the formality that was a product of years alone and years of conquest and joined the others in their play, focusing on a certain and now suddenly contrite thief.You get a big kiss for that one, Autolycus. Gabrielle smiled.Xena had come a long way.But the Conqueror still had a long way to go.They all did.  

Seated near the laughing children, and keeping hot tea at the ready, was Nyssa.Aphrodite had assured Gabrielle that the young woman's memory had been wiped clean of Athena's influence and the only thing she remembered was her dedication to being Jarrod's tutor.That alone hadn't been nearly enough to convince Gabrielle or Xena that Nyssa should be spared.Not after what they'd been through. But when Aphrodite explained the extent of Athena's involvement, and the many moons of cruel mind games she'd played on Nyssa in order to gain her consent, neither she nor Xena could find it in their hearts to hold a grudge.The young woman had been Athena's pawn and never held Xena any malice on her own.

Since it appeared that Nyssa was going to be a permanent fixture in their lives for many seasons to come, Aphrodite couldn't resist doing just a little more meddling.Gabrielle was looking forward to Palaemon and Nyssa's wedding in the spring.

Gabrielle waved when Xena looked up at the balcony.The Conqueror returned the wave and, excusing herself from the games, made her way to the side of the building.She studied the wall, the tip of her tongue appearing between her teeth as she formulated a plan of attack in her mind.Then, with a running start, she launched herself against the stones and grabbed onto the thick layers of vines that ran down the stone walls.She maneuvered back and forth, avoiding the places where the vines appeared weak or their coverage patchy until, finally, she hoisted herself over the edge of the balcony and stood before her Queen.

"Hi, beautiful."Xena smiled and began fussing with her wife's cloak. "Remind me to order those vines cut tomorrow." Her smiled faded and she cupped Gabrielle's cold cheeks."Why are standing out here in the cold?"

Gabrielle hugged her solicitous partner, pointedly not mentioning that everyone else happened to be playing out in the cold right now."I only did it so you'd come over here and keep me warm."She snuggled closer.

"It worked.By the Gods, if I'd only had access to your devious mind earlier..."

"You'd rule the world?" Gabrielle teased.

Xena chuckled and kissed the top of her wife's head. "Something like that," she agreed amiably.

Gabrielle looked up into her wife's face."Xe, I need to talk to you. Let's go inside."She took Xena by the hand, leading her inside and closing the doors and gates to the balcony.

Gabrielle removed Xena's cloak, led her over to the fire, and gestured to the couch.With slightly trembling hands, she poured a cup of what she knew was Xena's favorite wine, handing the cup down to the Conqueror."Here. You may want this."

Dark brows came together and Xena's heart gave a double thump."Gabrielle." The words got stuck in her throat and she paused, swallowing before saying, "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle stood by the fire, her back to the taller woman as she stared into the flames.Desperately, her mind searched for the right words.Gods, now I know how you felt the night you proposed.  She scratched her cheek as the best approach continued to elude her.Finally, feeling the tension in the air, she took pity on her partner and just started talking."Xena?"

"Yes?"Her tone was guarded and Gabrielle winced inwardly at the strain that showed clearly in just one word.

"I was wondering, umm, well..."

Xena jumped to feet and joined the blonde at the fire, pulling Gabrielle's forgotten cloak from her shoulders, tossing it onto a nearby chair. "Sweetheart, has something happened." He mind raced for what could possibly be upsetting her Queen. She was fine last night!"I mean...."

Gabrielle sucked in a deep and blurted out,"I'm pregnant."  She glanced up, waiting with bated breath for a response.When Xena didn't say anything, she felt her heart stop beating. Hades!

"How long?"Xena finally asked neutrally.

Gabrielle frowned a little.When did she think this happened?! "You, me, Ares' body on loan... Ring a bell?!"Gabrielle felt her ire rise."I would never betray your trust with someone else.I would never..."

Xena nodded furiously. "Of course not. I know.I know," she blathered. "So the baby will be here by summer?"

"Yeeeeessss," Gabrielle drew out the word cautiously.Xena didn't look so good.Her skin wasn't always this pale, was it?This was not the reaction she expected.Happiness or anger she could deal with.But Xena looked like she'd been hit between the eyes with a board.She stared at the curious expression, yelping when she was suddenly pulled into long, strong arms and lifted off her feet as Xena whooped with joy.She laughed from a relief so profound that she actually felt dizzy.Then her eyes went unfocused.Okay, that wasn't relief; Xena was spinning her around like top.Lips found hers and she was kissed senseless.

"Gods! Gabrielle, that's wonderful!We're going to have a baby."Xena placed her hands on the Queen's stomach and her eyes widened to an almost comical extent. She licked dry lips and wonder colored her voice."A baby."

Tears welled in soft green eyes as Gabrielle realized that this was what she'd been hoping for. The reaction was just unconventional, like Xena herself.She let out an explosive, pathetically grateful breath.Her stomach had been in knots, fearing that Xena would view this more as Ares' child than her own, no matter that Xena had been in his body at the time of conception.She shook her head in amazement. Obviously that wasn't the case.

"Hey, hey what's wrong?"Xena was quick to embrace her spouse."Gabrielle, don't you want this baby?"The Conqueror clutched the smaller woman tighter, praying to the Gods that that wasn't the case.

"No... I mean yes," the blonde answered quickly."I was afraid you wouldn't want it." She leaned back, still in Xena's warm embrace and wiped the happy tears from her cheeks. "It... I mean... Ares..." She began to stutter and Xena pressed two warm fingers against her rapidly moving lips.

"It might have been his body.  But there was no one in our bedchamber that night but you and me, Gabrielle.This is our baby.Yours and mine."  Her grin widened, showing off sparkling white teeth.And she dropped to her knees, pressing her lips against Gabrielle's stomach.

The younger woman's hands sank into the dark hair.As Xena gently kissing her abdomen and Gabrielle tilted her head skyward, closing her eyes and offering a prayer of thanks of her own.


The carriage stopped in the middle of the road.Gabrielle and Jarrod's pale heads poked out of its windows, trying to figure out why they had stopped.When they couldn't see anything, they settled back into their seats.Gabrielle looked at Nyssa, who turned her palms upward and gave a quick shrug. A few seconds later the door opened and Xena climbed in, closing the door behind her.Blue eyes scanned the small interior and Xena tossed the blanket that was lying next to Gabrielle across to Jarrod and Nyssa, knowing that once she snuggled in next to her partner she wouldn't lack for body heat. Xena happily wedged herself between Gabrielle and the carriage wall, her hand immediately coming to rest on her wife's swollen mid-section.

The Queen quirked a questioning brow.

"I thought I'd ride back here with my family.Palaemon reminded me that there wasn't a rule that said the Conqueror can't ride in the Queen's carriage."

"Not without paying the price," Gabrielle teased before shifting for a kiss.

Jarrod groaned and rolled his eyes, flushing at his parents' behavior.Of course, he was getting pretty used it.

Xena broke the gentle kiss reluctantly.She turned and gave her son a playful shove with her boot earning a giggle from him and his mother."One of these days, my boy, you will understand.Won't he, Nyssa?"

The young woman's blush matched Jarrod's. Her own wedding to Palaemon was only a few days away, and both the Lord Conqueror and the Queen took every opportunity to engage in a little good-natured teasing.She truly felt sorry for her betrothed, though.The Conqueror was downright merciless with him."Yes, My Lord, he will."She put her arm around the boy and pulled him close.

"So, My Queen." Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle."Do you think the village of Potadeia is ready for our return?"

"I doubt it." Gabrielle laughed, laying her hand on Xena's, which was, of course, still on her belly."I don't think anyone is ever really ready for you to ride into town.I know I wasn't."She placed a tender kiss on the cheek before her."But I'm glad you did."

"Will we be staying at the inn?"  Jarrod questioned, wondering if his friends would still be out and about town.Some of the boys had tormented him over his height and the fact that his mother worked at the tavern.He couldn't wait for them to see him now.It wasn't showing off... exactly.Besides, he wanted to tell everyone he was going to be somebody's brother!

"No, lad.I had a house built for us near a certain apple orchard I know to be your and your Mama's favorite spot.We're going to stay there for a while, so your Mama can be close to your grandmother and Aunt Lila when your brother or sister is born."

"I can't wait to see grandma again.I've missed her."

"So have I," Gabrielle agreed.  She was disappointed that her mother and sister had insisted on living in the village, even when Xena had offered them a palace apartment.But her mother had assured her it was simply because the village was home.   Gabrielle couldn't dispute that fact.She'd found a home in her partner.


The house was modest compared to the palace but still spacious and beautiful, already appointed with servants hired from the village, who were eager for the steady employment and the prestige of working directly for the Lord Conqueror herself.In fact, it seemed that the entire community was enjoying a new peace and prosperity now that one of its own had become Queen to the Lord Conqueror.And they welcomed Gabrielle and her son back with open, if somewhat awestruck, arms.Times were good, and even the small towns scattered across the countryside seemed to have found new blood.

The winter had been mild, and the Conqueror's troops hadn't been involved in anything more than squashing an ambitious warlord or two since the attack on the palace last autumn.   Peace was good for the land and her people.

Gabrielle speculated that most of that had to do with the Xena's order that a number of small temples, whose upkeep would be paid for out of the national coffers, be built in honor of Gods other than Ares.And to avoid problems with the God of War, Xena made sure that the new temples were always smaller and less adored than his, while still being well maintained.To Gabrielle's relief, Greece took the hint and temples never lacked for worshippers.

The blonde woman's jaw dropped as she stared at the lovely home, trusting that Xena wouldn't let her fall as she clumsily stumbled out the carriage door. "Xena, it's beautiful."She'd caught a glimpse from the road, but it simply didn't do the place justice.She wrapped her arm around Xena's waist, her fingers gently stroking her lover's supple, black leather vest.

"I'm glad you approve, love." Xena sighed in relief.She would reward the architect handsomely for putting that beautiful smile on her wife's face. "I just want you to be happy and comfortable when the baby comes."

"Oh, do I have any choice?"Gabrielle grinned cheekily, standing on tiptoes to kiss her mate in their doorway."You were right, Xena."

A raised eyebrow.

"You have indeed spoiled me like an old woman's cat."Gabrielle's smile was unrepentant."And I do love it."


Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus stood by quietly with a few other members of the court and honored villagers while the priest performed the marriage rites for Palaemon and Nyssa.

The sunrise over the pond was beautiful and Xena truly hoped that her second-in-command and his young bride would find as much happiness here as she had.She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, feeling a strong kick beneath one arm.   "I love you, Mama Bear," she whispered, watching Jarrod pass Palaemon the ring he had chosen for Nyssa."You think they'll be as happy as we are?"

"Is Palaemon as messy as your are?" Gabrielle teased, her low spoken words far too quiet for anyone other than Xena to hear.

"Just as bad, from what his barrackmates say," the Conqueror played along.

"Well...then so long as Nyssa is as patient and wonderful as I am, they should be in Elysia."

A sharp tickle to her ribs caused Gabrielle to burst out laughing.

Xena clamped her palm over the Queen's mouth and shot the scowling priest a look of wide-eyed innocence. "It's the baby," she lied smoothly, filling the awkward silence that had taken over."She kicks My Queen as though she were a gladiator in training."

The priest nodded skeptically and continued with the ceremony.

"She?" Gabrielle gave Xena's hand a little nibble as it left her mouth.

"I am the Conqueror, you know. My instincts are impeccable."

"And yesterday when the baby was a boy?"

Xena smiled, unable to think of a snappy comeback.In fact, she considered, she smiled a lot now."I love you, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle felt the arms around her tighten and she glanced over her shoulder, wanting to see Xena's face."I love you, too."

The look that greeted Gabrielle was contemplative.  "You gave me back my life, you know.  And the strength to continue to rule."

"You had it all along, Xena." Gabrielle tumbled helplessly under the spell of pale blue eyes, the wedding and the sound of the priest melting away. "I told you that when we first met."

Xena nodded."You did.I just wasn't sure I believed it."

Gabrielle turned in Xena's arms, leaning forward and pushing upward until her forehead was pressed lightly against silky, dark bangs.She smiled."It's a good thing that I did then, isn't it?"

"Yes, Ma'am."Xena laughed softly, tilting her head for a kiss.


Palaemon and Autolycus elbowed each other and laughed as Xena and Jarrod both paced back and forth outside the window of the room where Gabrielle was currently in labor.

Palaemon and Nyssa had been roused very early in the morning by a very flustered Conqueror beating on the door of their small cottage, which sat about a quarter mile behind the main house.  She had sent Palaemon to fetch Hecuba so the Queen's mother would be with her daughter during labor, and she'd enlisted a wide-eyed Nyssa to sit with the Queen herself.

Xena had been so nervous and full of energy that it hadn't taken long for Gabrielle to order her out of the house, telling her not to return until the child's six birthday.  Xena knew she was only kidding.At least she hoped so.But she didn't take the shoe that had sailed over her shoulder and crashed into the wall in front of her as a good sign. Now she and her son walked back and forth in endless circles, passing each other as they did, waiting to be called back into the house.They both would stop and grimace or moan in sympathy when a particularly loud cry of pain could be heard from the house.

The Conqueror looked down at the very worried Jarrod.She stopped walking and offered her open arms to him.He quickly wrapped his hands around her neck."Is she okay?"His voice cracked with emotion.

"She's fine, son." She's fine... She's fine.... She's fine. "Babies just take a lot of time to get here," a grim memory of Solon's birth surfaced and she pushed it away, "and unfortunately, it's painful.But she's fine. Otherwise the healer would have said something, right?"

Jarrod looked at her blankly.

Her head snapped toward Palaemon and Autolycus."Right?!" she barked at the men, whose heads immediately bobbed up and down.

"Right! Absolutely," they confirmed in unison, each taking a large step away from Xena.

"That's what I thought," Xena muttered, willing herself to believe it.She glanced back down at the freckle-faced boy."Everything is fine and very soon you'll have that little brother or sister you wanted."

It wasn't long after that the silence outside was broken by the loud cry of a newborn baby.Xena kissed the top of Jarrod's heard and thrust the boy at Palaemon, nearly tripping as she ran for the front door.

Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the door of the bedchamber, not wanting to just rush right in.She mentally prepared herself to duck a shoe or anything else Gabrielle might find within reach.  The door opened and Nyssa smiled, wordlessly slipping out past the Conqueror.Lila, who also was sporting a happy grin, followed the tutor.Xena's neck craned as she tried to peer beyond the door and into the room. She was painfully aware that she hadn't been invited in yet and was just about ready to march in despite that fact when she heard footsteps.

The healer came to the door, drying his hands on a rough-hewn cloth. "Please, My Lord, come in and see your wife and baby."

That was all it took.Xena bolted across the room to Gabrielle's bedside as though her feet were on fire.

Gabrielle looked tired and a little pale, but very, very happy.

Xena let out a shuddering breath, and knelt. Taking her spouse's hand, she watched anxiously as Hecuba carefully bundled up a pale-haired, wrinkled-skinned, squirming baby and brought it to the bed, placing it in Gabrielle's arms.

"I'll have someone bring you some broth, sweetheart."Hecuba kissed her daughter on the forehead and smoothed away wet bangs.  Then she looked at Xena. "Congratulations, My Lord," she said, stubbornly ignoring her daughter's multiple requests that she call her Xena when they were not in public.The older woman bent at the waist and gave Xena a soft kiss on the cheek before leaving.

Xena gaze dropped to Gabrielle and the now gurgling baby.

"Would you like to hold your son after his meal?" the Queen offered gently, absorbing the look of pure pleasure transforming her wife's face.

"A boy?"

"A boy," Gabrielle confirmed with a tired grin, taking a moment to shift in the bed so she could offer the child her breast.He began suckling immediately enjoying his mother's rich, warm milk.   She closed her eyes and sighed. "So, what are we going to name him?"

Xena ran her hands through her hair, taking in the sight before her.Every other name she had considered over these past months flew right out the window.She cupped his small head, his tuft of blonde hair tickling her palm."I think Leander is a very appropriate name given that first cry.He certainly sounded like a lion."

Gabrielle nodded.His lusty howl had nearly caused her to jump right out of her skin.Leander: like a lion.She chuckled softly.That was quite a roar.  "Leander it is."She peered down into sleepy dark eyes."He's perfect, Xena."

"Of course, he is." Xena felt the beginnings of tears. "You're his mother."


Xena held her son close to her as Gabrielle slept. A familiar tingle chased up and down her spine and she shook her head."Life was going along too perfectly for it to last for long."

The God of War materialized right in front of her.  "So," Ares glanced nonchalantly at the bundle in Xena's arms, frowning at the blonde hair but grinning stupidly when dark brown eyes peered back at him. "That's the little poop machine, huh?"

"No, this is my son." She placed a tender kiss on the baby's forehead. "And don't
you forget it, Ares."

"Oh, I won't. But don't I even get a little credit," he pouted. "I mean... come on! It was my body..."

Xena held up a hand to forestall what she could see was fast turning into a rant. "Okay, okay.You're right." She made a face when his pout turned into a smug smile.  "I guess that does sort of make you the Godfather."

The muscular God rolled his eyes. "So, Xena, how was it, being in command of all this?" He gestured to himself."You have to admit, there are advantages to being male."

"Peeing standing up."

"Is a big one," he agreed instantly.

"What makes you think I don't do that now?" she said drolly, beaming as Leander gripped her finger tightly and began shaking her hand.

Ares sighed dramatically."You may be the Conqueror, Xena." He bit his lip as his gaze drifted down her lanky form, lingering on his favorite parts.  "But you're all woman."

"Give it up, Ares."


She narrowed her eyes and her grin turned wicked.  "I did enjoy making him," she taunted, knowing full well that Ares' attention had slid over to her beautiful, slumbering wife.

Ares looked back and needlessly tugged up his tight leather pants. "Listen, if you decide you ever want to take another crack at the baby thing, I'll be happy..."

"Only if you loan your body to Gabrielle."

"Oh, please," he scoffed loudly, rolling his eyes yet again. "She couldn't handle this body."

Xena burst out laughing, cradling the suddenly startled baby. "Wanna bet?"


Xena lay back on the lush grass under a tall, shady tree as she contentedly listened to Gabrielle and Jarrod splashing around in the pond.A light breeze blew her hair and the mid-day sun was still far from being uncomfortably hot.She laughed at Leander's antics on the blanket spread out next to her.He was clapping and squealing every time his toes touched the prickly green grass at the blanket's edge. And whenever he'd start crawling for his mama and brother, Xena would reach out and drag him back, causing him to laugh and squeal even more.

And, oh, he was a devious ten-moon-old.He would happily crawl across her chest, giving her a sloppy wet kiss as a means of distraction, while he tried to scramble off of her body and make his way to Gabrielle.Xena had already determined that he would be a world class tactician in no time, and was planning on giving him a gentle nudge in that direction. With Jarrod's natural charm they would make an unstoppable team.

"C'mere, little man," she growled playfully, grabbing after a tiny, squirming, bare foot. Over the past few days he had started to try and push himself up to walk.Xena knew it wouldn't be much longer, and she relished the thought of seeing him take those first steps. She had been blessed with a second chance at motherhood.And she was determined not to waste it.

These trips back to the village in the springtime appeared as though they were going to become a family tradition.And she wanted to talk to Gabrielle about staying for more than a week or so at a time. The thought of actually having family traditions warmed her from within.She scooped her son up in her arms, laughing when he grabbed her face and tried to bite her nose."Be nice," she chastised, kissing his tiny snub nose.

The Queen joined them, panting slightly from her dash over, and drying her hair with a thick towel."What's he doing now?" she looked back at Jarrod who was still trying to master Xena's fishing technique.

Xena let her son stand between her legs as she tossed her wife a robe."He thinks my nose is a teething toy." She rubbed the body part in question.

Gabrielle slipped her robe on and gestured to her son, coaxing him to let go of Xena and come to her."Come on, honey." She knelt and held out her arms. "Come to Mama. Come on."

Leander looked to Xena and gurgled, then his head swung back to Gabrielle.With a loud yell he pushed off Xena's knees and took three very wobbly first steps right into Gabrielle's arms.

A brilliant smile broke across the faces of two very proud mothers as Gabrielle hugged the boy tightly against her damp chest.

Yes, the Conqueror considered again, family traditions by this pond where going to be a very good thing.

And Gods willing, there would be many more of them for countless seasons to come.


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