Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.

I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think. I'm at: ljmaas@yahoo.com

The Conqueror Series

Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose

By LJ Maas

Chapter 17: For As Events Are Shaped, They Have To Be.

There was nothing, absolutely nothing in the world that could have prepared me for the sight of Gabrielle, as she made her way down the palace steps, accompanied by her mentor, Yu Pan. Her golden hair had been plaited tightly in one long braid down her back. She was wearing the silk that I had identified as being inside the parcel Yu Pan delivered. It was a deep, royal blue color with tiny yellow blossoms embroidered in a seemingly random pattern. It was exactly the same style outfit that I had seen Yu Pan wear during his Qigong routine. The long-sleeved silk jacket or robe came down to mid-calf, and it appeared that she wore loose fitting silk trousers underneath the robe.

There was something different about Gabrielle; I recognized it at once. Just as I knew, deep inside, that Yu Pan had been something more than he appeared, Gabrielle now held that same power. It was in her gait, and the direct, confident eye contact she made. The girl who now stood before me would never be mistaken for either a slave, or a victim.

"Are you sure about this?" I asked quickly.

"I'm positive. Remember, trust in me, Xena." Gabrielle reminded me.

"I'm going to do my level best, love." I answered. I was honestly giving it all I had.

We walked hand in hand to the training field, neither of us caring if people whispered at the sight. So many people showed up, it looked like the old Romans' Coliseum. Obviously, word had gotten out that something interesting was going to happen. I merely hoped that the interesting part didn't involve Gabrielle breaking her neck. Her body seemed to be practically humming, and I knew it was simply nervous energy.

There were formalities and preliminary instructions to go over, but finally the time was at hand. Each woman was directed to a corner of the octagonal fighting area. They each began to warm up in their own fashion. It was then that Gabrielle took off the long jacket. Underneath, she wore the same patterned blue silk, but in a tight fitting sleeveless top that clung to her skin, ending where it tucked into the silk trousers.

I never thought of Gabrielle's body as it pertained to anything other than beauty or pleasure, but now, I could really see why I always took her embrace as deceptively strong. Her arms were short, but sleek, and muscular. Suddenly, my mouth went dry. I was seeing something of this woman that I hadn't before, and I found myself rather enjoying the sight of her.

Gabrielle spun her body completely around, easily accomplishing a roundhouse kick. She stretched, and practiced some more kicks, but I was already awe struck. She moved like liquid in motion. Surely, Yu Pan had performed some sort of miracle while the two of them were up there. At this moment I didn't much care what it was, I was merely happy that Gabrielle had a chance at holding her own.

Both women met in the middle of the ring, and the contest began.

Did I say, hold her own?

Sweet Athena, had I been living with this woman for all this time now? I turned my dumbfounded gaze to Yu Pan, who I found standing next to me.

"D--Did you . . . do . . . this?" I motioned with my hand toward Gabrielle. Right now, the girl looked like poetry set to music. "Is it some form of magic?"

"I told you, no tricks, Conqueror. As you said once before, however," he replied as he focused his attention on Gabrielle's movements. "Gabrielle is indeed my greatest student."

Whereas Melosa was a larger woman, she fought more like me. She wrestled and boxed, using her size and strength to beat an opponent. Gabrielle was fast, incredibly fast. Her movements were a blur. She looked as if she were doing a Qigong routine, only faster. Every single one of her actions were reactions. They were defensive moves, nothing offensive.

After close to a quarter of a candlemark, Gabrielle had tossed Melosa from one end of the ring to the other. It was mesmerizing watching Gabrielle. Each time Melosa came at the younger woman, Gabrielle reacted as if every movement was pure instinct, as if her body knew exactly what to do. After a full candlemark of the strenuous activity, Gabrielle's technique still appeared as effortless to her body as breathing out and breathing in.

I know I keep telling you how stunned I felt, but I don't think you can truly appreciate how astonished I was. Here was my little Gabrielle, and she was kicking the Amazon Queen's ass!

Just as I thought that, Melosa came across with a glancing blow that caught Gabrielle high up on her left cheekbone, near her eye. The force knocked the young woman to one knee, but then she quickly managed to shift and duck to one side as Melosa flew by her instead of tackling the young woman to the ground. My fingers reflexively wrapped around the hilt of my sword.

Melosa landed on her back, obviously winded, but even before her body hit the ground, Gabrielle was tucking her small body into a backwards somersault. Just as Melosa hit the dirt, Gabrielle rolled against her. All it took was one hand pinning Melosa's arm to the ground, and the smaller woman's knee pressed against the Amazon's throat. In her state of exhaustion, The Queen hadn't the strength to remove the steady pressure Gabrielle seemed to be placing on the Amazon's larynx.

"Mercy," Melosa gasped at last. The entire crowd was stunned into silence.

Gabrielle immediately rose, holding out a hand to the surrendering Queen. Melosa sat upright, leaning her forearm on one bent knee. The whole time she simply stared at Gabrielle. She didn't look happy by my estimation. She looked even less so when Gabrielle offered her arm.

The Queen finally grasped it, however, pulling herself up. The two women stood before one another, Melosa towering over Gabrielle. There was still quite a bit of collective breath holding going on as everyone watched the two women in the center of the ring. At last, Melosa smiled slightly, nodding her head in appreciation. She placed her hands on each of Gabrielle's shoulders.

"Timara chose well, whether she knew it or not," Melosa quietly commented.

I think everyone watching breathed a sigh of relief. Except for me, that is. There were too many people surrounding the two women for my comfort, far too many. I must have been getting old, complacent, or a little of both because it was only now that I was taking notice of the fact. Between my soldiers, and the Amazons, there were at least three hundred trained warriors on that field. Armed warriors. As I always say about hindsight, however; if we didn't have it, we'd have no way to kick ourselves later.

All it took was one shout. "Weapon!" Someone screamed.

To shout that under ordinary circumstances might not mean much. To scream it among a bunch of soldiers is dangerous, but to hear it when three members of Royalty are present throws things into complete chaos.

I didn't even have to give orders, Atrius and the Royal Guard had already surrounded me, and I saw three of them tossing bodies out of the way to get to Gabrielle. That's when I lost sight of the small blonde in the sea of bodies being jostled around us. As nature would have it, that's when total pandemonium broke out.

It happened so fast, and my mind was trained on only Gabrielle. Even I couldn't be absolutely certain what the first words were.

"Amazon treachery!"

"Centaur betrayal!"

Then surprisingly enough, it all went down hill from there. I don't mean to make light of the matter, for this was well and truly the first battle the palace in Corinth had seen for at least a dozen seasons. I fought just as the guards around me, taking a few blows to the chin as I pressed my way toward the center of the fighting area. I noticed Torava fighting beside me, and grabbed her by the neck.

"Get in there and find Gabrielle!"

"I can't leave my position beside you, Conqueror!"

"Fuck that! She's in there without protection!" I jammed my left fist into an attacking Amazon's face, just as she was about to slice open Torava. "Go on!"

I suppose she made a career decision by obeying me, but she saw that I was surely the master of my own space as I tossed people off me as if they weighed so little. I admit, it had been a while since I did battle, but this was even more difficult. I was trying hard not to use my blade, even though I had it in my hand. I didn't need any more Amazon blood on my hands than I already had.

I caught a Centaur rearing up from off to my left. When I looked up, a young Amazon took a swipe at me with her sword. She caught my free arm, slicing my shirt open, and then into the skin below. It wasn't deep, more of a scratch, but all it took was the slight tinge of red to breathe life into the beast.

How I held back from plunging my blade into her, I never will know. I fought for some sort of control, my hand raising my blade toward her. I shouted a string of curses, and brought the Lion's head of my sword directly across her chin. Her jaw would most likely be broken, but she wouldn't know that until she woke up, as she fell into a heap on the ground.

The beast had gotten the better of me, but at least I hadn't lost complete control. I sunk my blade into the ground at my feet, and bid the nearest Amazon to come take it. I had no trouble finding takers, and one by one, I fought with my hands, not actually aware what was going on around me. My monster had won its freedom, and was taking advantage of its limited independence.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Conqueror . . . Lord, Conqueror . . . Xena!"

Atrius's voice came at me as if I were listening to him from underwater. With each syllable, the sounds became clearer. I grabbed on to his voice and allowed his words to pull me away from the clutches of the beast's grasp. When I shook my head to clear the last bit of haze from my brain, I found myself kneeling upon the ground. My hand was held tightly to my blade, my forehead rested lightly on the pommel.

I rose quickly with only one thought in my conscious mind. "Gabrielle!"

"She's over here, Conqueror. It's not good." Atrius said heavily.

I felt my chest constrict at his words. "How bad is she?" My voice broke on the last word."

"It's not Gabrielle, Lord Conqueror. It's the Amazon Queen. This way."

"Casualties?" I asked as I followed Atrius to the center of the fighting ring.

"I called in six squads of soldiers to put down the insurgence. We were lucky, overall. There were so many of our men here, the Centaurs and the Amazons had a hard time getting to one another. Six Amazons dead, one Centaur, and ten soldiers of the Empire."

I stopped abruptly at the sight before me. The center of the ring had cleared. Empire soldiers held the majority of Amazons back at the point of their crossbows. Ephiny, Velasca, and an unidentified Amazon knelt beside Gabrielle. The small blonde sat upon the ground, and held the fallen Amazon Queen in her arms. Kuros was placing a thick bandage upon the Amazon's belly. When he stood and turned to me, he quietly shook his head back and forth. We weren't giving the healer much to work with lately.

"A blade," he answered my unasked question. "It won't be long."

Gabrielle looked up and I could see that dirt streaked her face. She had the beginnings of a shiner on her cheek, apparently from where Melosa had struck her earlier. Tears stained Gabrielle's cheerless face.

"Oh, Xena." She cried when she saw me.

I knelt on the ground beside them, and slipped my arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. I reached in and kissed her temple, and she leaned against me heavily. Neither of us spoke; words seemingly useless at that moment. Finally, her voice penetrated the silence.

"I don't know what happened," Gabrielle began. "All of a sudden everyone was fighting. Someone came at me with a sword. There were so many arms, and people pushing. I couldn't keep them all away. When I turned around again, Melosa was just standing there looking down at her stomach. When she pulled her hands away . . . there was so much blood."

Melosa opened her eyes, and I thought this scene looked eerily familiar. It had only been days since the Queen's daughter lay dying in her mother's arms. The Amazon was pale and still, her teeth clenched together against the pain.

"Ephiny, Velasca," Melosa gasped.

"We're both here, My Queen," Ephiny answered for the two of them.

"I need you to know . . . I'm giving my right of caste to . . . Gabrielle." Melosa managed to say.

"No, Melosa, no. I can't, I--" Gabrielle tried to object.

"I understand, My Queen," Ephiny answered. The warrior's face seemed a mask of pain, but her voice kept its customary even tone.

You choose well, Melosa," Velasca responded.

Now that surprised me. I watched as Velasca reached over and squeezed Melosa's hand. The Amazon glanced across the Queen's body, and smiled gently at Gabrielle. Velasca's actions raised more questions than they answered, but I simply wasn't in a mood to think on them at the moment.

"Please, Melosa," tears continued to fall from Gabrielle's eyes. "Please, don't ask this of me. I can't, I can't do it."

"Yes, Gabrielle . . . you can," Melosa said softly.

"No. I'm not really an Amazon . . . "

"But you are, my young friend. Gabrielle . . . you are what Artemis had in mind when she created our race." Melosa coughed, and a slow trickle of blood fell from the corner of her mouth. "You are the kind of person that I tried to become . . . but failed." Another coughing fit overtook the Queen, and I saw that she could no longer hold her own head up. ". . . Too much hate fills me now. Will you, Gabrielle? Will you accept my right of caste . . . and become Queen to my people? Be to them what I could not be."

I knew what Gabrielle's answer would be before she gave it. I expected nothing less from the woman who was quickly becoming all things to all people. She would answer Melosa from her heart, and I was quickly learning that it would always be so with her.

"Yes, Melosa," Gabrielle responded in a quiet, confident tone. "I will accept your right of caste."

I hardly remember what passed between the two women after that. I do know that the last words Melosa spoke were in a tongue that was foreign, even to me. I could only surmise that it was an ancient Amazon language, known only to their race.

Melosa closed her eyes one last time, and I saw something that I would long remember. Ephiny raised a tear-stained face to Gabrielle, who still held the dead Queen. The Amazon warrior bowed her head.

"My Queen." Ephiny acknowledged in a strong voice.

Every Amazon still standing in the palace courtyard lowered herself to one knee. Ephiny threw a cautious glance at Velasca, and I saw no hesitation in the adopted daughter's action.

"My Queen." Velasca accepted Gabrielle's right to the title with a bowed head.

"Please, Ephiny" Gabrielle began. "Take the Queen back to your camp, and prepare her for her journey."

"Yes, My Queen."

Ephiny motioned to a number of Amazons who stepped forward to carry out the task. We stood, and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around my waist, and rested her head on my chest. I kissed the top of her head, and pulled her away from the scene. I wanted nothing more than to have Gabrielle away from these people, and the area that suddenly, was not as protected as I would have liked. I was not prepared for Ephiny's next statement at all.

"My Queen, will you be returning to the encampment with your people?" the Amazon asked.

"She will not be!" I lost my temper, and quickly turned to answer the Amazon.

"She is our Queen." Ephiny took a step closer, but didn't really seem to hold a great deal of malice in her tone.

"She was my Queen first!" I hissed.

"Xena," Gabrielle placed her hand upon my abdomen, her other still firmly around my waist. She simply wanted my attention and she had it, along with every other person within hearing distance.

"Ephiny, Please do as I ask. I will be staying in my own quarters as usual. Xena?"

Gabrielle looked to me. I'm sure she felt the tension in my body. I was growing angry, angry with these people, these Amazons, Centaurs, and all who would take Gabrielle from me.

"The Amazons are ordered to their encampment. I want the Centaurs taken to their own camp. No one leaves Corinth without my permission." I spoke in a tone of voice that I hadn't used in quite some time. It was the commanding sound I used when I wanted no doubt as to who was in charge.

Ephiny and Velasca both looked from me to Gabrielle, and then back again. They nodded their heads and were gone.

"Atrius, set up guards at each camp. I don't expect a repeat of this fiasco," I commanded.

Gabrielle and I left together, but my anger was still holding on to me, and I wasn't sure why. I was angry at everything and everyone, Gabrielle included.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gabrielle and I left the training field arm in arm. By the time we reached our rooms, I was striding ahead, and Gabrielle quietly followed behind. Did I know I was acting like a complete ass to the woman I professed to love more than my own life? Of course I did. At that moment, did it matter? Not exactly. Did I feel badly over the way I was acting? Not entirely. Not at that moment, anyway. That would come later, as always.

"Xena?" Gabrielle finally asked once we entered the outer rooms.

"I just need to be alone, Gabrielle." I said, and turned to walk into the bathing chamber.

I sat there for I don't know how long as the cauldrons of water heated over the fire. When I finally slipped my bruised body into the hot water, my anger had turned to self-pity. Only, I didn't see it as self-pity. I let my thoughts wander to the first moment I met Gabrielle. Unkempt, and with a dirty face, she couldn't even look me in the eye. She was afraid of everything, afraid to feel, afraid to love, even afraid to want. It became my job to see that she knew she was loved, that she had enough to eat, and to see that no one hurt such a fragile flower. The most delicate rose in my garden, and I took care of her as I would one of my newest blossoms. Now the plant was grown, and suddenly . . . I felt unnecessary.

I knew Gabrielle would one day become her own women. That was what I wanted, was it not? I just never expected it to be so soon, and in such a manner. Gods, the implications! She was no longer Gabrielle of Potidaea, a former illegally kept slave. In the space of a few days time, Gabrielle had become the Queen of the Amazon Nation. Sweet Athena, what have you done to me? Cursed me or blessed me?

If I was no longer Gabrielle's provider, protector, did I serve a purpose in her life? Would she still want to be with me? Would she have any need for a warrior twice her age, a woman with an angry temper, and a childish temperament? Did Gabrielle need me anymore?"

I splashed water onto my face to wash away the tears that I could feel streaming down my cheeks. How ironic that the woman who taught me to feel, could now cause me to feel so much it hurt. My chest felt empty, but there was an ache there that I simply couldn't ignore.

A sound of rustling cloth brought my attention to the robed figure that moved about the room. I looked on as Gabrielle bent to retrieve the articles of clothing I'd strewn about the floor in my haste to be free of them. I noticed that she made a point of not meeting my eyes. The look of sadness on her face hit that spot in my chest that I had previously thought of as empty. It pained me terribly, thinking that once again, I was the cause of her sorrow. My anger had disappeared, and all I was left with now was a bundle of childish insecurities.

"Gabrielle?" I called out gently.

She stopped, but didn't look over at me. I watched as she reached for the shirt I'd been wearing earlier. She picked up the article of clothing, and abruptly turned toward me.

"Xena, you're hurt?"

I looked down at her hands and saw the bloody area on the sleeve where someone's blade sliced at me.

"No! It's just a scratch, really." I held out my forearm so she could see the angry red line that ran from wrist to elbow.

In an instant, our ire was forgotten as she tenderly examined my arm, and I selfishly enjoyed her touch.

"I'll get a salve from Kuros," she absently commented, as she looked at the superficial wound.

"It's not necessary, love." I took her examining fingers in my free hand and held them there. I saw she still had dirt smeared across one cheek where she must have fallen to the ground. "Come in here, love, the water's still warm."

She shrugged off her robe, and I set about the task that Gabrielle usually performed for me. I bathed her body, then washed her hair, tenderly examining the darkening bruise on her cheek.

"I'm sorry," I said at last.

"For what?" she inquired.

Good point. Gods, could I possibly explain it all to her? What will she think of me? "For treating you badly when we came up here."

"Then thank you, and I forgive you," Gabrielle answered quietly. "Can you tell me, Xena?"

"Tell you what, love?"

"What it was I did that angered you so." Her eyes filled with tears and I felt my own do the same. She was so quick to believe that it was she who was in the wrong. "I thought . . . that you wanted me this way, able to defend myself . . . that perhaps then you wouldn't worry so much . . . "

Suddenly Yu Pan's story came back to me, along with the words he used to caution me.

Be careful what you wish for, Conqueror . . .

"Oh, Gabrielle, no. It wasn't you, not really, anyway. I just . . . please, let me try to explain?" I felt I owed her at least that much.

"Can I do anything to help?" she asked.

"Give me a moment to dry off, then sit by the fire with me?"

She nodded her head quickly, and the small smile encouraged me slightly. I rose from the bath and toweled myself dry. Gabrielle's eyes wandered across my body as I dried myself. It stirred something inside of me, to see her gaze linger appreciatively on my body that way. Perhaps I was not as broken down as I claimed to be.

Suddenly realizing that I was watching her watch me, Gabrielle blushed a deep pink color.

"I'll pour us some wine." She quickly wrapped her own robe about her, and excused herself from the room.

When I entered the room, Gabrielle was nowhere to be found. It wasn't until I entered the bedhamber that I saw her. We usually lay on the thick rug before the fireplace in the outer room. Instead, Gabrielle had stoked the fire in our bedchamber, and laid a coverlet and a thick pile of cushions before the stone hearth. She laid waiting for me, looking as enticing, and desirable as she does every time she comes to my bed.

We settled against the cushions, and it didn't take much to convince her to lean back into my embrace. We sat there that way, sipping our wine and staring at the flames for some time. I knew I had to begin at some point, but now I was loath to spoil this mood. Gabrielle always seemed to know my heart better than I did myself, most of the time. She began to gentle me with her touch, running her fingertips along my arm, and entwining her fingers with my own.

I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. I said the words I'd never said to another person in my life. "I fear that you have no need for me now." I whispered into her ear.

Gabrielle turned quickly to look at me. "Oh, Xena, is that what you've been worrying over?" she asked with such concern that a new wave of guilt washed across me. "Have I given you cause to feel this way . . . did I do some--"

"No," I shook my head back and forth. "But it feels that way just the same." I could feel the emotion tightening my throat. I knew I would either begin crying or become unable to speak at any moment now. "If you don't need me to protect you, to care for you, then what do you need me for?"

"How about, just to love me?" she suggested. "Xena, that's what you allow me to do. You don't really need me, yet you love me."

"That's where you're wrong, little one. I do need you. For the first time in my entire life, I need someone else. Don't you know that?"

"No," Gabrielle whispered, reaching out to lightly touch my cheek. "I didn't know that, but it's nice to finally hear. Xena, I need you, too. Even if I never need you to fight for me, or clothe me, and feed me, I'll always need you. I'll need you to hold me just as you are now, to comfort me when I have nightmares, to stand with me against people who would see me as nothing more than a slave. There are so many times, and things that I want to share with someone, and you My Conqueror, are that someone."

I was struck dumb by her eloquence, and her ability to hit at the very heart of my fears. It struck me just then that although we were two very different people; we still had the same fears, insecurities, wants, and desires. I leaned my face close to hers, until our foreheads were lightly touching.

"Are you sure that Athena didn't create you just for me?" I teased. "I am sorry I'm acting so foolish. Why you put up with me I'll never know."

"It's not foolishness, love. I do hear that Athena does reward her faithful, however." She smiled that mischievous smile of hers. Then her features grew serious, just before she placed a tender kiss upon my lips. "Never, ever doubt my love for you, My Conqueror."

"Nor mine for you," I answered, returning the kiss. I sighed deeply, knowing there were many things we had to discuss about the day. Our private times were becoming fewer, and farther in between. I looked back on the times when we could stay like this for a full day, locking the doors from the rest of the Empire. Recent events precluded that from our list of things to do.

We needed to talk about so many recent happenings. The death of Melosa, which came as quite a shock, and Gabrielle's acceptance as the new Queen to the Amazon Nation. We needed to examine in more detail Velasca's whereabouts, and who really killed Timara, and Melosa. Lastly, my curiosity could hardly contain itself. How in the known world had Gabrielle come up with the necessary skills to do what I witnessed on that practice field?

All of these questions, and more, rolled and churned like a stormy sea in my brain. I knew Gabrielle and I needed to talk, beyond settling our personal issues. I knew the responsible thing would be to put aside my own wants, and to sit down with Gabrielle to discuss all of these matters. Unfortunately, at that very moment, I was thinking with something other than my head. It sounded completely selfish to me, and wickedly self indulgent, but at that moment, I wanted nothing more than to make love with Gabrielle.

I kissed her shoulder lightly, the feel of her skin against my lips causing a slight tingling sensation in my belly. Yes, I was being dreadfully irresponsible. At the very least, I should be observing some sort of solemnity over the death of an ally. It's amazing how one's thoughts can escape from all sense of accountability when the libido is involved.

"Xena, are you listening to me, love?" Gabrielle asked.

"Mmhmm," I answered, moving my kisses up along Gabrielle's neck. I traced along the outer edge of her ear with the tip of my tongue, and enjoyed the feel of Gabrielle's body as it shivered against me.

"Xena . . . should we?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean . . . ohhh . . . " she trailed off.

I drew the skin along her neck into my mouth, sucking lightly at first. At that first sensual moan, I pulled the flesh into my mouth and pulled it against my tongue harder. Everyone has that one small thing that a lover does that causes complete surrender. This was Gabrielle's weakness. It usually took most of my own self-control to keep from having my lover's neck appear as though a wild animal attacked her. I gave in and continued the sensation that she found most pleasurable.

I didn't need to ask if Gabrielle desired my intimate touches, as she pushed the silk robe from my shoulders, and then pulled my body down on top of hers.

"Gods!" I groaned. The feel of her skin, her breasts pressing into mine, it nearly stole my very breath away.

I spread my legs, my thigh settling itself between Gabrielle's legs, my own center rubbing against the top of her leg. I felt Gabrielle's soft touch playing along my shoulders, then down my spine. Her fingertips sliding with feather light contact all the way down to my backside. She squeezed the flesh there, parting her legs further, and pulling me down harder against her. It was all the encouragement I needed.

I kissed her once, slow and deep, then pulled back slightly to look into her face. The skin of her cheeks was lightly flushed, her mouth open slightly as she struggled with her need to breathe more heavily. What caused the tightening in my abdomen, what pulled at my heart were her eyes. The green irises, normally as green as the forests in northern Thessaly, had darkened. She had a look of desire, of need, that urged me on that much more.

The next kiss was harder, more possessive, demanding. Every one after that told her in every way I could, of my need for her. I wanted her to feel me, take pleasure in me the way I did in her. Simply touching her, kissing her, making love to her this way, it intensified the way my heart ached for her. I knew at this moment, that there would never be another. There would never be anyone to ever love me, care for me as Gabrielle did. I wanted her to feel the same as I.

Up to this point, my kisses had swallowed every whimper, moan, and sound that Gabrielle made. I felt her hand weave its way into my hair, her fingers entwining themselves within the locks. She pulled my head down, positioning me once more over her bared neck.  I took full advantage, pleasing her with my lips, teeth, and tongue.

One hand of mine roamed, luxuriating in the silky softness of her skin. It wasn't simply the way she felt beneath me, or under my fingertips, it was the way she fit to me. Her curves pressed against me in all the right places, and my hand . . . as I brought it along her outer thigh, and up across the swell of her hip. I loved feeling the valley as my palm came inward to just under her ribcage. I looked down at my hand as it rested below her breast, cupping the soft flesh, and feeling its heaviness. I watched in rapt fascination as my thumb brushed across the smooth, pink flesh surrounding her nipple. The smooth skin quickly pebbled, and grew hard. My mouth fairly watered at the site, and in an instant, the flesh was in my mouth, and I sucked on it greedily. So many sensations, so many that were new to me, yet without Gabrielle, I would feel none of them.

"Xena." Gabrielle breathlessly called out my name, arching her back to press herself upward against me. "Xena . . . I need you!"

I moved my head back in to kiss her again. Even if she hadn't asked, my hand would have found its way automatically to her center. I stroked the silky wetness, thrilled at the sound of Gabrielle's languid moan of relief. Every motion, every movement against one another from that moment on was true synchronicity. We were each of one mind as we strove toward a common goal, taking and giving with our actions.

I could feel Gabrielle's body movements intensify and become frenzied. I knew she was close, and the thought alone was nearly enough to send me over the edge. I wanted this to be with her.

"Gabrielle," I panted into her ear. "Please . . . Gods! Touch me."

It was as if molten steel had been doused in cold spring water. Gabrielle's fingers pressed into me deeply, until each of us were mimicking the other's movements. It came as naturally as breathing, with no conscious thought at all. Then suddenly it was all motion and light. Nothing but our sweat-slicked bodies shivering, pausing, and then letting go. I remember thinking later that was why Sappho described a woman's orgasm as waves from the ocean. When Gabrielle cried out at last and let herself fall, my fingers, deep inside of her, felt those waves. Rhythmic and pulsing, the sensation was truly as if the ocean surf were undulating against the shore.

"Sweet Athena!" Gabrielle kept murmuring, until I had to smile.

Frankly, the smile was all I had the energy for. At least that's what I thought at the time. After some moments, when our hearts returned to a more normal cadence, Gabrielle pushed me over and to my back. The expression on her face was very nearly feral as she began to make a meal of me. I had neither the strength nor the inclination to stop her attentions at that point.

"Gods, woman! Where are you getting the energy?" I cried out.

It was the last coherent sentence I was able to utter for quite some time. Just before I slipped into a state of unadulterated ecstasy, I remembered my own appetites after a battle. They called it battle lust, and I believe my consort was experiencing that very thing. I laughed aloud inside my mind, wondering at my own good fortune, and how lucky one Conqueror could get.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now this was something I'd never done before. Draped in towels, Gabrielle and I were lounging before the fire, devouring nearly two platters of food Delia had graciously prepared for us. Our lovemaking required another bath, and now we sat beside the warm fire.

Our dinner consisted mostly of finger foods, and we ate, talked, laughed, and finally seriously discussed the events of the day. We had saved the most somber for last, eventually discussing Melosa's death, Gabrielle's acceptance of her right of caste, and the implications of such an action. There was one more thing that Gabrielle had not brought up yet, but I could no longer hold my tongue about it.

"Gabrielle . . . little one," I began.

"You'd like to hear the story, wouldn't you? How I knew what to do on the training field today."

I grinned at her gentle smile. She didn't act as if I was prying at all.

"Let's get comfortable first, all right?" Gabrielle moved the trays and our wine cups to the table in the outer room. It wasn't long before we settled in bed, the sun having gone down long ago.

"I love being with you, Xena. I forgot to say thank you." Gabrielle said softly as she nestled her back against me. I sat against a mound of pillows at the head of the bed, and kissed her exposed shoulder, remembering that's what got me in trouble the last time.

"That sentiment is highly mutual, my love," I answered. "Now, I understand you have a tale to tell. There is nothing I love more than a good bard, and I have it on high authority that you are an exceptional one."

Gabrielle chuckled, and then I felt her go still. She took a few breaths and it seemed that this was much more than she normally went through to begin a tale.

"Gabrielle, is this too hard to talk of? Little one, if it's too difficult right now, we can always wait until--"

"No, Xena. I mean yes, it is difficult, but not in the way you're thinking. It's difficult, mostly because there are so many holes, missing pieces of time."

I think she became aware of my confused expression, and rapidly began again.

"Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I told you of the time after the attack, when I lived with Yu Pan. It was such a confusing time for me then. I felt alive, but not really alive. I look back at it now, and I can see myself, doing as Yu Pan instructed, my body slowly healing, but up until this morning, I didn't remember. This is confusing I know, love. Let me start with my dream this morning, do you remember?"

"Of course. You said it wasn't really a bad dream, only confusing," I answered.

"Yes, that was it exactly. I was dreaming, and in my dream, I was doing the most extraordinary things."

"Like the fighting techniques you used against Melosa?" I questioned.

"Yes. The odd thing was that I had begun having the dreams ever since Yu Pan came to the palace. I thought that perhaps the dreams were the way I would have liked to see my life. They were disjointed, as dreams will be, but when I awoke, I always had the curious feeling that I had experienced more than an escapade in Morpheus's realm. It was as if it was a true memory of the past, which is why it was that much more mystifying to me.

I don't know what came over me when you and Ephiny hinted that I should challenge Melosa. It was something that just . . . I don't know how to describe it exactly. It was as if a bowstring had just been loosed. It was sudden like that. I knew; I simply knew that I was the woman in those dreams, and that I could accomplish what I'd seen myself do in the dreamscape. Do I sound quite insane yet?"

I chuckled at her question. "Only if I were hearing anyone else in the known world tell this story."

"It truly was the most extraordinary experience, Xena. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish the task of defeating Melosa, but I simply knew that I possessed the ability. When Yu Pan brought in that package, and I saw what it contained, I realized that life I had been dreaming of had been my own. The outfit he brought to me, the one I wore today, it was the one I was always clothed in when I experienced the dreamscape."

"And so?" I asked. "Was it some sort of a spell, or reality?"

"It was very real, Xena. Which is why I wonder how you feel at my possessing such skills?"

"Little one, you should know that your welfare has always been uppermost in my mind. I know I acted poorly today, but that was because of my own fears and insecurities. Anything in the world that keeps you safe from harm is something that I will wholeheartedly support. But how? How was it possible? Gabrielle, to possess such skills you would have had to train on a daily basis for many moons."

"That's exactly what I asked of Yu Pan! He reminded me, Xena, that I had taken the time to train. For one full season that I had no clear recollection of, I lived and trained with Yu Pan."

"Gods!" I exclaimed. "It all makes perfect sense though, doesn't it?"

"I suppose it does explain a few things," she answered.

"Do you remember your time with him then?" I asked, excited to learn more of Gabrielle's lost time.

"It seems to come to me in bits and pieces. Yu Pan explained as much as he could in the short time that we had together this morning. I told him what I knew, and he filled in many of the gaps. As well as I can put it all together, Yu Pan thought that I'd settled into a form of madness after I'd been raped. He said that my body had healed, more quickly than even he thought it would, but I had hid myself so deep within my inner self that I was a shell. I could learn, and take instruction. I could eat, drink, and breathe, but I was without feeling.

I look back, and I'm able to see the agony without the physical pain. I suppose that's why I found myself able to forgive Solan so quickly. I only see the anguish of my broken body as one would see another's suffering, not as though it happened to me. I don't mean to say there was no pain, for there was, but I can only remember the mental pain."

I found it difficult to listen as Gabrielle explained. Every time she used the word, pain, or referred to her broken and abused body, I felt rage rise up in my throat. I swallowed down the emotions, and simply held her to me tighter. She had turned in my arms now, so that I was able to see her face. Her eyes took on a faraway cast, and her brow furrowed as she attempted to recall the events of her past.

"I lost any memory of who I had been before. I knew that I was Gabrielle, but I knew very little else. I remember watching Yu Pan each morning as he went about his Qigong routine. I sat tucked away in a corner at the top of the stone steps, as he practiced below me in the courtyard. It looked so simple when I watched, but when I tried to do it myself, it was difficult. It wasn't until Yu Pan caught me imitating his moves that he explained each movement. There was a story in every maneuver, mostly tales of a crane fighting off a snake. Once I learned more, the stories behind the movements, and how to breathe properly, it came quite easily. I felt as if I had been meant to perform such a routine. Yu Pan once said that the most difficult part of Qigong was to clear your mind, to think of absolutely nothing as you performed each movement. Perhaps that's why I excelled at his teachings, for at that time I knew nothing, had no memories, nor felt any pain. My inner self was already a blank parchment.

I performed Qigong with Yu Pan every morning, but suddenly I felt myself working and practicing many times during the day. Finally, Yu Pan came to me and told me that we would learn to use Qigong in another way. The movements were precisely the same, but now he instructed me to make my actions sharp, focusing on strength rather than fluid technique. He called it Chi Kung instead. Soon I found that I could brush a fully armed man away with a short sweeping motion of my arm. With another, I could disarm him, and with another still, incapacitate him. I suppose that was my undoing.

It was in the market, as I ran an errand for Yu Pan. I was still a slave, after all, a runaway slave at that. I had no name, or lineage to provide me with proof of freedom. I was far from my homeland, many hundreds of leagues away. At that time, I lived with Yu Pan in the Peloponnese, near the mouth of the Alpheus River. His cottage was outside a small coastal town near the Ionian Sea. Travelers and soldiers made their way to Sparta, and Athens along the coast. It was inevitable that I would run into them, I suppose, even though Yu Pan tried to restrict me from going into the village. He did his best, but I was young and didn't listen.

Some men approached me and it wasn't long before they laid their hands on me. I did what came naturally for me. I used my skills to defend myself. I had wounded three of them before I was captured and thrown into the local jail. It was there, sitting in a dark cell for days that I finally remembered who I was. I then knew that I was Gabrielle, a slave. All my memories, the good, and the horrible, came back to me. I had lost my freedom once again, and I was filled with despair. I could no longer serve a master as I had become. My body had been trained to never allow a hand on me against my will. I was going to be placed on the auction block, but I knew as soon as any man, or woman, laid a hand on me, I would retaliate. I would fight back, and then I would be put to death. I shared my fears with Yu Pan.

He came to see me in the jail on the pretense that he was treating some of the prisoners. The slavers wanted nothing more than healthy slaves on the auction block. Aside from virgins, healthy women bring the highest prices, and so they allowed him in. He cursed himself over and over again for ever taking me as a student. I was afraid, terrified of what would become of me. I was Gabrielle the slave, but suddenly, I was something more, something dangerously more. Yu Pan asked my forgiveness, mostly for being a poor man, and being unable to purchase me to give me my freedom. Finally, I told him I wished I could simply forget, forget what I had learned, so I would never be tempted to use it. He surprised me when he said that was entirely possible.

I was almost afraid to lose what I had learned, but I was just as terrified at possessing the warrior-like skills. I knew, however, that I was a slave. These newfound abilities would only bring me trouble, if not death, and so I asked Yu Pan to do what he could. He mixed me a drink, a pleasant smelling tea that caused me to grow sleepy. I could tell that Yu Pan was talking to me, but my ears didn't seem to be working correctly. I remember the last thing he said, though, just before I fell asleep. Yu Pan kissed my forehead and told me that my skills would remain hidden within my soul until the day came when I would need them. 'When you need to understand who you are, then I will be there,' he whispered to me.

When I awoke the next morning, I had no memory of what I had done or learned in the past season. I knew only that Yu Pan had healed me, and that I was being sold on the auction block once more. I was able to see Yu Pan two more times in the passing seasons, in various parts of Greece. His heart was always heavy, and he always asked me to forgive him. All these seasons, I thought he asked me that because he could not give me my freedom. Now, I know what he really meant."

Gabrielle finished her amazing tale, and lay silent in my arms. I knew she was back there, reliving her days as a slave. With all that had happened to the both of us since she had come to this palace, I sometimes wondered if she would ever truly be able to forget.

"I'm thirsty, would you like something to drink?" she asked suddenly. She pulled away and I shook my head when she waited for my answer. Just as I needed my time alone, I'm sure Gabrielle occasionally needed the same.

I gave her some time alone, and then I grew worried, as was my nature. I wrapped a heavy robe around my body and made my way into the outer room. Gabrielle had just finished splashing some water, from the basin set before her, onto her face. She was toweling her skin dry when I came up behind her. She felt my presence first. With her eyes closed, a smile formed on her lips. When she opened her eyes, she could see my reflection in the large looking glass before her. Standing behind her, I wrapped the robe around her figure, enclosing the two of us in its warmth.

"I'll need to speak to the Amazons tomorrow, won't I? Will Melosa's funeral pyre be the same as Timara's?" she asked.

"Yes, pretty much. I'm sure you'll be asked to officiate at this one."

"Perhaps I can ask Ephiny to tell me what I need to do." Gabrielle commented absently.

My body tensed immediately, and Gabrielle felt it against her skin. "What?" she asked.

"I don't trust Ephiny with you," I stated honestly. Although the Amazon had treated Gabrielle with disdain at first, that had changed. I didn't like the looks Ephiny had been giving Gabrielle lately.

"Don't trust her?"

"Gabrielle, I don't like how possessive she is with you. I don't like her acting like you belong to her." I finally admitted my true feelings. It was simple. I was jealous.

"Xena, what on earth would she want with me?" Gabrielle laughed as she turned her head to look at me.

That's when it struck me. Gabrielle really had no idea how attractive she was. "Gabrielle," I turned her chin gently so that she was looking into the reflective glass. "What do you see?"


I chuckled. "All right. What do you look like? Are you ugly or pretty?"

"Pretty?" Again she questioned.

"Are you asking me or telling me?"

"Very funny, Xena. I'm telling you. I'm pretty."

"You are much more than that, little one. You are beautiful, Gabrielle. Absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful."

She blushed, and then frowned. "So, people will want me simply because of this beauty?"

I bent to kiss her neck. "People will want you because of your physical beauty, my love. They will become enamored of you once they realize what I already know. That your beauty exists here," I touched her chin. "As well as here." I placed my hand on her chest, directly over her heart.

"And what will they think when they realize that my beauty, and my love exist for only one woman?" she answered in a teasing voice.

Again, I bent to kiss her neck, then the edge of her ear, sending goose bumps along her skin. "That my love, is a very good answer." I grinned.

In a few short moments of my teasing touch, I found my small consort tugging my hand, and pulling me back toward the bedroom. Yes, a very good answer indeed, I smiled.

* * * * * * * * * *

The palace was eerily quiet in the predawn light of day. It was still very dark in my study where I sat mulling over the events of the previous day. I watched the oil lamp's flame flicker with each small gust of wind that ran in under the thick tapestries that covered the windows.

I was concerned with having two Amazons killed on my doorstep, yet still not having a shred of evidence as to the guilty party. Actually, the problem was that there were too many clues, and I was uncertain as to how to interpret them all. Which clues meant something, and which were intended to confuse?

I remembered all the way back to the moment when Ephiny and I were attempting to use not-so-subtle hints, so that Gabrielle would force Melosa into a challenge. I recalled the expression on Velasca's face. If I hadn't been so preoccupied at the time, I would have enjoyed watching her further. I could have sworn that when Gabrielle finally raised her voice to make the challenge, that Velasca was about to do that very thing.

Now, that would make sense, if I suspected Velasca, anyway. If I was Velasca, and I had killed Timara, or had her killed, I would be gunning for Melosa next. If I wanted the throne, I would eliminate those who stood ahead of me, then take the Queen. It wouldn't have made any sense in eliminating Gabrielle for the throne. To an Amazon, Gabrielle probably presented very little threat. Of course, now it was another matter.

Perhaps that was why Velasca agreed with Gabrielle's point of view so quickly. Being on opposite sides of an opinion on the Centaurs would certainly give Velasca fuel to call Melosa out on a challenge. What if she had done just that? Had it not been for Gabrielle's acceptance, I was sure that Velasca looked as though she were about to issue one herself.

What if she were only doing that to protect Gabrielle, though? Velasca knew, or at least assumed at that point, that Gabrielle had little or no fighting ability. Could Velasca have been standing up for Gabrielle? The Amazon did accept Melosa's decision to give Gabrielle her right of caste rather quickly. Besides, Velasca was in line for the throne, and yet graciously acknowledged Gabrielle's claim to it. She acknowledged the small blonde as Queen before nearly a hundred Amazons.

Then again so had Ephiny.

I kept running it through my head, trying to differentiate between my jealousy where Ephiny was concerned, and my feeling that she was hiding something. She was a fanatical Amazon, that much was certain, but there was still something off about her. I knew no Amazons as even tempered as she when it came to Centaurs. There was also the fact that Ephiny appeared to have detested Gabrielle at first. Something changed the Amazon's mind about my consort. It happened after Timara was killed.

What I had on my hands were two Amazons, with both the ability and potential to kill. Velasca had a motive, but I was beginning to like her. Ephiny had no motive, but I . . . well, I think I made it rather apparent how I felt about her.

One thing I was certain of was that Gabrielle needed to be protected every moment of the day. If Timara and Melosa were each killed because they were in the way of someone who wanted to leapfrog their way to the top, Gabrielle was in grave danger. She was the last thing that stood between the murderer, and the Amazon throne.

My worrisome nature had me send a messenger to have Atrius meet with me. The sun was in the sky by this time. When Atrius arrived, I voiced my concerns about Gabrielle's safety. Atrius agreed and notified me that he'd already doubled the guard around our rooms, and the palace in general. I immediately felt more comfortable knowing that my friend had Gabrielle's safety uppermost in his mind as well.

By midmorning, Atrius and I stopped to eat. Delia sent a serving girl up to my study, and we worked right through, talking and planning as we ate. I know I seemed distracted to my old friend, as a matter of fact, he commented on it more than once.

I had been going over the scenarios in the back of my mind as we worked. Who the players were, and what they had to gain from the death of the Amazon Queen and her daughter. That was it above all else. What would someone have to gain from such an action? If they were working alone, was it then plausible that they committed the crime? In this case, the people with the motive could not have physically committed the crime. Yet, those who were physically capable had no motive. The easiest assumption was that two people acted together, which in this case I thought nearly impossible.

All this time I had been thinking that each of them would be driven by the same motive. What if they each wanted something different? Would there be any honor among thieves? Could they work together for a common goal? I asked Atrius his opinion.

"Atrius, why does a man kill? Aside from battle, I mean."

"Well, I suppose for profit . . . greed . . . revenge?" he replied.

"Hhmm, can it be for more than one of those reasons? Would I kill a man to profit from his death, yet have revenge as my underlying motive?" I asked him. Suddenly, I remembered a conversation I'd had with Solan when he first arrived. More importantly, a memory I had of when Solan and I first met.

"In my opinion? No," Atrius replied. "Of course, there might be certain advantages, or bonuses that may occur. If I were to kill a man for revenge, and it just so happens that by killing him I inherit his wealth. If I ask myself the question . . . would I have killed him anyway, even knowing I would not obtain his money? If the answer is yes, then my motive is solely one of revenge. Profit from my act was simply an additional benefit."

I chuckled, even as I took his reply seriously. "You should be a magistrate in my court, my friend. This does answer a question that's been plaguing me, however. I think what we may have here is a case of two people committing the same crime, but for two entirely different reasons. They each get the results they want, and the crime seems fool proof since I cannot gain enough evidence to surely say that one or the other did it."

It was at that precise moment that I heard Gabrielle's scream coming from our private rooms next door.

To be continued in....Chapter 18: And Cruel Wrath That Glowed An Ember-Red

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