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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 19: Roaming The Garden Yonder To And Fro

Gabrielle turned her head, and buried it against my shoulder. I turned my mouth into a grim line to steel my emotions against the site before us. The Centaur delegation had entered the Amazon camp with a large travois being dragged between two of their number. On the stretcher lay the body of Broh, his body riddled with more arrows than I could easily count. It was true; Broh had experienced Centaur justice. They believed in letting the punishment fit the crime. In this case, Broh had been condemned to die in the same manner as his young victim.

Kaleipus came forward, looking grim and full of sorrow. I felt for my old friend. He looked all of his seasons in age at this moment. He stopped before Gabrielle and myself, and bowed deeply at the waist to Gabrielle.

"Queen Gabrielle, the Amazon's loss at the hands of one of our own wounds us deeply. The Centaur Nation owes the Amazon people a debt that cannot easily be repaid. We have brought the offender's body before you as proof of our sincerity in wishing peace between our two nations. I ask that you allow us to cremate Broh's body, so that we might bury his ashes on Centaur soil."

Kaleipus finished, but couldn't seem to bring his eyes up to meet with ours. As always, Gabrielle possessed the ability to being compassion to the moment. She reached out and touched the Centaur's forearm, which was crossed across his middle. When he looked up, Gabrielle offered up her most heartwarming expression.

"Kaleipus, there is no need for shame among friends. It's time for this cycle of hurt and pain to end. Let us move on from this time into a new era of peace between the Amazons, and the Centaurs," Gabrielle said.

I don't think my old friend could have spoken a coherent word if he had wanted. Tears filled his one good eye, and he mumbled his grateful thanks to Gabrielle, and then stopped to grasp my hand. Within moments, the delegation was gone, and Gabrielle turned, and asked Ephiny to explain to all of the Amazons what she knew about Velasca, and how her lies lead to the enmity between Centaur and Amazon.

I looked at Atrius with a worried brow. It all seemed too easy, somehow. Velasca had killed Melosa in the surrounding confusion in the courtyard of the palace as an attempt to push herself up the royal ladder. Broh had killed Timara as a way to get to me. Killing Gabrielle would have suited either's purpose. The pieces had been put back neatly upon the game board, but then again, that's exactly what this had looked like, a neat and tidy game board. A little too neat. Things that went too well always caused the hairs on the back of my neck to prickle with a sort of anticipation mixed with dread. I used to get the same feeling when . . .

"Atrius!" I suddenly barked. All eyes immediately turned toward me. "Take Gabrielle back to the palace, double her guard. Now!" I shouted again.

Atrius was a good soldier, good enough to realize that explanations weren't always necessary. There were times when an order was simply all that was necessary. The Captain quickly scanned the surrounding area and shouted out orders to the guards, who closed ranks around Gabrielle.

"Xena?" my frightened consort questioned.

"Gabrielle, I want you to go back to the palace this instant. I need to go to the temple." I closed the distance between us in a matter of strides and kissed her, then leaned in to kiss her once more, in a more gentle fashion. "Please, little one, I haven't time to explain. I must ask you to trust me."

This had become sort of a catch phrase for the two of us of late. I know that Gabrielle read the concern in my expression, but she was no longer a slave, and wasn't willing to admit defeat so easily.

"Xena, if something is wrong I want to be with you!"

"Gabrielle," I began with an impatient sigh. "I can't do what I have to do and protect you at the same time. Please, just do as I say this time."

I could wait no longer. I kissed her once more and made my way at a fast run to Athena's temple, leaving everyone else stunned at my sudden antics.

* * * * * * * * * *

The temple was quiet, and much cooler than the outside air. The room was so still I could hear the faint sputter of the candle wicks as they burned down into the wax. We had no temple in Corinth to the God that I wanted to talk with, but I was hoping any deity's place of worship would suffice. When I was a younger woman, I could stand in the middle of a field and he would come when I summoned him. That was twenty seasons ago.

"Ares! Show yourself for the scum you are!"

There was a pause, and nothing but silence surrounded me. The quiet lasted just long enough for the tiniest bit of doubt to plant itself within my brain. Perhaps, I was imagining it all after all. There was only one thing to do.

"I knew you weren't smart enough to mastermind this!" I shouted.

When I turned away, I ran smack into a very large fist that not only took me by surprise, but also nearly broke my jaw. I sat on the temple floor and rubbed my chin. It had been a long time since a God had hit me. I made a mental note for the future not to antagonize them until I could see them.

"I knew you'd call again some day, Xena."

Ares stood looking down at me, looking every bit as handsome and smug as he had in the old days.

"Don't flatter yourself, leather boy. I'm here to warn you to stay out of my life. If you even think about harming Gabrielle, I'll drag you behind my chariot until there isn't enough of you left to feed the dogs!"

"Oh, you mean like putting that little idea into that Centaur's head to nail your little pet with an arrow? Oooh, Xena, it would have been good. He had her right in his sights." Ares grinned and I sprang into action.

I rushed at him, drawing my sword as I cried out. Ares and I had always been pretty evenly matched skill, and strength-wise. Only the last time we did this, I was twenty seasons younger. There were no strands of silver beginning to weave their way within my raven locks. Although I still possessed a strength that would best any mortal man, a God was a different story. I held my own, and even got in a few self satisfying jabs to his face, but after we fought for a good half a candlemark, I began to tire. Ares saw my weakness, and began to take advantage. I had a swollen eye, and a bloodied lip by the time he finally got tired of toying with me. He simply stepped back and tossed a bolt of energy toward me. I was too sapped to dodge it in time, and so the bolt caught me in the belly. It flung me backwards a good fifteen feet and I lay there on my back, unable to even summon much more strength to lift my body up from the stone floor.

"I told you you'd regret crossing me, Xena. Remember that night when you said you were going to dedicate yourself to Athena? I told you that someday I'd make you pay, that I'd make you know what it was like to care about losing the one thing that kept you going. Didn't I? Well, it's payback time Warrior Princess. Oh, wait! They call you the Conqueror now, don't they? Well, Conqueror, how will it feel when your little slave is dead?"

I called all my remaining strength into play, and launched my body at him. I know I hurt him because I felt the breath expelled from his lungs, as I punched him in the belly. He kicked out, and hit me in the ribs. When I fell to my knees, an uppercut tossed me away from him. Once more, I found myself staring up at him from flat on my back.

"Come to think of it, Xena, this whole thing just isn't worth it. Instead of killing your slave, maybe I should just kill you."

He drew his sword, and all I could think about was the fact that I was supposed to get married in another day. So odd, the things that run through our minds when the end comes. All my mind's eye could picture was Gabrielle. The vision was so real; I could hear her voice.

"Xena! No!" Gabrielle's voice cried out as my vision stood before me.

"Gabrielle?" Suddenly I realized that it was Gabrielle standing over me, actually placing her body between Ares and me. "Gabrielle, get back." I winced and tried to rise again, taking in a sharp breath at the pain in my side; I fell back to the ground. The only agony I felt was in knowing that I had failed at keeping Gabrielle safe, and the realization that there would be no lifetime of love for us.

"Please, don't hurt her anymore," Gabrielle pleaded.

I thought how strange it appeared, Gabrielle defending me. She only stood as high as Ares' chest. He on the other hand, looked as he did when I first saw him. I was now forty-five seasons old, yet he looked as he did when he came to me in Amphipolis that day. I was a young girl, enamored by the life of a warrior. He stood before Gabrielle looking as young and handsome as when he first seduced the young girl who was Xena.

There was something different in his expression this time. I recognized it, but not from ever having seen it in his eyes. He backed up a step and I knew that it was fear he was feeling. Fear of Gabrielle?

Ares bared his teeth and snarled at the small woman. The snarl turned into a rabid scream and Gabrielle fell backward against me. The God of War stepped forward again and Gabrielle pressed herself against me. I was about to summon what little reserve of strength I had left, to protect Gabrielle from Ares wrath, when I felt that familiar sensation. Like a cool breeze on sweat soaked skin, the feeling caused goose bumps along my arms.

"He won't harm you, little one. He can't, it's forbidden." I heard a voice from somewhere above me.

Gabrielle turned her head to look behind me and I saw her green eyes widen in surprise.

"Athena?" Gabrielle asked.

"No, child. I am Artemis, and you are my chosen."

I was beginning to feel as if I had already lost consciousness. It had been many seasons since I had dealt with the Gods, and seeing them step into my life was like revisiting an old dreamscape.

I swiveled my head around when I felt Athena's presence.

"She's your problem." Artemis tossed her head in my direction, to which Athena kneeled down beside me.

One touch from her hand, my strength returned, and my wounds were completely healed. I jumped up and searched the floor for my sword, but Athena stepped in front of me.

"Are you anxious to make her a widow even before the wedding?"

"Look, he--"

"Will be dealt with accordingly, Xena," Athena interrupted. "Besides, I think we've scared young Gabrielle clean out of her ability for speech." Athena nodded her head at Gabrielle.

It was true. Gabrielle had tucked herself into a nearby corner, but I knew the expression she wore, just as I knew my own feelings. It wasn't so much fright that affected her, as awe. My young consort had yet to see a God or Goddess in her lifetime. Odd, since I could never seem to rid myself of them.

"Gabrielle." I rushed over to her side and that seemed to shake her brain back to the present moment.

"Xena!" She looked up as though seeing me for the first time. "You're not hurt?" She felt my arms as if to be sure I was real.

"No, love, thanks to Athena. Gabrielle, you've met the patron Goddess of the Amazons, Artemis, now let me introduce you to Athena." I pulled Gabrielle away from in between the stone columns and brought her to stand before Athena.

Tears filled my consort's eyes, so overcome with emotion. All her life Gabrielle gave her devotion to Athena, even through the worst times. Most mortals go their entire lives never seeing the Gods they pray too, until they meet up with Hades at the end. Gabrielle's nature never caused her to wonder at the situations Athena led the young woman to. The true disciple that she was, Gabrielle simply lived her life, always praying for enough strength to get her through.

Gabrielle knelt before the Goddess, who looked on the act with, what I thought of as, uncharacteristic compassion.

"Up on your feet, Gabrielle." Athena took hold of the young woman and drew her upward. "For the past that I could not prevent from happening, I should be kneeling before you."

"But you always gave me strength," Gabrielle answered sincerely.

"It was the least I could do."

Athena slowly turned away from Gabrielle to face Ares who had grown suspiciously quiet during our exchange. He seemed to be attempting to blend in with the walls when his sister crooked a finger in his direction.

"Ares, you're not leaving our little party so soon, are you?" Artemis asked.

"Who, me?" he replied innocently. Well, as innocent as the God of War can sound.

"Don't you even think about acting innocent about this, Ares!" Athena hissed. Her voice, usually so even and under control shook with anger. "When father finds out, you'll be lucky if he doesn't banish you to Tartarus for this! You were under strict orders. Gabrielle was under my protection."

My brain suddenly ceased to function. I had only one thought to train my mind's eye upon. It sounded very much as though Athena was blaming Gabrielle's life on Ares. The things Athena said she could never prevent. The Goddess had said that it almost seemed as if someone was one step ahead when it came to Gabrielle's life, but even the Fates couldn't have been that cruel. It was Ares.

"You son of a bitch!" For the third time today, I launched my body in Ares' direction. My attempt at homicide was thwarted by Athena's body, and the strong grip she had on my arms.

"He did that . . . all of that to her?" I asked with a strangled moan.

"Yes, but you have my word that he will never be able to harm her again, not now that we know." Athena answered.

"Xena?" Gabrielle had come up beside me. Her voice calmed me, as always. "I don't want to see you hurt again."

"Forgive me, little one. I didn't mean to frighten you. It's only my anger speaking."

"It's in the past, Xena. Please don't let him goad you into a fight over a past we can never change."

"Your maturity and your compassion prove your worth as Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle. You cause me to believe that I've chosen well."

"Did you mean it when you said he can't hurt me?" Gabrielle asked of Artemis. The question seemed to take everyone by surprise.

"Yes, Ares can't harm you directly in any way, and now that our father knows what he's been up to for the last twenty summers, he'll not be allowed to influence anyone else either," Artemis answered.

"What about Xena? Could he hurt her?" Gabrielle questioned further.

"Not while I'm around." Athena took a protective stance beside me.

We all watched as Gabrielle turned around and walked the half a dozen strides to stand before Ares. They looked comical standing there like that, as if facing off against one another. I was rather mistrustful of Athena's statement about Ares being unable to harm Gabrielle, but the Goddess read my thoughts and simply smiled at me.

"You're the God of War?" Gabrielle finally asked.

"The one and only." Ares held out his arms and fixed a blinding smile at Gabrielle.

"You're the one responsible for the darkness that still plagues Xena. You're the one who seduced her by telling her it would be a gift."

"She was a grown woman and able to make her own decisions," Ares replied. His charm was beginning to slip and the smile was gone.

I watched, as Gabrielle's demeanor changed. I saw something that I hadn't really witnessed before. Gabrielle was angry. I stood there shocked and amazed. Gabrielle, the young woman who couldn't seem to muster the strength to hate the men who took and used her all her life, was angry. She couldn't show any anger for herself, but here she was, facing down the God of War, preparing to defend my honor.

"She was a child, and you used her!"

"Yea, well, I'll let you in on a little secret, shorty." Ares leaned in closer to Gabrielle until his face was a hands-width away from her own face. "She was the best piece of ass I ever had."

He looked down at her with that smug little arrogant grin, and I wished for nothing more at that moment than to smack that smile clean off his face. Gabrielle must have been reading my mind. In one swift motion, my small, compassionate consort displayed a love and a loyalty that I'd never known from anyone. She swiftly drew her hand back and slapped Ares across the face so hard it rocked him back on his heels. Time seemed to freeze as we all waited to see if he truly could not harm Gabrielle.

Ares raised his hand to the small woman, but to Gabrielle's credit, she never flinched. She stood there waiting for his move. He wanted to hit her; you could see that. He made a motion in the air as if to strike her, then simply followed his punch through into mid air.

"You are monumentally annoying!" he cried out.

Athena and I merely looked at each other and burst into laughter. Our mirth was a release of sorts. We let go of the tight edge of tension surrounding us with ordinary laughter. I believe what amused us the most was that the more we laughed, the angrier Ares became.

"What I want to know is how you found out?" Ares shouted in Athena's direction.

"I had a little help, Ares, from a most unlikely source," Athena answered.

With that statement, a shower of shimmering pink sparkles filled the air beside Ares. In the blink of an eye another Goddess appeared. Aphrodite wore her customary diaphanous gown, and looked not one heartbeat older from the last time I saw her, nearly twenty-five seasons ago.

"Big bro, you didn't tell me the truth," Aphrodite accused. "You said keeping these two apart would benefit mortals everywhere."

"What he really meant was benefit himself," Athena answered dryly. "Ares knew what all of us knew about these two mortals. Really, Aphrodite, if you paid attention to things a little more."

Athena looked at her sister and gave an exasperated sigh seeing that her younger sister's head was already occupied with other thoughts.

"Oh, Sweet Pea, you are just too cute," Aphrodite crooned at Gabrielle.

"Wait a moment. Ares, is that father calling you?" Artemis tilted her head and the other Gods appeared to be listening to something that Gabrielle and I couldn't hear.

"Oh shit!" Ares muttered. "I'll be back, Xena." He pointed a finger in my direction and then he was gone.

"Oh no he won't," Athena chuckled. "At last not for a very, very long time. Don't worry, Xena, it will be a mortal lifetime before you're bothered with him again, even indirectly."

I moved to stand beside Gabrielle. I held her in my arms and could feel her trembling. "Are you all right, love?"

"I--I just have never been so mad at anyone before. I didn't mean to hit him."

I arched an eyebrow at her obvious fib.

"Well, not much anyway." She smiled. "I don't know about you, Xena, but I'm very confused. What’s happening here?"

"I told you once before, the Gods have always taken a very active role in my life. Even I'm just finding out how active it was." I paused to look at the three women surrounding us.

"Earlier, when we were in the Amazon camp, I had the strangest feeling that everything had been tied up much too neatly. In my life that usually meant that I'd been set up, or that people around me were used, and usually by the Gods. No offense intended," I said to the trio of Goddesses.

"None taken," they all automatically responded.

"I haven't seen or spoken to Ares in twenty seasons, Gabrielle. This just felt like him. He was always manipulating my life to suit his purposes, but when I was younger, I let him. I could always tell when he was about, though." I paused to run my fingers through my hair and took a step away from my consort. I always spoke better, when I was moving.

"I didn't think he'd show himself just anywhere for me. We didn't part on the best of terms. I came here and called him out."

"But why does everyone act like Ares is after me?" Gabrielle asked.

"Because he is, Gabrielle," Athena answered. "More appropriately he has been, very nearly since the day you were born."

"Why would the God of War have any interest in me?" Gabrielle chuckled nervously, as she spun around searching all of our faces for an answer. I could offer little assistance being as I was just as much in the dark as Gabrielle was.

"Gabrielle, according to the Fates, you have had one purpose in this lifetime; to save the known world from a great darkness."

"Oh, I don't think--"

"Ssh, little one. Let her tell the whole story," I said. I had an inkling of what Athena meant, but even I didn't yet know the extent of Gabrielle's involvement in history.

Gabrielle sat down upon one of the marble steps and I lowered myself to sit beside her.

"Let me tell you a story, Gabrielle. Once there was a small girl running through the fields on her father's farm. She met a warrior whose sadness touched the girl's heart. Even at such a young age, the girl did what she could to make the warrior feel better. She gave the warrior a rose, and that simple act changed both of their lives for all eternity." Athena moved to sit down beside Gabrielle.

"After the warrior left the girl, a fire broke out that claimed the lives of her family. By the time the small girl wandered into the warrior's camp, and she led the warrior back to the farmhouse, there was nothing left. The warrior took the girl with her. The warrior was destined for greatness as well, but was standing on the precipice of decision. Because of the girl, who was now in the woman's life, the warrior gave her allegiance to good over evil." Athena paused in the telling of her tale to look up at me.

"The warrior raised the young girl and gave her every advantage in life. The girl turned into a loving and compassionate woman, and somewhere along the way, as is the way with life; the warrior fell in love with the young woman. They shared a love the world had not yet experienced, and they brought only goodness and light to the world."

"What a beautiful tale," Gabrielle said in a breathless sort of tone. "Is it true?"

"It was supposed to be, Gabrielle. What happened instead was that the youngster never lost her parents and she never went away with the warrior. The warrior wanted to do good, but the lure of the darkness was more than she could fight against on her own. Alone, the warrior made the attempt to throw the darkness from her, but she failed. She spent many seasons quenching her appetites for evil and blood. The blackness of her heart spread across the world and everything she touched withered and died."

"I like the first ending better," Gabrielle commented sadly. "Whatever happened? Did the warrior and the girl ever meet?"

Athena looked at me once again. This time she smiled.

"Yes, love, they did." I gently took Gabrielle's hand within my own and brought it up to my lips. I placed a light kiss on her palm and continued to hold her hand in mine.

"You mean . . . you . . . us?" Gabrielle asked.

I nodded. "After you gave me that rose I went back to my camp and committed myself to Athena. I tried to make myself worthy, but she was right. The call of my dark side was too great, and I gave in to it. I think what Athena meant to say is that I'm the great darkness that you were meant to save the world from."

"I don't understand," Gabrielle looked at me, then Athena. "Why don't I remember, and why didn't it happen the way you told it the first time?"

"Ares," Athena answered. "He was more than a little angry when Xena told him she refused any further patronage. When I found her that night she was barely alive."

Gabrielle turned to me and I quickly explained. "Ares and I had quite a fight. He knocked me up one side of the countryside and down the other. I don't ever remember hurting that bad, but somehow I managed to crawl away when he left me alone."

"That's when I found her," Athena added. "Her body was one big crushed bone. When Ares left Xena that evening, he formulated a plan to go back and change the events of that morning. Ares always did have a way of talking the Fates into whatever he wanted. Instead of a fire decimating your life, Gabrielle, Ares sent the slavers. Xena left Ares anyway, but he knew that as long as he kept you and Xena from ever meeting, Xena's life would be misery. I think he was truly hoping she would one day return to him."

"The pathetic bastard!" I hissed. I jumped up from my seated position on the steps and stalked a few strides away.

Artemis came closer and looked down upon Gabrielle. I could see the concern in her eyes and it gladdened me a small bit to think of my consort with more than one protector.

"Gabrielle, we can never make up for the times we were unable to keep Ares from turning your life black with his evil, but hopefully we can begin to repay you for your devotion. Please, come with me for a moment."

Artemis held out her hand, which Gabrielle immediately took. My consort's face held an expression comprised of equal parts awe and trepidation. She followed the Goddess to a spot in the Temple a small ways apart from the rest of us. I left them their privacy, knowing that Gabrielle would never really belong only to me. She was my savior, but she also saved the world from me. I would simply have to learn to share.

"You are one lucky Conqueror," Aphrodite said. She kissed me on the cheek and I believe I felt the beginnings of a blush..

"I just recently found out that this was the deal that Artemis made with father. Once Gabrielle found her way to you--"

"And saved the world," I interjected.

"That's right." Athena grinned. "After she did all that, Artemis was within her rights to claim Gabrielle as the chosen Queen of the Amazon Nation."

"She's going to be a busy young woman. You both do realize she's going to be my Queen too?"

"Don't pout, Conqueror. We wouldn't dare presume that our needs come above yours. We are only Olympian Gods after all," Athena replied sarcastically.

"Well, as long as you all realize that then." I smirked over at the two Goddesses beside me.

Gabrielle returned alone. She had a pleasant, even relieved expression on her face.

"All right?" I asked.

"Mmm hmm." Gabrielle answered with a nod of her head. "May we please go home now, Xena. My head is spinning with all of this."

"Yes, love. Athena, as always, it's been interesting. I thank you for your patronage." I bowed deeply to the Goddess. I may have always been testy with the Gods, and their meddlesome ways, but I knew enough to give respect when it was due.

"Gabrielle," Athena addressed my consort. "What can I offer you child? A repayment of sorts?"

"Thanks you, but I have everything I want," Gabrielle answered.

She wrapped her arm around my waist, and I draped mine protectively across her shoulders. I took a moment to allow Athena and Aphrodite both to see my small gloating smile.

"Hhmm, there's nothing you wish for, Gabrielle?" Athena prodded.

"Well . . . " Gabrielle trailed off.

"Ahh, yes," Athena nodded her head. "But do you think Xena is ready to change diapers?"

I felt the heat creep up my neck and I wasn't sure I was prepared for the turn this conversation had taken.

"Can't I even know? Will it happen someday?" Gabrielle pouted and looked down at her feet.

"Heavens above. What do you do when she makes an adorable face like that?" Aphrodite turned to me as if for advice.

"I usually give her what she wants."

Athena chuckled softly then drew closer to Gabrielle. "It's not such a good thing to know too much about our future, is it?"

I'm sure Gabrielle was remembering some of her more disturbing visions of the future. Athena bent over and whispered into the small blonde's ear. Gabrielle's whole face lit up and I worried at the expression.

"Is that good enough?" Athena asked.

"Yes, very much so. Thank you, Athena."

"You're welcome, my child. Now, off with the two of you. I shall see you on your wedding day. Wait, Xena, look 'round here."

Athena lightly grasped my chin and tilted it upward. "You have one small cut that I didn't attend to," Athena said.

I felt a shock run through my body, more so than during any other healing. My heart raced along, then just as suddenly returned to its regular cadence. After saying our goodbyes, Gabrielle and I walked from the temple, hand in hand.

"Gabrielle," I drawled. "You were supposed to stay in the palace." I tried to muster a stern look and somehow failed.

"I know, love, but Xena . . ."

"Yesss?" I drawled, arching an eyebrow down at her.

"I just knew that you needed my help."

It was to be the first of many times that we would exchange those very lines over our many seasons together, and I would always love every moment. I was now certain that the day would come when Gabrielle would truly be free enough to do nothing I ever told her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment

Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea

Conversation related to Queen Gabrielle by Athena, patron Goddess of the Empire.

"Do you think she noticed?" Aphrodite asked Athena.

"No. She'll notice someday, but probably not all at once."

"Until her wedding night. She's probably going to wear little Sweet Pea out." Aphrodite laughed at the thought.

Athena joined her sister in amused laughter. "Xena deserves a little something extra in her life too. With her heart twenty seasons younger, she and Gabrielle can grow old together."

"She may look the same, but she's sure not going to feel the same!" Aphrodite laughed again as the two sisters vacated the temple.

End Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript

* * * * * * * * * *


Gabrielle had popped her head into my private study as I finished sealing the last scroll I had been working on. So much had filled our day and yet the sun hadn't even set. As much as we wanted to spend our day in one another's company, there was much to do before tomorrow's event. Gabrielle wisely spent some of her afternoon at the Amazon camp. She met with a few of their elders, then spent the rest of the time answering questions about herself, and where she saw the future of her new people.

I had a thousand small tasks to complete, not the least of which was finding Solan. I hadn't seen the boy since they'd taken Broh away, and I was certain my son must be off somewhere wrestling with old demons.

"Yes, little one?"

"Xena, I need to speak with you."

"Of course, come in."

"I mean, in an official capacity."

I looked up, some sharp quip on the very tip of my tongue. When I saw the serious expression, and the look of hesitation upon Gabrielle's face, I thought better about using my witticism. It was apparent that Gabrielle didn't yet know how she and I were to handle our new roles, she as Amazon Queen, and myself as the ruler of the Empire. I was determined never to cause her to lose face, nor to be intimidated of me. So, I straightened up, prepared to take her words seriously.

"Very well, Gabrielle. What would you speak of, something concerning the Amazons?"

"Yes, in a way. I've invited a number of the Amazons, along with Kaleipus and the Centaurs to the Great Hall. I thought you might hear a request?"

"I don't see why not," I answered. "Lead on, my dear."

I pointed the way out the door to a slightly confused Gabrielle. I think she thought it was going to be harder than that.

Our guests were already in the Hall when we arrived. Solan nodded to me and smiled, but I saw the sadness in his eyes. There were an equal number of Centaurs and Amazons, along with two of my staff members, one set to scribe this official meeting. Gabrielle was certainly prepared.

I assisted my consort into the chair beside my own and bid her to begin our meeting.

"I would like to address the Amazon Elders, if I may?" Gabrielle turned to me and I nodded my head.

"As you know, I find myself in the position of serving as Queen to all of you, and becoming Queen to the Greek Empire. As much as I would enjoy visiting Amazonia, and even staying with you for a short while, I have to say that my home is here in Corinth. I cannot, nor do I desire to leave my home here in the palace. I have offered to return the crown to an Amazon more deserving, but it seems I've been out voted on that point. In keeping with your need to have a full time ruler, I have appointed Ephiny as Queen Regent of our Amazon tribe. I have heard only good things of her and I know she will do an admirable job."

Gabrielle paused as Ephiny received congratulations from those around her. The Amazon warrior and I traded smirks, feeling, I was sure, as if we'd both won.

I've talked with Kaleipus, Ephiny, and the Amazon Elders," Gabrielle now addressed me. "We have some maps to show you."

One of the young scribes placed two maps in front of me and I instantly noted that the second map had new, hand drawn boundary lines along the borders of the lands that belonged to the Empire, and the two races who sat before me.

What I propose, My Lord, is a new division of lands, now owned by the Empire, yet formerly belonging to both the Amazons and the Centaurs. The borders that run to the north and south would be expanded by forty leagues, and the two Nations would share this land."

"Share?" I asked skeptically. "I seem to remember them having a problem doing that."

"In the past, My Lord," Gabrielle explained. You see both the Amazons and the Centaurs have agreed to change their ways. Their time of enmity and hate is over and they wish to begin anew. They've each agreed to a set of programs, so that the younger generations can learn from each race. In addition, families could settle the shared land. As it stands right now, if a male child is born to an Amazon, she must either leave the tribe, or give her child away. The shared land would allow Amazon families to stay together without losing the essence, or the integrity of the tribe."

Gabrielle paused and I had to admit that she was quite well prepared. I knew that I wouldn't be saying yes simply because she was my consort, but because it was an intelligent and well thought out plan. I waited for her to drop the other boot, though.

"Lastly, the Empire would agree to not only give up the lands marked on the map, but would also give up any claim, now or in the future on such land. The Amazons and the Centaurs would truly rule their own Nations."

I have to say that one shocked me. Gabrielle was turning into quite the negotiator, but I had to think like the Conqueror, and not Gabrielle's intended.

I stood up and walked around the room, my hands clasped casually behind my back. I always thought better moving around like this.

"There is something that all of the players in this scenario should realize. I am caught within a tight spot. While the points you have brought up are ones to consider, and are not without merit, there is another aspect I must consider. If I give in to requests such as these, people will believe that it is because the Amazon Queen is my wife. I must take care so that the rest of the world does not see my actions in such a light."

I paused briefly to look at Gabrielle's face. Her expression remained neutral and I silently applauded her control.

"So, my question is, what will the Empire receive from an agreement such as this?"

"Peace," Gabrielle answered without hesitation. "I have in my hands," she rose and stepped forward, "A treaty between the Amazon and Centaur Nations. They agree to all of the conditions set within regarding an immediate peace between their two nations. In addition, they agree to swear fealty to the throne of the Greek Empire."

Gods, this girl was amazing! I had a precarious relationship at best with these two nations. If they swore fealty to the throne, they would be committing themselves to me should I ever need their assistance during times of war. Now this was the kind of win-win situation a Conqueror prayed for.

"Done," I stated. "Make it so," I said to the scribe.

Once we'd all spoke our piece, and I put my seal upon the agreements, I stood and bowed low to Gabrielle, who appeared nonplussed by my actions.

"My Queen, you are truly a worthy and gracious adversary." I smiled and watched as my consort smiled in return. I also caught the breath she nervously released. Gabrielle had come through her first royal negotiation, and had succeeded where few others had.

* * * * * * * * * *

The sun was easing its way behind the eastern ridge, and it made for a beautiful magenta and azure sky. I sat on the stone bench in my rose garden thinking of all that the recent days had brought about. Gabrielle had to go for one last fitting to her gown, which brought tomorrow evening's event that much closer. I had so many things on my mind, so many regrets, and hopes for the future. I had to get away and find some peace. My garden always brought that to me. Surrounded by the multicolored flowers, watching birds and butterflies flit past in a vibrant burst of speed; all of this calmed me in a way nothing else in life could.

"Conqueror? Uhm, Xena?"

I recognized the hesitant voice and smiled at the sight of my son. "Solan." I rose and he stopped before me.

We both hesitated awkwardly, as if we weren't entirely sure how to greet one another now. I told myself that I wasn't going to keep my heart, and my emotions, locked up anymore. I threw caution to the wind, and embraced my son. He seemed unsure at first, his body stiffening slightly, and then I felt him relax. His easy smile when we separated told me that we'd both come so far.

"Gabrielle told me that you like to come out here to think," Solan said.

"Yes, it's sort of an extension of my study. How are you, Solan?" I inquired about more than simply his health, and I hoped he understood that.

"I'm fine," he quickly answered. He looked up at me and I could see the pain still lingering in his eyes. "Well, I will be," he finally admitted. "What Broh did . . . I didn't know. I never had any idea. He could be angry and spiteful, but I never knew him to harbor such anger, such a thirst for revenge. It sickened me."

"Don't judge him too harshly, Solan. Although it doesn't justify his actions, he'd experience some of my more hateful past. He was consumed with a lust for revenge. I don't think I ever made it any easier for him to accept the ghosts of our past and to move on."

Solan nodded, and then he looked around as if noticing the true beauty of the garden for the first time.

"It's quite peaceful here, and beautiful. No wonder you come here to relax."

"Haven't you been to the garden with Gabrielle before?"

"Yes, but never this far. Gabrielle always told me it would be for you to show me," Solan answered.

"Then come with me," I smiled in answer. "Come, walk with me." I urged.

We walked deeper into the garden, until we were in an area that was quite private. Surrounded by high hedges and thorny bushes, this space could only be seen from above, via our bedchamber window. This was my private rose garden. This was the plot of land I had first portioned off to my landscapers. I showed them some crudely drawn sketches of the blossom that the child I now know was Gabrielle had given me. I had no plants to show them, but they immediately knew what I wanted. I remember hovering over them as they carefully planted each of the plants. I expressed my constant doubt in their abilities, since I had no faith that the thorny branches they buried in the ground would ever blossom. Yet, blossom they did.

In the past ten seasons, I'd taken more of an active interest in my garden. I planted and weeded, and I took more pride in the results after I'd worked a little myself to attain the beautiful blooms.

"It's breathtaking," Solan said, as he turned in all directions to examine the flowers.

I dropped to one knee and pulled some weeds that I spied taking root in the rich soil. Intent as I was at eradicating the weeds, I didn't at first hear Solan's comment. Then I heard his, now familiar, chuckle.

I turned my head and looked up into his amused face.

"Forgive me, but this isn't a view of the Conqueror that many men would have."

I grinned myself. I stood up and dusted the dirt from my hands off onto my trousers. "I suppose you're right, but I trust you will keep my secret?"

"Absolutely," he answered. "You take good care of them. They seem to be flourishing here."

"They're a lot like people in that respect." I reached down and pinched some dead blooms off a particularly delicate bush. It was a lovely ivory color, clean and pristine looking. "Take this one for instance. It needs more care than some others do. It needs to be protected a little bit more. I have to watch that it doesn't get too much sun, or too much water. Sometime it doesn't know how to take care of itself. It's as if it lives only to please. It puts on more blooms than it could ever hope to cause to blossom and yet live, but still it tries. If I didn't pinch some off, the whole vine would wither and die." I paused and noticed that Solan was listening intently to my story.

"This one is my most fragile plant, but look here, near the base. See how thick the branches are? It has a good, strong foundation, and although it might require outside help and protection occasionally, it will last for a very long time. It may not be the strongest plant, but it's smart. Notice how in the heat of the day, just before the sun sets, it curls its petals in against itself? It conserves its water that way. Plants like this are timeless. They will flourish with the extra care and attention I pay to them."

I rose and took three strides to my left, off the stone path.

"Now, look at this one here." I pointed to a sprawling mess of vines that grew over the hedge, and part of a low stone wall. The blooms were a brilliant ruby red.

"It seems to go exactly where it wants to, doesn't it?" Solan observed.

"Precisely. It's a wild rose. I never planted it here. Most likely carried inside some bird or the seed was in the manure we spread into the soil. This is the kind of rose you find growing out of the rock crevices up on the Acritas range," I said of the mountainous area in the Peloponnese. "These roses grow without much care at all, anywhere they can find a spot. It does best on its own, away from others of its kind. It will flourish when it finds purchase in a garden of cultivated roses, away from other wild plants. In fact, if I were to tend this one the same as the white rose, it would perish. It's what they mean when they say you can't tame a wild rose. If I treated it as I do the white rose, it would feel smothered. Like people, there are some who do better when they're not socialized too much. You can literally kill a wild rose with too much kindness." I finished with a smirk.

"Just like people," Solan mused. "The delicate flower has the same characteristics as Gabrielle. The wild rose reminds me of you. They're both beautiful, but they have different needs to flourish and grow strong."

"Excellent interpretation!" I slapped him on the back. "You're beginning to see what I see out here."

"So, where do I come in within your rose garden?"

"Step over here," I said, and I motioned with my hand.

I pushed aside a long stem of the papery, pink blossoms known as myrtle. They offered shade to the small bushes. Besides, myrtles were never cut down in my garden as they were associated with the Goddess Aphrodite. Partially hidden under the myrtle branch was one of my most beautiful rose bushes.

The plant was approximately three feet tall with blooms in various stages all over. The full blossom was a deep red color, so deep a hue as to be almost black. It looked as though a painter had come by and carelessly dripped white paint from his brush onto the red blossoms.

"Exquisite," Solan breathed the words. "How did you get it this way? It looks like it's one half of the white rose, and the other half from the wild rose."

"You're quite right. I didn't do a thing, though. This plant came up all on its own. There's a word for it, my landscapers would know, but it's sort of a mix. Wild rose meets cultivated rose, and this is their offspring."

"So," Solan chuckled as he stood up straight. "You're my mother, but what kind of plant was my father? I mean, what does this make me?"

"Merely a petal of the rose, my boy. No more no less. Solan, your father was a decent enough sort, I suppose. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking he was more than he was, though. The centaurs caught him at the point I was, in my life, when I met Gabrielle. Borias was a warlord, just as wild and full of the wanderlust as I was. He just saw the light a lot sooner than I did." I motioned Solan to sit beside me on one of the stone benches that I'd had placed throughout the garden.

"Solan, you'll have characteristics of the wild rose, to be sure, but you'll not be fated to emulate it unerringly. You have my looks, it's true, but you are not me. Look at my life, my son. Look at how long it took me to change my path's direction, and how many people I hurt along the way. You've made a good start here, Solan, keep that going. You have the power to be different than I ever was. You can take the best parts of the wild rose, and the cultivated one, and create a new mix. The time you've spent already with Gabrielle has changed you. I could see that at once."

I watched as his brow furrowed together at the mention of Gabrielle's name.

"There's something more between you an Gabrielle yet, isn't there? Something I'm missing."

Solan shrugged the comment off, but the mere fact that he hadn't answered me convinced me of the fact.

"Solan, look at me." I dropped to one knee before the boy and in an unconscious gesture; I reached up to brush the hair from his eyes. It reminded me of the numerous times I'd felt Gabrielle do the very same thing to me. I fully expected him to pull away from me then, but I couldn't have been more wrong. He was suddenly that small child again; looking at me with an uncertain gaze.

"I'm afraid if I voice my concern, you'll think me a child."

"Well, you are my child." I grinned slightly to try to put him at ease. "Please, Solan, tell me what troubles you about Gabrielle."

"All this . . . she . . . I mean. You did it all for her," he finally blurted out. "I mean, you changed for her. Why couldn't you change for me? Was it because I wasn't good enough? Did you know I'd be bad when you gave me away? I know Gabrielle is so good, but--"

"No, Solan, wait." I stopped the emotional young man's tirade. "Is that what you think? That I changed for Gabrielle?"

He nodded his head, and I knew he refused to meet my eyes because his own were filled with the same tears that suddenly sprang into mine.

"Solan, my son, no, that's not the way it is. Those were not, nor have ever been my thoughts. Children are not born bad. Hard as it may be to believe, even I was a good little girl at one time in my life. Your grandmother raised me as well as she could, but some things are simply fated to be." I stopped to take a breath, and gather my thoughts. How best to convince your child that giving him away was the best thing you could do?

"Solan, giving you to Kaleipus to raise was the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I ever did. At the same time is was the only noble thing I ever did in my whole life. If I'd kept you in my life, I don't think it would have changed me, Solan. For one thing, you wouldn't have survived long enough to make a difference in my life. Someone would have killed you, kidnapped you, or I would have died trying to protect you. You would have become a target for anyone who wanted to hurt me." Again, I paused and tilted his face upward until our eyes met.

"With Kaleipus, weren't you happy? When you were growing up, did you feel loved, have plenty of friends to play with, and always know there was someone you could consider a parent to come home to at the end of the day?

"Yes, but it was never the same," he answered.

"I know that, son, but you would have grown up with none of that had I raised you, if you'd lived long enough. I couldn't have loved you the way a child needs to be loved because I had no idea how to love. After all these seasons, it wasn't until I met Gabrielle that I even learned what it meant to love, let alone offer that to someone unconditionally."

"Because she's so good? You changed for her. Why couldn't you change for me?"

"Solan," I gently ran my fingers through his unruly dark locks one more time. "I didn't change for Gabrielle. I changed because of her. I hadn't the strength, or the emotional wherewithal to change for anyone. I promise you, son, if I could have changed for you, I would have."

He looked up and nodded. I could see his expression was now one of relief, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. The guilt that children take on often amazed me. Their worries would rival the burden that Atlas bore on any given day. I knew exactly what he felt. All those seasons, I used to think that I was inherently bad, that Toris and Lyceus had been the good children deserving of Cyrene's love.

Solan sniffed and wiped his eyes and nose with the sleeve of his tunic. I smiled and shook my head.

"Here." I offered him my handkerchief. "Your sleeve is meant to clothe your arm. This is meant to wipe your nose."

"Hey, you do make a pretty good mother." He grinned back at me.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I gave my customary roll of the eyes, and arch of an eyebrow.

"I wouldn't mind you know . . . calling you that," he mumbled.

"Calling me what?"

"You know, uhm . . . mother."

"Do you want to call me that?" I asked, uncertain I wanted an honest response.

"Do you want me to?"

I could see we weren't going to get far this way. The apple certainly doesn't fall far from the tree. I decided to take a chance and put my heart out for it to fall or be taken in.

"I would be honored to be called that, Solan. Although, you may pay the price if some realize you're my son. That, and the fact that I can't say that I deserve your love, or the title."

Solan brightened considerably at my words. "Well, when it comes to paying the price. I would consider it a privilege to be known as the Conqueror's son and to Hades with those who don't like it. As to the latter, wouldn't Gabrielle say that love isn't something you can earn?"

"You're hanging around her much too much," I chuckled. "The next thing I know you'll be beating me at King's Men." I leaned over and ruffled his hair, and then placed a small kiss on his temple. It pleased me that he didn't pull away, but reached out and squeezed my free hand. Thank you, Athena, I whispered in my mind.

"I'd like to tell Gabrielle, you know, that it's right between all of us. I only hope that I find someone like her when I'm ready to settle down."

"You will. I'm sure of it. Here," I stood and went to our beautiful hybrid rose bush. I pulled my dagger and made a neat, diagonal slice at the stem of one of the full blooms. "Give her this. She'll know what the giving means. Speaking of future weddings," I nervously began.

I turned my back, took a few steps away, and then paced back. "Tomorrow evening at sunset is my big moment. Atrius will be my second, but Gabrielle insists that Anya, as well as Sylla should stand with her. She has some odd idea that the numbers should match. You know, she has two witnesses standing with her, so I should have two. I just . . . well, I can't imagine anyone I'd enjoy having stand with me more on such an important occasion than my son. Do you think you might, I mean if you--"

"You have a little problem asking for things, don't you?" Solan interjected.

I laughed. "How'd you guess?"

"It must be some keen sense I inherited from you. I'd be honored, mother. Perhaps we could talk after the wedding, maybe about me staying on for a while. I understand that I've been more trouble than I'm worth since I've come, but I truly can be a good emissary. If you have an opening, I'd be honored to work for the Empire."

"It just so happens that we could use a good man. Let's talk more with Gabrielle next week, all right?"

We left the garden together, and I couldn't help but look up at the olive wood statue of Athena that I loved so. On this evening, I could have sworn that the statue winked at me.

To be continued in Chapter 20 (Conclusion): "And What A Feast There Was When They Were Married"

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