The following evening, Makia was summoned to the Royals. She walked the halls with a consuming dread. Terrel had died of his injuries. Stephanie had severe burns on one leg. Dalius believed she would never walk easily again. The third injured, a male servant by the name of Ben, had burns on his shoulders and arms. He would heal with time. He would be forever scarred.

Samuel stood guard. Makia stared at the door. She wondered how many, in addition to the Conqueror, blamed her for the fire.

Samuel took pity upon the cook. "Are you all right?"

Makia turned her gaze to him. "Have you seen the Queen?"

"Yes. We've spoken."

"Is she well?"

"She was worried about the servants who were hurt."

Makia shared her grief, "Terrel died."

Samuel was aware of the death. "The Queen and Conqueror were informed."

Makia turned her gaze back to the door. "What can I say to her?"

Samuel was not sure which of the two women Makia referred to. He spoke regardless of whether the judgment would come from Gabrielle or the Conqueror. "This is one time it may be better to listen. She will be fair to you, Makia."

"But the Conqueror… I saw how she looked at me."

"The Conqueror does not rule alone. That is to your benefit." Samuel opened the door intent on no longer feeding Makia's agonizing uncertainty. "They are expecting you."

Makia had no choice except to enter. She found Gabrielle and the Conqueror standing beside the Royals' desk. The Conqueror took her leave, going out onto the balcony. Gabrielle turned and waited for her beloved cook to approach.

Makia bowed, an uncommon gesture marking the formal nature of the audience. "Your Majesty, you asked to see me."

Gabrielle kept a stately yet gentle tone. "How are you, Makia?"

Few had asked her that question. "It is a difficult time."

"Yes, it is. Targon presented his findings. He questioned the wisdom of having a barrel of oil so close to the hearth."

Makia accepted responsibility, "I shall never make that mistake again."

"I'm sure you won't." Gabrielle excused the cook. "Thank you, that will be all."

Makia looked from her Queen to the solitary figure of the Conqueror, who surely listened to the brief exchange. She returned her gaze to Gabrielle. "Your Majesty, I don't understand."

In deference to Xena, Gabrielle arrested all desire to embrace Makia. "We all have the duty to learn from our mistakes. I can ask nothing more of you. I understand much work has to be done to repair the kitchen. I will let you get back to it."

Makia realized that Gabrielle's compassion had saved her from punishment. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

"You're welcome."

Makia turned and walked toward the door. Xena entered from the balcony and watched as the old woman exited. Gabrielle was right. There was no reason for her to punish the cook. Makia's good soul was bearing the weight of inconsolable guilt.

Makia took a lonely walk back to the kitchens. She had not lost Gabrielle's regard. She continued to fear she had lost the Conqueror's.

Terrel's body knew flames a second time. His soul was set free on a funeral pyre as the Sovereign and the Queen stood witness along with the whole palace household and a respectful contingent of the Royal Guard. After the ceremony, Gabrielle found and embraced Makia, not only as a personal but also as a public declaration of her support of the beleaguered woman. She also went to the Guardsmen she had not seen since the fire. Stephen was one of the men.

He greeted her warmly, "Your Majesty, it is good to see you well."

Gabrielle took his hand. "Sam told me you helped fight the fire."

"I only did what every other man did."

"I don't like fires. They can be so merciless."

"At least you and Makia were able to escape."

Gabrielle smiled. "What luck was that? I wouldn't have thought of the vent if it wasn't for a mouse running over me to get to it."

Stephen returned the smile, feeling a sense of peace for the first time since Xena's banishment. Gabrielle would have had no smile for him or anyone else if he had not stopped the Sovereign from entering the inferno. "We should find the mouse and give it a proper reward."

"That would be fun wouldn't it?" Gabrielle sighed as she looked to the pyre and Xena's lone figure standing beside it. "Life does go on, doesn't it?"

Stephen felt the harsh truth. "Yes, it does."

"I will see you soon." Gabrielle gave the Major's hand an affectionate squeeze before moving on.

Two days passed. Targon included an update of the kitchen repairs in his daily briefings. Good progress had been made. The main kitchen was once again functional. The administrator finished his report. He waited, hoping the Conqueror would inquire after Makia's well being. He was once again left disappointed. Targon, like the other members of the household, had no trouble recognizing Makia's loss of the Conqueror's favor. They could say little to comfort the cook. They doubly blessed Gabrielle for mitigating the estrangement.

The following morning Xena, dressed in her white robe, exited her bath. She found Makia setting the dining table with breakfast. Xena wondered whom the cook sought, she or Gabrielle. The Sovereign stood a handful of paces away. She retied her robe, a physical act to fill the silence.

Makia paused in her work. "Good morning, Your Majesty."

"Good morning, Makia." Xena decided not to question the cook's presence.

"I hope you find the breakfast assortment to your liking."

"In all our years together your meals have never disappointed."

Makia stood straight. "But, I have disappointed you in other ways."

Xena was thoughtful. She stepped closer. "I remember finding a young slave, new to the household, under your orders to scrub the floors after spending an exhausting evening serving a banquet. Weak, she fainted into my arms and begged forgiveness for being a nuisance. You punished her because she told stories to the attentive ears of her fellow slaves and the servants without first asking your permission. You disappointed me that night because you were petty and thoughtless.

"You did not start the fire. It is true that the oil barrel would have been better-set elsewhere. However, it was Terrel who accidentally ignited the oil. The unfortunate man paid for his mistake with his life.

"Our Queen told me that you insisted that she escape the fire before you but that she refused and commanded you to go first. Our Queen was right to say that we all make mistakes. Our duty is to learn from them. You learned and you earned the love of that young slave by caring for her in your own, sometimes gruff way." Xena smiled gently. "And when the fire threatened both your lives, you willingly placed that young, former slave's life before your own. I could not have asked more from you."

Makia failed in keeping a tear from falling from her eye. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

Xena was affected by the cook's obvious need for her approval. "I'm told the kitchens are fully operational."

Makia swallowed, composing herself. "They are."

"So, a special request would be no burden?"

"Not at all." Makia was encouraged, "What would please you?"

Xena gave Makia her request. The cook promised a fine evening meal. She left the suite with a smile, one that touched Xena's heart because she knew she was the reason for it.

Gabrielle opened her eyes to her partner's tender regard. "Hi."

"Good morning."

Gabrielle protested, "You sound far too awake."

Xena chuckled, "Must have been the bath."

Gabrielle tugged on the belt that held Xena's robe, undoing the knot.

Xena tested to see how easily her partner could be distracted. "I brought you breakfast."

"Did you?"

"See for yourself."

Gabrielle ceased working the belt knot and rose to her side, shifting sufficiently to allow Xena to retrieve the breakfast tray from a nearby table and place it upon the bed.

"This looks good." Gabrielle pointed to a cherry crumb pastry. "Isn't that your favorite?"

Xena smiled, "It is."

Xena walked toward the courtyard after completing afternoon drills. Gabrielle caught sight of the warrior and jogged over to her. Gabrielle had just visited with Makia, learning of Xena's morning request. Gabrielle threw herself at her partner, taking Xena in a bold public display of affection.

Xena laughed. "What is this?"

"I just spoke to Makia. She told me of our dinner."

"This for lamb stew. I will make the request more often."

Gabrielle slapped Xena lightly. "You know the lamb stew doesn't matter."

"Oh, then it must be the strawberries and cream."

Gabrielle kissed her nonchalant Lord, "Thank you."

Xena shrugged, "I did nothing but ask my cook for a meal."

"She knows better and so do I."

"Who am I to argue with you?"

Gabrielle grew serious, "You are my Lord."

Xena would not make light of the sentiment, she never could. "And you, Gabrielle, are my Queen."

Knowing that to continue the tone of their exchange uninterrupted would soon lead them to their bed, and having another engagement better not delayed, Gabrielle redirected the conversation. "I am on my way to infirmary. Dalius is going to show me the latest plans for the hospice. Will you come with me?"

Xena quipped, "Am I allowed to express an opinion?"

Gabrielle took Xena by the hand and led her to their destination. "Of course. Keep in mind the hospice is not meant to serve as a field hospital."

"Birthing babies, dressing craftsmen's wounds, easing fevers and palsies. Yes love, I know." Xena was content to follow.

Gabrielle sat on a chair outside the infirmary, an untouched lunch tray beside her. She was deep in thought. She had cleaned Ben's slowly healing burns. The task had caused her to consider the consequences of the fire. In the subsequent fortnight, Makia had struggled with the implicit blame set at her feet. Xena's compassion went far to heal the cook's torn heart. There were other changes, far more subtle and difficult to define.

Samuel stepped up the porch stairs. He observed the untouched food. "You're not eating. Is something wrong?"

Gabrielle was very much in the mood for having a big brother by her side. "I'm not sure. Sam, if I ask you a question will you answer me truthfully?"

It was not like Gabrielle to be so timid in her requests. Samuel braced himself. "What is it?"

Gabrielle wasn't sure how to start, what thread of her concern to articulate. She chose a concrete instance. "I mentioned to the Conqueror that I have not seen Stephen since Terrel's funeral. She said he was keeping to his orders. I could sense she didn't want to talk to me about him. Do you know Stephen's orders?"

Samuel sat down beside his ‘little sis'. He spoke deliberately, "The Conqueror will not see him."

The news surprised Gabrielle. "Why?"

"I don't know exactly what happened outside the kitchen during the fire. The Conqueror had her dagger in her hand. I think she meant to use it against Stephen."

Gabrielle would not believe it. "That can't be."

Samuel presented his case. "I spoke to one of the men who was fighting the fire by that entrance. Right before I arrived the Conqueror had spilled a bucket of water over herself. He thought she was about to walk into the flames. News that you were safe stopped her. I was glad to be the one to tell her."

"I remember she was all wet when she came to me." She looked over to Samuel in complete understanding. "Stephen stopped Xena from…" Gabrielle could not say the words; the image they provoked was too horrible. "He hasn't said a word to anyone?"

"A matter of honor, I'd say. The brothers don't doubt Stephen would give up his life to save her." As a good brother must sometimes hurt a younger sibling with the truth, Samuel spared Gabrielle nothing. "If I hadn't come along I think they would both be dead."

"So close."

"It was."

Gabrielle felt a rising consternation. "How long did my brothers think they could keep this from me?"

"The break is between the Conqueror and the Major." Samuel was clear in his duty, "It isn't for us to interfere."

Gabrielle's voice rose, "But you've told me now."

Samuel kept a keen gaze upon Gabrielle. "You asked."

After a few heartbeats Gabrielle made her decision. "I will talk to Xena."

Samuel stood up. He looked out toward the Guardsmen's quarters. "Is that a good idea?"

Gabrielle realized how completely Stephen held his promise to himself. Neither Samuel nor the other Guardsmen understood what had transpired. "Sam, this isn't about military discipline in the way you might think. It's about Stephen keeping a promise I demanded from him. He did what I asked him to do. I won't turn my back on him. Not only do I love him as my brother, I need him by Xena's side."

After their evening meal, Xena stepped onto the balcony. Gabrielle had debated how best to approach the question of Stephen. She decided to be direct. She joined Xena, waiting until she had her regard. "Why are you angry at Stephen?"

Xena turned her gaze to the horizon. She gave no answer.

Gabrielle was patient. When it became obvious Xena was not going to answer, she spoke again. "He was following my orders."

"What?" Xena's head snapped back to Gabrielle. "You ordered Stephen to stand by as you were burned alive?"

Gabrielle remained calm. "To save your life at all cost."

"My life is not worth yours." Wanting an end to the discussion, Xena reentered their chamber.

Gabrielle followed. "It is."

Xena turned and faced the younger woman. She would not be contradicted. "No."

"Yes." Gabrielle's was a steady, sure statement.

"No!" Xena violently flipped her desk over with one hand and turned toward the fireplace.

Gabrielle stood unflinchingly. Experience had taught her that between them Xena's violence was less a reflection of Xena's anger toward her and more a reflection of the warrior's inability to will away a truth.

Xena spoke in a cool, distant voice. "If this is what it means to share the throne, I shouldn't have come back to Corinth. I should have gone straight back to Scupi from Megara."

Xena received no verbal reply from Gabrielle. What she did hear was Gabrielle's footsteps as the younger woman went to their suite door. The door opened, Gabrielle stepped through and the door was closed.

Xena dropped her head. She reached out a hand to the fireplace mantle, seeking support.

A woman's voice interrupted Xena's thoughts. "I was wrong to tell Gabrielle I liked you in spite of the fact you're my brother's Chosen."

The warrior looked over her shoulder. "Aphrodite… Go away…or do you and Ares have another wager?"

"No bets." The Goddess cast her gaze toward the door. "Why didn't you just slap Gabrielle? It wouldn't have hurt her any less than what you said."

Xena sat down in her chair.

The Goddess sat across from Xena. "Gabrielle has never denied you the right to love and care for her. How would you feel if she started to rebuild the walls she had when you first met? You do remember how careful she was with you? You do remember the first time she came to you willingly, the first time she asked for your consent…"

"I remember!" Xena shouted, wanting silence.

Aphrodite was thoughtful. "She is still careful with you, but in a different way."

Xena did not like what she heard. She set the statement aside. "Gabrielle needs to be more careful with herself."

"You're angry at her because she loves you so much she would die to save your life. Xena, when are you finally going to accept Gabrielle for who she is? Don't you see that if her virtues were any less than what they are you two would never have joined?"

Aphrodite stood up and went to a tall cabinet that housed Gabrielle's scrolls. She opened it and retrieved a scroll. "You should read this."

Xena had tracked the Goddess' movements. "Those are private."

"I don't think Gabrielle would mind this one time." Aphrodite returned to the fireplace and extended her hand. "Take it."

Xena took the scroll, untied the leather thong that held it closed and then carefully unrolled the parchment. She found it to hold a poem.

High above the cityscape

Underneath a canopy of starlight

I search for you

And find that though you reside far from me

You are always with me

I feel the warmth of our bond

You are my light in the pitch darkness of fear

The sword that keeps me safe

A gentle caress that heals

Not knowing the possibility of you I endured

No longer able to see, hear or feel beauty

With you I thrive

Awed by colors

None more brilliant than the crystal blue of your eyes

Serenaded by sounds

None more moving than your song

Comforted by touch

None gentler than from your hands

High above the cityscape

Underneath the light of the waxing moon

The beat of your heart crosses the distance

In rhythm with my own

I commit to the Gods that never again
will I welcome a day without you

Xena raised her eyes from the scroll to Aphrodite. "When did she write this?"

"When you were in Scupi. Xena, do you really regret having Gabrielle in your life? Would you go back and ask the Fates for a different destiny?"

Xena would not lie. "No, I wouldn't."

"You know your connection isn't my doing. It's a gift beyond the Olympian Gods to give. That's how special you two are."

Xena closed her eyes, seeking Gabrielle with her senses. She felt Gabrielle's fear and she knew she was the cause of it. She returned her gaze to Aphrodite. "Thank you."

"The least I could do for Gabrielle. She did win my bet for me."

The Goddess disappeared before Xena could respond. Finally, Xena had confirmation that it was not she but Gabrielle who had been the key to the wager. If the wager was about the Chosen and she was not the key, the nature of the wager went beyond the obvious. She had first assumed that because she was Ares' Chosen and because Aphrodite had given her a wound that it was her actions that would decide the outcome of the wager. After the wager was concluded, she began to reconsider her assumptions. Though the wager was about the Chosen, it did not mandate that the actions of the Chosen would decide the wager. There was another possibility, one that she considered only for a moment before setting it aside.

Ares and Aphrodite may have placed a wager on their respective Chosen mortals. Given Gabrielle's abundant capacity for love and forgiveness, it was not unreasonable to believe that she was Aphrodite's Chosen. By her actions on the cove during that fateful night in Megara, Gabrielle won the wager for Aphrodite. What did not make sense was that Aphrodite would allow her Chosen to be enslaved and brutalized. That one fact alone made Gabrielle's stature as Aphrodite's Chosen improbable. Still, Xena could not completely discount the theory. Now more than ever she felt the theory had merit. Ares and Aphrodite were two sides of the same coin. They were the darkness and the light of the world's soul. They created and maintained the delicate balance. It was not inconceivable to think that Ares' Chosen would have Aphrodite's counterpart as her soulmate. Xena set the thought aside. She had a more immediate concern.

Xena followed her sense of Gabrielle to the Royal sparring chamber. Upon entering she found Gabrielle standing under one of the large window openings. Gabrielle was looking out to the cityscape, staff in hand. Xena closed the door behind her, leaving Samuel posted outside. Gabrielle turned to her, a quiet intent in her green eyes.

Xena went to a far corner where her staff rested. She took up the staff and returned to the center of the room, presenting an unspoken challenge. Gabrielle accepted. She positioned herself a few paces in front of Xena. She remained in ready position, determined not to make the first move.

In their sparring it was uncommon for Xena to be placed in the role of aggressor. It felt odd. She knew if she did not take the lead Gabrielle could choose to step away. She felt Gabrielle's smoldering anger below the placid exterior and was determined to provoke its release.

Xena moved quickly. Gabrielle easily parried Xena's attack, responding with her own aggressive stroke. Their sparring was intense. Gabrielle's mastery of the staff was unparalleled. She had become Xena's equal using technique and agility to counter Xena's strength and speed.

Whatever thought Xena had about giving Gabrielle an outlet for her passions now seemed terribly naïve. Taken to her limits, Xena could only stop the contest by conceding. She feared that if she did Gabrielle would doubt her sincerity. So Xena battled on, relying on her years of experience to stay in the match.

Gabrielle performed exceptionally, driven by a need to make her claim as Xena's equal, as an individual who could not be easily ignored or discounted. In the beginning of the match Gabrielle kept command over her anger and sorrow. However, the longer they sparred, the more tired she got, and the more difficult it was to suppress her emotions. The woman she squared staffs with was her great love, and the one person in Gabrielle's life with the ability to break her with a word or an act of abandonment.

Gabrielle survived Xena's retreat to Scupi because she wholeheartedly believed Xena had a noble reason for choosing to separate. With time her faith in Xena was proven to be well placed. Though Xena's motivation was misguided, it had been driven by love.

Xena's declaration echoed in Gabrielle ear. There would be nothing noble in Xena's return to Scupi. The very thought was proof that Xena's promises came from a temperamental soul. Gabrielle could weather Xena's volatility as long as there was no doubt of her commitment. Gabrielle needed Xena's constancy. She also needed to be free to love Xena. She did not ask for the throne or for riches. She wanted peace and valued no greater peace than a life shared with Xena. She took umbrage with anyone who dared make her justify her choice in a partner.

Peace had been stripped from her. She resented the loss. To her chagrin, she began to cry. Her tears blinded her. She stepped back, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. She stepped up again. The brief delay allowed Xena to discard her staff and grab hold of Gabrielle's as it swung toward her. Xena held firmly to the staff. So too did Gabrielle. They were braced in a standstill as Gabrielle's tears continued.

Xena whispered, "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle pushed off, walking to the nearest window. She leaned against the cold stone as her mind and body adjusted to the conflict's end

Xena placed the staff against a wall and stepped forward, stopping directly across from Gabrielle. She spoke softly, "My first promise to you was that if you spoke the truth no harm would come to you. My second that I would only be with you by your consent. The third that as long as we were together no one else would share my bed…"

"No," Gabrielle corrected softy, "the third was that there would be no violence between us."

"Yes..." Xena wondered how their sparing would be characterized. At moments such as the one that had passed their sparring was far too personal to be sport. "My next promise was a vow that there would not be anyone else in my life."

"And then you vowed that you would never leave me behind again," Gabrielle added without accusation but with conscious reason.

"I gave you the throne and went to Scupi because I believed it was the right thing to do."

"And I let you go without protest because I believed I had no choice."

"It is hard for me to believe that I have your love. Such sweetness in life was only a dream better people than I deserved to hope for."

Gabrielle turned to Xena, "If I must have faith in our love for both of us, I will."

Xena felt how unjust such a burden would be. "If I disappoint you again you have my permission to beat sense into me with your staff. You've proven you are more than capable of doing so."

Gabrielle smiled in relief, "I prefer a gentler persuasion."

Xena was hopeful their mending was complete. "Are we all right?"

Gabrielle leveraged her advantage. "Not quite, My Lord."

Xena entered the Guardsmen's mess hall while many were still breakfasting. At the sight of her the men stood up.

She encouraged them to remain seated by gesturing with her hands. "As you were."

The room fell silent as the Guardsmen waited for the Conqueror's purpose to be made known to them. Xena did not make them wait long. She wore an amused smile.

"My Queen tells me that she is having trouble finding a staff sparring partner. I did not think this could be possible given all who claim her as their sister."

Sentas stood up. "Permission to speak freely, My Liege."

"What say you, Sentas?"

"Our sister has been sparring with the best warrior in Greece and now exceeds my skills." Sentas patted his bottom as he spoke. "After falling on my rump more times than I like to count I need time to let my bruised ego heal."

The room of fellow brothers erupted in appreciative laughter, which Xena heartily joined. Arresting her chuckle, she spoke. "I appreciate your honesty. I will be honest in return. Your sister has the skill to better me in the staff. If my pride can manage that truth so should yours. Your sister welcomes the practice not only to hone her skills, but also to spend time with you who she holds very dear to her heart. Please don't let her down. Must I say more to convince you?"

Sentas answered for the men. "We have sworn our lives to keep our sister safe. What is a bruised ego in light of our oath to her and you?"

The men rallied in agreement, some by voice, others by pounding their mugs on the tables.

Xena was pleased. She approached Stephen. She had observed him keep his eyes upon his mug throughout her exchange with Sentas. "Major."

Stephen raised his gaze. "Yes, My Liege."

"Please come with me."

The Major stood. The Conqueror turned and exited the hall. Many concerned Guardsmen followed their brother's exit.

Xena waited for Stephen on the porch.

"Our Queen has spoken to me regarding your orders. Though I disagree with her priorities, she is my Queen and I will not fault anyone for honoring her wishes. This time, Stephen, you saved me from unnecessary harm. Next time may not be as kind to either of us."

Stephen welcomed the reprieve. "I understand."

Xena was not convinced that Stephen did understand. "Do you?"

The Guardsman explained his harsh quandary. "If I stop you and something happens to Gabrielle neither of us will have a life worth living. And if I don't stop you and something happens to you and Gabrielle survives, then neither she nor I will again know joy. And if I don't stop you and neither of you survive, I will stand alone."

Xena was patient, "You don't understand. Stephen, if something happens… if either your sister or I die, you may very well find yourself standing alone. If we choose to take our own life to join the other, nothing will stop us."

Stephen was shaken. "But Gabrielle lived though she thought you dead."

Xena's voice had never been gentler. "Life changes us. Your sister may not be willing to feel that pain a second time. And for me, I am not sure I will consent to live with the loss even once. Now do you understand?"

Stephen countenance carried the pall of one who knew life in all its degrees. "Life is not fair."

"No, it's not." Xena concurred. "I live with a love I do not deserve. There is both sweetness and bitterness in that truth."

Stephen had no clear measure of the price Xena paid. "Would you have chosen not to have known Gabrielle's love?"

There was a time Xena would have dismissed the question. Instead she honored Gabrielle. "Her love is a reason my life has had meaning. Is that answer enough?"

"It is."

Xena placed her hand on Stephen's shoulder. "Go back to your breakfast. Afterwards I expect you to return to your usual duties."

With their personal discussion at an end, Stephen reverted to formal address. "By your command, My Liege."

Xena measured the man who stood before her. Life was not fair. "Stephen, I'm sorry you have been placed between me and Gabrielle."

"It's my own doing. I'm the one who has grown to love you both." Stephen set aside all formality and for only the second time in his life spoke to the woman as a man and not a soldier. "Xena, I did not consent to Gabrielle's order because I loved her life less than yours."

"I know, Stephen. It's just difficult to understand why you and Gabrielle love me at all." Xena walked away.

Stephen watched her. He was grateful to be invited back into Xena's life. The rare glimpse into Xena's heart had absolved him of whatever lingering doubts he held regarding his loyalties.

For two candlemarks the minor landowner stood on the perimeter of the palace courtyard waiting patiently. He waited for a particular Guardsman who was known to be a confidant of both the Conqueror and the Queen. He sighed in relief upon finally catching sight of him. The landowner shuffled his weary feet, moving with a crooked gate gait to intercept his target. "Major, a moment of your time."

Stephen immediately recognized the landowner. He assumed a private matter needed to be discussed. "This way." Stephen led the man to a tall birch tree where a small bench provided a place to sit and rest. "What is it, Franco?"

Franco remained standing though he was short of breath and his heart beat fast from the spurt of exercise. He spoke between breaths. "Lord Thanos will speak in court today. The Queen should be there."

"Why?" Stephen was unimpressed by anything involving Thanos. "You know the Queen has returned to her practice of not suffering the nobles."

"I do." Franco nodded vigorously. "But what Thanos plans to say will be of great interest to Queen Gabrielle."

"Spit it out, Franco. I refuse to disturb our Queen without knowing the reason why." Stephen scrutinized the man. "Or is it that you are biding for an increase in your pension?"

"No, do not misunderstand my motives. The Conqueror is more than generous." Franco lowered his voice. "It is a delicate subject."

"Franco, I am sworn to both the Conqueror and the Queen."

Franco held his tongue.

Exasperated, Stephen sharpened his tone. "Man, I am ready to put you on the rack. What is it?"

"The heir to the throne," Franco sputtered. "Thanos will argue that there can be no stability in Greece until an heir is chosen."

Stephen shook his head, smiling wryly. "That is an old strategy against the Conqueror."

The informant refused to discount the potential damage. "No one has raised the issue since Queen Gabrielle entered the Conqueror's life. Circumstances are different. The heir does not have to come from the Conqueror's body."

Stephen now understood. "Is the man stupid or suicidal?"

"He may have found a way to exploit the Conqueror's one weakness. She has never shown an inclination for motherhood and she cannot sire a child with the Queen."

Stephen considered what such a challenge would mean to Gabrielle. He knew she adored children. He also knew she never spoke of raising a child of her own. Such things, as all the most private aspects of her life, were not shared. To have the issue become a topic of public discourse would wound her. "All right. I'll notify the Queen. Get to Court. I will be there as soon as I can."

"An heir?" Xena repeated, having listened patiently as Thanos built a case for what she could not imagine. His intent now known, she remained calm. The issue of an heir was one she set aside early in her reign with a vaguely veiled dare that to renew the question was to lay a challenge for the throne answerable only by the crossing of swords.

Lord Thanos continued. "Yes, unfortunately the Queen is not present. I would welcome her thoughts on the subject."

Xena did not like mention of Gabrielle. The heir was not her worry.

Gabrielle, Stephen and Samuel arrived in time to hear Thanos' response. As Gabrielle raced to Court her mind had engaged the problem at hand, trying to make sense of Thanos' intentions. She spoke as she stepped through the crowded hornets' nest of Court. "Lord Thanos, you may address me, if you so choose." Gabrielle paused and directed her next words to Xena in intimate greeting. "My Lord."

Xena nodded. Gabrielle's appearance signaled to her, as well as to all in the room, that the afternoon would not follow the normal course of business.

Thanos turned to the Queen. "Your Majesty, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you regarding this vital issue."

Gabrielle did her best to present a dispassionate interest. "You mentioned an heir to the throne."

Xena fought her desire to sweep Gabrielle aside for private counsel. They had spoken of children only once. The possibility that Gabrielle had been raped by Inis and carried his child presented Xena with the choice of raising the child as her own or losing Gabrielle forever. There had been no doubt in her mind that both Gabrielle and the child would stay with her. That one moment was a watershed in their relationship, bringing them closer together, sweeping aside Gabrielle's doubts. Two women could only have a child by adoption or by obtaining a surrogate sire. For Xena the latter was never an acceptable option. Not for herself. Not for Gabrielle

Thanos responded very seriously, "I did."

"It can be done."

Gabrielle surprised Xena. Xena waited, needing to trust Gabrielle not to undermine her.

Thanos was pleased. He believed he had won the advantage.

Gabrielle continued. "I would consent to bear a child."

Not expecting his plan to play so easily, Thanos struggled to maintain his composure. "You would?"

Gabrielle would agree to bear a child. Xena's heart compressed harshly. She did not want to conceive the possibility that Gabrielle would choose to lay with another, male or female. She realized it was not her decision. Gabrielle had the right to want children and it was beyond Xena to give her such a precious gift. She could only consent and not allow Gabrielle's choice to damage their relationship.

Many of the most powerful nobles were present. Reaction varied from shock to intrigue. Those who had personal access to the Queen and Sovereign, such as Ayers and Judais, were most surprised by the Queen's acquiescence.

Silent thoughts were interrupted by the Queen's response. "I assume you are offering to provide the necessary element."

Thanos blanched.

Gabrielle continued, "I hope I haven't disappointed you and you meant to offer your service to my Lord."

Thanos looked from the Queen, to the Conqueror, back to the Queen in complete confusion. His words stumbled into the awaiting silence. "I… I did not think of myself as a candidate."

"No? My mistake. It is probably for the better." Gabrielle glanced briefly over to Xena. "My Lord and I have considered the black widow spider an appropriate model. She is said to kill the male after mating. She is also said to devour him, but we would choose to give him an honorable funeral instead."

Thanos was aghast. "Why kill the father?"

"It would not do to have the father place a claim upon the throne, and surely for the sanctity of our joining, my Lord should not have to live with the knowledge that a man who bed me still lived in the hope of repeating the act, for no matter how honorable he may be, he surely would take pleasure in his carnal knowledge of me."

Xena had once again underestimated Gabrielle. Though Xena was able to suppress her guffaw, others present were not as controlled as snickers waffled in the air.

Gabrielle inquired artlessly, "How are your sons Lord Thanos?"

Thanos answered without thought, "Well, Your Majesty."


Xena desperately held back a laugh. Again, others were not as successful.

Thanos looked about the room feeling very much a fool. He angrily snapped, "I do not offer them up."

"Tis the pity." Having completed her mission, Gabrielle turned to Xena. "My Lord, thank you for your indulgence. If I am no longer needed, I will excuse myself."

Xena's eyes glistened in amusement. She could not have orchestrated a better downsizing of the troublesome lord. There was a great advantage in having a master bard as your Queen. "Of course."

Gabrielle turned away from Xena. She felt the numbing sense of physical shock as she walked away. She focused her eyes onto the door and mined her internal strength to walk to and cross the threshold.

Samuel observed the change as Gabrielle passed him.

Stephen took note of Samuel's concern. Uncertain of the cause he whispered to him, "What is it?"

Without responding to Stephen, Samuel went in step with Gabrielle, remaining two paces behind her.

Xena felt the wash of emotion through their bond. It swept away her good humor. She tracked Gabrielle's departure. Xena was confused. Gabrielle had just won a great victory. She had silenced any future inquiries to a subject that never belonged in the public arena. Xena stayed seated. She would close the Court session as quickly as she could, then seek Gabrielle out.

Gabrielle entered the stables and began to saddle Spirit.

Samuel was at a loss. He felt uncomfortable addressing her as his Queen. He also felt he stood outside her personal circle. A comment to his ‘little sis' was inappropriate. "I'll saddle up, too."

Gabrielle was firm, "No, Sam."

"You plan to ride alone?"

Gabrielle did not answer him.

Samuel protested, "It's not safe."

Gabrielle paused and looked at him. "I can beat you up with my staff, Sam."

The Guardsman argued, "And if there is more than one wanting to hurt you…"

Gabrielle cut off all further argument, "Sam, wait for me outside."

Samuel was torn between his vow to obey and his vow to protect. Angry, his speech was curt, "I don't like it, I say."

Gabrielle kept to her task. Samuel watched her, his frustration building. Gabrielle was very much like the little sister he once helped raise. She would do the same thing to him – set her mind and do as she liked in spite of his protests. He slammed the stable door open as he walked out.

Gabrielle refused to think or feel. If she did she would collapse where she stood. She finished saddling Spirit, mounted the stallion and rode him out of the stable.

Samuel waited for her. "Will you tell me where you're going?"

"As far away as Spirit will take me." Gabrielle softened her speech. "Please tell my Lord I will return for evening meal."

"She will not like you riding alone."

"No, she won't," Gabrielle agreed, "but I trust that she will understand."

Samuel entered Court and stood where the Conqueror would see him. Xena's anxiety remained in her gut like a swarm of bees. She stood and waved Samuel forward. She stepped to the side of the room securing their privacy.

Xena commanded, "Tell me."

"The Queen rode from the city alone. I am to tell her Lord that she will return for evening meal."

Xena held to one phrase, "'Her Lord?' Did she use those words?"

Samuel nodded.

"All right, Sam."

The Guardsman would not be easily dismissed. "I don't like it."

Xena could see Samuel's radiating ire. "Neither do I. You know your sister. There are times she needs to be away from Corinth, especially from Court."

Samuel tasted his bile. "They hurt her without reason."

Xena corrected him, "You're wrong. Thanos had his reasons for what he did."

Samuel cursed. "He should rot in Tartarus."

The Sovereign vowed, "If he gives me cause I shall send him there without delay." She sought to comfort Samuel, "If it makes you feel better, keep watch for my Queen and let me know when you have first sight of her."

"I'm not going to feel better until Thanos lies dead." Samuel walked away without ceremony.

Xena's gaze cut across the room until she found and held Stephen's. With a slight gesture of her head she conveyed her order. Stephen nodded and followed Samuel.

Gabrielle took refuge underneath a stone canopy that jutted out from a cliff wall. Moss grew upon the walls filling the air with a rich, moist scent. Spirit grazed within sight. The sounds of the forest, leaves falling by force of the wind and animals scurrying under the brush, were her company.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned back against the stone. She returned to the beginning of her day. She awoke in Xena's embrace. They enjoyed a quiet candlemark visiting with one another before breakfast. Gabrielle was grateful to see that their lives had fallen back into place. As a result of the fire and its aftermath, Xena more openly valued Makia and Stephen. On a number of occasions Xena unexpectedly visited the kitchens, briefly visiting with Gabrielle and Makia, her wit enriching the banter and soothing the cook's still pained heart. With Stephen, Xena gave him new choice assignments silencing any lingering doubts of his primacy in her command.

The day promised nothing out of the ordinary. She was in the heart of the city observing construction of the new hospice when Stephen found her and reported Thanos' intent to challenge the realm to produce an heir. Xena never spoke of having a child. Early in Gabrielle's life as a member of Xena's household, she learned that the Conqueror had forbidden discussion of an heir. To Gabrielle the thought of an heir was premature. Both she and Xena were young. It was true -- assassination attempts, wars, and disease had touched them. Thanos could argue that the danger that went hand in hand with the throne made their ages inconsequential. Also true, but beyond Thanos' knowledge, was Gabrielle's private conviction that the loss of Xena's life would equal the loss of both Sovereign and Queen. That truth had never crossed Gabrielle's lips.

Gabrielle's worst nightmare during her years of slavery was becoming pregnant by one her rapists. When in Xena's household she was able to set the fear aside. And when she fell in love with Xena and was invited into Xena's life, she set aside all thoughts of children. Twice later she was presented with the possibility of pregnancy – both related to Inis. Abandoned by Xena, she consented to be with the young soldier. He would have welcomed a child. She took precautions to prevent conception. She was in the beginnings of a free life and she did not want to limit her choices. Inis did not argue with her. They were young and had been together for only a handful of moons. The future was promising and he trusted the Fates would be kind to him. He was wrong.

As a consequence of Inis' assault and her inability to remember the extent of the assault, Gabrielle had come to understand one fact about herself that until that time had not been forged with uncompromising certainty. She would sacrifice her love for Xena to do no harm to an innocent. She preferred never to be placed in a position of having to make that decision. Her fears were assuaged. Xena's love was strong and abiding. Gabrielle did not have to make the choice between Xena and a child. Ultimately, the Fates were kind and she found herself not to be pregnant.

Gabrielle weighed the alternatives of providing an heir to the throne. They could adopt or either she or Xena could choose to lay with a man. Adoption might not be acceptable to the lords. Stability came with a dynasty secured in a royal bloodline. Gabrielle began to cry as she faced the consequences of each of the two remaining options.

Samuel walked the palace ramparts. Stephen had kept his distance, giving the Guardsman time to gather his composure. With the sun setting and his own concern for Gabrielle increasing, he chose to join Samuel.

Stephen offered a loving brother's observation, "She isn't easy, is she?"

Samuel kept his eyes fixed toward the horizon. "She's more trouble than the Conqueror."

"It's only been two candlemarks."

Samuel countenance was severe, "Only?"

"Sam, we're talking about Gabrielle."

"And what? Nothing is going to happen to her? Have you forgotten about Inis?"

Stephen raised his hands in defense. "Hold man… I'm worried about her too. But, it doesn't do any good to imagine all the terrible things that could happen to her. I think if she was in any trouble the Conqueror would be out there searching for her."

Samuel was not appeased. "So you worry only if the Conqueror does?"

"I worry about both of them. It's impossible not to."

Samuel kicked the stone wall, "How did I let this happen?"

Stephen thought Samuel too harsh. "You couldn't stop Gabrielle."

"Not that…"

"What then?"

Samuel's thoughts went beyond the day. "I didn't want to care about her, not the way I do."

Stephen was cautious. He believed he understood Samuel's commitment to Gabrielle. His judgment was now put into question. "How do you care about Gabrielle, Sam?"

Samuel shook his head. "It's not what you think. I'm not like… some of the others. I had a little sister. She was beautiful, alive, a hellion. She drove my Ma insane. My Pa had died when she was three and I was eight. She had a heart that felt for everything that lived and she was smart, quick. Here I was so much older and I couldn't keep up with her. She got sick. For six moons I watched her grow weak and pale. The healers couldn't do anything for her. She was thirteen summers when she died. It hurt to remember her. I decided I wouldn't."

Stephen added, "And then a slave girl came into the household who was everything your sister was. Sam, I've watched you with Gabrielle. You were always there keeping an eye on her even before she knew who you were. You didn't let yourself love her. You didn't have a choice."

Samuel did not question Stephen's affection for their young Queen. "Did you have a choice?"

"Brother to brother?" Stephen sought an oath.

Samuel nodded.

"I loved Gabrielle as my sister before I found out the Conqueror had feelings for her. I still had hope that someday the Conqueror might look my way. It was hard not to resent her."

Samuel never heard Stephen be so honest. "Gabrielle knows doesn't she?"

Stephen offered a rueful smile. "They both do."

"A sister's love keeps you here."

"I think it's more that a sister's love doesn't ask me to be sent away." Stephen looked back to the landscape. "Who would think two women, so different, would turn the lives of men upside down?"

"And inside out," Samuel added.

Stephen smiled. "Breathe easier, Sam. Here comes our sister now."

Samuel followed Stephen's eyes. A white stallion and his rider had broken out of the forest at a full gallop. "Look at her." Samuel appreciated the beauty of the image.

Stephen began to walk down the steps. "I'll tell the Conqueror."

Samuel pulled himself from the sight of Gabrielle. "Stephen… I'm sorry."

"Don't be. My life has meaning. It makes me a happy man." Stephen continued toward the Royal suite, pleased to convey the news of Gabrielle's return.

Informed of Gabrielle's pending arrival, Xena waited in their suite, sitting near the fireplace. Gabrielle entered. To her right she took note of their meal. Her gaze shifted to Xena. Xena stood up and afforded Gabrielle her complete regard.

Gabrielle attempted to preempt anything Xena might have ready to say to her. "Dinner is getting cold," she observed. "I'll wash up."

Xena stepped forward, "Gabrielle…"

"Xena," Gabrielle raised a hand to stay her, "I will not consent to be with anyone other than you. And, I obviously cannot sire a child. For you to have an heir you must look elsewhere. I will not consider what you do a breach of our vows."

Xena had been ready to consent to whatever decision Gabrielle chose for herself. She had not expected it to be so easy, to have Gabrielle choose what Xena would have chosen for them both. There was a price, and Xena saw it etched on Gabrielle's face. Xena felt a rising shame. She spoke dully, "I understand."

"I won't be long." Gabrielle went to their bath.

Xena watched as Gabrielle disappeared into the next room. She looked about the suite. She felt she did not belong, did not merit her place. An agonizing truth had been forced from the shadows.

Gabrielle exited the bath dressed in her robe. Xena was not in their chamber nor was she in their bedroom. Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling a profound sadness that dwarfed her own sorrow. She knew where to find her partner.

Gabrielle crossed the turret threshold. Xena stood at the ledge. She did not acknowledge Gabrielle's presence. Gabrielle set aside any words she had thought to speak. She went to Xena, easing herself into an embrace. She focused on their connection, feeling the exchange of emotion. Xena silently kept a firm hold on her partner. Time passed as each woman centered herself. Gabrielle did not want to lose Xena because of what she had said. Xena did not want to lose Gabrielle for what she was about to say.

Xena spoke hoarsely, "I once believed there wasn't a sacrifice too great I could make for Greece. Thanos proved to me otherwise. No matter how unforgivable my past wrongs, I will not sacrifice you or my child for Greece. I shall have no blood heir to the throne."

Gabrielle stepped back. "Your child?"

"My son," Xena confirmed.

Gabrielle took another step back releasing Xena completely. "You have a son?"

"Until this moment only I and his caretaker know the truth."

Gabrielle repeated, "You have a son… Xena, how old is he?"


Gabrielle was stunned. "You only now thought to tell me?"

Xena braced herself. Her speech was measured, "I will not allow you to believe I have given anything up in choosing you to be my Queen. You have enriched my life. By choosing to remain childless, you have not impoverished me."

For the moment, Gabrielle set Xena's motivation aside. "Your son… why isn't he with you?"

"When Solan was born I was not fit to be his mother." Xena looked to a distant mirror for the awful truth. "Gabrielle, I wasn't much more than a wild animal on the prowl."

"His father?"

"Borias died the day I gave birth, betrayed by me."

The woman who stood before Gabrielle had become a complete stranger. "You had the father of your child killed?"

"No." Xena's composure was wavering. "Borias and I were at opposite sides of a conflict. I ordered him captured. One of my overzealous lieutenants killed him instead. Solan believes his mother died in childbirth. He also believes I had his father killed."

Gabrielle struggled with the facts laid at her feet. Solon, a boy of twelve years, was Xena's son. She would not have known of his existence except for Thanos' machinations. Silence fell between them.

Xena waited, watching as Gabrielle looked out into the night, her thoughts beyond Xena's reading. Their bond conveyed their mutual turmoil.

Gabrielle turned her gaze back to her partner. She was not prepared to judge Xena harshly for the lie of omission. Xena's motivation for her confession moved Gabrielle to temper her more difficult emotions. "Xena, you're the Sovereign of Greece. Why not go to your son and explain? You have so much to give him. You still have time to be his mother."

Xena did not want the discussion. She did not want to justify twelve years of separation. "Gabrielle, Solan would be a target. I have too many enemies."

"Isn't that the same reason you sent me away?" Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand over Xena's heart. "You changed your mind."

Gabrielle's touched calmed Xena. "You were an adult, mature beyond your years, having lived as a freewoman for nine moons, who chose me with a clear understanding of the consequences of your actions."

"I said ‘yes' only after you came to me and invited me back into your life."

"Because I had no life without you." Xena saw herself with unrelenting severity. Her invitation to Gabrielle had been selfish. The memory brought no comfort. "Solan is an innocent boy being raised to be an honorable young man. I will not allow him to become a pawn in the scheming of men like Thanos. Every day of my life, I live with the possibility that either you or my mother will be taken from me. I refuse to add my son to the list. I have been selfish enough. I must do what is best for him."

Gabrielle was not convinced. "Is it best that he thinks you had his father killed?"

Xena was sharp, "I am responsible for his father's death." She closed her hand into a fist, arresting her emotions. Her voiced dropped in resignation to a defeat she caused onto herself, "I love Solan enough not to deny the truth."

Gabrielle eased her passions. She entreated, "Hating you is no boon to him."

"I have only my word." Xena knew that, if tried, she did not have the means to effectively argue her innocence. Her son would require greater evidence from her than she was able to give. "I have no proof."

"He should hear the words from you and decide for himself."

"A royal visit could put him in danger." Xena would pay any price to keep Solan safe, including the forfeiture of her great love. I say ‘no,' Gabrielle."

Gabrielle accepted that Xena would not alter her decision. She had lived with the decision for twelve years and Gabrielle was surely not going to convince Xena of her error in the course of one evening. The revelation of Solan's existence brought to light another truth. Gabrielle would not set it aside without mention. "Xena, you lied to me. You still have your secrets."

"I told you no lie." Xena stepped aside. "You never asked if I had a child. That is different than deceiving you about Lila's death."

Gabrielle refused to accept the distinction. "You never asked who owned me."

Xena's anger came to the forefront. "Keeping the fact that Tracate had owned you placed me at a disadvantage. Not knowing about Solan only kept him and you safer. Do not compare the two."

"You are more a master of words than I am." Gabrielle wondered how deep Xena had buried her secret. "Would you ever have told me about Solan?"

Xena answered honestly, "I don't know."

"Then I owe Thanos a debt though I shall never tell him so."

Xena snapped, "You owe him nothing!"

Gabrielle stepped forward fearlessly, "Because of him I have learned about your child. Xena, you have a son and knowing that makes me see you in a new light. It helps explain a part of you that has remained beyond my reach."

Xena turned her gaze away from Gabrielle, back to the night. "Gabrielle, Greece will not know my son."

Gabrielle took ‘Greece' to mean that she would never meet Xena's child. She felt the loss. There was a palpable distance between them. Gabrielle believed Xena needed it to be so. She placed her hand on Xena's arm. "I shall wait for you."

"Don't." Xena looked down to Gabrielle's hand, unable to meet her partner's eyes. "Eat without me. I'm not hungry."

Gabrielle had no appetite. Still, she left Xena to her solitude. It had been a difficult close to a day of unexpected events.

Gabrielle woke up with a start. Dawn had broken, the sun offered a muted light, enough for her to study Xena and be reassured that all was well. Her dream had been vivid; its reoccurring nature compounded its effect. The dream had come to her for the third time in ten days. She saw Xena lying in a pool of her own blood, her body torn as if by a wild animal. Gabrielle had not spoken to Xena about the dream. It had been less than a fortnight since Gabrielle had learned about Solan. Xena's mood had quieted and Gabrielle did not want to cause Xena any worry. Daylight brought little relief. Gabrielle found it difficult to rest her eyes upon the warrior. Awake, the images of her nightmare would unexpectedly infringe upon her mind's eye, causing her to see Xena bleeding horrifically.

Gabrielle got out of bed and donned her robe. Seeking solitude, she took the stairwell passageway to the turret. Crossing the threshold, she turned her gaze to the niche she had huddled in the day she mourned Xena with ceaseless tears. She did not want to return to that merciless sorrow. Her dream raised the fear that she might soon do so. Gabrielle stepped to the turret ledge, to the place Xena gravitated to as she looked up to the stars or out across Corinth, to the lands outside the city gates with their own constellation of lights coming from occupied farm houses.

Xena woke alone. It was rare for Gabrielle to leave their bed before her. Gabrielle had seemed troubled and her early waking did not rest well with Xena. Xena closed her eyes and reached out with her senses for her partner. The fear and sorrow Xena had been feeling in Gabrielle was acutely present. Xena robed and went into their main living chamber. She sat by the fireplace to wait. She would not infringe on Gabrielle's privacy.

It was only after Lacia had completed serving breakfast that Xena decided to go up to the turret. She paused at the sight of Gabrielle's still figure.

"Gabrielle… your breakfast is getting cold."

Gabrielle responded without acknowledging Xena presence. "I'll be down in a little while."

Xena felt the lack of pity in a turned back. She feared their disagreement regarding Solan and whether lies were told or not told had caused Gabrielle's disregard. Disillusioned, she stepped away. She bathed, ate breakfast, and dressed. Throughout her routine Xena glanced toward the stairwell entrance hoping Gabrielle would appear. She was disappointed each time. Unable to bear the ever-growing distance between them, she stepped out of their suite and walked directly to the stables. She sent a groom to inform Targon that she was canceling her morning calendar.

From the turret Gabrielle watched Xena enter the palace courtyard. She followed her Lord's movements. It was not long before Xena rode Argo out of the stables through the palace gates taking a back road that led quickly to open land. Gabrielle settled her own torn emotions before reaching out to her partner. She felt Xena's sorrow and knew that, once again, her only choice to ease her partner's pain was to speak the truth.

By her request the Queen was informed of the Conqueror's return. She entered the stable silently, waving two grooms out. Each knew their duty. They took positions at different entrances, ensuring the Royals would not be disturbed.

Gabrielle sat on a hay bale, silently watching Xena groom Argo. The warrior had her back to Gabrielle. Deep in thought and long trained not to react to Gabrielle, Xena was oblivious to being observed. Having groomed one side of the mare, Xena scratched Argo's muzzle and continued to groom the steed's other side. It was then that she saw Gabrielle sitting directly across from her.

She scanned the stable noting they were alone. "Hello."

Gabrielle smiled easily, "Hi."

"How long have you been here?"

"Awhile. I like watching you with Argo. It reminds me of Scupi."

Xena leaned over Argo, one hand firmly holding a brush. "I would have thought Scupi to be a time you would prefer to forget."

Gabrielle remembered the place of Xena's resettlement with appreciation. "You were safe. I wanted you to be free from the sword and I was willing to live apart to give you that."

Gabrielle's was an unforeseen revelation. Xena recalled, "But when Stephen and I came to your camp…"

Gabrielle understood Xena's confusion. She explained, "You saved my life… and I knew Stephen was right that with you the battle was ours to win… and I had missed you so much. It was selfish of me to ask you to come back to Corinth."

"I wouldn't say that."

Gabrielle continued her recollection, "When we were in Amphipolis I saw the bandages with your blood and guessed your wound had returned, if only for a little while. I didn't know the reason why, but I sensed it had to do with you giving up the throne."

Xena was intrigued, "Did you know when I gave you my sword and chakram?"

"I saw that your chest was bleeding. I accepted the throne because I believed it was the only way to save your life."

Xena's admiration for Gabrielle was sustained by the insight. "I should know better than to be surprised by you."

Gabrielle stood up. "There is something I need to tell you."

Xena nodded.

"I've been having a dream and it has frightened me." Gabrielle took a calming breath. "I see you covered in blood."

Xena was not particularly worried by the image. "Like Megara?"

"It's not my memory of Megara. It's different. More terrible." Gabrielle confessed, "I'm afraid it might be a prophecy?"

Xena went round Argo patting the mare on the cheek as she passed. "Why a prophecy?"

"Why would I imagine you so… hurt?"

Xena searched for a reasonable explanation. "You've seen me hurt many times… the sword wound in Amphipolis, Aphrodite's wound in Megara, after my battles you've cleaned and dressed my wounds."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not like this…"

"What would you have me do? Haven't the Fates and Gods proven to us that we cannot escape our destiny?" Xena was realistic. "One day we all shall know death. In our past I made too many decisions based on what I feared might happen. All that has done is keep me from you. No more. What I want from life is to live it with you. I will not live in fear anymore."

Xena's brave words fell upon the ears of someone who knew her too well to simply acquiesce. "But you do live in fear. You fear for Solan and you fear for me and your mother."

"It is a different kind of fear," Xena assured. "It makes me cautious; it doesn't stop me from living."

Gabrielle feared her own limited abilities. "I want to protect you like you protect me."

Xena smiled. "I trust that you will care for me." She repeated a promise she knew brought Gabrielle comfort: "I won't leave you easily. If I am Greece's sword, you are the keeper of Greece's heart."

Gabrielle took a step forward. "You are Greece to me."

"And you hold my heart. I am not ashamed to admit that I have changed because of you."

"Yes you have." Gabrielle sought reassurance, "Any regrets?"

"Not at all. It is wonderful to have a reason to live."

Gabrielle vowed. "I promise you I will do whatever I must to protect you."

Xena felt the strength of Gabrielle's oath. She would not have her life devalue Gabrielle's. "I don't want you to lose yourself because of me."

"Xena, I will not give you up easily."

Xena returned to the cause of their estrangement. "Gabrielle, has your dream kept you away from me this past fortnight?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Will the dream continue to keep you from me?"

"I don't want it to." A tear fell from down Gabrielle's cheek. "The dream haunts me when I'm awake. I see you like that..."

Xena opened her arms. "How do you see me now?"

Gabrielle smiled, "You are beautiful."

"Maybe having told me the dream, it will no longer have power over you."

Gabrielle doubted. "Maybe."

Xena went to Gabrielle. "Tonight I will sing to you and keep the dream at bay."

Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. "Sing to me now."

Xena looked about, a sparkle of mischief in her eyes, "Here in the stable?"

Gabrielle closed her hand over Xena's shirt and tugged. "In our bedroom."

The Conqueror was in the middle of an arduous Court session. She observed Samuel enter and speak privately to Stephen. Stephen approached the throne. Seeing him, Xena raised her hand staying the petitioner's argument.

Stephen leaned down and whispered, "Our Queen requests your presence. There is urgency in her need to see you."

Xena did not like what she heard. "Where is she?"

"The courtyard."

Xena stood up. "Excuse me, I will return as soon as possible."

Xena felt nothing through their bond to cause concern. She walked out the Court chamber followed by Samuel and Stephen. Impatient, she jogged to the courtyard. There she found Gabrielle mounted on Spirit, beside the stallion stood Argo in full tack. Gabrielle held Argo's reins.

Xena was confused. "What goes on here?"

Gabrielle spoke easily, "Argo is in need of exercise and she tolerates no one but you."

Xena put her hands on her hips in disbelief. "Are you serious?"

Gabrielle echoed, "I am serious when I say you have been spending too much time in Court. I am charged with your care and I say you will spend the rest of the day without the rule of Greece as your concern."

Xena could not help but smile. "And what concerns should I have?"

"I hope you will choose to be concerned with my diagnosis and follow my prescription."

Not to be an easy catch, Xena continued querying, "Beginning with a ride and ending how?"

"It depends, My Lord, how many tonics I find necessary to achieve the desired outcome." Gabrielle looked over Xena's shoulder to Stephen. "Major, please return to Court and give the Conqueror's apologies."

Stephen enjoyed the exchange. Only Gabrielle could play such a joke upon Xena and win without any honest resistance. "Yes, Your Majesty."

Xena protested, "Stephen, what do you think you are doing?"

Stephen was simple in his response, "Attending to our Queen's request."

Xena chastised. "I thought you were a member of my Guard."

"I am, My Liege. As I am equally sworn to our Queen."

"Yes, your are, aren't you?" Xena gently touched upon their wounded relationship.

Stephen was steadfast, offering an explanation he had never been given an easy opportunity to share. "It was an oath I gave upon your apparent death. I have had no cause to rescind it."

Xena continued to tread with care, "So how do you judge what best to do when I and our Queen disagree?"

"I am sworn to act in your best interest." Stephen smiled, "At this moment I see no conflict in my oaths."

Xena smiled in return. "Then what are you waiting for?"

"With your permission, My Liege." He bowed slightly to Gabrielle. "Your Majesty."

"Thank you, Stephen." She directed Samuel, "Sam, you know what needs to be done."

Samuel also offered Gabrielle a minor bow, "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Oh, the conspiracy is broad. I am in peril," Xena quipped.

Gabrielle took comfort in Xena's good humor. "My Lord, will you ride with me?"

Xena reached out for Argo's reins. "How can I deny such a request?"

The two women rode through the streets of Corinth. Recognized by many, they were given a respectful reception with occasional greetings. Xena noted the greater ease in which Gabrielle was approached. Xena followed Gabrielle's lead out the city gates. Enjoying the forced respite, Xena did not concern herself with their destination until they reached the river. The location brought a mutually disturbing memory. Xena glanced over to Gabrielle. The younger woman showed no sign of distress. Gabrielle pulled Spirit's reins; halting the stallion at the place Inis had assaulted her.

Xena spoke uncertain, "Gabrielle… here?"

"It's all right." Gabrielle dismounted and encouraged Spirit to roam.

Xena mirrored Gabrielle's actions, setting Argo after the young stallion.

Gabrielle walked to the water's edge. "The Fates are hard to understand. I never would have believed anything good could have come from Inis hurting me." She turned to Xena. "Everything that was good about my life seemed to have ended here. I believed that if I were with child I would surely lose you. Instead you set aside my doubts regarding your love for me. As I think of that time, I'm left with a question I can't come to answer by myself."

Gabrielle brought her to the river for a purpose. Xena would now learn the reason. "And what is that?"

"Xena, knowing how you feel about Solan, what I don't understand is why you would have accepted my child."

Xena did not find the question difficult. It was, however, painful. "Gabrielle, I know how it feels to be separated from my son. I didn't want you to ever know that feeling. I would have raised your child as my own and had given him or her every protection, but there wouldn't have been a day lived without fear for your child's life and for what would have happened to you if any harm had come to the child."

Gabrielle imagined differently. "I believe you would have loved my child as your own and felt the loss equally."

"I will never bear another child." Xena stepped forward and shared a resolution newly formed: "If the day came that having a child was important to you, I will stand by you and I assure you the father need not be killed."

"I am complete as long as you are with me." Gabrielle went to Xena,, raising herself up she kissed her partner with unrestrained passion. She began to undo Xena's blouse.

"Gabrielle…" Xena protested.

"Xena, give me a memory of this place that is of love and not violence."

"Gabrielle…" Xena's cautious nature continued to hesitate.

The young Queen had a strategy, "If you whistle for Argo, we will have a blanket, and her saddlebag has a change of clothes for you."

Xena looked down at her apparel. "Change of clothes?"

"We will be supping at Niko's. Sam is making the arrangements."

The battle had not yet been won. "Do we starve from now ‘til then?"

Gabrielle was prepared. "Spirit carries our mid-day meal and a skin of wine."

Xena surrendered to the inevitable. Gabrielle's strategic skills were never better.

The Royals sat in the back corner of Niko's, a neighborhood tavern in the heart of Corinth. They enjoyed a quiet meal.

"I say the word is out that this is a ‘special night'." Xena repeated the code phrase used by the proprietor to get word to his favorite patrons that the Queen would be storytelling.

Gabrielle turned her gaze in the same direction as Xena's. The tavern was quickly filling to capacity. At its entrance plainly dressed Guardsmen conducted discreet weapon searches. Many patrons came ready to hand over their weapons without comment, knowing the act to be the lone price of admission.

Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. "Will you think again and stay?"

"I will stay, but remain outside. Let these people enjoy themselves without worry of my scrutiny."

"Many are regulars. They have no worry. I'm certain they welcome knowing you are near."

Xena raised Gabrielle's hand and kissed it. "Don't confuse your own preference with theirs. Maybe another night."

"You say as much every time we've come."

"Someday I will be bold enough to indulge myself publicly. For now…"

Gabrielle squeezed her lover's hand. "Xena, you belong here just as much as I do."

"Remember Gabrielle, it is you who has drawn the distinction. I am the Conqueror of Greece. Nothing will ever change that."

Xena stood outside the tavern's back entrance. She turned to her one companion. "Stephen, you'll enjoy the story more if you go in and watch her."

Stephen was not to be dismissed. "I could say the same to you."

"Remember, I have only to ask and your sister will give me a private performance."

"It's different in there." Stephen walked toward the entrance, placing his hand on the threshold. "Watching people from all walks of life following her every word and gesture. Seeing how she plays to the audience, disappearing into the characters. It's quite a sight to see."

Xena waved, "Then go."

"I'll stay with you."

"Don't be a martyr. No offense, but I'll welcome the privacy. I have a few things to think about."

Stephen was not convinced. "You've never been shy in telling me to go away."

"Go away, Major," Xena ordered with a bemused grin.

Stephen smiled, "By your command, My Liege."

Xena chuckled as Stephen entered the tavern.

Gabrielle had given her a day of leisure. Having spent the afternoon by the river, making gentle love, eating a picnic of Makia's cooking, drinking a fine wine, she was left with a longing for more quiet times with Gabrielle. The fire had reminded Xena of the harsh unpredictability of life. Faced with the probability of Gabrielle's death, she felt nothing less than terror.

What she told Stephen was true. She believed she would not consent to a life without Gabrielle. Living without Solan was to live with a constant ache that could never find relief. She pressed the sorrow to a protected chamber in her heart. Solan grew every day a little taller and a little broader. She imagined her son and took comfort in knowing he was safe and loved. Solan's name had been spoken more in the past moon than in the first twelve years of his life. She missed him. She wished Gabrielle was right and that she could reenter his life without causing him harm. The realm's instability in the south prevented any thought of pursing a meeting with the boy. Maybe the Fates would present an opportunity that would give her a diplomatic reason to cross the borders between Greece proper and the protected land of the Centaurs.

Xena's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of applause. Gabrielle had finished her first story.

A merchant stood and called over the applause to his Queen, "A request, Your Majesty?"

Gabrielle recognized the familiar patron. "Sir."

"I am sure many of us would welcome the story of how Greece drove back Rome's most recent threat."

Gabrielle had no choice but to set aside the request. "I am afraid I cannot tell that story. I am sworn not to include the Conqueror in my tales."

"But, this is unfair," the disappointed patron objected. "Your promise robs Greece of its history. Can't you tell the story without speaking of the Conqueror's actions?"

The bard was patient. "There is no story of merit without including the Conqueror's actions."

Xena entered from the back. She called out, consciously keeping menace from her voice, "Who calls the bard's oath into question?"

"It is I," the patron identified himself.

Xena knew the merchant. He stood bravely, earning her regard. "Kilian, isn't it?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"For you I will suspend my objection. If the bard is willing, she may tell the story. I will sit," Xena pointed to the rear of the tavern, "back there and listen carefully to ensure the veracity of her tale."

Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised. "I will tell the story as I lived it and as finer points were later shared with me by witnesses. My Lord should feel at liberty to add to or correct my telling."

The tavern patrons followed the exchange, many with appreciative smiles.

"Oh no, you are the bard." Xena folded her arms. "Be certain you know what you say is true and not legend, otherwise correction will come in a private audience with me."

Gabrielle's eyes glistened as she responded, "My Lord, although as a bard truth of spirit is always my goal, you now tempt me to veer from the course in order to have the pleasure of private counsel with you."

The audience laughed.

Xena would not be outdone. "No need, my bard. You may have a private counsel at any time, merely voice your request."

The audience laughed again. This time their Queen joined them.

Xena's words struck a tender chord in Gabrielle's memory. They echoed those Xena spoke to her when she, as a slave, was early in Xena's household service. "Knowing such generosity is afforded me, I am ready to begin the story."

Though Xena's smile was only for Gabrielle, its effect carried throughout the tavern. The Conqueror had shown herself to Greece in a manner reserved for few. The easy banter between Sovereign and Queen revealed the tender humor and deep love shared. No one present would ever again question why their gentle Queen chose the Sovereign as her lord.

Gabrielle did tell the story of Caesar's challenge, of a Queen's effort to unite the forces of Greece in order to protect its people, of allies responding to a call for help – honoring compacts negotiated under the Conqueror's watch, of a Captain of the Guard bravely facing his brothers' ire and leaving the marching army in search of the one person he believed would ensure Greece's victory and of that one person, Xena of Amphipolis, now residing in Scupi, heeding the call and serving Greece unselfishly. At the story's conclusion, the Queen marched the Royal Guard home victorious.

The audience applauded with enthusiastic appreciation for the bard and with a sincere gratitude to the same woman, their Queen. Their appreciation was equally directed to their Sovereign who had listened intently to the fair account of the difficult days that took her to a new crossroad in her life.

Gabrielle did not speak of their private affair, triggered by Aphrodite's wound. Xena wondered if anyone would dare seek an explanation for her return.

Kilian stood as the room calmed. "Your Majesty, thank you for a fine story."

Again the room erupted in applause. He then turned to face the Conqueror. "Your Majesty, I hope the day will come when you will give dispensation to all bards of Greece to tell your story. Greece would be a stronger nation if as a people we knew better our noble Sovereign."

A number of the patrons called out in agreement.

Xena stood up. "Kilian, I have learned that anything is possible. Time will tell if our royal bard shall succeed in convincing me to honor your request. I shall grant you and her," Xena nodded toward Gabrielle, "that being the subject of my bard's tale was not half as unpleasant as I thought it would be." Xena addressed Gabrielle. "My Queen, may I make a request?"

Gabrielle would remember this night as proof that happiness can be coaxed only so far. Pure happiness is still gifted by the unexpected. "You may."

"A funny story then. Let us celebrate Greece's freedom with laughter."

Gabrielle was always happy to be the bringer of merriment. "With pleasure, My Lord."

The Royals walked back to the palace. It was late and city activity consisted of an occasional pedestrian or rider. Trevor led. To the left Stephen flanked Xena while Samuel flanked Gabrielle to the right. Two more Guardsmen walked behind them. Another four followed in the shadows out of sight of friend and foe alike.

Xena's mood quieted. Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena's and was reassured when Xena gently acknowledged her with a glance. Gabrielle was tempted to speak. She decided it was better to wait until they were alone.

The Royals entered their suite, Gabrielle leading as she had done throughout the day. "I'll run a hot bath. You can wash my back." She went off to complete her self-appointed task.

Xena walked to the balcony. She sat on the ledge, leaning her back against the palace wall, one leg firmly on the floor while the other rested, bent knee on the ledge before her.

The bath filled with steaming water, Gabrielle went to the main chamber to retrieve her partner. The sight of Xena gave her pause. She sensed Xena's melancholy through their bond. She could not begin to guess the cause. She slowly approached, allowing her footsteps to announce her presence.

Xena greeted Gabrielle with a smile, reaching out her arm in invitation. Gabrielle entered Xena's gentle embrace, resting her ear against the warrior's heart.

Xena spoke tenderly, "It was a good day. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Gabrielle continued to feel a sadness she knew was not her own. "Xena…" She placed her hand over Xena's heart, the gesture a silent request that would always recall Aphrodite's wound to them both. Gabrielle received no response. She gently pulled away to better see her partner.

Xena held Gabrielle's searching gaze. There was no attempt to elude the unspoken question. There was a struggle to find the right words. "Take me to Megara."

The request troubled Gabrielle. It was usually for her to suggest a trip to their retreat. She wondered if she had missed a cue from Xena. Gabrielle did not question the request. Aware of pending matters of State she wondered only of the timing. "When do you want to leave?"

"Ambassador Acade arrives tomorrow and it will take at least three days to go over the trade treaty. What do you say in five days?"

"I will let Trevor know to ready my Guard. Do you want me to handle the negotiations with Acade?"

Xena smiled, touched by the depth of Gabrielle's concern. "Let's work together."

Gabrielle tried to be lighthearted. "Acade will be overjoyed with the attention."

Xena quipped, "Only until he comes to understand that you drive a harder bargain than I do."

Gabrielle felt Xena's sober mood lift. "Our bath is getting cold."

"Lead on."

Gabrielle took Xena's hand and guided her back into their suite. They were returning to Megara.

The following morning Gabrielle was awakened from her sleep by Xena's curse.

"Damn it!"

Not expecting the Conqueror's reaction, Targon cautiously stepped back. He waited, uneasy with the Conqueror's intense demeanor.

Gabrielle entered the meeting chamber. She correctly assessed the administrator's discomfort. "Targon, would you please excuse us."

Relieved, Targon made a quick exit, "Yes, Your Majesty."

Gabrielle stood in front of Xena's desk. "What news?"

"Acade is delayed in the south. Megara will have to wait." Xena violently got to her feet and walked to the balcony.

Gabrielle picked up the scroll and read it. She did a quick calculation. Xena's edginess needed an outlet. "Xena, if you ride and meet him you could negotiate the treaty while escorting him to Corinth. We can give him a couple days of hospitality and send him off."

Xena turned to her partner. "Trying to get rid of me?"

"After last night's lovemaking, I think not. I will ride with you."

It was because of their lovemaking that Gabrielle slept late. The pleasures were many and would not soon be forgotten. "Your schedule won't allow it. The hospice…"

Gabrielle's first priority stood before her. "My schedule can be changed."

Xena smiled. "I love you."

"Shall we go together?"

"No, stay. I can leave within a candlemark." She stepped toward Gabrielle. "I'll get Targon to cancel my Court calendar."

Gabrielle offered, "I'll finish the docket."

"Thank you."

"Don't thank me. You're not the only one impatient for Megara."

Xena embraced Gabrielle. "I better get going."

Xena had sent Stephen on a brief mission to the Athens' City Council. Gabrielle would insist on an alternative escort. "Who will you take? Stephen has surely left for Athens by now."

"Two men should be enough. Anton and Geldpac will be able to keep pace."

Gabrielle privately pitied the Guardsmen. They were destined for a hard ride.

Continued - Part 3 of 5

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