Copyright: Yes, I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer.

Feedback: I love it because it is so rare these days. redhope@redhope.net

Homepage: http://www.redhope.net

Write a Review: http://www.redhope.net/xena/review/stranger-form.html

Started: September 23, 2006

Other Fanfictions                      Story Number: 66

Stranger in a Strange Time

by Red Hope

Chapter 21 – Sibling Rivalry

Janice Covington slowly opened her eyes and focused on the peaceful, slumbering features of her new lover. She worked her hand free and gently touched the southerner's cheek.

Melinda reacted by turning her head and she kissed Janice's palm. She then laced her hand through Janice's. "Mornin'."

"Hi," whispered the smiling archeologist. "How'd you sleep?"

"Pretty well," answered Melinda. "How 'bout you?"

Janice squeezed the linguist's hand. "Still tired."

Melinda chuckled then closed her eyes. "We need to get moving… I can't pick up your sleeping in habit."

The archeologist rolled her eyes but retorted, "And you say that like it’s a bad thing."

Melinda smirked then opened her eyes. "Ya said it, Janice." She chuckled at the fake offended look she received. "Come on, we need to get ready."

"What's the agenda today?" Janice untangled her body from Melinda's and slowly worked her way out of the comfortable bed.

The southerner picked up the silk robe that rested on a chair nearby. "I need to practice with the squads this morning. Then I want you to check on Salmoneus for me."

Janice wore nothing as she came up to her lover.

Melinda didn't bother to close her robe yet and Janice took that to her advantage. Melinda grinned when the small warm body pressed against hers then small hands slipped under her robe and went to her back. "Janice?"

"Hmmm?" The archeologist kept an innocent demeanor and she placed a feathery kiss to her lover's chest. "Yes, Mel?"

"We don't have time," reminded the southerner.

Janice noticed there was little to no insistence in her lover's voice. Her tiny frame shook with a silent laugh. Her head dropped back and her glowing green eyes met Melinda's. "Are you sure?"

Melinda arched an eyebrow the archeologist's sexual appetite, which she'd unleashed. "Let's take a bath." Her suggestion was met by the archeologist taking her hand and leading them across the bedchambers.

"What is the point of a bath if we're going to be training shortly?" considered Janice aloud.

Melinda entered the large bathroom that had a tub. "This ain't exactly about getting clean, Janice," huskily whispered the southerner into a delicate ear under her lips.

Janice shivered and dropped her head back to see her lover's passionate face. It’s a good thing these walls are several inches thick, mentally joked the archeologist, because otherwise the entire city would know what happened last night… and this morning.

By mid morning Janice Covington came off the last step from the main entrance of the fortress. She now donned a new long jacket that Melinda had gotten for her to keep her warmer against the cooling weather. The jacket was a combination of white wool and light brown leather that just stopped above her ankles and the leather collar was short. It certainly felt warmer than her Amazon cloak.

Janice glanced down at Hu to check on him then she continued her walk ahead but off to the left some. She observed her friend already warming up one squad for the morning but she needed to collect her men. She hurried across the fortress grounds and went to the small barrack that was attached to the large wall. Just as she made it there Biton was coming out with three other men.

"Good morning, dekarchos," greeted Biton.

The four soldiers simultaneously clapped their fists over their chests.

"Where is everybody?" questioned the archeologist.

"I roused them, ma'am," answered Biton, "They will join us at the field."

Janice nodded then ordered them to go; she wasn't too keen on being late in front of her friend. When she arrived she saw that Melinda was lecturing the dekarchos and his squad about better form. Janice carefully listened to it as she knew she could use some form tips too. She was by no means a master of the sword but she knew she had a knack for it and it would only take proper training.

The Conqueror dismissed the squad then turned her sights on Janice and her thin squad. "You are missing a soldier, dekarchos."

Janice did a snappy head count and she realized she was only missing one person. She focused back on her lover and realized this would not go over well. "He's being delayed, my liege. I apologize for his lack of punctuality."

"I don't want apologies," snapped the ruler, who spun her sword. "They have expectations and responsibilities to fulfill as do you, dekarchos. One of those responsibilities is making sure your entire file is here and timely."

"It will not be repeated, my liege," offered Janice.

The Conqueror pointed her sword at the archeologist. "Let me show you some of my other expectations. Come here."

Janice inwardly sighed as her good morning was instantly deflated. She waved at Hu so he knew to remain still. She then stepped into the sparring field while reaching behind and unsheathing her sword.

The Conqueror grinned and stretched out her sword, she tapped the blade against Janice's. "There are certain fighting skills I expect of every dekarchos." She quickly lunged at her opponent.

Janice was surprised but she recovered hastily and blocked the rapid attacks.

"A solid defense is one of them," growled the ruler.

The archeologist gritted her teeth when her blade met the ruler's. She then whispered, "I take it a solid offense goes along with that." She surprisingly dropped and swiped her sword.

The Conqueror amusingly laughed while she jumping up into the air. She then leaped higher into the air and performed several back flips until she was many paces away from Janice. She gave a loud battle cry then landed on her feet. She grabbed her chakram from her side and aimed it. "And expect anything!" She shot the chakram off.

Janice knew what that weapon could do and it almost froze her. "Act, Janice," she said under her breath and she twirled her sword then saw the chakram nearing her. Janice gave a decent battle cry and her sword shot up through the center of the chakram. She spun the circular weapon on her blade then manipulated it to her advantage and threw it back at her opponent.

The Conqueror grinned at the beautiful display then her hand plucked the returning chakram from midair and she swiftly came at her opponent. She hooked the chakram back just as her sword came at her opponent.

Janice parried the blow and threw in a missing kick.

The Conqueror returned the kick and knocked Janice's sword from her hand.

The archeologist was weaponless and her right hand ached from the kick. She shook it off though and took one step back but she didn't show any fear. She'd been in enough fist fights in her time and especially ones where she was at the disadvantage. Her eyes slightly widened when the sword came swiping at her head so she ducked away. She popped back up and tried to think of a way to even her odds.

The Conqueror knew that Janice was calculating so she tried to figure out what the compact woman was planning. She didn't leave much room for scheming as she surged forward with her sword.

Janice duck over and around the swiping blade. She then hastily spun around her opponent.

The Conqueror flipped her sword around and tried to stab her opponent behind her body.

Janice had moved in time with her back against the ruler's. Her nimble hands shot out and caught the blade to her left. She smashed her knee into the ruler's hand and broke the sword free.

The ruler snarled as she reached behind and snared small shoulders.

Janice cried out when her feet were taken off the ground and she was thrown overhead. She just landed on her feet but her back was to the ruler. Her sixth sense picked up on the next attack and her eyes widened while she dropped just as a fist breezed over her head. She tried to make a dodge for the Conqueror's sword.

The Conqueror knew it as she stepped between the sword and Janice.

The archeologist stepped back and lifted her fists.

The ruler was snide as she raised her open hands. "Come on, shortie." She knew the jest would fuel the archeologist's easy temper.

Janice did react as she threw a wild punch.

The Conqueror caught the punch in her right hand, her fingers curling over the much smaller fist.

Janice used her free fist with a hurling punch targeted the ruler's face.

The Conqueror easily caught that too. Then she leaned down and whispered, "I also expect you to know your weaknesses." Without warning, she disappeared in a blur and took Janice's leg out from under her.

The archeologist groaned when her head hit the hard ground. She opened her eyes and her blurry vision focused on the looming form of the ruler.

"Get up," ordered the ruler.

Janice did just that after one last breather. She got to her feet and bowed her head at her lover.

The Conqueror nodded then dismissed her.

Janice collected her sword first then ordered her stunned men to begin training with the ruler. She rubbed the back of her head for a moment, which was a reminder to her that she'd have a nice chitchat with this late soldier when she figure out who it was.

The training of Janice's squad went quickly then the Conqueror gave them a lecture on better defense as she noticed most of the men were lacking there. She dismissed them to carry out their duties for the day and she took on the next awaiting squad.

Janice, with her squad, marched to the barrack to collect the tenth man that was missing.

Biton got the jump on his superior by rushing into the barrack to retrieve the foolish soldier.

Janice ordered her men to stay then she entered the barrack. She heard Biton's yelling voice so she followed his voice to the back of the barrack where the sleeping cots were stationed.

"Hurry up, fool," barked Biton. "You cost the dekarchos heavily this morning."

The soldier grumbled and picked up his helmet from his small trunk of belongings next to his pallet.

The archeologist had her sword at her side as she stepped up to Biton. She looked the soldier up and down then realized he wasn't a regular in her squad. "Who are you?"

"He's a transfer, dekarchos," explained Biton.

Janice's steel features shifted from Biton to the new soldier in her squad. "I was not informed."

"It was last heartbeat," answered the unknown soldier, "the tetrarchès transferred me last night, ma'am." The solider put on his helmet that thoroughly covered his face.

Janice grumbled then stepped into the tall man's space. She pressed her face closer into his because she knew that intimidation was often half the battle to winning. "What's your name?"

"Toris," curtly replied the soldier.

"Toris," drew out Janice, "the next time you're late you'll be mucking rotting carcasses out of the damn dungeons for a moon. You will be on time for now on. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, dekarchos."

Janice studied the sharp, cold blue eyes above her. "Good," growled the agitated archeologist. She turned on her heels then marched out of the barrack.

"Let's go," ordered Biton in a cutting tone.

Toris rolled his eyes behind Biton's back but followed the pair. He fell into step with his new squad.

Janice led her file out of the fortress and into the city. Her sour mood slightly calmed now that she was outside and enjoying the beautiful autumn weather that ancient Greece was providing. Her first stop would be Salmoneus she decided so she could work some her annoyance out on him. Just the thought of it made her grin.

Salmoneus straightened up when he saw a squad of the Conqueror's soldier marching through the market. He sighed when a fair haired blond materialized at the front of the squad and he pleasantly smiled when his little friend was upon him.

Janice quickly indicated she was in no mood by her angry expression.

Salmoneus stayed chipper looking as he cheerfully greeted, "Ooo goooood morning, female dekarchos."

"I'm not in the mood," snapped Janice. She grabbed onto the edge of the man's stall. "Selling anything interesting today, Salmoneus?"

The merchant hesitantly laughed then held up his index finger. "Now wait, I'm a reforming type of man."

"I bet," chided the archeologist. "Any information for me?"

The merchant fumbled a bit with some of his merchandise behind his stall. "Nothing yet."

Janice's eyes slotted and she partially turned and prepared to wave her men over.

"Wait," recoiled Salmoneus, "I was being honest."

"I find that hard to believe," drew out Janice. She faced him again after signaling her squad to stay put in the street. "The Conqueror authorized me to use any means to make sure you kept up your part of the deal, Sal."

"Salmoneus," corrected the merchant.

"Whatever," waved off Janice, "Now listen, if you have anything to tell me do it now. Or else my squad will be happy to shake it out of me."

"Alright, alright," gave in the merchant. "It's not solid but I heard from a fellow merchant that there was this guy asking around about you."

"What?" hissed the archeologist.

"Don't kill the messenger boy," defended Salmoneus. He leaned over his stall and quietly added, "He was asking about where you came from… if you're related to Gabrielle, that rebel leader." He pulled back then mentioned, "You actually do look a lot like her but I think she's taller than you."

Janice's right hand shot out and she yanked the man over the stall by his collar. "I'm really not in the mood for short jokes, Sal."

Salmoneus waved his hands at his little friend then squeaked out, "Well honestly the shortness becomes you because people can easily see your beautiful green eyes." He smiled brightly hoping that would save him. "Especially the fire in those green eyes," he said under his breath.

Janice just wanted to sock the man but knew that wouldn't help her. She tossed the man back then hotly demanded, "Who was this man?"

The merchant straightened out his mock Chin robe and replied, "Nobody knows because he was wearing a hood. Does that surprise you?"

The gruff archeologist grumbled, "No." She then sighed yet ordered, "Keep hunting around for more information. Or else."

"Or else...?"

Janice was half a step away but she turned back and completed her threat. "Or else the Conqueror will be out here to question you herself." She tilted her head. "And she is in a fouler mood than me today."

Salmoneus swallowed then showed all his teeth in a smile. "I'll work diligently on the mystery man."

The archeologist nodded then moved away and signaled her squad to follow her. She continued the sweep of the city that was a normal routine of their duties.

Salmoneus sighed in absolutely relief when the squad marched past him without any other incident. He kept watching them from behind his stall however something struck him odd about one of the soldiers. He also realized that the particular soldier glanced back at him but quickly turned away. Salmoneus shrugged it off then called out to some passing customers.

At Helios high Janice ordered everybody to take their usual candlemark break. She separated from her men and only Hu followed her. She decided to see if she could catch up with Perdicus so she went to the market where she'd agreed, with Perdicus last night, to meet up. When she arrived there it wasn't long before she found the faction guard.

"How goes things?" questioned Janice. She stepped up to a stand whose merchant was selling food.

Perdicus stood beside her and decided he too would get something to eat. "We're not having much luck either. We can't seem to find out much about this guy."

Janice sighed then offered her small amount of information. "It seems Salmoneus heard that somebody is asking around about me. He thinks it’s the same guy that bought the ring from him."

"Salmoneus? That merchant right?"

"Yes," answered Janice. She turned to the food merchant and ordered some food then paid the man. She stepped aside and let Perdicus order too.

"We haven't even heard that," stated Perdicus.

The archeologist sighed at the lack of luck they were having today. She plucked a skewer of meat from her small wood plate. She held it down to Hu so he could nimble on the meat. "How's the faction now?"

The guard paid the merchant then came to Janice's side. "Better." He glanced around their surroundings then said, "Let's go down by the coast. I need some sea air I think."

Janice readily agreed and headed down the streets of Corinth. She nibbled on a skew of meat that she'd purchased while listening to Perdicus talk. She finally saw the beach that traveled along the coast of the Aegean Sea and despite the wind child she really enjoyed it. By the time they made it, she'd eaten her skewers clean except for one, which she pulled each piece off and tossed to Hu.

"So what's his name?" Perdicus indicated the tiger.

"Hu," supplied the archeologist.

Perdicus nodded and he debated whether to ask more but decided against it. He found several large rocks buried in the beach so he sat on one while Janice took the one next to him. "Have you heard from Gabrielle?"

The archeologist sighed and stretched her legs out. She placed her right hand on Hu's head and trailed her fingertips through his thick coat. "Melinda keeps in contact with her." She chewed the inside of her mouth while she stared out over the choppy waters. "There's a small problem." She turned her head to young man. "Other than just this ring and mystery guy… there's a warlord uprising and he marched to the Amazon Nation."

"By the gods," murmured the faction guard.

Janice dipped her head then quietly mentioned, "Melinda sent the Tricca Cavalry to help then a legion out of Thebes is suppose to go up and secure things."

"Will the cavalry make it in time?"

"We're not sure," confessed Janice, "but we're hoping so."

Perdicus dropped his head and shook it. "Everything has gone so wrong… ever since Gabrielle spoke out against the Conqueror." He lifted his head. "It seemed to trigger all these events."

"Maybe," murmured the thoughtful archeologist, "but everything happens for a reason." She sadly smiled at the faction guard. "Whether you like them or not."

Perdicus huffed yet he moved his head in agreement. "Nothing seems to be going right."

"You gotta be flexible, Perdicus." Janice shrugged then considered her troubles since she first arrived here. "If things always worked out the way we planned it then life wouldn't be worth living."

Perdicus enjoyed the humorous attempt as he did laugh quietly. "You're nothing like Gabrielle yet I see the similarities here and there." He smiled when sparkling green eyes centered on him. "I guess I am flexible because Gabrielle and I never married." He saw that Janice went still and was waiting for more. "We were betrothed as kids to be married, her father really liked me… so did her mom and sister." He shrugged. "Gabrielle's parents and mine… they all got along."

"What about Gabrielle?" questioned the archeologist.

Perdicus sighed then studied the sea instead of Janice's inquisitive features. "When we were young Gabrielle and I were very close, not that we're not now but it's different." He went silent for a little bit then went back to talking. "After the Conqueror ordered his second in command, Draco, to attack Potidaea and enslave the women Gabrielle escaped and left. I didn't know she lived," admitted Perdicus. He licked his wind chapped lips. "Potidaea recovered but a few years later the Conqueror ordered every village and city she'd conquered to conscript fifty percent of their male youth. I happened to be one of the chosen from Potidaea and I was trained by Macedonia's finest foot soldiers and joined her army twelve moons later for the Peloponnese Campaign."

"What happened after that?" urged Janice.

"After that?" Perdicus sighed while shaking his head. "After that everything changed for me and Gabrielle. I survived my twenty seasons in the army then I was allowed to leave so I did. I was in Corinth and decided to stay here since I was pretty familiar with the area. I actually met Gabrielle by accident… in the market here. I heard her voice while she was in a heated barter with a merchant."

Janice laughed at this image.

Perdicus grinned from his old memory but he lost it. "Gabrielle was just starting her faction while the Conqueror was settling into Corinth as her capitol. I helped her get things organized along the lines of security for the faction members." He shrugged then his tone picked up remorse. "Gabrielle had changed so much… and so had I. I realized she was obsessed with the Conqueror… with the idea of defeating her. It seems to be the only drive in her life."

Janice Covington could understand that type of drive as her archeology for most her life was all she had and all she wanted.

"Gabrielle is much more distant than what she was like as a kid. I guess I'm not much the same either." Perdicus shrugged then mentioned, "We discussed getting married but we realized it just wouldn't work. She knew she didn't have any room for me or any spouse in her life because all her time and energy was consumed by her plots against the Conqueror."

"I wonder what she would do if the Conqueror was gone?" murmured the archeologist. What would I do if I couldn't be an archeologist internally questioned Janice.

Perdicus's lips twitched as he thought about Janice's question. "I've wondered the same thing too. What meaning will her life have once she defeats the Conqueror?"

"I suppose time will tell." Janice had no answers either.

Hu twisted his head to the right, which caused Janice's petting to stop. He then stood up on all fours.

Janice followed the tiger's gaze and saw that one of her squad soldiers approaching them. She couldn't make out who it was but she didn't like the fact they were coming and that she was here with Perdicus. She had to play this off. She climbed to her feet.

"Ho, dekarchos," called the soldier then his face took on shape as he neared.

The archeologist eyed the squad soldier suspiciously. "What is it, Toris? Is there a problem?" She knew that the break wasn't over just yet so it was odd he was looking for her.

"I've heard word from the Conqueror, ma'am… she's requesting your presence." Toris shifted his attention to Perdicus and studied him for a beat then turned back to his superior. "She wanted to see you immediately."

Janice nodded however her stomach pitched because something just felt very off. She signaled Hu to her side yet she looked at Perdicus. "I will see you later."

Perdicus dip his head in agreement but he decided it was safer to say nothing in front of the soldier. He simply started up the beach towards the soldier and when he came along side the soldier, he realized the soldier was smirking at him.

Toris rested his left hand on his leather hip while his right hand was loosely on his sword hilt. "I know who you are," he seethed, "faction scum!" He unsheathed his sword.

The faction guard wasn't prepared as he was suddenly yanked into a choke hold and a sword across his throat. He growled when his back brushed against the soldier's leather chest. "You bastard," he growled.

"Toris, release him," ordered the dekarchos, who stepped a few paces forward. She didn't make any moves for her sword or her gun but it was very tempting.

"No," snarled the soldier, "I think it would be more fun to inform the Conqueror of your deceit."

Janice held her breath because she was treading dangerous ground as she couldn't expose Melinda's identity. "You don't want to do this, Toris."

Perdicus yelped when the blade over his throat nicked his skin.

"I've been following you since Helios high," spoke the soldier, "and I know you're a traitor… traitor to everybody."

Janice's eyes narrowed at his last words. "Toris if you do anything to him or even me, you're going to be playing a very dangerous game."

"I have a better game in mind," suggested Toris. His free left hand came up to his neck and he tugged out a hidden necklace from under his leather chest. He let the trinket at the end of the necklace dangle in the air. "You tell me what this ring does and I'll free your little friend here."

Janice's back straightened out when she took in the view of the Cronos Ring, which suddenly glowed green at sensing her.

Toris noted it too and he narrowed his eyes at the archeologist. "Tell me what in Hades this thing does or he dies!"

"Don't, Janice," ordered Perdicus but he hissed when the blade dug deeper.

Hu growled suddenly and his tail continued to flicker in the air. His teeth were showing and his fur standing up on his back.

Janice felt much the same way as she debated what to do but she had no options.

"Time's over," growled Toris.

"Wait," begged the archeologist. "I'll tell you."

Toris slightly pulled the blade away from Perdicus's neck.

Perdicus clenched his teeth and his left hand snaked down to his side.

Janice breathed heavily then carefully said, "That power of that ring allows you to-"

"No!" yelled Perdicus as he ripped a dagger free from his side and tried for his enemy.

Toris jumped away just as the dagger almost hit his stomach but he recovered and growled loudly. He still had his blade near Perdicus's neck so he slashed it up.

"No!" yelled Janice and she went for her sword.

Perdicus dropped his dagger and his hands instantly went to his sliced neck. His eyes were wide then he stumbled to his knees in the sand.

Toris lifted his head when he saw that Janice was charging him. He then spotted the fierce tiger moving faster than Janice for him. He lifted his sword and prepared for the battle but he was determined to win and it showed in his wild sapphire eyes.

Back in the fortress, the Conqueror just slipped into her office after talking to Commander Meleager about Darphus and the dispatchers that were sent out. She was still in her leathers, armor, and her weapons attached. She'd considered changing but decided she couldn't be bothered since she had too much work to do. Just as she got settled at her desk there was a knock so she peered up and called the person to enter.

Lao Ma swept into the office and bowed her head at the ruler. "Good morning, Melinda."

The southerner softened at her friend. "Sit down, Ma."

"I cannot stay long but I wanted to stop in quickly."

Melinda got up from her seat and approached the Chin ruler because she could tell something wasn't right. "What is wrong, Ma?"

Lao Ma's face was twisted by a variety of emotions. "This morning I detected the power of the Cronos Stone but I could not locate it exactly."

"The Cronos Stone is safely locked up in my bedchambers," reminded the ruler.

"Yes," agreed Lao Ma, "however this was different. It was a small quantity of power but it was from the stone." She slipped her hands into her robe's sleeves. "I apologize I could not properly detect it, Melinda."

The linguist offered an assuring smile. "Its okay, Ma… Janice has been working on it."

"She will succeed," declared the Chin ruler. "I must go as I plan to go to the market to shop."

"Do you want to wait for Janice? She and her squad can take you."

Lao Ma smiled at the prospect. "She is busy but thank you. My guards are highly sufficient."

Melinda agreed and escorted her friend out of the office with a goodbye. She then decided to sit down at her desk and start her scroll work finally. When her finger wrapped around the quill in the ink pot there was another knock at her door. She sighed and hotly ordered, "Enter!"

A sentry marched into the office a few paces, stopped, clapped his shoulder over his chest, and stated, "I apologize, my liege but there is a merchant at the main entrance urgently requesting to see you. He says his name is… Salmoneus."

The Conqueror lost her annoyance and she quickly ordered, "Bring him up here." She watched the soldier excuse himself so she tried to do a few things before the merchant came up here but she was too curious about what information he may have for her. The expected knock came a couple of minutes later and she allowed them to enter.

Salmoneus rushed past the two guards that'd escorted him and he hurried up to the ruler. "My empress, there's a…." He stopped and breathed heavily.

The Conqueror got up because it was obvious to her that the man how been running between the sweat on his forehead and his ragged breathing. Not that she imagined Salmoneus was a fast runner. "What's happened?"

The merchant's shoulders slumped. "You have to swear not to kill me if I tell you, my liege. I had nothing to do with this."

"Salmoneus, I will if you don't tell me," threatened the ruler.

Salmoneus hesitated but then stepped back when the ruler came around the desk. "I found out who the mystery guy is… well not exactly because I don't know his name."

"Then what do you know?"

Salmoneus readied himself for this so he lifted his hands defensively. "He's one of your fortress soldiers." He braced himself but no outburst was forthcoming from the ruler. "One of my fellow merchants figured it out… he's been going around asking about your female dekarchos." He stopped when he saw the Conqueror was growing darker by the heartbeat. He quickly rattled on faster, "I tried to find your dekarchos to warn her but I could find her."

The Conqueror realized that Janice and her squad would be returning from their Helios high break. She suddenly grabbed the merchant and growled, "Are you sure?"

"Y-y-yes, proud empress. H-h-he is a sentry because he was carrying your marked sword."

"Damn," hissed the ruler and she suddenly released the merchant. She hastily headed for the open doors of her office and she ordered the two sentries to follow her.

Salmoneus craned his neck as he ambled out into the long hallway. He called out to the Conqueror, "Does this complete our deal?" He got no response so he cursed and decided to follow after the ruler.

The Conqueror came to the ground level of the fortress and she headed for the door to the courtroom. "I want one of you to find me the tetrarchès. Now!"

A sentry took the order and he took off at a run down the hallway to take the side exit of the fortress that would take him to the barrack faster.

The Conqueror broke into a jog and she approached the door to the courtroom. She threw open the door and hurried down the few steps to the ground level of the empty court. Then something made her stop with the soldier at her side; she detected a loud commotion and shouting voices on the other side of the main entrance doors.

The entrance doors were thrown open and the sunlight streamed in through the door and covered two molded bodies.

The Conqueror squinted and her hands fisted at her sides when the two forms stepped up closer.

Janice let out a low snarl when the dagger nicked her throat again. "You fucking bastard."

The Conqueror sensed the sentry next to her going for his sword but she waved him off. Then there were the guards pouring into the courtroom behind Janice and her captor but she ordered them to stay back. "Are you okay, Janice?"

The archeologist faintly nodded her answer but she hissed when the blade cut her.

"You're suppose to answer our liege when she asks you a question," snapped Toris. "You have to do what she orders you." He dug the dagger up more.

Janice closed her eyes then answered, "I'm okay, my liege."

The Conqueror was flexing her hands in and out of fists as her mind quickly worked out a solution to the problem. "Who are you?" she demanded to the soldier. She scanned over Janice's body and saw her face was badly scraped up, her right hand bloody, and there was blood trickling down from her left leg just below her jacket. The jacket itself was torn, dirty, and stained with a lot of blood.

"I'm an old face, my liege." The soldier forced Janice to take a few steps closer but his kept his face shielded behind Janice and the helmet hid him well.

"What do you want?" demanded the ruler.

Toris chuckled darkly then whispered to his superior, "Go on, dekarchos tell her what I want."

Janice steadied her breathing. "He has… it. He wants to know what it does, my liege."

The Conqueror instantly knew what Janice was referring to and her eyes narrowed at the hidden soldier. "You're a fool if you think I'm going to tell you what it does."

"I'm a betting man though," challenged Toris, "and I bet you will if I stake your dekarchos's life on it." He stole a quick look at the sentries that were around him to make sure they hadn't moved. He was rather confident but he wasn't stupid either.

The Conqueror touched her chakram at her side when he was distracted.

"I wouldn't," warned Toris, "throwing that thing might be bad for her health. I've heard it's already sliced her arm once."

Janice's upper lip twitched at his remark.

"Now, would you like to make this trade, my liege? Your dekarchos's life for the riddle to this ring."

The Conqueror kept her eyes centered on the enemy however something behind the pair captured her attention. She just needed a few extra heartbeats to get her opening. "How do I know you won't kill her after I tell you?"

Toris laughed then answered, "You'll just have to take my word for it, my liege. I am honorable… I'm sure you still recall those days you were too."

The Conqueror's anger mounted another notch but she slowly nodded. "Alright… I'll tell you what the ring does."

Janice closed her eyes and wanted to scream. How could she let this happen? Everything is so wrong yelled Janice's mind, I fucked up and now Perdicus and Hu are both dead because of me. Her dark eyes opened and locked on her friend.

The Conqueror read Janice's eyes and she wished more than anything they could trade thoughts. She inhaled then slowly said, "That ring will give you… immortality so long as you wear it."

Toris shook his head then started to laugh. He quickly dug the dagger's tip into Janice's throat. "I don't think so. Last chance before I give her a new breathing hole."

Janice's eyes screwed shut when the dagger's tip pierced her skin.

The ruler swallowed. She started to speak as her fingertips crept lower to her chakram. "The ring will… get you killed!" she yelled and ripped her chakram from her side.

Toris expected this attempt but he couldn't react fast enough when there was a furious roar from behind his back. He suddenly cried out in pain when teeth and claws sunk into his back.

The chakram slammed into the dagger's blade and broke it at the shaft then ricocheted off.

Janice quickly broke away when the blade was gone from her neck. She turned and stumbled back but she was amazed to see Hu on top of Toris.

The Conqueror started for the archeologist.

Toris's screamed filled the court then threw the wounded and weak tiger off him.

Hu hissed in pain as his bloody body hit the cold marble floor and he skidded away. He tried to get up but he was weakened far too much from his wound and traveling so far to stop this man.

Toris grabbed another dagger from his side while he was getting up. He saw the other soldiers preparing to charge him but he threw his dagger at Janice.

The Conqueror quickly moved after the flying dagger.

Janice yelled as she lifted her hands as if she would catch it herself. Then her rapid breathing held still when the dagger stopped in midair and the tip was a foot from her nose.

Everybody stopped moving at once as they stared in astonishment of the dagger's hovering in front of Janice. Then the dagger flipped over and raced back towards Toris.

Toris couldn't react in time and the dagger plunged into his right shoulder. He wailed in pain and fell to his knees. He reached for his sword but he abruptly was lifted into the air and was sent flying across the courtroom. He was slammed into the hard marble wall; his sword fell and clanked onto the floor then he moaned as he went unconscious.

The Conqueror's heavy breathing settled down then she scanned the courtroom. There in the side door stood Lao Ma with her hands lifted.

Lao Ma glided across the court and came to the ruler's side.

The Conqueror came to Janice's side and slipped an arm around her waist. "Are you okay?"

Janice only nodded and held onto the ruler for support.

Lao Ma tilted her head to the side and she pointed her index finger then spun it.

Toris swiftly was spun too and now hovered upside down. His helmet fell off and hit the floor with a thud. Next his unseen necklace dangled over his face and the ring started to glow.

Janice though moved away from the ruler and limped over to Hu. She knelt down beside him and saw that he was still breathing. "Goddamn it." She looked down at his head and saw his glossy fire eyes watching her. "I'm so sorry, boy."

Hu moved his head and licked the bloody hand that was near his face.

The Conqueror was staring at the upside down soldier and her eyebrows drew together. She stepped up to Janice and touched her shoulder lightly then the familiar features of the soldier struck her. "By the gods…"

"What is it?" urged Janice, her head dropping back.

"That's Toris," murmured the ruler.

The archeologist shook her head then also stared at the unconscious man that tried to kill her.

"Toris is… my brother," whispered the stricken Conqueror.

Chapter 22 – Xena of Amphipolis

"Goodnight, Xena," whispered Cyrene. She touched her daughter's back and she still hadn't lost that smile on her face since the beginning of the meal.

"Sleep well tonight, mother." The Conqueror gave a small smile only meant for her mother. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Cyrene agreed with a gentle squeeze to her child's shoulder. She then turned to the quiet girl at her left side. "Let's go, Melpomene."

The girl nodded and she stopped staring at the ruler. She took her grandmother's hand then led her away.

The Conqueror let out a low sigh as she watched her mother and the child, who her mother adopted, leave the dining hut. She could only wonder how long it would take for the young girl to speak to her but she wouldn't push it. Instead she returned her focus to the rebel leader left at her table. She was still adjusting to the fact that she was allowed to freely move about the Amazon Nation but it was certainly an improvement to the jail hut and chains. Still though, she knew her feathery shadows were never far away from her.

Gabrielle just finished a drink of her water then set the mug aside. "Are you ready for tomorrow?"

The Conqueror stretched her legs under the table then she nodded. "Its time to finish this trial."

"I agree." The bard settled her left elbow onto the table and leaned against her propped hand. "I think everybody is ready to move forward."

"Even you?" challenged the ruler.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply but her words fell short. She closed her mouth then truly mulled over the question then she nodded. "I think I am… yeah."

The Conqueror slightly grinned at this but then she suggested, "Let's go for a walk…?"

"Mmmm," murmured the bard, "the stars should be out tonight." She chuckled then slowly worked her way out of the seat and got her cloak on because of the cool night.

The Conqueror had been given a new set of leathers that were simple but they at least covered her midriff unlike most Amazon fashion. She was also given an Amazon cloak to keep her warm on the cooling days and chilled nights. She was considerably surprised that the Amazons were being so gracious to her but Gabrielle was right when she said the Amazons were grateful.

Together the new friends quietly slipped out of the dining hut and they ignored the staring gazes of many Amazons. They were quite use to it anymore but they were growing fewer and fewer as everybody grew use to the new changes around the Nation. They were met by the cool night air and behind them were the three guards that were tugging on their cloaks too.

Gabrielle kept the pace slow considering her limp but her wound from four days ago was well healed after she'd spent yesterday and today just mostly sleeping. She finally felt like she could sleep well because there was less to worry about in her life.

The Conqueror glanced down at the silent bard however she wasn't fooled because she'd come to understand that a verbally silent bard was a quickly thinking one. "What is it?"

Gabrielle peered up but she gave a shrug. "I'm just still trying to…"

"Take it all in," completed the ruler.

"Yes." Gabrielle inhaled the brisk air around her, which awakened her senses. "What happens after the trial?" She glimpsed up to the tall ruler. "If you're pardoned of your charges, I mean."

"Then we returned to Corinth to take care of unfinished business," stated the ruler.

"Such as?" tried the bard.

"Such as your punishment that you agreed upon, Gabrielle."

The rebel stopped walking and faced the ruler. She wanted to ask why the ruler was still upholding the punishment when she'd hoped that was one of the things that would change but it seemed not to be.

The Conqueror saw the bleak features of the rebel leader, which made her grin. "Although I think the punishment is meant more for me than you." Without anymore information, she continued the walk to the sparring fields.

Gabrielle's eyebrows almost touched together but she quickly limped forward to catch up with the long legged ruler. "What do you mean?"

The Conqueror smirked at the bard's obvious confusion but she saw the sparring field up ahead. "Let's sit down first then I'll explain."

The anxious bard wanted to know quickly but she conceded and took a seat on a bench in the sparring field. It happened to be the same bench she and the Conqueror occupied not so long ago. "What's the punishment, Conqueror?"

The ruler held up her hand then lowered it after the bard took a calming breath.

Gabrielle understood then she sheepishly grinned. "I'm sorry… I'm just not use to calling you by your name."

The Conqueror did understand as she wasn't use to many people calling her by her name. She liked how her title displayed her rank as much as distanced her from people subconsciously. She no longer wanted the barrier between her and Gabrielle, which she didn't understand why yet but she knew she would later down the road. "It's okay… just give it time. I'm not exactly use to people calling me Xena these days."

"I bet," murmured the rebel.

"To answer your question," started the ruler, "I've already decided your punishment."

"When did you decide this?" probed Gabrielle.

"This morning," admitted the ruler and she peered down into curious green eyes. She could see that Gabrielle was straining from exploding with a demand to know and trying to remain calm. That made the Conqueror grin and she decided to play along more. "I believe it is a very fitting punishment."

"I think you're already trying to do that now," drew out the bard's throaty voice.

The ruler revealed her hidden grin but she lost it and seriously informed, "I've decided you will serve as my advisor of state for one term."

The bard blinked and she stared very oddly at the ruler like she was Medusa. "You're… you're joking, right?" When there was no response she carefully asked, "You're advisor of state?" At the Conqueror's nod she carefully asked, "Why?"

"You're so keen on me reforming right?" The Conqueror shrugged then declared, "Then you can write and argue all the reforms in front of me and the court. You'll have your voice… and your words."

"By… the gods," muttered the stunned bard. "You're really serious, aren't you?"

"And have I ever lied to you, Gabrielle?"

The bard knew the ruler hadn't as every promise, whether it was a threat or not, was readily kept. She shook her head then a thought occurred to her. "What about Rhodes? He's been your state advisor for two terms now."

The Conqueror internally cringed at that small detail that she suspected Gabrielle did not know. She steadied herself to tell the bard, who she claimed as her friend now. She knew this could make or break things between her and the rebel. "Rhodes is no longer the advisor of state."

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed then she carefully asked, "Why? His term hasn't ended."

The Conqueror inhaled slowly then saw that darkening look on the rebel's face because she already seemed to suspect the truth. She prepared herself for her former enemy's reaction as she quietly answered, "He's dead… I killed him for treason to the polis."

Gabrielle hastily reacted without thinking because she wanted to get away from the ruler. She got to her feet with her cane rolling off her lap and falling to the ground. She only made it one step before her legs gave way.

The Conqueror swiftly acted and captured the small bard by her waist to steady her.

"No!" angrily yelled the bard, "Let me go!"

The Amazon guards appeared out of the shadows but they hadn't drawn their swords. They stopped short when they saw that the Conqueror was holding the bard rather than hurting her.


"No!" The rebel tried to shove the ruler away but she wasn't as strong.

The Conqueror was frowning but she gently lowered the bard onto the ground so that she was sitting. She then knelt down beside her after letting her go. "Gabrielle-"

"I don't want to hear it," snapped the angry bard, who stretched forward for her walking stick.

The Conqueror grabbed the outstretched hand and pulled it back. "Listen, please?"

The rebel's shadowy features lifted up to the ruler and a few tears brimmed at her eyelids. She was angry but more at herself for letting herself believe that this ruler could change.

The Conqueror let go of the small hand then gently spoke again. "I know Rhodes was a friend to you… he was a good man. He was even a good state advisor." She sighed then her mind flashed with images from her torture she performed on the man. She shoved them away then continued to talk. "As a ruler I can't tell you that I regret what I did or that I am sorry."

Gabrielle turned her head away and her tears finally spilled.

"I wouldn't be a true ruler otherwise," urged the Conqueror, "because if things were reverse and I was the good ruler and he was the evil traitor then the results still would have been the same."

Gabrielle's jaw flexed as she struggled between her emotions and thoughts, the ruler's words rolling around in her mind.

"As a person, Gabrielle I can tell you that I do regret what I did and that I am sorry." The ruler huffed at her last words as she murmured, "And sorry is fairly worthless in the face of death… especially with all the lives I've taken or ruined."

Gabrielle's head was slumped as she gained control over herself again. She kept her head down as she quietly mentioned, "He had a wife… five kids too."

"I know," softly responded the ruler, "and they are being cared for. They did nothing against the polis… they're still receiving his salary until the end of his legitimate term."

The bard wiped at her cheeks then lifted her head. She read the Conqueror's revealing face that clearly displayed remorse for the past. She could also see some hidden pain deeply buried somewhere in the ruler, which was something Gabrielle had never witnessed. She realized this ruler, crouched next to her, was very different to the ruler she stood against almost two moons ago.

The Conqueror lowered her head closer to Gabrielle's. "Do you understand, Gabrielle the differences?" She knew she needed the bard to differentiate between the two.

Gabrielle could understand the two mindsets when she separated them logically. She knew sometimes people had to wear two masks to perform various duties in life but sometimes that became very complicated. She cleared her dry throat then whispered, "I do understand, yes but that doesn't mean I like it."

"I'm not asking you to like it," murmured the ruler.

Although when Gabrielle read the ruler's underlying tone and her face, she could tell some part of the ruler wanted her to not exactly like it but more so accept it. That's what Gabrielle assumed what it was and she would have to mull it over later.

"This isn't going to be easy for me, Gabrielle," admitted the ruler. "I'm use to being a ruler… only a ruler and it's easy when you don't have any emotions or people you care about in your life. The judgments are simple, the verdicts are quick, and nobody makes you question your motives."

Gabrielle bit her lower lip as she processed what the Conqueror was telling her. She nodded her head then peered up at the changing ruler. "Cut you some slack huh?"

"For now," urged the ruler.

Gabrielle slowly nodded her head to show her agreement.

"Come on." The tall woman helped the smaller woman get onto her feet and sit back on the bench. She then collected the walking stick and put it into her lap.

Gabrielle got comfortable again and reined control over her emotions. She studied the quiet sparring field and then lifted her gaze to the beautiful twinkling night sky. "Conqu…." She fell short then she heard the Conqueror teasing her with a clearing noise from her throat. The bard had a faint grin but lost it when she went back to her original intent. "Xena, what about Alti?"

Well the Conqueror enjoyed hearing her name spoken from the bard's lips for the first time. She just disregarded the fact that Alti's name happened to be included in that sentence as well. She stretched out her legs, put her hands behind her on the bench, and tried to relax despite the seriousness of the question. "I'm going to take care of her."

The bard understood the context of the sentence. "Nobody is safe from her… not even you."

"I know." The ruler glimpsed down at the bard then back at the starry sky. "But I'm overdue to correct my mistake, Gabrielle."

The bard understood what that mistake was that the ruler meant. "What if she… if she… what if something happens to you?"

The Conqueror sadly smiled at her new friend's growing concerns for her well-being. "Nothing will happen," she promised.

Gabrielle frowned and shot a glare at her former enemy. "You know you just completely jinxed that?"

The Conqueror couldn't help but chuckle and she shrugged. "I always know what I'm getting myself into ahead of time, Gabrielle."

The rebel's eyebrows tightened together and she thought about the ruler's word. She quietly asked, "Did you know that Darphus set you up?"

"I knew he was up to something because he wouldn't have gone through all that trouble to lead me away from the battle." The Conqueror now sat up straight. "I mostly figured it out."

"Then why did you follow him?"

"Because I wanted to kill him," honestly answered the ruler. "It was the only way to stop his men because once they knew he was dead then they would fall back."

Gabrielle realized that was true as Darphus's army did quickly crumble from what she heard of the rest of the battle. She then recalled the fight that day when the Conqueror fought against Darphus in the clearing. Something made her curious so she questioned the ruler. "Couldn't you have caught that third arrow?" She inquisitively peered up into the dark features of the ruler and she knew her answer when the ruler wasn't forthcoming. "Why didn't you catch it?"

"I've already told you." The ruler peered down. "The known-world doesn't need a tyrant," she softly reminded.

Gabrielle remained still as it dawned on her that the Conqueror had basically wanted death that day and in some shape she'd committed suicide.

"I didn't plan on leaving that battle alive, Gabrielle."

The bard swallowed against the truth and she peered up at the ruler. She sincerely whispered, "I'm glad you're still here… Xena."

The Conqueror didn't have any words but all she could do was smile in return. She then swiftly stood because she wanted to end the emotional moment that she wasn't totally comfortable with yet. "Come on, it's getting late and tomorrow will be long."

Gabrielle stifled a yawn at the thought of getting some rest. She slowly got up then started the walk back to the huts. Her guest hut that she shared with Cyrene and Melpomene was near the Conqueror’s so they walked in the same direction. She said goodnight to the ruler then slipped away into the dimly lit hut and prepared for bed.

The Conqueror slipped into her hut without saying a word to her guards. She removed her cloak first then set it down on the chair by the small table. She disappeared into the washroom and changed into her nightshift that’d been given to her. When she came out of the washroom in her nightshift, she also carried M'Lila's necklace in the palm of her right hand. She came over to the bed, sat down, and her head was bent over and her eyes transfixed on the necklace.

"I wish you were here, my friend," murmured the ruler. She clenched the charm tightly and closed her eyes. "This won't be easy, Ly." She released a deep breath as she thought about her brother. "But nothing is ever easy with me, is it?" She sadly grinned in consideration of her past. "At least this time I'll have some help." She opened her hand and studied the Gaelic pendent that shined back up at her. The old yet familiar design reminded her of the specially made armor she'd had designed many moons back that she'd never worn. It was the same Gaelic design that M'Lila wore on her shirt that she'd copy in honor of her last friend. She'd had the armor made along with a matching sword but she'd never dared to wear them as she felt too disgraceful to wear them. Just maybe that would change now though.

The Conqueror turned and gently set the precious necklace onto the nightstand. She then slipped from the bed and blew out the candles in the room then she crawled back into her bed. She didn't bother with the matt over the window or starting the fireplace because it just really didn't matter to her tonight. She was fairly use to sleeping through chilled nights.

By the following day, the Conqueror was standing with her back to the thinned out Amazon Nation and she carefully listened to the rebel leader's continued defense of her. Today was the last day of trial for the Conqueror and tomorrow she would hear her sentence or be pardoned and there was no definite on either option. Instead the ruler prepared for either outcome and placed faith in her friend's abilities as a bard to work it out.

"Ephiny," started the bard, "on the day of the battle against Darphus you released the Conqueror. I was there as well and I recall that you were originally completely against the idea of freeing her but you changed your mind. You're highly respected among the Nation for many things and particularly your abilities as a leader. So why did you change your mind and release the Conqueror?"

The Conqueror listened to the head guard's explanation to Gabrielle. Her attention broke for a heartbeat and she glanced over at Queen Cyane, who had recovered from the arrow wound and was now well on her way back to health.

Queen Cyane sensed the ruler's studying so she turned her head to the left, over her shoulder.

The Conqueror didn't change her demeanor into something sneering or taunting as she would often react. She could tell that the Amazon Queen held no malice for the Conqueror anymore but she was merely on even keel now.

Cyane discreetly nodded at the ruler then turned her head back to Gabrielle and Ephiny. She knew something had happened to the ruler out there on the battle field several days back. Cyane knew it was something life altering and whatever it was she was happy for it but it would take her time to fully accept it.

The Conqueror too turned back to the rebel and head guard for the second to last inquisition of the trial.

"And looking back on it now, Ephiny do you believe you made the right decision?"

The head guard kept her head up, her hands behind her back, and her eyes glued on the rebel leader. "Yes, I do not regret my decision and I believe by releasing the Conqueror that many lives were saved. The Amazons and the Conqueror had a common threat and for the first time that brought us common ground."

The bard's head was down as she took a few paces away then turned back to the Amazon. "It was mentioned that during the battle that the Conqueror saved you?"

"Yes she did," agreed the Amazon guard. "I was fighting two foot soldiers and my back was unprotected so a horseman charged me. The Conqueror stopped him before he made his mark." Ephiny's amber eyes flickered to the ruler that was several paces away. "For that I am in debt to her."

Gabrielle was inwardly stunned that Ephiny was that open about it and willing to publicly state this before the Nation. She also admired Ephiny because it seemed that Ephiny could accept that her foe could become her alley. "Ephiny, you have been guarding the Conqueror since her kidnapping from Corinth. From that first night to today have you noticed any changes in the Conqueror?"

"Yes, I have," answered the head guard.

"Can you explain?" urged the bard. She shifted her weight onto her cane.

Ephiny's lips slightly puckered as she tried to mentally explain it before voicing her answer. She glanced at the ruler then back at the rebel. "It's hard to exactly explain without actually witnessing it like I have over these days. When she first arrived she was very much the ruthless ruler that we all know… that we all fear." She stopped and shifted on her feet as she mentally composed her next words. "Over the course of the trial she was still that ruler but I could see it was affecting her somehow. It wasn't until after the battle that I realized she seemed to figure out she's human like the rest of us. She isn't that deity she's made herself out to be because even she believed she was too."

"Human?" questioned the rebel. She sidestepped and pointed at the Conqueror. "She's human?" Her hand fell to her side. "Did you see her as human before you met her, Ephiny?"

The guard sarcastically laughed at the question. "Even I can admit I saw her as that god she pretended to be. Once you've heard the stories so many times about her rulership, skills, and her campaigns it's easy to believe she's from Olympus. How many kings, rulers, and warlords have tried to accomplish what she's done? Plenty have tried and all have failed but her." Ephiny shook her head, which made her curly locks move. "However if you strip her of her throne, her skills, and her history then all you have left is this lonely and cold woman… and that's exactly what we did to her when she was brought here."

Gabrielle sadly smiled at the Amazon's beautiful insight about the Conqueror and these past days. "The Destroyer of Nations simply became Xena of Amphipolis." She stepped closer to Ephiny. "How do you view the Conqueror now, Ephiny?"

"I see her…." Ephiny tilted her head as she paused and truly thought over the question. Her eyes met the Conqueror's openly intrigued gaze then she clearly answered, "I see her as my equal… warrior to warrior."

The rebel leader thinly smiled at this as she understood Ephiny. "Thank you, Ephiny." She limped away and stood next to the Conqueror.

Ephiny glanced at the councilor for dismissal.

The head councilor nodded her head then gave a warm thank you.

The Amazon march forward and took her position behind the Conqueror where Solari and Callisto kept post.

"Next," spoke the head councilor, "we will move onto the final inquisition. Xena of Amphipolis, please come forward."

"You'll do fine," murmured the bard so that nobody would hear her but the ruler.

The Conqueror glimpsed down, faintly nodded, and then marched up to the claimed spot for questioning. She turned and faced the Amazon Nation but it was Gabrielle and Cyrene's faces that kept her grounded.

The head councilor waved a hand at the defense's new representative that'd been selected.

Magdelus stepped away from Queen Cyane and approached the Conqueror. She was an Amazon from Melosa's Nation and she was tall with wavy dirty-blond hair. She began the rigorous questions for the Conqueror.

The Conqueror kept up with the questions but then she was thrown off by a blind question.

"When you killed Velasca were you doing it to protect Gabrielle or were you extracting revenge because she was prosecuting you?"

The Conqueror knew she needed to reply hastily or else her lack of forthcoming would be answer enough. "I was mostly protecting Gabrielle but maybe there was a piece of me that wanted her for prosecuting me," replied the ruler.

Magdelus nodded her head then stepped back, her hand held out to Gabrielle.

The rebel limped up to her friend and her eyes were down, which meant she was thinking out Magdelus's last question. "What were you thinking, Conqueror when you saw Velasca was about to run her sword through me?"

"I was thinking that I would show her my justice for deceit."

"But she didn't deceive you," argued the bard. "So why your justice?"

"Velasca allied with Darphus so that made her my enemy. Velasca deceived you… she deceived the Amazon Nation."

Gabrielle shook her head then questioned, "Then why wouldn't you have let the Amazon Nation carry out their justice instead of killing her yourself?"

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow then stated, "It was either her life or yours… I chose hers."

The bard was internally rattled by the truth behind the answer but she didn't show it. Instead Gabrielle took a few pacing steps away then turned back for her next questions. "The other day I was told by Princess Terreis that you're very familiar with Amazon Law. Is this true?"

"It is," answered the ruler, her head turned to the bard. "I've thoroughly studied Amazonian History as well."

"Why is this?" questioned the bard.

"I know my enemy," honestly replied the ruler.

Gabrielle shook her head then held up her hand. "When did you study the Amazons?"

The Conqueror dipped her head as she quickly ran through her memory then she answered, "When I was about seven I started learning about the Amazons."

"Seven," repeated Gabrielle. "I happen to be a Conqueror expert," she joked while limping back to the ruler, "You hadn't even lifted a sword by seven years old. Care to explain?"

The Conqueror nodded her head. "The Amazons always interested me as a child… a lot of bards came to my mother's tavern and often they had stories about the Amazons. I grew very interested in them so I would go to the local market in Amphipolis and put in a request with a merchant to get scrolls on them whether it was history, stories, law… I didn't care."

"It sounds like you thought highly of them," theorized the bard. "Did you?"

"Yes I did."

"When you came back from your campaign in Chin you went directly to the Amazon Nation. What drove you to Queen Cyane's Nation?"

The Conqueror watched the bard limp back to her and stand in front of her. "I knew I could learn from them."

"Did you intend to join them?"

"No," answered the ruler, "I only wanted to learn from them."

Gabrielle's head was dipped some then she tilted it back. "Did you have any intent to kill the elders and Queen Cyane?"

The Conqueror clenched her hands behind her back but she formed her honest answer. "Originally I did not have any intentions to kill any Amazon because I knew then I'd lose my chance to gain any skills and knowledge."

"What changed your motives?"

"Who changed my motives," corrected the ruler, "Alti showed me the Darkness that I'd only previously tasted. She promised that if we joined that I would become the Destroyer of Nations. That was far more than the Amazons could provide me with."

"Was there a catch to Alti's… partnership?" questioned the bard.

"Of course," answered the Conqueror, "ten dead elders and a queen. Then from there out she required a constant flow of dead bodies as she has a large appetite."

The bard was grim at this honest reply as her taste for the shaman was growing more disgusted. "The day prior to the battle against Darphus, I asked you to join the Amazon Nation to fight. Do you recall this?"

"Vividly," simply replied the ruler, "And I said no."

Gabrielle nodded her agreement. "Obviously you changed her mind so what was the cause of this? Was it so you could be pardoned from the charges of this trial?"

"No," answered the ruler, "I could have cared less about the trial or the outcome." She lifted her chin then clarified things. "I chose to fight to protect my mother and to protect you."

Gabrielle studied the ruler's calm expression and she knew it was true. She tilted her head. "What about Darphus?"

"The fact that I'd meet him in battle was only an added bonus." The glint in the Conqueror's eyes showed but only Gabrielle could pick it out.

The bard limped away a few steps then turned back around. "Who were you when you first arrived here?"

The Conqueror slightly grinned at this question then coolly answered, "I was the Conqueror… I was the Destroyer of Nations."

"And now?" probed Gabrielle.

"I am still the Conqueror," replied the ruler, "but I'm a daughter… and a friend."

The rebel leader tapped her cane on the ground. "What happened out on that battle field, Conqueror?"

"My death happened," replied the ruler, who was the only one that truly understood what her statement meant. Yet when she studied the bard she began to wonder otherwise.

Gabrielle tilted her head. "Almost," she murmured then turned and went back to her defense spot.

Magdelus stepped forward with a serious expression. "Is any of this an act, Conqueror?"


The Amazon shrugged then tried, "You've fooled the Amazon Nation once before." She sidestepped and loudly called, "Fool us once then shame on you but fool us twice and…." She turned back the ruler. "Shame on us." She folded her arms over her chest. "How many death threats did you make against Gabrielle since arriving here?"

"What's this have to do with the trial?" demanded the bard.

"It establishes exactly how little the Conqueror has changed since her arrival here," argued Magdelus.

The head councilor had a thoughtful expression then she nodded. "Answer the question."

The Conqueror focused back on the Amazon. "Four times."

"Four times?" repeated the Amazon. "When was your last threat?"

The ruler glimpsed at the bard, who was remaining collective despite the line of questioning. She returned her attention to the defense Amazon. "The day of the battle."

Magdelus nodded then backed away from the ruler.

As Gabrielle approached her friend, she questioned, "How many times did you save my life since being here?"

"Three times," countered the Conqueror.

"The day of the battle after you defeated Darphus you would not allow me to find help. Why not?"

The ruler rocked her boots for a heartbeat. "I wanted to die." She listened to the hushed voices of the Nation.

"Why?" urged the rebel.

"As I've told you," started the ruler, "The known-world doesn't need a tyrant."

Gabrielle nodded and backed away to show she was finished.

The head councilor saw that Magdelus wasn't stepping forward. "Nothing else, Magdelus?"

"No, council."

"Then we have completed the trial," announced the head councilor. She stood up and waved for the ruler to step away. When the Conqueror was beside the rebel leader, the head councilor spoke out again. "The council will spend the rest of the day discussing the trial along side the Conqueror's assistance in the battle against the warlord Darphus. Then tomorrow at first light the judgment will be passed. The trial is concluded."

The Amazon Nation broke apart and a din of chatter rose up.

Cyrene slipped forward and joined her daughters. "That was excellent work, Gabrielle."

The bard smiled but it wasn't quite sincere. "I just hope this pays off." She peered up at the ruler. "So what now?"

"We wait," simply replied the Conqueror.

Gabrielle sighed and muttered, "I'm not much for waiting." This earned her a distant grin from her friend. "How's Melpomene, Cyrene?"

"She was busy trading stories with the kids about the battle." Cyrene rolled her eyes then teased, "She's bragging about her crazy aunt's bravery."

Gabrielle wanted to act like a kid and stick out her tongue but she just refrained from it but did manage a glower. "The kid knows how to pick them… look who she selected for a grandmother."

Cyrene softly laughed then jested, "With any luck she'll fit right in."

The bard had to chuckle back but she returned her serious focus to her friend. "I think I'm nervous about the outcome of this trial."

"You did everything you could, Gabrielle," reminded the Conqueror. "You did what you shouldn't have done."

Gabrielle tilted her head as she absorbed the unexpected words and praise. "Its what I wanted to do."

The Conqueror expression softened at this declaration then she asked, "Are you hungry?"

The bard coyly smiled and her cheeks were touched by pink. "Am I really that obvious?" She glanced at both women for an answer.

Cyrene folded her arms and mocked her daughter's arched eyebrow.

Gabrielle giggled at it then teased, "Now I know where she gets it from."

The Conqueror grunted then walked off towards the dining hut.

Cyrene relented, slipped her hand through Gabrielle's left arm, and they followed after the ruler.

The rest of the day crept by but eventually Apollo raced his chariot over the western horizon and left the known-world with sparkling dust in the sky. The night was chilly yet brisk as Gaia called on winter to take over within the next moon cycle. The Conqueror this evening decided the cold called for a stoked fireplace especially considering the small bard was in her hut tonight.

The Conqueror finished pouring hot water into five mugs that held tea leaves. She stirred them each with a wood spoon and picked up the first one from the table. She carefully carried it over to the bard and held it down to her.

Gabrielle was sitting on a cozy fur in front of the fireplace and she received the warm mug. She inhaled the pleasant scent of the tea that instantly peaked her interest of flavors. "Cinnamon?" she questioned.

The ruler only nodded then walked back to the small table where the remaining mugs rested. She pushed three of the mugs together then with her large hands she was able to grasp all three. She came over to the door then called, "Ephiny, open the door."

The rebel leader had a grin slowly shaping her lips because the ruler took her suggestion to make some tea for the guards outside. She held back her chuckle by sipping on her tea.

Ephiny opened the door and her features showed she was absolutely perplexed. She stepped back when the ruler came out some then held out the mugs. She blinked at the steaming mugs and looked up at the ruler's stone face. "Um…."

"Is that cinnamon tea?" inquired the excited Solari.

The ruler shrugged. "The bard in there wanted cinnamon." She extended her hands and ordered, "Go on. This should keep you three warm."

Solari just glowed as she happily took the first mug. "Thanks." She sipped the tea right away and moaned in happiness of the warm tasty liquid flowing into her belly. "That's great."

The head guard wiped away her dumbfounded look as she took a mug too. "Thank… you." She then glanced over at Callisto, who was more cautious.

The Conqueror knew this but she met the Amazon's uneasy eyes. "I don't think you have to worry about anything other than it warming you up."

Callisto narrowed her eyes up at the ruler but she lost that rejecting look. Her small hands came out and her slim fingers came around the mug, her fingertips touching the ruler's.

The Conqueror released the mug then decided it was time to escape back into the hut. "Just knock when you're finished." Then she was gone.

Callisto peered into the steaming mug then looked up at her friends.

Solari had a silly grin then stated, "It's really good." She took another draw of her tea.

Ephiny shook her head then teased, "She won you over with a cup of tea, Solar."

The Amazon shrugged and kept drinking the tea happily.

Callisto took a hesitant sip but after the tiny drops warmed her stomach she took a longer drink.

The head guard had a content smile and she leaned against the hut while breathing in the warm steam over face. Her thoughts wondered off to Janice Covington and wishing the archeologist was here to see what just happened. Hades if Janice would ever believe this one.

Gabrielle leaned over to her right, closer to the Conqueror. "So are they still conscious out there or did they pass out when you offered them tea?"

The ruler shrugged then mildly stated, "It's just tea."

"Sure it's just tea," teased the bard, "Tea from the Conqueror."

The Conqueror was inwardly smug but her exterior showed her as stoic. She sipped on her tea that had a nice flavor from Gabrielle's selection. It was no Chin tea but for what it was it was fairly nice.

Gabrielle had her legs stretched out in front of her as she could no longer sit cross legged since it hurt her knees too much. She'd come to realize her right knee typically ached more than her left so she had to always use her cane on the right side. She stared into the fire then murmured, "I can't believe I'm sitting here with you in the Amazon Nation and drinking tea." She laughed at the situation then turned her head to the ruler and Gabrielle studied the ruler's calm profile.

The Conqueror had the mug wrapped between both her hands but she lowered it to her lap. "I can't either," she finally admitted.

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side then carefully asked, "Can I ask what really happened out there on the battlefield?" Her confusion clearly showed as her eyebrows pushed inward and her lips widened from her cheeks moving up slightly. "You've changed a lot... you're like a stranger."

"Yet I'm friendlier," quipped the ruler.

Gabrielle mulled over this then nodded once. "You're a stranger by comparison… just when I thought I had you figured then you do an about face."

The ruler chuckled then finally turned her head to the rebel. "I like to keep things interesting."

"No kidding," agreed the bard. She went silent though and waited for something else from the ruler. After a little bit she thought maybe she wouldn't receive any explanation.

The Conqueror searched her friend's face for awhile then turned her head away. She felt compelled to share her story with the understanding woman beside her. "I did die, Gabrielle."

"How… how can you be sure?" murmured the bard.

The Conqueror lifted her mug to her lips and sipped on it. She lowered it to her lap then finally answered, "I'm very sure because there's no such place like I was in… I don't even have an imagination to conjure it up."

Gabrielle had taken a sip of her tea but she probed, "What happened?" She shook her head then argued, "How can you be here then?"

The Conqueror chuckled then remarked, "Like I said… I like to keep it interesting." She could tell the rebel truly wanted to know the story about what'd happened. So after she stole some more tea between her lips she proceeded to tell her everything despite she wasn't the bard.

Gabrielle was captivated by the incredible tale about the ruler's journey through Tartarus. She never imagined that the ruler would fight so hard to come back and for reasons that did not deal with greed, hatred, or for dominance. About halfway through the story, the Conqueror paused as the Amazons quickly returned the mugs then Gabrielle was happy that the ruler continued.

At the end of the story, Gabrielle let out a deep breath as if she'd gone through the trials. She was astounded and she held a sense of respect for her friend for it all. She ran her right hand through her blond bangs and mentioned, "I never knew of M'Lila."

"Not many did," agreed the ruler.

Gabrielle sighed then whispered, "I wish I could have met Lyceus." She frowned and peered into her mug. "Cyrene often would tell me stories about you and him." A sad smile touched her lips. "He always sounded like quite the character."

The Conqueror had a sad smile too at the memories of her and her brother. "He was… among other things." She took the last gulp of her tea then placed the empty mug aside.

"You and Lyceus were stuck at the hips, Cyrene use to tell me." Gabrielle grinned at this image then lost it at other thoughts. "She always said if he hadn't died that none of this probably would have happened."

"Maybe… maybe not," whispered the ruler. "We all have our destiny to follow."

"Yes… yes we do," murmured the bard. She finished off her tea also then put the mug off to her right, away from her friend. "So you plan to stop Alti?"

"Yes," quickly answered the ruler. "No good comes from her and none is in her." She turned her head to the bard. "I plan to leave tomorrow if this trial finishes off the way we hope it does."

Gabrielle stared into the fire as she processed what the ruler told her.

"I don't expect you and mother to come to Corinth until its safe… until I deal with Alti." The Conqueror now was the one studying her friend's profile. She momentarily enjoyed the firelight flickering across the bard's soft face but then determined green eyes turned to her.

"I'm going with you."

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at the rebel leader. She opened her mouth but was cut short by the faster bard.

"I'll just follow you."

The ruler sighed then turned her head away. "This isn't your fight, Gabrielle. You know where I'm headed there'll be trouble."

Gabrielle casually replied, "I know." Then the Conqueror turned back to her and they held searching stares for several heartbeats.

"Then why would you want to go into that with me?" whispered the ruler.

"That's what friends do." Gabrielle tilted her head as she reminded them both of their new friendship. "We stand by each other when there's trouble."

Xena lost her Conqueror mask as her blue eyes visibly softened for only the bard. "Alright… friend."

Gabrielle didn't stay much longer that night as she knew tomorrow would probably be very busy. She wished the ruler a goodnight and thanked her for spending time with her. She donned her Amazon cloak and crossed the short distance to her hut where she suspected Cyrene and Melpomene were already asleep. Her night's sleep was fairly peaceful after she pressed away her thoughts about her conversation with the Conqueror tonight.

When Apollo mounted his chariot at dawn the overnight fog was burned away. The Amazon guards at the Conqueror's guest hut were jarred awake from sleeping against the hut by the Conqueror coming out. They tried to play it off knowing that they'd catch Hades for having any winks and luckily the ruler didn't comment on it. Although the Amazons suspected that the ruler knew of their small error.

Just as the Conqueror was making her way for the trial's space she spotted her mother, Gabrielle, and Melpomene exiting their hut. She decided to go to them first.

"Good morning, dear," greeted the mother.

"Mornin', mother." The Conqueror was only recently getting accustomed to using mother again in her vocabulary. She then set her sights on the sleepy looking bard. "Morning, Gabrielle." All she received was a grumble.

Cyrene smugly whispered to the Conqueror, "She's not a morning person."

"Auntie Gabby," started Melpomene, "you would be a morning person if you got to bed earlier."

Cyrene stifled a laugh.

Auntie Gabby lowered her gaze to her niece and asked, "Did you want honey with your apples today?"

Melpomene smiled very sweetly and rocked on her feet with her hands behind her back. "Yes, auntie."

The bard sighed then held out her hand to the child. "We need to hurry." And she was right as they made it to the trial just in time as the council was preparing to take a seat at their table. She and the Conqueror took their usual spot while Cyrene and Melpomene stood at the front of the onlooking crowd.

Magdelus and Queen Cyane took their positions.

The head councilor stood up from the table then walked over to the spot where the inquisitions took place. She raised her chin and after a deep inhale, she announced, "For many candlemarks the council discussed the information brought to light during the trial. We have decided that despite Xena of Amphipolis committed these crimes that she did not fully act under her own will. As a result, Xena of Amphipolis cannot be held fully accountable for the crimes that she performed but she certainly is accountable for a certain weight of it." The head councilor waited a beat as she recalled her next piece. "Then there was the battle against Darphus that may have resulted in higher casualties or maybe even the destruction of the Amazon Nation if not for the help of Xena of Amphipolis. So it is the council's belief that Xena of Amphipolis has repaid her debt to the Amazon Nation by saving these lives. In light of this, the council can see no reason to carry out a punishment thus Xena of Amphipolis is pardoned from her chargers." She then met the ruler's gaze then directly stated to her, "Xena of Amphipolis, see that in the future you take care of how you tread in the Amazon Nation. Nobody wishes to repeat such events again." She then held out her arms and loudly announced, "Our murdered sisters and our queen have found justice… now find peace." She lowered her hands and then turned away.

Gabrielle let out a heavy breath then whispered, "Its over." She touched her forehead. "By the gods."

"Not completely," murmured the ruler, who turned when her mother quickly approached her. She swallowed then quietly asked, "Mother, forgive me please."

Cyrene released Melpomene's hand then stepped up to her daughter. "There's nothing to forgive, my little one." Her right hand stretched out to touch her child's cheek. "We both made our mistakes and we've both suffered. Its time to move forward… together." Her eyes burned from her emotions surfacing. "So happy to have you back again." She then pulled her daughter into a warm embrace.

The Conqueror drew her mother in tightly and held on as she didn't care about all the gawking looks of the Amazons.

Melpomene took her aunt's hand and quietly asked, "Does this mean the Conqueror is family too?"

Gabrielle was shaken from her staring of the mother and daughter reunited. She digested the girl's question then peered down at her. "I think so, Melpomene… I think so."

Melpomene turned her head to the Conqueror hugging her mother. She tilted her head and her thoughts became quite deep for such a young child.

Queen Cyane neared the newly increased family of outsiders and she cleared her throat after the mother and daughter broke their embrace.

The Conqueror faced the Amazon Queen and tried to remain passive as she wasn't sure what to expect from her old enemy.

"We met on the battlefield many times," commented the queen.

The Conqueror clenched her hands at her side and only nodded.

"For first time we met on the battlefield without crossing swords, Conqueror." Cyane rested her hands on her hips. "Maybe this will be a continued trend."

The Conqueror knew it was statement that required her confirmation or disagreement. "Yes, hopefully it will be."

Queen Cyane nodded then slowly her right arm came up.

The Conqueror clenched her jaw then relaxed it as her right arm rose up. Then she slowly collapsed the muscular arm of her enemy for many moons now. She made her grasp firm to backup her words. "To the future, Queen Cyane."

"To the realm and the Amazon Nation," agreed Queen Cyane. She broke the shake then walked away feeling as if she'd accomplished more than she ever imagined she would in her lifetime. She actually had a faint smile while she walked away from her allied enemy.

Solari turned to her superior. "Ephiny, does this mean we're finished with duty?"

"Why?" clipped the head guard, "You have a hot date?"

"Not if you're staying on duty then I don't," teased the Amazon.

Ephiny was caught off guard then she grinned at her friend. "We'll check with the queen first."

"So… to Corinth now?" asked the rebel leader.

"To Corinth," softly agreed the ruler.

"My queen!" called a familiar voice.

The Conqueror turned her head to the left when she heard the shaman's voice. Her eyes narrowed and her head tilted as she honed in on the distant conversation.

"What is it?" asked the bard.

The Conqueror's eyes narrowed as she tried to focus on the low conversation better. "Wait here." She turned and approached the queen and shaman that were quietly arguing.

Yakut stopped short then her eyes rose to the nearing ruler.

Queen Cyane turned her head and inquisitively questioned the ruler with her eyes.

The Conqueror ignored it and focused on the shaman. "Why can't they cross over?"

Yakut's mouth hung open for a beat as she realized the ruler overheard their conversation from so far away. She glanced to the queen, who sighed and nodded. She finally answered the question. "Alti has locked them outside the gates to Eternity. Our holy word should have been strong enough to undo whatever has kept our sisters from Eternity."

"Then maybe you need a new holy word, one stronger than the last," mentioned the Conqueror.

Queen Cyane shook her head then whispered, "Our holy word is Courage… nothing's stronger than Courage."

Gabrielle had unknowingly neared the group. "Even Alti knows Courage."

"There's one thing she doesn't know though." The Conqueror focused back on the shaman. "I'll need your help with something, Yakut."

Yakut was uncertain but she was curious too. "With?"

"I hear shamans are good with astral projections," commented the ruler, "I could use a projection of what Melinda Pappas has been doing since I was taken."

Queen Cyane's eyes slotted. "You're going to face Alti?"

"We're going to face Alti," corrected the bard.

The queen glanced between the bard and the ruler as she realized this was quite serious. She turned back to Yakut. "Do it." She then waved at the three guards to come forward. "Ephiny, I have one more task for you, Solari, and Callisto if you three will accept?"

Ephiny glanced between her fellow Amazons and saw them agreeing easily with nods. She nodded back at the queen too then proclaimed, "Of course, my queen."

"Excellent. It's time Alti settled her debt with the Amazon Nation." Queen Cyane turned her head to Yakut. "And our sisters can enter Eternity without her petty tricks."

By the mid afternoon, Gabrielle finished a heated argument with her adopted mother about going to Corinth. Her head was throbbing and she knew she'd lost the argument completely. She ended up stomping out of the guest hut and going to the stables as she figured that's where the Conqueror was most likely.

The Conqueror finished getting the face tack onto the mare when she heard the distinct footfall of the rebel leader entering. She twisted her head around and saw the frustrated features. "I take it you lost."

The rebel huffed with a lot of aggravation coming out too. "How in Zeus's name did you put up with her?"

The ruler tossed the saddle onto the mare's back and worked at strapping it down with the girth. "The same way she put up with me all those moons. So I take it she and Melpomene are coming then?"

"Yes," answered Gabrielle. She leaned against the stall door. "Hopefully Ephiny and Solari won't mind them riding too."

"Melpomene shouldn't be coming," stated the ruler.

Gabrielle threw up her hand and hotly stated, "That kid is two of me put together!"

The Conqueror couldn't hold back her grin as she teased, "Poetic justice, bard."

The bard scowled her friend and grumbled for a bit.

"So did you ask Callisto if you could ride with her?"

Gabrielle snapped out her curses and sheepishly smiled at the ruler. "I… uh I really didn't… I just thought… since…." She just stopped her ramblings and sighed.

The Conqueror patted the mare's neck after finishing with tacking up the horse. "Its fine, Gabrielle." She opened the stall door and came out while adjusting her cloak. "Are you packed?"

"Cyrene was getting everything ready." The bard became even more sheepish as she muttered, "I told her since she wants to come she has to pack everything."

The Conqueror actually quietly laughed at this and shook her head. "Well I see my family's idea about sweet revenge has been carried on to you." She slowly started for the door with the limping bard at her side.

"It did make me feel better," agreed the bard then her nose crinkled up. "For about five heartbeats. I need to go help her though."

"Well be ready in a candlemark."

Gabrielle nodded her head. "We will be. I just need to catch up with Princess Terreis to say goodbye and return her dagger." She stopped, which caused her friend to do the same. "And she's in the opposite direction."

The ruler nodded her understanding and said, "I'll see you in a candlemark." Then she continued her way through the village to her guest hut.

The rebel sighed then decided she better hurry if she didn't want to get left behind. When she found the princess, they spoke for awhile and promised to contact one another then later visit. The princess also refused to take back her dagger and told Gabrielle to keep it even if she didn't carry it. Eventually the pair separated after a long hug then Terreis wished the bard good luck and safer travels.

Gabrielle hurried back to the guest hut and helped Cyrene finish with the packing then they all left to meet in the stables. Just as they arrived the three Amazons were filing out with horses in tow then a few heartbeats after came the Conqueror with her burrowed horse. Cyrene helped get their small amount of items loaded up into the saddles then she was given a spot behind Ephiny on her horse. Melpomene rode with Solari then all was left was to get the rebel into a saddle.

The Conqueror inquisitively eyed the bard then ordered, "Let me get up first then I'll lift you up."

Gabrielle inwardly sighed because she didn't feel comfortable riding with Callisto, which she thought was odd considering her history with the Conqueror compared to Callisto. She watched as the ruler easily mounted the chestnut mare then adjusted the reins. Gabrielle limped forward and dropped her head back some.

The Conqueror leaned over to Gabrielle. "Give me your walking stick first." She received the small cane and quickly lashed it down to the saddlebags because she knew any longer would pain the bard.

Gabrielle used the horse's side to balance herself with one hand while her other hand adjusted her Amazon cloak. When the ruler leaned back over, she gazed up and something around the ruler's neck caught her eye. A necklace poked between the ruler's cloak and shined its bronzy colors in the sunlight.

The Conqueror held out her hand and she noted how Gabrielle broke away from staring at her neck. She bit back her grin from the bard's observations then she hefted the small woman into the saddle behind her.

Gabrielle released a small yelp but she settled into the saddle behind the ruler. She cautiously wrapped her arms around the ruler's waist then tried to relax however it was very nerve wracking. It's only the Conqueror of most of the known-world I'm clinging to here, inwardly joked the bard.

"We better move before it gets any later," suggested Ephiny.

The Conqueror's agreement was simply her urging the mare to veer to the left and aimed for the gates.

"You know," mentioned Gabrielle, "this is the second time in my life I've rode a horse."

The Conqueror almost asked when the first time was then it struck her blindly. Her only advice to Gabrielle was: "Just hang on and don't look down."

At that instant, Gabrielle had just finished staring down at the ground, which she felt was very far below. She let out an audibly groan then murmured, "Don't they make these things lower?"

The ruler had a small grin but she didn't respond as she guided the group out of the gates and towards the thin path that twisted through the woods. Gabrielle stole quiet time to admire the beautiful forest that was turning golden colors mixed with the green. Her eyes were wide in appreciation. It was just under a half of a candlemark when they broke onto a main road that led directly to Corinth as all roads in the realm led to Corinth now.

"Gabrielle, remember what I said about hanging on?"

"Yes," answered the bard.

"I suggest you heed that advice… right about… now."

Gabrielle squealed when suddenly the horse rocketed into a canter down the road. Her arms instantly clamped around the Conqueror's firm waist and she buried her face into the ruler's wool covered shoulder. She jammed her eyes closed and sent out a pray for life.

The Conqueror however had the opposite reaction as she came to life in the blustery wind. Her cheeks slowly flushed red as her blood pumped harder to counter act the chill. Behind the horse, her ears detected the other horses' pounding hoofs quickly following. Horseback riding had always been her most favorite as she felt so free and especially at faster speeds.

Gabrielle's breath was warm against the ruler's back. Her hands were somewhat numb at the front but her grip was sure. She tried to gain some serenity about this riding concept and she used the Conqueror's body as her anchor. She eventually built some confidence so she lifted her head and peered around the ruler. Her eyes watered against the wind factor but she was amazed to see everything move by so quickly. This ride was much different than the one she experience on the battlefield.

The Conqueror sensed the rebel leader's boldness. It made her slightly grin in appreciation.

"So does this thing go faster, Conqueror?" called the bard over the noise.

"Possibly, rebel," jested the ruler.

Gabrielle grumbled but she knew the Conqueror couldn't hear her. "Does the horse go faster, Xena?" she corrected.

The Conqueror decided to find out and her thighs squeezed harder against the hot chest of the mare.

The horse inhaled sharply then pressed forward with all her stamina.

"Oooh my… gods!" cried out the rebel and her arms tightened harder.

The Conqueror thought breathing was going to become an issue from the rebel's squeeze. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw that the Amazons were falling behind but she figured they'd slow down soon enough.

Gabrielle squinted when she thought she saw something just ahead in the road.

"There's a fallen tree just ahead so hanging on tight." The ruler anchored them down by tightening her legs. Her right hand clutched the horse's mane then she bent forward. She sensed the mare preparing to jump the fallen tree so she lifted her body from the saddle with her feet.

Gabrielle tried not to scream but she was unsuccessful when she, the ruler, and the horse were all airborne. She dug her face into the Conqueror's back and rammed her eyes shut. Her butt then slammed on the saddle and she muffled a moan into her friend's back. She knew without a doubt that tonight she would forever regret riding and wish never to do it again.

The Conqueror lowered back down into the saddle then gently tugged the reins so that the mare slowed down. She didn't want to tire the horse out too early as it'd be awhile before they'd be upon Corinth. It wasn't until just before sunset that she decided it would be best to take a break and eat dinner.

The group pulled off the road and went into a clearing where they were able to eat some heavy trail rations that Ephiny and Solari packed. They then ate plenty of flatbread to put some weight in their stomachs. Afterwards the bottomless bard was popping in several dried grapes that she absolutely loved. Then she soon discovered herself eyeing the Conqueror and the mare again and she debated whether to fight it or not. She knew it was mostly impossible not to ride so she was lifted into the saddle again.

The Conqueror knew the rebel was most likely getting tired especially because she recalled riding when her legs were mangled from the cross. While they continued the ride to Corinth, the Conqueror considered what she'd done to the bard about three moons ago. She couldn't believe it'd only been three moons ago as it seemed like a lifetime in comparison. Regardless, the Conqueror sensed the growing seed of guilt because of what'd happened and how it now permanently scared the bard's memory and life.

Gabrielle sensed her friend's deeper thoughts. She knew she couldn't exactly ask what she was thinking about especially since they were riding at a gallop down the moonlit road. Her friend had to remain completely at focus so that they wouldn't run into danger. Gabrielle did figure she could break the ruler's deep thoughts with a quick and easy question. "I'm not hurting your back wound am I?"

The Conqueror shoved away her dark thoughts as she repeated the bard's question in her head. She silently cleared her throat then replied, "No, you're fine."

"How much longer you think it'll be?" called the bard over the din of the ride. "There's no way we're going to make it there tonight."

"No," agreed the Conqueror, "but hopefully tomorrow night if we keep this pace up."

"We'll stop just north of Thebes?"

The ruler debated that then decided from her mental map that Gabrielle's position was perfect. "I think so." She said nothing else as she wanted to remain focused on the ride. She figure they'd travel for another three candlemarks then stop to make camp. About six hours of sleep and continue the ride at first light or so and they would make it to Corinth only a candlemark or two after sunset tomorrow.

True to her consideration, the Conqueror slowed the group down and paced the horses for a quarter of a candlemark so they could cool down from the hard ride. She then guided everybody into the woods and found a large enough clearing for them. She first got off the horse then helped her friend next.

Gabrielle gripped the ruler's arm for balance while the ruler retrieved the cane. When she had her cane she carefully tried to work her aching legs forward.

The Conqueror unlashed the saddlebags and hefted it free from the tired mare. She came along side the bard and murmured, "Sit down on that log. We'll setup camp."

"I can-"

"Don't argue with me," clipped the ruler then she walked past the bard with the bags.

Solari, Ephiny, and Callisto hastily worked together to get the camp together. Cyrene discovered that Ephiny had been hiding a package of dried herbs and a few fresh carrots. Callisto had disappeared to catch a couple of rabbits so Cyrene prepared to make a rabbit soup that would surely calm everybody's hungry stomachs.

Gabrielle sat on the log as her friend had told her to do. Her legs did ache badly and she knew there wasn't much she could do to help around the camp. She had her legs stretched out and occasionally she would lean over and massage them, more so her right than her left.

The Conqueror kept her back to the group while she untacked the mare then gave her some feed.

Solari and Ephiny took care of the camp fire and made sure to use correct wood that wouldn't smoke. They didn't feel like attracting any attention tonight especially considering who was in this band.

Melpomene had been given the task of laying out her bedroll along with Cyrene and Gabrielle's. She then came to sit next to her aunt.

Gabrielle smiled at her niece and ruffled her sandy hair with a warm smile.

"Do your legs hurt, auntie?" questioned the girl.

"Not too bad, sweetie," lied the rebel.

The Conqueror paused in her administrations to the mare when she heard this because she too knew it was a lie. She inwardly sighed and finished off her duties with the mare. After she was finished, she mentioned to whoever was listening that she was going to check things around the camp to make sure all was quiet. By the time she surfaced from her perimeter patrol the soup was ready and Cyrene was serving everybody.

Once everybody had full bellies, they each curled up into their bedrolls and furs one by one. The only one to remain awake was the Conqueror, who didn't even bother to set out a bedroll and furs. She planned to take watch all night as she required little sleep compared to everybody else. She remained sitting on a cold rock near the fire and occasionally she would silently put a piece of wood into the fire to keep it alive.

Gabrielle stirred a few candlemarks later, got up to her weak feet with her furs, and made the few paces over without her cane. She slumped onto the ground in a huff and studied the golden profile of the ruler. "You're not going to sleep."

The Conqueror poked the fire with a long, thin branch then simply nodded her head.

The bard stifled a yawn and buried deeper into her furs that wrapped around her body completely. "What are you going to do with Alti?"

The Conqueror poked the fire and let the silence hang for a bit. She finally rotated her head to the rebel. "Do you want the truth?"

"Would you think I'd accept anything else?" argued the bard.

The Conqueror grunted at the truth behind the statement. "I plan to kill her," she calmly answered then turned back to the fire.

Gabrielle furrowed her eyebrows and not because she didn't expect that answer but that the Conqueror had no other answers. "I guess there's… nothing else you could do….?"

The ruler pulled the stick out of the fire and balanced her elbows on her knees while leaning forward. "Gabrielle, I'm considered evil but she makes me look like Aphrodite in comparison."

Gabrielle's nose crinkled up at this image and then she broke into quiet giggles when she tried to visualize the Conqueror with pink, frilly ribbons in her hair.

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at the rebel's amusement.

"I'm sorry," murmured the still giggling bard. "I am a bard, you know." She cleared the giggles out of her throat then went serious. "I wouldn't say you're evil, Xena just that… you've been misguided and misunderstood."

"We all make our own choices, Gabrielle," argued the ruler, "and I made mine. Mine require a lot of payment… a lot."

Gabrielle swallowed then tugged her furs closer against her body. "At least you recognize that though." She shook her head then whispered, "That's the step in the right direction… probably the hardest step."

"Admitting you were wrong all your life?" questioned the sarcastic ruler. "You hit the Roman nail on the head when you said that I became the very thing I tried to stop."

"Maybe so," agreed Gabrielle, "but now you have a chance to change that… to be better than them." She studied the ruler's passive profile yet she could read into her friend's longing blue eyes.

"It won't be easy."

The bard nodded. "It won't be but neither were your campaigns," she reminded. "Besides… you like to keep it interesting, I hear."

The Conqueror's lips slowly spread into a small grin, which broke her grim features apart. "I was right about one thing," she murmured.

"What's that?" quietly asked the bard.

"That you're a great enemy but a better friend."

Gabrielle shrugged and simply replied, "I'm glad you're finding that out."

Xena turned her head to her friend and murmured, "Me too."

Gabrielle shyly smiled then lost her eye contact as she gazed into the fire. She didn't stay up much longer as the Conqueror warned they'd be up not long after dawn. She yawned once or twice then said goodnight and even tried to urge her friend to get some sleep too but she couldn't win that battle. At least she won the war, she decided as she curled up into her bedroll for the night.

And dawn came all too quickly for the bard as her grumpy mood reined in for the first two candlemarks. They quickly ate, broke camp, and to her detest she was up on the high horse again. She just clung to the ruler when they broke out into the full gallop down the road to Corinth. She would be absolutely relieved when she could put her two feet and cane on the ground and casually stroll into Corinth. After all this was over she secretly promised herself she'd steal a day alone and dedicated it to sleep, food, and writing however she somewhat doubted she'd find that day.

The Conqueror's estimation about reaching Corinth had been exact as they came to a fast walk with the horses when the road turned into cobblestones. Night had already set in but the Conqueror wasn't taking chances so she dismounted as did everybody else. She pulled her cloak's hood over her head then softly ordered Gabrielle to stay near her. The Amazons kept close to Cyrene and Melpomene.

The party approached the road that rolled down the hill that went into the city so they tried not to grow edgy. They entered through the large, open gates without any problems then came through the quieting marketplace. Gabrielle took the lead because it'd been decided to spend the night in Gabrielle and Cyrene's home since it would be safest for tonight. Gabrielle also promised she could get word to Janice and Melinda once she made contact with her faction.

Gabrielle first came down the alley where the door to her home was located. She was only a few limping paces away from the door but she stopped short when a shadowy figure at the other end started to move for her. She clenched her hand at her side but she thankfully heard everybody behind her catching up to her. "Who's there?" she called.

"Gabrielle?" called Joxer and he formed out of the dark under the torchlight that was overhead. "Is that really you?"

Gabrielle smiled happily at seeing the young man. She took a step closer to him but hesitated when his face fell. She knew his gaze was beyond him but before she could explain anything Joxer went for his sword.

The Conqueror was much faster as she stood behind the bard, towering over her and her lightening reflexes had her Amazon sword out. She extended her right hand and let the sword's tip loom just under the unknown man's chin. "Who are you?" she growled in a dangerous tone.

"It's okay," gently assured the bard. She tightly gripped her cane as she felt the ruler's protective and powerful presence just behind her. The ruler's warm leathers slightly brushed her back. "He's one of my faction guards."

"Guards?" repeated the Conqueror.

Joxer's fingers were wrapped around his sword's hilt but he wasn't moving it. Those piercing blue eyes under the hood were rooting him and he knew who it was as he was familiar with such a cold and threatening gaze that bore into his very being.

"Yes, I have several faction guards," explained the bard. She lifted her left hand and lightly touched the ruler's extended forearm. "He's fine."

The Conqueror secretly admired the rebel leader's insight to build a small security unit. She assumed it was how the faction often knew her very movements and probably explained how the bard escaped Corinth so long ago. She realized just how excellent of an enemy Gabrielle had made and would come to benefit her greatly in the court.

"Are we here?" questioned Ephiny.

"Yes, just in that door," answered Gabrielle.

Joxer stepped aside after freeing his sword's handle. He went to the door opened it and let the group file into the house before he entered backwards. He scanned the alley but didn't think anybody saw them so he closed the door and locked it up from inside. When he turned around he was embraced in the bard's one arm hug that he always loved. "I'm so glad you're alright, Gabrielle."

The rebel leader withdrew with a warm smile. "Me too. It's good to be home."

Joxer was staring beyond his friend when the tall ruler removed her hood and her high cheek bones showed and her raven hair spilled out. He swallowed plus the tension in his body shot up.

Gabrielle touched the faction guard's arm to help ease him. "There's a lot going on, Joxer."

Joxer kept staring at the ruler, who seemed to materialize out of the darkness when the candles in the house were lit one by one. He finally broke away and lowered his head to Gabrielle. "A lot has happened here too."

"I need either you or Perdicus to get a message into the fortress… to Janice or…." Gabrielle wavered because she realized that Joxer may have no idea about Melinda Pappas.

"Melinda?" finished the faction guard.

Gabrielle studied her friend then slowly nodded. "Do you and Perdicus think you can do it?"

Joxer's jaw tightened then he whispered, "Gabrielle… Perdicus…."

Gabrielle shook her head and clenched the young man's arm tighter. "Perdicus what?"

The Conqueror slightly turned her head down as she already knew what'd happened thanks to Yakut's astral projection. She hadn't mentioned it to the bard because there hadn't been a right time but now there was if it was even right. She stepped closer to her friend and rested her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "He's dead, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle became frozen then she side stepped and looked between Joxer and the Conqueror. "No… no, he's not." She turned her head to Joxer.

Joxer lowered his gaze to the floor.

The bard peered up into the ruler's revealing face and she hotly whispered, "You knew?"

The Conqueror wasn't ready for these impending emotions that she never had to deal with and it wasn't easy. "Yakut showed me in the astral projection."

Cyrene had just come back from her bedroom after placing her things in there. She approached the cluster because the Amazons were standing away but intently watching and listening. "What's happened?"

Gabrielle met Cyrene's gaze and whispered, "Perdicus is dead."

Cyrene became very solemn as her emotions raced faster than her thoughts. She hoarsely whispered, "How'd he die?"

"One of the squad soldiers killed him," answered the faction guard.

"What? Why?" Gabrielle ran her fingers through her bangs as her mind quickly tried to piece the puzzle together. She peered up at the Conqueror and asked, "Do you know what's happened?"

Slowly the Conqueror nodded her head. "A lot has happened since we both left Corinth." She sensed her mother also studying her so she steeled her mind because she would tell them the truth. She clenched her hands at her side then whispered, "Perdicus died trying to protect Janice." She didn't want to voice who the killer was because she was already having trouble fathoming that it was true. "It was Toris."

"Toris?" murmured Cyrene. "Xena, how can-"

"I know because he tried to attack Melinda… he thought Melinda was me."

"By the gods," rasped the bard. She quickly felt weak on her knees so she went over to the table and pulled out a chair. She almost fell into it and she dropped her cane with a loud clank. She lowered her face into her hands and tried to control her tears that wanted to rise up.

Cyrene first went to the Amazons and whispered something to Ephiny.

Ephiny only nodded then took Melpomene's hand. She soon disappeared back into Cyrene's bedroom with the door closing.

Cyrene finally knelt beside the bard and touched her knee lightly. "Gabrielle?"

The rebel lifted her head; her reddening face met Cyrene's gaze. "My brother killed the man I was going to marry."

Cyrene's words were lost at that point when she read the pain in her daughter's eyes. She hadn't realized that Gabrielle was still harboring thoughts of marrying Perdicus in the future.

The Conqueror slightly turned her head and closed her eyes. Not only had she ruined the bard's abilities to walk but now she'd managed to bring her vengeful brother into this and steal away Gabrielle's future.

Gabrielle roughly asked, "When does this cycle ever stop?"

"When there's love and forgiveness," tenderly reminded the mother.

Gabrielle repeated her mother's words then her green eyes lifted up to the Conqueror and locked on her.

Cyrene followed Gabrielle's gaze to her eldest daughter, who she loved unconditionally.

The Conqueror opened her eyes to the world around her and saw that Gabrielle and her mother were watching her. She matched their stares as she repeated the quiet conversation that passed between Cyrene and Gabrielle and she began to believe her mother's words too. She just hoped it was enough to help her stop Alti.

Chapter 23 – The Return of the Conqueror

Doctor Janice Covington stepped into the Conqueror's office after being called to enter. Once she closed the door, she quickly asked, "What's going on, Mel?"

Melinda Pappas was standing by the open window that over looked the right side of the fortress. She was watching the city of Corinth buzz with activity despite the winter chill that was settling. She turned her head to the left and somewhat smiled at her lover.

Janice was in her usual Amazon garb of simple leather. Her leather and wool jacket had been cleaned and her wounds from Toris's attack were healing over. The torture that the Conqueror had performed was mostly gone other than a few of the deeper cuts.

"I received word from Gabrielle this morning." Melinda waited for her friend and lover to come closer to her.

Janice admired the Chin attire that her lover had selected this morning. "Didn't you just get a message from her yesterday?"

"Yes." Melinda held out her hand and when slim fingers slipped through hers, she pulled Janice closer. "They're here."

Janice inhaled and read her lover's beautiful features. "In Corinth?"

"Mmmm." Melinda pulled the archeologist in closer to her body.

"And exactly who is they? What's happened to the trial?"

The linguist chuckled at her lover's keen interest about everything. She'd kept Janice regularly updated on everything she'd heard from Gabrielle as she didn't like keeping Janice out of the loop. "She was pardoned from her charges because she helped fight against Darphus."

"Jesus," murmured the archeologist, "is that good or bad?"

"Apparently it seems to be good," remarked the translator, "as Gabrielle believes she's changed. She didn't go into details."

"I'll believe it when I see it," chided the archeologist, who leaned into the taller frame next to her.

"You're going to have that chance tonight," informed Melinda. "We're going to Gabrielle's home to meet with 'em."

Janice stiffened and dropped her head back some. "And who is them?"

Melinda lowered her head and pressed her lips against Janice's temple. She pulled back some then murmured, "Ephiny, Solari, Callisto, Cyrene, Gabrielle, the Conqueor…." She lifted her head some. "Little Melpomene." She saw how Janice's glowing smile shaped at hearing the girl's name. "There may be a few others there."

"I've missed Ephiny and Melpomene," quietly admitted the archeologist, who rarely confessed to missing anybody to herself or voicing it to somebody.

"I know." Melinda ran her fingers through the back of Janice's short, golden locks. "Can ya come tonight?"

The archeologist sighed as she stared over the ancient city of Corinth; she particularly studied the area where Gabrielle's home resided. "This is going to be very awkward, Mel… and uncomfortable."

"It will be," agreed the linguist, "but if it gets us outta here and home then…."

Janice slowly showed her agreement with moving her head. "I've had enough of this dekarchos crap… I'm ready to play archeologist again."

Melinda had a faint grin at this.

The archeologist was transfixed by the city but she whispered, "You really think the Conqueror has changed?"

"Would Gabrielle stand by her if it were any different?"

Janice quickly understood then she turned back to her lover. "I'm not sure I can…." She wrapped her arms around her body.

Melinda took her lover's smaller hands into hers and gently promised, "I ain't gonna leave your side tonight."

The archeologist absorbed the promise and nodded her head. "Thanks, Mel."

"My pleasure," murmured the linguist, who leaned down for a gentle kiss. After her lips parted from Janice's, she whispered, "I need to tell Lao Ma what's happening… she'll stay here to watch things."

Janice nodded her head. "How's Toris doing?"

"I hear he's cursing up a storm in the dungeons." Melinda straightened up, which revealed her worried features.

"Mel, there's not much we can do to help him," reminded the archeologist. "He's just going to have to sit tight until the Conqueror can deal with him."

The linguist knew this too but she didn't completely like it either. "And exactly how do ya think she's gonna deal with him?"

"I guess we won't have an idea until we see what these changes are," theorized Janice. "This is going to hurt Gabrielle the worst… I mean Perdicus…." She shook her head and looked away. "I don't know what Perdicus was thinking."

"He was protecting you and stopping Toris," reminded the linguist but even her assuring words seemed hollow in comparison to Perdicus's wasted death. She knew too that once Gabrielle heard of his death that she would be the most devastated. Cyrene would follow suit too.

"Its events like that," murmured Janice, "that I think life is so fucked up." She was instantly reminded of her mother's death, which made her bitterness curl in her stomach. "If I'd just not been so goddamn trusting."

"Janice," debated Melinda, "it ain't your fault." She tipped her lover's head up so she could see those emotionally lit green eyes. "Toris made his choices and obviously he resigned to 'em a long time ago. It was his hands… not yours."

"I know," whispered the archeologist, "I just should have-"

"Learn to let it go, Janice." Melinda released Janice's chin then softly added, "The cycle has to stop at some point."

The archeologist sighed then faintly nodded but she would still debate it over for some time.

"How is Hu doing, Janice?"

"He's still with Lao Ma and slowly recovering." Janice was relieved for that much as she knew any tiger, human or otherwise, was quite stubborn especially in the face of death. "I can't believe he dragged himself all the way from the beach, across the city, and into the fortress to stop Toris." She slightly showed a grin. "It must be a tiger thing."

"Must be," lightly agreed the grinning linguist. "Go finish up with your squad for the afternoon. Meet me here after sunset… we'll eat then head over to Gabrielle's."

Janice readily agreed, kissed her lover goodbye, and slipped out of the office. She spent the afternoon sweeping through the city with her patrol and more times than she cared to admit she wanted to stop at Gabrielle's home. Instead she kept her patrol busy and making sure all was quiet in the city. She also enjoy a little side trip to the market and picked on Salmoneus, which made her feel good for a bit. Salmoneus too pretended to enjoy his little friend's surprise visits and he was always quite pleasant but he knew the female dekarchos saw right through him. Still though, like any good salesman he continued trying to persuade his little friend that he was a changed merchant and had no products that remotely had to do with the Conqueror. Of course as soon as the dekarchos and her squad marched off his stall did an almost magical transformation and there were Conqueror products up for resale.

Janice ran a little behind in her patrol as she made it to the fortress half an hour after sunset but she dismissed her men for the night. She then decided first to go to the Conqueror's bedchambers because she wanted to pick up something for tonight. She entered the quiet and dimly lit chambers and noticed that Nakia had come through to clean up things. She rarely saw the Egyptian slave these days as she was so busy sashaying around as a dekarchos. She picked up her leather pack that she'd originally bought when first coming to Corinth and filled it with a couple of items then hurried out of the bedchambers.

When the archeologist started down the hallway her brisk walk went slower as she spotted the dark shaman, Alti, waiting at the end of the hallway. She knew she had plenty of protection on her between her sword and gun plus they were in the fortress, which was not only swarming with sentries but with Melinda Pappas as the Conqueror.

Alti slowly developed a dark smile when the small woman cautiously approached her. "I heard about your little incident yesterday… dekarchos."

Janice narrowed her eyes at how the shaman drew out her title as if it were a joke.

"Its strange how the Conqueror hasn't dealt with her brother," mentioned the thoughtful shaman. "She's usually swift with her executions."

"Maybe because it is her brother," chewed out the archeologist.

Alti laughed then leaned over the prone archeologist. "Who are you trying to fool, Janice? The Conqueror does not know change but if she ever found it then the realm would be lost."

Janice's lips curled into a smirk as she too knew that the Conqueror was the realm. "What you so afraid of change for, Alti? You afraid to lose your spot as the biggest leech sucker in the world?"

Alti's face flickered with an angry reaction but then it disappeared as she threateningly whispered, "There are plenty of others that follow in Darphus and Velasca's wake, Janice Covington. You are just one minor passing in the Conqueror's life just like the rest." She lifted her right hand to bring it near the stranger but she paused. "There is change coming and you're days of sunrises are almost over." Suddenly she turned and glided down the hallway with her back to the archeologist.

"Yeah fuck you too," muttered the angry archeologist as she was so tempted to show Alti how many sunrises she had left. She adjusted her pack then turned to her right and entered the stairwell to go to the third level. She raced up and quickly ducked into the Conqueror's office because she couldn't be any later for Melinda.

Melinda informed Janice that she would need to leave first tonight and asked her to wait on the edge of the market for her. Janice found that Melinda had changed at some point into her leathers, bronze armor, and hooked on her sword and chakram. Janice received a quick kiss then left the office and eventually the fortress.

The translator passed some time by finishing up work on a scroll. She then stood up, pulled her black cloak off the back of her chair, and quickly put it on then went to the open window of the office. She scanned the torch lit city then she quickly moved about the office to blow out all the candles and torches. Her tall form disappeared in the bleakness of the office but she materialized by the dimly lit window that was rather large.

Melinda crouched on the edge of the window as her sights focused on the market where she hoped Janice was waiting for her. She pulled her hood over her head, peered down at the fortress grounds far below, and she quickly rolled out of the window and disappeared into the darkness without a sound.

Janice Covington studied the few passerbys that didn't give her much of a second glance. She toyed with a button of her jacket then she suddenly jumped when an unexpected hand touched her shoulder. She whirled around with her shocked features but sighed in relief. "Don't do that, Mel," she hissed hotly. She spotted her friend's devilish grin under the hood.

"Let's go quickly, Janice."

The archeologist conceded by swiftly moving along side her lover through the city. She guided Melinda through the city then finally ducked into an alleyway where the entrance to Gabrielle's home. She knocked on the door as Melinda inched closer to her, which comforted her greatly.

Joxer answered the door and he smiled at the archeologist. "Glad you made it, Janice."

"Come on, let us in before I freeze," complained the gruff archeologist.

Joxer quietly laughed at the woman's abrasive attributes but he side stepped and watched as Janice entered followed by a tall, unknown figure. He assumed it was this mysterious Melinda Pappas he'd heard so much about but hadn't met yet.

"Janice," warmly greeted Cyrene first. She wiped her hands on her apron and quickly came out of the kitchen to the pair. She first hugged Janice for awhile.

Melinda removed her hood and tried to stop eyeing Joxer because he certainly reminded her of Jack Kleiman. She then discovered that Cyrene had a hug for her too, which she warmly received.

Janice then saw at the bare dinner table sat the three Amazons she knew so well. "Can't you get off your ass and say hi, Eph?"

The Amazon in question laughed then quickly got up to hug her favorite irritating blond. She whispered in the archeologist's ear, "It's so good to see you, Janny."

"Yeah, yeah you too, feather head," teased Janice when she broke the hug.

Solari stepped up to the former stranger that she'd come to adore. "Ephiny and I have the most unbelievable story to tell you later." She then embraced the archeologist.

"Jesus Christ," complained the hugged stranger, "I thought you Amazons hated me."

"We should for sending us another irritating blond," jested Ephiny. She smirked at Janice's scowl then she faced Melinda Pappas, who she hugged too.

After the greetings between the friends Janice asked, "Where's Gabrielle and…." She fell short because her attention was grabbed by the bard, who stood at the top of the steps and was followed suit by the Conqueror.

"Glad you made it," commented the rebel leader from the top. She went down the steps as fast as she could then come up to her descendant.

The Conqueror stood back and watched with intent.

Gabrielle wouldn't be denied a hug from Janice.

Janice finally smiled as she tightly held her ancestor from another world. When she pulled back she found a warm hand against her cheek and concerned green eyes looking her face over.

"I was worried about you," sadly brought up the bard.

"I was worried about me too," confessed the archeologist. She took Gabrielle's hand into hers then partially turned to bring Melinda into the conversation. "Mel though took care of everything."

Gabrielle lifted her gaze to Melinda Pappas and warmly smiled as she greeted, "Its good to see you again, Melinda."

Janice tugged on her lover's bracer covered wrist and pulled her forward.

Melinda received a gentle hug from the rebel leader, which made her smile too. She'd been in continuous contact with the rebel but face to face was always different in her opinion.

Gabrielle then half turned to urge her silent friend to join them because she knew this would be hard for the Conqueror. "A lot has happened while I was in the Amazon Nation."

"I reckon a lot has happened in Corinth while ya been gone," commented Melinda Pappas. Her features stoned over when she met the Conqueror's watchful gaze. She also unknowingly pressed her body against Janice's in a protective manner.

Janice's eyes swept over the dark woman that'd tortured her body for a week. The scabs were gone from her body but her mind was scarred by the memories. She wasn't quite ready to face any music that may sing of the Conqueror's changes. She cleared her throat then asked, "Where's Melpomene?"

"She was asleep," commented Cyrene, "but I would think she'd be up with all this noise." She glanced off to her right when she heard a sound. She smiled when she saw the girl's young and sleepy face.

Janice slipped past everybody and her grim face broke apart by a beautiful smile. "Hi, Mel."

Melpomene worked out the sleep fuzz in her vision. She smiled brightly at seeing the older woman she considered her sister. She broke into a charging run while squealing, "Janice!"

The archeologist knelt down and rocked back on her heels when the child landed into her body. She scooped up the girl into a powerful hug.

"I missed you, Janice," murmured the child.

Janice melted into Melpomene's affection and whispered back, "I missed you too." She slightly pulled back then gently stated, "I want you to meet my Mel." She saw the slightly offended look, which made her grin and correct, "My other Mel."

Melpomene switched back to her smile and clung to Janice.

Janice slowly stood up and hefted the girl so that she held her at her right side. Her newly increased arm strength made it much simpler compared to her past attempts. She was all a smile as she came over to her lover and introduced, "Melinda, you remember Melpomene?"

Melinda Pappas graced the child with a warm smile. "Oh yes." She stepped forward and gave the child a warm hug then a kiss to her cheek while Melpomene remained in Janice's hold.

"Sit down, everybody," offered Cyrene, "I'm almost finished dinner."

Janice lit up at the mention of food. "Mel and I ate already but…." She inquisitively peered up at lover for an answer.

Melinda chuckled then grinned at the mother. "I think Janice is still hungry though."

Everybody laughed together at the linguist's joke that fell on the blushing archeologist. Eventually the large group of friends filled in chairs around the table except Cyrene, who'd picked up plenty of food in the market today and was making a classic fish dish for them. Melinda sat beside Janice, who was flanked by Ephiny, Gabrielle, and then the Conqueror. On Janice's lap sat the excited Melpomene, who couldn't be pried or bribed from Janice.

The Amazons sat lumped together and occasionally helped fill in the holes of Gabrielle's story about the trial and the battle against Darphus. She only left out the details about the Conqueror's trials through Tartarus as that was something just between her and the Conqueror. By the time she finished, Cyrene was putting the food down with Ephiny and Joxer's help. The meal itself was rather quiet as everybody was thoroughly absorbed in the home cooked dinner that was enough to feed an army. And despite some of the underlying tension Cyrene's meal that was filled with her love seemed to ease that tension. For the first time in countless moons, Cyrene had most of her family together that seemed to be growing, which made her a glowing mother inside and out.

Janice shoved her cleared plate aside and happily moaned at her filled belly. "Damn… I think that totally beats the food back in the fortress," she remarked and grinned up at her lover.

Melinda chuckled and shook her head.

"Now who do you think ate more?" brought up Ephiny, who was grinning from ear to ear. "Gabrielle or Janice?"

"Hey," shot back Janice, "be nice, Eph. I'm in a good mood right now."

Ephiny folded her arms over her chest but she didn't lose her gloating expression.

Callisto now got up and started to clear the plates around the table. Cyrene joined her as did Solari. Once the dishes were removed Cyrene was busy warming up water for tea for whoever wanted any, which she suspected would be everybody but Melpomene. In the meantime, Janice and Melinda were prompted by Gabrielle to tell what'd happened in Corinth while they were away.

The Conqueror at this moment listened the most as this information confirmed much of what she saw in the astral projection. She'd stayed relatively quiet the entire time, which was obvious to everybody but it seemed to bother the bard out of anybody. Gabrielle understood the uncomfortable situation between the Conqueror, Janice, and Melinda too. She knew it wasn't something that would be corrected tonight or tomorrow but hopefully it would ease overtime.

"Toris is in the dungeons?" finally spoke up the Conqueror.

Melinda took the question so her lover wouldn't do it. "Yes and he's quite comfortable."

"He isn't hurt?" questioned Cyrene, who stood besides Ephiny and filling up a mug with steaming water from her bronze kettle.

"He had a shoulder wound," replied Janice, "but Mel had a healer take care of it."

Gabrielle was biting her lower lip as her dinner in her stomach turned. "He's just going to have to wait until after you deal with Alti huh?" Her view centered on the Conqueror next to her.

The ruler slowly nodded. "It's the safest place for him right now." Nor was she quite prepared to face her only living brother, who had clearly been plotting for moons to seek revenge for all her wrong doings.

"And everybody else," muttered the sighing archeologist.

Melinda secretly touched her lover's side to assure her.

"I don't understand what he was thinking," murmured the confused bard.

"That's the problem, he wasn't," remarked the ruler.

Gabrielle peered up at her friend. "But why would he… he just disappeared without telling Cyrene or me. That's not like him."

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow but murmured, "I'm sure he and mother could have said the same thing about me."

The rebel leader's mouth closed as she didn't consider that.

"Hatred changes people," sadly reminded the ruler.

Gabrielle shook her head but Cyrene's kiss to her temple calmed her a degree or two. She watched as her adopted mother filled her mug with the steaming water that mixed her tea. "Thanks, Cyrene."

"So now what's the game plan?" brought up Janice.

"I need to retake my place as the Conqueror," answered the ruler.

Melinda wasn't completely comfortable with this as she was going to argue it but Janice's hand on her thigh stopped her.

"I think the question here is what's going to happen to Alti?" challenged the archeologist and she locked on the ruler.

"I am going to rid of her," declared the ruler, "with or without anybody's help."

Janice Covington raised her face up to meet Melinda.

Melinda read her lover's concerns and questions in her honey green eyes. She wondered too if they could trust the Conqueror however when she saw how Gabrielle seemed to stand beside the ruler she knew she couldn't argue any points. If the rebel leader highly trusted her long time ruthless enemy then there wasn't much left to question. "What do you need us to do?"

The Conqueror inwardly relaxed at now receiving the support. She'd been working out her plans since she arrived back from Tartarus. She didn't plan on anybody truly facing Alti other than her and Lao Ma would be the key to Alti's soul being locked away. She just hoped she could get everybody to agree to letting her do this alone.

Quite later that night, Gabrielle had changed into a nightshift after saying goodnight to Janice and Melinda, who left for the fortress. Gabrielle was rather weary after what felt like an endless argument with the Conqueror and she failed to win. It seemed lately her bard skills were just failing her whenever she tried to argue her points, which caused her a headache tonight.

The Conqueror came into the bedroom after changing in the washroom that was across from the bedroom. She recognized how the rebel leader was trying to ignore her but she let it go for right now. She set her leathers down beside her boots and Amazon sword she'd been burrowing. She sat on the edge of the bed and remarked, "We've been through too much for a silent game."

The bard's shoulder slumped but her back was still to the ruler. She was fishing around in her small dressed but gave up. She faced the ruler however didn't reply as she first took a seat on her bed. "Why do you have to do this?"

"I've already told you," answered the cold ruler.

Gabrielle sighed then leaned to her right. She propped her cane against her nightstand that was between the beds. "Why can't I help or Janice and Melinda? You can't do this alone."

"Yes I can," rebuked the Conqueror, "and I'm not endangering anymore lives but my own. This is my fight, Gabrielle."

"It's mine too," refused the bard.

"No." The Conqueror's face hardened as she coldly stated, "Alti made me and I made her… its time she's undone."

"This could kill you," hotly whispered the upset bard.

The Conqueror shrugged as if she didn't care. "As long as I can take her with me then who does it matter to?"

"It matters to me," shot back Gabrielle. Her eyes burned with her resolve. "It matters to Cyrene."

The Conqueror got up and knelt down in front of her friend. "And did you see mother fighting me about this?"

The bard turned her head away and swallowed. "She knows you'll do what you want… but that doesn't mean she agrees with it."

"Mother understands what I have to do… that for me to begin fixing all that I've done has to start with Alti."

Gabrielle dropped her head down then whispered, "You're not going to be able to fix much if you end up dead."

"I can't fix much with Alti in my path," reminded the Conqueror. "And it won't stop with me… she'll be after mother, Toris… you."

Gabrielle swallowed against the hard lump in her throat as she met the ruler's stare again. "I know. I'm just…." She shook her head and suddenly stared up at the plaster ceiling that flickered from the candlelight. Her eyes filled with the tears that wanted to be shed from her emotions. "I just scared… scared for you." She lowered her head and found a concerned expression watching her. "What if she's able to reestablish the link between you two?"

The Conqueror understood the root of the bard's fears. "Do you really believe that link of Alti's controls me?"

"I don't know," murmured the rebel. "I do know you started to change after Yakut severed it."

"Did I really change after she did that?" argued the ruler.

Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. "I know… I just… Alti is so dangerous."

"So am I," reminded the Conqueror, which she knew caught the bard off guard.

Gabrielle bit her lower lip. Her right hand stretched out and clutched the unusual bronze charm around the ruler's neck. She tightly held it while whispering, "Promise me you won't become that monster again." Her voice pitched with emotions but her gaze stayed true on the Conqueror.

The Conqueror wanted to escape at that point because it was a guarantee she could never make in life. She'd been that monster most her life and it was often all she knew especially at the darkest points in her life.

"Cyrene was right," urged Gabrielle, "this cycle of hatred and revenge won't end until we learn to love and forgive again. And not just each other... but ourselves too."

Xena turned back to the bard and revealed herself in another rare display. "If I do that then I will become that monster again, Gabrielle."

"No," argued the bard, who gently tugged on the charm. "You'll become that monster because you can't forgive and can't love… isn't that what got you here in the first place?"

Xena lowered her head some because she knew the bard was right. Her entire life had been driven by hatred and revenge while love never found a place in her or even around her. She faintly nodded then whispered, "I don't know what love is, Gabrielle."

"Yes you do," argued the bard. "You knew as a child. You've just forgotten."

"It's not easy teaching an old warlord new tricks, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle sadly grinned at her friend's joke. "Neither is it easy to teach an old bard how to hold her tongue but I'm going to put my faith into you facing Alti alone." She lowered her head closer and murmured, "You promise me, Xena that you won't become that monster again."

Xena knew it was trade on some level and she slowly nodded. She huskily whispered, "I promise." When Gabrielle released her Gaelic necklace, she quickly decided it was time to recoil so she softly ordered, "Get some sleep." Then she stood up.

The rebel leader allowed her friend the retreat because it'd been a hard conversation for them both. She slinked up the bed some, pulled the sheets back, and blew out the candles on the nightstand. She curled up in the cool bed but it slowly warmed up, which put her to sleep eventually.

The following day was spent getting prepared but the preparations were mostly made by Melinda. Janice kept up the regular duty of running the squad through the city. Melinda however went to Lao Ma and delivered a sealed message to her from the Conqueror. Lao Ma was also updated on the plans to stop Alti, which she carefully listened to but she didn't read the scroll until Melinda left her chambers.

Melinda then ordered her sentries to bring in a dozen bodies back from the cross field where prisoners were often sentenced. She knew this would keep Alti very busy as the shaman would feed off the souls of the dead prisoners. By early afternoon, she went to the Conqueror's bedchambers and collected the ruler's requested leathers, armor, and boots with leather greaves that had bronze support. She left the items near the door in leather satchels then disappeared to carry out her next item on the check list.

The fortress sentries were given an order by the Conqueror that their duty shift would be extended late tonight. The sentries were curious as to the reasoning, which the Conqueror never specified nor did their superior, Iolaus. Finally Melinda returned to the office and did her daily work so that suspicions wouldn't arise throughout the fortress. She only stopped her work when Janice arrived with concerns.

"Is everything ready?" questioned the archeologist, who closed the office door.

"I reckon so," agreed Melinda. "Alti has been rather busy today."

"So I heard," remarked Janice and she took a seat in one of the chairs. "The squad was talking about how many crucified prisoners the Conqueror ordered to be removed from the fields. You don't think Alti will wonder?"

"She will," agreed Melnida, "but not before it's too late. She's too busy with them."

Janice slightly nodded. "You want me to head over to Gabrielle's?" She stretched out her legs some. "Are the Conqueror's things ready?"

"Yes." Melinda sat back in her chair then added, "Can you take a pack with you?"

"Does it matter which one?"

The translator shook her head. "Just take one and I'll be over a candlemark after dark or so."

Janice tilted her head and asked, "How did you sneak out of the fortress anyway?"

Melinda smirked and smugly replied, "I have many skills."

Janice groaned and rolled her eyes then stood up. "I personally like your skills in-"

"Jaaaanice," drew out the linguist, her blue orbs twinkling.

The archeologist smirked. "You started it."

Melinda laughed at how her lover always reverted to that kid like remark just to poke at her. She stood up and neared her lover with a tender expression. "Will ya be okay going by yaself?"

"Christ, Mel I know I pretend to act like a kid but-"

"I know," cut in the linguist, "but I'm talkin' about the Conqueror."

"I'll be fine," assured the archeologist. Then she was on her tiptoes for a tender kiss. She brushed her hand across Melinda's face and whispered, "You be careful too, Mel."

"I'll see ya in a bit," promised the translator.

Janice went to the Conqueror's bedchambers and picked up one of the satchels. She also grabbed three more oranges from the fruit bowl and tucked them away. It wasn't long before she found herself knocking on the door to Gabrielle and Cyrene's home. Joxer let her in and she smiled to see Ephiny sipping on some tea at the dinner table with Solari. "I brought you feather heads some more."

Solari put her tea down and grinned. "You brought those… round ones right? I liked those better than the yellow things."

"Bananas," clarified the archeologist. She chuckled and swung her pack off then popped an orange out of the bag. "I brought only oranges." She tossed one orange to Ephiny then the last one to Solari.

"I love these things," murmured Solari and she started to peel off the skin as Janice showed her and Ephiny last night.

"Gabrielle and the Conqueror are upstairs," informed Ephiny, who was busy peeling her orange too.

"Thanks." Janice slung the pack over her shoulder and marched up the steps to find the Conqueror alone in the bedroom. Janice was tense but she curtly remarked, "I brought some of the things you asked for. Mel is bringing the rest."

The Conqueror only moved her head in understanding and received the heavy pack from the small woman. She set the bag down on the bed she'd slept in the past two nights. She returned her focus to Janice. "Janice-"

"I really don't want to hear it," argued the archeologist. "I'm not like Gabrielle… I'm not a forgiver like her." She folded her arms over her chest. "You tortured me for six damn days and you would have probably killed me at the end. Just because you did a hundred eighty degree switch doesn't mean I'm going to rollover and forgive you."

"First, I didn't just rollover and forgive her," came the bard's hard voice.

Janice turned her head to the bard and a sigh escape her.

"Second," continued the annoyed bard, "nobody is expecting you to forgive the Conqueror for what she did because that's your choice."

"And third?" urged the archeologist.

"Third that damn stubbornness of yours won't help anybody, especially you," remarked Gabrielle. She limped closer to her descendant. "I understand how you feel, Janice."

Janice did realize that as her ancestor suffered far more than her between her family lost and her legs. It did make her wonder how the bard was able to forgive the Conqueror.

"You were right, Janice." Gabrielle saw the confusion written on her descendant's face. "Without the Conqueror here the realm will crumble and there will be chaos."

The archeologist glimpsed at the silent ruler then back at Gabrielle. "And as you reminded me there are no tyrants that reform."

Gabrielle sighed as her words were thrown back in her face.

"There's always a first," remarked the Conqueror. She stepped closer to the archeologist. "Tell me, Janice who am I in your world?"

Janice narrowed her eyes then shook her head at her dark thoughts. She was rarely the persecuting type but for some reason she was in this case; she was with the Conqueror. Maybe she was trying hard to separate the Conqueror from Xena the Warrior Princess and even from Melinda Pappas. She didn't want to believe that this monster could lie within Melinda Pappas yet she had to face the light of truth.

"Melinda told me that the Conqueror is a hero in her world?" tried the bard.

The archeologist faintly nodded then whispered, "Before she was a hero she was a warlord."

Gabrielle stepped closer to her descendant and gently questioned, "How is this any different in the end?"

Janice angry resolve crumbled and she met her ancestor's determination. "It's probably better… this way," she sadly mentioned. "This way the Conqueror can lift a finger to bring peace to the entire realm… Xena and Gabrielle sacrificed everything for nothing."

"They wouldn't have tried so hard if they thought it was nothing," argued the bard.

"No… they wouldn't," finally agreed the archeologist. Unexpectedly she released hidden tears but Gabrielle grabbed her up into a warm hug.

Gabrielle held onto her descendant in a strong embrace that she knew she needed too.

The Conqueror tilted her head when she heard the door downstairs open and close. She lightly touched the bard's back to let her know she was leaving and she silently disappeared.

Gabrielle pulled back from the hug but used Janice's body for balance. Now that the Conqueror was gone she mentioned, "She's been through a lot too and she's trying hard. If we don't try and move forward together then we'll only end up falling apart."

"I know," agreed Janice. "It's just easier said than done."

"If it was so easy then would life be worth living?" Gabrielle didn't wait for an answer and instead guided her distant family member out of the bedroom.

Janice Covington was relieved to see her lover downstairs. She followed her ancestor down the steps then greeted Melinda.

Everybody conversed while the Conqueror took Melinda's pack and disappeared upstairs. While everybody talked the Conqueror was changing into the clothes that Melinda and Janice had provided her. When her heavy boots with her bronze and leather greaves announced her approach at the top of the steps everybody stopped talking and gazed up.

Gabrielle realized she was staring at her friend, who was now truly the Conqueror again. Her stomach pitched briefly yet she reminded herself that this was a change Conqueror and she had to have faith.

The Conqueror's black cape had a purple interior and it flowed behind and it was fastened by the large claw like pads over her shoulders. Her leathers were as dark as her hair then there was the gold that stood out from the rest. The thin wire armor twisted around her breasts then over top but the golden chain across her chest reflected the candlelight the most along with the few gold plated skirt tassels. Last her arms displayed dark leather bracers and the black gauntlets had gold weaving a Gaelic like design to match her outfit. The top of her right hand was covered by bronze chain mail while she wore a black leather glove on her left.

Gabrielle stood up and approached her friend. "Well… that's a change."

The Conqueror slyly grinned as she felt more in control than ever. Her eyes honed in on Melinda Pappas. "It's time to switch, Melinda."

Melinda Pappas stood up from the table and she removed her cloak. Her armor echoed that of the Conqueror's except it was the armor and leathers the Conqueror had specially made in honor of M'Lila. It was the same ensemble that Xena the Warrior Princess wore according to Gabrielle's descriptions in the scrolls.

The Conqueror admired the attire her descendant had worn mostly. She'd never tried on the armor, leathers, boots, and matching sword because she'd never felt right in doing it. Since Melinda was her mirror she could see that the outfit gave Melinda a completely different light.

Melinda Pappas reached to her back and unclipped the sword and sheath. She tossed them to the ruler.

The Conqueror easily clipped the sheathed sword to her side so that it was slightly tucked within her cape.

Melinda took a step closer and lifted her right hand with the chakram firmly gripped.

The Conqueror stretched out her right hand and held the other side of her infamous weapon. She fixed eyes with her descendant and conveyed a promise that she knew Melinda would understand.

Melinda finally released the weapon and bent down to retrieve a few daggers from her boots. She held out the handles to the ruler.

The Conqueror tucked them away then reminded, "The breast dagger and key too."

"We need that key," cut in Janice, who stood up beside her lover.

"You'll have the scepter," promised the Conqueror.

"What do you need it for?" argued the archeologist.

Melinda touched her lover's shoulder then whispered, "Its okay, Janice." She removed the breast dagger along with the key.

The ruler slipped the dagger away and the key into her cleavage with a simply blurring motion. Without another word, she marched to the door that Joxer guarded.

"Wait," called Gabrielle, who limped up to the ruler. "How will we know if you succeeded?"

The Conqueror knew the rebel was stalling but she relented for a few beats. "You'll know."

Cyrene appeared beside her daughter and Gabrielle but she was focused on her child. "Please be careful, Xena."

The Conqueror made no promises as she could only nod.

The mother stepped forward and made her daughter hug her goodbye. She was relieved when her child hugged her back fiercely and she whispered, "I love you, little one."

The Conqueror closed her eyes then murmured back, "I love you too, mother."

Cyrene withdrew and touched her daughter's cheek then without another word she slipped away.

Gabrielle opened the door and followed the ruler out of the home. She closed the door then found the ruler facing her. "Don't stake your life on this."

The Conqueror stepped up to the worried bard and sadly smiled. "Now I never thought I'd heard those words from you."

"Neither would I but things change."

"Things only change because people change," remarked the ruler. "I need to go." She turned to leave but a nimble, small hand caught her leather wrist and stopped her.

"Thank you, Xena." Gabrielle viewed the misunderstanding from the ruler. "You helped me see the Light when I've been so blind to it."

"I didn't do that," argued the ruler, "you did that yourself." She came back to her friend and whispered, "Thank you for believing in me when nobody else could."

"I didn't do that," mimicked the bard, "you had to see it in yourself first." She started to release her friend while reminding, "Don't forget your promise to me, Xena."

The Conqueror started to move away as her hand grazed over Gabrielle's. She vanished into the darkness of the alley but her voice called, "I won't ever forget."

Gabrielle wanted to fold her arms over her chest even though she couldn't do it. She caught a brief glimpse of the Conqueror at the end of the alley then she was gone around the building. She opened the door and entered to a small argument between Janice and Melinda.

"Mel, we needed that damn key."


"No," snapped the archeologist, "we don't know if she'll win against Alti or not."

"She'll make it," argued the nearing bard. "Just have some faith, Janice."

Janice sighed then stated, "I do but I don't like this… something just doesn't feel right."

"And if ya listened to me instead of barkin' at me I could show ya something."

Janice rested her hands on her hips and bit off her remarks.

Melinda extracted a small sterling box that she opened and turned it to her lover.

The archeologist's eyes widened and she snapped, "Why didn't you tell me! Christ, Mel." She almost touched the Cronos Ring that was tucked in the box but she stopped.

"Well if ya let me talk then I could have," reminded the southerner.

"Way to go, Janny," chided Ephiny.

The archeologist glared at her feathery friend but lifted an apologetic look to her lover. "Sorry, Mel."

"Mmmm," replied the linguist.

Janice sighed at her lover's unforgiving tone so her shoulders slumped. "I am sorry… I'm just really…."

"Tense," finished the translator. "I reckon we all are, Janice."

Janice took a seat beside Ephiny and murmured, "Something just doesn't seem quite right."

Gabrielle sat on the opposite side of the table. "I don't like much sitting around and waiting."

Melinda remained standing and she folded her arms over her chest. "It is odd that she wanted to do this alone."

"Maybe the Conqueror knows something we don't," brought up Callisto, "She's great at being devious."

Gabrielle glanced at the Amazon and she knew Callisto hadn't said it with hatred but with open observation.

"Well did she say anything that makes you think that, Janice?" probed Ephiny.

Janice shook her head and slumped back in her chair with her legs stretching out. "It's not the Conqueror that makes me wonder. It's something else and I can't put my finger on it."

Melinda watched as Cyrene took a seat at the table.

"Did somebody else say something?" questioned Solari.

Janice's features twisted tighter then she stopped staring at the floor. "Wait, wasn't there a leak in the Amazon Nation? You said Velasca was, right?"

Gabrielle nodded at the archeologist's question. "Yes, she was teamed up with Darphus."

"Mel, did you know before last night that Velasca had been the leak?"

The southerner was confused by her lover's questioning but she shook her head. "No, Janice… why?"

Janice suddenly popped out of her chair, which made everybody jump in their skin. "Holy shit!"

"What is it?" urged Melinda.

"Alti… shit… why didn't I see it before!" Janice threw up her hands then faced Melinda. "Last night before I left to come here, I bumped into Alti."

"You didn't mention this," remarked the southerner.

"It wasn't a big deal," argued Janice, who shook her head then continued her explanation. "She said something that I just realized she couldn't have known."

"What?" demanded the translator.

Janice grabbed her lover's hands and repeated what Alti had said. "There are plenty of others that follow in Darphus and Velasca's wake."

"By the gods," rasped Gabrielle, "Alti was helping Darphus and Velasca."

"I bet that's how they got that army built so fast," suggested Callisto, she then laughed and reminded, "If Alti knew the Conqueror was in the Amazon Nation then she knew who Melinda was too. What a clever little shaman."

Janice's jaw snapped shut as she realized this too.

"She's setting up the Conqueror," whispered the bard in fear. She quickly got to her feet and announced, "We have to warn the Conqueror." She scanned her friend's faces.

Janice peered up at her lover and whispered, "Mel?"

Melinda saw the plea on Gabrielle's face and in Janice's too. She nodded then stated, "Let's go."

To be continued...

Return to the Academy