Disclaimer & Notices

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

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: Yes, however its maintext here.

Summary: The sequel to Stranger in a Strange Time. The Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle take their trip to Egypt to meet the powerful Queen Cleopatra. During the trip across the Mediterranean, Gabrielle learns from the Conqueror that her long lost sister, Lila, is still alive and well but a slave. Quickly Gabrielle becomes less concerned about her vacation in Egypt and more about rescuing her sister from Gurkhan. And the Conqueror for the fist time realizes she cannot simply take what she wants because so much is at stake. Can the Conqueror and Gabrielle safely rescue Lila, who may not even want to be freed?

Feedback: redhope@redhope.net

Homepage: http://www.redhope.net

Started: March 5, 2007

One-Shot Fanfictions

A Stranger in my Family

by Red Hope

Chapter 4 – The Cult

Queen Gabrielle was briskly walking through the palace and headed to the south wing, to her room. She was pleased that her meeting with Cleopatra had gone well. The relations between the Amazon Nation and Egypt would most likely benefit one another. It was still slightly early to tell since Artemisia had no port to utilize, however it was only a matter of time.

What did send Gabrielle off in a bewildered mode was Queen Cleopatra's parting questions or rather statements. Cleopatra had a way of rattling her with offhand questions or comments, and Gabrielle wasn't sure how to handle it. Also it didn't help that Gabrielle hadn't slept well the past couple of nights and yesterday had been wearing. Yesterday she, Xena, and the Egyptian Queen spent most of their time outside, under the hot sun, and went over the resources the realm required to build the Corinth City Academy of the Performing Bards. Gabrielle realized just how lavished her partner planned to make the academy compared to its predecessor, but she should have known when it came to Xena.

The bard finally entered the room and was surprised to find Xena in mid motions of donning her leathers. She faintly smiled at her partner then neared her so that she could help with the armor.

The Conqueror eyed her partner and noticed the darkness under her eyes. She knew Gabrielle's nights of sleep were growing more and more restless. Xena's nights were becoming restless as well because she awoke each time to comfort her partner.

"Need some help?" After Xena pulled on her bronze armor, Gabrielle stepped in and maneuvered the buckles of the swirling armor. She truly adored the ruler in this matching armor, gauntlets, bracers, and greaves because it made Xena glow so different than the Conqueror persona. Then Gabrielle had spotted M'Lila's necklace around the ruler's neck again; it made Gabrielle wistfully smile.

"How'd the meeting go?" the ruler questioned. She quietly took a moment to hook her chakram into place.

"It went well."

The Conqueror picked out the note of hesitation or concern in the bard's tone. She twisted her head but couldn't get a full view of her lover, who was behind her back. "Something happened."

Gabrielle sighed because she was amazed Xena was figuring her out this well. "Can I ask you about something?" She slowly worked on the last two buckles. She took the silent response as her cue to ask. "Cleopatra asked me if…" Gabrielle stopped and tried to properly recall the exact words, which made her nervous to ask. "She asked me if I enjoy how you take me like a man does a woman. What in the gods' names is she talking about?" She finished the last buckle and waited for an answer while her stomach knotted. She slowly sensed the tension rising in the ruler.

The Conqueror stepped away and picked up her boots from their empty packs. She then silently took a chair and quietly worked to get her boots on and laced.

The bard turned and faced her seated partner. She truly wondered if she'd get any answer so she figured she'd push her luck. "Xena?"

The Conqueror kept her head bowed, and she roughly yanked on her leather laces. She finished her first boot then peered up with hooded eyes. She really didn't want to discuss the topic, yet she could tell the bard wanted an explanation. "Cleopatra is just digging up old, dead memories." She lowered her head back down and started her next boot.

Gabrielle waited a few beats while she read her lover's body language. She then interpreted the answer more carefully. "How… how'd you… how'd you do that with her?" She wasn't sure if she'd exactly phrased the question right because she felt rather lost and beating a bush.

The Conqueror finished her right boot then stood up to her full and intimidating height. She twisted to her left and picked up her bracers from the table. She slowly put them on while she spoke. "It's in the past, Gabrielle… where it should be." She took her gauntlets next. "That's where I prefer to leave it."

The bard shifted her weight around on her feet as she debated what to do. She made her choice and nodded. She walked away as her hands combed her hair back.

The Conqueror finished getting ready by clipping her sword on her back then she glimpsed at the bard. She idly watched her lover check over her scroll satchel. She inwardly sighed, but she took a moment to openly admire her partner's new outfit she'd picked up in the emporium the other day.

Gabrielle had selected the white outfit that was a matching two piece skirt and top. The long white skirt reached to her ankles and had slits that ran up the front middle until they made it to the gold belt. Then her white top just neatly hid Gabrielle's breasts but clearly emphasized her cleavage. It left her stomach bare, her shoulders mostly bare, and her back quite open. Then she wore white arm bands that had gold trim to match the gold design in the skirt and top. The Conqueror truly found the Egyptian styled outfit sexy and appealing on the bard.

The bard finished with her satchel then she turned her head around and back. "You're going to practice with Najara and her squad?"

The ruler now stood just behind her lover. "Yes." Without thought, she rested her strong hands on Gabrielle's hips. "Did you want to join?"

Gabrielle seriously considered it, but she truly wanted to go down to the Library of Alexandria. She also felt too worn for staff practice plus her focus was some place else. "I don't think so," she murmured.

The ruler could tell her partner most likely had other needs right now. The possibility of personal space and time were occasionally important to the bard, and she accepted that wholly. "You'll go to the library?" After the bard's nod, she softly requested, "Take some Amazons?"

The Amazon Queen turned after she adjusted the scroll satchel at her side. "I've already asked Amarice and Jarine to come, and I think the others want to practice with you."

The Conqueror was somewhat surprised and her right eyebrow slowly lifted. "What of Xavier? We need to talk to him tonight."

The bard lifted the strap off her shoulder, brought it over her head, and let it rest on her opposite shoulder. "How about tomorrow? I'm not feeling up to it today." Once Xena agreed, she cautiously asked, "You don't mind the Amazons sparring with you, do you?"

"Not at all." The Conqueror then revealed a dark grin. "It should be fun."

"For you maybe," Gabrielle teased. Then an after thought came to Gabrielle so she tilted her head. "You're not punishing Najara for what happened to the other day?"

The Conqueror detected the concern in her partner's face, yet she honestly answered, "She did not fulfill her duty to protect you."

Gabrielle sighed and touched the ruler's bare forearm. "Come on, Xena it was a mistake."

"And a mistake can cost lives," the ruler rebuked.

"It was my fault… I shouldn't have taken off like I did without telling somebody."

The Conqueror knew that was a mistake on the bard's part, however she believed Gabrielle already learned her lesson in that respect. She now felt as if her dekarchos required a lesson. "It doesn't change the fact that she didn't fulfill her duty. If I let her continue to think her mistake was okay then she may repeat herself."

The bard took a patient breath then wondered about another aspect. "Why don't you like her? She's a good fighter."

"Indeed," the ruler murmured then she honestly stated, "I don't like who she pretends to be."

"Maybe she's just trying to find her path in life," Gabrielle argued, "Maybe that's why she came to Greece."

The Conqueror shook her head. "She follows whatever path she fixates on at the time."

"Then what is she fixating on?" the bard argued.

The Conqueror waited a beat as she considered how Gabrielle would react. She was always honest so she simply replied, "You."

Gabrielle dropped her head and shook it. "Xena, Najara and I are friends." She peered up into crystal blue eyes.

"You tell her that," the ruler forcefully ordered. "Then you'll see who she really is." She walked away and went closer to the door.

The bard followed, but her temper was far from the surface and mostly because she was weary. "She already knows, Xena."

The Conqueror stood by the door, and she pointed at the bard. "I'm sure she says all the right things to you." She then lowered her hand and challenged, "If you don't believe me about her then test her. Say 'no' to her, and she'll blow up in your face." She held the door's handle and when the bard was close to her, she softly confided, "She absolutely despises following my orders."

Gabrielle stood still near her partner, and her face was tight. "I've never noticed it."

"That's because you're not looking for it." The Conqueror went silent then released a soft sigh. "Enough about Najara."

The bard mutually agreed by coming closer and placed a hand on the ruler's leather hip. It was her hidden signal to show she would relent.

Xena moved away from the door and faced her lover. She slipped her arms around the bard and drew her in to her body. She lowered her head then gentleness took her. "Be careful at the library."

Gabrielle chuckled and lifted her head off the ruler's chest. "What trouble could I get into at the library?" When the ruler gave her that dubious look, Gabrielle squeezed the ruler extra hard. "Trouble comes to me, I don't go to it."

The Conqueror rolled her eyes, which earned her a light slap on her backside. "I should send the Egyptian army with you."

"Funny, funny." Gabrielle placed a light kiss on Xena's chest. "Enjoy your time with the squad. And knock 'em down for me."

The Conqueror deeply laughed then huskily promised, "With pleasure." She freed her right hand and hooked the bard's chin. She stole a warm kiss then she guided the bard out of the room. At the atrium, she separated the bard once she knew the two Amazon guards were with Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen and her two escorts went across the city to the Royal Library of Alexandria, which had recently been repaired from a fire. And during the trek through the city, Gabrielle had received some eerie sensation that she just couldn't shake. She continually checked her surroundings, yet she couldn't pinpoint what it was that bothered her. She also noticed neither Amarice nor Jarine were bothered by anything so she decided it was her weariness that played her.

When they came to grand steps of the library, it took many strides to ascend them, and instantly they were stopped by the doors. There were four Egyptian guards at the door and in their native tongue they informed the foreigners they could not enter.

"Does anybody speak Egyptian?" Amarice challenged.

The bard tried to assess what the problem was as she tried to decipher the guards' faces.

One guard realized the foreigners couldn't speak Egyptian at all so he lowered his spear, which his comrades mimicked. He then stepped up to Jarine and pointed at her sword behind her back. He shook his head.

"Oooh," the bard murmured. "No weapons." She then faced her Amazons. "Why don't you two stay out here?"

Amarice and Jarine exchanged glances then Jarine spoke first. "Why don't I leave my sword with Amarice."

"I'll wait here," the younger Amazon agreed.

After the queen's nod, Jarine unhooked her sword and gave it to Amarice. She then removed her dagger from her right boot and handed that over too. She then stepped up to the guards with her arms held out.

The same guard stepped forward and carefully patted her hips then knelt to check her boots. He stood up, nodded, and waved them to go inside the library.

"We'll try not to be long, Amarice," the queen promised.

Amarice hoped not because she knew she'd get bored, yet she moved her head in understanding. She watched Jarine follow the queen into the gigantic library. After they were gone, she wandered back down the steps but sat on the last one, and she placed Jarine's sword across her lap. She sighed and glanced up at the noon high sun.

Queen Gabrielle and Jarine briskly walked through the gigantic library. The bard scanned all over and was impressed by the immense collection that surpassed anything she'd ever seen. She tried to imagine if the library in Corinth would be anything like this, and she hoped so.

Gabrielle walked closer to her Amazon and softly mentioned, "I really want to go to the original part. There's a temple to the Muses there."

"The Muses are in Egyptian religion too?" Jarine was somewhat astounded.

The bard chuckled and shook her head. "No, they're the Greek Muses actually. Ptolemy II had the temple first built then later the library was added."

"Oooh." Jarine thoughtfully smiled when she understood some of the history.

"You know how the library gained such a large collection?" the bard questioned. When the Amazon negatively moved her head, Gabrielle stepped closer and explained the collection's history. "Ptolemy III ordered that any visitors that came to Alexandria were required to hand over any books or scrolls in their possession then copies were made." She paused and considered a piece of rumor she knew. "The other interesting thing was that supposedly the copies were so exact to the originals that the copies were actually returned to the owners and the originals kept here."

Jarine quietly laughed, but she admired the idea. "No wonder the library is so huge." She observed the countless scroll shelves and book shelves, which stretched down for so long and created narrow aisles. "I wonder if one can ever find the time to read all these…?"

The bard sadly smiled at the shelves as she passed them. "I don't think so." She then gazed ahead and noticed the open doors to the temple of the Muses, and she grew excited. "Let's go in."

Jarine kept following, but her head was turned to the right. She came up short when something caught her eye.

Gabrielle realized her Amazon had stopped so she turned around. She observed the very peculiar expression on the Amazon's face. 

"My queen, you should see this." Jarine turned then quickly strolled down between two shelves.

The Amazon Queen hastily followed as her gate widened considerably. Then what had caught Jarine's attention now drew to hers. Gabrielle tilted her head back as she grew closer to the end of the aisle, and her eyes widened.

Just where the ceiling and the wall at the end met, there were black Greek letters carved into the wall. The first was chi then the next Greek letter was epsilon, and the third nu. Finally the fourth Greek letter filled the bard's vision and it was the alpha letter.

Jarine stood near the end of the aisle and very slowly she read from left to right. She then murmured, "By Artemis…"

Gabrielle sucked in her breath then read the entire phrase across the very long wall. She slowly released her breath and stared at her lover's name, Χενα, just above her head.

Jarine could tell that Gabrielle had no idea, especially by the expression on the queen's face. "Did she tell you about this?"

"No," Gabrielle uttered. Again she read the dedication phrase on the wall, which clearly stated that the very long shelves set against the wall contained countless scrolls that were donated by Xena of Amphipolis, Greece. She walked forward and then gingerly withdrew a random scroll.

Jarine copied her queen's actions, and she carefully untied the ribbon. She slowly unrolled the scroll then her eyebrows drew together when the author's name jumped off the scroll. She sharply turned her head to the queen.

Gabrielle gasped then she almost dropped the scroll to the floor. She hastily caught it before it hit the stone floor, but she continued to tremble when she stared at her duplicated handwriting. She then peered up at Jarine in awe.

Jarine tilted her scroll in confirmation of what the queen may have been thinking.

"By the… gods," the bard gasped, and she looked between her and Jarine's scrolls, which both had her name and duplicated writing style. Gabrielle knew these scrolls were both reform doctrines that she'd written many moons back before she befriended the ruler. She shook her head then carefully rolled the scroll back up.

Jarine did the same and put the scroll back. She then pointed at the symbol for Gamma at the top. She suspected that the entire shelf contained mostly or all of the queen's scrolls. She then studied the ruler's name just above, and she leaned closer to Gabrielle. "What's the likely hood that your scrolls ended up just underneath her name?"

The Amazon Queen grunted. She realized she had a major discussion setup between her and the Conqueror when she returned to the palace. She could only imagine when these scrolls were brought to Egypt, why, and when she would have heard about it from the Conqueror herself. She suspected the Conqueror had left it up to her to discover it, and she had done so.

Jarine and Gabrielle continued back to the temple after they were finished being impressed by the extensive donation Xena had given Alexandria. The Amazon Queen then was astounded again by the beauty of the temple to the Muses. She'd never seen a temple so extensively lavished, and it was very well maintained. She suspected that not only did the library care for it but so did the Egyptian government. It seemed as if recent work had been done to the altar area and the statues recently redone. Gabrielle assumed that Queen Cleopatra most likely frequented to the library to study and learn.

Gabrielle then decided it was best to go and not leave Amarice alone any longer. She wanted badly to stay but since no weapons were allowed, she didn't want to jeopardize anybody and especially after the last incident. When she came outside, she scanned around for Amarice and didn't spot her at first.

Jarine tried to find the young Amazon but became concerned when she stood at the top of the steps. She turned to her queen. "Where is she?"

Queen Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and quietly murmured, "I don't know."

"She may have wandered off," Jarine offered. "She has a tendency to get bored."

Jarien's idea didn't satisfy the bard at all so she approached the four guards. She went directly to the same guard that'd been friendlier the last time. Gabrielle tried to think of a way to question the guard. "Do you know where my friend went?" She then pointed at the steps where she suspected Amarice had been waiting.

The guard shook his head at the bard, and he was clearly confused.

Gabrielle became somewhat agitated because she was worried. "The girl." She pointed at Jarine for her example. "Where?"

Again the guard shook his head and became even more bewildered.

"What's the problem?" a woman asked who was coming out of the library. She noticed the failing discussion between the foreigner and the guard.

The bard was relieved when the strange approached her. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle."

The woman slightly eyed the foreigner when she heard the Hebrew name, but she made no comment.

"My friend and I went into the library," Gabrielle carefully explained, "and another friend of ours was waiting out here. She's not here now so I wanted to see if one of these guards knew what happened to her." She hoped her long winded explanation would pay off.

The woman slightly smiled and turned to the guard. Then in perfect Egyptian, she questioned the guard.

Gabrielle felt calmer now that she'd get an answer. She listened to the guard's response despite she couldn't understand it.

The woman grew peculiar but translated it to the foreigner. "It seems your friend disappeared down that street." She pivoted to her right then pointed at the street. "Down that way."

The bard frowned as she wondered what Amarice was thinking in leaving. She offered the stranger a smile and said, "Thank you very much." She then furrowed her eyebrows. "I… I didn't catch your name."

The darkly skinned woman chuckled and quickly apologized then held out her hand. "I am Meridian."

"Thank you again, Meridian." Gabrielle finished the handshake.

"You're welcome. Good luck finding your friend." Meridian pleasantly smiled and watched the two foreigners hurry down the steps. She tilted her head while her eyes followed the foreigners because she couldn't guess if they'd find their other friend.

The bard grumbled and mentioned to Jarine, "I swear to Artemis if Amarice just took off I'm going to tie her to the bow of the ship on the way back to Greece."

Jarine laughed, and she mentally pictured the young Amazon just in that spot. "She may have learned that habit from somebody else, my queen."

Gabrielle shot the Amazon a dark look, which didn't deter the Amazon. However she focused back on her mission to find the young Amazon.

Back north in Alexandra, the port took on a new merchant vessel and when it docked a lightly dressed soldier hopped onto the dock. Then without delay, he bounded down the dock and his boots' echoes followed him. In his right hand, he briskly held a rolled up scrolled that carried the purple seal of the Greek Realm. He easily maneuvered around the sailors and captains on the docks then he came onto land. He paused then scanned the horizon until he spotted the beautiful palaces to the east. He sighted his destination.

On the grounds of the palace, the Conqueror continued her training objectives with the squad. She could tell they'd become slightly lazy since leaving Greece, but she quickly reminded them they were always on duty. Then her major objective went to plan when she ordered the squad to rest but for Najara to stay. She then ordered the four Amazons to practice against Najara; four against one.

The Conqueror stood off to the side and merely watched the agitated dekarchos spar against the well skilled Amazons. The Conqueror kept passive yet inside she was smirking at Najara's slowly weakening state. She planned to conclude the practice by sparring alone against Najara. Then from the palace's back entrance, she spotted a Grecian dressed soldier speaking to Cheops and hastily descended the steps.

The soldier immediately spotted the Greek ruler, and he broke into a jog for her.

The Conqueror walked around the sparring women when she eyed the sealed scroll in the soldier's hand. She quickly met him halfway across the grounds.

"My liege, I was sent by Commander Meleager to deliver word to you, and this." The soldier held out the seal message.

The ruler accepted the scroll then broke the seal quickly. "Tell me."

The soldier took a deep breath and quickly explained why he was sent. "There is an uprising in Britannia." He paused when the ruler's ice eyes met him then lowered back to the open scroll. "Britannia Prima has taken arms and overthrown the archon." The solider noticed the Conqueror was listening and reading at the same time so he continued. "Flavia Caesariensissi has threatened to join the rebellion."
"Has the commander sent Classis Britannica to Londinum?"

"Yes, my liege. The fleet has seized the city and that is what holds the state at bay." The solider put his hands behind his back.

"Excellent," the ruler murmured, "as long as we have the heart then Britannia cannot breathe." The Conqueror continued to read then she generally gazed over the map that'd been drawn below. It showed the stationed legions in Britannia, the direction Classis Britannica was planned to sail, and where the commander expected to send the legions to the fight the stationed enemies.

"There is also another concern, my liege," the soldier brought up, and he sounded nervous.

The ruler lowered the scroll then met the soldier's gaze. "Yes?"

"There are confirmed reports that the rebellion faction in Britannia has sent spies here to Egypt."

The Conqueror stiffened and something dark crept into the pit of her stomach. "When was this heard?"

"The commander discovered this news only two days after your departure to Egypt." The soldier stepped closer then softly added, "My liege, the commander instructed me to inform you that these spies were in Corinth before your departure. The commander has requested that you return to Greece on a steadfast route as he's concerned they may attempt assassination while you're on foreign soil."

The Conqueror's jaw went set, and she quickly realized if that was the spies' objective that they would have attempted it by now. There'd been too many right moments that'd past since their arrival. She stepped closer to the soldier and hotly ordered, "You keep this word to yourself."

The soldier stiffened, but he bowed his head. "Yes, my liege."

The Conqueror was about to give the soldier further instructions, but her orders went dead. That dark, gnawing sensation in her stomach suddenly overwhelmed her. She abruptly turned and barked out, "Dekarchos, gather your squad!" She then disappeared from the soldier's side and approached the Amazons at a jog. "I would advise you four to come along with us."

"What's going on?" Vara questioned as she'd never seen such a shift in the ruler. She sensed something inhuman flowing off the ruler.

"There's no time to explain." The Conqueror glanced at the approaching squad and simply said to the Amazons, "The queen will need you." She then hotly commanded the squad to follow her. She wasted no time and broke into a faster run for the palace.

The bewildered Amazons glanced between each other but became too worried to argue anymore. They sheathed their swords then chased after the Greek squad and blew past the confused messenger soldier. Cheops also joined despite he didn't know what was happening. He followed the Conqueror through the palace and out the main entrance, but he made sure to order four of the six guards by the entrance to join them. Cheops ordered the four guards to join the Greek squad then he ran faster and caught up to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror seemed calm on the exterior, yet the threatening fire in her stomach engulfed her.

Cheops edged closer and quietly asked, "Where are we going, Conqueror?"

"To the library," the ruler simply answered.

Cheops knew that's where Queen Gabrielle should be located. He could tell something was far out of place because the Greek ruler never acted this way. He dodged around a few people, but the people in the streets started to part like water. Cheops glanced at the ruler's dark features then he offered, "Go ahead of us… we're slowing you."

The Conqueror exchanged a quick look with him. She nodded. "I'll give you a cry to locate me."

"Go," the Egyptian warrior urged.

The Conqueror waited no longer as she broke into an incredible run. She targeted a wagon straight ahead then a merchant's stall just beyond it. She smirked. Then with six wide strides, she gave a piercing warcy and launched her body.

Cheops stared in awe as the Greek ruler flew through the air, hit the wagon, laughed off of it, bounced from the merchant's stall, and finally tucked into a ball rocketed through the air.

The Conqueror's cry echoed over several blocks until she landed neatly on the roof of a house. She glanced back at Cheops, the squad, and the Amazons that tried to desperately weave through the people. The Conqueror turned and continued her powerful sprint, but when she came to the ledge, she launched herself again and landed on the next roof top.

The Conqueror continued her fast journey across the roof tops and the destination was just ahead of her. The Royal Library stood out among so many things in the city. As the Conqueror hastily jumped from roof to roof, that gnawing darkness became a carnal darkness that made her heartbeat wild. What she didn't notice was as she grew closer to the library the bright her Gaelic necklace became.

Finally the library was only a few roof top hops away, and the Conqueror paused a block away from the library. She stood on the edge of the roof, and she scanned the area. She relied on her senses, which already told her that Gabrielle wasn't in the library.

Gabrielle continued her frantic run down the barren street, but she glimpsed back over her shoulder. She didn't see anything but that didn't settle her wild fears. She never felt so much panic in her life after what she'd witnessed.

The bard rounded a corner and came into a mass of people, and several people stared wide eye at her. Gabrielle knew it was because she was blotched in blood, but it wasn't hers. She didn't care and tried to get around the people. She ended up shoving some people out of the way, and they yelled at her.

Gabrielle slowed down into a fast walk because she was almost out of breath. She came to a stop when her emotions swept over her. She broke down crying, and her head dipped forward when the onslaught of new memories controlled her. "Oh gods."

The bard desperately tried to take control as she stumbled forward. She then heard a sharp scream of voices when two swords were drawn behind her. Gabrielle slowly turned around then her red eyes focused on the two men several hundred paces away. Fear and panic drowned the bard, and she stumbled back once.

The men quickly pursued the fearful bard, and they took a few steps then broke into a run.

Gabrielle screamed for help but none of the people reacted. She willed her legs and returned to her earlier run, but she felt the men right behind her. She was too weakened from all the running and her lack of focus made her pay. She missed sight of something on the street so she fell face down and skidded a couple of paces.

The Amazon Queen put her hands under her body and tried to get up. When her back came up a certain amount, a sharp sword point pressed into her skin. She held her breath and closed her eyes. She listened to the boot steps that went around her and came to the front of her. Then a cold blade was under her chin and lifted her head up. Gabrielle opened her eyes and met the cold face of one of her pursuers.

The man said nothing but simply lifted his chin in a faint signal to get up.

Gabrielle tried but the pointed blade in her back made her stop. She didn't like the fact it wouldn't move so she peered up with hooded eyes at the other man.

The man behind her simply smirked and started to push his blade down.

The bard cried out when the blade neatly cut through her skin just between her shoulder blades. She dug her nails into the dirt then her tears ran down her face again. She never knew such dread in her life as this didn't even compare to when she faced the Conqueror at her worst. This was new and purely evil.

The man pulled his blade back finally then grinned at how the woman stopped screaming instantly. He then glanced at his comrade, who shook his head once. He sighed then pulled his blade away from the woman.

Gabrielle clenched her hands then commanded her body to get up. She wouldn't lay here like this. She could feel the blood ooze down her back while she slowly climbed to her feet. She scanned the fearful faces of the people, who would not help or move. She closed her eyes once she stood.

"Go," one man ordered. He pointed his sword back in the direction Gabrielle had run from originally.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth then opened her stinging eyes. She placed one boot in front of the other and began the slowly walk back to that place she'd escaped.

The men followed behind and kept their swords at their sides. They were by no means natives to the Egyptian lands so they stood out much like the Amazon Queen.

Each step made Gabrielle's frantic dread return. Images flashed through her head, and she almost became sick. She couldn't go back there. Suddenly, she broke into a run again, and the men's yells followed her. She heard them chase her again, but she was still too weak.

One man caught up to her, and he jumped for her. He landed on top of her back then rolled on the street with her until he was on top of her. He smirked at the woman's bloody face, but he lifted his sword's hilt.

Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly and prepared for the blow.

The man brought the hilt down but some eerie cry made his blow go wild.

The bard took the weakened strike on her left temple, which cracked her skin open but didn't make her unconscious. Her vision briefly fuzzed over, and she watched in a daze as the man on her suddenly disappeared. The heavy weight on her hips was gone then a distant din of swords striking wavered by her.

Gabrielle rolled onto her right side and moaned. She closed her eyes and willed the pain to all stop. She tried to imagine the only place she could feel safe, in the Conqueror's arms. She believed she made it so real that she truly felt the ruler's strong arms move about her then the ruler's voice drew her further. The Conqueror's voice kept repeating her name in a frantic manner, too frantic.

"Gabrielle, Gabrielle? Hey, I'm here. Come on."

The Amazon Queen's head was lifted into a warm lap, and all she smelled was leather and that familiar spice. Gabrielle then drew her eyes open when a warm hand touched her cheek, and it felt too real. She stared up into beautiful eyes that surpassed the sky far beyond them. "Xena?" She coughed then stretched up her right hand.

The Conqueror caught the bard's hand and held tightly. "It's me." She had her head bowed over the bard's. "You're safe now."

Gabrielle closed her eyes then relieved tears broke from her eyes.

The Conqueror briefly glimpsed up and scanned the faceless people that circled her, Gabrielle, and the two dead men. She ignored them and focused on the bard in her lap. "Are you okay?" She quickly moved her hands over her partner's body, yet she didn't detect anything broken.

The bard opened her reddened eyes then rasped, "They killed Jarine." She tried to get up but felt too weak.

The ruler quickly helped her lover get up onto her knees. She held the bard closer and gently demanded, "Who?"

"I don't know," Gabrielle fearfully whispered. She shook her head then clung to the ruler. "They… they have Amarice. They were…" Gabrielle's burning tears returned, and she begged. "We have to save Amarice please, Xena."

The Conqueror never heard her partner this frantic and scared. "Do you know where she is?"

The bard heaved for some air so that it'd calm her. She nodded.

The ruler didn't say anything to it because she believed it. She instead dropped her head back, closed her eyes, and inhaled a deep breath until her chest filled.

Gabrielle listened to the sharp, long battle cry that her partner gave out, and she'd never heard such a cry from her partner. She realized it was a very specific battle cry most likely.

"Can you stand?" the ruler asked after she took a long inhale from the cry.

"I think so." Gabrielle slowly rose to her feet with Xena's help.

The Conqueror balanced her lover then she quickly did another inspection of the bard's body. She felt stricken at seeing the coated blood on the small woman's body.

Gabrielle murmured, "Its mostly Jarine's." She swallowed when the memories caused a lump in her throat. "They just… gutted her open… like some fish."

Xena pulled the bard into her arms then murmured, "It'll be alright." She then separated when she heard the fearful people quickly dispersing.  

Cheops and Najara hastily approached with the squad and Amazons behind them.

"By the gods," Cheops rasped.

The dekarchos came closer to Gabrielle but stopped short upon the ruler's imposing form. "Are you okay, Gabrielle?"

The bard only nodded.

The shocked Amazons instantly encircled their queen and checked over her.

"Where's Jarine and Amarice?" Vara carefully questioned the queen.

Gabrielle shook her head then touched the ruler's arm in hidden signal for help.

The Conqueror stepped closer then asked, "Do you want to go back while I deal with this?"

"No," Gabrielle quickly but quietly replied and added, "We need to hurry before…"

Xena didn't wait for the finish of the sentence. She instead ordered, "We still have to find Amarice. Follow me and Queen Gabrielle." She then softly ordered Gabrielle to stay close to her.

Cheops ordered two Egyptian guards to stay behind and deal with the dead men. He then ordered the remaining two to join them. He then caught up to the Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle, but he didn't ask questions.

Gabrielle was walking fast but then the thoughts of Amarice's life made her run.

The Conqueror increased her strides into a run so that she stayed at the queen's side. She sensed her stomach tighten with anticipation of what may lie ahead. Whatever had transcended since Gabrielle had left her at the palace had greatly shaken the bard, who had seen and survived much in her life.

Queen Gabrielle easily recalled the journey through the familiar streets. The pounding her heart  reached into her ears so she went faster. The surge of adrenaline helped her move forward. Just head, she spotted the narrow alley that led to her destination. She glimpsed up at her partner.

The Conqueror understood so she signalled everybody behind them.

Najara unsheathed her sword then her squad agreed with a dim of unsheathing.

Cheops extracted his broad sword as well then gave it a spin at his side.

Gabrielle pointed at the left street. "They're down there."

The Conqueror understood so her long strides carried her ahead of her partner. She withdrew her sword from its scarab and rounded the corner. The same anger she'd felt when she first saw Gabrielle being attacked returned to her. When she entered the dead-end alley, at the other end there were three seeming guards that all were suddenly paniced at seeing the dark warrior coming at them followed by a tidal of Greek soldiers.

The ruler gave out her feirce warcry then came at the enemy.

One of the three guards, closest to the heavy wood door, pounded on it then he joined in the fight. He, like is comrades, gave a sharp cry then prepared to meet his death against the ruler.

Gabrielle stood back, with her Amazons, as her partner, Cheops, and the soldiers dealt with the enemy. She turned her head away when death rung from the three men's lips. She lifted her head when two Greek soldiers braced against the well armored wood door.

The Conqueror could hear several voices inside of the building and plenty of fenzied movement. She quickly became a mix of worry and anger because she couldn't imagine what was happening beyond the door. She knew Amarice's life was at risk. She ordered the soldiers to back away from the door.

The Conqueror was a half a step away from the door. She inhaled deeply, gave a sharp battle cry, and then performed a scisscor kick.

The heavy door exploded into pieces and went all over inside of the dark building.

The Conqueror raced into the dimly lit building.

The Greek soldiers followed and flooded into the room but took a moment to adjust to the darkness.

The Conqueror was faster to it, and she bared her teeth when she realized whoever had been inside were now gone. She then held her breath when her eyes focused on the swinging, upside down battleaxe in front of her face. The entire building glinted with steel from sharp objects.

"We need to find Amarice," Xena ordered to the group.

A sharp scream cut through the dark building then it was followed by a woman's pleas for help.

The Conqueror quickly followed the cries, and as she went deeper into the building a very familiar stench filled her. Under different circumstances, she would normal relish such a scent but not today. The soldier's heavy bootsteps folowed her, and the Conqueror finally closed in on the screams.

Next to a prison cell on the floor, there was a metal grade door, which was hinged on one side and padlocked on the other. Then flaying arms protruded out of the open grids of the sealed lid.

"Help! Gods help!" Amarice screamed. Then she lifted her cold body up higher in the water so that her face pressed against the bars of the lid. She gasped for air, but soon she'd run out. The Conqueror suddenlyappeared in her vision. "Please get me out of here!"

The Conqueror quickly assessed that the young Amazon was in a water torture. Soon the small prison Amarice was trapped in would overfill with freezing water then Amarice would either drown or suffer hypotherma.

The Greek soldiers all encircled the Conqueror and the trapped Amazon.

"Just stay calm, Amarice," the ruler urged. "You'll be out in a beat." She quickly made a decision on how to handle it. She turned to Najara and ordered, "I need you to take Amarice's hands. Hold her up as high as you can. I'm going to get the door off then once I have it free you'll need to release her."

The dekarchos nodded her head. She moved into position on the right side of the gate door. She bent over and grabbed the Amazon's hands. "Hold tight, Amarice."

The Conqueror already had her hands on the bars of the locked door. She gritted her teeth then with her arm and leg strength she surged her strength upwards.

Amarice felt the salty, cold water under her chin. She closed her eyes when the water came to the tip of her nose then she sucked in all the air she could. She closed her eyes and prayed to Artemis.

The locked door started to give way to the powerful ruler. The hinges snapped off then the abrupt lost caused the lock to fly apart in pieces.

The Conqueror let out a low growl as she lifted the gate up higher.

Najara quickly released the Amazon's hands but with worry for the Amazon.

Amarice instantly plunged into the cold, dark water but then two strong hands grabbed arms. She flew out of the water, and the air nipped at her chilled skin.

The Conqueror had Amarice all the way out of the water chamber then she had Amarice in her arms safely. She felt how cold the Amazon was because of the water. She knew Amarice needed to warm up and quickly so she shoved thorugh her men and went outside.

Gabrielle had been in the doorway when she saw what'd happened. She backed out quickly when her partner came towards her. She quickly helped Xena get Amarice down on the ground and in the hot sunlight.

The bard sat on the ground and placed the young Amazon's head into her lap. She then carefully moved Amarice's soaked hair out of her face. She became grim at seeing Amarice's blue lips.

The Conqueror quickly inspected Amarice's body for further injuries. "Have you been hurt, Amarice?"

The shaking Amazon murmured, "N-n-no." She balled up when the ruler finished her inspection, and she wrapped her arms around her body.

The ruler peered up at her partner and softly ordered, "Keep her warm, rub her skin, and she'll feel better soon."

Gabrielle nodded then before her lover got up, she touched Xena's arm. "Thank you."

The Conqueror paused, but she briefly nodded and backed away when the other Amazons surrounded. She then reentered the dark building. She neared the group, who were scanning the contents of the building.

Finally, Xena had a chance to completely absorb what the purpose of the building was, and it wasn't good. She curtly commanded, "Stand guard outside, men. Najara, Cheops... stay with me."

The squad and the two Egyptian soldiers filed out of the building and stood guard in the alley as well as at the end of the alley.

Cheops stood silently beside the Greek ruler, just like Najara. He surveyed everything then uttered, "I've never seen anything like this."

The Conqueror's jaw flexed a few times because she'd seen this plenty in her time. She counted roughly ten prison cells that each carried out a particular torture.

Then hanging from the ceiling on ropes or hooks were certain torture accesories or weapons. There were several types of blades such as simple knives, swords, or scisccors. Other items included long metal rods that had extremely sharp points, which hung next to hammers that would drive the rods into somebody's body. There were several whips of various lengths and styles. A rack of spears against the opposite wall from the cells.

The Conqueror cautiously neared a typical bar cell. She narrowed her eyes as she took in the chains that were built into the wall. She tilted her head as she stared at the visible blood splatter that washed over the wall.

Cheops came to the next cell, which contained a rack for rippnig apart one's bones and liagments slowly.

Najara stood infront of a very strange bronze statue of a bull. She spotted an open door to the stomach of the metal bull. She peered in then the insides of the bull made her jump back in shock. Najara gasped and covered her pounding chest with her freehand.

The Conqueror neared the dekarchos. She studied the charred skull that rested on top of a mix of ashes, blackened bones, and most likely melted insides. She turned her head to the soldier. "It's called a brazen bull. It was invented by King Phalaris of Sicily several hundred Helical Risings ago." She folded her arms over her chest then stared into the dark belly of the bull. "The head of the bull is designed with special tubes so that when the vicitim screams it sounds like the bull is bellowing." She paused, tilted her head, and casually mentioned, "King Phalaris didn't want the victim's screams to disturb his dinner."

Cheops had appeared near them. He kept shaking his head.

Najara licked her lips then peered up at the ruler.

The Conqueror said nothing else but walked past and approached something that truly caught her attention. She stopped in front of a very crude wood altar, which seemed well used.

Najara stood beside the ruler but slightly behind. She whispered, "A cult?"

"It would seem so," the ruler softly agreed. She stepped up to the simple altar when she couldn't restist anymore. At the head of the altar rested a clean dagger that was round in nature with a matching round handle.

The Conqueror picked up the scarficial dagger from the black and red cloth. She carefully inspected the dagger's design and recognized the Gaelic knot work on the handle. By the gods it had to be impossible, the Conqueror desperately thought. She continued to turn over the dagger in her hands.

Najara studied the dagger too then a bright light caught her eye. She stared in surprise at the Conqueror's necklace.

The ruler sensed it now, and she lifted her necklace's charm with her left hand.

Cheops glanced at the bright Gaelic charm in the ruler's palm then at the used altar. He whispered, "There is something evil here." He pressed his fingertips against the wood altar then murmured, "I've never seen anything like this in Egypt."

The Conqueror lowered M'Lila's necklace to her chest again then stared at the altar. "I have seen something like this." She raised her left arm up, tilted her hand back, and then she slipped the dagger down her gautlet. "Cheops, I'm going to leave some men here to guard this building."

"I doubt the cult will be back," Cheops remarked.

Najara idly listened, but she walked away. She spotted a slumped body in one corner so she went to it. She suck in her breath then held it. She stared at the dead, gutted Amazon.

The Conqueror stood several paces behind the dekarchos and visually inspected the dead Amazon, Jarine, completely gutted and her intensines strung across the stone floor. She could tell the kill had been recent if they hadn't even had time to clean up the mess.

Cheops swallowed his temper down. He did not wish to report this to Queen Cleopatra because of the obvious carnal habits of this cult. But he also wanted to hunt these cult members down and make them pay for their crimes.

"I'll have the Amazon taken care of," Cheops offered. He licked his lips then murmured, "She'll be properly prepared to be returned to Greece."

The Conqueror was grateful so she collapsed the Egyptian's muscular shoulder. She released him then ordered to Najara, "We need to return to the palace."

"Yes, my liege." Najara bowed her head, then after a quick glance at the dead Amazon, she left the dark building.

The Conqueror slowly walked with Cheops out of the building. "You will report to the queen?"

"Of course, Conqueror," the head guard replied. He watched the ruler's faint nod then he stepped out of the building.

The Conqueror came to Amarice and the Amazon Queen, who rested on the ground still in the warm sunlight. She knelt down then cautiously inquired, "Can you walk, Amarice?"

"I think so," the Amazon agreed. Then with her queen's help, she climbed to her feet.

The Conqueror stood up too and ordered, "I want four men to remain here until Egyptian soldiers can arrive and relieve you."

Four Greek soldiers bowed in acceptance of the duty. They clapped their fists over their leather chests then took posts by the door and alley's mouth. The Conqueror then commanded the remaing squad to leave, and she remained beside Gabrielle during the trek.

Finally, the group arrived back at the palace. Cheops took care of reporting the circumstances to Queen Cleopatra then getting guards rounded up to protect the cult building. Amarice was taken to a healer and escorted by the Amazons. The Conqueror ordered Najara and her squad to patrol the palace so they could keep a certain amount of security.

Gabrielle was guided into the bedchambers.

The Conqueror came in behind her partner, she silently closed the door, and neared the bard. She placed her strong hands on the bard's shoulders.

The bard remained silent and motionless. She didn't know what to think much less say because she'd never witness such things in her life. She knew torture existed, but never had she observed it first hand.

"We need to get you cleaned up," Xena softly offered.

Gabrielle faintly nodded.

"I'll be right back," the ruler mentioned, and she turned back to the door. She had the door open, and she was halfway out when a small hand grabbed her gauntlet wrist.

"You won't be long?" Gabrielle's fearful eyes searched the ruler's.

The Conqueror was shaken by the bard's fears, which she'd never seen before now. She closed the door then came back to her partner. "I won't... I just want to get the handmaidens to fill the bath."

The bard faintly nodded then released her lover.

Xena lowered her head and placed a light kiss to the bard's forehead. "I'll be back." She turned and quickly went in pursuit of the maidens.

Gabrielle crossed the short distance to the table and chairs. She sat in one chair then stared down at her bloody lap. She focused on her hands and turned them up. She swallowed and tried to wipe the dried blood off her palms but it wouldn't leave. She could tell the blood had been smeared when she'd assisted Amarice. When the door opened, she lifted her broken gaze to the Conqueror.

Xena hesitated a step when she absored the bard's distraught features. She neared the bard and knelt in front of her. "Where is your scroll satchel?"

Gabrielle shook her head then muttered, "They took it from me."

The ruler reached up and brushed the bard's bangs back. "I'll have the men search the building for it."

The Amazon Queen abruptly shook her head. "No, I don't want it back... please."

Xena clenched her right hand in her lap, but she nodded once.

"Xena, who were those men?"

The Conqueror didn't know exactly, yet she had several good guesses. She also knew she needed to tell Gabrielle about the message from the commander, but right now wasn't the best time. "I'm not sure, but they look to be a cult."

"I saw the altar," the bard muttered. She stretched out her hand and touched the ruler's Gaelic necklace. "It some cult, isn't it?"

"I think so," the ruler agreed. She then twisted her head to the left when the handmaidens entered the room. Once they were in the bathring room, she focused back on her partner. "Where were you hurt?"

The Amazon Queen did a quick inventory then answered, "My back and up here." She gingerly touched her left temple, and she flinched.

The ruller took the bard's hand away from her head. "Alright. We'll get you cleaned and some salve on the wounds."

"Are the handmaidens going to..."

Xena understood the bard's uncomfortable state around the maidens so she answered the unfinished question. "I'll tell them to leave."

Gabrielle felt relieved and especially because Xena interpreted her well.

The Conqueror stood up and after a squeeze to Gabrielle's shoulder, she went to the bathing room. She ordered the maidens to leave then once they were gone, she waved for her partner to go into the bathing room.

Gabrielle had never felt so exhausted, and she could barely process her surroundings. She was just thankful Xena was here to care for her.

Xena had returned to the bedchambers and retrieved the medical kit. She then joined her partner in the bathing room. She helped Gabrielle get out of her bloody clothes, which truly showed because her top and skirt were white. She then removed her armor easily and stripped her leathers off. All she was left with was her Gaelic necklace.

Gabrielle sat huddled on the last step of the bath. She had her legs pulled up so that her knees slightly poked through the water. She sensed her lover coming behind her.

Xena sat on the step behind her partner so that Gabrielle was between her legs. She then slipped her arms around the bard and leaned forward. "We need to clean your wounds." After her words, she noticed the bard wasn't reacting at all.

Gabrielle just stared across the long room. The warmth of the water seemed to sooth away her last resolve, and she suddenly began to cry. Gabrielle slumped forward so that her front side rested against her propped up legs. She burried her face into her knees but her sobs echoed in the room.

The Conqueror had never dealt with Gabrielle being this upset. She'd seen Gabrielle come to the brink thanks to some of their fights, but nothing like this. She wasn't sure what to do, yet she knew Gabrielle needed her.

Gabrielle had her eyes squeezed shut tightly. She tried to will her emotions to go away, but they seemed to worsen. She cried because she'd never felt such a sense of dread in her life, it made her time against the evil Conqueror seem like a nutbread walk. She didn't understand what exactly scared her so badly, but something in that building horrifed her deeply.

Gabrielle cried for Jarine, and how she'd died. If only she'd stopped the Amazon from protecting her then she'd be alive. It was her fault for not being a better queen. Then Amarice had been taken, improsoned, and tortured. Gabrielle knew that Amarice, being so young, would forever be scarred by the events. How could Queen Terreis ever thought she'd be fit to be a ruler?

The Conqueror leaned forward until her skin melt against the bard's. She tightened her arms protectively over her lover then rested her cheek against the bard's back. She closed her eyes and willed her strength to pass into the bard.

Gabrielle's heavy rise and fall of her body slowed when she gained some control. She relished how the ruler's powerful body seemed to completely encased her and protect her. If only the Conqueror had been there sooner she may have never felt the horrible dread that she had. Whenever had she'd grown so needy for the ruler's strength to protect her?

Gabrielle felt Xena's midnight hair cascade over her back and shoulders. She felt the ruler's steady breath on her right shoulder. Then there was a tender kiss, which further soothed her internal ache. And when did the Conqueror learn to be so passionate and comforting at the right times? Gabrielle didn't have an answer, although she was grateful to have it here and now.

The bard freed her right hand from her knee. She moved her hand up until her fingers laced into the ruler's soft hair.

Xena moved her head around and because of her height and length, she was able to bring her head down closer to Gabrielle's. She brushed her cheek against the bard's.

Gabrielle returned the tender gesture. She then took a calming breath and proceeded to sit up with her partner's help.

The Conqueror sat up straight and pulled her lover in closer to her body. She wrapped one arm across the bard's stomach while her other went over Gabrielle's bare breasts. She bowed her down when the bard gave a silent plea for a kiss.

Gabrielle only had a brief kiss as it was hard for her to breathe with her stuffy nose. She enjoyed the gentleness in the kiss. She then turned her head so that her cheek rested in the ruler's neck, and the Gaelic necklace pressed into Gabrielle's lower cheek and chin.

The Conqueror seemed increadibly calm and rock for the bard, yet inside she was fighting her anger. She wanted badly to kill the cult members that'd caused this havoc in Gabrielle's world as well as hers. Xena struggled to subdue her hatred fed monster inside of her chest and belly.

Finally, the ruler was able to get Gabrielle to clean up. She then cared for the bard's wounds after the bath. The wounds had opened up thanks to the warm water, but they were clean and now salve was over them. The Conqueror then helped her partner get into her Amazon Queen attire. Xena though merely put her leathers on and didn't even bother with her boots.

Gabrielle neared the curtains that seperated the balcony from the bedchambers. "I need some fresh air."

The ruler glanced over, nodded, and put the medical kit away. She then came to the table and picked up a chair. She followed the bard outside and placed the chair against the wall.

Gabrielle leaned against the railing and let the light breeze dry her hair. She felt somewhat better now that she was clean. She hoped the handmaidens would take her bloody clothes and clean them. She suspected Xena had already instructed them to do so.

The Conqueror sat in the chair but softly called, "Come here."

Gabrielle pulled away from the beautiful view of the city. She took her welcomed spot in the ruler's lap so that she sat across the ruler. She leaned to her left and let her side pressed into Xena's warm body.

The Conqueror encircled the bard with her arms then leaned her head against the stone wall.

The Amazon Queen slipped her left arm behind Xena's shoulders then finally lowered her head against the ruler's chest. She closed her eyes.

The Conqueror closed her own eyes and continued to soothingly run her fingertips up and down the bard's thigh. She hoped the motions would lull the bard. She was soon rewarded by Gabrielle's lighter breathing, and she checked to find the bard indeed asleep.

Xena scanned the city and felt her senses prickled. She somewhat felt like a sitting duck on the balcony, but she knew nothing would happen. She peered down at her lover's peaceful features, and she hoped the dreams were good ones.

The Conqueror spent the silent time thinking about the secret cult that was hiding out in Alexandria. She wondered if somehow they were connected to the spies from Britannia. Also she had much to consider with the rebellion in Britannia. She expected no less from the Gaelics, Erse, and Britanni since they were such a spirited culture. She wasn't overly concerned about the rebellion though as plenty of legions were stationed in and near Britannia, and Commander Meleager was quite competent.

What'd truly jarred the ruler were the tortures the cult obviously performed. She didn't know of any religion that called for such malicious acts. But more than anything, the tortures were not very foriegn to the former dark ruler. Xena hated the memories the tortures envoked in her. She hated that she too had performed such acts in her past; a past not so old.

It made Xena wonder just how right she was for the bard. She use to perform such tortures and still could easily if she wished so. Xena knew how frightened the bard was by the cult and their acts. How could Gabrielle think any better of her? And could Xena truly protect Gabrielle from such harm when she, herself, could be that same monster again?

Gabrielle slowly roused after a candlemark of hard sleep. She slept well, somehow, but most likely from her endless weariness these past days. She lifted up and sensed a few creaks in her body from the odd position she'd slept in against the ruler. She was nonsurprised to find the ruler awake.

"Sorry about that," the bard muttered and wiped her face of the sleepiness.

"You needed it," the ruler argued. She gauged that the bard had slept fairly well, and she was happy for it.

Gabrielle detected something was out of place in the ruler. She saw how dark Xena's eyes were and that iceness that flowed off her skin. She brushed her dried hair back then asked, "What were you think about?"

The Conqueror shook her head then replied, "Just what needs to be done about this cult."

The bard suspect that was only half the answer. "I don't think for an entire candlemark you only thought about that." She touched the ruler's cheek. "What is it?"

Xena shook her head then dipped it foward for a beat. But nimble fingers brought her gaze back up where she found concerned, green eyes boring into her.

"Come on," Gabrielle urged. "We haven't come this far for this silence. I know you're the all mighty Conqueror, but you're still human."

The Greek ruler sighed then her gaze focused beyond the bard to the city. She flexed her jaw a few times, and her voice grew deep when she spoke finally. "I was thinking about Janice... and Rhodes."

Gabrielle at first didn't understand but then she pieced it altogether. She touched the ruler's cheek and drawed the ruler's attention back to her. "Xena, that's over. You're not that person anymore."

"Gabrielle, you've even told me that you're scared that my dark side may return and turn on you." The Conqueror recalled that old converation in the temporary village near Artemisia.

"I don't think you would direct it at me, Xena." Gabrielle grabbed the ruler's hands into hers. "We've been through too much for that to happen. I think I'd have to do something pretty ugly to get you to do that." She shrugged then mentioned, "I'd have to... kill Cyrene to get that reaction out of you."

"I wouldn't hold your breath on it being that extreme." The Conqueror carefully thought about herself and how her anger reacts. "All I need is the right betrayal to react that way again."

"Like leaving you," the bard offhandedly muttered in despair. She still regretted how she'd walked out of Xena's life despite Xena constantly told her it was the best thing at the time.

"No," the ruler started, "something entirely else. I was okay with you walking off. You didn't betray me, and I knew that at the time." Xena sighed and shook her head some at her dark thoughts.

"I don't plan on betraying you, Xena." Gabrielle squeezed her lover's hands tightly. "I don't want anything to come between us. I like how we are."

The ruler sadly smiled at the bard's honest words and underlying dedication. "Me too," she murmured. She then took the bard's lips in a tentive kiss.

Gabrielle smiled after the kiss. She then lost it when something else was amiss.

The Conqueror knew Gabrielle had figured it out so she whispered, "We do have another problem."

The Amazon Queen sighed then became serious. "What else?"

"I rceived word from the commander." The Conqueror felt the abrupt accumilation of tension in the bard. "Britannia is rebelling."

Gabrielle let out a long breath then frustration showed in her next words. "Could anything else go wrong?"

Xena bit her lower lip then quietly added, "There are spies tailing us too."

"Well that answered my question," the bard jabbed. She slid off Xena's lap and paced the short distance of the balcony. She stopped, faced the seated ruler, and leaned her back against the stone rail. "Do we have to go back to Greece then?"

The Conqueror stretched her legs out, her boot tips almost touched Gabrielle's. "I promised you that we wouldn't leave Africa until we had your sister."

"What about Britannia though?"

Xena shook her head then folded her arms against her chest. "The commander can handle it and if its still ongoing when we return then I'll finish it."

The bard frowned at her lover's hidden meaning, but she knew it would have to be done. "What about these spies? They're obviously not trying to assassinate us.... there's been too many opportunities."

The Conqueror slightly smiled at the bard's clear insight and assessment of the situation. She had to give Gabrielle credit.

"Who are these spies working for?"

Xena tilted her head then answered, "Britannia."

Gabrielle thought this out then she considered the men in the cult, who'd attacked her and her Amazons. She shook her head then quietly mentioned, "Those men from the cult... they spoke another language. I've never heard it. There were only a few that spoke Greek." She focused on her lover and asked, "Do you think the cult and the spies are one and the same? Or they're working together?"

"It's plausible," Xena agreed, "but we can't be sure." She wouldn't mention the dagger she'd taken from the altar table, which now remained hiding in her gauntlet back in the bathing room. She felt that her partner was shaken enough by the events plus the dagger wasn't sound proof.

Gabrielle kept shaking her head. She lifted her head, twisted it to the left, and she stared at the Royal Library. "Xena, I don't like this." She became distraught and worried. "I feel like we're sitting rabbits right now. There's something going on that we don't know about."

The Conqueror climbed out of the chair and stepped up to the bard. She seemed even taller compared to the bard, who remained somewhat slouched against the rail. She stared off at the library too then lowered her head to the bard. "Whatever it is," she promised, "it'll be facing something much darker than what it thinks it is." She displayed a confident, dark smile.

Gabrielle peered up into mercury blue eyes that she hadn't seen in some time. She knew her lover was solely the Conqueror now. Even though Gabrielle fought against this Conqueror, she actually felt grateful for it because sometimes to fight fire it required fire. She was just glad this dark Conqueror was here to protect them now. Maybe it was now time to pity the enemy.

To be continued...

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