Disclaimer & Notices

Copyright: Many of these characters do not belong to me, and we know which ones do not. I, however, own the plot and other certain characters.

Violence: There is violence in this story.

Subtext: Any subtext becomes main text here.

Summary: The sequel to To Take What is Mine. The Conqueror continues her campaign to the Macedon Kingdom, and she already knows the odds are in her favor. Yet without warning, the Romans invade the Thrace Providence and take aim for the Conqueror's hometown. The Conqueror though bitterly holds back from saving Amphipolis. However Queen Gabrielle and Queen Cyane join together at the Siege of Amphipolis and try to stop the Romans before they overtake Thrace.

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Started: June 6, 2008

Series 9: Destiny of Mine – Story #3

To Fight for What is Mine

by Red Hope

Chapter 5

The sun had peeked over the eastern horizon about a candlemark ago. There still was dew that clung to the leaves and grass. The morning was chilly, but the sun would quickly warm the day. The Greek Army's camp started out quiet then it soon buzzed with renewed life. The campfires were rekindled and breakfast was first on many hoplites' minds.

Queen Gabrielle had slept hard through the night and barely moved. She started to rouse, slowly. She recalled that she'd fallen asleep in the Conqueror's arms, yet she wondered if it wasn't a dream. She'd slid her eyes open and discovered her bed was empty. Yet, she noticed a distinct scent lined in the sheet and furs that had always been Xena but now mixed with leather.

Gabrielle turned on her back and softly smiled. She suspected that Xena had left fairly early so that she could check on the city. Gabrielle was curious to see what was being done because she couldn't imagine what process to follow after conquest. With that thought, she sat up in bed and hung her legs off the side.

"My queen?"

The bard glanced over at the tent flaps. "Come in, Ephiny." She warmly greeted the Amazon.

"How'd you sleep?" Ephiny questioned. She took a seat at the desk chair.

"Like a rock," the bard replied "How about yourself?"

"Pretty good." The Amazon stretched her legs some. "I have to admit the Conqueror has some soft beds."

The queen grinned and played with her short, messy hair. "Yeah... she does, doesn't she?" She breathed deeply and contently. "Tomorrow we'll be leaving and going directly to the Thrace Nation."

"Have you sent word to Cyane?"

Gabrielle nodded then added, "I also sent a message to Commander Kaylee so she'd know." She stretched some while she spoke. "How's everybody else doing?"

"The good night's sleep has helped... everybody was pretty weary."

The bard nodded. She slid off the bed and went to her saddlebags in front of Ephiny. "I need you to do me a favor... actually both you and Andra." She picked up her Amazon attire, opened her saddlebags, and tucked them away. She decided to dress informal and go with her deep maroon leathers that had a burnt orange skirt. She typically wore it once she was out of the Nation just so nobody picked her out as queen.

"I'm concerned about Seven," the queen started. She took her leathers and went to the other side of the tent so that Ephiny's back was to her.

"You mean about her and the Conqueror," Ephiny clarified.

"Yes." Gabrielle proceeded to change behind the Amazon's back. "I talked to both Seven and the Conqueror. Seven won't endanger the relations, and I trust her."

"And the Conqueror?" Ephiny slightly turned her head but not enough to get a glimpse of the queen. "She doesn't trust many people."

"No, but she trusts me. She's okay with it." Gabrielle pulled her top's strap across her shoulder. "But I told Seven if she needs to talk to anybody that you, me and Andra were here for her. So I just need you to keep an eye on her."

"I will. Have you told Andra?"

"No, but I'll catch up with her today." The bard adjusted her skirt last then she went to her saddlebags. She had her boots next to the trunk so she grabbed them, sat on the bed, and slid her feet into them. "I think Seven will be okay."

"Do you think her and the Conqueror will pass words?"

"It's hard to say," the queen replied. "Seven isn't the conversationalist."

"Nor is the Conqueror," the Amazon reminded.

Gabrielle shrugged and softly stated, "Not unless you know her."

Ephiny pretended not to hear the remark. She still had a hard time grasping how close the queen and ruler became so quickly after being apart for such a long time. It often pained her because it took her a long time to build such a friendship with Gabrielle. "Is there anything we need to do today?"

The bard was hunched over and lacing her boots. "I think everybody needs to check over their supplies... make sure they have enough for a ten day trip. Yakut seems to think it'll take us about six days."

Ephiny nodded. "Anything else?"

The queen peered up but stayed bent forward and laced her boots. "It'd be a good idea to do some sparring." She hung her head back down and went to her other boot. "Can you organize some drills?"

"Of course." Ephiny crossed her legs and checked, "What about Seven?" She, like many, knew that sparring could rarely fatigue the automaton unless it was specially designed for her.

"Eponin told me about the best drills to use to challenge Seven." The queen straightened up and looked at Ephiny. "Did she happen to mention them to you?"

The Amazon shook her head and waited to hear.

"Well..." Gabrielle considered an idea. "I'd like to catch up with the Conqueror, and I think she's in the city. So, we all can get breakfast then I'll find the Conqueror. I want you to have everybody check supplies while I'm gone." She waited for Ephiny's nod then she added, "When I get back, we'll do the drills and sparring. It'll require teams to drill Seven."

"Okay that sounds good." Ephiny watched the queen now collect her jewelry and weapons. "How is the Conqueror?"

"She seems good." Gabrielle adjusted the strap from her sword's sheath across her chest. She then put on her silver arm bracelet.

"Did you two have a nice talk last night?"

"We did." Gabrielle faintly smiled at the memory.

Ephiny then decided to be a bit bold so she asked, "Are you two..." She twisted around to the queen off to her right. "Together?"

The queen paused in the middle of adjusting her arm bracelet. She seriously looked at her former lover, who was first her friend. "Seriously, Ephiny?"

Ephiny licked her lips, studied the ground for a moment then nodded, and looked up. "Seriously."

Gabrielle pressed her lips together into a sad, partial smile. "No, we're not." She went over to the rack and pulled off her staff then went to her bed. She sat on the edge and looked at the Amazon. "It's a bit confusing right now but we're not pushing anything."

"You both need to do a lot of catching up first," Ephiny reminded.

"We do," the bard softly agreed.

Ephiny then cleared her throat and offered a grin. "I did hear you kissed."

"Oh gods... the Gossip Queen has struck again."

Ephiny revealed a devilish grin. "She thought about tailing you last night." She laughed at the bard's wide eyes. "I tied her down for you."

Gabrielle laughed at the mental picture then shook her head.

"Is Xena still angry about your silence?"

The bard went a bit more serious. "I think she's moving past it. Xena is known for holding grudges... but I've always realized she only does it if somebody doesn't apologize or doesn't show they regret it."

Ephiny considered the information. "I think too her soft spot for you helps considerably."

Gabrielle huffed at the statement. "Soft spot is right." She then changed topics on the Amazon. "How are you and Solari?"

Ephiny shot her friend a doubtful look. "Gabrielle, come on."

The queen shook her head and argued, "Solari has always liked you, Ephiny. You know this."

"Even if, it doesn't mean I return it." Ephiny leaned back in the chair.

"You both have gotten along for as long as I can recall."

"I like to keep it that way," Ephiny insisted.

Gabrielle grinned and teased, "I guess she'll have to make the move first."

Ephiny rolled her eyes. "You've been bitten by some love bug, my queen." She climbed to her feet. "And I'm hungry."

The queen chuckled and stood up too. But it felt good to talk to Ephiny like they were friends again and not broken lovers. "Be careful, Ephiny... that same bug might bite you."

"Not even a hundred of Cupid's arrows could get me," the Amazon declared.

Gabrielle laughed and left the tent. "How about you gather everybody. I'm going to make a run to the bathroom."

"Okay. See you in a few." Ephiny watched the queen go, and she went to get the Amazons organized for breakfast. The last Amazon she got up and moving was Solari, who could burn away long candlemarks in the night before finally sleeping.

Queen Gabrielle returned shortly, and she smiled at seeing her Amazons. She told them about the plans for today and that this afternoon they would have time to relax after training. She and her Amazons then headed to the dining tent to see what was for breakfast. The food that was prepared was quite excellent, and the Amazons ate heavily because they knew it wouldn't be until the Thrace Nation before it would be as good.

After breakfast, Gabrielle promised to catch up later for sparring and drills. She left Ephiny in charge and made her way towards the city walls. She passed through the open gates, which were stamped with a worn Vergina Sun seal. She took in her first view of the city. She'd never previously visited the capitol.

The capitol of the Macedon Kingdom was known as Pella. It'd been a beautiful city back in the height of the Macedon Kingdom but that grandeur was long dead along with King Alexander the Great. The city was dull, in partial disrepair, and roads that were stricken. The fortress, however, seemed to be the only part of the city that held any life after so many generations.

Gabrielle imagined that the Conqueror would bring back the beauty that Alexander the Great inspired in the Macedon Kingdom. She found it hard to believe that this capitol was once the heart of Alexander the Great's empire. There was a time that many civilizations knew and respected the Vergina Sun symbol, but today only a few knew what the symbol use to represent.

The bard made her way down the main road in the city and headed for the fortress. She passed by a few temples – the first was dedicated to Aphrodite then the next two were for Demeter and Cybele. Then on a distant street, she spotted a barrack, but she hurried up the guarded steps of the fortress.

"Good morning, Queen Gabrielle," a hoplite on the top offered. He stood by the open doors. "The Conqueror has been expecting you. She is just inside."

"Thank you," the bard replied. She moved past the hoplite and neared the open entrance. She then heard voices coming out.

"We lost his trail after a few Roman miles, my liege."

There was a brief silence then the Conqueror's voice boomed. "I want Cortese found!"

Queen Gabrielle tensed at hearing her friend's apparent anger and frustration. She came through the doorway and stood just inside the large courtroom or perhaps a thrown room.

"We're doing the best we can, my liege," a hoplite reported.

Gabrielle instantly recognized the hoplite as Bastien. She felt for him because he was under Xena's wrath.

The Conqueror stood in front of the hoplite, and she growled, "It's not enough, Bastien. I want better than best. I want Cortese before he makes it to the Romans."

Bastien decided to bow his head in submission. He could tell though that his leader wasn't quite finished with him though.

At that moment, Gabrielle gently lowered her staff's end to the stone floor, which caused an echo to pass through the courtroom. She remained just past the doorway that made her glow in the late morning sunlight.

Xena turned her head to the right and spotted the Amazon Queen. She momentarily studied the beautiful Amazon Queen that obviously waited for her. She turned back to Bastien and remarked, "You're dismissed but report back later."

"Of course, my liege." Bastien fully bowed and brought his right arm across his bronze chest. He then straightened up, turned on his heels, and marched towards the Amazon Queen. He stopped a step in front of her and warmly greeted, "Welcome to Pella, Queen Gabrielle."

The bard gave the weary chiliarchès a gentle smile. "Thank you, chiliarchès. How are you?"

"I am well. I hear you and the Conqueror will be journeying to the Thrace Amazon Nation."

"Yes, tomorrow we plan to leave." Gabrielle placed some of her weight onto her staff.

Bastien nodded then offered, "It's good to see you again." He gave an appreciative smile then passed the queen. He was grateful to get away from the Conqueror before he lost his head.

Gabrielle moved from her spot and neared the ruler. It was only her and Xena in the large courtroom, which she realized was more like an enclosed atrium. "Good morning."

"Good morning." The Conqueror was obviously still cooling off her temper. "How did you sleep last night?"

Gabrielle showed her best smile, and it helped sooth the Conqueror along with her next words. "I was very... comfortable. I slept well." She then tilted her head. "Yourself?"

Xena sensed her temper fade away, and she had a small smile. "The best in many moons." She then slipped her hands behind her back. "Do you have time for a tour? Are you familiar with Pella?"

"Yes and no," the bard replied.

The Conqueror nodded and decided to start right where they stood. "This is the courtroom that I imagine King Cortese rarely used."

Gabrielle softly laughed at the ruler's snide joke. "It looks like it was an atrium at one time."

"I believe it was then was converted to a thrown room slash courtroom." Xena signaled the thrown at the other end of the room. But then she pointed up to the ceiling. "If you look, it seems like the center of the ceiling was closed up from the outside."

Gabrielle shifted around the ruler and went to the center of the floor. She tapped her staff on the stone floor. "This tile work looks newer here."

"Mmmm." The Conqueror joined the bard's side and theorized, "There probably was an impluvium to collect the rain water that came through the compluvium that was once there."

Gabrielle nodded a few times then commented, "The floor work is beautiful." She admired the white and black pebble-mosaic floor that was hand done but so gorgeous too.

"Yes, it is." Xena tilted her head. "The city was named after a famous stone here."

"Does it still exist?" Gabrielle had heard that the name, Pella, actually meant stone in ancient Greek.

"It does. I'll show you during the tour." The Conqueror then walked across the floor. "There's not much to see in the fortress but the courtyard is still worthy of a look."

Gabrielle followed the ruler through the thrown room and passed a side door. "It seems like this once was a palace."

"Yes, but it's been converted to be a fortress."

"You think more recently?" the bard inquired.

"Yes." The Conqueror guided her friend through the corridors. "My guess is that Cortese did much of the work."

"If that's true then I would say he's a bit paranoid." Gabrielle shook her head because she could tell the conversion had stripped away much of the former palace's beauty.

"To put it gently, yes." Xena smirked at Gabrielle's low tisk.

"So, how did Cortese escape?"

The Conqueror guided the bard to the middle of the courtyard where there was a white bench. She stopped in front of it and the white pebbles under her boots crunched. "There was a hidden passage that he used to escape. It connected to a small tunnel way and lead him out west of the city walls."

"Where did his trail end?"

Xena sighed and turned her head to Gabrielle. "By the Strymon river."

Gabrielle imagined that's why Bastien was having a hard time tracking the former king. "He probably took a boat... which means somebody was waiting for him."

"My guess is he headed north on the boat," the ruler theorized. She noticed her friend's confused look so she elaborated. "There's a Roman legion just north of the Greek borders."

"Ah." The queen bobbed her head. "That would make sense then." She said nothing else and finally, truly took in the courtyard's garden. She admired the statue of a young but handsome man only a few paces away. "That must be Alexander the Great."

"Mmmm," Xena agreed. She led Gabrielle down the white pebble walkway to the marble statue. "It's a beautiful piece."

"I'm surprised Cortese didn't have it removed," the bard muttered. She tilted her head back and studied the face of one the greatest conquerors. She took in his classic hair that had a tender curl to it.

"I think even Cortese respected him." Xena hid her hands behind her back. "He was a great leader."

"He still is," Gabrielle argued. She looked at her friend. "He seems to inspire new great leaders."

The Conqueror gave a bittersweet smile. "I do not plan to extend myself as far as he managed."

"Indeed," the bard murmured. She didn't concede nor argued.

"This way," the ruler instructed. She returned back into the fortress and led the bard out a back entrance. She aimed for a temple.

"How did you manage to infiltrate the city?"

Xena glanced at her friend but focused back on the walk through the streets. "Commander Aescalus defected to me."

Gabrielle slotted her eyes and asked, "How did you do that, Xena?" She slightly grinned. "You had to have talked to him."

The ruler had a sly look. "I found my way into the city and had a talk with him."

"Well I know you didn't politely knock on the gates." Gabrielle eyed the ruler.

Xena chuckled and explained, "Pella is known for their excellent sewer, drainage, and piping system... it spreads throughout the entire city."

Gabrielle furrowed her eyebrows at the information then it hit her. "You infiltrated through the sewer system." She caught the Conqueror's nod, and Gabrielle chuckled at another thought. "Have you bathed since then?"

"Please." Xena grinned and reminded, "You do recall who you're asking, right?"

Gabrielle had a wide smirk because she already knew the answer. "But I am surprised you'd crawl around in any pipes." She noted Xena's confused look so she merely reminded, "Ratsss."

The Conqueror shivered and involuntarily rolled her eyes just at the mental image placed in her head. "I hate those damn things." She shook her head but more to get rid of the mental picture. "Luckily I didn't come across any."

The queen softly giggled and shook her head a few times. "You remember-"

"Don't," the ruler cut off. She held up her right hand to silence the bard. "I don't want to remember, thank you." She lowered her hand but arched her right eyebrow. "Don't forget your little thing about spiders."

Gabrielle briefly poked her tongue out in disgust. "I'd take a furry rat any day over a furry spider."

"Ha." Xena shook her head. She rather have the spider over the rat. "I'll never understand why the Gods think that there's a need for rats. It's beyond me."

"They're just scavengers," the bard argued, "doing clean up."

The Conqueror shot a challenging look at her friend because they'd had that debate several times in the past.

Gabrielle quietly laughed, but she let go of the topic. She realized they were coming to the temple to Aphrodite.

"This is the only temple worth seeing," Xena honestly confessed. She hurried up the steps then pushed open the door for them. She then unexpectedly switched topics and mentioned, "The reason I had your letters sent out last night was because I had one written up myself for Cyane."

"Then they'll go together?" the bard checked.

"Yes," the ruler answered.

Gabrielle nodded and stayed quiet. She followed her friend through the open door, and she was instantly stunned. "By the gods..." She had a slightly slack jaw and scanned the gorgeous interior of the temple. "It's..."

"Beautiful," Xena softly finished. She guided the bard to the center of the temple, which was wide open but the floor was what commanded any visitor's eyes.

The Amazon Queen stared down at the mosaic floor that was done in white and a tan stone. Her boot tips were just under Aphrodite's chin, and Gabrielle was mesmerized by Aphrodite's blue eyes. "I've never seen her depicted with blue eyes."

"I think it's an effect for the mosaic," Xena quietly theorized. She too stared at the stunning mosaic. "Let me show you the alter."

Gabrielle lifted her head and looked at Xena now. She blinked because she realized that Xena's eyes were just as blue as the mosaic's. Then Xena smiled, which broke Gabrielle's revere. "Lead the way," the bard murmured.

The Conqueror directed Gabrielle across the temple and to the long alter table that was covered by givings. Then behind the alter in the middle was a marble statue of Aphrodite, who had long, curly hair. Xena observed how the statue had Aphrodite in a sheer toga that she actually held in place with her right arm to keep it from slipping. Her left hand was held out towards the offering tables, and she looked to the ceiling of the temple.

"I'm surprised there's so many offerings." Gabrielle's voice broke Xena's earlier concentration on the statue. "I mean there's been a war all season."

Xena lowered her gaze to the filled alter table. "It would seem the people highly regard her." She was quiet for a beat but then revealed more. "I gave several offerings myself."

Gabrielle had a confused expression and peered up at her friend. "You don't follow the gods." She knew that Xena rarely cared for the gods and never followed any religious tradition.

The Conqueror shrugged then looked at her friend. "I have a lot to thank her for, lately."

Gabrielle's expression slowly softened to bittersweet, and she sadly smiled. She didn't know what to say, but she studied the statue. She silently thanked the goddess too. She glanced at Xena, who still stared at the statue so she reached over. Gabrielle collapsed the tall ruler's hand.

Xena broke from her thoughts and turned her head to Gabrielle. She squeezed her friend's hand in appreciation and softly ordered, "Come on." She released hands and headed down the alter. All she heard as they crossed the temple was Gabrielle's staff gently tapping the stone floor.

The two leaders left the beautiful temple dedicated to the Goddess of Love, and the midmorning sun greeted them beyond the doors. Together, they continued a tour through the ancient city and saw several other famous mosaic floors spread out in city buildings. Finally, they left through the gates and were swallowed by the Greek Army's camp. Xena planned to show her friend the grand stone that named the city.

"So," the bard started, "are you worried about the Romans?" She was thinking back to their earlier conversation about Cortese fleeing north, to the Romans.

"I've kept my eye on them," the Conqueror replied. "They're not moving from their position."

"They occupy Getae, don't they?"

Xena slightly nodded. "They've since conquered the southern half."

"That means Illyria is crunched between Rome and Greece." Gabrielle shook her head and argued, "Rome has already lost once to Illyria... their second war will surely make them succeed."

"Yes... Rome learns quickly from their mistakes and endeavors never to repeat them."

Gabrielle brushed past a few hoplites that were coming by her. She waited until they were clear then she asked, "Do you think Rome will invade us?"

"No, they know that my army surpasses theirs. If they'd made plans to invade then it would have been prior to my conquest of the Macedon Kingdom."

"I hope so," the bard murmured. She shook her head. "I can't imagine being under Roman rule... to suddenly become a foreigner... an outsider in my polis's eyes. I would have no voice."

"And how do you think many foreigners feel here in Greece?" Xena flashed a grin at the bard because she'd made her point.

Gabrielle bobbed her head a few times. She knew Xena was right. She went back to the earlier topic about the Roman legion just north of Thrace. "What Legion is north of us?"

"It's Legio IV Macedonica."

"How big is it?"

Xena considered the mental numbers and rounded it. "There's about four thousand legionaries and three hundred equites." What she didn't mentioned was that the legion carried the bull symbol, which was a stamp that the legion was directly under Julius Caesar's command. She then spotted the great stone that Pella was named for so she changed topics. "Here it is."

Gabrielle passed a few more tents then the area opened up to the stone. She realized that the camp left an open space for the stone. She was surprised to find that it was a white stone that only showed some slight discoloration. "Is it marble?"

"It seems to be." The Conqueror came up to it and lightly touched the rough surface of the gigantic stone.

"It's been well weathered," the queen noted. She too touched it and ran her hand across it. "It's strange how it's the only stone like this out here."

"Perhaps the gods placed it here."

Gabrielle glanced at her friend, who was grinning. She laughed and dropped her hand from the stone. "You're getting awfully religious in your old age, Xena."

The ruler had a wider grin now. "Well it's the only explanation."

"Isn't that the explanation for anything that we mortals can't figure out?" Gabrielle chastised.

Xena chuckled and agreed, "That seems to be the common theme." She then pointed a finger at her friend. "Not that you bards make it any better by creating these stories or myths about the gods."

The bard shrugged and offered, "Well it's not as if the alchemists, engineers, and architects come up with reasonable explanations."

The Conqueror shook her head then seriously stated, "Let's see if we can find your Amazons."

The queen readily agreed and followed her friend away from the stone and back into the deepness of the camp. She decided the best place to start was back at the guest tents that they occupied. "They're probably already sparring." And Gabrielle was right because once she arrived at the tents, her guard mentioned they'd already gone. He told the Amazon Queen where they were headed so that she could find them.

Gabrielle turned to her friend. "I'm sure you want to get back to the city."

"It can wait a few more... I'll walk you to them." Xena smiled because the bard initially smiled at the offer. She and Gabrielle weaved through the camp in the direction they were given. Once they were upon the edge of the camp, Xena picked out the distant sound of metal hitting metal. "They're not far away."

The Amazon Queen was surprised that Xena could already pick it up. She wondered how her friend did it, but she knew Xena always had superior skills than many. She came through the last tents and out into the open lands. She faintly smiled at seeing her Amazons in full practice mode, and Ephiny shouted a few orders from the side.

The Conqueror observed the hard training Amazons and admired them for their dedication. She came to a gradual stop about a hundred paces from the group. She turned to the queen. "I'll see you tonight. We'll go over a route on the map to get to the Thrace Nation."

Gabrielle leaned her head against her staff. "That sounds good. Where should we meet?"

"I'll come find you at your tent," the ruler answered. She glanced up at the Amazons, and her focus went to Seven of Nine. She became lost in her stare, and faded memories came back to her.

"Xena?" Gabrielle softly tried a third time. She gingerly touched the ruler's bare arm. "Xena?"

The Conqueror quickly broke from staring at the automaton and looked down at her friend. She noted the bard's worried look.

"Are you okay?" Gabrielle glanced where Xena was staring and deduced it was the automaton.

Xena softly cleared her throat and replied, "I'm fine." She found concerned green eyes back on her. "I was just thinking."

The queen opened her mouth, but she was cut off by a newcomer.

"My queen?"

The bard turned her head to Ephiny, and she inwardly sighed at being interrupted. "Yes, Ephiny?"

"Are you ready to spar?" The Amazon didn't wait for an answer and lifted her gaze to the tall ruler. "Good morning, Conqueror."

The Conqueror slightly bowed her head, lifted it, and asked, "How are you, Ephiny?"

"Well," the Amazon formally replied. She then politely added, "Thank you for hosting us here."

Again, Xena bowed her head in acceptance to the appreciation. She then completely turned to the queen. "I will find you this evening, Queen Gabrielle." She then glanced at Ephiny and added, "Perhaps you'd like to join us."

Ephiny tilted her head, and the question was in her eyes.

"Queen Gabrielle and I will be discussing the route to take to the Thrace Nation."

"I would like to join," Ephiny agreed.

"Excellent." The Conqueror turned back to the Amazon Queen, bowed deeper than normal, and made eye contact once she straightened up. "Have a good day of practice, Queen Gabrielle." She turned on her boots then marched off with her cape fluttering behind her.

"See ya," the bard muttered to herself and not so much to Xena. She was perplexed by what'd happened in those brief moments, but she knew it spawned from Seven of Nine being nearby. She had slightly slump shoulders, yet Ephiny lightly touched her shoulders.

"We'll pair together," Ephiny offered.

Queen Gabrielle turned to the Amazon and nodded. She decided to head over to her sparring Amazons. "How is Seven making out?"

"I have everybody rotating with her so she stays busy."


Ephiny made their way to an open space near the sprinkled groups in the wide open field. She reached back and grabbed her sword hilt. She listened to the metal scrape as she extracted it.

Gabrielle faced Ephiny and took a few steps back to give them space. She stared over her right shoulder at the sparring pairs and asked, "How long has everybody been practicing?"

"Half a candlemark now, my queen." Ephiny spun her sword and smirked at the queen's full focus on the Amazons. She then made a sudden move by taking an overhead swipe at the queen.

Gabrielle was so incredibly fast that neither of them were sure that it really happened until Ephiny's blade was locked into the queen's staff. Gabrielle still had her head turned to the right, but she slowly turned it to Ephiny, and she slotted her eyes. She had her arms raised, her staff horizontally between her hands, and Ephiny's blade reflected the sun overhead. She glared yet slightly grinned and taunted, "That's not very sporting, Ephiny."

Ephiny now put both her hands on the hilt then gradually extracted her blade from the staff's thick wood. She stepped back once then twice. "Not all your opponents will be so kind."

Gabrielle spun her staff around until she finally slammed the butt end into the ground. She stood calm and acted like she wasn't concerned about Ephiny as an opponent. "Nor will all my opponents be as weak as you."

Ephiny stood motionless, except her jaw slacked.

The Amazon Queen took her opening and attacked her shocked opponent. Again she was fast and also merciless as she sharply brought her staff at Ephiny. Her staff cracked loudly against Ephiny's blade. Gabrielle forced Ephiny to lower down their locked weapons between their bodies. She then leaned between their crisscrossed weapons and taunted, "I promise you I will put you on your back by the end of this practice, Ephiny."

The Amazon slowly grinned, and she had bright, honey brown eyes. "You'll never get far beyond your talk, will you?"

Queen Gabrielle rammed her right knee up into Ephiny's stomach.

Ephiny stumbled back several steps. She had her left hand over her stomach for a beat.

Gabrielle decided that was response enough to the question. She watched Ephiny straighten up, and she knew the challenge between them was truly started. Ephiny suddenly lunged for her, and she readied her staff.

Ephiny had fought Gabrielle many times in the past, but it had been awhile since their last spar. She'd secretly been impressed by her friend's fast growth and learning capabilities. And now, she honestly saw a major difference in Gabrielle's fighting since the last time. Ephiny always believed that much of what use to hold Gabrielle back was Gabrielle's own lack of confidence. But it now seemed as if Gabrielle had found that confidence, and it truly empowered her.

The queen parried most of the blows, and she only suffered a couple of sword nicks on her right bicep. She ignored them as if they were not there, and she pressed Ephiny harder still. Gabrielle was eerily focused compared to when she use to be timid or cautious.

The sparring groups had come to a stopping point so that the Amazons could rest. But Ephiny and the queen still sparred so the Amazons gathered around the pair to watch the intense practice. Ephiny considered whether to bark out orders, but she lost that idea when Gabrielle's staff caught her side.

Gabrielle debated her next few moves because she wanted to end the challenge swiftly. She came up with an excellent plot to keep her earlier promise to Ephiny.

"Come on, Ephiny!" Solari cheered, "Don't let the queen drop you."

Ephiny groaned some at her friend's words. "Thanks, Solari," she hollered back. She backed away a few steps when Gabrielle did several rapid swings.

"Go, Gabrielle!" Teresa called.

Solari glared over at Teresa then looked back at Ephiny. "Ephiny!"

Teresa laughed at the Gossip Queen and hooted, "Queen Gabrielle!" Suddenly, she and Solari managed to get all the Amazons involved in the sparring challenge. Each Amazon cheered on either the queen or Ephiny, but only Seven of Nine remained set apart, quiet, and intently observed.

"Are you ready, Ephiny?" the queen darkly teased.

"For you to lose?" Ephiny needled, "Over and over, my queen."

Gabrielle let out a menacing laugh. "Not even in your dreams." She planned her next moves carefully. She did a wild sweep at Ephiny's stomach, and she made her intent quite clear.

Ephiny saw it easily and knew it was her opening so she powerfully brought her sword against the queen's staff. She was more than satisfied when the staff was painfully forced from the queen's hand.

"Gabrrrr..." Medora lost the rest of the queen's name because she tilted her head back. She opened her mouth in shock as the queen's famous staff flew through the air and away from them. She twisted her head around, but she opened her eyes wide because Seven of Nine caught the queen's staff.

Queen Gabrielle looked at her staff in the automaton's hand, but she snapped her head towards Ephiny. She quickly raised her hands up and stepped back. She clenched her jaw. "Ephiny..." She lifted her right hand up slightly higher, towards her sword's hilt behind her back.

Ephiny raised her sword higher towards the queen's chest. "I wouldn't, my queen." She confidently smirked and stated, "It's over."

Gabrielle slightly lowered her right hand back down but kept it up in midair. "Can I ask you one thing, Ephiny?"

The Amazon gloated and needled, "How can I be so much better than you?"

"No." The queen slightly tensed and asked, "How can you be sure I didn't want you to do that?" She happily noted how the arrogance drained from Ephiny. Gabrielle then purred, "It was a little too easy, wasn't it?" Then Gabrielle suddenly gave a high kick right at Ephiny's sword hand.

Ephiny lost her sword and recoiled her injured hand. She lifted her eyes to her sky high sword that landed far off to the right. She then realized her current problem and focused back on her opponent, but she was too late.

Gabrielle was already moving before Ephiny could recover. She surged forward and lifted her right arm up horizontally. She roughly slammed her arm across Ephiny's chest as she stepped past Ephiny's right side.

The Amazon gave a loud holler, but she lost her footing and went tumbling down onto her back in the grass. She slammed into the ground, and the air in her lungs was forced out between her lips. She released a painful moan when her head collided. She closed her eyes then it all went quiet. Slowly, Ephiny rolled her eyes open, and her vision was filled by the upside down queen.

Gabrielle stood over Ephiny with her boot tips on either side of the Amazon's head. She had her hands on her hips, a twinkle in her eyes, and a winning smile. "I promised you."

Ephiny cleared her throat and whispered, "Yes." She quietly cleared her throat again and added, "Yes you did."

The bard walked around to Ephiny's right side then offered her right hand.

Ephiny collapsed her queen's hand, sat up, and climbed to her feet with the help. She smiled and politely stated, "Well done, my queen."

Gabrielle warmly rubbed Ephiny's shoulder then she and Ephiny faced the group. "Now that the show is over, shall the practice continue?"

"Yes, my queen," several Amazons chimed in right away.

Ephiny shifted slightly closer to Solari, who returned the sword.

Queen Gabrielle nodded at her Amazons. "Alright. We're going to give some direct training to Seven." She shifted her eyes to the tall automaton. "If you're ready, Seven."

Seven of Nine moved past Andra and Yakut and came in front of the queen. "I am prepared, my queen." She then held out the staff.

Gabrielle collapsed her staff just under the automaton's much larger hand. She gripped it tightly and showed the appreciation in her smile directed at Seven. "Then let's get the drill setup."

Quickly, the drill was setup according to Gabrielle's explanation. There were three teams setup, and they each had three members. The drill started out basic where one team attacked Seven, and the other two teams prepared to rotate. Several times this happened until the queen decided it was time to step it up a notch to challenge Seven more. Instead two teams went in together and the third team would rotate out the team that had been sparring the longest. Finally, Gabrielle called for all three teams to attack Seven but carefully as not to overwhelm but still challenge the automaton.

Seven of Nine sufficiently kept up with the constant attacks, and she didn't break a sweat until all three teams were attacking her at once. She set her full focus into the drill and managed to pinpoint which Amazons challenged her the best. She concluded it was Ephiny, Andra, Gryta, and the queen.

"Break," the queen called. She and her Amazons suddenly backed away from Seven of Nine hastily.

The automaton lowered her sword slightly. Despite the beads of sweat that reflected on her skin, she wasn't breathing so heavily that it looked like she'd been well drilled. She still wasn't maxed yet.

Gabrielle, like the rest of her Amazons, gulped a few breaths. She then gave the sudden order, "Blitz, now!"

Medora took the order first. She suddenly charged the automaton from behind.

Seven reacted fast and put her blade behind her back to stop Medora's sword. She spun around to come at Medora, but she was already gone.

Ephiny instead appeared at Seven's right side and made a dangerous swipe.

The automaton snarled and just caught the blade.

Ephiny instantly backed away as Solari emerged with an overhead plunge. Solari's attack was stopped, but she gave a few more attempts.

Queen Gabrielle waited and saw Solari's hidden signal. She did three wide, running steps then jumped into the air.

Solari hastily backed away as the queen came downward with the staff.

Seven of Nine raised her sword up and caught the vertical staff, but she slightly lowered on her right knee from the sheer power behind the queen's attack. She easily recovered, sharply surged up, and shot the queen off.

Gabrielle gave a low cry, flipped in midair, and landed neatly on her feet several paces away. She grinned at Yakut coming up to Seven's left side.

The automaton knew the look so she faced the attacking shaman.

The queen waited a beat then gave the next ordered, "Double blitz!"

Andra hastily entered the fight with Yakut and took Seven's backside. She wasn't the least surprise when she had to jump back because of Seven's calculated kick. She rolled away and gave a thrust at Seven's side, almost missed but caught Seven's upper bicep with a nick.

Yakut faded away, but she was replaced by Gryta.

Gabrielle was breathing heavily, but she studied Seven's form and physical features. She could tell the automaton was actually wearing now. She decided it wouldn't take much more to finally wear out Seven from the long drill. She waited another beat then loudly ordered, "Random blitz!"

Suddenly two Amazons jumped into the fight as two backed away. Gabrielle gave a few attacks, backed away, and watched three attack. The Amazons randomly attacked from different positions and with different amounts and lengths.

Seven of Nine was wearing down, but she pushed herself to stay with it. She parried many of the blows, but she took a hard hit from the queen's staff in her stomach. She recovered slower than what she normal would yet continued with the drill.

"Stop!" the queen ordered.

Seven of Nine straightened up when all her opponents backed away a few paces. She was completely encircled, and she knew it was towards the end. She wrapped both her hands around her hilt and slowly turned in a circle to scan each opponent's face. She was tense and fully prepared for the queen's next order.

"Surge!" Gabrielle commanded.

Seven of Nine did all that she could to parry away the onslaught of swipes, thrusts, and charges. She met all the blades and took the queen's staff into her backside. She managed to kick Solari down then she went for another Amazon.

"Back away," the queen instructed. She waited for all the Amazons to move away, but she remained in front the automaton. She gave no words and just attacked the automaton alone.

Seven of Nine stepped backwards from the rapid offense Gabrielle gave her. She hadn't expected the queen to spar with her solo, but she wouldn't back down either.

Gabrielle had no intent to win, but she merely wanted to drive the automaton to the brink of exhaustion. She was fairly familiar with Seven's abilities and tolerance level.

Seven stayed with the pace, but she showed signs of being worn. She barely stopped a blow and her focus was lower.

The queen brought her staff around and just stopped it from hitting Seven's left side. She completely went still and kept her staff next to Seven's hip.

The automaton slowly lowered her sword and released her breath when Gabrielle withdrew her staff. She quietly admired the queen.

Gabrielle deduced it wouldn't take that long for the automaton to recover. She suspect though that her and everybody else would need more time for recovery. She turned to the other Amazons. "Let's do some cool downs. We'll start in pairs... do some slow and light sparring. Then afterwards, we'll practice in singles."

The Amazons continued with the practice and broke off into pairs again. They didn't move slow nor too fast and allowed for the cool down to relax them. Gabrielle had decided to stay paired with Seven of Nine. After about a half of a candlemark, the queen ordered everybody to separate and merely do basic drills just to finish. A solid candlemark passed before the queen was satisfied that her Amazons had given a sufficient workout today. She called everybody together into a large group.

"Come tomorrow, we'll be leaving for the Thrace Nation. We'll leave no later than a candlemark after dawn... it'll really depend on the Conqueror." Queen Gabrielle shifted some of her weight to her staff. "She is bringing twenty-five hoplites with her as an escort."

Solari now cleared her voice.

The queen sighed deeply and focused on the Gossip Queen. "Yes, Solari?"

Solari tried so hard to hide her sly smile, but some of it revealed. "My queen, would this be an opportune time to do... the Spring Dance?"

Gabrielle slightly narrowed her eyes at Solari, but she scanned her other Amazons' curious faces. Then her shoulders dropped a bit.

"I mean," Solari continued, "these are the finest hoplites in Greece, my queen. We could not go wrong." There was a taunt deep in her voice.

The queen softly glowered at the Amazon, but she had to concede. "Fine." She straightened up better. "If you must perform the Spring Dance then take it out of the camp. The gods only know how the Conqueror would react."

Solari let out a low snicker and looked at the other Amazons. She highly doubted any of them would perform the Spring Dance. Then she noted the bewildered look on the automaton's face, and it hit her. She almost wanted to laugh right there simply from the mental image of Queen Gabrielle explaining the Spring Dance to Seven of Nine.

"Anyway," the queen continued, "we may make it to the Thrace Nation in the next five to six days. I want everybody to conduct themselves accordingly while we're riding with the Conqueror."

"Plus the Spring Dance," Solari quipped.

Gabrielle gave a warning look to her friend, but it did little good. She released a sigh. "Once we get to the Thrace Nation, we'll be spending at least seven days there. So be sure to rest up and enjoying yourselves. I want everybody to take notes on the Thrace Nation... see what's different or similar to ours."

"Well obviously the shaman concept is different," Solari smartly remarked.

Ephiny shifted behind Solari, and she kicked Solari's foot for a warning. She hoped Solari would stop interrupting the queen.

"There is much more," Yakut argued.

Gabrielle nodded at the shaman. "I'm not completely sure what the Conqueror has in mind, but she is pursuing relations with the Thrace Nation. Our duty is going to be facilitating those relations. I expect each of you to promote and help with the relations." She glanced at each Amazon but briefly focused on Seven of Nine. "We all have a duty here. This is the last Nation to join Greece, and it is also the only Nation to have a bad taste in their month from the Conqueror's earlier days."

"And how is it our responsibility to fix the Conqueror's mistakes?" Andra spoke up.

Gabrielle shifted her attention to her blood sister. "It's not our responsibility... that is between the Conqueror and the Thrace Nation. However we walk a tight rope here because we are Amazons, and we are now Greeks."

"But what are we first?" Solari encouraged.

The queen had all eyes rest on her now. She gripped her staff tightly. She felt that wasn't a required question because the obvious was always true. "We are Amazons first, always." She watched her Amazons bob their heads in full agreement. "We will only promote the relations. I ask that each of you speak good will of the Conqueror, our relations, and talk about the Battle of the Fates." She hesitated but clearly ordered, "If you cannot speak good will then do not speak at all." She looked between each Amazon then asked, "Am I clear?"

"Yes, my queen," the Amazons jointly replied.

Gabrielle nodded then leaned against her staff again. "For the rest of the day, you're free to do as you please. We are all to meet at the dining tent at sunset. Then I would suggest an early night so that you're well rested for the journey ahead of us." She shifted her hands some on her staff. "If any of you have questions or concerns then you may see me or Ephiny." She straightened up again then waited to see if there were any general questions but there was nothing. "Alright, you're all dismissed."

The Amazons started to break away and head back to the camp.

"Andra," the queen softly called to the blacksmith.

Andra was a few paces ahead of the queen, but she stopped and let a few Amazons pass her. She waited until the queen took her side.

Gabrielle slowly made her way to the blacksmith because she wanted to put space between them and the Amazons. "I need to speak with you."

The blacksmith completely faced the queen and rested her hands on her hips. "I know it's not about my practice today."

The bard grinned at the joke. "You always do well, sister."

Andra softened and dropped her hands. "Perhaps it's dating advice again."

The bard's grin widened some, but she shook her head and became serious. "Hardly." She shifted closer to the blacksmith and sunk her staff into the ground. "Don't you think it's a little odd that you're on this away mission?"

Andra now folded her arms across her chest and tilted her head. "Yes, considering how much smithing needs to be done back at the Nation."

Gabrielle grumbled a bit and muttered, "I know." She let out a deep breath. "Commander Kaylee required that you, Solari, and Ephiny come on this away mission. She wanted you three to go because of Seven of Nine."

It quickly registered with Andra because it was her, Solari, and Ephiny who had a good friendship with the automaton. "So," Andra started, "that's what this is about."

"I think the stratègos was right in requiring you three to go." Gabrielle slightly frowned and explained, "I talked to Ephiny about this already. I'm concerned about the Conqueror and Seven... we don't need any thing to happen."

The blacksmith nodded.

"I need you to keep an eye on Seven. I've already spoken to her, and she has sworn not to endanger anything." Gabrielle hesitated but explained, "I told her that if she needed to talk that you, Ephiny, and I were available."

"I'll do what I can to help her," Andra promised.

"Thank you." Gabrielle sadly smiled then gripped her sister's arm. "I worry about her." She released Andra's arm then started the walk back to the camp.

"It's understandable." Andra took the queen's side. "I worry about her as well. She has so much potential."

"She does," the bard agreed. "She has such great intelligence. I hope she'll be able to apply it in the Nation."

Andra was moving her head in agreement. "She'll become an accomplished blacksmith within four seasons. She's moving rapidly with her learning."

"Will she surpass her teacher?" the bard teased.

"She may indeed," Andra admitted. "But I can certainly use the help in the smithing hut."

"I know." The bard gingerly touched her sister's thick bicep then dropped her hand. "How has everything else been?" She always worried for her sister, who lived a rather quiet and almost lonely life. She concluded some time ago that a partner for Andra would greatly help spice up Andra's life. However Gabrielle doubted that would be anytime soon because Andra kept so much to herself and the smithing.

"Fairly well." Andra cocked her head to the side. "I've been debating with Eponin about whether we should produce shields for the Nation." She evilly grinned and waited to hear the queen's thoughts.

"Do you mean the circular Greek style?"

"The aspis," Andra clarified, but she shrugged. "I'm not completely sure what would be adequate."

"The Roman shield?" the queen checked.

"The scutum," the blacksmith replied.

"The... scutum," Gabrielle repeated. She tasted the Latin word for the shield type. "I don't think such a large shield like the scutum would be wise."

Andra considered her mental history about the Roman shield. "The scutum isn't always rectangular... there are round ones like the Greek aspis." She noted the queen's heightened interests. "I think considering how much Amazons move on their feet that a lighter, smaller shield would be needed."

"It would help during battles with archers," Gabrielle argued. "An Amazon would have to be able to dump the shield fast and easily enough for close combat."

Andra fully agreed.

Gabrielle was really enjoying the idea. She looked at her sister and offered, "I think the best route to go would be to make a few designs."

"Prototypes," Andra concluded.

"Do some testing," the queen decided. She then quickly added, "You'd be best off getting Seven's support. She does have a logical way of determining things."

The blacksmith now revealed a devilish smile, which the queen caught.

"What?" Gabrielle slotted her eyes slightly then it dawned on her. "That was the point of this topic, wasn't it? You're just trying to feed me into this so you can tell Eponin that I agree."

Andra smirked and joked, "Well, what can the weapons master say against your words?"

Gabrielle laughed and shook her head.

"So, does that mean I have your approval to build prototypes and do testing?"

The queen pointed a finger at the blacksmith. "Only if you include Seven."

"Without a second thought," Andra agreed.

Gabrielle dropped her hand and nodded. "Alright. And if Eponin has a problem with it then she can speak to me about it."

The blacksmith developed a glint in her eyes. "Oh, I'm sure you'll hear something from her."

Gabrielle chuckled. She hoped she didn't just overly deepen the argument between the weapons master and blacksmith. She and Andra went back to the tents, and Gabrielle bid goodbye to her sister. She decided to go to her tent and relax for awhile. She was also considering whether to get a bath before dinner.

The bard lifted the diagonal, leather strap from her chest, which was attached to her sheath. She set her sheathed sword on the trunk. She'd already leaned her staff into the weapons wrack. She then sat on the corner of her trunk and grabbed at her boot laces, but she hesitated.

"My queen?" a monotone voice called.

Gabrielle sighed and straightened up. "Enter, Seven." She remained seated on her trunk, her legs slightly parted, and her elbows resting on her thighs. "How are you, Seven?"

"I am functioning at optimum levels. And you?" The automaton stood just past the tent flap and remained stoic.

"I'm well, thanks." The queen curiously studied the Amazon and wondered why the automaton needed her. "I know you didn't come by to thank me for the sparring." She flashed a grin.

Seven of Nine placed her hands behind her back and remained ridged. "You are correct, my queen."

Gabrielle tilted her head back some and asked, "What can I do for you then?" She then waved her hand in a joining motion. "You can come in more, Seven. I don't bite."

The automaton came over and stopped a few steps in front of the queen. She dramatically towered over her shorter counterpart.

Gabrielle had to tilt her head back even more now to get a view of Seven's face. She realized she was going to get a crap in her neck by the end of this conversation.

"I would like to know more about this Spring Dance, my queen." Seven was quite serious. She noticed that the queen become seriously flushed so she hastily asked, "Are you functioning properly? You are having a suffusion of blood to your cheeks."

The Amazon Queen softly groaned and mentally cursed Solari. She bowed her head just to hide her blush. She felt some of the heat recede. "Yes, I'm fine." She tilted her head back again and nervously rubbed her heated neck with her right hand. "Seven, sit down before we continue this conversation."

"I prefer to stand, my queen."

Gabrielle didn't like the response so she pointed at the desk chair with her right hand and briskly ordered, "Sit down."

The automaton decided not to argue, and she took the seat. She remained ramrod straight in the chair and legs neatly pressed together.

The queen couldn't imagine that being a comfortable position in the least, but she didn't comment. She was glad that her blush was now gone, yet she cleared her throat. "The Spring Dance is... it's an old tradition that's been with the Amazons for countless generations."

"I have not been schooled about this dance," the automaton mentioned.

"Yes... well..." Gabrielle again mentally cursed Solari for causing this, but she deduced that this was Solari's plan all along. She tried to compose her next words carefully because there just wasn't any easy way. "The Spring Dance is... an optional tradition that Amazons may... participate in."

"Do you, my queen?"

Again the bard had a suffusion of blood to her cheeks that she couldn't stop. She seriously would make Solari pay for this later. "Uh no... I prefer not to."

"But you are the queen... why would the queen not participate in an old tradition?"

Gabrielle could honestly see how the automaton was confused by this. She lifted her hand and scratched her nose just to give her a beat.

Seven of Nine clearly realized that the queen was truly embarrassed about this Spring Dance. She didn't understand why it caused stress on the queen.

"It's optional, Seven, and I prefer not to perform it." Gabrielle had a mental groan, but she knew this conversation had to be discussed because the automaton would press her. She wished that Kaylee was around to handle this topic. "But that's beside the point here. The Spring Dance is... well... it's a bit hard to exactly explain."

Seven of Nine gradually arched her metallic eyebrow, and waited.

The queen decided to try another, subtable route to explain what was the Spring Dance. "It's also called the Fertility Dance... if that helps."

The automaton lowered her eyebrow then logically concluded, "Then it is dance to celebrate the new crops being sewn and planted."

Gabrielle bowed her head and shut her eyes. This definitely wasn't going over as easily as she'd hoped simply because Seven could be innocent and too logical. She lifted her head back up with a hesitant yet amused look. She knew she'd just have to say it so she mentally braced herself. "The Spring Dance is when some Amazons may chose to... mate with a man since there are no men in the Nation."

Seven of Nine remained quiet for a beat then checked, "Amazons may wish to copulate with random men outside the Nation?"

"Essentially, yes." Gabrielle felt relieved now that it was out between them. "It's how we sustain the population in the Nation, Seven."

The automaton was not totally sure how to take the new information. "I was not aware of this." She tried hard to hide her stunned expression, but some of it crept past her hold. "This would explain the pregnant women in the Nation."

The bard cleared her throat quietly and nodded. "Yes."

Then another thought occurred to Seven, and she asked, "Why do you not wish to copulate... perform the Spring Dance, my queen?"

"It just... doesn't interest me," Gabrielle answered.

"But you are at a prime age," the automaton argued. "Surely you wish to continue your own royal legacy."

"Perhaps some day," the queen allowed, "but it will not be any time soon."

Seven was confused by this, and it sparked another topic. "Then you have never copulated?"

Gabrielle decided she was going to now strangle Solari. She debated how to answer, and she knew it was better to be honest with Seven. "I have."

If Seven was confused before, she was absolutely perplexed now because none of it added up. "If you have copulated before then surely would have been with a child, my queen."

The queen blew up some air, which caused her bangs to flutter lightly. "Not necessarily." She knew she wasn't going to get out this lightly either so she just had to be forward, again. "You don't only have to mate with men." 

The Amazon narrowed her eyes then concluded, "You can copulate with women?" She watched the queen's nod, and she lowered her eyes to the ground. She considered this new information. "I did not realize this either," she murmured. She lifted her attention back to the queen. "Do you only copulate with women?"

Gabrielle fidgeted a bit but truthfully answered. "I really prefer women, Seven." She then just realized she may have opened a whole new door for the automaton along with a bunch of new questions.

"Why, my queen?"

Gabrielle groaned and dropped her head. She quickly lifted it again and replied, "I can't explain all of it to you. But I can say it's a different experience with a woman than a man."

"But you have not been with a man...?"

The bard laughed but more out of disbelief about this conversation. She could only imagine how Kaylee handled these conversations late into the nights. "No but this is what I have heard from other women."

"Then how can you conclude that you prefer women over men if you have not copulated with a man?"

Gabrielle cursed under her breath, stood up, and walked away for a moment. She spun around and answered, "It's a personal preference, Seven. I have no interest or desire to be with a man."

"But how-"

"No, no," the bard cut through. She waved her hands and came back over to the automaton. "There's not logical answer for this Seven... for you." She stood over the automaton and folded her arms against her chest. "All I can tell you is that it's who I am."

Seven dipped her head and mentally repeated the queen's words. It made no sense to her so she shook her head. She lifted her head again. "I do not comprehend, my queen."

Gabrielle sadly smiled and promised, "And that's okay. Just... give it some time, and someday you may understand it."

Seven could tell that she'd worn out the topic with the queen. She decided she'd have to talk to Commander Kaylee about it once they returned to the Nation. She stood up slowly. "I have much to consider. Thank you, my queen."

"I'm sorry it's not clearer, Seven."

"No," the automaton insisted, "you have assisted." She then headed to the tent flap. "See you at dinner, my queen."

"Seven?" the bard called. She'd turned to face the entrance that Seven occupied.

The Amazon stopped and twisted her head around. Her blue eyes were crystalline and alive.

"You can call me Gabrielle when we're in private," the bard offered.

Seven considered for a beat then nodded. She said nothing and left the tent.

Gabrielle went over to her bed and unexpectedly fell back into it with a soft flop. She groaned loudly and hotly swore, "I'll get you, Solari." She considered an idea and smirked. "Oh yeah." She clicked her tongue once and became satisfied with her planned revenge. She then rolled to her side despite her legs were half hanging off the bed's side. And she didn't even realized she dozed off within a short period.

The bard slept rather hard and had halfway through her nap drawn up her legs. She only slightly woke up when it felt like the bed sunk down. She then felt fingers comb through her hair, which caused her to blink a few times.

"Hey, sleepyhead."

Gabrielle softly groaned and tucked her head in deeper. She shut her eyes after she realized who it was seated on the bed beside her. "What... time..."

"It's a little bit before dinner," the smooth voice answered.

The bard sighed and enjoyed the long fingers going through her hair again. "Mmmm."

"I take it practice wore you out, huh?"

Gabrielle muttered some response and the only clear word was 'busy'. She listened to the chuckled response. She slowly opened her eyes and lifted her head up some. She found soft, blue eyes watching her in amusement. "I wanted to get a bath before dinner."

"Perhaps afterwards then." Xena moved her hand back to Gabrielle's brow. She rested her palm gently there and ran her thumb over the bard's temple. "I'll be happy to join."

The Amazon Queen grinned and teased, "There's an offer I can't refuse."

"Or fall asleep to?" the Conqueror needled.

The bard chuckled. "Or that." She then reached up and took Xena's hand away from her head. She curled both her hands around Xena's. "Does anybody know about this?"

The ruler wasn't totally sure about the question so she raised an eyebrow.

"The great Conqueror can be so... gentle," the bard said the last word like it was a dare.

Xena chuckled and leaned over the bard. "No, and I prefer to keep it under wraps."

"No need to ruin a good reputation," Gabrielle joked.


Gabrielle had a playful smile, but she studied their twined hands. "I think it's a relief... a really big relief." She seriously peered up at her friend and continued her train of thought. "I missed this about us so much. I honestly thought it'd be gone even if we became friends again."

Xena swallowed and thought about what the bard confessed. She focused back on her friend. "I was scared I lost it in me, truthfully."

Gabrielle frowned, but she could tell Xena had more to say.

"I was an angry woman for a long time, Gabrielle... it consumed everything about me." Xena fell silent because she thought back on those dark days. "But it never consumed what I held dearly..." She contemplated another idea and mentioned, "I think if we never grew up together that I would have completely lost myself to the anger. And even if we met later in life, it would probably take me a long time to learn what you showed me as kids."

The bard squeezed her friend's hand and reminded, "But the important thing about that is the fact that either way, you would have found yourself again."

Xena returned the hard squeeze and swore, "Only with your help can I get out of trouble."

Gabrielle now sat up and shook her head. "Xena, we help each other." She and Xena looked deeply at each other, and Gabrielle reminded, "That's what friends do. We stand by each other when there's trouble."

Xena knew a promise whenever she heard it from Gabrielle. She smiled and placed her hand over top of Gabrielle's two that already cupped her right hand. "Alright... my friend." She gave a last squeeze then broke apart their hands.

Gabrielle still had her smile from earlier. She briefly brushed her fingertips over Xena's jawline then slid off the bed. She went over to the trunk.

The Conqueror actually released a deep breath because she realized too that it was indeed a relief. Somehow her and Gabrielle were finding themselves back to each other despite the setbacks, problems, and regrets.

"So, what's good for dinner?" Gabrielle's stomach asked too because it rumbled. She'd just finished putting the sword on her back, and she really hoped Xena didn't hear her stomach.

"I take it lunch wasn't on your agenda today," the ruler taunted.

The bard let out a dramatic sigh and turned around after getting her sheath into place. "No." She then grabbed her staff then came back over to her friend. She noted how Xena was seat on the bed and a thought came to mind. She coolly inquired, "Are you... staying tonight?"

The Conqueror gradually inclined her right eyebrow into a perfect arch. She ran her tongue along the bottom of her teeth then gracefully stood up until she towered over her friend. She revealed a sexy grin and whispered, "Perhaps." She side stepped the bard and went to the tent flap. "We shouldn't be late."

Gabrielle tapped her staff once on the ground then smirked. She knew it was a yes because Xena couldn't resist it, just like her. Plus she thoroughly enjoyed how Xena had to sneak into the tent just so nobody was the wiser.

Gabrielle really looked forward to sleeping with Xena tonight, again.

To be continued...

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