The Leader
Storm


General disclaimer: As expected, I do not own Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and all the other main characters used in this tale. They are the sole property of MCA/Universal. I am using them without permission, in the hopes that I may gain a little ego gratification in the form of some positive feedback.

Sex-Violence disclaimer: this story contains graphically violent scenes and briefly deals with the aftereffect of rape. I must admit I haven't been kind to the main characters so if this upsets or bothers you, please do not read this story. There are many other wonderful stories out there waiting for you.

Thanks and dedication: This is my first attempt at fanfiction. My beta readers were wonderful: fast, patient and encouraging. Without you, Gin, Janet, Dar and Lara, I wouldn't have been able to finish this story. I thank you with all my heart. This story is for you and for the one and only bard who made me discover the marvelous world of Xena fan fiction (yes, it's you, Erica!).





Chapter 1






He checked one more time to make sure his officer uniform was perfect. The Warrior Princess detested neglectful soldiers. He held his head high, his back straight, shoulders square. He was a walking portrait of strength, pride and elegance. With his best martial aspect on, he entered.

The meeting was still going on, as the guards had told him. He respectfully stopped beside the door, not daring to disturb them. The Conqueror and her generals were bent over a map placed on the big oak table in the middle of the room. No one had noticed his arrival; they were all listening in religious silence to Xena's orders. Strangely, she was sitting with her back to the door.

"So it's decided. Next spring we'll attack. You, Ipseus, take care of the supplies. This time our advance shouldn't be slowed by the need to collect food in the villages, as in Macedonia. Clear?" she turned almost imperceptibly towards a general called Hesus, who immediately blushed.

The soldier smiled. The last time the task had been given to him, Hesus had underestimated his men's needs. It was a miracle he was still alive. Xena didn't tolerate incompetence and had ordered him whipped in front of his troops. "Yes, my liege."

"You, Arcas, will go to Palaemon as my messenger and will reassure him on our peaceful intentions. I want to take him by surprise."

"As you order."

"While you," she continued addressing another one, "disguise some of your scouts among the merchants directed to the south. Every time we attacked, Palaemon placed his army at this pass. This time I want to hit him at his back. Tell your men to find another road. I want to be on him even before he realizes the war is begun."

This man didn't question the order, even if it was almost impossible to accomplish. A road alternative to the Kyber pass? It was crazy. But questioning Xena's orders was even crazier than that. All the generals, always so arrogant with their men, clung to her every word. It was great to see, but Xena the Conqueror wasn't really a common woman. The Ruler of the Known World's iron will and desire for power overwhelmed even her strategic abilities and her incomparable warrior skills.

"What about Diomedes?" Ipseus tentatively asked. Diomedes was the former governor of Thrace. He had plotted to kill the Conqueror but had failed and now was in one of the darkest cells of the palace, waiting for Xena to decide how he should die. The other conspirators had been crucified one after the other.

"He was a general, like *you*," said the Warrior Princess, with such a cold voice that even the officer beside the door shivered. "I want *you* to decide his destiny."

The generals watched each other, shuddering. Diomedes fought countless battles by their side, pillaged and got drunk with them, he was *really* one of them... still he had betrayed the Warrior Princess and had to die. And remaining silent or suggesting a fast death would have meant disloyalty to the Conqueror, to be traitors like him... Xena was clearly putting them to a test.

One suggested to whip him to death but Xena asked, annoyed, "Only this?"

Immediately the man added, "Publicly, so that everyone knows what happens to traitors." But still the Conqueror didn't seem pleased.

Another yelled, "Crucify him, like the others."

Theodorus, her second in command shook his head. "He's not like the others, he's the mind of the plot. We need something special." At last they started yelling all together, contending to suggest the most painful tortures and ways to die.

The man beside the door was nauseous. He could understand the Warrior Princess' hate... Diomedes had tried to kill her. But the others were doing it to a man that, until the previous week, they considered almost a brother. At last they agreed on ordering him tortured to death, then drawn and quartered as an example, and Xena seemed finally satisfied.

"Good." she purred, and immediately the generals rose. One after the other they bowed and exited. After many years in her service they all knew a dismissal when they heard one.

"What's up, Tiron?"

The question startled the soldier, who snapped to attention. The Warrior Princess was rolling up the maps and hadn't ever turned towards him, but she was addressing him. He didn't know how she had done it, but even during a discussion with her generals, she had sensed his presence. Yet it wasn't a new thing... Xena always had everything under her control. Be calm, he thought, and say what you must.

After clearing his throat, he slowly approached and started, "I have good news, my liege."

"Well, it's about time." She turned to face him. The ruler of the known world was gorgeous as always. Her tanned skin glowed under the torchlight and her icy blue eyes sparkled in contrast with her night black hair and the black leather armor she was wearing.

"You captured that miserable group of rebels?" She contemptuosly asked, casually crossing her long, slender legs while putting a scroll aside. During the last few months the streets of Corinth had been filled with people reading speeches against her. And, even with investigations and threats, her men hadn't discovered anything, except that a group of young men was responsible for these actions. Maybe today things could change.

Tiron swallowed. "Ehm, no, my queen, someone must have told them we were coming and they ran away while one of them kept us back. But," he added immediately, seeing a dangerous anger appear on Xena's face, "that one couldn't escape and now is in the dungeon, alive."

"Then question him," she said, in a slightly exasperated voice.

"It's a woman, my liege."

Her eyebrows furrowed. "Does it make any difference?" She asked, running her fingers through her silky hair.

The officer shuddered at her icy glance and incredibly low, menacing voice. "O-of course not, my liege, I just thought you might want to know."

"Know that a single woman stalled my guards?" She asked, her voice dripping with disgust.

"She's a good fighter, the street was narrow and we couldn't..."

"Get out of my sight, Tiron," before I kill you, she mentally added. With a wave of her hand the Conqueror dismissed the soldier whohurriedly ran out of the room.

_____________________________

Tiron found himself again at the Conqueror's door, but this time he felt even more uncomfortable. Xena always punished those who failed her and the first punishment often was the last. Tiron would have paid any price to give his unpleasant task to anyone else, but he couldn't. He took a deep breath and exchanged an agreement glance with the other man, not wearing a uniform, that was by his side. Then, praying to all the gods on Olympus to protect him, timidly knocked.

"Come in," the Conqueror's steady voice commanded.

They entered and bowed. "My liege..." Tiron swallowed.

An eyebrow rose. "Let me guess: the prisoner doesn't cooperate."

"H-how...?"

It's enough looking at you, idiot, thought the Conqueror watching the officer in front of her; his forehead was sweating, his hand nervously grasped his belt buckle, his eyes tried to avoid hers... and there was that ridiculous quivering at his left brow, that he had every time he had something to hide: I bet he doesn't even know, she guessed. "I have many skills. But tell me, did you ask her politely?"

Tiron compelled himself to ignore the wicked sarcasm that was transparent in the voice and the steel blue look that was scrutinizing his soul. "Yes, my queen, but when we saw it was useless, we used more convincings methods." He indicated the blood on the clothes of the executioner that stood by his side. "But she still is silent."

Tiron trembled seeing that the sarcasm on Xena's face was becoming anger. He saw both her hands close into fists. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply then rose and slowly walked towards him. The two men swallowed, but remained still.

"First she lets the rebels escape, then she doesn't speak..." she sighed. "Fine," she said at last, after a silence that seemed eternal to the two men. "After dinner I'll take care of this woman personally." She fixed her gaze to Tiron's and suddenly, with an incredibly fast move, unsheathed one of the two swords she carried on her hips and thrusted it to the hilt in the other man's chest, without even looking at him.

"And for you, Tiron, you seem pale..." she said mockingly, while cleaning her sword on the dead man's clothes. "Tomorrow a legion leaves for Ebla. You'll join them. The weather's *warm* there... it will be good for you. Leave."

Not trusting his dry throat, the shaking officer bowed and left the room on his wobbly legs. So, the desert was to be the punishment for his failure. After the passage of the Conqueror, the formerly rich Ebla was just an outpost against the southern thugs. A place forgotten by the gods... Then he thought about the dead executioner: after all you are alive, Tiron, you've been lucky. He smiled. The girl won't be so lucky. She'll face the Conqueror. I wouldn't switch places with her for all the gold in the world.

_____________________________

Morons, thought Xena while the dead man was dragged away, I'm surrounded by a herd of morons who are unable to question a prisoner. I have wars to plan, rebellions to tame, a world to rule and I must interrupt my work because the best torturers of the kingdom can't break a single woman! I bet that as soon as she sees me before her she'll collapse, even before I touch her. My image intimidates way more then my men's hits. She smiled inwardly.

She wasn't truly sorry to give up her official business for a while to go to the dungeon: questioning a traitor was just as much her duty as listening to the pathetic requests of the elders of a village, and surely was less boring.

What really upset her was rather the evident inaptitude of her subordinates: she could trust no one. Even punishing severely those who failed her was useless: if she wanted something well done, she had to do it herself.

So much the worse for that woman, she thought. She'll pay the highest price for my soldiers' inability. She'll regret even having heard about the rebels, not just having joined them. And she'll regret being the first caught alive. She looked out the window. In the palace' courtyard soldiers were doing their drills. The sun slowly set behind the hills, painting the sky an incredibly bright red. Blood red, my favorite, she smiled and thought, a good auspice for the evening.



Chapter 2







Laughing, the Warrior Princess sat at the place of honor, as always, and nodded to her guests to take a seat. They complied, and Xena watched them again. Generals and dignitaries, again. Always the same people. Always the same stories. She sighed.

The servants... well, more than servants, whores hired for the night... started bringing trays of food, and one slave tasted the Conqueror's food. Theodorus's cheerful voice was repeating an old adventure of the Warrior Princess.

"So he broke his sword against that rock and stood there, watching it, mouth open..." everyone laughed watching the soldier mimicking the man's face. "And... and she looks in his eyes, raises her sword... And he dies!!" another burst of laughter "Dies there, before she hits him!! Oh, my gods, can you figure it? It was priceless!"

"Xena... the look that kills!" yelled another general, causing more laughter.

Shrug. "You know, I have---"

"Many skills!" Concluded the soldiers in unison, laughing.

"To the Conqueror!" Yelled a man, raising his glass. Everyone joined him, and they all started eating voraciously.

Xena nodded at a guard, that approached, while the guests kept talking. "The woman caught this morning... I want her in the little chamber," she whispered to his ear. The soldier nodded, bowed and left the room.

As one of the generals finished another gruesome story, an applause exploded from the crowd, but it was clear that some of the guests were uncomfortable. It was an old game, the favorite of the generals, who used to perform it every evening. The soldiers kept telling their bloodiest stories, to disgust the civilian guests. They used to go on with this ritual until one of them puked or swooned. Xena sighed, utterly bored. She already knew all these tales, and didn't exactly like to hear her generals repeat them night after night. But at least the soldiers were faithful. The civilians envoys, on the contrary, were always feigning respect before her, but she knew all too well they hated her and would have betrayed her at the first opportunity. After all, she had taken a power that once was theirs. She grimaced, disgusted. She couldn't stand their hypocrisy and humiliated them every time she could.

A guard approached the Conqueror. "My liege," he whispered in her ear. "The prisoner is ready."

"Fine," she replied and dismissed him. Let fear do its work for me, she thought.

Another story was being told. One of the generals had grabbed one of the servants and was caressing her legs, smiling. His neighbour was forcefully kissing another girl. One of the representatives from Athens was already dangerously pale. Another was clearly trying to get drunk to become dull. All her civilian guests deeply hated dinners with the Conqueror, because of this savage ambience, but, as long as the Warrior Princess tolerated it, they had to submit to it. And the best part of the night was still to come. Xena waited another candlemark, challenging the few sober men in knife-throwing contests. The pale man from Athens was forced to hold the target in his hands. She won, naturally, as no one here was her equal. At the end of the competition the man passed out from the relief of not being hit, among the mocking laughters. Xena rose.

"Do you already leave us, Conqueror?" Theodorus asked with a port-smelling voice.

"Yeah, wait awhile longer," urged Hesus.

She shrugged. "Sorry, but duty is calling me."

"Is it the girl in the dungeon? Leave her to me, Empress, and you'll hear her sing before dawn!" Ipseus yelled, proudly caressing his groin.

Xena's brows furrowed, and she replied with her lowest voice. "Thanks, Ipseus, but *I* will take care of her. I think you have *enough* pastimes here." Gods, they know I don't tolerate rape! she thought. Won't they ever understand?

The man shivered, realizing his mistake. "Yeah, um... have a good time then."

"Count on it." Wearing a feral smile she left, and more than a general shuddered thinking about what she was going to do to her prisoner.

_____________________________

Her steps echoed in the empty corridors. She reached an iron railing and immediately a soldier opened it. A tall man hurriedly approached her, and bowed.

"We are ready, my liege. She's in the room at the end of the south corridor."

Without answering, she went towards the torture chamber. The anxious man followed--- he didn't want to have the same fate as his colleague. They finally reached a brown door.

The Conqueror turned and stared at him. "I won't need your help. Just watch and learn." She entered, not waiting for an answer from the relieved man.

On the left of the room a blonde woman was standing, dressed in a simple skirt and blouse, her wrists chained above her head, arms spread open. Her feet barely touched the floor.

She turned hearing the door open, and, seeing Xena, she swallowed.

The Conqueror entered and slowly circled the girl, studying her prisoner. Bruises on her face. A broken lip.

"Well, girl, it's *not* a pleasure to meet you."

Silence.

Whip marks on her back and muscular legs. "I was having a pleasing dinner." A big bruise on her left arm, probably broken. "...and I had to interrupt it for you."

"You can go back to your guests, I don't mind" the girl's tone smacked of defiance, raising Xena's ire.

A sarcastic smile formed on the Conqueror's face. "So you have a voice! My men told me you didn't want to speak to them... they were afraid you were mute."

Silence. Xena nonchalantly took her black woollen cloak away, leaned it on a nearby table, and sighed. She fixed her icy blue eyes in her prisoner's.

"Look, I have no time to waste. So I'll ask you politely just once; then I'll come to blows. Where are the rebels and who are they?"

"I already told your men. I know no rebels."

Xena backhanded the woman's face hard and so fast that she didn't see her arm move. Painfully, she felt her lip wound reopen.

"I don't like liars," The Conqueror said, coldly.

"I don't like you," the other woman spat.

The woman jerked, gritting her teeth as an agonizing pain erupted in her left leg. It took all her strength of will not to scream. Then, suddenly as it had come, the pain subsided, leaving her panting.

"Not bad," Xena said with a grin. "You're strong. But it won't help you. I just pinched *one* of your pressure points. There are almost fifty of them." She passed behind the bound woman and whispered in her ear. "And I'll show you *all* of them. One by one."


Chapter 3





The executioner wished to be anywhere but in that room. He grimaced in pain watching the scene before his eyes. The woman's scream echoed off the stone walls. Her pain was almost unbearable. Artemis, let me die! she prayed.

The Conqueror released the pinch. "Enough?"

"No...way," the sweating woman panted.

Xena grasped her blonde hair. "You still defy me? We can go on like this all night if that's what you want. It's not a problem for me. I'll stop only when you speak."

"Then you... can kill... me... now"

Xena shook her head. "Too easy, girl. First you speak, *then* you die."

The girl simply shook her head "no" in defiance.

Xena looked at her prisoner. She's stubborn, she thought. It's been three candlemarks since I started beating her... Inflict more pain, and she'll surrender. Yet, she's very close to dying. And I don't want it to happen so soon... Perhaps... I'll give her some rest and try a different approach. The Conqueror smiled and reached for a waterskin. "You know, I admire you," she began, taking a sip of water. "Many men would have given in had they been in your place." She gave some water to the thirsty woman, who drank greedily. "Can't you even tell me *your* name?"

The woman looked at her tormentor, then answered, "Ephiny."

"Well, Ephiny, I wonder where all your strength comes from. Are you a warrior?"

Ephiny's eyes widened in surprise. "Nevermind, I've got my answer."

"How did you know?" murmured the woman, her throat hoarse.

"Your body. Has scars, is muscular..." a finger traveled over one arm, "And your will. It's stronger than *normal* women's," Xena added with devilish eyes. "Are you maybe an Amazon?" She put the waterskin away. "You know, after all it doesn't matter. I'll break you. It's just a matter of time. You have already borne more torture than your friends could ever ask of you."

Ephiny remained silent. She knew she was almost at the end of her strength. She didn't know how much longer she could hold on. She had resisted a lot. Now, the others were surely well hidden and, thank the Gods, she didn't know where. But she knew their names, and if she were forced to reveal them, her friends would be hunted like animals. No, she couldn't and she wouldn't betray them. Her decision was transparent in her hazel, pain-filled eyes.

Shaking her head, Xena asked, "Why?"

"You wouldn't understand."

Ephiny screamed as the Conqueror squeezed her broken arm. "Let me try, mmm? Give me a chance," Xena threatened and released her.

"We... we fight for a better world. We try to give hope. Without us there's only darkness."

"How proud! So you're the light, and I'm the darkness, uh? And why not the opposite?"

Ephiny couldn't believe her ears. "Why! What good... did you do in your life... to think you're the light?" She spat.

"And you? Inciting revolts, plotting against your empress..."

"You're not an empress! You're a murderer, a bloodthirsty beast! You rule the world, could have made it a peaceful place. Instead you created a kingdom of fear!" She exclaimed, collecting what little strength she still had.

Xena's fists closed, anger evident on her face. "And would it be better if your ... leader would rule instead of *me*?"

"Of course."

Of course! "What can he do that I can't?"

"Love."

"Love! So let me guess: your leader is generous, noble, maybe even wise... Yeah, I'd really like to meet your chief," finished the Conqueror, thinking about what kind of leader could have such loyal followers.

"Don't count on it."

"Of course not! Your good-hearted leader is a coward: stays hidden while *you* suffer, never giving news, not even to suggest an exchange of prisoners, or a ransom... What a good chieftain..." Xena said contemptously.

"Please! Shifting places you would act just the same. And you know we have no prisoners."

An iron hand grasped Ephiny's chin. "Listen, woman, I'm *not* a coward. I always risk my life when my soldiers are in battle and--"

Ephiny interrupted her. "We're not cowards, either. It takes more courage to fight against you than to submit. We're *all* ready to die for our dream."

"Is that a good reason to abandon a soldier to the enemy when she can be saved? Why doesn't your loving leader try to save you?"

Because if I know Gabrielle, at least five people are now keeping her from doing it, thought Ephiny, but remained quiet. "You would do the same," she said after a while.

"Oh, but I'm the darkness, remember? *I* can do it. *You* are the ones that should be different, better than me. I can be selfish. You shouldn't." She paused. "The truth is that there's no difference between me and your beloved leader. As you said, in the same situation, we'd act in the same way. So how is your chief better than me? If your leader would rule in my place, he'd be as ruthless as I am. All this *love* is just a facade."

"You're raving."

"Am I? Fine, I'll prove to you I'm not."

She addressed the executioner still present in the room. "Tersites, write: Xena, Warrior Princess, empress of Greece etc. etc., in her benevolent generosity grants freedom to the woman called Ephiny if the leader of the rebels of Corinth agrees to take her place before today's sunset. Let it be sealed and proclaimed in every street."

Ephiny swallowed. "You're wasting your time." Gods, she'll come! If Gabrielle hears it nobody will be able to stop her!

"I'm sure of it, but I want you to understand how similar your leader is to me. I'd never surrender, nor would your chief. Think about it and try to rest tomorrow." She fixed her icy gaze on Ephiny's, "Because if your precious leader doesn't show by sunset, tomorrow night I won't stop until you've told me *everything*."

The Conqueror left the room.


Chapter 4





"Forget it, Gabrielle," Perdicus replied for the umpteenth time to his leader and betrothed, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace.

"Why? It's the only way to save Ephiny!"

"It's a *trap*! Xena won't ever free her," argued Solari.

"We don't know that! Maybe she'll be content with one victim..."

Ipheus rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure... she *always* is content with one victim..."

"Well, there's always a first time!"

"Gabrielle!! Use your head and not your heart, will you? If you go there, she'll kill you *and* Ephiny!" Eponin insisted, starting to lose her temper.

"But at least I'd have tried!" The young woman was exasperated, and almost shouted. "How can you ask me to stay here knowing that *maybe* there's a chance to save her? Ephiny is my friend!"

Solari approached her, a hurt expression on her face. "Gabrielle, I have known Ephiny since we were children... she isn't only *your* friend. I'd gladly give my life for her." Gabrielle understood her mistake.

"I didn't mean... oh, Solari, forgive me... I feel so helpless..." she hugged her friend, ashamed of her own words. Ephiny was Solari's best friend; they came from the same Amazon village and during the war against the Conqueror Ephiny had even saved the Amazon's life. If someone cared for her, it was Solari. She cried on her friend's shoulder.

The Amazon caressed her friend's back, and spoke softly, trying to comfort her "Shh, it's okay. But try to understand, Gabrielle: there's nothing we can do, and it's not our fault. Xena is not going to free her, and you know it, too. And even if she'd set her free, she would have *you* instead of her... there would be no difference."

"Yes, there... would be. Ephiny ... would be free," the blonde woman sobbed.

"But you wouldn't..."

"Damn Xena!"cursed Eponin, slamming her fist on the table.

"Maybe we could ask for Callisto's help..." Melas suggested.

Gabrielle snapped, "NO!... Not her." Eponin and Solari immediately agreed.

"She's the only one that's strong enough to attack the castle and maybe survive..." reflected Perdicus.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Maybe. But at what price? She's as bloodthirsty as the Warrior Princess, maybe more. We can't join forces with her"

Eponin nodded. "Gabrielle is right. Ephiny wouldn't want this. Callisto is a remedy worse than the disease."

Silence permeated the room. Gabrielle sat, elbows on the table, head in her hands. After a while, she wiped her tears away and rose.

"Well, it seems there's really nothing we can do. We need water. I'm going to the well, if you'll excuse me," she grabbed an amphora and a cloak.

Eponin stopped her, "Are you sure you're all right?"

Gabrielle smiled reassuringly, "Yes, I'm just looking for something to take my mind off this mess. Honest."

"Well, okay then. Do you need any help?"

"No, thanks, the well is not far," she said as the latch of the door clicked securely behind her.

Solari and Perdicus exchanged doubtful glances then, after some moments, spoke at the same time. "The castle." With a sigh, he rose and left to stop the woman he loved from making a terrible mistake.

He ran as fast as he could, through the narrow streets, taking every shortcut he knew. He stopped, panting, close to a bridge she had to cross to reach the castle and looked around. At last he saw her among the crowd, calmly following the main road. He chuckled (she was always so predictable!) and took a step back, hiding behind a house's wall. When she passed by, he playfully jumped out and grabbed her arm. "Where's this beautiful woman going?"

Gabrielle gasped, "Perdicus!!! You scared me to death! What in Tartarus are you doing here?"

"And you? I thought the well was south, and" he squinted up at the sun "yes, it seems to me you're heading north."

Gabrielle blushed, "Yes, the well is south, but I thought that maybe the water of the main square's fountain is better..." and looked at the ground.

His eyebrow rose, "Sure, and maybe the water of the castle's well is even better, mmm?"

She pulled her best puppy face, "Maybe... oh, Perdicus, are you angry at me?"

He smiled. "I *can't* be angry at you, love. But it's the first time you lied to me..."

And it won't be the last time, Gabrielle thought. "Yes, and I'm sorry, but..."

"No ╬but'. If you're going to turn yourself in to that monster you'll have to step on my corpse."

She hung her head in resignation, and spoke sadly, "I imagine there's nothing I can say to make you let me go, huh?"

He shook his head, "Nothing." She sighed. He lifted her chin and teased her, "Hey, aren't you going to cry again? What will people think of me? ╬Watch, that ugly monster is making that nice little girl cry!!!' You'll ruin my reputation, is this what you want?" She smiled. "Oh, now it's better. C'mon, Gabrielle, let's go home." He said and, putting his arm around her shoulders, Perdicus started walking with her.

"Perdicus, we still need water. Would *you* draw it, please? The amphor is so heavy."

"Of course, but only if you come with me. I already had my daily run, and I don't really want to perform another to stop you."

She smiled and put her arm around his waist and leaned her head on his chest, "Fine, then, I give up. We don't need water at all. Let's go home." My plan is working perfectly, she thought. They wouldn't have ever believed me if I gave in immediately, but now they will drop their guard. When they realize their mistake, it will be too late.

He took the amphor and giggled, sure of his victory over his betrothed. He had no clue what Gabrielle was thinking.

After a few minutes they reached the house again. When they entered, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Perdicus was clearly proud of himself, and Gabrielle seemed more relaxed than before. Melas tentatively asked, "Are you okay, Gabrielle?"

"Yes, more or less. I think I only needed to relax a little. Maybe I just need a hot bath."

Solari immediately rose, thankful to have something to keep her mind occupied, "I'll warm the water, then".

"Thank you. But there's no need for you to be so concerned about me, really."

"Our pleasure," replied Eponin, shoving her to her room. "Now don't think about anything and prepare yourself for the best bath and lunch you've ever had."

"Lunch? You really prepared lunch?"

"Why? Are you sorry?"

"Are you kidding? I'm famished!!" and a growl from her stomach underlined her words, making her blush furiously. Everybody laughed, and the tension in the room finally melted. Gabrielle entered her room and prepared the tub. She then prepared some clean clothes and started to undress. After a few moments Solari started filling the tub. When she left the room, Gabrielle closed the door and immediately put on her short skirt.

Someone knocked at the door and Perdicus' voice was heard: "Gabrielle? Is it all right? Do you need someone to wash your back?"

"Perdicus!!!" they both blushed furiously.

"What did you think? I meant one of the girls..."

She splashed the water with her hand, smiling, "I hope so... anyway, it's all right here, thanks. Ahhh, It's Elysia..."

Satisfied, Perdicus left the door and joined the others. Gabrielle heard his steps whitdraw. Oh, Perdicus, it's so easy to outsmart you... she thought. She picked a scroll from a shelf and hastily wrote a note for her friends. She then quickly put her boots on and opened the window. She carefully looked around to be sure nobody was guarding the back of the house. There was no one in sight as people were presumably going to have lunch. The road seemed clear. Jumping down wouldn't be a problem since, when they chose their shelters, they always made sure there was an easy way of escape. This practice had kept them alive many times. So, she took her woolen cloak, put a leg out of the window, then turned around and looked around the room for the last time. Silently, she asked her friends to forgive her and prayed for the gods to protect each of them. She took a deep breath, then she jumped, and started running towards the castle.


Chapter 5





It was almost sunset when the Conqueror understood that her horse was getting tired.

Better: Caesar's horse. She loved the black stallion immensely. It was a constant reminder of her greatest victory, the living memory of her triumph over her greatest enemy. She smiled wickedly remembering looking for Caesar across the battlefield, finally spotting him on his horse; she recalled opening her way through the bodies like a reaper in a corn field, blood pumping in her veins and dripping on her body. She remembered his futile, desperate defense at her furious attack and scowled at the memory of the coward hitting her horse. She could almost feel the purple cloak she had grabbed to force him off his mount and thought she could taste the dirt as she fell with him. It was thrilling to remember the fear in his eyes as she cut off his bloodflow and subdued him. Alive, for her triumph. She patted her horse's neck with affection. Since that day he had been her favorite.

She loved long rides out of the town on him every chance possible. The horse was fast and strong. He literally flew over the grass and the stones. She loved the feeling of the chilly December wind lifting her dark, long hair and caressing her tanned skin; she loved the reflection of the sun rays, shining on her armor.

Those who saw her, saw the image of power and beauty. It made her feel alive. Free. Unstoppable. Almighty. She was in a very good mood when she arrived at the castle. Theodorus was waiting for her.

"Nice ride, Princess?"

Her mood dissipated immediately and an annoyed eyebrow rose. "The problem, Theodorus. Or do you believe I think you're really interested in my ride?"

He shook his head, smiling. "No problem at all, my liege! I have good news! The leader of the rebels surrendered this afternoon."

"Great!" She exclaimed, her good mood returning.

"Or so she says..." the soldier added doubtfully.

"Explain yourself."

"Well, it's another woman and she's so young... I'm not sure she's really their leader."

"We'll find out soon." She left the horse to her general and entered the huge building. She hastily passed by rooms, corridors and stairs leading underground and finally reached the dungeon.

A young man hurriedly opened the railing that delineated that corner of Tartarus on earth.

"The chief of the rebels," she asked, almost happily.

The young man bowed, "She's with her companion, in her cell, my queen."

The Conqueror's eyes flashed anger. "What? Who ordered that?"

"Bonacar, my liege. The girl... she persuaded him to let her see the other woman... just for some minutes. Tracus is with them at the moment... In the eastern block," he added hurriedly, and to his relief Xena left.

Even Bonacar, the supervisor of my dungeon, Xena thought with a snarl, going along the narrow corridors with long, angry steps. Only idiots around me. The prisoners must be isolated as long as possible, mostly in the first days here, and what does he do? He lets her meet with her friend! Yeah, but the gods know what the bitch promised him in exchange... Sighing, she entered the eastern block. The whole dungeon was horrible, but this part was the one of which the prisoners were most afraid of. It was the punishment block. Here the cells were extremely small and had a low ceiling, even a single captive found them uncomfortable. They had no windows, and although they were made for one prisoner each, sometimes the guards put two or three of them in one, just to increase their suffering. The air was rancid, smelling of dirty human flesh. The only light the captives saw were the rays filtered from the corridors under the robust cell doors. The walls were so huge no light or sound penetrated them. Escape was impossible and despair was the unlucky prisoners' only companion.

Xena saw the guard she was looking for, standing beside an open door. She hushed him and silently approached.

Lying on the floor of the cell, on the hay that was her pallet, was Ephiny. Her ankles were chained to a nearby ring on the floor and similarly her wrists. Kneeling beside her, her ankles and wrists chained, too, was another girl, with long blonde hair, simply dressed. She was giving her back to the door and was near her friend's head. Neither of them heard the Conqueror's steps, nor did they see her. She decided to listen.

The girl was speaking, with a soft voice. "I am confident in this, Ephiny. You'll see... Soon you'll be safe at home."

"How can you say that? I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but your sacrifice will be useless. She won't ever free me. That monster will use us against each other!" Ephiny replied, weakly.

Bowing her head, concerned, the girl called Gabrielle asked, "You're not angry at me for coming here, Ephiny, are you?"

The wounded woman with visible effort lifted a hand to touch her friend's arm. "No, no, how could I, my friend ? But I'd be happier if you were safe..."

"Now it's too late, Ephiny. I'm here and I can't escape."

"Yes. It's late now. We'll die together, then..."

"I hope we won't, but if it happens, I'll have no regrets."

"Nor would I," replied Ephiny, and Xena could almost feel her smile.

"What a heartbreaking scene!" She intervened, sarcastically. "Really sorry to interrupt it."

Gabrielle jumped to her feet, startled at the voice, her heart beating furiously. The Conqueror was there only a few feet from her. She knew that sooner or later this day would come. The moment in which she would have to face the Destroyer of Nations, the murderer of her people, the object of her speeches, the constant thought in her soul. Gabrielle knew that her arrest had been just a matter of time; Ephiny's capture only hastened the inevitable. She had imagined this instant a thousand times, she had figured out how to look at her, what to say, how to explain her hopeless battle. She was sure that Xena didn't understand it; and Gabrielle wanted to explain it. Maybe, then... what? Her friends were always startled by these arguments. They thought that it was absolutely impossible to change the Conqueror; no one could do it. So why take the risk? If her speeches didn't work, how could a personal plea?

But Gabrielle wasn't sure. Maybe it was pride, maybe overconfidence in the truth she knew was on her side, but she knew that sooner or later, she would have to try. And now Gabrielle cursed herself for not having tried before. Yes, if she had tried, maybe now she would be dead, but surely Ephiny wouldn't have suffered all this pain. For her. She was so angry at herself, for not having come before. She had thought of this moment so many times, and yet now she felt so lost.

"Kneel down before the Conqueror, animal!" The guard yelled, waking Gabrielle up from her thoughts.

Waste of time, Xena thought. I tortured her friend. I'm the dictator she hates, she won't bend to my will.

But surprisingly, she did. Slowly, never moving her angry, green eyes from Xena's, she knelt.

"Gabrielle, no!" pleaded Ephiny.

"Shh, Ephiny," hushed Gabrielle, and continued. "I recognize your power, Conqueror, but I'm not an animal."

"Fine, girl," Xena said with a grin, "rise and come with me." She indicated the door. It has been easier than I imagined, she thought. She may or may not be the leader of the resistance, it doesn't matter. She'll tell me all I want to know, and she'll tell me tonight.

"Don't you dare touch her, you monster!" Ephiny cried while Gabrielle was rising.

Xena stopped the guard with a wave of her hand, and smiled ferally: "Why? Or what?"

Gabrielle, with a determined glance, asked, "Will you keep your promise? Will you set her free?" Turning Xena's attention to herself, waiting.

Again, Xena asked, her eyes gleaming wickedly, "What if I don't?"

"If you don't, you're a liar and all the bad things that people say about you are true," stated Gabrielle. Then, she turned and softly said, "Don't worry for me, Ephiny, I'll be fine. Only, when you get out of this prison, hug the others for me." Her voice cracked at this point, "And tell them that I thank the gods who gave me wonderful friends like them," and she swallowed her tears.

Ephiny was crying and unable to say anything more than to whisper, "Oh, Gabrielle... why?"

Gabrielle turned again, unable to watch her friend for another moment without bursting into tears, and she didn't want to, and she couldn't.

"I'm ready," she said, squaring her shoulders. The Conqueror nodded, and Gabrielle walked slowly out of the cell.

Xena realized that she hadn't answered the girl's question, but Gabrielle had spoken to her friend as if she had granted her freedom. Strange girl, she thought, and followed her new prisoner out. While the guard was closing the door, she put her hand on the back of Gabrielle's neck and shoved her through the narrowing corridors. That touch made Gabrielle shiver. Xena's hand was cold, like ice, but it emanated a strange feeling of strength and power. She felt like a rabbit in the hawk's claws. She tried to relax, to let the hand guide her, knowing that with a single twist Xena could easily kill her.

The Conqueror was thinking the same things: I could kill her in a moment. It would be so easy, and if she's really the leader of my enemies, it would leave them lost. But I'm not sure. She's so young... how can she be so important? And so stupid to surrender in exchange for just a promise? And still she seems more relaxed than many warriors in the same situation... She doesn't seem afraid, yet it's impossible. Is she so silly not to know what to expect? Mmm, maybe, but while saying farewell to her friend she seemed aware. I wonder how she'll behave when she sees the torture chamber.

The thought of bringing her enemies to the chamber always gave her a strange feeling, a sensation of absolute power. Warlords, kings, peasants... she liked watching their expression change from arrogance to fear, to sheer terror. This time... this time it was different. This girl was different. It seemed she gave in. Well, we'll see, she thought, we're almost there. And kept guiding her prisoner holding her warm neck.

They stopped by a large wooden door with iron bars. The guard immediately opened it and entered first. It was dark and emanated a strange smell, something like blood, sweat and burned flesh.

The guard lit some lanterns here and there. Gabrielle could see first a table with hammers, pincers and whips on her left, then a rack in front of her and chains attached to the bloody wall on her right. Still she could feel that only a very little part of the large room was illuminated, the dark hiding who knew how many other torture instruments. She swallowed involuntarily, and tried to get ready for what was to come. Gods, Ephiny, you resisted this for me?

"This isn't necessary, you know," the Conqueror whispered softly in her ear. "Tell me the other rebels' names and nothing will happen to you."

"I can't," she replied, shivering at the whisper on her neck.

"You'll talk. If not now, later, but you'll tell me what I wish to know. Spare yourself the pain." Xena suggested, still with a soft voice.

"No," Gabrielle replied, simply.

"Nobody will know if you talked under torture or before the torture. I'll order the guards to say that you resisted bravely," insisted Xena.

"No," she said, shaking her head, "I won't do it."

"Then I'll force you. So what changes if you speak now or under torture?" asked the Conqueror with an harsh voice.

"Everything changes. But even under torture, I will *never* betray my friends."

She's stubborn, thought Xena, irritated. "In your position, they would betray you!"

"No. Ephiny didn't. I won't," the blonde woman replied, her green eyes flashing determination.

So this girl is ready to die in a painful way, Xena thought. But she cares about her friend. She added, "And if I order your Ephiny tortured again, in front of you?"

"I know you won't," replied Gabrielle, matter-of-factly.

"Won't I? Why?" Xena asked, surprised.

"Because you promised to set her free if the leader of the rebels surrendered."

"Yes, but I never said when I would free her, or that she would be healthy. Besides, how can I be sure you're the leader of the rebels if I don't ask them all?" Xena said, with a wicked smile on her face.

She can't be such a monster, thought Gabrielle, she's bluffing. But what if she isn't?

She steeled herself and replied, "I'm sure you'll free her. You couldn't break her before, and you won't do it now. She won't tell you anything even if you threaten to hurt me, and you know it. She's ready to die for the cause and I won't betray the others even if you threaten to hurt her. She's useless to you, that's why you'll set her free. You don't inflict useless pain."

Silence fell between them. You don't inflict useless pain?? This woman is crazy, Xena thought. My whole life is built on the pain I inflict on others and on the fear I excite. I always prefer to solve problems without using certain methods, it's true, but when they're necessary to achieve my goals I use pain, and better than anyone else.

The guard approached his liege and the prisoner and said, "I'm ready."

"I'm ready, too," Gabrielle said, stepping ahead.

Some prisoners really don't leave me any alternative, Xena thought. They're bold, proud... they defy me. Like this girl. She will say everything, she's not a warrior like her friend. She could do it now, but she wants me to force her. Fine, I will. But I'll give her one last opportunity to change her mind. I can't believe she really thinks she can resist a single candlemark in this room.

Xena kept her grip on Gabrielle's neck and sighed. Talking to the guard, she said, with an harsh, loud voice, "Take her to a cell. She'll have the whole night to think about her future. Tomorrow morning you'll ask her again if she wants to speak. If she does, question her. If she doesn't, torture her until she will. If you fail, you'll be executed and another one will take your place. Got it?"

"Yes, Conqueror," he said, bowing.

"Fine. Sweet dreams, leader," said Xena, and left.

Seeing another guard, she whispered in his ear, "Make sure her cell is close to this chamber and then pick up Diomedes. Torture him all night. I want her to hear everything" and, indicating the approaching Bonacar, who paled at her look, added, "Also have that idiot whipped and the eastern block cleaned."

"Yes, Conqueror."

Bonacar bowed and opened his mouth, as if to say something. Xena silenced him with a glance. "Don't even try. Be thankful I let you live." Turning on her heel, cape flowing about her legs, the Conqueror left.


Chapter 6





That night Xena's nightmares were worse than usual, something she had not previously thought possible. She woke up with a jerk, long before dawn, soaked in sweat, after the usual nocturnal carnage, exhausted by the fight in her dreams, breathing heavily. The scream of her victims still rang in her ears.

You don't inflict useless pain. The words came back to Xena's mind. No one ever said that to me, Xena thought. Can this be true? I do inflict pain... I have to. But I'm a warrior, not an executioner. I love battle, but hurting someone who has no defenses is completely different. I hate it. She fell back on the soft velvet pillows.

I hate arrogant people, yes, I have to break their will and it feels good, but I never hurt people for pleasure. The only time I did it... on Caesar, it gave me no pleasure at all. Damn! I hate the ones that force me to inflict pain on them. And when I pillage, and torture, and kill... every victim comes back to me in my nightmares. Every night. Damn! Why do some people still defy me? Why don't they simply do what I ask when I ask it? Why do they force me to do this? And why, why can't I forget them?

She tried to sleep again, but two green, defiant eyes always kept watching her in her mind. At last, unable to find sleep, she got up and with a sigh prepared for her usual morning drills.

_____________________________

When Theodorus came to the throne room found Xena already at work, as always, beautiful in her dark leather armor, her second skin, no emotions on her face. He was unable to hide his admiration for his queen. She was always the first to wake up, and personally attended all her duties. She dictated letters and treaties, listened to complaints, made plans for battles, knew every soldier of the garrison, talked to diplomats. Every day. And she never showed any sign of exhaustion. He didn't know how she could do it. He bowed and addressed his queen, "Good morning, Conqueror."

"Is it, Theodorus?" she replied, annoyed.

"Yes, my liege," he respectfully replied. "That girl, the rebel that surrendered yesterday is ready to reveal everything."

"Very good," Xena purred, smiling, happy at the girl's decision. "Question her personally then report."

Theodorus cleared his throat. "There's a little problem, actually..." Xena raised an eyebrow in question and the soldier hastily explained, "She says she'll speak only to you."

"Tell her the torture chamber is waiting for her," she said through clenched teeth.

Theodorus swallowed, his uneasiness evident on his face. "I already did, Conqueror, but she said she doesn't care, it's you or nobody."

Xena's muscles tensed. What was it with that girl? She already did more for her than she usually did with her enemies, and still the rebel had conditions to dictate... She sighed and regarded the general with a look that made him shiver. "Fine, then. Bring her here." It's your last opportunity, girl, she thought. Theodorus bowed and left the large room.

Some minutes later, he knocked at the door. "Come," said Xena, with a harsh voice.

He entered, followed by two guards that were shoving a shaking Gabrielle, chained as the day before. Bad sign, she seems angry, Gabrielle thought watching Xena, then her attention was diverted and her jaw dropped.

She had never seen anything so beautiful. The throne room was immense, marvelously furnished. Persian carpets covered large portions of the marble floor, shining armours decorated the walls, intertwined with enormous vases, probably gifts from the eastern regions, painted with strange animals; red-gold silk curtains divided the room. Big, round alabaster windows, high on the walls, gave luminosity to the room, creating incredibly beautiful light effects. Fresh flowers perfumed the air. Behind the throne, an enormous, wonderful tapestry depicted Xena on her horse, in battle, sword drawn, crushing her enemies, smiling. She shows no hate for them, Gabrielle thought, it seems she's too superior. She is like a goddess. The other soldiers seem foolish to oppose her, she seems unstoppable. Compared to her they look so small... Yes, she thought paying more attention, the weaver made them natural sized, and her bigger... but not disproportionately, just enough to enhance her. It's almost impossible to see the trick... this is really a masterpiece.

Xena's voice pulled her from her thoughts. "You better tell me interesting things, girl. I have not summoned you here to let you stare at my throne room."

She's right, Gabrielle, focus. Everything depends on what you'll say and how you'll say it, the blonde woman thought. But it's not easy to focus in this room, everything directs your attention to the one that's on the throne. Yes, it's made this way just to let everyone feel small and weak. Focus, Gabrielle. "I'm not here to stare," she replied at last. "But to talk. I only ask to speak to you alone." I wish I didn't feel so cold and weak this morning, she thought. I'm even trembling, damnit.

"Fine then. Leave us," Xena said, and with a wave of her hand dismissed the guards.

Theodorus waited one more instant. He always regretted leaving his queen alone with someone, but this girl really didn't seem a threat. Besides, if Xena wasn't able to protect herself against someone, he would surely be no help either. He bowed and left too.

Xena and Gabrielle were now alone in the big room. The girl stood some steps away from the Conqueror. Xena had noticed she seemed weaker, less determined than the day before. It seems that the sleepless night worked, she thought. I should take advantage of it immediately. "The names." She simply said, with her coldest voice.

Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not here to betray my friends. I thought I was clear yesterday."

"Then what? Careful, girl, I've been very patient with you. If you make me waste my time you'll regret it. Deeply."

Gabrielle felt weaker with every passing moment. "I don't want to waste your time. I think you'll find my words very interesting. If you don't, then do what you want with me."

Xena grinned wickedly. "I can already do what I want with you."

"Yes, I know," she replied, her tone helplessly quiet. "But please... listen to... my words before..." She felt lightheaded; Xena's brows furrowed; Gabrielle's vision went black. What's happening to me now, she thought, then fell face first.

Xena saw the girl was fainting and with a leap seized her before she hit the floor. Now what's happening? she thought, annoyed. If they hurt her without my permission... Yet she seems fine... what are you doin', Xena? Are you going soft? You can't be concerned about an enemy. She shook her head. Well, do something. Sighing, Xena put an arm under Gabrielle's knees and the other behind her shoulders and lifted her with ease. She carried her prisoner to another part of the throne room, hidden from the rest by a red curtain, and deposited the unconscious woman on a large sofa, sitting at her side. She put a cushion under the blonde woman's legs to keep them higher than her head and started tapping her cheek.

After a while the girl opened her eyes. Gabrielle couldn't remember where she was. She was laying on something soft, but it wasn't her bed, and there was someone watching her closely, concerned for her... a raven haired woman with wonderful blue eyes... Gods, the Conqueror! Now she remembered everything and blushed.

Xena waited for the girl's eyes to focus. She smiled when she saw the deep blush. Sure that her prisoner was fine, she said, with a mocking voice: "I threaten you in the dungeon and you barely shiver. I agree to talk to you in a safe place and you faint. What's wrong with you, girl?"

Gabrielle was deeply ashamed. What's happened to me? she thought. Xena will never take me seriously now. I acted like a terrified child. How will she believe me when I insist I'm the leader of the resistance? At last she babbled, "I'm so sorry... I... I really don't know what's happened... but... but I'm fine, really! We can go back there," and not knowing where she was, she looked at the room, puzzled. "I mean, to the throne room or wherever you want... we can speak... I'm fine." She tried to rise, but was suddenly swamped with dizziness.

Xena noticed Gabrielle's convulsive swallow and stopped her. "Don't move. Tell me how you really feel and stop saying you're fine, obviously you're not."

Gabrielle lay down again, surprised that the Conqueror didn't seem too annoyed. "I just feel lightheaded, weak, but I am really fine, honest!"

"When did you eat last?" Xena asked.

"Eat?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled. "Well, I had no breakfast this morning and yesterday evening in the cell no one brought me anything. And I had no time to have lunch before because I couldn't, I mean, I had to come here quickly and without letting the others know, so I couldn't..."

"Fine, fine, got the point." Xena said, stopping her. Gods, how much she talks! She got up and went to a nearby table, where she picked up a tray full of every kind of fruit, then went back to the sofa. "Eat, then we'll talk." And she helped her sit up.

"Thanks." Gabrielle said, positively surprised at the Conqueror's kindness, and began eating the fruit. It tasted great, and in a few minutes she had wiped away half of the tray's contents, under Xena's incredulous eyes.

"Well, it seems we solved that problem." Xena said at last. "Now we can get back to business."

"Yes, I'm ready" Gabrielle replied. She felt much stronger and a lot better now that Xena didn't seem so angry as when she entered the throne room.

The Conqueror crossed her arms. "So... you said you wanted to speak." Gabrielle nodded. "But only to me," Another nod "and not about your friends."

"Not exactly. I want to talk about them, I want you to know how wonderful they are, but I don't want to reveal their names."

"Why?" asked Xena, puzzled.

"Because you would kill them!" replied the blonde woman, matter-of-factly.

"No, I mean why do you want to talk about them? What do you think you'll get doing it?"

"I don't know." said Gabrielle, staring at the floor.

Xena laughed. "Don't you even know your goal?"

"Oh, yes, I know my goal perfectly."

Incite a riot and get me killed there, thought Xena, to free the world from my presence.

"But I don't know if this will work."

It won't, Xena thought, then said with a clearly menacing voice "We'll see. Soon."

That reminded Gabrielle she didn't have much time. "What do you know about Ephiny?" she asked.

"That she's a very stubborn woman. That she's a warrior, probably an Amazon. That she cares for you. Why?"

"You have no idea of why she's fighting you, do you?"

"No. Maybe she does it because she's an idealist. Maybe because someone told her the world should be different." she said it with contempt "Maybe she hates me for some reason."

"You didn't even ask her." Gabrielle said, saddened.

"Wasn't important." Xena said, beginning to feel annoyed at this turn in the conversation.

"Does the Conqueror think that knowing her enemies isn't an important thing?" The blonde woman softly asked. Gabrielle saw she had gained Xena's attention, and continued. "Ephiny is an Amazon, raised as a warrior, you're right. She lived in a village close to the border with the Centaurs. The Amazons had many wars with them, because they claimed part of their lands, and because they thought there couldn't be peace with those ╬monsters'. The Centaurs thought the same of the Amazons. Ephiny's village suffered from these wars more than the others, because it was the closer to the border and vulnerable to surprise attacks. Ephiny lost her mother and a sister due to the centaurs."

She paused a moment to be sure Xena understood it perfectly, then continued, repeating the words she heard so many times from Ephiny, "Then the queen of the Amazons decided that the wars had to stop, that problems should be solved peacefully. It took years of negotiations, but at last a peace treaty was signed. Ephiny wasn't happy about it. She wanted revenge, she thought the Amazons shouldn't trust the Centaurs, and that the only way to avoid wars was to kill every Centaur, every enemy." like you do, don't you, Xena? she mentally added. "One year, autumn rains were much heavier than usual and it seemed that the flood was going to wipe the village away. The Centaurs came and helped the Amazons, saving many lives, included Ephiny's. On that day she met a centaur named Phantes. During the storm, while checking to see if there were other people to bring under cover, she was hit by a branch.

Injured as she was, she couldn't run away. Phantes saw her and ran to her, but Ephiny didn't want his help. She tried to send him away, insulted him, saying all the worst things she could think of the centaurs. She said she didn't want the help of monsters, she preferred to die than be rescued by the ones that killed her mother and sister. As you said, she's stubborn. But Phantes was even more so. And even when she was so cruel, he didn't leave her and saved her life."

At that moment Theodorus entered the room and bowed "My liege, prince Adrastus is here to see you."

"I'm not ready to see him" growled the Warrior Princess, dismissing her lieutnant, who promptly left.

Gabrielle, surprised to hear that Xena was letting a prince wait to listen to her, continued with more confidence, "The following day, she was still in the infirmary when he entered. The previous day she had thrown out all her anger for the first time, and now she felt better, both physically and emotionally. Now she understood how unjust she had been with him and was deeply ashamed. She watched him closely and saw he was almost her age; the wars and her relatives' deaths surely couldn't be his fault. She was sorry for her outburst the day before, and thought Phantes was there to insult her, to call her silly and fool and stupid... she wanted to apologize, but he was faster and said he was so sorry for her mother and sister's death."

"He? He apologized?" Xena asked, incredulous.

"Yes. Ephiny was surprised too. He told her that the Centaurs had made many mistakes, that he understood her anger, and that he was happy for the peace treaty because it gave them the opportunity for a clean start without hatred.

Ephiny was impressed, and apologized too; in short, they became friends. After some months, they were more than friends."

"Lovers?? A human and a Centaur?" the Warrior Princess was disgusted.

"Yes. And the ones that saw them together say that they were a wonderful couple. They were deeply in love."

"I'll bet. But?" Xena added, sure that something had happened to the couple, something related to her.

Gabrielle sighed. "But a warlord decided that the Amazons had to help her to conquer some kingdom, and ordered them to send their best troops to help her, else she would consider them enemies. As you know, they refused and the warlord, you, attacked them. They fought bravely, but had no chances, they were outnumbered."

"Yes, and the Centaurs helped them." Xena remembered, angrily.

"They did. So, to punish them, after defeating the Amazons, you attacked them too. And killed them. All. Ephiny lived in a centaur village; she saw Phantes die, killed by your men."

"So that's why she joined the rebels, to get her revenge, like Callisto." The Conqueror mumbled.

"No, you don't understand." said Gabrielle, shaking her head. "Maybe at first she wanted revenge. Not now. She has realized that hatred is useless, that it only brings more pain. She's not another Callisto. Callisto only hates, Ephiny has a good heart. If you knew her as I do you'd know that all that she wants now is for no one else to suffer the pain she did. And it doesn't necessarily mean your death."

Xena grinned sarcastically "Nice of you to say so."

"But it's the truth. You have all the power and the skills you need to change the world if you want it. You can make history instead of undergo it."

"Easy to say, girl. But what exactly should I do, wise leader?" Xena's derision was clear.

"Wise leader??" Gabrielle, puzzled, answered, "Umm, I think you should stop making unnecessary wars, for a start, they..."

Xena jerked and came close, a few inches from Gabrielle's face, angrily looking hard straight into her green eyes. "What? Unnecessary wars? Tell me, girl, when were my wars unnecessary?"

Gabrielle swallowed. Xena had spoken through clenched teeth. She was walking on the razor's edge and should be extremely careful with her words. "We both know that many times you..."

"When?" Xena asked angrily.

Gabrielle swallowed "Sometimes yo..."

"WHEN?" repeated Xena, louder.

"CAESAR!" shouted the girl.


Chapter 7





Oh, damnit, Gabrielle thought, I'll die anyway! At least I'll have told her what I think... and didn't break contact from the Conqueror's enraged blue eyes. "You had already defeated Rome. You could have asked Rome's senate to deliver him to you. Instead, you challenged him, to show you were the best strategist. How many men, Romans and Greeks, died in that battle? I don't know why you hated him so much, but was it worth it?"

"You said it, you don't know!" Xena answered, barely containing her anger.

Gabrielle was exasperated. "Then explain it to me!"

"I don't owe explanations to anyone!" Xena rose from the sofa. How dare this annoying blonde ask her such things? She hadn't open herself to anyone since Cortese attacked Amphipolis! Why should she start now? She didn't need anyone's pity.

"Don't you? Well, then don't be angry if people don't understand your actions. If people don't like your actions."

"They don't have to like them."

"No, they just have to obey, right? But then, if the only right thing is to obey to whoever is stronger, why didn't you obey Cortese? Why did you oppose his power? Why can't we oppose you now? Where's the difference between him and you? Between your fight then and our fight now?"

Xena snapped, "Watch it, woman, you're playing with fire."

"I know I'm going to die for this but someone has to tell you. You've become what you fought against! And why? I'm sure there has to be a reason for your actions towards Caesar, and towards many others. If people knew the reasons, they would probably obey you willingly, not because they were forced."

Xena snorted "It doesn't matter why they obey, it only matters that they do."

"For you, maybe! But for common people there's a lot of difference. At least they would know why their sons are going to die."

Xena remained silent for a while, her expression unreadable. "Why did you kneel to me in the dungeon?"

Surprised and relieved by the change of subject, Gabrielle shrugged. "I told you then. Because I recognize your skills and your power, even if I don't approve how you use them."

"Too bad I don't need your approval." The Conqueror replied ironically.

"The fact that you don't need anyone's approval doesn't mean that you can't have it."

"Why? Would you like to approve my actions?"

"Yes," Gabrielle said, and immediately regretted the word "Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean I presume I have the right to say when your choices are good and when they're not, because I don't know why you act like this. I just mean I'd like to know the reasons... to understand why you started fighting for your freedom and finished by taking away other people's freedom. I'd like to say ╬she had to do it. It was destiny, now she will change'..." she finally whispered.

"Destiny..." mumbled Xena and hit a small gong on a nearby table. A guard entered and bowed.

"Back to her cell. Tell Bonacar to feed her."

"Yes, my liege," replied the guard, and grabbed Gabrielle's arm.

"Will I see you again?" she asked.

Xena didn't answer, and Gabrielle was dragged away.

_____________________________

It was dark. Dark and cold. No light around; no warmth from the big stones of the walls and nothing to lay upon. In the silence of her small cell, where every moment stretched into candlemarks, Gabrielle couldn't help but call herself stupid. She had hoped to touch Xena's heart, instead she had angered her captor. And the Warrior Princess had been kind to her when she fainted... she was in a good mood and then Gabrielle had angered her. She had wanted to make Xena free Ephiny, instead she had questioned her actions towards Caesar. And she had even compared the Conqueror to Cortese!! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! How can anyone possibly be a bigger fool? Now she could only wait, hoping that the Conqueror would release her anger on her and not Ephiny.

At the thought of her friend, fresh tears came to her eyes. She knew her friend would have been beaten, but couldn't imagine finding her so miserable after only a day and a half... She sat on the stony floor and hugged her knees. She felt so lonely... She felt she had failed. But couldn't give up. She had to try again. Yes, she couldn't be wrong. There had to be a way to melt Xena's heart. She had to hold on for Ephiny, and for her friends. She had to find a way to do something. But what? She desperately tried to think of a way to meet the Conqueror again, to help her friend without betraying the others... but no good plan formed. At least I'm here, she thought, at least I've tried... now it's up to the Gods whether or not I get another chance. That thought relaxed her and finally, exhausted by the sleepless night and the emotionally taxing day, she fell asleep.

_____________________________

Later that afternoon Xena realized she was still thinking about her young prisoner. It wasn't the first time that someone criticized her deeds (to be honest, the ones who dared were scarcer and scarcer). But it was the first time in years that someone asked her ╬why'. And she couldn't even remember if anyone had ever asked her ╬why' hoping to find a reason to excuse her. Was the girl sincere? She had seen the passion of honesty in those green eyes while she spoke, yet it seemed impossible. She couldn't be a rebel and hope to excuse her actions, it was crazy... She should just hate me, Xena thought, why would she try to excuse me? She tried to busy herself. Read newly arrived scrolls, listened to her generals' reports, but was unable to forget the girl's words: I'd like to say ╬she had to do it. It was destiny'. You've become what you fought against...

Finally, the Conqueror looked out the window and saw that the sky was already darkening. She rose and as she left the room ordered a guard to inform her guests to start dinner without her.

"If they ask me where you are, my liege?" he asked hesitantly.

"Tell them I had a date." He knew better than to ask for more.

_____________________________

The guard viciously pulled a bowl out of a prisoner's reach, smiling wickedly. "Here, wait, what do we say, fella?"

"Thanks," the weak man's voice replied.

"Thanks what?"

"Thank you sir."

"Now, was it so hard? Here's your dinner" the guard laughed, passing the prisoner a small bowl of a stinking, brown, unidentified soup, closing the east block cell's door immediately after, while the other guard pushed the trolley with bowls and soup on to the next cell.

"Two bowls and two spoons for me," a clear, steady voice ordered, startling the guards "unless you want them all for yourself." Xena added, appearing at the doorway to the cellblock.

"Y-yes, my liege, immediately," babbled a guard, filling two bowls for the Warrior Princess with quivering hands.

"Gabrielle's cell." She simply said, picking bowls and spoons.

"Gabr..? Ah, yes, here, my queen." Another guard hurriedly opened a door some steps ahead. "We were almost there..."

"Leave it open," the Conqueror said, entering the cell, without looking back again.

Gabrielle lay asleep on the bare floor, her chained hands under her cheek, her lips almost smiling. Xena studied her face for a few moments. How can she be so peaceful? She thought. She's in my darkest dungeon, doesn't know if she'll survive to this night and still she's able to sleep... hasn't even heard the door open. Shaking her head, the Warrior Princess gently touched her legs with her boot. The young woman moaned but didn't open her eyes.

"Wake up, leader," teased the Conqueror repeating the gesture.

After a moment Xena's teasing voice penetrated Gabrielle's mind and the girl jerked up, realizing she wasn't alone.

Holding up the bowls, Xena informed her prisoner, "It's dinner time."

Gabrielle's eyes slowly focused, and she couldn't help but stare from the floor, mouth open, at the vision standing in front of her. This woman is perfect, she thought. Her leather boots are shiny, her legs perfect, not too muscular, not too thin, her black armor makes her impressive, but she really doesn't need it to make everyone stare. She's tall and well-proportioned, her hair is like silk and her eyes are blue as the sky... and I'm a perfect idiot staring at her this way. I should say something... She cleared her throat and started to rise. "What time is it?"

Xena signaled her not to get up and sat beside her, crossing her legs at the ankles. "As I said, dinner time. I've brought you something to eat. Do you mind if I join you?" Xena passed one of the bowls as Gabrielle's brow furrowed in confusion.

"Of course not." The blonde woman replied; then whispered, conspiratorially, "Is he so bad?"

"Who?" Xena asked, puzzled.

"Your cook. You must be really desperate to have dinner here."

Xena laughed heartily. "No, this has nothing to do with my cooks. I just like to make sure my guests receive a proper treatment."

"Do you really?" Surprised, Gabrielle smiled shyly.

"I do."

"I knew it," said the captive girl "You do try to avoid the useless suffering of your prisoners."

The Warrior Princess shrugged. "I just want everything, even my dungeons to operate efficiently. That's why I come here once in a while. So the guards stay alert and don't take too many liberties with prisoners."

Gabrielle hung her head. "If you say so..."

Xena took a spoon of soup and it took all her force of will not to spit it out. What in Tartarus is this stuff? She thought. Studying the soup in the faint light coming from the corridor she saw tiny pieces of... something floating in the bowl. Garlic flavour covered any other taste. She swallowed the bite with a pinched expression and thought, Luckily. I may just kill the cook though.

Gabrielle choked at the disgusting flavour, but swallowed the soup too. After all, if the Conqueror could eat it, so could she. Finished her soup, Xena broke the silence. "Why do you long so much to..." she chose her words carefully "find good in what I do?"

"Because I don't believe you're as ruthless as you make yourself out to be," she replied, matter-of factly.

"Why?" Xena asked, her face showing confusion.

Looking away from the Conqueror, Gabrielle studied the roof of the cell. "One day, just after your victory over the Numids, part of your army was moving back to Corinth, led by you. The previous days your men had ╬visited' every village to collect supplies and the people were almost starving. Part of the army had set camp just out of my village, Poteidaia. You decided to have a ride with some of your men, and passed by the village. A quivering old man, barely standing on his staff, called to you and you stopped. He slowly approached.

╬What do you want, old man?' you asked. ╬Please, Princess, a coin. I have nothing to eat and I'm too old to work.... please' he said. ╬Then maybe it's time you die,' you replied with contempt. He protested and you kicked him from the saddle and bolting your horse, you ran away laughing with your men."

Xena lied, "I don't remember that. But surely that's a sign of my kindness," she finished sarcastically.

"I agree. In fact, that same night someone approached the man in the barn he used as a shelter and gave him a pouch full of gold dinars."

"Really? Who? Did he see who it was?"

"No. He just saw a shadow. But I know it was you." Gabrielle explained, watching Xena's blue eyes closely.

"Me??" asked the Conqueror, feigning surprise "Why me?"

"Because you were the only person rich enough to afford such a gift."

Xena shrugged. "Could have been any of my generals."

"You had ordered all your men to stay in the encampment. None of them would have risked punishment to help a poor man."

"Could have been a god."

Gabrielle shook her head "I don't believe that."

Xena grasped at straws. "You just want to believe. How can you be sure?"

"Because that night I couldn't sleep. Watching from the window of my room, I saw you riding away on your horse."

Xena remained silent for a while. "So you saw me that night. Is that single episode enough to let you think I have a good heart?" She asked at last, her voice dripping with contempt.

"It's enough to let me believe that no matter what people say you do have a heart, and that when and if you want to, you can use it," Gabrielle explained.

"So you hate me because I don't use it," Xena guessed.

Gabrielle shook her head "No. I don't hate you. I'm mad at you, yes, because I know you're a clever, very gifted person, who uses her skills for herself only. But I don't hate you, because I don't know the reasons for your behaviour."

Xena glanced at a point in the wall. She thinks there must be a reason for my deeds, for all the blood I shed. She doesn't hate me... but she doesn't know me. She wants to, but if she knows me then she'll hate me. Then why should I open myself to her? At last she spoke.

"If you knew them you'd hate me as much as the others. Be honest. You can't really think there's a good reason for what I did... for the lives I took... You can't really think you can excuse me... else you wouldn't be a rebel."

Gabrielle was startled. She could see the Conqueror's loneliness, her pain. Her... fear? Fear of being rejected? She put her hand on Xena's forearm, and saw her flinch. "Let me try. I'm your prisoner, nobody will know what you'll tell me." She looked for the right words. "You can kill me when you want... What can you lose?"

My invulnerability, she thought. Until now my feelings have been locked away. If I unchain them... she sighed. But she seems open-minded enough to listen with an open heart... if I don't do it now, I will never do it... "Are you really the rebels' leader, Gabrielle?" she asked at last.

"I am," the girl answered, sorry for the change of subject.

"Why you?" asked the Warrior Princess, still uncertain.

The girl shrugged. "It wasn't my choice. The others chose me and I still don't know why. I don't know what they see in me."

"Are you sorry they chose you?"

"No!" replied Gabrielle, proudly. "I'm honored that the best people I know chose me as their leader."

"What did you do exactly for the resistance?"

The woman shrugged. "I used to write speeches." Xena glanced a her prisoner, surprised. Was it possible? This little girl, could she be the one who wrote the words being read throughout Corinth?

Gabrielle read disbelief on the Conqueror's face and patiently explained "I always had a way with words. I wanted to be a bard. I even went to the Athens Academy of Performing Bards, before you closed it."

"I didn't close it. It was the teacher's decision. I gave them an alternative."

"Oh, yes," the woman replied with derision. "Teach and write only of the triumphs of the Conqueror! How could you think that those artists could create only on order? They need freedom! Take it away from them and their art dies. It's like closing a lion in a cage. After a while he won't be able to hunt, and his roarings will fascinate only children. Other people after a while won't be interested or afraid of them... Or like putting a bird in a cage! It sings only its despair... Have you ever noticed how different the song of a free bird is, compared to the song of a caged one?"

She really does have a way with words, Xena thought, seeing in her the animosity of the rebels' speeches. She's really their author! Maybe she's truly the leader of the resistance. Well, I can make it clear. She smiled and rose, halting Gabrielle's words. "I got the point, thanks. Now I believe you're the author of the speeches. I'm sorry I have no time to listen to all your metaphors but I really have to go now. See you tomorrow, okay?"

"Tomor... oh, sure. Good night." replied a surprised Gabrielle, as the door shut. So I'll see her again... she wasn't mad at me... Praise the Gods I'll speak to the Conqueror again! There is hope!


Chapter 8





With a wave of her hand the Warrior Princess caught the attention of a patrolling guard. "The keys," she simply said. He immediately passed her a heavy key ring.

"May I help you, my queen?" he asked tentatively.

"Yes. Call the healer." she replied, and purposefully went to Ephiny's cell. She picked the cell's key and opened the door. She found Ephiny sitting on the hay, in a defensive position, as much as the chains and bruises allowed her. Her eyes were still defiant and angry, but Xena couldn't help smiling.

"What's so funny?" defiantly asked Ephiny.

"You," the Conqueror replied, softly. "You're so pugnacious. It amuses me."

"What do you want?" she spat.

Xena entered and asked, with a mocking voice, "What, no ╬bitch', or ╬monster'? Come on Ephiny, why are you so polite tonight?"

The Amazon inhaled deeply, trying not to lose control. She wanted to tell her all that was on her mind, but didn't want to take the risk to make her angry now that Gabrielle was there. Clenching her jaw, she remained silent.

"You've nothing to tell me? I'm surprised. I thought you cared for Gabrielle."

Ephiny couldn't restrain herself any longer. "What's happened to her?" Receiving no answer, she tried to rise, "Listen, if you touch her..." Ephiny's voice trailed off into a moan as she collapsed back onto the pallet.

Xena knelt beside the Amazon and with just one hand kept her pinned on her back. "Gabrielle is fine. But she won't be if you struggle. Got it?"

Hearing that Ephiny didn't fight back and spoke through clenched teeth, "She's not a warrior. If you're not a coward, hit me, but don't touch her!"

"I'm not here to hurt you. Would you die for her?"

"Sure," promptly the Amazon replied.

"Would you lie for her?"

"Yes," she answered, puzzled.

"And would you tell the truth for her?" The Conqueror asked, raising an eyebrow.

I knew it, thought Ephiny. She plans to use us against each other. "If you mean if I'm ready to betray my friends to save her, the answer is no." She said at last.

Xena smiled, a smile that didn't reach her eyes "That's not what I mean. As you know, Gabrielle is doomed. How and when she'll die is mine to decide. I know you don't trust me but I swear to every god on Olympus that if you truthfully answer two questions, I'll give her a fast death."

Ephiny watched the woman towering over her, uncertain.

A fast death for Gabrielle. Not for me, but it doesn't matter. If we only could escape... but the dungeon is heavily guarded and I'm so weak... and Gabrielle can't escape alone. A fast death is the only thing we can hope for now... But can I trust her? she thought. And what will she ask?... "How can I be sure you'll keep your promise?" She asked at last.

Xena shrugged. "You can't. But if you'll lie I'll know, sooner or later, and Gabrielle will curse the day she's born."

"Just two questions?" The Amazon asked again, uncertain on what to do. Xena nodded. Ephiny reflected for a while, then nodded. "Right, then. I'll answer the truth."

"Good. The first. Is really Gabrielle the leader of the rebels?"

Bowing her head Ephiny whispered, "Yes." She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. "The second?"

"What does she have that the others don't? What makes her so important?"

Ephiny looked the Conqueror straight in the eye and smiled. "If you knew her, you wouldn't have to ask. She has the biggest heart I've ever seen. She suffered in her life, but never gave in to hatred. After all the death she has seen, after all the delusions she has faced, she still can believe in the inner goodness of every man. Her words keep us on the right path."

Xena nodded, seeing honesty in the Amazon's eyes and suddenly hit a pressure point on her left shoulder.

"What are you doing now?" asked the woman, alarmed.

"Don't worry. It's to stop the pain while I set your broken arm."

"While you what?" Ephiny couldn't believe it.

"You heard me." The Conqueror unchained the Amazon's wrists and with powerful, steady moves set her left arm's bones straight again. And Ephiny felt nothing, but the fingernails on a chalkboard sound of the bones fitting together. "Done. When I release the pinch it will hurt, but the healer will give you something for the pain."

"Why ?" asked the Amazon, puzzled.

"Because I don't inflict useless pain. Get ready," answered the Conqueror, and released the pinch. Ephiny's eyes widened at the Conqueror's words, thinking she had suddenly gone crazy. Then the pain overwhelmed her; she moaned, and almost passed out.

"Wondeful job, my liege," the newly arrived healer said behind her. "May I dare ask the privilege to be taught about that trick?" He steeled himself as she turned to meet his gaze.

Xena rose and studied the old man. "Maybe. But now clean her wounds." She tossed the keys to a nearby guard. "Give her clean clothes and as soon as she can walk, move her to a more comfortable cell." Smiling she left, without waiting for an answer.

_____________________________

Later that evening, Xena was sitting in her large bedroom, a golden mug of port in her hand.

So the only person who even tries to undestand me is the leader of my enemies, she thought, how ironic. How can I trust her? That Amazon says she has a good heart, that she believes in the inner goodness of men... stupidities. But if someone could listen to my words without prejudice, it would be someone with such beliefs... She took a sip of the sweet wine.

But why should I tell her the reasons of my deeds? I don't need her approval! Besides, I'm not afraid of her judgment. I know I always did what I had to. I don't need forgiveness. But nobody understands... they see the blood and blame me. She'll do the same, or will she? Damn! Is it really possible that someone outside my army approve my deeds? She sighed. After all the girl is right, she thought. I never explained my reasons, I can't blame the people if they don't understand me. It would feel so good if anyone would... But I'm sure that even knowing, the people still wouldn't understand... What should I do? If I speak to her and she (the leader of my enemies!) approves my deeds, then I'll have the definitive proof I always did the right things... But if she doesn't? If she doesn't... Will it mean I've been wrong? Oh, no, I have not been wrong! It will just mean that my enemies can't understand... of course.

She rose and walked to a nearby window. The sky was clean and full of stars. The cold night air caressed her blue silk robe. Yes, I can afford the risk to have such a confidante. I can talk with her and see what happens. After all she's my prisoner. I'll see if she'll excuse me and then I'll execute her no matter what. She won't speak to anyone. No one else will know. Nothing will change. She laughed. She had found the solution she was looking for.



Chapter 9







Gabrielle sat on the big sofa, head in her hands, elbows on her knees, thinking about what the Conqueror had told her after summoning her again to the throne room. Gods, she was glad that Thesu... There.. Theod... whatever had requested Xena's presence in another room. She didn't want to cry in front of the Warrior Princess. She knew something about the Conqueror's past, but in no way she could have imagined that it hid so much pain, and she was stunned. Xena was so young when her father was killed, she didn't remember him. And her mother... she had to maintain the family alone; she was too busy with her inn to properly raise her children. Xena had grown up almost alone, loving her brother Lyceus more than anyone else. He was her protégé, her playmate, her confidante. He didn't care if she was stronger, faster, smarter than him. He was the only one who really showed he cared for her.

Then Cortese arrived. Xena was young and full of energy, and acted rashly. She persuaded the town council to resist. Gabrielle repeated in her mind the Conqueror's words, words she had at first spoken flatly. "It wasn't easy, they were so afraid... I told them we really had no choice. That we would have died at any rate. If we gave Cortese what he asked, we wouldn't have had enough for ourselves! But they were still uncertain. One yelled that I was crazy."

Xena's voice became warm here, "Then Lyceus rose to defend me. He said they were blind, that I was right. That we had to try. That it was better to die standing than to live crawling... And that he would have followed me, no matter the consequences, even to Tartarus, even alone."

Gabrielle remembered the Conqueror paused in her retelling as memory flashed across her face. Then continued, her eyes staring at a point in the void. "His words persuaded the other young men of Amphipolis, who started yelling they would have done the same. At that point their fathers had no choice but give in. They put me in charge."

So young, with such a big responsibility on her shoulders! She had to protect her village, her family, her friends! It was her first battle, and she had planned everything perfectly, or so she believed. Xena had resumed the story with a sad voice.

"Cortese didn't expect to find any resistance, so his men rode in the village yelling confidently, unaware of the trap. A wooden fence had been hidden flat under some hay and dirt, just in the middle of the road. At my signal, the villagers pulled the ropes attached to its sides, and the fence rose blocking the way. The raiders were too close to avoid it and many of them fell. At that moment men armed with axes and pitchforks ran from the houses and quickly disposed of the fallen bandits. In the meantime others shot arrows and threw stones at those still on their horses. Other thugs entered the town from other directions, but our traps were everywhere. After a while, it was clear we were winning. I took a sword from a fallen man and fought with Lyceus at my back. Suddenly, we heard the sound of an horn and Cortese's men retreated, defeated. We pursued them enthusiastically. From the hills, Cortese's bowmen started shooting arrows at us, to give cover to their comrades." At the point Gabrielle could swear she saw the Conqueror swallow hard; her lower lip trembling, she said with quivering voice, "I heard an arrow hissing at my side, and Lyceus was no more."

A single, lone arrow and he was dead. Lyceus, her dearest brother, the most important person in her life. Dead because he had faith in her, because he had chosen to follow her. She could almost see Xena, kneeling beside him, crying as she held her lifeless brother, while all around the villagers cheered in the victory. Her first victory had become her first defeat. Gabrielle could only imagine how she felt at that moment. Pain, guilt, anger, hate, helplessness, suddenly thrown all together on a young woman's heart... a heart too young for this. Poor Xena, thought the captive woman shaking her head, stunned.

Xena re-entered the room, after having taken some deep breaths. For once, Theodorus had arrived at the right moment. The memory of Lyceus's death had hit her with unexpected strength and without the soldier's interruption she could even have cried, for the first time in years. But now she had her emotions under control and she could go on. Gabrielle was still sitting on the sofa, but why was she holding her head? "Are you okay?" Xena asked the short woman.

Gabrielle jerked at the voice and quickly wiped a tear away. "Oh, yes, sorry. I didn't hear you enter."

"Just one of my many skills. Can we go on?" the Conqueror asked, nonchalantly sitting beside her prisoner, studying her face with a cold glare. Definitely crying, she thought. But why?

"Yes, of course," she replied, smiling weakly and trying to focus on what was to come.

"I told you about the battle. After that, I was an hero in Amphipolis and the town council asked *me* what they should do next to avoid further attacks. I didn't want to command an army again. It felt wonderful during the fight, but after Lyceus' death, I simply didn't care anymore. But they insisted, and even mother said it would be good for me to have something to think about, beyond Lyceus. So I accepted. It was clear that warlords kept attacking villages because there was no army to stop them. Each village fought for itself and small village militias had no hope of stopping an army. So I suggested a league of towns. Making a big army seemed the best solution. Some villages immediately joined. Others refused." Xena grimaced at the remembrance. "They didn't trust me. So I couldn't trust them either."

"Why?" interrupted the blonde woman "Why didn't they trust you?"

"Because I was a woman, a young, inexperienced woman. They didn't want to put their lives in my hands. So I took their lives away," she explained and smiled while shrugging.

"W-what did you do?"

"I sacked those villages. I had to protect mine." Seeing doubts in the young woman's eyes, Xena explained, annoyed. "I had created a small state around Amphipolis, just for defense. But those villages didn't want to join. It was too easy for them not to. They liked being protected by my army and not giving men and supplies for it."

"And the town council... I mean, was it all right with them to attack the other villages?" Gabrielle could hardly believe it. Neighbouring villages usually have family members in common, they help each other, they surely don't attack each other.

"Oh, they tried to dissuade me. They were blind. Those idiots didn't understand it was the only way to keep Amphipolis safe. But soon my army was big and faithful enough to allow me not to listen to them anyway."

"So you started using your army against the will of the league?"

"Yes. They didn't understand, but I was sure they would be thankful, then." Gabrielle felt disappointment in the Conqueror's voice.

"Were they?" Questioned Gabrielle. Xena simply shook her head. The blonde woman hesitatingly asked, "Do you know why?"

"I still have no idea. From Cortese on, Amphipolis has never been attacked again, but they hate me!"

"How many unwilling villages did you attack at that time?"

"Four, five..."

"Probably your fellow citizens didn't want to be safe at that price."

"Nonsense. Why should those villages be more important for them than their own safety?"

"Because they didn't want to bring death and destruction on people they knew... because maybe your army was strong enough even without them. Because the end does not justify the means."

"Doesn't it?"

Gabrielle knew this was an important point. The Conqueror always used every means at her disposal to achieve her goals. If only she could convince Xena to think differently... but saying what she thought would have meant to question directly the Warrior Princess' deeds. She paused a moment then answered, keeping a soft voice, trying not to anger her captor too much.

"No, it doesn't. Certain actions are never good, no matter what the aim. If everything was permitted to achieve a goal, then everything would depend on the aims people choose... I mean, once a goal is chosen, everything would be good if useful to reach it, wouldn't it? The only important thing would be the end result. But how can you know if a goal is good or not? Everyone has a goal in life, and everyone thinks their goal is a good one!"

"Mine was good. I just wanted to protect my people."

"And wasn't the aim of the villages you sacked a good one, too? They wanted to save their lives. To their eyes you were a warlord like Cortese."

Xena remained silent. She had never thought about it like that. She was sure that at the beginning everyone knew she wasn't a warlord. That she had only peaceful intentions. Was it possible that those villages had misunderstood her? She thought about her words, her deeds at that time and sighed. It was possible, yes. She was obsessed to protect Amphipolis. She didn't accept a "no" as an answer. She went mad when someone questioned her, so it was no surprise if some village was too afraid of her to trust her. Gabrielle waited for Xena to continue her story, but she seemed lost in her thoughts. After a while, she softly asked: "What happened then?"

Xena closed her eyes and smiled sadly.


Chapter 10





"Then Amphipolis was safe. The league was strong enough, and my army was efficient and ready to fight any warlord fool enough to attack it. I thought I had achieved my goal, and I was almost planning to retire. But some villages on the south also formed a league and launched a surprise attack on us."

"Why?" asked a surprised Gabrielle.

Xena shrugged. "When I defeated them I asked. They said they thought I was planning to attack them. That made me realize I couldn't trust anyone. Everyone was a potential threat to Amphipolis, and I had to be always alert. So I started attacking the other villages, taking them down one by one, before they could do it first."

"But... couldn't you just make treaties with them? Was war necessary?"

"Yes. I vowed nobody would take me by surprise again. And attacking felt good, oh, it did! Much better than waiting to be attacked," she explained smiling wickedly. The blonde woman shivered at the cruel gleam in the Conqueror's eyes. Gods, she *loved* it! Gabrielle thought. She started feeling good while killing and burning... she relished the power of being a warlord! Xena's voice called her back from her musings.

"But something happened. I had the worst surprise of my life."

Gabrielle frowned. She didn't know what Xena was talking about. She didn't push the issue but waited for the Conqueror to go on. "During one attack to a village on the coast, we captured a prisoner-- a Roman nobleman. He was bold, arrogant. Said his destiny was to rule the world. I liked him," she said with contempt. "So I asked for a huge ransom and took him on my ship. That same day we found a stowaway aboard, a fugitive slave. She was the best fighter I had ever seen. She beat most of the crew before I could capture her. I let her live as my slave and in exchange, she taught me how to fight bare-handed. Her name was M'Lila."

She says that name with respect, almost with love, Gabrielle thought with surprise.

"The Roman was good-looking and clever. I could see something special in his eyes. We used to talk for hours, about armies and strategy. He was so determined... so similar to me... I started thinking that maybe his destiny was really to rule the world. And I wanted to rule by his side."

Of course she did, Gabrielle sadly thought. By then Xena was addicted to power.

What a fool I was, Xena thought shaking her head, and continued. "So I seduced him, or so I thought. When the ransom was paid, I set him free, and he promised he would come back for me. A few weeks later we saw a Roman ship with his banner. M'Lila warned me telling me that it was a trap, but I didn't listen. I was sure he was there because he loved me. I let the ship approach, and he came aboard. We kissed and when the kiss broke, he was holding a knife at my throat. His men easily took control of the ship," she angrily remembered.

"Only M'Lila escaped, silently. The following morning I was hanging from a cross on a beach, like all my men. When the Roman gave the order to break my legs, his men did it."

She paused, closing her eyes. "His name was Julius Caesar."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. Xena on a cross, her legs broken? And Caesar was the one who did it? Gods...

"Are you beginning to understand, now, leader?" Xena asked sarcastically. Gabrielle swallowed and nodded, not trusting her voice.

"By night I had seen all my men die, one by one. My first army, my friends from Amphipolis. I was still waiting for death to take me. I had no more hope nor will to survive. Then I saw a shadow. I heard the guards scream. Then silence again. Under the cross I saw my saviour. M'Lila," the Conqueror smiled heartily at the memory, "She cut me down and brought me to a healer she knew. And she was just a slave... she could have left me there..."

"Evidently you treated her nicely," the blonde woman tentatively offered.

Xena gave Gabrielle a sideway look that meant ╬you don't want to know' then continued through clenched teeth. "Caesar ordered my capture at any cost. His men were everywhere. At last a patrol found the healer's house. They entered. M'Lila fought bravely. I still had splints on my legs; I did my best, but I couldn't stand. A soldier shot an arrow at me. I closed my eyes, knowing I was going to die. When I reopened them, I saw M'Lila a few inches from me, the arrow in her back. She closed her eyes and never reopened them."

Xena clenched her fists, and harshly concluded, "A rage I had never felt before took me then. I didn't feel the pain anymore. I killed all the soldiers and swore I would take my revenge. My new goal in life was death."

Gabrielle wiped away another tear, looked Xena in the eyes and shivered. She had never seen such a determination in anyone, and she thought for the first time that maybe she really couldn't hope to change the Conqueror. But it wasn't only hate that filled Xena's eyes. There was pain there, too. Pain for a dead friend. Gabrielle was really starting to understand. Before she could say anything, Xena hit a small gong and ordered the soldier who came to take Gabrielle back to her cell.



Chapter 11





Finally alone, Xena took many deep breaths but couldn't calm herself.

She didn't expect that remembering the deaths of Lyceus and M'Lila would move her so much, even after so many years. She thought she had buried those memories deep inside of her along with all the others. She couldn't live in the past, after all, so she had chosen to just not look back. She was sure she had overcome the grief. So many years had passed... Then why did these memories still hurt so much? Why couldn't she go on with her story instead of sending the girl away, for fear she'd burst into tears?

Why was she still ready to give away everything, her power, her kingdom, her life just to save Lyceus, or at least M'Lila? Why did she still feel so guilty about it all? Why, with all her power, couldn't she do anything to change the past?

"WHY?" she screamed, sweeping with an arm the trays and maps that were on a table, throwing them to the floor.

"Why?..." she whispered, and finally, after too many years, Xena, Destroyer of Nations, cried.

_____________________________

Laying on her pallet in her new cell, relishing the feeling of having her hands and feet unbound, Ephiny was still reflecting upon the Conqueror's strange behaviour. She never heard that Xena showed mercy to her prisoners, that she sent healers to tend to their wounds after torture. On the contrary, she had seen countless executions of people with infected wounds, blood dripping from still open marks. Then why had the Conqueror acted this way with her? Why bother setting her bones with that move that makes you feel no pain? Why, after that awful night in the torture chamber, did Xena choose to spare her that little pain? And the questions about Gabrielle... they had completely taken her by surprise. The Warrior Princess seemed so sincere when she came to her cell the previous night... Then it suddenly dawned on her. Stupid! It was all a plan! Xena was not the ruler of the known world by accident. If anyone knew how to confound her enemies and hit them by surprise, it was the Conqueror.

And she had succeeded even with her. She had trusted that snake and had told her Gabrielle was her leader. She had told her what she had concealed through a whole night of pain! Stupid! It obviously was a plan. Xena had summoned the healer just to have her healthy enough to endure another torture session. She wouldn't content herself with Gabrielle. Now she will ask for more names. She shook her head, frustrated. And she even believed her promise to give Gabrielle a fast death! She heard a key clicking inside the lock. A guard entered.

"C'mon, Amazon, the healer says you can walk."

Ephiny once again cursed herself while struggling to her feet. She was right. The guards were there to bring her to the chamber again. But, if the Conqueror thought that this alternating between pain and hope could break her will, well, she was wrong. She'll see, Ephiny thought, furrowing her brows while following the guards. After few moments she realized with surprise that they weren't leading her towards the lower dungeon. They were going upstairs. It makes no difference, she thought. Xena even tortured prisoners in her dining room. But they weren't directing her to the Conqueror's quarters either. She could tell this from the narrow corridors and the too simple furniture she saw through the few open doors she passed by. This palace is really huge, thought the Amazon. Someone trying to escape alone would surely get lost. The noise of clanging swords caught her attention. From a window she saw soldiers practicing their drills in a little courtyard, but immediately a guard shoved her ahead. The courtyard!

When Xena didn't want to execute someone publicly, she used to do it in the palace's inner courtyards. It was rumored she had gallows and crosses there. So that's what was awaiting her this evening: her execution. But if this were her fate, she had no regrets. She had fought the good fight. She was ready. A deep tranquility filled her as she followed the guards through the final corridors. At last they reached a small door. A guard opened it and unceremoniously shoved her through, then closed it behind her. Frozen in place, Ephiny's jaw dropped and her heart skipped a beat. She swallowed and blinked twice, but still couldn't believe her eyes.

From the small peep-hole a guard waved her away. "Go," he said. "Move on, before the Conqueror changes her mind."

Still incredulous, Ephiny made sure nobody was following her, then confidently entered the narrow, darkening streets of Corinth.

_____________________________

Gabrielle was dreaming of being an eagle, flying high in the sky, grain fields and forests beneath her seeming yellow and green spots among the white clouds. She was enjoying the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the wind, when she heard a faraway voice call her, unidentified at first, then close and even too clear.

"Conqueror! Ouch!" she awoke with a start and felt a sudden pain in her neck. The Warrior Princess was kneeling beside her, her eyes strangely red.

"You okay?" Xena asked, slightly concerned.

"Yes, just a stiffness in my neck. What time is it?"

"Don't get up, turn around," ordered the Conqueror and the blonde woman quickly complied. "It's the middle of the night. I couldn't sleep so I thought we could continue our conversation. This way I won't waste time with you tomorrow," explained the raven haired woman, massaging Gabrielle's shoulders.

"It's fine for me. I haven't slept very well tonight either." I had just succeeded, damn... "Oooh, your hands are incredible, you know, Conqueror?" She moaned, relaxing under the expert fingers.

"Yeah, some say so," chuckled Xena, smiling against her will. "Here's the knot. Relax, let me finish."

She's full of surprises, thought the blonde woman. Who would imagine her fingers can be so gentle? "May I ask where you learned to do... this?"

"Chin. Here. You can sit up now."

"Thank you. Wow!" exclaimed the young woman, her eyes wide with surprise, moving her head.

"What?" asked the Conqueror, puzzled.

"You gave me a new neck! How did you do it?"

Xena laughed out loud. This girl can make me laugh, more than all my generals together, she thought "It takes a lot of practice and a good teacher. I had a great one."

"I'll bet."

"I'm here tonight to talk about her, too." she explained and then became serious again.


Chapter 12





"I met her some months after M'Lila's death. I was heading east, looking for new lands to conquer. I heard about a rich empire, so huge that it took several weeks to travel through it. I wanted it. I knew that in this land the emperor was considered a god by the people. So, to have the kingdom, it would have been enough to kill him and take his place. I kidnapped his son, the heir, to force a meeting with him alone, in a forest. It was a trap and the idiot fell for it. He came with his concubine, too. And I got another surprise."

"What?" Gabrielle asked, worried. It seems she never has pleasing surprises, she thought.

Xena smiled. "They were unarmed. The emperor was so happy to see his child alive that he was completely unaware of what was around him. On the other hand, the concubine was very aware of the situation, but did not act as I thought; she simply told me to surrender. I laughed and unsheathed my sword. In an heartbeat I was slammed against a tree. Then another. And another. She beat me, without even touching me."

"But... how could she... alone..." asked a puzzled Gabrielle.

"There are many ways to fight, leader. To make a long story short, I was her prisoner. I expected to be sentenced to death, I had kidnapped the heir... her son... but she obtained grace for me."

"Why did she do it?"

"She said she could see inside me something I could not. She said that my heart was full of hate, but that if I wanted, I could control it, I could let it go. That I should conquer myself and not the others. She tried to let me do it. I remained there for several months; she taught me many interesting things, and I was a good student." Before Gabrielle could say anything, she added, "But with what she thought was the most important teaching she failed. I didn't let go. She was so sad when she realized she couldn't change me... She should have killed me, and knew she had to end my life because I would come back, but she didn't. Her heart was too good. So I came back to Greece, built another army and went back to Chin. This time she did not fight me. She didn't want to hurt me. So nothing could stop me, and I conquered Chin."

"And what happened to her?"

"I asked her if she really believed what she told me. That to be free you have to overcome desire. Overcome hate. To serve the others, even those you hate. She said ╬yes'. So I let her serve me. She's my regent in the east."

Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise. "Lao Ma? You mean, Lao Ma, the regent of Chin? She is the one who beat you and could kill you?"

"Yep."

"But she saved your life... then she let you go and when you came back she didn't fight you... just agreed to serve you? It's incredible."

Xena nodded. "Yes. And she's really a good servant. She's faithful, but not stupid. She's the best regent I have."

"The regent... In Athens I heard something about her philosophy. It despises glory and power... opposes violence..."

Xena nodded again. Gabrielle felt lost. One of the greatest philosophers of the world tried to change Xena and failed so miserably, finishing serving her. How could she hope to succeed? "May I ask you a question, Princess?" She asked after a while.

"Ask."

"How did you manage to do it? I mean... to change her like that. How did you seduce her to accept such power when it meant nothing to her? What did you do to change her beliefs?"

"You think I forced her or tricked her? No, Gabrielle. I would never do that to her. I offered her the position, that's all. She thought about it for some moments then hung her head. But she hasn't changed her beliefs at all."

"I don't think I understand. How can you say she's not changed? How can someone like her, someone who always preached peace suddenly accept..." She did not finish the sentence, suddenly aware of what she was going to say.

The Conqueror finished it for her. "To serve a murderer like me?" She smiled sarcastically. "Because of her philosophy. The branch that bends under the snow, not to be broken by its weight. I think she really accepted it as a burden, not an honor. If she'd refused, there would have been another, worse regent. So after all she's serving her people more than me. And sometimes she even disobeyed my orders, when she thought they weren't good."

Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise "And you... let her live?"

The Conqueror laughed. "They were really wrong orders, but nobody had the courage to tell me. She did. And a wise ruler must recognize her mistakes, don't you think? Besides, she did it privately."

The younger girl was stunned. "But... you said she could kill you if she wanted. If she did it once, she could beat you again. To me she seems a branch that can resist the snow without bending if she wants to. Then why?"

"Once she told me that wise men are patient. I think she's still waiting for someone to do what she was unable to do: Change me. Waste of time, but if she wants to live in a dream, it's good for me. As long as she serves me," Xena finished with a shrug.

"So you think she's just an hopeless dreamer?"

Another shrug. "Yeah."

Gabrielle stared at the Conqueror. "I don't believe this." she said at last. "You said you would never force or trick Lao Ma, and you let her question you. I think you see more than just the dreamer in her. Something you respect, otherwise you would have already killed her. A person who can beat you is too dangerous to live."

"Never said I don't respect her," replied the Conqueror, hiding her sadness. "I just don't understand her. But I'd like to." And it scares me, she mentally added.

"Did you try? I mean really try to understand her, to follow her way, to let hatred go?"

"Her way is not for me," she whispered, struggling to keep her emotions away from her voice. "I can't serve. I can't be peaceful. Pacifists are cowards." She shook her head. "It's not for me."

"You're wrong," the blonde woman said flatly. "You can't know if you don't try. And you couldn't seriously try to change just after Caesar. You couldn't succeed. And I bet you never tried to change again after you left Chin."

It's true, thought the Conqueror, but it doesn't change a thing. "I had an empire to create. How could I possibly have created it if I was filled with all peace and love?" She asked with contempt.

"Lao Ma is ruling half of your empire. And you admitted she's the best of your regents. Her philosophy isn't an obstacle to her. Besides..." she bit her lip and kept silent, bowing her head.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Besides what?" Repeated the raven haired woman, with a menacing voice.

Sighing, Gabrielle fixed her green, determined eyes in Xena's and replied, determined, "Besides, you have a wrong opinion on pacifists. Being a pacifist doesn't always mean being a coward. Forgive the rudeness, but it takes more courage to surrender to an enemy like you than to kidnap a child." She hung her head.

Xena inhaled deeply. I can't believe this! she thought. She really called me a coward. And called herself brave too, in front of me! I killed people for far less than this. She turned to face her prisoner, with an angry scowl. But she saw the young woman, her head bent, eyes cast on the floor, quiet. That image somehow softened her. "Look at me," she ordered after a few moments. The blonde prisoner complied.

"You realize what you just said?"

"Yes, I do."

"Any apologies?"

Gabrielle swallowed and shook her head. "No. I told you the truth. I know it may cost my life, but you had to know. I accept the consequences."

She smiled. "Telling me is worth your life?"

"It is, if it'll make you think. If it will make you wish to try again. A single life, *my* life is not important if it can save many others."

She is brave, thought the Warrior Princess. It really takes courage to say those things to me no matter what. "And you think that if I try now I'll change? What makes you believe I'll succeed?"

"The fact that you always accomplish what you set out to do. You defeated every enemy, you can conquer yourself, too."

Xena laughed and rose. Then she spoke with an harsh voice, giving Gabrielle an icy glare. "True, but I never said I want to change now. I have the whole world at my feet. I'm the most powerful mortal. There's nothing denied to me. Why should I change anything?"

What? I almost believed I could persuade her to act differently... and then... thought the younger woman. I can't believe it... She's playing with me! A burning anger rose inside the blonde girl who, indicating the cell with her hand, angrily replied to the Destroyer of Nations. "Then why this? Why do you spend candlemarks in this dungeon? If you're really so happy you don't need changes, why do you waste your time talking to me? You need to be reassured you did the right things! You're not happy! You don't like what you are! Why else do you keep coming to talk?"

Each of those words was a dagger thrown into Xena's heart. Every word the girl said was terribly true. She had tried to deny it to herself, but that was exactly the point, and now she couldn't ignore it anymore. She was unhappy. Yes, she had everything, but still something was missing. That was the reason she always tried to busy herself with every possible task. Not to think, not to feel that unexplainable emptiness inside. That cold... Only her warrior training let her hide her inner turmoil behind an impassive mask. With a terrible effort, she answered almost nonchalantly to her prisoner. "Weariness. I was bored. I needed a pastime and thought you would work. I can't tell certain things to my generals. They might tell someone, use it against me. You can't. And won't."

The younger woman felt dizzy and her jaw dropped. So this was the reason... Xena was just bored! She had chosen her not because she needed a confidante but because she wanted a new pastime. She had completely misjudged the Conqueror. She was shattered.

Lost in her thoughts, Gabrielle didn't notice that Xena was leaving the cell and almost missed the words she said while closing the cell's door: "Ephiny is free." But after a moment those words slipped into her mind, and she realized their meaning.

She jumped on her feet and reached the door. Crying for joy she shouted, "Thank you, Conqueror, can you hear me? Thank you! Thank you!" slamming her hands against the wooden frame, hoping that Xena could still hear her.


Chapter 13





During the days that followed, the Warrior Princess spent candlemarks alone, thinking about her last conversation with Gabrielle, and analyzing her own feelings and memories.

She remembered Lao Ma, her deeds, her words, her eyes... how everything showed her inner peace. And this girl, who was very different from Lao Ma, also had something special. She was proud without being a fanatic. She was brave yet not stupid. She, too, willingly surrendered to the Destroyer of Nations when she could have avoided capture. She also seemed more concerned about other people's fate then about her own. And even if not as much as Lao Ma, Gabrielle was peaceful and relaxed, surely more than the ruler of the world. And she, too, seemed to believe that the Conqueror could change, that the Conqueror should change.

The more she thought about it, the more Xena felt the girl was right, that she had to try again. She had a lot to lose, and she knew it: her life depended on not showing weakness. If any of her generals thought she was going soft, it would mean rebellion in the ranks, infighting, even a coup. Yet, she remembered Gabrielle's cries of thanks in the dungeon, remembered her sobs of joy. And she still felt inside what she felt in that moment: the certainty that despite what her mind told her, freeing Ephiny was the right choice. And it felt so good.

For the first time she realized she was one of the lucky few mortals who had the opportunity to really make what they wanted of their life, and decided not to waste it. So Xena, Destroyer of Nations, resolved to try to change. To try to control her inner violence and hatred-- To try to conquer herself.

In the beginning it wasn't too hard: pronouncing a lighter sentence for a man too weak to survive the usual punishment, making her generals soften their cruel jokes at dinner, forgiving a slave who dropped a tray... those were easy tasks. But it couldn't last.

_____________________________

Arcas entered the throne room and bowed. "Report," ordered the Conqueror.

"She's really from Poteidaia, my liege," he said approaching. "Her father died years ago, fighting against a warlord. Her sister, Lila, is married to a farmer and raising two children. The older is four years old. They're a poor family. Hecuba, the mother, lives with them. My men say not for long." Xena raised an eyebrow in question. "She's very ill. It seems that last month she got a bad fever, you know, the snow and all, and never fully recuperated. Since then she has had breathing problems, her condition grows worse by the day."

"The healers?" asked Xena, pouring two chalices of port and offering one to Arcas.

"They can't afford any. Besides, only a god could save her now. To the Conqueror!" he said, promptly draining his glass.

Xena drank, then asked, after a surprisingly long pause, "How long will she live?"

"The woman? A moon, maybe two. Not more." The soldier shrugged.

"Thanks, Arcas, you've done a good job." The Conqueror sighed and dismissed him.

And now? she thought. I can pretend I don't know of her mother's illness, but doing so would mean she would never see her mother again. Her mind went back to the day of her mother's death. She wasn't there, and, even if she would have been there, Cyrene had expressly asked not to see her. Her mother considered her daughter a stranger even on her deathbed. Xena sighed again. Instead, I'm sure Gabrielle's mother loves her, she thought. Besides, if I send her to Poteidaia her friends could try to free her, and I can't risk that. Her freedom would give them new hope. Yet maybe... maybe she wouldn't escape. Yes, if the rebels tried to rescue her, what would she do then? Every other person would use the opportunity to run away from me, but her? She gave her life in exchange for Ephiny's. She said she wants to understand me... would she come back to this castle? Don't think about it, Xena, you can't risk it. She's the leader of your enemies. She writes speeches against you. Damn, she's your enemy! The Conqueror closed her eyes. Yet, I almost hope she escapes. Why can't I see her as an enemy? After all, she never said she likes me or my deeds, she just offered to listen to my reasons.

But she's been the only one... Xena knew what to do. She clapped her hands and a guard entered.

"I want to see Martinus. Now." The guard bowed and hurriedly left the room to look for the summoned officer.

_____________________________

The young woman entered the room, shielding her eyes from the rays of the sun with a hand. The Conqueror signaled her to sit, and waved at a slave to close a curtain knowing Gabrielle's eyes were weak from the darkness, then put away the scrolls she was reading.

Gabrielle bowed deeply and eyed suspiciously the old, thin soldier standing at attention a few steps away. He did just the same to her, looking somewhat surprised at the sight of her. Gabrielle quickly decided this soldier didn't seem an immediate threat and resolved to ignore him. After all she had important things to say, so she looked at the Warrior Princess, smiling from deep within her heart. Even in chains this girl can smile, thought Xena, suddenly aware of how sad she was to be the one to tell the young woman about her mother.

"I wanted to thank you for freeing Ephiny, Conqueror," started Gabrielle with an happy voice. "I was sure you would have kept your word, yet I know you had the temptation not to do it, so I want you to know I think you've been brave to do so and..."

Xena stopped the flow of words with an annoyed wave of her hand. "You already thanked me."

"I wasn't sure you heard me, besides I wanted to do it facing you and not behind a door," the blonde woman insisted.

Xena cleared her throat, looking for the right words, but she found none. Odd, she thought. I can speak to crowds, to whole armies but with this girl I don't know where to start.

"Listen, I have no time for this. Aren't you from Poteidaia?" she managed at last, mentally kicking herself for the stupid start she had chosen.

"Yes, I am.Why?" replied the captive girl, surprised. She waited some moments, then sensing Xena's embarrassment spoke again. "I was born in Poteidaia, then moved to Athens, to attend to the Academy, then I moved to Corinth. Anything wrong with it?"

"Well... yes," replied Xena, taking a deep breath. "It's about your family."

"My family?" Gabrielle's eyes became immediately serious and worried. "What do you mean? What's wrong with my family?"

"Your mother is ill, Gabrielle." The Conqueror waited a moment to let her words sink in, then added, "She's dying."

Gabrielle's mouth quivered, she blinked repeatedly, trying to fight back the tears, then babbled "Mother?... No, no... it's impossible... you're lying. Mother can't... how do you know? You're lying..."

"Sorry, it's true. She had a fever, and it seems her lungs suffered the most... I'm sorry." Xena poured a mug of port and handed it to the girl, who mechanically took it and swallowed some.

Gabrielle then sighing, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, a lonely tear falling down her cheek. "Thank you for telling me, Conqueror. Now may I..." She swallowed hard before continuing, "go back to my cell?"

The girl's demeanour, the dignity with which she faced the pain moved the Conqueror, who had to fight the impulse to hug Gabrielle to give her comfort; Xena knew she had made the right choice. "I thought you might want to see her before she dies," she softly said.

The younger woman's eyes widened in surprise. Why did she say this? She thought. Does she want to make fun of me? Does she want to hear me beg? See my reaction, my tears? Or she really means... I can... Gods, if it only were true!

Xena read surprise, anger and hope pass in the blonde woman's eyes before she tentatively spoke. "Why? Is it possible?"

The Warrior Princess shrugged, "If you want it."

Gabrielle's brows furrowed suspiciously. "At what price? What do you want in exchange?"

"Nothing," the Conqueror simply stated, and the prisoner for a brief instant saw sorrow in her eyes, at the question. "You have my word."

Then I only have to ask! thought Gabrielle. Why does she let me... no, I can't think about her reasons now. I can see mother for the last time and that's the only thing that matters. Sacrificing my pride isn't really such a big price to pay.

"Then please, Princess," she respectfully said, eyes cast on the floor. "Let me see my mother, I beg you, please."

Xena felt uneasy seeing the girl abase herself like this. She made a mental note to think again about why she was unable to consider this girl an enemy. "There's no need to beg." she said shaking her head then, gently lifting the girl's chin with an hand and moving it so that she faced the soldier "This is Martinus. He'll escort you to Poteidaia. I suggest you to leave now. Every candlemark may be important."

Martinus nodded and approached. Gabrielle rose, still incredulous at the opportunity she had, then, as an afterthought, knelt and whispered her thanks to the Conqueror again; then, guided by the soldier, left the room.

"Goodbye, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, feeling loneliness descend on her like a cold fog.

Part 2
Return to the Academy