DESTINY CONQUERED - Chapter 4 (Conclusion)

By Texbard, originally submitted for the first ex-Guards bard’s challenge, June 21, 2000


The five women entered the inn at Amphipolis, Gabrielle in the lead, followed by Lila and rounded out by the three Amazons. The girl looked around at the few patrons who were eating breakfast. They all appeared to be locals, mostly older couples and one young woman with a baby. Otherwise the room was empty and showed no signs of inhabitation by a would-be kidnapper. A woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair appeared from what she assumed was the kitchen door. "Can I help you? You need a room?"

"No. We just wanted to grab a bite of breakfast. There’s six of us." Gabrielle smiled.

The woman’s eyes narrowed as she counted. "I only see five. Where’s the sixth?"

"Stabling our horses. She’ll be in shortly." The girl continued to try to appear friendly.

"Six women traveling without men?" The woman looked skeptical and she peered more closely at the tired group, who had slept in the woods just outside town. They were growing weary of sleeping on the ground, and it was starting to show. "Wait a minute ... are you Amazons?" She took in the leather-clad threesome at the rear of the group, noting Ephiny’s boars-tooth necklace and Solari’s beaded and feather-bedecked combs that held her hair back, not to mention the scowl that had become permanently etched on Eponin's face. "I don’t want any trouble here. No fighting. Warlords aren’t welcome in my inn."

"We’re not warlords, ma'am." Ephiny stepped forward and extended her arm. "I’m Ephiny. And this is Solari, Eponin, Gabrielle, and Lila. We’re just passing through and want a hearty meal and maybe a hot bath."

The woman grasped the muscular forearm. "I’m Cyrene. You can have a seat at the large table over under the window. I’m assuming I’ll know who your sixth is when she arrives?"

"Oh. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble recognizing her." Gabrielle piped in.

"Very well then. Take a seat. I’ll bring out some hot tea for you." Cyrene disappeared into the kitchen with a swish of long skirts.

The frazzled party found seats on long rough wooden benches and gratefully accepted the mugs of hot fragrant tea the woman brought out. The girl studied the woman, who didn’t look old enough to be her master’s mother. There was very little grey in her hair, her skin was still surprisingly smooth, and she still had the curves of a much younger woman. In fact, Gabrielle could see almost no resemblance between Xena and Cyrene, and decided that her master must favor her father.

The woman paused while pouring hot water over ground filtered tea leaves, as she realized all five women had turned their attention to the front door. "Oh. Is your sixth here?" She turned around and the almost-empty pewter pitcher clattered to the ground as it slipped from her fingers. "What in Tartarus do you think you’re doing waltzing into my inn at this early candle mark on what gave promise of being a good day? Until now."

"Hello mother." The Conqueror sighed. "Good to see you too."

"Xena." The woman strode swiftly forward until she was looking directly up at her daughter’s face. "The last time I saw you, I thought I made it very clear that you aren’t my daughter any more."

"Okay." The blue eyes grew meek and lowered. "I’m not your daughter. I’m just a patron. I’m with these five women. We’ll just eat and be on our way, okay?"

"You ... aren’t ... welcome here." Cyrene gritted her teeth and stood her ground.

"Moth ... Cyrene ... whatever the Hades I’m supposed to call you, can I have a word with you in private." The sad face pleaded. "Please?"

Before she could think, Cyrene hauled back and slapped her daughter hard across the face. The former warlord merely rolled her head to the side with the impact, and didn’t move from her spot or otherwise react.

"You don’t have the right to ask me for anything. It was bad enough that Lyceus was killed following you and your lofty plan to save this village. Look around, Xena. Amphipolis is thriving again, no thanks to you. But when I started hearing about you ... killing innocent people. Taking their hard-earned property. Burning their homes." The woman felt angry tears squeeze from her eyes, not caring that every face in the room was raptly hanging on every word she spoke. "And then when you conquered Corinth and Athens, and I heard how you were treating people, taking them as slaves, treating them worse than a snake on the ground, torturing and crucifying anyone who defies you ... not only are you not my daughter, as far as I’m concerned you’re dead. You know what, Xena?"

"What?" The alto voice whispered painfully, and the taller woman looked studiously at her boot tops.

"When you were little, your father, Zeus rest his soul, went crazy and tried to sacrifice you to Ares, the god of war. And you know what ... I killed him to save you." She watched with satisfaction as her taller daughter visibly shook with the new information.

"You ... you told me he left us. You lied to me." Xena’s eyes reflected deep pain.

Another slap was her response, this time drawing a trickle of blood from one nostril. "You are a murdering stealing selfish greedy bitch. How dare you call me on a story I told you to protect you from a truth I thought would hurt you. I’m just sorry now that I didn’t let him go ahead and sacrifice you. We would all be better if he had. I wish you’d never been born. You have brought nothing but shame on me and Toris. Everyone who passes through or moves here, they eventually find out that I’m .... your ... mother. Do you know what it’s like to be responsible for giving birth to pure evil, Xena? How many times people have threatened my life because of you? Just ... get ... out of my inn. And don’t come back."

"I ..." The Conqueror felt the tremor in her voice and swallowed. "I wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t under dire circumstances."

"Don’t tell me you’ve come to ask a favor." Cyrene rolled her eyes. "I thought if nothing else, you were at least halfway intelligent. Smart enough to know better than that."

The Conqueror knew she had very few cards left to play. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, letting go of her last big secret. "I have a son."

"I’m not surprised." Cyrene laughed sarcastically. "That’s the other thing I heard about you. I believe the exact words I heard were ‘she’ll hump anything between here and Athens that walks on two legs.’ That was such a joyful thing for a mother to hear about her own daughter. Do you even know who his father is?"

"Um ... Borias."

"Oh gods. Don’t tell me he’s still in your life." The innkeeper sat down heavily on a nearby bench.

The Conqueror hesitantly sat down across from her. "Mother. Borias is dead. And our son is twelve summers old now. He’s been kidnaped. His kidnapper told me to come here to wait for instructions on how to get him back."

"How did someone manage to kidnap your son from that fortress in Athens you call home?" Cyrene snorted distastefully.

"He doesn’t live in my palace. For his protection, I’d rather not say where he lives. Just know that it’s far away from me." The former warlord felt her defenses rapidly crumbling and she knew her chin was trembling. "I haven’t seen him since he was a day old. I gave him to someone else to raise because I knew I wouldn’t be a fit mother."

"Well that’s the first smart thing I think I’ve heard you say in a very long time." The innkeeper rested her arms on the table top. "Okay. You can stay here until you get your bastard child back. I’ll let you eat in here and you and your group can sleep in the barn. But you had better lay low. Don’t go nosing around town letting people know you’re here. As soon as you get him back, you slip quietly out of here and don’t ever come back. I’m not going to let you hurt me or Toris or this village anymore, you understand me?"

"Yes Ma'am." The former warlord stood up to her full six feet and straightened her cloak with a negligent flick of her fingers. She looked at her slaves. "I’ll be out in the barn when you’re finished eating." She turned on her heals and walked out the front door, not turning around or looking back.

The five remaining women sat in mute shock. Xena the Conqueror had just been reduced from a ferocious monster to a chastised, meek, almost whimpering puddle of defeat by a woman who was shorter than her by a good eight inches. "We're here to rescue her son? She has a son?" Eponin finally broke the silence.

"Yeah." Gabrielle looked toward the front door. "Listen. I'm going to take her something to eat. You all come on out to the barn after you've eaten." The girl got up and went to the kitchen. The others weren't sure exactly what transpired behind the closed door, but several long minutes later she emerged with a basket and headed out the door.

The girl was halfway to the barn when Lila caught up with her. "Gabrielle."

She turned around and waited for her sister to catch up. "What?"

"A runner just slipped into the back door of the inn and delivered this message for the Conqueror." She handed over a rolled up piece of parchment. "Um ... Gabby?"

The girl took the message and searched her sister's face, sensing a confrontation. "Lila, is it important?"

"I ... just." The brown-haired girl smoothed imaginary wrinkles out of her tunic. "What's going on with you and her?"

"Why do you ask?" Gabrielle shifted the basket from one arm to the other.

"Gab. I ... it seems like you actually enjoy her company. How ... I don't understand. I ... didn't mean to invade your privacy last night, but I was awake when you two ... um ... I wasn't sure exactly what was going on because it was dark and I couldn't hear much ... but I was pretty sure you were ... I mean, it seemed like you wanted to be with her ... like that."

"You're right. That was private and it's none of your business." The girl closed her eyes and focused inward for a moment. "Look. Lila, I don't understand it either. I don't know when things changed, and she and I haven't really talked about it much. It's such a cliche, you know? a slave falls in love with her master. Master falls for slave. It's really difficult, because she still has the mind-set of a slave-owner, and I still have that of a servant. But every now and then we slip out of that into something I can't even describe, and it happens more and more frequently lately. I don't even know what's going to happen after all of this. She said she's going to give me my freedom too."

"Well, you're going to go home to Potadeia with me, of course." Lila's voice took on a no-nonsense tone. "We've got to see how mother and father are doing." She watched the green eyes look away. "My gods. Gabby." Her sister's earlier words finally registered on her conscious thought. "Did you say you were falling in love with her? Tell me it's not true. You're thinking of staying with her, aren't you?"

"I don't know, about either issue. Lila, go back in and finish your breakfast." Gabrielle turned and made her way to the barn as her sister stood rooted in place, unable to speak or move.

The Conqueror looked down from the hayloft she was crouched in, as her handmaiden entered the barn, a large chunk of sunlight spreading across the floor from the large open doorway. "Hey. I'm up here." She had curled up in an upright position, her legs tucked under her on a soft pile of hay. She couldn't bring herself to tell the girl that she had a very keen sense of hearing, and that she had heard most of Gabrielle and Lila's conversation, at least the important parts. On the one hand, it made her feel good to know the girl might actually want to stay with her. On the other hand, the thought that Gabrielle might love her terrified her. She couldn't remember what it was like to love, and in truth, the only people she had ever truly cared about were her mother, father, brothers, and son. And now ... this girl. Is that what I've been feeling? Do I love her? Oh gods.

Gabrielle climbed up the ladder that was leaning against the edge of the loft and crawled over to her master. "Here. I brought you some breakfast." She set the basket down between them and sat back, crossing her legs.

"Thanks. You didn't have to do that." The Conqueror dug into the basket and pulled out a piece of multi-grain bread and a slab of ham, putting them together and taking a satisfied bite. She shoved the basket toward the girl. "You too. You couldn't have had time to eat in there."

The girl peered into the hamper and picked up another piece of bread and a flask of what turned out to be apple juice. They ate in silence and then the Conqueror slid back until her back was resting against a large bale of hay, extending her legs out in front of her and resting her hands loosely in her lap. She looked down and worked her jaw several times before she began to speak. "Gabrielle. Have you ever felt like your entire world was turned inside out, and you that no matter what you did, things were never going to be the same again?"

"Yeah." The girl studied the troubled face. "The day those slavers took me from my home."

"Oh." The former warlord blinked. "I guess that would qualify as a life-altering event."

"Mm-hmm." Gabrielle crawled over until she was sitting next to her master. "I think that for the rest of my life, no matter what I do or where I end up, there's part of me that will never forget what it's like to be someone else's property. To have someone else in charge of your fate. To have someone else keep you locked inside so that you can never go anywhere without permission or an escort. If ... if you give me my freedom, I don't think I am ever going to take that for granted again."

The Conqueror raised her knees and crossed her arms on top of them, resting her forehead on her arms. "I guess my own problems must seem pretty petty compared to yours."

"Maybe." The girl turned, resting her weight on one hip and curling her legs up beside her so that she was facing toward her master.

"It's just that I'm not sure of anything anymore. I don't think I want to be a conqueror anymore. Or a warrior or the destroyer of nations. Hades, for all I know, by the time I get back to Athens, I may not have a country to rule anymore. Whoever wins the war with Caesar will have Greece and the Roman Empire. There won't be any compromise. If Greece loses, I may become a slave too. That is if the Romans don't decide to execute me." She looked up and stared out an upper window toward the trees outside. "I ... ever since I took up with Ares, I've believed that it was my destiny to rule. To rule Greece and whatever other territory I could conquer. Now ... it all seems so pointless. What do I do after I get Rome? What's next? Does it really matter anymore?"

"What do you want to do next?" The girl's voice was very soft.

"I don't know. My own mother and brother hate me. My son has been raised without his parents and kidnaped because of me. Now I find out my father lost his life because of Ares. And to think I've been fucking around with Ares for fifteen summers. I ... can't figure out where everything went so wrong." The older woman dropped her head forward again, afraid she was going to start crying. "Before Cortese, I was just another village girl and I probably would have ended up married with a bunch of kids. After Cortese ... everything went all to Tartarus. I ... I think I would like to do something that maybe one day might make my mother proud of me again."

Gabrielle scooted next to her master, and gently massaged tight neck and shoulder muscles with one hand, while the other hand came to rest on a trembling biceps. "Xena. Destiny isn't set in stone. Look at me. You are about to give me my freedom. I would have thought I was destined to be a servant forever. You don't have to follow Ares for the rest of your life. You can choose a different way."

"This is all your fault, you know." The Conqueror laughed ruefully, her face still hidden from view. "You weren't afraid to stand up to me. You made me open my eyes and see what life was like for all of the slaves I own. You made them human to me, dammit. And it got me to thinking about my method of rulership. I ... don't know what drives me to hurt people. Ares ... maybe."

"Maybe it's because you've been hurt yourself, and you have to control everything and everyone so that nothing will ever be able to get to you again." The girl switched from massaging to lightly scratching the soft skin at the base of her master's neck. "The thing is, Xena, with all of that control you tried to maintain, you ended up hurting your own self. If you want respect, you have to earn it. You can't bully it out of people. There's a big difference between service out of fear and devotion out of respect. If you want people to follow you of their own free will, you have to let them go, and then you have to give them reason to want to be under your command."

"You ... remember that story you told me about the benevolent ruler?" The former warlord turned her head, laying her cheek against her arm so that she could look at the girl. "I ... think maybe that would be a good place to start. I ... could change some things. Make things better for people. Maybe free all my slaves and offer then pay and lodging for their services. Arrange things so that the citizens have incentive to work, that they get something back in return. It' just that I ... I can't ..." She trailed off and closed her eyes, as a few tears trickled out of them. I can't do it alone.

"Can't what?" Gabrielle reached up and brushed the moisture off a tanned cheekbone.

The dark head shook back and forth. "Never mind. It's selfish."

"Xena." The girl leaned in and kissed her master's head. "You can't get something if you don't ask for it."

"I don't deserve what I want." Blue eyes slowly opened, revealing a tortured soul.

"Would it help if I told you that I think I love you?" Gabrielle quickly looked away, afraid of what she might see on her master's face.

Long arms reached out and snagged her, pulling her close against the Conqueror's body. "Gabrielle. I really don't deserve that. I don't even know what love is anymore. Or how to love. It's not fair for me to take advantage of your feelings for me. You deserve to be with someone who hasn't beaten you and enslaved you and almost raped you on more than one occasion."

"But you've changed." The girl wrapped one arm across a leather-clad stomach and laid her head against her master's shoulder. "I would like to stay with you, I think. But I'm not going to if you don't want me there."

"I ... have some very strong feelings for you. I won't deny that. And on a purely selfish level, yes, I want you to stay with me. But you need to do what's best for you." The former warlord reached down and tilted her handmaiden's chin up, and leaned in, kissing the girl gently and slowly for several long minutes. "After we rescue Solan, maybe you and I can go somewhere for a few days and try to figure out what we're going to do next. Okay?"

"Okay. Oh gods. I forgot." Gabrielle broke away from the warm embrace and crawled back to the basket, reaching beside it where the piece of parchment had become buried halfway into the thick layer of hay. "This arrived by runner for you."

The Conqueror took the message and untied it. She carefully unrolled it and her eyes darted back and forth across the page. She snorted and shook her head. "This kidnapper knows their stuff. It says to go to the cave where Cortese's men raped me for my next message. Says to be alone and unarmed. And to bring a quarter of the ransom on good faith."


The Conqueror approached the narrow trail that led from the main road up through the trees to the cave. The Amazons and Gabrielle were hidden behind boulders and in the trees on both sides of the trail-head, poised to provide assistance if needed. Lila had chosen to stay at the inn. The former warlord quietly made her way through the thick foliage, ducking low branches and using stealth skills she had thought long dormant. She was surprised at how quickly they came back to her, as if they were second nature. As she walked, she managed to avoid snapping any branches or rustling even a single leaf. Finally, the sun became brighter as she reached the beginning of the clear area between the treeline and the small hill where the cave was embedded in the rock halfway up.

She took a deep breath and re-shouldered the heavy bag of dinars she carried. Her sword and chakram were stowed behind a tree at the bottom of the trail, but the two boot daggers were tucked deep inside the tops of her boots, well out of sight. The Conqueror was no fool. To be unarmed was to invite death, although she had killed many a man in hand-to-hand combat alone. She made her way up the hill and as she approached the cave, a tall willowy blonde emerged from the entrance.

"Well, well, well. Xena." Callisto's voice rose and fell in a sing-song tone that got on the former warlord's nerves in no time. "I see you know how to follow orders after all." She appraised the muscular form, noting that there were no weapons and eyeing the large bag with great anticipation. "I wondered. You're awfully good at doling them out. Sometimes those who give orders are unable to follow them."

"Callisto." The Conqueror stopped and dropped the bag to the ground next to a log. She raised both hands. "I'm here. No weapons. I brought the 250,000 dinars. The rest is in a safe place pending release of my son."

"Oh no." The blonde moved closer, walking with a seductive swinging motion that under other circumstances would have intrigued the Conqueror. "I make the rules now. Not you."

"Cut the centaur crap, Callisto. Where's Solan?" The Conqueror crossed her arms over her chest.

"Don't worry. He's safe. You'll get to see him when I get the ret of my ransom." The tall thin woman shook her finger back and forth in a scolding gesture.

"No. I see him first. Then you get the rest of the ransom." The former warlord stood her ground, her chin jutting out as the blue eyes grew darker with anger.

"Let's compromise shall we?" Callisto sat down on a rock and crossed her legs, looking up with dark brown eyes, teasing her former master.

"Before we go down this road, what makes you think that after I give you the ransom, and after I get Solan back, that I'm not gonna track you down and cut your heart out?" Xena's fingers twitched, itching to grab a boot dagger and end it all, knowing that she couldn't do anything until she had her son safely in her care.

"I know you have a son now." The blonde flipped her long hair over her shoulder. "You can't keep an eye on him twenty-four candle marks a day, now can you? You come after me, and there is someone else who will come after him."

"You lie." The former warlord eyed the cave entrance, wondering why her slave had chosen this particular location, and how she had known about it at all.

"Maybe. Maybe not." The blonde stood up. "Here's the compromise. You tell me where the rest of the ransom is, and I'll tell you where your son is."

"Okay. You go first." The Conqueror slowly walked closer, but remained standing to maintain a psychological advantage.

"If I go first, why should I believe you will tell me the truth?" Callisto shifted, swinging one leg in an agitated manner.

"How about this?" The former warlord placed her hands on her hips. "I'll tell you where the dinars are. Then you take me to my son. You can tie us both up until you go see for yourself that I'm not lying."

"What if I take the ransom and just leave you tied up to rot?" The blonde grinned evilly.

"I'll take my chances. There has to be an element of trust somewhere in all of this or we aren't going to get anywhere." The Conqueror sighed heavily. "So. Are we agreed?"

"Yes." Callisto leaned forward. "So. Where is the rest of the ransom?"

"In the hayloft of the barn at the inn in Amphipolis." The former warlord moved from foot to foot in a restless manner. "Now. Where's my son?"

"Follow me." The tall blonde stood up. "Oh. First, let me tie your hands. I'll leave your feet until we get to him, so you can walk."

"How generous of you." Xena held out her clasped hands while Callisto tied them tightly together. "You do good work." She eyed the expert knots. "Okay. Lead on."

They climbed the steep path up to the cave, and the tall blonde pushed the former warlord inside with a hard shove. "He's over there, around the corner."

Xena ran the last few steps to the back of the cave and rounded the corner which ended in a small alcove. a boy with long blonde hair looked up at her pitifully, both eyes bruised and his lip swollen and bleeding on one side. "You gods-be-damned bitch." The former warlord turned around. "What did you do to him?"

"He tried to escape. Nothing you haven't done to runaway slaves. If not worse." Callisto laughed. "Paybacks, huh?"

"He's just a boy." The Conqueror's voice broke.

"And I was just a girl when you killed my father and burned down the barn where my mother and sister were hiding." The blonde screeched with rage. "You made me an orphan."

"I did what?" Xena's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

"Remember Cirra, oh mighty Conqueror?" Callisto moved in until they were less than a foot apart. "I grew up in Cirra with Satrina. You killed my parents. You killed my sister. You killed my friend. You're very lucky I didn't kill your son." The blonde gestured toward Solan. "I guess I'm a better person than you are."

A small voice gasped from the alcove. "You ... you're my mother?"

Xena spun around, facing Solan. "She's ..." The former warlord stopped in mid-sentence, unable to deny the truth when she looked at the incredulous face. "We'll discuss all of this after I get you out of here."

"Sit down next to the boy so I can tie you up." Callisto retrieved a length of rope from a bag next to the wall. "Our deal, remember?"

The Conqueror lowered herself to the ground, her eyes never leaving her tormentor's face. As Callisto bent down and looped the rope under her ankles, the former warlord kicked up violently, nailing the blonde squarely on the side of her head, knocking her unconscious. Xena stood up and bent over, working a dagger free from her boot with her fingers, despite her tightly bound wrists. She flipped the dagger into the air, catching it firmly in her teeth, and then raised her hands, slicing the rope. "I'll free you in a minute." She looked over at her son. "I need to secure her before she comes around." She quickly hog-tied the blonde, and for good measure, secured additional ropes around her neck in such a manner that if she struggled too much, she'd cut off her own windpipe.

Xena knelt by her son's side and placed a shaking hand on his face. "Other than these bruises, are you okay?"

"Yes ma'am." The boy watched as his mother cut the ropes from his hand and feet, and felt long arms wrap around him, hugging him tightly. "You are my mother?"

"Yes." The Conqueror felt warm tears flowing freely down her face, as she held her son for the first time since he was a day old. They sat there for half a candle mark, as Xena rocked her son against her. Finally, she pulled back enough to look into Solan's eyes. "I know you have a lot of questions, and I will try to answer them. But first, we need to get you back to Amphipolis and take care of these injuries. And we need to send word to Kaliepus that you're alright."

"Are you sending me back to him?" The large brown eyes, that were duplicates of Borias' dark eyes, watered. "He's been good to me, but I want to be with you."

"You don't even know me." The former warlord blinked.

"I want to know you. Please." The boy hugged her tightly. "My mother."

"We'll talk about this some more, but right now, let's get you out of here." Xena helped her son to his feet and they made their way back to the trail head. The Amazons and Gabrielle appeared from their perches, Ephiny and Eponin dropping easily from the treetops while Gabrielle and Solari popped out from behind a large rocky outcropping.

"Hey." Gabrielle moved forward until she was standing in front of the wary boy. "You must be Solan. I'm Gabrielle. I'm ... a friend of your mother's" Green eyes briefly met blue, and watched her master's face twitch in startlement at being called someone's friend.

"I need you all to take him back to the inn and get him cleaned up. My mother has a healer's kit, at least she used to always have one." Put some ice on his eyes and antiseptic herbs on that split lip. Get him a comfortable spot in the barn to sleep." Xena looked back toward the trail head. "I need to go take care of something and then I'll be back."

"Xena ..." Gabrielle touched her on the arm.

"Go on back with them." The eyes grew icy cold. "You don't need to see what I have to do."

"But ..." The girl squeezed the arm more tightly.

"Callisto is up there, and she took my son. She's all but promised to come after him again or send someone else after him if I ever come after her." The former warlord pried the fingers from her arm. "Gabrielle. I am what I am. Think about that in light of our discussion this morning. I can't let her walk away from this. She will always be a threat to Solan, and I can't allow it."

"Okay." The girl lowered her eyes and moved away, not looking back as she joined the Amazons and Solan, who were already a good way down the trail from her.

Guess I've lost her for good. The former warlord shook her head slightly and steeled herself for the task ahead. She loped back up the trail to the cave, where Callisto was starting to wake up. "Well." Xena knelt down next to her captive. "Tables have turned back again, haven't they?"

The blonde looked up, her head pounding where the Conqueror had kicked her. "Careful what you do. If anything happens to me, Ares will come after you."

"Ares?" Xena laughed. "As in the god of war?"

"Yes." Callisto smiled. "He came to me and told me all about your son, and Amphipolis, and even this cave. He seemed to know a lot about you. He promised me if I managed to kidnap Solan and draw your attention away from your little war in Rome, that he would take me under his wing and teach me how to be a great warrior. He said he'd never had a protègè before, and I was the best candidate he had ever seen."

"Let me guess. After that, he fucked you nearly unconscious, and it was the best lay of your life. It felt like your whole body was turned inside out and set on fire, and you felt him boiling in your blood. And then he held you all night long, and told you that if you would give yourself to him , body, heart, and soul, that he would help you conquer Greece, and eventually the world." The warrior watched with satisfaction as the brown eyes grew wide with surprise. "Got news for you, you little fool. Been there, done that. I've been Ares' protègè for the last fifteen summers. He's a liar and he doesn't keep his promises. You weren't his first, and you won't be his last."

"Ares!!!!" The blonde screamed out at the top of her lungs in a high-pitched voice, and suddenly, the god of war appeared in a red cloud of swirling smoke.

"You called me?" The god of war cocked one eyebrow and tilted his head.

"Yes. You said if I needed you I could call." Callisto looked up hopefully.

"Yeah. I did say that." Ares looked over at Xena. "Tell her Xena."

"He said you could, but he didn't say you should." The former warlord pulled out a dagger. "You see, Ares once told me that anyone weak enough to call him didn't deserve his help. When he and I first got together, he came to me. And in all that time, I've never called out his name." She dragged the tip of the dagger slowly across Callisto's throat. "Not even while my nails were scratching down his bare back and his hands were digging into my naked ass."

"Do what you need to do, Xena. I'll be outside." Ares vanished as Callisto screamed. She screamed once more as the former warlord suddenly flipped onto her back and plunged a dagger deeply into her heart, twisting it viciously for good measure as the warm blood bubbled up across her chest and onto the rocky cave floor.

The Conqueror withdrew the sharp blade and wiped it across the dead blonde's leather skirt to remove the blood. She got up and shoved the weapon back into her boot top and squared her shoulders before she went to face her mentor. "Ares. Why?"

"You disobeyed me, Xena. I own you and you ignored a direct order." The god of war circled her.

"No. You don't own me. Not anymore." The former warlord turned with his movement, not allowing him out of her sight. "I'm taking back my power, Ares. From now on, I call the shots."

"You need me." The god moved closer. "You can't do anything without me."

"Maybe. I don't know anymore. I've found someone who showed me a better way." Xena stepped back one step.

"How do you know she's not gone for good?" Ares matched the step, moving forward one pace.

"I don't. But even if she is, I've still learned there is a better way." She felt large hands close around her waist and swallowed. "I may still fight some, but I'm going to pick my own battles from now on. If you want to help me out with those, so be it. But I'm not going to let you direct me anymore."

"Oh, Xena." Ares licked his lips slowly. "You and I are an unbeatable team. Why would you throw that away over a little peasant slave? Stay with me. I'll get you a hundred little girls to play with."

"Because. She loves me." The former warlord forced the rising passion down, knowing it was Ares' last attempt to reel her back in. "I'd forgotten what it feels like to be truly loved. If I want that, with her or anyone else, I'm going to have to change some things."

The god of war leaned in, and kissed her deeply, feeling the strong body melt into him. "That's it Xena. Come back to me."

Finally, the Conqueror pulled back. "Did you enjoy that?" Her voice was smoky with desire.

"Oh yeah." Ares started to kiss her again, when he was pushed savagely to the ground.

"Remember it then, because that was the last kiss you'll ever get from me." The former warlord wiped her hand across the back of her mouth and spit at him for good measure.

The god of war rose to his feet, his voice rising in rage. "Fine. Have it your way. I'll let you go out on your own for a while. You'll come crawling back to me when everything falls apart." He waved his hand in a circle over his head and disappeared in a bright flash of fiery smoke.

He just doesn't get it. Xena smiled wryly. Everything already fell apart. Now I've got to figure out how to put it back together. She picked up the bag of dinars, which was still resting against the log, and made her way back to Amphipolis.


The Conqueror quietly opened the barn door and looked around, spotting three Amazons and Lila sitting in an empty stall playing their card game. "Where's Solan? And Gabrielle?" Her mouth twisted to one side in question.

"Inside the inn." Ephiny answered, before throwing three cards down onto the pile in front of her in apparent frustration. "Damn. Can't seem to get a good hand today to save my life."

"Thanks." Xena closed the door again and went to the inn. She swallowed hard and turned the door knob, and stepped inside. a few patrons were eating dinner, and she heard noise in the kitchen, indicating her mother was hard at work. She couldn't remember a time when her mother wasn't busy with one task or another. "Mother?" She cautiously entered the kitchen, half expecting a knife or a some other utensil to come flying at her.

"He's upstairs in the last room at the end of the hallway. Your friend's up there with him." The innkeeper didn't bother to turn around from the kettle she was hovering over.

"But I thought you said ..."

"The barn is no place for my grandson to be sleeping, especially since he's hurt." She lifted a handful of herbs and sifted them through her fingers into the fragrant stew. "You may sleep on the floor in his room tonight if you want to. I've put your friend in the room next to it. There's a door in between. Seems he's taken a liking to her."

a completely dumbfounded Conqueror opened her mouth and then closed it again. Her heart began to beat fast and she swallowed several times. "Mother?"

"Yes?" Cyrene stirred the contents of the kettle with a large spoon.


"It's no favor to you, Xena. You're still not welcome here." The innkeeper finally turned around after putting lid on the stew. "But your son is innocent. I'm not going to punish him for your miserable stinking life."

The Conqueror nodded in understanding and left the room, taking the stairs to the upper level two at a time. She slowed down as she approached the last room, not wanting to wake Solan if he were sleeping. "Hey." She looked across the room and was met by a pair of brown eyes on the bed and a pair of green ones sitting in a chair next to it. "How are you, champ?"

"Really tired Mo ... can I call you 'Mother'?" The boy looked at her uncertainly.

"Sure. That's fine. Listen, I need to borrow your bedsitter for a minute, is that okay?" She glanced briefly at her handmaiden.

"Yeah." Solan rolled over and touched Gabrielle's knee. "Come back soon, okay?"

"Okay." The girl patted his hand and silently followed her master through the connecting door to the adjoining room and moved to the window as she heard the click of the door closing again. "This must have been a nice place to grow up."

"It was." The Conqueror sat down on the edge of the bed, studying the tense posture of the girl's shoulders and back. "So ..." She licked her lips nervously. "I've got my son back, so you're free now. I guess you'll probably be wanting to go find Lila and get the Hades out of here."

Gabrielle continued to gaze out at the low tree-covered hills and the remainder of the early evening sunlight that stretched out at a long angle, casting large shadows across the land. "I promised Solan I'd stay with him until you figure out what you're going to do with him."

"Oh. I see." Her face muscles twitched. "That'll probably be good for him. I think he's still pretty shocked that I'm his mother. He ... seems to like you." I like you. Who wouldn't?

The girl felt tears stinging her eyes, as she suddenly realized she was free. Free after five years of often being hungry, and forced sexual favors, and sleeping in cold damp rooms on lumpy cots under thin dirty blankets. She took a deep shaky breath and the tears began to fall. She sniffled and wiped her hand across her eyes. "I need a minute here, please? Why don't you go tell the others they're free. You ... are going to tell them, aren't you?"

"Yeah. I guess I should go do that." The former warlord stood up. "You ... want me to come back here any time soon?"

"Whenever you want to." She kept her back turned. "I'll be here or else next door with your son."

"Okay." Xena moved in behind the girl and hesitated. Finally, she wrapped her arms around the girl's waist from behind and felt the smaller body begin to shake with her crying. "Gabrielle ... whatever you decide to do ... thank you. For everything. Your Amazons. Your service to me. For showing me that my slaves are lot more than just property. I ... won't ever be the same because of you. That's all."

"Xena, just go." The girl pushed the arms away. "This is hard enough and you're confusing me."

"Sorry." The former warlord left the room, afraid she would be shedding some tears of her own soon.


The Conqueror rode back into the village well after dark. She'd talked to the Amazons, and Lila, who had almost deafened her with their joyous whoops of freedom. She divvied out the promised dinars and even told them to keep the horses they had ridden. They decided they'd sleep in the barn and head out after breakfast. The Amazons planned to go back to the location of their former village and then scour the surrounding hills and caves to see if any of their Amazon sisters were hiding out there. Lila had decided to wait until Gabrielle talked to her before making a decision.

The former warlord entered the barn to find three of the women drinking and playing yet another game of cards. Gabrielle was no where in sight, and she assumed the girl was probably up in the room with her son. Ephiny was also missing, but she didn't bother concerning herself over her absence. It wasn't like the Amazon was her responsibility anymore. She figured maybe the Amazon had also gone to visit with Gabrielle and Solan. She led her horse, Argo, into a stall and nearly jumped out of her skin as she realized the horse in the next stall was only half horse. "Kaleipus?"

"Xena." The centaur turned and came out of the stall.

"Sorry Xena." Solari called out. "We should have warned you he was here. He and his friend arrived a little while ago. Ephiny went for a ride with his friend. "What was his name again?"

"Phantes." The centaur replied. "Xena. I came as soon as I got your message that you thought Solan would be found here. I talked to him for a little while. He came out and sat on the inn porch. He's pretty determined to stay with you. What are you going to do?"

"I don't know yet." The former warlord unsaddled Argo and began to brush her down. "Kaleipus. a lot has changed since I saw you last. What has it been ... two summers ago when I ran into you at the festival of Dionysus in Athens?"

"Yes." The centaur shifted from hoof to hoof. "Are you thinking of taking him back to Athens with you?"

"Maybe." She finished the brush job and lifted a bag of oats, pouring some into a feed bag hanging on the side of the stall. "Not immediately. I've got a couple of things to work out first. I'll probably send him back with you for a little while and then send for him after things have settled down in Athens."

"I see." Kaleipus tilted his head, studying the somewhat sad profile. "Do you need me to hang around for a few days?"

"That would be a good idea." Xena wiped her hands off on her pants leg and moved out of the stall. She looked up as the barn door opened and a strange centaur trotted in, with a merrily laughing Ephiny riding on his back. "Thought she said the Amazon went for a ride with your friend."

Kaleipus chuckled. "'With.' 'On.' Mere words. All I can tell you for certain is that the minute those two saw each other, they both got these really silly goofy looks on their faces and then they took off a little while later. There's no accounting for attraction, Xena. Sometimes the most unlikely people pair up for no sane reason."

"True." Her thoughts immediately turned to her handmaiden. Former handmaiden, she internally chided herself. "Well. Make yourselves comfortable. Did you get dinner?"

"Yes. The Amazons brought us plates when they returned from dining in the inn." He watched in amusement as Ephiny talked quietly with the other Amazons and then jumped back onto Phantes' back, and they took off again, leaving the barn door swinging in their wake. "Why do I get the feeling I'm going to be traveling back to the Centaur village with at least one Amazon?"

"Educated guess?" Xena managed to smile. "Good night, Kaleipus. I'll make sure you get breakfast in the morning."

"Good night, Xena." He watched her leave and then settled back into the wide stall he had chosen for his berth. Something has changed. He mused to himself. That hard cocky edge is gone. She seems to be carrying some sort of heavy burden. Probably good for her. Ignoring the ongoing revelry in the far corner, he braced his legs and fell asleep.


"Gabrielle?" The Conqueror walked across the creaking boards of the room, glad that neither occupant was asleep. "Do you mind going next door or downstairs? I need to talk to Solan alone for a little while."

"No problem." The girl turned to the boy. "I'll be next door all night, okay?"

"Okay." Solan smiled sadly as she left the room.

"How are you feeling now?" Xena sat down on the chair, drawing one knee up and wrapping her arms around it, resting her chin on her kneecap.

"Better. I took a nap and your moth ... Grandma ... she told me I could call her that ... she's been up here twice to look at my lip and my eyes. The bruises are already fading, see?"

"Yes. I see." She leaned in closer, studying the pale blue and yellow skin. "Solan. My life is very complicated right now. Do you understand?"

"I don't care. I want to come live with you." Stubborn brown eyes locked with baby blue.

"Wait. Let me finish." Gods. Why is this so hard? "The government is unstable right now. I won't go into why just yet, and it should resolve in less than a moon, for better or worse. If it turns out like I hope it will, I still have some major restructuring to do, both with the way I've been running things and with how I've handled my contingent of palace servants. If ... and I do mean 'if' ... things get properly settled in Athens, then if you really want to, you can come live with me for a while. Just to see how things work out."

"Really?" The brown eyes twinkled hopefully and a genuine smile appeared on the small face.

"It might not be what you think, Solan." She shifted, curling the upraised leg under herself. "Not many people like me. In fact, most of them hate me. I've not done a good job of things, and a lot of people have been hurt because of it. I plan to change that, but it's going to take time. You may catch flack because you're my son."

"I don't care." The boy rolled onto his side and hesitantly reached across, touching his mother on the arm. "Wow. Your skin is really soft. It's so tan too."

The Conqueror felt her defenses go way down. "Another thing, the palace is in the city. There's no hunting or fishing or even many trees unless you travel a ways away. If you live with me, you'll be sleeping in a big marble room instead of in a nice cozy hut, and I'll expect you to go to school. We have some of the finest teachers in the world in Athens, so if you live with me, you should take advantage of the opportunity to get an education."

"Bet you didn't go to any fancy schools." Solan pouted.

"No." Xena smiled affectionately at her son, in spite of herself. "I went to the school of hard knocks, the school of life. Learned things the hard way. But believe me, I wish I'd had the chance to study somewhere like Athens. Things might have turned out very differently for me if I had."

"Does Gabrielle live in the palace too?" The boy blinked shyly and blushed, obviously the victim of a crush. "She told me she was your handmaiden. What does a handmaiden do, anyway?"

It was the former warlord's turn to blush, thinking of some of the things the girl had done for her. "Um ... as to the last question, she was my personal assistant. Helped me out around the palace, ran errands, that sort of thing. As for the first, I don't know. She lived with me until we came here to get you. Solan, I've done a lot of things I'm not very proud of. One of them is that I captured people and forced them into slavery. Gabrielle was one of those people."

"Oh." The blonde brows furrowed. "So she wasn't with you because she wanted to be?"

"No." Blue eyes looked down. "At least not at first. I think later she didn't mind so much. But now ... because she and those other women helped me out, I've given all of them their freedom. The others have already decided to leave and will be out of here tomorrow. I don't know what Gabrielle is going to do. We had planned to talk about it, but now ... well I think the reality that she's finally free may be sinking in. I told her she could stay with me if she wants to, but it's her decision to make. Don't be surprised if she leaves tomorrow with her sister."



"She's really nice. I'd like to see her if I come live with you." Solan grew somber. "I hope she decides to stay."

"I do too, son." The Conqueror sighed. "I guess I better go tell her it's okay to come back up here."

In the next room, an eves-dropping former handmaiden quickly jumped into the bed, pretending to be asleep. She hadn't meant to spy, but when she'd gone next door, she'd not noticed the door in between the rooms was partially open, just a crack, and just enough for her to hear what was being said. Before she knew what was happening, she'd found herself leaning against the wall near the door, listening surreptitiously to what her master was saying. She justified her actions by telling herself that she needed to hear her master interacting with her son and talking about her life when she didn't know Gabrielle was listening. She'd heard all she needed to hear.

Xena went downstairs and found the large room empty. She went to the kitchen where her mother was doing pre-preparation for the breakfast crowd the next morning. "Mother, has Gabrielle been down here?"

"No. Not since dinner. She brought Solan down and I ate with them and her sister. Those Amazons sat across the room from us." The innkeeper tossed a small towel at her daughter. "Here. Make yourself useful. Dry those dishes in the dishpan over there."

The Conqueror caught the towel on reflex, and obeyed her mother without thinking twice.

"Xena. I don't know what your plans are, but if you need to, you're welcome to leave Solan here with me. For as long as you need to." She moved to her daughter's side and leaned back against the counter. "He's a good boy and I'd like to get to know him better."

"I ... you don't mind that he's my and Borias' son? That doesn't bother you?" Xena turned to face her mother while she wiped down a large platter.

"He may be the only grandson I ever get. Toris doesn't seem to be in any hurry to find a wife, and you're not married. Lyceus is ..." She looked long and hard at the flinching blue eyes. "Well, anyway, it doesn't change how I feel about the choices you've made, but he is my own flesh and blood. And he may be one of the few things you've done that I might be proud of. You were wise to send him somewhere safe and stable. I'll admit the centaurs may be a little unconventional, but it sounds like he was pretty sheltered from your rampage across Greece. He doesn't seem to know much about it. He almost seems to idolize you."

"I know." The former warlord stacked he dried dishes next to the pan. "I made sure that the Centaurs were left alone. I didn't want his life to be touched by all the violence. I didn't want him to know anything about me at all."

"Really?" Cyrene's eyes grew wide. "You actually made a conscious decision to protect him from all of that?"

"Mother. I've made many, many mistakes. I can admit that now. But Solan, for so long, he was the only person I cared about. Oh, sure, I cared about you and Toris, but the two of you had disowned me. Solan ... I brought him into the world. It may not have been planned and it couldn't have been under worse circumstances, but part of me knew that if he were ever hurt because of me, I could never live with myself."

The innkeeper briefly brushed her fingers across her daughter's cheek. "Maybe I've not given you enough credit. Xena ... you're only twenty-nine summers old. It's not too late to turn your life around, if you really want to. I know you rule this country. Hard as that is to believe sometimes, but surely you can do a better job of it, a more humane job of it than you have been."

"I know." Xena's skin felt warm where her mother had touched her. "I don't deserve for you to believe anything I say. But I've already thought about that, and when I get back to Athens, I plan to make a lot of changes."

"Really? Such as ...?"

"Free my slaves, for a start. Maybe set up a council to advise me on my decisions. I ..." She looked down. "I never started out to hurt anyone. I still don't know how things turned out the way they did. I was so angry all the time, at everyone who had ever hurt me. I wanted to make sure that no one else could ever get close enough to get to me. Didn't want anyone to matter."

"What made you decide all this? What happened?"

"Gabrielle happened." She slowly looked back up, not caring that her eyes shone with unshed tears.

"Xena." The soft hand stroked the tanned cheek again. "Are you in love with her?"

"I ... don't want to call it that. It's not fair to her. I'm no good at love, Mother. I care about her a great deal, yes." The taller woman finely broke down, and found herself in her mother's arms. "Gods. I've done such terrible things. For so long. Even to her."

Cyrene held onto her sobbing daughter and merely listened, while she stroked the heaving back. Her own tears mingled with Xena's. I've waited for this day for so long. Maybe there's hope for her after all.


It was near midnight when the former warlord left her mother's kitchen. They had talked for three candle marks, and consumed several tankards of port. They had talked about everything. Lyceus and the much younger Xena, who had dared to believe she could save her village from an evil warlord. Xena filled her mother in on much of her life during the past fifteen candle marks, sparing her some of the more gory details. Cyrene had listened and offered advice to her daughter on how to proceed with her plans to change things. The former warlord hesitantly told her mother about the situation in Rome, sharing her fears about what would happen if they lost to Caesar.

Finally, grudgingly, they said their goodnights and Xena tiptoed through the upstairs hallway. She'd assumed Gabrielle had simply gone to her room, since the girl had never appeared. Sure enough, as the warrior peered into the room, she could see the girl in the bed. She quietly walked over to the side nearest the girl and looked down at her former handmaiden, whose skin almost glowed in the moonlight that shone through the window. Without thinking, Xena reached down and touched the girl's face, and the green eyes fluttered open. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up. I'll just go on and lay out my palette in Solan's room."

"Wait." The girl sat up partway, leaning on one elbow. "Come here."

The Conqueror immediately sat down on the edge of the bed, and felt a small hand come to rest on her leg.

"Xena. You can sleep in here with me if you want to. We can leave the middle door open a little so we can hear Solan if he needs us. He's already asleep. You might wake him up if you go in there now. There's plenty of room here." Gabrielle patted the empty space next to her.

"You don't mind?" The former warlord bit her lower lip.

"No. I ... we have a lot to talk about. But ... um ... I hope we'll be sleeping in the same bed for a long time." She watched as an almost child-like smile appeared on the Conqueror's face.

"Does this mean ..." Please please please. "... are you going to stay?"

"Like I said, we have a lot to talk about. But ..." She caressed the thigh through the supple leather. " ... yes. I'd like to give it a try. See how things work out between us. I mean ... what are we now, Xena?"

"You want to go into everything tonight?" She clasped the small hand in her larger one. "Not that I won't do it if you really want to. But I was kinda hoping to get Solan's situation settled and get your Amazons on the road before we hash it all out. And ... I'd like to do it when I'm not exhausted with several mugs of port in my belly."

"Oh. No. I'm too tired to hash out details either." She stroked the large hand with her thumb. "But I would like to know, before you crawl into this bed, what, exactly, am I to you now? I'm not your slave anymore, so what am I?"

The Conqueror lifted the girl's hand and kissed it once. Twice. And then held it against her face. "You're someone I want to learn how to love." She watched as the girl closed her eyes and her chest heaved in a slow release of breath. "That good enough to get me into your bed?" She smiled anxiously.

"Yeah. That'll do." Gabrielle suddenly felt very shy. She tracked her former master, as the tall woman stood and removed the leather pants and top, along with her boots, until she was down to her underwear. She rummaged around in a bureau drawer until she came up with a large sleep shirt, which she tugged over her head.

"This used to be my room. I guess mother didn't throw away my old clothes." She cocked her head. "You still wearing those tights and tunic?"

"Yeah. My bags are in the barn and I didn't want to go out there in the dark by myself."

"Here. I've got an extra shirt. Sit up." The girl remained silent, as the Conqueror knelt down, gently removing her tights and tunic until she was also down to her underwear. She as watched the taller woman licked her upper lip in a nervous gesture.

"What's wrong, Xena?" She had a good idea, and her voice held a teasing note.

"I want you so badly right now, but I know it's not a good idea." She smiled and quickly pulled the over-sized shirt onto the girl's small body before she gave into temptation. "I'd hate to have my son walk in on us, and I want to make sure we've worked through stuff before we do anything again." I want her to know it means something the next time.

The woman stood up and opened the middle door just a crack, and then lifted the covers, crawling in next to the girl, pulling her close. The girl turned in her arms and the Conqueror leaned in, tasting the full lips, and then parting them with the tip of her tongue, and felt the girl relax against her, as she performed a long languid examination of Gabrielle's lips and mouth. She couldn't help but slide one hand under the girl's shirt, and she moaned softly into the girl's mouth as her hand made contact with a firm breast. She stayed there for a while and then her hand wandered lower, and she began gently stroking the girl between her legs through her underwear, until she felt a vise-like grip on her wrist. "Stop?"

"Yeah. I think we need to." Gabrielle's voice was ragged and her breathing was quite uneven.

"Mmm. But you're all wet." The fingers made one last pass over the surface of the girl's damp panties.

"Yeah. Well. I'll live." She slapped the Conqueror's hand away playfully.

"Okay." The offending hand behaved, and Xena kissed the girl one more time and then wrapped herself around her from behind, as Gabrielle rolled onto her side. She continued to rub the girl's stomach, her hand under the shirt, making contact with soft bare skin, but made sure her actions were comforting, and not sexual in intent. She kissed the base of Gabrielle's neck, and listened until she was sure the girl was asleep. Securing her grip, she soon followed.


The Amazons left after breakfast, along with a Centaur escort and a very upset Lila. Gabrielle had risen at dawn and rousted her sister out of the barn, dragging her away to a bench on the inn's porch, so she could tell the younger girl of her decision to go back to Athens with Xena. Lila had argued, and when that didn't work, she had started crying. Gabrielle held firm, and tried to make her sister understand all the reasons she didn't intend to go back to Potadeia. It finally came out that even if there were no Xena, the Amazon queen had no intention of ever going back to the sleepy little backwoods berg she had grown up in. She had too many dreams and she'd lost five precious summers as a slave. There was catching up to do.

Finally, a very tearful Lila reluctantly agreed to allow the Amazons and the Centaur to make sure she arrived safely back in Potadeia. Gabrielle told her sister that if something had happened and their parents were no longer there, that Lila was welcome to come back to Athens and live in the palace with her. They had hugged and Gabrielle tucked a note into Lila's pocket, explaining that it was a note for her younger sister to deliver to their parents, if and when she found them.

Gabrielle's next conversation was a long heart-to-heart with Ephiny. The regent told her that she was going with Eponin and Solari to look for any Amazons in hiding, and then she was going to spend some time getting to know Phantes better. If no other Amazons were to be found, Eponin and Solari planned to travel further north, beyond the Greek borders, where they knew tribes of northern Amazons more than likely still lived in villages similar to the one they had lived in for so long.

They decided that Ephiny would continue to act as regent, and would send word to Gabrielle once they figured out where they were going to settle. Gabrielle promised to visit them, and to act as queen or at least offer advice if they needed her to. The regent extracted a further promise from the girl that she would continue to work on her self-defense skills and read up on Amazon law in the large library in Athens. More than a few tears were shed, as the two women, who had been friends for the entire tenure of their slavery, hugged and parted ways.

Finally, Kaleipus hugged Solan goodbye, and told the boy, whom he had come to think of as a son, that he always had a home with the Centaurs. Xena told him that she would send her son to visit at least once a year, and a grateful Kaleipus clasped her forearm firmly. "Thank you Xena, for giving me a son." The centaur had no children of his own, and he had proudly raised the son of his former ally, Borias, teaching the boy hunting and fighting skills, and telling him stories about his brave warrior father. He apologized to Solan for his deception about his mother, explaining that it had been for his own protection.

All the good-byes had been said near the barn, and after the party of travelers disappeared from view, Xena, flanked on either side by Gabrielle and Solan, made her way back to the inn. As they approached the sturdy two-story structure, they heard excited voices on the porch. The former warlord stepped up on the long wooden porch, which wrapped around the inn on three sides. "What's going on?"

"Xena. By the gods. What are you doing here?" The town reeve frowned in confusion.

"Personal business." She grew uneasy as several pairs of unfriendly eyes locked in on her. "What's all the commotion about?"

"Well." The reeve looked at a piece of parchment. "You are still the ruler of Greece, aren't you?"

"When I left Athens I was. Why?" She realized that the townspeople treated her with disdain, rather than the fear she was normally greeted with everywhere else. I guess when they've seen you as a two-year-old, running around in nothing but your nappies, it's kind of hard to work up a healthy dose of fear.

"Since you're here." The reeve's arm moved around in an arc, indicating the town. "This message must be in error."

"What message?" Xena felt her patience wearing thin.

"It says here that Julius Caesar is dead and Rome has surrendered to Greece." The man rustled the parchment slightly.

"Give me that." The former warlord growled as she snatched the page from his fingers. She scanned it, recognizing it as a news bulletin, a type that was often sent from Athens out to the surrounding villages and towns whenever news of national import needed to be dispensed. "I ... um don't have official confirmation, but this very well could be true."

Just then, a very out-of-breath runner arrived, carrying a carrier pigeon cylinder. "Is Xena the Conqueror here?" The runner was too young to have been born when the former warlord had lived in Amphipolis, so he didn't recognize her.

"I'm Xena."

The young boy grew pale, and his hand shook as he handed her the tin canister. "This ... just came in a few minutes ago."

Her own hands began to shake, as she popped the top off and removed the small piece of parchment. She unrolled it and immediately recognized Draco's handwriting. The people around her were absolutely silent as she read. Finally, she looked up and cleared her throat. "It seems that Caesar's own senate members assassinated him on the Ides of March, a few days ago, and then Rome surrendered to my army. So, um ... I'm the new ruler of the Roman Empire."


The two women sat under a tree beside a fire ring in the forest, halfway between Amphipolis and Athens. When the Conqueror got the news about the fall of Rome, their plans had changed dramatically. Xena decided she needed to get back to Athens right away, and had said a hasty goodbye to her son, and left him safely in her mother's keeping for a few moons, with promises that she would either send for him or personally come get him as soon as she had established her new government. Solan had hugged her so hard, she thought he was going to pop one of her ribs, and he had shyly hugged Gabrielle as well, turning bright red when she kissed him on the cheek.

Xena's farewell to her mother was obviously painful. The former warlord knew she had caused her mother more shame and anguish than a hundred mothers should ever have to go through, and that the village of Amphipolis was not proud to claim her as one of its daughters. Her brother Toris had not even bothered to come by the inn when he heard she was in town, and she decided to leave him alone, hoping that someday she could make it all up to both of them. Cyrene watched, as her daughter and the younger girl walked away toward the barn to get the horse, and felt her heart break, hoping, praying, that her daughter would have the strength of character to make good on the plans she had discussed so idealistically with her. The innkeeper also studied Gabrielle, realizing that somehow, the girl might be part of the key to helping her daughter turn things around.

They rode double on Argo, and the former warlord had decided to avoid other people as much as possible, as she didn't want to be recognized. It wasn't often that she ventured out of Athens anymore. She had too many enemies, and frankly, she found her home quite comfortable and had little desire to leave it. Th girl rode behind her, her small arms wrapped firmly around her waist. She had taken easily to riding, despite the fact that she had almost no prior experience.

Both women altered between being obviously affectionate and bouts of almost bashfulness, sometimes unsure of how to treat each other in the changing dynamics of their relationship. Xena had done well, and had lapsed into order-giving mode only a few times, mostly where chores around their campsites were concerned. The girl gently admonished her on those occasions, and the older woman was quick to apologize.

They had been traveling for two days, and had discussed a lot of things that they needed to work out, both between themselves, and as to how the former warlord was going to handle her servants and the country when she got back to Athens, as well as how she was going to integrate the Roman citizens into the grand scheme of things

Xena had decided that the first, and most obvious change she would make would be to free her slaves, and then immediately post their positions open, along with monetary compensation and lodging which would be offered in return for performing their jobs. It was her hope that many would stay on and continue to work for her as employees. She also talked to Gabrielle about life in the servant's quarters, and decided that eventually, the facility should be raised to the ground and individual small huts should replace them, so that live-in employees would have decent housing.

Her next order of business would be to have the Roman senate, or what was left of it, come to Athens so that she could meet with them and determine how best to merge the two governments. She had ruled Greece with a totalitarian hand, and she knew that needed to change too. She was loathe to give up her control, and decided she would form a monarchy, but also choose a dozen or so trusted individuals to become her advisory council, so that she could get varying opinions and suggestions, rather than acting alone in the decision-making process. Her army would need little change. The Greek troops had always been treated well, and her six captains led very comfortable lives.

She knew there were lots of decisions to make, but for now, she was content to sit right where she was, with the girl in her arms, as she listened to Gabrielle's own ideas, plans, and dreams. The former warlord was leaning up against the rough tree bark, and the girl was resting against her, using her chest and stomach as a backrest. Xena's legs and arms were wrapped around her, and they had spent the last candle mark eating dinner, quietly talking, and occasionally kissing.

The kisses and touches were frequent between them now, although they hadn't taken their intimacy any further, both sensing that when the time was right, they would somehow know. The young girl's voice was soothing to the older woman, and she was idly running her fingers through the long blonde hair while the girl discussed some of the comments Gabrielle made regarding her role with the Amazons and what she thought she needed to do to maintain that relationship.

"Gabrielle." Xena found a good place to interrupt. "You've talked a lot about the Amazons, and us, and my government, and my son, but there's something I haven't heard you mention."

"What's that?" The girl turned partway, giving a quizzical look to her companion.

"Well ... you are free to do whatever you want to do." Xena smiled and leaned in for a quick kiss while the pretty face was turned toward her. "You could go to the bard's Academy in Athens. It's so close to the palace you could walk."

"Oh." Gabrielle's eyes grew dreamy. "I ... I would love that more than anything. But it costs a lot of money. I'll need to save an awful lot before I could even think about that."

"You've got the dinars I gave you for helping me with Solan." The former warlord brushed an stray lock of hair out of her friend's eyes.

"No. Actually, I gave my share to Lila." The girl anxiously looked up again. "I hope that doesn't offend you. I figured since I was going back with you, I could get a job working for you and earn enough to take care of myself."

"Gabrielle." Xena cupped a fair cheek. "I was halfway teasing about you using your own dinars for the academy. I'll pay your way. Hades, it's not like I can't afford it. As for getting a job, nonsense. I can more than provide for your needs. I ... want you to have time and freedom to do all the things you want to do. It's because of me ... because of the way I allowed the slavery to continue, that you lost so much." The blue eyes watered. "I took so much away from you. My people stole you away from your family. Mezentius was under my command. I ... don't think I'll ever be able to atone for that. I ... still can't believe you decided to stay with me." She smiled. "I want to do everything I can to make sure you keep wanting to be with me."

Gabrielle turned in the older woman's arms, and sat up on her knees, taking the chiseled face into both hands and leaning, sweetly and gently kissing the full lips before she pulled back and got lost in twin blue pools for a long minute. "You've been doing a pretty good job so far." A small finger traced Xena's collar bone, running across her chest and down her cleavage, working at the top button of the black leather vest until it popped open. A dark eyebrow quirked in question as the girl grinned and made quick work of the rest of the buttons.

"Xena." The girl pushed the vest off the wide shoulders. "You and I are both realistic enough to know that all of this is very new to both of us. I don't think either of us is ready to say the word 'forever' just yet."

"You just said it." The former warlord felt her stomach muscles contract as Gabrielle brushed her thumbs across her erect nipples. "Oh gods that feels good."

"True. I said it. And we keep dancing around it." She leaned in and kissed the valley between the two firm breasts. "But, I think if we keep doing what we've been doing these past few days, taking it one day at a time, and talking to each other honestly, there's no reason why we won't stay together. Hopefully for a very long time."

"I'd like that very much." Nimble fingers were tugging at the fastenings at her waist band, and she instinctively reached down, quickly working the catches that held the leather pants closed. Xena shifted up slightly, pushing her pants and her underwear down around her hips and then on down her legs, as Gabrielle scooted down further, tugging her boots off. She felt the girl crawl back up and straddle her lap, and the girl's warm mouth closed around one of her breasts, drawing as much in as she could as she suckled on the firm brown flesh of her nipple.

"Gabrielle ... mmmm ... I ... oh ... you're making me so wet." She took a few deep breaths. "I ... can't promise I'll change overnight ..." She gasped, as the girl slowly pushed her back toward the bedroll that they were sitting on top of, without letting go of her breast, the warm wet tongue on her skin serving to make her even warmer and wetter between her legs.

"Xena." The girl came up for air. "I don't expect you to be perfect. I ... you ... we both have a long road ahead of us." She paused, stretching out on top of the taller woman, who was now laying flat on the sleeping furs. "But I think we're stronger together, don't you?"

"Yeah ..." The older woman was effectively stopped as the girl covered her mouth with her own, giving experimental kisses and licks to the outside of her lips before Gabrielle's tongue dove in, thoroughly exploring Xena's mouth, teeth, and tongue.

After several long slow kisses, the girl pushed up, resting her weight on one forearm next to Xena's head, while the other hand gently caressed the area on and around one of her breasts. "Xena ... I need to tell you something. I ... you and I ... I've done this to you several times. At first because you made me." The blue eyes looked down in shame. "Listen to me." The girl tilted her chin up, forcing the eye contact. "At some point, I started to like it." This statement earned her a timid smile. "But now ... right now ... is the first time that I have truly wanted you. Wanted you badly. For no other reason than that I'm pretty sure I'm in love with you. And I want to show you."

"Don't deserve your love." a warm tear trickled down the older woman's face into her ear.

Gabrielle leaned down, and flicked it away with the tip of her tongue, and then nibbled softly on Xena's earlobe before she whispered into the warm ear. "If I say you deserve it, then you deserve it. You don't own me anymore, Xena. My love is mine. I'm free to give it to whomever I choose. And I choose you. So let me love you."

Xena merely nodded affirmatively, and loosely wrapped her arms around the smaller body, running her large hands up and down the girl's back as Gabrielle used her fingers and mouth to slowly bring the former warlord up to a place she had never been before. This girl. She watched the blonde hair as it bobbed up and down slightly, hiding Gabrielle's face. But Xena could feel the lips as they nibbled slowly down her torso, around her navel and across her lower abdomen. This girl was making love to her. Love. The girl expected nothing in return, but to be loved back.

It was so absurdly simple that Xena almost laughed. Except that this moment was too precious to be spoiled by laughter. She suddenly realized that with this one unselfish act of love, Gabrielle was filling up an empty place in her heart that hundreds of victorious battles and millions of dinars couldn't fill. She sighed and spread her legs, as long hair tickled her inner thighs and the girl reached her goal. Green eyes that shone with love and desire looked at her, boring into her, before Gabrielle went down, licking and kissing her outer labia with small murmurs of pleasure. As she felt the girl's tongue part her folds, she placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, and let go completely, allowing the shivering sensations to take over, causing passionate moans to rip from her throat into the early evening air.

The girl felt the change, as the tight muscles of the legs that were wrapped around her relaxed, and Xena began to melt under her touch. She circled the wet entrance with two fingers, and flicked the hard nub with her tongue. Suddenly, she plunged both fingers in deeply, and at the same time she closed her mouth around the throbbing clit, drawing it in with strong suction while she continued to tease it with the tip of her tongue.

"Ungghhh. Gabrieellllleee. Oh gods. That's ... oh fuck." Her hips took on a life of their own gyrating furiously, as the fingers inside her curled up, finding her most sensitive inner nerves, and stroked them over and over again as the fingers pumped in and out of her. "Mmmmmm." The low guttural noise signaled the pending climax, that was rising too quickly to even try to control.

"That's it." The girl lapped at the wet fluid pouring out of her lover's entrance, and closed around the clit one more time, devouring the hot flesh with rough nibbles of her lips and a deep circling motion of her tongue.

"Gods. I ... can't. Oh fuck. Gonna come." With a final thrust of her hips, the waves crashed down, and Xena screamed her new lover's name out, the sound reverberating through the cool dark clearing.

The girl nibbled softly at the outer lips and then kissed her way back up until the long arms closed around her and rocked her gently from side to side. When Xena caught her breath enough to speak, she rolled over, placing them both on their sides facing each other. She wanted to say something ... anything ... to convey what she was feeling, but nothing came to mind that would adequately describe it. "You ..." The chin quivered, and long fingers reached out, hungrily trailing across a fair face and then down the girl's neck, across her arm, and then around her back, pulling the girl tightly against her and drawing her in for a passionate kiss that left them both breathless.

"Gabrielle ..." Her chest heaved as she spoke. "I don't know if I can even say it and know what it means ... but I feel you ..." She placed her closed fist over her own chest. "... in here. It hurts so much. I ache for you. I've heard that love hurts ... I never understood that until now. If that's what this pain means ... this pain that can only be soothed by your touch ... then I think ... I ... love ... you."

"Xena." The girl pressed her body against the longer one. "I know. I feel you too. It's like I want to crawl inside of you, have you crawl inside of me. Does that make sense?"

"Perfectly." The older woman fumbled with the belt that held the girl's tunic down, tugging it away and throwing it some distance across the campsite. Her hand quickly found purchase over a fleshy breast, teasing and stroking the hard nipple, while Xena's mouth explored the soft skin at Gabrielle's throat. Xena groaned anew at the salty taste and nipped at the skin, knowing she was leaving a mark, neither woman caring.

Gabrielle shifted, rolling onto her back and pulling her lover with her. She took the other hand into her own, the one that wasn't pleasuring her breasts, and drew it down between her legs. Xena took the hint and began stroking the girl with the full length of her hand, until she felt the soft material of the girl's leggings pushing back against her palm. She growled and quickly found the girl's mouth, warring with her tongue as she increased the pressure of her hand, practically fucking the girl through her now-soaked clothing. Finally, she came up on a very ragged breath, and with a trembling hand, caressed the girl's face and smiled, her lips trembling to match her hand. "You have entirely too many clothes on."

The girl sat up and in a submissive gesture, held her arms up and allowed Xena to pull her tunic over her head. "Gods." The older woman trailed her hand across the creamy breasts. "So beautiful." The hand moved lower, removing the girl's boots and then tugging the leggings and panties off in a tangled mass of material. "Come here."

Gabrielle felt herself whirled around, until Xena was leaning again the tree against and she was once more straddled across the naked lap. The former warlord parted her own legs a little, allowing the cool air to blow between them, brushing across the girl's very heated center, which was exposed to the elements. Gabrielle instinctively wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, as the former warlord cupped her ass cheeks with both hands, pulling her in closer until their bellies and breasts were touching, and Gabrielle's mound was on top of hers. Xena ducked her head, and kissed her, gently, at first, gradually becoming more aggressive as she kneaded the pliant globes in her hands, feeling the liquid of Gabrielle's passion running down into her own dark curls to mingle with the renewed flood their love-making had created. "Oh gods. Gabrielle. You're making me wet again."

"Make love to me, Xena." The girl took a hand, and once more pulled it between them. The older woman groaned deeply when she felt the fluid wash over her fingers. She brought them up and held them between their faces, smiling as she took the fingers into her mouth and sucked them. She withdrew the cleaned digits.

"Kiss me, Gabrielle." The girl devoured her lover's lips, tasting her own flavor there, and whimpered. "I want to lay back down." The deep voice was husky with need, as the former warlord slowly, gently, lowered the girl back down onto the furs. She resumed her earlier attentions, using one hand to pinch and tease erect nipples, while she kissed the girl, and used her full hand to brush back and forth between Gabrielle's legs. The slick wetness coated her palm, and she gradually worked one finger in between the lips, so that the girl's clit rubbed along the length of it on each pass of her hand. She groaned with frustration as she felt the hips once more pushing against her cupped hand. "Gods. I want ..."

"I do too." Gabrielle looked into the silvery-blue eyes, never breaking her gaze, as she reached between them and found a long index finger by feel alone, pulling it down to her opening. "I want to feel you everywhere, Xena."

"I ..." The finger twitched, barely touching Gabrielle's warm wet entrance. "I can't take that from you." The blue eyes blinked sadly. Coming from you, it's too special to give to someone like me. "Gabrielle ... I've hurt a lot of people. I've taken ... this ... from several girls. I ... raped them." Tears pooled up and then spilled over onto tanned cheeks.

"Xena." The girl sat partway up, holding the warm hand in place against her. "You aren't a rapist anymore. If you were, you would have already taken this from me. I am doing this now ... because I want to. The gods know I want to." Xena chuckled at the need in the girl's voice. "You are not taking anything from me. I am giving this to you because I choose to. It's part of love, Xena. I want to feel what it's like to be loved completely, in the physical sense, I mean. Besides, if we are going to be together for a long time, who else am I going to give this too? Are we going to keep doing everything 'but' forever? Do you mean to tell me that I've managed to fall in love and I'm going to die a virgin anyway?"

The former warlord's laughter rang out like great bells through the surrounding forest. As her mirth died down, her face once again grew very serious. "Thank you." She kissed the girl on the forehead, and then on her nose, followed with her cheeks before she brushed the girl's lips over and over again for several long moments and then gradually deepened the kiss, while she pushed the girl back so slowly, that Gabrielle wasn't sure when she first realized she was laying down again.

The kissing continued while Xena fondled the girls' breasts and slid one leg between Gabrielle's, and felt the girl begin to grind against her thigh, coating it with her wetness. Finally, the former warlord came up for air. "Okay. I am going to take you up very slowly. I'm not going inside until you are aching for it so badly, that you feel like you will die if you aren't filled up. I don't want to hurt you."

Gabrielle's eyes grew dark with passion, as she anticipated the pleasure to come. "I trust you."

With those three words, the former destroyer of nations felt something in her soul melt into a little puddle. She kissed the girl again and slid one hand between her legs, barely touching the girl's nub with feather-light strokes. She moved lower and suckled two perfect breasts, as she increased the pace of her finger, and felt two small hands digging into her back. Both women moaned, as Xena took her time, licking and nibbling her way down a muscular stomach and then kissing the damp dark blonde curls. "Spread your legs for me, Gabrielle."

The girl quickly obeyed, making room for Xena to settle in between them. She looked up at the green eyes for re-assurance, and then kissed first one inner thigh and then the other, watching with fascination as the muscles danced underneath the skin. Her lips attached themselves to the sensitive skin again, and she licked and kissed her way toward the swollen labia, taking both outer lips into her mouth and sucking on them gently, before she released them and then slowly licked the entire length, collecting Gabrielle's moisture on her tongue. "You taste delicious. All salty-sweet."

The girl whimpered and then cried out, as the tongue plunged into her wet folds and explored slowly before Xena began to flick her nub with just the very tip, slowly at first and then more rapidly, until Gabrielle began to undulate her hips around in an attempt to increase the contact. "Xena. Gods. I think I'm ready ... oh ... feels so good ..."

"Patience." The older woman spread the girl wide with two fingers, exposing her twitching clit, which was engorged and standing up erect from the protective hood. Xena dragged the entire length of her tongue over it, and Gabrielle screamed. "Pleeeasssee. I need you. Xena ... oh gods ..." The former warlord repeated the action and then used her lips and tongue to manipulate the girl's sensitive nub in deep circles, as Gabrielle fought to press herself more firmly into her lover's mouth. Her breath began to come in painful gasps. "Xena ... I am burning ... pleasseee ... I am in pain here. Inside ... need ... you ..."

The former warlord knew the girl was ready, and she slid her finger inside, up to the first knuckle. With one more circle of her tongue, she plunged all the way in, quickly, feeling the thin membrane tear. Gabrielle shrieked at the pleasurable pain, and then Xena was there, kissing her, murmuring loving words, raunchy words, obscene words, describing Gabrielle's body and what it felt like to be inside her, and telling her how beautiful she was, how much Xena wanted her, what she wanted to do to her, and kissing her some more, as the finger began to thrust into her, while Xena used her thumb to tease the pulsing clit.

"Gabrielle." The older woman reveled in the warm velvety folds around her finger. "So tight. So good. Wanted you for so long ... dreamed of fucking you like this. Of popping your cherry. Felt so nice. So sweet." She dipped down with her tongue, growling as the girl's tongue snaked out from between her lips to meet her, dueling in the space between their lips, before she dove into the girl's mouth. "Wanna feel you come. Wanna be inside. You ... feel ... I never imagined ... so nice. You're making me so wet. Feels so damned good to be inside you like this."

The girl's vocal expression had been reduced to a series of moans and whimpers, along with an occasional gasp as the pleasurable waves began to build inside. "Xena ... mmmm ... more." The girl felt a second finger slide inside, stretching her inner walls. "Oh. Gods ... Coming Xena. Ungghhh." The climax rose up and exploded outward, and the girl felt herself pulled tightly against her lover, as wave after wave of intense pleasure washed over her. She softly whimpered Xena's name as she began to come back down, and the taller woman rolled onto her back, pulling Gabrielle against her side and wrapping both arms around her.

They just lay there quietly for a while, and the former warlord occasionally kissed the blonde head while her hands moved up and down the warm skin on the girl's back. Gabrielle move up a little, and captured her lover's mouth in a non-demanding kiss. She pulled back and blue eyes met green. "Xena ... that was ..." Gods. I think I just lost my virginity to someone who loves me. She smiled shyly.

"Sorry." The woman looked away.

"Why are you sorry?" The girl patted the flat belly.

"I like to talk dirty." She blinked sheepishly. "You don't deserve to be talked to like that. I ... half the time I don't even know what I'm saying ... I ... was so into you. Gods ... I didn't know it was gonna be like that. It's never been that intense for me. Even Ares ..." She grinned and bent lower, whispering into the girl's ear. "Don't wanna say it loud enough for him to hear, but he ain't got nothin' on you."

"Xena. I didn't even know what some of those words meant, but whatever they were, they kind of helped me to ... get there, so to speak." Gabrielle giggled. "Besides, it couldn't have been that good for you. I didn't do anything but lay there and let you do all the work."

"Oh no." The older woman brushed her fingertips lightly over the girl's buttocks, feeling her skin shiver. "You ... reacted. You ... gods ... feeling you rubbing against me ... Whew!" She let out a long breath. "I gotta stop ... now .... or I'm gonna roll over and take you again."

"And that would be wrong because ...?" The girl's hand wandered lower, cupping Xena's sex.

"Gods. I'm afraid I'd pass out. Not that I don't find you to be the most desirable person I've ever seen, but frankly, I'm beat." She rolled over on her side, her back to the girl. Gabrielle curled up against her back and started to remove her hand. "Please." a large one covered it. "Leave it there. It would be nice to fall asleep like this." She grinned into the darkness. "Get some rest, Gabrielle. I'm a morning after kind of girl. Want more."

The girl giggled again, and then grew somber, thinking of that first morning, when she'd walked in to find Xena in bed with Marcus. "Xena ... what are you going to ... I guess this is a bad time to discuss this, but ... I ..." Gabrielle started to cry.

"Hey." The taller woman rolled all the way to her other side, peering at the girl and pulling her closer. "What's wrong?"

"Are we ... are you going to ... I know you ..." More tears fell, and the girl buried her face into the warm body, unable to say what she needed to say.

"Gabrielle. Tell me. Please." She brushed the blonde hair back over the girl's shoulders and waited until she felt the sobs subside.

"I wish I could be the only one that you ..." She lowered her eyes. "... I don't want to be with anyone else and I just wished that you would feel that way too."

"I do feel that way." She kissed the girl's head. "What made you think I ... oh." She sat back up, leaning against the tree and patted the space between her legs, until the girl crawled into it and curled up against her.

"What my mother said ... about my reputation. There was a time when that was true. Sex was a weapon for me." She tightened her grip. "... and a way of gaining power and control over someone. You pointed that out to me, so you knew that. It was another kind of conquest."

"But Marcus ... everyone knows about you and him. What are you going to tell him when he gets back to Athens?" Gabrielle felt her heart beating from anxiety.

"I wounded his ego pretty badly that last night before he left for Rome. He may not even want to sleep with me anymore, but if he does, I'll just tell him that I ... found my princess." Xena smiled as the girl looked up at her in wonder. "Well if you're going to live with me, share my life ... and my bed ... we gotta give you some kind of official title."

"Hmmm." Gabrielle gently pushed her lover back to her other side, and snuggled up against her, reaching over with her hand and resting it where she knew Xena wanted it. "In one season, I've become an Amazon Queen and a Greek Princess. Wonder how many other royal titles I can collect?"

"None. If I have anything to say about it." Xena's hand covered the one that was cupped comfortably against her curly mound. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're mine."

"Yeah." The girl kissed a soft shoulder. "And you're mine."

"Yours." The alto voice purred. "I like the sound of that."

They slowly drifted off into peaceful slumber, amidst quiet talk and soft caresses. They had given each other more than love, more than hopeful promises for the future. Sometime, between that first meeting in the Conqueror's receiving room, and the love-making in the forest, they had given each other their destinies, changing them, molding them, and ultimately blending them together to walk a common path.



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