Conquest of the Heart

by Texbard

For Disclaimers, see Part 1.



The hiss and crack of a whip jerked her out of a sound sleep, and she sat bolt upright, almost knocking her head against a low-hanging rafter. Where in Tartarus …? Oh. Yeah. Wrong realm. I'm in a barn. And Gabrielle is the ruler of Greece. She looked around carefully. I think. Another whiplash sounded and she crawled over to the wall, hoping to see through a crack, but there were none. Damn, Gabrielle, if you didn't go and build a barn to rival the finest in Rome or Athens. Guess I'll have to sneak outside and see what's going on.

It was barely dawn, and still mostly dark inside the well-built stable. She inched to the edge of the loft and jumped down, landing solidly on the saw-dust covered floor below. She'd heard some of the night watch come in a little after midnight to stable their horses, and had listened, but caught no conversation of any use. At the late hour their exchanges were limited to mutters and grunts, and even the horses were tiredly quiet. She'd lain awake after that for a long while, alternately cursing and beseeching Ares about what he'd done to them. He'd chosen not to answer her, which only served to increase her anger. Finally, she'd fallen asleep out of utter exhaustion, and guessed she'd gotten in at most, maybe two good hours of sleep. Surprisingly, she'd had no nightmares. 'Course I didn't sleep long enough to have one, she muttered internally.

She carefully pulled the chain that lifted the outer crossbar from inside the stable, and slipped outside, sticking to the stable wall to assess her surroundings. The weather was turning again, the morning sky more than halfway covered in ominous gray clouds. The sun was putting up a valiant effort to rise, but only wan pinkish light broke through between the clouds, and she guessed that it was a bit later than the light level indicated. The friendly orb was indeed hanging over the horizon just above the trees, she could tell only by sparse rays shooting out from behind a billowing tall cloud that seemed to rise to the heavens themselves.

Another whip crack made her skin crawl, as she sadly wondered who might be getting a whipping, and what crime they'd committed. Her aching heart already knew who had most likely ordered the punishment. Her ears told her it was taking place in the main courtyard near the well, and so she crept that way, using the long morning shadows of the western side of the main palace to stay hidden as much as she could.

She reached the corner and stopped, pressing tightly against the wall and taking a deep breath, then peeked around the corner and gasped in shock. A battered figure hung between two pillars, its blonde curly head hanging so low she couldn't see the face, but she'd recognize Iolaus anywhere. His arms were strung tightly, and just high enough that his feet couldn't completely support his weight, forcing him to either hang by his wrists, or hold onto the ropes and use his upper body strength to hold himself up. It was painful on the arms and back, she knew from personal experience. Not to mention being whipped at the same time.

His limbs were stretched taut, just short of dislocating his shoulders and elbows, and even in the pearl light she could see the sweat on his chest and stomach, along with trickles of blood running down his sides and on down his leather trousers. Her knees almost gave way as she looked around, and spied Gabrielle standing up on the main steps of the building, a mere twenty paces from her. The bard watched the torture impassively, much as one would watch a foot race. She looked bored, her attention not fully on the spectacle below her.

She was dressed in a mahogany brown battle dress, not too dissimilar from Xena's, and over it was a silvery metal chest plate. Tooled leather gauntlets circled her wrists, with matching shin guards buckled around her legs. She wore dark brown leather boots that laced up the front, and her head was bare, her hair pulled back in a tail at her neck. On a bench next to her, a silver colored helmet rested, with a single short dark green plume tucked into its crown, and a matching green cape hung from epaulets at her shoulders. The spiral wooden sword hilt Xena had seen the night before was poking out from an ornate scabbard hanging at Gabrielle's left side.

Xena was about to intervene when her soulmate's voice rang out. "Tell me, little man, why you felt the need to sneak into my compound?" She stepped down and sauntered toward him, stopping in front of him and tilting his face up with her fingertips. His face was battered and his lips were bleeding, but his spirit was not broken. "Still think you're a big warrior now?" She leaned closer, her features pinched with hatred. "How dare you come into my domain armed and dressed as a warrior? How dare you." Her voice was hard and cold, and Xena felt the chill to her very soul. "You won't speak?"

Iolaus shot daggers at her with his eyes, but clamped his mouth firmly shut. "Very well. Let's see what you're really made of." She stepped back. "Ten more." She waved at the whip master with a roll of her wrist, as he coiled his lash and prepared to strike again.

There was no time to think or plan. Oblivious to the small squadron of soldiers gathered around the area, Xena ran out from her hiding place, releasing her battle cry as she jumped and flipped, landing next to the whip master, whose mouth flew open in surprise. She grinned wickedly and snatched the whip from his hand. "Thank you." She coiled it one-handed and hooked it in the spot where her chakram belonged. "I'll take that."

"You're a sight for sore eyes." A weak yet grateful voice made her turn around, and Iolaus mustered a brave, if wan, smile.

Her eyes spoke volumes, apologizing silently for their current predicament. She drew her sword, forcing her voice to remain upbeat. "Good morning, Iolaus." She quickly sliced through his bindings and barely caught him at the waist, helping him down to the ground before she turned to take on the rush of soldiers she heard approaching her. "Rest there," she commanded. "I can handle this."

He had no choice but to comply, his abused body much too weak to move. He sat back and watched, as the courtyard erupted in a frenzy of clashing weapons, metal hissing against metal and mostly male voices yelling. Gravel and dirt flew, and all that could be seen for a bit was a tight circle of soldiers, all surrounding what amounted to a laughing spinning cyclone. Xena punched and kicked and hacked, careful not to actually kill or cut anyone, using her sword hilt and her fist and feet, gradually paring down the number of adversaries she faced.

She laughed again, enjoying the exercise, and grabbed a spear from a startled solider, sinking the sharp point into the ground and grasping it in her hands, swinging up and out, running in a circle perpendicular to the ground, kicking at the chests of the circle of soldiers and sending them flying out around her, until only two remained. She wrenched the spear from the ground, landing on her feet, and broke off the deadly spearhead, cracking it over an upraised knee and using the wooden hilt as a staff, taking out the two remaining soldiers.

Suddenly it was quiet, almost calm, save a gentle breeze that fluttered through her sweat-dampened hair, and the groan of the downed men around her. She turned and faced the palace steps, her sword crossed over her chest and resting on her shoulder. Saving Iolaus and attacking, no, defending herself, she mentally corrected, against Gabrielle's guard, had certainly not been part of the plan, and she decided her wisest course of action was to wait and see how the bard reacted.

Gabrielle's face was a well-controlled mixture of shock and fury, with just a touch of admiration in her eyes. She snapped out of it and reached beneath her cape for something at her right hip. Xena barely had time to react, as a familiar whirring noise reached her ears, and a silver object was spinning toward her sword blade at a blinding speed. There was no time to consider what it meant in this realm. She simply reached out with her free hand and caught the object, the familiar metal immediately warming in her palm.

My chakram. Her eyes grew wide and she looked from Gabrielle to the weapon and back. Then back again. It was her old chakram -- the dark chakram Ares had given her so long ago -- its bronze and silver etchings, and the inlaid jewels glittering in the breaking rays of the sun.

"Who … No one … Who …?" Gabrielle lost it, drawing her own sword and leaping off the steps, running up and stopping short of the warrior's space. She paused a second to regain her composure, resting her sword blade across her chest and over her shoulder, mirroring Xena, her other hand planted firmly at her hip. "No one catches my chakram." Gabrielle steadied her voice and held out her hand. "Give it back or die right now."

It was like a slap to the face, and the warrior held out the weapon, watching the bard's fist close around it possessively. Xena held on for a moment, giving the chakram a slight tug in a momentary battle of wills. Seeing Gabrielle use the weapon so effectively had turned her world even more firmly upside down. I'd give anything to be back at our campsite, and have you using it to clean fish, my bard. She sadly remembered her playful threats from the morning before.

"No one is able to catch my chakram," Gabrielle hooked the weapon at her own belt. "Except me." Her eyes narrowed. "Until now." Warm blue eyes bore into her own, as if gazing into her soul, and she forced herself not to flinch. "Who are you?"

Your best friend, her heart cried out in anguish. Your soulmate. One who loves you beyond measure and would give up her life for you in a heartbeat. "I'm Xena," was what she said, warily extending her hand and thinking quickly. "My friend and I have come to join your army." She heard Iolaus turn a surprised squawk into a cough.

"Xena." Gabrielle ignored the warrior's outstretched arm. "I know who you are." Her jaw twitched. "You used to roam the countryside, you and a band of thugs just like you, pillaging villages, burning down huts, killing anyone who got in your way." She visibly shook, her knuckles white with anger. "You … you disappeared about the time my village was …" She stopped. She had no idea why she was talking so much to someone she only planned to have executed. "Most people that want to join my army write me formally, or approach one of my captains in the field. They don't sneak into my compound uninvited. I think you're just another filthy warlord trying to get to me and cut my throat. Guards!" She yelled. "Take her."

Xena expected it, and held out a hand, forestalling Iolaus, who had managed to stand and appeared to be contemplating simply tackling Gabrielle from behind. "I knew Lao Ma." She saw the bard's breath catch, her keen ears hearing the soft intake of air. "I've been inside her palace." She took a chance and stepped out on a limb. "I knew Ming Tien when he was but a child." In for a dinar in for a drachma, she continued, "I know things that could be of great value to you."

Gabrielle's curiosity piqued and Xena could almost see the wheels of her mind turning. "Take them." She spoke firmly to the waiting guard unit. "Lock them up. Give them food and water." She eyed Iolaus. "Get him a wash bowl and a healer, if he needs one."

"Drop your sword," her non-nonsense voice commanded, and Xena tossed her weapon to the side, the heavy metal clattering against stone and gravel. "And the boot daggers." The warrior sighed and gave up the remainder of her weapons. Gabrielle moved closer, reaching out with her own sword and tracing Xena's jaw line with the point. The warrior didn't move and felt the sharp point trail lower, then a stinging sensation, as the bard nicked her just above her collar bone, drawing blood. It was a test, and showing fear or pain would result in failure.

"You will dine with me tonight." Gabrielle studied her sword and the single crimson drop at its tip. "I know not how you know of my plans for Chin." She closed the distance and reached out, grasping Xena's face with one hand and squeezing it. "You'd better not be lying to me, or I'll have your tongue cut out."

Xena remained motionless, her eyes locking with Gabrielle's. The green depths told their own tale, as she read grief, anger, and above all, fear, in her soulmate's eyes. Fear. She rolled that around in her head. In her day, Xena had been driven by anger and the need for revenge on the entire world. Gabrielle … she saw the difference. The bard was sorely afraid. That was the key. She tucked the knowledge away. "I understand." Her own voice sounded strange and hoarse, and she dropped her gaze in a show of submission.

"Take them away." Gabrielle turned and made her way inside the palace, not bothering to look back.

Oh my bard, Xena's heart followed after her. What frightened you so badly, that this is what you've become?


She paced her chambers in pensive silence, her mind racing and her body on edge. She wandered restlessly around her war room, from map to map, stopping at each one. Each conquest remembered sent a surge of blood through her veins. I showed them, didn't I? She laughed listlessly. I showed them all.

Her mind wandered back to the scene in the courtyard, and the tall powerful warrior who had taken on an entire regiment of her men and defeated them single-handedly, without drawing a drop of blood, much less killing anyone in the process. She frowned. And why not? Why would a warrior sneak into her palace with an accomplice, and do no real harm? Weren't they all the same? Her adrenalin rushed in anger. Didn't they all kill and maim and hurt anyone they touched? Didn't they all want to overpower those weaker than themselves?

She had been weak, once. No more. It made her head spin with dizzying speed if she thought about it too much. Most simple village girls didn't grow up to rule their country. Her eyes closed in painful memory. "I always wanted to leave Potadeia and see the world," she whispered. "Well. Look at me now."

Her eyes fell on the mask and staff in the corner. She could still remember the battle like it was yesterday, here, some three years later. She was still gaining strength back then, and a tribe of Amazons threatened to stop her in her rise to power. It had been bloody, and she'd lost a lot of men to the feisty women warriors who challenged them.

She'd fought their queen, and defeated her in a sword match that lasted for over an hour. The gruesome challenge had ended when she plunged her blade into the older woman's heart. After that, much of it was a blur. She'd taken others with a fierce precision she'd only just become used to. It was a gift she did not understand, but accepted gratefully.

After a long while, it had become clear they had defeated all the Amazon leaders, save one, a lone proud warrior with blonde ringlets and caramel-colored eyes. They'd surrounded her, and she'd put up a fight, until she was finally backed against a tree. Gabrielle's men had fended off the loyal women who came to her defense, and most of the Amazons lay dead on the ground around them.

The Amazon had looked past her, seeing her slain sisters, and her proud eyes had watered, as the tears spilled down her cheeks. Only a few remained alive, and those appeared to be mortally wounded. She'd looked right into Gabrielle's eyes and raised her chin. "I'll not surrender." She was weaponless, her staff and sword having been knocked from her grasp. And she was quite alone. Gabrielle had been impressed.

She'd thought to take the woman into custody, and possibly learn from her. But something in the defiant eyes told her the woman would either escape or kill herself before submitting. They were kindred spirits, two warriors staking their claim, defending what they believed to be rightfully theirs. "Very well." She'd sheathed her sword, drawing a dagger instead. "Have it your way." With an economy of motion, she'd slit the Amazon's throat. It had been the most humane thing to do, she'd reasoned. This was war, and you were either a winner, a loser, or a casualty. There were on other choices.

Snapping back to the present, she lifted the staff, hefting its balanced weight in her hand, feeling the smooth sanded wood against her palm. She trailed the fingers of her other hand through the feathers of the ornate mask. She remembered collecting them after they'd burned the bodies of the dead Amazons and soldiers. The curious-looking staff and mask were among the first trophies she had collected. Something in the two items struck a chord deep inside of her, calling to her in a language she didn't understand.

Her lips a thin grim line, she replaced the items back in the corner, and moved to her planning table, studying recently-made notes for her attack on Chin. Xena's words came back to her, and she wondered what secrets she might learn. Could she trust her? She didn't want to. Truth be told, Gabrielle trusted no one fully, save herself. Sharing a meal with a warlord went against everything she stood for. So. She'd glean what knowledge she could, finish the meal, then execute her. Then she'd take a long hot bath. She'd need it, knowing she would feel unclean on several levels.

"Never forget." She girded herself in determination, pushing aside her wavering uncertainty.


The prison was clean and dry, with a fireplace at one end to warm the dozen cells comprising it. Xena once again had to admire Gabrielle's intelligence. Wet cold prisons invited disease, which plagued not only prisoners, but prison guards, and prison guards in turn would spread disease among the rest of a village or city. She had consumed a half flask of water and a mug of warm, if bland, soup, along with a decent roll. Now she was sitting on a bench in her cell, reaching through the bars of the next cell, tending to Iolaus' wounds.

"I'm sorry you had to go through that, Iolaus." She dabbed at a nasty cut, watching his skin twitch in reaction to medicated herbs they'd been provided. "What were you doing climbing out of the well, anyway?" She moved to the next slash mark. "Thought I told you to sleep and go back to camp."

"Couldn't let you face this alone." He winced, trying not to react to the fiery stinging all up and down his back.

"That's noble, but in the woods you might've had a chance to escape them." She rinsed out the cleaning rag. "Now …" She folded the rag and began helping him wrap clean strips of linen around his body. "… I've got to deal with Gabrielle and get you out of here."

"I can take care of myself." He reached around, assisting in the wrapping job, his aching arms protesting at the motion.

"I can see that," Xena smirked sarcastically, tying off the linen. She sat back, drawing one knee up and resting her foot on the bench, circling her leg with her arms and resting her chin on her knee.

"What's the plan, now?" The blonde man turned to face her, mimicking her posture.

They both tempered their voices low, in deference to two bored-looking guards who sat at a table at the other end of the room. Both guards were intent on a card game of some sort, and seemed quite unconcerned about a prison uprising, given Xena and Iolaus were their only charges.

"Hopefully I get to keep my dinner date." Her eyes grew thoughtful. "I'm winging it here, Iolaus. My only plans were to get in here and get captured. Going forward from that …" She shook her head. "I've got to get through to her, somehow. Or get Ares to put things back the way they were."

"Those sound like dreams rather than plans," he commented softly.

"They are." She smiled sadly. "My Gabrielle taught me to dream. And that sometimes, if we're really lucky, they come true."

"Well." Iolaus stretched out on his bunk. "I hope your dreams in this case do come true, Xena." He patted her arm through the bars. "No matter what happens, Herc'll miss us eventually, if we're gone for too long, so I'd suspect he'll come break us out if we can't do it ourselves."

"Iolaus." Xena also laid back, her body weary from too little sleep and too much worry. "I'll not leave here without Gabrielle. Either she'll come with me or I'll die trying to get her to, if I can't get us back where we're supposed to be."

"Herc won't let you die." He looked at her, wishing he knew what she and Gabrielle were like in her world. "And neither will I."

"And I couldn't live with myself if I don't get her back, one way or the other." She closed her eyes. "Although I appreciate having friends who care about me. Why don't we get some rest, and not worry about things that might not happen?"

"Okay." He was more weary than he realized, and after a bit of tossing and turning to avoid pressure on his wounds, Xena heard even snores. She soon followed him in slumber, her senses on hyper-alert, even in sleep.


A loud clatter startled her awake, and she jumped to her feet before remembering where she was. A guard stood expectantly at the cell door, impatiently twirling a key ring around one finger. "Get up. The queen will see you for dinner in a quarter hour." He impatiently tapped a foot and studied her with some distaste.

"You coulda knocked more quietly," she mumbled, too low for him to hear her. She scrubbed her eyes with both hands, then moved to a basin of water, splashing her face and washing her hands and forearms, then drying on a rough but serviceable towel. She smoothed her leathers down and ran her fingers through disheveled hair, wishing for her armor. They'd taken it away lest she use some of the small metal bits to pick the cell lock.

"Well?" She stepped forward, looking down at the sturdy padlock. "I'm ready. What're you waiting for?" She flashed him a wicked smile and chuckled inwardly at his obvious irritation.

He blew out a puff of indignant air and unlocked the padlock, opening the door just wide enough for her to exit. He slammed it shut and she consciously showed no reaction. She held out her hands and he fastened manacles at her wrists, then gave her a shove in the back. She merely looked at him, long and hard, allowing her own dark side to surface, and watched him swallow hard, his fear readily evident in his eyes. He'd seen her fight in the courtyard, watching from a ground-level window just over the prison doorway. She grinned and winked, and was afraid he might wet his trousers. It was a satisfying moment.

She followed him silently up the prison stairs and into the courtyard, her eyes and ears taking in all the information she could, noting doorways, windows, spots on the outer wall that might be less-well guarded than others, and number of soldiers stationed at various posts. There did not appear to be any gates out of the compound, other than the main one, reinforcing her observation of the fortress from outside the day before. There were no other large drain holes or wells, although a series of trenches along the walls would allow excess rain water to run into the moat, via small gratings too small for a human to fit through.

They mounted the palace steps and she was ushered inside and then up another staircase, taking two flights up before they turned into a long corridor that led in the direction she already knew Gabrielle's quarters to be. Decorated flagstone tiles were covered in fresh green rushes, which rustled beneath their feet and released a clean springy fragrance into the air. She trailed behind, looking about curiously for any doorway that might lead from the secret hallway she knew existed on the other side of the wall, and finally located what she thought might be a way out, noting its location in case she needed it later.

As they reached the queen's chambers, the guard knocked on the door and snapped to attention as a chamber maid opened it and ushered them inside. "My liege," he bowed low and dropped to one knee, sweeping his arm out to the side. "I've brought the prisoner as you requested."

"Thank you." Gabrielle stood up from a small writing desk, capping her inkwell and shoving a piece of parchment aside. "Leave us." The guard stood and unchained the warrior, then backed out of the room. Gabrielle looked pointedly at her chambermaid. "Both of you."

"But … my liege," the short dark-haired woman stammered.

"It will be alright," the bard softened her voice. "I can serve myself for one evening, and you've already set the table nicely. Go." She gestured toward the door. "Enjoy an evening off."

"Thank you, my liege." The woman lowered her eyes, glancing curiously at Xena as she passed, exiting the room.

"I re-familiarized myself with your exploits in Greece this afternoon," Gabrielle indicated some rolled up scrolls on her long meeting table. "Impressive." She moved to a smaller table in the corner, which bore two place setting of fine ivory-colored pottery and several covered bowls and cisterns, which had delicious-smelling steam curling from beneath their edges. "Come." She drew out a chair. "Have a seat."

Xena nodded meekly and silently sat down, her eyes tracking her soulmate as Gabrielle sat down across from her and proceeded to dish up their plates with a selection of steamed vegetables, tender venison, and soft thick slices of buttered bread. "My … exploits?" She ventured, accepting a plate and watching Gabrielle pour rich red wine into twin pewter goblets. "Who … has kept record of them?"

"I did." Gabrielle smiled at her shock. "A few others as well, but mostly, I did. Before …" Her eyes grew stormy. "Anyway. When I was growing up, in Potadeia, we heard stories about you. I used to write them down. I was fascinated by you. And terrified you might someday come attack my village. I'd heard of some of the warlords you were partnered with at various times. I was afraid of them, too, but you, most of all." She looked down, stabbing a carrot with her fork. "Would that it had been you, instead of …"

"Draco?" Xena ventured.

"How did you know about that?" The blonde head snapped up. "You weren't in his camp when they took us."

"I … heard things." She quickly covered for herself. "You mentioned Potadeia. I'd heard Draco took people from there. Put two and two together."

"Oh." Gabrielle relaxed a bit. "Of course."

"Why do you wish it had been me?" Xena captured her gaze, her heart twisting at more pain lurking under the surface of Gabrielle's cool composure.

"You might've just killed us all." Gabrielle looked down, unable to face the compassionate eyes looking back at her.

I didn't kill women and children. She restrained herself from speaking aloud. At least not on purpose, she amended, remembering Callisto's village. "You'd rather have died than become a slave?" It was a ludicrous question. She knew she herself would rather die than be a slave.

Green eyes snapped in rage. "I watched them kill my mother, that first week after they took us, when she couldn't pull a heavy cart by herself. It would've taken a horse to pull that cart. They sold my father off, I know not where. Then they sold me and my sister to an evil warlord, Mezentius. Mezentius … he …" she looked down, her cheeks red with shame. "He hurt my sister badly. She was carrying his child when she killed herself -- hung herself in his stables one day when she was supposed to be milking the cows. Me …" Her face clouded in anger. "I tried to run away once, and I paid for it when they caught me." She slipped down the shoulder of her royal blue dressing gown, revealing scars Xena remembered from another place and time when Gabrielle had also been a slave. "After that, I did whatever he wanted me to, and I bided my time until he slipped up. It took about six months. One night, I was with him … he … he fell asleep. Forgot and left his dagger on the bed table."

Green eyes went crystal clear and cold, then narrowed in memory. "I slit his throat with it, and then I escaped. I stabbed one of his guards, stole a horse, and I rode as fast as I could. I'd never been on horseback before." She smiled in pride for the briefest moment before her face darkened again. "I learned that night. And I snuck back, and helped others get away. We formed up an army and we found others who were sick and tired of warlords making all the villages live in fear. I didn't know what I was doing. I … you were one of my role models. I got lucky, too. Ares has favored me. I wouldn't be where I am now, if not for him. He gives me power, allows me to do things I could never do on my own."

Xena listened in silence, all the puzzle pieces falling into place as the remains of her heart shattered into a thousand pieces. She bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood, in an effort to remain impassive as she listened. Her eyes stung and she looked down, blinking hard, forcing the tears back, making a great show of enjoying her meal until she could safely look back up. Tears she could hide, although she was certain the anguish in her soul was clearly visible in her eyes.

Oh, Gabrielle. I'd give anything for you to not have gone through that. Anything to restore your happiness. "I'm so sorry you went through all of that." She said no more, waiting.

"Why?" Gabrielle cocked her head to the side in curiosity. "From what I heard, your village was also attacked and you formed your own army not too long afterward. At least I … I do what I do to protect people. You … you turned around and hurt others far worse than you had been hurt."

"I … know … that." Xena struggled to say the right thing. "And I regret every life I took. Every home I burned. Every item I stole that didn't belong to me. I was consumed with hatred. I wanted revenge. And I had Ares on my side as well. He gets in your blood, your majesty, and twists your thoughts, making you want more and more, convincing you that no matter how many conquests you have under your belt, it's never enough. Isn't that what you want? Haven't you gone further than you intended?"

The words hit like a punch to the gut, and Gabrielle frowned in anger. "Ares helps me. I don't know why, but he does. But I'm in control. I'll take out every warlord from here to Gaul and back, and to Chin, if I have to. If that's what I have to do to keep the villages safe, then that's what I'll do."

"The villagers are terrified of you." Xena grew braver. "Because you kill innocent people, your majesty. Good and innocent people whose only crime is carrying a weapon to protect themselves. Not every man who wears a sword is evil. Your laws have forced the people to be defenseless. You can't be everywhere at once, your majesty. There are still warlords in abundance, with new bands of them arising every day. You've forced your villagers to be unarmed and at their mercy."

"Silence!" Gabrielle covered her ears. "You don't know me at all. I had to outlaw their weapons. I … I don't know what else to do. I didn't call you here to lecture me. I called you here to gain knowledge. Tell me of Chin, and Lao Ma. And Ming Tien. Tell me or die right here, right now."

"Alright," Xena capitulated. It was, she reasoned, her best course of action, to give her soulmate time to calm down, and to appear cooperative herself. She launched into her story, telling of Caesar and Borias, trying to emphasize all the things she felt she had done, that were morally wrong. She shared in great detail of her time with Lao Ma, and the lessons her mentor had tried to instill, watching hopefully to see if any of it was sinking in.

Gabrielle's face gave away nothing, though she was taking mental notes she only hoped she could remember for later, to add to her own battle plans. She poked and prodded, gleaning locations of bridges, hidden tunnels, back entrances to Ming Tien's palace, and many other details her own advance scout had not been able to ascertain. She shoved down annoyance at the warrior's moralizing, hoping if she ignored her, the woman might stick to the details she really wanted to hear.

Finally, Xena shared of the one moment when she crossed a line -- when she chose Borias over Lao Ma. "That's the one thing, that if I could go back and change it, I would." She allowed her eyes to water, but not spill over. "Because at that moment, I chose a path that I will pay for for the rest of my life. So many innocents hurt." She pursed her lips inward and drew in a long breath. "Lao Ma tried to save my soul. I repaid her with abandonment. She could have had me killed, but she just … let me go. Until I met yo … ummm …I mean … Lao Ma was the only friend I had for a very long time, who loved me, with no strings attached. I … think I could have saved her life if I'd stayed."

"No one loves you with no strings attached," Gabrielle's own eyes watered. Except maybe your parents, if you're very lucky. And my sister … I think she loved me. You were foolish enough to become romantically involved with your partners. I've made no such mistakes. Being alone, it's much better than allowing others to bring you down. Make you weak. But you impress me, Xena."

She stood, pacing back and forth, her full skirts rustling with her determined stride. She stopped briskly at a side table to replace the flask of wine they'd drained. "You seem to have softened with age." She chuckled. "But your tactical mind … I can tell you're still a savvy warrior. I could use someone like you, not just in my army, but at my side as my battle strategist." She turned, facing a surprised warrior. "I could offer you great riches, nice quarters, horses, whatever you might want, if you would join with me in planning my conquest of Chin. Your knowledge would be invaluable to me. Come on." Her eyes twinkled and she placed a fresh tankard in front of her. "Wouldn't you like to feel that power again? I don't know where you've been for the last few years, but you must be laying low in some hovel for me to not know what you've been up to. Surely what I offer has to be better than whatever you have now."

Emotions so complex, they threatened to cripple her welled up, and Xena gulped down half her wine. She hadn't expected the offer, and realized that underneath the hard façade, her friend was much more trusting than she let on. To go back to Chin with Gabrielle -- her chest tightened as if constricted by an iron band. She had no desire to ever face that place again, her more recent memories darker than even those of her warlord days. It was a place that had rended them further asunder, a place they almost didn't recover from, losing trust in each other and almost losing a love that meant more than anything.

"What of my friend?" She stalled.

"Oh. Him." Gabrielle waved a hand almost blithely. "I can find a position for him as well, if you can promise to keep him loyal." She leaned closer. "Is he your lover?"

She almost spewed a mouthful of wine, and swallowed it quickly instead. "No. He's just a friend." She wiped her lips with a linen napkin. "Your offer is very generous. I had thought, rather, to be out in the field, in the thick of battle. Can I think on it overnight?"

"I'll have to lock you up again, if that's what you need to do." Gabrielle's brows scrunched in annoyance. This foolish woman isn't jumping at such an opportunity? Maybe I misjudged her abilities. And her intelligence.

"Very well." Xena rose, pushing back her chair and folding her napkin. "Your majesty, if you'll call your guards to escort me, I'd like to go now, and start mulling it over."

In a very short time, Xena was back in her cell, careful not to wake the sleeping Iolaus. It was a dilemma. If she accepted the offer, she had a chance to maybe gain her soulmate's trust. But … and her stomach twisted into a knot … what if she didn't convince the bard to give it all up? What then? She would be right back on a path she swore she'd never set foot on again. She finally flopped back on the narrow bunk, falling into exhausted sleep.

A bearded figure materialized in a flash of blue-white light, standing over her, leaning close and whispering in her ear, "That's it Xena. Think it over. I've got your irritating blonde. Your precious Gabrielle -- she's mine now, and what a prize she is. I saw what she's capable of when she went up against Mavican. A little bit of manipulation, and I was able to go back, change a few things. But it's you I want. I've always wanted you, Xena. Join with her. Together you'd be invincible." He laughed quietly, as she stirred, mumbling at dark images that hadn't disturbed her dreams in a very long time.


Up on Olympus, an infuriated goddess of love screamed in rage, as her lover finally came home from holiday in the Norse lands with her father, Zeus. "Hephaestus!" Her voice rattled the very foundation of the mountain. "Where have you been! Come unchain me, right now."

A confused god entered their bed chamber, to find his lover bound to the bedposts. A lascivious grin crossed his face. "Oooo. Kinky. It's been a while. Just let me slip into something more comfortable, and I'll be right back."

"Kinky my nighty," Aphrodite fumed. "My good for nothing, low-life, bottom-dwelling scum-sucking brother left me this way two days ago, and I've got to go fix something, now! Just wait until I tell Daddy all about this one."

"Okay, okay." Hephaestus held up his hands in defense. "Give me a minute to go get my metal cutters." He leaned over, inspecting the thick links and padlocks confining his lover. "Mmmmm. My stuff. Yep. Gonna need the heavy-duty cutters." He wiped a bemused smile off his face and left the room, returning in short order and quickly releasing her.

She stood and looked down at her rumpled pink negligee and reached up, feeling the tangles in her unbrushed hair. "Ooooo. Grody." She snapped her fingers, correcting her appearance, and looked in the mirror with satisfaction, preening at a stunning little pink lace number she'd conjured up in her head. "There." She giggled. "That's more like it."

"What's Ares up to now?" He sat back, giving her room to fume for a while.

"Only meddling with the most awesome duo I ever got together." She applied a coat of lip gloss, and changed into a different pair of slippers, admiring thin satin pink ribbons that wrapped around her ankles and tied in dainty bows just above her heel.

"Messing with the big X and her little blonde buddy again, eh?" He chuckled and bit it off at Aphrodite's enraged response.

"It's NOT funny!" She stamped her feet. "Ooooo. Never mind. Gotta run, honey-buns. I'll be back later to make it up to you. Toodles." She blew him a kiss and with another snap of her fingers, disappeared in a cloud of pink sparkling dust.

"Women." Hephaestus shook his head in consternation, then wandered into the kitchen to pour a cup of mead. "Just as well." He sat down on a couch and propped his feet up, using a small device to open a giant clam shell with a large screen tucked inside, which was sitting on a stand across the room. "Time for the gladiator games, and she hates when I watch those." He punched a few buttons and a mist appeared in the screen, then cleared to reveal two men facing off in the Roman coliseum. "Ah, that's better. And to think mortals aren't gonna discover this technology for another few millennia." He took a long satisfied sip of mead. "Now, where are those potato crisps we had before I left for Valhalla?"


Xena awoke with a crick in her neck, and groaned, blinking at a sliver of light which shone through a window just below the cell ceiling. "Someone just put me out of my misery," she mumbled, rolling up and off the thin lumpy cot. The mattress apparently was filled with dried corn cobs, judging from the shape and feel of the objects that had poked into her back and legs all night long. She looked over at the snoring Iolaus, envying his ability to sleep through seemingly any circumstances. Her dreams had been terrifying, reliving Gabrielle's fall down the lava pit, and her own weeks of wandering in grief and madness, trying to find a way to reach her, if only to say goodbye.

She heard horse's hooves thunder past the window, followed by the clash of swords, and her scalp prickled. Are we being attacked? She stepped below the window and leaped up, using her upper body strength to pull herself up where she could see out the window. She hung there, seeing the courtyard ground at almost eye level. Out in the middle was a regiment of men, swords, maces, and battle axes drawn and ready, along with a few others who bore spears and staves. Half were on horseback and half were on foot, all of them formed up in clean straight rows.

She heard the horse approach again, from the other direction, and turned her head, craning her sore neck. Just then, dun-colored horse's legs galloped past, sending clouds of dust into the cell and making her eyes and nose itch. She sneezed and looked back up, to see Gabrielle on Argo, her blonde hair loose and flowing back, her eyes sparkling in the early morning sunlight.

The bard laughed as she approached the circle, yelling out "next" as she approached them. A man with a mace stepped forward, engaging her as she passed him, their weapons clanging loudly as sword met mace hilt. Gabrielle circled back and challenged him again, this time cutting sideways with her sword, wrenching his weapon from his grasp and sending it flying across the courtyard.

She laughed loudly and looked back over her shoulder as she urged Argo past the prison house again. "Pathetic. Is that the best you can do?" The smile disappeared. "Fall back in. If I disarm you that easily on your next turn, you'll spend a month on bread and water."

"Yes, my liege." The man bowed his head and moved back into the ranks.

One by one, she took on each man, disarming each as easily as if they were children with toy weapons. Xena found herself torn between extreme pride and admiration for her soulmate's skills, and horror at the efficient fighting machine she was. She felt a familiar presence at her back and her skin prickled all over.


She turned, her fists balled at her sides, her eyes flashing like fire. "I was wondering when you were going to show your stinking hide around here."

"Xena." He beat his chest with one fist in mock hurt. "Is that any way to greet your greatest admirer?"

"Admirer?" She snorted. "You sure have a funny way of showing it."

"Oh, come on." He moved to the side, leaning back against the cell wall and crossing his ankles and arms. "What was I to do? I've tried just about everything else." His upper lip curled in contempt. "She always gets in my way. I had to take drastic measures."

"You've mucked with the Fates, Ares." Xena stood across from him, her feet planted squarely a shoulder width apart, her own arms crossed.

"No. Not the Fates." He grinned. "They're still doing their job, just in a different realm." He moved to the window and peered outside. "Look at her. Amazing, isn't she?"

"You've made her something she wasn't meant to be," Xena fumed.

"Oh, no, Xena." He grinned evilly. "She always had the potential to become what she is here. She just needed proper motivation. And what a motivated little Conqueror she is." He buffed his nails against his leather vest. "Much more eager to please than you were. It's her natural inclination."

"Her natural inclination is to be loving and kind, Ares, and to protect the people she loves." Sad blue eyes begged him. "Please, send us back where we belong. She'll lose her soul here."

"Her soul?" He laughed heartily. "Her soul belongs to me here. You want to save her, you need to join up with her. Just think of it, Xena. You could have it all. The two of you together, you could rule the world. It would be all in your hands -- everything you ever wanted. Her. The world. And the ability to make amends for your past -- as ruler by her side you could make the world a better place. She wants that too. She's just a little overly exuberant in her methods. She does need guidance. You could give her that."

It was tempting, and for a brief moment, she considered it, then remembered the last time Ares tried to tempt her, setting her up to stand trial for murders she didn't commit. "Oh, no." She glared at him. "I won't fall for your gift horses, Ares." She moved to the window, leaning against the wall across from him. "Tell me this. If you didn't tamper with the Fates, how did you get away with doing this to us?"

"Ah. When Zeus is away, the other gods play." He chuckled with self-appreciation. "I almost didn't get away with it. Aphrodite tried to stop me. But somewhere along the way, she got a little tied up with other things."

"You chained up love?" Xena resisted the urge to slap him silly. "Ares, the gods balance one another. I've seen what can happen when a god is barred from doing their duties. You did too. You must've. When Sysiphus chained death, and when Hera bound Prometheus? The world can spin out of control."

"Love schmove." He mocked her. "I'll unchain her, eventually, once I have you and Blondie out there exactly where I want you, ruling the world side by side, with me as your guiding force."

Xena closed her eyes, feeling a warmth deep inside, the part of her that loved Gabrielle. It welled up and infused her, almost overwhelming in its intensity. Her eyes flew open and narrowed. "When pigs fly and Tartarus freezes over, Ares. I'll do things my way, thank you very much. Outta my way."

She pushed him aside and resumed her observation at the barred window. Weapons were scattered all across the courtyard and most of the men were milling about, talking in small groups. A few were limping, victims of Gabrielle's game. The bard rode by and yelled out at the last soldier still sitting at attention on a dark stallion, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun's glare. "Next." She clucked to the mare, which spun around in place and charged back.

The solider maneuvered the horse into position and held up his weapon, a wicked-looking battle axe. Argo pounded past him and instead of using her sword, Gabrielle switched hands at the last second and merely reached out with her free arm, catching him by surprise as she grabbed the battle axe just below its menacing head and twisted it sharply, pushing the blade perilously close to the soldier's throat. He cried out in alarm and fell backward over his horse's rump. The axe followed and landed squarely in the middle of his chest with a sickening thunking sound.

Xena watched in disbelief as Gabrielle reined Argo to a halt and jumped down. She sheathed her sword and trod toward the fallen man and knelt down, studying the axe and touching his throat, seeking a pulse. She stood and rubbed her hands together, then wiped them on her cape hem. "Send the body back to his family, if they still live." She braced her foot against his stomach and heaved the axe up, it's sharp blade covered in blood and gore. She eyed it and tossed it to the ground. "Someone get that cleaned off. If his family is dead, burn his body and dump the ashes in the moat."

Silently, the men watched her as she re-mounted Argo and rode away. As she passed the prison cell, Xena called out, "I can take you."

"Xena …" Ares interjected.

"Back off, Ares." She growled, and watched Argo stop directly in front of the window, followed by Gabrielle's boots hitting the ground. Ares vanished, as the bard knelt down, getting eye to eye with her.

"Did you just challenge me?" Gabrielle's voice was mildly alarmed.

"Why?" Xena taunted her. "Not up to it, your majesty?"

A tick appeared in the bard's left eyelid. She knew her men had heard the challenge. To refuse would be to show weakness. To show weakness meant giving up control. "You're a foolish woman. You've just forfeited the offer I made you last night, you do know that, don't you?"

"I know," Xena answered calmly. "I had time to think about it, and I want more."

"My offers don't get any better than that," Gabrielle sputtered. "I offered you a position as my right-hand woman, or maybe you didn't understand that. The only thing I could give you that would be greater would be my kingdom."

Xena merely grinned confidently. "Bingo, your majesty."

"You … you want my kingdom?" Her eyes grew wide in sudden comprehension.

"Those are the terms. A fight until one of us is disarmed and unable to retrieve her weapon. If I win, I get your kingdom, and you become my slave." One eyebrow edged up in challenge. "So?"

"And what if I just kill you right now, instead?" She felt the eyes of her men at her back, and fought the urge to fidget.

"And lose face in front of all of them?" Xena gazed past her. "I don't think so. Not if you're who I think you are."

"And what if I win?" She felt a drop of nervous sweat trickle down, itching between her shoulder blades.

"That is entirely up to you." The other eyebrow edged up. "What will it be, your majesty?"

"I'll win," her voice bore a confidence that didn't reach her eyes. "And then I'll skin you alive in the courtyard, and toss you out for the wolves."

"As you wish, your majesty." Xena bowed low, waiting.

"This afternoon we'll meet in the courtyard, two hours before sunset." The bard stood. "I'll have one of the guards bring you your armor and sword one hour before. You'll have to use your cell space to warm up."

"Fair enough." Xena stood at a soldier's ramrod attention. "Until we meet."

Gabrielle merely shook her head, taking Argo's reins and leading her to the barn. Her legs were trembling too much to climb back into the saddle. She'd seen what the warrior was capable of, and remembered tales she'd heard. I just agreed to a battle with the former Destroyer of Nations.

Ares reappeared, just as Iolaus woke up.

"Ares!" He roared.

"Awww, save it, Shorty." The god of war hurled a ball of light at him, hitting him in the chest and sending him flying against the far bars of the cell. "I've got bigger fish to fry right now." He turned toward Xena. "Have you lost your mind?! You don't stand a chance."

"On the contrary." She grinned wickedly. "I've never been more confident of victory in my life."

"You don't understand." He began to pace. "You won't have me to help you. Xena, that part of you that is me -- that part that makes you poetry in motion when you fight. I can't give that to both warriors in a battle. I must favor one or the other. In this world, Gabrielle is my chosen. I won't be there for you."

"I don't need you, Ares." She shooed at him. "Be gone."

Dark eyes grew mournful. "You can't win without me, Xena." He beseeched her again, but she remained steadfast. He threw up his hands in defeat, calling out one last time as he vanished in flashing blue-white light. "You'll be all alone."

She moved to the window, blue eyes peering out past the palace walls and over the tree tops, looking up toward the cloud-covered sky. "No I won't."


"Xena, don't do this." Iolaus leaned against the bars, watching her go through a series of warm-up drills, her sword blade flashing as it caught the late afternoon sun, which slanted into the prison block from a window across the room.

"I have to." She tossed her sword up and caught it behind her back, then dropped it into her scabbard. "It's the only way."

"What if it's a trap? What if her soldiers attack you if you win?" He followed her as she moved across the cell and rattled the door.

"Hey!" She yelled at the guard. "Time to go." She turned and faced Iolaus. "Then they attack. Look." She reached through the bars, squeezing his upper arm. "Don't worry. I'll be fine. Hopefully in a little while I'll be walking back in here and letting you out."

"Just be careful." He sighed in resignation.

"Always." She smiled warmly for a moment, before resuming her warrior attitude for the approaching guard.

He took his time in opening the padlock. She merely stood there, hands at her sides, with just the faintest hint of a smirk on her face. He finally opened the door and she stepped out, brushing past him while he glared at her. "Thanks. I know the way from here." He muttered something under his breath and she spun around, leaning toward him and patting his cheek. "You may need an attitude adjustment there, buddy. When this is all over, you just might be answering to me." She watched his throat work as he swallowed hard, then she smiled wickedly, sauntering away and up the steps.

Outside the clouds had cleared and the deep blue sky greeted her, the air warmer than it had been in days. A crowd had gathered on one side of the courtyard, assembled in orderly rows, preparing for the coming entertainment. She ignored them, closing her eyes and concentrating on something deep in her gut, feeling a calmness wash over her and centering her. With a resolute nod she stepped forward into the middle of the courtyard.

She turned and faced the palace, just as Gabrielle emerged from the large ornate doors, her posture and stride confident as she swiftly descended the stairs and closed the distance, stopping a body's length away. The confidence didn't reach her eyes, and Xena almost felt sorry for her, until she remembered her purpose in the challenge. "Your majesty." The warrior smiled charmingly. "There would be no dishonor if you want to forfeit up front."

Green eyes flashed in new-found anger, and the bard drew her sword. "Come on." She circled the warrior. "You challenged me. Show me what you're made of."

Xena stood rooted in place, arms crossed, watching as her soulmate studied angles and height. "Are you going to let me win without even having to draw my sword?" She grinned at the bard's frustration.

"You have to disarm me, remember?" Gabrielle held her sword out in front and before she knew what was happening, one long leg swung out in a powerful roundhouse kick, sending her sword flying over her head. With a yell of outrage she jumped up, flipping backward, long blonde ponytail swishing, as she caught the weapon before it hit the ground. She turned. "Impressive. But the terms were that one or the other of us has to be disarmed and unable to retrieve their weapon, correct?"

"Correct." Xena continued to taunt her with her eyes, watching the bard's mounting frustration. It was clear Gabrielle didn't know what to make of her passive-aggressive stance, and was trying to figure out how to make the first strike. Truly, she didn't relish the thought of fighting her partner, but had to make a show otherwise. "Put up or shut up, your majesty."

"Puh … puh!" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in outrage. "You challenged me, if I recall. You put up or shut up!"

"Very well." Xena ended her stand-off, reaching back and drawing her sword, holding it out with one hand while she held her free hand up at a right angle to her body. She grinned, feeling a surge she had always associated with Ares. Well, well, well. So some of that is just me, pure and simple, after all. She chuckled inwardly. Well, maybe not 'pure.'

She had no more time to think about the source of her power, as Gabrielle found her courage and charged, slicing sideways in an attempt to get under her sword. She sidestepped and parried, meeting the blow with the flat of her blade and pushing her soulmate back. She spun and countered, surprised at the fierceness of Gabrielle's return strike as their swords clashed, the sparks flying from the metal edges.

Gabrielle released a deep belly laugh and Xena realized she had at least one gift from Ares that was missing in their world -- the bard was enjoying the fight. It shone in her eyes and Xena met her gaze in kind, two warriors coming together in the glory of the battle, albeit a fight with the highest stakes of their lives.

Then the skirmish began in earnest, warrior and bard meeting strike for strike, blow for blow, in a challenge that seemed like it would go on forever. They appeared almost evenly matched , Xena's strength and experience balancing Gabrielle's speed and tenacity. An hour passed, with neither of them gaining the upper hand. Both women were drenched in sweat, even their leathers darkened from it, and each of them continually had to wipe damp palms, lest they lose their grip on their sword.

Both women had been disarmed a few times, but had been able to retrieve their weapons before being overtaken by the other. Xena was amazed at her soulmate's abilities, and found herself reaching down inside for something beyond that part of her which was a warrior. She found it, holding on with all her might, and renewed her determination, finding spare reserves an hour into the battle.

Every now and then Ares appeared, seen only by warrior and bard, as he leaned in toward Gabrielle, whispering words of encouragement meant only for her ears. Each time he materialized, Gabrielle seemed to gain new strength, and her eyes lit up in the thrill of the fight. Xena found herself taking each of the war god's appearances as an opportunity to renew her own center of power, just in time to meet the bard's resurgence of energy.

The sun began to set, occasionally playing tricks on their eyes with light and shadow, and they each had to slow down and measure their steps and movements more carefully, lest they make a fatal error of judgment. Xena was weary of body, but her heart surged in valor, watching her very tired soulmate continue in her own valiant attack.

Gabrielle began to make tiny mistakes -- a stumble here, a miscalculated swipe there, but each time she was able to correct herself before Xena could get inside her defenses. And she was on the defensive, Xena having gradually gained the upper hand in offense. The bard watched in discouragement as the tables turned, and Xena launched an all-out attack, backing her slowly around the courtyard as the warrior used her height to her advantage, slashing down repeatedly with her sword and forcing Gabrielle to brace her arms and shove her sword upward to meet her blows, making her back and shoulder muscles tire out and causing her arms to go almost numb in her efforts.

One last fierce exchange ensued, as Xena hacked down and held her grip, using her sheer strength to push Gabrielle's sword down. She watched the bard's wrists bend back almost unnaturally, and mentally apologized to her soulmate, as she stepped forward, kicking out just below the back of the bard's knees and sending her unexpectedly off her feet. Xena shoved down harder as Gabrielle fell, sending the bard's sword flying across the courtyard, well out of reach.

As Gabrielle landed on her back, Xena pinned her, using knees and elbows to hold her arms and legs down. Blue and green eyes met, as both women strained for breath, sweat running in great rivulets down their faces and bodies. "Surrender to me, Gabrielle." Xena held her position, feeling the compact muscular body struggle under her. "Even if you escape, you'll not get to your sword. It's too far away." She nodded with her head toward the bard's weapon, and watched as Gabrielle gazed at it, defeat etched on her face.

The bard's body relaxed and Gabrielle lifted her chin defiantly, offering her throat. "Kill me now." She turned her head to the side, until Xena could see her pulse beating, just under the skin. "Or else I'll kill myself, first chance I get."

"I can't do that, and I won't let you." Xena sheathed her sword and rocked back on her heels, maintaining a ready posture should she need to wrestle her soulmate back down.

"Why ever not?" Gabrielle's voice was bitter. "You won. You have my kingdom. You can take me as your slave, but you'll not have my loyalty, nor that of my men. Don't you see? You have to kill me, or the men will be forever conflicted in their fealty."

"I can't." Xena's voice was close to breaking. "I can't, because I love you."

"I … I don't understand." Green eyes studied her in complete confusion.

"Nor do I." Ares appeared, clapping his hands in applause. "Well done, Xena." He stood over Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, Blondie. I was sending you all the power I could. I don't know what happened. The odds were completely against her. How did you do it, Xena?"

A pink sparkling cloud whirled through the courtyard and Aphrodite materialized next to him. "'Love,' big brother." She slapped him on the arm. "And don't you ever, EVER chain me up again! Daddy is furious, and he wants to have a word with you, ASAP."

"Love?" Ares was completely lost.

"Love." Xena's eyes took on a faraway look. "It's the source of my strength, Ares. It has been, for a very long time now." She closed her eyes, remembering a lone stronghold and a fight to the death against the Persians:

But you're my source, Gabrielle. When I reach down inside myself and do things that I'm not capable of, it's because of you.

And Cyane's words in a limbo between life and the Amazon land of the dead:

"Our holy word is 'Courage', Xena. Nothing's stronger than courage."

And her own revelation in a fierce battle with Alti:

"The new holy word that the Shamaness must give the Amazon dead -- it's 'Love'."

She opened her eyes and stood, sensing that Gabrielle wouldn't try to take up the fight again. "'Love,' Ares. It's stronger than hate, stronger than war, stronger than courage. It's stronger than any other force in the universe. And my love for her …" She looked down at her soulmate, allowing all her emotions to surface in her eyes. "… that love is more powerful than anything you can ever pit against us. Please." She begged him. "I can make a life here if I have to, but I want to go back. You've lost. It's the fair thing to do."

"We'll see," he snarled. "You could've had it all, Xena."

"I already did have it all." She stretched out her arm, offering a stunned Gabrielle a hand up. She felt the warm strong hand grasp hers and pulled, drawing the bard to her feet, not letting go of her grasp, watching Gabrielle look back and forth in confusion between Xena's face, and their linked hands.

"I'll never understand you, Xena. I don't know. I'll have to think on sending you back." Before she could argue he crossed his arms over his chest and vanished in flashing light.

"I … I don't understand." Gabrielle repeated herself. She could clearly see Aphrodite, standing next to them and beaming brightly, and instinctively knew who she was.

"I think you do, bardly babe, if you'll look deep inside yourself." She reached across, touching the bard's forehead and watching her eyes close. Wondrous visions flashed through Gabrielle's mind, images that seemed at once both strange and familiar -- being pulled up on the back of a Palomino horse … waking up from death on a table in a temple … a battle at the deck of Helios, and holding a newly-awakened warrior in her arms … a henna-soaked sponge, and two blue eyes blinking back at her in wonder … a warrior, sailing through the air to land on the deck of a doomed ship, all to rescue her … resting in a loft in a barn, after a battle in which they both thought they would die … a fall down a lava pit, and a tearfully joyous reunion in the woods outside Potadeia … mehndi tattoos, and learning that sometimes your soul is forever linked to another … knowing the truth -- that love and friendship are worth fighting for … facing death, and realizing it wasn't nearly so scary, because she wasn't facing it alone … waking up in another temple and knowing that they would be together forever.

Her eyes flew open. "Xena?" She looked uncertainly at the warrior, whose own eyes brimmed with unshed tears. Long arms opened up and she flew into them, burying her face against warm skin as her own body shook with grief and release. "What are we going to do?"

"We'll get though this, sweetheart, together." She peered over her soulmate's shoulder at Aphrodite, who was smiling back at them. The smile disappeared and she touched both of them on the arms.

"I've done all I can do here," she apologized. "I know it's not enough."

"It's everything," Xena stopped her. "I knew when I felt my love for Gabrielle so strongly in that cell back there, that you were there, somewhere, and chained or not, your force was still the strongest there is. Thank you." She blinked, a scattering of tears tracking down her cheeks. More welled up as she felt Gabrielle's gentle touch, brushing them away.

"But I can't send you back. That's Daddy's deal. He's madder than a hornet at Ares, but he decided Ares is the only one who can undo the rest of this." She bit her lip. "Sorry."

"It's enough." Gabrielle's voice finally piped up. "You helped us find our way back to each other. Xena … I … oh gods." Her face fell in utter despair. "The things I've done here. I don't know if I can ever atone for them." Her body shook against the warrior, in silent grief that threatened to break her in half.

"Shhhh." Xena nodded at Aphrodite, who disappeared in a discrete cloud of pink dust. "I'd give anything for you to not have that blight on your soul, Gabrielle, because I know how it feels."

"You do, don't you?" The bard sniffled. "Now I know what it truly feels like to be you, don't I?"

"Yes." Xena kissed her on the head. "And I wish with all my heart you didn't, because you were manipulated here, Gabrielle. This isn't your true destiny."

"All I know, is I’m so tired, I can hardly stand." The bard felt strong arms support her. "Could we … maybe go rest for a while? I know we have a lot to figure out, but I'm so exhausted, I think I might pass out."

"Sure. We have all the time in the world." Xena wrapped an arm around her and heard the crowd murmuring at her back. She turned and faced them. "Go on. You're free, all of you. If you were a slave, you aren't any more. Just … go about your business. I'll be back in the morning to help sort things out. Oh, and you." She spotted the prison guard. "Go release my friend at once, or else." Her lip curled into a snarl and he took off at a run to comply. The murmuring became a dull roar, as they entered the palace and closed the doors solidly behind them.


Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, painting Xena's face half in light, half in shadow, the warmth lulling her slowly awake from a delicious dream involving a foot race, a thunderstorm, and several Amazons sinking into a thick goopy mud puddle as Xena ran effortlessly by them, ultimately winning the laurel wreath and a kiss from a certain Amazon queen. She smiled and stretched, feeling the pleasant tug as her muscles came to life. It was early spring and a gentle warm breeze brought the scent of honeysuckle and fresh green leaves to her nose.

She frowned and sprang up from her bedroll, landing on her feet so fast she saw stars as her body worked to pump blood to her suddenly vertical brain. "Wha …?"

"Xena?" Gabrielle turned from the campfire, setting a teapot to one side. "Are you alright? Did you have a bad dream or something?"

"I … um … maybe … I just …" The bard approached her, wrapping an arm around her waist and steering her to a log beside the fire.

"Here, have a seat." Gabrielle placed a warm mug of tea into her hands, drizzling honey into it. "Breakfast is almost ready."

"Thanks." The warrior looked slowly around the area, cataloguing it. Argo stood off to one side, tearing at long strands of grass under a tree, and their travel packs hung from a low branch next to her. Gabrielle's hair was short, and she was dressed in her new orange skirt and brown woven leather halter top, her sais tucked snuggly into loops on her boots. Xena's sword lay next to their bedroll, right where she had left it before …

"Gabrielle, what did we do yesterday?" She sought an anchor for her floundering brain.

"Xena, are you sure you're alright?" A warm hand pressed against her forehead. "You don't have a fever. We finished up re-building that flooded village yesterday morning, and then made camp here. Maybe you over-exerted yourself. Do you think we should take it easy today?"

"Maybe." Xena started to relax, realizing that the bard didn't seem to remember anything that had happened. Maybe it was a bad dream after all. "Yeah," she finally answered. "I could use some more sleep."

Gabrielle smirked. "I should say so. Not like we got much last night." She knelt down, kissing the warrior softly on the cheek. "Although I slept like a baby afterward."

Xena finally smiled. "I aim to please, ma'am." She stood, ruffling her soulmate's hair, then moved across the fire, retrieving a few more logs to add to the pleasant blaze. She stacked them carefully, and drew in the scent of the simmering leftover salmon, and honey corn cakes the bard had baking in a pan in the embers. Yeah. All a very bad dream. She shook her head. No more new wine on an empty stomach. She chuckled at herself and crept over to their bedroll, flopping down on the light top blanket and crossing her arms under her head, waiting for breakfast.

A smooth round object poked up from under the blankets, just under her shoulder, and she smiled. My chakram. It's not gone after all. She rolled to her side and reached under the soft covers, pulling out her favorite weapon. And felt her heart lurch into her throat.

My old chakram.

Gabrielle's back was turned to her, flipping the fish over, oblivious to her distress. Xena felt like hyperventilating, and sat up, holding the chakram in her hands as if it might bite her. It was all real. She closed her eyes, offering up a prayer of sorts. Thank you. Not for what you did to us. I can't thank you for that. But thank you for sending us back.

A low amused voice reverberated inside her head. You won, Xena, fair and square. Consider the chakram a gift. It has all the powers of the new one, but in the package of the old dark one. I know it was your favorite. I'll still be around, Xena. You know I'll never quit trying.

"I know." She kissed the weapon.

"Xena, did you say something?" Gabrielle turned and gasped. "Xena! Your … your chakram. It … it's …"

"It's alright." She smiled.

"But it's …" The bard sat down next to her, cautiously touching the smooth side of the weapon, tracing the familiar jewels. "Ares!" Her voice raised in anger. "He can't just leave us alone, can he? Xena, so help me, if we have to go all the way back to the temple of the chakram of light. I swear I'll …"

"Relax, Blondie." The god of war materialized. "There's a perfectly good explanation." He saw Xena frown and shook his head slightly. "It's just a little birthday gift from me to your partner there. Same chakram, different package." A little fib, just for you Xena. She thanked him with her eyes.

"But her birthday isn't until …" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "What are you up to?" She stood, drawing her sais and assuming a defensive stance, only to feel a light pinch at the back of her thigh. She yelped in outrage as Xena tugged at her skirt, pulling her back down.

"It's okay, Gabrielle." Xena patted her leg. "I believe him."

"You do?" Two blonde brows rose in question.

"I do." She smiled reassuringly.

"Okay, then." She frowned in puzzlement. "I think I'll go finish up breakfast." She looked at both of them for a very long moment, then cautiously went about her task.

"Thank you." Xena looked up at her former mentor. For removing her memories of that place. The last bit was spoken silently, knowing he could read her thoughts.

"I think I owed you one." He winked. "Later, Xena." He flashed away, leaving them in peace.

Much later, after a mostly silent breakfast, they finally packed up camp and hit the road. "Hey Gabrielle." Xena had decided to walk, leading Argo behind them. It felt so good to have her soulmate back, and she reveled in the bard's warm presence. "I've been thinking …"

"That could be dangerous. Hey!" The bard hopped to the side as she received a quick playful kick to her behind.

"Smartass." Xena dodged a return kick. "And here I was going to be nice to you."

"Nice?" Gabrielle perked up. "Keep talking."

"Oh, no." Xena teased her. "You lost your chance." She cried out in laughter as Gabrielle came after her, chasing her down the road and off into a thick spring meadow. With powerful strides she stayed ahead, finally slowing down on purpose and allowing her shorter partner to tackle her.

They rolled over and over, finally coming to rest in a plush bed of sweet-smelling wildflowers, Xena pinning her soulmate in place. " I was just going to suggest that we go find that market in the next village, and do some shopping. "

"Shopping?" Gabrielle plucked a tall sunflower, bopping the warrior on the nose with it, and laughing at her wide-eyed response. "You really didn't get enough sleep last night, did you? I'm still a little worried about you."

"I'm fine." Xena smiled and ducked her head, brushing her lips against her partner's, grinning against Gabrielle's mouth as she felt her respond in kind. "Just wanted to do something nice for you. Gabrielle, I don't want to ever take what we have together for granted." She kissed her again. "I love you."

"I love you too, Xena." She pulled the warrior down and squeezed her in a heartfelt hug. For some reason the hug felt more intense than usual and she rocked them both back and forth, allowing the love they shared to wash over them in a timeless moment.

"Hey, do you think after we finish shopping, you might like to go find Herc and Iolaus, and catch up?" Xena suddenly remembered the duo, grateful for Iolaus' moral support during her recent ordeal. "I'd just like to make sure they're okay. It's been a while."

"I think that's a great idea." Gabrielle sat up, then stood, tugging Xena to her feet after her. "Come on Warrior Princess, we have some serious shopping to do."

They picked their way back to the road, walking slowly toward the rosy sun, which burst forth from behind a cloud, painting them both in brilliant soft pink light. Way overhead, the goddess of love smiled down on them in satisfaction. Be safe, warrior babes. She giggled, her voice passing them on the wind. Love rocks.

A dark head tilted, listening intently, and Xena smiled at the unseen presence. Yes … it … does. And Aphrodite, thank you.



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